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Happy Families

chapter 8.

Lila had exerted her charm on her interviewers; Edward didn't need to.

Roy would probably not have noticed it had it not been for the conversation with Hughes, but Farman's tone softened as he greeted Edward and his manner as he showed him to his chair was vaguely patronising.

It was exactly what Roy had been doing; treating Edward as a child. Roy studied the boy, watching as he nodded his understanding of the interview process. He'd regained his colour, and he was taking the situation with all the gravity of an adult. If Roy hadn't seen him so pale in the labratory—

"I'm not nervous," Edward said, echoing Roy's thoughts. "I'm ready to begin the interview."

"We'll try to keep this brief. Dante was a very old friend of your father's, yes?"

"His former lover," Edward corrected. "That part is true."

Roy couldn't help a smile at the confused expression on Farman's face; clearly he was having trouble reconciling that answer with the child sitting calmly in front of them. Score one for Edward. "Would you tell us about the last time you saw her, Edward?"

"Alive, you mean? That would be last night. The Brigadier and the Colonel already know this, but there was an argument. I left rather early."

Hughes was waggling his eyebrows at Roy, probably wondering why he had not been told about this. Roy gave him a look that said 'this is what you get for being on the phone for three hours.'

"I see. And what were your actions this morning?" Farman was busy with his notebook again.

"Mrs Curtis woke Al and I for breakfast and we came downstairs to eat. Marcoh came downstairs shortly afterwards, with Envy and the Colonel following not long after that. Ross let us help with the car and then we watched while my bags were loaded into the car."

"You did not see Lady Dante at all?"

"I didn't exactly want to see her," Edward admitted. "I didn't want to go to London, so I wasn't exactly going to go and look for her."

"But you did."Hughes pointed out.

"Only because everyone else was. I didn't really want to . . . to find her." Edward's voice faltered slightly. As strong as the boy was, he was still recovering from a shock.

Farman's reaction was equally sympathetic. "The colonel has already described how she was found. We won't dwell on that. Just a few questions. Did anything strike you as odd about the laboratory when you entered?"

"I can't say that I know the room very well. Father doesn't let us in there,"Edward explained. "But there was a strong smell of chemicals—something had been broken very recently."

"By recently you mean . . . ?" Hughes sounded interested.

"Well, there were no windows open when we arrived, so the smell didn't dissipate but even so . . . maybe half an hour before we arrived?"

That couldn't be right. Marcoh had estimated the time of her death at least an hour before she was found—but now Roy considered it, the smell had been very strong.

"You have experience with chemicals then?"

"Well, yes. Al and I were both given chemistry sets for Christmas last year, and we've done our fair share of experiments, in the course of which we've become well acquainted with spilling chemicals."

"Playing with a chemical set is very different from the kind of thing your father does in his laboratory," Farman said kindly, but firmly. "Was there anything else?"

Roy rather fancied that Edward looked annoyed that his observation was overlooked. "Not that I can think of. The door was open and I just went in and she was . . ."

"Quite. Well, thank you Edward. I hope this hasn't been too distressing for you," Farman stood to end the interview.

"One more thing, if I may?" Hughes cut in. "Did you remove anything from the laboratory, Edward? Anything at all."

This time there was no hesitation before Edward answered. "No."

"If you think of anything else later, let us know." Hughes said, patting Edward's shoulder. "Anything at all no matter how slight or unrelated it might seem."

"I think we should send for Holmenheim next," Farman decided. "Edward, would you ask your father to join us?"

"I'll do it," Roy said. "I could use the opportunity to stretch my legs."

Hughes threw him a questioning look but didn't protest. Neither did Edward. He was carefully not showing any emotion—something that only confirmed Roy's suspicion. He waited until they were alone in the corridor before turning to Edward. "So—"

"You're in charge of the interviews?"

Roy was startled to find himself on defence. "Hardly. Merely assisting."

Edward snorted. "Some social visit. What is really behind all of this?"

"You tell me." Now Roy was back in command. "What did you take from the laboratory, Edward?"

The boy's expression of shock was quickly masked. "Nothing," Edward said, turning back down the corridor.

"Is that so?"Roy caught his arm. "Then you won't mind showing me your pockets?"

That got a response. Edward didn't tug his hand away, just glared at him. Roy met his gaze firmly. He was right about this, he knew it.

