girl_starfish (girl_starfish) wrote in fm_alchemist,

[fic] Happy Families 5/?

Title: Happy Families 5/?
Author: girl_starfish
Illustrator: hime1999
Rating: PG 13, for implications and sordid secrets -- it's a murder mystery, what do you expect?
Genre: Mystery / Angst / Drama.
Spoilers: This is an AU, set vaguely in the 1920s and inspired by copious amounts of Agatha Christie and Episode 50. There is only one major spoiler, and it's character wise, not anything to do with the plot of the anime series.

Roy wasn’t entirely sure how he found himself in what had once been a stable, but was now home to a large and very enthusiastic English sheepdog - and at the mercy of a schoolgirl, no less. He watched the pair sourly, trying to wipe the dog slobber off his formerly pristine suit - oh, Hughes would be hearing about this.

“Mister,” the girl - she’d introduced herself as Nina - said happily, hugging the sheepdog. “Isn’t Alexander the nicest dog you ever met?”

“Oh, undoubtedly,” Roy glared at the dog, warning it to keep its distance. Alexander gave him a hopeful look in return, mouth lolling open to reveal a long pink tongue. That was the rum thing about dogs, they were always hopeful, always loyal - the perfect subordinate. In spite of himself, Roy bent down to scratch the sheepdog’s ears. “Is Alexander your dog?”

“Kind of. I share him with Ed and Al, but we’re not really supposed to have him. See, he got into the Professor’s study once and did some damage. Mr. Curtis was supposed to shoot him but we smuggled him in here instead. Didn’t we, Alexander?” Nina paused to poke the dog and giggled when he snuffled at her. “And Mr. Envy found out and told and there was a big fuss and I cried lots and we were allowed to keep him as long as he stays out of the house.”

“So he lives here in the stables?” Roy considered their surroundings.

The building still smelt strongly of hay and here and there a few bales were in evidence. For the most part it had been swept clean. There was another scent mingling with the hay, just as strong - oil and grease and maybe metal.

The open space at the end of the neat row of stalls was mostly taken up by the wreck of a car. A long table with a sheet spread over it stood behind it. Various tools and books were in evidence, littered about the room on every available surface.

“Would this be the boys’ workroom?”

“Yes. You’re not allowed to touch anything. They get cross if you do.” Nina pointed to a mechanical bear sitting on a shelf in the corner. “That’s mine. Alphonse is going to fix it when he has time.” She paused then, with the air of someone divulging a great secret, confided, “ I like Alphonse. I’m going to marry him one day.”

“Oh?” Roy found himself amused. “And when did you decide that?”

“At Christmas last year. My scarf blew into a tree and he climbed up to get it down for me.”

“A perfect gentleman.”

“I think so. Father says I’m being foolish though. I don’t see why I can’t marry Alphonse if I want.”

“Well I suppose social class will come into it -“

“Oh, that’s no problem. By the time I’m sixteen, we’ll be rich. Father said so. And I can marry whoever I want.”

“Your father is sure about that?” Far be it from Roy to bring down a young girl’s dreams, but he couldn’t help but remember Tucker’s shabby attire or notice that Nina’s pinafore was faded and patched.

“Oh yes. Long term investments,” Nina explained vaguely, patting Alexander. “Be a good doggy, Alexander. I’ll come visit after lunch.”

Alexander took a lot of getting back into his stable and it was a considerably worse for the wear Roy that arrived back at the house, Nina riding on his shoulders.

“Well, old boy,” Hughes drawled as he entered the drawing room. “I can see you’ve been in the wars.”

“Oh dear,” Tucker said, fretting as Roy swung Nina down from his back. “I hope she wasn’t any trouble - Nina, what did I tell you about bothering the Professor’s guests?”

“She was no bother at all,” Roy said before the child could get scolded. “I found her company most refreshing.” He began to dust off his coat sleeves. “I trust you’ll excuse me if I freshen up before lunch.”

“By all means,” Hughes shrugged. “Believe me, you could do with it.”

