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girl_starfish

Happy Families

chapter 1.

It would be a lie to say Roy was expecting the phonecall, but then again, you couldn't really say it was unexpected either. The clock over the fireplace of the retired Colonel's London apartment had just struck half eleven, and Roy toasted it with a bitter—and not entirely steady—salute.

"Here's to women!" he proclaimed. "Here's to their beauty, their pretty lies and their much-vaunted fidelity!"

The phone rang just as he threw back the drink so he choked, grabbing the receiver as he spluttered for breath.

"Mustang here—"

"Hard breaks, old chap," a familiar voice drawled on the other end of the phone. "Still, Josephine was never the right woman for you."

"Hughes," Roy was not at all surprised to find his friend on the other end of the phone. "You already knew?"

"I could see it coming," his friend confessed. "Believe me, you're better off well out of it."

Roy held up his port glass to the light. Half full, when you looked through it you could see a kinder world, blurred around the edges and gently rose tinted...a world he wanted to be in, a world where lovers didn't cheat and a promise was a promise..."Is there a reason for this phonecall Maes?"

"I'm stopping you from drinking yourself into oblivion, am I?" Hughes guessed with uncanny precision. "She's not worth it, Roy. Put the vodka away and go to bed. You'll thank yourself for it in the morning."

"It's not vodka," Roy answered mutinously. So, it was childish, but Hughes needed taking down a peg and Roy wasn't that easily predictable. "It's port."

"Port," Hughes repeated slowly. "What, not your grandfather's best?"

"The same." Even though Hughes on the other end of the phoneline could not possibly see him, Roy saluted him with the half empty bottle. Or was that half full? Either way, the port that was practically an heirloom was rapidly disappearing.

"Your grandfather's port," Hughes repeated slowly. "I had no idea you were that serious about her. I'm sorry, Roy."

The honesty and the understanding in his friend's reply was enough to cut through Roy's pleasantly drunk haze. "Maes—"

"Chin up, old man," Hughes assured him. "Somewhere out there's the right woman for you. You'll know her when you find her."

"Easy for you to say." Either it was late, or the drink had worn him down enough that the bitterness was audible in his tone. "Look at you, happily married and with a kid—and look at me. Leading the merry life of a bachelor. Ha!"

"I think," Hughes said carefully, "that it is a very good thing I rang you when I did. Now, listen up, Mustang." He'd suddenly adopted the crisp tones he'd used in their army days and Roy found himself straightening unconsciously through sheer habit. "Put the port away and go to bed. I'm sending a car round to collect you at 8:30. We'll meet at the station, and take the 9:15 Express."

"Where are we going?"

"Lincolnshire. The country will do you some good, I think. I've an invitation from some friends of Doctor Marcoh's—he'll be there too. We can catch up on old times, maybe get a spot of fishing in or whatever it is they do in the countryside. You've probably heard of the owner of the house; Professor Elric?"

"One of Marcoh's scientific crowd, isn't he? I think I remember seeing his name in the paper a while back. Something about molecules—"

"Atoms, Roy. They're called atoms. Professor Elric is the leading scientist in this field—"

"Going to the country is dull enough without adding scientists to the mix," Roy complained, leaning back in the velvet upholstered easy chair that stood near the fireplace. Balancing the phone receiver with his shoulder he poured himself another glass. "I don't see why you don't just take Gracia and make it a romantic little getaway for yourselves—"

"Ah, but you're much better with a revolver than Gracia."

It was the second time this evening that Hughes had caused Roy to choke on his drink. "I beg your pardon?"

"I was going to tell you to bring your revolver. Possibly the air gun as well—I don't anticipate we'll need something with that much distance but you never know."

"But—why? Correct me if I'm wrong, Maes, but Lincolnshire is not an area generally known for its hunting—"

"Or at least not for deer or game hunting."

Roy set his glass aside, interested now. Something in his friend's tone—"What's this about then?"

