Angelic Paranoia

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[The Avengers] The Killer Creme de la Creme
Saturday 1st January 2022

Rating: General
Beta: Liadt
Steed meets his measure
Emma threads the needle
When men are being killed by their clothes, Steed and Emma go undercover to investigate.
Notes: Written for weakinteraction

Arthur Harris paused in his dictation to recline in his chair and pat his stomach. "A little too much lunch, I think."

Deborah Wood, his secretary, was sat on the other side of the desk. She glanced up from her notepad long enough to smile, but soon had her eyes back on the pad, her pen poised.

"Where was I? Ugh."

This time when she raised her eyes, she frowned. Arthur was wriggling about, pulling at his waistband ineffectually.

"Trousers. Too tight." His voice was suddenly hoarse.

Immediately, she threw her pad and pen down on his desk with no care for where it landed. Once around the other side of the desk she tried the button, with no luck, for the trousers were too tight to manoeuvre it through the hole.

By this time Harris was making choked sounds. His face was screwed up and head thrown back.

Panicked, she turned back to the desk and spotted the letter opener. Despite his flailing, she managed to find a seam and rip it open, freeing him from his constrictive clothing. She breathed in a sigh of relief, while he panted.

In the aftermath neither of them noticed the way his trousers were oddly bunched up in places. Nor had they seen his wife in the doorway.

Steed stopped in front of a shop window, resting the point of his umbrella on the ground. In the window were two dummies, wearing men's suits in different cuts. Above were the letters 'CREME' and smaller, "Couture from Robinson & Edwards for men exclusively'.

Having taken this all in, Steed pushed open the door and stepped inside. Removing his hat, he said, "Good afternoon. I have an appointment. John Steed."

There were two people inside the large, thick-carpeted room: a man, Robert Lewis, and a woman, Penelope Robinson-Edwards. He was wearing exactly the same suit as one of the mannequins in the window, with slicked-back dark hair and the smile of someone who was earning plenty of money. She was in her 50s, wearing glasses, with greying hair tied in a low bun with a multi-coloured scarf. There was something about the fit of her trouser suit that looked odd, but Steed couldn't put his finger on what it was.

There was a curtain covering a doorway on one side of the room, and a table and armchair on the other. The table held a bottle of champagne, two glasses and two books. One was an appointment book, open at today's page, the other was a closed catalogue.

At Steed's words Penelope consulted the appointment book, then nodded to Lewis. He smiled at Steed and approached him, holding out a hand. "How do you do."

Steed shook it. "How do you do."

"Now, a suit wasn't it?"

He nodded. "Yes. I have a dinner party coming up and can't possibly attend in a suit I've already worn. You came highly recommended by a friend of mine, Arthur Harris."

Arthur Harris was indeed a friend and also a clue. It wasn't only men who bought their suits here who had died, but also many male employees. It was possible Lewis was the last one left.

The boutique was their only connection, but the suits they'd died in had been mysteriously absent when the Ministry investigated. By purchasing a suit himself Steed was hoping he could find what was going on here.

On the surface it all looked perfectly ordinary, but their employees' reactions to hearing Harris's name was interesting. Lewis continued smiling, but Penelope, now standing beside Steed, with a glass of champagne in each hand, scowled.

Not seeing her reaction, Lewis took one of the glasses. It jolted Penelope into assuming a more neutral expression as she handed the other to Steed. Steed watched her as she returned to the table.

"I remember Harris. A very loyal customer of ours," Lewis said, after a sip of his champagne. "Good of him to recommend us.

"Now, Miss Robinson-Edwards will take your measurements and we'll discuss your preferences." Lewis motioned Steed towards the circular pattern on the carpet in the centre of the room.

Steed took up position and Penelope came over with a tape measure, holding it in a way that he considered to be menacing.

He forced himself to focus on Lewis, who asked. "Do you have any ideas of what you want?"

"Oh, nothing too frilly. I can't abide frills." He may not be in need of a suit, especially one that wasn't from Saville Row, but if he was going to end up with one, it may as well be one he would wear. Even if it was only on the sort of day when he knew it would end up dirty or ripped.

Lewis nodded. "I can see you're the sort of man who likes something plain, to show off the girl he's with."

Steed smiled, a little distracted by how tight Penelope was pulling the tape measure around his waist. "Of course."

"I believe I know just the thing. Miss Robinson-Edwards, the catalogue please." He clicked his fingers.