“Nina, you’d better wash up too.” Tucker patted his daughter on the head. “Go upstairs and see if the boys have finished their Latin. Tell them it’s about time to come downstairs.”

“Can I eat downstairs too?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Tucker shooed his small daughter out the door. “Lila will take a tray up for you.”

Nina pouted, trailing out the door reluctantly.

“Usually we eat lunch with the boys in the school room,” Tucker explained, taking off his glasses to polish them. “The professor and his staff take lunch in the laboratory and rarely join us, Lady Dante finds it tiring to lunch with the children and usually has a tray in her rooms.”

“I hope we’re not creating too much of a fuss,” Hughes said. “The last thing we want is to be a bother to anyone.”

“Oh, not at all,” Tucker protested. “A change in routine is appreciated. It’s just a shame that Doctor Marcoh isn’t here to keep you better company than I.” His eyes were curiously flat, without almost any animation at all. He was a curious sort of chap, hardly any sign of personality or backbone. Roy wasn’t sure what to make of him.

He nodded to Tucker and Hughes. “I’ll be on my way then. See you at lunch.”

Roy met Edward and Alphonse on their way downstairs. “Good day,” he greeted them, eyeing Edward interestedly. His colour had returned and the the boy did not appear affected for the worse by the previous evening’s episode -- whatever that had been. He nodded politely to Roy but didn’t break the conversation he was having with his brother. “You can say what you like about German precision, Al, but the Italian aviators clearly have the edge --”

“You’re not listening!” Alphonse argued. “Good day, Colonel Mustang. When you consider the cost of building the place and the wages of those involved and add that to the equation --”

“That doesn’t sound like a very patriotic discussion,” Roy commented as they drew close. “Or have you two forgotten? Those flying fascists came damnably near to wiping us out.”

The brothers exchanged a look. “A military man would certainly consider the matter in that light,” Edward admitted. “But in science only the facts remain. When you disregard the relative pluck of the individual pilots, which admittedly is highly subjective and unable to be measured exactly, you’re left with only one conclusion; that the construction of British airplanes is distinctly inferior to those on the continent.”

“Steady on,” Roy protested. “Isn’t that a bit harsh?”

“Science is science,” Alphonse said with the simplicity of someone who believes utterly in what he says. “And in science there are no borders, no ties of affection, no assumptions that haven’t been tested; only reason and reason alone. It’s like what Sophocles said. “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.”’

“No, it’s not, you egg.” Edward said, nudging his brother down the stairs. “It was Socrates, and what he meant was --”

Roy had no interest in whatever whoever it was had said. He continued up the stairs to his room.

The bed had been made and his laundry removed. Although lacking in the homelieness usually expected of a housekeeper, it appeared that Mrs Curtis fulfilled her duties capably. Even so, Roy was forced to wonder again, as he changed out off his soiled morning suit just how she and her equally unlikely husband had found their way into Holmenheim’s employ.

Freshly attired, Roy heard the lunch bell ring and returned downstairs. He met Lady Dante at the top of the stairs.

“I’m surprised,” he said, offering her his hand as they descended the stairs together. “I was given to understand that you preferred to lunch alone.”

“That is my usual habit,” Dante agreed. “My opinion is sought by so many in London -- I’m on a lot of committees, you know, active in my own small way in the area of social reform. If I didn’t write letters and articles while I lunched, I just wouldn’t have the time. As it is, between managing Holmenheim and taking care of my son, I barely have a moment to myself.”

My heart bleeds, Roy thought acidly. “It is good of you to put yourself out on our behalf. We appreciate it,” he lied.

“Well someone has to be present to keep the boys in order,” Dante said as they reached the dining room. “Tucker is much too lax with them. He doesn’t seem to realise that you must take a firm hand with children or they’ll end up controlling you.”

“How was your walk?” Roy asked before Dante could get started on her favourite subject.

“Very bracing. You should have come. The Brigadier was kind enough to say that he found my remarks most informative.”

