A Stranger's Aid
Winnie only ever opened her shop when need demanded it. Which is to say, Winnie didn't have much time off. Fortunately, she quite literally had all the time in the world.
The bell over the door jingled. Winnie tucked a long lock of ginger hair behind one ear and went to greet her latest customer. She'd been expecting the young woman for several days and was unsurprised it had taken her this long to come inside. What did surprise her was what the woman said.
"He keeps listening to the same thing." Her eyes were deep and haunted, and her face was thin almost to the point of gauntness. Her worn clothes hung loosely on her frame. "That can't be good. Can it? I- I'm not sure."
"Well," said Winnie and the Welsh lilt was in her voice in the single syllable, "that's a good question."
"The Thin Man brought it to him. It's been, I don't know, weeks? I-- lose track. Sometimes."
Winnie knew what that meant. It didn't take rolling up the woman's sleeve to see the tracks that sent her sense of time off-track. "What do you expect me to do about it?"
"I thought you could help."
"Why would you think that?" asked Winnie brusquely. She turned away to straighten the rack of essential oils on the glass counter top. Each customer required different things of her. This one could not be coddled.
"Isn't that--? Forget it."
Winnie heard her turn away, heard the bells chime, felt the breeze from the warm London summer evening. And then... The bells tinkled slowly as the door passed them again, closing under the woman's hand. Her back still to the door, Winnie smiled the tiniest of smiles and waited.
"I can't pay any money. I don't know what I can do. I just-- I want to help him."
Winnie turned around. She looked the young woman up and down and nodded sharply once. "I don't take money. You'll pay however I require and whenever the time comes. Understood?"
The young woman nodded. She understood delayed compensation, although it had never been good.
"Right. Wait here."
Winnie slipped behind the counter and into the back of her shop. The ruse was necessary when dealing with people, the action itself was not. Claiming what she required, she returned to find the woman standing where she'd left her.
"Take this." She handed over the battered violin case. The woman's eyes widened with fear, desire, and recognition. "Open it."
The woman did as she was told, placing the case on the counter and opening it up to reveal the worn but well-tended violin. The bow was tucked in the lid and small pocket held a block of resin. The instrument had belonged to a girl. In desperation one day, the girl had pawned it. After that, everything had changed.
"What-- What am I supposed to do with this?"
"What you used to do, of course."
There were a plethora of ways the sentence could have ended. Winnie chose which one to answer. "It won't confuse him. He won't mistake you for him." She allowed precisely the necessary amount of disdain to enter her tone.
"How will it help?"
"You'll find out when you try. Or you won't when you don't. It's up to you." Winnie turned her back again. The woman would make her decision without a witness, as she had made so many others before.
She heard the soft touch of a finger on a string, sliding so softly it might have been imagination had anyone but Winnie witnessed it. There followed a gentle pluck of the A string, perfectly in tune, and a sudden quiet intake of breath.
Winnie didn't have infinite patience despite having infinite time. When the lid closed and the latches clicked shut under the woman's fingers, the knot of impatience in her chest loosened ever so slightly. When the door bells chimed with the woman's departure, her heart bloomed with hope.
She turned and looked at the bare space on the counter where the violin case had bee. The young woman could do so much good for both herself and John Watson, if only she were brave enough to try. Winnie contented herself with the knowledge that she had at least taken the first step.