Tangible Schizophrenia


Vice Prologue: The Client

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: PG-13
Pairing: Arthur/Lancelot, Arthur/Guinevere
Feedback: Good lines, bad ones, etc.
Disclaimer: Versions from the movie.
Notes: Film noir AU. Makes little attempt to be really historically accurate, and much effort to both be true to genre tropes and to riff on them.
Summary: It all started when a beautiful brunet walked into my life…


In retrospect, Lancelot might have wanted to linger a little longer over his newspaper. But the corner café was already filling up with unwashed, vaguely rancid transients mumbling mushmouth accents over their nickel breakfasts, and where his seat was, the sun was spilling through the grimy windows to flood the place with suffocating heat. Figures that on one of London’s rare cloudless days, the weather would still manage to spoil the fun.

As he signaled for the waitress, he finished up the last article on the front page: some pseudo-culture article on a newly-discovered archaeological site. Fifth-century precious artifacts, come to light under a road being ripped up for the most recent politician’s attempt at looking like he was getting things done. The usual fight between preservationists and progressives had ensued.

“That it?” Red-slashed mouth, hennaed hair, and a way of getting the lashes of her right eye glued together when she tried winking flirtatiously.

By now, that sight had ceased to even ping on Lancelot’s consciousness and just flew right by him, like that little whirl of litter going by the window. He reached into his pocket, expertly separated two bills from his clip and handed them over with an absent smile, into which she could and probably did read anything she wanted. “Yeah. Sorry, but I’ve got to get on to the office.”

“Well, see you for coffee tomorrow,” she purred, coming off like a junk car with the muffler having fallen by the wayside years ago.

Still, he had to appreciate the attempt. Especially when walking into said rooms a few minutes later, only to be greeted by a rolled-up newspaper whacking a hair past his duck. Lancelot continued downwards into a squat and pivoted so he came up on Guin’s other side, well away from her swing. “What? Did you schedule me for an early-morning appointment and forget to leave a note again?”

Guin—Guinevere she preferred not to use, as it discouraged all the bad jokes they’d both heard a thousand times before—folded the newspaper and her hands against her hips, which were nicely outlined by her impeccable linen suit. She always had the perfect clothes, the perfect make-up, and the perfectly nasty disposition. Since it encouraged others to underestimate her, she also liked to pretend she was Lancelot’s secretary, but in reality, she was…reluctantly his partner. The reluctance was on both sides, the partnership born out of a one-night-stand gone deeply awry, and Lancelot still hadn’t figured out how she paid for her clothes. It certainly wasn’t out of his bank account.

“No, but it shouldn’t matter, you jackass.” She took another swipe at him, which nearly knocked off his hat. “Or else what’s the point of having hours?”

“The point of having hours is to divide the day into working hours and nonworking hours. Care to guess which category meals fall into?” Before she could try again, Lancelot took off his hat and thereby removed it from target range, then did up his tie. He could feel the unusually high humidity taking its toll on his hair, but he knew better than to try and tame that. Besides, over Guin’s shoulder he could see a shadow moving in his office.

Sharp-eyed as she was, she didn’t miss his shift in attention. With an exaggerated sigh, Guin flipped the newspaper onto the desk, then leaned against it and folded her arms. “He was waiting on the doorstep when I opened up this morning. Gave me the oddest look—I thought he was going to pass out on me.”

“Anything else?” Lancelot asked very softly, moving so he could get a better view through the ajar door. Tall, non-hysterical, and one passing flash showed him what looked like a damn expensive watch.

Guin merely gave him a hard stare.

It grated, but two years of fairly effective cooperation had taught Lancelot that sometimes, maintaining his pride could be immensely more painful than humoring the bitch once in a while. “All right, I’ll come in earlier tomorrow. Get lonely eating breakfast here alone, do you?”

She tilted her head and gave him a sweet smile. “You’re such a prick.” Then the sarcasm submerged and she became businesslike again. “He wouldn’t say a thing. I tried the weather, the sports pages, politics…I even asked him to help me with my hair. All I got was a neat bun and another odd look. He insisted on waiting for you.”

“Rich?” Lancelot mentally went over the state of their respective balances. Whatever extra sources of income Guin had, they apparently weren’t regular enough to give her much independence from detective work.

“Extremely.” One exquisitely plucked eyebrow arched. “I quoted him double, and he didn’t even blink.”

She seemed a little annoyed, which Lancelot chalked up to her cursing herself for not quoting triple. Well, that was her end—if she tripped up, she fixed it. “Good news for us, then. Probably just another socialite wanting to know where his wife trips off to every night. Ring up Tristan and Gawain, see if they’re busy.”

“No Dag?” Guin already had her exquisite manicure on the telephone.

“If I want to wreck a few blocks of downtown, I’ll let you know,” Lancelot drawled, putting his hand on the knob. “Till then, leave him alone. He’s helping Bors with the new brat.”

