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bob fish

The Riderless Horse

chapter 3.

Knox's house has changed. Roy remembers dirty dishes, piles of paper and an unidentifiable smell lurking behind the stale smoke. Now it's — well, not exactly pristine, but civilised. The table at which Roy is sitting is stained with coffee and dotted with crumbs, but mostly clear. Knox himself, however, doesn't seem to have changed at all. He helps himself to a chair, picks up the cigarette he was working on before Roy's knock at his door, and doesn't offer a cup of coffee.

"Had a spring-clean?" asks Roy.

"My ex-wife," says Knox. "And the kid. Every time either of them comes around, they insist on cleaning, moving my stuff around. Ends up so I don't know where the hell anything is in my own house." He takes a moment to suck down more of his cigarette. "The only way I can stop them is to square all my crap away as a pre-emptive strike."

"Sounds terrible."

"So," says Knox, "you're here to bother me about Fuhrer Grumman's suspiciously timed passing, right?"

This is Knox here: mincing words would be pointless. Roy nods. "We've got reason to believe he was poisoned."

"What's the official diagnosis? All I'm getting from the radio is cardiac arrest." Knox curls his lip.

"As far as I know, the official diagnosis is cardiac arrest."

"What do you actually mean by cardiac arrest? Cardiac, heart, arrest, stops. As opposed to all those other kinds of death where the heart just keeps on beating."

Roy tuts. "Why the hell are all doctors such cranky bastards?"

"Because we have to deal with patients," says Knox, looking at him narrowly. "So what exactly was it? Myocardial infarction? Total heart block? Sudden cardiac death? Call me a cranky bastard, but shouldn't they have told the other guy in line to run the country what the Fuhrer died from?"

"Heart attack."

"Myocardial infarction," corrects Knox.

Roy tuts. "Look, fun as it is to play doctor-layman oneupmanship, can we move on?"

"All right," says Knox. "Gimme the facts."

Roy does so. And Knox listens — actually really listens.

"And that's our current theory," Roy finishes. "Grumman was on digitalis, someone switched his meds for a lethal dose of the same drug, and he worked it out in time to send us a message."

"Aha," says Knox. "The dose makes the poison." With no apparent sense of irony, he takes a deep drag from his cigarette.

"I see," says Roy. "I think I see. That phrase sounds vaguely familiar."

"It's a quotation. 'All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.'" Knox pulls a book from the nearest bookcase, and hands it to Roy. "Theophrastus, the father of modern toxicology. One of your alchemist lot. What it means is: all chemicals can be classed as poisons in sufficient quantities."

"Would it have been simple to pull off?"

"Sure," says Knox. "A lot of pills have the active ingredients cut with something neutral, so the pill's big enough to swallow. Gimme a second here." He runs a hand along his bookshelves, fingers drumming along the wood. He's becoming oddly animated. After a few moments, he pulls out and opens a thick reference volume. After a few moments of flicking through the pages, he stabs a finger down. "Gotcha. Digitalis. Standard maintenance dose would be 250 micrograms. A whole pill would weigh about two thousand times that."

Roy blinks.

Knox takes another long pull on his cigarette, then blows smoke out of his nostrils like a dragon. "Now," he continues, "if I were going to poison someone, that's how I'd do it. Make up a whole batch of pills with maybe twice the lethal dose each in 'em — because you might as well make sure, right? Then just get ahold of the old geezer's pill case and make the switch. Job done."

Roy doesn't say anything immediately. Somewhere outside, noisy birds chirp at each other.

Knox harrumphs. "Now, I've got a question for you. Say you prove to your own satisfaction the guy was poisoned. How's that going to help you shame the opposition? Can't they just say you're lying?"

"Well, if we do a test for poison, won't the results be reproducible? Someone neutral can test again and confirm our accusation."

"Depends. This stuff gets less accurate the more the body deteriorates. Where's the body?"

"Arriving by special train in Central today. He's going to be under guard in the morgue at headquarters tonight, and then the lying in state begins tomorrow."

"Crap," says Knox, and exhales forcefully.

"What?"

"They'll have embalmed the body already. No blood samples for us."

Roy groans. "Of course." He slams his hand on the table. It twinges, and he hisses a bit.

When Roy looks up, shaking his head in apology, Knox looks far from despondent. On the contrary, he's actually grinning. The effect is somewhat eerie. "What?" says Roy.

"Looks like I'm going to have to add another favour to your tab, Mustang," he says. "I've just thought of a workaround." Behind his spectacles, he taps the corner of his eye.