"Fine then," Edward said eventually, tugging his arm free. "If I must." He glared at Roy once more before tugging his jacket pockets out.

Nothing.

Edward raised an eyebrow at him. "Satisfied?"

If anything, Roy was even more convinced that Edward was lying. "Whatever it was, I highly suggest that you return it—"

"I hope the Colonel's not bothering you, Edward."

In hindsight, the hallway had been a poor choice of location for their conversation, Roy thought, turning to face Envy. The young man was still a far cry from his usual dapper self, although he'd regained enough self control to be chillingly polite.

"Not at all," Edward said, moving away from Roy towards the staircase. "He's merely doing his job."

"His job?"Envy made room so that Edward could slip past him, frowning at Roy. His half-brother's words clearly had him puzzled. "And what would that entail, Colonel?"

It would have to be brought up sooner or later, Roy knew, but he didn't know how much Hughes was willing to give away. Before he could come up with a suitably noncommital answer, Edward leaned over the banister to answer.

"He's with the police. They both are."

"Not exactly—" Roy's protest went ignored.

"The police?" Envy looked sharply at him. Evidently, he'd had no suspicions that Roy and Hughes were anything but guests of their father's friend. "But then why are you here—do you know who did this?"

"Hughes will most likely tell everyone the full story later," Roy said, holding up his hands placatingly. "Right now, all I'll say is that we were investigating a matter that is very likely related to Lady Dante's death, and will do our best to solve it—"

"See that you do." There was such anger in Envy's eyes, such fury, that it would not have been much of an exaggeration to say they burned. Roy thought about taking a step back but didn't have a chance as Envy stepped forward, desperation making his words brittle. "Find the person responsible for her death and punish them—they must pay for this!"

"What's going on out here" Hoenheim opened the drawing room door. "Edward, Envy, you're not quarrelling, are you?"

"Nothing of the sort," Envy answered, managing an unconvincing smile. Edward said nothing, watching as his father joined Roy and Envy in the hall way. "The Colonel was just talking with us about—" Envy trailed off.

Holmenheim patted his son's arm. "The police are doing all they can."

Roy cleared his throat slightly. "On that note, I believe Inspector Farman would like to interview you next, Professor."

"Of course. I'll be on my way immediately." Holmenheim squeezed Envy's arm a final time, turning to Roy. "Shall we then?"

Roy nodded. "Mr Envy, I believe that you're next to be interviewed. Do you think you're up for it?"

"If it will help find the one responsible for this I will do whatever it takes," Envy bowed to them, re-entering the drawing room with more spirit then politeness.

"I must apologise for my son's indiscretion," Holmenheim remarked, leading the way towards the study. "He's not a bad sort but he is extremely fervent in his likes and dislikes."

"I can see that," Roy agree. "This must be a difficult time for him."

Farman stood to greet Holmenheim politely but with none of the sympathy he'd addressed Lila or Edward with; evidently Nordic warriors weren't his cup of tea. The more likely reason, however, was the fact that Holmenheim had openly acknowledged Dante as his mistress. This was the country, after all; people were inclined to be moral.

Polite remarks were made and the interview began. Holmenheim confirmed he had resided in Little River for well over a decade. "The nature of the interest my experiments received made me uneasy, frankly, and I thought it expedient to relocate."

"So you moved here from Germany?" There was just a touch of hostility in Farman's voice. Rou wouldn't have been surprised to hear the words 'Damned hun' accompanying it. Was Farman former military as well?

"That is correct," Holmenheim replied stiffly. "I was granted residency and England has been my home ever since."

Hughes brought the interview back on topic. "Was it in Germany that you first met Lady Dante?"

"I believe so. It was during one of my earliest projects, while I was still a student."

"She was also a student?"

"Yes."

The resulting pause was broken by Farman's polite cough. "We don't wish to bring up painful memories but—"

"You won't be content until the entire sordid affair is dragged out into the open?" Holmenheim didn't bother to disguise the contempt in his voice. "If I must."

"We appreciate your cooperation," Hughes murmured. "So Dante was a student of the same University?"

