Chapter 15: Lost in translation
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
The Internet forecasted rain and the sky was overcast, so I took my umbrella with me when I left the cottage not long after my encounter with Sonia and Alex. I needed to go into town and talk with Bonnie about that apartment, and to find out what had been uncovered about Alex Bancroft.
I had barely made it to town before it began pouring. Instead of stopping at the first café, I pushed on to the police station. So I was soaking wet below the waist, despite my umbrella, by the time I got there. Bonnie must have seen me coming, because she opened the door before I reached it, and helped me get my jacket off. Then she told me that the coffee was fresh and the doughnuts would do. I settled down in a chair, she got back behind her desk, and we remarked on the weather for a bit.
Bonnie gave me a smile. “Glad you got here today, though. I have something for you” She tossed an envelope across the desk to me. “It came express mail first thing this morning from the Chattings Detective Agency.”
I started tearing into the envelope, while Bonnie kept speaking. “I hope there’s more in there than I’ve found. I contacted the state police and the FBI. They had nothing on Alex a few years ago, they still have nothing on him now. The only odd thing about him is that he’s got a gun permit here and in California, where he lives the other half of the year. I’m having that pursued, to see what we can find out from his applications.”
I broke out laughing at that moment, which puzzled Bonnie. So I handed over the document I had been looking at. It was a birth certificate, and in the field for the name was typed: ALEXANDER WHATEVER BANCROFT.
Bonnie took one look at it. “What the hell?”
I remarked with a chuckle, “Well, he told me he’d never decided what his middle initial ‘W’ stood for.”
Bonnie said, “This has got to be a phony.”
I was leafing through the report. “Nope, it comes right out of the official records. And it’s about the only trace of Alex Bancroft before about five years ago, when he bought a beach house in California, paid in cash. No wife, no children, doesn’t hold a steady job, income apparently comes from offshore bank accounts.”
Bonnie suggested, “Could be he’s in something like the FBI witness protection program or something.”
I shook my head. “I’d agree, Alex had to have government help. But what sort of government agency goes to all the trouble of getting a fake birth certificate inserted into the records, and then leaves a clue that it’s fake like that middle name?”
It was Bonnie’s turn to laugh. “And those government types aren’t known for their sense of humor, either. That name sounds more like some joke Alex would think up himself.”
Bonnie and I talked a bit more, to no great result. She was happy that I was keeping her informed of (some of) the results of my investigations, such as they were. And she promised to do some delicate poking to see if any government agency might ’fess up to setting up Alex’s identity.
It was still pouring when we finished, so Bonnie drove me over to the parking lot, and then had to take off to answer a call from old Jed. I stood several minutes in the parking lot, holding my umbrella against the rain and wind. I didn’t really want to go back among the Children. This whole business was getting too complicated. I had a murder, family problems, including family I hadn’t know I had, and now complications in my relations with the Children.
Still, I had to go back, so I started on my way. I’d taken no more than one hundred steps into the Children’s woods when I heard a loud noise. My umbrella was knocked out of my hand. And I dropped to the ground.
Someone was shooting at me.
I’d like to say my fine detective skills kicked in, and that I knew immediately from where the shot had come, and what to do next. Fat chance. I just panicked. I lay there, absolutely paralyzed with fear. And then I panicked even more and got up and ran toward the parking lot.
You can’t outrun a bullet. But I kept running until I got to the parking lot, which wasn’t very far, after all. Clearly, I was trying to make it harder for the shooter by being a moving target. At least that’s what I told myself after the fact.
My reason actually kicked back in once I arrived at the parking lot. It was open ground, and open ground down the road back toward town. In the opposite direction, there was only one path from the parking lot into the Children’s lands, the path to Center Village. Presumably the shooter was along that path, and might be coming right toward me. I needed a third alternative desperately, one that would shelter me while getting me someplace safe and secure.
Then I saw one. There was another path leading away from the parking lot, into the Children’s lands. It was to the right of the main path, which I had thought of as the only path. I didn’t know how I ever could have missed this other path before. And I didn’t know where it went. But it was my only reasonable choice. I began running down it.
Maybe my perceptions were screwed up by panic. But it seemed I had been running for less than a minute when I found myself in the middle of Center Village. At least that’s what I thought. Then I looked around. This wasn’t Center Village. Where the hell was I?
I turned and bumped into a man, knocking him down. And then I stood there, just watching him for several seconds, completely confused, before I tried to help him up. Together, we got him standing and got him his umbrella back. He was a middle-aged man, stocky and bald. He was appraising me at the same time. Finally, he said, “You must be Emily Fisher. Come with me,” and set off down the street.
