It has been widely disputed what is the most appropriate range of time within which to consume breakfast. On one extreme, some people would say that it is impossible to develop an appetite as early as 6 am; on the other, there are those who would argue that past 9 am breakfast is no longer considered "breakfast" but rather "brunch". In any case, not once between 6 am and 9 am did John Boddy make an appearance downstairs to partake of sustenance.
He could not have been dreading the meal itself, because the vittles were quite good. A 'Full English Fry-Up' lay sprawled across the dining room table, consisting of eggs, bacon, sausages, fried bread, baked beans and mushrooms. At first Boddy's absence meant nothing to his guests, other than "More for me, less for you."
Only after Karissa had polished off several helpings of fried bread doused in syrup, in her seat next to Lily, whose plate displayed more variety – and remarkably more restraint – did she hear someone off to her side remark innocently, "Oh dear, where is Boddy this morning?"
It was Iris's voice that spoke, but nonetheless the entire breakfast tableau came to a halt, Agents and Sues alike.
The first to recover was Kelly. He resumed movement of his right hand to spread butter over the remainder of his rye toast. However, he said nothing.
"Perhaps he's feeling unwell," Rufous suggested in a snide tone. Once again he looked utterly flawless, although his alcoholism was still fresh in the Agents' memories of the night before.
"Spare me the theatrics! I don't buy the innocent act. What have you done with him?" Stephen resented the apathy that was so apparent on the Stu's features. More to the point, it was written clearly across his face how well-rested he was. How dare he flaunt the spectre of sleep before a man whose eye bags were so pronounced that, at the moment, even Lil' C would probably run from the sight!
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," Rufous replied blandly.
Kyle's fist clenched, jerked forward, and then retreated, thankfully beneath the cover of the table the entire time. The Stu's smirk was damn smug – and it irked him – yet it suited Rufous well. Likely he wore that expression always, regardless of whether he was in the middle of a lie or not. His arrogance was not nearly a reliable indicator of guilt.
Meanwhile, Karissa was having similar difficulties in determining whether the Sues' reactions were, in fact, just an act. Remembering the first fundamental error she'd committed after yesterday's dinner, she'd since succumbed to doubt that she had the mindset necessary of a good detective. Moreover, when had she been pronounced capable of recognizing guilt in another person? She could detect Sueishness, yes, but not innocence or lack thereof. Tiffany and Amber certainly looked clueless. If she had to hazard a guess, she would say that those two weren't involved in this murder... if indeed murder had already been done.
Lily couldn't help but notice the instant that her teammates began to grow more hostile in their demeanours. With the idea of diffusing the enmity in the room, she prepared a kick under the table to draw any – or all – attention to herself, but Karissa beat her to the goal and with different methods. Her friend abruptly pushed her chair back with a harsh shriek of wood on wood, and without a word, she dashed from the Dining Room. Lily thought she might be headed upstairs.
Unaccountably worried by this turn of events, she pushed against her own chair carefully, so as not to recreate the same discordant noise. "Please excuse me from the table," she said quietly. Kelly made to rise from his seat too, in an antiquated but charming gesture of respect, but she insisted against it. "There's no need for that. Not from you, at least," she added, as the other Agents stood to leave the table after her.
"Don't mind us. Of course we'll stay put right here while you go off and hold your conference," Iris simpered
Kyle said boldly, "Yes, you will." In reality, he had no method of enforcing his statement – not with all his weapons confiscated, and he'd only thrown a steak knife into his Astral Vault when no one was looking – but Iris didn't need to know that. For all she knew, he had a gadget that would stop her time. Charis was always churning out new devices.
Lily examined the Sues' still-full plates and decided that Kyle didn't need to bluff quite so forcefully. They might really continue to hang about the table if only to finish their breakfasts.
In any case, the Agents put some distance between themselves and the Dining Room, until they were all gathered in a huddle before the house's grand stairs. "Déjà vu," Lily murmured imperceptibly. No one really took notice of her utterance.
"If the fall of her steps is anything to go by, she ran all the way up to the third floor," Stephen suggested to the group. "She's stopped running now."
"Let's follow her."
Kyle had led the charge just past the second floor when all of a sudden the Agents heard a loud crashing sound from above. "Karissa!" They picked up their pace and rounded the curve of the banister to come in sight of the third floor. Front and centre in their line of vision was the master bedroom that occupied most of the floor. However, in the space where Boddy's bedroom door must once have been, there was no longer a door anymore. That piece was on the floor, minus part of the lock that had come unattached from the door. As well, a long piece of the door frame around the lock area had almost completely splintered off. It seemed clear that the door had been kicked in with quite tremendous force.
