The Subtle Art of Subterfuge

Author – D. M Evans

Disclaimer – it's not mine

Rating FRM

Timeline/Spoilers – spoilers for Roy's parentage so let's say anything past chapter 60

Characters – Maes Hughes, Madame Christmas

Word Count - 6,704

Warnings- off screen violence, otherwise nothing unless you count a little AU speculation on Roy's upbringing

Summary – He's new to investigating but he's not doing it alone. Now if he only knew what Roy had gotten him into.

Author's note. - written for the fmagiftexchange for the prompt "Character(s)/Pairing(s): Maes Hughes & Madame Christmas Prompt: networking. This was fun to write. Wonders if I'm right in my guess as to who this is for. I hope you like it. And since the mod is my usual beta and she knew I didn't have hers, she very nicely beta'd this for me so thanks to SJ Smith

* * *

Maes suspected he had been assigned to Central without his friends as a punishment. He could never prove it, of course. It could all be a coincidence that he ended up here but he hadn't forgotten Bradley's hard stare as it froze him and Roy in the desert. He still felt convinced the Fuhrer had used some sort of arcane powers to overhear him promising to help push Roy to the top.

Being relocated to Central could be coincidence – and there was no denying being sent to the capitol city could be considered a plum assignment – but Mustang being sent to the Eastern headquarters was definitely punitive. Roy was a little too open, too many people knew how he felt about the war. He had been allowed to stay in Central briefly, paraded around as the Hero of Ishbal before being whisked off to the backwaters. Maes did wonder if Grumman had managed to pull a few strings or if the higher ups who resented Roy's age and power had no idea of his connection to the General. Maes bet on a mix of both.

One of the good things about Roy's new rank was he had access to a phone in his office and in his living quarters. Hundreds of miles might be between them but that didn't mean they were out of touch. Still, Roy's last call had been puzzling. His friend had been very upset, and more than a little drunk, but Maes didn't think this had to do with the dreams of the war that plagued them both. He had instructed Maes to go to the Nowhere Inn Particular and speak to Madame Christmas. The only other thing he had gotten out of Roy was something bad had happened in Central to someone Roy cared about and that the Madame had asked to speak to Maes directly. Mysteries intrigued him and even without the need to help a friend, Maes would have gone to meet Christmas out of curiosity.

The Nowhere Inn Particular had an old air to it, maybe a hundred years of life, if not more. It was at the end of a cul de sac and a few lights were on upstairs, making him wonder if there were actually still rooms for rent. This wasn't exactly the worst end of town but it wasn't the best, either. Maes knew there were a few brothels in these parts and, in spite of Roy's assurances as to what the Madame really did, he had to wonder. Roy, after all, had some fairly large blind spots. All Maes needed was for it to get back to Gracia that he was hanging out in brothels.

Inside, the public room was large, with a heavy fireplace along one wall, the bricks inside it discolored by soot. The functional hearth seemed less old than the fireplace, dating to a time when intricate carving was high fashion. It was nearly cold enough outside to warrant someone starting a fire. Where was Roy when you needed him? Only a few patrons had turned to mark his progress. Maes took that as a good sign. This wasn't a cliquish bar with a loyal clientele that would mark him as an outsider and watch him warily. It was one of those popular places where people came and went constantly.

Maes wended his way past the cluster of wooden tables and chairs to the bar. A dark-haired girl with a wild blond blaze slicing like lightning from her crown to her left ear worked the taps. Roy had told him to look for this girl. There was a tightness to her, as if there was a hint of mourning behind her eyes. He sat on a stool and waited for her attention. When she came over, he smiled at her. "Hi, are you Orianne?"

Her blue eyes narrowed. "Yes."

"Roy told me to tell you he says hello and that he wants his book back."

Her shoulders relaxed as she laughed. "Tell him I am not the one who took that book."

"He gets stubborn about certain things."

