Passersby couldn't manage to pretend any longer that they didn't hear the shouts bouncing out of the butcher's shop on Ivy Street. Brief, staccato thumps like kicks into a burlap sack provided accompaniment to the main melody of insults garbled by incoherent yelling.
Tumbling out in a wince-inducing whirl of flailing limbs and nearly a few fractured ones, Edgar, incidentally the burlap sack, narrowly dodged getting his head caved in by a carriage wheel as it clattered by, had it not been for the gentleman who halted the adolescent's graceless somersault across the street. Not by virtue, the boy simply happened to be in the way of his brisk pace.
"And don't bother comin' back for pay you little ungrateful git!" Like the jacket he tossed out with the boy, the butcher's final insults landed in Edgar's lap just as soon as he'd sat up again.
The 'closed' sign had helpfully turned itself from the force of the establishment's door being slammed hard enough to add another crack to its hinges.
By then, the crowds had already stopped paying attention to the altercation. Once it was apparent that Edgar's head hadn't been reduced to minced pudding on the cobblestones, London's Ivy Street had lost interest of the brief exchange.
"Heaven's sake," the gentleman said as he reached down to help Edgar up. "Are you all right? Anything broken?"
"I would like to say my pride," Edgar said as he accepted the man's hand, "but I think that one's been cracked since I was born, sir. Edgar Doss."
"Morgan," the man said with a wan smile. "Morgan Brooks. A, ah, a regretful pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless, I suppose."
Morgan was one of the only, (if not the only) man on the street without a top hat. At medium length and in the early stages of thinning, Morgan had the hair of a man who combed it but once in the morning with his hand before ruffling it up due to stress just a half-hour later, if that. A few long locks fell in a messy side-part over his left eye, which he swept back with habitual swiftness to get a good look at Edgar through eyes so hasty to dart this way and that, Edgar was doubtful anybody had ever gotten a good look long enough to discern their color. He resolved that they were dark green, no, plain black, or was that grey?
"Certainly," Edgar said, unable to feel comfortable in his gaze. "Beg pardon, sir, but do you have somewhere to be? I shouldn't be keeping you."
"Why ... yes," Morgan stammered, though he looked just as confused as Edgar as to what and where this place may be. "I, ah, did that monster, that man there, does he happen to be your employer?"
"Previous," Edgar said. "Mr. Dudson."
Morgan straightened out the ends of a black jacket that ended fashionably short over a waistcoat, layering over a white, similarly worn shirt. A few loops of black fabric made for a necktie that seemed all but prepared to serve a secondary purpose as shoe laces for how lazily it was hanging from his neck. This, too, he knotted up as he came to quick decision, though it did little to clarify his sickly pallor.
“Yes, yes I thought as much. Come work for me."
"Beg pardon?" Edgar repeated.
"Shave and Simmer. Ever heard of it?"
"Not really ..."
"That's all right! Just look at you; you look like just the assistant I've needed. Young, exuberant, lively!"
"A bit battered, really."
"Rather frail-armed, sir."
"Ahm ... jovial in spite of hardship?"
“Sarcastic at best.”
"You'll do!” Morgan grasped him by the shoulders and shook.
"Sir?" Most days, Edgar schemed of ways to charm café and bakery owners into hiring him. The more this madman insisted the less inclined he was to believe that he owned anything at all.
"You'll do perfect. Truly!"
Despite having just lost his job and having no home to return to now that he was beyond the age for little laws London had in place for orphan care, Edgar was doubtful. Then again, he'd made the mistake of skipping his daily meal at the butcher's before his afternoon beating, and his stomach was more vocal about accepting this request than he was, even if all it meant was an odd chance.
Morgan didn't pretend not to hear the loud growl and leaned closer to Edgar with a keen, knowing eye. "Come now. A barber shop over a quaint café. Spot of coffee and pastry will do you good. What’s not to love? The missus and I could use another pair of hands. Me, mainly, truth be told.”
