The street was narrow and dirty, its broken cobblestones none too gentle against bare feet. Rodney Skinner grumbled silently to himself as he picked his way along, unclothed and thus invisible to the few people he passed by.
He was returning from a routine bit of spying; a mere peek into the personal life of a politician who was just a little too shady. The facts he’d collected concerned a mistress and a few somewhat questionable business affairs—a bit scandalous, but nothing, as far as Skinner saw, that was undeniably criminal. It was annoying to be put to so much trouble for nothing.
Not that Skinner minded having a merry little prowl through the private doings of a public figure, mind you. What he really objected to was the long trudge back to a base of operations that was so bloody out of the way.
When not aboard the Nautilus, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen made its headquarters in what was once the house of Dorian Gray. It was Mina’s idea, as she seemed to have taken it as her sole privilege to claim the spoils of Gray’s ill-spent life. At any rate, the shabby neighborhood provided excellent cover, and the waterfront gave them easy access to the Nautilus—but it was hardly a convenient walk to anyplace of interest in London.
Three blocks from that headquarters, Skinner’s black thoughts were interrupted by a cry from the direction of a narrow alley just ahead and to his left.
In the past, Skinner might have simply continued on his way. Bad things happened in places like this, and experience had taught him that they were quite likely to happen to him if he went nosing about. One didn’t survive his sort of life for very long without keen instincts for self-preservation.
However, since his association with the League, Skinner’s natural sense of curiosity had begun to enmesh with the annoying stirrings of a conscience. Together, these traits were a force strong enough to overcome instinct… and they usually did, much to his cost.
With a resigned sigh, he quickened his pace and ducked into the alley.
He found it lined with very humble row houses and dwellings of the poor, with cracked windows and soot-streaked brick walls. Bits of garbage and debris littered the paving-stones, collecting in corners beneath the stoops, or mouldering in the puddles left by London’s constant rain. It was a grey, dank, despairing place; not the worst the sprawling city had to offer, perhaps, but close enough.
Another faint cry spurred Skinner on, and he hurried toward the source of the disturbance—only to find a cruel and pitiful sight awaiting him.
In the narrow space between a stoop and the high wall that dead-ended the alley, a young boy was being menaced by another who was much older and bigger. The bully clutched the crying child by the coat collar, and in his other hand he held upraised some sort of stick or billet of wood, as if he meant to strike his feebly struggling victim.
Without a thought, Skinner leaped forward.
The bully never knew what hit him—quite literally—as his wrist was seized by an unseen iron grip, and the makeshift club forcibly twisted from his hand. He received a stinging slap to the side of his head, then was lifted bodily and tossed out into the alley.
As he lay sprawling, his own club advanced toward him, hovering in midair.
"Come near that boy again, and this will be your neck," growled a low, sepulchral voice… and then, with a loud, splintering crack, the flimsy club suddenly snapped itself in two.
With a shriek of terror, the bully fled.
Skinner allowed himself a satisfied smile as he dropped the remains of the broken club. He’d played ghostly mischief many times for his own amusement, but there was something exceedingly rewarding about doing it for a good cause. That bully would give the alley a wide berth now, for fear of avenging spirits.
His smile tilted to a frown as he looked back at the fair-haired young boy, who was still huddled against the side of the stoop. Tears had streaked his face, but none were fresh; rather, his blue eyes were wide, and he wore a look of awe and terror upon his thin face.
"Now, now, you’ve nothing to fear," Skinner said kindly, taking a step closer. "Not hurt at all, are we?"
In fact, Skinner could see that the boy was unhurt, although frightened and confused. He looked around in bewilderment for the source of the voice that addressed him, and then exploratively reached out—a poke which by mere chance would have caught Skinner in the ribs, had the invisible man not dodged it.
"Easy now, let’s not get personal," Skinner chuckled, crouching to the boy’s eye level. The child could not meet his gaze, but somehow, it still seemed the right thing to do.
"Who are you?" the boy asked, in a small, fearful voice.
"My name’s Rodney… and I’m your friend." Skinner smiled reassuringly, knowing the expression would carry in his tone of voice. "And what might your name be?"
