In Which We Run In Of Time

The Higgenbottom Manor was just as quaint as Miss Fidelia had remembered it to be as she approached the estate; well, at least from the outside. Unassuming yet immaculately well-kept, the brick country house stood proudly on the corner of Cherry Street as its breathtakingly enormous cathedral windows granted any passerby with just a teasing glimpse into their urban legend Miss Higgenbottom’s inner world. A polished cherrywood piano stood upright and close to her well-loved writing desk, in which she would religiously pen a letter or two mid-afternoon as her young assistant dutifully filled the room with beautiful music.

This day, the room was occupied by someone entirely different. This someone scoured the modest room as though it had something to hide, frantically making quite a mess of things as she carelessly crumpled up bits of stationery she didn’t seem to find important. If she meant to out herself as a person who most certainly did not belong, she was making short work of it with her black catsuit and a mask to match, making plenty of noise and performing conspicuously beside the tall windows. Already the neighborhood was beginning to watch as though they were witness to a play, the whole thing was such a spectacle to behold. Calling the authorities hadn’t yet occurred to anyone; and yet, she had counted on this reaction all along.

“Blast and damn,” muttered the woman as she stood in the center now, surrounded by spilled ink and letters both old and new, the parchment blotched to an almost indiscernible degree. The rest of the room had somehow become involved in her perpetual hurricane; the picture frames turned sideways, and every stature, every mantle piece, knocked about every so slightly. Lingering for just a few moments, she shook her head impatiently as her eyes darted about with paranoia at the slightest details of the dainty little drawing room. “What on earth ought I tell the boss now?” she continued, shaking her head in panic. “He will have my bloody head for this.”

“Surely you would rather I have you for lunch instead?”

The woman dramatically pressed her hands to her chest as she spun and met her master’s gaze. She couldn’t help but smile sheepishly at him, his eyes still searching the room masterfully even as he spoke. “And just where on earth have you been, Abernathy! You got me in such a tizzy here, I’ll have you know.” Out the corner of her eye she noticed a young woman with primly curled chestnut hair and eyes that couldn’t help but glitter with curiosity as she stepped slowly into to the room. “Well now, I see you brought someone new,” she said with a devilish smirk. “Is she the…you know, the new new?”

“Well, as it happens–”

“Miss Higgenbottom’s letters!” the new new herself gasped involuntarily as she beheld the disaster before her, stepping forward with indignation. “Do you have any idea what Miss Higgenbottom will do once she sees the mess you’ve made?!” she scolded, pointing in the masked woman’s direction.

Two policemen began knocking on the door and shouting for them to surrender. Stunned and confused, Fidelia stared desperately into the woman’s eyes. “Relax, kid.” Snapping once with her fingers, she began rubbing her index and middle fingers together as though they were kindling. Moments later, the world seemed to move around them without their being directly involved, as though it were part of an alternate universe slowly traveling backwards. The quicker the woman’s fingers moved, the quicker the sequence as Fidelia stood in shock. Seconds later, they were standing in a perfectly situated room, apparently untouched since Miss Higgenbottom’s…well, rather conspicuous absence, as it happens. Usually she is at home around this time, tending to her garden, Fidelia thought.

Having lost his patience, Abernathy put his hands on the woman’s shoulders and spoke gravely. “There is no time, Victoria. The day we feared has come. Let’s have lunch, all of us. Your abilities will help us enormously here, and in fact will play a vital role. We will go incognito, so that no one may find us.”

Suddenly, the phone began to ring. Answering immediately, Fidelia was surprised to learn that it was, indeed, Miss Higgenbottom. “My dear,” she began urgently, “I’m in a spot of trouble that I’m not…quite sure how to get out of, now. But you and what I am sure has to be a total of three people beside you by now can assuredly assist me.”

