Chapter 12: A clue?
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
Instruments communicate with the Other World. There are several kinds of entities in the Other World, so there are several kinds of Instruments. There are Instruments of the Dead, such as Jim Abbott, who talk to ghosts. There are Instruments of the Spirit, which is what Selena Sawyer had been, who talk to angels and other celestial spirits. Some Instruments can do both, but they are uncommon.
Rarest of the Instruments are those who talk to the Divine directly, and they are much honored, both for their rarity and the nature of their communications. When I was a kid visiting Selena at Hilltop, I used to tell her that I was going to grow up to be an Instrument of the Divine. And I would tell anyone else at Hilltop who would listen, including Jim. Hence, his nickname for me, the “holy terror.”
One day, when I was eight, Selena sharply told me to stop saying that. I was surprised and mystified. She had never shown any signs of disapproval before. So I asked her to explain.
Although she was quite old even then, with a wrinkled face and gray hair, I normally didn’t think of Selena as being old, she was so full of energy and enthusiasm. But the look of tiredness on her face, as she leaned back against the side of the gazebo where we were sitting, made her look old, old and weary of life. She thought a bit before replying to me. “Emily,” she said, “I am sorry I spoke sharply to you, but you need to understand the seriousness of what you are asking for. Instruments of the Divine are rare. They are rare for a reason. The Divine speaks to us only when it is necessary, and it is necessary only when there is trouble. Do you want to see trouble and strife among the Children?”
Naturally I shook my head. “No, ma’am.”
“Then don’t wish to be an Instrument of the Divine. We have not had one since I was a child, and I hope I do not live to see another come among us. They come only when there is mischief, strife, and discord. And the Children have paid a terrible price for the guidance of the Divine in those times.” Selena had closed her eyes, her face clouded by grief. She opened them up again and looked at me, as if pleading with me. “No, I do not want to see another Instrument of the Divine. I don’t want to see you become one, Emily. And I want you to stop saying that you want to become one, even in your heart. The Divine hears all, and it might just decide to grant your wish. To please your pride, you would make us suffer. Don’t ever wish to be an Instrument of the Divine again, Emily, ever.”
In those days, I would have done anything for Selena. And I was truly frightened by how sad and vulnerable Selena looked and sounded. So I stopped saying I wanted to be an Instrument of the Divine. But I couldn’t stop myself from wishing. No, it wasn’t until we had left the Children that I stopped wishing to be an Instrument. There wasn’t any point to it any longer.
Jim was smiling at me, so I strode over to give him a hug. It had been about twenty years since we’d last seen each other. He was older now, about fifty, and looked careworn, as well he might: the responsibility of conveying messages from the Other Side drove some Instruments into mental breakdowns. But it’s really hard to forget those childhood friends. I’d have known him anywhere.
We sat down on one of the benches in the gazebo, and Jim gave me another smile. “I haven’t had a good backgammon opponent since you left, Emily.”
I smiled right back at him. It wasn’t hard. “As I recall, I lost about two-thirds of the games to you. Some opponent.”
Then his smile dropped. “I was disappointed to hear you’d come back to help Alex Bancroft cover up his part in Stephen Nash’s murder.”
That was an unexpected accusation, almost a slap in the face. I replied indignantly, “The Council hired me to investigate Nash’s murder, Jim. I’m not covering for anyone. In fact, if you know something about the murder, I’d be happy to hear it, no matter who it implicates.”
He shook his head. “It’s well known the Council hired you only because Bancroft threatened to hire you himself. You may not know it, Emily, but you’re the tool of the Prophesied One.” The last was uttered in a sarcastic tone.
I’d thought Hilltop favored Alex Bancroft’s position as the Prophesied One. Apparently not all of the inhabitants did. So I replied as a joke, “Then maybe I’ll have to set up as another Instrument of the Dead and talk to Stephen Nash.”
Jim glowered at me. “Are you mocking me, Emily Fisher?” He must have seen the baffled look on my face, because his own features softened. “None of the Instruments of the Dead can reach Stephen Nash. They don’t know why.” He shrugged. “None of them are worth a damn anyhow. It’s been slim pickings for Instruments since you left us. The ones we get have hardly any inspiration at all. And then we even get pretenders, like this child in North Village, who thinks she speaks to the Divine, and utters platitudes which would shame a toddler.” Jim stared out at the village before us, a miserable look on his face.
By the time he’d stopped talking, I’d realized that I had blundered. Implicit in what Jim was saying was a confession that he’d lost his own Inspiration. It was the other Instruments of the Dead who couldn’t communicate with Nash. Jim couldn’t communicate with anyone on the Other Side anymore; he’d not even tried to talk to Nash’s spirit.
Most Instruments lose their Inspiration at times. The older they get, the more frequently it happens, and the longer it lasts. Even though they cannot function as Instruments without their Inspiration, they are still treated by everyone else as Instruments. To do otherwise is considered to be rejecting the gifts of the Divine. But it’s still an embarrassing position for an Instrument.
