• Published 2nd Jan 2017
  • 1,153 Views, 94 Comments

The Casebook of Currycombs - AugieDog

In a world tucked somewhere between Equestria and Victorian London, the aardhorse detective Currycombs solves crimes with her friend and colleague, the unicorn medical mare Silver Scalpel.

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1 - A Study in Sorrel

Upon my mustering out, I retained two mementos of my decade in Her Majesty's service: the scars from that damnable griffin's claws running deep and jagged along my left shoulder from chest to withers, and the sixteen hobs a month to which, I was assured by the quartermaster, my injuries entitled me for the rest of my life. Having no family but the cavalry, however, I quickly found myself adrift in Ehwazton, the entire city seemingly empty of ways to fill the time I now had on my hooves.

It was, to say the least, a most curious sensation. My life since fillyhood, after all, had been driven by such a desire to learn the healing arts that no one at the orphanage had even feigned surprise when the eigensigil that appeared upon my flanks at puberty was a crossed pair of silver scalpels, the very name the nuns had given me years before after performing the rituals on my Discernment Day. But now, every limping step I took reminded me of the frontier skirmishes and the field hospitals full of equines shattered and shredded beyond my magical ability to repair. The dark thoughts proved more than enough to quench my former drive: I was left with no desires, no needs, nothing I wanted, and nothing to the best of my knowledge that wanted me.

In my first few weeks as a newly minted civilian, I kept to myself during the day in the rooms I rented despite knowing that they would eventually prove too expensive for my pension. Then, once Her Majesty had used the Solara Scepter to lower the sun for the evening, I would don one of the rough, green, woolen blankets I'd grown to favor during my stint abroad and would venture forth in an attempt to lose myself among the aardhorses, pegasi, and unicorns who crowded the capital.

That attempt, of course, proved to be in vain. I've simply never understood how one could take oneself anywhere to lose oneself. But then, being too literal minded has ever been one of my faults.

On these nightly wanderings, I began to notice a tendency to gravitate toward the aardhorse parts of Ehwazton. I'd known plenty of pegasi in the service, of course, but their good-natured boisterousness didn't suit my current mood at all. And unicorns reminded me all too much of what I saw in the mirror every morning—or what I would have seen if I hadn't driven hobnails into the bathroom wall to more easily drape my blankets across that reflective surface.

The calmness of aardhorses under fire had always impressed me, and plodding along the streets among the simple apartment buildings they favored, I breathed more easily, their cafés serving good, solid fare to good, solid citizens finished with their daily work and now relaxing with family and friends. Steadiness, gentleness, and a quiet devotion to duty radiated from every aardhorse who passed me, their eigensigils honest symbols such as hammers and bricks, lamps and carts and baked goods: nothing fancy or pretentious or inconsequential in the lot. And not one, not a single one, stared or winced or seemed at all concerned with this lone unicorn in their midst. Their sweet indifference filled the night sky like the aroma of magnolia blossoms, and odd as it might be to say, it soothed me in ways that none of the well-meaning professionals in Her Majesty's rehabilitation facilities had been able to.

So the bellowed "I told you no!" from the alleyway ahead came as a complete surprise, every aardhorse around me snapping a head up, eyes going wide and white-rimmed, the air suddenly sour with fear. An equine tumbled from the alley's mouth—hooves flailing, coattails flying—and rolled upright in the glow of the firefly-filled streetlamp, the figure's hide as dark as charcoal, the red mane in a tangle.

The whole crowd but me shied away with whinnies and snorts, but the figure, straightening, aimed a front hoof in my specific direction. "You!" came a shout in a raspy but unmistakably female voice. "You're a medical mare! Come with me quickly! There's not a moment to lose!"

That she was an aardhorse I could see at once, no horn on her forehead or wings at her sides. Her eyes shone in the firefly light almost as if she were stricken with fever, but the wiry muscles evident beneath her unfastened Mulester coat betrayed neither twitch nor any other sort of uncertainty as she spun and dashed back into the darkened space between the buildings.

