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Chapter 10......... Skander's Fairy Tales

Updated: Sep 16, 2022

Faye unlocked the boarding room door and tossed the key on the entry table. She closed the door behind her by leaning against it and rubbed her forehead. She had a headache, whether from missing lunch, not drinking anything, or nerves. It felt so cold and strange in the rooms knowing that Silas wasn’t in them. At least George was, though, because she really needed someone to talk to. The bookstore had been such a disappointment. She had been so sure she’d find a clue there, but instead she’d only found false leads and dead ends.

She took her coat off and draped it over the chair next to it as she walked toward the couch.

“George?” she called softly. “I’m sorry I took so long, I…”

She trailed off when she saw the couch was empty. She looked at her watch. George didn’t have to be at work until six. Had he gone back to his tenement? Or had he gone looking for her? He would have let her know where he was going, especially with Silas’ disappearance. She looked on the end tables for a note, but there was none.

She stood there frozen, feeling sick. It was happening all over again. First her husband and now her best friend. With a tremendous effort of willpower, she pushed the panic away and checked the bedroom and the study. George wouldn’t have even set foot in there, but she had to be sure. She felt the air cool as she opened the study door to the cold dark rows of books. The sight of them made her feel sick. She swallowed and stepped inside, faltering a little, to check the desk for a note, but nothing had been touched since the last time Silas had been there. Which had been over a day now.

She bit her knuckle and wandered back to the parlor to sit on the couch, hugging a pillow to her chest and trying to remember how to breathe, but it was very difficult as the thoughts poured in and threatened to overwhelm her entirely. She wanted Silas to be alright, and she wanted him to be in his study grading papers, and she wanted George to be here with her, too, and she didn’t know where they were, or if they were alright or hurt or in danger and she couldn’t think of a thing she could do to…

She cocked her head as she heard a giggle from the room over. The room of the single young woman from the country.

She let out an exasperated sigh, flicking a tear away. She got up and strode out of the room to the young woman’s and gave the door two sharp knocks. It swung open.

“There you are,” said George.

Faye opened her mouth to say something sharp, but her throat caught, and she couldn’t speak.

“Are you alright, Faye?” George asked, concern washing over his face.

Faye took a short breath. “I thought you’d disappeared, too. What are you doing in here? Mrs. Finch will have a fit!”

“Georgie?” asked a high voice from inside the room. “Who is it?”

George turned. “My sister. Your neighbor.” He turned back. “Faye, want to come in?”

“No, I do not,” Faye snapped. “And if you know what’s good for you, you don’t want to be in here, either. George, honestly!”

“I completely understand,” George nodded. He turned back and grabbed his tie off the back of a chair. “Belle, I should get back. You know Silas is missing, and I doubt Faye is in the mood for company right now. I’ll stop by sometime soon, though, if you’d like.”

“I would love that,” said Belle, getting up and walking to the door. “So sorry to hear about Mr. Lawrence. Have you heard any word?”

Faye bit her tongue hard. “No.”

“That’s a real shame. I do hope they find him soon. Let me know if I can do anything, won’t you?”

“Thank you.” She was getting so tired of thanking people for doing absolutely nothing.

“Georgie,” Belle said, touching George’s arm. “Come visit again, soon.”

“Sure, kid,” George smiled.

He stepped out and shut the door behind him, following Faye back to their rooms. Inside, he tossed his tie onto the back of the chair by the door and stretched. Faye turned to glare at him.

“George,” she started.

“I’m sorry I left without a note,” George said, trying to placate her. “I was just down the hall and I thought I would hear you coming.”

“That’s not what I’m… well, yes, I am glad to know you’re alright, and next time, leave a note! But that’s not what I’m talking about. You can’t just waltz into women’s rooms like that! Do you know what it looks like?”

“Hey, now,” George said, looking hurt. “You know I’d never –”

“I may know that, but no one else does! You’re going to ruin your reputation if you keep carrying on this way! And if Mrs. Finch had heard you –”

“Aw, shucks to Mrs. Finch. Why are you so afraid of that old crone?”

“If she heard you, she’d kick Belle out in a heartbeat. You know that, right?”

The thought had obviously never occurred to George by the expression on his face. Faye sighed.

“Can’t you be a little more careful with these things?”