I looked around. In the rain, I could see no sign of the shooter, not that I knew what he looked like. Not knowing what else to do, I followed the man. He knew my name, so presumably he was trying to be helpful, although I had no idea who he was. We traveled only a short distance down the street, me looking every which way, before he turned and walked into a house. It was only as I was stepping through the door myself that I recognized the style of house. It was a “quad,” a house style designed to house four adults, usually two men and two women, and their sub-teen children. And it was unique to West Village.
I sat down in the kitchen, completely bewildered. Somehow I had gone from the parking lot to West Village, which even at a run should have taken me at least fifteen minutes, in what seemed like less than a minute. And I’d done so without recalling passing through Center Village, or any of the fields I must have crossed; so far as I could remember, I had been in the woods the whole time. It made no sense.
I must have looked as if I’d lost my marbles to the man. I sat there, soaking wet. The front of my blouse, jacket, and pants were stained brown from when I’d dropped to the ground after the first shot. In short, I looked a mess. The man was making tea, and looking at me as if wondering just what he’d brought into his house. Abruptly, he interrupted my thoughts by observing, “Typical of the Fallen. You run off to enjoy the world’s luxuries, and forget the necessity of an umbrella on a day like this. And then you go and fall in the mud.”
Without considering my manners (after all, he hadn’t), I blurted out, “Someone was shooting at me!”
He looked incredulous. “Are you sure?”
“I know what gunshots sound like. And it wasn’t a bat that knocked the umbrella out of my hands.” I’d like to say I was trying to be witty, but I was just rattled.
That brought concern to his face. He came over and peered at me. “Are you all right? Were you hit?”
I shook my head, which relieved him greatly. He went back to making tea saying, “Looks like you lost him, then. And here I thought you’d come here to see your sister.” He looked at me, saw I looked puzzled, and added, “Your sister Stacia.”
Stacia? Oh, yeah, Sonia had mentioned her, along with Ben and Gail, the other half-siblings I hadn’t known I had. I pulled myself together, more or less (less), and replied, “I’m sorry. I was running away from the shooter, and didn’t know where I was going when I ran into you. My mind was on something else, like being shot at.” OK, Emily, enough of that. I took a deep breath. “I will be happy to meet my sister. And you are?”
That brought a laugh to his face. “Hmph. I suppose if someone was shooting at me, I might run into someone without knowing what I was about. Well, I’m Charlie Thompson. Your Tanya is my brother’s daughter. And your sister Stacia shares this house with me, along with Norma and Vin.”
There was no point in asking who was married to whom, not just because the Children don’t have marriage. Officially, such foursomes meant both men were mating with both ladies, though the reality could be considerably different. Supposedly it had been a preferred sexual arrangement at one time in past. In practice, such “quads” had often developed a poisonous emotional atmosphere, which is why they had been generally abandoned everywhere, except in West Village. The Children from the other villages often said that the retention of the quads by West Village explained the sour disposition of its inhabitants.
Charlie Thompson proved to be a most unremarkable man. He worked the fields and couldn’t do much in the rain at this time in summer, so he had decided to come home early. He was a True Believer and had known Stephen Nash well. About the only surprise I got was that he was certain Alex Bancroft hadn’t killed Nash. “Because I’ll tell you, Emily, Stephen was such a nice man that it would take a real psycho to kill him, and Bancroft just isn’t that crazy.” And he believed that since I was a (half-)sister to Stacia, I had to be smart enough to solve this murder.
Stacia arrived about an hour later. She turned out to be a petite woman with a dreamy expression on her face most of the time, as if she were lost in some private fantasy of her own. Yet after Charlie explained what had happened, she immediately took charge, saying she would go to Center Village to get their Watch Committee to hunt for any traces of the shooter, and ordering Charlie to accompany me back to Milltown and stay for dinner, which she observed would give him time to talk with his niece. She took but a moment to apologize for having to run, and then disappeared into the rain.
Charlie walked me back home at a surprisingly fast pace, saying at one point that any shooter would have to run to keep up with us. He thought it a good joke. My sense of humor hadn’t yet recovered. I was still watching for the shooter to return, though by the time we got to Milltown I was beginning to relax. Tanya greeted her uncle with a warm embrace, and set about putting more food on, while I went and changed clothes.
It says something for Stacia’s abilities that she rejoined us before Charlie, Tanya, and I had finished dinner. She even had my umbrella, which had suffered a broken rib and a hole in the fabric where the bullet had passed through it. And yet, once she’d handed it over, it seemed that all purpose drained out of her and she resumed that dreamy expression, not saying another word until she and Charlie left at the end of dinner.
Once they left, I couldn’t help thinking that it had been an odd coincidence to find myself bumping into Charlie, a person who had so many connections to me. Though I was later to find out it was no coincidence at all.
End of chapter fifteen