It was a dark and stormy night.
Well. Actually, it was neither dark nor stormy -- it was three o'clock in the afternoon and quite dank, damp, and a host of other adjectives starting in "da-", but unfortunately dark was not amongst them. There had, however, been a storm only two nights ago, and the streets were still rather slippery, so if one walked outside and simply poured a bucket of water over one's own head, well, it was quite like being in a storm. Almost. If said storm were over within seconds and localized to a bucket.
But, honestly, "it was a dim and foggy afternoon" does not quite have the same ring to it, now does it?
"I say, Mr. Guster, the dastardly devil has struck again!" Shawn Spencer, augur, investigator (and on occasional weekends, purveyor of an imported fruit as strong as the pine but delicious as the apple), slid into the room on his freshly-polished boots.
Only the bottoms had been polished, however, as Shawn could not understand the purpose of shiny shoes -- except, perhaps, for those Narcissian moments when one simply had to check on the nearest available reflective surface that one's hair had not up and abandoned one's head when one was not looking. Which was a concern. It did not take a true augur to figure out that he would likely be as follically-deprived as his father within the next decade, and occasionally he did like to double check that the hereditary Spencer curse had not gotten any ambitious ideas in its head about claiming his voluminous and silky locks early. Curses were competitive and wily little buggers, becoming stronger every generation, always trying to one-up each other -- poor old uncle Milworth's head distinctly resembled a boiled egg by his thirtieth birthday. A delicious boiled egg, but a boiled egg nonetheless. Shawn was comfortable with his head appearing delicious only in the metaphorical sense.
(There was also The Incident of Which They Did Not Speak a few years back when, dangerously low on coffee, they had tried a brew from the Spanish colonies that Guster swore was just as effective and, well, effective was certainly one word for it -- six jittering, sleepless days later, Shawn had begun speaking in tongues understood only by the deities he assured Guster were real, no, truly, they were right there, how could Guster not see them? -- and on the seventh morning, they had blearily entered the bathing chamber only to emerge an hour later with Guster bearing a full head of blond hair and Shawn -- well. There was a reason they did not speak of it, and it was the same reason Shawn screamed unintelligible obscenities at Guster every time he saw him with a razor in his hand.)
Shawn had discovered, however, that shoes with slippery bottoms had multiple utilities and everyday functions, such as this very one, in which he was able to enter the room with the utmost dramatic flair, arms thrown wide, open and waiting to receive the praise that Mr. Guster would surely bestow upon him as was his inherent due.
(They also left behind an oily streak upon which Guster would later slip, falling flat onto his back -- pan to bird's eye view, focus in on Guster's very disappointed expression as he says "That imbecilic bottoms-polisher. He and I shall be having words.")
Burton Guster, official apothecary to the London Constabulary, part-time investigator and full-time caretaker of one wayward Shawn Spencer, looked up from his laboratory table, a dropper in one hand and a small bottle in other (frighteningly labeled with a large red skull and crossbones, which Guster had learned long ago did not deter Shawn in the least, so now on his most poisonous concoctions he also wrote a warning which read MAY SHRINK THE MALE GONADAL ORGANS alongside an informative drawing, as he knew Shawn was convinced that "gonads" were a type of Grecian fairy that left congratulatory gifts under the pillows of good little investigators/false augurs and apothecaries). Guster squinted through his monocle. "The crone has returned to dispute her last purchase?"
Shawn sighed, the dramatic flair slowly draining from his arms and pooling disappointedly -- but shinefully -- around his feet. "I do believe that I said a 'criminal,' Mr. Guster, not 'an utterly non-threatening elderly woman who disagrees with your pricing policies.'"
Guster scowled, imagining accidentally slipping some cascara sagrada into her next order. It was, at times, quite unfortunate that he was such a consummate professional. "You shall see. Someday I shall best her."
"Most certainly you shall, directly after the gonad fairy has blessed you with an appropriate degree of manful bravery!" Shawn chuckled, patting his midsection in a most self-congratulatory way. "It is such an enormous shame that you were born without one."
Guster was at first amused by Shawn's apt yet completely erroneous use of the word 'gonad' (there was a small twelve-year old residing inside Guster's brain who diligently guffawed at every explicit or non-explicit reference to reproductive organs made within a four-meter radius of his person), but then both meanings of the sentence sunk in and his scowl deepened. "Mr. Spencer, I will thank you not to insult my degree of manhood nor to impose your uneducated opinions on a battle of the most epic and grave proportions."
Shawn waved his arms dismissively. "Yes, yes, you shall best the devious old hag, et ceteri, et ceteri, ad nauseor. As this conversation is in danger of becoming unlivably boring, I shall simply tell you who the dastardly criminal is:"
When there was no telling -- Shawn simply opened up his arms in the 'you may now praise the enormity of my genius, and also the enormity of other things in the near vicinity as I am feeling generous and do enjoy a romping game of "I Spy"' -- Guster began to frown.
"Mr. Spencer, you cannot simply leave a colon hanging like that."
Shawn smiled a smile that said yes, he could and he would, thank you very much.
Guster cringed. "For the love of the syntactical deductive!"