“Did he now?” Roy caught his friend’s smirk as he entered the dining room. Seemed that Hughes had found the Lady’s remarks more informative than she might have wished - he was a master at deduction and knew how to read people.

Fortunately, Dante had no suspicion of Hughes’s true intentions. “You know, I have literature on a wide range of social issues -“

“I’ll pass,” Roy said hastily, drawing Dante’s chair for her. “What’s on the menu today?”

The first course was broccoli and stilton soup, accompanied by fresh bread and a light salad, and served by a glowering Curtis. It was first-rate grub, but Roy found it difficult to appreciate the meal with the butler lurking in the background. It was rather like what he imagined dinner with one’s executioner might be like.

It appeared he was the only member of the party with misgivings. Hughes had seated himself between Alphonse and Edward and was engaging the two brothers in lively conversation - or at least attempting to. While Aphonse had happily warmed to the topic, and was eagerly answering Hughes’s questions, Edward was rather less sanguine. He answered politely, but with the bare minimum of information, and refused to be drawn into elaborating on his ideas. Roy caught the boy frowning in his direction more than once during the meal. Evidently, their intrusion into the Elric household was no more welcome that morning.

Lady Dante appeared to be in an unusually good humour. Rather than scolding the boys, she merely ignored them. Tucker was content to melt into the background, as Dante addressed her remarks solely to Hughes and Roy.

Lunch might have passed smoothly had it not been for a sudden arrival.

“Is that the car?” Edward demanded suddenly, straightening in his chair to listen intently.

His brother immediately hushed. “I think so -“

The sound of an engine pulling up outside was now readily apparent.

Roy glanced at the boys. They both seemed tense with barely contained excitement. What was all this in aid of?

“Boys, you will stay seated,” Lady Dante said with a theatrical sigh as Curtis went to the front door. Her manner clearly said ‘Children! How wearisome.’ Roy didn’t pay her more than a moment’s attention. He was curious as to what the big event could be.

Curtis’ voice could be heard in the hall, an indistinct murmur. Then a very familiar voice was heard.

‘-already eaten but I’d like to catch up with my godsons -“

“Marcoh!” Alphonse and Edward pronounced in unison, scrambling for the door.

“Boys! What did I just tell you?”

Dante’s remonstration was as effective as scolding a hurricane - and the effect was the same. Alphonse had dropped his soup spoon, and Edward’s chair might have toppled over if Hughes hadn’t had the foresight to catch it. The brothers struggled to be first out the door. Edward eventually managed this honour, catching his brother in the stomach and making his way out the door while Alphonse protested, following hard on his heels.

“Brother, that was mean!”

“Well,” Hughes said.

Roy shook his head. “That’s the first time I’ve seen either of them acting like regular boys.”

“More like hooligans!” Dante glared at Tucker. “I’ve told you again and again that you are far too lax with them. I insist you go out there and restrain them immediately, Mr. Tucker.”

“No need, Lady Dante,” Hughes stood, nodding at Roy to follow his example. “We want to pay our respects to Marcoh, we’ll make sure the boys are kept in line.”

Marcoh had not managed to progress any further than the entrance hall. Edward and Alphonse were talking over the top of each other, greeting Marcoh or strangling him; it was hard to tell. Either way they were doing a very effective job.

“Boys, boys!” Marcoh said, eventually freeing himself. “Stand back and let me look at you.”

The boys obeyed, and Roy and Hughes were able to get a clear view of their friend.

Roy’s first reaction was shock. Surely it had not been that long since he’d seen Marcoh? He looked like he’d aged a decade or so. His face was lined and there were grey streaks through his hair -

“Edward! Just look at you - so grown up! You’re really taking after your father. And Alphonse, you’ve really gotten taller!” Marcoh patted the boys’ shoulders with an almost grandfatherly air. “My word - what happened to your hair? Don’t tell me your Father let you cut it.”