Not looking up, she scowled. "I'm busy. I told you I need to hire more staff."

Lewis sighed. "We used to employ men exclusively on the shop floor, but sadly good staff are so hard to find."

"There are so many other lines of work to lure them in." Steed hoped that keeping Lewis on this topic would yield something useful.

"Having girls about is not the same. It's not right for girls to be seen in the shop, not when it's exclusively for men." He shook his head.

Since Lewis seemed to be on a roll, Steed made a soothing sound of agreement.

"But what can you do when you lose so many staff in such a short time?" He fell onto the armchair.

Steed opened his mouth to ask about that, felt the way Penelope was measuring his inside leg and changed his mind. "You must admit, having a few girls around does brighten the place up a bit."

It didn't help him, since she trod on his foot as he backed away, looking up at him with an expression that dared him to say anything. He said nothing.

Penelope picked up the catalogue and slapped it into Lewis's hand. "I'll go and give these measurements to the seamstresses, so I'm not cluttering up the place, being a girl."

Lewis rolled his eyes. "You can go."

He started flicking through the catalogue and once she'd gone said, "She's the one person we can't sack. The daughter of one of our founders, Mr Robinson, and the other founder's sister. If only we had more staff, men or girls, we wouldn't have to subject our customers to her. Ah, here we are. What do you think about this?" He held the catalogue out to Steed who went over to take it, and pretended to study it.

"It's just the thing," he said, but he was thinking about their staffing problem. He knew just how to solve it.

Emma's undercover job was easy: measure customers coming in for a new suit, check the fit of customers picking up their suit, and pour champagne. Mr Lewis did the small talk, found out the particulars, and also drank champagne. Penelope liaised with the seamstresses.

Until her second day when Lewis didn't turn up.

"I'll be taking Lewis's place," Penelope told her. "You will take mine. Except when it comes to speaking to the seamstresses. I'll still be doing that. Don't worry," she added, "we're quiet today."

That hadn't been what had worried Emma. She'd done harder jobs and spending all day on her feet wasn't impossible. "Is he all right?"

"He's a man," she spat. "What do you think?"

Emma, eyebrows raised, had nothing to say to that and Penelope took her silence as the conversation being over.

On Emma's first day Penelope hadn't left her side. Any time Emma tried to learn something by peeking into cupboards downstairs or speaking to a seamstress, Penelope would find her before Emma could get anywhere. Not that it made much difference. Even for the brief periods she'd found herself alone with the seamstresses they'd all refused to talk to her or even acknowledge her existence. When Penelope was there she barked orders at them, which they jumped to follow.

With this being a quiet day and Penelope being occupied, Emma had the opportunity she'd been waiting for.

She started in the basement. Most of the space was taken up by the seamstresses, all sitting at tables working on sewing machines. It was loud in here, which meant it was easier to walk through without anyone wondering where she was going.

At the end of the room was a door that led to a smaller room. It was here that the clothes and cloth were stored.

The finished suits hung in the wardrobe in one corner, although it was largely empty. It was an indication of how business was going and she wondered how long it could keep up as an exclusive tailoring service. Especially as it exclusively sold suits and there were only so many you could wear.

Since Steed had reported that Harris's waistband had shrunk, she started with the trousers. They hadn't been able to get a look at Harris's, since his wife had burnt them. While he was still mostly wearing them, by all accounts.

There were three suits in the wardrobe, two which were too short even for Emma. None had anything unusual in the waistband or in the pockets. She ran her hands down the legs, but didn't find anything there either.

Beside the wardrobe, on the table, were some half-finished shirts. The one on the top had no sleeves yet, but did have an interesting pattern across the front. She ran her fingers over it, but even checking the inside, there was nothing other than that pattern.

The next shirt was plain: a cheaper design, she'd learnt yesterday. And it would also be a much smaller shirt once it was finished. The third shirt she picked up was different. It had the same pattern, but when she examined the inside, she found elastic there.

Frowning, she returned to the wardrobe and pulled out the longest suit. Once she'd removed the jacket and shirt from the hanger the elastic was easy to find. Tightening elastic around the chest certainly wouldn't do you much good, but wasn't enough to do anything more than render it a tighter fit. She was missing something.

She didn't get the opportunity to find it, because one of the seamstresses came in, head down, making sure not to look at Emma, even when Emma offered her a cheery greeting. While the seamstress was apparently occupied selecting cloth. Emma patted down the suit, then turned the label to read it. It was Steed's.

