Chapter 14: Sinners
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
It was not a smoking gun. In fact, it was a long way from a smoking gun. But it raised the ugly possibility that the reason Alex Bancroft would not tell me where he was the night Stephen Nash was killed was because he had actually been at Hilltop, and possibly that he knew more than he was telling. But that also applied to Jim Abbott. He must have known the Prophesied One was using that building, but he had avoided saying so, even to me, an old friend. Why?
Elizabeth Miller was wise enough not to ask me any questions about my interest in the building. Instead, she talked about how the fruit trees were coming along this year. And she asked about my family, and was pleased to hear I’d be meeting them. It seemed that everyone I ran into knew that I’d not been speaking to my family for years. It was like there had been some sort of public service announcement on the subject. Same old Quasopon: gossip travels at light speed.
Jezebel came bursting in at that point to tell me Alex Bancroft was tied up and apologized for not seeing me off. It seemed like a good time to get going back to Milltown, so I took my leave of Elizabeth Miller, who quietly informed me out of Jezebel’s hearing that anything we had discussed about the murder investigation would remain confidential.
Jezebel offered to escort me out of the village, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her I wanted to be alone with my thoughts, so I let her. She chattered on about all sorts of things, and it wasn’t until she said something about the lake that I realized we were already halfway to Milltown. So I turned to her and said, “I thank you for escorting me, Jezebel, but we’ve come a long way. You should be getting back to Lakeview.”
She gave me a hang-dog look that looked even sadder in the moonlight, and asked, “Can’t I come with you all the way to Milltown? I almost never get to leave Lakeview.”
I smelled something fishy. Kids among the Children circulate pretty freely. “And why is that?”
“Alex worries about me. He won’t let me leave Lakeview unless I’m in the company of someone he trusts. And he’s pretty strict. He won’t even let Eldress Miller take me out on her own.”
“And you think he’ll trust you in my company?”
She grinned at that. “Sure. I asked him. He said that even though you were one of the Fallen, he trusted you. And anyhow you have to take me with you now. We’ve gone too far from Lakeview. I’m not supposed to go past the first milepost by myself.”
A likely story. “And I’m supposed to take you back tomorrow morning, too, I suppose.”
Jezebel tried to give me an innocent look. “No, that would be imposing. Sonia Hoopes can take me back. Alex trusts her, the Divine only knows why.”
I faced the two equally unhappy choices of having to walk Jezebel all the way back to the mile post, or having her stay the night with me. Although it meant that I had been outmaneuvered twice in one day by a teenage girl, I gave in and let her come.
Tanya was up waiting for me. To my surprise, she and Jezebel seemed on intimate terms, so much that Tanya readily mentioned that she’d be having a guy in her bed that night, so Jezebel would have to sleep with me, unless Tanya made up a couch. As you might guess, Jezebel ended up in my bed. Fortunately the king-size mattress meant we both had plenty of room.
I was hoping we’d get to sleep before Tanya and her boyfriend got going. No such luck. This time it sounded like Mr. Pursuer from North Village was the lucky guy. After only a few minutes of this, Jezebel started giggling. I told her sharply to stop and go to sleep, but either she couldn’t or wouldn’t. And that sort of giggling is contagious. Next thing I knew I was cramming the blankets into my mouth, trying not to make a noise.
After several minutes of this, Jezebel crawled over to my side of the bed and whispered in my ear, “Now I (giggle) know why Sonia gave you (giggles) Tanya. She’s (giggle) even louder than Sonia!”
I had to laugh out loud at that. Sure, it was too much information, an invasion of Sonia’s privacy, something perfectly natural, and not my business. But, with Tanya and her guy going on downstairs, it was funny.
I woke up the next morning to find myself alone in bed. A quick dip in the shower, some clothes, and I headed downstairs to find Jezebel and Tanya laughing about something. I could guess what. They kept breaking out into laughter throughout the meal for no apparent reason. And when Sonia Hoopes showed up, the two of them could not contain themselves.
Whether or not Sonia knew the reason, she knew how to deal with this. In a sharp voice, she said, “Tanya, bring the switch.”
By law among the Children, there must be a switch in each minor child’s bedroom. Adults have the right to use it for any infraction. Few do, though, again, West Village was different. And both girls obviously knew it. They immediately stopped laughing. Tanya practically jumped up and ran to her room to get it and present it to Sonia.
Sonia stood there, contemplating the two girls, holding the switch in one hand. Tanya had backed away and stood in line with Jezebel, her head hung, looking at the ground. Jezebel was less submissive. She held her head up and gave Sonia what was meant to be a serious look, though its very boldness suggested defiance.