"You definitely know our Roy boy." Orianne smiled at him, wiping the scarred bar in front of him. "Can I get you something?"

"I'll just have a coffee." Maes leaned in, dropping his voice. "Roy said I should talk to Madame Christmas. I believe she wanted to speak to me as well. Is she available?"

Orianne turned and got a carafe to pour the coffee. "I'll go check."

While she disappeared into another room, Maes took a look around. He spotted another room off the main one. He could see the dart board and hear the clack of billiard balls. The bar was nicer than he had expected. Roy had told Maes about his upbringing, but only in drips and drabs, as if he didn't trust even his closest friends with all the details. Given how rough of a start in life Roy had gotten, Maes didn't blame him and, if half the stories about this mysterious Christmas were true, he could see why Roy wanted to keep it secret.

He had nearly finished his cup when Orianne came back. A vague thought ran through his mind about how pretty she was before he crushed it. He loved Gracia, honestly and deeply, but that apparently didn't mean he was blind to beautiful women. Just as well he was involved. It would be strange to date one of Roy's adoptive sisters. He could just imagine Roy to be a meddlesome brother or was he projecting his own traits onto his friend?

She crooked a finger at him and Maes followed Orianne down a hall to the last room on the left. She rapped on the door. "I've brought him," Orianne called through the wood.

"Let him in," came the muffled answer.

"You should stop back out at the bar when you're done and try the house special sandwich. I think you'd like it." Orianne smiled at him.

"I'll try," he replied noncomittantly. Maes suspected he was being flirted with and, judging on Roy's behavior, had to wonder if it were for real or if he was in danger of being pumped for information.

Madame Christmas was on her feet when he entered the room. Neither she nor the room was what he expected. Roy didn't have too many photos of his adopted mother and if she was the spy Maes thought her to be, that made sense. The room had the feel of an old-time library, lots of shelves and leather furniture to curl up in. The Madame herself was fortyish, maybe a little older, and beginning to put on middle age weight. Her features were a little too sharp to have ever been beautiful but she was still striking and Maes had no doubt in her youth she had been a head turner for her sheer presence, if not her looks. Still, there was something a bit hard about this woman, something formidable that he wouldn't want to be up against. Smoke wreathed around her head, billowing up from a cigarette in a long silver holder. The cool scrutiny left him squirming.

Christmas held out her hand. "So you're Maes. You're exactly what I was expecting."

He shook her hand. "I'm afraid Roy was less precise in describing you."

She snorted and swept a hand to a chair at a gaming table that sat in the center of the room. "He sees me with the eyes of a child." She sat, tapping ashes into a crystal ashtray.

"He did mention you took him in when he was very young." Maes studied her face, wondering if he was supposed to know even that much but there was nothing in her expression to read.

"He told me you could be trusted and he had taken you into his confidence." Christmas took a drag on her cigarette. "Did he tell you my real name?"

"No, just Christmas."

"It's Chris Mustang. I gave him my name since he didn't have one." Dark eyes drilled into him. "Do you know anything about the poppy trade?"

He shook his head. "I know what opium is and I know some of it has found its way here, even without the rail system reaching to Xing any more."

She contemplated her cigarette's glowing tip for a moment before speaking. "One of my informants told me about girls being sold to the opium houses here, brought across the desert to add an exotic touch for a certain segment of Amestrian society. Let's just say that military officers were convinced to raid a few of those houses and liberate the girls. Of course, the military response was to send all the girls back to Xing except for the sickest. Roy's mother died in the hospital before she could be deported. We did get Roy's age, first name and birthday out of her before she succumbed and she made me promise to watch out for him. I felt sorry for her." Chris shrugged. "And for that poor little three year old growing up in such a place, addicted to the opium smoke. He was the tiniest thing when I brought him home and so very sick."

Maes blinked, trying not to show Roy hadn't been this honest with him. He wondered if Roy even knew or remembered that time. "They didn't try to deport him, too?"

