All-Consuming Fire

All-Consuming Fire

by Andy Lane
All-Consuming Fire
In a darkened room, a man wrote a line of symbols on a sheet of vellum. His quill scratched like a mouse in the wainscotting and splattered ink across the paper, but he was an old-fashioned man in many ways, and would have no truck with fountain pens.
              A noise at the door made him pause in his writing for a moment, and glance up. The handle of the door was slowly rotating. His head moved from side to side, like a cobra eyeing up its victim, then he smiled slightly, and turned his attention back to the pure, austere beauty of mathematics.
         When next he looked up the door was open and a dishevelled man was standing before him, holding a revolver.
         "Scanlon," said the man behind the desk, "you seem disturbed."
         "I ain't the one that's disturbed, mate. It's you! You're a brick short of a full hod, I reckon."
         "Just because I issued an edict that you were to be killed on sight, I hardly think that justifies your appearance in my study. Where are my guards, by the way?"
         "Out cold," Scanlon exclaimed. "I coshed 'em."
         The man sighed. "Dear me," he murmured, "you just can't get the staff these days."
         "I got no argument wiv them. It's you I want."
         "And what exactly is it that you want with me, Scanlon?"
         "I want to live!" Scanlon cried, his face flushed and sweating.
         The man shook his head, emphasising the ever-present palsy. "You attempted to leave my employ, Scanlon. Nobody resigns from the Family, you know that."
         "A lot of the guys 'ave done it. Why single me out?"
         "Oh, I'll get around to the rest of them eventually, but for the moment they are beyond my reach. As you should have been."
         Scanlon wiped a cuff across his forehead. "Missed the boat from Southampton, didn't I?" he said, abashed. "They went wivvout me."
         "The phrase 'missed the boat' could well sum up your short but unhappy life," the man said with apparent sadness.
         Scanlon looked dazed. "Are you gonna take back the order," he growled, "or do I have to blow your brains across the book case?"
         "My brains are staying where they will do me the most good. Now tell me, how did you open the door?"
         "What?" Scanlon said, frowning.
         "Did you notice a slight resistance when you twisted the doorknob? A click, perhaps." He smiled. "A pain in the palm of your hand?"
         The gun wavered as Scanlon raised his left hand and gazed at it in bewilderment, then turned it to show the man behind the desk. A small spot of blood had smeared across the callouses.
         "You should have pulled the knob out slightly before you turned it," the man continued calmly. "I tell you this in the sure knowledge that it will do you no good at all. The poison is already coursing through your veins. Can you feel it burning? Palytoxin, extracted from the coral Palythoatoxica, found in the tide pools of a Pacific island known as Hawaii. The local people call it limumakeuhana - the deadly seaweed of Hana - although it is not seaweed. I obtained a specimen from a Chinese colleague. I must say, I am not at all happy about how slowly it works."
         During the monologue, Scanlon's eyes had turned up until he was staring at the ceiling. He swayed slightly. The man behind the desk watched his right hand carefully, in case a sudden muscular spasm jerked the trigger.
         Scanlon's fingers relaxed and the revolver slipped from his fingers, hitting the carpet with a soft thud. Seconds later, Scanlon joined it.
         "I will deal with the rest of your unfaithful brethren shortly, wherever they have run to," the man murmured. Re-inking his quill, he picked up where he had left off, in the unsullied world of integrands and differential functions, dismissing Scanlon's cooling body from his mind.
.                            .                            .
There was silence for a while as the two medical men sat in the book-lined consulting room, each absorbed in his own thoughts.
         "This simply will not do, Doyle," one of them said, throwing a manuscript onto the desk. The impact reverberated around the room, making the shadows cast by the gaslamps dance across the spines of the books.
         Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle sighed. "Oh, for Heaven's sake, James!" he snapped. "Are we going to go through this every time I write up your notes?"
         "I would be the first to admit," James said, sighing, "that you have a gift for turning my mundane notes into deathless prose, full of adventure and excitement. I have trouble recognising myself in this heroic figure of Doctor John Watson that you have created. Even when we were both at medical school together, I could see that your future lay in literature, not the laboratory. The readers love these little adventures of ours, and, if we're lucky, we could turn a pretty penny from them."
         "Well then," Doyle interrupted, "you have to - "
         "But I cannot let you invent entire scenes! It must all be based on fact. This stuff with the poisoned doorknob, for instance. Where on Earth did it come from?"
         Doyle raised a hand to stroke his moustache "The scene is implicit in your notes," he said defensively.
         "Implicit my foot!" James exclaimed.
         "But the dastardly Moriarty must have been aware that his gang of ruffians were being spirited away somewhere."
         "Indeed, but we never found out how. You have completely invented this scene. It'll have to go."
         "I've added new material before, without you demurring," Doyle protested. "Look at A Study in Scarlet - more than half the book was invented by me. What was it that the critic of The Graphic said?"  He scrabbled through the papers on his desk, scattering prescriptions and notes aside, until he found a well-thumbed magazine. "Yes, 'full of interest', he said. 'It hangs together well and finishes ingeniously', he said."
         "I'm sorry, Doyle, but the answer is still no."
         Doyle sighed theatrically. "Well, it's your adventure," he said.
         His friend frowned slightly.
         "I've been waiting for you to ask how much of it actually happened," he said hesitantly. "Surely the story must have struck you as strange. Did you not think me unhinged?"
         Doyle gazed out of the window at the rain-racked Portsmouth seafront. The gaslight cast a ruddy glow across his face. "I once met a man who called himself the Doctor," he said. "Not quite as you described him, though. Tall. Curly hair. Staring eyes. If your Doctor was anything like the one I met, then I could believe every word of your story. Does that make sense?"
         There was a long silence, then his friend nodded. "It does," he said. "Can I ask . . . what adventures did you have with the Doctor?"
         Doyle shivered.
         "Perhaps another time," he said.
Source: Doctor Who Magazine #213