Monday evening, 8 o’clock
They are coming for the book.
That’s what the page of the Dascyleum Text had read only a moment ago and now it was babbling on in Latin about the main character, Cassius’, inner turmoil over being taken as a slave. Silas flipped through the pages intently, his breath short, looking for any sort of proof that he hadn’t been hallucinating. Who was coming for the book? Did it mean this book? Blast, he should have gotten rid of it. It was trouble. What had he been thinking, keeping it around?
He saw the word ‘book’ and stopped to read.
Cassius gripped the book tightly in his arms. He knew if he was found with it, it would not bode well for him. He hurried to the study where his master kept a great many books which he had collected from far-away places and wise men. Cassius searched the stacks until he found one of like shape and size. Carefully and quietly, he took it and slipped away to his quarters where, working with practiced hands, he slit the book covers away from the pages and changed their places, gluing on the new covers to hide their identity.
Silas’ eyes slanted and he sat back, regarding the pages. Someone was coming for the book and the book wanted him to swap its cover with another’s to hide its identity. He snorted and shook his head, flipping the cover closed and setting it on the table beside him. He leaned forward and raked his hands through his hair. Either he was going insane, or he had just discovered that fairy tales were real. At the moment, he couldn’t quite say which was more probable.
He got up and wandered to the mantle, taking a cigarette from the case on top and lighting it. He tossed the match in the fire and stood leaning against the mantle, staring at the fire.
Of course, there could be some fascinating explanation for all this. Some scientific method by which the book morphed over time. Perhaps it had something to do with psychological manipulation.
They are coming for the book.
He shuddered despite himself and looked deeper into the fire, fighting the sudden urge to toss the book into it. He didn’t want to get rid of it though. Not before knowing what it was and what made it change. He blew out a puff of smoke and gave a sidelong glance at the book on the table. One could humor the book. If he did what it said, perhaps he could discover more about it. It wouldn’t hurt to try. No one was “coming for the book”… and if they were, doing as the book said and swapping the covers would settle that.
He bit the cigarette between his teeth and walked to the book, taking it to the study to find one that was about the same size. He scanned the shelves, realizing that the newest book he owned was over fifty years old. Everything in the study had yellowed pages and was obviously nowhere close to being new.
He shook his head and was about to give up on the idea and grade papers instead when he remembered Faye had bought a book just last week that might be about the right size. He went to the bedroom and lifted her pillow. She always kept her books there, and he didn’t know why, but he loved that habit of hers. He took it and held the books side by side to compare them.
They were the same size. Actually, they were exactly the same size, down to a quarter of an inch. Odd.
He shrugged and set them on the coffee table, then went to the kitchen to make some wheat paste, bringing it back up in a ceramic jar and getting his tools from the study. He sat down on the couch and started cutting away the covers. One didn’t deal in antiquities as long as he did without acquiring some basic bookbinding skills. As he glued in the new endpapers, he kept an eye on the door. It was a good thing Faye wasn’t there. She’d call him an idiot and tell him he was being ridiculous. Speaking of that, it was almost nine o’clock. He should go over to escort her back soon.
He finished swapping the covers then decided he did feel ridiculous about the whole thing and leaned back into the couch to read whatever Faye had been reading. It was a new book by Mark Twain, and it was intolerable. He’d only gotten half a chapter into it when there was a knock at the door.
He frowned, looked at his pocket watch, and set the book down on the table. The knock came again as he got up.
“Yes, yes,” he said, stepping toward the door. He opened it, expecting Mrs. Finch.
“Mr. Silas Lawrence?” asked the short, thickly built man.
Silas felt his whole body go cold. Had they come for the book? Don’t be daft, he told himself as he peered into the hallway to see two other men, tall and brawny, standing behind the first man. They were all dressed in long black overcoats and carrying identical stovepipe hats under one arm. Silas swallowed.
“My name is Wilson Waters with the Boston police,” the short man, opening his coat slightly to show Silas the square badge pinned to his blazer and Silas felt a wave of both relief and confusion wash over him. “Would you please come with us?”
“I… whatever for?”
Mr. Waters paused and glanced into the room. “Is your wife around?”
“She’s gone out.”
“Can we come in a minute?”
“Ah… I… I suppose.”