When Lancelot walked in, he had to pause just inside the doorway to let his eyes adjust to the dimness, since his would-be client apparently liked waiting in the dark. Behind him, Guin was murmuring sugar into the receiver; he could still feel her eyes boring into the back of his head. It was tempting to pull the door all the way shut and keep her out of it, but his practicality shot down that idea. As irritating as she was, Guin also happened to be very, very good at what she did.

In the far corner of the room, Lancelot kept a small bronze statue of a horse, which was the only payment he’d ever gotten for one messy case that had left a small round scar on his left arm. It wasn’t anything special—Galahad had taken one look and pronounced, “Twenty, but it’d be starving my poor old father,” who’d been dead seven years—but Lancelot liked it. So did the man, who had two fingers slowly running down its lifted foreleg.

He was dressed well enough to pass Guin’s critical eye, but unlike most of his kind, there seemed to be some actual hard-earned muscle under the flattering tailoring. Dark close-cropped hair, unusually long fingers with calluses, and when he turned around, strange faded-green eyes that sucked in what little light there was and burned it in a fast flare. Lancelot could see what Guin had meant by “going to pass out on her.” The man went from tanned to white in a heartbeat, and only slowly returned to normal color.

The hairs on the back of Lancelot’s neck prickled stiff enough to rub against his collar, but he was careful not to let that show on his face. It was amazing what just seeing a cool composure could do sometimes. “Lancelot Dulac. This would be my office.”

“It is…” The other man finally tore his eyes away to take in the rest of the room, as if he hadn’t had the past half-hour to do that. “You’re a private investigator?”

“That would be what it says on the front door.” So much for hopes that it’d be an open-and-shut; it hadn’t even been five minutes, and Lancelot could already smell the trouble rising from this one. He bit down on his frustrated sigh and pulled the door till it looked as if it were shut, then crossed the room. As he took his seat behind his desk, he waved towards the nearest other chair. “You weren’t looking for someone else, were you?”

Shaking his head, the other man sat down. He had a peculiar way of moving, something like a cross between nerves and deliberation, which nevertheless was smooth and silent enough to add to Lancelot’s internal wariness. And unlike most, he didn’t attempt to grin and stretch out a hand and otherwise make an effort to win Lancelot over to his point of view. That, at least, was good, given that Lancelot didn’t actually care about who was in the right. He merely dug up facts.

But the other man definitely wasn’t a talker. No wonder Guin had been so exasperated—Lancelot was beginning to agree with her. “So I believe Guin’s already—”

“If you have any other cases right now, I’d like for you to drop them and focus only on mine,” the man began, rather peremptorily. Then he caught himself, a little aghast at himself, and continued in a more modulated tone. “I will pay you compensation for the lost income.”

Outside, something made a faint rattle. Lancelot was too thrown to even think about how careless that was for Guin. “What?”

“I’m sorry.” The other man suddenly leaned back in his chair, lifting one hand to rub at his eye. “I’m being rude. My name is Arthur Ambrose, and—”

It was Lancelot’s turn to interrupt. “The hermit?”

This time, Guin didn’t make a sound, but her disgusted horror was palpably transmitted through the door. For his part, Lancelot was choking on his embarrassment. Ambrose was the last scion of the very, very old, secretive and wealthy Pendragon line, and most of the wild rumors about his reclusive behavior had something to do with cruelty, ruthlessness and esoteric perversions. If he wanted someone to disappear with no questions asked, he certainly had the wherewithal with which to make that happen.

Of course, that begged the question of what he was doing in a private investigator’s office. Lancelot…with Guin’s help…was the best in London, but he still didn’t move in Ambrose’s circles. And he was currently looking very stupid during a first meeting.

Fortunately, it seemed those rumors were completely unfounded. Ambrose was taken aback for a moment, but then relaxed into a sincere, if restrained, smile. “That would be me, I suppose. I prefer country living, but that’s unfashionable nowadays.”

“Sorry about that,” Lancelot muttered, searching for some kind of distraction. He settled for picking up a pen and pretending to take notes. The dim atmosphere was starting to strain his eyes, so he turned on his desk lamp as well; in adequate lighting, Ambrose proved to be quite the handsome man, if rather haggard. “We can discuss payment later. I generally find it better to tackle that after I’ve heard some of the details about what you want me to do.”

“Of course.” The other man paused. “It’s complicated. There are…I’ll try not to put you in a position where you have to…”

And as it always did, morality raised its ugly head. “Look, Mr. Ambrose: just tell me what you’d like done, and I’ll tell you what I can do. If I can’t do it, I probably can recommend someone who can. And spare me the sob story, all right? As far as I’m concerned, this is strictly a business transaction. You want sympathy, you go to confession.”

That came out slightly harsher than Lancelot had intended, due to his still being off-balance. He squeezed his hand around the pen and held his breath, watching the shadows graze Ambrose’s abruptly emotionless face and wondering if he’d gone too far.

