A Kind of Alchemy

by London Lampy

Chapter 13

"Can one of you get that?" Fran's voice floated down the stairs into the living room.

As Fudge was busy ironing her uncle a shirt for the day ahead Sam went to find out who was ringing the doorbell. He opened the door to find Ed stood on the doorstep, and immediately wished he'd got Fudge to answer it instead. It was a week since the party and while Sam's nose had healed his feelings were still bruised from Ed's punch and rejection of him. He hadn't spoken to Ed since then, he'd only seen him through the window coming and going, and Sam had avoided as far as possible being outside the front of the house at the times Ed went to and from work.

Sam looked at him, Ed appeared tired, his normally bright brown eyes were dull and slightly bloodshot, his thick rust coloured hair looked like it could use a wash and his skin was sallow.

"What do you want?" Sam asked tersely.

"Can you give this to Fran?" He held an envelope out, Sam didn't take it. "It's half of the money I owe him for Gran's doctor's bill, tell him I'll give him the rest next time I get paid."

"Thanks." Sam accepted the money, it wasn't his to refuse. "How is she?" He thought he ought to ask, if nothing else Fran would want to know..

"Dead. She died late last night." Ed's voice was flat.

"Oh...I'm sorry." Sam didn't know what else to say.

"Why? You didn't like her."

"I'm still sorry though, I didn't wish her dead." He felt slightly hypocritical saying this, he remembered Fudge doing just that, and he hadn't exactly disagreed with her at the time.

"Perhaps it was for the best...she was loosing her mind, but..." Ed rubbed his eyes, and Sam realised that he was trying not to cry.

"Do you want to come in?" He offered, pity overcoming his previous animosity.

"No, thanks." Ed shook his head. "I have to go to the telegraph office and send a wire to my parents to tell them, then I have to arrange the funeral." He rubbed his eyes again. "Just see that Fran gets the money."

"I will." Sam said as Ed turned to go.

Back inside the house Fran was now in the living room, Sam handed him the envelope of money and told him the news. "Poor Edmund." Fran said as he pulled his freshly ironed shirt on. "Did he say if his parents were coming back to the city to help?"

"No, he was just off to send them a wire."

"They never should have left them alone with her like that." Fran shook his head, buttoning up the cuffs. "It was very irresponsible of them."

"Why did she die?" Fudge chipped in.

"He didn't say, he wasn't here very long."

"So are you two friends again now?" She asked Sam.

"I don't think so, but I guess we aren't enemies either."

"Damn! We actually made some money." Fran exclaimed as Ozzy showed him the books for the last few weeks takings.

"Yep." The visk nodded. "So how about a pay rise boss?"

"Hmm, I'm not sure we made quite that much."

"It was a joke." Ozzy explained.

"Oh...yes." Fran found it utterly impossible to know when Ozzy was joking, visks didn't really have mobile faces like humans so their expressions hardly changed, and Ozzy's idea of a joke was frequently not what most people would consider a joke. "But perhaps there's enough for a small bonus."

Mulligan had left a couple of days previously, and although Fran missed him rather than moping about the magician's absence he was still feeling good about him having turned up in the first place, especially as it had been so utterly unexpected.

Someone knocked on the office door. "Come in!" Fran called out cheerfully as he stood beside his own desk. His good mood lasted until the door opened to reveal the bulky form of Mother.

"Hello Fran, I trust you had a good Midwinter, yes?" The man asked as he entered.

"Yes, thank you." Fran replied guardedly, the atmosphere in the office rapidly changing. "What can I do for you?"

"I don't need a reason to visit one of my businesses. Ah, the books." He crossed the small area of carpet to Ozzy's desk to peer over the visk's shoulder. "Oh ho, you turned in a respectable profit for once, didn't you?"

"Yes." Fran felt his heart sink. Mother was bound to want to take a cut of it, or all of it.

"Don't look so worried Fran, you think I'm interested in this?" He poked the bottom line of Ozzy's account book with one short, pudgy finger. "I make more than that in a single day, a single hour perhaps. No, I don't want your pocket change."

Fran was tempted to ask him what the hell he did want, but he thought better of it. While Ozzy busied himself putting the account books away Mother poked around the office, taking files off shelves and flipping through them, rifling paper work and generally making it clear that he could do what he liked in there. Fran felt horribly tense, he wanted Mother out, out of his office and out of his theatre, but he knew that whatever the man had said this was no casual visit, it was bound to have a purpose, and Mother was just making him stew for a while because he could.

"Do you still have that boy, the one you traded your majority for?" Mother asked as he perused a pile of receipts.

"Yes." Fran replied through gritted teeth.

"Not bored of him yet, no? Perhaps he isn't a tight as he used to be now, do you want another? I've plenty more where he came from, I'll trade you for another one percent. I've got a sweet faced little fourteen year old, new in town, if you fancy something a bit younger, hmm?"