The boy sniffled slightly, wiping his face with the cuff of his coat—which appeared to be slightly the worse for wear after his going-over from the bully. It was torn at the shoulder, and the sleeve was dirty, leaving a small grimy streak on his cheek.
"I’m Timothy," he answered at last.
"That’s a fine name," Skinner replied. "It’s a brave, strong name. You’re not afraid anymore?"
Relaxing slightly, Timothy shook his head.
"Is this where you live?"
Timothy shot a hasty glance upward to the door at the top of the stoop. He nodded slightly, and Skinner’s heart sank a little. The boy deserved better than this place.
"Your mum’s not home?"
Another shake of the head. And then, "She will be soon."
Words spoken with a somewhat forced confidence, Skinner thought. He chose not to ask in what fashion Timothy’s mother was employed, and instead straightened up with a sigh. "Well then. You’re safe at home, and that little blighter won’t be troubling you anymore. My work here is done."
With that, he turned to walk away—but young Timothy then proved he had not only wits enough to sense Skinner’s retreat, but the courage to call after him.
As he paused and turned, Skinner realized that he had to acknowledge having done so. "Yes?"
Timothy shuffled from one foot to the other and stared at the ground, looking sheepish. "Could—couldn’t you stay and play with me for a little while?"
It was an astonishing wish, and it plucked at Skinner’s heart. For a moment he was tempted to reward this brave and evidently very lonely child’s request; but then he thought of the League, waiting impatiently for his report.
"Sorry, my buck," he answered regretfully. "I’ve got to be off about my business."
Timothy’s face fell.
"But I’ll tell you what," Skinner added impulsively. "If you’re a good boy—and if you promise not to tell anyone about me—I’ll come back and visit you when I may. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?"
His eyes brightening, Timothy nodded.
"But you’ve got to promise, mind," Skinner went on, pursuing a cautious forethought. "Not a word of me to anyone in the world. Because if you tell even one person, I’ll never come back again."
"I won’t tell," Timothy answered breathlessly. "I promise!"
"Alright then." Skinner smiled. "Now, you go on inside and wait for your mum, and one day I’ll come round to visit you again. Goodbye, Timothy."
Timothy smiled, waved shyly in not quite the right direction, and trotted up the steps; and Skinner made his way out of the alley, smiling to himself, his mood strangely brighter than it had been in quite some time.
Skinner never intended to keep his word to Timothy. For his own safety, he thought it wise to secure the boy’s promise of silence regarding him, but he had never said exactly when he would visit again. In time, he expected Timothy’s active young mind would conjure an imaginary friend in his place.
However, even the best-laid plans of a gentleman thief were not immune to a troublesome mix of curiosity and conscience.
A matter of weeks after the first meeting, Skinner found himself passing along that street again. This time he was on an errand of his own, dressed in the concealing clothes and greasepaint which he wore when not in need of secrecy. As a thief, he had never been inclined to draw attention to himself—and considering the populace’s unkind memories of his predecessor in invisibility, he knew it was more than ever in his interest to escape their notice.
As he passed the intersection of the alley, he could not resist glancing down to the row house on the end. There he saw Timothy, sitting forlornly on the front stoop.
Pausing at the corner, Skinner let out a short sigh. He liked that boy very much. What was more, he knew too well the environment Timothy was growing up in. Few good men, and even fewer great men, ever came out of a neighborhood like that dreary slum. Even a lad as bright and brave as Timothy could easily go to naught, if he knew nothing better in his young life.
That, most of all, Skinner knew from very personal experience.
"You’re getting daft, Rodney," he muttered between clenched teeth, and stepped into the alley.
In the shelter of the nearest stoop, Skinner undressed and wiped away his greasepaint, using a shallow, stagnant puddle as a mirror. Thus divested of all his visible traces, he made his invisible way down the alley toward his young friend.
While still at some distance, he let out the low, warbling whistle that had served as his signal to the rough companions of his youth. The sound drew Timothy’s attention, and as the boy looked up, Skinner greeted him with a cheerful, "Hallo, Timmy!"
Wide-eyed, Timothy leaped to his feet and looked around. "Rodney!"
"I told you I’d be along one of these days," Skinner retorted, seating himself as comfortably as he could on the steps just below his young friend. "Now, what shall we play today?"
From that time onward, Skinner visited Timothy Blackstone as often as he was able.