That was something Roy had been curious about too. Given Holmenheim’s insistence on his native customs, it seemed reasonable to suppose that the long hair style worn by Edward, Envy and the Professor himself was a tribute to their German heritage. That Alphonse should be the only member of the family with short hair was surprising to say the least.

The boys’ reactions were interesting. Alphonse glanced at his brother, Edward looked very studiously at the floor.

“Father didn’t exactly give permission,”Alphonse admitted.

“But -- surely, you didn’t--”

“It was me,” Edward said. He set his shoulders, and looked up at Marcoh squarely. “I cut Alphonse’s hair.”

“You?” Marcoh sounded astonished.

Alphonse nodded. “Scared me half to death, too.” He gave his brother a faintly reproachful look. “You could have asked you know.”

Edward looked worriedly at him. “Are you still mad?”

His brother shook his head earnestly. “I said I forgave you, didn’t I? Anyway, Father was angry enough for the both of us.”

“Edward, I’m disappointed. This isn’t like you,” Marcoh said solemnly, and both boys immediately quietened. The doctor’s words obviously meant much to them. “However, as it appears you’ve been scolded already and Alphonse has forgiven you, I won’t add my complaints. I will however say that short hair suits you very well, Alphonse. You look very dashing.”

Alphonse glowed. Edward smiled faintly, but there was a hint of sadness to it, that struck Roy once again as very out of place on someone so young.

“I like it. It takes hardly any time to brush now and it’s a lot more practical for the machinery and everything. Of course, I miss the way Father used to say it reminded him of Mother --” Alphonse paused reflecting on that.

Marcoh suddenly pulled both boys into a hug. “Boys,” he said, voice rough. “I’ve missed you.”

“You shouldn’t stay away so long.” Was that really Edward’s voice? Roy had never heard him sound so young. He had his face buried in Marcoh’s shoulder, maybe Roy had imagined it --

Hughes coughed lightly, and Marcoh released the boys, letting his hands rest instead on their shoulders, Edward on one side of him, Alphonse on the other. The three of them didn’t look anything alike in colouring or build, but somehow . . . they seemed more like family than anything Roy had so far seen in this house.

“Roy,” Marcoh said with a smile that was sincere, but worried. “It’s been a while.”

“Far too long, old chap,” Roy told him honestly. “What have you been doing with yourself?”

“Oh, bits and pieces. I’ve kept myself busy,” Marcoh answered. “As you have been, I hear. I was sorry to learn about your latest girl --”

The thought of Jospephine was bitter still. “Least said, soonest mended, old chap,” Roy said, taking Marcoh’s hand in a firm handshake. “Hughes was kind enough to suggest this jaunt as a distraction.”

“I rather fancy things will get a good deal more distracting soon,” Marcoh said, his face grave. “I have news from London.” He looked over to where Hughes leaned against the bannister at the bottom of the stairs. “You were right, Maes. Everything was exactly as you said.”

“Tough luck, old bean,” Hughes said, coming over to clap Marcoh’s shoulder. “I rather hoped I was mistaken but --”

“What’s this about?” Alphonse asked. “Did something happen?”

Marcoh patted his head, his smile sad. “You’ll find out about it soon enough, I imagine, boys. Edward, would you do me a favour? Tell your Father I need to speak with him at his earliest convenience.”

Edward gave the three of them a speculative glance, but nodded. “Curtis, I think the study would be appropriate . . . ?”

The butler nodded, and Marcoh clapped Edward on the shoulder. “Thank you, Ed. We’ll talk this evening.”

Edward bowed briefly to him, walking in the direction of the laboratory.

Marcoh frowned as he watched him go. “Been looking after your brother, Al?”

“Yes. I did everything you said.”

“Good chap. How’s he been?”

“Not good. There’s been three, counting last night.”

“I don’t like that,” Marcoh said, patting Alphonse’s shoulder. “The old dragon still here?”

“She’s having lunch,” Alphonse said resentfully as if this was the worst thing she could be doing. “She’s sitting in Mother’s chair.”

“Chin up, lad. I’ll see if I can’t persuade your Father to let the two of you stay with me in London for a bit.”

