MORNING SUNLIGHT STREAMED THROUGH the front windows, illuminating a great myriad of floral arrangements—forget-me-nots, luscious red roses, daisies, white constellations of babys’-breath, pansies, the yellow and red lantana that the butterflies do so adore in the springtime. The bell over the door rang merrily as Oliver Singleton stepped into the flower shop, his hat in his claws.
“Halloa!” cried the florist from amidst the foliage. His great craggy forehead bobbed and wrinkled behind a lacy froth of green.
“Halloa!” Oliver shouted back, standing on his tiptoes to shout over the sprays of green and white. “Pray, did I come at an inopportune time? You appear to be much preoccupied. I can, perhaps, come back later—but not too much later, for I am on my way to woo the Lady Crossley’s daughter and I must be expedient, or I will surely be overtaken by some other with marriage on his mind.”
“Oh, so you’re the cad that’s been goin’ about arsking after Miss Mallender,” said the florist, coming out with a vase in his tiny front claws. He grinned to show his good humour, flashing his daggerlike white teeth. Oliver adjusted his cravat, looking upwards at the Tyrannosaur’s chin. The florist’s head-feathers brushed the ceiling of the flower shop.
“Cad, you say?”
“Aye, cad.” The florist fumbled the vase onto the sales counter like a blind man, where it almost fell, but he just managed to set it right again. Reaching out with one of his tiny foreclaws, he took Oliver’s and shook it amiably. “Mr. Philip Cardow, at yer service. Doin’ this jarb, I get around a bit, and I hear a lot about love and suitors and the like, as you can well determine, aye?”
“That does seem to me a proper assumption,” noted his unexpected customer. “Oliver Singleton, recently returned from a trip to the Continent to handle the transition of a number of properties, and ready to resume a respectable social life in this most agreeable city of ours.”
Mr. Cardow summed him up, tilting his great woolly-feathered head so that his left eye rolled in its socket, taking in Oliver’s outfit: a three-piece suit, a jacket, vest, trousers, all made of fine, navy-blue wool, and a cream-colored cravat. “Exceedingly nice to make your acquaintance, Mr. Singleton. Many thanks for making my establishment one of your first visits upon returning home. Oh! For a country velociraptor, you’ve got a mighty sharp taste in fashion there. Don’t look so astounded, friend! I say, not every one can wear that shade of blue quite so easily.” Mr. Cardow’s right arm swiveled upward and he reached for the top of his head, where a derby had been attached to the frill of feathers on the crown of his skull with a simple clothespin, but he couldn’t quite reach it. “Well, beggin’ your pardon, but you understand.” He wiggled his little claws. “At any rate, I was goin’ ter let you know that the haberdasher on this street has a real way with his product, if you should be in want of a lid. Mention my name and see if he don’t give a discount! See if he don’t!”
“I thank you much for the recommendation!” ejaculated Oliver, punctuating his enthusiasm with a merry hoot from the bottom of his gullet. At length his gimlet eye fell on a bundle of flowers standing in a lovely green glass vase. “Ah, man, now that there is a wonderful bouquet. Would you say that’s something a woman would appreciate?”
Cardow tilted his head so he could look out of his other eye. “Oh, that? Cor, no, that’s not what you want. It be a sweet one, for sure, but those are meant for condolences on the event of a tragic death—and I’m sure that’s not what you come bearin’ for the lady, is it?” The florist guffawed, the roar trumpeting throughout the shop. The window buzzed in its frame and someone next door shouted in surprise.
Giving a hiss and undulating his whip-tail in agreement, Oliver said, “I see your point. What would you suggest, then? Money is no object, I say!”
“Money is no object!” echoed Cardow. His deep voice drummed the wooden floor under their feet. “Your generosity must be rewarded with the very best I have to offer. Come within, and we’ll see about sending you along with an arrangement that will have the miss swooning into your arms.” Cardow turned to walk away and beat aside a hanging lantern with his snout, setting it to swinging. Oliver thought that it was very good this lantern was not lit; were it to drop a tongue of flame it might set the whole shop ablaze with all the greenery in there!
In the rear of the shop was a workbench, illuminated by a row of windows that looked out onto an alleyway out back. Scraps of ribbon and dead leaves littered the counter’s surface, detritus scattered around the foot of a shiny porcelain vase. Gold trimming lined the rim of the vase and ran in several graceful circles around the belly of the white container. Tiny painted archaeopteryx flew in a daisy-chain around the circumference of the neck, their pinion feathers alternating up and down as they flapped their wings.
None of this held a candle to the majesty of the flowers held inside: fat-headed roses of a deep, arterial red velvet, its petals lined with paint-strokes of royal purple. “My God, man!” exclaimed Oliver, tugging his lapels. “They’re gorgeous! Your claim was no lie!”