Shawn sighed with the put-upon air of a martyr. "(A drum roll, then?)"
Guster rolled his eyes, but complied by drumming his index fingers on his worktable and Shawn beamed, emerging from the parentheses with: "Jack the Ripper!"
Guster's already large eyes largened even further. "Oh, dear."
Shawn nodded. "Indeed."
"Faaaaaaaaaa-scinating," Shawn said, drawing the vowel of the word out to criminal proportions, leaning over Lassiter's shoulder and looking at the pile of shredded fabric in the street. "Constable, I do believe you are onto something."
"I shall kill you if I feel another one of your damp breaths on the back of my neck." Lassiter glared. "I do not jest."
"Promises, promises," Shawn said airily.
"Out of my way, Mr. Spencer, please," the Lady O'Hara said, shoving past him, and the sheer volume of her petticoats forcing him to the side. He teetered ponderously for a moment before regaining his equilibrium with the help of Guster's sturdy shoulder and a nearby amicable wall.
"Why, as if I were nothing more than a sack of delicious and tart apples!" Shawn huffed, straightening his cravat. (Shawn neither understood the purpose of a cravat nor how to neatly tie one -- he did, however, love to straighten it when affronted, frightened and/or aroused, circumstances which on certain terrifying and delightful occasions occurred simultaneously -- but thankfully Guster was an expert at creating an effortlessly elegant flowing-style cravat that not only showed off Shawn's jawline to its best advantage but also managed to flatter his eyes. Genius, really.)
Guster was sorely tempted to smack his partner along the backside of his rather melon-shaped and annoying cranium. "Mr. Spencer, the Lady O'Hara is a highly respected Deputy, and the Constabulary only allows you to observe cases as a personal favor to me, I feel compelled to remind you once more."
"She is a but a gentle maiden, Mr. Guster! I believe that automatically precludes any possibility of her being a real investigator."
O'Hara reared on him, her eyes ablaze with a fire that could have devoured an entire building if it chose, but instead it narrowed in on Shawn and singed his left eyebrow, slightly. "I have a handheld pistol in my bodice, Mr. Spencer, and I shall not hesitate in the least to use it on you."
Shawn took an exaggerated step backwards. Leaning in towards Guster, he stage-whispered, "Ooh, saucy. I do believe that I like it."
"If you do not remove yourself from these premises immediately," Lassiter said, standing up from his crouch, "the only thing you shall be investigating is the sudden presence of my knuckles along your jaw." He smiled thinly. "And I assure you that said investigation shall be quite hampered by the state of unconsciousness I shall surely bestow upon you." Lassiter wrapped his hand around the base of Shawn's neck and began to push him into the street.
"Ungh! Urgh! Aaaargh! Mr. Guster!" Shawn exclaimed, two fingers pressed to his temple and his other arm shooting straight out, locking at the elbow. "I am receiving something! It is... over here, yes..." He shimmied out of Lassiter's grip, walking over to the pile of shredded fabric that Lassiter had just been examining, stirring his hand in a circle in the air above the evidence. He began to twitch and jerk like a marionette, arms flailing. Little shiny bits of augury flaked off him like supernatural dandruff.
"Is he having a fit?" O'Hara asked, raising an eyebrow. "Shall I fetch the laudanum?"
"Shhh," Shawn said, convulsing one of his hands in her direction. "I am presaging over here." Then he considered. "But some laudanum sounds lovely, thank you, and am I correct in assuming it would be coming from the same femininely mystiqued area as your pistol?"
The answer to that question was yes, because Juliet Scarlett O'Hara (no relation, though she also quite loathed turnips) kept more than just deadly weapons near at hand, in a series of expertly designed pockets and crevices all about her person. She was a walking pharmacopia and triage unit, a great part in thanks to her mutually beneficial friendship with one Burton Guster, in addition to having a custom-made miniature Oxford English dictionary, five bits of twine, four pairs of spectacles (the Constable would deny needing them to his dying breath, but misplaced male pride had never stopped her from being practical), three knives (one never could have enough weapons), two teacups and one scuffed but entirely presentable ivory button. Her boots were a vast and uncharted territory that would take several volumes to properly catalogue.
She growled. "Let us see with which I can kill you more quickly, shall we?"
"Presage," Guster coughed into his fist, and Shawn went, "oh, yes, right," and returned to shimmying. "I'm sensing... I'm sensing a vital piece of information regarding the dastardly devious deviant behind these horrendously heinous crimes..."
"You lent him your dictionary again, I see." Lassiter sighed.
"My apologies, Constable," O'Hara said. "I thought it would help matters."
"What have I told you about feeding animals, Deputy?"
"It shan't happen again, sir."
"Begging your pardons, but the vociferously virile augur is able to hear you, and you are interrupting what I like to call his 'ethereally awesome flow.'"
Lassiter stepped menacingly forward, his nose cutting through the air with the clean swoosh of a very, very sharp blade. He flipped his tailcoats out of the way and affixed his hands to his hips. "The information, Mr. Spencer. Now."
