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.

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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 Patches Is Finally Transformed

“This way, Patches; there’s a good fellow! Do try to keep up.” Mr. Wickles continued to bleat his cheerful encouraging nonsense as he led Patches to the end of existence as he knew it. Patches was solemn but brave about the whole situation; if one had to become such a … creature … as it seemed he would become, it softens the blow a bit to do so in service of a beauty. Lady Violet! Patches would gladly go to the grave for her – in fact, under the circumstances, he might have preferred death. The pair arrived in a dingy laboratory, surrounded by many jars with various wet-specimen taxidermy in. Patches was taken a little aback. “Isn’t this…?”

“Yes. We lifted the scene directly from Mary Shelley. It’s not that widely read with all the adaptations out there, so it should be fairly private, and if I need a spare set of hands, Victor’s not bad at surgery.”

“You know precisely how to set a gentleman at ease, Wickles. Very well – get on with it.” Weary from being brave and the barrage of exposition that had been happening over the last hour or so, Patches just wanted his ill-starred transformation to be over already. Wickles gestured to a simple cardboard box, and in his cat-shape, Patches slipped inside.

“Logic puzzles and thought experiments aren’t strictly literary, of course, but they crop up enough in fiction that we can borrow the constructs when necessary, Patches. Since Vampires, of course, are dead, we need you dead, too. Now, the whole Shrödinger situation – or its popular retellings – will mean that you’re alive and dead at once. After that, it’s just a matter of narrative surgery.” Wickles shut the lid, and strode over to an old computer console. The orange text blinked against the background, waiting for a prompt. He sat, and began typing wildly.

“That seems like a ridiculously high amount to charge for such a simple task!” the fat man protested. “I’m sure that it could be done for quite a bit less, perhaps by someone else!”
Patches growled at his client, baring one fang to make his point, “The price was agreed about beforehand, you wouldn’t be trying to amend the contract at such a late date, would you?” His claws came out and dug into the oak of his desk, His galloping abs tore through his flimsy formal shirt, indicating how strong and beautiful he was. “I would hate to think you were trying to cheat me while besmirching my character.” Splinters appeared on the desktop as  his claws worked and fur rose along his ruff, the light sparkled on his glittery muscled skin. Also he slammed his fist powerfully enough for there to be splinters, I guess.“I would hate to have to deal with such…slander.”
The man nervously loosened his collar, “I-I’m sure there will be nothing to worry about. Your reputation is unimpeachable.” He wiped away a drop of sweat from his brow as the fang disappeared back behind the bewhiskered lip and the claws drew back  chiseled boyish lips of the vampire stud.

“Excellent!” Mr. Wickles was pleased with his Meyersesque edit of Patches’ initial description. “I mean, the narrative might reject the graft, but it should hold long enough to do the job.” Heading back over to spring Patches from his temporary prison, he saw that there were now two boxes, neatly stacked on top of one another. Wickles opened them both, and stepped back, lest either version of Patches wind up disemboweling him.

He needn’t have worried. Both Patches stood, staring at one another – the somewhat portly temporally-ambiguous gentleman-burglar who could turn into a cat at will, and the Robert Pattinson look-alike.

In Which There is a Great Deal of Exposition

Mr. Wickles adjusted his spectacles and sighed.

“Yes, Patches. My littlest brother, Finnegan. We were also discussing my Uncle Fontanello and my sister Eugenia, my ex-wife Angeline, the precise nature of my relationship to you – given that I masqueraded as your ‘master’ for a good three years – the tangled mess of a plot we’ve waded through up to this point. Now Eugenia tells me that you’ve returned from a doomed timeline, wherein our side were captured by that damned Uncle of mine, and that this is our last go-round to get the plan right. That, by the way, is the only reason I’m about to tell you any of this, Patches. You were only ever meant to be a cats-paw to the main endeavour, but you’ve turned out to be a major tool.

“The fact, Mr. Patches, is this: We’re in the middle of a war. A war of succession, to be perfectly frank. You’re a frontline player on the side of traditional fantasy.”

Needless to say, Patches was having a spot of trouble processing all this. Wickles, due to long observation of the poor enchanted feline, noted this and took pity on the poor creature.

“Look, Patches – surely you’ve noticed a number of discrepancies about you, lately? There are scads more fantastic creatures walking undisguised than have any right to. Even our vaguely steampunk setting has some anomalies – I’ve pushed the Writers to flood the market with steampunk as a sort of placeholder in the public imagination until we can get this conflict sorted out, but its hold is waning, and little flashes of contemporary urban fantasy are flashing through. We haven’t much time until this entire genre collapses, leaving us vulnerable to Fontanello’s machinations. Further, there’s been a huge uptick in conspiracy theories lately, lending credence to Fontanello’s vaguely-credible blend of Science Fiction and paranoia.