“I suppose you’re right,” George acceded. “Next time I visit, I’ll meet Belle in the main parlor.”

“George…” Faye started.

“You were gone a long time,” George changed the subject. “You musta found something.”

“I wish,” Faye said. “I really thought there would be some other clue there, but all I found was dead end after dead end.”

“I’d say you found a lot!” George said. “We found out Silas had been looking for something in the library and not found it. We found the book’s symbol in the bookstore – which has got to mean something. That’s a lot for one day.”

“I suppose. I just…”

“Wanted to find Silas?”

“It’s silly, isn’t it?”

“No,” George said. “Not silly at all.”

“You haven’t gotten any messages today from Mr. Lawrence, have you?”

“No, but I doubt Mrs. Finch would give any messages to me.”

“I should go check.”

George started to say something, but she was out the door before he could finish. It was late in the afternoon, so she assumed Mrs. Finch would be in the kitchen helping with preparations for supper. She walked through the dining room to the hot muggy air of the kitchen where Mrs. Finch was bent over a table up to her elbows in bread dough.

“Mrs. Finch?” she asked, walking closer to her. “I wondered it –”

“Good afternoon…” Mrs. Finch gave a wheeze, “Mrs. Lawrence.”

“Good afternoon. I wondered if there were any messages for me while I was away?”

Mrs. Finch pressed the dough forward with her hands, leaning into the table, as if for support, and took a long wheeze in as she pulled the dough back. “There was a… man from Mr. Lawrence this morning. And he…” Mrs. Finch stopped to take another breath, leaning against the table.

“Did he leave a note?”

“Just… a message.”

“What was it?” Faye asked.

“Mr. Lawrence… says…” she pushed the dough forward and wheezed it back, “he’s had no news as of yet.”

“That was all?”

Mrs. Finch looked at the ceiling and took another long breath. “That was… all. Mm-hmm.” She nodded and went back to kneading the bread.

Faye’s shoulders drooped and she started twisting her wedding band around her finger. “Are you sure that was everything?”

Mrs. Finch stopped and looked at her with an exasperated expression. “You should get some rest, dearie.”

Faye nodded absently and walked back up the stairs. When she was back in their rooms, she found George in the washroom shaving.

“Well?” he asked.

Faye stared, lost in thought.

“Sorry,” said George, gesturing at the mirror. “I didn’t think Silas would mind.”

“No, it’s fine,” Faye said, shaking her head. “Mr. Lawrence hasn’t any news.”

“I’m sure he will soon. It’s only been a day.”

Faye nodded and leaned against the door frame.

“Here’s an idea,” said George. “We should have tea and scones and read some Shakespeare like we used to.”

Faye nodded again.

“Or we could read something else if you’d rather. Or nothing. I’m sure you’d like to rest after being out all day.”

Faye pushed away from the door frame. “That’s it!” she said. “We’ll go check with Skander! Maybe he’s heard something.”

“Faye,” George started, wiping the shaving cream off with a towel and running after her. She already had her coat on. “Faye, you’re going to run yourself ragged if you keep on like this.”

“I already am run ragged, George,” she said, turning sharply. “And if I stay put in one place for more than five minutes, I feel like I’m going to lose my mind.” She buttoned the coat and yanked her gloves on. “Are you coming?”

George was pulling on his shoes. “Yeah,” he said, pulling his discarded tie over his collar and grabbing his coat.

Faye gave a cheerless smile and walked out the door without him. He had to hurry to catch up with her and by the time he’d locked the door behind them and rushed down the stairs, she was already hailing a cab. The temperature was falling from the peak of afternoon warmth and the sky foretold more snow. George blew out a breath to see the white puff in the air.

“Chilly,” he said. “I hate these blasted winters. You know, I was talking with a friend the other day who might have an opportunity for me further south. Georgia, actually. Something about management. I don’t remember.”

Faye didn’t respond.

“Look there!” George pointed. “Did you see the fella with the parrot?”

Faye looked but didn’t see anything. George leaned back again. “Want to know what the smartest parrot in the world is? African Grey. Huge birds. Really smart. You know what’s funny, though, is that because they’re so smart, they’re prone to depression. They get bored and lonely and start pulling all their feathers out. Stupidity is the real way to go, apparently.”