“I grew them myself at my mum’s cottage in Edinburgh,” Cardow said proudly, brushing the lips of the rose-heads with the palm of his claw. “Some mysterious aspect of the soil on her property produces the healthiest, most colorful roses you ever saw. She claims that her garden is where she buried the corpse of an old beau of hers after she caught him necking with Miss Eveline from down the road.”
“Oh, if that were true I imagine that pterodactyl detective Mr. Holmes and his triceratops companion Dr. Watson would have solved that case ages past,” said Oliver.
“A fellow fanatic of the crime caper, I see.” Cardow winked his huge yellow eye.
“I must have something to read on these long ocean voyages!” said Oliver. He took the vase with the beautiful roses in it and took a deep breath of their scent, the flowers brushing his nostrils and teeth. He gave a strident hiss and another whistling hoot, and said, “I’ll have them! What do you want for them?”
“I’ll tell you what—” Cardow felt his belly, searching for a pocket in his apron. He couldn’t quite see it because his face was in the way and his head didn’t turn quite far enough, but he eventually discovered the correct pocket and plunged a claw inside, bringing out a thin stack of business cards. These he gingerly handed to Oliver, dropping some of them on the floor. Each one was printed with the words PHILLP CARDOW, FLORIST in gold ink on white cardstock, framed in fleur-de-lis, along with the shop’s address. FINEST FLORA FOR FATHOMS AROUND! They must have cost Cardow a pretty pence!
Watching the sunlight glint on the Tyrannosaur’s teeth, Oliver made up his mind not to spoil the tagline’s alliterative aspect by revealing that fathoms were a measurement of oceanic depth, not of land-distance.
“You’re a solicitor, yes?” the florist was saying. “If you’ll surreptitiously distribute these throughout while you’re on your errands for the firm, I’d be glad to give you a discount on this arrangement—and, indeed, any further purchases you’d like to make in here. You know this won’t be the last time I see you, if you truly intend to woo Miss Mallender!”
Oliver took them gladly—retrieving the ones that had fallen—and slipped them into his trouser pocket, wondering who it was that tied on Cardow’s apron for him every morning. “Er,” he said, glancing at one of the cards, “wouldn’t ‘furlong’ be a wiser choice?”
“Eh, what’s that now?” asked Cardow. The florist’s breath reeked of carrion and tobacco. A viscous string of drool issued through the comb of his fangs and spotted his apron.
“Ah…nothing. My mistake. Good day!”
A fly buzzed Oliver’s head, a mild annoyance. He snapped at it with his formidable teeth, inadvertently startling a fellow that stood at the top of a ladder picking apples and tossing them into a basket.
“Good day,” Oliver told the dilophosaur. “My apologies for the fright!”
“Marning!” the dilophosaur said in answer, his great neck-frill standing out cheerfully so that the sun shone through it and turned the red in his pebbled skin into a ring of fire.
Halfway up the front walk, Oliver took off his jacket, bemoaning his lack of foresight. Wool on such a hot day as this! What was he thinking! Some of the uneducated masses erroneously assumed that gentlemen such as he—lords and ladies of the saurian persuasion—were all cold-blooded, but the truth was that as well as any he was warm-blooded and needs demanded an outlet for the heat of his circulatory system. He pulled off his cravat and briefly fanned himself with it, folding it neatly and tucking it into the breast of his jacket so that it made a sort of pocket square.
Another dilophosaur stood at the front entrance, pruning the bushes by biting off the leaves and expectorating them into a woven basket. When he saw Mr. Singleton arrive, he gave a trilling hoot and spread his neck-frill. “Good midday, sir,” said the gardener, and he spat onto the lawn, as country-folk are wont to do.
Oliver watched the acid saliva sizzle and smoke, leaving a burned spot in the grass. “And good health to yourself,” he replied, with a gracious bow. “Is the Lady or Lord Crossley in to-day?”
“Aye,” said the dilophosaur. His frill flattened against his shoulders. “The Lord is out on business, but his wife has stayed behind, as has his daughter Miss Mallender.”
Above their heads, a window creaked open and a dilophosaur peered out at them. “Good heavens, is that Mr. Singleton I see down there?” she asked, her frill wagging around her face in exultation. She shook a feather-duster at him, wafting motes of dust into the summer breeze. “It’s been ages! What brings you to our neck of the woods, old man?”
“—Adaline Dawson! As I live and breathe!” Oliver squinted up at her, still clutching his top hat and flower arrangement. Smoke from the burning acid and grass coiled in his nostrils and he snorted to clear his nose. “I didn’t know you were under the employ of the Crossley family!”
