Beginning, I find, proves difficult. But I’ve had luck with beginning again. Indeed, I can with all honesty write that my life began again the day (amateur) detective Aiba Masaki returned my stolen top hat into my arms, and then again on the morning that the former detective awoke from his long illness (both catastrophes, I should note, traceable to the scheming of his former lordship Ninomiya Kazunari).
Since I find that I have met with such success in beginning again, I am determined to grant Professor Aiba’s wish that I take up my pen once more to record the adventures that befell us at No. 5, Garden Place over the Christmas holiday of 1890. As might have been expected by anyone familiar with this gentleman, the first Christmas that I spent with Aiba was in equal measures merry and perilous.
To locate the start of our adventure, I will return to one particularly dreary night in early December of 1890. The wind was bitterly cold, the streets full of slush, and my heart was heavy as I wound my way out of St. Giles towards Garden Place—I feared I should be called back to the bedside of my patient within hours to watch over his death
But I continued trudging forward through the mud, determined to spend at least some hours of my evening in the cheerful presence of the former (amateur) detective (as any devotee of our adventures will recall, it had been Aiba’s firm decision to return to his life as a zoologist after recovering from his illness).
I was not disappointed; the upper windows of Garden Place glowed with inviting warmth as I approached, and my entrance was met with a series of “halloos” from the upper storey that warmed me from within. Ascending the staircase to our living quarters, I discovered a fire in the grate and a tea service laid out.
But something was amiss. To all appearances, it was a perfectly ordinary evening at Garden Place. Holmes was stretched out before the fire, industriously shredding the London Times with evident satisfaction. Watson was making a general din from his cage in the corner of the room. His former lordship Kazunari lay stretched across the hideous orange sofa that I had long ago banished to the furthest reaches of the room, his face and hands smeared with ink as he scribbled madly at the latest installment of his “Tales of Terror.” Aiba was seated in his usual chair (of a much more becoming shade of orange) before the fire.
But I felt a strange unease. My dear friend greeted me with his usual gentleness and even poured me a cup of tea as I assumed my own chair, but I recognized at once that Aiba was greatly troubled. Rather than drinking his tea or inquiring into the details of my appointments, or sharing the results of his own experiments, he gazed into the fire with an expression of perplexed distraction.
A distracted Aiba was not, indeed, so unusual—when he was passionately engaged in any task or in the working out of some problem of zoology, I had often discovered my friend in a state of abstract contemplation (even, unfortunately, when in the middle of frying eggs). At times, I was amazed by the flow of conversation between myself and Aiba, which could, if left unchecked, continue into the early hours of the morning. But we were equally likely to pass an evening before the fire in contented silence.
But now I read a real sadness in Aiba’s countenance, and—almost fearful of whatever trouble could so disturb Aiba’s usual good humour—I strove to discover through my own mental exertions the cause of Aiba’s distress. As I reflected, I noted with alarm that Aiba, reaching for his tea cup, raised first the sugar dish and then the cream to his lips, evidently not recognizing his second mistake as he continue to gaze into the fire.
Perhaps Aiba was missing Ohno’s presence? The valet had disappeared into his studio in a frenzy of inspiration ten days ago, and since then he had only been in contact with Nino, who brought him his meals and slept in the studio at night. Ohno’s artistic leave had certainly put a strain on the running of our household. I did what I could as a cook, but calls often obliged me to leave in the middle of a recipe, and more often than not I returned to find my roast embellished beyond all consumption by Aiba’s kind assistance.
But Aiba usually responded to Ohno’s intermittent absences with easy cheerfulness, taking on the challenges of washing socks and ironing trousers with enthusiasm (if not skill).
Perhaps, I meditated after taking a sip of my tea and recovering from the subsequent coughing fit (in his absence of mind, Aiba had placed five lemon slices in the small cup), Aiba’s apparent sadness this evening was only a symptom of the more general malaise that had fallen over him during these cold winter months; although my friend did what he could to conceal it, I knew he suffered from his lack of work.
Aiba had spent last winter and spring recovering from his injury and illness and, in spite of my protestations that he continue to rest, had thrown himself wholeheartedly into the completion of his scientific treatise over the summer and autumn months. I could not but relent when I saw what joy the work brought Aiba, and he produced a piece of scholarship so inventive and fine as to secure him a new professorship at a local university—even as I write these words, I feel my heart swell with pride at the remarkable work he completed, and I can assure the reader that I feel not only an emotional but a rational satisfaction in its many excellencies. I suggest all interested parties to peruse Man is Animal: On the Correspondence of Emotional Life between Man, Chimpanzee, Dog, Parrot, Cat and Others at their earliest convenience.
The trouble was that Aiba’s professorship would not begin until the new year, and since final publication Aiba seemed at a loss for how to expend his energy. I had forbidden Aiba to accompany me to the more dangerous sections of the city where I worked, fearful that he should contract another fever in his vulnerable state. And our side of London afforded only so many cases of stolen and lost domestic pets (indeed, I was contemplating having a local street ruffian of my acquaintance kidnap Holmes just for the pleasure it would give Aiba to track him down). To my horror, Aiba had even tried his hand at the sensational stories that Nino produced for the yellow papers, but Nino had soon declared Aiba’s style of writing too clear and straightforwardly sensual for publication (“He has no notion of how to tease the reader with committing any actual impropriety,” Nino proclaimed).
Now, witnessing Aiba’s depressed manner, I felt a keen stab of regret that I had so positively denounced Aiba’s latest series of household experiments the evening before—if Aiba determined that he should dye our bread green or affix all the mirrors in the house to his person and lurk at the top of the staircase to surprise me, had I really any right to interfere in pursuits that brought him pleasure and a sense of utility?
I was about to gently inquire as to the success of Aiba’s attempt to cultivate a cherry blossom in winter when I was forestalled by Nino’s sudden inquiry from his sofa, “I’ve got to write that my heroine is surprised, but I’ve only been able to manage, ‘she started from shock, her blood curdling in her veins.’ But I’m confident that we can do better than that, gentlemen.”
It was a game we played often—Nino was paid by the word, and it usually required a great deal of creative description to bring him up to his quota while at the same time forestalling any real plot advancement that would bring the series to an end. Aiba was an enthusiastic if often misguided participant in the game, his suggestions generally introducing too much real character development and plot interest to be useful.
I observed Aiba from the corner of my eye as I replied, hoping to make Aiba laugh with my suggestion, “Write that ‘her hair started on end as she experienced a blood-curdling shock the likes of which she would never experience before or since’.”
Nino made a noise of satisfaction followed by a rapid scratching of pen on paper, “Admirable, doctor! Not only is it frightfully long, but it is grammatically unsound and the meaning utterly confused,” he mused.
I glanced at the detective; he only stood and, sighing, wandered toward the window that looked over the street, coming to rest with his forehead against the pane.
Now I was seriously alarmed. Perhaps the detective felt the pain of his old injuries, or was even experiencing trouble breathing again. Abandoning the inedible tea cakes (another sad effect of Ohno’s creative furor), I joined Aiba by the window, loosing the heavy curtain so that it fell to screen us from the rest of the room. I reached out a hand to tip Aiba’s forehead back from the glass, “Please, detective,” (I never quite lost the habit of addressing Aiba as “detective,” somehow), “you will make yourself ill.”
Aiba turned towards me. I was relieved to see his expression warm and soften as he looked upon me, as though seeing me for the first time that evening—I, at least, did not seem to be the cause of his distress, and my interruption was not entirely unwelcome. He lowered my hand by taking it in both his own. “I am well, Jun,” he replied simply.
“Then tell me what troubles you.”
There was such hesitation in Aiba’s features that I was instantly convinced that he had intended to keep some very important secret from me. Most likely from a desire to spare me from some pain or difficulty. “I will feel more uncomfortable, detective, if I think that you insist on being in distress alone,” I urged him.
Aiba managed a weak smile, “All right, my dear fellow, put your eyebrows down,” he ran a finger lightly across the offending brows, “and I will confess all.” I allowed myself one last threatening glare before composing my features.
Aiba continued in a low, rough voice, “I think Horatio has not long to live, Jun. I convinced the zookeeper to allow me to see him this afternoon, and I found him very, very ill.” Aiba’s shoulders trembled; he was clearly exerting himself to remain calm, “He will die in a cage…I knew…but I had always hoped…” Aiba let out a long breath, grimacing so pitifully that, as heart-rending as it would be, I thought I would rather see him weep.
My friend’s distress was now comprehensible; Horatio was the chimpanzee, currently the property of the London zoo, who Aiba had worked with for many years in his former position and who had provided much of the data for his study. He had been sold when Aiba left the university. I knew Horatio’s fate was Aiba’s keenest regret. I had often visited Horatio with Aiba, watching from what I judged to be a reasonable distance (animals have never favored me) as Aiba reached through the bars to shake Horatio’s hand and engage in dialogue with him using a sort of sign language that the two apparently shared. Horatio had fallen ill this winter; I knew Aiba’s fondest wish was to return Horatio to a more open and natural environment when he assumed his new university position. But now Aiba must fear that his rescue would come too late.
“I know almost nothing of veterinary medicine, but perhaps he can be made well?” I offered.
Aiba shook his head, unshed tears giving a watery glow to his eyes, “He has received excellent veterinary care there, I must admit. But he is,” Aiba swallowed, “old, and death seems now fairly certain.” He gave a manful sniff; I produced my almost threadbare handkerchief, “I only wish I could make him more comfortable before his death,” Aiba continued, “they keep him locked up so that he hardly has room to move, and nothing to see or touch.” Aiba turned to gaze out the window, but if he wished to conceal his sorrow from me, he failed; the streetlamps softly illuminated his heartbroken countenance. “But there is nothing to be done,” he concluded.
At that moment, I would have done anything to bring a smile to the detective's face. But I hesitated to even mention the solution that presented itself, knowing how unlikely it was, “Could we not…purchase Horatio?”
Aiba’s eyes told me the answer before he spoke, “I did speak to them, dear fellow. Begged them, in fact. But they have already had offers, and the cost is…prohibitive.”
I knew what Aiba (with great delicacy) had alluded to. That winter was a very lean time, as the Americans say. I had few paying patients and a great many non-paying ones just then. Most of my inheritance was consumed in the upkeep of Hayworth, my family home, and the salaries of the estate manager and groundskeeper. Aiba’s small private income kept us in Garden Place, but treatments for his illness had sorely taxed it. Ohno had refused his wages for the past eight months, knowing that they could only come from Aiba’s small savings. Indeed, the only thing keeping the four of us in food and fire was Nino’s wildly popular newspaper serial, “Taka’s Tales of Terror” (written under that pseudonym of "Yuuji," a name now familiar to every reader of the London serials).
Even with the income from the paper and Nino’s surprising affinity for bargaining and his general skinflinted-ness, our wardrobes were growing sadly tattered and out of date; Aiba’s cuffs were in a constant state of unraveling while my top hat was egregiously out of season. What little spare money I had was saved to purchase a typewriter for Nino; Nino thought it too extreme a measure, but I had too often discovered Ohno massaging and soaking Nino’s cramped fingers in warm water, and even applying a shoe brush to Nino's fingers in futile attempts to remove the ink from beneath his fingernails.
I cannot say that we were poor, or suffering, but we all looked forward with great eagerness to Aiba’s salary in the spring, not least because of Aiba’s flamboyant taste in patches and darning thread.
After some time spent in a (dissatisfying) mental review of our currently available funds, I finally inquired, “How…prohibitive?”
Aiba’s next words were a low whisper, delivered as he cast down his eyes and intertwined our fingers more tightly together, “Ten thousand pounds.”
My heart sank. I had known the purchase to be impossible, but the degree of the impossibility ached. More so because I knew that Aiba had no intention of asking me to sacrifice Hayworth, or of asking anyone for a sacrifice of any kind.
Aiba’s arms were about me; I made an effort to stroke his back in a comforting manner. His warm breath was at my ear, and I felt the rise and fall of his chest against my own—a sensation that never cased to thrill me after how near the detective had come to never breathing again. “Thank you, Jun. I feel lighter after sharing my grief with you.” He broke from me, and said in a voice that strove for levity, “Come, we should help Kazu, or he’ll never have five thousand words before midnight and Ogura will threaten to break down our door again.”
I was not deceived. Almost from the first hours of our acquaintance, I believe that I have been able to distinguish Aiba’s false smile from his true one. I felt a strange warmth coursing through me, and a rising sensation of recklessness; long dormant since my youth, the impulsive wildness of my nature has been resurfacing with greater intensity the more time I pass in Aiba's presence.
Then I shall go to the zoo and bring him myself to Garden Place. The nonsensical declaration was hovering on my lips when our interview was interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell.
I sighed, holding Aiba’s cheek in my palm for a moment before pulling back the purple curtain, “It is my patient. But I should be back before dawn.”
Aiba brushed my hair rather firmly back from my forehead, almost as though he were petting Holmes, “Take a cab,” he commanded. “Your leg must be in great pain,” he implored softly, waiting for my nod of assent before turning back to the window.
I collected my bag and coat on my way out, sparing hardly a glance at Nino, who now seemed to be attempting to finish his installment from underneath the horrendous sofa while Holmes made himself comfortable on his feet.
I was certainly in no very agreeable frame of mind as I answered the door, and my mood plummeted further upon discovering, not the relative of my patient, but MP Sakurai Sho, white-faced, mud-splattered, and wild-eyed. “It’s all up with me, doctor,” he gasped in a hollow-sounding voice, “Gone. Everything—gone!” he choked out, beating his fist against brow, the very portrait of despair.
I think I may be justified in writing that my hair started on end as I experienced a blood-curdling shock the likes of which I would never experience before or since.
It is some indication of the nature of the life I had led at No. 5 that, upon perceiving the MP’s bedraggled state and rolling eyes, my first thought was of a stab wound—I’d made it as far as stripping Sakurai of his jacket and raising his dress shirt nearly over his head before he was able to give a shout of protest and arrest my hands. “Doctor!” he cried in a scandalized tone, forgetting to be tragic in his alarm at being undressed on the front door step.
“You don’t seem to have been stabbed,” I observed, unable to keep a faint note of accusation from my voice as I released him.
Sakurai’s face reassumed its forlorn expression, “I spoke of mental rather than of bodily distress, doctor.”
For only the second time in our acquaintance, I perceived that Sakurai was on the verge of tears. I suppressed a sigh. “You’d better come in and tell your troubles to Aiba, then,” I relented.
I continue to discover that, unexpectedly, it is not Nino but Sakurai who most persistently tests my ability to behave in a gentleman-like manner. Since knowing Aiba, I have seen what it is to be a gentleman not only in one's manners but in one's heart. There is no real merit in behaving properly in Aiba’s presence; it is easy and natural to be kind to him and beside him. But I felt in my heart that, as much as I felt gratitude toward and even respected him, I still felt a strong resentment towards Sakurai. We met often, but I never quite welcomed him in.
Sakurai told us his story while stuffing tea cakes into his mouth, his hand moving automatically back towards the plate after every bite and scattering crumbs upon the sofa that I had spent many hours reupholstering using cast-off stage curtains from The Circus. From his expression, the cakes must have tasted like ashes in his mouth (not far off from their original taste, I should note in fairness).
The MP took a wild swig of cold tea, draining the cup before spitting out, “My first day in parliament, and I’ll be sacked by Monday. One day, and I’ve demolished my chances. I’ve lost my position, Masaki!” he continued to rave wildly, “I’ve assaulted a female reporter!”
“Good god, man!” Aiba cried, nearly jumping out of his chair in shock. Holmes gave a yowl, and Nino halted in his scratching and started slinking towards us, his pen between his teeth. I, too, started from my seat—in spite of my unreasoning dislike of the man, I did not believe for a moment that Sakurai could have committed such an act.
Nor did Aiba, “You cannot expect me to accept such a statement, Sho—tell me what really occurred, and I assure you, we will all stand beside you,” he concluded passionately.
Sakurai appear choked with emotion. I do not think I imagined the expression of relief upon his features, as though he had doubted whether we should believe in him. There were bits of dried mud in his hair, and there were crumbs upon his chin and (improbably) his nose. His shoes were drying by the fire, and I caught sight of a hole in the toe of one of his fine woolen socks—would the reader think me strange if I confess that I had never felt a greater liking for Sakurai than at that moment?
“Thank you, gentleman, for your good faith,” Sakurai replied, his voice thick, “In that case, I shall attempt to describe to you what occurred.” He took a long breath before continuing, “You see, I only hit the young lady with my umbrella.”
Another cry from Aiba. “Accidentally, of course!” Sakurai hastened to add. “I was standing atop the stairs at the entrance to the House. A group of reporters was shouting questions from below, but they all dispersed when the storm started. Except for one very intrepid lady.” Sakurai winced at the memory, “She continued to cry out questions at me as I began to open my umbrella. I had just opened it when a strong gust of wind swept it from my hands, down the stairs and into her stomach. It appeared as if I had launched it at her from the top of the staircase.”
Aiba appeared torn between amusement and concern for the lady; Nino looked near outright laughter, his eyes bright as he inquired, “And what happened next?” There was a certain relish in his tone, and I attempted to quell him with a meaningful stare. Unfortunately, my glare seemed to heighten rather than suppress Nino’s amusement.
Sakurai continued in a monotone, his face assuming the color of chalk, “Naturally, I hurried down to assist the lady, who had fallen into the mud. I was just pulling her to her feet, and I might have been able to explain and salvage the thing, when Lord Nakai passed by.” Sakurai gulped, “He shouted at her, ‘Be careful my dear girl, our new MP is the devil when it comes to the subject of lady writers. Just this morning he’d been telling me how he was planning to knock them down like pins as soon as he had the chance.’”
Nino was shaking. “Did you really make such remarks?” Aiba asked with an expression of wonderment.
“Of course not!” Sakurai cried, dropping his head into his hands, “He was only trying to embarrass me! But the lady’s eyes turned as big as saucers, and she jerked out of my grasp. It was so violent that she started to fall backwards again, so I grabbed her notepad in an attempt to stop her, but I somehow…” Sakurai’s next words were rushed, “jerked it from her and flung it into the mud, and when she tried to retrieve it I knelt to help her, but my sleeve caught in her hairclip and it looked very like I was dragging her about by the hair…” Sakurai trailed off miserably, reaching for another stack of cakes as he concluded.
“And how exactly did this remarkable interview conclude?” I managed with an admirable degree of seriousness.
Sakurai turned his hopeless gaze upon me, “With her declaring that she’d splash my misdeeds across the front page of the Times, and that she’d never rest in her campaign until I had handed in my resignation.”
Aiba assumed a meditative air; Nino was face down on the sofa, crying with laughter into a cushion.
The former detective stood and began to pace before the fire. “Witnesses?” he inquired,
“None but Lord Nakai and a fellow woman, who appeared equally affronted.”
I observed the detective’s eager gait and thoughtful expression with pleasure; if nothing else, I reflected, Sakurai’s rather spectacular downfall had been of service in distracting Aiba from his own troubles.
Aiba halted in his pacing. “Kazu,” he pronounced. Nino, having recovered from his fit of hysterics, was lounging upon the sofa while wiping tears of mirth from his eyes—in bringing on this laughter, I thought, Sakurai had even done our exhausted author a great service. Nino gave a start at Aiba’s pronouncement. “You said she worked at the Times, correct?” Aiba confirmed. Sakurai nodded. “Then Kazu must use what influence he has to delay the story until Sho can speak to the lady and explain himself properly.”
Nino appeared skeptical of Aiba’s plan, “I think you credit me with too much influence, detective. I am but a humble scribe among many others who toil in the sensation papers.”
Aiba was firm, “The last time you failed to deliver an installment, the central office was nearly burned to the ground by readers anxious to know Taka's fate. You command legions of followers. Tell Ogura that you insist on it—that you will withhold the serial.” (Ogura was the editor at the Times for the fiction and society pages, the two sections very conveniently and often indistinguishably grouped together).
Now Nino was torn; his gaze flickered between Sakurai’s pleading eyes and Aiba’s determined expression. Finally, he picked up a cushion and flung it at the detective. Aiba caught it handily.
“Well if you insist on it, you know that I cannot refuse,” he muttered, his irritation evident, “this whole blasted saving-my-life business has left me in a rather intolerable position in our friendship, which I fear shall never be remedied until I have the chance to save you in some equally idiotic manner.” Aiba smiled beautifully at his words. “But the best I can do is to have them put it off until Sunday—they won’t suppress such a hot item forever, so Sakurai had better be damned charming when sees this lady, and he had better see her soon,” Nino threatened.
Aiba looked satisfied, but Sakurai seemed rather lost. He turned to Aiba with a warm expression, “Thank you, Masaki, truly. But I am not certain that I can convince this woman. She is so dead-set against me, and I must confess myself rather shaken by this incident…” Sakurai mumbled. I was amazed—MP Sakurai was unraveling before my eyes.
I stood and produced a bottle of brandy from its hiding-place behind Aiba’s copy of Don Quixote in the bookcase (a trick I’d caught from Ohno). The glasses were behind the bust of Charles Darwin. “Pull yourself together, MP,” I ordered, patting Sakurai (rather awkwardly, and perhaps a touch too violently, I must admit) upon the back, “You are perfectly capable of clearing up this misunderstanding, and…” I hesitated before speaking the words, “I think that Lord Toma would be very ready to assist you in this matter,” I finally admitted.
“Lord Toma?” Sakurai ejaculated, setting his now-empty glass down heavily upon the tea tray, “Why should I involve him in this matter?”
Aiba laid a hand upon my shoulder, sending me a grateful look and smile that were enough to overcome my annoyance at having been of some help to Sakurai Sho. “Jun is right. Toma is a member of your party, and his uncle is actually the owner of the Times. I do not know why I did not think of it—he is our intimate friend, and he is extraordinarily charming,” Aiba grinned.
Lord Toma was a close friend of Aiba's, introduced to him by Nino. Lately, his lordship had been visiting Garden Place every fortnight for a medical examination. His lordship had given me the rather coveted position of his personal physician, but the man was so fit that he hardly had need of me; I had tried to decrease and finally put a stop to those un-necessary examinations—in truth, they were a form of charity, and I felt uncomfortable accepting payment from his lordship for merely listening to his heartbeat and checking his pulse twice a month—but after I refused him appointments he began coming round to Garden Place at all hours and with all kinds of imaginary illnesses, demanding that I treat him; his scheming reached its zenith when he pretended to vomit up a jar of tomato sauce onto our front step. I finally relented, knowing that Lord Toma insisted for Aiba’s sake. His lordship was a truly excellent man in spite of his fondness for annoying pranks (a characteristic that rendered his lordship and Nino natural co-conspirators on more than one occasion). If asked by Aiba, I knew that Lord Toma would exert all his influence.
Sakurai still looked doubtful, however, and I did not wonder at it. In spite of his lordship’s invaluable support of Sakurai’s campaign and his easy friendship with all the residents of Garden Place, I had often noticed an extreme…I would not say a rudeness…but a stiffness of manner between the two men that puzzled me.
But how Aiba finally convinced Sakurai to turn to his lordship for assistance, I cannot say—at that moment, the doorbell rang again, and this time it really was the granddaughter of my patient.
I made my way home around five, an hour after my patient’s death. It had been a peaceful one, thank god.
I was astonished by the beauty of the morning. For once, London’s gray winter light had receded, and the sky was streaked with pink, blue, and yellow. I still disliked waking early—being wrenched from rest and dreams—but of late I found the morning light comforting after a night spent with a patient. And I was growing more and more fond of the morning—waking to the sound of footsteps in the room, and watching Aiba shave before he even knew that I was awake. Or even waking before him and finding that he reached out to hold my hand even in his sleep.
Memories of waking dissolved in thoughts of Aiba’s Horatio—how could it be possible for me to free him? It was not possible. But it seemed more impossible that I would sit and wait for the news to reach Aiba, and see him turn his face away from me in an effort to hide his grief.
As unlikely as it was, I arrived at Garden Place somehow hopeful that Aiba would be awake; I suddenly longed violently to see him. Aiba had sometimes surprised me by rising early or by waiting up for my return until three or four o’clock in the morning. I tried to temper my hopes, but they would rise with each step I took up the stairs.
Unspeakable disappointment: I discovered our great room void of Aiba’s presence; instead, it was occupied by a heavily-sleeping Sakurai, who seemed to have fallen asleep upon the orange sofa only after having twisted off half his clothing and done his best to rend our sofa cushions to pieces; the floor was covered in feathers. Watson stared at him beadily from above—plotting his revenge, I think.
Cursing myself for my unreasonable expectation, I made my way to the kitchen for a glass of water.
To find Ohno, looking quite happy and refreshed (I had learned from Aiba how to detect Ohno’s moods through careful attention to the quirk at the corner of his mouth). The valet was hanging up a pair of socks (I recognized them as Sakurai’s) to dry before the kitchen fire. Nino lay asleep nearby in a basket of freshly-laundered bedclothes, his manuscript pages scattered all about the kitchen floor. Holmes, curiously, seemed to be reading the pages with an expression of haughty disinterest.
I could have embraced the man for gladness, and I felt tears of relief begin to threaten; instead, I settled for a very feeling handshake with the valet.
Ohno smiled, “Well, sir, Kazu tells me that in my absence the house has fallen into ruin, and that in addition, we have plans to introduce a new member into our household?”
“Did Nino mention that our potential new member is currently being kept under lock and key at the London Zoo?”
Ohno nodded thoughtfully, “He did mention it, sir. But I didn’t like to embarrass you by dwelling on the fact.”
Before I could answer Ohno’s friendly impertinence, there was a soft groan from the direction of the laundry basket. Nino was slowly waking, stretching himself and rubbing at his eyes (indeed, I had often felt that when Nino came to live with us, we had simply acquired a sort of larger, more vocal type of Holmes). “Whatever you are planning, Jun, do not carry it out,” came Nino’s muffled voice from amidst the bedclothes. Ohno turned to continue toasting Sakurai’s socks before the fire.
I must confess myself slightly affronted by Nino’s superior (if sleepy) tone. “Pardon?”
Nino had got so far as to sit up in the basket, “I know you must be planning to scale the walls of the London Zoo tomorrow night and carry Horatio off, but I’m afraid you have not thought your plan through very carefully.”
I scowled. To write the truth, it was precisely my plan (at least, very near it. My own, fully-developed plan would of course been far more sophisticated). I simply passed over the fact that Nino seemed to know the entire content of my earlier conversation with Aiba—it was to be expected in this household, in which I counted myself lucky to have a few moments alone with the detective. “And your objections? You forget that I spent several years conducting covert operations in the Sudan—I’ve done my share of scaling and stealing.”
Nino stood to drape himself across Ohno’s back, resting limply there as he spoke, “One, you cannot possibly break into the medical office where Horatio is being kept. Two, the blasted animal is at death’s door and receiving veterinary care there. How do you propose that we attend to him? Three, we cannot keep an ape in No. 5, Garden Place, in the middle of London.”
I did hate that Nino was perfectly correct. “We might take him down to Hayworth,” I retorted.
Nino raised an infuriating eyebrow, “And you think you can take an adult chimpanzee on the 3 o’clock express train? Third class?”
“He is old and very ill,” I defended myself.
“He is still an animal, and we have no notion how he would react to our capture of him.”
“Then you would have me do nothing?”
“No.” Nino detached his forehead from Ohno’s back to sit at the kitchen table. As if by some magic, Ohno produced toast and (thank god!) coffee as if from thin air. “I think we should purchase him. Legally. And then we should be able to transport him carefully and without secrecy, with the aid of the zoo.”
I sat and gratefully accepted a mug of coffee. The first taste was delicious—I had missed it over the past weeks. “You have ten thousand pounds?” The inquiry was a sincere one. I did not know precisely what arrangements Nino had made with his sister, or how much he earned for his serial. I did know that he spent not a penny on himself other than for food, and hardly for that—the clothes he was wearing on his skinny frame, patched up as they were by Aiba’s and Ohno’s hands were evidence enough of that.
Nino stared thoughtfully into his cup. I realized that Nino had not once met my eyes in the whole course of our conversation. Meaning that he was in deadly earnest. “No,” he finally responded, “but I might get some money. Not the whole ten thousand, of course, but I might be able to go for as much five thousand.”
“Get?” I repeated, “Not have, but get?”
Nino’s gaze flicked towards Ohno’s back; the valet seemed to be obstinately remaining turned towards the fireplace. Nino’s gaze returned to his cup, “I could sell my story to the papers.”
“Your…story…?” I was confused—did he mean a new serial? He had already printed the story of his adventures slumming in London.
Nino continued in a careful tone, “Not just the slumming. The other story. About giving up my fortune and living in poverty here.” (I frowned—yes, cash was not readily available, but I would not exactly say we were living in poverty). “And about men. Not…that is to say…not Satoshi, but if I suggested that during my time slumming and now, I was engaged in some sort of debauchery with other men, they would pay five thousand for it. Perhaps more. And I could come up with just the sort of filth they wanted. Describe myself as a sort of insatiable Casanova,” Nino smiled to indicate a joke, but he was fixedly avoiding Ohno’s back.
“No,” I replied instantly. “No. What would Aiba think? He would be miserable. He,” I looked meaningfully in Ohno’s direction, “would never recover from it. Ever.” I strove to find words strong enough, “As your landlord, I forbid it,” I concluded, realizing how silly I sounded only as the words left my mouth.
Nino looked torn between annoyance and relief—I began to think that Nino had felt it incumbent upon himself to make this offer, however little he relished the thought of actually carrying it out. “But I can think of no other way to acquire such a sum of money so quickly,” he sighed with exasperation.
Ohno was back to making toast. I was unsure how to express myself, “Nino…you realize of course that…I…we...do not expect something from you…that is to say, you have already saved our lives this year with your serial, how could we ask for more?”
Nino’s eyes flashed—he was angry. “Precisely, doctor,” he voice was bitter, “you say saved your lives, but there are three people in this household who have saved someone’s life, and I do not make up one of their number.”
“No, I do not doubt that you would make the sacrifice,” I answered sincerely. “I know you would, Nino. But he wouldn’t want it. It would make him miserable.”
