Chapter 11: Hazards
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
I arrived back at the cottage early enough in the evening to spend some time trying to work in the study before realizing I was just too tired to think straight. So I told Tanya I was packing it in, grabbed a novel, and headed up to bed to read before I fell asleep.
Human nature is contrary. The moment I got into bed, I stopped feeling sleepy. So I read, quite a bit longer than I intended to.
And then I found out one of the things the Children hadn’t done in refurbishing this house: soundproofing. I hadn’t been keeping track of how many doors had opened and closed downstairs, but clearly Tanya had an overnight visitor. In fact, so graphic had been her descriptions earlier today, and so clearly were their moans and sighs coming through the floor, that I could even figure out who the visitor was. It had to be Mister-Pursued from here in Milltown, not Mister-Pursuer from North Village.
It was embarrassing. First, because I felt like I was eavesdropping. Second, because it can be irritating to hear someone else having sex when you are not. And third, because it had been months since I broke up with my last lover, and hearing those two going at it started to make me horny. I began imagining what was going on down there, and at the same time felt ashamed. I was turning into a damned voyeur.
Finally, they quieted down. But it was another hour before I wound down myself and could sleep.
I woke up late the next morning, and confronted an exuberantly cheerful Tanya downstairs. There are days when someone else’s happiness just makes you want to hit them. I seemed to be having one of them. Making it worse, I wasn’t sure whether to say anything to Tanya or not. Heck, it was a tricky situation in the outside world. Here among the Children, I didn’t know if I even had the right to comment.
Coffee, eggs, and bacon cheered me up, and I was able to look at the situation rationally. It wasn’t my business what Tanya did, but it was my business if it kept me awake at night. So I was the one with the problem, not Tanya. And I had a solution: earplugs. Or at least headphones.
I’d got that all settled in my mind, when there was a knock at the front door. Saying to me, “It’s probably Eldress Hoopes,” Tanya went to answer the door. In a moment she was back with our guest. But it wasn’t Sonia Hoopes. It was Susan Knowles.
Susan gave me one of her 100-watt smiles, and said, “I don’t know if you remember me, Emily, but I’m Susan Knowles.”
I’d only seen Susan Knowles maybe four times between when we left the Children and she joined. But I had no trouble recognizing her. If Tanya was the blond all-American girl-next-door, Susan was the blond femme fatale. Age hadn’t changed that. Susan might be over forty, but I could see she still looked hot enough to snare most men. And the halter top didn’t hurt, either, which was surprising since Susan was over forty. She looked more my age than her own. Guess Ethan wasn’t the only one with good genes.
Frankly this was one visitor I could do without. Ethan, who was Bonnie’s husband, had once slept with this woman, who was his sister, and she had a reputation as a manipulative type. I didn’t want to know her, for Bonnie’s sake if not for my own. But I kept a smile on my face as I desperately tried to think of something appropriate to say that wouldn’t start much of a conversation. So I came out with, “I was talking with Ethan just the other night,” and almost died of shame. The last thing I wanted to do was pair Ethan and Susan together again in any way.
Susan’s smile turned a bit sly. “I know. He was quite taken with you. Said I should come visit to see what a beautiful lady you had turned into.”
It warmed my heart to think that Ethan found me attractive. I really appreciated Susan telling me. I began wondering if I had misjudged her. So I gave her a real smile, not a forced one.
I’m not sure where the conversation was going to next, but it was interrupted by another knock at the door, shortly followed by Sonia Hoopes coming into the kitchen. Susan took the opportunity to depart, taking Tanya with her, saying that no doubt Sonia and I had confidential matters to discuss. Again, I couldn’t help but appreciate Susan’s consideration. I was sorry to see her go.
Sonia was not. From the moment she had laid eyes on Susan Knowles, Sonia had looked like a porcupine with its quills extended. It was only after the door closed behind Susan and Tanya that she relaxed. I thought she might make some remark about Susan, but Sonia kept her thoughts on Susan to herself. Which was just as well, I didn’t want to hear any criticism of Susan based on some old gossip.
We got down to business. My question about how to blend in, Sonia dismissed out of hand. A statement would be going out from the High Council today requiring all of the Children to welcome me and cooperate with me. After that, Sonia insisted, no one would give me any trouble. To emphasize the Council’s pleasure in the matter, Jacob Lawrence would be publicly whipped on Saturday at noon for his offense to me and to Sonia. I wasn’t too pleased with that, and had to wonder if it were Sonia’s pleasure rather than the Council’s, but wisely kept my thoughts to myself.