"Same department, in fact. We were developing a process for refining certain chemicals for scientific and industrial use, and Dante took an interest in my work. She had connections with the University, and managed to get my work brought to the attention of the head of the department. I was granted a scholarship and a research budget, Dante became my assistant, and in time my partner." Holmenheim stood abruptly, leaving his chair to stand by the window. Roy didn't blame him, this couldn't be easy. "She—I was younger then, we both were, and for a while our goals coincided."He rested one arm against the window frame, leanin against it as he looked out over the countryside. "I can honestly say I was happy, that it was one of the high points of my life. My project had every chance of success, and we could take our pick of investors. I think I could be forgiven for believing that life was perfect at that point. Dante and I had been together two years when it happened."

He paused. Roy watched with interest as Holmenheim took a moment to push his glasses up, the memories obviously painful. What had happened that was powerful enough to have such effect on the man, even after so long?

"During the final stages of our project, when we were preparing our findings for publication, there was a rash of illnesses in the facility. I was among those effected. Migraines, lack of appetite, dizziness, loss of memory—no one could explain it."Holmenheim's mouth twitched bitterly. "It was only gradually that we learnt the cause—and the full extent of our disease."

"You've no record of any serious illness," Hughes said, a note of challenge in his voice.

Holmenheim's smile was harsh. "I know better than to ask how you know that, Brigadier. Or even what else you know," he replied, his fingers loosening his tie.

Hughes shrugged airily. "I did my homework."

"Then perhaps you already know the rest of the story?"

"We know you lost the scholarship and had to leave the University. We don't know why."

"The University did a very good job of covering it up. They had to. The investors would have cut the funding altogether had they known." Holmenheim shrugged out of his jacket.

"Known what?"

"That one of the byproducts of our refination process was a chemical poison." Holmenheim undid his shirt, revealing the rows of bandages that covered his chest."Look well, gentlemen; this is the result of my folly."He pulled back the bandages.

Roy had seen many things in the war. This ranked up there with the worst. "Good god."

The flesh was blackened and twisted—was it burnt or decaying? Roy swallowed, forcing the bile back down his throat. He'd seen what happened to a wound left untreated, he'd seen soldiers with gangrene and he'd seen the effects of gas on a man. This was like an awful combination of all of those. "God," he repeated. "You're—"

"Dying. Yes." Holmenheim calmly redid the bandages with practiced ease. "I find sympathy tedious, gentlemen. We shall dispense with it; this is my fault and mine alone."

"Who knows about this?"Hughes had recovered from his shock. He was a tad pale, not that Roy could blame him. Working in Intelligence had shielded Hughes from the harsher aspects of the war. Farman had yet to regain speech.

"I couldn't say."Holmenheim rebuttoned his shirt, looking out the window once again. "The University kept it quiet, and most of the original project members are dead now. If things had ended there as they should have, I imagine very few people would have known the truth."

"What happened?" Roy had gained new respect for Holmenheim. The scientist's serious yet calm demeanour confirmed Roy's initial impression of strength and purpose of will. It took a great man indeed to bear up in the face of such tragedy.

"I was sick for a month, delerious, weak—the doctors had given up all hope. Somehow, I survived—I can only credit my superior constitution. But upon recovery I discovered it might have been better had I perished—Dante had gone, and so had our project notes. I was in hospital for a further 6 months, recovering, so I only learned the facts gradually. She had married a leading chemical manufacturer and they'd opened three new factories. I think I can leave you gentlemen to figure out the rest."

"My god. That's awful."

"Surely you could have warned people?"

"I tried. My warnings were rejected as either delirious nonsense or the jealous attacks of a spurned lover. The University refused to back me up, and in the end the only thing I accomplished was attracting the attention of the government. Even at that stage a war was considered likely, and any type of weapon that could give us an advantage against our neighbours was investigated. To some, my unwitting creation seemed like the basis of a new form of warfare."

Roy swallowed. He'd not been gassed, but he'd seen men who were . . . it was one of the war's most hellish creations. It could linger for weeks, destroying everything . . .

"So you went to France?"Hughes asked.

"I went to France," Holmenheim straightened his jacket, the bitterness just barely kept at bay. "I turned my back on my colleagues and country and joined the ranks of the defectors."

"And in France?"

"There's not much to tell there. My initial welcome wore out very quickly when it was discovered I had no intention of sharing my former research with them. I was arrested and about to be extradited when your redoubtable government stepped in."Holmenheim calmly polished his glasses on a jacket sleeve. "I'm not at liberty to say more."

