Little River, Lincolnshire, appeared to be all that could be expected of a country town. It consisted of a train station, a row of shops, some of which had seen better days, a stolid country pub that doubled as an inn and a cluster of houses. There was a car waiting to collect them with a briskly efficient chauffeur to take them to the Elric house, a short distance out of the town.
The chauffeur was capable and business-like and introduced herself as Ross. Something about her seemed familiar, and Roy was trying to put his finger on it until Hughes leaned over the passenger seat and asked "What unit?"
"Transport and Supplies, Division 12," Ross answered crisply, not missing a beat. "I'd have known you two were military even without the titles." She smiled and Roy caught a glimpse of a wry grin in the rear view mirror. "Driving ranked officers around like a personal taxi service—this really takes me back, sir."
Not his type—efficiency in a relationship was always off putting. A woman like that would send you a memo letting you know what days were suitable for marriage proposals. Definitely unconducive to romance. Still, Roy found himself approving of Ross's no-nonsense attitude and skillful handling of the vehicle.
"Must have been hard finding this job?" Hughes asked. "I can't imagine there'd be much openings of this sort for women."
"That's an understatement. I've lost track of how many times I've been turned down in favour of a man—you'd think the government would offer something, with the way they recruited and used women in the war, but no. It's all ‘we only offer jobs to returned servicemen—a woman will be supported by her husband but a man needs to work.'" She frowned at the road ahead. "There's no earthly reason a woman shouldn't be allowed to work if she sees fit. I'm a good driver too, more than equal to a man."
"You were lucky with your employer then," Hughes stated casually. "But then I suppose it's not that unusual for a revolutionary scientist to be revolutionary in other respects as well."
To Roy's surprise, Ross laughed. "Professor Elric? Hardly. He's not in favour of equal rights for women. I'm willing to bet a month's paycheck that he's never even considered the matter. No, the Professor doesn't see anything that's not related to his work."
"Well then how—"
"Very simply, I was the candidate with the best qualifications. It wouldn't matter if I was male, female, a talking baboon; as long as I got the job done in an efficient manner, the Professor could care less."
Roy smiled at the analogy but didn't have time to comment; they were pulling up in front of a grand country manor house. Obviously a Georgian relic; the house was set at the end of a long driveway, framed by two rows of crisp birch trees.
"The manorhouse," Ross announced, parking neatly in front of the row of steps that led up to the grand front door. "Don't worry about your bags, I'll bring them in later."
A giant was waiting for them at the top of the stairs; or at least that was Roy's first impression. Upon reaching the doorway however, it became apparent that the person waiting was merely the Elric's butler.
"You must be Colonel Mustang and Brigadier Hughes," the man greeted them. He had a surly expression on his face, and there was something slightly...Slavic about his appearance? Foreign? Still, Holmenheim himself was German, so that shouldn't be a surprise. "I'm Curtis, Professor Elric's butler. If you'll follow me, I'll take you to the sitting room."
Not the most welcoming of manners...still, any house with Mr. Curtis in it was bound to be secure if only because of the sheer size of the man. He looked like he would be much more at home in a boxing ring than the uniform of a butler. The hugely muscled man looked extremely out of place among the assorted Victorian knick-nacks that decorated the house, and Roy found himself catching his breath once or twice as the great arms passed dangerously close to a vase or cabinet as Curtis guided them down a corridor.
"The sitting room," he announced, opening the door carefully.
It was a polished room, with something of the air of a museum piece. The furniture was arranged comfortably and with taste but it lacked a certain something—the pleasant disorder of a home, perhaps? Not that Roy's bachelor pad gave him any experience in that respect.
"I'm afraid that Professor Elric is caught up in some research and cannot meet you at present," Curtis explained. "He wishes that you would make yourselves at home and he'll meet you at dinner. I'll let everyone know that you're here."
"Chatty, isn't he?" Hughes observed as Curtis disappeared. "Definitely not butler material."
"Maybe he has other uses," Roy suggested, making use of the easy chairs. "And I imagine he gets the job done."
