He was a most peculiar client, the kind one does not forget easily.
On the first day of spring, he showed up outside my humble office, while I was opening for the day shaggy-looking and walking in a nervous, huddled gait. He scanned the street left and right, flinching at noisy street urchins, and refuse that tumbled along in the slight breeze.
His knit cap was absurdly large, covering the entirety of his head and coming down to the top of his bushy brows. He snatched it off to reveal a bird’s nest crop of hair and introduced himself as one Mr. Mumblety-Beyo- I didn’t catch that first name – from Abbot Lane, and did I perchance know of that fella with the letter business.
Standing nervously, he turned his immense cap over and over in his hands like a baker kneading bread. I assured him I was the person he was looking for.
“Good, good,” he told me. “They said this was yer office, but didn’t expect a handsum-lookin’ gentleman is all.”
I prided myself on being a decent judge of character, so while he was somewhat odd, seemed harmless enough. Without prompting, he shoved ten copper pieces into my hand, so I saw no reason to deny his request.
I was a fool, however. For the moment I agreed, he began to howl like a banshee.
“Really, Mr. Beyo,” I said, searching for assistance from one of the alley’s many denizens. They looked on with interest but were content to remain spectators of the latest drama. Some – such as the scandalmonger Mrs. Farlow – threw looks of disgust while keeping within easy sight. Others sat down right there in the dirty street, laughing and pointing.
“Mr. Beyo,” I repeated in a louder voice and snapped my fingers in his face. Startled, his yowling subsided, and he shook his body from top to bottom before gazing at me with sad brown eyes.
He began kneading the cap in his hands again and his face turned the color of cooked beets. “Sorry ‘bout that.”
“Not at all,” I said, already regretting my decision.
We stood awkwardly. I briefly considered implementing a return policy, but then I thought of the gold-tipped nib I’d seen in the window of Perkins and Dot the day before. The weight of the coins felt heavy in my pocket.
Well, since he paid up front, who was I to judge a client by how loud they may or may not scream in the street?
Giving a polite smile, I waved Mr. Beyo into my tiny shop. Behind me, the onlookers booed the premature loss of their entertainment, then laughed and went about their business.
“Now then,” I said as we both situated ourselves around my desk. It was solid oak, a gift from a grateful former client. I was quite proud of it. The drawers whispered as I slid them open to pull out my quill, ink, a fresh sheet of white paper and a blotter. Thus set up, I returned attention to my client. “What is your message, sir?”
The cap-kneading picked up.
“The thing is,” he began. “Well — are ya sure you won’t go blabbering this around?”
Indignation rose within my breast, and I pulled myself up to my full seated height. He shrunk before me.
“Mr. Beyo,” I said, “I would never betray the confidence of a client. Are you aware of the name of my humble business, sir?”
He coughed and shrugged. “I heard you was the Three P’s.”
“And do you know what those P’s stand for?”
Hair flopped into his eyes as he shook his head. “Naw, never got told that part.”
“They stand for Private, Prudent, and Practical,” I informed him. My back ached with such extremely good posture, but I did not relent.
“It means,” I said, “that I am discreet; one silver per sheet – or ten copper in your case – is affordable; and my services are accessible to all who require quality penmanship. You would do well to note that ‘Private’ is the first word, and the first priority of my business. What you say in this room, Mr. Beyo will stay in this room.”
He looked impressed. “Right, right. They was sayin’ you could be trusted, but I had to make sure, see? It’s my life on the line!”
I allowed my spine to relax and uncapped the bottle of ink. As always, the feel of the quill in my hand gave me a little thrill – a hazard of my profession – and I waited expectantly.
Mr. Beyo cleared his throat. “Neville,” he began. My hand moved almost of its own accord, skating ribbons of black across the page. Then it hovered, eager for more.
“You do that quick,” Mr. Beyo said, lifting in his seat to get a better look. “Neville,” he said again, and his eyes took on a far-off look. “It seems I have constricted an illness of delia-ket nature.”
Oh dear. My pen scratched down the words while I recalled his terrific outburst from before. I truly hoped it wasn’t contagious. I also corrected ‘contricted’ to contracted.
“It seems,” he continued, unaware of my distress, “that I picked up…”
I looked up to see him watching me with apprehension. I waited, already contemplating the pros and cons of using his ten copper for the visit to the apothecary instead of purchasing the gold nib. He seemed to be struggling with some sort of decision.
“Never fear, Mr. Beyo, my lips are sealed. You have picked up…” I prompted.
He lifted his chin, and said, “I ‘ave picked up werewolfism.”
My quill never wavered. I was, after all, a professional.
“Indeed,” I said out loud.
He frowned, seemingly taken aback by my lacklustre response.
He needn’t be concerned. Whether he was a werewolf or not was no concern of mine. So long as he paid for my services, I couldn’t care a whit about either delusions or strange diseases.
“Werewolfism,” he repeated, as though trying to convince me. He cast his eyes around my empty office and leaned forward, lowering his voice to a stage whisper. “Like-and-thropy.”