To Alphonse this was clearly a treat on the scale of Christmas. “Stay with you -- could we really?”

“It’s up to your father, of course. Run along and finish your lunch, Al. Give Dante my regards and explain I must talk to Holmenheim immediately.”

The boy was clearly unenthused as this prospect. “Do I have to?”

“You need to finish your lunch.” Marcoh reminded him. “A growing boy like you needs to keep his strength up. Besides, there just might be something in my luggage for you.”

“You brought us presents?” Alphonse cheered up immediately.

“Only if you’re good.”

The boy reluctantly returned to the drawing room.

“What do you make of my godsons?” Marcoh asked, turning to Roy and Hughes with a paternal air of pride. “Likely boys, are they not?”

“Indeed,” Roy answered. “They’re certainly something.”

Hughes agreed. “You have every reason to be proud of them. Alphonse is charm personified and his brother is undoubtedly the most knowledgeable person of his years that I’ve ever encountered.”

Marcoh’s expression turned pensive. “I’m worried about Edward. His current behavior -- it’s almost a complete reversal of the child I knew three years ago. Things have been difficult for him, it’s true -- but the more time I spend here the more certain I become that there is something at the bottom of this.”

“I won’t say you’re wrong there,” Hughes said. “Shall we take this conversation to the study?”

Curtis was just unlocking the door as they approached. “It’s the Professor’s custom to keep this door locked at all times,” he explained. “Since Doctor Marcoh is with you, I’m sure he won’t mind if you wait for him here -- but touch nothing.”

Where had he heard that admonition recently? Roy wondered, taking one half of a velvet upholstered sofa as they waited. Ah, yes, the stables. Like father, like sons indeed.Holmenheim’s study was a far cry from the boy’s workbench at first glance, but on closer inspection there were similarities. There was no hay, but the room smelt strongly of ink and paper, and there was a certain similarity between the books laid out half open and in piles, with pages of notes scattered about them, to the disarray of the boy’s tools and books. There was a further difference to the room, and Roy struggled to put his finger on just what it might be.

An empty winebottle with a glass next to it stood on a side table with a half eaten sandwich, surrounded by books and papers. There was a collection of tea cups in a corner, almost buried under a stack of newspapers, and an ash tray, full to overflowing. That was it, Roy smiled, as he solved the puzzle. That was it; and that was what was missing in every other room in this house. The study had the feel of being a room that was actually lived in --

“Gentlemen,” Holmenheim greeted them, shutting the door behind him. “Marcoh. I hope your journey was pleasant?”

“If only my errand were so,” Marcoh said. “Holmenheim, old chap, I think you’d better sit down.”

The professor’s smile of greeting turning to an expression of apprehension and he took Marcoh’s advice. “Bad news? But -- the experiments were going so well last time we talked --”

“Holmenheim.” Marcoh took a deep breath, clearly bracing himself to give new obviously as painful to himself as to his audience. “Our reasearch, our theories our results -- there’s a laboratory in Vienna doing the exact same thing.”

“A competitor? I didn’t expect the Austrians to be interested, but surely that’s --”

“You don’t understand. They’re using our methods. Ours. There’s no mistake about it.”

“Our methods?” Holmenheim looked about as bewildered as Roy felt. “But that would mean --”

“You have a leak,” Hughes said. He had seated himself casually on the edge of Holmenheim’s desk. “About two weeks ago a foreign agent was picked up under a fake passport. He was carrying on him papers of a scientific nature, that although obviously important, were unrecognisable. The work you lot are doing is so hush hush, even we don’t know about it -- It was pure luck that I happened to think of running it by Marcoh --”

Pure luck? Roy thought acidly, folding his arms. Hughes had told him that he had taken up a minor secretarial position with an old army friend, in order to cover the costs of suddenly becoming a family of three. He certainly hadn’t mentioned anything involving foreign agents -- although Roy had a sudden suspicion why.