Fran glanced at Ozzy, the visk was blinking his black eyes rapidly, a sure sign that he was unhappy at Mother being in the office too. "No, I'm fine." Fran said as evenly as he could, disgusted at the man.

"Fine, you're fine." Mother sounded amused. "That's good, that's very good, but you might change your mind when you see him at the auction." An unpleasant smile spread across Mother's face.

"Auction?" Fran echoed, not liking the sound of this.

"Yes Fran, auction. I normally hold them in one of my other establishments, but they can become somewhat crowded, yes? So this time I will be using The Empress, plenty of space, attractive surroundings, should help to loosen wallets."

"What sort of auction?" Fran asked in a near whisper.

"What sort of auction he asks." Mother sounded amused. "A virginity auction Fran. A dozen pretty young boys and girls all with their cherries still intact and a discerning audience ready to pay handsomely for the privilege of deflowering them."

"No!" Fran exclaimed. "Absolutely not, that's both highly immora and illegal."

"Highly immoral?" Mother laughed so hard his cheeks shook. "Bless you, but you have no choice." His tone took on a menacing edge. "You don't own this place, remember? Although if you really want perhaps we could come to some arrangement and I'll take my auction else where."

"What arrangement?" Fran felt sick.

"A swap, give me back the country boy, he might be spoiled goods by now but he'd still make me a pretty penny, and an extra lot for the auction. That little niece of yours, an exotic looking dark thing like that, people would pay over the odds to split her open."

"GET OUT OF HERE NOW!" Fran shouted, this was more than he could take, he didn't even like Mother knowing Fudge existed, let alone talking about her like that.

"Or you'll do what Fran, or you'll do what?"

"I..." Fran stopped, knowing that he was utterly impotent against the odious man. He felt his shoulders slump and he wanted to sit down, it was as if he'd been winded.

"I know where I'm not wanted, never let it be said that Mother outstays his welcome." He laughed. "So I'll go, but I'll be in touch soon with the details of the auction."

As Sam and Fudge crossed the stage carrying a long ladder between them Sam glanced up at where Victor was finally putting the finishing touches to the flower meadow back cloth. The painter glanced down at him and winked, making Sam colour and smile to himself. Fran had finally grudgingly agreed to give him some time off to sit for Victor again and the date was set for two days time. Fortunately for Sam Fudge was carrying the front end of the ladder and therefore didn't see his reaction to Victor's wink, or she would have undoubtedly pointed it out.

"Do you think Ed is going to stay living in the house now Mrs Anglemol's dead?" Fudge mused as they manhandled the ladder through the auditorium, trying their best not to damage the paint or plaster work.

"I don't know, but if he does stay he's got to want to redecorate." Sam shuddered as he recalled all the gods eye's staring blankly.

"Perhaps we should offer to help." Fudge suggested. "I feel bad for him."

"Yeah." Sam agreed. "There's loads of spare paint and stuff here, we should ask your uncle if we can give some to Ed."

They managed to get the ladder out to the street with only minimal damage to The Empress' paint work and then started work changing the forthcoming attraction posters outside. Sam climbed up while Fudge footed the ladder, took the old posters off him and handed him the new ones to go into the glass fronted hinged frames. As he worked Sam thought about Ed and family in general, Mrs Anglemol may have been a crazy old bat but he'd clearly cared for her a great deal. Sam's bout of homesickness after the party had led to him finally write to his parents, or at least his mother, he still had nothing he wanted to say to his father. He'd simply put that he was safe and well and that she wasn't to worry about him. He'd then given the letter to Mulligan before he left and asked him to post it somewhere that wasn't Parnell so that the post mark wouldn't give his whereabouts away. He'd considered adding the brooch into the envelope as well, but in the end he'd decided against it as it was far too valuable to risk getting lost in the post.

Once they had finished changing the posters they returned the ladder as carefully as they could to its home in the wings. Then Fudge found that Earnest was on his tea break and decided to join him, so to give them some time alone Sam went to visit Fran in his office to ask about the possibility of using some of his surplus paint to help Ed redecorate.

When he heard footsteps from above Sam stopped at the bottom of the narrow staircase that led up to the office to allow whoever it was to descend first. Looking up he expected to see Fran or Ozzy coming down, but the person he actually saw turned his blood to ice.

"Hello son." Mother said when he noticed Sam. "You didn't expect to see me again, did you, no?"

All Sam could do was shake his head, he looked behind the man to see if the two burly men who had chained him up on Mother's orders were with him, but to his relief they weren't.

Mother laughed as he reached the bottom of the stairs, then he stepped close enough for Sam to be able to smell that he'd eaten something with a considerable amount of garlic in it recently.