They stepped inside and Silas closed the door as one of them walked to the window and another stood next to the fire.
“Well, Mr. Lawrence,” said Mr. Waters. “Truth is, we need you to identify someone for us.”
Silas paled. “You mean…”
“Afraid so. Drowned and in pretty bad shape.”
Mr. Waters was looking around the room with curiosity. “An old student of yours. Found him in the river.”
“But why don’t you speak directly with his family?”
“They’re not in Boston, and frankly” he tapped his fingers on a box of cigars as he walked past. “These are good cigars, Mr. Lawrence.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” he took one from the box. “Frankly, we aren’t sure about who he was. The identification was pretty water damaged and we wouldn’t want to worry immediate family if we don’t have to.”
“Please, won’t you tell me who it is?”
“We’ll talk on the way. It should only take a quarter of an hour. Will you come with us?” Mr. Waters asked, lighting the cigar and puffing a cloud into the air.
“I suppose… yes, of course,” Silas grabbed his coat from the chair and pulled it on. “But where are we going?”
“The station.” Waters glanced back at the other two men and gave them a nod. “Come along, then.”
Silas held the door as they walked out and shut it behind him, locking it and putting the key in his pocket. They walked down the stairs together through the quiet house. There were no boarders in the parlor and Mrs. Finch must have gone to bed early because she wasn’t at her usual place glowering over her embroidery. They walked out the front door where a coach was waiting. Mr. Waters held the door and gestured politely to Silas.
Silas put a foot on the step and glanced back at the boarding house. It was odd that these men had shown up only half an hour after the book had said “they were coming”. What if… but these men had said nothing about a book. They were also police. And hadn’t he just decided the whole thing was ridiculous? This was a tragic situation, not some storybook plot.
“Mr. Lawrence?” Mr. Waters asked.
“Sorry,” said Silas.
He climbed into the coach and the other men followed him. Mr. Waters sat down next to him, puffing on the cigar.
“This really is a good cigar, Mr. Lawrence.”
They fell silent as the coach rolled on. Silas rubbed his hands. The coach was too dark to see the features of the men across from him. They sat like stone statues. Minutes passed in silence.
“Mr. Waters,” Silas said, breaking the silence. “I wish you’d tell me who it is… was.”
“Mm?” Mr. Waters said, looking up from his cigar. “Didn’t I say?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Ah. Right, let me… em…” he dug in his coat pocket and opened a pocketbook. He brought it close to his face and squinted as he flipped through the pages. “Let me… em… Mr. Lawrence, don’t suppose it could wait till we get there, could it?”
“I have a match,” Silas took a matchbook from his pocket and handed it to Mr. Waters.
“Ah, so you do. Always good to have a matchbook in your pocket. That’s what I always say. Now that I think of it, I’ve got a match in my pocket, too. Funny how you forget the darndest things. Hang on just one minute.”
Mr. Waters lit a match and made a great show of going through his notebook. Silas frowned and watched him as he looked.
“I know it’s written here somewhere,” Mr. Waters mumbled. Just then the coach stopped, and Mr. Waters let out a sigh, tucking the pocketbook away. “Ah, here we are.”
One of the other men opened the door and jumped out. Silas leaned forward to peer out the door. They were in front of a large Georgian house and lights poured from every window. It was set far back on a couple acres of property and trees mostly obstructed the view of any houses nearby.
The other man disembarked the coach as Silas turned back to Mr. Waters. “I thought… em… this isn’t the police station.”
Mr. Waters took the cigar from his mouth apologetically. “Afraid not.”
“Well, then, I don’t understand…” Silas trailed off as Mr. Waters took a revolver from his coat pocket, holding it against Silas’ ribs.
“Let’s just head on inside,” Mr. Waters said, taking another puff at the cigar. “Quietly.”
Silas stared at him a minute, his mind spinning, trying to reconcile itself with what was going on.
“Go on,” Mr. Waters added, gesturing with the revolver.
Silas got up and climbed out of the coach with Mr. Waters behind him. He glanced around at the secluded property, wondering if it would be a good idea to run. A second later Mr. Waters’ revolver was prodding into his side again, and the two other brawny men stood close behind them on either side. Silas clenched his hands into fists. Mr. Waters nudged him forward and he started walking toward the house.