"Now you sound like the Mustang I know," Hughes approved. "Murder, Roy. We're hunting a murderer."


Hughes had secured a private carriage. He took one side of it, stretching out along the entire bench, leafing through a newspaper. He was enjoying this, flipping through the papers in search of—

Well, Roy could only guess what his goal was. Hughes could be damnably secretive when he chose, and he certainly chose so now—not one word of the murderer they were supposed to find, or even of the murder itself had crossed Hughes' lips. He was doing it on purpose. Roy would have done better to stay in London, tempting as the promise of a bit of action had been—

"Ah-hah! Here it is!" Hughes straightened up. "It was a stroke of luck finding this—not many libraries hang onto newspapers three years old."

"Amazing." Roy was feeling irritable. The early morning wake-up and the headache that was the product of his activities the night before had not combined well.

Hughes ignored him. "Woman's death ruled as accident: Grieving family requests privacy." He proceeded to read aloud the bits of the following article. "Trisha Elric, 34, wife of noted scientist Professor Holmheim Elric, formerly of Rizenburg, Germany—sorely missed by friends and family. Death was caused by accident—found with her neck broken by a friend of the family in the early hours of the morning—presumed she fell from the top of the stairs. No history of sleep walking or restlessness, prompted concern among neighbours...question of suicide. No evidence of premeditated nature of death—jury ruled in favour of accidental death." Hughes folded the paper and handed it over to Roy. "There you have it."

"This is the murdered then?"

"If she was murdered. That's what we're here to find out."

Roy snorted, glancing down at the article. There was a photo next to it, a family portrait of the fashionably sentimental kind. It had been trimmed to focus solely on Mrs. Elric, but husband and sons were visible around her. She looked happy, a sweet smile on her face. The sort of woman who was born to be wife and mother—"She doesn't look like the sort of person to ever be murdered."

"No," Hughes said and his tone was sharp. "That's the thing—by all accounts she was an ordinary woman, not a very smart or outstanding one...but definitely one that did not get murdered. If she was beautiful, if she was cruel or jealous, then one might understand but she seemed to be a quiet woman, devoted to her sons, and tolerant of her husband's eccentricities."

"She was English, then? Not from Germany?"

"No, she was English all right. Her family was from the Midlands. She was staying with friends of her parents and Holmheim was invited to stay and—" Hughes shrugged. "To cut a long story short, they had two sons, a country house in Lincolnshire and by all accounts a happy and stable marriage. This worries me."

Roy glanced up at his friend, raising an eyebrow. "Surely you more than anyone else would claim that being happy in marriage is not such an impossibility?"

"Ah, Roy, a single man such as yourself has no understanding of what it is like to be wedded. My beautiful Gracia—But that's not the point."

Roy let go of Hughes's collar. "And the point is?"

Hughes leant back, looking not at Roy but at something beyond him. "The point," he said slowly. "Is that if Marcoh is right, and there is something in her death...we're looking for someone who killed a woman, defenceless and entirely innocent, in cold blood. I won't say that one kind of murder is better than another but this...No one had reason to hate her. No one benefited financially from her death. That kind of killer..." He looked at Roy, his eyes focusing again. "You see why we have to act?"

"When you put it that way—" Roy conceeded. "But it does seem improbable. You promised me a murderer, but are you so sure that it was no accident?"

Hughes was wearing the ‘I know something that you don't' smile. Roy sighed.

"Do I have to guess or just spend the rest of the train ride listening to you drop hints?"

"I told you that you'd regret the port in the morning." Hughes pulled a letter out of this jacket pocket.

Two letters actually, Roy realised, as Hughes spread them out. One of them was written on good quality paper with what looked like a fountain pen, the neat and elegant lilt of the handwriting speaking of a good education and a tidy personality. The other resembled nothing so much as a childish scrawl.