But Ambrose ended up turning his head to the side and laughing into his hand, like someone was tickling him with a boathook. He did so for an unnervingly long two minutes before straightening up, gaze fixed on Lancelot. The man muttered to himself, something about no change, and rubbed at his eye again, which was getting quite red in the white part. Then he looked up with a kind of hopeless resignation in his face, but he seemed ready to get to business. “I’d prefer that you call me Arthur. It’ll cause less confusion. As for why I’m here--my family has a…talisman of sorts. An ancient broadsword, reputed to be Excalibur.”

“You can skip the story. I’ve heard it plenty of times.” Once again, Lancelot mentally cursed whatever moment of insanity had taken over his mother when she’d named him. It made him feel only a little better to know that a sizable part of his generation suffered from the same problem, due to some crank claiming to have discovered the legendary king’s grave around the time he’d been born.

Arthur—which did suit him better—obligingly did so. “Aside from the sentimental fortune it carries for me, it’s also worth a good deal of money.” He mentioned some numbers that made Lancelot blink at the other man’s casualness. “And it’s been stolen. I’ve been able to track it to here, but can get no farther. One of the consequences of never coming into the city, it seems.”

“I take it you’ve got suspicions as to who’s responsible?” Lancelot idly glanced down and, to his surprise, found that he’d been doodling a man riding a horse. God knew why—he slipped the pad under his desk and nonchalantly crumpled up the sheet, tossing it into the wastebasket.

“A cousin. Not a blood relation; my uncle adopted him as a child. His name is Ambrose Aurelian.” A sliver of white flashed in dry humor. “My family is somewhat unimaginative when it comes to names. He was disinherited a year ago when he murdered a woman…a prostitute up north.”

So trouble, or one part of it, had a name now. Guin was going to enjoy tracking this one down; she had a vigilante streak that cropped up occasionally, especially when it came to that side of crime. Something to do with a bad date she’d had before joining up with Lancelot. “He’s dangerous.”

“Very. But you need only concern yourself with finding the sword. Ambrose is my business.” Arthur’s tone unexpectedly hardened, solidifying the lines of his jaw and cheekbones into steel razors. For a moment, Lancelot forgot who, exactly, he was supposed to be worrying about.

But he’d never been one to invite complications, so he let it go without any regret. The less shadows he had to watch out for, the better.

The other man reached into his coat—Lancelot reflexively tensed, and Arthur gave him a sharp glance—and pulled out a photo, which he slid over the desk. Then he folded his hands between his knees, almost as if praying. “That is Ambrose from nine months ago—the last time we ever saw each other. He may have grown a beard by now; he’s had one on and off for the past few years. If so, it’ll be yellow and bushy.”

“Adopted, you said?” Clear enough from the photograph, which showed a distinctly Teutonic visage, while except for his height, Arthur had a vaguely Celtic cast.

“My uncle had many business interests in Germany,” the other man elucidated. For a newcomer to this side of the world, he was performing remarkably well. Usually Lancelot had to spend hours or even days extracting a straight, unembellished story from his clients, but this one was laying it out like a blanket on a bed.

That was worrying.

Lancelot filed the cautionary flag away in his mind and, after memorizing the important details in it, transferred the photo to his inner coat pocket. “Well, I think that’s enough to go on for now. Do me a favor and leave a phone number that you’ll answer most of the time with Guin, so if I have any more questions, I can contact you. I or her will also give you a ring once a week, or sooner if I find anything--”

“You’re done?” Arthur’s fingers unknotted and started to lift, then fell and half-curled inwards. He sounded oddly plaintive, and he was certainly looking at Lancelot the same way a kicked puppy did.

And that bothered Lancelot, God knew why.

Before he could figure it out, the other man had slammed up the armor and was controlled, sober. When Arthur stood up, he even managed to look at his watch without seeming too studied about it. “Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome. Guin will settle the details about payment with you on your way out.” Something about the other man was still niggling at Lancelot, but he could tell he wasn’t going to get any more useful information out of Arthur now. His curiosity was being a pain in the arse, so he stomped on it and made himself light a cigarette instead of watching the other man leave.

After Arthur’s footsteps had faded from hearing, Lancelot stubbed out his cigarette and ambled out to join Guin. “Well?”

She was holding a check between her hands and staring at it like she could see through it. Doubtful, considering it was good-quality, heavy embossed stuff. “This is going to keep us solvent for a long while.”

“If we don’t end up paying through the nose for doctors,” Lancelot muttered, tucking his hands in his pockets. “Something’s off about him.”

“It figures,” she sighed. “Gorgeous and brunet. I think he’d go for either of us, too.”

He rolled his eyes and purposefully did not spend too much time looking at the signature looping over the lower right corner of the check. “Like we need another reason to argue. When Tristan and Gawain show up, send them right in. And give Galahad and Dag a ring, too—we’ve got to wrap up those other two cases today.”


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