“I do believe there must be some terrible mistake,” Silas said, his throat dry.
“No mistake, Mr. Lawrence.”
“Are you… quite sure?”
Mr. Waters took another puff at the cigar and didn’t reply.
A footman let them in the front doors. Mr. Waters seemed right at home in the place and tossed his hat on a hook as they walked in.
“Jojo! Would you tell Mr. Carson we’re arrived with Mr. Lawrence?”
“Right away,” the footman said. “Won’t you wait in the study?”
“Yeah, that’s alright. Come on, Mr. Lawrence.”
Silas glanced back at the door, now closed with the two men standing against it, and swallowed dryly. “Right,” he said.
They walked slowly down the carpeted hall and through a door into a large study. There was a tall window on one wall and the other walls were covered in bookshelves filled with thick, dark tomes. It smelled like smoke and old dampness. Mr. Waters gestured to the chair across from the desk and Silas paused before sitting hesitantly on the edge of it. Mr. Waters leaned against the desk, hand still on the revolver, though he let it rest at his side. It did little to ease the tension. They waited in silence for a minute.
“No one’s died then?” Silas asked.
“No. I am sorry about that little lie.”
“That’s good.” Silas rubbed his hands against his trousers.
“Ruddy good cigar,” Mr. Walters said, flicking the stub onto the ashtray on the desk. “I hope one day I’m wealthy enough to afford ‘em.”
“My father is in business with the company and gets them for free.”
“Lucky man, your father.”
They fell back into silence. The clock in the corner filled the room with incessant ticking. When the door finally opened, it came with such unexpectedness, Silas’ heart almost stopped. He licked his lips and turned.
“Sir Waters,” said the man as he walked in. He was tall and muscular, and wore a severe expression chiseled into his face. His hair was completely grayed, and he wore a long walrus mustache. The gold chain at his vest pocket glinted sharply in the light against his dark clothes. “Efficient, as always.”
“Mi’lord,” Mr. Waters said with a slight bow.
“And Mr. Lawrence, I presume,” the man sat down slowly in the velvet chair behind the desk.
Silas wasn’t sure what to say, so he settled for nothing.
“We found this in his rooms,” Mr. Waters set something down on the desk.
Silas blinked and opened his mouth. It was the book, The Dascyleum Text, or rather… its cover.
“Ah,” said the man, pulling the book toward him. “This would explain at least part of the story.”
He flipped the cover open and a smile played across his lips. He looked up at Silas and back down at the book. Silas clenched his fists tighter.
“Mr. Lawrence, I do say I am impressed,” he said. “How did you know Waters can’t read?”
“He can’t read?” Silas asked, aghast. Of course, he knew there were people – many people – who were illiterate, but it still shocked him.
“Hey, now,” Mr. Waters said. “Might not be able to read all and everything, but I can read the important things. ‘The Dascyleum Text’, that’s what it says right there and that’s what I brought you, just like you said, Lord Carson.”
“Yes,” Lord Carson, flicking the cover of the book closed. “You’ve brought a marvelous copy of Mark Twain’s new book, the Prince and the Pauper.”
“He switched the covers, you big oaf.”
Mr. Waters cursed and stomped his boot. “It’s not my fault. I still get five, don’t I?”
“Later, Waters. Go wait outside.”
“But… I mean, yes, mi’lord. Thank you, mi’lord.”
He hurried out the door, slamming it behind him, leaving Silas alone under the silent stare of Lord Carson. Silas rubbed his hands against his trousers again and managed a laugh.
“I’m sorry, but I’m… terribly confused.”
“You’re a lord? Are you from England?”
Silas paused, still confused. “Ah.”
“Mr. Lawrence, we know you were there at the site on Saturday night, and we know you caused the explosion. What we don’t know is the identity of the other three you were with.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Please, Mr. Lawrence,” Lord Carson leaned back. “It’s insulting to both you and me to pretend ignorance.”
Silas laughed shortly. “Insult or no, I… really don’t know what’s going on.”
Lord Carson stood and walked a step closer. “You’re a member of the Fellowship, and I’m impressed you’ve kept it from your family for so long. We know you targeted Experiment 27, but how much does the Fellowship know about it? And who were the people with you on the night of the explosion?”