He learned much about the boy and his family. Timothy’s father and infant sister had both died in the past two years, leaving only himself and his mother, who worked as a washmaid. Skinner had many occasions to observe her, from a distance, and found her to be a weary but good woman who managed to retain a rough dignity of her own. She lived and worked solely for her son, doing her best to provide for him, and even to educate him. Timothy was too young to appreciate such things, but it gave Skinner a hope for the boy’s future.
He helped, in his own small ways. For all his cheerfully misguided pursuits in life, a fair education was at least one thing he could boast of, and he helped Timothy to study. He would bring a book when he could, and early on, would read to him—and later, he felt a genuine pride when Timothy read to him.
Most of the time, he would also bring Timothy a sweet or some other treat. Unfortunately, any more lasting presents risked raising questions, although for Christmas and birthdays he would manage to sneak a small, inconspicuous gift into Timothy’s possession.
As time passed, Timothy became more curious about Skinner, but the invisible man was adept at avoiding questions. His responses to the subject of what he really looked like—or what he had looked like, if he was a ghost, as Timothy sometimes thought—were always fanciful to say the least. Certainly Timothy imagined sometimes that he could see Skinner; but he also learned a keen awareness of his presence, and knew when his unseen friend was near, sometimes even before he heard the familiar signaling whistle.
Skinner always kept a careful margin of distance. He never allowed Timothy to touch him, even by accident, to preserve his guise of little more than a disembodied voice. It was always in the back of his mind that the less tangible he seemed to Timothy, the easier it would be for the boy to forget him, should it be necessary to give up his strange role as a not-quite-imaginary friend.
Yet it was a thing he learned to cherish. Life within the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was precarious at best. When summoned to his peculiar calling, he could never be sure when he might return… or whether he might not return at all. An ordinary life, by definition, was beyond him. However, he could capture some fleeting trace of it in his time with Timothy, in boring lessons and silly games and simple moments when he felt almost as if he could be seen again—even if it was only by one small boy.
If his own brother had lived, perhaps this was what having a nephew would have been like.
He never told the rest of the League about Timothy. After almost a year, apparently acting on some species of feminine intuition, Mina discovered the secret; but she said nothing to the others. Indeed, her first sign to Skinner that she knew was when she gave him a bundle of old books, smiling with an unusual warmth as she told him she thought he could find a use for them.
Neither of them ever spoke of the matter any further… but the books kept coming.
One morning, two years after their first acquaintance, Timothy greeted Skinner with a surprise.
As Skinner approached, the boy was sitting on the stoop with one of the books Mina had most recently sent along for him. Upon hearing the signal whistle, he bounced to his feet. "Rodney! I’ve something very, very important to tell you!"
"Have you?" Skinner lilted, seating himself in his usual place on the steps. "What is it?"
"I’ve decided what I want to be when I grow up." His head raised proudly, Timothy clutched the book to his chest. "There’s a story in this book you gave me. It’s about a man who became a doctor, and he saved people’s lives from being terribly sick and hurt. And—and you’ve always told me that I ought to help people, too, if ever I can." Timothy smiled, as brightly as a shaft of sunlight. "So I’ve decided that I want to be a doctor, too."
Skinner’s immediate rush of delight and pride was overshadowed just as quickly by concern.
"Why, that’s grand, Timothy!" he said hastily. "I’m sure you’ll make a wonderful doctor."
"Do you really think so?" the boy asked brightly.
"I know so." Skinner forced a smile into his voice. "You’ll be the best doctor in London—in all England."
"Then I should start to practice right away," Timothy declared resolutely, and with that he plunged into his play, pretending to be a doctor treating an imaginary patient.
Skinner looked on quietly for a while, feeling a certain heaviness in his heart. He glanced round at the stark surroundings Timothy called home, knowing Mrs. Blackstone could never afford to give her son a doctor’s education.
"Rodney? Are you still here?"
Roused from his gloomy contemplations, Skinner looked up at Timothy. "Yes, lad… I’m here."
From that week forward, Mrs. Blackstone found on her doorstep every month a sum of money, tucked into an envelope marked simply, "For the education of Timothy." She wondered endlessly who might be her son’s benefactor, and could think of no one; but for love of Timothy, she faithfully saved the money for the purpose intended.