“Then you must find the money yourself. Take on a patient who can pay for once,” Nino challenged me.
“Or take matters into my own hands.”
Nino gave a huff of exasperation, rolling his eyes magnificently, “Just promise me you will not do anything without consulting me. I may think of a plan yet. You forget that I have much more criminal experience than you, doctor. And,” Nino stared at me with his rare serious expression, “you are also forgetting that Garden Place and Hayworth might be among the first places the police would search.”
He had a point. In fact, several very good ones (it was rather disconcerting to find Nino acting as the voice of reason within our household). We seemed to have reached a stalemate as we continued to nurse our drinks in silence. After a few minutes, Nino’s eyes began to look suspiciously heavy; I think he must have been up for the past twenty-four hours finishing his latest installment for the deadline. Nino gave a great yawn, and quite suddenly his head looked in danger of crashing onto the table.
I reached out a hand, but Ohno was there instantly with his arms about him, carefully taking his limp figure up to settle him back into the laundry basket
“Thank you, sir,” I just caught Ohno’s quiet words as I stood up to go to bed.
“Of course,” I replied.
Aiba was not in bed as I had expected. He was asleep in the particularly ugly easy chair that I had cast out from the great room only to find it moved into our bedroom. His shoes were only half-unlaced, and he seemed to have fallen asleep in the midst of reading; there was a patch of saliva where his head rested against the chair. I carefully removed the book from his lap, discovering it to be my own journal of our meeting and adventures over the past year—the detective must truly be grieving, as I knew him to turn to this book when he wished for solace.
He woke when I started unlacing his shoes. “Jun,” he mumbled, bringing down a heavy hand to rest in my hair.
“Go back to sleep, detective.”
“Jun,” he mumbled, his eyes falling closed again, “your patient…?”
“Tolerable. It was not painful.”
“Hmmm.” He ran a hand across his face, yawning as I removed his boots. “Jun, I told Sho you would appeal to Toma on his behalf. He would not agree to the plan otherwise.”
I sighed, “I’ll speak to him tomorrow.”
Aiba finally stood, grabbing my hand and tugging me onto the bed. “I’m not undressed yet,” I protested.
Aiba embraced me, trapping me upon the bed, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything in the morning,” he mumbled, falling asleep on top of me in the next instant. I gave in, letting myself fall asleep to the rhythm of his warm, steady breath.
Aiba was gone the next morning. That he had not awoken me told me that he must have gone to visit Horatio and did not wish to worry me. However, he had indeed undressed me, leaving me to the strange experience of waking up completely naked above the bedclothes with only his smoking jacket covering me.
As I dressed, I examined for the perhaps the thousandth time the photograph of Aiba in his old days as a professor, grinning widely while an equally widely-grinning chimpanzee embraced his head. I considered Nino’s advice—should I indeed look for a rich patient? But even if I were to start attending to the Duchess of Cambridge tomorrow, I still could not earn the money in time. More importantly, I considered Nino’s claim that Garden Place and Hayworth might be the first places the police would investigate—Aiba was known to want Horatio and to object strongly to his placement in the zoo.
The more nausea-inducing option than outright theft from the London Zoo was to sell Hayworth or its the grounds.
There was also, of course, the route of outright begging. I might ask his lordship, for instance. The thought would not leave me as I performed my perfunctory examination of him that morning; it had been two weeks since our last appointment, and Lord Toma had arrived that morning looking fresh and cheerful as ever; I had only a moment for a quick cup of tea in the empty kitchen before heading to meet him in my office belowstairs.
Lord Toma seemed to sense my distracted state, and he responded by continually trying to joke with me throughout the session. I finally relented and, after performing the proper examination (which as usual revealed nothing wrong), I began ordering him to perform jumping jacks, touch his elbow to his nose, and see if he could evade my flicking him against his forehead with the tongue depressor; lately his examinations had been increasing in length and complexity the more he insisted on them. Last time, I’d sent him out to the market to do our shopping and asked him to return within ten minutes.
It was after I had left his lordship’s forehead looking rather red after several smart raps with the tongue depressor—he was buttoning his coat while complaining about the latest medical advancements that required patients to undergo such odd procedures—that I realized that my final chance had come. But pride made my tongue thick and stupid.
“T…Toma…I mean, your lordship,” I nearly stuttered.
His lordship peered at me, “Are you well, doctor? You look as if you’d ate something off.”
“I have a favor to ask of you,” I managed.
His lordship appeared nonplussed. “Anything, Jun,” he replied instantly. “You know I am happy to be of help to any of the residents of Garden Place.” His expression was so open and his tone so pleasant that I could not ask him. While I realize how perverse this must sound, I am sure many readers must have experienced something similar—somehow, knowing how quickly he would agree prevented me from asking him.
I changed course, “It is not for a resident of Garden Place, but I think you could be of great help to Sakurai. He is in a dilemma of his own creation at the moment, and he begs me to ask whether you would mind lending your assistance.”
The transformation of his lordship’s countenance was something to behold; he looked ill but grimly determined. “Of course, Jun. Please tell him that I will do everything in my power to help him through any difficulty.”
“He will be very glad to hear it,” I replied dully; but if I seemed out of sorts, Lord Toma no longer noticed—he appeared deeply absorbed in some internal debate.
I was leaving him at the door when his lordship gave a sudden cry, “Ah, Jun! This news of Sakurai put everything else out of my head—Aiba has a book on the common squirrel that he insists upon my reading so that we might compare notes. I’ll just run up to the great room for it.” And his lordship ran lightly up the stairs.
I was headed slowly back to my examination room when I heard a tremendous thud and then a shout from the room upstairs; it occurred to me only then that Sakurai might still be in the house, sleeping half-naked upon our sofa.
I believe I took the trouble of the stairs for the amusement rather than to be of any real assistance in the unfolding drama, and I was not disappointed; Sakurai, lying upon the floor with his hair sticking in a thousand directions, pillow marks upon his face, and a too-small pair of pajama bottoms that I vaguely recognized as Nino’s was not a sight to be missed. Particularly as he appeared beside himself at having been discovered by Lord Toma.
His lordship seemed to be doing his best to muddle through the situation calmly, but I was astonished by his behavior; if he had discovered any of the rest of us in such a state, he surely would have laughed, thrown a cushion at our heads, grabbed the book, and continued on his way. But he seemed unable to move, simply staring at Sakurai before actually taking off his overcoat and passing it to him so that he might cover himself. “Believe me, sir, I had no idea that I would be interrupting your rest…”
“No, your lordship, the fault is all mine, please do not believe I make a habit of…” Sakurai appeared uncertain how to continue, “falling off other peoples’ sofas?” he finally suggested, looking puzzled
Sakurai was getting better and better all the time; I was starting to grow positively fond of the man.
So I took pity on him. “Your book,” I prompted, picking up the fateful object from the mantelpiece and handing it to his lordship.
His lordship looked at me strangely before looking down at the book in his hands, “Oh, yes, right. Thank you, Jun.” He suddenly turned back towards Sakurai, “And thank you, sir,” he mumbled quietly, before turning away and striding rapidly out of the room.
Sakurai watched his departure in open-mouthed surprise; it was only when the door slammed that realization dawned. “He forgot his coat. Why would he forget his coat? In winter...” he muttered quietly to himself, forgetting my presence in the room entirely.
Seeing that nothing sensible had passed between the two men, I wrote a letter to Toma explaining the circumstances of Sakurai’s trouble (I tried to narrate the accident as fairly as possible) and arranging a meeting between the two men. I just made the first afternoon post.
I then changed course again, dreading my destination but forcing my steps forward through the ice and slush upon the streets. If I had been unable to request a loan of ten thousand pounds from Lord Toma, then there was only one other possible resource left to me. One that I dreaded perhaps even more than his lordship. But I had rendered this lady a material service in the past, giving me at least some small claim upon her favor.
As usual, I heard the residents of St. Giles Home for Ladies long before I saw them. Standing on the doorstep, I listened as my knock set off a general explosion of shrieks and bangs inside, as though the entire crowd were throwing themselves down the staircase all at once
The door opened, however, to reveal only the serenely calm demeanor of Miss Horikita Maki. The loyal reader may remember this young lady as Sakurai’s maid; after the deportation of her sister to Australia, she (strangely) found solace only in the company of Lady Riisa and Madame Becky, and she had moved to join in their charitable experiment in St. Giles. I knew Sakurai had been very sorry to see her go, but he had agreed that it might be her only chance to recover from her grief and (as she phrased it) “make amends” for her sister’s actions. Miss Maki acted as general housekeeper, perpetually unperturbed by all that surrounded her.
For example: I saw not a single young female face, yet my quietly spoken wish to meet with Lady Riisa occasioned an ear-splitting series of excited shrieks. As Miss Maki led me to Lady Riisa’s private parlor, I caught glimpses of eyes peering at me from cracks in the doors, accompanied by hysterical bursts of laughter. I have committed many wrongs in my life, and I think I do my penance here—I challenge any physician to take on the task of acting as personal physician to some fifty women and girls without developing a certain reflexive annoyance at the sound of feminine giggling
The ladies and children were those with no families to care for them or no place to go but to the brothel or the workhouse; they came mainly from the neighborhood and surrounding London districts. Many of them had been prostitutes; almost all of them would have been (including the youngest teenage girls) if not for board and education at the GHL (as it was popularly known in the neighborhood). I think the name must have been Madame Becky’s private joke—none of the women would have been considered “ladies” by anyone but her and Lady Riisa.
While the other girls contented themselves with peering at me from behind doors and sofas, Umi was soon underfoot. She was a small girl—five, I estimate, her mother had not been certain—who seemed to have formed a strong attachment to myself and Aiba. To write honestly, her presence pained me—I had presided over the death of her mother, an extraordinarily painful one from syphilis. Umi reminded me of those terrible hours. And I was never certain of how to converse with the girl, as I could not understand a word she said. She seemed to speak in a strange, mumbled language all her own. Aiba was much more effective in communicating with her; he caught the drift of her conversation, somehow, and taught her games and even a few words when he visited. Amidst her babble today I discerned “Aiba” spoken a few times. “He’s not with me today, Umi,” I answered, trying to shake her off my leg as gently as I could.
It was no use; I simply entered Lady Riisa’s parlour with the girl attached to my leg like a barnacle. I was only happy that today she had chosen the good leg.
Lady Riisa’s philanthropic ventures with Madame Becky had, I thought, made her a good deal happier, but her new life had also given free rein to all her eccentricities. Reader, you must believe me when I write that she was wearing bloomers, an India shawl, and a turban when I entered the room.
She gave me a bright smile (even after our long acquaintance, I still felt a slight shiver at her uncanny resemblance to her brother; I never quite got over my first impression that she was Nino in a wig) and gestured for me to take a seat. I carefully peeled off Umi (who was still babbling), opened my bag and gave her a stethoscope and tongue depressor to play with, uncertain what else to offer her in the way of amusement.
We exchanged greetings as Lady Riisa set out the tea things. “Now doctor,” she began as she settled herself back into her chair, “From the thunderous cast of your eyebrows and your relative lack of complaints as to the noise level of the premises, I take it that this is not a mere social visit?”
“No, your ladyship.”
Her ladyship poured me a cup before pouring herself one and settling back into her chair, “Well, then you had better tell me all about it,” she commanded, the feathers in her turban swaying slightly as she spoke.
“About what, your ladyship?”
“About what sort of trouble Masaki has embroiled you in this time.”
Lady Riisa leaned over to pour herself another cup. “If you want so very much, then I had better call in Rebecca to consult about it,” she determined, reaching for the bell beside her. I stifled a groan. I should have known that I could not escape Madame Becky’s scrutiny so easily.
After the ringing of the bell, there were light footsteps, and then Madame Becky banged into the room (I rather blame her for the general state of chaos that prevails at GHL). “Doctor!” she cried, extending her hand so that I might kiss it, her green eyes laughing at me already, “how delightful to see you!” She cast her eyes over my person, “Handsome as ever, but today you look as though you’ve eaten something off.”
“You had better sit down for this, Rebecca,” Lady Riisa interrupted. Madame Becky seated herself, taking her ladyship’s hand into her own. “The doctor would like me to lend him ten thousand pounds. So that he can buy a sick monkey from the London zoo.”
“His name is Horatio,” I gritted out.
Madame Becky observed me shrewdly, “Aiba’s Horatio?”
“Yes,” I swallowed, struggling to keep the hauteur from my voice. I was, after all, the supplicant in the room, “And I would pay your ladyship back, of course. At a fair rate of interest.”
“Doctor, are you aware of what ten thousand pounds means at GHL?” Madame Becky interrogated me, “Ten thousand pounds is another building. Ten thousand pounds is thirty more ladies. Three more teachers. Two years supply of basic medicine.”
I bowed, “I understand that, Madame. I did inform her ladyship that it was a personal favor. I have no other possible justification to offer than the prospect of Aiba’s happiness and peace of mind when he knows that all that could be done for Horatio was done.”
“Then I shall do it!” cried Lady Riisa, looking thoroughly persuaded by my words
I was startled by the sudden agreement; so was Madame Becky, as she turned to her ladyship with a frown and gave what looked like a rather hard squeeze to her hand, “Riisa! That is not the way to do it!”
Lady Riisa rolled her eyes (again, the resemblance to her brother was exquisite), “Oh, pet, you can’t possibly tell me that you would deny him. It’s for Aiba! And your beloved doctor!”
“Of course we’ll give him the money, but we have to turn the situation to our advantage before giving our agreement,” Madame Becky hissed pleasantly (if the reader thinks my turn of phrase strange, I do agree—it was a unique ability of the lady’s to hiss at one very agreeably with her eyes shining beautifully all the while).
Lady Riisa seemed to contemplate the matter for only a moment before a rather dangerous smile began to spread across her countenance. The two ladies faced each other, clutching their hands together excitedly and flushing.
“Christmas Eve?” her ladyship asked eagerly, as though referring to something the two had discussed previously.
“Christmas Eve,” Madame Becky nodded. The two ladies turned back to me, “Umi, Miss Maki just took some cookies from the oven, run along to the kitchen and have some,” Madame Becky ordered
I felt oddly betrayed to see the tiny girl instantly drop my stethoscope and run from the room—I had begun to feel as though she were the only defender standing between me and a pair of very beautiful fire-breathing dragons.
“You see, Jun,” Madame Becky continued, “we strive to be quite self-sufficient at the Ladies Home. But there are certain matters,” Madame Becky paused to lick her lips, and the two ladies began leaning towards me in unison, “where we simply cannot make do ourselves. Matters that we need a…gentleman…like you to assist us in.”
I silently cursed Nino. I would have been safer in the monkey’s cage.
“Choir director?” I spluttered, “You wish me to act as choir director for the Christmas pageant?”
Lady Riisa nodded her head eagerly while Madame Becky smiled like the Cheshire cat. “Yes, doctor,” her ladyship continued, “The girls are simply wild to have you direct, and I can think of no one more suitable. Dressed in evening wear, you will do excellently on the stage. We’ll be able to sell twice as many tickets!”
“But I’m not a conductor! Or a choir member!”
Madame Becky seemed to anticipate my objections, “But you are musical, are you not doctor? Aiba says you spend simply hours listening to your records, and he’s even seen you conducting along to them!”
I felt myself flush, “I think that regardless of whatever nonsensical ideas you have got into your heads, the two of you still have enough sense to acknowledge that listening to classical music is quite different from leading a giggling group of young girls through Christmas carols.”
Madame Becky gave an exquisitely indifferent shrug of her shoulders, “Yes, and I should imagine that the directing will be much the simpler of the two pursuits. As you say, it is only standing up to lead a bunch of silly girls through some Christmas carols. I’m sure they would do fine without direction, but you must think of the performance—we need someone to cut a dashing figure, both to impress the audience and the girls.”
I was at a loss. Myself, cutting a dashing figure? “You know how it pains me to recur to the subject, but I think you ladies may have forgotten,” I gestured helplessly towards my leg.
The two ladies looked thoroughly unimpressed. I tried a new tactic, “Then why cannot one of you…you both cut dramatic figures enough…”
“Yes, but Riisa’s running the lighting and I’ll be in the fairy pageant. The audience will be sick of me by then,” Madame Becky answered impatiently, as though my reasonable objections hardly merited a response. She leant forward again, taking my hand in her own pleadingly, “Jun, the young ladies have actually asked for you to be part of the pageant. They know you. They trust you. They would be excited to have you for a director. They would be happy.”
Her ladyship placed a hand on my shoulder and opened her eyes unnaturally wide, “Surely, doctor, as a gentleman, you could not refuse these poor, helpless young females a little Christmas joy.”
Ten thousand pounds for one night in a Christmas pageant. I disentangled myself from the two ladies, falling back into my chair with a groan and throwing a hand over my eyes. The two ladies began clapping and chattering away happily, obviously recognizing their victory. After a few moments, I let my arm fall to my side, “And for this you would loan me ten thousand pounds?”
Madame Becky’s eyes sparkled, “Could we have convinced you for a pound less?”
She had a point. The Christmas pageant was a matter of disagreement between the two of us. One does not fight with a lady, but we had entered into a rather heated discussion on the topic before agreeing to drop the subject permanently for our friendship’s sake. The two ladies planned the pageant as a tremendous fundraiser for the GHL; society’s wealthy would have an opportunity to purchase absurdly priced tickets and see the show starring not only the famous Madame Becky of The Circus but her “charity girls.” Madame Becky stressed how much profit it might bring to the GHL; I believed that the plan amounted to parading the unfortunate in order to satisfy the prurient curiosity of the idle rich.
And then there was the matter of my voice. Because I anticipate very few readers for this story, I will make this confession: I do like to sing. But I speak advisedly when I say that I cannot carry a tune. The only person to hear me sing in the course of the last eight years was the detective (and perhaps, on occasion, Holmes and Watson).
And now I was charged with the musical education of thirty girls.
Lady Riisa was handing me a rehearsal time-table; I nearly snatched it from her hand in my haste to leave the premises. I heard soft footsteps behind me as I strode towards the front door; I suspected that Umi might be running along behind me. But I did not turn around to confirm my guess.
I spent several hours visiting patients in the neighborhood, returning to Garden Place as darkness fell and the street lamps began to glow—it has been a year since they were installed, but I still feel startled by the sudden appearance of their light every evening.
I returned to Garden Place unsure of my day’s success; I felt a great relief at being so near having the ten thousand in hand, yet also vaguely fearful that something might occur to prevent the loan (what that occurrence might be, I did not know, but I did feel a strange anxiety as to what might happen when Lady Riisa heard me sing). All I was certain of was my desire to see the detective.
I was not disappointed; Aiba was seated in his chair before the fire. Ohno occupied the sofa, darning socks, while Nino sat on the floor below him holding his ball of yarn. To my surprise, Sakurai occupied my usual seat across from Aiba. Usually, I would have resented his intrusion, but after this morning’s theatrics, I could not help feeling a genuine interest in the fate of the MP. After receiving Aiba’s warm greeting (and his apologetic glance in the direction of my chair), I took a seat beside the valet.
Sakurai appeared downcast as he stared into the fire, and the room was curiously silent; I guessed that his day had not been a successful one. I inquired as Aiba passed me a cup of tea, “How was your meeting with the journalist? Were you able to convince her of the mistake?”
Nino smirked while Sakurai’s complexion grew ashen; Aiba looked prepared to intervene, but Sakurai answered me in a low voice, “Not exactly, doctor. I’m afraid her face made rather violent contact with the receiver of a telephone. One that I was holding at the time.”
This was a new development. “Good god, man!” I could not help exclaiming while Nino snickered quietly beside me. “What rotten luck,” I amended more gently.
Sakurai’s eyes held something like gratitude in them as they met mine; it made me highly uncomfortable. “Yes,” Sakurai continued, “but I brought it upon myself. I changed our meeting place, and I telephoned Lord Toma to beg that he would not trouble himself over the matter. The young lady startled me in the middle of the call, and I’m afraid I nearly jerked the device off the wall in my surprise,” he sighed.
I found Sakurai’s manner strangely…calm. The night before, he had been almost hysterical at the prospect of dismissal from his office, but now he seemed only vaguely perplexed by the day’s events. Distracted, perhaps.
“Do you…have you formulated another plan with his lordship?”
Sakurai leant forward to stir the fire, his complexion flushed, “I have agreed to let him take care of the matter; he will meet with her tomorrow in hopes that he can reason with her. We have agreed that I may be more of a liability than a help at the meeting,” he winced
Sakurai set the poker to the side quite suddenly and stood up, seizing his coat, “I am sorry to leave so abruptly, gentlemen, but I think I must be ill this evening. Thank you for your hospitality,” he murmured, and he was out the door before any of us could respond.
Aiba stood and began beating the cushions of my chair back into their original shape; with a word of thanks, I reassumed my chair, curious as to Aiba’s lack of surprise at Sakurai’s abrupt departure. Nino and Ohno appeared equally unconcerned. “Do you think he can be in his right mind?” I finally wondered.
Aiba gave me a small smile, “I think he must be in love.”
“With Lord Toma?” I cried. To write the truth, it was difficult for me to imagine Sakurai in love with anyone but Aiba; I did spend so much of my time jealously guarding the detective against what I imagined to be the MP’s advances. But, I reflected, it was understandable that someone might love a gentleman as kind and charming as Lord Toma. If, that is, one were willing to look past his infuriating pranks.
“Yes,” Aiba replied thoughtfully, “Though I doubt he realizes it himself.”
Nino snorted, “Highly doubtful. He had a reputation for being clever at school, but he is one of the slowest men I have ever encountered. He might just begin to puzzle it out for himself by next Christmas.” There was a note of fondness in Nino’s voice as he spoke of Sakurai that I had never head there before—I suddenly remembered what close friends they had been before Sakurai’s betrayal. And now they would be that close again, I realized.
“Then you think the case hopeless?” I was rather alarmed to feel an actual twinge of concern at the mental picture of a lonely, lovelorn Sho wandering sadly through the streets of London
“I know Sho to have refused Toma once before,” Nino revealed bluntly, “And there are few members of the peerage who would lower themselves to the extent of asking a man twice.” Nino spoke in that flippant tone of voice whose sincerity I am still, even after a year’s acquaintance, uncertain of—he might have been in deadly earnest or merely joking.
There was a sound of rustling paper, “Precisely why the situation demands the kind intervention of his friends, old boy,” Aiba declared.
“Aiba…” I began in a warning tone, but the detective had obviously prepared himself for my displeasure; he immediately launched into a reading of the this week’s installment of “Taka’s Tales of Terror.”
The detective’s low, breathy voice sounded particularly beautiful when he read aloud; his expression was rich and varied, and I think it gave Nino real pleasure to hear his words delivered in Aiba’s warm tones. I do not think he would have allowed us our tradition of reading his serial aloud every week otherwise—I had once attempted it only to have the paper snatched from my hands by Nino. I closed my eyes to better enjoy the rise and fall of the detective’s voice as he read; Nino’s sounds of derision and (occasionally) of satisfaction created an intermittent background to the detective’s delivery. Ohno contributed the occasional sniffle.
The tale came to an end; we left Taka standing above the well that almost certainly hid the body of his long-lost sister. I opened my eyes; Ohno had finished his darning and taken up some mending while Nino had moved to stretch himself in front of the fire; Holmes climbed atop him. From the tense set of his shoulders, I knew he waited anxiously for our opinions
“Good,” I pronounced. “Very good. The detail of the stained dress is chilling.”
“Excellently done, Nino,” Aiba concurred, “I think it is even more terrible than usual—I think London will hardly be able to sleep tonight after reading of such a grotesque act of villainy!”
Nino allowed himself a small smile at Aiba’s words, but his brow was pained; I knew he waited for Ohno’s thoughts upon the story. And, as occurred every week, Ohno said nothing. The valet silently continued mending.
Nino sat up suddenly, looking furious and ripping the paper from Aiba’s hands. Holmes protested his change in position with a loud yowl. Over the detective’s and Holmes’ protests, Nino threw the paper into the fire, “It is trash,” he spoke bitterly, “Nothing but trash.” Nino sat glowering in the direction of the fire, drawing his legs into himself and wrapping his arms tightly about them; I had the impression of a small explosive about to go off.
Aiba and I exchanged a look of despair; neither of us could understand why Ohno never offered his thoughts on the work, especially when he must know how his silence pained Nino—at this point, I believe Nino would have welcomed an insult, if only to finally know his opinion.
It was Aiba who finally broke the silence, “Do you…like writing, Nino?”
Nino’s scowl deepened. “What do you mean, like writing?”
“I mean, do you take any pleasure in it? Does it make you happy?”
“I like having food to eat. I take pleasure in having a roof over my head. Does that satisfy you?” he replied sharply. Aiba said nothing. Gradually, Nino’s expression softened, and he continued quietly, “The writing itself is a nightmare. I even dream about deadlines, now. And sometimes I think the fingers of my right hand will snap in half. But…when I am finished…I do feel some satisfaction. And the plots. I like the plots. Now there are so many in my head…” Nino seemed to be speaking to himself now; it was rare to see him so unguarded.
“What would you write, if you could write anything? Anything in the world?” Ohno startled me by inquiring softly.
Nino sent the valet a hard look from his position on the floor, but I could see that he was beginning to unwind, his anger slowly dissipating, “I…have an idea. For a longer story. But Ogura is not interested.” We all waited quietly; we were holding our collective breath, I think. “It is a story about…about people who die before they’re meant to.” Nino’s voice was now almost inaudible, “For example, someone might die while performing some good action for someone else.” I exchanged a glance with Aiba. “But then they might have a chance to live again—only, they must obey the will of a black orb that they encounter in a place between our world and the afterlife. It orders them to murder other life forms, creatures that we cannot even imagine. And they must choose whether they want to return, and at what price. And who they want to return to.”
I was baffled; Aiba and Ohno, however, appear entranced. “That is wonderful,” Aiba breathed, “Can you not write it? Will Ogura really not take it? Can you put it in the Tales, perhaps as a dream of Taka’s?”
Nino was smiling now, but he shook his head ruefully, “Believe me, Aiba, I have tried to convince him. But he declares it too close to science fiction. What the London reader apparently wants, at the moment, is adultery and the subsequent murder of the illegitimate partners. No market for such hard to follow nonsense, he says.”
Aiba’s reply was immediate, “When I have my salary, Nino, you can write it. You’ll be able to take even a year, then—you only have to wait until January,” the detective spoke in a kind voice, as though pointing out something obvious to a small child.
Nino was annoyed, “Aiba, I can’t simply…”
“But you can,” Aiba seemed confused by Nino’s refusal, “Why would you not? What have I done but live off your writing for the past year? You are a writer now—you must take the opportunity to tell your story,” the detective urged warmly.
Nino turned his face away from Aiba, but from my position, I could see that he was moved to tears; in another moment, he stood and fled the room, followed instantly by Ohno, who (much to Holmes’ delight) dropped his mending on the floor in his haste to follow him.
I shook my head, “He might at least have said thank you.” But I was grinning, too; both of us knew how much the offer meant to Nino.
“My only fear,” Aiba replied, growing solemn, “is that he will accuse me of placing him further in my debt, when I would have no thought of debt between us—I do not want him to think that I hold some mental tally of services rendered, or that he must hold one himself."
I knew the detective was deeply troubled by Nino’s repeated declarations that he must “repay” him for saving his life the previous winter. “I think he forgets when I first arrived at school,” Aiba continued, “I could barely bring myself to speak, but it hardly mattered; no one cared to speak to the son of a cook. Except for him. He asked me to play cricket, and I suddenly found that I could speak.”
“Do not let it trouble you. It is only because he loves you,” I replied quietly, “He expresses his love by wanting to give you what he can.”
I regretted my remarks the moment they left my lips; the detective’s eyes began to well with tears of emotion. “Jun…” he choked out brokenly before fumbling for a handkerchief.
I passed him my own (I had grown quite practiced at pulling it from my jacket pocket in the course of the past year), then cast about for a way to distract him as he wept, finally settling on the piece of news most sure to interest him. “I’ve been appointed choir director for the GHL Christmas pageant!” I offered desperately.
The effect was instantaneous; Aiba choked on a sob and raised his face from my handkerchief, “Truly, Jun? You have…really accepted the task?” he asked cautiously, as though uncertain whether he had heard correctly.
“Yes. I’m afraid that her ladyship and Madame Becky made me an offer that I could not refuse.”
What happened next quite literally knocked the wind out of me; I found myself seized by the detective in a crushing embrace. “Jun,” he murmured in my ear, “I am so, so glad. I knew you would be wonderful, but I never thought you would actually accept.”
I tugged on the detective’s jacket to indicate that stars were beginning to swirl in my vision. Aiba loosened his hold, moving back to kneel down before my chair and gaze up at me. He examined me so intently that I began to feel oddly shy and wish to turn away; then he smiled, “You’ve changed somehow, Jun,” he said, “You are…more open then you used to be.” The detective smiled that particular blinding smile that always so completely undid me, “The girls will be so happy that you’ve agreed. And you’ll have a chance to spend more time with Umi. I cannot wait to see you on stage.”
I felt distinctly uncomfortable under this barrage of amazement and well wishes; what would Aiba think if he knew that nothing less than ten thousand pounds could have persuaded me? I did not like to take credit when I had not earned it.
But it was for Horatio. It was for Aiba. Ten thousand pounds and Aiba’s admiration, all for one night before an audience. It was beginning to feel like a Christmas miracle. Suppressing my anxieties, I took the detective in my arms and whispered, “Thank you.”
“What are you thanking me for, dear fellow?” he wondered. I put an end to all further inquiry with a kiss.
We were retiring for the night when Ohno materialized beside our door; Aiba had just entered the room and I was following him when I felt a light tap upon my shoulder. I nearly jumped out of my skin. “Ohno,” I gritted out, “Have we not already agreed that we would use our voices when we would like one another’s attention?”
The valet’s reply was nearly inaudible, “I have a private matter I must discuss with you, sir. Something Mr. Aiba cannot be a party to.”
Aiba poked his head through the door, “Jun?”