In Which We Attempt Escape

Miss Higgenbottom came to, bound hand and foot laying in the straw littering the floor of the cell. She was spitting mad – or would have been, if it weren’t for the dry old rag shoved roughly in her mouth. She could wriggle a bit, but with her rheumatism and the predicament she found herself in hardly thought it worth the effort. A clatter of young, untrained boots came from the wrought-iron staircase outside her prison; she promptly feigned unconsciousness. This situation simply would not do, and she intended to learn what she could before she unleashed the fury that can only be unleashed by a spinster of a certain age.

As anticipated, the two guards who tramped their way into the prison were barely of age to serve; mere pups, the pair of them. Furthermore, Miss Higgenbottom’s nose had already detected a clue; they were both extremely intoxicated, and one of them had very recently been sick. She dared to open one bespectacled eye just a slit – the tall, gangly one was sitting on a barrel; the shorter, plumper one was sprawled on the ground. He belched; the two broke into gales of laughter. Gangly choked out, between guffaws, “I – ha! – I think you’d better sleep it off down here, pal, before the Cap sees you like this. Don’t worry, Dave; I’ve got your back. You just keep the old broad company, and I’ll come back for you when I can. Sleep tight, mate.”

When he’d left, Clara Higgenbottom opened her eyes fully, and met the gaze of the incapacitated Dave. They were roughly the same build, the same height; he should do. As she gazed into his eyes, glaring the glare of her people, the young man eventually got to his feet and shuffled to the door of her cell, unlocking it, untying her. Once her hands were free, she pulled the rag from her mouth, made the youth shut his eyes for decency’s sake, and began undressing. She snapped her fingers, and he undressed as well – his eyes still closed. “It’s a good job I’ve got such a firm grasp on mesmerism – honestly! If he’d been less drunk, or if they’d thought to blind-fold me – I couldn’t even chant! Still, Clara, get ahold of yourself; this’ll do, this’ll do.” She dressed the young man in her skirts and bonnet, rifling through the pockets of her apron before she tied it around his waist. She shoved him into the hay and bid him sleep before binding him as she’d been bound, and, irritated, put her spare spectacles on his sleeping face.

Quickly dressing in his abandoned uniform, she thrilled with a hypocritical shiver -if she’d caught young Fidelia in such garments as she was donning now, Fidelia would never hear the end of it. Still, needs must when the devil drives. Fully dressed, now, in the uniform of  – well, it wasn’t the city police, at that, was it? Fully dressed, now, in the uniform she didn’t quite recognize, Clara Higgenbottom cast a final glamour on the sleeping form and on herself, and began to effect her escape in earnest.

Meanwhile…

In the small room of a nondescript home in the middle of a busy street, a young man perfectly fills up a blank book. The characters are all in a straight line, all within equal distance of each other. No one would ever think they’re written by a human hand.

This is his favorite pastime. In fact, it’s his only pastime. He enjoys the order and the uniformity. Everything lined up perfectly. No messy scrawls. No letters dancing chaotically on the page.

His home is just as organized. Every little detail in its own place. It’s why he barely entertains any visitors. Those who do come are careful not to disturb his belongings, for the young man has quite the temper when things are in disarray.

A soft rap on his door causes him to pause his work. He sets his fountain pen down beside his book and invites the person on the other side to enter.

The door opens a small crack and a figure glides in, accompanied by the sweet smell of apples. On their first meeting, he found the scent irritating. He would always search for an escape or an open window from which to get fresh air. That changed the longer they worked together.

Beneath the cloak, a voice hisses. Sinister, but also mesmerizing; all characteristic of an Ophidian. “Higgenbottom has been arrested, and the girl has been taken into the fold.”

The man stands and drifts over to his floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. It’s filled with copies of the same book he’s been writing on. Black leather covers all aligned, all bearing his initials on their lower spines.

His eyes methodically scan the rows until he finds the exact book he’s looking for. Carefully, he pries it from its place and then flips through the pages.

FIDELIA JOINS THE DETECTIVE AT VERY LARGE is written on one. Lines of instructions above it have been neatly checkmarked.