The last appointment of the day was Steed. Emma was there to welcome him, along with Penelope.

He smiled and greeted them, but then asked, "Not that it isn't lovely to see more girls here, but where is Lewis?"

"He's not here." Penelope took Steed's hat and umbrella and hung them up.

He looked over to Emma, who shrugged. She'd tried eavesdropping when the seamstresses' were chatting and didn't know she was listening. They hadn't been bothered where Lewis was. At first she had assumed it was his day off, but they didn't seem to be expecting him back. Ever.

Emma had to pour champagne for both Steed and Penelope - and none for herself.

Penelope passed him the suit, while Emma handed him a glass. "Get changed." She pointed towards the fitting room, which was a relatively large, mirrored area behind a curtain on one side of the room.

Steed raised his eyebrows at Emma, before doing as he was told.

Having taken the other glass, Penelope sipped at her champagne. She thought about sitting on the armchair, then changed her mind and stood beside it instead. Whereupon she finished the rest of the glass.

Emma wanted to make polite conversation, but Penelope had made it clear every time Emma tried that she wasn't interested. And even if she had been, she'd made the atmosphere in here feel too heavy for chit-chat.

By the time he pulled back the curtain Steed had also finished his champagne, and got changed, which didn't surprise Emma. He preened in the mirrors around the fitting room walls. "What do you think? Dapper or dashing?"

Hoping to liven her day up, Emma studied him under the guise of checking the fit of the suit. "Are you sure the waistband isn't too tight?" She bent to get a better view.

He patted his stomach. "No, just right, I think."

She tugged on his left jacket sleeve. "Not too short." And tugged on the right sleeve. "Or too long."

He assumed a shocked expression. "You don't think I've shrunk since I was measured, do you?"

She stepped closer, smoothing his jacket lapel and then slipping a hand onto his chest, to check his shirt. Sure enough there was the pattern. But from the outside she couldn't tell if there was any elastic sewn into it.

"Be very careful with this shirt," she said at his quizzical expression. "It took the seamstresses a long time to make something this good."

He nodded. "I will endeavour not to spill any champagne down it at my dinner party tonight."

The first thing Steed did when he got home was to get his new suit out and examine it. The pattern on the shirt was something that marked out the most exclusive CREME suits, but beyond that it wouldn't have attracted his notice if Mrs Peel hadn't pointed it out.

Careful inspection revealed the hidden elastic in the pattern. It didn't stretch as much as he would have expected, but it wasn't something you'd need in a garment that buttoned. And on its own, it couldn't do any harm to anyone, never mind go as far as to kill them.

He didn't find any other surprises in the shirt, nor in the trousers. But he could feel something in the breast pocket of the jacket. It was small and solid, but inside the lining, so he had to cut it open to get it out.

It was a receiver. The transmitter, he expected, was at CREME. And that was his next destination.

The boutique had closed for the day, so the blinds were down, but there were lights on on the ground floor. Around the back was the service entrance the staff used. As he hoped, it was unlocked. Not knowing where anyone was in the building, Steed walked down the stairs to the basement. Where it turned out everyone was.

Several girls surrounded him and before he knew it, he was face down on the floor. With girls holding his arms and legs and at least one sitting on him.

"You're not dead yet."

He turned his head to see Penelope. He would have tipped his hat, if it hadn't been somewhere on the floor beside him. And he had been able to move his arms. "Sorry to disappoint you."

Penelope huffed at him, then turned her attention to the girls around him. "Lock him in the wardrobe. We'll deal with him after the meeting."

"I do so hope we'll get to speak again," he said to her back, as he was dragged upright.

Trying a different tack, to the girls tying his wrists he said, "I'm sure we can come to some arrangement. I'm looking for a transmitter. I don't suppose you've seen one?"

None of them said anything, but he was also wondering what they were tying his hands with. None of the tricks he knew to keep his bindings loose were working.

They pushed him into the wardrobe just as unceremoniously and he decided to go along with them for now. Once he was sure they'd gone he investigated his surroundings.

The wardrobe was big and empty enough that he could shuffle half a step and use that as a run up to push the door open. Not that it worked the first time. Or the second. On the third someone opened it and he fell onto the floor at their feet. Which were wearing a very familiar pair of boots.

He turned his head to take in the view of Mrs Peel from this angle. "I don't suppose you've seen my bowler."

She brought it out from where she was holding it behind her and put it on his head as he stood. And revealed she held a pair of scissors in her other hand.