Shawn sighed. "Very well, very well. These remnants are speaking to me. They're telling me that the man we are looking for was a member of matronly yet saucy Queen Victoria's forces, and..." He fluttered his fingers near his temple, drawing out a few more shiny flakes, "yes, if I am reading this correctly -- and who are we jesting, we all know that I am -- he was a field medic."
"Sir, the two suspicious persons we released a fortnight before --"
Lassiter nodded assent to O'Hara. "Bring them in again. Mr. Guster?"
"We shall be happy to assist in any way that we are able, Constable -- will we not, Mr. Spencer?" Guster said, elbowing Shawn.
Shawn recovered the dramatic flair that had been lagging at his heels all day and donned it with a flourish. "Well, it might be rather tedious this twentieth time around, but I suppose that we could save the lives of Londons' citizens yet again if we were absolutely forced to, yes."
"Ms. Cratchett," Guster nodded politely as she walked into the store.
The store was half Guster's apothecary wares and half Shawn's augury wares. Well, there were no augury wares of which to speak, per se. Guster's half of the building was brimming over with neatly organized medicinal substances, separated by category, alphabetized within those categories, and further arranged with aesthetics and color scheme in mind. Guster was not an apothecary who believed in strewing his carefully crafted product about willy-nilly nor was he a man ashamed to admitting his preference for presentation that stimulated the eye as well as the mind.
Shawn's half had only a writing table (on which almost no writing was done, but on which plenty of tabletop cricket was played), a grossly oversized and obviously forged portrait of himself grinning moronically and shaking hands with the Queen (Guster kept threatening to take a match to it) and a shelf of books with titles such as Augury for Dummies: How to Connect with the Spirit World Even if the Spirit World Resists and Attempts to Club You Over the Head with a Large Stick (by Shawn Spencer), The Exotique & Enigmatique Pineapple: A History and Analysis, and, of course, his favorite Nudes Through the Ages. (He had a habit of flipping to especially titillating images and accidentally leaving it open on Guster's worktable. He found it most telling that Guster had never once complained.)
Ms. Cratchett, an indeterminably aged ramrod-straight woman made of iron, acerbic words and misanthropy, graced him with a glare. "Apothecary," she said, making the word sound like the close kin of a disgraceful waste of God's efforts to create man and some overtones of if only you were an insect, you would be a long-forgotten smear along the bottom of my sensible shoes by now.
Guster's smile nearly did not qualify to be called such. It was a bit like watching someone try to maintain a cheerful disposition whilst being forced by a rather large and hairy man to eat a powerfully sour lemon. "May I help you find anything?"
"No." She disappeared behind a row of poultices and Guster attempted to burn holes in her receding back with his eyes. He only managed a few puffs of smoke.
"That is she?" Shawn whispered, appearing from behind Guster's shoulder out of seemingly nowhere.
Guster, once his heart palpitations subsided, smacked Shawn on the back of his head. "Do not creep up on me so. And yes, that is she." They watched her as she picked through glass jars. She scowled with such single-minded intensity that it was difficult to look at her directly, as if matter itself were shying away from making contact with her.
"It appears I spoke in haste earlier, Mr. Guster. She does indeed have every appearance of being a worthy rival."
"Shh. She has the ears of a fox." Then Guster preened a bit, which involved some fluid undulations in his neck and head region and a hand stroking down the front of his smock. "But you know that is correct. I do not use the term arch-nemesis lightly."
"If you are quite done commenting on the status of my auditory range, Apothecary, perhaps we can return to the business matter at hand." Ms. Cratchett said dryly, appearing across the counter with supernatural speed. The displeasure she radiated instantaneously parched all moisture from Guster's and Shawn's mouths and, mystifyingly, also sent pleasant chills down the backs of their knees. She placed a minuscule jar of poultice on the table. "I would like to purchase this."
Guster swallowed, a rather sandy sound. "Yes, ma'am. One pound."
"Lovely weather we are having, is it not?" Shawn said, attempting to dredge up a lively smile, though the result was more akin to the visual equivalent of a whimper.
She did not even look at him, snatching up her purchase and walking out, leaving in her wake a faint scent of camphor and a strong scent of disdain.
There are exactly three fixed variables in the multiverse: 1) figgins, unlike revenge, are best served warm; 2) the fork and spoon will forever argue about which was responsible for the contraceptive the night the spork was conceived; 3) Henry Spencer is a man who, regardless of the galaxy, planet, or century will be found on a Sunday afternoon wearing board shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and drinking a cold beer. There is a fifty percent chance he will be playing a Wii. (Oddly enough, the percentage is not at all related to the time period or invention of such technology. Time-space has a tendency to bend around immovable objects.)
Thus Guster and Shawn found him at four o'clock that very Sunday.
"I see you have unearthed yet another crime against humanity," Shawn remarked, lifting his chin and averting his gaze as if he could escape the sheer gratuitous gaggle of colors affronting his vision.
Henry scoffed. "Hey -- no one, least of all me, forces you to come over here." He walked back into the house without inviting them in, but he had not slammed the door in their faces which was roughly equivalent in the Spencer family vocabulary.
"We are investigating Jack the Ripper," Guster said quickly, because the Great Shirt Debate was quite time-consuming and often ended with Shawn in tears.