Sonia turned toward Jezebel. “You’re not supposed to be away from Lakeview without a guardian of some kind.”
Jezebel replied, “Alex said Emily Fisher was an acceptable guardian. I walked here with her, didn’t I, Emily?”
Whack! The switch came down on Jezebel’s bare arm. It left a welt. “Leave Emily Fisher out of this. You are talking to me,” said Sonia. “And who is going to take you back?”
Jezebel’s voice got smaller. “Well, she could . . . or you could.”
“Did you ask Emily, and did she agree?”
Jezebel sighed. “No, ma’am. I told her it would be an imposition on her to have to take me both ways and that you would do it.”
Whack! The second welt rose just below the previous one. Jezebel neither flinched nor made a sound of protest. Sonia turned toward Tanya. “And what were you laughing at, Tanya?”
Tanya’s face flushed as she tried to think of what to say. Clearly she did not want to offer the truth. Sex is natural among the Children, but what she and Jezebel had been doing would be considered malicious gossip. It could easily earn her several lashes from the switch, given the mood Sonia was in.
Sonia raised the switch. “I asked you a question, Tanya Thompson. What were you laughing at?”
Tanya raised her head, tears in her eyes. She could barely get out the words, “I . . . I . . .”
And then Jezebel jumped in. “Tanya was laughing at something improper that I said, so you should punish me.”
Sonia turned, astonished and speechless, to stare at Jezebel for a moment, then angrily said to her, “I am not speaking to you. Be silent.”
Jezebel wasn’t having any of it. “I said it was my fault. I committed a major infraction. You have to take me to my eldress to be judged.”
Either Jezebel thought fast on her feet, or she’d worked this maneuver out beforehand. By claiming she had committed a major infraction, she’d tied Sonia’s hands. And because she’d not actually committed a major infraction, I doubted she’d get much punishment at the hands of her elderly guardian Elizabeth Miller.
Those were the legalities of the situation. But Sonia was too enraged to observe such niceties. She swung the switch much harder and faster this time, and it caught Jezebel right across the face, drawing blood from her cheek.
I’d had enough. I stepped forward, caught Sonia by the arm holding the switch, restraining her. “That’s enough, Sonia,” I said to her in an undertone.
Sonia turned and looked at me as if I were some vile creature. We stood that way for, oh, I don’t know, maybe ten seconds, though it felt like hours. And then Sonia must have realized that she was in the wrong, though it galled her. She shook her arm free, tossed the switch aside, and announced, “Very well, this is your domain, Emily Fisher. But you are on the Children’s lands. You will not be allowed to corrupt us. I will take this child back to Lakeside and see that she is judged and punished as suits a major infraction.” And with that she marched out of the room. A few seconds later, I heard the outer door open and close.
It all happened so fast, I stood there dumbfounded. And then Jezebel said, “You’ve got balls, Emily Fisher.”
It was all I could do to keep from breaking out in laughter. To keep control, I addressed Tanya. “Do we have a first aid kit? I should take a look at that cut on Jezebel’s face.”
Tanya hadn’t realized that Jezebel was bleeding. She took one look at Jezebel’s face, gasped, and ran to the bathroom to get the kit.
We quietly worked on patching the girl up. Fortunately, the cut was neither long nor deep, and would probably heal without a noticeable scar. That baffled me, seeing how hard Sonia had struck Jezebel, so I picked up the switch and examined it. It was a typical switch all right, but somehow the wood had been softened. I tried hitting myself, and found I had to use a great deal more force than I should have to make a mark.
I looked up at Jezebel, who had been watching me. To my unspoken query, she replied, “I thought there was something funny about the switch as well. Sonia usually hits harder than that.”
I dismissed the matter for the moment. “And you, Miss Jezebel Johnson, are a liar. A major infraction! What are you going to tell your guardian?”
Jezebel smiled just a little, trying not to disturb the dressing on the cut. “I’ll tell Eldress Miller the truth, of course. I never lie to her. But I’ll take her punishments over Sonia’s any day. And since I took responsibility, Sonia can’t punish Tanya.” She stood up. “Sonia’s waiting. I’d better go.”
Much as though I sympathized with Jezebel, I couldn’t let her get away with this. I shook my head. “No. You’re both going together. And you’ll both confess to Eldress Miller and Eldress Hoopes, together.”
Jezebel complained, “That’s not how it works.”
I gave Jezebel a cold stare. “If we want to talk about how it works, suppose I go out there right now and tell Eldress Hoopes that you lied, Jezebel.”
Jezebel looked at me in sheer disbelief, and then in a resigned voice said, “Oh, all right.”
