"So," Nenene began, rather floored, staring in bewilderment from the owner of the bookstore, to the other old man seated next to him at the front desk. "Your name is Arthur Kawsk, and…you're being hunted by an unknown group."
"Yes," he confirmed, beaming in what might be considered a slightly inappropriate manner, given his situation.
"Old man, why are these people looking for him?" Yomiko asked, shooting Mr. Kawsk a concerned look.
"He holds close ties to a man with a talent that we believe they may be interested in," the old man replied.
"My brother has given his life to the art of textual alchemy!" Kawsk added grandly.
"Textual alchemy," Nenene repeated slowly and flatly. "So, what: he can turn books into gold?"
"No," Kawsk replied, his smile wilting into annoyance. "Something far greater."
"What?" Yomiko asked, slightly breathless and watching him expectantly.
"He can restore a text to its original state. Old books made new once more!"
Nenene sighed and rubbed her forehead as Kawsk struck a dramatic pose and Yomiko stared up at him in shiny-eyed adoration, while the store owner looked on in proud fondness.
"You've got to be kidding," the young authoress finally said before sneezing in the dusty air of the bookstore.
"So, what is it you need me to do, sir?" Yomiko asked, standing up resolutely.
"Escort Mr. Kawsk to his brother's home. He will show you the way. Keep him safely out of the clutches of those wishing to exploit his knowledge," the old man replied grandly and very seriously.
"Why does he suddenly sound like he's the advisor figure on some cheesy superhero kids' show?" Nenene muttered to Yomiko, only to find herself completely ignored as the other girl struck a pose that somehow managed to be dramatic and shy at once.
"I'll do anything I can to keep you safe, Mr. Kawsk!"
Kawsk beamed at her, before he, Yomiko, and the old man turned to gaze expectantly at Nenene.
"And I'll do anything I can to help," she added flatly and more than a little reluctantly. "Why does everything in the world revolve around books these days?"
Meanwhile, back in the same small Tokyo apartment that had begun the story one chapter earlier, or rather, which held the characters that had begun the story, since the apartment itself didn't hadn't done much aside from Being an Apartment, Michelle waved cheerfully and then carefully shut the door behind Mrs. Kawsk.
"So!" she chirped brightly, trying not to feel too put-off by the decidedly dismayed and disgusted expressions that both her sisters were currently displaying.
"I thought we weren't doing missing persons anymore," Maggie said quietly from the couch, where she had settled comfortably with book to restore her mental and emotional equilibrium.
"Yeah; they usually lead to trouble," Anita added, peeking over Maggie's shoulder before bounding off the couch and selecting a different book from one of the room's many bookshelves. "What if we get involved in something else like the thing with the British Library and Mr. Gentleman?"
"Well," Michelle said thoughtfully, flopping down on the couch and withdrawing a book from between the cushions, where she had earlier stashed it for easy access, "if you think about it, that whole mess started when we agreed to be Nenene's bodyguards. That's not exactly a missing persons case. And then we agreed to help Dokusensha find their missing books. So maybe we can't assume that the missing persons cases are the ones that lead to trouble."
"Right," Maggie agreed, flipping a page. "Any kind of case could lead to trouble."
"This one feels like it will," Anita insisted edgily.
"Anita dear, we're just trying to find a nice old lady's nice old husband," Michelle protested.
"That nice old lady was nuts, though," the preteen pointed out.
"Yeah," Maggie agreed with an emphatic nod.
Michelle gritted her teeth.
"We've already taken the case, Maggie. We can't phone Mrs. Kawsk now and tell her we don't want the job because we might end up having to face up against a lot of scary evil British people again."
"Not if we don't want to sound crazier than her," Anita snorted. "Baldy did not scare me."
"Me, neither," Maggie said. "Although the green tubes scared me a little. I don't know why."
"Junior says they scared him, too," Michelle said very seriously.
"Yeah; 'cause they only tried to eat him," Anita remarked with a shudder.
"I wonder what they were supposed to be for," Maggie reflected.