(It generally went something like this:
Shawn: Is a parent not supposed to give his children the shirt off his back?
Henry: Nice try.
Shawn: I will pay you to cease wearing that.
Guster: With what funds?
Shawn: It is for charity, Mr. Guster. You will be saving the innocence of every young child within a seventy-meter radius of this house.
Henry: Sorry, Shawn, but not even Guster here makes enough to outdo my pension.
Guster: Wow, really? I should have considered a career in law enforcement.
Henry: You wouldn't believe the perks--
Shawn: MY EYES ARE BLEEDING, FOR THE SAKE OF THE VIVACIOUS AND VOLUPTUOUS QUEEN WILL SOMEONE PLEASE TALK SENSE INTO THIS MAN?
"Jack the Ripper, huh?" Henry looked slightly impressed. "Pretty high profile case."
"The Constable is most eager to solve it," Guster agreed, discreetly popping his ears. The temporal shift that occurred when one entered Henry Spencer's home was always most disconcerting. A controller dangled from Henry's wrist and golf was paused mid-game.
"And we require your assistance, Father." Shawn held out his arm. "To that purpose, Mr. Guster: may I have your overshirt?"
Guster narrowed his eyes. "Why would I give you my favorite overshirt, Mr. Spencer, when the last time that I complied with such a request I ended up sans shirt, frostbitten and ravaged by small, ferocious Persian ants?" He crossed his arms over his chest. "I still have not regained feeling in one of my toes."
"It was merely that singular instance," Shawn said, waving his hand dismissively. "And toes grow back."
"Toes do not--"
"Details, details." Shawn tilted his head and put on his most earnest and heartfelt expression. "Come, Mr. Guster. When I have ever failed you?"
"Rhetorical question," Shawn sing-songed, stepping forward and placing his hands on Guster's shoulders. His face was overfull with sincerity and his voice at its most soothing. "This shall be most informative, I assure you."
"Very well," Guster acceded with a sigh, removing his outer shirt and handing it over.
"Now, Father," Shawn said, and withdrew a knife from somewhere in the vicinity of his midsection (O'Hara would have been proud), "please cut and tear this shirt by the same method with which you would to remove it from a sick patient who needed immediate care."
"But that's my fav--" Guster started, but Henry had already shrugged and begun shredding.
"Mr. Spencer!" Guster protested, stamping his foot on the ground. The annoyed tirade that came out of his mouth did so with such speed and volume that the words filled the air to capacity within seconds. When they were nearly at the precipitation point of a critical mass of anger, they coalesced into a cloud of hostility that hovered in the air for a moment and then engulfed Shawn, shouting things such as "you lack all dignity as a human being," "the pineapple fruitcake you made last Yule was horrendous and I only ate it to make you feel better," "you smell of elderberries," and what without a doubt can be labeled the most dire insult from the Book of Rather Dire Insults by Burton Guster, "every word out of your mouth is a disgrace to the English language."
Henry looked on, chuckling.
"Ow -- Mr. Guster, Mr. Guster, please, if you would just look at the breadth -- ow, begone, you barbed little linguistic projectiles! -- just, please, look at the breadth of the fabric and the precise size of the strips --"
Guster slowly shifted his glare to the ruins of his former overshirt hanging from Henry's hands.
"Hmm," Guster leaned forward, distracted as he examined; the cloud thinned a bit. Shawn waved it away, mumbling that he thought elderberries smelt rather pleasant.
"Oh," Guster said eventually, recalling the remnants of the corset from the crime scene. "This does appear appear most familiar."
"And you were in her luscious Majesty's forces for precisely a year and a day, were you not, prior to your relocation to the Constabulary?" Shawn asked Henry, with a pointed look at Guster.
Henry nodded. "Yeah, what's that got to do with anything?"
"Only everything," Shawn smiled.
"Mr. Guster!" Shawn slid into Guster's work room, nearly over-balancing and toppling in his excitement (this had happened on more than one occasion, which was why Guster had strategically placed a veritable cornucopia of pillows in the corner -- dubbed the 'augur catcher' -- and affixed a bar to the wall to help Shawn rise once more, because the only thing that oily-bottomed shoes did better than facilitate dramatic entrances was prevent one from regaining one's standing position). Shawn caught himself at the last minute, however, instead knocking over a handful of Guster's bottles and medicinal paraphernalia.
"Mr. Spencer! I have told you a hundred -- nay, a thousand times to treat my supplies with the utmost care --"
"Do not be a facetious pair of trousers, Mr. Guster. Who, I ask you, can be careful at a time like this? I have determined how we might go about catching the greatest criminal mind of our time!"
Guster sighed, grabbing a rag. "This is the fourth time today, Mr. Spencer, and each previous 'insanely genius plan' has been neither genius nor at all plan-like, merely insane."
"I assure you with all the bones of veracity that I have in my body, which are exactly five: my latest plan is impressively genius, even for one such as myself."
"I am listening," Guster said grudgingly, mopping up the odoriferous mixture of willow bark powder and valerian extract.
"Fact the first: the masqued man strikes only against persons wearing corsets in the night."