"If you say so," Hughes helped himself to the other armchair. An easy table was set beside it with a tray of glasses and a bottle of whine. "Our host certainly doesn't stint on home comforts. This is authentic Rhinish wine—look at the vintage!"
"A taste of home?"
"A pricey taste if it is—" The door opened suddenly and both men stood hastily as the giant of a butler ushered in a slip of a boy—young man, Roy corrected himself hastily. Anyone would look minute compared to Curtis.
"Brigadier Hughes, Colonel Mustang?" The boy—young man—held out his hand. He had a confidence in his manner that indicated he was well used to greeting people. "Welcome to Lincolnshire."
He was definitely striking; eyes almost golden and fair hair that would be the envy of any girl gathered in a short plait down his back. Like the prince in a fairy-tale—It would have to be a German tale, Swan Lake perhaps—Roy took the hand offered. "It was very good of Professor Elric to extend his invitation to two old friends of Doctor Marcoh. I'm Roy Mustang, formerly of the East Division, and my companion—"
"Brigadier Maes Hughes of the Central Intelligence Office. Your reputation has preceeded you, sir." Their young host offered his hand politely but there was a note of challenge—or was that wariness in his voice? "I'm Edward Elric, at your service."
"A pleasure." Hughes was at his charming best. Roy wished him luck. He could charm and work adults to his will, but he'd always found children daunting. And this child—adult like manner, set within a face still youthfully round, but somehow too old for its owner—Roy shook himself sternly. This is an investigation, he told himself sternly. There's no room for fancies...
"We seem to have arrived at a bad moment," Hughes apologised. "I hope we're not too disruptive."
"Father's always busy," Edward said, pouring them both glasses of the wine. "There's no time you could have arrived that he wouldn't be. Although," he paused to cork the wine bottle. "One wonders why you came at all."
Now that was definite challenge.
"There's no mystery in that," Hughes answered, taking the offered wine glass. "Marcoh was good enough to invite us—"
"He's never invited anyone here before," Edward argued. "Not once. Why now—and why of all people does he ask someone famous as an amateur detective?"
Hughes shrugged airily. "I hate to speak well of myself," he said, "but as I'm sure Mustang will confirm, I have no small talents as a story teller and my after dinner conversation is said to be quite amusing—"
Roy snorted, taking the remaining wine glass from Edward before he could be tempted to say something. It was rather entertaining, watching his friend be interrogated by this unreal character.
Edward eyed Hughes squarely and then shook his head. "No. I don't think so. Marcoh doesn't like his after dinner conversation to be witty and entertaining. He likes to mull over the day's events and perhaps play cards. I ask again, Brigadier Hughes; why are you here?"
"Surely it's not against the law to pay a visit to an old friend—" Roy started but Hughes held up a hand to stop him.
"You're an intelligent boy, Edward. Very perceptive."
"I'm fifteen. I'm not a child."
"So I see. Very well then, Mr. Elric. This is why we're here." Hughes very gravely drew the letter from his jacket pocket and handed it to him with a solemnity that made Roy want to roll his eyes—dramatic sense indeed! He wasn't sure what his friend was playing at but taking a any child into their confidence, even this child was surely a mistake. He braced himself for the inevitable outrage.
It never came.
Edward appeared concerned, but not surprised. He read the letter through twice and then folded it decisively. "I should have expected something like this."
"You're not surprised then?" Hughes was alert, watching Edward closely for any reaction. Roy had to admit he himself was puzzled. This was hardly the reception he'd expected. He was impressed despite himself as Edward handed the letter back to Hughes with all apparent calm.
"I wish I could say I was," he answered slowly. "Al—that's Alphonse, my brother—has never really managed to reconcile himself to our mother's death. I can't blame him. It's not easy, especially with that woman here." A touch of bitterness marred his calm for a moment then was gone. "I'm sorry that you've wasted your time. There is nothing to investigate here."
"That woman?" Hughes wondered but Roy found himself interrupting.
"That's the only reaction you have to the suggestion your mother was murdered?" he asked. "I'm sorry you've wasted your time?" A cruel question to ask a child but somehow Edward was not very childlike.