I was torn; if the reader will understand me, I had a most pressing need of Aiba’s company at that moment, but the valet did appear somewhat distraught—the corners of his mouth were turning down, and his eyes were melancholy. “Just a moment, Aiba, I forgot that I must speak to Ohno about…housekeeping,” the lie fell lamely from my lips; I realized what very little practice I had in deceiving Aiba. But I was fortunate in having such a trusting victim; the detective simply wished Ohno good night and disappeared into our bedroom.
I followed Ohno’s lead, expecting to be taken to the kitchen for a tête-à-tête over tea; I was amazed to find myself before the door to Ohno’s studio. I wondered whether we should enter; I had not once, in my entire residence at Garden Place, received the privilege of being invited into that room. I was of course intensely curious as to its contents, but I felt that I must respect the artist’s wishes when it came to his work.
Ohno placed a hand on the doorknob and, staring at it intently, began speaking more and faster than I had ever know him to, “Forgive me, sir. But I cannot sleep without first speaking to you. I discouraged Kazu from selling his story to the newspapers, but he insisted that it would be worthwhile if it assisted Mr. Aiba. I selfishly cared more for our privacy and his lordship’s reputation. But after hearing Mr. Aiba’s offer to Kazu this evening, I can never rest until I make an offer myself.”
“An offer?” I repeated, unable to imagine what sort of proposal he had in mind—was Ohno really, as I had often suspected, secretly a Russian prince? “Is…Nino aware of this plan?”
Ohno raised his eyes to meet mine, “He has given his permission, sir. But he would rather not be here when I reveal it.”
I was growing alarmed, “Ohno, this suspense is torture. Please, whatever it is, let me know quickly.”
The valet sighed, “I have some…paintings, sir. Paintings that might fetch a far higher price than all the rest of my work combined. But I had not planned on selling them.”
I began to doubt; while I sincerely appreciated the artist’s good intentions, I was wondering how to delicately raise the issue of the general unpopularity of Ohno’s work. From what I had seen of it, he was either crafting the most enormous and impractical works of wood, steel, and clay, or he was painting everyday objects into the most curious and unfathomable geometric patterns.
Ohno sensed my hesitation, “I will show you, sir,” he declared quietly, swinging open the studio door.
I stepped inside. The room was admirably suited for its purpose, with a slanted ceiling and large skylight, as well as a long row of windows along one of the walls. I breathed in the mingled scents of clay dust, oil paints, and canvas, as well as the more pungent scents of turpentine and wood smoke. Nearly every inch of the walls was covered in paintings and tapestries while a larger canvas with an unfinished work stood in the center beneath the skylight. The floor was littered with supplies, sketch books, and what appeared to be strange steel contraptions and clay figurines marching along the walls.
But reader, I noticed none of these details until later in our meeting; when I first glanced around this long forbidden room, all I saw was Nino: Nino standing in his suit; Nino lying nude upon a bed, crossed with rays of sunlight; Nino eating at our kitchen table; Nino crouching before the bath; Nino undressing; Nino dressing; the eyes and nose of Nino’s face entirely filling one enormous canvas.
I was stunned. Even more so because the work was, as I spoke out unconsciously, “Beautiful.”
“Pardon me, sir?”
“Beautiful. Ohno,” I breathed in quiet amazement, “these paintings are…beautiful. I have never seen you paint something so affecting.” To my astonishment, the style of these works was quite different from Ohno’s usual gray geometry; they were done in bright, thick chalks and paints and even something that looked like jewels, the surfaces glittering with thick color and peaks of light. I felt as though I might reach out and touch Nino’s hair. “You…seem to have changed your style…?”
Ohno was silent for a few minutes. “I do not exactly have a style, sir. I try to work in the style that the subject seems to call for. I never thought to sell these, or even to show them. But if this is a chance to help you rescue Horatio for Mr. Aiba, sir, then I will sell them.” I knew Ohno was in pain; he unconsciously raised a hand to his chest as he continued, “If the resemblance to Kazu is realized, as I think it is likely to be, sir, then they may be worth hundreds.”
I shook my head, “Forgive me, Ohno. I should have informed you earlier, but I was so startled by your proposal that I did not think to tell you—I will have the ten thousand pounds. There is no need to sell your work. Please forgive me if I have violated your privacy without good cause.”
“You have ten thousand pounds, sir?” the valet inquired doubtfully.
“More precisely, Lady Rissa has ten thousand pounds, which she agreed to loan me on condition of my participation in the GHL’s blasted Christmas pageant.”
It was as if all the tension drained at once from the artist’s figure; Ohno seemed almost limp as he replied with a quirk of his lips, “Thank your, sir. Thank you for asking that excellent lady.”
I shook my head, “Thank you for your offer. I know what it must have cost you to make it.” I moved toward the door, sensing that Ohno would not wish me to remain in his studio long
But I felt I must say something before we parted, “Ohno…”
“I am not an artist, but I think these paintings are very beautiful. If you do not think me impertinent for saying so…”
“Please go on, sir.”
“I wonder if you could not try to paint other places or objects in the same style. If you could even paint a piece of bread, or an apple, with as much love as you have painted Nino, the viewer would be completely seduced.”
Ohno smiled, “I will do my best to imagine that a loaf of bread is Lord Kazunari, sir.”
I laughed, “See that you do. I will follow your future career with interest.”
I made my way back to our bedroom, musing along the way on the rather unsettling fact that, even after giving up his entire fortune and position in society, Nino remained by far Garden Place’s most valuable asset.
Choir practice was worse than I could have imagined. For all Aiba's reassurance that I had a beautifully "human" singing voice, I shall never forget the turn of Madame Becky’s countenance when she first heard me sing. And while it was heart-warming that the young ladies responded with such gladness to my appointment, I despaired of ever forming them into a disciplined choir; the task was truly akin to herding cats, and my own knowledge of conducting was sorely lacking. And I believe the girls must have regretted their choice within days; it was only after two girls broke down in tears that I finally learned how to regulate my eyebrows and voice when telling twelve year olds that they were off pitch. I did not mean to be cruel, but, as Lady Riisa took care to angrily inform me, my eyebrows apparently made me too fearsome to bear at times.
Most troublingly, I was soon involved in every aspect of the pageant. Watching practice for the fairy play, I offered some suggestions for the lighting; soon I was convincing Ohno to run a magic lantern show in the background. Madame Becky began consulting me on the costuming, and Lady Riisa and I ended in rewriting the entire musical programme. I ordered additional choir rehearsals, all the while wondering what madness had come over me to make me throw myself into the preparations with such determination if not pleasure—I only knew that I could not bear the performance to be anything less than excellent
But the addition of the rehearsals to my usual schedule meant that I spent much less time at Garden Place
My only comfort, oddly enough, was Umi. I was surprised to learn that she wished to be in the choir (that is, Aiba informed me that she would like to be, I have no idea how he learned it from her), and I was more surprised to find that she learned and sang the words to the songs perfectly, in a very soft clear voice. Aiba told me that he had sometimes heard her singing nursery songs to herself.
“But if she can understand when we speak to her, and she is able to form the words herself,” I wondered one evening, “why do you think she persists in speaking her own incomprehensible language?”
“I do not know,” Aiba shook his head, “I have begun doing some reading on childhood speech disorders, and I consulted a professor at the college, but I have yet to come across a case like hers. Usually when experiencing some shock or grief, children fall silent rather than inventing their own language.”
“It shows how clever she is,” Nino suggested, “she’s showing us that she wishes to communicate, she’s just not ready to reveal everything.”
Aiba looked pleased by Nino’s suggestion, “Then perhaps eventually she will decide that she would like to share her thoughts with us.”
“Perhaps she is afraid,” Ohno offered quietly as he set down the tea things.
“Afraid of what?” I ventured (though secretly worried that Nino would break in with, “Your eyebrows”).
“Of what she might say, sir. Afraid to speak of the things she has seen. She might feel that never speaking of them makes them less real,” Ohno murmured.
We were all stunned into silence by the valet’s suggestion.
But if there was such pain in Umi, she hid it well; she punctually attended every rehearsal and followed all my movements and instructions carefully. I began turning towards her reflexively whenever I was at the end of my patience or tempted to reprimand some young girl—Umi’s serene countenance calmed me and reminded me to be gentle.
I grew ever more tightly wound as the performance approached, but I also felt extraordinarily glad after the first week of rehearsals had passed; on the following day, as per our agreement, Lady Riisa would present me with the check for the ten thousand pounds. In my imagination, I had already planned how I would stride commandingly into the zoo and then leave with Horatio by the hand, delighting Aiba by presenting him with his old friend and finally relieving him of the burden of his guilt, just as he had once relieved me of mine.
The day before the presentation of the check, however, proved particularly vexing. An entire trunk of costumes had gone missing; the girls were weeping because the house’s pet kitten had died in the night; Lady Riisa arrived to demand a re-arrangement of the order of the carols; and Madame Becky insisted on my being measured for a new set of formal evening wear.
If to do so would not have been so unmanly, I would have wept with relief when Aiba surprised me after rehearsal by meeting me on the doorstep of the GHL. Taking no notice of my thunderous countenance, he only smiled and, taking my arm, suggested that we take Umi out to the zoological gardens as a treat.
I was tempted to protest; it was late afternoon, and growing cold—it could not be good for Umi or Aiba to be out in such weather. But both looked at me so hopefully—Umi had appeared beside me as though possessed of psychic powers—that I assented, and soon enough I found myself crawling up trees and under bushes in search of various winter vegetation.
The detective had an extensive list of flora and fauna necessary for his current experiments (he had been granted permission to raid the garden by the Zoological Society), and he worked both Umi and myself rather hard until his specimen case was full. Several hours later, Umi and I were thoroughly exhausted, but I had also grown calmer—I could even see the ridiculous side of my agitation over a girl’s charity concert, and reflect gratefully on how very little was being asked of me in exchange for ten thousand pounds
With the sleeping Umi carried on Aiba’s back, we returned to the GHL as the afternoon light faded. Giving Umi over to the capable hands of Miss Maki, Aiba took my arm firmly in his own, and we began strolling slowly homeward.
It had been a long time since we had walked thus; it was only recently that I had begun to allow Aiba out of the house in the cold weather. I enjoyed the sensation of our sides pressed against each other and our arms tightly interlocked; I even allowed Aiba to steer me around patches of ice and slush.
We were quiet for some time, watching the night fall and the lamps begin to glow, when Aiba suddenly spoke, his breath visible in the frosty air, “If it were warmer out, we could return and make love in the gardens. But I suppose it is too cold for that now,” he glanced at me teasingly.
I was drawn up short for a moment, but I managed to resume my gait with admirable speed under the circumstances, I think. I knew I should advise that we return home. But I wanted something else, “I believe I observed a greenhouse in the park.”
Aiba was satisfyingly shocked, his mouth falling open in surprise, “Jun!” he gasped, his smile widening, “and so close to the police station?”
I smirked, “Shall we try our chances?”
While I should never claim to completely understand a character so original and inexplicable as our detective’s, it had been some months since I had been genuinely surprised by any disclosure of Aiba’s. But now I was at a loss; Aiba, incredibly, was picking the greenhouse’s padlock with his penknife.
“You can pick locks?”
“Ohno and I made quite a study of it during my detecting days,” he replied promptly, “I've had several good tips from Nino as well.”
“Are you certain you only acted as a detective? Not as a criminal?”
Now it was Aiba’s turn to smirk, “Surely, doctor, you will acknowledge that the line between detective and criminal is oftentimes a fine one? I am not very good at lock-picking, but I seem to recall a few notes on the subject of the standard padlock…” Aiba made a peculiar twist with his knife; the lock clicked and the padlock fell open. “I’m always just a hairsbreadth away from genius, as you see,” he smiled cheerfully at me, repeating the insult that Nino was particularly fond of hurling at him.
I could not help grinning foolishly in response, “I am really beginning to think that you are a genius, detective.”
“Only in your devoted presence, doctor,” Aiba breathed, pulling me inside with a kiss.
We found a particularly warm and secluded corner near a row of pineapple trees and lay down our coats, knowing we should have to brush them later. Aiba’s body was so warm that at first I feared he was running a fever, but then my anxiety faded in the haze of desire; I felt as though I wanted to consume him, or bind him to me in some even more permanent way. Afterwards, we lay staring up at the fogged glass of the ceiling.
“Even if the glass were clear, I still do not think we would see the stars,” the detective observed, “with the new streetlights, I think the stars grow even harder to see in London.” I hummed my agreement. “Perhaps when it grows warmer, we could return to Hayworth for a time.”
“And see the stars there?” Aiba nodded. “The two of us only?” I suggested. Aiba nodded again with a smile.
We were silent for a few moments, “Jun…I am sorry if I persuaded you to take part in the concert against your will—I am truly sorry if it causes you so much distress,” Aiba brought my hand apologetically to his lips.
I sighed, cradling his head in my arm, “You did not persuade me. Do not trouble yourself over it. I cannot explain myself why I feel so strongly about it…It is only that…”
I struggled to find the words; Aiba waited patiently. For a man of such energy, I have often been impressed by how still he can become when he waits for me, “I cannot bear to think that people will come and stare at them as though they were freaks. That the audience will be wondering which of the girls used to be prostitutes, or looking them up and down and thinking how poor and ignorant they are. I keep hoping that, if the concert is truly good, then people will not look at them so pityingly.”
The detective shifted his head to look at me, squeezing my hand as he did so, “I have no doubt the music will be so excellent that the audience will only have time to be impressed. And why do you think we all wanted you up there?” Aiba was smiling at me fondly, “The audience will be looking at you instead.”
I scowled. Aiba reached out a hand, caressing my brow with his thumb, “Pity is not always a bad thing, is it Jun? I mean, it is natural feeling. When you see someone who is suffering or in pain, your heart lurches, and you wish that you could do something to relieve their suffering. Is it not good to feel this way, if it inspires good actions?”
I took the detective’s hand, “For most people, Aiba, pity is the mask for their satisfying sense of their own good fortune in comparison with the poor lot of others.” I pressed the back of his hand to my lips, “But I would welcome your pity, detective. Always.”
Aiba’s eyes were wet; I moved to press my ear to his throat, “Please detective, speak your mind. I can almost feel the unspoken words catching in your throat.”
The detective laughed, “How you know me so well, Jun, is a mystery I will never solve.” His eyes grew more serious, “I do not mean to trouble you, but…”
“Trouble me, Aiba. Always without question, trouble me.”
Tears slipped from the detective’s eyes, “I saw Horatio this morning. It is so strange, dear fellow—I tell myself that he is as comfortable as he can be, but when I look into his eyes…it is just that he does seem to look back at me, as surely as Umi does. Sometimes he seems to plead with me, sometimes to forgive me. But I feel pierced through when he looks at me. I wish I had never brought him to England.”
I was quiet for a few moments, wondering whether I should tell Aiba of the ten thousand pounds and our plan. Perhaps I should have told you, then—but something checked me, and I said nothing.
“Do you think me foolish, Jun?”
I shook my head, “No. I have seen the two of you together, and I do not doubt that Horatio recognizes and loves you. And I do believe that he forgives you, Aiba.”
Aiba smiled through his tears and began kissing me softly and touching the outer edge of my ear with thumb; by the time we finally left the greenhouse, both of us were so overheated that our faces were streaked with sweat, chilling us as we made our way home.
That night, I made arrangements with Ohno to insure that Aiba would not meet me unexpectedly again, and with Nino to meet me outside the London zoo, as his position might still carry some weight in our negotiations. The appointment with the zookeeper was arranged, and the check handed to me that afternoon by Madame Becky, “Don’t spend it all in once place,” she teased.
“Forgive me Madame, but I do not recall any stipulations on my manner of spending it being part of our arrangement.”
“Very well then, doctor,” she waved me away with a smile, “see if I care what monkey business you get up to with it.”
I cannot properly express to the reader my elation as I approached the zoo that day. I felt as though, if I had seen Sakurai, I would have kissed him. Nino and I met with a hearty handshake at the gates, each telling the other to calm their exhilaration and prepare to sternly face the negotiations.
With such happiness, the blow, when it fell, fell hard. Moments into our meeting with the zookeeper, we were informed that Horatio had already been sold.
“Sold?” I choked. “But to my certain knowledge, Professor Aiba Masaki visited the chimpanzee in this very building just yesterday. You are telling me that a buyer came and conveyed the animal away between yesterday morning and this afternoon? Why was the professor not informed?”
The zookeeper looked oddly vexed, as though trying to conceal his discomfort. “Well, doctor, your lordship,” he inclined his head in Nino’s direction, “The chimpanzee has not been removed from our offices. The sale only goes into effect upon the occasion of the animal’s death.”
“Upon occasion of his death?” I repeated dumbly.
Nino appeared similarly bewildered, but he at least had wits enough to question the zookeeper, “You mean a museum or a society plans to…display his body after his death?”
“Something like that,” the zookeeper assented.
“Clarify your meaning, sir,” I commanded; I did not realize that I was trying to stand until I felt Nino’s restraining hand on my arm.
“The client in this case is a private interest. The foremost taxidermist in our empire, sir, Professor Gackt.”
I fell back into my seat.
“I’m afraid that the professor has simply outbid all other possible applicants, including the Museum of Natural History and the Zoological Society. He called last evening to offer fifty thousand pounds for the body.”
My mouth was dry. I looked toward Nino, who had turned paper white. “A taxidermist?” I repeated stupidly.
Nino swallowed before croaking out, “It’s not just that, Jun. I…I know that professor. I mean, we have never met, but when I used to roam around St. Giles, I saw that children used to take their dead kittens to him for a shilling."
I let out a strangled noise of disgust. Nino gripped my hand convulsively as he continued to pale, “And he doesn’t just stuff the animals, Jun—he does something worse,” Nino looked on the verge of being sick, “Something unimaginably worse.”
“I discovered his…hobby,” Nino winced, “several years ago.” Nino paused in his account of Professor Gackt’s villainy to slip through a crowd of flower girls; I groaned in frustration. Nino moved like a fish through the London streets, confounding me with his ability to melt into crowds and re-emerge instantly on the other side. Even if I had no need of my walking stick, I could not have managed it.
Nino doubled-back to return to my side with an apologetic half-smile; he offered me his arm, but I flinched away from it instinctively. He gave a huff of exasperation but slowed to walk beside me.
“As I was saying,” he continued, keeping his head down and extending a hand wide to push us through the crowd, “I was in Victoria Park one evening when I saw a young boy attempting to catch a squirrel. He seemed to be up to no good, so I asked him what he did. He responded quite frankly that the “kitten house” gave only a shilling for kittens but three shillings for a squirrel, but that it was difficult to effect the capture because the animal could have no visible marks if it was to be accepted.”
I followed Nino’s footsteps as he suddenly made to cross the avenue; we were entering a more fashionable part of London, but still keeping to its outskirts and side alleys, “Of course, I was intrigued and asked what this “kitten house” was, he responded that a man took dead animals and dressed them up and showed them off to people in great glass cases.”
I made a sound of disbelief.
Nino nodded, “Naturally, I thought that the child was telling me some outrageous story of his own concoction. But several months later in St. Giles, I ran across a little girl of my acquaintance who was carrying a bundle; she asked me for candy and if I would walk with her to the kitten house, as she wanted the shilling but was frightened to go there alone. Fascinated, I followed, and then I discovered the lair of our eminent taxidermist.” A visible shudder ran through Nino’s slight frame
Another sudden turn; we entered a maze of alleys that spit us out onto a cul-de-sac of oddly stately-looking mansions bordered by greenery. A curious stone building stood at the end of the street; wrought-ironed letters spanned its gate, reading, “Mr. Gackt’s Museum of Curiosities.”
We approached the gate; I gasped at the display in the large glass window that fronted the building.
Reader, I hardly know how to describe the first sight of that man’s strange obsession; any description will sound, I think, either too fantastical to be believed, or it will fail to sufficiently convey the horrible eeriness of the arrangement. But I assure the reader that I do not exaggerate, and that, to my knowledge, the Museum of Curiosities still thrives in London today
I saw at least forty kittens, stiff and obviously masterful works of taxidermy, posed and dressed elaborately to re-enact a merry Christmas scene. Within a lovingly crafted model of a cathedral interior, kittens sat in pews and sang in the choir while holding prayer books; there was even a kitten bishop in full regalia. Above the scene, small baby chicks hung on strings, dressed and haloed to resemble angels.
The scene was of course impressive in its attention to detail and skill; but can the reader sympathize with my horror at the glassy, unseeing eyes of those dead creatures, so unnaturally posed in mimicry?
I turned to Nino in astonishment; he was observing the scene grimly. “And it was here that I first encountered Watson, doctor.”
“You cannot mean…”
“Yes. I arrived with the little girl; she crept to the service entrance where she was met by a housekeeper who would pay her for the kitten. After seeing her back home, I returned to explore the museum myself; I was mystified. But I felt my heart clench strangely at the sound of squawking from an inner room; a door had fallen ajar and revealed a green parrot. I knew it would surely meet the same fate as the others, though I could not imagine what role it was intended to play.”
I was astonished, “You actually felt…sympathy at the sound of Watson’s squawking?”
Nino sighed, “I was a much younger man then, Jun. Young and naive, without the hard-earned knowledge of the world I have now. Of course, now I should happily hand the beast over to be stuffed by anyone qualified, but back then I was sentimental about parrots. I returned later that evening disguised as a chimney sweep, and I absconded through a back window with the bird. I soon discovered how thoroughly irritating the creature was, so I took it to Aiba’s knowing he would care for it regardless.”
I shook my head, “Your character grows blacker and blacker. It is well that you have left parliament.”
Nino sent me a sharp look, “But we may soon be grateful for my criminal expertise, doctor. Come, let us investigate the current state of the museum.”
I followed Nino inside; we paid five shillings each for a ticket, distributed by an elderly woman I guessed to be the aforementioned housekeeper, particularly when she sent a look of suspicion in Nino’s direction.
I was overwhelmed by the rooms that met us, made dizzy by the profusion of cold black eyes that stared from every corner. Cats, dogs, squirrels, birds, deer, even a bear and crocodile; all had been strangely reanimated, costumed and posed to engage in some human activity. I swallowed painfully, horrified by my own speculations as to Horatio’s fate.
As if my thoughts had summoned him, the master himself appeared. Professor Gackt seemed to glide towards us from the shadows; he was a remarkably tall man, and handsome, but lean, his countenance waxen. He possessed strange, piercing light eyes; they reminded me of Madame Becky’s, but with all the warmth and good will extinguished. He licked the corner of his mouth before he spoke; I was reminded irresistibly of that creature called the vampyr. I could see Nino’s eyes running over the man, mentally casting him (I was sure) for a role in one of “Taka’s Tales of Terror.”
“What a pleasure,” he began in a silky, faintly-accented voice, “To have two gentleman visit my humble establishment. Not that we do not have our eminent visitors—many taxidermists from the continent, I can assure you, make a pilgrimage here—but I am afraid the London crowd tends to be rather juvenile. And not exactly of the right class, you know. But I think you two gentlemen must be capable of appreciating fully the aesthetic merits of my project,” he smiled.
A chill ran through me; I could not respond. Luckily, Nino’s good sense and superb acting rescued us. Nino smiled winningly, “Even in London, the name of Professor Gackt and his accomplishments are well-known, I assure you. The results of your work are simply…” there was only the slightest pause, “…breathtaking,” Nino finished.
“Thank you, Lord Kazunari,” the professor responded with a slight bow, “I highly value your opinion.”
I paled; Nino, if he was astonished at being recognized, concealed it. “May I ask,” he continued, strolling casually about an exhibit of birds out for a Sunday picnic, “whether any new exhibits have been planned?”
“Ah, your lordship has anticipated me. I have only recently made an excellent acquisition to my collection—that ape that has caused such a sensation at the London zoo. It is a great prize for the museum, I can assure you. Perhaps you, Doctor Matsumoto,” he turned towards me with a slight bow, “would be so good as to consider yourself and your…companion…Professor Aiba as invited to the opening?” he smirked.
It took all my discipline to resist the impulse to turn to Nino in my shock; I could not allow the professor to see that he had rattled me. The man was obviously insane, having thoroughly researched the life and society of his latest acquisition’s former owner. “I shall let him know of the invitation, sir,” I managed to reply coolly, “though I wonder if you ever consider…” I felt Nino’s warning hand upon my shoulder, “…whether it is entirely right to display innocent creatures in this way, in order to achieve a perverse form of amusement?”
The professor’s eyes narrowed, “Amusement?” he hissed, “I’m afraid you are mistaken doctor. These exhibits are a profound celebration of the mastery of man over the animal kingdom. Tell your professor that the ape will be given a place of pre-eminence; I shall have him representing the savage tribes of Africa. The headdress has already been prepared.”
I was shaking with rage; I felt my hands curling into fists when Nino began to tug upon my shoulder, “I’m afraid we must be going, professor,” he way saying firmly. “Jun,” he pleaded. I remained. “Jun!” he nearly shouted.
“Good day, sir,” I managed. I turned and left; the image of Professor Gackt’s satisfied expression burned into my memory.
We walked in silence until we reached the park. “He knew us,” I stated the obvious. Nino “hmmmed” thoughtfully in response. “And Aiba,” I continued furiously.
“He obviously derives some pleasure in having bested Aiba, a leading zoologist, by attaining what he imagines to be Aiba’s most prized specimen.”
“He is a maniac who is going to put Horatio in a ridiculous costume for eternity.”
I stopped. “The entire place,” I declared, gritting my teeth, “is in bad taste.”
Nino stopped; we looked at each other.
Nino held out his hand, his eyes hard and serious, “So shall we prevent that from happening, doctor?”
I took his hand, “Yes. At any cost.”
I returned the check to Madame Becky the next day. She accepted it with an expression of alarm; I explained that Horatio had already been purchased.
Madame Becky surveyed me suspiciously, “You are not…planning…anything, doctor? Nothing that would land you in prison, for example?”
“You needn’t worry about the pageant,” I responded evasively, “I will still fulfill my promise to the young ladies.”
“I would not doubt it, Jun,” Madame Becky replied in a gentler tone. “And may I ask for your word that…” the lady hesitated, looking perplexed.
I raised a brow, doing my best to look as forbidding as I was usually accused of being, “What would you have me promise?”
Madame Becky shook her head with a sigh, “No, I cannot ask you to promise it, and I should wish you to break the promise afterwards in any case. Only be careful, Jun,” she fixed me with her most threatening stare, “And let me know if Lady Riisa and I might be of any help.”
“You are truly one lady in a thousand, Madame,” I said, taking her hand.
Finally, she smiled, “And I will take that as a compliment, doctor.”
It was the work of a moment to enlist Ohno into our plans; attempts at concealment would have been useless when Nino and the valet shared nearly moment and (through some form of telepathy, as I rarely saw them speak) every thought with one another. Ohno joined our ranks without hesitation, and plans for the release of Horatio from the London zoo proceeded apace.
Of course, it was extremely difficult to conceal our plotting from Aiba; we needed time to discuss and plan forced entry, bribery, conveyance—soon I glimpsed Aiba once or twice a day, if that; I could hardly remember what the detective looked like without a flash of disappointment in his eyes as I told him once again that I must leave Garden Place for another appointment, whether it was to attend to my patients, conduct a rehearsal, or discreetly purchase chloroform on the black market.
Most painful was my knowledge that Aiba was falling into an ever deeper depression over Horatio’s condition. I could not bring myself to ask Aiba whether he was aware of the sale, but the detective’s eyes were shadowed whenever he returned to the house, and if we did manage to share a bed at the same time, he turned his face away from me—I knew he was trying to conceal the signs of his grief. I wished to tell him of our plans so that he could hold onto some hope for Horatio’s release, but fear prevented me. I feared the detective’s involvement in the scheme; if he was totally ignorant of the plan, I hoped, then he could not be held responsible should it be discovered.
I was surprised by the strangeness and heaviness of those days. I felt anew the depth of my attachment to the detective; since last winter, I had never concealed something from him, and my days felt hollow and insubstantial when I did not share them with the detective. I missed him, even when he was beside me; even in such a short time, it felt as though we were becoming strangers to one another.
But I promised myself that all would be set right on Christmas; the joy then would more than compensate, I was certain, for our present pain.
I had come in around two and, finding Aiba sprawled in his chair before the fire, had carried him into the bedroom and fallen asleep beside him; I had no appointments that morning, and I thought we might have breakfast together. But I woke to emptiness beside me, and the detective was not at home. The zoo, I knew for certain (I had recently memorized its schedule by heart, as well as the number and positions of its employees and guards), was closed that morning—I could not imagine where he had gone.
When the doorbell rang, I hurried to answer it, thinking that perhaps the detective had gone for bread and milk and (as he had often done in the past) forgotten his key; my face fell when I discovered Lord Toma on the doorstep.
His lordship appeared taken aback for a moment before recovering his spirit, “What a lovely welcome, Jun! You look ready to be sick at the mere sight of my face. Just the sort of attitude one hopes for in one’s personal physician.”
I had forgotten his lordship’s examination; I knew myself to be in the wrong, but I could hardly muster even a half-hearted apology as I led him to the examination room.
I took up my stethoscope and gathered his chart together distractedly, still thinking of Aiba and bread and milk. What I found, however, startled me into wakefulness. His heart and pulse were, as ever, fine, but upon taking a proper look at his lordship, I could not help exclaiming, “You look dreadful. Have you been ill without informing me?”
His lordship appeared to have lost ten pounds in a fortnight; his skin was sallow and purple circles ringed his eyes. “Have you been experiencing any unusual symptoms?” I took up my stethoscope again, beginning the examination over with more care.
But his lordship only gave me a wry smile, shaking his head, “No. I am well. Apart from feeling generally like my someone has carved out my heart, I am well.”
I was taken aback by the rueful bitterness in his lordship’s tone. “So you feel that some emotional distress has brought on these symptoms?”
His lordship nodded, still smiling even as his eyes revealed his pain, “I’ve been having difficulty eating, doctor. And sleeping. Simple things like that seem so very tiresome to get through all of a sudden.”