Guster's hand stilled. "Yes," he agreed cautiously, a slight tremor at the base of his spine warning him that he would not like where this line of logic was leading.
"Fact the second: when you were precisely four and one quarter years old, I found you in my parents' chamber wearing my mother's corset. It was the red one with the Parisian lace, was it not?" Shawn smiled fondly at the memory. "You were most fetching."
Guster closed his eyes, groaning. "Mr. Spencer. Do not dare suggest what I believe you about to suggest."
"Fact the third: there is no better way to catch a criminal than in the act."
"I loathe you with the utmost intensity," Guster said, but there was no heat in it, because they both knew he had been doomed the moment he put that corset on twenty-five years ago. One did not live such a thing down when one was friends with Mr. Spencer.
Shawn pulled a red scarf out of his top pocket, tying it around Guster's face. He smiled the smile of a friend who believes that he is being cruel to be kind when, in fact, he is being mostly cruel.
He patted Guster's cheek tenderly. "I shall string a flower in your hair and call you Berta."
Shawn Spencer was a man known for his shenanigating. He was also secondarily known for hijinking, wheedle-wacking, spoonter-bunting, and frandle-snofting. The latter three terms he had, of course, invented himself and they meant, respectively: the knocking over of persons whose voices could in any manner of the word be construed as 'wheedling'; the playing of a game that involved expensive spoonery, three cherries, and Guster's favorite shoes; and last, but certainly not least, was the traveling through time to sniff fragrant candles in the past.
None of these things, however, had prepared him for the sight of Mr. Burton Guster in a corset.
He gave Guster a very appraising look from bewigged head to bestockinged feet. Entire novels of jests that he had mentally composed whilst waiting for O'Hara to finish with Guster vanished in that instant, and left behind only a widely gaping mouth and a certain gonadal warmth that Shawn suddenly understood had nothing to do with Grecian fairies.
Guster had on a wig that flowed with black and shining curls, a small red hat perched delicately atop and a burgundy corset over an even darker red silky dress that flared out at his hips over the petticoats. The white gloves reached Guster's elbows and he held a small rose-hued purse awkwardly, as if afraid of breaking it. The ensemble was completed with bright red lip paint and expertly applied rouge on his cheeks.
"Well, my nether regions are both confused and excited by this most recent development," Shawn said cheerfully, and held out his arm. "Shall we?"
Burton Guster was a man who treated his appearance with the utmost care and respect. therefore, though he was clad in clothing most unfamiliar and was experiencing the incredibly unsettling sensation of having a bosom (composed of two unripe apples -- Shawn had suggested grapefruits and Guster had looked at them with horror as he was wholly unprepared for the desire to fondle his own accoutrements, so it was back to the apples), he squared his shoulders and walked down the streets with pride. Good posture also meant the apples were also less likely to roll out, which much to Guster's chagrin had occurred three streets prior and sent a young girl screaming for her mother.
"Flowers! Get your flowers 'ere!" A woman cried, her basket on her hip.
When they approached her, Shawn reached down and grabbed a bunch of wilted posies, holding them out to Guster. "For the fairest lady in all of the land."
"You's a real gentleman, you is," the flower woman said, giving them a large and toothy smile, her teeth oddly white against her sooty face. She was a woman who took extreme pains to maintain her appearance: ten minutes of smearing dust in the morning, twenty of grime in the afternoon, and an additional ten of both in the evening to ensure that "fresh out of the chimney" glow in the mornings.
"Were he a real gentleman," Guster said, glaring at Shawn as he rummaged around in his purse, "he would be able to pay for the bouquet himself."
"Be certain to give her a generous tip, my little crumpet," Shawn said. "We would not want her to think we are stingy, after all."
"Twelve pounds," the flower woman said, thrusting her hand towards Guster, her voice suddenly flat and very business-like.
"Twelve--twelve--" Guster began to choke on the word, so Shawn gave him a hearty slap on the back; Guster coughed the "elve" into the street (there was no help for it; the "tw" had been swallowed during his fit), looking at the woman incredulously. "Pardon me?"
"Twelve pounds, guv'nor. Lady's got t'make a livin', eh?" Her eyes were large and puppy-like. "I ain't tryin' a take advantage, gents, I promise. Take pity on a poor soul?"
Shawn elbowed Guster. "Do you hear that violin?"
Guster looked around in confusion. "I had thought I was imagining it." His voice dropped to a whisper. "It sounds as if it is coming from inside her basket."
She clasped her hands, the basket drifting softly to the ground as she brought them up, prayer-like, beneath her chin. She stared dreamily off into the distance. "The truth is, guv'nor, that all I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air..."
"Oh, for God's sake, give her the money before she reaches to the chorus," Shawn hissed, and Guster did, throwing it hastily into the basket. They backed away slowly, running as soon as they made it around the corner.
"I cannot believe that I allowed you to talk me into this," Guster said, his bouquet of flowers now long-wilted. They had been pacing the streets around the theater for five hours. Lassiter and O'Hara had kept watch for the first hour, but they were called off to deal with a robbery on the other end of town and had not yet returned.