"They weren't concerned with one small child," she replied elusively. "Once his poor little system cleared, I realized he was one of the smartest fosters I've ever taken in and he tells me you're one of the smartest people he's ever met. Given the alchemists he knows, people who keep so much knowledge in their heads, that's a real compliment."

A blush rose up Maes' cheeks. "Thanks. I don't know why I'm here though, ma'am. I know it wasn't to hear all about this, though it does make sense of a few things. Roy was very upset when he called me."

Her dark eyes dimmed. "I have no doubt he was. Roy was very close to Mohana."

"Mohana?"

"Another of my fosters. She and Roy grew up together. She was half Ishbalan but you would have thought her to be full blooded. I managed to protect her when they were rounding up Ishbalans, taking them to those horrible camps." Chris' lips pinched and Maes saw the temper flare in her eyes. "Roy said you were assigned to Investigations."

"Yes, I've just started," he said, instantly wary. What had that crazy alchemist gotten him into?

"Mohana was approached by a group of soldiers last week here at the bar and, while they weren't hostile, there was something under the surface. That night, someone raped and killed her."

Maes' stomach flipped. He knew where this was going and it could get him into a lot of trouble. "I'm sorry."

She waved him off. "What I want is to prove if those soldiers did it or not. I spoke to the authorities who told me it wasn't their concern if a prostitute died. I informed them in no uncertain terms that Mohana was a librarian and their stance didn't change. No human involved, no crime worth investigating."

Maes flinched. "That's horrible! They said that?"

Chris grunted. "You are young. Don't worry, you'll hear the older investigators say it. There is a hierarchy in who is deemed important, young man, based on country of origin, sex, religious beliefs and career."

Maes glanced away. He didn't want to think about it but he also didn't doubt it was true. He had seen soldiers rape Ishbalans during the war and when he reported it, he had been told to keep his mouth shut. "If the soldiers did it, my superiors aren't going to like me looking into it." He turned back to Chris, the corners of his mouth turned down. "I'm not sure that they'll do anything, even if I have proof."

"I know that. I'm not expecting you to take it to your superiors."

"Oh?" Maes' pulse picked up speed like a truck with no brakes.

Chris leaned her elbows on the table, peering at him closely. "I think you and I can help each other. Roy told you what I do, yes?"

Maes was all too aware that this whole conversation was making him sweat. He scrubbed a hand over his chin before answering. "He mentioned something about you having the biggest information gathering system in the country and beyond."

A hint of a smile crossed her face. "Exactly. I think that could be an asset to a young officer looking to move up in Investigations."

"And if I get caught passing information to you, I could get executed for treason," Maes said, feeling a tightness growing in his gut.

Chris snubbed out her cigarette with a slow deliberate motion. "There are risks, of course. The flow of information need not be constant. However, some things would be worth taking that risk. I wouldn't expect you to pay for my information." She sat back, smiling. "Roy would have a tantrum and I'm sure you've witnessed that boy's ability to flail about in a snit."

In spite of the tension, Maes couldn't hold in a hearty laugh at that. "It's amazing someone so little can make so much noise."

"He always could," Chris agreed. "On the other hand, I can pay you for information."

Maes shook his head. "That wouldn't be right. Finding whoever did this to his foster sister obviously means a lot to Roy." Maes weighed his options, his own personal safety versus helping his best friend and finding justice for a woman no one cared about. "What do I do if I find out who is responsible?"

"Tell me and I'll be sure that the proper people know about it."

Maes rubbed his chin. "All right, I think this could be very beneficial and I don't like the idea of people getting away with whatever they want."

She stuck out her hand again. "Then we have a deal."

Maes shook on it. "What can you tell me about the night it happened?"

Chris got up and took a book down from the shelves, an oversized atlas. She pulled a file out from inside of it. "It's all in here. I already know their names. I just want to know if they killed her or if it was a random act of violence. Read the files then ask if you have other questions. You can take that with you or read it here."