He certainly rose to the question like an adult. "My reactions," he said, looking hard at Mustang, "are no one's business but my own. I will say this much however; that there is no question of my mother's death being anything but accidental, and that, gentlemen, is a fact."
This statement was punctuated by the sitting room door flying open.
"Brother! You haven't finished your Latin yet—" The sudden arrival halted in the doorway, an expression of comical surprise on his face. This was clearly Alphonse. Although he was nearly the same height as his brother, he was clearly the younger—his face was young, if seriously inclined, and lacked the intensity of his older sibling. At the moment his face was alight with excitement and fixed on Hughes. "Are you really—"
"Colonel Mustang and Brigadier Hughes, Al." Edward elbowed his brother in the ribs. "Say how'd you do."
Alphonse held out his hand to Hughes eagerly. "I'm really glad you're here! I've been waiting for your visit—"
"I can see that." Instead of answering Alphonse's hand shake, Hughes struck a thoughtful pose. "You've been wondering what I'll make of the letter you sent me, have you not?"
Alphonse's face was so full of awe, Roy found it was hard not to laugh. "How did you know?" he asked as Hughes preened. "You really are as clever as they say—if anyone can help us, it will be you!"
Edward was clearly unimpressed. "That's enough. You won't trouble the gentleman with this nonsense."
"It's not nonsense!" Alphonse argued immediately and hotly, turning to glare at his brother. "Brother, why won't you believe me—"
"Because I know it's impossible, Al. There's absolutely no way—" Edward broke off sharply as the door opened once again.
A young girl in a black and white maid's uniform curtisied, holding the door open for a regal looking woman, clad in furs, exspensive velvet and heavy perfume. She was by no stretch of the imagination a woman in her youth, or even second youth—a lady in what was politely termed her prime. She had a distinct brow and elegant features and you could see that in her youth she would have been a magnetic, attractive woman. Even now the force of her personality made itself known.
Roy found himself standing to attention automatically; the two Elric brothers immediately fell into sullen silence.
"I thought I heard an argument," the extraordinary woman remarked. "Don't tell me it was the two of you? And here I was given to believe that there was absolutely no subject that could come between you."
Edward answered politely. "It was nothing. We were entertaining our guests. Colonel Mustang, Brigadier Hughes? This is Lady Dante."
No further introduction was necessary.
Roy was naturally fluent with all circles of London society; but even if he hadn't been it would have been hard to miss someone of Dante's notoriety. She was infamous throughout London society for a number of reasons, among which was her reputation for being a woman of almost revolutionary principles. She disdained society's dictates, argued against marriage and held views on religion that were frankly scandalous. Not that the Lady was any stranger to scandal, of course; not only had she divorced her last husband but it widely rumoured that her son was born out of wedlock. Then there was the not so little matter of the Lady's past.
There had been many refugees to come to live in England after the war, and many of them desired to start anew, making a total break from their old lives. But even these came with their name and some history—not Lady Dante. The only name she ever used was Dante, and she had openly admitted it was not her real name. She had wealth; that was enough for London society, she declared.
"Colonel Mustang," Dante held out her hand. "We meet at last. I have heard many things about you. I'm curious to see how you measure up to your reputation."
Roy bowed in his most charming manner. "I'm afraid I shall fail miserably, Lady Dante—I think we're both familiar enough with society rumours to know that no one's word can be taken for granted these days. But on the other hand, fiction is always more entertaining than fact."
"And more more uplifting," Dante agreed. "I can't abide this old fashioned horror of honestly. When everyone is too delicate to speak the truth, the only thing worth listening to are lies."
"But if you don't speak truth and only hear lies, what does one believe?"
"Your reputation did not include your being a philosopher, Brigadier Hughes." Date turned her attention to Hughes with interest. "I wonder what else you have up your sleeves?"
"You're getting mixed up," Roy was startled as Edward spoke up suddenly. He'd forgotten the boys were in the room, so strong was the Lady's presence. "Magicians keep things up their sleeves; Brigadier Hughes is a detective." There was malicious emphasis on the last word.
There was a definite coolness in Dante's reply. "Children should be seen, Edward, and not heard. Shouldn't the two of you be with your tutor?"
