Faye paced across Mr. Lawrence’s parlor, her shoes sinking into the dark, plush carpet that sucked the sound out of the room. Mr. Lawrence was finishing a meeting with a lawyer in the study, and she could hear their deep, muffled voices behind the door. A draft at the window blew the cold scent of new things and furniture polish around the room.
Skander was sitting at the edge of a black velvet divan, rubbing his palms into his knees. He was terrified of Mr. Lawrence. He had been ever since the first day he met him as a lanky boy sneaking into the Harvard library to study chemistry, and he hadn’t grown out of it since. George was standing by the wall studying Mr. Lawrence’s stormy paintings. He yawned and shot a quick glance at the study door, then opened a cupboard, rifling through it.
“George,” Faye hissed.
George shut the cabinet and opened another. “Aha!” he said quietly, taking a bowl of pecan nuts and sitting down beside Skander.
“Put those back,” Faye said.
George looked Faye in the eyes and popped a nut in his mouth. Then he offered the bowl to Skander, who shifted away from him a few feet and went back to rubbing his palms against his knees.
Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Lawrence came through the door with a man in coattails and walked him to the door, shaking hands and saying farewell. As soon as the man had gone, he came back to the parlor.
“Good afternoon,” he said. “I apologize for making you wait. Come in,” he beckoned them to the study, frowning as George put the nuts neatly back in the cabinet and brushed his hands against his trousers.
They followed him in, and he sat down behind his mahogany desk, motioning for them to sit. George and Faye took the chairs across from him, but Skander sat in a chair in the corner under a dark portrait of a family relative who stared imperially over his head. Skander’s dark skin and clothes almost made him disappear into the shadowy study, surrounded by grey wallpaper and black lacquered cabinets. He’d become very practiced at remaining invisible while Mr. Lawrence was nearby.
“Mr. Lawrence, I’m not exactly sure where to start,” Faye said, sitting at the edge of her chair with her arms curled around the book, “but I think I might know why Silas disappeared.”
Mr. Lawrence’s eyebrows furrowed. Faye set the book on the table and Mr. Lawrence pulled it toward himself.
“I didn’t find it until the night after I first talked to you. Silas had put it under my pillow… after he apparently swapped the cover with another book’s.”
Mr. Lawrence opened the book and read the title page. He stared at it a long time before looking up again. “Someone gave him this?”
“He thought it was another antiquity to sell, and I didn’t think anything of it until I found it under my pillow. I couldn’t find my copy of Mark Twain anywhere, so I assume he took the fake with him, wherever he went. And Mr. Lawrence, I know it sounds crazy, but the words… they don’t stay the same. It reads differently for all three of us, and even then, it changes every time we read it. And what’s more, sometimes our names appear on the front page, as if by… well, as if by magic.”
“Hm,” Mr. Lawrence said.
“I’m not mad, I promise. George and Skander saw it, too.”
“And why did you wait until now to tell me this?” Mr. Lawrence said sternly.
“I don’t know,” Faye said, rubbing her hands together. “But we were attacked not an hour ago by four men dressed as police officers. They said they knew where Silas was, and that he was alright, but they wanted me to come with them, along with the book.”
“And how did you escape them?” asked Mr. Lawrence, his face set in a frown.
“There were four other men who attacked them,” said Faye. “All in grey and masked. In the commotion we were able to get away.”
“What did the officers look like?”
Faye bit her lip and shook her head. “I don’t know, I wasn’t –”
“The one in charge,” George said, tipping the chair back and rocking it on its back legs, “his name was ‘Officer Wilson Waters of the Boston Police’. But who knows if that was really his name. He was pretty short, shorter than Faye, bad haircut, mouse brown hair and scruffy facial hair. A little stocky, too, you could say. Another was about my height but scrawny and light haired with mutton chops and slightly bowlegged, and the other two were tall and brawny and black haired with full beards. Looked Italian, maybe.”
Faye blinked, surprised he’d paid so much attention.
“And the men in grey?”
“I dunno. They were all in masks. Two short, two tall, and that’s all I can tell you.”
Mr. Lawrence nodded. He sat there lost in thought for a full minute before he tapped his fingers against the desk. “I need you to tell me everything that’s happened since the night he received this book. Everything you remember, even if it doesn’t seem important.”
Faye nodded and began to recount everything in sequential order, starting from the moment Silas returned from backstage with the book. George added details as he thought of them, and Skander mostly stared at the carpet. Mr. Lawrence listened to them in a cold, almost condemning silence. When they finally stopped, he sat there clenching his jaw.
“I thought I told you to stay at home,” he said, finally.
“I left a note,” Faye explained. “If Silas had returned, he would have seen it.”
“That’s not why I told you to stay home! I meant that you should stay uninvolved, and you willfully went behind my back, running rampant all over town and stirring up trouble.”