“He’s planning to wipe out or rewrite traditional fantasy entirely, Patches, and replace it with lizard-people, grey aliens, and faceless shooters on grassy knolls – it’s up to us to stop him.”

Patches, having recovered some of his wits during this lengthy exposition, stroked his whiskers thoughtfully. Though still a bit foggy, the explanation that Mr. Wickles was giving made an enormous amount of sense to his sleep-deprived brain. Struggling to ask an intelligent question after those solid walls of folderol, Patches raised a claw.

“Are you suggesting that my entire life and entire world are a fictional construct? Based on the whims of the literary market in some far-fetched otherwhere?”

“That’s it precisely, dear boy! I knew you’d get there eventually.”

“And, as a Librarian, you have a certain measure of influence over the public imagination? Where we reside?”

“Influence? Scads of it, cat – I manipulate it; I make it sing, and thrill to do my bidding. The trouble is, so does Uncle Fontanello.”

“And, while maintaining a separate existence outside of this framework where you exert that influence, you’re simultaneously operating within this framework, pulling strings on the inside?”

“Indeed. I’m what they refer to as a Self-Insert, or a Mary Sue, if you will. Derived from some hastily-scrawled fan-fiction I wrote myself as a sort of door-way. Bless the Internet – bless it.” 

Patches scowled, and made his final point. “Alright, Wickles. All that being the case – given your near-omnipotence in my world, and given that doubtless you can manipulate me into doing your bidding regardless of my own thoughts or feelings on the matter – what the hell do you need me for, and why the hell are you telling me this?”

In Which Patches Is Rather Confused

Patches fixed Eugenia with a patient glare, and in clipped,pained, syllables said simply “That’s a candle, Eugenia. Fontanello is a being of unspeakable evil. This is not a situation where mood lighting will help!”

“Says the adorable kitty who transforms into a world-renowned gentleman burglar? Calm your britches, ducky.”

Spluttering, Patches had nothing to say to that, which left Decca and Eugenia bonding through shared laughter.

“You don’t ‘alf make a pretty picture, mate!”

Trying and failing to recapture at least a little sangfroid, Patches asked what precisely the candle did in a more respectful tone.

“Why, you silly boy! It rewrites history, to a certain extent. Its range only reaches back two weeks, of course – it’s a candle, not a miracle worker – and those standing within its glow retain their memories of the original timeline – which is lucky, because if I thought that I suddenly wouldn’t remember meeting your charming friend Mr. Decca, I wouldn’t let you use it. What makes the situation even more  delicious – Fonty gave it to me before I ended things. And I’m certainly glad, now, that I did.” Eugenia simpered at Decca, pursing her lips in a way that she thought was coquettish, but came off more grotesque. Decca made alarmingly cute little love snaps back, but Patches interrupted the scene before things could get too twee.

“That’s very generous, Eugenia, but I fail to see how resetting events would help with the Fontanello situation. Even if it allows us to escape this island, he’ll still be out there – it’s only a matter of time before we all run afoul of him again!”

Visibly annoyed, Eugenia stopped flirting long enough to snap “You really haven’t figured it out?” An irritated sigh as she set Decca down, then she stood and looked Patches directly in the eye. With clenched fists, she began to explain. “Look, darling. Angeline. Fontanello. Mr. Johnson. Even that mad surgeon – even your erstwhile master. They’re all tied up in this together. Did you think that running from peril to peril like this wasn’t planned? There’s a much bigger plot going on, and we’re all merely pieces on the board. I’m supposed to be looking after you – and I assume you have similar duties, don’t you, turtledove?” This last was to Decca, who grinned.

“That’s right, heartsblood.”

“Fontanello is pulling the strings for the opposite team, Mr. P, and we’ve been keeping you in the dark about our own side – it’s part of the plan, you know. But at this point, I really think we ought to clue you in to what’s going on.”

With a flicker of his customary smugness, Patches protested – “None of this makes a damned lick of sense.”

“Language, mate!” snarled Decca. “And ‘ave a bit o’ respect fer the lady! Carry on, my dear.”

Eugenia lit the candle, then offered it to Patches. “Make a wish, Mr. P, go on.”

A flicker of colored lights and other assorted special effects – and they were in Patches’ own front hallway, minutes where Dustin, Patches’ former master, and Eugenia herself stood. Eugenia – the Eugenia who had just traveled from the future – winked at the Eugenia who was daintily wiping blood from her lip. “Trouble?” Past-Eugenia asked sharply, ” It was bad enough for you to use the candle, dear? You know we don’t have that much of it left.”