"I'd rather read it here," he said.

"I'll have Orianne come in and bring you something to eat." Chris' cool features melted a little. "But first, tell me, how is Roy?"

Maes saw the earnest look on her face, a mother's concern for her child. "He's mostly his usual self, sometimes, or at least he tries to be. The things they made the alchemists do in the desert doesn't sit well with him and it shouldn't." Maes didn't like the judgmental tone in his voice but he couldn't help it. He wasn't sure exactly if the alchemists could have done anything to avoid being used as living weapons but the things they had wrought were more horrible than any gun. He wasn't sure why. The people he had shot were no less dead. "He has bad dreams…we all do."

"I suspected as much. He lied to me about it and try as I might, I never taught that boy how to lie all that well. He'd rather just lie by omission." Chris tapped her empty silver holder against her lips. "I worry about him."

"I know what you mean." Maes made a face. "He's not happy being out East but I have no doubt Roy will make the most of it."

"He is very good at that."

"I've noticed. He has Hawkeye and a few other very good men that he's chosen to help him." He wanted to give this woman a bit of comfort. "Hawkeye will keep him in shape. He's afraid she'll shoot him if he misbehaves too badly."

Chris snorted. "That girl had him wrapped around her finger the moment he entered her father's house."

"And he has me. I'm just a phone call away." Maes sighed. "But with me this far away, I'll never teach that guy how to dress himself. He has no style." He ran his hands down his purple suit jacket that he wore over a topaz shirt.

Roy's mother laughed. "I'm quite sure he'd argue that point. I've never seen a boy who loved his reflection more."

"Don't I know that." Maes huffed, trying not to snicker at the memories. "I've had dates who took less time getting ready than Roy when we're going out on the town."

"I'm sure." Her mobile lips pursed. "If you're wondering why I told you so much about Roy's life, trust me, it's not something I do normally. Roy wanted me to tell you. He thought you should know, to really understand him but he was afraid to do it himself. It hurts too much."

Maes stared at his feet. "Yeah, I'm sure." He couldn't even imagine it. Now he felt bad for all the times he yelled at Roy to lighten up and have fun back in the Academy. He had no idea Roy was holding in so much old hurt.

"Go ahead and read. Make yourself comfortable. I have a few things to tend to and I'll send Orianne back. Feel free to asked questions."

"I will." Maes got up and resituated himself in a leather chair before settling in with the file Chris had given him. A feeling of both dread and pride washed over him. What had he gotten himself into?

* * *

Maes poked at the ice in his egg cream, thoroughly distracted. The straw made ice clink in the chocolate drink. He had been tugged at the knot of Mohana's death for nearly a week and had gotten nowhere. So far no one seemed to notice he was sniffing around the young woman's death, or at least he hadn't been reprimanded yet.

"Maes, is everything all right?"

At the sound of Gracia's voice, his head snapped up. "Hmm?"

"You've been someplace else all night. I'm not sure you could tell me one thing that happened in the movie."

From her tone, Maes knew his inability would not be because he'd been distracted by making out with Gracia. "I'm sorry. I'm looking into something, the death of a young lady." He scowled. "That's about all I can tell you. Investigations are hush hush. There will be a lot of times I can't tell you things. The point is, I'm not sure how the girl got to where she was found and how her killer isolated her."

"Did she work?" Gracia asked.

Pushing his drink aside, curious that Gracia seemed interested in his work, Maes nodded. "A librarian."

"Was she killed near where she worked?"

"No, but she had relatives who work in a bar close to the base. She was found in an alley just a few blocks away." Maes leaned in closer and whispered, "I assumed that's where they followed her from and caught up to her."

"How horrible." Gracia winced then cocked her head to the side, "Wait, they? There was more than one?"

Maes brushed his hands over his koi pond shirt. Patterned with blooming lotuses and brightly colored fish on a pale watery blue background, Maes had found this treasure in a Xingese shop Roy had brought him to. The alchemist had whined piteously at its purchase. "It's a possibility."