I thought immediately of Sakurai. I had seen the MP only twice, and briefly each time, since his public relations disaster. The incident had, in fact, been neatly solved by Lord Toma; after an hour alone with Toma, all had been thoroughly set to rights and the woman had even been offering her own apologies to Sakurai. I had been startled by Sakurai’s lack of joy at this good news, but I had been too involved in my own schemes to spare much thought for the melancholic MP (in truth, I was not in the habit of concerning myself much with his troubles, generally leaving that task to Aiba)
But now I felt certain that Sakurai was a danger to the health of my patient.
“So I should diagnose you with lovesickness?” I suggested.
Lord Toma responded with a crooked grin, “I suppose so, doctor.”
“I should still like to test you more thoroughly, in case you are experiencing influenza in addition. And inform me immediately if new symptoms appear or you feel pain that restricts your movements. For now, I can proscribe you a sedative for your difficulty sleeping.”
Toma shook his head, “No, doctor, I have been through this illness once before. It will only take time. I am certain that it will be over soon enough.”
I wished that Sakurai might have seen Lord Toma at that moment; if he could have seen how his lordship struggled to quietly accept the bitter pain of rejection, I am sure Sakurai’s heart would have turned towards him.
“In that case, I recommend you listen to Gilbert and Sullivan as much as you can, and read Dickens every day. The Pickwick Papers, especially,” I commanded, “Anything to make you laugh. Come to the house and play pranks on Nino, if you like.”
His lordship did laugh, “Actually, doctor, I have something to request. Something I think might distract me and hasten my recovery.”
“What favor would you ask me?” I inquired with some sternness, dreading the thought that he should beg me to speak to Sakurai on his behalf.
“I want in on the scheme. I want to help you all rescue Horatio.”
My stethoscope slipped from my grasp; his lordship laughed again, “Doctor, if you are intent on executing criminal schemes, you are going to have to stop behaving so suspiciously. Aiba informed me that you were a true stoic, but I am beginning to have my doubts.”
His lordship appeared so delighted by my confusion that I was strongly tempted to kick him; I calmed myself by reflecting that I was dealing with a man who had so little sense as to be infatuated with MP Sakurai, who spilt crumbs on sofas and hit women with umbrellas and telephones. “How…” I finally began.
“I’m afraid it’s Riisa’s fault. She was informed by Madame Becky, and apparently she was rather concerned that you and her brother would bungle the thing. She thought that if I joined there would be at least two reliable men on the team.”
“Reliable?” I repeated dryly.
Toma stood, “Reliable, Jun. Believe me, one does not narrowly miss being expelled from Oxford sixteen times without picking up a few stratagems. And I know that Nino does confuse the matter, but in general a Lord does still command a good measure of wealth and influence.”
“Narrowly miss?” I glowered.
Lord Toma sighed, speaking quietly as he examined the floor, “Please, Jun. You know how well I love Aiba. And I would like to help him, and feel that I am of use to someone.”
His lordship looked up and extended his hand; with a sigh, I took it. “Happy to have you on board then, your lordship.”
His lordship grinned at me wickedly, “Lady Riisa told me that speech would work on you.”
It was only the oath I had taken as a medical professional (sadly not, in this case, my honor as a gentleman) that prevented me from throwing my stethoscope at him.
After arranging our next meeting with Ohno and Nino, I walked his lordship to the door; he was actually on the threshold when he paused and, without looking back, inquired in a low voice, his expression serious, “Jun, Sakurai is not aware of your plans, is he?”
“He is not,” I confirmed. His lordship nodded briefly and walked hurriedly away; I am not certain what answer he hoped I would give.
I attended to some patients in St. Giles, and then met Ohno at the zoological society to examine a new book on the care of exotic animals. A choir rehearsal was planned for the afternoon, and I dutifully turned my footsteps in the direction of the GHL. I found attendance, however, impossible—I could not bear to miss the opportunity of seeing Aiba if he should indeed return early to the house. It was the last day for a week in which my evening would be free; I knew Lady Riisa would be annoyed, but I sent a note down canceling practice and headed homewards instead.
A light snow had been falling all day, but as I approached Garden Place the snowfall ceased and the sky turned a clear blue; the fresh layer made the streets appear unusually clean and bright. I enjoyed it, even knowing that the freshness could not outlast the hour.
Aiba’s boots in the hall informed me that he was home; I heard steps and rustling papers above stairs. I felt that it must have been divine inspiration that led me to cancel the rehearsal, and I hurried up the stairs, pleased that I could spend the afternoon with the detective.
But a chill passed over me as I entered the great room; something felt strange—I realized that the room was far too quiet for one that contained the detective. There was no fire, and Aiba was not in his usual chair—he stood with his back to me at the desk near the window, examining some papers spread before him.
I froze, my heart leaping into my throat as I recognized the papers as our plan of the zoo’s offices, as well as a complete list of the zoo’s employees and their positions. These were papers that Ohno had assured me that he had hidden well.
Aiba was still; that he knew that I had entered the room, yet did not turn around to greet me—it stung me. The detective slowly turned around; his breathing was rapid, and I felt my chest constrict in fear. When his gaze met mine, I was stunned—I had never, even in the many times I had seen him weep, seen such an expression of hurt in his eyes. It was, I realized, the expression of one who has been betrayed.
Aiba spoke first, “Jun,” he began. His voice, flat and toneless, seemed to belong to another person. “Jun…you…” he gestured towards the papers, “You kept all this from me?”
I could not think how to excuse myself in the face of his anger. I nodded. With a choking noise, he flung the papers from him and strode across the room towards me; I almost expected that he would hit me.
Worse, he passed me by, running down the stairs and out the door.
The difficulty with Aiba running away was that I could not properly chase after him. He had left without his coat or boots, but in my hurry not to let him disappear from my sight I stupidly forgot to collect either; I only had the presence of mind to seize my own coat before pressing on with what speed I could down the street.
Aiba had already reached the end of the long avenue and was at the turn; I spotted his coatless figure easily. I wondered how I should ever find him if I lost sight of him now. But then he seemed to hesitate; to my infinite relief, he paused and looked back. It was only for a moment, and then he turned away, but he stood at the corner, waiting for my arrival.
When I was within ten paces of him, he strode rapidly forward again, stopping to wait for me at the next corner. We continued in this manner for some time until his pace fell to a leisurely stroll and I followed along only a few steps behind him; finally, he led me through the park and seated himself at a bench.
I stood before him, uncertain. He still looked furious. But, at least, not so very hurt. “You may sit, Jun,” he ordered in a clipped tone. But there was more feeling in his voice now.
I sat beside him and began to talk off my coat. “If you offer me your damn coat now, Jun, I will throw myself into a snow bank,” he growled. I left it on, wanting to strangle him. He was already shivering.
We sat in silence for some time. I waited until his breathing had evened out. “I am sorry, Aiba,” I said finally, unable to bear the silence any longer, “I know you think I should not have concealed it from you. But my motive was to protect you from any guilt.”
Aiba continued to look ahead at the children making snowmen on the lawn. It was a few moments before he replied, “But Jun, how would your respond if I attempted to use such reasoning with you? If I never told you about Horatio, for instance, because I wanted to protect you from feeling any distress. You told me that I should always burden you with my troubles, but then you refuse to burden me with yours. Even when I am their cause.”
“I know,” I gritted out in frustration, “I know, it is not fair. But with you…I…want to be the one who carries everything. You saved me and I think…” My vision was starting to blur, “I think to myself that as long as I can take care of everything, then you will not have to. And then you will be happy.”
Aiba was crying softly, but I did not dare to offer my handkerchief, “That will never work, Jun. I am happy being with you, and talking to you, and knowing about you. Have you been happy these past two weeks?”
“No, I have been miserable,” I responded honestly.
Aiba laughed; I felt able to breathe again. “I know your motives were kind ones, Jun. But I could not help being furious, I have been fearing that I was going mad these past weeks. Everyone was always disappearing without reason, and I began to think that you and Madame Becky…or you and Nino…” Aiba sniffed, “In short, I suspected everyone in your vicinity,” he finished in an embarrassed tone.
I was shocked, “How could you think that Aiba? Even for a moment? Do you think so little of me, that I would…”
Aiba turned towards me, interrupting me hastily, “No! No, Jun, I never thought you would behave in such a way…but I thought perhaps…” Aiba was mumbling, “that you preferred their company to mine. That they were cleverer, and more…And it was almost worse knowing that you would never…even if you wanted to you would be too honorable…but nothing could be worse than your feeling a sense of obligation without…” the detective looked so miserable that I felt tears sting my eyes once again.
We were in a public park, with people strolling about us. I could not embrace Aiba, so I settled for taking his hand in my own as earnestly as I could and meeting his eyes, “Never. Not even for moment. In my heart, at least,” I swallowed, feeling suddenly nervous to speak aloud what I had often privately thought, “…we are married. I mean, you do not have consider it so, but for me, it is exactly the same as if you were my wi…husband,” I amended quickly.
Aiba finally accepted my handkerchief; thankfully, for the amount of tears and mucus upon his face after my confession was incredible. I realized dimly that I was crying as well. We composed ourselves quickly, however, and Aiba grinned, “So then I can think of you as my wife, Jun?"
I moved closer to poke him in the side, “Let’s agree to alternate. We can start by changing off every fortnight."
Aiba laughed; I took the opportunity to pass him my coat. But he insisted on sharing it with me. I took his hand, past caring about the curious passerby; we had already thoroughly disgraced ourselves in public, so we might as well enjoy it.
We were quiet, our fingers interlaced tightly. This time, Aiba broke the silence, “Jun, I want you to try to believe that I really am well.” I stiffened; I was almost ready to pull away my hand, but Aiba held onto it tightly. His voice was calm but determined, “I am not trying to fight with you or upset you, but please try. You treat me as though I were still desperately ill. But I’m not, Jun. I’m well.”
It was becoming difficult to speak again. I know your wish was well-intentioned, Aiba, but on this point only I think it is impossible that we can ever really understand each other; you cannot know what it was like last winter when I nearly lost you so many times, just as I can never know the pain you endured then.
“I will try, detective,” I finally offered.
“Thank you, doctor.” We stood to return home; I now felt uncertain as to whether I was allowed to offer Aiba my coat. Aiba must have seen my confusion because he simply took it from my hands with a smile, “I don’t mean you have to stop being a gentleman, doctor. I would never wish that,” you smiled, so beautifully that I felt as though the sun had broken through after weeks of gray weather.
“It would have been better if you had told me of your plans sooner, Jun,” the detective observed as we walked, “as I really can be of great help in the venture. Not only in the treatment of Horatio, but in determining his eventual location—I know a professor in the countryside who keeps several exotic animals. If we can only get him there, somehow, perhaps he can hold on until spring and see something green again. I will write the professor as soon as we arrive home; and then let us begin reviewing the plans for the actual theft. The most important point, I think, will be fixing the date…” The detective continued on in this fashion, and I could not help smiling, wondering how I could have been such a fool not to have sought out the detective’s able assistance.
When we finally arrived at No. 5, I took the detective’s hand and began leading him up the stairs to the great room; the detective hesitated, however, and I turned back in confusion.
“May I…” Aiba’s expression was uncertain, “…make two conditions for your forgiveness?” he finally concluded.
I was surprised, but I felt myself in no position to refuse. Still, I was not so foolish as to agree immediately, “What are the conditions?”
Aiba’s expression warmed, “First, that you assist me in my carefully thought-out and fail-proof plan to make Sho realize that he is desperately in love with Toma.”
It was not a pleasant prospect. But then, the health of my patient perhaps depended upon its success. I nodded, “As long as you don’t make me act or wear costumes or try to charm anyone.”
“You don’t have to be charming. But we will be using your invaluable acting skills. And you’ll need to handle a pistol.”
I sighed, utterly defeated. “And the second condition?”
Aiba spoke the request quietly, staring at his feet, “That you allow me to carry you up the stairs on my back.”
This, surprisingly, was the more difficult of the two requests. I had not allowed you to do this since your illness. But you were patient with me, and you waited while I thought. Finally, I agreed. Climbing onto your back, I closed my eyes and told myself to believe in your strength
As always, Aiba, you exceeded my expectations.
The next evening found me outside the great room, skulking. I was meant to be out visiting a patient; instead, I was listening to a private conversation between Aiba and Sakurai. As much as I detested this kind of skullduggery, recent events had left me in a rather delicate position in regards to the detective.
Sakurai, I understood from his voice, was now growing positively distraught, “But can you not see that this is madness? You will all end in jail. If Jun insists on this scheme, perhaps you cannot stop him, but I beg you, think better of….”
“I cannot abandon Horatio again. I already left him once. I am responsible for his fate.”
Silence. I knew Sakurai must be recalling his own role in the painful circumstances surrounding Aiba’s decision to leave the college. His voice was strained when he answered, “Believe me, Masaki, I regret Horatio’s fate as well. I know I can never feel it as you do, of course, but I fully recognize the error I committed in…”
I muttered a curse under my breath. How was I meant to interfere if Sakurai continued to behave like this?
“You do not have to apologize to me again, Sho. I forgave you long ago. I only ask that you do not interfere in…”
A sudden bang, a rattling of tea cups, and the scraping noise of a chair being pushed back as Sakurai (I imagined) got to his feet. Should I enter now? Was this enough?
“Jun encourages you to live in a dream world, Masaki. But if you are caught, as you surely will be, then there will be no help for it. Not even Lord…” an abrupt silence. I tensed. This was not the direction the interview was meant to take.
Aiba’s voice was very soft when he spoke next, “What were you going to say, Sho? His lordship…?” the detective prompted.
Sakurai’s voice was nearly inaudible, “I was going to say, if you are arrested for this, not even Lord Toma himself could intervene to save you or Jun, so you should not expect some miracle of that kind.”
Aiba’s voice was gentle, and very hopeful, “Is not the fact that you cannot even speak his name proof enough for you, Sho? Why do you torture yourself by refusing…”
Another scraping of the chair—would Sakurai storm out from the room before my entrance?
No—he was seating himself heavily in his chair. His voice was muffled when he spoke next, “There is no question of refusing him now, Masaki…it is all in the past…he would not ask me again…”
“But why did you refuse him, Sho? What was the obstacle?” the detective implored.
I allowed myself a sigh of annoyance. The obstacle was, of course, perfectly obvious.
I heard Sakurai heave a sigh of annoyance, then give out a choked sort of laugh, “Really, Masaki, the obstacle is perfectly obvious. Of course I refused him because I was in love with someone else.”
Silence. It irritated me that I could not imagine Aiba’s expression
Then Sakurai’s voice, very soft, “Because I was still in love with you, Masaki.”
This was decidedly not a part of the plan. But it seemed as good a moment as any to intervene; I was beginning to feel the necessity of bringing this interview to a speedy conclusion.
With great strides, I entered the room, and, my focus concentrated on Sakurai’s expression of astonishment, I waited until I stood directly before him to pull out my glove and rap it smartly across his face.
While I had often fantasized about committing similar acts, I must admit to the reader that the actual performance was rather terrible; the look of total shock upon Sakurai’s countenance was not satisfying, as I had expected, but instead rather sickening. I closed my eyes for a moment to recover myself. It was too difficult to look directly into Sakurai’s eyes as I breathed, “I demand satisfaction.”
This time, a teacup actually shattered as Sakurai stood up, knocking over the tea table as the color drained from his face, “You…” he looked around the room wonderingly, as though hoping Nino would pop out from behind a sofa and announce the entire thing to be a prank, “…you cannot be serious Jun…”
I caught a glimpse of Aiba in the corner of my eye; from his position behind Sakurai, he was nodding his head frantically.
Focusing on the memory of the crumbs Sakurai had recently crushed into the fabric of my sofa, I narrowed my eyes and responded coldly, “I can assure you that I am perfectly serious, sir. In my own residence, you proposition the man who is known to be my lover. You have insulted us both.”
Sakurai’s mouth was opening and closing helplessly as he stared at me with wide eyes; I believe he thought he was dreaming, “Proposition…you think I propositioned Masaki…”
It was a great relief to hear Nino and Ohno entering the room; I hardly thought I could support the scene on my own for much longer.
Sakurai had moved on to gesturing wildly, as though grasping the air for some source of help. First, he turned to the detective, “Ma…Masaki,” he stuttered, “this is surely some joke…you would never..."
“I will act as Jun’s second,” Aiba replied, his expression amazingly, even frighteningly calm. Then I noticed that the detective was close to shattering the mug he held in his hand, so tightly and convulsively was he grasping it.
“Then I shall act as Sakurai’s second,” came Nino’s clear voice.
Sakurai appeared on the verge of collapse, “Kazunari…you…you must reason with Jun!…he has gone mad…”
“I will act as the medical consultant and referee,” Ohno was murmuring quietly, approaching Sakurai to place a reassuring hand upon his trembling shoulder. “Now you’ve only to decide whether you’d prefer pistols or swords, sir” the valet suggested in an encouraging manner.
“I leave the choice up to you, of course,” I offered snidely, “though I must say I won’t think much of your spirit of fair play if you choose swords.”
Sakurai had been gaping at us all in turn; now he seemed to finally collect himself. He took a great breath, then began speaking to me carefully and slowly, as though dealing with an idiot child, “Jun…Dr. Matsumoto,” he corrected himself, “I assure you, I have no designs upon Masaki, and I intended no insult. I apologize for any offense I may have caused you,” he finished with a slight bow.
“Hyde Park. Dawn,” I returned.
Now the MP was becoming angry. I was glad—his fury was a welcome relief after the utterly lost expression he had been wearing. “Jun, this is 1890, not 1790!” he finally exploded, “No one bloody fights duels anymore! Have you taken a blow to the head?”
“Now, now,” Nino interrupted with a sympathetic look in Sakurai’s direction, “You know how military men are. Code of honour, and all that. For a soldier, it may as well be 1790 if he’s insulted.”
“But Jun isn’t a military man!” Sakurai shouted, looking ready to start smashing things from off the mantelpiece.
Sakurai was perfectly right; in fact, I had once rather angrily corrected him to say that I had served as a medical attendant and not as a soldier for the expedition to the Sudan. But now, I raised a brow, “Insulting my honor as a soldier is hardly the way to soothe me, Sakurai. I will not rest until I have satisfaction for these affronts.”
Sakurai looked at each of us with an expression of pure despair, then slowly began backing towards the door, hands up, “Mad,” he muttered, “You’re all mad.”
Nino followed him, sending us a wink on the way out, “Don’t worry, I’ll have him in the park at five,” he grinned.
With a slight bow, Ohno wandered out of the room; he was in charge of procuring the pistols. That the artist had been given this task, I reflected, was perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the whole business.
The reader may imagine the confused and iritated state of my emotions after such a scene. I had been lying motionless on our bed for some time, a pillow held tightly against my face. Holmes was rubbing himself against my feet; no matter how I pushed at him he kept returning to settle himself comfortably.
The pillow was an attempt to block the gaze of the detective, who had been lying beside me for the past half hour and, I knew, staring at me anxiously the entire time.
“That did not go very precisely according to plan,” he observed quietly.
I lowered the pillow slightly to glare in the detective’s direction. It had not—I was meant to interrupt a quarrel over Horatio. “No. I had no idea I would be required to interrupt such a touching confession,” I growled.
Aiba looked vaguely frightened but seemed to be trying to make the best of the situation, “But you did wonderfully well, Jun! It could not have been more convincing if you really had been challenging him. And just imagine the happiness you will feel after having brought two such deserving persons together. And your patient’s health will improve, surely.”
I groaned, lowering the pillow still further, “It is still unclear to me why we could not simply lock them up together in the surgery. This kind of plan is just as likely to cause a greater misunderstanding between them. The margin for error in such a ridiculous scheme is wide.”
Aiba shook his head firmly, “Sho is ridiculous. Toma is ridiculous. Why else would they keep apart for so long? Only an appropriately ridiculous scheme will suit the two of them. I am very optimistic about our chances for success.”
I abandoned the pillow with a sigh, taking the detective’s hand and turning towards him. “You do not seem to have considered that I might really shoot him tomorrow…” I said, raising a hand to caress his cheek.
Aiba laughed, his dark eyes shining, “You wouldn’t. You love him, Jun. He’s one of your dearest friends.”
I cringed at the detective’s words, feeling my insides twist at the sentimentally. Even after a year together, the detective retained his ability to make me squirm with his at times sickeningly forthright way of expressing himself.
I turned away before I spoke next, “Have you never wondered why I do not call you by your Christian name?”
I listened to the detective’s quiet breathing beside me. I knew my question must have puzzled him. “No,” he finally admitted, “You always called me by that name, ever since we first met. It seems natural to hear you call me that.”
I closed my eyes tightly, “At first, yes. But then I found that I did not wish to call you by the same name that he does. Even now…knowing that the two of you were once lovers…I do feel like strangling him…”
I felt Aiba’s cold nose pressed against my back, between my shoulder blades, and then his warm breath and eyelashes fluttering there. His arm came to circle around my waist, his hand splaying across my stomach, “It’s what makes you such an admirable man, Jun. That even though you want to strangle him, you still find yourself loving him,” he murmured. I moved my hand to place it over his own.
The detective moved so that his chin was resting against my shoulder, “Sometimes, when Becky talks about how handsome you are, I think about pulling out her hair. Her topknot would come off so easily with just a tug,” he confessed in a wistful tone.
Despite my best efforts, I started laughing. It was hopeless—I could feel the detective’s smile against the nape of my neck. I turned back to him.
Perhaps recognizing the dangerous mood I was in that morning, Aiba had very meekly worn the three scarves I had insisted on. It could not have been colder out, and I found myself pacing to and fro in a rage, wondering why duels must be fought at dawn. To avoid the authorities, I knew, but wouldn’t it be more sensible all around to tackle the thing after breakfast?
Ohno had led us to a hidden copse of trees near the Serpentine with such ease that I suspected this was not his first time officiating a duel. He stood very calmly in the snow, watching the sky turn from blue-black to a light blue streaked with pinks and yellows.
I approached the artist to take the pistols from his hands, checking for the third time that they were really unloaded. Things had been rather chilly between Ohno and myself since Aiba’s discovery of our plans—Ohno had insisted that he had placed the papers in a most secret, impossible-to-locate compartment in the bookcase, and that Aiba could only have discovered them if he had been tearing the room apart in search of something. I was rather ruffled by this statement, not liking to think that Aiba had been searching so desperately for something without informing me. I had retorted that the papers must have been too easy to find, and Ohno had withdrawn from the conversation with an extraordinarily insolent, “As you say, sir.” (It is difficult to convey to the reader how very much contempt the valet was able to express in those few words)
Now, I wondered how I might make things up to the valet. “Do you think he’ll be foolish enough to come here?” I finally inquired, unable to think of anything else that might interest the valet.
Ohno reached up to begin scratching at his nose, his expression unreadable, “He certainly will, sir. Kazunari will convince him.” Then the valet’s expression softened slightly, taking on a more pitying look as caught sight of my glum expression, “Don’t worry, sir, I wrote to his lordship last night—he’ll certainly arrive in time.”
“Thank you, Ohno." Even with my teeth chattering, I managed a small smile, feeling that I had been forgiven.
Like myself, Aiba could not stand still, pacing back and forth as he scanned the horizon. Suddenly, he gave a cry and, clutching at his hat, began waving it back and forth frantically in his excitement, “He’s coming, Jun! He has arrived!”
Yes, walking towards us were two dark figures I recognized as Sakurai and Nino. His lordship, however, had still not arrived. I began to suspect that I had awoken at this ungodly hour of this morning and stood in this ungodly cold for nothing.
Before I could protest, Aiba was already dragging me to his side, “He’ll come,” he whispered hurriedly, “I know him. He’ll arrive when the moment is right for the most heroic entrance possible.”
I rolled my eyes, but composed my features as Sakurai approached. Nino, I could see, was struggling to suppress his laughter at the sight of us all freezing to death at five in the morning in Hyde Park, but Sakurai looked terrible. It was obvious that he not slept; his eyes were blood-shot and his complexion white. After last night’s panic, however, he seemed to have reached some internal resolution that supported him, and he approached us calmly.
I shot Nino a glare of disapproval—we had agreed that Nino would make sure that Sakurai did not wear that ridiculously tall top hat that he had been so fond of lately, but there he was, wearing it quite proudly. I feared that Lord Toma’s ardour would be quenched at the sight of it. Nino responded to my glare with a careless shrug.
Aiba elbowed me in the ribs. I coughed, “So, you have come,” I managed, feeling tears pricking at my eyes from the cold, our breaths producing clouds of vapor as we spoke.
Sakurai nodded solemnly, removing his hat. Thank God.
“Yes,” he replied, his voice sad but resolute, “I have come, Jun. I tell you now, I will not shoot you.” The MP looked into my eyes intently, “You have saved the lives of two men I once counted as my dearest friends, and I would never willingly harm any man who has done me such a service. Shoot me if you like, Jun, but I refuse to injure you in any way.” He extended his hand, his eyes now pleading, “Please, Jun. Let’s forget all this. We can settle our differences some other way.”
Of course, I looked like the most base and disgusting villain in existence in the face of such a good-hearted speech—how could I be expected to continue with the thing after such a chivalrous display? My companions, too, seemed at a loss, staring at Sakurai’s outstretched hand dumbly.
I scanned the park; still, there was nothing. “I…I’m afraid that I am still not satisfied, sir…only a duel will allow me to retain my honour,” I muttered lamely.
Sho gave me a hard look, then turned to Aiba for a moment. The expression in Sakurai's eyes clawed at my heart—it was one of utter loss and disappointment. The MP turned away, “Fine. Then Ohno, hand me the pistol.”
Ohno placed us back to back; I could feel that Sakurai was trembling. Most likely from the cold, but it must also have been from fear. The man was prepared to let me shoot him, and without raising a hand in his own defense. I had never felt more love or admiration for the man, and I was now becoming frantic. Aiba, however, was gesturing at me frantically to continue. Ohno began counting our paces, “One…two…three….”
Then, a shout in the distance. I turned toward the sound, sagging with relief at the sight that met me. Lord Toma, only half-dressed in pants and a nightshirt, with his overcoat thrown on hastily but still open, running at full speed across the park.
I looked towards Sakurai; he was standing frozen in the snow, open-mouthed with astonishment. The expression in his eyes was...pained? furious? happy? I cannot say--perhaps the best description for his expression would be unbelieving.
“Wait!” his lordship was shouting desperately as he ran, “Wait, you blighters!”
Soon enough, his lordship arrived before us, red-faced and panting. Before he had even caught his breath, he had knocked the pistol from Sakurai’s hand and bent to retrieve it from the snow with an ungloved hand, then straightened himself quickly. “I will take this gentleman’s place,” he managed to choke out, “Any affront that he has committed, I take full responsibility.” His lordship recovered himself; he fixed me with a cold, hard glare as he raised the pistol.
It was difficult not to smile—Ohno managed it, however. “I’m afraid that Kazunari is Sakurai’s second, your lordship,” he interrupted quietly, “you cannot…”
Even knowing the pistol to be unloaded, I felt a tremble run down my spine as his lordship brought his other hand up to aim the weapon all the more surely at me, “Did I say I was his second?” he gritted out in a terrifyingly quiet voice, “I said that I would stand for this man. I take his place.” His lordship began stepping backwards carefully to finish our ten paces, “I do not know what madness has come over you, Jun, but know that whatever friendship we have shared is at an end. Prepare yourself, I know how to shoot,” he warned, his tone more serious than I had ever heard it.
Sakurai, who had appeared stunned into silence until this moment, suddenly came to life, grabbing his lordship violently and shaking him by his shoulders, “What are you doing? What do you mean by this? What right do you have to stand for me?” There was a sob in Sakurai’s voice—his nose was starting to run.
As fierce as he had been before, his lordship now seemed at a loss when confronted by the MP. He averted his gaze, allowing Sakurai to shake him. “Do not try to prevent me, Sho,” he whispered, “I’ll wrestle you to the ground if I have to, but you will not fight this duel.”
I had never seen Sakurai appear so unattractive, or so little in control of himself. Seizing the lapels of his lordship’s coat, he threw him down into the snow, “How,” he cried, “How can you act like this…after what I have done…why would you…”
His lordship got to his feet, carefully wiping the snow from the pistol as he did so. Tears dropped into the snow; I did not know whether they belonged to Sakurai or to his lordship. Lord Toma stared at his feet. The two simply stood before each other, each breathing heavily—they seemed to have forgotten that the rest of us were witnessing the scene.
After some time, his lordship raised his head to meet Sakurai’s furious gaze, his expression so open and full of love that I looked away, feeling strange to witness such an intimate moment. His lordship sounded amazed by Sakurai's confusion, as though his motives should have been obvious, “But I am responsible for you, Sho. Whether you wish me to be or not, I will never stop feeling responsible for you,” now his lordship’s voice was growing thick, “As long as I am still breathing, I must do what I can to help you. If this enrages or disgusts you, I understand, but it will not stop me from… ”
His lordships’ voice was suddenly muffled; I glanced up to discover Sakurai clutching his lordship’s jacket and engaging him in a kiss so passionate that even Ohno’s eyebrows were raised. Slowly, the pistol slipped from his lordship’s grasp, and his hands came up to grip at Sakurai’s shoulders, tugging him impossibly closer as they continued their embrace. Nino started pretending to retch in the background. But I saw the smile in his eyes.
Aiba came to my side, linking his arm with mine. When he spoke, the relief in his voice was palpable, “You see, doctor,” he breathed softly, “A ridiculous plan, for ridiculous people.”
All that remained was for us to inform Sakurai and his lordship of our ruse, a task that the reader may justly thinking a delicate one, considering that such an absurd scheme in many respects defied explanation or excuse; in particular, Sakurai had spent the night firmly convinced that Aiba and I were prepared to shoot him on sight. It was an impression that was hard to recover from.
To our advantage, however, was the giddy, unreasoning happiness of the two men. Nino, impatient of waiting in the icy cold, finally separated the two with a well-aimed snowball, and their faces registered only a dazed sort of shock when Aiba tossed his hat into the air and cried “Surprise!” while Ohno begged their pardon with a respectful bow.