Then Sonia turned to the personal. “I don’t mean to push you, Emily, but will you be seeing your parents while you are here?”
Presumably that meant my expedition last night was unknown . . . or else the Children were pretending not to know it. At this point I didn’t care which. I replied, “I expect I will. I don’t think I’m offering any news by telling you that there was a rift between my parents and me.”
Sonia nodded. “We knew something of this.” My half-sister was being diplomatic. Chalk one up for her.
“Yeah. Well, it may take a bit of work to heal the rift. My sister Elsie has agreed to try to bring us together.”
Sonia astonished me with her next statement. “Your sister is dead. She won’t help you.”
I almost started up out of my seat in alarm. “What? I just spoke with her last night!”
Sonia searched for words before replying, “I’m sure you did. But that is not your sister. Your sister Elsie died years ago.”
This was making no sense. “You need to explain what you’re getting at, Sonia, because I haven’t a clue.”
Sonia struggled again before she spoke, “People . . . people don’t try to destroy themselves. No one tries to commit suicide unless they are possessed by a demon. And if they appear to survive, it’s only because their soul died and the demon decided to keep their body.” Sonia looked more and more uncomfortable. “I am sorry to bring this up, but you may not know your sister tried to drown herself several years ago.”
In a flat voice, I echoed Sonia, “I know something of this.”
Sonia was now so uncomfortable she didn’t want to look at me. “The demon led her to suicide, and her soul died. Now the demon possesses her completely. What you spoke to looked like your sister. Do not be fooled. It has been a demon inhabiting her body for years now.”
Well, that would explain Elsie’s angrier temperament. But it was nonsense, and I said so. “I simply don’t believe that, Sonia.”
Sonia looked at me, miserable. “Nevertheless, it is true. . . . I was hoping you might convince your father to meet with his offspring among the Children. When, where, and how would be up to him. But with a demon in the midst, I see no hope.” Sonia stood to leave.
I didn’t stand. Instead, I looked her straight in the eye and emphatically stated, “No matter what you think about my sister Elsie, Sonia, I will talk to my father, and I will ask him. I make no guarantees about his answer, though. And if you are wise, I would not say a word to him about Elsie being a demon.”
Sonia closed her eyes and nodded. Then she quickly swung around the table, gave me a hug, and left as swiftly as she could go.
It occurred to me that I didn’t actually know what my father thought about Elsie at this point. Maybe he did think she was a demon. And in fact she resembled a demon more than the little sister I remembered.
I caught myself thinking this and wondered at myself. Not even two days among the Children, and already you’re seeing bogeymen, Emily. Elsie is Elsie, and not some demon changeling. Besides, if she were a demon, she probably would have thrown you into the mill pond, and held you under for good measure.
Half-sister though she was, I was finding my meetings with Sonia to be trying. In comparison, Susan Knowles had been a pleasant surprise. She had been wonderful. Why, she . . . I tried to think of what she had done for me, and I couldn’t think of anything. I mean, I had been all prepared to dislike her on Bonnie’s account, but somehow I was thinking of her as a dear friend before she had left.
What the hell had happened? I had to struggle to recall exactly what had been said and done. Susan had come in and greeted me. I’d thrown out some remark about seeing Ethan. And then, and then, she’d told me Ethan found me attractive.
I could almost feel what had happened all over again. That wasn’t quite what she had said, I was pretty sure, but that’s what I had heard. I’d latched onto the idea that Ethan found me attractive as if I were desperate to hear something like that. It made me feel wanted, made me feel valuable, made me feel loved. And that love had spilled back onto Susan. I’d been profoundly grateful to her for uttering a bit of flattery which was probably not true, but which I’d swallowed hook, line, and sinker. And even if it were true, I did not want any attentions of that kind from Ethan Knowles. But somehow I had wanted it.
Why? I normally passed off flattery as just that, something to grease the wheels of a conversation or being used as a pick-up line, and simply ignored it. I wasn’t normally so needy that flattery would turn my head. But it just had, in a major way. Again, why? I didn’t need reassurances like that. I could get a man in my bed if I wanted to, just like . . . oh, shit . . . just like Tanya.
For the second time since I started this case, I had a sickening feeling from realizing I was not as good a person as I thought I was. I’d been ready to bitch at Tanya this morning, not just because she kept me up, but because she was having great sex with a guy, and I knew it, and I wasn’t. There’s a word for that: jealousy. Sexual envy, if you want a fancier term. The green-eyed monster, if you prefer a metaphor. Deep down in my bones, it had hurt me to hear Tanya bedding a guy when I was not, and it had left me vulnerable.