“I was looking into things for myself, and a good thing I did. Last I heard, your investigators had found nothing.”
“That doesn’t matter. You could have been killed today.”
“Mr. Lawrence,” Faye shouted. “I’ve done as you asked ever since we married – I’ve attended bridge parties with the women you tell me to, I’ve come to every blasted Sunday dinner! But you can’t control me, and I will not stop looking for Silas just because you think I’m a helpless toy doll who can’t think for herself. If it weren’t for your relation to Silas, I wouldn’t be here now, or ever for that matter!”
Mr. Lawrence’s face had grown pale with anger. “Get out.”
“I’d like nothing better,” Faye stood and reached for the book.
Mr. Lawrence put a hand over it. “I’ll be keeping this.”
“It’s Silas’,” Faye said.
“It’s what caused this mess and I must look into it.”
“I’ve already looked into it, and I told you everything there is to know about it.”
Without thinking, Faye lunged for the book and grasped it. She pulled and Mr. Lawrence pulled back. He was stronger than he looked, his bony hands white as they gripped the book. She was about to give a strong yank when George came between them and knocked the book to the table.
“Faye!” he said. “Leave it for gosh sakes! Mr. Lawrence’ll need it for the investigation, and we’ve gotten ourselves into enough trouble for one day.”
Faye bit her lip hard and paused. She took a breath and straightened her shoulders. “Fine.”
“You shouldn’t go back to any of your homes,” Mr. Lawrence said, “and you can’t stay here.”
“I know a place,” said George.
“You do?” Faye asked.
“We’ll stay with Ira. She has a few rooms rented at her boarding house.”
Mr. Lawrence nodded. “That would be good.”
“You know where that is?” George asked. “I’m sure you’ve been to see her already since she’s been in town a week.”
“No,” Mr. Lawrence raised a hand. “It’s safer if I don’t know. Not until we understand what is going on.”
“Right,” George hooked an arm under Faye’s and pulled her toward the door. “Good luck on the investigation. I hope they come up with something soon.”
“Keep indoors for now,” Mr. Lawrence replied. “Give me two days to look into things, then come back here for any news. I’ll let you know what I’ve found.”
“You got it. Come on, Faye and… where’s Skander gone?” George peered around the room. “Oh, well. Bye, Mr. Lawrence.”
George rushed Faye out the door. He almost ran to the cab they’d come in, dragging Faye behind him, and started pushing her into it. She stopped short and spun around, about to yell at him, when she caught sight of someone out of the corner of her eye. It was a man in a black hat, a block away, standing against a building reading a newspaper. He was watching them. She caught her breath.
“George, look,” she whispered, pointing.
“What?” George asked, still in a rush. “A guy reading a paper? Hurry up, now!”
He jumped in the cab and Faye climbed in after him. They sat down and gave a yell when they saw Skander sitting silently in front of them.
“When did you get in here?” George asked.
Skander opened his mouth to say something, but George ignored him and shouted an address at the driver. The cab started off with a jolt.
“What’s your rush?” Faye asked, irritated.
George glanced over his shoulder and pulled the Text out of his coat pocket. “Didn’t think it would take Mr. Lawrence long to see I’d swapped the books.”
Faye burst out laughing and so did George. Skander did not find it amusing.
“You two are having a lovely day, I see,” he scowled. “Did you have fun antagonizing one of the most powerful men in Boston? You lunatics!”
George shoved him on the shoulder. “Loosen up, pal.”
Still laughing, Faye looked out the rear window at the man reading the news. He was watching them go, but she couldn’t see more than his eyes behind the paper. She shuddered and turned. It was nothing. Only someone taking fresh air. She was being paranoid. George and Skander argued the rest of the trip until the coach arrived and let them out. George paid the driver and sighed into his pocketbook as the cab drove off.
“Empty,” he said. “Have you seen a sadder sight? Come on, it’s this way.”
He turned in a circle as he walked, looking around nonchalantly, then led them inside where he sweet-talked his way past the boarding house owner. It turned out that Ira had rented the whole third floor of the house. They knocked on the upstairs door and she answered a minute later, wearing a well-tailored evening dress the color of black violets.
“Good afternoon,” she smiled. “This is unexpected.”
“Hullo, Ira,” said George with a smile. “You look lovely, as always.”
Ira rolled her eyes. “Hello, Faye. Lovely to see you.” She glanced at Skander, who was avoiding her gaze. “Skander,” she smiled.
“Miss Lawrence,” he nodded back.
“Say,” George whispered, leaning in. “We’re in a bit of a tight spot. Can we come in?”
“What did you do now?” she laughed.
“Nothing,” George said in a low voice as he looked over his shoulder.
“Oh, lord, you’re being serious,” she said, surprised.
