London, 1882. A bad time to be thrown out in the street.
Also, a bad time to be pursued by rogue doppelgangers. But hey, we all have problems.
Diggory's voice quite failed him as his gaze landed on a dark lacquered box on the middle shelf of the glass-paneled cabinets by the window. The box was held closed with an ornate brass clasp, held to the wood with tiny screws woven flawlessly into delicate filigree designs lacing away along the edges. "Uh," he said, and his voice trailed off again. He cleared his throat--a bad habit, he was noticing--and tried once more. "Uh, sir, might I inquire about the, er, the box there in the cabinet?"
"Which--ah, that one." Charles nodded as Diggory pointed, words failing him altogether. "You've heard of the Singing Birds pistols?"
"Of course I have, sir," said Diggory, slowly regaining air in his lungs. "Don't you remember, my parents--wait, pistols? Plural?"
"Yes, of course." Charles gave a harrumphing sort of cough and sat back. "That one's part of a pair. I couldn't tell you how it came to be in my possession--it appeared quite suddenly. None of my current staff have the slightest idea where it came from, but there it was, about six months back."
"Six--six months," said Diggory. His heart rate began to settle, and he found himself able to breathe again. "Ah. Well, then it must be its twin that was in Lord Chiswick's collection--it turned up missing as part of that theft and murder I mentioned."
"Did it really," said Charles, raising his eyebrows. "Most peculiar. Thieves with good taste, then."
"And murderers, sir."
"Yes, of course. I'm not condoning it in the slightest, naturally, but I do admit, I'd so love to get my hands on the other one." Charles coughed again. "So you're investigating this, then? Why, exactly?"
The bluntness of the question threw Diggory, and it took him a long moment to put together a response. "I would think--not to be disrespectful, sir, but I'd think that would be obvious," he said, blinking rapidly. "The pistol--one of the pistols was in my parents' shop."
"Oh, yes, of course." Charles tossed his head, looking down his nose at Diggory--a movement Diggory could never recall him making. It seemed so strange, so out of character, that Diggory could only stare. Something was wrong. "Your parents. Dear people, they were."
"Sir, you..." Diggory's heart sped up again. His throat went dry. "You never knew my parents. At the very least, you never said so. You--you knew of their shop, you might have patronized it a few times, but you never..."
"Are you quite sure?" said Charles, leaning forward again. He stared Diggory straight in the eye--just for a second, but in that second, Diggory knew something was very, very wrong. More wrong than he'd thought a split second before.
"I don't recall," said Diggory slowly, glancing at the door. His path was clear. "It's been some years now...what were their names?"
Charles blinked, glanced away to the left. Charles Abbey never looked away like that. "Sorry?"
"If you knew my parents," said Diggory, tensing every muscle, "then what were their names?"
Charles met his eye again. Diggory couldn't explain how he knew, couldn't begin to imagine how it was possible, but he was certain in that moment, that the person he was talking to, who looked and sounded exactly like Charles Abbey, was not the Charles Abbey he'd known.
And in the next moment, the man realized that he knew.
He leaped up, faster than the real Charles Abbey could have possibly moved, but Diggory was still faster. He bolted for the door, slamming it behind him, and dove down the short hallway, taking the stairs in four great strides. He passed by the flustered flunky in the front foyer and charged out the door and into the garden, heart pounding wildly from somewhere in his throat, sweating bullets despite the early autumn chill on the wind. He reached out and unlatched the gate a fraction of a second before he slammed into it, stumbled on the threshold and kept running, not looking back for a moment, even when he realized, somewhere down the street, that he'd quite forgotten his hat.