The Red Dragon
by Stan Barber
Algernon Bartholomew led a solitary life. He had lived this way since he was a child, preferring the company of himself and books to those of people. He learned to read at a young age, far younger than many of his schoolmates, and he had a penchant for old books. He became somewhat of a fixture at the London Library, searching through the archives at any chance he could. When he could not gain access there, Algernon went to church. Not for the services, of course--Algernon had realized from a young age that he was an atheist--but to rummage through the church chronicles and annals. It was at the St. Pancras Old Church that Algernon’s life took on a new meaning.
It was an overcast day--nothing out of the ordinary for London in October--and there was moisture in the air. It had rained for days prior and today had been threatening the same since the sun rose.
“I’ve seen you ’ere many a time, boy," a middle-aged, rough-looking man said as Algernon sat in the church’s courtyard, reading an old tome on loan from the vicar. Algernon had noticed the man on his many visits here, always tending the land, weeding the outcroppings and shearing the hedges. “Why aren’t you off wid t’other lads, playing wha’ever games you young’uns play nowadays?"
“I don’t like playing games," Algernon answered, growing wary of the approaching stranger. He had a bad look to him. His face was unshorn, his hair hung in wisps from under his black top hat, itself looking worse for wear and bent midway up its length. He wore a black cotton coat over a white shirt, both spotted with dirt and other stains. The coat was moth-eaten and ragged. His trousers were scarcely better, brown in colour and with patches of other dark coloured fabric. He wore brown boots that were caked in mud from the sodden ground.
“Every boy likes games," the man said smiling and showing his rotten teeth. Now that he was nearer, Algernon could make out the pockmarks and small scars covering his face.
“I do not." Algernon never liked his schoolmates, even when he was a young child. They teased him and liked to make fun of his poor clothes and low-class accent. Now that he was older--nearly twelve--he was able to ignore their barbs until they grew tired of the boring prey, but still he detested them. “I don’t like the other boys."
“That so?" the man stopped and leaned against the black fence surrounding the church grounds. “You’re a clever lad. Took me years longer to realize a man don’t need anybody but ’imself. Like your reading, eh?” He nodded at the book in the boy’s hands.
“Bet that old vicar doesn’t let you keep it though, eh? ’E give you a sour look when you ask for, don’t ’e?"
“Yes. He always watches me when I take a book."
“I’ll wager ’e does. ’E keeps a tight ’old on anyt’ing that he reckons be ’is. That extends to the collection plate too, if you catch my drift." Algernon did, but he didn’t say anything. “What would you say if I told you there was a place just like this one ’ere, but you could help yourself to the books? Keep them for as long as you like."
This caught Algernon’s attention. “Where is this?" he said.
“Thought that might catch your attention, that." The man’s eyes glistened. “You know the old Church of St. Samuel?"
Algernon did not know of it. He hadn’t heard of any church nearby by that name at all.
“’S’a bit out of the way, but, oh!" the man produced a piece of paper from inside his tattered coat. “I ’appen to ’ave a map ’ere. See, I knew we’d ’ave this little conversation and that you’d want to go ’ere, so I took the liberty of making this. No thanks necessary.” He handed the piece of paper to Algernon. He looked at it right away, no longer concerned about the man. It wasn’t a perfect depiction, but it was far from crude. The church the man spoke of was in a wooded area just west of London. It would take some time for Algernon to get there by foot, but it could be done. He looked up from the map to thank the man, but he had vanished. Algernon, feeling the cold of evening close in, tucked the map into the breast pocket of his coat and got up to return the book. If what the groundskeeper said was true, this would be the last time Algernon had need of borrowing books from here again.