For an instant I hesitated, but the call to duty struck me as squarely between the eyes as a bucket of cool water on a hot day: unlimbering myself, I raced into the unknown—

And reared back almost immediately, the lane blocked by what appeared in the dimness to be multiple shadows. I managed to control my hooves before the fear I'd learned my last few months in griffin territory could cause me to strike out, and my eyes growing used to the darkness showed me the strange mare squatted down beside a pegasus stallion sprawled across the cobblestones. The salty tang of blood clung to the breath I gasped in, a telltale rivulet trickling down the stallion's forehead from his close-cropped blonde mane.

Without another thought, I lit my horn, slung off my blanket, and ripped a bandage from one end. "What happened to him?" I asked.

"Never mind that." The mare used a hoof to lift one of the pegasus' wings. "Would you call his coat chestnut or sorrel?"

"What?" I spared a heartbeat or two to blink at her, but having a patient to tend after so long a time focused my attention toward binding the gash between the stallion's ears. "Surely that can't matter in the slightest! Now, we must get this fellow away from here and to a—"

"This fellow," she said with a snort, "is wanted for questioning in regard to a murder, Doctor."

"Murder?" The word sent a chill racing through me, and my magic nearly sputtered out. "There's not been such a crime in Hevosenvalta since—" My memory began sputtering as well, unable to recall clearly the gruesome stories I'd heard as a filly.

Those feverish eyes glinted at me. "Forty-six years ago, as a matter of fact, during the reign of Queen Cumulonimbus' late grandmother." The mare's lips pulled back in a smile that seemed in the uncertain light to reveal more teeth than an equine's head should have. "And it lies now here within our power to solve this dreadful crime."

Goose flesh pimpling my neck, I automatically concluded bandaging the stallion's head. "But how are we to do it?"

"By the color of his coat." The aardhorse glanced around. "You make a good point, however, about moving our subject. Your horn, while useful, of course, glows much too dimly." With narrowed eyes, she surveyed me up and down as assessingly as any drill sergeant I'd ever known. "You lead the way; I'll carry him out to the street."

I began to object, for while the mare seemed as sturdy as any aardhorse, she was a hoofspan shorter than I, and I was several hoofspans shorter than the injured pegasus. Before I could form a single word of protest, however, she had scooted her shoulders beneath the stallion and was flexing her legs to rise up with him draped across her back. "If you would, Doctor?"

The mouth of the alley lay a mere several steps away, but covering that short distance seemed to jog my mind out of its shock. "See here!" I said, craning my head back. "Who are you? And how did you know I was a doctor?"

She gave another snort. "I made a series of inferences based upon your eigensigil, your species, your obvious military training, and your presence in this part of Ehwazton at this time of the evening." Her ears folding, she nodded past me. "Perhaps you could make certain the sidewalk is free of passers-by? I'd like to minimize the commotion we'll be causing when we appear."

A part of me wished to pursue the matter of this 'series of inferences,' but as we were at that point emerging onto the street, I instead focused my attention ahead as had been requested—

Only to see four winged members of the Ehwazton constabulary, their blue jackets and domed hats unmistakable, in earnest conversation with half a dozen uncomfortable-looking aardhorses. Overseeing these from a slight remove, a dour, ivory-coated unicorn in a Mackintosh and a slouch-brimmed hat cast his gaze about the scene as if it had all been especially staged to annoy him.

My first thought upon perceiving these personages, I'll admit, was to slink back into the alleyway. But my companion seemed to have a different idea. "Ah! There you are, Inspector Furlong!" she called from beneath her burden. "I'd begun to fear I'd misplaced you somewhere!"

The rest of the ensuing conversation I shan't record in any detail. Suffice it to say that Inspector Furlong threatened to arrest my companion for assorted crimes and misdemeanors, and when my companion rebuffed him by stating that if she were in jail, she'd not be able to do his job for him, the inspector did indeed arrest the both of us.

Which is how I found myself loaded into the back of a police trailer while the patrolsteeds hitched themselves to the front. To my left lay the unconscious pegasus, to my right sat the glowering mare in the Mulester coat—whose name, despite the loud and extended discussion, I'd still been unable to learn—and with a growl, the inspector clambered in to join us. "Enough of this!" he declared as the patrolsteeds with many a lurch and rattle began hauling us and the trailer away. "I warned you, Ms. Currycombs, what would result if you continued sticking your snout into police business!" He rounded then on me, his own snout wrinkled as if he'd smelled something unpleasant. "And who might you be, madam?"