"They must have laid a trap for her so they could hold of her without her screaming. I can't imagine any woman going up to a group of men she didn't know at night." Gracia's fingernails clicked on the table. "I don't think she would even if she did know them. If you came up to me when I was walking home some night and tried to get me to come over to you and you had a bunch of military friends I didn't know in tow, I'd tell you to call me later and keep walking."

Maes mulled that over, taking a sip of his chocolate drink. He didn't have any sisters and most of the girls he currently knew, Gracia being the exception, were soldiers. Roy had told him Christmas' girls were trained as spies; they were tough girls. Would they react the same way as Gracia? Would they be that cautious or had Mohana believed she could handle the situation? "I never thought of it like that. I'm going to talk to a few soldiers myself, to see if those women would feel the same. That's very helpful, Gracia."

"You're welcome. I hope it does help. I'm sure it's not easy to think like a woman and figure out why she would have been doing at the time," Gracia said.

"Well, you are mysterious creatures, that's for sure." Maes grinned at her.

Gracia laughed. "You have no idea."

Maes' lips thinned. He didn't but he really needed to figure it out quickly.

* * *

"You've staring at that file for days," Armstrong's voice startled Maes who half shoved the file under the stack on his desk.

He had thought he was being discreet. Roy had warned Maes not to underestimate the man. Maes admittedly didn't know Armstrong well, mostly just the rumors about Armstrong's breakdown when they all had been in the desert and hadn't given enough credence to Roy's warning to not let that color his opinion. "It's nothing."

Armstrong rested a hand on Maes' rickety, cramped desk. Maes was astounded at just how big that appendage was, how solid. He could imagine it covering his whole face as the alchemist ripped Maes' head off without effort. "Are you sure? It looks like something is bothering you, Major."

Maes sucked at his teeth. He wasn't used to his new rank yet. Technically he and Armstrong were equals but in this office, the alchemist answered to him. Maes knew that while his own career was still heading up, Armstrong's refusal to fight had ended his advancement. If not for his family name, the alchemist might have been shot as a traitor out in the desert. Maes had watched Gran, who was their immediate boss, do just that to someone he thought was worthless. He could order Armstrong to leave it alone but Roy's warning roiled through Maes' head. Roy had also said Armstrong was the most loyal and trustworthy men he knew. Given what Maes had just learned about Roy, he doubted the alchemist would say that lightly. "I'm doing a friend a favor but it could be a bad thing for me if I'm caught."

Armstrong's thick lips tugged down, his mustache sagging. The big man glanced around the small office they shared then leaned down, whispering. "And you believe it is worth the risk?"

"A young woman of Ishbalan descent was raped and murdered."

Understanding sparked in Armstrong's blue eyes. "And you think soldiers did it."

"They were bothering her at a pub before hand." Maes pushed the files toward Armstrong. "I've gotten as far as I can without calling attention to myself. None of them have any reprimands in their files except for Wilson but that was talking back to an officer. That would be a large jump from insubordination to rape and murder."

Armstrong picked up the files and went to his desk with them. Maes let the alchemist read them in silence, confident that Madame Christmas had left no trail back to herself in those files, if she could, in fact, influence military files. Maes didn't doubt she could. He tried to get through some of the paperwork he had to do, wondering if he had just made a career and freedom ending mistake with Armstrong.

Finally, Armstrong came back over, putting the files back. He handed one to Maes. "Captain Shotts. My father served with his father and had nothing good to say about the whole family. They're like my family, in the military for generations with the sense of entitlement that brings."

"Have you met this man? Do you think he's capable?" Maes asked.

Armstrong nodded, his forelock bobbing. "I know he did during the war. The Ishbalans weren't people to him and he was fond of saying so."