"But back to Mrs. Kawsk's case," Michelle said briskly. "I think we have to take it now."
"Yeah," Maggie agreed. "I don't want to explain to an old lady that we're not going to help her after all."
"And anyway," Anita added with the air of one looking on the bright side, "Arthur Kawsk might stop Being Missing before we have to do anything."
On a Saturday night, when the world had reached an agreement with itself to let down its hair and just have fun, when humanity breathed a collective sigh of relief before getting down to the business of "rocking out", when the atmosphere was filled with the joy of being alive, a bar teeming with life and energy was the only logical place for a hip, swingin' dude like Sunny Wong to pass his time.
Of course, it was not a Saturday Night, but when one considers that the stoically silent Mr. Wong had conveniently missed the fact that he was ambiguously dead and thus supposed to be, if alive at all, plotting his revenge against those who had robbed him of life for something as paltry as trying to kill them, rather than hanging out in bars, it was not surprising that he did not notice the decided Wednesday Morning quality in the rather empty bar.
And so, there sat Sunny Wong, perched on a stool pulled up to the gleaming heavy mahogany of the bar as he raised his voice to the heavens and gave voice to the burning question that did fill his very soul. And the anguish of the ages rang out through his tones as he asked, his face fixed in a slight pout beneath his massive collar,
"Hey, where's all the chicks at?"
"You know," Michelle spoke up a goodish bit of time later, breaking a long moment of silence that had fallen over the small table that the three girls were seated at within the bright, airy café, "I think there's a distinct possibility that Mrs. Kawsk has been driven insane by the long absence of her husband."
"Or maybe she was just crazy already," Anita snorted. "She hired detectives, paid in advance—" Here, the preteen cast a much-satisfied glance over the table, covered with all manner of desserts nearly to the point that they could hear it faintly creaking under the strain. "—when there's a big possibility that he just went off to visit his brother!"
"Which she knew he was going to do," Maggie added. "He had been planning the trip for weeks. He had been telling her that he'd been planning the trip for weeks."
"Okay, I see your point," Michelle admitted thoughtfully. "But I think it was the strain of losing her husband for so long that's driven her mad."
"I don't know," Maggie said doubtfully. "She seemed too happy for that."
"She was crying earlier," Michelle pointed out.
"But she baked us cookies shaped like little kitties when we went over there to look for a lead," Anita reminded her. "And she was humming. People don't really hum when they're depressed, do they?"
"Those were good cookies," Maggie added.
"Yeah," Michelle and Anita agreed, before the three girls shared a dreamy sigh.
"But back to the case," Michelle said briskly a moment later. "Really, there's a good chance that there's something more at the bottom of this than Mr. Kawsk just going to visit his brother."
"Yeah; we've got women's intuition to go on," Anita said sarcastically.
"That can be a powerful force," Maggie said very seriously.
"But that aside," Michelle said, nowhere near as impatiently as a normal human being would have been by this time, "Mrs. Kawsk did tell us that her husband got a letter, upon which he panicked and bolted from the house, almost without packing, and without telling her anything."
"The letter was from his brother, Mortimer," Maggie mused. "Maybe he got sick or had an accident and needed Arthur there as soon as possible."
"But then how do you explain the other incidents earlier that week?" Michelle asked. "The hunting traps set up in the kitchen, the hole covered with branches and leaves in their bedroom, the nets, the cages baited with steak—"
"I thought those were to spice up the marriage," Maggie said with a shrug.
Michelle and Anita, as one, whipped about to stare at her incredulously.
"Well, I did," Maggie reiterated, two small ovals of pink darkening on her cheeks as she shrunk back into her turtleneck sweater.
"Um…I don't think that was it, Maggie," Michelle admitted gently. "Mrs. Kawsk probably wouldn't have pointed them out; she would have probably tried to throw a towel or a blanket over them and hoped we wouldn't notice."
"I guess," Maggie shrugged, still blushing brightly.