I straightened my spine. "Dr. Silver Scalpel, late of Her Majesty's 4th Cavalry." And while the inspector was at least a decade older than I, the glare I'd honed in griffin territory, I'd been told more than once, held an edge that was sharp beyond my years. "And my concern here is the welfare of my patient." I gestured to the pegasus and noted with approval that the bloodstain on the front of my makeshift bandage hadn't grown appreciably since I'd applied it.

"Patient?" The inspector's widening eyes moved back and forth beneath his beetled brow between me and the pegasus before he spun upon my companion again. "By Her Majesty's Sun, Currycombs! If you attacked this fellow, I shall personally lock you in the deepest dungeon of the palace!"

"We had a difference of opinion." The mare shrugged, and knowing now that her name was Currycombs, I glanced at her flank for the first time to see whether that item was indeed her eigensigil—

Only to end up staring in confusion at the blankness of her ash-black hide.

A full-grown equine without an eigensigil? My mind raced back through the case histories I'd studied during my medical training, and I simply couldn't recall any mention of an unbesigiled individual older than the age of fifteen!

A clearing of throat snapped my attention back to the mare's face, a tight smile stretched thin across her muzzle. "Hypnotic, isn't it?" she asked with a shimmy of her hips.

Embarrassment heating my ears, I looked away.

The inspector had continued ranting about various forms of incarceration this entire time, and he went on for some minutes longer until Currycombs spoke, her voice slicing through his like one of my namesake blades. "Tell me, Inspector Furlong. Did not Violet Peony identify her father's killer as a sorrel pegasus stallion with a light blonde mane? Did she not give us a partial description of his eigensigil? Did not my own observations at the crime scene confirm the presence of a surprisingly large pegasus stallion with rectangular-headed nails in his shoes?" She moved one of my patient's legs to show his hoofgear.

Furlong's ivory face had darkened appreciably. "None of that excuses your—!"

The trailer jolting to a halt interrupted him this time, and the doors at the back were thrown open to reveal a flagstone courtyard flooded with magelight and lined with blue-coated equines. "Ha!" The inspector gave a sharp nod. "Shetland Yard at last! And now we'll be getting to the truth, Ms. Currycombs!" He gestured to the patrolsteeds peering in. "Take this stallion to the infirmary!"

"Carefully!" I employed the voice I'd used on many an orderly out in the field. "I've not yet had a chance to properly scan for head trauma, and if this buggy ride has had an adverse effect upon my patient"—I aimed my glare at Inspector Furlong once again—"your superiors shall hear of it, sir!"

For the briefest instant, Furlong seemed inclined to argue, but Currycombs gave a quiet chuckle that drew his attention back to her. "Yes, Dr. Scalpel, fine." The inspector waved a hoof again. "Attend your patient. I have more important matters to see to."

So Inspector Furlong and a still-chuckling Currycombs went off in one direction, and I, entwining several basic medical spells into the levitation magic performed by one of the unicorn patrolsteeds, went off in the other. I had no idea what I'd gotten myself involved in, no idea who this pegasus was, no idea how I'd come to be traipsing along the corridors of Shetland Yard among a phalanx of Ehwazton's finest—

But I'd not felt so alive in months.

The elderly unicorn in charge of the police infirmary had a military bearing to her. She introduced herself as Helpful Tonic, and when I inquired, she informed me that she was twenty years retired from Her Majesty's 4th. So we chatted about regimental issues as we settled the pegasus into a bed, and she graciously allowed me to assist her in the diagnostic spells that showed no heavy or permanent damage to our patient.

With both of us satisfied that the pegasus was largely out of danger, we had just settled at her desk so I could begin explaining to her the circumstances of my arrival when her office door burst open and a large group of equines pushed somberly in. Inspector Furlong stomped along at the front with Currycombs behind, her expression that of a cat who'd gotten into the creamery. Beside Currycombs wavered a tear-stained unicorn mare of a light purple hue, and the crowd following them consisted of mares and stallions with a constabulary look about them. Their jackets, ties, and scarves, however, showed them to be higher up the chain of command than anyone I'd yet met this evening.

The parade brought the situation back to me with a sobering shiver: this was the first murder investigation in nearly fifty years, after all...