And Timothy thought of Rodney, but he remembered his promise, and told no one of his best friend.
The years passed. The gifts of money continued, but Skinner’s visits to Timothy grew less frequent, as the world became more troubled and the League found itself increasingly busy. Still, he found the time now and then to watch over the progress of his adopted ward. No longer the small, frail child Skinner had first met, Timothy grew tall and strong. He studied well, and gained many friends among his schoolmates, but no one could replace his Rodney in his affections.
Then Tom Sawyer learned of Skinner’s unusual guardianship.
Skinner never did learn exactly how, but he came to suspect that Mina had intentionally let something slip. At first he would not have believed it of her—but the more he considered it, the more he thought she must have begun thinking the very thing which Sawyer dared to say to his friend.
"It’s got to end, Skinner."
The two men were standing on the bridge of the Nautilus, as the ship made its way back toward London after a particularly trying mission. Skinner had thought at first that the stress of their recent work, of the growing instability in the world, was the reason for Sawyer’s pensive mood throughout their journey home. Now he knew that his friend had actually been contemplating this unhappy talk.
"You know it as well as I do," Sawyer pressed. He, too, had grown and changed in the years since they first met, and the once reckless youth had given place to a steady and seasoned young man. He leaned on the bulwark, trying to search Skinner’s face—which was impossible at that moment, because the invisible man was not wearing his greasepaint.
"How old is he now? Twelve?"
"Eleven," Skinner murmured, turning away slightly to look out over the rolling waves. The air felt cold and heavy; there was a storm on the horizon.
"Twelve or eleven… Timothy’s getting too old to have an imaginary friend." Sawyer leaned a little closer to Skinner. "You had to know this day was going to come."
"Timmy swore he’d never tell a soul about me. He wouldn’t break his word."
"It’s not about that, and you know it." Sawyer sighed. "As he gets older, he’s going to realize his friends don’t talk to invisible people the way he does. They’re getting too big for things like that—and he is, too." The younger man placed his hand on Skinner’s shoulder. "It’s time you let him go, Rodney. Let him forget you, while he’s still young enough."
Skinner jerked his arm away from Sawyer’s hand. Gripping the edge of the bulwark, he closed his eyes—but his eyelids were as transparent as the rest of him, and did not conceal from him the endless blue-grey of the ocean. He could not shut his eyes to things he did not wish to see.
At last, a rough sigh caught in his throat, and he shook his head.
"He’s my friend."
"I know that." Sawyer shifted his weight and shrugged, without looking at Skinner. "That’s why you’ll do what’s best for him."
A dull crack of thunder echoed across the surface of the sea, and Skinner turned his back to the mounting clouds. He knew Sawyer was right. Timothy could not be permitted to grow up with any doubts that his old playmate was a mere figment of his imagination. It would be unhealthy for him, especially if he realized his dream of becoming a doctor. The older he grew, the more clear his memories of the unseen but very real Rodney would be, and it would not do to let him question his own mind.
Skinner let out his breath slowly, and spoke in a small voice. "I can’t even say goodbye, can I?"
His gaze fixed on the deck, Sawyer shook his head. "Best if you don’t. It’ll only upset him. This way, he’ll just keep waiting for you to visit him again… and someday, he won’t think about it anymore."
"But I’ll think of him," Skinner said softly, as the first drops of rain pelted to the deck.
For all Skinner had resisted the decision, his resolve never faltered once it had been made, and Timothy Blackstone was never again visited by his friend.
In vain Timothy waited to hear Rodney’s familiar whistle; he was accustomed to weeks passing between visits, but this time those weeks turned to months without any trace of his playmate. Then Timothy would sometimes sink into a black depression over the abandonment—but his more tangible friends would come to cheer him, and they usually succeeded in coaxing him out of his sulks. So he would go off to play with them, and forget for another day that Rodney had not come.
He never knew how often his invisible guardian watched over him still.
Skinner had committed himself to end his contact with Timothy, but he could not set aside his interest and concern so easily. He now observed silently, from a distance—and he had never felt more like a ghost than he did then, as he secretly haunted the alley, reduced to an onlooker at the unfolding of the young life he once was part of.