"Now, look here. This is a murder investigation!" Farman protested. "I demand—"

"Holemenheim is correct." Hughes placed a firm hand on Farman's shoulder. "One of the conditions of his residency grant is his continued secrecy."

Roy knew better than to expect Hughes to give them more than that. "Does anyone else know about this? Anyone in the household, I mean."

"Marcoh probably suspects something of the sort, I've hinted as much, but I've kept it from the boys completely," Holmenheim answered, replacing his glasses. "Dante knew, of course, but—"

Dante was dead.

"Given what you've told of us of your past acquaintance with Dante I'm surprised that you allowed her to stay in your house," Farman observed, with clear challenge. "Under the circumstances one would expect a certain amount of hostility, even hatred?"

"I will allow that I was displeased when she came to London. Our paths did not cross often, and I took pains to avoid her when they did. She was likewise in no hurry to renew my acquaintance—I fancy she feared I would have destroyed the new life she was creating herself by my knowledge—no, perhaps I am too harsh. She told me later that she had been forced to leave under circumstances very similar to my own, only she had no government department willing to sponsor her. She relied instead on her wealth."

"Ah, yes. She was a wealthy women then?"

"I believe so. She was always an intelligent woman, and her second marriage was advantageous if not entirely successful. I was under the impression that her former husband paid her a generous stipend as part of the divorce preceedings."

Farman made a note of that. "From acquaintances who rarely met to a member of your household is quite a large jump,"he observed.

Holmenheim leaned over to the desk to help himself to a cigar. "Yes. I would have been quite happy to drop her all together had she not had something I wanted very much."

"Envy?"

"You're very astute, Brigadier. I'm not surprised you have the reputation that you do." Holmenheim exhaled his cigar slowly, his fingers drummin on the arm of his chair. "Yes, she had my son."

"And that was enough for you to overlook her alleged theft and your past involvement?" Farman wasn't having any of this. "Didn't you have your own children by this stage?"

"You don't understand." The barely contained emotion in Holmenheim's answer startled Roy—it was the first time in the difficult interview that the stalwart Professor had come near to losing control. "If you'd seen him that night, gentlemen, serious and pale, and so lost—" The sentence trailed off helplessly, and Holmenheim shrugged. "There was no question of me turning him away, any more than there was doubt he was mine."

"Why don't you start from the beginning?" Hughes suggested calmly, before Farman could annoy Holmenheim further. "How old was Envy when Dante came to England?"

"It pains me to admit that I'm not sure. It wasn't until he was eleven that I knew he was mine. I'd heard that Dante had a son from her previous marriage, and later the rumours that he was illegitimate, but I'd never thought much of it. By that time, I'd married Trisha and we were happy. Between Edward and Alphonse and the project, I didn't have the time to wonder what Dante was up to."

"What happened when he was eleven?" Farman asked. "His mother sought your help on his behalf?"

"Quite the opposite. Dante's marriage had been on tenuous ground for some time, and she was anxious to avoid any connection with me. She had, I gathered later, told her then husband the truth about Envy's origins, and while willing to overlook a past lover, he was less pleased by the fact that said lover lived within easy travelling distance of London. No, it was Envy himself who sought me out."

"Against his mother's wishes?"

"It was evening, just gone eight or so and I was sitting in this very chair, Edward on my lap—he would have been three or so. The butler opened the door, announcing that I had a visitor and there he was." Holmenheim paused, looking to the door as he relived the scene in his mind. His voice was thick with emotion as he continued. "He just stood there, so thin and pale and said 'I hope you'll pardon the intrusion. I know it's late, but I had to see you and—'"

It was disconcerting seeing the calm scientist give way to the father in Holmenheim. Roy wondered that he could have thought the man dispassionate. He was not overly demonstrative but when he spoke of his children, there was no doubt of his feelings.

"I said nothing," Holemenheim continued. "I was stunned, shocked. I had no idea what to make of this child—Edward shifted on my lap, drawing the boy's gaze to him, and hurt and then disappointment registered on his face. It was painful to watch. 'I see I'm disturbing you,' he said, and if you could have heard the way he wavered over those words—" The professor's fingers curled around the armrests of his chair. "The memory is painful even now. To think I'd had a son and didn't even know of his existence—it's a failure that I will never allow myself to forget."