“You can imagine how I felt when Hughes handed me notes in what I knew was your handwriting and informed me they’d been found on a spy!” Marcoh paused, bitterly. “How dare they -- we’ve put so much time and effort into this and to have it stolen from under our noses --” He shook his head. “At any rate, once we were aware of the possible link between our reasearch and the labratory in Vienna, Hughes arranged for me to see the infomation they’d already collected on it --” He shook his head in bewilderment. “They’ve been using our methods, and obviously for some time now.”

“The laboratory started a little under three years ago,” Hughes added softly. “A few months after a small fire in which you lost a lot of notebooks and research materials.”

“But that was clearly an accident,” Holmenheim protested. He was coping with the shock well, marshalling himself to put up a good defence -- which meant he’d come to the same conclusion the other’s had and was trying to convince himself otherwise. “The books were destroyed, a good part of the laboratory as well -- I’m sure that no one on my staff would have --”

Marcoh drew a bundle of papers out from his jacket and handed them to Holmenheim. To Roy, they appeared like nothing so much as an incomprehensible mess of formulas, but they obviously had greater significance to Holmenheim. He had paled, glancing through the papers quickly, then flinging them away from himself roughly. “They’re mine,” he admitted, dragging a head across his forehead. “God -- that it would come to this. Betrayed by one of my own household.”

“There’s no possibility of it being an outside job?” Roy felt he had to make some contribution to the conversation. If Hughes thought he was going to just sit there and be amazed at the currently unfolding events -- and his friend would really be hearing about this later -- he was gravely mistaken. “The laboratory in London that Marcoh’s been overseeing -- isn’t that a possibility?”

Marcoh shook his head. “We’ve been over every aspect of the security there. It’s impossible. Besides --”

Holmenheim laughed. It was by no means a happy sound. “These notes could only have come from here. We found the dog in the study, the tattered remains of the notebook around him -- it was only too clear what had happened. And now here they are, safe and sound.” The acid tone to his voice indicated just how happy he was at this development. “Well, at least the boys will be happy that their bloody pet can come back in the house now.”

“I don’t think it wise to inform the boys -- or anyone -- just yet,” Hughes said. “In fact, I would strongly advise against it.”

There was something in his tone of command, something of authority, that Roy recognised, and that made Holmenheim sit up with narrowed eyes.

“This is peacetime,” he said sharply. “Although you still have your military title, you’ll need more of a reason that that to give orders, Brigadier.”

“Hughes is acting in His Majesty’s service,” Marcoh said softly. “I’ve seen his credentials and I know him well --”

“Meaning it is in my best interests to do everything you say,” Holmenheim’s tone was bitter. “And the Colonel?”

Good question, Roy thought, raising an eyebrow. Yes, and the Colonel?

“Mustang is here in the capacity of a private individual,” Hughes said without even having the grace to look embarrassed. “He is under no orders or restrictions and is, as such, free to pursue any course of action he sees fit, while his experience and standing as a Colonel give him, shall we say, more leeway than most of His Majesty’s citizens.” He smiled crookedly. “I’m sure his assistance will be of great use in the matter at hand.”

Roy eyed his friend sourly. If Hughes thought a half-hearted compliment was going to make up for being dragged down to Lincolnshire under false pretences --

Holmenheim appeared equally unimpressed. “I see. Well then, as I seem to have no choice in the manner, what can I do for you gentlemen?”

“We need you to think back and see if you can remember anything odd, in say, the period since the house fire until now. Any instances of say, your research being tampered with, like the incident with the dog.”

Holmenheim shook his head. “Not off hand. While we’re working in the laboratory, Shezcka has the notebooks with her -- she does most of the recording and note taking during the experiments. I collect the books from her, to collate and read over before I retire and I keep them here. The only people with keys to this room are myself and Mrs. Curtis.”

“Interesting that she should be the only other person with acess to this room,” Hughes said idly.

“She’s not.”

“But you said --”

“We have the keys, but you don’t need a key even if the door is locked. Edward has managed to get in here on more than one occasion. I’m always finding books out of place and --” Holmenheim paused. “Or I assumed that it was Edward having caught him at it once already.”