Roy raises a questioning eyebrow.

"Vitreous humour," says Knox with some relish. "Aka eye goo. Embalming doesn't taint the fluids of the eyeball. A sample of that is the best way of testing for poison if your body's already been embalmed."

"Excellent," says Roy.

Knox nods and pouts his lower lip in smug acknowledgement. "So, you just need to get me an eyeball."

It takes Roy a good second to come up with something to say. "Eyeball?" he manages. Roy's own eyes throb in sympathy.

"What?" Knox tuts. The scowl is back again.

"The whole eyeball?"

"You were planning on breaking in and grabbing me a blood sample, right? What's the difference?"

"Fuhrer Grumman's lying in state begins tomorrow! It's an open coffin. Do you not think that anyone will notice if he's one eye down?"

"You can stuff the socket with cotton wool. Or a glass eye think I got one somewhere or other, damned if I know where." Knox circles his finger and thumb and looks at it assessingly. "Or maybe just a big marble. A walnut?"

A walnut. Roy pinches the bridge of his nose. "All we need's a sample, right? Why can't I just take a syringe and draw a sample? What were you going to ask for if it was a blood sample, the whole arm?"

"Ah, listen to the expert," Knox sneers. "The eyeball's a big bag of fluid. If you puncture it with a syringe, it's gonna leak and sag — that'll be noticeable too. So what's the difference? Why not just do it the simple way?"

"But — do you seriously think I'm going to be able to neatly extract an eyeball? They don't exactly cover that in field medicine training, you know. I'd offer to have you come along with us and bag the sample yourself, but —"

"Damned if I'd go," says Knox.

"Exactly."

Knox stubs his cigarette out with one hand, just as he picks up the packet and thumbs out a new cigarette with the other. "Well," he says. "If you're so set on doing things the hard way, come by this afternoon. I'll get us some pig's eyeballs from the butcher shop and give you a little tutorial on drawing out vitreous humour with a syringe. I'll even show you how to fix up the seepage after. I warn you, it's tricky." Knox sounds surprised at his own generosity. He lights up the new cigarette, and then carries on speaking without taking it from his mouth. "Actually, on second thoughts, get Hawkeye to come over instead. She looks like she's got steady hands."

"You don't think the Flame Alchemist has steady hands?"

"Well, if after everything that's happened, you're going to get all fussy about one goddamn eyeball " Knox shrugs deeply and pulls the corners of his mouth down. "I need my sample as quick as possible — the longer we go, the less reliable the results. When were you planning on breaking into the morgue?"

"It can't be earlier than tonight. I had the morgue in Central Headquarters' basement discreetly checked out. There'll be people in the same room as Grumman's body right up until the morgue closes. It's guarded in the evening, but outside the doors."

"So how are you planning to get in?" asked Knox. Then, before Roy can say anything, "No, wait, I don't wanna know. You kids have fun with that."

Roy decides to take the high road and ignore him. "Someone will bring the sample to you after we get it. Tonight, if you open the door to a middle-aged lady selling incense, do me a favour and don't send her packing."


Well, isn't this the trip down memory lane?

Laboratory Three is half in ruins. With the Briggs contingent guarding it, it's easy enough to get in. The wall that hid the tunnel entrance turns out to be half-collapsed, so Roy doesn't even need to make them a door.

Underground, in the white room with its great double doors, the Immortal Army are exactly where Roy and Riza left them — but they're no longer much of a threat. Burnt limbs, shredded flesh, and bone carpet the room. The air is full of the appalling stench of rot. Both of them are accustomed enough to the smell to just take it without comment and breath through their mouths.

Roy and Riza pick their way through the remains to the huge, carved door, which Roy now knows to resemble a white room elsewhere with its own great pair of doors. The resemblance is probably deliberate; from what Roy saw, the Homunculus was a pompous ass. He doesn't remark as much; this time, Roy doesn't crack a single joke.

Beyond the doors, they make their way down the damp tunnels with map, compass and flashlight. The map came straight out of Bradley's front desk drawer.

Roy and Riza hike on, sticking close together through tunnels which, as the rotting meat smell recedes, begin instead to carry a discernible scent of alchemy. Roy resists the urge to trace his path of two days ago, that frenzied sprint of adrenaline and rage. Instead, he checks Hawkeye's map when they come to a turning, and keeps his eyes ahead. There are surprisingly few visible signs of the fight. That is, until they pass a huge burn mark on the tunnel's right wall, licking all the way up to the tunnel ceiling. Roy doesn't stop walking. Beside him, he knows without looking that Riza has tensed and brought her chin up.