"Karissa?" Lily looked into the room and spotted her friend standing stock-still in the middle of a carpeted expanse. "Are you okay? This is your handiwork, isn't it? Why did you break down Boddy's door?"
"It was locked," Karissa replied, her posture barely changing as viewed from behind. "I'm sure that there were neater ways to remove the door, but I was in a hurry." She finally turned to face them, and she looked devastated. "Guys, Boddy's not here. Is he still among the living or isn't he?"
Kyle moved into the room to join the others. "It doesn't appear that Boddy's bed was slept in," he observed. "The covers still have their hospital corners and the top sheet was never folded up. See?" He demonstrated. "In the general area, there's an absence of the items that I would expect to see a man use prior to turning in for the night. Also, I would point out that his dressing gown hangs untouched on its hook, and his carpet slippers sit undisturbed under that shelf."
As Kyle was speaking, Stephen had gravitated towards a solid wooden wardrobe that sat in the corner of the room. Grabbing hold of its handles, he took a quick look inside. "His dinner clothes aren't present anywhere among these coat hangers," he reported.
Kyle took a deep breath and asked them all to account for their movements between twilight and the present hour.
Karissa offered to speak first. "After turning Kelly over to your care, I was just around the corner and out in the hallway all night. I only budged once past dawn, to take advantage of the amenities offered by the washroom. That break took me half an hour."
"Was showering for half an hour really necessary?" Kyle asked, bemused.
"Well, I had to change my clothes too!" In expressing exasperation, Karissa lost some of her despondency. "Was I the only one unable to determine how to unequip my dressphere? I guess so."
Lily was embarrassed to admit that she'd actually benefited from the comfort of her bed during the night. However, she still made a contribution to the discussion. "Occasionally I'm an early riser, and this morning I woke and was going to head below prematurely. I must have stepped into the hall only a minute after Karissa left, but instinct told me to linger, and so I was on guard until she came back. The hallway couldn't have been unattended for very long."
Kyle and Stephen were able to verify each other's alibis down to the last second, and they'd both seen the Stus go down to breakfast before themselves. Karissa had seen Amber walk down ahead of herself, and Lily had herded her neighbours Tiffany and Iris down the steps. "It's getting to be annoying that this place has so many staircases," Lily complained. "Karissa and I were going to descend together, but our 'charges' chose to go their separate ways. Imagine if the Sues got into the house's secret passages! We haven't accounted for those exits, and they'd be like mice in the woodwork."
This verbal reminder of the manor's not-so-secret passages visibly disturbed Kyle. "Isn't there also a servant's staircase somewhere hereabout? We should have been monitoring every possible route in and out of the more notable rooms from the start."
"Speaking of servants, who prepared the food earlier? Are there more flesh and blood bodies inside the house?" Stephen became overly excited at the idea that they might have overlooked something so important.
"Let me stop you right there," Karissa spoke slowly as she deliberated. "Seeing as Mrs. White is dead, such details as cooked food, clean linens and made-up beds can most likely be attributed to ordinary plotholes. Sorry, Stephen, but I wouldn't bother looking into the matter."
If they were to work from the assumption that Boddy had, by now, been killed then the logical next step would be to split up in a search for his corpse, which would provide irrefutable evidence of the fact. Together they checked what was left of the third floor. Besides Boddy's room, there were women's baths down one corridor and men's baths down another. Karissa could not shake the feeling that something terrible would happen as she and Lily investigated the showers, but no horror movie clichés came to life in that time, and so they left the space unharmed.
With the search of the third floor done, Lily and Stephen separated from the group with the intent to ransack the downstairs rooms, even the unnamed ones. They noted with no little concern that the Sues seemed somewhat smug whenever they would catch a glimpse of the Dining Room in passing. Simultaneously, Karissa and Kyle made reasonably thorough inspections of each of the second floor rooms, all of which now boasted free entry.
Karissa stuck her head past the jamb of one of the doors that had troubled her the night before. She saw the shape of a dressphere sitting on the bedside table, and beside it – looking quite incongruous – a Nintendo DS plugged in to charge. So this room, which had previously been locked, had been Lily's. That meant that the formerly locked room sandwiched between her own room and this one must have belonged to Iris. She didn't know how relevant these details might prove to be, but she mapped them to her memory all the same. Once she had ascertained that no clear cadaver lay in the vicinity, Karissa withdrew. She met Kyle coming out of Stephen's room with a grim visage. "Have you found something?" she asked him.