"You're married, sir?" Edgar stalled, seeing no ring on Morgan’s long, knobby fingers. The man's breath was also a few shades closer to alcohol than not. Gin, by the smell of it.
Morgan's eyes fell to the ground and for a moment Edgar thought he'd drifted far enough into thought that he might be able to slink away from the uncomfortable guilt of owing this man his attention after being saved by him.
"Sometimes the most regrettably strong bonds are the ones we find ourselves incapable of leaving, especially if they are against our will," Morgan finally said in a long, quick string of sudden reflection.
“So not happily, then?"
"Tell you what." Morgan slapped a sixpence into Edgar's hand and squeezed the boy's fingers around it for him when his were less eager. "You keep that. If you'd like to see more of it, just ..." Like an actor forcing himself to say a line, Morgan gave Edgar a pat and squeeze on the shoulder that was less reassuring and more concerning. “Stop on by. 2121 on Hollow Crescent Drive. Just around the corner there, you see? Yes? Good lad. The shop could use another set of hands. As you can see, mine are a bit, well ..."
Morgan held up his hands which appeared to be in the middle of a trembling fit. "Barber can't work much like this," he said with a touch of shame. “Would do wonders to have a lad like you around to, ah, take my place when I’m unfit.”
It wasn't old age that had taken hold of those hands, Edgar knew from his days at the orphanage, but the last time somebody slipped a sixpence into his hand, it'd been for a bit of work that wasn't a close cousin to honest. He'd worked for drunks before, and this one seemed a bit too timid to have the gall to beat or even insult him.
“Mr. Brooks, you said?” Edgar said, turning the silver piece over and squinting at it in the sun.
“Please, call me Morgan.”
“2121 on Hollow Crescent?”
“Just so. A pleasure, Edgar Doss." And with a bit of a limp in his left side, Morgan strode off, nodding hurriedly to strangers caught staring at him.
Shave and Simmer was all simmer but no shave, as Edgar was realizing under the pensive expression of Morgan as he stroked a straight razor against the underside of Edgar's neck. The barber would graze, flick, graze, flick, spattering cream and bristles onto the ground like a wild artist. Although there was a damp rag resting on Edgar's shoulder at this very moment, when asked, the barber insisted this was the most efficient. Judging by the ghostly throng packing the business, Edgar was dubious that efficiency was an immediate concern of Morgan’s.
The thin walls of the two-storied building let in trickles of sound from the café under the floor, of dishes clattering in a sink and tea cups being rested on plates between mutters and a loud bark of laughter here or there. With a satisfied nod, the barber withdrew his blade, slapped on a dollop of aftershave onto Edgar's cheeks, massaged it, and tossed the adolescent a cool towel.
Morgan's business, it seems, was eclipsed by the one below.
"My apologies," Morgan said as he stropped his blade with his back to Edgar, bringing it up to the light here and there to check the edge, "were it not for my hands, it wouldn't have taken so long. It's the arthritis, you see. Or, something of that nature, I'm sure." The way Morgan spoke was with a slow, pensive, regretful tone, as if every ail of his life was his own fault yet he was powerless to change it. Edgar felt a pang of pity, watching the man who would've ideally been in the prime of his life, carefully cleaning a blade that was the only starry object in the entire, derelict room. The shop, lacking many windows to let in what little sunlight London could afford between the thick cloud cover, was supplemented by two gas lamps set in the walls, their glass enclosures blackened with soot thicker than a fireplace's. The low glow set the lines in Morgan's deeper, his expression disquieting in its deep brooding.
"But with you looking nice and proper, young Edgar, we can finally get started."
"On cleaning, sir?"
“Cleaning? Why's this?”
"Well it's obvious, isn't it?" Edgar remarked, rubbing his cheeks. The sheen of lavender-smelling aftershave was settling nicely into his pores now that they’d been closed from the cool towel. "Your shop, sir, well, don’t take this to heart but ..."
"What's wrong with it?”