Toma seemed to be working the thing out for himself slowly, but Sakurai’s gaze continued to flicker uneasily between myself and Aiba.
I suggested that we resolve the matter over a cup of coffee (being by then almost dead with cold and lack of breakfast), and our curious party retired to a coffeehouse nearby. The staff eyed our group rather suspiciously; perhaps because the handle of a pistol was sticking out of Ohno’s coat pocket
While drinking hot chocolate, Aiba gave his account of the scheme—by the end of his explanation, Toma was grinning broadly while (to my relief) Sakurai appeared merely stunned.
“If I had not just fallen for it, I would say it was the most ridiculous plan I had ever heard of!” his lordship exclaimed, taking Sakurai’s hand as he spoke, “but I admit that you have understood me completely, detective. After receiving Ohno’s letter this morning, I leapt from my bed and never thought to question the thing as I made my way to the park.”
Sakurai shook his head, “I shall never again know what to believe. Jun, Masaki, the two of you are truly a terrifying combination. Even more so those than those two rogues,” he smiled, turning in Nino and Ohno’s direction; they were sharing a single cup of coffee, with Nino nearly in the valet’s lap. Then Sakurai’s eyes met mine, “I really believed you were prepared to shoot me, doctor,” he confessed with a rueful smile
I stared into my coffee. “How someone who managed to become a professor and MP could be so witless is beyond me,” I finally responded.
But Aiba laughed, and soon we were all laughing and regaling each other with our impressions of the morning, with Nino performing an excellent re-enactment of Sakurai’s steely and noble gaze (and the slight tremble in his voice) when he declared that he should never injure me. Lord Toma gazed at Sakurai in admiration; Sakurai looked abashed.
Coffee gave way to breakfast and then, at his lordship’s suggestion, to a champagne toast; we drank to the detective’s schemes, to Sakurai and Lord Toma, and then (as Lord Toma phrased it) “to the knowledge that his devastating revenge would be visited upon the residents of Garden Place when they least expected it.”
Snow was falling softly as we began our leisurely stroll homeward, and (perhaps owing to their slight intoxication at ten in the morning), Nino, Aiba, and Toma broke from the arms of their partners to begin a violent snowball fight along the streets. Ohno and I continued to walk ahead sedately; I was surprised when Sakurai, instead of joining them, suddenly fell back to walk beside me, slowing his pace to match my own.
The MP looked happier, and more relaxed, than I had ever seen him, and his eyes were full of some emotion as they briefly met mine. But we each turned awkwardly away as we continued to walk, a silence as thick as the snowflakes descending upon us.
I stopped short and threw my arm across Sakurai to halt his progress; I narrowly prevented his lordship from catching a snowball across the face. Nino was laughing nearby, but his lordship quickly appeared to rub a handful of snow across his face.
Sakurai thanked me, and I found my voice as we resumed our walk, “Would you really have let me shoot you?” This question had been revolving in my head since his declaration.
From the corner of my eye, I caught Sakurai’s half-smile. I studiously avoided his gaze; he looked up towards the falling snow as he replied, “Well, I cannot say for certain whether I would have stood there. I might have tried to dodge it at the last moment. But I am certain, at least, that I never would have raised my weapon against you.”
Sakurai stopped suddenly and swung around to face me. He seemed to be blushing, or perhaps his face was simply red from the cold. “Now that we’ve finally established that neither of us actually wants to shoot the other, shall we start using our Christian names?” The MP’s tone was slightly challenging—he was almost scowling at me.
I sighed. The moment for my confession seemed at hand. “I don’t only want to not shoot you, Sho.” He started slightly as I spoke his name. “I already feel that we are…good…friends. That is to say…” I struggled to explain myself, “I would not have hated you so much if it had not been for your very admirable qualities, and that I can understand perfectly well why Aiba loved you. I sincerely beg your pardon for my behavior to you.”
I held out my hand, meeting Sho’s gaze—he surprised me by seizing my hand to pull me into an awkward embrace. “He didn’t love me, Jun,” he spoke into my ear, “Not the way he loves you. Not even near to it. And there is nothing to forgive. I am in your debt. For Toma.”
Before I could respond, I felt a handful of snow shoved down the back of my collar. I started back violently, gaping in amazement at Sho’s satisfied grin, “But that was for slapping me across the face with your glove.”
I tucked my walking stick under my arm and bent to gather a large handful of the powdery snow, “You are going to regret that, Sho,” I growled, doing what I could to suppress my answering grin.
At the door of Garden Place, I imagined that our parties would go their separate ways. After the sudden end of our snowball fight (Aiba had accidentally knocked off the hat of a policeman—fortunately, it was only our local Constable Hatori), Sho and Toma had fallen behind the rest of us, walking together slowly and in deep conversation. Even at our doorstep, the two stood together conversing in low, intense voices. Suddenly, they broke off their discourse, and turned towards us, their faces wearing nearly identical expressions of determination that were rather comical (I was beginning to detect something of a resemblance between the two men; I had formerly considered them a very mismatched couple).
“We have further to speak with you about. In private,” his lordship demanded.
With raised brows, we led them to the kitchen, where we could speak while drying our shoes, socks, hats and scarves before a roaring fire. Even Ohno appeared mildly interested as we waited in suspense, going so far as to sit at the table beside us while picking up his embroidery (a recent pursuit of the valet’s—we could not stop him from embroidering “SK” onto every available piece of fabric in the house).
Toma and Sho exchanged a meaningful look before Sho began, “We would like to offer Masaki a kind of combined birthday and Christmas present. From the both of us.”
Aiba looked delighted; Nino and I exchanged a suspicious glance. “And why should you need our permission?” Nino asked, suddenly paling as another thought occurred to him, “You’re not going to give us another parrot are you? Is that your vengeance on us for the duel?”
Toma burst out laughing; Sho shook his head, “No, rather…” the MP sent me a wary look, as though already anticipating my objections, “We would like to give Horatio. We will perform the theft ourselves, for Masaki. We will rescue Horatio from the zoo and send him to the professor in the country.”
“Pardon?” I glared. Whatever I had been expecting, it was not this. Aiba looked similarly amazed; Nino, however, seemed to be considering it.
I immediately began to protest, joined by the detective, only to be rudely interrupted by Nino’s firm declaration, “That is not a terrible idea.”
This seemed to be the signal that Lord Toma was waiting for; he now leaned forward eagerly, “We have worked it all out, and this is the best way. You are the most obvious suspects, but what am I or Sho to Horatio? We do it the night of the pageant—every one of you will have an alibi witnessed by hundreds. And on Christmas Eve, the place will be staffed by one inattentive guard at most, probably into his second bottle of brandy.” His lordship’s eyes were heated as he concluded, “We can carry the thing off.” He settled back into his chair, his demeanor one of perfect confidence—it struck me as foolhardy.
But Nino was nodding slowly. I sent Aiba an imploring glance.
“But I could never allow you to put yourselves in such danger…”
“Masaki,” his lordship interrupted hurriedly, his look and tone more subdued now, “before this morning, I think I was in danger of never laughing again.” Sho turned away as his lordship fell silent for a moment before continuing, “You have given me everything I desire—this is my attempt to thank you.”
To my horror, Aiba appeared swayed by these words; he looked at me intently, tears beginning to fill his eyes. The detective reached for my hand, “This way, you would not be in danger, Jun,” he whispered.
“But…” I began helplessly, unable to voice my real thoughts—which were that I felt we could hardly trust Horatio’s fate to a man who accidentally hit ladies in the stomach with his umbrella. “What about your parliamentary career? What if you are caught—all will be at an end,” I appealed to Sho.
Only the night before, Sho had been ready to tear our great room apart in order to stop us from carrying out this plan; now, the MP only caught Lord Toma’s gaze for a moment before looking down at the table and, with a small smile, mumbling, “What the hell.”
I was at a loss to cope with this sudden transformation. “Ohno?” I turned towards the valet, looking on him as my last hope.
Ohno paused in his sewing, his glance flickering over Sho and Lord Toma where they sat on the opposite side of the table before returning his attention to his embroidery, “I think we can hardly stop them, sir.”
It was settled.
Aiba was lingering in the great room with Sho, the two still speaking of escape routes, as I led Lord Toma to the front door. I waited until we had reached the bottom of the staircase and were out of earshot before seizing his lordship by the collar and throwing him up against the wall, pressing my forearm to his neck (you see, reader, that in the interest of fairness I must record all events, even those in which my behavior is singularly objectionable). “I want to assure you, your lordship,” I hissed, “that I am holding you solely responsible for the success of this plan, and that if Horatio is harmed in any way, I will not allow you to go unpunished. And it won’t just be a slap with my glove.”
His lordship actually had the temerity to wink at me in reply, “Do not trouble yourself over it, Jun,” he smiled, “Sho is really far more capable than you credit him for.”
I lessened my hold, “Now it is you that I am beginning to doubt,” I grumbled. “And take care of Sho well,” I threatened as an afterthought before releasing him entirely.
Toma beamed at me as he rubbed his neck, “I will, Jun. And thank you—in spite of your unorthodox methods, I must say that you are the best physician I have ever had the honor of consulting.”
The fatal date of the pageant—and, coincidentally, our detective’s birthday—drew near. The detective continued to visit Horatio faithfully, sometimes more than once a day, and he reported that Horatio seemed weak, but he was not too ill to sign with Aiba—he seemed to be clinging stubbornly to life, a persistence we were all sincerely grateful for. I did not speak of this to Aiba, but Lord Toma and I agreed that we must recover Horatio’s body even if the worst happened and he did not live till Christmas—of the greatest importance was keeping him from the possession of Professor Gackt.
Although I felt uneasy at turning the task over to Sho and his lordship, I must admit that it rendered my days much easier, and preparations for the pageant much more pleasant. With the exception of one young lady who styled herself as “Lola” (I refuse to believe that her parents could have given her such a name) and drove me to distraction with her simpering affectations, I felt that the girls were doing excellently together and was sincerely impressed by their progress. And somehow, they seemed to have lost their fear of me—perhaps because I had learned to be more patient with them. We suited each other well now.
Less distracted, I also began to notice more changes in Umi; she had always sang well—very softly but clearly—but now she seemed all the time more alert, more present when others spoke to her. She was quickly becoming a great favorite among the rest of the girls; she still responded in her own strange, quick language when spoken to, but she seemed happy rather than sad and withdrawn. Before, during her mother’s long and painful illness, Umi would hide from the other girls, and sometimes from Madame Becky and Lady Riisa—I had often discovered her with her limbs folded, rocking herself back and forth while humming under her breath. She had been trying to comfort herself, I think, but she would shrink away violently if anyone but Aiba and (strangely) myself reached out to try to soothe her. But now I often found her playing with the other girls, or clinging on to Miss Maki or Madame Becky very happily (she still seemed slightly overawed by Lady Riisa’s turbans, however). When Aiba visited, Umi would softly sing with him, and she would even sign with him (reader, I did protest his teaching her the same signs as he used with Horatio, but Aiba simply could not be made to see why it should matter).
The great change in Umi occurred, however, three days before Christmas Eve and Horatio’s possible release. The detective and I were at the GHL; I had just finished giving Umi a brief examination while she sat in Aiba’s lap. I had been asked to check her throat by Madame Becky, as Umi had been heard coughing lately. Her throat looked a little red, but it did not seem too severe. I wrote out a prescription for Madame Becky to fill and gave Umi some lemon candy; she and Aiba retired to the playroom beside the office while I remained to review the concert’s program. The door was ajar, and I could hear the two in the next room as Aiba inquired as to where he should place the next puzzle piece and Umi responded in her own incomprehensible language.
They were quiet for some time; I could hear the shuffling of wooden puzzle pieces. But then I heard quite suddenly what was unbelievably but unmistakably Umi’s voice, speaking clearly and perfectly comprehensibly to the detective, “Aiba…why…is doctor’s leg….”
I froze at the soft-spoken words. I have no idea how Aiba was able to remain so claim—I nearly snapped the pen in my hand in half. There was a pause, but then the detective replied in a gentle tone, “What about his leg, Umi?”
“Do you remember how the doctor went to Africa and had adventures?” A pause—I imagined Umi nodding. “While he was there, he fell and hit his leg, so now he uses his walking stick.”
Silence. Then Umi’s voice, even smaller, “Does it…hurt him?”
“No Umi, it doesn’t hurt him at all. The doctor walks everywhere, doesn’t he? And remember when you climbed trees together in the park? Now he just has the fun of getting to carry an impressive walking stick around with him. If someone gets in his way, he simply,” the detective made a “whooshing” noise—even in the midst of my shock, I found I could roll my eyes at his account.
Umi’s next words were very muffled, as though she were crying, “My leg…I hurt it…in the old place…the bad people were fighting and a knife cut it…my Mama cried and cried when she saw it...she brought me here…” Noisy sniffling—I had never heard such a loud sound coming from Umi.
There was a rustling sound, then I heard Aiba give a low whistle, “That’s a real beauty, Umi. I think that’s a scar that even Long John Silver himself would be jealous of.” More sniffling, and I heard another rustle of fabric, “Look, Umi, I’ve got big scars too.” I imagined the detective pulling up his shirt and pointing to the long scars along his ribcage and above his heart, “Mine aren’t as nice as yours, though.”
Umi laughed, and I felt my heart clench strangely. It occurred to me that I had forgot to breathe. “Like you…and doctor…” Umi offered.
“Should we have a special society, then?” Aiba asked brightly. “A sort of club for people with special legs and pretty scars? You, naturally, will have to be the president, as you have both while the doctor and I only have one of each.”
“I’ll teach you our secret handshake. This is how we signal to each other that we’re members of the society—this way, even if we meet on some adventure and we’re in disguise, we can still recognize one another.”
Silence, and then I heard them begin shifting through the puzzle pieces once again. I sat and listened, the program forgotten. I wiped the tears from my face and tried to calm the racing of my heart.
Umi’s soft voice again, “Aiba, are you happy that I talked?”
“I’m very, very happy that you talked, Umi. But I’ll always love you, whether you talk like us or not.”
After a while, the two came out of the playroom holding hands. As they approached me, Umi seemed to hesitate, staring at the floor; Aiba shook her hand and, catching her anxious gaze, gave her an exaggerated wink before tilting his head in my direction (the wink was quite a feat for the detective to manage, I can assure you).
Umi looked up at me shyly before raising up her hand. I took it, and she interlaced her fingers with mine before pressing the pad of her thumb carefully against my own. She looked at me uncertainly, almost apologetically—a strange expression on the face of such a small child.
I winked at her and tapped the knee of my bad leg meaningfully. “President,” I greeted her, bowing my head respectfully. Umi’s eyes grew bright with delight, her smile so wide that I could only compare it to the detective’s.
That night, Aiba fell into a frenzy of research. He had already acquired quite a collection from the college library on child psychology and speech disorders, and now he was seated at the overstuffed desk in the corner of the great room, sifting his way through the piles and occasionally scribbling something in his notebook. At other moments, he growled and reached up to pull at his hair in frustration.
“You want to watch out for that,” Nino’s quiet voice interrupted my fireside reverie. Nino had been stretched across the sofa near to the fireplace, scribbling madly at his latest installment of “Taka’s Tales of Terror.” He was a week late, and Ogura was at his wit’s end, fearing that the serial would not arrive in time for the Christmas edition; it was rare to find Nino at Garden Place these days, as when he was not writing he was running from Ogura’s hired thugs. After a few days skulking between Lord Toma’s townhouse and the GHL, he’d finally returned to us with Ohno acting as general bodyguard—as soon as there was a knock on the door he’d bolt into Ohno’s studio while Ohno drove whoever it was away with his impenetrable stupidity on the matter of Nino’s whereabouts and his determined nose-picking.
Nino was desperate to finish—but now, he set down his pen and raised his flushed countenance to send a significant look in the detective’s direction.
“I am used to the detective throwing himself into his research with enthusiasm. It was almost impossible for me to pry him away from his book this summer.”
Nino shook his head, his expression surprisingly serious, “That is not what I mean, doctor. I am referring to Umi.”
I raised a brow, “I do not have the pleasure of understanding you.”
Nino huffed, rolling onto his back and tossing the manuscript aside, “I mean that if you do not look out, she will be living in Garden Place before next summer.”
I was astonished. “Umi…at Garden Place…what for?”
Nino folded his hands behind his head and stared up meditatively at the ceiling, “I thought you were more perceptive than this, doctor. You disappoint me. Obviously, Aiba must be thinking of adopting her.”
Now, I was panic-stricken. “What? Umi…here…we can’t take care of a little girl here…”
“Why not?” Nino challenged me, “We have a live-in housekeeper and a spare bedroom, and Aiba could take her to school at the GHL in the morning and collect her in the afternoon very easily. So could you, me, or Satoshi, for that matter.”
“Have you all been planning this together?” I inquired, struggling to keep my voice low—Aiba was, after all, just in the opposite corner of the room.
Nino smirked, “No, but I am sure that the great detective has been thinking along these lines. So you had better start marshalling your reasonable objections now.”
“Well for one thing, an entire room in our house is devoted to the production of amateur pornography,” I muttered angrily.
I regretted my speech instantly. Nino turned on me with a venomous scowl, but it also seemed that he was deeply embarrassed—his face was growing almost painfully red, “Amateur?” he hissed, “Painting is not Satoshi’s hobby, Jun, it is his calling.”
I should have realized the real cause of his lordship’s offense. “You must be blind not to see it, Jun,” Nino continued to fume, “Umi is like a wounded animal, a science experiment, and a mystery all wrapped up into one adorable package. And she is positively obsessed with you. It would be strange if Aiba wasn’t thinking of it.”
“Don’t speak about her like that,” I snapped, my voice rising in spite of my efforts to control it.
Having fully vented his annoyance, Nino now looked merely confused, “Pardon?”
“Like she’s a character in one of your stories. She’s not an animal, an experiment, or a case to be solved, she’s a little girl, and we have no way of knowing what’s best for her,” I shouted.
Much like Lord Toma (perhaps it was a shared trait of the aristocracy?), Nino never missed an opportunity to infuriate me; now, he smiled at me almost fondly, “I had no idea you cared so much about her doctor,” he grinned.
Before I could protest, I felt a gentle touch on my shoulder. I looked up to discover the detective standing quietly beside me, looking troubled. “Perhaps...” he began hesitantly, “perhaps we should discuss this.” Nino sat up and leaned forward eagerly. “In private,” Aiba clarified, sending a glare in Nino’s direction.
“Of course,” Nino sniffed, collecting his papers and sauntering away (in a manner designed, I was certain, to infuriate me further) to join Ohno in the kitchen.
“I have been thinking about it, Jun,” Aiba admitted, looked sheepish, “I mean,” he hurried to explain further after catching sight of my dark expression, “Not seriously. Just sometimes. In a sort of vague, half-formed way. Not enough to speak of it.”
“From now on,” I replied sternly, “let’s agree to share even our half-formed thoughts if they involve adopting a child.”
Aiba winced; I wished again that I were better at moderating the harshness of my tone.
“I am not sure that it would be a good thing for her, either, Jun…there are many children for her to play with at the GHL…and since she doesn’t have a mother or siblings there, I know Miss Maki and the ladies are careful to look out for her…but I thought she might feel a bit lost in the crowd sometimes.” The detective continued more softly, “But at the very least, since I won’t have any children myself, I thought I would make her my heir. That is,” the detective attempted a smile, “if I do manage to have anything to leave her by the end of my life.”
It was some time before I could reply; my chest felt strangely tight and seemed to be preventing me from speaking, “I…would not object to that. I would make her my heir, too. We can pay for her education and give her a yearly allowance…we might even leave her Hayworth. But Aiba,” I swallowed, “if she comes here…she’ll grow up reading Taka’s Tales of Terror, and Ohno will teach her to pick her nose. Holmes will probably try to scratch her eyes out, and Watson will want to land in her hair. And I…” I cast my eyes up at the ceiling, determined not to meet Aiba’s curious gaze, “I have a temper, and I think it is only getting worse—which I fully blame Nino for---but I…I mean…I’ve actually made young ladies at the GHL weep…”
Aiba took my hand, his eyes serious, “But those girls love you, Jun, and Umi loves you most of all…”
I shook my head.
Aiba gave a sort of strangled laugh, shaking his head, “I am not confident either. I know I am not always the most reliable…or even sensible…she deserves something better after the life she has led so far…”
I squeezed the detective’s hand, “You are the most reliable person in her life right now, in her eyes,” I said fiercely, “She trusts you enough to speak to you.”
Aiba’s expression brightened slightly. I sighed, “Can we agree…for now…to wait?” I offered.
Aiba nodded, “A good plan, Jun.”
But I was certain that, as I turned back towards the fire, I heard the detective murmur, “For now.” I sent him a sharp look; he smiled and offered me a tea cake.
Forgive me, reader, if these scenes seem immaterial to our plot—but what of Horatio? you must be wondering. What of the nefarious Professor Gackt and his twisted museum of curiosities? But I feel that, in the interest of completeness, I must provide this history of our acquaintance with Umi and its effects upon us, since that intrepid young girl would, miraculously, later reveal herself as both heroine and saviour of our adventure.
Christmas Eve, Aiba’s birthday, the night of the pageant had arrived. Our plans were not only laid, they were in motion—even now, Sho and Lord Toma would be starting their watch on the London Zoo.
And while they carried out this important and dangerous task, I was standing in the wings of a girls’ charity concert, helping several very small fairies fix the flowers in their hair. I urged them onstage when I heard Madame Becky give their cue.
“Do not worry, my dear Jun,” came the detective’s voice from behind me. I turned—the detective, looking handsome in his suit, had left the audience to join me backstage, “I have every confidence that they will succeed,” he urged in a soft voice. I saw, then, the hope in the detective’s eyes, and how tensely he held himself. I placed a hand on his shoulder, “Breathe,” I commanded.
Aiba released a breath and laughed, “I really am confident in them, Jun, but I can think of nothing else. I’m afraid Becky dancing about in her underthings is proving insufficiently distracting. All that can put it from my mind is thinking of your performance,” he flashed me his most beautiful smile, “I am glad it is tonight—if I did not have you to think of, I would go mad awaiting their fate.”
I smiled, “You are right, detective. We should think now of the pageant. The rest will come later.”
The detective moved nearer, his eyes warm, “I am so proud of you, Jun…and have I told you how handsome you look…”
We were drawing close when a flowered headdress was thrown (in a most unlady-like manner, I must add) in our direction, causing us to start back. “You,” Lady Riisa pointed at the detective, “get back to your seat at once. The choir will be on stage in ten minutes, and I will not have you distracting our director,” she whispered furiously.
Aiba and I exchanged a smile, and he gifted me with a most torturous-looking wink and pressed his lips quickly against mine before hastily fleeing from Lady Riisa’s wrath. Her ladyship was in admirable form tonight; her role as costume mistress seemed to have inspired her to reach new heights of both creativity and imperiousness.
From my position in the wings, I studied the audience, attempting to locate the detective. The fairy play was going well; the city’s most fashionable applauded, laughed, and sighed at all the right moments—Madame Becky (if she will forgive me the expression) had them eating out of her hand.
It was as I was casting my eyes over the dimly-illuminated crowd that I caught sight of him. His face—pale, glittering, sepulchral—floated among the crowd like something from a nightmare. Lady Riisa had a mouthful of pins and was making some last minute adjustments to her pupil’s costumes; in my shock, I thoughtlessly seized her elbow.
“Dr. Matsumoto!” she cried, drawing the attention of the girls before quickly lowering her voice to a hiss, “I nearly swallowed my pins, doctor. What has come over you?”
“Professor Gackt…why is he in the audience…”
“Kazu did not tell you?” she replied, her voice uncertain.
“No. You mean Nino is aware of this?”
Her ladyship sighed in annoyance, “My idiot brother…he asked us to invite him…he thougt it would be a good way to give you an alibi and keep track of the man’s movements…but I thought you knew…”
I turned back, fixing my gaze upon the professor’s face; my vision blurred as I strove to look past the stage lights. Why had Nino not told me of this plan? Was Aiba aware that he was in the audience?
Before I could inquire further, the audience began to applaud, drowning out all possibility of conversation. Moments later, Madame Becky was at my side, her eyes sparkling. Her face and hair were streaked with melting paint, make-up, and tinsel, and she appeared very nearly nude in her fairy costume. I had never seen her look happier than when she gathered the girls together to congratulate them on their performance, embracing and praising each one in turn before throwing her arms about me and pressing a kiss against my cheek. “Jun,” she whispered excitedly, “you’re up.”
It occurred to me that I would, indeed, need to make my way onstage. In my anxiety over Horatio’s fate and the sudden appearance of the detective, I had forgotten all my fears for the performance. But now I found that thirty quite nervous-looking young ladies were lining themselves up before me and looking at me quite beseechingly. Umi was hugging herself and biting her lip—I believe it was only with great effort that she forced herself to remain still and not begin rocking back-and-forth.
Should I confess this? Aiba, I was at a loss. So, strange as it must sound, I pretended that I was you. I smiled, and I told them to take each other’s hands so that we formed a circle. “Ladies, your last rehearsal was gorgeous. Sing as you did then, and the concert will be wonderful. And we’re not going to be upstaged by a lot of poxy fairies, are we?”
A few girls began to smile; Lola laughed, and for once it was a welcome sound. “No,” I continued, “we’re going to amaze them, because you have worked hard and you sound beautiful.”
More nods from the girls; the curtain was rising. Catching her anxious gaze, I took Umi’s hand and pressed the pads of our thumbs together, and the two of us led the procession out onto the stage.
I could not make out Aiba’s face, or anyone’s—there only seemed to be a great, dark, well-dressed mass to one side of us. I imagined Ohno, most likely picking his nose in the back row as he prepared for the magic lantern show. I thought of Nino, looking down at us, like some strange angel, from his hiding place in the rafters (Ogura’s arrival at the concert had sent the author into the works backstage). But most of all, I imagined Aiba’s open expression, his sympathetic eyes as he watched our progress across the stage intently. We took our places; I raised my hands.
And then we were near disaster; every young lady in the choir was looking down at her shoes.
Never, during all our rehearsal, had I seen them behave thus. I had seen them upset or furious, but never so shy and abashed.
I took a breath and lowered my hands. A murmuring arose from the audience. “Ladies,” I commanded softly, waiting until, one by one, I met every girl’s eyes, “Forget them,” I mouthed, jerking my head in the direction of the audience, “Look at me, and sing for each other, not for anyone else.” I caught Umi’s wide-eyed stare, “Sing for Umi,” I smiled.
Slowly, the girls were smiling; ignoring the confused rumblings in the audience, I decided to forego an introduction. I raised my hands, and we began.
The difficulty in writing this account, I find—again and again—is that those moments that impressed me most deeply are those that I am least capable of describing; I can only write that the girls sang beautifully, and that they impressed me with their bravery—in spite of all my objections to the pageant, I had never fully considered how difficult it would be for them to conduct themselves confidently before such an unfamiliar audience. But they did, and at the end of the performance, I felt as though my face would break from smiling. After the last note had died away, there was a moment of silence, during which we stood beaming at each other, and then a roar of applause overcame us.
Several girls wept as we left the stage; I admit that there were tears in my eyes. Backstage, the girls exploded into shouting and laughter, embracing both each other and me quite indiscriminately until I found myself nearly being pulled in two by the simultaneous enthusiasms of Madame Becky and Lady Riisa; I was rescued by Aiba, who jerked me rather roughly from their grasp into his crushing embrace. Predictably, he started crying against my shoulder, “My dear Jun…no matter what happens…this is the happiest birthday I have ever spent,” he breathed, bringing up a hand to caress my ear.
Before I could respond, I felt a very gentle tug on the back of my suit jacket. With a tearful smile, Aiba released me so that I might turn around
Umi had fixed her eyes on some point just past me, and she was rocking a little as she mumbled, “Merry Christmas, doctor.”
With a shout of laughter, I swept her up into my arms. She gave a cry of surprise, but looked generally pleased with the arrangement as her eyes met mine, so I continued to hold her. “Merry Christmas, princess,” I replied, the endearment slipping from my lips before I was aware of it, “Would you like to watch the magic lantern show with us?”
Umi stared at me as though I had offered her a trip to the moon.
Umi sat on my lap, and I did what I could to avoid the detective’s gaze. He was so happy that he was nearly vibrating as he sat beside me, and I knew that once I caught his eye he would look so delighted with our party that it would be intolerable and I would have to leave the theater.
Yes, I liked Umi. Of course I liked her. And it was perfectly fine for her to sit on my lap and enjoy a magic lantern show. And I had quite accidentally and unconsciously called her “princess” (a natural mistake, considering that it had been my father’s pet name for my sister). But these things did not, I reflected seriously, render us any more fit to raise a young girl at No. 5, Garden Place.
Still, it was difficult to stop a warm feeling of contentment from suffusing my chest as Aiba and Umi exclaimed over the shifting lights and colors projected into the darkness of the theater. Ohno had a gift for thing, and with each new image the children in the audience (and many of the adults) cried out admiringly at the jewel-like tones and flickering lights of the pictures. Umi watched with such an intent amazement that I found myself growing equally enchanted; I recalled my childhood wonder at the stained-glass windows in church--how I had believed that nothing in the world could be more beautiful.
I caught the detective’s eye. His expression of gentle happiness was, as I had predicted, unbearable. He reached out to take my hand.
A shadow fell across the projection; there was a brief flurry of activity near the front of the theater as a tall, lean figure rose and wound its way out of the theater.
My heart clenched; I turned to the detective to find him similarly wide-eyed with panic.
And then there was Nino’s pale face; he was moving rapidly up the aisle toward us, his expression stricken.
Umi must have been watching him, too, but all my attention was concentrated on Nino as he bent near the detective to whisper, “We must go. Now.”
The audience gave another cry as Ohno changed the slide. Still carrying Umi, I followed Aiba to the aisle. I set Umi down and knelt to meet her gaze; she stared at me with frightened eys, “Umi, we have to help Ohno with the show. Do you see Miss Maki there?” I pointed to the row just in front of our own, where the housekeeper sat with several of the girls, “Go and sit with her now, and I’ll come back to see you after the show. Understand, princess?”