All of a sudden he was eying her warily. "Are you sure that Boddy had the opportunity to return to his room after pouring drinks for everyone in the Study?"
"What do you mean? I heard his voice issue from inside his room. I-I spoke to him, and he spoke back to me!" Karissa was bewildered by this line of questioning. What was Kyle trying to get at? "He inhabited his bedroom at least as early as five past twelve, and within the few minutes following that we had each and every Sue accounted for."
Kyle regarded her silently, but he did not behave as if he had been satisfied by her responses. "Let's survey the hidden passageways and then reconvene with the others."
Lily passed by the Library for the second time as she patrolled the ground floor of Tudor Mansion looking for a corpse. On her last circuit all five Sues had still been in the Dining Room. Now she came up against Kelly in the hall, with Iris and Rufous at his back.
The younger Stu flashed a smile at her, as he approached sedately. "There you are, miss. If you're done with the third floor, I was wondering if I could be allowed use of the bathroom."
Lily waited pointedly, but it appeared that Iris and Rufous were not going to ask permission for themselves. "All three of you would like to go upstairs then?"
"I suppose that would be fine. We found nothing up there, anyway." Lily stared narrowly at each of the Sues, looking for some expression of conscience in the eyes of the guilty party, but either none of these three were the killer or else the corpse really wasn't hidden on the third floor.
At that moment Stephen joined up with them, leaving off his counterclockwise tour of the house, whereas Lily had been patrolling in a clockwise direction. He warned the Sues, "Don't stray from your path to the showers, or else Karissa and Kyle will catch you. They're still prowling the second floor."
"Will do." Kelly's smile had taken on a mocking aspect. He really disliked the presence of the guys, Lily realized. As the Sues ascended the stairs, she and Stephen shared an unspoken thought, and they both cut behind the foot of the staircase to reach the Dining Room sooner. Tiffany and Amber were still inside. She began to breathe a sigh of relief, until she noticed that everyone's dishes were gone and the two Sues had switched seats with each other. Had they left the room once before she and Stephen arrived, during the time that their elders were providing the Agents with a distraction?
"I'm sorry that you all left food on your plates, but I prescribe to the notion that once a person has departed from the table, they are not only done eating but they are done dining as well."
Lily whirled around to face Iris. "I thought you were showering–?"
"Assumptions are dangerous things to make. I merely felt the need to cleanse my hands after breakfast."
"If that was all, why not do that downstairs?" Stephen demanded furiously.
"I didn't care to."
Before Stephen could further engage Iris in a verbal sparring match, the sound of sliding wood drew everyone's attention to one of the room's two doors. The open door lined up with another leading into the Lounge, and those with the best view could witness Karissa and Kyle climb up out of the floor, having pushed aside a trapdoor to make room for their heads.
"Hel-lo! Have you made any deductions yet, Sherlocks?" Stephen's tone was chipper, but he was envious that he'd not had the chance to explore beneath the mansion himself.
"I'm pretty sure that Boddy is dead," Kyle said, as they drew closer.
"How can you be sure? We found no body."
"We found no Boddy," Kyle quipped back effortlessly.
"Har de har har." Now Stephen's voice let on that he was most unamused. "If that is truly your opinion, then what shall be our next course of action?"
"I haven't thought of it yet."
"I've had an idea. Let's make a Suggestion to the Sues."
Iris arched an incredulous brow. "Are we beginning this already? You just confessed that you've not even found a body yet. Playing by the rules is too hard for you? How pathetic."
"I think that the pot is calling the kettle black," Kyle began, but Stephen cut him short.
"I don't care what you think, Iris! I just want to get this over with." With a sneaky grin, he pushed past Kyle and Karissa to step foot in the Lounge from which they'd left. He rushed, "I suggest that Tiffany killed Boddy in the Lounge with a Knife!" Although the girls looked at him expectantly, it seemed that something – apart from their reactions – had disappointed him. "I thought that Tiffany might be teleported to this spot instantly," he explained, with some lingering hope that the phenomenon would yet occur.
"I think that would be asking for too much," Lily broke it to him gently.
"The fandom's struggling to retain some sense of realism. We can summon the Sues to different rooms, but we'll have to do it the old-fashioned way, that's all," Karissa added.
Despite their reassurances, Stephen was well put-out as he returned to the room. His behaviour caused Iris to laugh out loud, sounding very much like the repeated peals of a delicate silver bell. "Oh, that was most amusing, Agent. For that reason alone, I will offer you a throwaway. There won't be any penalties for this one guess you've made. However, beyond this point, remember the counsel that I gave you – 'I wouldn't recommend guessing blindly until you think you can eliminate us all, because I warn you that there will be consequences.'"