Maes felt cold fingers run up his spine. He hadn't realized that about Shotts family. I'm still learning how to investigate, he reminded himself. This could be even worse for him than just investigating on his own. He would be going up against an important and influential family. "Thanks. That helps, Armstrong."

"Anything I can do, let me know," he grumbled, his dislike for the captain blatant.

"I'll take you up on that," Maes promised.

The day couldn't move fast enough. He went to his apartment on base, changed into a deep blue shirt with brilliant red flowers and dark pants, before heading to the Nowhere Inn Particular. If Roy saw him in this outfit again, there would be a repeat of his first tantrum where in he swore he would never go out with Maes anywhere unless he was allowed to dress him first. Roy just didn't seem to understand if people were looking at the clothes and not Maes' face, they wouldn't remember seeing him. Surely Christmas would have taught Roy that.

Orianne was working the bar again when Maes arrived. She smiled at him as he took his seat. "You came back, cutie. What can I get for you?"

Maes blushed. He knew this was part of the act, or at least he hoped so, but he couldn't help being flustered at the attention. "I'll have a beer. Is the Madame in?"

"I'll tell her you're here." Orianne pulled down the tap, pushing him the amber brew before heading off.

Maes had finished off his beer and had been watching the other patrons when Orianne came back for him. He followed her to the same room as before. This time, the Madame didn't get up to greet him. She was listening intently to someone on the phone, pointing with a pencil to a chair. Maes took a seat.

She held the phone out to him. "Roy."

Surprised, Maes took the receiver. "Hey, Roy…yes, I'm dressed appropriately to be in a bar…the shirt you hate, the one with the red flowers….I am not insulting your mother with it…are you going to just talk nonsense? I'm going to tell you all about my last five dates with Gracia in excruciating detail if you don't shut up…that's better. Yes, I think I am making progress. I'm about to fill Mrs. Christmas in on that right now…what do you mean Riza nearly shot you this morning? What did you do to her?...well, I'd have shot you, too." Maes rolled his eyes. "Goodbye, Roy." He hung up then looked at the young man's mother.

She held up her hands. "I did my best with him but Roy had a strong personality."

Maes snorted. "Don't I know it."

"So, you mentioned there was progress."

"Only a little," he said, feeling vaguely embarrassed by that. He felt sure this intelligent woman would have done better on her own. He took out a small piece of paper from his pocket bearing nothing but Shotts name. "This name from your list seems to be the best possibility and that supposition is based only on the word from another soldier from a multi-generation of service family. He said he'd seen Shotts raping Ishbalan women during the war. I still have no proof."

"What do his female coworkers have to say about him?" Christmas held the note over the crystal ashtray and flicked her lighter on.

"Coworkers?" Maes grimaced. He had so much to learn. He felt like he was floundering. "I didn't think to ask them. Mostly I've been trying to surreptitiously find out where the men on the list were and checking their records." He sighed. "I haven't had as much time as I'd like. General Gran keeps us busy and he is…" Maes winced, remembering Gran gunning that general down in the desert. "I want to be sure I don't end up on the bad side of him. I'm trying to be as secretive as I can be."

"I know exactly what sort of man Gran is," Christmas replied darkly. She fit a cigarette into her holder and lit it, watching the smoke billow up before offering up some advice. "You're new to your job, I know that. Here's something to consider. Men who like to hurt women often don't get along with women in general, especially if they have to work with them. Shotts can't hurt the women he works with so he takes it out on girls he finds elsewhere."

Maes nodded, seeing she had been swayed to thinking of Shotts as the perpetrator. "I know he does have to work with some women. I didn't think he'd try anything with them and if it's Ishbalans he doesn't like, I'm not sure there are any left in the military. I know there was a culling." Maes spat the last word out in distaste.

"Being a young man, you probably haven't had many experiences yet with someone paying you unwanted attention. Women often get a second sense about a man, an idea that he might want to hurt her or screw her or both." Christmas blew out a ring of smoke, offering nothing to blunt her harsh words. "Even if the man hasn't done anything overt, there is that sense. She will try to do anything to not be alone with the man. It most likely won't be in his official record because there's been nothing to report or, even if there has been, she might be afraid of what will happen to her if she does report him."