A few more pages after that are the words: MISS HIGGENBOTTOM IS IMPRISONED. He brings the book back to his desk and, with a great deal of satisfaction, marks it.

The man is pleased with how smoothly his plans are coming to fruition. Best of all, no one except he and his colleague knows that he is pulling all the strings.

Several other events are set to happen before the grand finale, and from what he’s seen, they should be unfolding soon and in a most dramatic fashion. He simply has to sit back and watch the dominos he fastidiously arranged continue to ripple out. 

For while the man may hate chaos, when he’s the mastermind, he absolutely loves it.

In which an arrest is made and a mystery arises.

“Surrender?” Miss Wiggenbottom muttered to herself. She was a staunch believer in female independence, so ‘surrender’ existed in her vocabulary solely if she ordered someone else to do it. Instead of answering the door, which the policemen seemed to be willing to break down if she didn’t open – which she hadn’t intended to do even for a split second – she gathered her skirts with a speed and agility that would have surprised most people who thought they knew her, and then made for the basement.

She hoped to reach the secret passageway that was hidden behind a large pantry shelf in the cellar, but alas! those pesky policemen were quick and agile as well, and they managed to not only breach the lock on the front door, but also come after her and intercept her before she had time to even reach the bottom step!

That was surprising, as well as suspicious, come to think of it. Were these really ordinary policemen, she wondered to herself, squinting at them as if she were short-sighted, but really to focus on small, giveaway details that might tell her whether they were any other species than human.

Much to her dismay though, she could not detect any of the usual hints at either dryad blood or mist people. No patch of rough, bark-like skin, no greenish tint in eyebrows or beard, no translucent veins or smell of ozone to be detected. And yet.

Something was wrong with these policemen, she knew it. She sensed it, but she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. Where was a detective when you needed one? She was sure that Himself could have solved this riddle for her, easily.

What she did not wonder about, not even for a second, was the fact that she was arrested at all. That, at least, came as no surprise to her.

In Which a Statement Is Made

“Well splendid! If it isn’t the old devil himself!” Nathaniel dashed past Augie and into the hallway which already contained a classically impatient house guest, scanning the floors with a stern grimace.

Considering carefully, the detective leaned against the proceeding banister and gazed on with a bemused moment of silence. He had always admired the thorough intensity in Abernathy’s work on a professional level. Of course, of course of course. Who wouldn’t? In fact, quite naturally, he would be a rogue among his colleagues if such a thought were one he did not indeed think! Absurd not to think it!

Even if this gangly-in-a-handsomely-aged-sort-of-way-with-those-dark-brooding-eyes just so happened to be such a gifted detective who certainly knew everything there was to know about the room right down to the last detail, including Nathaniel’s unconsciously quivering breath and slightly quickened heart beat.

Abernathy was now crawling along the marble tiles, springing from one specific place to another, stepping onto it firmly and poking it with his bony, shaking index finger– all in perfect seriousness. Looking up suddenly, the interest completely vanished from his eyes as he at last addressed Nathaniel’s presence. At this, Nathaniel took his hip from its resting point at the top of the staircase and welcomed Abernathy heartily.

“Did you draw the same conclusion I made about the marble tiles?” He then bluffed, curious about what Abernathy might have so quickly decided.

“Unless you were looking too, perhaps not. But!” came the pointed reply as the lanky fellow now sat on the floor; the two were now looking at one another face to face, exchanging looks of sly skepticism. “At least one of us now knows where you lost your marbles all those years ago.” A beat. Then, as per usual, came the mutual grins and reverent kisses on one another’s foreheads.

“All those years ago, buddy,” Nathaniel spoke, his voice wavering somewhat. “It sure is good to have you back.”

At that, his old friend’s face darkened suddenly. With a mad dash into his fanny pack, Abernathy thumbed through  what could only be described as a mini traveling filing cabinet with far more papers than what seemed possible to fit. At last snatching up the paper he was looking for, he handed it soberly to Nathaniel’s padded hands.