Silas’ mouth was open, but he couldn’t think of a thing to say. The man was mad. This was bad. Very bad.
Lord Carson crossed his arms and tilted his head.
“Em…” Silas started, clenching and unclenching his fists. “Isn’t it at all possible you may have the wrong man? I really don’t know anything about experiments, or fellowships. Are you quite well, sir?”
Lord Carson studied him for a moment, then sighed and walked to a cabinet, taking a bottle and two glasses from it. He brought the bottle back to the desk and poured two glasses.
“I do apologize for all of this…” he gestured with his hand, screwing the cap back on, “this unpleasantness. Despite what you’ve heard, we are quite reasonable gentlemen.” He handed Silas the glass. “These are trying times for all of us.”
“Oh?” Silas said, taking the glass. “Why so?”
“Modernity,” Lord Carson said, raising his glass.
“I can agree with that,” Silas let out a shaky laugh.
Lord Carson raised the glass to his lips and Silas drank his. It tasted like brandy, and very good brandy at that. He put the glass on the desk and coughed, feeling the warmth go to his head in a rush.
“Modernity is making animals of everyone,” Silas went on. “The working hours and conditions of the poor, and even the working hours of any normal businessman, grow more ridiculous by the day. There’s barely any such thing as night or sleep with all these infernal, new light bulbs. I mean, what are people even living for anymore? It’s some brutal game of survival. Not that it wasn’t always about survival, but there used to be limits and now there are none, or rather they’re ignored. It’s… I’m sorry,” he said, brows furrowing. “I do believe I’m rambling.”
“Weren’t you going to tell me who you were with on Saturday night?”
“Saturday,” Silas leaned back. “Faye and I went to the symphony with my father. The second piece was atrocious, and so were the last two.”
“After the symphony.”
“After the symphony we went to Skander’s. George had a party gathered. Didn’t know anyone. And there was some dancing and Faye broke the poor heart of an insurance man who thought she was unmarried.” Silas rubbed his forehead. “We didn’t get out of there till two a.m. and the sad fact is that’s completely normal for a night with George. The man’s a menace.”
“Tell me about Experiment 27.”
“Never heard of it.”
“What does the Fellowship know, and how did you intend to destroy it?”
Silas chose his words carefully. “I don’t know anything about a fellowship, and I don’t care for destroying things. You never know what could have important historical significance in the future.”
Lord Carson stared intently at him. “How are you doing this?”
“Not even Waters can tell a direct lie after that much.”
“Well, I’m sure he does his best,” Silas said, because it seemed the polite thing to say. He had no idea what Lord Carson meant, but he didn’t mind it as much as before. He felt rather good, actually. Although the room was spinning something awful.
“I’d much like to know your secret,” Lord Carson said, pouring another glass and handing it to Silas.
“Well, you’ll be much disappointed to learn I haven’t a secret in the world,” said Silas, raising the glass and downing it. “Is this brandy?”
“That’s an odd name.”
“Not at all, if you think about it.”
The room was spinning in earnest now. “I shall have to do so, when I can manage to think again. Lord Carson, you said?”
“I would be remiss if I failed to point out that it seems you’ve lost a button.”
Lord Carson glanced at his overcoat and put a hand on the top button which was, indeed, missing. By the time he looked back up, Silas had collapsed to the floor, completely unconscious. He frowned and crossed his arms.
“Waters,” he called.
The door opened and the short man stepped inside, glancing at Silas on the floor.
“Have someone bring him downstairs for now. We’ll try something else later.”
Lord Carson glanced at Silas once more. “The Fellowship is a minor annoyance, but an annoyance still. The day they’re eradicated cannot come soon enough.” He took off his overcoat and handed it to Waters. “The top button has fallen off. Have it fixed.”
“I, ah… sure, I s’pose I can give it to the housekeeper. She’ll know how to…” he trailed off as Lord Carson walked out of the room. He frowned and tucked the coat under his arm, stepping toward Silas. “Crummy assignment, this. You have no idea, Mr. Lawrence.” He sighed and looked at his pocket watch. “Rum good cigars. Should have taken a couple more. Hey! Jojo! Come help me with this!”