“Good. Now the three of us are going out there together and I’ll explain my decision to Eldress Hoopes.” I wasn’t going to give Jezebel any opportunity to lie again to Sonia.
Tanya had kept quiet during all of this, and still didn’t utter a word as the three of us headed out there door. There was Sonia, standing just outside the door. She was talking with Alex Bancroft, and didn’t look at all happy.
The Prophesied One broke off the conversation to address me. He was in his usual cheery mood. “Good morning, Emily. What have you decided about these two miscreants?”
It properly wasn’t Alex’s business, but he seemed to be responsible in some way for Jezebel. So I answered, “I was planning to have Sonia take them to Lakeview and have them jointly confess to both guardians at the same time.”
To my surprise, Alex stepped forward and gave me a hug. He then stepped back and said, “An elegant solution. The only person here who doesn’t disappoint me this morning, and she’s one of the Fallen. There’s a lesson in humility, eh, Sonia?” And he gave her a pointed look. Sonia didn’t flinch, but she was clearly uncomfortable.
Alex turned to Jezebel, and gave her a friendly scowl. “What sin were you two committing?”
Jezebel promptly answered, “Malicious gossip.”
“Hardly a major infraction,” Alex dryly noted. “So, tell me, who was the subject of this malicious gossip?”
Jezebel dropped her eyes, and in a small voice replied, “Eldress Hoopes.”
Alex nodded, as if that was the answer he had expected. He looked up at me with a serious expression on his face. “I’m afraid, elegant though it is, your solution won’t do, Emily. Elizabeth is too mild, and Sonia should not judge a case like this when her name is involved. Let me take it on. I’ll see they both are punished as they deserve.”
It was fine by me, but I had to wonder what Sonia thought, and looked over at her, as did Alex. She was steaming. Realizing that we were waiting on her word, she looked at Alex and angrily observed, “The girl also lied, Alex.”
As if finishing a litany, the Prophesied One added, “And she was stubborn and insubordinate, and encouraged Tanya to be likewise. I know her sins well, and I will address all of them.” Alex turned to Jezebel, put his hand under her chin, and tilted it up so he could see the bandage on her cheek. He gazed at the bandage a bit, and then gave Sonia a withering stare. In a soft voice, he asked, “Is there anything else, Sonia?”
Sonia decided to cede the field. “No.”
“Right.” Alex let Jezebel go. “OK, Tanya, Jezebel, you two are coming with me.” He turned to Sonia and me. “My apologies for Jezebel’s behavior. She has deeply disappointed me.”
Jezebel’s eyes flashed open at that, as if she suddenly realized that having Alex Bancroft judge her case was not going to be an easy ride. But she said nothing, and the three of them departed on the way to Lakeview.
That left just Sonia and me standing at my door. I wasn’t sure enough of Sonia’s temper to start a conversation with her, but didn’t want to be rude. “Do you want to come in and talk, Sonia?”
She looked at me as if she were puzzled by something about me. In a not particularly friendly tone she replied, “No, not today. I just came by to see how you were doing. Is there anything you need?”
“Then I’ll be going.” She took a step, and then turned back. Again, she looked at me, quite puzzled. In an uncertain voice, she asked, “You were going to have the girls confess to me as well as to Elizabeth?”
Sonia stood there staring at me, looking both relieved and curious. Finally, with another, “I’d best be going,” she left.
End of chapter fourteen
“The girl also lied, Alex.”
“And she was stubborn and insubordinate, and encouraged Tanya to be likewise. I know her sins well, and I will address all of them.”
At first I thought Sonia was saying all of this, although that would mean that the first closing parenthesis would have to be dropped. But the sentence following “…address all of them” doesn’t make it immediately clear it’s Alex talking.
I really, really hate dialogue where it’s unclear who is speaking. And I just happened to be reading a bit of advice to writers specifically warning against that. So it was dismaying to see I’d gone ahead and done it. I have modified the paragraph following Sonia’s declaration to make it clear Alex is speaking next. Thank you.
You been reading my childhood diaries? But tell me, why do we always find religious fervour coupled with shades of sadism?
I’m sorry if your childhood contained such an episode (and most childhoods that contain one contain several, even worse). I think the problem is with authoritarian personalities, which may seize upon religion as justification for meting out stern judgments. There’s this idea of the “right man,” which Colin Wilson borrowed from A. E. van Vogt: a man who cannot stand to be questioned or contradicted, and who will lash out at any sign of either. For such a person, religion provides a good justification, for if the Almighty says it’s OK, it’s OK. Patriotism can be used the same way.
Yea, that sounds about right. I didn’t mean to sound a sour note; it was said with humour (even though true).