“The situation has gotten well out of my control, I’m afraid. And the mission must be complete tonight. And Nathaniel,” he added with a murmur at the end, watching as the contents of the mysterious paper was read, “recruiting and training her is absolutely imperative now. I hope you know what the stakes will be, and how much must change. How much she must change. And Miss Fidelia,” he called, keeping his head forward, “I know you’re listening to us, and that is certainly for the best considering how little time we have to lose. Come, and let us be off. I will explain on the way.”

As if under a spell, Miss Fidelia obediently followed the imploring voice. The two men in front of her were already clacking their shoes hastily down the marble halls. Where they were headed didn’t matter; for now, it was an excuse to be away from the office, and that’s all that mattered. She could decide for herself when she was in too deep, and that would be that. An excuse would be made for the delay, and life would go on.

But there would be no turning back of any kind, for Miss Higgenbottom had an entirely different problem at the exact moment: two policemen had shown up at her doorstep and had already proceeded to pound at the door, shouting for her to surrender.

In Which Topsy-Turvydom Takes a Troubled Turn

Fidelia blinked for a moment, in silence – was she finally getting her first case? Granted, she wouldn’t be solving it on her own, but this could be her big shot! The rambunctious young lady was about to respond with a resounding “YESSSSS!” complete with an arm-jerk and a little leap into the air when the man and boy before her burst into gales of laughter. Once they got to a point where they could contain themselves, the small child stepped forward, doffed his newsboy cap, and bowed.

“I put his honor up to the whole shenanigan, Miss. I’m Padraig Ignatius McAllister, Miss, but – as I’m sure you can surmise – most just call me Paddy. The Detective generally calls on me when he needs a lovable urchin, street information, that kind of rot – but we both thought it’d be a lark and a half to see your face. Detective Bracegirdle, sir? If you’d take it from here?”

Fidelia, already surprized, was suspicious at this swift reversal – but it certainly made more sense than the cockamamie line about the lad being the true genius detective. And Nathaniel was known for his buffoonery – but to play with her hopes, her dreams in such a fashion? It was the outside of enough. She straightened her spine, steeled her gaze, and prepared to give the Detective-at-Large what-for. Unfortunately, her clear indignation sent the pair before her into another round of laughter.

“I do beg your pardon, Miss Clarenhew,” the detective began, in the midst of another chortle, “you’ve been in my employ – well, my employee’s employ – for an absolute age and you were still taken in.” Nathaniel Erasmus Baldrick Bracegirdle allowed himself another snort. “Please sit down, my dear. Calm yourself. Paddy, some sherry for the lady – be quick about it, if you please! Now, Miss Fidelia Clarenhew – may I call you just Miss Fidelia? It’ll save time – Miss Fidelia. The City really is in a spot of trouble, and you really are quite vital to my plan to save it. Here’s your sherry; that’s a good lad, Paddy, thank you. Where was I?

Ah. Yes. The City’s in peril and all that yet again, and you’re vital to my plan, but that’s not all – mercy, no! No, my dear, I’ve been watching your progress as a junior clerk quite carefully, and I have some rather high hopes for you, given your enthusiasm, dedication, and great-grandfather’s reputation.” In place of honor, above the carved sandstone fireplace in the grand reception room, Fidelia’s ancestor’s portrait glowered at his descendant. “Yes, Sir Abernathy Clarenhew was one of the great minds of his time, you know. Had the foresight to turn his little hobby into this venerable institution, the Deduction Society of West Ryslet – I was pleased to shake his hand at your christening, Miss Fidelia. Apologies, dear girl! I blather on. Will you be my apprentice or not, child?”

Fidelia certainly didn’t remember her own christening, and she certainly couldn’t turn down an opportunity along these lines – but she certainly wasn’t stupid enough to miss little cues, like the eye-contact the older gentleman had been making with the boy. It was almost as though he were looking for confirmation, or permission to continue. Fidelia took a sip of her sherry – she never said no – and decided that it had to be some sort of test. A knock came at the door, and Augie reappeared; “Your pardon for interrupting, lady, gentlemen – Sir Abernathy has asked permission to join your party.”