As the years passed, Timothy grew into handsome young man. He began to study medicine as he had always dreamed, drawing upon the funds accumulated from his anonymous benefactor. He fell in love with a pretty young girl, and on a fine spring day, he married her—never knowing that his old friend Rodney was there to witness the ceremony.
And then the Great War came.
The League had seen it brewing for years, and done everything they could to prevent it, but it came to pass just as Professor Moriarty had predicted. Skinner and his compatriots found themselves engaged in more desperate and dangerous missions than ever before, taking them away from England almost continually. In the chaos of those days, Skinner lost track of Timothy, who had settled with his bride in a modest home on the other side of London.
Several months later, Skinner learned that Timothy had enlisted and gone off to the Continent to serve as a corpsman, leaving behind a wife who was now an expectant mother. After that, he knew nothing more of his friend, until the final days of the War.
On an inclement October day in 1918, the Nautilus had arrived at her home port for much-needed repairs. After four years of war, the Sword of the Ocean bore testament to a hundred battles upon her once shining hull, but still she served her cause faithfully; still she was a jewel among stones, far superior to the U-boats of the enemy. Captain Nemo would have been proud of her.
He had been proud, to the very day he died.
Perhaps it was the thought of lost comrades that brought Timothy Blackstone to Skinner’s mind that day. For all the world’s madness, he had never forgotten his friend, and he felt a sudden longing to see the boy and be reminded of those simple, innocent days. Perhaps Timothy had returned home by now; if not, the invisible man could at least look in upon young Mrs. Blackstone, and ensure that she lacked for nothing in her husband’s absence.
Thus resolved, Skinner quietly slipped away on his own, and made his way across London.
Today he wore his clothed and painted guise, the afternoon being cold, wet, and windy—weather which increasingly caused him to feel an ache in his bones. He was no longer young, and, as with the Nautilus, years of hardship and injury had taken their toll. It was at least a small blessing that he, unlike his comrades, could not see his scars… but he felt them, inside and out.
As he neared the small house which Mrs. Blackstone had so proudly and lovingly looked after on her own, Skinner saw a messenger going up the front steps. The youth knocked upon the door, and it was presently opened by the lady of the house. A small child was clinging to her skirts; Timothy’s son! He was the very image of the boy his father had once been, and Skinner’s heart skipped a beat.
The messenger handed over a telegram, touched the brim of his cap respectfully, and went on his way.
Skinner stopped in his tracks. Even from a distance, he could see Mrs. Blackstone’s hands trembling as she slowly unfolded the paper. She looked down at it, and for a long time she stood still, staring at the words printed there.
At last she sank to her knees, gathering her little boy into her arms, and wept.
A gust of wind caught the telegram that had fallen from her hand, and it fluttered across the street, coming to rest at Skinner’s feet. Slowly, mechanically, he picked it up; but he did not read it. He already knew the fateful message it carried.
Unconsciously clutching the half-crumpled piece of paper, he turned and walked away.
Tom Sawyer did not knock that night when he came into Skinner’s room, where the invisible man had shut himself up immediately upon his return.
Each owing his life to the other a dozen times over, the two were bound by the very deepest of friendship—yet Tom had never seen the inside of Skinner’s room at the headquarters of the League. No one had, as far as he knew. In his youth he had burned with curiosity about it, and might have tried to gain a peek, except that he could never be quite sure whether Skinner was nearby and watching. With such secrecy about it, Tom had imagined that it was an Aladdin’s cave of treasures, the accumulated wealth of a gentleman thief’s career.
He had long since understood the truth: what money Skinner had, ill-gotten or otherwise, had gone toward the betterment of a child whom he loved. That was why Tom was not surprised, that night, to find nothing but a very spare and simple room… and one broken-hearted inhabitant.
On a plain and surprisingly neatly-made bed, Skinner sat huddled in his coat. He was not wearing his mask of greasepaint. A rather dirty and rumpled telegram lay on the coverlet beside him.
When Skinner had holed up in his room, Mina suspected the reason. She had turned to her own excellent connections for confirmation, and upon receiving it, shared the news with Tom. There was grief in her voice when she told him, and even a sense of guilt; perhaps for having provided the books that inspired Timothy Blackstone’s fateful desire to practice medicine. It would have done little good then to tell her that without his medical qualifications, he might have served as a common soldier instead, and possibly died far sooner and for far less.