Edgar wondered where to begin, explaining basic cleanliness to Morgan or asking him when was the last time he scheduled an appointment to see if he needed a pair of thick optics.
“We’ll be needing pen and parchment,” Edgar got up from his chair, feeling both brave and sympathetic, partially due to being shaved properly for the first time since his stubble began to grow, “to make a list, that is. If we’re going to be up to our arses in shit, we might as well know just how severely."
It was midday when Edgar flicked ink across the floor after dabbing a pen into a bottle with a thick, black crust like charcoal on its rim. Morgan protested, before Edgar pointed out that the other curious, unnameable substances on the floor were doing the ink proper in welcoming its addition.
With the top half of Shave and Simmer matching its better bottom in quality, Edgar sipped the cold remnants of coffee served from a press while Morgan finished polishing off the only mirror in the dingy barber shop. It was the last thing that needed cleaning, and thank the heavens for that, Edgar had seen more hair, cream, and molded, spilled hair products than he thought existed in all of London.
"Feeling fresh, sir?" Edgar asked. "You could eat off them floors."
"Yes," Morgan chuckled, not for the first time that day. "This was what I hired you for. I saw you and I thought, well, injecting a bit of fresh life just might be what this business needs." With a confident stride, Morgan swept open the door to the balcony and shouted, "At last, we're open!" with wide-spread arms above the soaked and utterly empty Hollow Crescent Street.
It was a half hand passed midnight.
"Just a shade past the peak hour of business, don't you think sir?"
"Admittedly, yes," Morgan said, pacing back into the shop, stippling with a downturned head. “Edgar, I regret I've not been entirely honest with you."
"Yes, yes, truthfully I was pleasantly surprised that you had a keen eye for the shop's appeal and—“
“—general hygienics, sir."
"Quite. However, the real work I had in mind for you is in the yard out back. After me, if you'd be so kind."
In the short, cramped patch of garden space that the Shave and Simmer was hiding behind its front, Morgan began a frantic check that the 'missus' had finished closing her café and was asleep in the backroom. Only a single gas lamp was burning inside, still, the harried barber took at least five minutes peering through the darkened windows.
"At last," he sighed when the light winked out, "some freedom from that insufferable woman's ceaseless prying.”
In the total twelve hours that Edgar had been on the premises, he hadn’t seen nor heard ‘the missus’. For all he knew, she was a conjuration of Morgan's coping mechanism. “This can't wait 'till tomorrow, then?"
"Certainly not. The matter is urgent and the timing ideal. Edgar. Listen closely, what I'm about to tell you might seem strange, but you’re .... you're a good lad, aren't you? Well, not good in the typical, do-right-by-god sense, but, you know, eager to please, to work?”
“What are you getting at?”
“You’d enjoy a sudden bit of wealth, wouldn’t you? A lad like you?”
“It couldn’t hurt, sir,” Edgar agreed, wondering if Morgan’s madness was reaching its peak for the day now that he’d complemented his exhaustion with another finger of gin. As the boy wandered about the garden, fending off the man’s monologue, he tripped over a bit of earth.
"You see I've discovered something, Edgar, something I regret but I feel I must not carry any longer, a burden. One day, you might come to understand. Alas, you are young. Very. Young. You see, every man on earth must at once make a horrendous mistake to know the true depths of a soul's depravity. It seems at least once we must crawl out of such trenches to appreciate the kiss of sunlight on ..."
“Morgan, what is this mound right here? And that one, over there in the corner?”
"They are the, ah, the purpose for which I hired you. You see, they're a few, well, how do I put this? ...
Edgar took a deep breath. Suddenly, the fresh air in the garden and the wide, open sky muddied by the fog came in intense detail, and Morgan's eyes—deep grey, he was certain they were grey—popped out at him through the dark, crescent moons of bruised black rimming his red eyelids.
So it wasn't the drink that was ailing him. If anything, the gin had done him some good. It was sleeplessness; guilt had been devouring this man like fire burst over kindling.