In Which the Crisis is Somewhat Introduced

Fidelia used this spare moment to tidy up her appearance–pat down the wild mane of her hair, brush off the bit of dust from her skirt. That was sufficient enough to deem her presentable to the Detective, she supposed. She rocked back and forth on her heels and waited for Himself to appear.

The door opened, revealing Augie once again. Fidelia straightened as if to show she had remained perfectly well-behaved in his absence. “Do come in, Miss Fidelia. Mister Nathaniel is preoccupied at present but shall grant you audience in the great chamber.”

This was the first Fidelia has ever stepped foot in the club. “Office girls” such as she were not permitted entry. Only those who held the distinction of Detective could gain access. Therefore, this was a rare opportunity that both excited and worried her.

Every concern she held disappeared at the sight that greeted her. She knew not where to rest her eyes–the intricate patterns on the wall, the ornamented furniture, or the antique displays?–for every design and decor beckoned her gaze. It was quite the contrast from its rather nondescript exterior.

But nothing she’d seen thus far inspired more awe than the grand hallway. Hanging from the walls were the painted portraits of all the great Detectives of history. Fidelia recognized nearly every one: Sir Theophilus Edmund Penhale, who single-handedly dismantled a notorious crime organization in a matter of days; Mamsyr, whose picture was but a vague silhouette for their identity was a complete mystery; Cleophane Higgenbottom, Miss Higgenbottom’s great-aunt and the most decorated Detective of her time.

One day, Fidelia swore, she will have her own framed portrait added to this impressive lineup.

Augie reached the entrance of the great chamber and invited her to enter first. The room was equally as magnificent as the rest of the club. Displayed right in the center of the room was an impressive reconstruction of a city skyline made entirely out of matches. At the last second, she noticed Himself leaning comfortably against an ornate desk.

“Mister Nathaniel, I’ve brought Miss Fidelia here per your request,” Augie announced. Then, with a deep bow, he left the room. 

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Fidelia curtsied.

Mister Nathaniel was the club’s most popular Detective. Quite the bumbling buffoon in public, he seemed to solve cases more out of pure luck than genuine skill. But his record thus far was unmatched and, clumsy though he may be, he always got the job done.

“I come with a letter from the Agency,” she continued, handing the sealed envelope over to the Detective. He wasted no time in slicing it open with a thin silver blade he procured from atop the desk. He made agreeable hums and harumphing noises as he scanned its contents.

“Sounds like quite the spot of trouble we’ve found ourselves in,” Nathaniel observed. “Terrible! Most distressing! However will we get out of this?”

And then, from somewhere within the matchstick construction, a soft voice spoke, “You have such a flare for the dramatic, Paddy.”

Nathaniel–Paddy?–grinned as if pleased with himself. “I try, young sir. I find it good practice for when the media gather to report on our endeavors.”

Whistling a jaunty tune, Paddy pushed himself off the desk and approached the source of the voice. He held out the letter, and a small hand appeared from the center of the miniature city to grab it.

Then the small hand turned into an arm and then a body until finally a young child materialized out of the tiny wooden construction.

In a dramatic booming voice, Paddy said, “Introducing the real Nathaniel Erasmus Baldrick Bracegirdle, Detective at Very Large.”

Fidelia gaped at this small, gangly-limbed boy. Was this really the genius who captured the Star Jewel Bandit and solved the Serial Ghost Murders at House Marfleet? He was but a mere bubtion!

“He’s not very large, is he?” she remarked.

“Physical attributes contribute little to the workings of the mind,” he responded patiently. “But I propose we focus on the pressing matter at hand. I have read what is written on this letter, and Paddy’s initial reaction may not be too far off the mark.

“There is an awful plot brewing in our city, and I fear only the three of us in this room will be able to stop it. What say you, Miss Fidelia? Will you help save this city?”