“Absolutely,” her future incarnation replied. “We don’t have much time before Patches – your Patches – gets back with that steak for you. When he does, attack the boy – Sorry, Master, you’ll need to fake your death – and wait for Past-Patches to run. Mr. P,” turning to the present – future? – version of the feline “In a few short minutes, you should have a better idea of what’s been going on.”

In Which Demons are Battled

The game was up, and Patches knew it. His head hung limp, secure in the knowledge of his fate; there was no use in further struggle. The whole struggle, all of that effort, was an exercise in wasted time and agony; he had no right to call himself a burglar, cat or otherwise.

“Oi! C’mon, mate, what’s the plan, then?”

Patches didn’t answer. Patches didn’t have a plan apart, perhaps, from laying down to die. His past had caught up with him in the form of Count Fontanello, and there was not a damned thing to be done about it. Patches declined to answer. A scaly head butted against his well-tailored shoe, relentless. “Done feeling sorry for yerself? No? I can wait while ‘is Terrifyin’ Lordship gets ‘is strength up and saunters our way. Go on, have a blub, you’ll feel better, lad.”

Patches sneered, spurred into a proper snit, stalked towards the apparent exit, every inch of his modest frame frosted with icy dignity. Decca kept close to his heels, desperate to see through the frothy blizzard, glad he’d been able to prick the prick out of shock or whatever it had been. They were just about to make a clean getaway, when the light subtly altered. There was a flicker in front of them; the air took on a skewed quality. Just as quickly, the discrepancy resolved itself; the Count stood before them, blocking their way.

“COME NOW, OLD BOY – SURELY YOU DIDN’T THINK YOU COULD SLIP OUT WITHOUT SAYING HELLO TO AN OLD FRIEND?”
Patches couldn’t even manage a stammer, let alone a real response. His despair came rushing back; he was tired, he was lost, he was scared, and his only backup was a saucy turtle – there was no way that he could save himself, so why bother with the clever repartee?

And that’s when Decca, the bloody turtle, launched himself snapper-first towards the Count. Patches might have been of two minds regarding his companion, but such selfless sacrifice – against his oldest foe! – well, Patches couldn’t let the poor chap die alone. Retreating to his feline form without a word, he launched himself towards Fontanello’s eyes.

As the two diminutive animals reached their lordly target, naturally he dissolved into dark smoke. Naturally he reformed behind them in a burst of flame, waiting for them to engage. Patches shifted back, with a slight effort – he wasn’t as young as he used to be – picked Decca up, and tucking him neatly into his waistcoat, began running for the now unguarded exit.

“Wot the ‘ell’d you do that for?”

“Discretion, valour, and all that,” Patches wheezed. It was only a slim hope, but when they broke into sunlight, Patches could’ve cried. They were safe from the Fontanello – at least for a few hours.

And that’s when he spotted Eugenia, lounging on the beach beneath a UV-Repellant veil.

Unfortunate Aid

At the sight of the long-lost guttersnipe turtle, poor Patches couldn’t help but make an expression worthy of Lucy Ricardo.

“What the devil are you doing here, you damned amphibian? When I last saw -” 

“Reptile, mate. We’re reptiles, yeah? And I’d keep that hissin’ down, too, iffin yer want in that there car.” Pulling his head into his shell, Decca was headless for a moment, until he emerged with a dainty set of keys. “A gift, ‘cos I feel bad ’bout wot happened down the Doc’s, right? I’ll even go talk to ‘er ‘Highness, if yeh like – I ain’t seen ‘er for far too long now.”

Patches’ plastic expression was comically shocked, yet again. “You know Miss Angeline?”

“Miss my arse – it’s missus three times over,at least, mate. I guess I do know my ex-wife, though. Why d’you ask?” Decca seemed to take pity on the incredulous cat, and shook his head. “Look, I’ll chat up the evil bint, and you wait a minute, grab what yer grab in, and get out, alright?”

Patches could only agree – despite the turtle’s possible previous treachery, it’s not every day that an opportunity so perfectly suited comes along. Perhaps it was a little too perfect, at that – but Patches’ mind was so addled and fogged from lack of sleep that he couldn’t puzzle out quite what was wrong. The moment came, and he slunk over, slipping the key home.

It turned. The door opened.

Before Patches could reach into the cab for any of the necessary supplies, a buzzing swarm of tiny, filthy, fanged figures flew at his face. Reeking of rotting meat and poorly tanned furs, Patches was clearly under attack – he nearly inhaled a toothpick-sized spear. As blackness ate up his remaining consciousness, he clung to one last thought: “Johnson!”