"I think what you cannot believe is how much you are enjoying Lady O'Hara's clothing," Shawn said, smiling a small half-smile when he took another appraising look at Guster's apples.
"Next time you shall be the one in the dress," Guster said.
"There shall not be a next time," Shawn promised. "Our criminal shall be here soon. I can feel it."
Guster pursed his red lips. "Ah, yes, the same way that you 'felt' he would be here an hour ago, or the same way that you 'felt' that the square wheel was a niche market with untapped potential that would bestow us with great riches."
"Have faith, Mr. Guster. He has not struck for three nights and I am certain he is just itching to do some bodice ripping. And on that note, I shall leave you to it."
"What?" Guster grabbed Shawn's shoulder. "If you think I am awaiting a crazed criminal alone, Mr. Spencer, you are surely deranged out of your exceedingly tiny cranium."
"Firstly, my cranium is sized in Adonis-like proportions to the rest of my body -- no, truly, Adonis himself came round the other week and asked me how I do it -- and secondly, having a male escort, especially of such devilishly handsome features, reduces the chances that our criminal shall choose you as his prey." He put a hand on Guster's shoulder. "And you would not want some poor, innocent woman to be victimized, now would you?"
Guster sighed. "No, I would not. But you must promise to stay close at hand."
"I shall be like the fingers inside your glove." Shawn raised his eyebrow, holding up his hand and wiggling his fingers suggestively.
"That is an uncomfortably erotic analogy, Mr. Spencer."
Shawn grinned. "Yes, yes it is."
Guster frowned, crossing his arms over his apples. "Very well. But one more hour and then criminal or no criminal, I am returning home."
"Fair enough." Shawn said. He turned to walk off. "Like fingers inside your soft, soft glove," he called over his shoulder and Guster shuddered, turning on his high heel and walking the other way.
With a fantastic sense of dramatic timing, Guster was accosted precisely an hour later. ("Of course," he muttered to himself, sighing wistfully for the issue of Zorro: The Illustrated Adventures lying on his settee at home that he had been quite looking forward to reading once he figured out how to extricate himself from the layers of clothing in which he was bound.)
Shawn had been diligently creeping through the alleyways a good ten meters behind Guster at all times and when he saw the small figure cloaked in black jump out and hold a knife up to Guster, he did three things in quick succession: a) squawked, in a manner reminiscent of a black-and-white waddling bird found on the continent of Antarctica that, when shown the error of their ways by one tone deaf wacky youngster, discover they can dance (and how!), b) flapped his arms in a manner reminiscent of an entirely different avian species, found only in the deep jungles of the Amazon and so rare even it wasn't sure it existed, c) began to flounder aquatically over in Guster's general direction, attempting to simultaneously plan a heroic rescue as he did so.
Guster took a few steps back from his assailant, holding out his hands in placation. "I understand you have an, er, agenda for the evening, Mr. Ripper, and I certainly would not want to impinge upon that, but this corset is quite expensive. The Constabulary will charge me a deductible if it is damaged, you see, so how about if I simply remove it?"
"I think that is a wonderful plan," Shawn shouted when he came round the corner.
Guster spared a second to glare at him, but he was distracted when the cloaked figure raised the knife higher and grabbed his shoulder.
Shawn felt the moment called for a war cry, so, holding up the bag of roasted peanuts he had brought along as a snack, he shouted out something along the lines of "aiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeyaaaaaaaaaaaahooooooooeeeeeeeuuuuuuuu!" and charged.
"Unhand my little crumpet!" He said, sliding onto the scene and lobbing a peanut at the attacker.
Alas, he had grievously misjudged his amount of shoe polish that morning and kept sliding until the end of the street.
"Mr. Spencer!" Guster cried, fighting to escape the grip of iron. "The only weapon you have on hand is a legume?"
"Wait." Shawn paused in his mad dash to try and regain his footing. "Are you telling me that a peanut is not a nut?"
"That is precisely what I am telling you. It is neither a nut, nor a pea, nor any match for a knife, you imbecile."
"Then where does the saying 'the peanut is mightier than the sword' come from?"
"It is the pen --"
"I have heard it --"
"No, no, do not even begin with me, Mr. Spencer, you most certainly have not --"
"Do not be a cold figgin, Mr. Guster, of course I have --"
Guster stepped forward, raising his fan, as if prepared to attempt to whack sense into Shawn's head. This approach had always failed miserably in the past, unfortunately, but Guster was nothing if not persistent and ever-willing to hit his friend in the name of science.
Then Guster paused in his step, realizing that nothing was impeding his forward momentum. "Mr. Spencer."
"Where has our criminal gone?"
Guster and Shawn rotated their heads, owl-like, all around. The streets were dank and wholeheartedly unfriendly, but devoid of any dark, threatening figures.
"No!" Shawn, frantic, twirled in circles, his eyes peeled to truly enormous proportions. "Where has he gone?"
Guster's eyes slid away awkwardly. "I... I may have heard him mutter something about having a kettle that was about to boil at home."
Shawn took a step closer to Guster. "A kettle?"
Guster, grimacing, nodded.