Yes, Karissa thought, she had emphatically warned them against pointing fingers too freely. The longer she thought about that fact, the more inclined she was to acknowledge a nagging suspicion at the periphery of her consciousness. Simply put, she was unconvinced that the rules of the board game were being strictly enforced within the fandom. According to the instruction manual, the only consequence of posing a Suggestion was that the other players must then disprove the Suggestion, if they can. If the players had anything to be wary of, it was rather more likely to be the undertaking of an Accusation. Yet Iris's threats were only valid if the rules had been altered...
"Did we miss anything?" The rearrival of Kelly and Rufous broke Karissa's train of thought.
"The Agents have given in and are making Suggestions," Amber informed them. She reminded Karissa of a student who had just answered a question posed by a teacher and expected due reward.
The incoming Sues entered the Dining Room and made for their previous seats, but Karissa stubbornly put a hand over the back of Kelly's chair before he could reach it. She put her other hand on top of the cleared table and brought her hands together, bringing the chair flush against the table's edge. Perhaps she thought that refusing the Stu his seat would cause him some discomfort, but he only smiled at her. Of course. Overly perfect beings would not be defeated by the mere task of being asked to stand on their feet, even if the chore required the entire day.
"Will they guess again then?"
"Don't mind if I do. I suggest that Tiffany killed Boddy in the Lounge with a Knife, same as before," Stephen declared. "Iris, you laughed at me, but you refused to tell me if I was right or wrong in any of my facts. My intuition tells me that I've struck a nerve with you."
"What foolishness. A man's intuition counts for nothing. Why would you choose–?"
"Why Tiffany?" Surprisingly, Karissa found herself finishing Iris's statement of disbelief. "I thought it improbable that the girls were responsible for this event." She wasn't consciously aware if she was playing the Devil's advocate or simply expressing an opinion.
Stephen frowned in an indistinct manner. "Did the feminist movement never happen?"
"Oh, I know that females are as capable of murder as males. I only meant that Tiffany is one of the weakest Sues–"
"–and she was drunk."
"Could it be that she's an actress?"
"Our drunkard slept pretty soundly," Kyle interjected. "Suppose that she wasn't faking it. How could she move about in her condition?"
"If her state of intoxication was slightly less than we suspected, she still would have been able to navigate the house – even stumbling – by virtue of her unlocked door."
"An inebriated Sue sounds like a noisy one. I thought Karissa was guarding that branch of the hallway. She'd look into any disturbances."
"I went to the washroom at daybreak," Karissa reminded Kyle hesitantly, albeit without any shame on her part.
"Aha!" Stephen added quite unnecessarily.
As if he were refereeing a sports match, Kelly said aloud, "Point." The other Sues had been keeping pace with every exchange of arguments – heads whipping back and forth much like the spectators at a game of tennis – so perhaps the metaphor was accurate.
Lily asked with total sincerity, "Why the Lounge? Its distance from the Study is the entire width of the house. It's not impossible that Boddy was killed there, but there are many rooms that are equally likely."
"Since we haven't found a body aboveground, it must be hidden in one of the hidden passageways belowground. There are secret passages connecting the Lounge to the Conservatory and the Study to the Kitchen, but obviously the murder could not have been committed in the Study because the majority of us were inside it for a time."
"Obviously, if there was a corpse in the secret passage, Karissa and I would have found it when we were wandering beneath the floor, don't you think?" Kyle reminded Stephen patiently.
"Point," Kelly intoned a second time.
"Why the Knife?"
"Aren't knives considered a woman's weapon?"
"Whom did you hear that from, Stephen?" Karissa asked in astonishment. "It's much too easy for a physically dominant man to wrench a knife away from a woman. Most homicides committed by women involve a gun – if possible, she'll use the man's own gun for the irony of it."
Tiffany glanced at her with delight. "Are you unhappy with someone at home then?" she asked, borderline maliciously.
Karissa stiffened, but she did not flush, and she snapped, "I read a lot," with barely a pause. In the course of looking away from Tiffany, her eyes swung round and caught Kelly's by accident, just as he smiled a third time.
"I'm afraid that you lose, 'Detective Inspector' Agent. None of your guesses were at all correct." Iris gloated as if she'd invented the action herself.
"What? Your man there awarded me three points," Stephen yelled in indignation. "I heard each one of his words directed at me."