Umi nodded. Then, she answered me, very seriously and at some length. But I did not understand a word she said.
I watched her begin walking toward Miss Maki, who caught sight of her and motioned for her to join them with a smile. I turned and followed Nino and Aiba from the theater.
How I regret my haste then! Though we never returned to the theater, that was not the last time we would see Umi that night.
Following Nino, we traversed the labyrinthine alleys that encircled the theater; I had expected us to head for the main thoroughfare, but instead we were moving further away from the light and noise of Christmas revelry with every step. We rounded a corner and Nino halted suddenly; Aiba gasped at the sight that met us, in his shock, he grabbed my elbow to steady himself.
Sho stood leaning against a muddy brick wall, Lord Toma resting heavily upon his back, his arms hanging limply over Sho’s shoulders. There was a mass of black and red at his lordship’s left temple; Sho’s face was smeared with blood.
I moved forward instantly to his lordship, reaching to push back his hair to examine the mottled blood; Sho flinched back as Aiba began wiping at his face, “Do not worry about me, detective,” Sho said sofly, “It is not my blood.”
The injury, thank god, looked worse than it was—the cut was just to the side of the temple. But he would have a terrible bruise, and he must have been faint with shock and blood loss. His lordship, astonishingly, managed to open his eyes slightly as I examined him. “A scratch, doctor,” he mumbled drunkenly, his eyes fluttering shut again, “a mere scratch,” he groaned, head sinking back down onto Sho’s shoulder (it was a great distance for his head to fall, I can assure you).
Sho was speaking to Aiba in a low, rapid voice, “God forgive me, Aiba, but I left Horatio. His lordship lost consciousness—I thought he might never wake. After overpowering his assailant, I took him on my back and followed the back alleys here—he must be taken to the hospital.”
“His assailant?” Aiba cried, all the color leaving his face.
“We were leaving the zoo’s grounds when we realized we were being followed. We changed course and finally ended up taking to the lake, thinking to hide Horatio away somewhere else in the park until we found an alternate route. But they gave chase; when we came ashore near the Zoological Gardens two men surprised us. Toma held them off while I hid Horatio, but when I returned I found Toma unconscious and his attacker near. I knocked him out and dragged his body into the woods. I do not know what happened to the other man.”
I tried to imagine how Sho and his lordship had conveyed a chimpanzee by boat across a lake; or, more amazingly, how Sho had succeeded in knocking someone out and then coolly hiding his body in the Zoological Gardens.
While I was still trying to work out the sequence of events, Nino’s inquiry was, as always, to the point. “Horatio?” he demanded, his voice clipped.
Sho’s next words were whispered, sorrow and mortification equally evident in his countenance, “The greenhouse of the gardens. He is still there, in his box—he should still be sedated. I could not think where else to take him that was warm.”
Aiba placed a hand on Sho’s shoulder (the one unoccupied by his lordship), “I do not blame you in the slightest, my dear man. You did what was right—of course Toma must be treated. That is what is most important.”
I had cleaned the wound as best as I could, but I had nothing more useful with me than a handkerchief; Toma’s eyes were fluttering rapidly again as he struggled to remain conscious. “Take him to the hospital across the back way. And stay with him,” I commanded, “He will need to see you there when he recovers.”
Sho sent me a look of gratitude. “Thank you,” he replied softly. “Good luck,” his voice caught as he turned from us, “And be ready to fight,” he managed, before disappearing with his lordship back into the darkness of the alley.
Nino, Aiba, and I stood as though frozen, each of us examining one another’s countenance; Nino and I were already almost glaring at each other. The detective, I saw, was heartbroken. “Nino…Jun…I…” he began, his voice choked.
“There isn’t time for it, Aiba,” I cut in. “We know what you feel, but we’re coming with you. We all go together.”
The detective stared at us helplessly in turn; Nino turned on his heel and began moving swiftly back towards the thoroughfare. “Come, detective,” he spoke grimly over his shoulder, “The game’s afoot.”
Nino informed us of how he had come to know Sho’s troubles as we rode a cab towards the Zoological Gardens; he peered through the carriage window as he spoke, his eyes flickering anxiously among the passerby as though expecting to catch sight of the professor, “I was backstage—still avoiding Ogura’s knaves—when a young boy tugged at my jacket and handed me a note. It was a messy scrawl, but I recognized the writing as Sho’s—he wrote that their plan had been discovered, and he was at the crossing of two alleys behind the theater, and he needed to speak with us before taking Toma to the hospital. Naturally, the first thing I did was to look for Gackt in the audience—I saw someone approach and pass him a note before he rose to leave.” Nino laughed bitterly, “Our respective messengers must have arrived at almost the same moment. There is only one explanation—the professor has suspected and out-schemed us. He has had the zoo watched, and now he must be heading towards the gardens as well, if his information is as good as ours.”
“Why would he not inform the police?” Aiba demanded, his confusion evident, “He has men watch the zoo—surely their first step would be to inform the police as soon as they witnessed the theft. Have Sho and Toma arrested and our scheme revealed—not attempt to murder them!” he growled.
Nino shook his head, “Consider this from Gackt’s perspective, Masaki. Our insane taxidermist is not your run-of-the-mill enthusiast interested in law and order; he is interested in defeating you. He is a collector, and he wants to take this piece out of your hands himself.”
Aiba was shaking; I reached out to take his hand. His eyes were dark with frustration and grief. The flaming streetlamps, the glittering Christmas displays in the department store windows, the sleigh bells jingling on the horses—all these sights and sounds took on an eerie, nightmarish quality as we rumbled towards the gardens.
Aiba met my gaze. “What should I do, Jun?” he finally spoke in a quiet voice, “Tell me. What do you think should be done? Do I leave him now? Do I let us risk further injury? What is the right thing to do, my dear friend?”
The detective stared at me so seriously, so faithfully—I saw that he did not doubt, even for a moment, that I knew what was best to be done. How he could have formed such a high opinion of my judgment—particularly in light of our recent conflicts—I could not imagine.
And I did not know what should be done. But I still chose to command him. If it were my decision, then perhaps the detective’s conscience would be less tortured should some harm befall one of us, “Horatio is still alive. Nino and I cannot abandon him anymore than you can. As long as there is still some hope that we can rescue him, then it is our duty to attempt it.”
Aiba’s expression lightened; the corners of his mouth quirked upwards. His eyes lost their sadness and grew determined, “You are right, Jun. We cannot abandon him. And we have all the goodness and justice of the case on our side—it is impossible, then, that we should lose to the professor.”
I smiled encouragingly and squeezed the detective’s hand before sending Nino a look intended to suppress whatever rejoinder he was on the verge of making; he was forced to satisfy himself with rolling his eyes and lolling against his seat, muttering something about “noble idiocy” under his breath.
I hope, reader, that you never have cause to experience the Zoological Gardens on a cold, dark winter night. I had wound my way through its environs at night once before; but then Aiba and I had been embracing as we moved towards our planned assignation in the greenhouse. My mind and senses were filled with the detective’s presence, and I did not notice the eeriness of the place.
But now, though accompanied by Aiba and Nino, I was acutely aware of the bitter cold and icy silence, interrupted every so often by a sudden snap or shuffle; all of us, I think, were listening with bated breath as we moved towards the greenhouse, anxious to detect some presence of Professor Gackt or his minions. I had begged Nino and Aiba to go ahead before me, but they had refused—in truth, I did not press the matter because I was relieved, not wishing to let either man out of my sight. I regret keenly that I did not urge them further—speed was of the greatest importance, then, but I think I still maintained some hope that Gackt would not yet know of Horatio’s new location.
These hopes were dashed when we reached the greenhouse; lanterns lit the place from within, making the clouded panes of glass glow and sending out a strange halo onto the black night. I noted that the lock was still on the door, but that the door itself had been shattered; I swallowed, imagining the state Sho must have been in to commit such an act of vandalism.
We met each other’s eyes before we entered, silently asking of each other whether any of us wished to turn back. “Thank you,” Aiba mouthed, reading the determination in our eyes; slowly, careful of the shattered glass, we stepped into the unnatural warmth, immediately surrounded by a thick greenery. Even in the humid air, I shivered at the thought that the last time I had been here, the detective and I had been making love—it seemed impossible now that this was the same place that had sheltered us.
We followed the light to a clearing towards the back; there, as expected, stood Professor Gackt and a dull, gray-looking fellow who seemed to be nursing a painful injury to his jaw. Nearby sat Horatio’s crate; even standing inches apart, I felt the tremble that ran through Aiba’s frame at the sight.
Professor Gackt had been waiting for us, I am certain; he had clearly arranged the scene for dramatic effect, and now a slow smile of satisfaction crept over his coldly elegant features at our approach.
Luckily, we had Nino’s sharp tongue at our disposal; just as the Professor had finished licking his lips and opened his mouth to speak, Nino demanded roughly, “If you’re so clever as to get here first, then, why the devil haven’t you carted him off yet?”
I think the professor was taken aback at the sudden request; but he recovered himself instantly, his smile only growing wider as he answered smoothly, his light, piercing eyes moving between us, “Why, because in spite of your very un-sportsman-like behavior, I do like to think of myself as a gentleman, your lordship. And as a gentleman, I would like to give the distinguished Professor Masaki a choice. A professional courtesy, you know,” he inclined his head in Aiba’s direction, smirking.
Again it was Nino who replied, his tone snide, “Well if you’re offering us a deal, we’ll take it. Just name your price. Or perhaps you’re more interested in fame? We’ll pay to have a plaque commemorating your noble work put up in the Zoological Society. Perhaps I can even get you into the papers.”
The professor’s eyes narrowed; I could see that he was beginning to lose some of his composure. “I am afraid, your lordship, that I am not interested in a “deal,” as you put it.” His look of satisfaction returned as he continued, “The ape is mine. But I am still generous enough to give you a choice. If you turn yourselves—or your foolish companions, whoever you care to blame this absurd scheme on—into the police tonight, then I return the beast to the zoo, and he dies in his own time. Or, you may refuse to confess. In that case, I will never breathe a word of this matter to another living soul. But,” his mouth twisted into an ugly grin as he clearly reveled in the climax of his speech, “I kill the animal and take him to my museum tonight.”
I wondered how Aiba could still be breathing; I had been watching him closely, and it seemed as though the rise and fall of his chest had stopped entirely. His face betrayed no emotion, his eyes almost black—he looked not like the detective I loved, but like some strange automaton as he stood perfectly still, staring expressionlessly at the professor.
“Are you a mental patient escaped from a German asylum? Is that your problem?” came Nino’s hiss. Nino took a step forward; even with his slight frame, he looked surprisingly lethal in his anger.
But he was ignored; the professor was studying Aiba’s expression intently, almost avidly. I realized that he was waiting for the pain that he was sure would appear there—only then would he be satisfied.
I took a step forward to block Aiba from the professor’s view; his lackey, still rubbing his jaw, began to move forward in turn, “Have you never considered, professor,” I finally spoke, “That the odds here are not in your favour? Three against two?”
The professor laughed; I felt my heart sink as he opened his coat to reveal the sword he wore at his waist, smoothly withdrawing the blade with a smile. “My sword, against two boys and a cripple? Pardon me, Professor Masaki, if I betray an unseemly confidence in my success.”
Aiba pushed me gently to the side as he moved forward toward the professor; the man’s lackey made a movement as if to defend his master, but the professor raised a restraining hand. He watched Aiba calmly, an expression of pleased anticipation on his face as the detective moved to stand before him. Aiba raised a hand to halt Nino’s approach; Nino and I exchanged anxious glances as we continued to creep toward him, unable to imagine what Aiba had in mind—I felt as though my heart would stop at the sight of the shining blade so close to Aiba’s face.
“But you’ve forgotten, professor,” Aiba’s soft voice seemed, somehow, to echo through the greenhouse, “That nothing can be more dangerous than to insult a gentleman’s dearest friends.”
Reader, I swear that I had no idea of what the detective intended until the act was already completed; from his expression of dumb shock, it was evident that Professor Gackt had not anticipated it either. I felt as though I were in a dream as I watched Aiba raise his hand—for one wild moment I thought he was planning to slap the professor—and then seize the blade before him with his bare hand, snatching the sword out of the professor’s grip (it had slackened in his astonishment, I can assure you) and throwing the sword in my direction; reflexively, I caught it by the handle.
Nino and I, at first stunned into silence, let out matching cries of terror as dark blood dripped from Aiba’s right hand to the earth as he lowered his arm. But as the professor and his minion moved to restrain him, Nino and I did not hesitate; we rushed forward to defend him.
The events that transpired next could not have taken place over more than a few minutes, I think, but time seemed to slow strangely—I was reminded, horribly, of that day when Aiba was shot and time had seemed to crawl as I waited to see whether he would breathe again. In any case, I was able to keep track of the detective’s and Nino’s movements even as I fought the professor’s knave; I had the advantage of a sword, and I could block him from moving towards the professor while still keep him at arm’s length from myself. The professor had fallen on Aiba, but the tables were quickly turned as Nino and Aiba combined their strength against him, pinning him to the floor.
My advantage did not last long, however, particularly as I hesitated to actually run the man through with the sword. The man was stronger than me, and my leg slowed my reaction. Never, reader, undertake a fight in a greenhouse; when I was thrown against the wall, the glass shattered about me, cutting my face and hands as it spilled onto the floor.
The man was choking me, and it was then that I made my greatest mistake. In my weakness, my eyes flickered towards the detective for assistance—the hot, scalding shame returns as I write this—the detective, as though feeling my gaze upon him, turned and saw my distress; abandoning Professor Gackt, he moved to tackle the man who held me. He succeeded in knocking the man to the ground and, taking a length of twine used to arrange the plants, he worked to immobilize his arms.
I did not assist him, only sinking to the floor and struggling to catch my breath. When we turned our attention back to Nino and the professor, the professor was half sitting upon the ground with Nino struggling furiously in his grasp—the professor held a large piece of the shattered glass up to his windpipe. I can assure the reader that Nino’s combat with the professor had been a manful one—one does not survive years in St. Giles and repeated assassination attempts without a surprising degree of skill in hand-to-hand combat—but the professor had greater height and strength, as well as more ruthlessness.
It was my failure to defend myself that left Nino in that hopeless position.
The lantern illuminated the two struggling figures; I saw the glass knick Nino’s throat, just to the side of his windpipe—a small streak of red appeared. “Stop!” I cried hoarsely, “Nino, stop! For god’s sake, be still before you cut your own throat!”
Nino was shocked but, for the first and only time in our acquaintance, he obeyed me, forcing himself to still in the professor’s grasp.
We were all streaked with blood and dirt—the professor’s meticulous coiffure, in particular, was in a sorry state—I believe he had finally tired of his theatrics. “Untie my man, now,” he hissed, “He will convey the animal to my museum, then we will part and never speak of this again.”
Aiba turned to me as his hand began moving toward the minion’s hands; I do not think he was aware of the tears slipping from the corners of his eyes. “Don’t…” Nino began.
“Wait,” I interrupted, still struggling with my breath, “Wait,” I finally managed, fixing the professor with as hard a glare as I could muster, “You couldn’t kill a man for this. No matter how insane you are, and that’s saying something. You would not kill a man before three witnesses. You must know that you’ll be hanged for this.”
The professor’s forearm came up to crush Nino’s throat as a maniacal gleam entered his eyes. He raised the glass to Nino’s cheek; I will admire Nino to the end of my days for his refusal to flinch as the glass was pressed beneath his eye, “No, perhaps not murder. But disfigure? Blind? Very suitable alternatives. And I wonder how long it would take before you had informed the police—could you have me arrested faster than I could find passage to France? I can assure you, doctor, I have many friends on the Continent who would be happy to shelter me from the English barbarians.”
I lowered my face, hoping to at least deprive the professor of my expression of helplessness, but I think I was not entirely successful; he laughed cruelly.
Ignoring Nino’s cries, Aiba began to untie the confined man’s hands, his face hidden from me as he concentrated on the task. The man’s hands were nearly free when we heard the click; I raised my head to discover Ohno kneeling beside the professor, pressing the head of a pistol—a very familiar-looking pistol—against Professor Gackt’s temple.
Nino’s face, after an instant of utter shock, was suffused with such a complex mixture of emotions that, even in our state of anxiety, I could hardly tear my eyes away from him—I had not seen him so transparent since the night he had shown up at Garden Place with a stab wound, begging to see Satoshi. There was anger—almost fury—in his face, but also relief, love, and total adoration in his eyes as he stared up at the valet.
Ohno, naturally, betrayed no emotion as he spoke, “Sir, I am a humble valet and an artist who has never sold a painting. In contrast with yourself, I have nothing to lose, and I could commit a murder very comfortably.”
Professor Gackt swallowed, trying to compose himself—but there was a twitch at his eyelid. “And if I should kill him first?” he managed to rasp out.
“Then, sir, I would not hesitate to kill you before turning the gun on myself.” Ohno ignored Nino’s strangled noise of protest, “I am very attached to his life, but I have no particular attachment to my own.” The valet raised his other hand to scratch at the side of his nose, “So if you care for your own life, sir, you will release him before my finger slips and I blow your brains out. I ran all the way here, and my hands are shaking.”
Will any reader be surprised that the professor, flinching a little at the press of the cold metal on his temple, lowered the jagged glass from Nino’s throat? Loyal followers of the detective’s adventures will recall that the usually mild-mannered valet can at times possess an air of irresistible authority—an air of authority made all the more irresistible, in this case, by the presence of a revolver.
In any case, the professor lowered the glass, and Nino jerked from his grasp, his eyes still fixed on Ohno, who seemed to be purposefully ignoring him. “Tie his hands,” the valet ordered. Aiba, with a fresh length of twine, sprang to the task.
“You fools,” the professor was hissing, “you cannot imagine that you will leave here with the ape…I will have you all arrested and shoot the animal myself…”
“Gag him,” Ohno commanded.
“With pleasure,” Aiba murmured, producing a handkerchief from somewhere in the depths of his jacket and promptly stuffing it in the professor’s mouth; the professor’s eyes burned with indignation.
It was when the professor’s hands were bound—Aiba tested the security of his knots several times (another trick, along with lock-picking, that he had picked up during his days as an amateur detective)—that Ohno lowered the revolver and tucked it inside his jacket. His body seemed, suddenly, to go limp, and in a moment, still kneeling, he had pressed his head into Nino’s chest and seized his shoulders in a grip so tight it must have been bruising; at first, I thought that he was weeping, but I think he was merely shaking as he held tightly to his former lordship. Nino appeared confused by the valet’s action, his expression one of startled bemusement as he slowly raised his hands to rest them carefully in the valet’s hair. I could see words of admonishment on Nino's lips; but he seemed to unable to speak them as Ohno clung to him.
I averted my gaze from the strange embrace. Ohno seemed to require a private moment with Nino, and I had to tend to Aiba’s right hand—it was horribly smeared with dirt and blood. Tugging the detective to me, I pulled out my last remaining handkerchief only to find it covered with Lord Toma’s blood.
Aiba gave a shaky laugh at the sight. “I have some gauze in my left pocket,” he offered as he began fumbling with his other hand.
“Hold still,” I ordered brusquely, knocking his left hand away and reaching into his pocket myself. “And keep your arm raised and parallel to the ground.” At his immediate obedience, I allowed myself a small smile, “And why do you have gauze?” I inquired more gently, “Are you thinking of become an amateur physician now?” I tore off some linen from the bottom of my shirt (Aiba gave a small gasp and an un-necessarily shocked exclamation of “your best shirt!” as I did so), wiping the filth from his hand as best I could before wrapping it with the gauze.
“I’ve had it all night,” he explained softly, wincing a little as I worked, “I thought if Horatio had sustained some kind of injury or scratch during the escape, we might be glad of it later.” It was then that the detective smiled—really smiled—his face lighting and the lines at the corners of his eyes appearing.
I understood the detective’s feelings—as he spoke the name “Horatio” I, too, felt a glow of happiness within me. It seemed, now, that his rescue was really possible, that our obstacles were finally overcome. The detective and I were staring at each other, both grinning foolishly, his hand still in mine, when a new intruder dashed all of our newly-formed hopes for Horatio’s liberation—
“All right gentlemen, I think that’s quite enough for one night. The Christmas edition goes to press in four hours, and his lordship still owes me three thousand words.”
The scene would have been comic if not for the sickening feeling of defeat that overcame us. Ogura had materialized in the greenhouse as if out of thin air, his impressive figure casting a large shadow over the already gloomy scene. He looked slightly perturbed by the cold but otherwise calm; as he spoke, he reached into his great coat pocket for a cigar and matches, beginning to puff away after his pronouncement. Worse—in the dim light, I discerned not just Ogura, but two of his men (each of them had stalked Garden Place in search of Nino at various times that winter) and Constable Hatori with his deputy, Chinen. We were fortunate, certainly, to be discovered by our local constable and friend, but all possibility of spiriting Horatio away into the country seemed at an end. In fact, we were all on the verge of arrest.
“You shouldn’t smoke in here,” Nino observed sourly—I sent a glare in his direction, but his face appeared so pinched and defeated that I could not find it in myself to reprimand him. Ohno had quickly moved to block Nino from our new guests, his own glare surprisingly terrifying—I think he was almost growling. Nino placed a restraining hand on his shoulder as he stopped forward, rubbing his brow tiredly, “You’ll kill the flowers,” he sighed.
Professor Gackt had not, of course, been silent during all this time—he had been shouting through his gag ever since this new party had arrived. But to my surprise, both Ogura and Constable Hatori seemed perfectly content to ignore him; indeed, I realized, neither man seemed in any particular hurry to get on with the arrests. I saw that Ogura, though pretending to study an azalea, kept a sharp eye on Nino as he smoked. Constable Hatori, too, had only nodded at us all quite affably but made no other move—he seemed to be looking to Ogura for direction.
“How did you find me?” Nino asked wearily.
Ogura chuckled, “We finally realized that the best way to track you would be to follow him.” He gestured in Ohno’s direction before taking another puff, “And then we ran into our good constable along the way. Apparently a wounded man has been discovered in the woods nearby, and he was very insistent that his assailant was still hiding himself in the Zoological Gardens.” Ogura’s expression seemed purposefully bland as he continued, “You are in a scrape, your lordship.” (Gackt gave a muffled growl from his position on the ground). “I hope that it will not prevent you from completing the Christmas special,” he observed mildly.
Nino started at Ogura’s words; a light was kindling in his eyes. I felt a throb of hope—I recognized the signs that Nino was formulating a plan, “I am afraid it might, my friend,” he began slowly, his voice gaining confidence as he continued, “You see, my companions and I were taking a late night stroll in the gardens when we heard a terrific crashing in the greenhouse. When we entered, we found these men tied up. And I’m afraid we tripped and cut ourselves on the glass. We were just about to free these poor men when you came upon us.” Nino’s eyes were twinkling, “Naturally, I should like to get to work, but being discovered at such a scene…the formalities…if we should be brought in for questioning, for instance…I would be at the station all night…” he trailed off suggestively.
I nearly threw a hand over Aiba’s mouth, certain he would begin protesting; his astonishment was so obvious that I despaired of us pulling the thing off. Every man in the room was perfectly aware, of course, that Nino was talking absolute rot—but as long as no one acknowledged it as rot, there was still a chance. I had to settle for pulling the detective back by his coat and squeezing his good hand in warning.
Ogura seemed to be meditating. He tipped the ash from his cigar into a potted plant, “And the chimpanzee inside that box?”
Nino didn’t even blink, “We haven’t the faintest idea how he came to be here.”
Ogura nodded, “Constable Hatori, if your deputy would be so good as to lead Professor Gackt and his companion to a quiet corner of the greenhouse, I would like to have a private word with him while you take charge of the situation here.”
“With pleasure, sir,” the Constable assented, sending Chinen to lead a very astonished Gackt and his minion—both still bound—away to the opposite end of the greenhouse with Ogura and his followers.
“Well,” Constable Hatori began quietly, surveying the scene before him, “No one seems to be too badly injured. Though that’s a worrisome cut on your throat, your lordship,” he observed.
Nino reached up to touch his throat, looking surprised at the blood that appeared on his fingertips, “A superficial wound, I assure you. I must have scratched myself without noticing,” he replied. Ohno paled at the sight, hastily removing his scarf to wrap it around Nino's neck.
Constable Hatori held up the fallen sword, “And whose blood would this be?” he asked calmly as he examined it.
“Uh…” Aiba seemed to have regained his power of speech, “We…discovered the sword with Professor Gackt…I’m afraid I…stupidly…tried to pick it up by the blade…” he raised his bandaged hand sheepishly, flushing.
The constable raised one eyebrow, tucking the sword under his arm before continuing to scan the ground. “Well, how fortunate that you were here to rescue the professor and his friend from whatever thugs have assaulted them,” he concluded. His expression softened as his gaze settled on the wooden crate that contained Horatio. He looked directly at Aiba when he spoke next, “Sir, we will have to return your friend to the zoo tonight.”
Aiba took a half-step forward, his voice choked, “Constable…please…if we had five minutes…”
Constable Hatori shook his head; his tone was sorrowful but firm, “This animal belongs to the London Zoo. Not to you, and not yet to Professor Gackt.” He lowered his voice as he continued, “There is only so much I can do, Aiba. It has already cost me some trouble to make sure that I was the officer to arrive at this scene.”
Aiba nodded, “I understand, Constable, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.” He took another step forward, “Please, just allow me to accompany you as you return him—allow me to see him settled comfortably at the zoo. And I should make sure of his condition now.”
Constable Hatori nodded, “Go ahead, sir.”
Hot tears of frustration threatened to overwhelm me; I turned away as Aiba approached the crate, struggling to rein in my emotions. I could not bear to watch the detective look upon Horatio, knowing that all of our efforts had failed. Nino, I saw, had turned to lean into Ohno, their temples touching gently as they each wrapped an arm about the other's shoulders; they held each other tightly while staring at their feet.
Hating my own cowardice but unable to accompany the detective, I turned my face away again, determinedly glaring at a nearby rose bush. I listened as Aiba slid the heavy wooden cover—it was in a sort of grid pattern, allowing the animal inside to breathe—to the side. I raised a hand to cover my eyes when—reader, incredible as it may sound—I felt the cold, faint touch of a tiny hand intertwining her fingers with mine, and then pressing her thumb against my own.
The small hand was withdrawn so instantly that I thought for a moment that I had hallucinated—but no, I looked down into the rose bush and suddenly discerned, as I had not before, Umi’s upturned face among the white roses. She seemed to be trying to reassure me; she raised a finger to her lips while giving me a determined nod. Trust me, her wide eyes seemed to plead with me.
It was as though an electric current had passed through me—I am confident that my hair stood on end. Now I was certain that I had gone mad. But then I heard it—Aiba’s cry of surprise. “My god,” he gasped. I whirled around just in time to catch sight of the detective’s stricken expression as he peered into the crate. He raised his head, searching for me, “Jun…he is gone…”
I hastened over to the detective to support him; his legs seemed in danger of giving out from underneath him, and he leaned against me heavily. He was trembling, “Horatio is gone…”
The constable, Ohno, and Nino rushed to peer inside the crate; I turned the detective’s face to fix his gaze on me. “Detective,” I whispered, “detective, trust me.” I intertwined our fingers—his hand was shaking—and pressed my thumb against his; he looked down at our hands dumbly, mouth gaping, for several moments before finally raising his eyes to search my countenance; I tried, somehow, to communicate all I had learned with the detective with only a look. To my surprise, my gaze seemed to convince him, though he continued to look rather shaky as he swallowed before whispering, “Jun…our girl…”
I nodded; the detective worked quickly to recover himself, turning to the befuddled policeman, “Constable, I can assure you that we had nothing to do with this sudden disappearance. To the very best of my knowledge up until a moment ago, Horatio rested inside this container. We have had no hand in this, I swear.”
Nino was glaring at us shrewdly; I believe he suspected us of some underhanded maneuver. Ohno was smiling broadly, looking now generally pleased with the direction that the evening was taking. Constable Hatori appeared torn—I could almost read the conflict in his face as he removed his police helmet to begin worrying at it distractedly. On the one hand, it appeared that we had, at some point in the evening, stolen Horatio away. On the other hand, Aiba had nearly fainted from shock; his distress had appeared so real that it was difficult to doubt his ignorance of Horatio's whereabouts. And Constable Hatori knew, from very long experience, that our detective was a spectacularly bad liar.
After three rounds on the edge of his helmet, the constable seemed to reach a decision, “Help me replace the cover,” he muttered. We moved with alacrity to assist him. “When Ogura and Professor Gackt return, not a word out of any of you,” he continued, “I take an oath, your lordship, that if you should offer so much as one remark I will arrest the lot of you immediately…”
Nino scowled, “Why should you think that I would have anything to say…” In an impressive feat, Constable Hatori silenced him with a look.
“I repeat,” he continued, pacing back and forth nervously as we stared at him, “Not one word,” he whispered, as a rustling of branches announced the return of the party.
Only Ogura, Professor Gackt, and Deputy Chinen returned—the rest of the party must have been dispatched for other nefarious purposes. Ogura was, as usual, calm, while the professor had come to resemble a figure from Madame Tussaud’s Museum, so fixed and impassive was his expression. Deputy Chinen, in contrast, looked almost indecently relieved to hurry to his constable’s side—I could only imagine how terrifying it must have been to mediate a private interview between the feared newspaper editor and the professor.
Ogura clapped his hands and began rubbing them together in a business-like manner; he appeared pleased by the outcome of the meeting, “Well, the professor has most kindly explained all the circumstances of this evening to me, and we have agreed to say nothing more about it. Your lordship, if you will come with me, I have your pen and paper prepared in the cab, as well as some light refreshments.”
The professor, after taking a moment to reign in his obvious fury, seemed to un-stick his jaw with a great effort to speak, “On condition, of course, that this beast is returned to the London Zoo tonight. Under the supervision of the constable.” (The reader will forgive me, I am sure, the excessive pleasure I took in observing that the professor looked as if he wanted to swallow his own tongue as he spoke the words).