"So, someone's hunting Arthur Kawsk?" Anita asked quietly, leaning forward over the array of desserts and motioning for her sisters to do the same.
"I think it's fairly safe to say at this point; either him, or his brother," Michelle replied, equally quietly.
"Or both," Maggie added, no more quietly than she said most things.
"Exactly," Michelle agreed. "And that's why we've got to get to Mortimer's house as soon as possible to find out what he knows."
Anita and Maggie nodded.
"So, who do you think it is?" Michelle asked.
"I'll bet it's the British Library!" Anita exclaimed, abandoning caution in her excitement and indignation.
Michelle and Maggie exchanged uneasy looks.
"Um…Anita," Michelle finally said kindly, "I really doubt it's them. First of all, the British Library doesn't exist anymore. Remember? And wasn't Joker looking a little glassy-eyed when we saw him last?"
"It could still be them," Anita shrugged. "I'll bet he faked his own coma, and he's controlling the plot from somewhere, reassembling all the people who used to be with the Library…except the ones who are in jail, I guess."
"That's all of them, except him and that girl who was always with him," Maggie noted, scraping the last bits of ice cream from the bottom of the small glass dish.
"Then it's just them! They could still be behind it," Anita insisted, crossing her arms with an aura of stubbornness fairly emanating from her.
"We should keep the possibility in mind," Michelle said diplomatically, returning Maggie's disbelieving glance with one that clearly implored the younger girl to just humour her. "But we can't rule out other possibilities. We don't know for sure that they're behind this. Or that anyone else is behind it."
"Or even that there's anything to be behind, at this point," Maggie added.
"It's the kind of thing they'd do," Anita said.
Michelle set down a chocolate milkshake and gazed kindly at her youngest sister.
"Hunt down a kindly, unassuming family man? That seems a little petty. He was a lot of things, but Joker wasn't really petty."
"And they've already had their shot at villainy," Maggie added. "It's pretty absurd to peg the British Library as responsible every time something goes wrong in the world. Even if it did still exist."
"Yeah, I guess you're right," Anita admitted with a sheepish laugh. "That would just be pretty stupid."
In this assessment, both Maggie and Anita were entirely right. Still, just because a thing is absurd, or "pretty stupid", does not mean that it is not true.
As much as, sometimes, it really, really should.
As the three girls enjoyed their café confab and the sugar-laden treats that went along with it, another discussion was taking place in an entirely different part of the world.
Actually, it is likely that several other discussions were taking place at just that moment; it is, however, less likely that many were taking place on just the same subject as that of the Good Guys.
The discussion in question was taking place over tea and cakes that vaguely resembled a mud factory explosion because, as the baker said defensively, she'd certainly had no time over the past ten years, with all that bloody overtime, to learn how to bake properly.
Really, Wendy thought airily as Joker picked one up, looked at it dubiously, and quirked a humourous eyebrow at her, he ought to try baking for the first time in a decade and see how well he managed it.
Still, at least they tasted all right, if one didn't count the slightly soapy aftertaste. Really, she should have probably rinsed the pan after soaking it to remove the residue left by her last attempt at baking…
And in this bit of defensive internal monologue, when he finally said something that might stand to advance the plot a bit, she completely and utterly missed it.
"Er, sorry, sir; what was that?"
"Oh, nothing very special," he replied with an absent wave. "Only that I've discovered something that might give us a second chance with Mr. Gentleman's revival."
This statement produced all the sensation he could have hoped, although it was rather a let-down that there was only one other person in the room to react to it.
She, however, reacted very strongly, executing the classic "spit-take" and proceeding to choke and sputter in a decidedly undignified manner for several minutes. Kindly, he rose from his seat, came around behind her, and gave her a few good, solid thumps to the back.
"Um…how, exactly?" she finally asked when the threat of a rather embarrassing death by tea had passed.
"Look at this," he commanded, dropping a photo in front of her. "That is Arthur Kawsk."
Ominous music swelled in the background, creating such a nice effect that neither Joker nor Wendy cared that it was simply the result of a CD left on auto-repeat and some lucky timing.