"We have to greet the guests," Alphonse protested. "They're here by our Father's invitation—"
"And your Father pays Mr. Tucker a generous allowance to see to your education. I'll take care of these gentlemen, you two return to your studies."
"But—" Alphonse clearly wanted to protest but a sharp look from Edward stopped him. Roy wondered at the gesture. It was so slight, yet there clearly a deeper understanding between the brothers.
"Colonel Mustang, Brigadier Hughes," Edward bowed politely, his brother following his example. "It was a pleasure to meet you. We'll see you again at dinner no doubt." They left silently, Edward without looking back, Alphonse casting a hopeful look at Hughes.
It wasn't until the door shut behind them that Dante broke the silence. "I find children vastly overrated," she remarked, the maid fluffing the sofa cushions as she seated herself. "I understand that you've been blessed in that respect, Brigadier?"
"Alicia," Hughes said, Dante's disapproving tone not preventing him from speaking rapturously. "She'll be two next month. A perfect angel—"
"That may as well be," Dante settled back. "For my own part I think that children should grow up as early as possible. All this childhood nonsense—it may be fashionable but its not practical."
"If they are such trouble, surely finding them a good school would be no problem?" Roy found himself angered by Dante's cool dismission of the brothers. From what he'd seen neither of them were insufferable children; both were polite and seemed intelligent enough.
"It's not that simple. We—that is, the boy's father and I—have discussed the possibility more than once. It was on the advice of a London doctor that Mr. Tucker was retained and the boys educated from home."
"A doctor?" Roy was suspicious. "They both seem active, healthy boys—"
"There are more diseases than those that assail the body," Dante answered vaguely. "Lila, I'd like my embroidery. For heaven's sakes, girl, what are the curtains still doing drawn?"
The maid hastened to make amends.
"I must say," Hughes said casually, pouring a glass of wine for Dante and extending the glass to her with practiced urbaneness, "that you are exceedingly well acquainted with the affairs of this household."
"Naturally," Dante accepted the glass and the suggestion agreeably. "I'm an old family friend. I've known Holmenheim since before his marriage, and after the tragic loss of his wife—very sad for him—he's come to rely on my judgement in womanly matters, such as the housekeeping arrangements and the care of the boys. I'm practically a member of the family."
If that was true, Roy pitied the boys immensely.
Curtis held the door open as a group of people entered, busily discussing something extremely scientific sounding. There were three of them and Roy knew at once that the first was Holmenheim.
The giant of a butler overtowered all of them, but somehow Holmenheim himself was not overshadowed by his presence. He was a tall man himself, sturdily built and with an air of control and command. He was handsome, his intelligent face framed by a healthy beard and hair worn long in an old fashioned style. If it wasn't for his clothing, rich waistcoat and well made suit in muted, respectable hues, he would have resembled nothing so much as a Nordic warrior of old. He certainly did not look like a dry scientist.
"I see our guests have arrived," He said, interrupting the scientific discussion and stepping forward to greet Roy and Hughes with a hearty handshake. "Welcome, Colonel Mustang, Brigadier Hughes."
His grip was strong—Roy decided he really could have made a Viking warrior. "We appreciate your hospitality, Professor. There are few people who would extend such a welcome to strangers."
"Not at all," Holmenheim said, turning to give Hughes the same greeting. "You are friends of Marcoh, you are friends of mine. Please make yourself at home here during your stay." He ushered forward the people with him. "May I present my research assistant, Miss. Shezchka, and my secretary, Mr. Envy Dante."
Shezchka, for all her Russian sounding name, was a very awkward English girl, easily flustered and with large, unflattering glasses. Bookish, and not Roy's type by any stretch of the imagination. Her hesitant greeting was quickly lost amid the other conversation.
Envy, on the other hand, resembled his mother, having force of personality to spare. However, where Dante's colouring was dark, Envy obviously took after his father. Roy glanced at Hughes to see if he'd noticed and his friend nodded; the connection might not have been so obvious had they not already met Holmenheim's sons. As it was, the relationship was clear.