Mina was a sensible woman, and would resolve those feelings in her own heart. The person for whom Tom felt true concern was Skinner himself.
Hooking his thumbs into his belt, Tom slowly stepped over to the bed. He picked up the telegram. Without reading it, he folded it, smoothed its wrinkles, and reverently placed it on the bedside table, then sat down on the edge of the bed beside Skinner. All the while, the invisible man remained silent and unmoving.
"Mina told me about Timmy," Tom said quietly. "I’m sorry."
From Skinner’s vicinity came a slight, sniffling cough. His ungloved and invisible hands moved across his knees in a restless fashion.
"They killed him," he said at last, almost inaudibly. "He was only a boy."
"No." Tom leaned closer, placing a hand on his friend’s shoulder. "He was a man, Rodney—and you made him a good man."
The response was something even Tom had not imagined. Skinner abruptly slumped over, the weight of his head coming to rest against the younger man’s shoulder… and Tom felt unseen tears dampen his shirt, as the invisible man quietly began to sob.
His heart wrenched, Tom put a comforting arm around Skinner’s shoulders, and continued to speak softly. "Timmy saved people’s lives. You know that; you taught him that. You gave him pride, and courage. Those things don’t die."
They were silent then, and Tom let his friend grieve. Together they had seen such loss and tragedy in the past four years… but this was somehow different. It was as if innocence itself had died—perhaps the only innocence that Skinner, and Tom as well, had ever known. Perhaps the last fleeting shred of innocence that a weary and war-torn world would ever know.
After a long time, Skinner gripped Tom’s shoulder and sat upright, letting out a trembling breath. His tears were spent, but his grief lingered heavily in his voice.
"I just wish I could have said goodbye."
It was December in London, and the sun was shining on newfallen snow. Soon it would be Christmas, but there were many who said the greatest gift had already come: peace. The Great War was over.
Yet many houses could not greet the holiday with cheer, because Christmas dinner would find an empty place at their tables. Even the home of Timothy Blackstone, Junior, still bore a wreath of black instead of holly on its door. He was never to meet the man who his mother had promised would one day return to love and care for him.
It was not easy for Timothy to understand, for his world was unchanged. He knew only that his mother was terribly sad, and had so often cried. She still cried sometimes, when she told him about his father… but at other times, now, she smiled as well. He was glad for that. Her smile soothed his worries, and he began to feel that it was alright to return to his play.
That bright winter day found him preoccupied with building a snowman.
It was a fine, tall snowman, with bright button eyes, oak-bough arms, and an old wool scarf wrapped round his neck… and yet, there was something still missing. Timothy sat on the park bench, idly swinging his legs back and forth as he regarded his new friend, trying to decide what more was needed.
So intent was he on this sober aesthetic study that he did not notice the approach of a curious stranger.
"Well now, that’s quite a respectable gentleman."
Timothy turned with a start, and found a very peculiar figure standing beside the bench, smiling down upon him. The stranger’s face was every bit as white as the snowman’s, lending sharp contrast to his black coat and hat. He wore a pair of funny dark glasses that hid his eyes, but nothing could conceal the lines of age and duress which a hard life had inscribed upon his features.
"’Course, there’s something lacking." The stranger turned to ponder the snowman for a moment, stroking his chin with a gloved hand. "Here now, I think I know what it is."
With that, the stranger stepped toward the snowman, the movement betraying a slight limp. He lifted the hat from his own bald head and placed it on the head of the snowman, then grinned back at Timothy as if in search of approval.
Hesitant but curious, Timothy slid off the bench and stepped closer, regarding the stranger with wide eyes. His mother had told him never to talk to strangers… but somehow, he was not afraid of this odd, pale man. The way he walked, he must have been hurt in the War, and his mother had also told him he must always be kind to the men who had fought for their country. She said that when he did well by them, it was like saying thank-you to his father.
"My name’s Timothy," he introduced himself to the pale man, in a small voice. "What’s yours?"
The stranger’s grin widened a little. He knelt in the snow, bringing his hidden gaze level with Timothy’s, and held out his gloved hand.
"My name’s Rodney… and I’m your friend."
© 2005Jordanna Morgan