When the tunnel slopes upwards, Riza begins to count her steps. Soon, a flashlight shone on the ceiling shows the intestinal coils of tubing from which the Immortal Army were strung. They're standing in what's innocuously referred to on the map as "Storage Bay D."

"Here," whispers Riza, a couple of minutes later. She checks her map and compass for a moment, looks around her, then puts a hand to the wall to her left and nods decisively. If Riza's calculations are right — which they doubtless are — then Central Headquarters' morgue should be on the other side of the wall Riza has her hand upon.

Now it's time for Roy to make them a door. In the inside pocket of his coat, his hand closes on the packet of chalk. Then he blinks.

He doesn't need the chalk.

Why did he even pack it, when he doesn't need it? The whole of alchemy has opened itself up to him now, a swarming mass of data just below the surface of his conscious mind — and he hasn't even had time to think about that yet. Well, no time like the present. Roy reaches for the right formula in his mind — and suddenly it's right in front of him, knowledge streaming into his mind and his ears burning and the memory of a cutting white grin full of secrets, and he's been doing it wrong all these years, he can see the molecules now, decomposing and reconstructing themselves and telling him-

"Sir." An urgent, voiceless little hiss. A hand on his shoulder. "Roy. Are you all right?"

He blinks, shakes his head, and gives Riza an embarrassed grin. "I think I'll do this the old-fashioned way," he whispers, and pulls out the chalk.

It's still an uncomfortable thing. Roy sketches the formula too quickly, too surely. Before, he was rusty on so much. Transmutations he hadn't performed for years were an effort to recall. He had to go back to his books. This surety and confidence doesn't feel right. He touches his fingers to the circle, and the wall rolls aside quietly and precisely for him.

Riza just gives him a pleased little nod, and steps through. He follows her a step behind, his gloved hand raised. Inside the room, they move through their familiar dance, covering the room back to back with their weapons drawn. It's empty: cold as a cellar, examination table scrubbed clean in the middle, and a lingering smell of formaldehyde and death.

The door is, of course, locked. When Roy had thought of this earlier, the transmutation had rolled into his mind with startling complexity — and then he'd asked his mother to borrow a set of lockpicks. Now he pulls them from his pocket, and finds that he hasn't lost the knack: a few careful turns and the simple mortice lock gives with a satisfying click.

Roy puts a hand to the door, and nods. Riza brings her sidearm up. Through the door, they turn in a circle back to back again, and again they find it empty.

A door on the opposite side of the corridor is marked "Refrigeration: Unauthorised Personnel Not Permitted". Again, Roy twists a pick in the lock while Riza covers him. Again, they scope out an empty room. It's almost a little unnerving, but Roy pushes the thought aside.

This room has large industrial coolers lining two walls with rows of drawers stacked as high as Roy's head. Papers have been hung from the handle of nearly every drawer; the morgue is full today. Taking a unit each, Roy and Riza scan rapidly through the names on each paper. There are many Roy knows: the old brass, soldiers Roy has eaten with, even a secretary who Roy once very briefly dated ("cause of death: blunt trauma from falling masonry"). That gives him a jolt. Then he catches Riza nodding at him; she's found the right drawer.

It's not marked out in any way from the rest, despite the occupant's rank. Roy expected — he doesn't know what, exactly, that Grumman would get his own room? He grasps the handle, and looks at Riza. She nods briskly, but her twitch of a smile thanks him for asking.

Roy pulls gently on the drawer handle, and it rumbles on its castors as it opens.

The sound of it is, in the silent room, quite incredibly loud and jarring.

Roy winces, and stops immediately. Both of them freeze for a moment, listening. No footsteps, no sound at all from outside. With any luck, the guards are too far away, the doors too thick, for them to have heard. After a few seconds, Roy nods and — what can he do? — starts pulling the drawer again, as gently and smoothly as he can.

Again, the rattle of the drawer is noisy and jarring. Once it's open, they both listen again. Silence.

The first thing Roy notices is that Grumman isn't wearing his glasses. He's not sure why. The old man is in the Fuhrer's uniform that alive, he must have gotten only a few hours' wear from. Or did he even? Whatever the case, Grumman's ready for his public tomorrow.