“That’s the sort of assumption we can’t afford to make,” Hughes said. “What does Edward say about it?”

“That’s just it,” Holmenheim said, thoughtfully. “I’ve spoken to him about this numerous times . . . At first he would argue with me hotly and deny he’d been in here at all, but lately . . . well, lately he just doesn’t say anything.” Holmenheim frowned. “I’d thought that he was finally growing out of childish tantrums but --”

“It’s not like Edward to lie,” Marcoh said. “I’ll have a word with him later, if you like.”

Holmenheim nodded. “Anything else?”

“Just how acessible are your notes to say, the average person?” Hughes asked. “Without going into too much technical detail, say, would it be possible for someone who knew nothing to copy the notes or would understanding be needed --”

“Merely copying would be impossible,” the Professor said promptly. “You’d need to have an in-depth knowledge of the procedures used and atomic science to be able to work out the abbreviations --”

“And even then you’d have problems,” Marcoh added. “I struggle, sometimes, with the Professor’s notes and I’m his partner.”

“I suppose that explains why the notes were stolen then, when they could have been copied more discreetly?” Roy suggested.

“Not necessarily, old man,” Hughes shook his head. “It’s highly likely that the notes were stolen for reasons of sabotage as for their worth. After all, wouldn’t it be a setback for the project if the notes were gone?”

“It would have set us back months,” Holmenheim said. “If not for Shezchka’s memory.”

Hughes nodded. “Shezchka, you say?”

“She’s got what is termed a ‘picture-perfect’ memory -- for text only,” Marcoh explained. “You can imagine she makes a first rate researcher. Unfortunately, she just doesn’t have the drive, the natural curiousity to go ahead with it. She’ll never really make a scientist.”

But could she make a thief? Roy saw Hughes’s eyes on him and nodded; this was his assignment.

“And what of Mr. Envy?” Hughes asked. “Does he have the technical understanding necessary?”

“Envy is completely out of the question,” Holmenheim said promptly.

That was a very strong response. “What makes you so sure?” Roy asked carefully. “We can understand a father’s feelings --”

Holmenheim laughed, the edge of bitterness back in his voice. “Oh, it’s not fatherly pride that makes me so certain that Envy could not have done this so much as fatherly disappointment. I suppose that every father wants his sons to take after him, and I’ve given him every opportunity I could. But if I must be clear, I’ll state that although an adequate secretary, Envy will never follow in my footsteps. The work we do is quite beyond him.”

“Which brings us then to Mrs. Curtis,” Hughes continued after a short pause of respect for Holmenheim’s fatherly feelings. “How exactly did she and her husband find employment with you?”

“They’re old friends,” the Professor explained. “Izumi was in England and she looked me up. She was having trouble finding a position due to her health and well -- I owe her. I offered her and Sieg the position here until such time as something better developed. I didn’t expect them to stay quite this long but the countryside is beneficial to Izumi’s health, and there is a specialist in London she can visit. It works out satisfactorily for all of us.”

“Very convenient that.”

Holmenheim snorted. “If you think Izumi would sell my research to a foregn agent, you’re gravely mistaken. She would sooner destroy my work and everything connected with it then see it in another’s hands.”

Roy sat up a little straighter. “You sound very sure about that.”

The Professor smiled the thin, bitter smile. “I have every reason to be. She was my research partner in Frankfurt. I know her well, I know what she’s capable of. Believe me, gentlemen, Izumi Curtis would have no need to take my notes -- she’s more than capable of recreating them on her own.”

Hughes nodded. “That explains a lot that I’ve wondered about. And her husband?”

“Sieg is not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination.”

“I didn’t think so.” Hughes nodded, as if this all agreed with a plan he had worked out in his mind. “So, you’d say that in this household, only yourself, Marcoh and Mrs. Curtis are capable of understanding and developing this research.”