Shawn, in a voice that was decidedly deceptive in its calm, said, "So what you are attempting to tell me, Mr. Guster, is that a kettle of tea was more important than accosting us?"
Guster shrugged. "Perhaps it was a very large kettle? And there were many flammables nearby?"
At that moment, Lassiter rounded the corner with his weapon drawn, the bullets practically dancing within the barrel, aroused by Lassiter's palpable excitement. "I thought I heard a scuffle. Has the bastard appeared yet?"
"Apparently we were keeping him from a busy night of chamomile tea!" Shawn said, flailing his arms, splattering indignation all about. Guster delicately flicked some off his shoulder.
"Chamomile?" O'Hara said, appearing from behind Lassiter's back. "Is somebody brewing a pot? I would love a cup."
"MAYBE YOU SHOULD GO ASK JACK THE RIPPER FOR SOME," Shawn shouted before stomping off into the night.
"I apologize for his behavior," Guster said. "He gets rather personally offended by anti-climactic let-downs, you see."
O'Hara's face fell. "So there shall be no tea, then?"
"Mr. Spencer," Guster said, poking Shawn's shoulder. "Mr. Spencer, please waken."
"Just a quick peek under your skirts, I promise I shan't touch," Shawn mumbled sleepily, his hand flailing out and groping in the vicinity of Guster's waist. Guster was clad in a white nightgown that reached down to his feet and the tip of a pointy white hat was resting on his chest. Three ghosts of Yules long past would have been quite comfortable haunting his bedroom.
"Mr. Spencer! Awaken!" He said, slapping away Shawn's roaming hand.
"You are much nicer in my dreams, you know," Shawn said, rubbing his eyes. He smiled, patting the bed beside him invitingly. "Did you have another nightmare? Come, it is deliciously toasty and warm."
"This is no time for jesting, Mr. Spencer," Guster said, making no move to sit on the bed. "I think that I have discovered a very promising lead in our case."
"Who's jesting?" Shawn said, and it was true, there was a faint aroma of buttered toast arising from the sheets. Then the rest of Guster's statement percolated through Shawn's waking brain and his expression became instantly intrigued. "A lead, you say? Do tell, Mr. Guster."
"I believe I know where we might find the masque and the dagger."
"Then for what are we waiting?" Shawn pointed to the door, puffing his chest out. "To the Augur Carriage!"
Guster sighed. "Our carriage has square wheels, Mr. Spencer. It shall not take us anywhere."
"But what shall I do with my banner?" Shawn pulled a huge bundle of cloth out from under his pillow. "Dashing, is it not?"
It was linen and had the words Auggur Carriagge scrawled in bright red paint. It looked like it had been created by a small child or an exceptionally intelligent animal.
"Well, if my supposition is correct, then our window of opportunity is most small. We haven't the time to contract a proper carriage."
"Ah, well, next time, then," Shawn said philosophically, tossing the banner back under his pillow. He hopped out of bed, hurriedly throwing on a jacket and trousers.
Once dressed, they jogged through the early morning streets of London, which were virtually indistinguishable from the streets of London at dusk, midday, or midnight. This was due to the time of year, as it was the middle of the annual five-week vacation the fog took from humidifying the city of San Francisco to drape like a wet blanket over Britain, merging with the native fog in a thickness that pea soup everywhere found enviable. There was a faint hint of light along the horizon that implied the sun did indeed still exist out there, somewhere.
Shawn wheezed, clutching his side, his steps dragging. "I insist that we stop for warm figgins and some cocoa -- with the tiny Swiss marshmallows, if they have them -- elsewise I shall expire."
"It is directly there, up ahead," Guster said, pointing. Shawn immediately stopped running and exaggeratedly limped the remaining block whilst Guster looked on, rolling his eyes.
"Inside there." Guster pointed at the door with the number "42" on it. There was also a familiar name above the doorknocker.
"Mr. Guster," Shawn said, casting him a glance that contained hearty amounts of discontentment. He put his hands on his hips and dredged up a disapproving expression. He had exactly two disapproving expressions in his repertoire, the first of which was stolen from his father, the second stolen from Mr. Guster. He currently used Mr. Guster's against him, which seemed to him poetic justice. "You woke me at this ungodly hour to break into Ms. Cratchett's home?"
Guster's chin raised to its most stubborn height. "She is our culprit, Mr. Spencer, I am sure of it."
"Mr. Guster," Shawn said kindly, placing a hand on his friend's shoulder. "I understand that you have a very fraught rivalry with this woman."
"Make no mistake, Mr. Spencer. It is war."
"Yes, certainly. War. But you cannot in all seriousness believe that Jack the Ripper is a tiny old crone who walks around with a cane?"
"You do not understand. She does not use the cane to support her frame. The bottom is pointed. Like a sword." Guster said.
"As convincing as your completely unfounded accusations are I shall have to insist that we leave at once." Shawn said. His mien brightened. "If we hurry back we will have ample time for a toasty romp beneath the sheets before opening time."
"I am in no mood for romps, Mr. Spencer." Guster said. He took a step forward, poking Shawn in his chest. "Let me ask you, Mr. Spencer. How many times have I accompanied you on chases which resulted only in wild geese?"