And I’d stepped right into it by saying I’d set myself up as an Instrument. Way to go, Emily! I tried to think of something to turn the conversation, and the only thing that came to mind was something Tanya said. “This pretender in North Village, she wouldn’t happen to be the Instrument who gives advice on romances, would she?”
He turned around, surprised but still sour. “It would. How did you hear of her?”
“My servant, Tanya,” and I had to think to recall her last name, “Thompson mentioned her.”
Jim shook his head. “It’s a bad sign when a girl like that from West Village is consorting with a fraud like that so-called Instrument. She’s another one of those damned Priests, and they’re always trouble.”
The Priests were one of the original refugee families who settled North Village. If North Village had a bad reputation, the Priests had an even worse one. They were said to have been demonolaters. So bad was their reputation that no one was named Priest anymore among the Children.
But that didn’t mean they had no descendants. My mother, who came from North Village, was one. And so, of course, was I. It was far enough back in the past that Jim Abbott probably didn’t know that. I had to admire the crude justice of his comments. If I’d unwittingly insulted Jim, he had just paid me back.
I thought about telling him so, but I was here to do a job. My ancestry was an irrelevancy, and so was this questionable Instrument descended from the Priests. Moreover, Jim, whatever else he was, was still an old friend. So I switched our conversation back to the murder investigation. “Do you know the spot where Nash’s body was found?”
“Hmph. Suppose you’d want to see that.” Jim got up and headed out of the gazebo. I followed right behind him. We cut across the village to the North Village path, and after only walking a short distance along it veered off to the west. Jim came to a stop beside a fallen spruce tree. He pointed down at a spot. “Nash was found right here.”
The ground was bare of needles, but that was the only thing different about it. “How do you know the exact spot?” I asked.
Jim gave me an annoyed look. “I’m not confessing to it, if that’s what you’re asking. No, Sam Hurd helped move the body, and he showed me.”
“Thanks.” I looked about. There was a clearing in the woods almost immediately to the north of us. To the south was the village, but I could see only one building from here. It was painted bright yellow. “Whose house is that?”
Jim nodded. “That’s Ira Smith’s place. Ira’s mind is mostly on the Other Side these days, so the Cunninghams live with him. Let’s go over there.”
I agreed, so we walked over to the house. Jim seemed to recover his good mood as we walked. He began whistling, always a good sign when I knew him as a kid. Maybe he saw and understood that I was being serious about investigating Nash’s murder. We stopped in to see the Cunninghams, and pay respects to Ira Smith, an Instrument of the Spirits who was probably suffering from Alzheimer’s, as near as I could tell. The Cunninghams who were home told me they’d heard nothing in the woods that night until the alarm was raised, and that Bonnie had interviewed them.
We came out the front, and Jim directed me to head along the street to a building three doors down. It was a curious structure. It looked like a former stable. One end had been converted into a small apartment. The rest of the building looked like it was slowly falling to pieces. Jim stood in front of it on the street and said, “Now, if you ask me, that’s a building someone ought to check into. Supposedly no one lives there now, but I’ve seen lights on at night, and that includes the night Stephen Nash died.”
I prodded Jim. “You have any idea who might be using it?”
He thought a bit, shook his head. “Nope. But as I say, it bears looking into.”
After I took a walk around that building, Jim pointed out where several people lived who had been involved in removing Nash’s body. I talked to a few of them, and got nothing new that I didn’t already have from Bonnie’s reports. I asked one or two about the converted stable, but they didn’t know anything about it except that it wasn’t in regular use. And I ate the sandwiches that Tanya had made.
While the other villages have their own councils, each subordinate to the High Council, Hilltop and Lakeside are too small. So they share a common council, and the records are in Lakeside. Hence, if I wanted to know more about the building, I was going to have to go to Lakeside. I’d agreed to meet up with Jim Abbott before I left, so I returned to the gazebo where he was waiting for me. We chatted a bit before I left. I was thinking he knew more about that building than he was telling me, but if he did, he wasn’t sharing it. Instead he was asking me about the last time I’d been up here before my family left the Children. It was kind of funny that he asked, because I had surprised him and Selena talking here in the gazebo that day, and I thought he would have remembered that. But he said he’d forgot, so I told him about our conversation that day.
It had been a long day. As I headed down the path toward Lakeside, I thought over what Jim had told me. He clearly thought Alex Bancroft had something to do with Stephen Nash’s murder, and he thought that converted stable was connected to the murder. So I put two and two together and got twenty-two: he must have reason for thinking Alex Bancroft was using that building. I had a feeling I’d better talk to someone on the council there in Lakeview before I saw Alex Bancroft again.
Then that option was taken away from me. I was hiking up Sacred Mountain to the junction with the paths to Lakeview and Milltown. I’d stopped and sat at the bench there on my way to Hilltop. Now there was someone else sitting there on the bench. As I got closer, I realized it was the Prophesied One himself. And he looked delighted to see me.
End of chapter twelve