What was frightening was that Susan had been able to spot that vulnerability within seconds. Not only spot it, but, with just one sentence, she had used it to completely turn around my feelings toward her. In retrospect, I couldn’t believe how quickly and completely my feelings had been changed by just one trivial remark. I was sure it had been deliberate on Susan’s part, it was so out of keeping with my usual character, though I didn’t understand how she’d done it. She had a reputation for playing mind games. I’d never thought much about it, figuring she just relied on sex appeal. Now I knew it was more than that, even if I didn’t understand how she had pulled it off.
And if she could do that to me at a moment’s notice, I could understand how, with years at her disposal, she had so dominated her brother Ethan. And why she had so much power over men. Combine her good looks and sexuality with this ability to manipulate people, and I doubt many men could resist her. Certainly I hadn’t been able to.
After registering a few more dissatisfactions with myself, I decided the next step in my investigation should be to go to Hilltop and survey the murder scene. Maybe I could find someone up there who would tell me something that wasn’t in Bonnie’s reports. At least it would be something, and that was more than the nothing I’d managed so far.
Tanya returned just before I set out, looking less like she ate the canary and more like something was bothering her. I am ashamed to admit this initially pleased me, that Tanya wasn’t happier than me anymore. After I dismissed that thought as petty and unworthy, I debated whether to ask her if there was something wrong. But I didn’t. It was her business, whatever was bothering her, not mine, unless she asked for my advice again. I wasn’t going to try to manipulate Tanya the way Susan had manipulated me. And I doubted I could give her objective advice right now, considering what I’d just discovered about myself.
Tanya, of course, knew nothing of my thoughts. And whatever her problems were, they were not enough to distract her from doing her job and serving me. When she heard that I was going out, she insisted I wait long enough for her to make up and pack a small lunch for me, “as you can never tell where you’ll be when you get hungry.” I appreciated the sentiment, and again felt ashamed about my feelings earlier today.
As I passed through Milltown, I noticed I was drawing a mixture of nods and frowns. Clearly the Council’s announcement had got out, but it hadn’t reached everyone yet. It was still better than what I’d faced yesterday. At least no one ostentatiously stepped out of my way, or into it, for that matter.
The shortest route to Hilltop was via the path to Lakeside on the west side of the lake, and that meant hiking up Sacred Mountain a bit before hitting the trail to Hilltop. There was a bench and a clearing at the junction, and I decided to take a break and enjoy the view. The bench looked worn but little-used, the metal rusting, moss beginning to grow on the wood in places. I brushed it off before sitting down.
The forest up there was evergreens, mostly pine. It would be the same at Hilltop. In my mind, I traveled back in time to when I was a kid, and the smell of pine in the summer sunlight was associated with sitting in the Hilltop gazebo with Selena, laughing, talking, and playing games. As I looked out over the lake, and beyond to the valley in the distance where the Connecticut flowed, I let myself relax for the first time since this business began. I’d been happy here once.
Then I twisted back and to my right to look at Sacred Mountain. It had been used by the Children for religious ceremonies, long ago, but those ceremonies had been given up. What those ceremonies were, or why they’d been given up, I didn’t know. All I knew was that the top of the mountain was off-limits now. It was said to be ill-omened. Maybe if I had time, I’d climb up there and see what was there, if anything.
I got up and took the fork to Hilltop. The path ran downhill at first, before starting on a steady climb to the village. It was not an easy walk. It wasn’t supposed to be. The people who lived at Hilltop didn’t want many visitors.
As a kid, I had naturally walked to Hilltop on the North Village path most of the time, which was also easier going. So entering Hilltop from the other end was initially disorienting. But I soon got my bearings. The gazebo alone was enough to set me straight. I was quite happy to see it was still standing on the crest of the eastern slope, with what looked like a new paint job. I walked over to it and climbed up the steps. Inside was a smell of fresh pine wood, just what I needed. It was coming most strongly from the table, which looked brand-new. I walked over to the eastern side of the gazebo, and looked out over the lands below. There was North Village, right where I remembered it, and there, Center Village. Beyond the Children’s lands, the tower on the library was visible downtown, along with the two steeples from the churches in town. No doubt the trees had grown up in the intervening years, but my memory wasn’t sharp enough to notice. I just leaned forward and gazed, lost in a bit of nostalgia.
An almost familiar voice came from behind me. “I see the holy terror is back. Are you going to settle down among us as the newest Instrument, Emily Fisher?”
I turned around. There, standing at the foot of the stairs, was Jim Abbott, the Instrument of the Dead.
End of chapter eleven.