"I'll see who it is, Holmes," I said. He rose, maintaining the pipe in his hand as a clear message to our intruder that he had no intention of interrupting his evening's rest, and tightening the belt of his smoking jacket with a gesture of securing defences, but he stayed where he was while I went to repel boarders at our door.
The intruder was neither a neighbour nor a lost and benighted Downs rambler, nor even Patrick come for assistance with an escaped cow or a chimney fire. It was a stranger dressed for Town, a thick-set, clean-shaven, unevenly swarthy figure in an ill-fitting and out-of-date city suit that exuded the odour of mothballs, wearing a stiff collar such as even Holmes no longer used and a brilliant emerald green necktie that had been sampled by moth. The hat on his head was an equally ancient bowler, and his right hand was in the process of extending itself to me--not to shake, but openhanded, as a plea. A thin scar travelled up the side of the man's brown wrist to disappear under the frayed cuff of the shirt, a thin scar that caught at my gaze in a curious fashion.
"You must help me," the stranger said. For some peculiar reason, my ears added a slight lisp to his pronunciation, which was not actually there.
"I beg your pardon, sir," I began to say, and then my eyes went back to the darkness on his temple that in the shadowy doorway I had taken for hair oil. "You are hurt!" I exclaimed, then turned to shout over my shoulder, "Holmes!"
"You must come with me," the man demanded, his command as urgent as his fist on the wood had been. Then to my confusion he added a name I had not heard in nearly five years. "Amir," he murmured, and his shoulder drifted sideways, to prop itself against the door frame.
I stared at him, moving to one side so the interior light might fall more brightly on his features. I knew that face: Beardless as it was, its missing front teeth restored, the hair at its sides conventionally trimmed, and framed by an incongruous suit and an impossible hat, it was nonetheless the face of a man with whom I had travelled in close proximity and uneasy intimacy for a number of weeks. I had worked with him, shed blood with him. I was, in fact, responsible for that narrow scar on his wrist.
"Ali?" I said in disbelief. "Ali Hazr?" His mouth came open as if to speak, but instead he stumbled, as if the door frame had abruptly given way; his right hand fluttered up towards his belt, but before his fingers could reach his waistcoat, his eyes rolled back in his head, his knees turned to water, and fourteen and a half stone of utterly limp intruder collapsed forward into my arms.
The man lying between the crisp white sheets of the guest bed was very like Ali Hazr, but also distinctly unlike the Arab ruffian Holmes and I had known. In fact, I had nearly convinced myself that our visitor was merely a stranger with a strong resemblance to the man--a brother, perhaps--when a jab from the doctor's sewing needle brought him near to consciousness, and he growled a string of florid Arabic curses.
It was Ali, all right.
Before Holmes' pet medical man had clipped the thread from his half-dozen stitches, the patient had lapsed back into the restless swoon that had gripped him from the moment he fell through our door. Seeing his tossing head and hearing the apparent gibberish from his lips, the doctor reached back into his satchel for an hypodermic needle. With that, Ali finally succumbed to oblivion.
I adjusted the pad of clean towelling underneath his bandaged scalp and followed the two men out of the room, leaving the door ajar.
Downstairs in the kitchen, Dr Amberley was scrubbing the blood from his hands and giving Holmes a set of unnecessary instructions.
"I'd say his concussion is a mild one, but you'd best keep an eye on him, and if his pupils become uneven, or if he seems over-lethargic, telephone to me immediately. The dose of morphia I gave him was small, because of the concussion--it ought to wear off in three or four hours, although he may well sleep longer than that. I suppose you wish me to say nothing about this visitor of yours?"
Excerpted from Justice Hall by Laurie R. King Copyright 2002 by Laurie R. King. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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