“Mr. Brooks …”
"I won't hurt you, I promise," Morgan breathed a shuddered breath and took a step back from Edgar. "I simply need your help." Appearing from inside the half apron still tied around his waist, a small but heavy purse of coins landed in Edgar’s hands, who was too dazed to do more than stare at the lumps of soil around the garden, wondering just how shallow they were, wondering just what Morgan said to the café owner to satisfy her questions when she asked weeks, or merely days before?
"No qualms, Edgar Doss. If you aren't up for it, run off with what you got there and consider it a payment for your discretion. But if you are, then there's another one of those purses for you at the end of the night. Hell, you can work for me afterwards, too … a token of my good faith. Whatever it takes to earn your … continual silence."
Edgar checked the contents of the purse, the dull sheen of the silver inside dispelling his hesitation almost immediately with a warm flutter in his heart. This was the sort of wealth that made men disappear, which, he supposed, was quite the point. "How many others have you tried to hire?"
"You think I have dozens of those purses lying around? Did you see that you were the fifth customer I had this afternoon, and that I payed you to come in? You were the first one, by god I swear it."
"How did they die?"
"Must you know?" Morgan hissed impatiently.
“Was it intentional?”
“Can’t this wait 'till after?”
“No. Not if you want what you say you want.”
After a pause, Morgan relented. “The first by accident. The two others following you could say were … inspired by the first mishap.”
“Men this world could do without? Men like Mr. Dudson?”
“Kindred souls, no less. Edgar, I promise you."
The last thing the boy wanted to do was give the man a reason to second-guess his instincts t hire him. Yet, Edgar's curiosity weighed heavier than the purse in his hands. “Then why can't you finish this on your own?"
"It's true. I could risk it. I could do it myself. Only, last night, sleepless, I had something of an epiphany. It's not easy work, and I can't promise you a clean conscience nor steady dreams to follow. But it will be discrete. It'll just require a bit of finesse, a dash of timing. Now, my plan is foolproof …”
Edgar strode back into the second story of Shave and Simmer with a fresh press of coffee and a wet kiss on his cheek from Missus Reiner who seemed all too pleased to see a young face, for once, working for Morgan steadily rather than briefly. According to her, most 'apprentices couldn't suffer that man's peculiarities for long'.
Looking out from the back window as Morgan finished up another client, Edgar admired the fresh plots of daisies, tulips, and even lavender bushes that had taken place of the mounds they'd dealt with just three weeks passed. With a contented smile in his new outfit, one that he had several of in his recently-leased flat, Edgar walked to the other side of the shop and gazed out at the street.
The shop’s bell chimed farewell to the customer.
"A lovely day, Mr. Brooks," Edgar reflected and sipped his coffee.
The slick, rhythmic swipe of Morgan's blade on the strop ceased. The barber approached the window and joined him in admiring the steady flow of London squalor and luxury as it passed by in varying earthy tones and the rarer, brightly dyed fabric. A spring sun was leaking through the clouds and falling brightly on the street’s business.
"Just so, Edgar Doss."
And for the first time in many years, the butcher's boy felt at home. He even felt guilty for taking Morgan’s second purse. Maybe in a few month’s time, he’d help advertise enough business to help earn the investment back. The authorities wouldn’t discover them, this the boy was sure of. If Morgan could charm half as well as he could scheme, all of London would be lined up to purchase his pamper and cologne special along with the traditional shave.
The boy's chest stopped and started at twice the same pace. His hand shot to the window, his breath flared against the pane. A ponderous, recognizable figure was walking across the other side of Crescent Hollow, his fat-footed gait aiming for the café doors.
"Morgan," he began, "look who it is!”
"Is that ... is that Mr. Dudson?"
"Not exactly," Edgar replied with a small grin and a glance at the barber.
Morgan's brows furrowed. “Are you certain?"
“Without a shade of doubt.”
“Who is it, then?”
“Why, it’s a dissatisfied customer.”