He turned his back so she could untie him.

"Good thing I hung around for the seamstresses meeting. I thought I would hear what they were up to."

"And did you?" He looked over his shoulder at her.

"No, but I found something very interesting in a cupboard over there." With both hands busy she motioned with her head.

"Don't tell me, a transmitter."

"Yes." She sounded impressed.

He smiled. "Found the receiver in my breast pocket."

"And there's something odd about this elastic." With it now off his wrists, she held it up. "Most elastic stretches. This tightens." She demonstrated.

"And it tightens on cue," he guessed. "We need to speak to Penelope."

At the top of the stairs they stopped to listen to the meeting on the shop floor.

"Finally, a boutique just for us," one of the seamstresses said.

"We will have to cater to some men," Penelope said. "There aren't many women that wear men's clothes and we do need to make a profit."

"Everyone has been wearing trousers," Mrs Peel said thoughtfully. The babble of noise that erupted from the other side of the door meant they didn't have to whisper to each other.

"So are you," Steed pointed out.

Mrs Peel nodded. "That's why I didn't notice."

When the sound cut off, Penelope spoke again. "And we still have the other side of the business, don't forget."

Steed and Mrs Peel looked at each other, but there was no more information forthcoming.

"We need to ask them some questions," Steed suggested.

At Mrs Peel's nod he pushed the door open and motioned for her to go through first. By the time he entered the room the circle had already broken up and they were headed for Mrs Peel. All except Penelope.

Steed sidestepped away from the door and towards Penelope, who was opening a bolt on the front door. He grabbed her arm before she could turn the handle.

"What did you do to my friend, Arthur Harris?"

She raised her chin. "Nothing, I wasn't there."

"No, but he was wearing a suit from here." He held her a little tighter. "What did you do to him?"

"We only sewed the anti-elastic in his waistband. It wouldn't have killed him."

"It didn't," he confirmed. "But it did leave him in a very awkward position with his wife, who came in just after his secretary cut his trousers off."

"He was having an affair with his secretary. That's why his wife wanted to scare him."

Steed raised his eyebrows. "Were all your customers killed because you had a contract from their wives?"

When Penelope said nothing he asked, "If I had a wife who ordered my death I'd very much like to meet her."

"You weren't just here for a suit, I could tell." She shrugged. "Besides, any man who hated women had to go, whether we got paid extra or not."

He shook his head. "Not all men are the same."

He turned to see Mrs Peel had dispatched most of the seamstresses. Penelope saw too, and winced as the latest one hit the floor.

He was sure Mrs Peel could handle the seamstresses on her own, and he wanted to prove a point to Penelope, so he asked "Mrs Peel, do you need a hand?"

During a brief pause between taking out one woman and another attacking she answered, "No, thank you, Steed."

Penelope was pale and limp in his grip by the time Mrs Peel had finished.

"That elastic," Mrs Peel asked, hands on hips, hardly out of breath and not a hair out of place. "Where did it come from?"

"I invented it." Penelope was in tears, her fists beating her legs. "I did, but they took that away from me. Took the credit for it. So I used it against them. This shop should have been mine! I had plans for it."

When Steed let go of her she crumpled to a heap on the floor.

"I think," he said to Mrs Peel, "that's the end of your job here."

She nodded. "But you got a new suit out of it."

He smiled "Every cloud has a silver lining. And my shirt has an anti-elastic lining."

They both grimaced.

Back at Emma's apartment, she was filling in the last few stitches on her latest hobby - cross stitch. Sitting quietly beside her on the sofa, Steed was working on an embroidery.

"I didn't know you could sew." She tried to see what he was making, but he held it tilted away from her.

"We had a lot of downtime during the war and a competition to find the most unusual hobby." He snipped at a length of thread on the back. "I found I liked it: it's very relaxing."

That was a side to Steed she didn't know about. He didn't keep any evidence of his hobby on show in his apartment.

"Who won?" she asked.

"Winkle Hunter. He whittled wood."

Emma frowned. "What's so unusual about that?"

"He whittled hats. All done." He finally held it up, grinning. He'd embroidered a champagne bottle.

She smiled and held up her now-finished cross stitch, of two glasses.

He reached behind him and produced a bottle from behind the cushions. Judging by the label, he'd stolen it from CREME on the way out.

She reached for the table beside her, picked up the pair of glasses on it and held them out so Steed could pour.