Chasing Cassandra

Page 23

“Emphatically, child, you do.” As Tom saw the boy sniff beneath his arm, he added impatiently, “No one can detect their own odor, Bazzle. You can only take my word for it that with my eyes closed, I could easily mistake you for a dockside ass-cart.”

The boy had still declined to touch it. “If I wash today, I’d be dirty again ter-morrer.”

Tom had regarded him with a frown. “Do you never wash, Bazzle?”

The boy had shrugged. “I runs under the pump at a stable, or splashes meself from a trough.”

“When was the last time?” After watching the boy struggle to come up with an answer, Tom had glanced heavenward. “Don’t think so hard, you’re about to sprain something.”

After that, since Tom had been occupied with several projects, it had been easy to ignore the issue of Bazzle’s hygiene.

This morning, however, after hearing another burst of furtive, furious scratching, Tom lifted his head and asked, “Bazzle, do you have a problem?”

“No, sir,” the boy said reassuringly. “Just a few chats.”

Tom froze, a hideous, creepy-crawly dread racing over him. “For God’s sake, don’t move.”

Bazzle stood obligingly still, broom in hand, giving him a questioning stare.

After coming out from behind the desk, Tom went to inspect the child. “There’s no such thing as ‘a few chats,’” he said, gingerly nudging the boy’s head this way and that, observing the small red bumps scattered over the skinny neck and hairline. As he expected, a wealth of telltale nits littered the woolly tangle of hair. “Holy hell. If lice were people, your head would host the population of Southwark.”

Befuddled, the boy repeated, “If lice was people … ?”

“Analogy,” Tom said curtly. “A way of making a subject clearer by comparing one thing to another.”

“Noffing’s clear when ye say lice is people.”

“Never mind. Set the broom against the wall and come with me.” Tom passed a reception desk in the foyer and went to his assistant’s office. “Barnaby, stop whatever it is you’re doing. I have a task for you.”

His assistant, who was in the middle of polishing his glasses with a handkerchief, peered owlishly around a tower of books, folios, maps, and plans. “Sir?”

“This boy is crawling with lice,” Tom said. “I want you to take him to a public bath house and have him washed.”

Looking aghast, Barnaby reflexively scratched his own luxuriant mass of lively brown curls. “They won’t let him bathe if he has lice.”

“Ain’t going to no baff house,” Bazzle said indignantly. “I’ll take one of them soaps to a stable and wash meself there.”

“No stable would allow you in,” the assistant informed him. “Do you think they’d want their horses afflicted?”

“Find somewhere to have him washed,” Tom told his assistant flatly.

Barnaby stood, jerked his waistcoat down over his stocky midsection, and squared his shoulders. “Mr. Severin,” he said resolutely, “as you know, I’ve done many things that aren’t listed among my job requirements, but this—”

“Your job requirements are whatever I say they are.”

“Yes, but—” Barnaby paused to pick up a pleated file folder and shoo Bazzle away. “Boy, would you mind standing a bit farther away from my desk?”

“It’s just a few chats,” Bazzle protested. “Everybody ’as chats.”

“I don’t,” Barnaby said, “and I’d like to keep it that way.” His gaze returned to Tom. “Mr. Severin, I neglected to mention this earlier, but … I have to leave the office earlier than usual today. Now, as a matter of fact.”

“Really,” Tom said, his eyes narrowing. “Why?”

“It’s my … grandmother. She has a fever. The ague. I have to go home to take care of her.”

“Why can’t your mother do it?” Tom asked.

Barnaby thought for a moment. “She has the ague too.”

“Did she get it from a baff?” Bazzle asked suspiciously.

Tom sent his assistant a scathing glance. “Barnaby, do you know what lying has in common with bullfighting?”

“No, sir.”

“If you can’t do it well, it’s better not to do it at all.”

His assistant looked sheepish. “The truth is, Mr. Severin, I’m terrified of lice. Just hearing about them makes me itch all over. One time I had dandruff and thought it was lice, and I was so distraught, my mother had to mix me a sedative. I think my problem started when—”

“Barnaby,” Tom interrupted curtly, “you’re talking about your feelings. It’s me, remember?”

“Oh, yes. Pardon, Mr. Severin.”

“I’ll deal with the boy. Meanwhile, arrange to have every room on this floor thoroughly cleaned, and every inch of carpeting sponged with benzene.”

“Right away, sir.”

Tom glanced at Bazzle. “Come,” he said, and left the office.

“I won’t bathe,” the boy declared anxiously as he followed. “I quit!”

“I’m afraid anyone who works for me is required to give a fortnight’s notice—in writing—before they’re allowed to quit.” Which was pushing the margins of his strict honesty policy, but Tom would make an exception for a boy who was being eaten alive by parasites.

“I’m illegitimate,” the boy protested.

“What has that to do with it?”

“Means I can’t write no notice.”

“The word is ‘illiterate,’” Tom said. “In which case, Bazzle, it appears you’ll be working for me indefinitely.”

THE BOY COMPLAINED and argued every step of the way as Tom took him to Cork Street. Most of the avenue was occupied by Winterborne’s department store, with its marble façade and huge plate-glass windows filled with lavish displays. The store’s famed central rotunda, with its dazzling stained-glass dome, glowed richly against the gray November sky.

They went to a much smaller and more inconspicuous building at the far end of the street. It was a medical clinic and surgery, established for the benefit of the thousand or so employees of Winterborne’s.

Two years ago, Rhys Winterborne had hired Dr. Garrett Gibson to serve on the clinic’s medical staff, despite people’s suspicions that a woman wasn’t suited for such a demanding profession. Garrett had dedicated herself to proving them wrong, and in a short time had distinguished herself as an unusually skilled and talented surgeon as well as physician. She was still regarded as something of a novelty, of course, but her reputation and practice had grown steadily.

As they approached the front doors of the clinic, the boy stopped and dug in his heels. “What’s this?”

“A medical clinic.”

“Don’t need no sawbones,” Bazzle said in alarm.

“Yes, I know. We’re only here to use the facilities. Specifically, a shower bath.” The clinic was the only place Tom could think of to take him. There would be tiled rooms, hot water, medicine, and disinfectants. Better yet, Garrett wouldn’t dare turn them away in the light of the favor Tom had done for her husband.

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