Dark clouds gathered overhead, which was fairly odd, since they were in the kitchen, which was undoubtedly indoors.
After a moment of frowning and wondering exactly what that smell reminded her of, Wendy gave a dismayed squeak and bolted for the oven.
"Well, these ones didn't turn out any better," she sighed, pulling some well-blackened raisin muffins from the oven.
"I suppose domestic activities just aren't where your talents lie, dear," Joker said kindly.
She stopped short in the act of scraping the muffins off the pan and into the garbage along with three more equally scorched batches, and glared up at him.
"Then why have I been doing all of yours since I dragged you here?"
"Never mind that," he said grandly. "We were discussing the matter of Mr. Arthur Kawsk. I've had people keeping him under very close watch for the past several days, but as they have recently lost sight of him, I expect us to have to take a more involved role than simply sitting back and waiting while our henchmen make a muddle of things again."
"So…this Arthur Kawsk can bring back Mr. Gentleman?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Wendy," he scoffed. "Not just anyone can do that, you know. But he can aid in giving us a second chance to do it. Well, more accurately, me."
"Er…right. Of course. How, exactly?"
"He is a close comrade of a man with a skill that will be of immense use. Together, the two of them have, over the years, devoted their lives to the study of a process called 'textual alchemy'."
Wendy blinked, by now utterly lost.
"Then…they know how to turn books into gold?"
"Of course not! What a silly idea! No, they can restore old books to their original state."
"Something like a Fountain of Youth for books."
"Y-yes, in a manner of speaking."
"And…how will this help with the whole Reviving Mr. Gentleman thing?"
Joker shook his head sadly.
"Ah, Wendy, I think the past four months of inactivity have dulled your mind."
"Yes, because I've been bored silly, doing your laundry, cooking, cleaning, gardening, and various household repairs and such," she agreed pleasantly. "But go on. You were telling me why I'm stupid?"
"Not stupid," he corrected. "Merely…rather slow to connect cause with effect today. Now. Mr. Gentleman's knowledge was divided into seven books, yes?"
She nodded slowly.
"Very good, dear. And these men have the ability to return books to their original form. Are you beginning to see?"
"Well, I'm beginning to see something," she said cautiously, opting against revealing that the 'something' was the fact that he had completely and utterly lost his mind.
"Excellent," he beamed. "Now, you know what we have to do, don't you?"
"No, but I've this terrible feeling I'm going to find out whether I want to or not," she sighed, dropping her head to her hand and wondering if she could fake a doctor's signature enough to procure some strong prescription painkillers. Women's intuition was poking her in the back of the head and suggesting that she would need them very, very soon.
"The first thing we've got to do is try on our villain costumes!" he went on.
She stared at him blankly, her cup of tea hovering about half way between the table and its destination.
"Our villain costumes!" he repeated. "I see now that we were, in fact, very unlikable villains, entirely lacking the quirks and showmanship of those great villains that are loved around the world."
"Well, Rhianwen certainly likes us enough, which is turning out to put us through no small amount of pain. Really, if she has to fixate like this, the very least she could do is write something fun, like some hardcore smut," Wendy muttered, glaring resentfully up at the ceiling, apparently being misinformed enough to believe that bad fan-fiction authors resided in the heavens, rather than spending most of their time at the local comic book store. Or in their mums' basements.
"Now, come along, and we'll give them a try," Joker said, ignoring this sudden and rather alarming tendency to break the fourth wall, along with the rather intriguing reference to such fun activities as might go along with the hardcore smut she was apparently fond of.
She watched as he stood and left the room, and then permitted herself another long, slightly shaky sigh.
"Why do I have the distinct feeling that I'm going to be wishing I'd been killed by a cue card before long?"
End Notes: Oog! My dialogue is feeling really, really stilted. The sisters in particular. I can't tell if that's really the way they talk and I've kind of got them down characterization-wise, or if I just need to rewatch the first three volumes on DVD and stonily ignore the fansubs. :o)