"Oh, thank you, Ms. Currycombs," the purplish unicorn was saying as they all entered. "This experience has proven to be so horrible, and I can't tell you how grateful I am that you captured the roughneck!"

Inspector Furlong's face seemed one large sneer. "Possibly captured him, Ms. Peony. Let's not get ahead of ourselves."

Currycombs' smile somehow gained another level of smugness, and when her gaze met mine, she actually winked. She turned quickly, however, to the young mare at her side. "Fear not, Ms. Peony. We shall soon have this matter entirely cleared up."

The inspector rolled his eyes toward Dr. Tonic. "If you wouldn't mind, Doctor, we'd like the witness to take a look at your most recent patient."

"Of course, Inspector." She led the way back into the infirmary proper, and I found myself falling in beside Currycombs.

She gave me a nod. "A little excitement does wonders for the disposition, doesn't it, Doctor?"

I wanted to ask her what she meant by that, but a gasp from Ms. Peony drew my attention forward. She was staring at the pegasus. "That's him, Inspector! That's the equine who stabbed Father! Oh, I fear I shall never forget that terrible face!"

Furlong's own face had begun to approach a fairly terrible state itself, and Currycombs slipping through the crowd to our patient's bedside did nothing to improve his looks. "Tut, tut!" Currycombs said, an entirely inappropriate level of jocularity in her voice. "Nothing but absolute certainty will do in a case of this magnitude!" Reaching out a hoof, she raised the edge of the blanket and exposed the pegasus' eigensigil, a fairly generic scene of the sun peeking through some clouds. But instead of inquiring if she recognized the mark, Currycombs asked, "You said your father's murderer had a sorrel coat, did you not, Ms. Peony?"

"Confound it, Currycombs!" Inspector Furlong stomped a hoof. "Half the equines in this room are chestnuts! Coat color can't—!"

"Chestnut?" Currycombs blinked in what was obviously mock surprise. "But Ms. Peony said 'sorrel' rather than 'chestnut.'" She turned her blinking toward the young mare in question. "Wasn't that the word you used, Ms. Peony?"

Ms. Peony blushed a darker purple. "Yes, but surely there's no difference between the two."

"Ah." Currycombs' eyes began hardening. "There is in fact a vital difference. For 'chestnut' is the term used for this coat color here in Ehwazton and the eastern parts of Hevosenvalta. 'Sorrel' is most often used by those living in the western parts of our fair country, a place that, if I'm recalling correctly from our earlier discussions, Ms. Peony, you claimed never to have so much as visited."

"I haven't!" Ms. Peony squeaked. "You...you can check with anyone you like! I've not set hoof outside Ehwazton my entire life!"

Currycombs' ears flicked. "Your parents, however?"

Silence thickened the air around us until Inspector Furlong loudly cleared his throat. "If you've a point to make, Ms. Currycombs?"

"I have." Currycombs bent her head around, pulled a file folder from the interior of her jacket with her teeth, and set it on the table beside the bed. "Twenty years ago, according to the helpful staff at East Ehwazton Realty, a married couple, an aardhorse stallion named Collier and a unicorn mare named Keuper Marl, moved to the Lauraceous Gardens area of the capital from their former home in San Pinto. Their first and only child was born four months later, according to baptismal records kept at Our Lady of the Twilight church, which means that this young couple decided to make the arduous move two thousand miles across the country while Ms. Marl was already six to seven months pregnant." Everything about Currycombs had become sharply business-like. "This suggested to me that they were running from something."

"No!" Ms. Peony's demeanor had changed as well, a steeliness coming over her that hadn't been at all in evidence when I'd first set eyes on her. "My parents never ran from anything! Even Mother's illness and death two years ago only strengthened the bonds that united us as a family!"

"Exactly." Currycombs gestured to the pegasus. "So when Hope Springs here arrived at your doorstep—"

"A moment!" Furlong's chin wobbled. "We've only just begun the process of determining this fellow's identity, and you're saying you already know who he is?"