"Fascinating as this is," Farman interjected. "If we could get to the point . . . ?"

His suggestion was either ignored or unheard, Holmenheim's attention firmly on the past. "He was on the brink of running when Edward grabbed his ankles and demanded to be picked up. He was a precocious child, but never a subtle one. What he wanted he got. Envy's expression when confronted with him for the first time—I found out later it was the first time in his memory that he'd interacted with another child. 'What do I do?' he asked me, sounding completely panicked. 'Pick him up,' I said, 'and bring him here.' He sat completely still while Edward climbed all over him, and demanded to know why Envy's hair was long if he wasn't a girl, why he wasn't at home in bed—" Holmenheim expression was distant. "He was so little and lonely and scared—"

"Scared?" Hughes questioned.

"We found out that Envy had left his house without telling anyone, and travelled to Lincolnshire on a five pound note he got for his birthday. He didn't have enough for the taxi fare to the house so he asked directions at the station and walked the entire way. Trisha had come down to collect Edward for bed by then, and we both agreed—Envy would stay with us."

"Your wife had no objections?"

Roy couldn't fault Farman for being skeptical. He had difficulty imagining Envy as a child, himself. The young man was too self-contained, too sure of himself to ever make a convincing youth, or a sympathetic one.

Holmenheim did not welcome the insinuation."There was no question of her not agreeing. If you'd seen him as he was that night, you would not have had the heart to turn him away either." He strode over to a bookcase angrily. "I'll show you—here!"

It was a photo album. Roy took it, Farman and Hughes leaning over his shoulder to look. The album was opened on a page with a single photo, a family portrait. Holmenheim and Trisha stood together, each with one hand resting on the shoulders of a very thin child. Envy was almost lost within the photo. His hair was long even then, but his expression was anything but confident. His smile wavered as though it was his first time trying such an expression and he wasn't entirely sure of himself. In contrast, Edward's smile, one hand tangled in his half-brother's hair and the other grabbing for the camera, was brilliant. If it hadn't been for the careful hold Envy had on him he would most likely have fallen. Alphonse, in Trisha's arms, smiled sleepily but contentedly.

Anything more unlike the Envy that Roy was familiar with could scarcely be imagined."A remarkable contrast," Roy bit his lip, afraid his words had been impertinent.

Holmenheim nodded in agreement. "You see, gentlemen? I'm very much afraid that Envy's childhood was not happy . . . one hesitates to use the word neglect, but I understand that Dante's marriage had been under strain for some time . . . it was a difficult situation."

"I can imagine," Hughes flipped through the album thoughtfully. "What did you do?"

"Dante came to collect the boy two days later. Trisha and I pleaded with her to let him remain with us longer—even in that short amount of time, you wouldn't believe the change in him. Dante was unwilling, saying that such an action would undoubtedly lead to rumour. She feared the effect it would have on her already tenuous marriage—but finally we came to an arrangement. I found a suitable school for Envy—by this stage things with her husband were so bad that he refused to pay for schooling for a child that was not his—and he would come to us every year for the summer, spending all other holidays and weekends with his mother. Dante persuaded her husband to accept this arrangement, and for the next month until school started, we were a family of five."

"It seems to have been a happy time for all of you," Hughes said, flicking through the photographs. "There are an awful lot of photos of Envy and Edward together."

"They quickly became inseperable," Holmenheim said, smiling at the memory. "As it happened, Envy's arrival happened at a very fortunate time—Alphonse had contracted a very serious case of the measles and had to be kept seperate from his brother. Edward was accustomed to his brother's company and did not take well to being left on his own. We had our hands full trying to keep him occupied. Luckily, he took to Envy immediately. In fact, we had difficulty trying to convince Edward to leave Envy alone to bathe and sleep."

"Fascinating," Farman attempted to stear the interview back on topic. "However—" He didn't have a chance.

"I can just imagine. My Alicia is at this age now—a real handful!"

"Edward was extremely precicious for his age. Poor Envy didn't have a chance—Edward bullied him into anything he wanted. Not, I suspect, that Envy minded much. He didn't have much in the way of playmates, and taking care of Edward was a novel experience for him. We had as much tears from him when I took him to school for the start of term as we did noise and tantrums from Edward."