“What is with you people?” George stomped his foot. “Do I really give the impression that I’m never serious about anything?”
“Come in,” Ira said, beckoning them in. She shut the door when they were inside and folded her arms over her chest. The room was furnished and clean except for several empty teacups and a tray of cookies on the center table.
“Did you have guests?” George asked, wandering into the room with his hands in his pockets.
“Yes, they just left,” said Ira. “I’ll go brew another pot of tea, if you’d like.”
“Thank you,” said Faye.
“Sit down. Please,” Ira said. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
They sat on the couch while she piled the empty teacups on a tray and stepped to the other room. It felt oddly quiet.
“I hope we weren’t followed,” Faye whispered to George.
“Didn’t look like we were,” George replied, crossing his legs and leaning back. “I was keeping an eye out.”
“I thought you were bickering with Skander.”
“I can multitask. One of my many amazing talents,” he winked.
Ira brought out a tray of tea a minute later. She set it down next to the tray of cookies and sat across from them.
“You’ve still got leftovers?” George asked, popping a cookie into his mouth. “They’re going to get stale.”
“I couldn’t possibly eat them all,” Ira laughed. “You gave me three dozen.”
“People didn’t eat as many as I expected Saturday night.”
“You were planning on 10 per person?” Skander asked after adding up the numbers in his head.
George shrugged. “I never claimed to be a mathematician.”
They all looked down and sipped tea at the same time. The room went silent.
“I suppose you want to know the story,” said George.
“If you’d like to tell me,” said Ira. “But I understand if you’d rather not.”
“No, it’s a good story. You’ll want to hear it. Here’s what happened…”
George’s version of events was different than Faye’s version. She had to correct him a few times when his descriptions became too colorful. When he finished, Ira sat staring into her empty teacup for a minute, eyes narrowed in thought.
“That’s rather exciting,” she said finally. “You must be exhausted.”
“Not at all,” said George. “I could go again if I needed to. Give them the old one-two. I used to box down at the piers, you know. I don’t think you’ve never seen me in a fight.”
“And I’d rather not,” Ira smiled. “But if you’re so chipper, you can help me make another bed in the extra room.” She got up. “You can all stay here as long as you need to. I have an appointment tonight and when I run into Ms. Killian, I’ll let her know you’ll be staying for a bit. But you must be quiet – she hosts a professor and a doctor who go to bed rather early.”
“Right-o. Quiet is my middle name,” said George getting up.
“Is it, now?” Ira asked, as if humoring a child, while they walked to the spare bedroom.
Faye glanced at Skander. He was sitting at the corner of the couch looking frozen stiff and miserable. People always took him as the stoic type to never show his emotions, but the truth was he wore them as visibly as a flamingo wore pink. It was just that most of the time, his mind was thinking about batteries and compounds, not things that would produce actual feelings. Like Ira.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t think about… will you be alright, staying here with Ira?”
Skander blushed a deep shade of crimson, visible even in the dim light. “I wish you wouldn’t worry about that.”
“It shouldn’t be for long.”
“She’d like to stay friends, you know. Things will get less awkward with time, but it won’t get any better if you keep avoiding her.”
Skander sighed and leaned back on the couch.
A while later, Ira and George came back in. Ira looked at the clock on the mantle. “I should go soon, but I’ll ask Ms. Killian to bring up dinner, and feel free to use the bath. Faye, you can sleep with me, and the boys will sleep in the spare room.”
George snatched Ira’s hand and kissed it gallantly. “You are an angel among mortals, darling.”
She rolled her eyes and hid a smile. Skander stiffened and looked away.
“And, speaking of,” George said with a cough. “I don’t suppose I could borrow a few bucks? See?” He held his wallet upside down, his face a pantomime of mock horror. “It’s completely empty!”
“You’re incorrigible,” Ira said, but she gave him money anyway.
“I’ll pay you back.”
“No, you won’t,” Ira said. “You never do. I’ll see you all tonight. Rest well.”
She put on her coat and left. George yawned and flopped onto the couch. “I’m starving.” He yawned again and stared at the wallpaper.
Faye stood. “I think I’ll go take a bath.”
“Alright,” George said, demurely.
It took her a bit to warm the water and fill the bath, and that was a nice distraction. It was too quiet. Not that she liked being attacked by phony policemen or running for her life or arguing with Mr. Lawrence, but she liked the quiet even less. She didn’t want to think about anything, because when she did, it felt like the world was caving in and she was suffocating.
She undressed and slipped into the warm water, wishing it were over. That Silas was there with her, mostly. Or that she was there with Silas. It didn’t matter one way or the other. She slipped deeper into the bath, sinking completely under the water. It wouldn’t do to fall apart now. She had to stay strong, even during the waiting. When the sobs came, it was without her permission.