"Sorry, they were meant to be thrown in my direction." Iris pouted at Kelly. "Although your speculations were logical enough, none were the truth. And in the eyes of the law, I would say that constitutes slander. All in all, I think this situation calls for some Karma."
Bright, violet light erupted around Stephen – briefly casting him a second shadow – and though it pained them to look away from their friend, the other Agents felt that they had to raise various barriers in order to shield their eyes, or else be blinded. When next they looked upon the spot where Stephen had stood, he'd vanished.
"Iris, what have you done with him?" Kyle reacted angrily.
"'If an eloquent speaker speak not the truth, is there a more horrid kind of object in creation?'" When he gave no response, Iris elaborated on her use of quotation. "Thomas Carlyle. Are none of you familiar with him? I quite enjoyed his essay 'Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question'. If we had been able to commission him for a paper on Mary-Sues, I've no doubt we could have distributed pamphlets with the end product."
"Again, I will ask you: What. Have. You. Done. With. Stephen."
"Whenever you Agents attempt to target one of us with the exploit of lies, Karma will deliver the appropriate retribution." Iris held up an object that was not unlike a teapot in description – that is, it too was short and stout – but there any further similarity ended. "I'm not at all sure that we have the proper name for this device, but you must understand that our communications with Sirahc were broken off after your worthless Society destroyed the much worthier Pro-Cliché and Mary-Sue Protection Society."
"What effect does Karma have?" Lily was adamant that they be told.
"As per Buddhist teachings, 'for every event that occurs, there will follow another event whose existence was caused by the first.' The Agent's dialogue was motivated by a desire to apprehend one or all of us without cause, so for him an unpleasant consequence was due." Rufous's voice remained totally level as he spoke, belying the fact that he might have disliked Stephen every bit as much as the Agent had disliked him. "He will doubtless be reliving one of his worst experiences even as we speak."
Karissa couldn't type fast enough as she dialled the numbers leading to the Society Leader's extension on her Communicator. After three rings, she was met with voicemail. She frowned. "Hello, Tash? This is Karissa. I need you to run a Search and Rescue routine for Stephen using your Plot Summary. I'm afraid that he might have landed in the Twilight fandom again. Or else... he may have resumed his travels with Fred. Please call me back when you get this message." As soon as she hung up, Karissa attempted to contact Tash in another way. She sent her a text with much the same body of words. A few seconds later, her Communicator started to vibrate, indicating she'd received a response:
"Out-of-office auto reply: Thank you for submitting your request at this time. We at the Anti-Cliché and Mary-Sue Elimination Society are currently unable to deal with you because we've suddenly sighted a Sovereign in another fandom. Someone in the Monitor Room may still be monitoring your own mission, but no guarantees. We promise to move you up in the queue when we're able."
Having read the text twice – and still she couldn't hide her surprise – Karissa passed her Communicator to Lily, who in turn passed it to Kyle after she'd done, in the manner of a literal game of telephone. "Automatic replies? We've sunk to a new low," the latter Agent had to say. "If the others are too busy to keep tabs on our mission, I don't suppose they have anyone to spare who would be able to play back footage of this morning and simply tell us who the murderer is."
"No," Karissa and Kelly both responded to the rhetorical question at the same time.
"That's a pity."
Karissa also attempted to call her sister, but the busy signal that she heard on the other end seemed to indicate that Charis had since become involved in the big emergency as well. She hung up on the call only to return to a situation that could best be described as a Mexican standoff.
"Well, Agents? Would another one of you like to try your hand at defeating Karma?" Iris preened, holding the PCMSPS gadget like a trophy she was prepared to pose with.
"If Stephen's reasoning was sound in suggesting why Tiffany was a likely candidate for the murder, then Amber had equal access–" Kyle's confidence wavered when Lily began to shake her head dispiritedly.
"Amber is not at all assertive," she said plainly.
Tiffany scowled and linked hands with said Sue, who was given no chance to suffer injury before her self-esteem was buoyed up by the positive reassurance of her friend.
"We have to find the body then," Kyle exclaimed decisively. With a furtive movement in Karissa's direction, he added, "Only once we've found the body will we be able to efficiently estimate a time of death."
Iris tittered. "'Genius is the ability to evade work by doing something right the first time.' I expect that doesn't apply to you, Agents! We'll see you again later at lunch. Au revoir!"
"She only steals other people's quotes because she has nothing exceptional to say herself," Karissa opined. It was the nastiest thing she could think of to say before they had to leave the room, to contemplate where they might have gone wrong in their reconstruction of events. The Sues remained inside the Dining Room to further the illusion that the Agents were being sent in disgrace to banishment.