Roy gave Hughes and Holmenheim a sour look. One over fond father in a household was quite enough—and he didn't like the way Hughes kept turning over the photo album in his hands. It was like he was plotting something . . . "This arrangement continued until Envy finished school?"

"Yes. During this time his mother's marriage failed and she divorced. She spent more time with Envy and I fancy, took more of an interest in the child. He'd gained confidence at school and with us, and just seemed to grow in self control and composure every time we saw him."

"How did this effect your relationship with Dante?"

"For the sake of the children, Trisha and I made an effort to remain on amicable terms with Dante, and respected her wishes regarding her privacy. Shortly after her divorce, we approached Dante about the possibility of adopting Envy legally as our own. To our surprise, she was strongly against the idea, and took pains to prevent us from having contact with him. I'm afraid we parted on rather poor terms. We didn't see Envy for two years after that." Holmenheim paused. "I hate to speak ill of the mother of my child, but the fact remains that Dante could be volatile."

"She deliberately prevented you from having contact with him?" That put things that had puzzled Roy since his arrival into a new perspective. He'd been wondering why Holmenheim might tolerate Dante's behavior, but if he feared that she would use her own son to her advantage—

"I'm afraid that is correct. Gentlemen, I've kept these facts from the boys—including Envy. I would appreciate it if you were to do the same. I fear—well, Envy has just lost his mother. This is painful enough a time for him."

"We quite understand." Hughes gave Farman a warning look before continuing. "You wouldn't characterise your relationship with Dante as happy then?"

"For the sake of the children, I got on with her. She was dear to me once, and despite our differences, we did have a lot in common. After Trisha's death, I relied more on her company but . . . she never came close to replacing my wife."

Farman noted that down with a frown. "The last time you saw the deceased?"

"Last night. I retired early from the drawing room for bed. Shortly afterwards, Dante knocked on my door to see if I was feeling well, and we had a short discussion. She was anxious to reassure me about the doctor she'd found for Edward. I'd had a bad blow that afternoon . . ." Holmenheim looked to Hughes and Roy. "I didn't feel like talking and bid her goodnight."

"A bad blow—that would be the theft of your notes?" Farman inquired.

Holmenheim nodded. "I still have difficulty believing that someone in my employ could have done that."

"It's possible that she surprised the theif in the process of making another attempt on your research," Hughes suggested carefully. "Or that the Lady was responsible . . ."

Holmenheim looked bleakly at the study walls. "She said that she'd acted in haste, that she hadn't understood the true implications of our illness. She feared that the University would destroy our project entirely, and with me expected to die she took the only course open to her to save our work—" He paused a moment before continuing. "I would like very much to believe that she told the truth."

"Indeed," Farman's tone made it quite clear what he thought of that. "Thank you, Professor, you've been very helpful."

Roy leaned into Hughes as Farman showed Holmenheim to the door. "An interesting story. What do you make of it?"

"It explains a lot," Hughes said, thoughtfully. "If he's telling the truth."

"You think he's lying?"

"Not at all. I get a strong impression of sincerity from him. However—there's a lot we simply don't know. I suspect that there may be something that Holmenheim has neglected to mention for mentions of propriety."

"I don't believe him," Farman said, rejoining them. "Mark my words, gentlemen, nine out of ten cases like this it's the husband who's the guilty party. This looks like a cut and dried domestic squabble to me. He was in this very room, right next door to the lab, when she died, and there is no one to verify he remained here the entire time."

"I'm not so sure," Hughes said. "Besides, Investigator, you forget—Holmenheim was never her husband."

The police officer shrugged. "Mere details."

"In crime, the details are everything," Hughes cautioned. "I suggest we wait and see what the other members of the household have to say before rushing to any conclusions."

Farman consulted his notebook."Well, we've got the illegitimate child next—Envy. What sort of name is that?"

Roy bent down to speak to Hughes privately. "Is there something bothering you about the photos? You haven't put the album down once."

"Hmm? Oh, far from it. Look at this, old bean!"A portrait of a rather cranky looking baby was pushed into Roy's face. "Don't you think Alicia needs an album like this? Holmenheim is truly a genius—the moment I get back to London, I'm taking my darling to a photo studio. I wouldn't forgive myself if I allowed her cuteness and growth to go unrecorded any longer!"

Roy felt the chilly touch of sudden premonition. "Thrilling."