"We don't often have such distinguished visitors," the secretary said, going to sit on the arm of the sofa beside his mother. "I hope that you're not too bored by Lincolnshire." Roy disliked him already. He was handsome, yes, long elegant face well suited to the long hair that hung loosely to his shoulders. But there was a faintly arrogant tone to his voice that showed he was well aware of his advantages. Urbane, but not...not cricket.
"I'm entertained already," Hughes said, offering his hand. "Marcoh promised us a quiet visit with old friends—he said nothing about such an illustrious persons as your mother and yourself being present."
"We don't shake hands, Brigadier," Dante said, as Envy smiled but didn't take the offered handshake. "I don't believe in such trivialities."
"None necessary." Holmenheim took charge of the conversation again, pouring himself and his colleagues glasses of the sweet German wine. "There is no stand on formality in this household, gentlemen. I value efficiency above all else. Thus, my staff and I prefer to go by our first names. It is simpler."
"So we should call you Holmenheim then? It seems very familiar."
The man shrugged. "I don't mind. I suppose that for all the years I've spent in England, I am still German at heart...not in any partisian sense, mind you. But in the sense that matters—I would like to walk once more in the lanes of my childhood...but Germany would not welcome me, and at any rate, I couldn't leave the experiments."
"Shezchka is my first name," the research assistant announced suddenly. "But I've always been called it, if only because no one can pronouce my last."
"Oh?" Roy asked. "And what is your surname, Miss Shezchka?"
She told him.
"I can see that we shall be joining the majority," Hughes said, while Roy still struggled with the impossible amount of consonants. "Not a very British name?"
"No, my father was a Polish shipping merchant who settled in England. He married an English woman, and I've been entirely brought up here."
"In terms of interesting names, I can see I'm well out-classed," Roy had recovered himself and turned to Dante and her son. "I think Mr. Envy has the most unusual name of anyone present."
"My son's name must be striking," Dante said with obvious pride. "Striking and unique—nothing less would suit him."
"You flatter me too highly," Envy remarked, not sounding at all bothered by this. "Although as names go, it is certainly commanding."
No, not arrogant at all. Roy reminded himself that it would be impolite to bait the young man. "While it isn't uncommon for a child to be named after an ideal or even a virtue, the names Ernest and Prudence immediately springing to mind, I'm surprised by the choice of Envy. I mean, it's not exactly a positive association—ware green-eyed envy and all of that?"
"Ah, but Mustang—may I call you Mustang?—that is the point. It's unexpected, and defies convention. And why shouldn't it? When you think about the so-called Christian virtues, humility, temperence and so on, too often they're designed to keep people in check. Religion as social control, as it were." Dante set aside her wine glass, growing involved in her answer. "If everyone is taught to be content with their lot and to desire nothing—well, where is the passion for life? The struggle for greatness? The discoveries? It is ambition, the want for better things that fuels great men and great discoveries. Envy is not something to be feared."
"You argue well," Hughes noted. "And how does your son live up to his name?"
"Envy has the makings of a fine scientist," Holmenheim answered. "He certainly makes an excellent secretary. The rest I leave up to him."
It was a father's answer. Roy kept his expression neutral, sipping the wine he held. He liked to think of himself as a man of progressive ideals, but still that Holmenheim would acknowledge the relationship so clearly...Well, he was foreign. And, when you thought about it, acknowledging the child was only decent—but having him in his house alongside his legitimate children! That was something else entirely...He wondered what Mrs. Elric would have thought of that.
It appeared Hughes was thinking along similar lines. "How long have you been secretary to Mr. Holmenheim?"
"It would be four years now," Envy answered thoughtfully. "But in a way it seems much longer. Like I've always been here." There was something in the way he said that, something in the glance that crossed between him and Dante—
Cats who have got the cream.
Still four years—Roy thought back to the woman in the newspaper photo of three years ago. Sweet, charitable and loving—but how forgiving would she have been of her husband's bastard living in her house?