"I understand. I hadn't thought of that." Maes stroked his chin, his beard rough against his fingers. "I'm an only child. I haven't learned to see things from the female prospective. I guess that's where working with you will come in handy."

"I'll have you train some with the older girls as well. Women are not one size fits all." Chris grinned around her cigarette.

Maes snorted. "I'm glad of that. My Gracia is one of a kind."

Chris pointed the glowing end of her cigarette at him. "Being brave enough to be seen with you in that shirt, I'm sure she would have to be."

"Hey! I see where Roy gets it from." Maes scowled at the older woman. "It's all part of distracting people from my face, which you can't tell me is a bad thing. Roy says that all the time."

"He is a bit of a brat, yes."

"I thought you would have told him a little about using clothing as camouflage."

She waved him off. "Roy has no talent for that. He is and always has been very fussy about his clothing. He wasn't that good with disguises so I cultivated his other natural talents. What do you think about when you think about Roy, the very first things that come to mind that would make you dismiss him as not dangerous?"

Maes pondered that for a moment then his jaw dropped. "His reputation is he's a lazy womanizer and, ever since we got back from the war, you could add drinker to that list." He frowned. "That last bit could be true. So, that's Roy's cover."

Christmas nodded. "Many of the girls you see him flirting with are all part of the network."

Maes' eyes widened. "That many? That's impressive."

"Thank you. I think you should see if any of Shotts' coworkers will talk with you. If not, give me their names. I might get one of my girls close to them. There are just some things a woman won't talk about with a man."

Maes got up, hearing the dismissal in those words. "I'll try my best."

* * *

"Thanks for meeting with me," Maes said. He had wondered why Lieutenant Alice Wells had chosen the basement level of Central Library as their meeting place but it became clear once he wormed his way down into it. Being subterranean, there were no windows and in the dead quiet of the 'document' level, they would hear anyone approaching them. He had gone through the trouble of looking through the entire level before settling in the alcove furthest from the stairwells. He had no doubt Alice had done the same.

Alice folded into the chair across from him but couldn't seem to sit still in it. She was more delicately boned than he was expecting, almost too thin to make a convincing soldier. He wondered if she had ever done anything but the steno pool. Of course, he could be unfairly stereotyping her. Riza wasn't necessarily a big woman and she was deadly as hell. Still, there was a certain solidness to Riza that Alice didn't have. "I almost didn't. I could get into so much trouble."

"I'm not looking to make trouble for either of us," he assured her.

"Why are you poking into the captain's business?" Alice's head snapped around, her curly red hair springing to and fro. It reminded him of a chicken. Seemingly satisfied that no one was listening, she added, "He wouldn't like it."

"He's not going to know." Maes couldn't tell this young woman about the investigation. "Can you trust me that it's important?" He wanted to promise her that if she told him, he'd make sure Shotts wouldn't bother her ever again but he knew that might not be true.

Alice weighed her options then gave him a curt nod. "He likes to watch us work, especially the secretaries and adjutants. I mean he stares, for a long time and he gets too close to us. He has a hand on your shoulder or he's leaning on your chair. Sometimes, I've seen him behind me on the street when I leave work and I know there's no reason for him to be there." Alice's body shook. "There was one time he cornered me in the supply closet. If Sergeant Marshal hadn't come looking for staples." She shook again then popped out of the chair, hurrying off. "I've said too much."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," he called after her. "It's safe with me." Maes doubted she believed him and there was no sense in trying to keep her talking. There was nothing he was going to be able to prove against Shotts. It was all innuendo. His partnership with Roy's mother was not off to a great start.