"I got this letter a few weeks ago from Marcoh. He said that he'd been working closely on a project that had finally been completed. Honemheim was his partner in this, planning the experiments and researching the theory from Lincolnshire while Marcoh oversaw the development in the labs here in London. Professor Elric came down to London to oversee the experiments, and invited Marcoh to stay with him to discuss their findings. Marcoh writes that this was the first time that he'd been back to Lincolnshire since Trisha's death—he was staying with the family when it took place. At the time he'd had no reason to suspect that her death was anything but a tragic accident but now...He asked me to come down and investigate, put his mind at rest as it were."

"He knows something then?"

"He suspects. He doesn't tell me more—but then Marcoh's a scientist. He's not the type to allow his own perceptions to interfere with the experiment."

"And we're the experiment? I don't know if I like the sound of that."

"Where's your courage? Besides, I don't know if we're the experiment so much as the control group if you will—the litmus paper to his suspicions."

Roy had to snort at Hughes's declaration. "And here I'd thought your analogies couldn't get anymore overblown."

Hughes shook his head sadly. "My good man, you simply have no feel for the dramatic. You need to cultivate an appreciation for the arts—"

"So Marcoh wants us to tell him if he's imagining things," Roy cut him off. "I can see that as not the sort of thing he would do lightly, but even so...he's not the sort of person to keep quiet if he thinks something isn't right. The fact that he's unsure—well, doesn't that suggest that this business is just an accident?"

"Marcoh doesn't know about this." Hughes pushed the other letter across the table. "Take a look."

The edge of the paper was slightly ripped; obviously it had been torn from the notebook it was written on hurriedly. The note likewise seemed to have been written in haste, the letters large and school-bookish.

"Marcoh says that you solved a crime in Suffolk that no one else could and that you have a way of ferreting out secrets like no one's business. We've got too many secrets here. Everyone's afraid...this entire family has gone mad. Please, you must find out who killed Trisha. If you don't—"

Roy turned the page over but was not surprised to find there was nothing on the back. "Well."

"Interesting, wouldn't you say?" Hughes was smirking slightly, pleased with the reaction the letter had provoked.

Roy refused to be drawn. "Nicely dramatic," he replied. "If a little cliche for my tastes. It's all rather puerile—Though the use of ‘Trisha' would suggest—"

"Close friend or family member?" Hughes shrugged, leaning back against the trainseat and letting his feet rest on the seat. "Or more specifically husband—from what Marco has told me of Holmenheim I have to say this seems remarkably out of character for him. And they're obviously familiar with Marcoh if they've dropped his title."

"Then again, aren't anonymous letters supposed to be out of character? Whoever wrote this didn't wish to be recognised."

"Mmm."

Roy knew that reaction well. Hughes was busy plotting something. "I suppose you're going to announce the culprit on the basis of the paper being less than standard quality? I suppose the colour of the ink also plays an important role in this mystery."

"Roy—" Hughes sighed dramatically. "People writing anonymous letters making accusations of murder are usually not murderers themselves. And all that can be deduced from this letter is that the writer had a good public school education and wrote this on the sort of notebook bought in bulk and favoured by scientists."

The former Army Colonel stared, then reached across to snatch the letter. He turned it over in his hands, searching for any clue but—"Damnit, Maes. I don't see it."

"Of course you don't, old boy. It takes a trained eye."

Roy looked at him.

"...Although this did help," Hughes drew another letter from his jacket pocket.

The handwriting was precise, sharp and angular, and the language of the letter similarly correct and free of unnecessary ornamentation. It stated quite simply, that at the behest of Dr. Marcoh, it would please Professor Elric and his family if Hughes and a friend would join them for a weekend of quiet entertainment, and was signed by the distinguished man himself.

There was absolutely no similarity between it and the rushed scrawl of the anonymous letter—except for the paper.

"It could have been taken from the same notepad."

"Quite likely was." Hughes gathered all the letters and tucked them back inside his jacket pocket. "You realise the implications, of course? The family are the ones who will be least likely to make something like this up—and they're also the most likely to know what really happened."