When they arrived at Skander’s abandoned factory, George paid the driver and told him to wait. They walked up the exterior steps and entered the decrepit building. It was quiet as they climbed the three flights of stairs and when they walked into Skander’s rented room, he was huddled over a table in the corner. It was frigidly cold and completely dark. The only light came from the foggy window over Skander’s head.

“Skander old friend!” George bellowed.

Skander gave a yelp and jumped so high he fell out of his chair, landing in a heap on the floor.

“Heavens, man, it’s a dungeon in here,” George said. “Where do you keep the candles?”

“What do you want?” Skander croaked, pulling himself off the floor. “I’m busy.”

“I can see that,” George said, leaning over the table to look at the notes. He picked one up and turned it right ways and upside down with a deep frown. “You feeling alright?”

Skander snatched the paper away from him and put it carefully back in place on the table. “Yes, brilliant,” he said.

“Well, we all know that,” George smiled, patting him on the shoulder.

“No, George! What I mean is I’m so very, very close to the solution! All I need –”

“No,” George said, hands on his hips. “Let me tell you what you need. You need to put a fire in the stove, light some candles, drink some water and eat something other than crackers, and… when was the last time you slept?”

“Slept?” Skander repeated vacantly. From his bloodshot eyes, it could have been days.

“It’s the thing sane people do at night,” George thumped his back, sending him pitching forward into the table. “Where are the candles?”

He walked off and Skander buried his forehead in his hands. Faye sat down on the stool beside him and he looked over at her.

“What’s wrong with him?” he asked.

Faye shrugged. Skander looked at his pocket watch with a frown.

“It’s only four thirty,” he cried. “What are you doing here at four thirty? Don’t tell me you wanted to get a party started early. I’ve told you –”

“Silas is missing, Skander,” Faye said.

Skander paused and blinked.

“I was hoping you might know something.”

“Missing? When?”

“Monday night.”

Skander rubbed a hand through his thick, dark hair. George finished starting a fire in the stove and the door clanked as he shut it. He stood up and brushed the dust off his knees.

“You should sweep in here more often, Skander.”

“He didn’t leave a note?” Skander asked, ignoring George.

Faye shook her head.

“Have you told Mr. Lawrence?”

“Of course. He has a detective, three actually, investigating.”

“That’s good.” Skander rubbed his hand through his hair again. “I wish I knew more, but I haven’t been outside since Sunday. You are sure Silas didn’t leave something? A note? Anything? It doesn’t sound like him.”

Faye shook her head. “That’s why I’m so worried. No one at the college has seen or heard from him since Monday. No one at the boarding house even realized he’d gone. The only clue I have is this book.” She set the book on the table. “He swapped the covers with my book for some reason and put his book under my pillow. I can only assume he took my book with him.”

“Odd,” Skander said, pulling the book toward him and flipping open the cover. “What did the detectives make of that?”

“Well… I haven’t told Mr. Lawrence about the book yet.”

“Why not?”

“Because if I did, he might think I’d gone mad.”

Skander’s eyebrows raised and he turned to the back of the book. “Kaba Türkçe?” He asked. “Where did you say Silas found this book? I haven’t seen a book in my language outside my parent’s house.”

“Curious,” said Faye, only half-surprised. “It makes sense, I suppose. Look on the front page, the one with the symbol in the center.”

Skander turned a page back. “This one?” he asked, showing her.

Faye paused. She’d expected his name to be there, written in the margin’s just like hers and George’s were. “Yes, but before it had…”

She trailed off as something began moving on the page. A dark line of ink was scrawling something. She didn’t recognize the foreign letters.

Skander took a sharp breath and nearly dropped the book. He looked at Faye, eyes wide. “It… it wrote my name. How does it know my name?”

“Spooky, isn’t it?” George asked, peering at it with a thumb stuck through his buttonhole and keeping a safe distance. “I keep saying we should get rid of it before it casts some curse on us.”

Skander snorted. “You read too many ghost stories, George.” He picked the book up again and looked it over with precision. “There must be some explanation.”

“When I read it, it’s my name on that page,” said Faye. “English, of course, and last night it was a story about a girl and a knight. But as soon as I gave the book to George, it had his name in the margins and –”

“All I get are proverbs,” George said. “Most of them are blunt and a tad bit rude.”