"Don't panic son, I haven't come for you. This time." His piggy eyes looked amused. "You cost Fran far too much for him to just go and hand you back, yes indeed, far too much."

"I cost Fran?" Sam frowned.

"You didn't think that I just gave you to him out of the kindness of my heart, did you?" Mother's phlegmy voice dripped with condescension.

"I..." Sam more or less assumed that he had. Fran had never explained exactly what he'd said to Mother to gain his freedom, and Sam had never thought to ask. "I don't know."

"You don't know? Oh ho, how ungrateful you are boy, you should be thinking of ways to repay him, yes you should."

"How much did he pay?" Sam asked. He knew how tight Fran's finances often were, and the thought that Mother had taken a substantial sum of money from Fran to rescue him made him feel horrible and guilty.

"How much did he pay?" Mother echoed. "You cost him far more than he could afford, far far more. Now if you'll excuse me I must be going, can't be standing here chit chatting all day, indeed not." He pushed past Sam and began to head down the small corridor that led out to the foyer, then turned, looked back and scrutinised him. "By the way son, I don't approve of the hair, I would never have allowed you to dye it such an unnatural shade." And with that parting sentiment he disappeared through the door.

Sitting on the couch in his living room Fran looked up from his newspaper, he'd just read the same article three times through without taking in a single word. Across the other side of the room Sam was slumped in an armchair chewing on his thumbnail staring into space and looking miserable. Fran knew that Sam had seen Mother come out of his office, and he wasn't at all surprised that the boy was upset. Sam had told him that Mother hadn't spoken to him except to criticise his new hair colour, although Fran got the feeling that he might be holding something back Sam had insisted that Mother had said nothing more.

Fran had sought to reassure Sam that the man's visit had nothing to do with him and just concerned boring financial matters, but this hadn't seemed to make any difference to Sam's mood. Fran himself was trying to act as normally as possible and not to let on how deeply concerned he was, the whole auction business was praying on him, but he wasn't succeeding very well. Fudge had mistaken his mood, assuming that he was preoccupied because he was missing Mulligan, and he hadn't disabused her of this. Although right at that moment he did rather wish that the magician was there, he'd most likely come up with a good way to deal with the situation.

"Edmund's home!" Fudge exclaimed, distracting Fran from his gloomy thoughts. She'd been sat on the window ledge for the past fifteen minutes watching for their neighbour to return. "I'll go and talk to him." Fudge being Fudge had become overexcited about the idea of helping him redecorate the house and wanted to tell him about it as soon as possible.

"No, I'll do it." Fran knew that his niece meant well, however she probably wasn't the best person to talk to a recently bereaved person about clearing out their dead relatives belongings. He gave Edmund a few minutes then went and knocked on his door. Fran's heart went out to Edmund as he was let into the house, Edmund looked pale and stressed, far from his normally cheerful demeanour. The living room was just as it had been when he'd been there on the night of the party and he tried to avoid staring too much.

"Sam told me your grandmother died." He said as he sat down on the old couch he'd laid Mrs Anglemol on a week earlier.

"Last night." Edmund nodded.

"If there's anything I can do to help..." Fran started.

"There's nothing I need." Edmund stated as he sat himself down on an uncomfortable looking chair under the baleful gaze of the golden haired sun goddess.

"Are your parents coming back?"

"No." Edmund shook his head. "They're too busy."

"Look, Sam and Fudge have got it into their heads that you might like to redecorate sometime." He tried to suppress a shudder as he glanced around. "And they want to help. I know what happened between you and Sam..."

"Nothing happened." Edmund interrupted.

"All right." Fran held his hands up. "I know why the two of you got into a fight, he clearly got the wrong idea, and you shouldn't have reacted the way you did, but if you can put that behind you they genuinely want to help."

"It all kind of seems a bit stupid now." Edmund sighed. "Tell them thank you, I could use some help, it's all a bit...much." He indicated the décor. "But not right now."

"Of course." Fran agreed. "When you're ready."

"Dirty sinner." A voice said from the other end of the room, and Edmund gave out a mirthless laugh. "You don't happen to want a parrot, do you?"

"No." Fran shook his head, then remembered something. "But I might know someone who does, leave it with me."

Sam was sitting on the edge of his bed staring at the small object that was resting in the palm of his hand. He now knew from looking in jewellery shop windows that the brooch was worth a great deal of money. The central diamond alone was worth at least one hundred pounds, and if you added to that the smaller diamonds, the pearls and the gold setting the whole thing would sell for a small fortune. Was it enough though he wondered, Mother had said that Fran had paid far too much for him, but just how much was too much? The only way he could see of ever hoping to pay Fran back was to sell the thing, but that came at its own price, because if he did he that he would never be able to return it to his mother.

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