After a few moments, Roy and Riza exchange glances. Then Riza reaches into her vest and unfolds a cloth containing everything he needs. She holds it out for Roy, businesslike as a surgical nurse. Roy strips off his left glove and pockets it, then takes the small syringe and pops the cap from the needle. He allows himself a fraction of a second to feel very slightly sick. Then he takes the tweezers and gently grips the bottom of Grumman's right eyelid at the outer corner. It looks delicate and papery in the grip of the tweezers. Roy recalls Knox's warnings about how horribly easy it is to tear the eyelid of a dead body. He tries not to think that the fate of his whole country could be changed by one slip of the finger. And then finds that he's already thought it. One day, his brain is actually going to do what he tells it to.

Roy pulls the lid up, gently as he can, then very carefully slides the tweezers towards the centre of the eyelid. He lets out a breath when he's managed to do it without damage. Then he pulls in another breath, recalls Knox's instructions and his practice session this afternoon. He ignores Grumman's filmy upward gaze. Then he plunges the needle into the white, holds it steady, and pulls on the plunger with his free hand. A clearish liquid flecked with dark spots fills the small syringe, and the eyeball itself sags unpleasantly. Roy relaxes his grip on the tweezers, and the eyelid falls mostly closed. Riza offers him the tiny sample bottle, and Roy takes it, pops the needle into its rubber top, and empties the syringe into it. Done.

They both exhale at the same time.

And now, there's one last thing. The sag of the eye, Knox told him, will need to be disguised. Roy takes the tweezers from Riza's cloth, and uses them to pick up a little pad of cotton wool.

Holding the eyelid up carefully with a second pair of tweezers, Roy pops the pad under it —

- and hears the click of the door opening, the click of the safety catch on Riza's pistol. Before he processes any of it, he's let go of Grumman's eyelid and has his right hand brought up to snap. The tweezers drop to the floor.

"Sir?" says one of the troopers, uncertainly. "Brigadier General Mustang?" He looks familiar, but Roy can't place him.

Out of uniform and dressed like a burglar in a black polo neck, utility vest and pants, Roy feels off-kilter. He straightens his back and stares the troopers down, trying to get a handle on this situation.

Almost immediately, the trooper who spoke grasps his gun by the barrel and raises both hands in surrender. His comrade follows his lead. Roy blinks. Then he recognises the first trooper. It's Private Fieseler, the resourceful tracker-down of bacon sandwiches from yesterday morning.

"What are you doing on guard, Fieseler? Your name wasn't down for this."

"Last minute replacement, sir. I'm covering for Corporal Fenwick, his mother had a stroke this afternoon."

Roy's mind races. Fieseler isn't technically one of theirs. He's from Central. They don't know enough about him to trust him. But — "What did you do on Eclipse Day, Fieseler?"

"Had the day off, sir. I was watching the eclipse with the big crowd at Unification Square. When all the chaos started, the off-duty soldiers there did crowd control, trying to keep people calm."

"What about your friend?"

"Private Lamacq. He was with me, sir."

"Can someone verify this?"

"A Captain Stevenson was in charge, sir. She said she was writing up commendations for us."

That, at least, can be chased up. Roy nods, but doesn't lower his hand. "All right, you two. Here's the situation. We have reason to believe the Fuhrer was assassinated by poison, and that those responsible are military. We need to get this sample verified. Are you with me?"

"Yes, sir." Fieseler's right hand, raised in surrender twitches reflexively towards a salute.

"When does your shift change?"

"At twenty hundred hours, sir."

"Here's what you'll do. You're both going to go back outside and change shifts as usual. You won't see us, but we'll be watching you do it. Then you'll both take a left down the corridor. There'll be a door there you haven't seen before, and you're going to open it. We'll be waiting for you. I appreciate your support, but you're going to have to earn my trust. Got it?"

"Yes, sir," they both say.

"Good. Holster your weapons, soldiers, and back to your posts."

The two troopers holster their sidearms, salute, and turn on their heels. After their marching footsteps fade, Riza says quietly, "A bit of a risk."

"Any better ideas?"

"None."

"I can make us a peephole. If they're not what they seem and try to sneak a message to the new guards, we'll see them."

"And then what? They're coming with us to the hotel?"

"Exactly. Tomorrow, I don't know, we'll have to keep them supervised. At least until we — act upon this."

And there it is. Their other problem. If it is digitalis poisoning, if they can prove an assassination, pin down a culprit — what then? Does Roy have enough military support to take this public? Is confronting Hakuro going to gain Roy the Fuhrership?

Or is it going to plunge the country into civil war?