“I’ve been here for…” Adaline stopped to wonder about it, glancing at the treetops. “Six years, now, is it?” She waved him in. “We can reserve our reminiscing for later. I wager you’re here to see Miss Mallender, aren’t you? Hey, old friend, you’re here just in time for a late dinner! Come on in and get out of that heat, why don’t you? There’s tea, and lemon cakes, and mutton, and poke salad!”
The doorman let Oliver into the foyer, where the floor was of a fine marble cut into black and white alternating squares, decorated by an enormous grand piano and the sort of velvet sofa you would expect to see in a Roman nobleman’s house. Adaline was coming down the stairs from the second floor as Oliver came in, and he gave the dilophosaur doorman his hat and jacket. Adaline’s neck-frill stood at full attention as she embraced him and took his gift. “It’s very good to see you again. Ay, what lovely roses!”
“Your earlier deduction was correct,” said Oliver, smiling. “I am indeed here to present myself as a suitor to Miss Mallender.”
Adaline’s neck-frill laid down demurely over her shoulders like a nun’s habit. “She should be well and truly charmed. You’ve grown into such a gentleman, Oliver, and you already had a good heart. When we were children, do you remember, you used to boast that one day you would be a pirate captain on the high seas, just like Long John Silver in those stories you always liked to read so much.”
“The days of childish fancies are far behind me, save one—to marry a beautiful princess and ride away with her into the sunset.”
Adaline shook her head. “Still a rogue, you are.”
“Always,” said Oliver, and the two of them made their way upstairs, to where Miss Mallender and her stepmother were taking their tea in the study.
Gilded shelves surrounded Oliver with thousands upon thousands of books, each one bound in leather. A pair of couches in the baroque style made a horseshoe shape around a coffee table in the center, where Polly Mallender and her mother sat enjoying dinner. I say “sat” but in truth Polly was the only one “sitting” because Lady Charlotte Crossley’s body was outside in the back yard. Her neck protruded in through the bay window at the back of the study, supporting a head the size of the table itself, hovering imperiously over her step-daughter’s left shoulder. Lady Charlotte was an Apatosaur, and a grand Apatosaur indeed; nose to tail twice the breadth of her own house and, it appeared, sixty or seventy feet beyond that, the farthest end of her most likely protruding into the moor behind the orchard.
As Adaline led Mr. Singleton into the study, Lady Charlotte contentedly ground a bushel of arugula and spinach to mush in her flat molars. A string of hundreds of pearls hung like bunting from the circumference of her throat, clattering softly with the slow and ponderous movement of her ruminations.
A dead sheep laid on the table, eviscerated, its violence contained to the rim of a large silver platter.
“Halloa!” Polly Mallender said brightly, getting up from her seat. “You must be this gentleman Singleton I’ve heard about! Welcome back to London, dear sir!”
The chandelier overhead tinkled at the impact of her feet. Miss Mallender, the heir of Harrison Mallender now Lord Crossley of Crossley Manor, was an adolescent Allosaur that towered over Oliver at ten feet tall. Since the baroque couches to either side would never have supported her, she had been sitting on the floor behind the table with her hind legs folded under her skirts. Blood glittered wetly on her snout and teeth, dotting the hardwood floor between her knees. The Persian carpet had been rolled up and stood in the corner to keep it clean.
“Mmmmmmh,” groaned Lady Charlotte, her utterance reverberating throughout the house like the creaking of a galleon.
“Mum says hello as well.”
Oliver dipped in reverence, kissing the claw Polly had offered him. “My infinite pleasure at making your acquaintances. And of being reunited with a childhood friend, Miss—”
“Mrs!” interjected Adaline.
“—Mrs!” Oliver continued, with an impressed quirk of the brow-ridge, “Mrs. Adaline! Today is full of surprises, then!”
Polly giggled, fresh blood dribbling down the breast of her violet satin dress. She sat down again, hard enough to cause the piano downstairs to produce a dissonant whonk. “Bless your eyes, what a darling man! Mother, look at the roses he’s brought! How beautiful!”
Lady Charlotte made a gargantuan noise like a foghorn and the vase shattered in Oliver’s claws, leaving him with an armful of loose roses. Water spilled on the floor.
“Won’t you sit and have dinner with us, Mr. Singleton, and tell us all about your adventures in America?” asked Polly. “You look positively anemic! I bet you haven’t had a good hot meal in days! Weeks, even! Adaline, love, collect his roses and fill a new vase with some fresh water while we get to know each other better.”
“I would love to join you.” Oliver looked over the dead sheep. “Do not worry yourselves, ladies, I can cut my own meat,” he said, and plunged his face into the carcass. “Simply divine!”