“You’d call anyone rude if they told you what to do,” Skander said, still studying the book. He flipped it open to the first page and read a paragraph. A smile came over his face. “Old fairytales. My mother used to tell us these stories at night, though this is one I’ve never heard before.”

“Then how do you know it’s one of your fairytales?”

“It’s Kara Mustafa,” Skander shrugged.

“Karen Mustache-a?” George snickered.

Skander set the book down with a thump. “Is that all you can do? Complain about my housekeeping and make stupid jokes? Has it not occurred to your thick skull that Silas is missing?”

“Oh, is that right?” George said sharply. “Do tell. I couldn’t possibly have known that Silas is missing.”

“It’s alright, Skander,” Faye said.

“It’s as if he doesn’t even care!”

“He cares. Don’t mind him.”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t mind him,” George echoed, sitting down at the piano and playing an arpeggio.

Faye knew he wasn’t trying to be callous. It was his odd way of reacting to things. When his parents died, he joked frantically about nonsense for weeks straight, and it had been over a year before he started talking about them again at all. If anything, Faye should feel honored that he cared deeply enough about Silas to be forced to retreat into light-hearted jokes, but somehow, knowing that only made her sad.

Skander put a hand on her shoulder and she realized there was a tear on her cheek. She brushed it away and folded her arms on the table, resting her chin.

“Is there anything I can do?” Skander asked.

“I don’t know,” Faye said, shaking her head and staring blankly along the surface of the table. “I don’t know.” Her eyes wandered to the magic book that would tell them anything… except what she most wanted to know. “Read a fairy tale? A happy-ending one?”

Skander nodded. “Alright.” He picked up the book, turning to the center and flipping until he found one in particular. “Alright, em… here is a good one. It is Mahomet and the… Bandits. Mahomet the Bald is a very wise man who defeats his enemies with cleverness,” he explained. “But I have never read this tale about him. Let’s see… I will have to translate this as I go. Forgive me if I translate poorly.” He cleared his throat and squinted at the page. “’There once was a bald man named Mohomet who lived happily in a small village.

“’He was called by everyone Mohomet the Bald, and though it could have been an insult, they called him this with deepest respect for he was a wise man, renowned throughout the empire for his sage wisdom. He lived in peace in the village with his wife and his brother and his brother’s wife, and people would come from far and wide to seek his advice, and the whole village prospered because of him. Mohomet himself was very rich, but it was said he kept his most prized possession hidden somewhere only he could find it. This treasure was the source of his wealth and success.

“Now in that country there lived a bandit king, who was poisoned by envy for Mohomet’s success. Mohomet’s wisdom cleared the forests where they would hide to waylay travelers, and thus prevented their raids. The bandit king wished to ruin Mohomet and determined in his heart to steal the man’s great treasure. He gathered his three strongest and most skillful men and they disguised themselves as travelers from a far land. They scraped their clothes to wear holes in them, they baked their water flasks over the fire to crack them, they rubbed dirt into their hands and feet, and they packed scanty loaves of stale bread. With their preparations complete, they traveled to Mohomet’s village and came to his house.

“’Great Mohomet the Bald,’ said the bandit king. ‘We have traveled long from a far country because we heard of the wisdom you possess, which no man may rival on earth. See how our clothes have worn through, our water skins cracked in the desert sun, and our bread become so stale not even the ants will eat of it.’

“Mohomet greeted the travelers, flattered at their long journey to see him. He gave them refreshment and food, and the travelers regaled him with tales of their land. When a long dinner had ended, Mohomet asked them what wisdom they wished from him, for he wished to repay them for their journey and for the tales they had told him.

“‘Oh, Great Mohomet,’ the bandit king answered humbly. ‘You have honored us greatly. If it pleases you, allow us to trouble you no more this late night, and tomorrow we will again tell you news and tales from our land, and will ask our question then. But please allow your servants to sleep in the safety of your roof tonight, for we have traveled far and are weary.’

“The suggestion pleased Mohomet so he ordered servants to prepare the travelers a room for the night and he retired to bed. The bandits sat as quietly as sleeping snakes in their room, listening until the house became still. In the midnight hour when the crescent moon was high in the dark sky, they slipped into the house like shadows. All night they searched for the great treasure, but they could not find it. When the sun crept over the horizon, they had not found what they sought.

