Note: The prompts for the April Flash Fiction Draw Challenge (thanks Cait Gordon!) were a steampunk story involving a spider set at an apothecary. I send my thanks to Jan Grape for her input and suggestions which made the story better.
The Case of the Apothecary’s Image
(A Lord Julliam Story)
By Jeff Baker
Grahame Edgemire was almost dozing as the spider-cart swayed slightly as it traveled through the London streets. He thought he could hear Big Ben chiming two in the afternoon blending with the steady tic-tic-tic-tic of the cart’s tall, metal legs and the gentle whirring of the gears as his husband, Andrew Edgemire, Lord Julliam, studied the urgent summons that had appeared in the morning mail. The bell had rung as the cap had rushed into the house through the airtube. He had smiled as Lord Julliam had recalled the old joke from their boyhood: “Breaking Wind; parcels are here!”
The letter, when they opened the metal capsule had been simple and compelling:
Urgent. Apothecary Shop on Letting Road. Today. Afternoon.
Ad Hoc Nominum.
The letter was unsigned. Nonetheless, Lord Julliam quickly put some items in his valise and insisted that Grahame accompany him.
“If I have not mistaken things, it should be someone you would wish to meet,” Lord Julliam had said, holding up the letter. “The incorrect Latin phrase is a sort of calling card, And I doubt he would have summoned me if he were not desperate.”
The spider cart had stopped in front of a small, brick building with an ancient sign: Brewster & Son: Apothecary. Its spindly, thin legs retracted, lowering the basket the two men had ridden in nearer to the ground. Stepping out onto the pavement. Lord Julliam grabbed Grahame’s hand for a moment and smiled. They had actually been wedded only four years, during the intermedium of Princess Mary before King Charles V had taken the throne and Parliament had sought to render such marriages illegal, following the “Scandalous Conduct” of Mary’s Great Uncle Charles IV early in the century. When the vote in Parliament had gone in favor of (as the Times put it) “Man’s Marriage,” they were among those who had decided to make their relationship official. Still, not everyone in Greater London was as accepting, so they were careful with their displays of affection.
The inside of the shop was small and smelled of herbs. Nonetheless, Grahame noted some of the most modern-looking formulas in jars lining the walls.
“Andrew!” the middle-aged man behind the counter said with a broad smile. He was plump and mustachioed, and contrasted with the two men who were tall and slender, owing to a good deal of running, especially following the events of the Runaway Rail-Tube.
“Wonderful to see you again,” Lord Julliam said. “John, this is my husband, Grahame. This is John Copley, a friend of mine from University. Named after our late monarch.”
“It is an honor,” Copley said shaking Grahame’s hand with a sincerely warm look in his eyes. He did not seem to be the same sort of foolish wastrel as John III, who had been called “Ruddy John.”
“After University, I went on to my pursuits of analysis of human actions and the elements of criminality. John here took over the family business. In response to your quizzical look; the ‘Brewster’ on the shop name is that of his Grandfather and Uncle.” Lord Julliam said with a smile. “When he is curious or puzzled, his left eye squints ever so slightly.”
“I must come right to the point,” Copley said. “It is my own nephew, himself a Brewster, and my employee who is in trouble. He is being blackmailed and has turned to me for help. Financial help. He has been caught in an…indiscretion.”
“Of what sort?” Lord Julliam asked.
“With a married woman,” Copley said. “And there is proof of their dalliance, proof acquired here in this very shop where they believed they were alone.” He opened a drawer and took out a stiff square of cardboard. On the cardboard, clearer than any painting or drawing were a man and woman in a fleeting embrace and kiss.
“A Magnus Process print” Lord Julliam breathed. “They are rare and expensive to produce.”
“This was taken through the back window, I believe.” Copley said. “You can see part of the window-frame there,” He pointed at a white line at the bottom of the picture. “And the clock on the wall displays the time: ten-fifteen in the morning.”
“This print is a rare thing, Grahame,” Lord Julliam said, handing his husband the square. “Especially rare because it is a fake.”
“Fake?” They both blurted out the word at once.
“Precicely!” Lord Julliam said, his eyes twinkling. “Can you tell me how I know, Grahame?”
“I can tell you why,” Copley said angrily. “Brewster was imploring me for my help, to pay an imaginary blackmail so Brewster could take the money for himself!”
“And the picture?” Grahame asked.
“The Magnus Process is not only expensive it is time-consuming,” Lord Julliam explained. “The subjects would have to stand stock still for several minutes. The notion of a quick image, capturing a second in time is impossibility at this time. That told me clearly that the print had been posed. The clock’s hands would also have been blurred had they not stopped the clock to identify the time, hoping nobody was familiar enough with the process to realize that it was all faked.” He smiled again, this time directly at Copley. “You are fortunate to have called me, young Brewster may well have talked you out of a good deal more money than he initially said he needed.”
“All he has talked himself into is loss of his current situation,” Copley said angrily.
As the spider-cart headed home, Lord Julliam spoke softly.
“We should consider ourselves fortunate, that we have never been such as young Brewster.”
“Indeed,” Grahame said. “I always consider myself most fortunate indeed.”