“Yes. Well--”


“There may be one other.” Holmenheim frowned. “I suspect Edward knows far more about this project then I want him too.”

Edward? Roy raised an eyebrow at Hughes. Everything in this household seemed to come back to that one boy --

“Marcoh, can you tell the others that I will not be continuing with the work this afternoon? I don’t think I could manage -- not after this.”

“I understand perfectly old man,” Marcoh patted Holmenheim’s shoulder in passing, looking to Hughes and Roy. “You’ll want some time to think this over.”

Hughes took the hint, sliding off the desk and standing. “I’m sorry to be the bearer of such bad news,” he said. “But we’ll have this matter cleared up as soon as we can.”

Holmenheim nodded absently. Roy wondered if he’d heard the words at all. Clearly this was a great blow to him. Roy added his own goodbyes, and followed Marcoh and Hughes into the corridor.

“I don’t know what I’d do if you two weren’t here,” Marcoh said, as the door shut behind him. “I must confess, my reaction is similar to Holmenheim’s. I simply can’t believe that a member of this household would be capable of this . . .”

“Chin up,” Hughes said. “That’s why you have me at your service. I’ll make short work of this problem, you’ll see.” He added as an afterthought. “And Roy, of course, will help too.”

Oh, would Roy? He was very glad that Hughes had let him in on that; he simply didn’t know what he’d do without Hughes to inform him of such facts.

“I’d better pass the message on,” Marcoh said. “I’ll see you two later.” He nodded, setting off down the corridor to the laboratory.

“I’m glad he’s here,” Hughes said. “Rather mucks up my plans for the afternoon, but I think that what we learned from Holmenheim more than makes up for it. What do you think, old chap?”

Roy just glared at him.

Hughes held up his hands in a self-depreceating fashion. “Ah, I can see that you’d be a bit miffed that I didn’t let you in on everything --”

“Lied to me, you mean. I could be a Lady Wintergreen’s society dinner, you know, meeting this season’s debutantes --”

“You should be thanking me then,” Hughes said. “Lady Wintergreen is Gracia’s great Aunt. I’ve met some of her protoges.”

“That’s not the point.” Roy crossed his arms. “You promised me a murder, not a lot of stinking secret-service mucking about.”

“We’re counter-espionage now, old man. Same job, but the hours are better.”

“You’re being annoying on purpose now.” Roy accused. “You’re my best friend, but that doesn’t mean I’ll let you get away with this kind of rot.”

“Steady on,” Hughes protested, sporting a wounded look. “Would I really purposefully mislead you?” At Roy’s expression he added hastily, “About important things. Look, there is still in all probability a murder at the heart of this.”

“Oh, yes?”

“I think we’ve solved the mystery of why all the girls go for you, old man. You’ve put so much of your mental faculties into looking good that there simply isn’t any room left for thinking -- you wouldn’t punch your best friend, would you Roy?”

“I might if said ‘best friend’ doesn’t elaborate. What makes you think that Trisha’s death ties into this missing notes business?”

“The fire in which the first notes were stolen happened a few days before Trisha’s death. Do I need to spell it out for you?”

Roy was chagrined to admit that it hadn’t occured to him that Trisha’s death might be related to the fire. “So you suspect she knew something then? Or saw something to do with that--”

“Careful old chap, you don’t want to give yourself a wrinkle or something with all that brainwork.” Hughes ducked Roy’s grab merrily, escaping unscathed down the hallway. “I’ll see you later -- I have some serious sleuthing underway.”

Roy snorted, watching him go. “Serious busybodying, you mean.”

“Toodle pip!” Hughes waved goodbye to him. “By the way, Roy, I think you’ve really let your standards slip.”

“I beg your pardon?” Roy was flummoxed.

Hughes waggled a finger at him. “Your latest bird -- rather a cut below your usual fare, don’t you think? I wouldn’t get too attached if I were you. I rather fancy Lila’s pretty exterior is vastly superior to the interior.”

And before Roy could demand what he meant by that, or even how he knew, Hughes had vanished into the dining room.

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