"We named my little precious after my wife's mother. Alicia is every bit as gorgeous as her name sounds! And my dear Gracia is gracious indeed!" Hughes mooned over his absent family a few moments then continued. "It was her choice of name—then she has always been good at making decisions. Such sensibility! So refined—but what else can you expect from a mother?" He turned suddenly to Holmenheim. "I expect it was your wife who named your sons—Edward seems very prosaic after the conversation we've been having."
Roy happened to be studying the painting behind Dante—if he watched Hughes go stupid over his wife he'd end up strangling him—so he didn't miss the sudden bitterness that crossed Lady Dante's face or the slight curl to her lip. It was gone in a second but it was jarring—Roy was broken out of these reflections as Holmenheim laughed.
"Yes, they're hardly the names I would have chosen...Trisha—that is, my wife—was something of a romantic. She insisted on naming Edward after his Majesty—and as your Foreign Affairs people were looking into my application for a residence permit at the time, I thought such an English gesture a prudent choice. We wanted something with Classical connotations for his brother, and originally had Alexander in mind. But when he was born he turned out to be such a round baby. All smiles and happiness and really, Alexander didn't suit him at all. So Alphonse." Holmenheim set his wine glass down. "I take it you've met the boys then?"
"Yes, they were good enough to greet us upon our arrival. They're remarkably polite for their years."
"There is very little by way of childish amusements around here," Holmenheim explained. "They're both used to the company of their elders. Compared to English children their age, my sons are years ahead, not just socially but academically as well."
This display of fatherly pride did not seem to endear itself to Dante. "I sent them back to their studies," she said shortly. "Polite as they are there is a place for children."
"Boys must be boys. As a matter of fact, I wanted to have a word with Tucker. If you'll excuse me, I'll see you all at dinner—ah, Curtis. What's the matter?"
The giant loomed as inconspicuously as possible and announced there had been a phonecall from Doctor Marcoh. Due to an unforeseen complication he would be unable to make his way to Lincolnshire until tomorrow.
"Well, that is a pity," Holmenheim said. "Still, it can't be helped. Have our guests been shown to their rooms yet?"
Curtis answered in the negative. "They're ready. I was on my way to inform you when the phone rang."
"Then I'll take them upstairs myself. Gentleman, if you will...?"
Roy hastily put his wine glass aside and followed Holmenheim and Hughes along the corridor and up the eleaborately carved wooden staircase. This must have been where it happened, he thought, pausing a moment at the top of the stairs. If she fell here—or was pushed...He shivered.
Hughes had asked a question and Holmenheim was answering it, leading the way down another corridor. Roy hastened to catch up.
"—entirely original, I believe, but architecture isn't my speciality. You're over here in the East Wing. I thought you'd like adjoining rooms. The school room is at the end of the hall, and the boys and Tucker are on either side of it."
"You seem to be remarkably blessed with regards to your sons," Hughes remarked idly. "All three of them."
Roy was startled. What the Dickens did Hughes mean by making such a forward remark?
Holmenheim met his gaze coolly. "Your forthrightness is not what one expects from an Englishman. Still, I suppose it does make sense to get this out of the way at the start. Envy is my son, I'm not ashamed of the fact, not will I try to hide it. I know Society at large will not approve of this fact, but I have little use for Society." And, his tone implied, I have little use for those who do not share my opinion.
"It would be good for Society if more fathers were to make such a stand," Hughes agreed. "But far be it from us to judge. I know Roy has come damnably close to finding himself inadvertantly blessed in the family way more than once—"
Roy spluttered angrily. "Maes! That's neither here nor there—"
"Don't worry, Roy. We all know that would it happen, you'd do the gentlemanly thing and marry the girl—"
"That's where we differ then," Holmheim said gravely. "I would not marry because it was the right thing—never." He shook his head, giving Roy and Hughes an almost wry smile. "It must seem strange to hear a thoroughly scientific soul such as myself speak of love, but I can think of only one reason to marry, and having married once I will never marry again." He bowed formally to his guests. "I'll leave you to settle in."
Roy watched him go. He was definitely a remarkable man. Great, even—he had that aura. "He's certainly an interesting study," he remarked quietly to Hughes. "Maes?"
His friend was already investigating their rooms. "I claim the one with the biggest bed!"