“That evening, Mohomet again gave a supper for them. When the evening was grown late, he again asked the men what wisdom they sought. Again, the bandit king thanked him and said he wished to again entertain the Great Mohomet with stories of his homeland, and tomorrow would ask the advice he had come for. Mohomet agreed again, and once more the bandits spent the night searching for the great treasure, but could not find it.

“In the morning, the bandits spoke among themselves. They agreed that when the evening came, they would wait until the late hour when the servants had gone to bed, and at that time would force the wise man to reveal the location of his treasure.

“Mohomet gave them a great supper one last time, and when the evening had grown late, asked them what wisdom he could give to them after their long travels.

“As one, the bandits drew their hidden weapons.

“’This is the wisdom we seek,’ said the bandit king. ‘Where is the great treasure you hide, worth more than all your wealth combined?’

“Mohomet smiled wisely. ‘I will tell you what you wish to know, and more, for if you had known truly of me, you would not have come in disguise, for no disguise can deceive me, and I have sworn a vow to give wisdom to everyone great and small, good and evil who comes to my door. But I will answer only three questions.’

“The bandits discussed amongst themselves, thinking it very fortunate to have stumbled upon such a gullible man, and thinking the rumors of his wisdom greatly exaggerated. The bandit king answered him. ‘This is our first question, that you should tell us where your great treasure is kept.’

“Mohomet stood and told them to follow him. He brought them to a room with sparse furniture and drab walls and only one small high window to let the light in. In the center of the room was a book, worn and old, and its cover was missing, and its pages bent and broken.

“’This is my great treasure,’ said Mohomet. ‘For wisdom is what I value most of all my possessions.’

“The bandit king thought Mohomet was lying to him, for this derelict book could not possibly have given Mohomet such great success. ‘Do you take me for a fool?’ he asked.

“’A fool, yes, to waste a question by mistake.’

The bandit growled, realizing he had mistakenly asked another question. He took the decrepit book and was delighted to see Mohomet’s look of concern for it. The book must contain magics, he concluded.

“’What is your third and last question?’ Mohomet asked.

“They spoke amongst themselves, then the bandit king asked, ‘One last question we have for you, oh man of great wisdom. Where is your gold?’

“Mohomet smiled and led them to a secret cupboard. When they opened it, they found it was empty.

“’Where is your gold? Your great riches?’ the bandit king cried.

“’My gold is to help others,’ Mohomet replied. ‘That is where I keep my gold. But that was four questions.’

The bandit king grew angry, but realized he had the man’s source of magic and would no longer be plagued by him, so he bowed mockingly to Mohomet. ‘Oh, Great Mohomet the Bald, most wise of men, we humbly thank you for answering our questions.’

“’An answer can only be so wise as its question,’ Mohomet replied. ‘If you had truly sought knowledge, you would have left today with more riches than gold can supply, but instead you are filled with greed. The book is protected by the spirits of knowledge. Because you have desired to destroy it, they will destroy you.’

“And at that, suddenly four ghostly figures, protective spirits of the house, burst into the room and with a frightful scream the bandits fled for their lives, leaving the book of knowledge behind. When the ghostly spirits finally ceased their chase, the bandits found they had nothing to show for their evil plot and soon became lost in the desert. But Mohomet lived on in happiness and wisdom, and he never saw the bandits again.”

Skander stopped and turned the page, reading silently. “I’ve never heard any of these stories,” he said. “They’re a little odd, but they sound like mother’s fairy tales.”

“It was nice,” said Faye.

“Don’t see why the silly book is always berating me and you two get nice little fairy tales,” said George.

He went back to playing the piano, singing some sea shanty, but too quietly to make out the words.

“You think this book is why Silas disappeared?” Skander asked.

“I don’t know. But why did he swap the covers and take my book with him? It can’t be a coincidence. Everything about this book is strange. The publisher, Phantom Publishing, no one has ever heard of. And the address leads to a bookstore, and never has been home to any such Phantom Publishing. The stamp of the library, Boston Fellowship Library, no one has ever heard of, and it says it’s located in Gore Hall, which has never been home to anything other than the Harvard library. And even stranger, today I went to the bookstore to look around, and upstairs, hidden inside a broom closet, was an etching of this symbol.” She turned the book to the front page and tapped the image of the dove.

Skander ran his finger over it, a frown deepening. “What did Silas get himself into?” he murmured.

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