Shawn looked put-upon. "None that actually concluded with waterfowl --"
"And how many times have I supported your wildly speculative theories in front of the Constabulary, without a second thought as to how foolish I would look if you were proven wrong?" He punctuated each sentence with another poke. "And how many times have I had faith in you when none other did?"
And then Guster narrowed his eyes, twenty-five years of shared friendship filling them up accusingly.
"Oh, dear God in heaven, very well!" Shawn said, waving his arms defensively. "Anything, as long as you will cease looking at me like that!"
Guster smiled. "That is more like it. Now, come. I think we must investigate to her boudoir."
Then they blinked, realizing whose boudoir they were going to enter. They shuddered as one.
The Boudoir of Ms. Cratchett was not what one would expect.
"I say, this is not what I would have expected," Guster said.
The aesthetic was a mixture of vomitous rainbow and innocuous everyday objects that could double as frightening implements of death. There was a hanging on the wall that depicted a unicorn silhouetted against a garishly bright rainbow, and if one squinted, one could see that the unicorn's mane was actually sparkling in the low light. If one did not know better, one would think such a hanging was created by a thirteen year old girl who has had entirely too many sugar-laden truffles and encouraging art tutors. (And/or that such a pattern belonged on a t-shirt that proclaimed the wearer's height of disaffected fashion sense by ironically displaying non-ironic appreciation for the subject matter. With an extra layer of ironic referential allegory to the wearer's reclamation of his/her now-unfashionable-within-mainstream-society-but-cultishly-appreciated-in-the-proper-circles childhood icons, just to straighten the whole matter out.)
Shawn fingered the lacy seafoam bedspread. "And what proof do you have that this woman has committed a crime other than giving you an eyeful of stink?"
"Point the first: her son is a member of Her Majesty's forces and trained as a medic. He has visited our store numerous times to purchase items from me and his mother assists him in his work. Point the second: camphor." Guster said, tapping his nose with his index finger. "My Superlative Olfactories detected its odor last night when our culprit was assaulting my person. And every time that Ms. Cratchett has come in the store she has reeked of it," Guster said, the gateways of said superlative olfactories flaring as if offended at the memory.
"Hmm." Shawn said, and though he was still skeptical, he did not sound quite as dismissive of the possibility. It nipped at his heels like a small neglected puppy, and he did have rather a fondness for them, particularly when Mr. Guster was exposed to them and was rendered incapable of speaking in anything but horrific rhymes five octaves above his normal range. ("Who is a diminutive furry mammal-wammal? You are! And look at those itty-bitty pawsie-wasies of yours! You are so snuggly-wuggly, yes you are.")
"More than that, were you not the one who thought it was odd that Jack the Ripper's masque was crocheted?" Guster said, holding up Ms. Cratchett's crochet hook, which looked less like a handicraft tool than a weapon, being that it was wickedly pointed and very reminiscent of the instruments used by Egyptians to remove all that pesky brain matter post-mortem. (There were times, Guster reflected, that it simply did not pay off to have a classical education in medicine.)
"Ah ha!" Guster said, pulling out a black garment out of the armoire and holding it to the light.
It was a dress.
"Not quite your size, but if it catches your fancy I certainly shall not stop you," Shawn said, shuffling through Ms. Cratchett's various glass jars of poultices and ointments. "My God, this woman's entire vanity is filled with medicinal mixtures."
Guster frowned. "Can you imagine her with rogued lips?"
Shawn shuddered. "You make a most salient point."
Guster sighed when, after searching everything, they had found nothing to confirm his theory. "I was so certain it was she."
"There, there," Shawn said, stroking Guster's head in a manner that he intended to be comforting, but was instead inappropriate and a little sensual.
Guster smacked his hand away. "Do not touch me. I refuse to be patronized by a man who cannot tie his own cravat." He kicked the dress on the floor, angrily.
With all the convenience of authorial intent, a dagger and a masque ejected from within the black folds, rolling to a stop in front of Shawn's feet.
"Oh, Mr. Guster," Shawn said, his voice overflowing with pride and a little choked. He held out his fist. "I do believe you have just bested your arch-nemesis, insert an interrogative misused as an emphatic declarative here."
Guster, head held high and superlative olfactories flared triumphantly, reached out and bumped it, and they proceeded to dance.
It was a warm and sunny afternoon. (Very well, that is a lie. It was damp to the point of insult and the sun was still a far-off, unverified rumor.) Burton Guster was in a matching warm and sunny mood, for they had solved their case and he was greatly anticipating reading the latest edition of Zorro: The Illustrated Adventures.
Just as he had got comfortable, feet tucked under his knees and a shawl around his shoulders, a steaming mug of chamomile on the sidetable (with just the minutest dollop of honey -- Guster was a purist and did not believe in diluting the flavor as Shawn did, with marshmallows and bits of crackers and other such frip-frappery), Shawn slid into the room.
"Mr. Guster! There is an Elizabeth Borden to see us in the foyer!"
"I ought to confiscate your shoe polish," Guster grumbled, but he set down his tea and rose to see what new comedy of errors Shawn would be inflicting upon them this week.