All our faces expressed varying degrees of astonishment at this strange capitulation of the professor’s; for Nino, however, the outcome did not appear so wholly unexpected. But now he hesitated before moving forward, sending an anxious glance in Aiba’s direction.
Constable Hatori raised a hand, “One moment please, sir. I must beg to ask the professor a few questions to complete my investigation.”
For the first time that evening, Ogura betrayed irritation; he examined his wristwatch with a frown, “You understand, constable, that I am working against a deadline…the fate of hundreds of thousands of newspaper sales hang in the balance…and since there are no charges being brought, I think this hardly merits an investigation…”
“A few questions, sir, I implore you,” the constable replied firmly.
Ogura studied the constable as though evaluating the strength of his resolve; after a moment, he nodded.
“Very good, sir.” Constable Hatori began to pace slowly back and forth, “Professor, you state that you wish the chimpanzee to be returned to the London Zoo tonight?”
The professor, already struggling to control his temper, gave a curt nod, “Yes.”
“And, to your knowledge, where is the chimpanzee in question currently held?”
The professor raised his brows, but finally replied under the constable’s determined gaze, “Why, in that wooden case, of course.”
“And how do you know that said case contains the chimpanzee in question?”
Gackt gave a low groan of impatience, “Is this some kind of game? Are you enjoying the opportunity to play at being the detective?”
Constable Hatori did not appear the least effected by the professor’s impertinence, though his deputy was cowering into the azaleas, “I must be thorough, sir. I must know whether we are indeed in possession of the correct chimpanzee. I repeat, how do you know that this case contains the animal in question?”
The professor rolled his eyes, “You English and your inquiries,” he grumbled under his breath, “I know because when I discovered the case in the greenhouse an hour ago, I opened it and saw that it was the chimpanzee—the only chimpanzee currently in London, I think you will acknowledge—belonging to the London Zoo.”
“He was in the crate an hour ago?”
“And has this crate left your sight since then? Has it been moved, or tampered with, or in the possession of anyone but yourself?”
The professor stared at him wonderingly, “Of course not. It has been under the watch of myself and my man.”
Constable Hatori bowed, “Thank you, professor, that is all. One wishes to be thorough in the execution of one’s duties.”
“Then thank god this farce is at an end,” the professor muttered, turning from us with a flourish of his long dark coat; he stopped, however, to look back at Aiba, “I think we will meet again soon, Professor Masaki,” he promised darkly, baring his unnaturally-pointed canines as he spoke.
“Perhaps at the next meeting of the Zoological Society,” Aiba replied mildy; I burst out laughing as, with a hiss, the professor disappeared into the night.
Ogura was now oblivious to all but the fate of his Christmas edition of "Taka’s Tales of Terror"; he had seized Nino’s arm and was nearly dragging him from the greenhouse, prevented only by Ohno coming forward to arrest his hand with his own. Ogura sighed and removed his hand, “Yes, yes, I understand, he will not be mistreated, just allow him to come.”
“It is alright, Satoshi,” Nino reassured Ohno quietly, “I have thought of the ending just now.”
Ohno lowered his hand to intertwine his fingers with Nino’s, “Then I will come with you, Kazunari.” Nino sent Aiba a questioning look; the detective nodded.
Nino turned his gaze to me, “Then I leave the rest to you, doctor,” he gave me a small smile.
I nodded, “Thank you, Nino.”
Aiba and I were left with Constable Hatori and Deputy Chinen; Constable Hatori was staring at the empty crate meditatively while Deputy Chinen stared at him, his confusion at the course of the evening’s proceedings evident. “So…you have no plans to arrest us?” Aiba suggested hopefully.
After a few moments, the constable shook his head, a smile beginning to form as he spoke, “No, I think not. At least, not tonight. As far as I know, the chimpanzee was in the crate one hour ago, and, at least to the knowledge of all involved, the crate was not opened, moved, or touched by anyone during that time. It is possible, of course, that Professor Gackt has lied and the chimpanzee was not there an hour ago; it is also possible that some third party has tampered with it. Or, perhaps, Horatio has effected his own escape,” the constable smiled more broadly. “I have at least plausible grounds to deny your involvement in the affair. So, for tonight, I think you and the doctor may walk free. But if I should hear of another attempt being made on the London Zoo…or any further fisticuffs in the Zoological Gardens…”
“I promise you, constable,” Aiba offered eagerly, “From now on, it is my resolution to behave as a model citizen. I will spend my evenings quietly at home with the doctor, eschewing all forms of investigation and adventure. I am thinking of taking up knitting under Ohno’s tutelage.”
“I somehow doubt that will come to pass,” the constable replied, dryly but not unkindly. “That being the case, until we meet again,” the constable winked at us before turning to leave; Aiba did his best to return the gesture while I smiled gratefully in the constable’s direction and attempted to look as law-abiding as possible (a difficult task when one had a torn shirt and was covered in blood, not all of which was one’s own). Deputy Chinen’s gaped as he stared between us, shaking his head as he attempted to make sense of our conversation. “Chinen,” the constable ordered. Still dumbstruck, the deputy slowly followed his commander from the greenhouse, tripping over roots as he went.
It is obvious that our miracle was made possible only by the kind assistance of Constable Hatori, Deputy Chinen, and yes, even Ogura—how grateful we were then that he had been tailing Nino for weeks in an effort to get him to deliver the ending of "Taka’s Tales" for the Christmas edition! But, all these efforts, as wonderful as they were, would have been meaningless without our most precious source of assistance—
Aiba and I waited until perfect silence reigned inside the greenhouse; when we were certain of our privacy, I set off for the rose bush with as much speed as I could manage, Aiba following unquestioningly behind me. Pressing the heavy boughs aside, I found Umi still crouched among the roses. She wore no coat and held her shoulders tightly; I was reminded irresistibly of those many times when Aiba and I had discovered her in some out of the way place at the GHL—curled up in the hallway, the pantry, the attic, once in a closet—in a similar state. But now, she was smiling as she looked up at us. I heard Aiba give a cry as I swept her into a tight embrace, wrapping her up inside my overcoat, "Princess,” I breathed, “What in the world have you done?”
She managed to wriggle herself out of my grip (wisely, as I realized too late that I was nearly suffocating her) before beginning to babble excitedly, making signs at Aiba as she spoke; seeing my incomprehension, she sighed in frustration and tugged at my hand. We followed her to a far corner of the greenhouse covered in thick undergrowth. With a beautiful smile, she pushed aside some branches to reveal a chimpanzee sleeping on the grass, carefully wrapped up in what I recognized as Lady Riisa’s best India shawl. “Aiba, doctor,” she directed our attention eagerly, as though introducing us, “Horatio."
Reader, it was many months (and, in the case of some details, years) before we would learn how Umi had come to be in the greenhouse of the Zoological Gardens that night. She could not then explain to us how she had traversed the busy London streets to join us there, and later we would only hear the story in fragments and at different times. But, if I attempt to fit the pieces of her account together, it seems to have happened something like this:
Umi felt very alarmed as we left her in the theater that night; she was frightened by the expression on our faces as we conversed in the aisle. Feeling somehow certain that we should require our help (and vaguely afraid, she confessed some years later, that one of us was being taken to the hospital without saying goodbye to her—I think she was remembering the sudden death of her mother, who had been taken to the hospital and died there in the middle of the night while Umi slept), she seated herself near the end of Miss Maki’s row, ignoring the magic lantern show and watching us anxiously as we left the theater. Apparently Lady Riisa had come by to join the girls, seating herself further into the row and wrapping her shawl around Umi as she passed by.
Umi was not certain how much time passed after that, but soon she felt resolved that she must find us. She said the magic lantern show was still going on as she crept quietly from the theater—Miss Maki and Lady Riisa must have been distracted by the explosion of fireworks and clouds of smoke onstage that marked the climax of the show.
Umi remembered being frightened to see that it was snowing out, but she only wrapped the shawl about her more tightly and slipped out onto the street, hugging herself closely to the building. And here, a true miracle seems to have occurred, for just then she saw us emerge from the alley and step out onto the street to hail a cab—we must have been returning from our back-alley conference with Sho and Lord Toma.
Seeing how pale and drawn our faces were, Umi grew agitated—she became convinced that we were leaving for the hospital without telling her. Her plan, she later said, was to follow us to the hospital and try to stay with us there for a little while before returning to the GHL; seeing us enter the cab, she promptly stepped out in front of the horses and begged the driver to let her ride with him.
“You spoke to him?” Aiba interrupted her to ask, clearly astonished.
Umi shook her head, “I only looked up at him beseechingly, and he knew what I wanted. I had often used that way of traveling around London when I lived with mother. It worked well if you were careful and could spy a kind driver.”
I shuddered at the thought of Umi soliciting rides from drivers at the age of four or five, but apparently she was quite practiced at it, for when the driver gave her the nod she climbed up the wheel and onto his seat quite easily.
Shivering, she drew her shawl more tightly about her, her vision nearly blinded by the now thickly-falling snow. But she felt her heart ease as the cab proceeded not, as she had imagined, in the direction of the hospital, but towards what she eventually recognized as the gardens where she had played together with us. She watched us leave the cab; she hopped down and the driver went on without a word, naturally uninterested in the destination of one of the countless street urchins that accosted him everyday. He must have been either a particularly indifferent or a particularly kind man—he must have believed Umi to be on the run after stealing the fine shawl from a lady, and he either did not care, or he hoped to aid her in her escape.
Umi recognized a few places in the garden from our visit there, enough to avoid being completely disoriented; but it was our slowed pace (because of my leg) that allowed her to follow us. When Umi first told us this story, she simply said that she followed us through the woods and into the greenhouse. Many more months later, she confessed that something much more frightening had occurred; she had been trailing behind us at some distance, now thoroughly mystified as to our destination but still curious, when she spied a man with a bloodied face (Sho’s victim?) thrashing his way through the forest and in her direction; she jumped behind a tree to hide as he passed—she could still remember the terror she felt at hearing him cursing under his breath as he passed her.
When he disappeared from sight, she came out from her hiding place—but she had completely lost sight of us. Even now, I shudder to think of our girl so cold, alone, and frightened in those woods—it is incredible that she was not hurt or lost.
She was, she reported, very tempted to cry. But after having seen such a frightening man, she was now convinced that we were in some great trouble and required her assistance; she forced herself to look about calmly—and then she spied the lights of the greenhouse from a distance and followed them. She heard our voices when she entered the greenhouse and began to run to us, but—suddenly hearing what seemed to her to be the high, cruel voice of a monster—she, like a natural-born detective, dropped onto her hands and knees and began to crawl soundlessly through the foliage until she reached our clearing.
“Why did you think to hide yourself instead of coming to us directly?” I wondered in amazement.
Umi smiled, “Because it was an adventure, and I was father’s assistant detective. I knew from his stories that detectives never barge in on a scene—they approach quietly and gather what information they can.”
From spying on our conversation, Umi slowly understood the general outline of what was occuring—she was familiar with stories of Horatio and had even seen his photographs; she could not follow everything but realized that the “bad man” had captured Horatio in that box and was going to take him away; it was then that Umi realized why she had been compelled to follow us there—“I knew,” she told us very seriously some months later, “that I was there to save Horatio.”
Umi had given a startled squeak upon seeing the detective seize the sword in his bare hand, but her cry went un-noticed in the commotion of our struggle; it was during the fight that she had crawled round the edge of the clearing to reach Horatio’s crate and, using all her strength to slide the top nearly half open, had looked inside and reached out to pull him from his prison.
“He looked at me,” she told us later, “and I knew him immediately. He seemed strange and dazed but his eyes did open, and I think he helped me lift him from the crate because I do not think I would have been strong enough; he crawled while I pulled and then he fell on top of me—I remember I had to roll him off me before I could get up again to close the lid, and then I took off her ladyship’s shawl and spread it on the ground, rolling him onto it—he seemed like he was asleep again—and I dragged him by the edges of the shawl into the bushes—I was scared by the fighting but I knew you would win.”
Umi dragged Horatio as far away from the scene as she could manage, wrapping him up in the shawl (she was afraid he might be cold) and making sure the branches covered him from sight before returning to the scene of battle; when she arrived, she saw that we were hurt, and that Gackt was holding up a piece of glass to Nino’s throat.
A year later, Umi told us a new part of the story: she told us that she had already witnessed many fights and bloody injuries during her life—they had always terrified her, and she would curl up inside her arms and legs when they happened, or inside her mother’s arms if she was there, trying her best to shut out the sights and sounds of violence. The last fight she had witnessed had been the one in which her shin was cut almost its full length with a knife—it had been an accident, she said, the man hadn’t meant to do it but she had been in the wrong place. It was after that fight that she and her mother had left for the GHL and her mother grew sick and died—she had always, she said tearfully, believed herself to be somehow responsible for her mother’s illness, because it was only after they left home that she grew so sick, and she knew even then that they had left home because of what had happened to her leg.
So now, she was determined not to curl up and hide—as frightened as she was, she wanted to fight, “There was a burning in my chest, and my heart was throbbing with anger.” There was a large shard of glass nearby; she picked it up carefully, determined to attack the bad man who held Nino. “But my hands were shaking—I cut my finger on the glass, and I could not move my feet no matter how I wished to.”
It was then that she felt a light, gentle pressure on her shoulder; she whipped about to find Ohno crouched beside her in the bushes. She managed to stifle her cry of surprise as he raised a finger to his lips. She remembered that he was panting, and his eyes were dark and frightening; but his presence calmed her instantly. She was sure, then, that he would save us. He gently removed the glass from her hands, “Stay here and do not move while I rescue them,” he commanded softly. She released her weapon willingly, watching with satisfaction as Ohno saved us.
The rest of Umi’s actions that night are already known to the reader.
I think the reader will hardly be able to credit this account; it must appear unbelievable that such a small girl could cross London on a winter night, save a chimpanzee, and even resolve to cut down a man three times her size with a shard of glass, all on her own resolve (though we know that even smaller children in London perform equal acts of bravery in order to survive one more day on the streets). But I feel the truth of this account in every one of Umi’s hard-won words—it reveals to me as nothing else could why Umi cared for Aiba so immediately and so intensely, and why she felt herself compelled to follow and protect him. Umi is truly the detective’s daughter—if not in fact, then in spirit.
But then, we knew nothing of all this. We only knew that Umi had miraculously led us to Horatio’s sleeping form, and that there might still be some possibility of smuggling Horatio out of London that night.
Aiba caught Umi up in his arms, furiously kissing the top of her head as he thanked her, “President, you are the most excellent and fearless adventurer I have ever known.”
“Do not praise her for endangering herself,” I snapped as the detective passed her to me—but I must confess that I was smiling. I checked Umi over for any injury—discovering a small cut on her index finger—then wrapped her in my coat. Aiba had lifted Horatio into his arms, somehow managing to negotiate him in spite of his bandaged hand. He lifted the chimpanzee to press an ear to his chest; the detective raised his head and looked at us with glowing eyes, “He still seems well, Jun,” he smiled warmly. Umi and I could not help but return his brilliant smile; Umi clapped her hands together. “I know you are not going to like this, my dear fellow,” he continued, “but I will take him to the station alone.”
“But how can you manage…”
The detective’s eyes were determined. “I will take him in my coat. I’ll avoid notice—I’ll take the boat down and then walk to the rendezvous point. I’ll keep to the side streets.”
“But that’s insane!” I cried, so vehemently that I felt Umi stiffen in my arms and drop her hand away from my collar. I lowered my voice, “What if he wakes? What if he attacks someone? Or you? And if you’re discovered? You can’t carry an animal around London!”
“I know, Jun, but how else can we convey him to the station tonight?”
I cast my eyes about the greenhouse desperately, hoping some solution would present itself. We might just be able to manage the crate, but with Aiba’s injured hand it was unlikely—and, of course, it would be almost impossible to transfer it across London discreetly. I almost growled in frustration, “Then I will at least come with you…”
“And Umi?” the detective returned quietly. “The GHL will be half mad with fear by now—they’ll be searching the streets for her in a panic. There will be policeman out for her as well. Take her to the GHL, and I’ll meet you there once I’ve given Horatio to Professor Inoue’s assistant.”
Before I could protest, Aiba approached me and placed his injured hand gently on my arm, fixing me with his most earnest gaze, “Jun,” he pleaded quietly, “Have faith. I brought Horatio into London—it is only right that I should be the one to help him out. I know that I can accomplish this.”
I glared. It was not fair for the detective to appeal to me to trust him when I was only concerned for his safety. And concern for the general safety of the London public should Horatio awaken and escape did pass (at least briefly) through my mind.
But I knew that if I did not allow the detective to do this, that something between us would change—that he would always feel as though I had been faithless to him in some way. I swallowed, “If you are not at the GHL by two, I will send out a search party.” The detective smiled, “And you must promise me that this is the last time that you will carry a chimpanzee through the streets of London.”
The detective seized the back of my jacket and pulled us into a tight embrace, Horatio bumping up against Umi; she reached out to gently pat the slumbering chimpanzee’s head. “Jun, one never knows what the future may require,” Aiba replied quietly.
Aiba had been right; Umi and I were still far from the GHL when we encountered Lady Riisa roaming the streets with a deputy. I hopped down from the cab with Umi in my arms to meet her. Her ladyship burst into tears at the sight of us, snatching Umi from me and glaring at me through her sobs, as though I had intentionally kidnapped the girl—I suppose I did look suspicious with my shirt stained with blood and small cuts across my face and neck.
Umi looked aghast as her ladyship clung to her. Some months later, Umi told me that she had not thought that anyone would notice that she had gone missing; indeed, her greatest fear had been that it would be discovered that she had taken and lost her ladyship’s precious shawl.
But her ladyship clearly did not notice or care for the loss of her shawl as she continued to passionately embrace and kiss her. “You’re frightening her,” I protested, reaching out for Umi; her ladyship hissed at me, flinching back from my hand.
“Your ladyship, I will explain all,” I promised in a low voice, casting my eyes in the direction of the policeman; Lady Riisa caught my meaning quickly, her icy displeasure thawing slightly as she dismissed the policeman and allowed me to escort them back in the direction of the GHL. We encountered Madame Becky and Miss Maki along with several more officers along the way, as well as nearly half the residents of St. Giles (including some children smaller than Umi), all having spread out across London in search of her.
By this point Umi looked deathly pale, and her eyes were swimming; I could see that she was stunned and frightened by the commotion that she had caused. I wished the detective were with us—he would have said something to turn the proceedings into another adventure. But I could only squeeze Umi’s hand softly while she struggled to breathe in Madame Becky’s suffocating embrace.
Once back at the GHL, we were greeted at the door by at least thirty young ladies in their nightgowns, all of them pushing against one another for a look at Umi and giving small shrieks of terror as I entered the hall behind her; it was then that Umi finally gave in and began sobbing. “Ladies,” I shouted, “as her doctor, I demand that she be taken to bed immediately. She is overtired, and she must have absolute peace and quiet.”
Miss Maki had the GHL in remarkably good order within minutes, and it was as silent as a church as we brought Umi into her ladyship’s and Madame Becky’s room for the night. Madame Becky had collected the first aid supplies, and I carefully disinfected and bandaged Umi’s finger as I told the two ladies of Umi’s miraculous intervention; I noticed Umi smiling shyly as I recounted the moment when I felt her hand against my own and looked down in wonder to discover her in the rose bush.
The two ladies looked at her in amazement; Lady Riisa climbed into the bed beside her and pulled her into her arms. “Umi,” she said softly, “Please, if you want to leave the house on an adventure, tell me, and I can help you. You may not believe it, but I am very good at adventures and disguises—I can even dress up as a boy, and I look just like my brother Nino. But you must tell me, or Rebecca. She’s even better at adventures than I am, she used to run across rooftops and slide down drainpipes.” Eyes wide with surprise, Umi turned towards me, as if seeking confirmation; I nodded my head and winked at her. “Promise me, Umi?” her ladyship insisted. Umi nodded, her eyes beginning to drift shut as her ladyship stroked her hair. Within a few minutes, she was asleep.
Casting one final glare in my direction, her ladyship left to attend to a few of the girls who were still awake with colds; Madame Becky remained behind to help me clean my own injuries.
“Doctor, if she is already this wild now,” Madame Becky observed quietly as she smoothed a bandage (with perhaps more force than was strictly necessary) upon my cheek, “then I fear that the GHL will not be able to hold her.” She gave me a meaningful stare, “She might require people more used to these kind of shenanigans to keep account of her.”
I turned to examine Umi for a few moments; tucked into the large bed, her chest visibly rising and falling with each breath, she appeared so small and fragile that I could hardly believe that she was the same young lady that only a few hours before had been jumping up onto carriage wheels and running through a pitch-black forest. Not to mention pulling sleeping chimpanzees out of crates. Now, with her eyebrows furrowed as she slept and her face white, she looked as though a breeze might finish her off. I could only imagine what would happen if she were to end up on the wrong side of Holmes or Watson, or of one of Aiba’s experiments. Or of my temper.
I found it difficult to speak when I turned to face Madame Becky, but her eyes demanded an answer. “Rebecca,” I finally spoke, “Umi needs a mother. The two of you love her and care for her; you can make up for the mother she lost in a way that we cannot.”
Madame Becky shook her head, her green eyes flashing stubbornly, “She has a mother already, Jun,” she replied firmly. “What she’s never had is a father. And now she could have two.”
I gave a choked laughed, “Madame, as delightful as it is to converse with you, I am almost half-mad with fear for the detective, and I do not think I can seriously contemplate at the moment the tremendous overhaul of Garden Place that would be required to render it fit for a small girl to inhabit. So I beg of you to leave the subject. For tonight, at least.”
Madame Becky seemed to be fighting back a smile as she replied, “If you will consent to watch over her until Masaki returns, then I might find it possible to stop pestering you for a few hours.”
Madame Becky stood, then leaned over to kiss my cheek, “And thank you for bringing her back safely, Jun,” she whispered. When she raised her head, I saw that there were tears in her eyes.
I shook my head, “It was not my doing. And that she was able to follow us at all was due to my carelessness.”
“Still,” she persisted, “Dangerous as it was, would you honestly wish to change any part of tonight?”
“Truthfully, I would not,” I confessed.
“Then let your gratitude to her guide your future actions,” she commanded. Confident of her victory, she swept imperiously from the room; I did not protest—any man would be foolish to attempt to win a battle of words against Madame Becky.
I groaned softly, allowing my forehead to fall against the bedspread. Exhaustion overtook me—it felt as though it had been days since I had last slept. Yet as soon as I closed my eyes, visions of Aiba and Horatio, injured or arrested, flashed across the darkness. I opened my eyes with a sigh, then felt a small hand tugging at my hair, so tightly that it made my eyes water. I carefully disentangled Umi’s hand, taking it in my own to prevent her from ripping out my hair entirely. I turned my head so that I could watch her as she slept; she shifted restlessly, moving about until her cheek was pressed against our intertwined hands—slowly, drool began to pool between my fingers.
Intolerable as such an arrangement was, it proved strangely calming; within minutes, I had fallen into a dreamless sleep.
If my sleep had not been so singularly dreamless, I would have thought, upon waking, that I had entered into a dream—for I discovered myself lying upon the bed, facing Aiba and Umi, both slumbering quietly. Umi was curled up against Aiba’s chest, facing me, but she had thrown out a hand to rest it across my nose. I wondered that I had not suffocated in my sleep; one of her fingers was entering my nose. I carefully removed her hand, intertwining my fingers with hers as I moved to rest her hand upon the bed. Aiba, with his curious ability to sense the moment I had awoken, stirred and opened an eye.
“Horatio…” I began, still half-asleep as I attempted to raise myself; Aiba placed a hand upon my shoulder to press me back against the bed, “He is well,” he reassured me, his voice rough—I felt certain that he had been weeping at some point before falling asleep. But his eyes were warm and untroubled as they met mine. My heart eased. “I saw him off with the professor’s assistant at two this morning.” Aiba paused, casting his eyes down—he seemed to struggle with himself for a moment before continuing, “I am so glad. It is a miracle that he remained unconscious. I should be thankful—but I had hoped, somehow, that I would be able to say goodbye,” the detective concluded with a small smile of self-derision.
“You will see him again,” I replied firmly, surprised to find that I believed my own words, “We will visit him soon, and he will live to see the spring—think of all that he has already endured.”
Aiba’s smile grew genuine; he reached out a hand to cover mine and Umi’s.
“And Sho and his lordship? Have you heard anything of them?” I continued, grinning back at him stupidly in spite of my real concern for the two men.
Aiba laughed softly, the sound making my heart throb with an almost painful happiness; his mood seemed lighter than I had known it in months. “I stopped by the hospital on my way to the GHL this morning—Toma was well. Heavily bandaged about his head, but awake, and they were very happily feeding each other popcorn when I came upon them.”
I could not conceal my revulsion—Aiba laughed more loudly at my expression. I shushed him as Umi began stirring—her eyes did not open, but she shifted closer to me, pressing her cheek against our hands and sniffling. It was so adorable that I felt almost ill as I contemplated her. Illuminated by soft morning sunlight, the two of them appeared almost too beautiful to be real. Perhaps I was dreaming.
I closed my eyes, wishing for coffee—without it, I felt dangerously weak and likely to began speaking all manner of nonsense. “I have something to confess,” I whispered.
“What it is, Jun?” I knew the detective was alarmed by my pained voice and expression. I opened my eyes but avoided Aiba’s gaze.
“I think I love her,” I finally muttered, staring at our intertwined fingers.
Silence. I chanced a glance in the detective’s direction. He was biting his lower lip, and his eyes were full; I knew that there was much that he wished to say. But after a minute, he only squeezed our hands gently and inquired in suspiciously thick voice, “Than shall we have her over for Christmas, my dear fellow?”
After luncheon at the GHL, we asked Umi if she would like to spend the rest of Christmas day with us at Garden Place; her eyes grew so wide and she nodded so frantically (and why did I feel something like relief when she agreed?) that we promptly took one of her hands in each of our own and slowly made our way home, lifting her at intervals and allowing her to kick up as much snow and slush as she liked. We stopped for candy and crackers along the way; Umi appeared rather nervous at being asked to select a cracker and a bag of candy, but after much consideration she finally pointed to her selections, clutching the bag tightly to her chest when the shopkeeper presented it to her.
At Garden Place, I made certain to call out our arrival loudly, fearing that Nino and Ohno—if home---might be engaged in one of their usual activities. But, fortunately, they were only lying together on the sofa (both clothed, thankfully), and Nino looked absolutely delighted by our arrival. We discovered him pressed into the sofa with Ohno’s entire weight atop him and the valet’s arms wrapped with almost constricting tightness about his waist—apparently, Nino had been trying escape from Ohno's grasp for the past half hour, but the valet had remained stubbornly asleep; it was only when Aiba popped a cracker beside his ear that the Ohno started awake and Nino had a chance to extricate himself from his embrace.
Indeed, the behavior of the couple struck me as strange, as it was generally Nino who attempted to smother Ohno with his affections. However, my curiosity about the two was quickly replaced by anxiety at the slowly dawning realization that I was meant to entertain a small child at Garden Place for the next several hours. I was relieved to find, however, that Umi appeared very agreeable to any activity that we suggested, and that Holmes, though he hissed at her rather disdainfully, did not seem disposed to actually scratch her.
Umi helped us cut and fold ornaments for the (truthfully, rather bedraggled) Christmas tree that Aiba had rescued from the trash; we had not been able to afford one, but he had insisted that the holidays required decoration. I had strenuously protested the entrance of this tree into our home, but now I felt glad that Aiba had insisted, as Umi appeared delighted with it. She decorated the branches with great care, occasionally reaching out to restrain Aiba’s too liberal application of tinsel; I was pleased to discover that she was a young lady of taste.
I think Nino’s air of Christmas cheer startled me the most, as he sat very peacefully beside Umi at Aiba’s desk and helped her fold and cut the ornaments while Ohno hovered above the two offering instructions, holding onto Nino’s shoulder tightly all the while. I had somehow formed the impression that Nino disliked children—but then I recalled the many years he had spent striving to help the children of St. Giles and realized that he must, of course, have been a great favorite among them. While Umi at first eyed his former lordship rather warily, she soon grew comfortable in his presence, and she even began murmuring a few stray words under her breath as they worked together. Between Umi and Ohno there seemed to exist already a perfect understanding; upon seeing her, Ohno asked no questions but promptly took her up in his arms, and she kissed him on the cheek (a gesture that I found strangely infuriating, as I had believed that she was only that fond of myself and Aiba).
After some time, the tree was finished—with Ohno’s talent at our disposal, it looked dazzling if still rather rough and spiky—and the candles were lit. In our excitement at the festive air the room had suddenly acquired, we decided to exchange gifts early. Aiba and I presented Nino with a typewriter, and Ohno with a set of fishing gear (the fishing gear had been my father’s, and a gift prepared in desperation of being able to afford anything else, as Aiba and I had spent almost everything on the typewriter). But Ohno appeared so happy with Nino’s surprise and pleasure in the typewriter, that he hardly seemed to mind the strange gift; he examined the rod with a bemused expression for a few minutes and then declared that he would attempt to fish the next time we were at Hayworth.
From Ohno, Aiba and I received a beautiful painting of a loaf of bread; Aiba, naturally, was delighted with it, while I felt that I should never be able to look at the thing without blushing furiously-I was certain that Ohno had Nino in mind as he painted the bread. Nino presented Ohno with a new set of paints (they were so fine that I immediately realized why Nino had been wearing shirts with patches upon patches for the last several months); Ohno presented Nino with the most extraordinary work of embroidery I had ever seen—a large sweater with an embroidered dog upon the front. His lordship tried his best to look pleased.