Currycombs sighed. "Hearing the word 'sorrel' and seeing the rectangular heads in the horseshoe prints at the crime scene had already shown me we were dealing with an equine of western origin. My further observation of the streets immediately surrounding Ms. Peony's home revealed an inordinate amount of taxicab wheel ruts: the suburbs of Lauraceous Gardens, after all, aren't exactly located on the main transportation thoroughfares. Feathers at the scene and Ms. Peony's testimony said we were looking for a pegasus stallion, and since few pegasi go into the carriage horse business, my inquiries at the local cab companies led me quickly to Hope Springs. He'd taken lodgings in that part of town where you and I first ran into one another, Doctor." She gave me another nod, then turned what I could only call a smirk at Inspector Furlong. "It's also the reason I asked you to canvass the area, Furlong. I knew your patrolsteeds would drive Springs into making a break for it, and I intercepted him as he attempted to flee." She sighed. "Alas, he was reluctant to accompany me, however."

Furlong's jaw was clenched so tightly, his mouth seemed to be but a single stroke of ink across his muzzle. "Very well, Ms. Currycombs. I shall admit your methods show some promise and will arrest this blackguard for the murder of—"

"Murder?" Currycombs stared at the inspector. "Haven't you listened to a word I've said? There's been no murder here!" She waved a hoof. "No murder at all!"

Most of the police officials, whom I'd almost forgotten were even among us, started back in alarm, and one stallion with gray streaks in his mane shouted, "No murder? How can you possibly—?"

"Superintendent!" Dr. Tonic's ears folded, and though her voice was quiet, every word hit like a slap. "This is an infirmary, sir!"

"But—!" The superintendent looked back and forth between the doctor and Currycombs. "You examined the body, Doctor! Collier was stabbed straight through the heart, was he not?"

"And yet?" Currycombs was looking at Ms. Peony again. "From their names and sigils, I assume your parents met while working the mines out west? And I further assume that your father was dying of the same lung disease that claimed your mother?"

Ms. Peony had gone completely still, her complexion now the palest possible shade of lavender. Currycombs went on: "And when Hope Springs appeared on your doorstep, whatever fear had driven your parents from San Pinto twenty years ago gripped your household yet again. Such was the desperation that overwhelmed you and your father that the two of you concocted this scheme whereby you assisted your father in using that knife to shorten his own life by a few months and then endeavored to blame his death on Mr. Springs. I don't know the details—oddly enough, Mr. Springs refused to discuss anything with me during our brief interview even after I informed him that you were attempting to frame him as your father's murderer."

"You—" Ms. Peony's voice had faded as well. "You have no proof."

Currycombs shrugged. "I need none. As for the law, they will now no doubt reexamine your father's body and confirm that he had advanced pneumoconiosis or some related ailment. They will journey to San Pinto and dig out the details of your parents' relationship to Mr. Springs' parents—I would recommend, Furlong, that you focus your investigation toward some sort of marriage contract that Collier and Keuper Marl decided not to honor."

"They were forced!" The words could barely emerge from Ms. Peony's mouth, her teeth were so tightly clenched. "Those bastards would've shunned them if they hadn't signed, and alone, they never would've survived out there on the—!" Falling onto her haunches, she clapped her front hooves over her mouth, her eyes closed and her ears back.

I'll admit to staring in astonishment, but I was hardly alone among those in attendance. "Then," I managed to say in Currycombs' general direction. "Everything you said? It's true?"

She made a popping sound with her lips. "It's my eigensigil, Doctor: the invisible, omnipresent truth."

My gaze hopped back to her empty flanks, but she was already turning for the door of Dr. Tonic's office. "I believe, Inspector Furlong, that you can manage the last few details yourself? I shall be happy to testify in court should you need me, though I'll have to get back to you with my new address: I'm to be evicted tomorrow morning from my current room." And she vanished through the doorway.

For another a pair of heartbeats, I stood as dumbfounded as the rest, but then I kicked my hooves into motion and clattered out after her. Half expecting the hall to be empty, I instead beheld her dragging her tail, her mane drooping down to nearly brush the tile. I reached her side quickly therefore, and before I could organize a single thought, I found myself blurting out, "Sixteen hobs a month!"

Currycombs blinked at the floor before lifting her head. "What are you proposing, Doctor?"

"I'm in need of lodgings myself," I said, my mind finally catching up to the rest of me. "Have you space for another in your rooms?"

"I haven't." Her ears perked. "But with an extra sixteen a month, we could afford the larger quarters upstairs. Come along and I'll show you the place." She cocked her head. "You don't mind hammer dulcimer music, I hope?"

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