He had managed to convince a few other women to talk to him but all of them had been as hesitant as Alice. The most they would say was Shotts made them uncomfortable; that he got just a little too close to them but there was nothing substantial to any of it. That aside, Maes felt convinced that this man had a hand in killing Mohana. Worse, he was sure there would never be enough evidence to prove it. Maes headed back to work. He would go to talk with Madame Christmas in the evening and tell her he had gone as far as he knew how with little result.

* * *

Maes walked into the Nowhere Inn Particular wearing the soberest clothing he owned, a black suit, something formal he had bought after a friend had died, and a deep blue shirt that Roy had given him. Maes thought he looked like an undertaker in the outfit but it was the one Roy insisted on if they had been going out on a double date. At least he did look good in the shirt and Maes thought the ensemble's somber air fit his mood.

He put a newspaper beside him when he sat at the bar. A girl he didn't know was working tonight. She was so pale, eyelashes and eyebrows invisible against her white skin, that he thought she had to have come from the cold reaches of Drachma. She smiled at him when she bustled over.

"From Orianne's description, you must be Roy's friend. Can I get you anything to drink?"

"A beer." Maes thought for a moment about adding whiskey to it but he didn't have Roy's capacity for hard liquor. "And I need to speak to the Madame if she's in."

"She is. I'll go check to see if she has time for visitors."

Maes drained his beer too quickly and another of the bartenders, a burly man who no doubt doubled as a bouncer, gave him another. Maes' hand shook as he drank. The second beer had gone straight to his head, a totally bad idea he realized in hindsight. The winter-white girl returned for him, leading him, newspaper clutched tightly in his hand, down the now-familiar hallway. Maes wondered about that, realizing that after so many visits he didn't need a guide. The girl functioned as a chaperone, making sure he didn't go off somewhere else in the Inn. He wondered what Christmas had hiding here, something he should have been concerned with earlier.

Christmas sat at the gaming table, shuffling cards. "Do you know how to play poker?"

"I do," he said, not taking a seat.

"Really? Astrid said you looked very upset." Christmas' dark gaze cut upward at him. "You wear too much of your emotions on your face. You're like Roy in that respect." Her hand waved toward the seat across from her. "You might be more easily trainable than Roy. Your face has more of an edge."

Maes tossed the newspaper on the table as he sat down. "Shotts killed himself. Why do I find that so hard to believe?"

Her eyebrows cocked up. "You think I had something to do with killing him?"

Maes studied her face. Nothing showed there. He didn't want to play poker with this woman. "I don't know. I considered it. From everything I learned about the man, he was an egotist, entitled to everything he wanted. I'm not sure that type of man would kill himself. His mighty sense of self-worth wouldn't allow for it."

"I'm not in the business of assassinating people," she replied in a tone as bland as oatmeal.

Maes doubled his scrutiny but there wasn't a hint of anything coming from her, not guilt, not offense at his accusation. "I didn't think that you were but this was personal."

"I'll grant you that." Christmas went back to shuffling cards. "Consider this, Shotts was from a very important family. Certain tidbits about his activities with the Ishbalan women and his suspected attacks here fell into equally important hands. He took his life rather than face the consequences of his actions."

Maes scowled. That was plausible. It was just as plausible this woman had the man killed for taking her foster child from her so violently. "I suppose that makes sense."

"Are you sorry you investigated this for me and Roy?"

Maes considered that question then shook his head. "Shotts deserved what he got."

Christmas smiled and got up. "Stay there, young man. In fact, use my phone, call Roy. He might not know yet. I'm going to round up some of the girls. We're going to show you how to really play poker. I'm betting you can lose all those tells you have."

Maes chuckled. "I'm sure I can with your help." He sat at her desk after she disappeared. He had just gained a very interesting mentor. He might not like how this first case ended, exactly, but Maes suspected that might be true of any investigation he was part of. He dialed the phone, deciding the first words out of his mouth wouldn't be about the death just in case someone was listening in. He was learning, after all. "Roy, guess what, I'm playing poker with the Madame."