Then he stared, waiting for my reaction.
“Good heavens,” I said politely, inwardly relieved that he was not infectious.
That seemed to satisfy him. “Ah, it’s a terrible curse,” he said, shaking his head morosely. “Changin’ with the moon. Eatin’ rabbits and deer like a wild thing. Sniffin’ backsides–”
“Mr. Beyo,” I said with a forced smile. “You have my sincerest condolences for your unfortunate illness. Which is why I will do my very best to write this letter for you, and send it off to where it needs to be.”
His eyes brightened. “At a discount, per’aps?”
“Unfortunately, Sir, I do not offer discounts,” I said firmly. Lycanthropy would be a horrible disease, if it were real, but philanthropy was an even worse one.
“However,” I continued, “to show my sympathy toward your situation, might I interest you in red ink as an upgrade at no extra cost? Such a bold and bloody color would certainly elevate the very serious and mysterious nature of your message.”
“Oh,” he said, his eyes and mouth going wide. The hands holding his cap stilled. “Sir, I would greatly appreciate that, I would indeed.”
I opened my drawer and made a great show of lifting out the bottle of red ink, carefully placing it on the desk as though it contained the tears of Queen Sheba herself inside. In reality, it cost two silvers, the exact same price as the bottle of black. The waste of paper was a shame, but felt confident I could still find use for it.
Fetching a new sheet of paper, I dipped my pen. “Shall we begin anew?”
Mr. Beyo’s eyes fixed on the single bead of crimson that rolled down the nib, hovering at the tip before dripping back into the bottle. His had eyes lit up with passion and determination, fuelled by the momentous occasion of using red ink.
I copied the beginning of his letter and read it aloud to remind him where he’d left off.
“Right, so I ‘ave gotten werewolfism,” he summarized, then continued with his message. “Never mind where,” he said, frowning at the floor. “The point is, I need the money you owe me.”
His voice rose with confidence. “I joined a big werewolf pack, and got myself a room in their es-ta-bull-lish-ment. It’s expensive, see, on account they feed us three full meals a day.” He looked up. “Werewolves eat a lot.” This last part seemed to be for my benefit, so I did not include it in the letter.
“Anyways. We all share what we got with one another, and I gotta do my part.” He pursed his lips, no doubt contemplating his responsibilities.
“Now, don’t be tellin’ no one about my condition, ‘cos there are werewolf hunters who want to kill us. Even though we don’t do no harm. You can’t believe all them fairy tales about us eatin’ people. We only eat venison, see, and chicken and rabbits, and don’t hurt no one. And when it’s a full moon, we take a trip out to the country where this fella owns a lot of land – he’s a nob, see – and he lets us go and run there.”
I frantically scribbled to keep up. To my chagrin, I found myself becoming curious about who the rich gentleman could be, and whether I might know him. Curiosity was a guilty little pleasure I seldom allowed myself to indulge in, especially when it came to my clients, so I stamped it down and focused on forming each letter quickly and precisely.
Mr. Beyo kept going. “You can send me the money with my cousin Elizabeth, who’s coming to visit me by way of coach. Not silver though, ‘cos it burns us werewolves. That’s one thing the stories got right.”
He leaned forward, his brow furrowing. I did not possess an imagination, so it must have been a trick of the light that made his eyes appear to glow yellow.
“Now listen up, Neville,” he growled. “If ya don’t pay me, I’ll have to come get it myself. That wouldn’t be good for you ‘cause I could lose my temper. And we don’t want no ack-sidents now, do we?”
The air in the room suddenly thickened, an intense feeling like a storm rolling in. I froze with my nib in the air. Just for a moment, I could picture him as a beast, running wild through the alleyways under a heavy, full moon.
Then he sighed, and the feeling cut off like it was never there. Mr. Beyo was back to being just an odd, shabby man. I had to act fast to catch the drop of bloody ink about to splatter on the page.
He signed the message himself, carefully forming each letter of his name. Pleased, he watched as I folded and sealed it, twice confirming I had written the correct address.
“I will summon a Carrier immediately,” I told him as I escorted him to the door. “Allow me to thank you for your business, and remind you that if you ever require further services I am always private, prudent and practical.”
He grinned. “Oh a’course! Ya know, yer a good’un. Not treatin’ me like I was a leper or nuthin’. I won’t forget it, ya know.”
Then he jammed the cap back on his head, pulling it all the way down until it nearly covered his eyes. My curiosity, I noted with annoyance, reared its ugly head again.
He caught me staring. “It’s for the ears, you see.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The ears. Us ones that don’t got much control yet, we sometimes grow ears without meaning to.”
“I see,” I said, as if that explained everything. “Makes perfect sense.”
He beamed at me one last time before disappearing into the dirty streets, leaving me to ponder his story for days after.
I never came to a conclusion about whether he was telling the truth. However, a few weeks after his visit, several strange, shabby individuals came to have various documents penned. They all scanned the street nervously, jumping at small noises. They all wore ridiculously large hats pulled low. And none of them paid in silver.