For Aiba, I could afford little—only a deerstalker to replace the one he had lost last winter, but he embraced me warmly upon receiving it. From the detective, I received a new top hot from Italy, so elegant and well-chosen that I felt tears come to my eyes as I admired it. For Umi, I had prepared some weeks ago (with Ohno’s assistance) a floral pin for her hair; Aiba, unfortunately, had chosen a magnifying glass and a wooden box for collecting insects, promising to take her to the park to begin gathering specimens—Umi looked so astonished to be receiving gifts (and so distressed not to have presents of her own to offer) that I almost regretted getting her anything at all—I think she could hardly comprehend what the gifts even were; she only stared up at us whispering “Thank you” until Aiba finally suggested bringing out the crackers in order to put an end to her heartrending expressions of gratitude.
Then there was the excitement of the popping the Christmas crackers, and the explosions of candy, but then I had to convince Aiba not to set off actual fireworks inside the house, and after Umi hit her head against the ceiling as the detective was throwing her up into the air, I insisted that we pursue more quiet amusements. "Pass the slipper" was attempted, but Aiba’s face turned bright red as soon as the slipper was in his possession, clearly giving himself away, and (in spite of Nino's impassive countenance) Ohno was able to identify instantly when Nino was the culprit. "Blind man’s bluff" proved more successful; while the detective overturned a few side tables and trod on Holmes' tail, Umi proved very talented at the game; I was amazed by her ability to identify Aiba by (it seemed) the smell of his hair, and she cried “Doctor!” after running her fingers across my eyebrows (much to Nino's amusement). I knew the detective by the roughness of his fingers; he knew me after softly touching my ear (sending a shiver through me). I was secretly glad to see that Nino proved surprisingly clumsy at the game (he had been teasing me so unmercifully since Umi’s discovery of my brow), stumbling about the room and looking rather dizzy until Ohno finally stepped forward and enfolded him in his arms.
“Satoshi,” Nino whispered as soon as the arms encircled him, reaching up to yank at his blindfold, struggling to untie it as Ohno gripped him more tightly. When he had finally removed it, he shoved it in Ohno’s direction, but the valet shook his head. “It is your turn,” Nino insisted stubbornly, almost glaring at him.
The valet shook his head again, “I do not want to lose sight of you,” he murmured softly-his tone was not affection or teasing, but deadly serious; I started at the valet's almost despairing tone. An intense look passed between the two men; I began to fear that the two were about to kiss or, perhaps, engage in a violent quarrel—I stepped in to beg that Ohno would assist the detective with the Christmas pudding in the kitchen, as I feared that he would allow it to burn too soon. Ohno registered my interruption slowly, his gaze distant before finally focusing on me—after a moment, he reluctantly nodded and took Nino’s hand and began moving toward the kitchen, but Nino jerked his hand free. “Take Umi with you,” he commanded, “she can help you hide the ring and the coin.”
There was a pause during which the valet gave Nino a rather long stare; Umi looked almost scared out of her wits to be so situated in the quarrel, but after a moment Ohno turned towards her with his hand outstretched and an encouraging smile, and I urged her to join Aiba in the kitchen.
I moved as if to follow the two into the kitchen, but I was restrained by my collar—Nino was nearly dragging me to the sofa, his expression agitated as he ran his free hand through his hair and began muttering under his breath, “Jun, I think I will have to be committed, or he will, because he has not left me alone for an instant since last night.”
I could hear Aiba’s laughter; I glanced wistfully in the direction of the kitchen as I attempted to focus my attention on Nino’s complaint, “That seems to be nothing unusual,” I murmured, “It is rare that I see the two of you apart when you are both at Garden Place.”
Nino scowled, “This is different. I have hardly been able to breathe for the last sixteen hours, he is always pressed against my back or dragging me by the hand. Or falling asleep on top of me.”
I raised a brow, “Perhaps now you will have more sympathy for the embarrassing positions that you are constantly placing Ohno in?” I suggested.
“Jun, he tried to follow me into the lavoratory!” Nino hissed. “While I know that your prudish nature” (Nino evaded my hit easily) “makes you uncomfortable around natural displays of affection, it also causes you to exaggerate our intimacy—I really do not spend my life attached to him like a limpet, as you continually imply.”
I raised another brow; “Well, not every moment of my life,” he conceded. Nino's expression, formerly petulant, suddenly grew serious; he cast his eyes down, “It’s not that he has stayed so close to me,” he nearly whispered, “but the way I can feel his eyes following me. I do not know what to make of it.”
I wondered how Ohno and Nino, closer to one another than any two people I had ever known, could still remain, in so many cases, so massively ignorant of one another (then again, did I not constantly make blunders in regards to Aiba, with whom I daily slept, ate, conversed, and loved?)
I replied in a low voice, worried that Ohno might emerge from the kitchen, “Nino, it is obvious why Ohno is so concerned to remain near you today. You nearly died last night. You frightened him. You left the theater without a word and placed yourself in danger. If I had discovered Aiba in such a position, I would not wish to leave his side for some time. Indeed, it was several months after his illness before I stopped breaking into a cold sweat every time he left the house without me.”
Nino raised his head, looking suddenly very, very young—I was reminded of our first encounter, when I had mistaken his lordship for an impertinent street ruffian. “But Satoshi…” Nino seemed to make a concerted effort to compose his feature before continuing, “he…we…are not like you and Aiba. Satoshi…is different from other men. He is an artist. He can live without me, and I understand that, as long as he allows me to stay by his side. I am the one who requires his companionship to survive…he left me for a year…he was…he is…able to leave if he believes it to be the right course of action …” I was horrified as a tear leaked from the corner of Nino’s eye, sliding down the bridge of his nose before slipping silently onto the sofa—I desperately wished that Aiba were here to comfort him, as I could manage little more than an awkward pat on the shoulder, which Nino only shrugged off furiously.
But for once, his lordship was quiet, allowing me to collect my thoughts before speaking. “Nino, what do you remember of the night you came to Garden Place after you had been stabbed?”
Nino raised a hand to his eyes, “I remember being very shocked to discover that my doctor was the man whose top hat I had so recently stolen, and that you were horribly gruff while stitching me up.”
I rolled my eyes, “What do you remember of Ohno?”
“I came to find him. I wanted him. I remember him holding my hand, and he was there when I woke.”
“You were very weak and had lost so much blood—I am sure your memories of that night must be incomplete. But I had perfect use of my faculties that night, and I can say with confidence that I had-that I have-never seen a man who appeared so much in love—I remember thinking that I had never witnessed such a passionate scene in the course of my life.”
“Because I was calling out to him…”
I shook my head, “Nino, I saw him turn pale as death, and by the expression in his eyes you would have thought that the walls were collapsing in around him. I saw him watch you anxiously the entire night as you slept. And I have, unfortunately, seen his paintings of you. You do Ohno a disservice if you believe him to be indifferent or removed from you, or if you think he does not require your companionship as much as you require his.”
Nino appeared stunned, his mouth gaping open unattractively as mucus began threatening to drip from his nose; it was at that moment, naturally, that the party in the kitchen emerged with a flaming Christmas pudding, with Aiba singing “Good King Wenceslas” at the top of his voice, with Ohno harmonizing very pleasantly if at a more moderate volume. Seeing tears gushing from Nino’s eyes, the valet promptly ran to kneel before him, questioning him anxiously as to whether he was ill—with a sort of choking noise, Nino ran from the room. Ohno turned to me with understandable astonishment. “I know that it is not how you usually communicate, Ohno, but if you can, I think it might help to speak out directly to him—I think there is some misunderstanding.” Ohno answered my sudden advice with a sort of dumbfounded nod before hurrying from the room.
I turned my attention to Umi, who was clutching at my knee anxiously while repeating, “Kazu, Sato, Kazu, Sato,” with great concern. I gave Aiba a look; he quickly set the pudding on the table before picking up Umi, “Don’t worry, president, Kazu’s crying because he’s too happy. And Sato’s just going to join him because they want to be happy together.”
Umi and I sent matching dubious looks in Aiba’s direction, causing him to laugh aloud, “You both glare at me so suspiciously, but I can assure you that my hypothesis is a perfectly valid one,” he grinned. Aiba’s confidence seemed to mollify Umi, and her mood improved further as we decided to start on the pudding—the three of them had gone rather overboard on adding things to dish, as nearly every bite turned up another coin, ring, or trinket (Aiba confessed some months later that a pence that he had added to the mixture was never found, leaving him to wonder where it might have disappeared to—my guess was into Ohno’s cast-iron stomach). But the plethora of prizes was exciting for Umi, who blushed as we praised her for each new discovery, particularly when we teased Umi that finding the ring meant that she would soon be married.
Umi looked sleepy after our meal; it had grown dark outside, and we had decided against lighting the lamps, so that our candles glowed even more brightly and the tree seemed to shimmer. We moved to sit by the fire; I picked Umi up to sit in my lap while Aiba began to read from the Christmas edition of “Taka’s Tales of Terror.” I felt myself almost drifting off as Aiba’s pleasant voice surrounded me; Holmes was curled up tightly before the fire, and even Watson (for once) was quiet in his cage.
Reader, it was the happiest Christmas I had spent since before my parents fell ill. Last Christmas, Aiba had lain ill in bed, and Madame Becky had been cutting away his tangled, matted hair; the year before that, I had lain under a black desert night, hardly able to recall a realm of feeling in which something like Christmas existed. Now, I examined Aiba’s face in the flickering firelight, and for once I did not try to resist the overwhelming sense of well-being and security that the sight brought me.
Umi suddenly seemed twice as heavy; I peered down to discover that she had fallen asleep. She had picked a particularly fortunate moment to sleep, as I think I would have had to cover her ears for the remainder of "Taka’s Tale." Nino and Ohno had slipped back into the room, hand in hand, to make themselves comfortable on the sofa at some point during Aiba’s recitation (both looked suspiciously bright-eyed and ruffled, and the blindfold was hanging, loosely tied, around Ohno’s neck, but I tried to convince myself that the two had merely engaged in productive conversation for the past hour). When the tale ended, Aiba, Nino, and Ohno were all grinning broadly, but I frowned. “Was it really necessary for Taka’s chimpanzee to actually rip the evil count’s face from his skull?” I inquired dryly, “And since when did Taka even have a chimpanzee?”
Nino shrugged, swinging his legs happily while leaning his head against Ohno’s shoulder; Ohno raised a hand to scratch at Nino’s nape. “I’m simply giving the people what they want,” he smirked, “Mark my words, this installment will break records. Soon everyone will be putting a crime-solving chimpanzee into their serial.”
“I think it’s your best installment yet,” Ohno offered with a soft smile; Nino glowed at the praise, though he attempted to conceal it by covering his smile with the back of his hand.
The doorbell rang, and the two men nearly skipped off to answer it together. Too soon, Madame Becky and Lady Riisa entered the room, bringing a gust of cold air with them; both ladies were lightly covered in snow. I shook Umi awake as gently as I could, feeling somehow embarrassed as both ladies seemed to be watching me even more closely than usual, “Princess,” I spoke softly into her ear, “Rebecca and Riisa are here, it’s time to go to bed.”
Umi blinked and began to rub at her eyes sleepily; then, to my astonishment, she left my lap very promptly and went to stand beside the two ladies, entirely prepared to leave instantly.
In truth, I had been dreading this moment all night, as I had imagined a storm of tears and a terrible scene when the two ladies arrived to collect her and return her to the GHL; visions of Umi clutching onto Aiba as they attempted to pry her from his arms had passed before my eyes; or perhaps Umi would simply put her hand in mine and look up at me silently, tears streaming down her cheeks. I had rehearsed promises of visits and been prepared to walk back with her to the GHL and put her to bed again. But she stood there so calmly, and thanked both of us for spending Christmas with her so sincerely and promptly when urged to by Madame Becky, that I felt almost angry.
I think I hardly responded to her kiss on my cheek; it was Aiba who embraced her tightly, told her how happy she had made him by spending the day with us, and promised to visit soon before walking her to the door.
I sat dumbly in my chair before the fire, but when Aiba returned from their farewells, I stood and began pacing; after a time, I forced myself to halt and rest against the mantle. Aiba approached and took my hand; he looked thoughtful as he stared into the fire. “How could she leave so quietly?” I finally burst out, unable to restrain myself. I suppose I should have known that the detective would not be at all startled by my question; he only continued to stare into the fire.
“I think,” he finally offered quietly, “that Umi does not expect very much from anyone. As long as she knows that we are safe, she is not surprised or disappointed when we ask her to leave us." The detective sighed tiredly, his voice as weary as I had ever heard it, "Rebecca told me about last night-that Umi did not think that anyone at the GHL would even notice that she had gone.”
I leaned forward, so that our foreheads were touching; I need to feel Aiba’s presence—his breath, his warmth, the beat of his heart, the touch of his eyelashes—to reassure me that what I wished for was not selfish or foolish, but something possible and good. “We would have to get new curtains and bedding for the guest bedroom,” I spoke quietly; I felt Aiba start and then relax, leaning more heavily against me. “And we spent almost everything on the typewriter. We won’t be able to afford anything until you receive your salary at the end of January. Or until his lordship pays me.”
I felt Aiba’s breath hitch with excitement; I knew he was keeping his voice carefully calm when he spoke, “We could ask her on Valentine’s Day.”
I huffed out a laugh, “Why on Valentine’s Day?”
Aiba smiled, “So that in the future, regardless of whether she has a valentine or not, she will always remember that she’s loved on that day.”
I groaned, “Detective…you’re growing sentimental in your old age.” I brought our lips together.
When we separated, Aiba’s eyes were bright, and he seemed almost nervous. “Jun,” he began, and his voice was trembling, “I have something to speak to you about…that is to say, I have another…”
The doorbell rang. Aiba flinched, moving as if to break our hands; I tugged him back, “Ignore it,” I breathed.
And then it rang again. Then several more times. Then the knocking started. And I heard what sounded very much like Lord Nakai’s voice ordering us to "open the door to our betters instantly." Ohno and Nino must have finally reached the door, for there was a sudden explosion of noise in the entryway. Aiba and I stared at each other; with one accord, we crept to peer down at the entryway from the landing, spotting a crowd of revelers that included a very tipsy Lord Nakai, Lord Toma, Sho, several fellow MPs, Constable Hatori and Chinen, three beautiful young ladies that I recognized as part of Madame Becky’s act at the Circus, and a handsome woman that I felt fairly certain was the lady reporter that Sho had so ignobly struck down with his umbrella. They all seemed to be caroling, but could not quite agree on what song they were to sing; almost all carried a bottle, and they seemed intent on finding more (and was that a lizard riding on Lord Toma's shoulder?). Ohno and Nino looked quite content to invite them in (though curiously, several members of the party seemed to be restraining Lord Nakai from launching himself upon Ohno; the valet appeared unperturbed by the violence). Ohno began leading them up towards the great room.
Usually, Aiba and I would have been happy to join in the gathering; but tonight, the thought of leaving Aiba’s side for a moment, or of speaking to anyone else, struck me as unbearable; I turned to the detective, and my desperation must have been evident, for he drew me close and murmured rapidly in my ear, “We take our bedroom window out, double-back for coats, and then take the ten o’clock to Hayworth? What do you think, my dear fellow?” he inquired anxiously, his eyes wide. Aiba, how could you have believed that there was even a possibility of my refusing you?
I caught Aiba in a brief kiss at the same time that he began pulling me in the direction of the bedroom (I raised a hand to stifle his pleased moan as I bit his lip), “The great Holmes himself would congratulate you on your ingenuity, detective.”
We managed our escape from our friends with all possible haste. There was a moment when Aiba’s foot slipped on the window ledge and I feared that all would be lost, but other than knocking the breath from me after he fell into my arms, no harm was done, and soon we were standing together on the station platform, shuffling our feet in the cold, our hands clasped inside my overcoat pocket, waiting patiently for the train to arrive.
At this time of night, of course, it would be the local train, making stops in every tiny village and hamlet along the way to Hayworth (the smallest village of them all), but the prospect of a long journey did not displease me—what I wanted was to be alone with the detective, and we could do that nearly as well in a private train compartment as at Hayworth. Aiba had said nothing when I had requested the more expensive tickets for the private compartment, nor had he suggested sending a line to Shimura and Daigo asking them to prepare the house for our arrival—we both seemed to have agreed to keep our journey as secret as possible.
Flushed with the success of our escape, we had been laughing and teasing each other for some time—the detective, in particular, kept acting as though he were about to steal my hat—but after some time we quieted, and Aiba’s face assumed a meditative expression as his gaze fell from the sky to the station platform.
“Is anything wrong detective?”
Aiba shook his head and looked up at me with a half smile, “No, Jun. I was only thinking that it seems such a long time since I stood here, sending Horatio off—but really it could not be more than sixteen hours. So much seemed to have happened since then, though if I were asked to account for the day I would not know what else to say other than that we played Christmas games with Umi. And read Taka’s Tales of Terror, I suppose.”
I squeezed the detective’s hand more tightly. “You will see him again,” I insisted vehemently, my voice as stern as I could make it.
“I’m not upset, my dear fellow,” he smiled, reaching with his injured hand to smooth out my brow. But there was still a hint of melancholy in the detective’s eyes—I cast about for a subject to distract him—a question that had been hovering in my thoughts since that morning suddenly reoccurred to me.
“Do you have any idea of how Ogura was able to convince Gackt to abandon his plan?”
My question seemed a well-chosen one; the detective laughed quietly. I tugged him closer so that he might answer me quietly.
“Ah, I had my suspicions, and Nino confirmed them this afternoon when I spoke to him about it—of course I was wild with curiosity to learn what hold Ogura had on that villain. I do not know the details, but as the editor of the society pages, Ogura makes a point to stay informed on the secrets of all the wealthy and titled in London, and apparently Ogura has a particularly thick file on Gackt in his office safe. Nearly as thick as Kazu’s. Kazu believes some form of blackmail was involved.”
“Ogura has a file on Nino?” I asked in some alarm, “You do not think…that Nino is also being blackmailed by Ogura...?”
Aiba laughed, “Fortunately for Kazu, the only person in possession of more of the secrets of London society is Becky—she knows enough of Ogura’s exploits at the Circus to render us all quite safe.”
I smiled, imagining the dour Ogura at the Circus, besmirching his good name.
I then became aware that Aiba was gazing at me quite earnestly; his face took on that anxious expression I had seen so briefly before the fireplace in Garden Place, and his lower lip seemed almost to tremble as he began, “Jun…I am afraid that I will not…”
The rest of the detective’s sentence was lost in the whistle of the arriving train; I pulled him out of the smoke and inside the train as soon as the doors opened. By the time we reached our compartment, Aiba had turned white, and he looked as if he were having difficulty breathing as I pushed him into the seat and kneeled before him. I felt myself begin to panic.
“Aiba are you well? Is it your chest? Can you breathe?” I pressed my ear anxiously to his chest—his heart was racing. Growing more alarmed, I seized his hand to check whether the wound on his palm had reopened, but the bandages were still white. I cursed myself for not bringing my bag and was standing to examine his chest further when he held up his hands to stop me.
“I am fine, Jun. I promise you. I was…anxious…and I inhaled too much smoke on the platform. I am well,” he continued to insist while I stared down at him suspiciously. “Truly, doctor,” he pleaded. Color had flooded back into his face, and he seemed to be breathing regularly now.
I narrowed my eyes as I pressed a finger to the pulse point on his neck, “Then why is your heart racing? And you are trembling,” I accused.
Aiba surprised me by dropping his head into his hands with a laugh, “Because, Jun, I want to ask you something, and I am not certain of your response.”
This caught me off guard; then I recalled that Aiba had said at Garden Place that there was something he wished to speak to me about. “Oh,” I said rather stupidly, beginning to regret my interrogation of the detective. I took the seat across from him. “Then shall we wait until the train starts?”
Aiba raised his head slightly; I could see his eyes peeking above his hands, “Perhaps that would be better,” he replied, sounding half-amused and half-desperate, “At least in that case you would not be able to run very far after hearing my request.”
I knew the detective was joking, but I answered him sincerely, “You know there is nothing that you could say to me that would make me leave you. Although if you are about to tell me that Horatio has a brother in need of rescuing, I cannot pretend to be excited at the prospect.”
Aiba laughed, looking slightly more like himself as he answered, “No, Jun, I can promise you that Horatio is the only chimpanzee of my acquaintance in need of rescuing. At least for the present.”
I smiled, but of course now my mind was filled with anxious suppositions—for even if there was nothing that might cause me to leave the detective, what could be so terrible that he should look ready to faint at the prospect of confessing it?
As the train picked up speed, I looked at the detective attentively, waiting for his explanation. He seemed calmer now, but he surprised me by sticking a hand inside his overcoat and then turning to look out the window. I watched his face as he spoke, “Do you remember the first time we took the train together Jun?”
“To Oxford,” I recalled easily.
“I was nearly as anxious then as I am now.”
I smiled, “So was I. I remember thinking how absurdly small and hot the compartment seemed—I was thinking of writing a letter to the rail authority to complain.”
“Your knees kept bumping into mine.”
“I remember. I was afraid that I would forget myself and attack you.”
“I think that journey was when I first realized how much I loved you.”
I was taken aback; I could not think what to respond. Aiba continued to stare determinedly out the window, “I think I must have loved you even before that, but then when your face was directly before mine and I saw how you kept moving your legs so carefully so as not to crowd me, then I knew that I loved you. And my feeling has not changed since that day. I do not think it could change—it would be like forgetting my own name.”
Before I could reply, Aiba removed his hand from his overcoat and leaned towards me, opening his hand to reveal two rings. His hand was sweating and he began mumbling hurriedly, “The day I discovered the plans in the bookcase…I was looking for the secret compartment myself…because I wished to hide these…I was not certain…but I thought I might ask you on Christmas…if you would accept…”
Only Aiba knows how easily I can be brought to tears. I do not think I have wept in front of anyone but the detective since I was fifteen. And even before Aiba, I feel embarrassed—but now I hardly gave the streaming tears a thought as I took one of the rings from his palm, holding it carefully between my thumb and forefinger and studying it. My voice broke as I asked him, “Would you…?” I held out my hand.
Aiba nodded and carefully slid the ring onto my finger. Then, I placed the other ring on his finger. I held his bandaged hand carefully, studying it. Then I tangled my fingers in his hair and brought his face close to mine (with perhaps slightly more force than was strictly necessary, but amidst the overwhelming flood of emotions I began to feel almost angry), “How could you be so nervous? Did you think I would refuse, even after our conversation in the park?” I demanded roughly.
Aiba, of course, was crying now as well, but he smiled as he answered shakily, “Not exactly. But I’ve never asked anyone before, it really is surprisingly nerve-wracking, dear fellow. And your thunderous expression made everything so much worse.”
I interlaced our fingers tightly together, “Bad luck. You’re going to have live with it from now on. You do realize that this constitutes a formal promise to spend at the very least the rest of your life with me? And that you now have no possible hope of escape?”
Aiba was laughing, “The prospect does not alarm me. In fact, I think it will suit me admirably.”
“Really?” I raised a brow teasingly. “The prospect of a settled life of domestic bliss is not an alarming one for a detective?” I was only half-joking; I doubted life with Aiba could ever be described as “settled,” but I did feel a strange anxiety at the thought that, in his enthusiasm, Aiba was pledging himself to me too hastily. But I was surprised by how seriously the detective answered me.
Aiba brought his lips close to mine. “No,” he breathed softly, his smile so dazzling that I recalled the first time that we had kissed, when I had felt that his light would overwhelm me, “When you are beside me, Jun, everything is an adventure.”
As we had hoped, the stars in Hayworth’s night sky were bright, far brighter and clearer than London’s; I had to watch carefully to ensure that the detective did not trip over his feet as we made our way to Hayworth from the station, so intent was he on gazing up and identifying the constellations for me.
On a winter night, buried in snow, Hayworth presented a somewhat dark and forbidding prospect; it was also extraordinarily cold. But once we had fought our way through the snowdrifts and built a roaring fire in the drawing room, we were able to stop shivering and sit close to each other before the fireplace, enjoying each other’s company. I could not help but glance down every few moments to examine the ring on Aiba’s finger; it glowed in the flickering firelight. After a few glances I caught Aiba doing the same, his gaze fixed on my hand. I laughed, “Let’s run away more often,” I suggested as we fell back onto our coats, which we had spread to form a kind of bed before the fire.
It was then that we heard the doorbell. This time I was certain that I was the victim of a hallucination; I decided to ignore it, however (psychoanalysis could wait for a time when Aiba was not lying beneath me), but Aiba’s eyes were widening too—with a groan I allowed him to stand and drag me to the door.
The doorbell was ringing insistently; I decided that if Ohno and Nino were on the other side of it, that I would tell them to sleep in the village cowshed. They would be plenty warm there, I reflected bitterly.
But the door revealed only a very blank-looking errand boy, who shoved a telegram into Aiba’s hand without a word. “Who sent you out so late?” the detective asked with concern, “Do you need to pass the night here?” I wanted to strangle both of them.
The lad shook his head, “No, sir. I’m just done at the pub. A messenger from London came and paid me five pound to take this down to Hayworth. It’s from his Lordship Ninomiya Kazunari, sir.”
I growled, nearly slamming the door shut; Aiba caught it and passed the boy a few coins before thanking him.
It was icy cold in the hallway, so we hurried back to the great room to open the missive; Aiba opened the envelope to reveal a full paragraph of text. I gasped, “How much did that blighter spend on annoying us?”
Aiba read the contents aloud:
How extraordinarily rude leaving guests during Christmas festivities. Assume Jun’s work as Masaki too good-natured. Left me in impossible position. Toma’s revenge complete. Has given Satoshi revolting lizard as Christmas gift. Satoshi loves repellent creature. Cannot rid house of him now. And yes Jun I can afford this Taka broke all records am rolling in royalty checks ha ha. Thanks for plot point Masaki. Party coming down to Hayworth two o’clock afternoon be prepared to entertain. I repeat lizard at Garden Place Jun’s fault. You should not have slapped Sho with your glove. No I take that back of course you should have slapped Sho with your glove one of the happiest moments of life. But Kagi still your fault.
“Kagi?” I cried in horror.
“A lizard?” Aiba cried in delight. The detective was already brimming with excitement; I could almost see the plans for experiments forming above his head. “A lizard,” he repeated softly, his eyes taking on a far-away look, “Jun, what is your opinion of the possibilities for communication between reptile and mammal? I mean if Holmes were to…”
I pressed the detective down onto our jackets and began hurriedly unbuttoning his shirt. “Jun?” Aiba questioned with wide eyes, startled but unresisting as I pulled his shirt over his head.
“You read the telegram. They’re arriving at two. Leaving us…” I checked my pocket watch, “Approximately twelve hours. We’ve not a moment to lose, detective.”
Christmas Day, 1892
To return, reader, to the proper subjects of this narrative, I will inform you of the fate of some of those individuals so important to the adventure of Horatio’s rescue. Horatio, to my surprise, lived and grew strong again. I did believe the detective would see him again; I even thought that he would live to see the spring. But I could not have predicted that in the spring he would grow well, and that he still lives today, two years after that night in the Zoological Gardens; I feel amazed and humbled by his recovery. I am growing every day more like Aiba, because I cannot help but see a parallel in Horatio’s extraordinary resilience and the miraculous recovery that Aiba made the first winter I knew him. Aiba visits Horatio at Professor Inoue’s estate often—though at first it was difficult to arrange and had to be done quite secretly, our visits have grown more frequent since Professor Gackt’s death.
Yes, reader, this year the diabolic professor met his death in an extraordinary manner. Since our rescue of Horatio, we have been menaced at various times by his machinations, and we could never rest easy as to Horatio’s real safety; but this summer during a trip to Geneva to explore the possibility of purchasing a Bengal tiger for his museum, the professor was mauled to death by said animal. The papers had a field day with the story. Since I cannot express any real sorrow at the professor’s death, I shall say no more about it—or, I shall only content myself with noting its rather poetic justice.
Aiba begs that I include the news that Kagi (as well as Holmes and Watson) are also perfectly well. Although I am sure that my readers are uninterested in his fate, I can report that the lizard has proved depressingly hardy, though my annoyance is nothing compared to Nino’s at the continued existence of Ohno’s pet.
Nino has recently completed his first work of science fiction, The Black Orb, and Ohno will have his first public exhibition of work this winter, having been able to successfully apply his technique of painting Nino to the presentation of more appropriate objects. Both men, of course, still seem to coexist as though some thread connected them together; should one of them wander too far from the other, the other seems to give a twitch to that invisible thread and reel the other back in.
Sho and Toma still have a good understanding, which is fortunate for my patient’s health, but unfortunate in how much I have come to learn about the amorous side of their natures since their coming together.
Madame Becky and Lady Riisa still run the GHL; and I am able to testify to their excellent running of that establishment since, in addition to my visits as a physician, I am now there twice a week in my capacity as choir director. Umi still attends school there during the day; I think it would break the good ladies’ hearts were she to leave the GHL entirely.
Umi accompanies us on our visits to Horatio. As the reader must have guessed, she did come to live with us at Garden Place that spring. She is always delighted to see Horatio, and the two are able to sign to each other and with Aiba. But Umi’s expression is no longer confined to sign language; she speaks very well now, and sometimes (like Aiba) all day long.
The story of Umi’s coming to the Garden Place, and all that happened as we struggled to learn how to act as her fathers, must wait for another installment; but I can say that I have never regretted her coming, and I must write how grateful I am to her for her unreasonable affection towards me. I never thought that I could feel for anyone else the degree of love I felt for the detective. But from Umi and the detective I have learned the boundlessness of love; how it collects and spills over until I begin to feel how deeply I love not only Aiba and Umi but Ohno and Nino, and not only Ohno and Nino but Becky and Riisa, and not only Becky and Riisa but Sho and Toma, and soon I begin to imagine that I love Horatio, Holmes, Watson, and even the hideous Kagi.
It must be evident to the reader how, after these three years in his company, Aiba’s sentimentality has finally invaded me. In the interest of truthfulness, I must write that I am grateful to have been rendered so defenseless—thank you, my dear detective, for allowing me to discover such love.
I hope that this installment satisfies you nearly as well as the first. But I am growing daily more convinced that this narrative will have no end, for—as you most astutely pointed out, Aiba—as long as we are together, there is no end to our adventures.