Chapter 16: Alex Bancroft’s women
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
Tanya had seemed a bit out of sorts, a bit tense, when her uncle and I had arrived for dinner. I hadn’t thought much about it, having my own concerns, and she seemed fine the rest of the time. Once dinner was over and our guests had departed, I sat down in my study to think of what to do next. Almost immediately, Tanya appeared at the door, looking quite distressed. She held out two sheets of paper to me, and said, “I’m supposed to let you review this before I give it to Eldress Hoopes.”
Mystified, I took the sheets from her and told her to sit down while I read it. What it was, to my surprise, was a confession of what she and Jezebel had been saying to each other that morning, followed by an explanation for why it had been wrong. I had to appreciate how the confession drew the distinction between laughing about sex because it can be funny, and laughing about someone’s sexual behavior as a form of ridicule.
I asked Tanya, “You wrote this yourself?”
She shook her head. “The Prophesied One helped me. He wouldn’t let me finish until he was sure I understood it all.”
“And you’re to give this to Eldress Hoopes?”
“And submit to whatever further punishment she imposes.” Tanya was on the verge of tears.
Well, I said to myself, I’d have a few words to say to Sonia on that score. “And what punishment did the Prophesied One impose on Jezebel?”
“I don’t know. He told us he’d punish us individually according to our natures and our desserts after he instructed us.”
I should have approved, but in truth I didn’t much like the sound of it. I guess I felt protective toward both girls, especially with Sonia involved. So I was determined to see that they were not excessively punished for what was really just a bit of silly gossip. I said to Tanya, “Wait until after I’ve spoken to Eldress Hoopes tomorrow before you give that to her. OK?”
Tanya nodded with obvious relief.
I had about five minutes of peace, trying to sort out my thoughts, when Tanya appeared again at my door. If anything, she was in even greater distress than before. She was white as a sheet, and was having trouble speaking.
I got up in alarm and went over to her. “What’s happened, Tanya? Are you OK? Are you sick?”
She opened and closed her mouth a few times before she finally managed to get some words out, “At the door.”
I pushed past her. There, standing in the hallway just inside the front door was my sister Elsie. She was dressed in dark denim from head to foot, which looked a little warm for this evening, even if Elsie looked good in it. She gave me a crooked grin. “Sorry to frighten your slave. She thinks I’m a demon.”
I smacked my hand against my forehead. Just one more problem, Emily, just one. Minor though it was, I could have done without it. I said to Elsie, “Wait here a minute while I see to Tanya,” and turned and went back to my study. Tanya was standing in the middle, still looking shaken, and also quite surprised to see I hadn’t been killed by the demon. I said to her, “That’s my sister Emily, Tanya, not a demon. She and I are going into town. She’s not going to stay here and she’s not going to hurt you.” When this didn’t seem to get any reaction, I asked, “Are you OK?”
Tanya gulped and nodded her head. In an almost normal voice, she replied, “I’ll be OK, Emily . . . but please, please, don’t go out with . . . that,” she ended with a wave of her hand toward the door.
I tried to give her a reassuring smile. “I’ll be fine.” It didn’t work. And then I had an inspiration (small “i” inspiration, that is, nothing divine about it). I said to Tanya, “You’ve seen the pentagrams, the five-pointed stars on my luggage? They protect me from demons. As long as I have them, no demon can hurt me.”
Tanya looked relieved at that. “Really?”
Time to double down on the bullshit. “Really. They’ll even protect you while you’re in this house, Tanya.”
My sister took the news that someone had shot at me nonchalantly. She merely observed that in the gathering dusk, and both of us in dark clothing, he’d have to be a good shot to hit me if he tried now. We said goodbye to Tanya, who had ventured into the hall, though she was still keeping her distance from Elsie.
Once we got out the door and headed toward the railroad, Elsie asked, “How’d you calm your slave down?”
It wasn’t quite dark, and I was sure we were drawing some stares from the Children who saw us. And I was a bit jumpy, worried about being shot at again, so Elsie had to ask again before I replied, “I told her the pentagrams on my luggage protect against demons.”
Elsie almost doubled over chortling with laughter. She tried to stop several times, but she’d get a look at me, say “pentagrams,” and start laughing again.
I waited until she’d stopped laughing before I asked, “Else, how come you know the Children think you’re a demon? I mean, I grew up among them and I didn’t know about attempted suicides being demonically possessed.”
Elsie answered, “Remember how Rachel Baker saved me from drowning because she was on the bluff having sex with her boyfriend? He was one of the Children, though I don’t know who. He told Rachel she shouldn’t have saved me. Rachel ditched him right then and there. But it meant that the Children knew I had attempted suicide long before the rest of the town.”
I couldn’t resist saying, “Well, Else, you are different from what I remember. You sure you’re not a demon?”
Elsie gave me an annoyed look, shrugged, and said, “Half the town thinks I am. Half the town and all of the Children, with a few honorable exceptions.” I wondered whom she knew among the Children, but before I could ask, she went on to say, “And it’s not like you’re the same, either, Em. Bonnie Knowles says you’ve got your shit together. That’s a long way from what you were like before you left for college.”
I considered. Yeah, I suppose I had developed a lot of self-confidence in the intervening years, all of which seemed to be evaporating as I dealt with an unsolved murder, the Children’s politics, gunfire, and my unexpectedly weird and extended family. But I thought I could return the compliment. “You seem to have your shit together, too, Else.”
She laughed at that. “As I said last night, attempting suicide gives you focus.”
Elsie seemed in very good humor, so I thought I’d venture into dangerous waters. “Else, where do I stand with you now? You’ve come here to take me to see our parents, you’re being mostly friendly to me, but you told me the other night you hated me.”
By now we were walking along the railroad tracks. Elsie thought a bit before answering, and she gave me an odd sort of smile as she did so. “Hating you would give you control over my life. I don’t allow that sort of shit any more, Em. So for the last few years you’ve just been someone no longer in my life. Now you’re back, for a while, and I’m trying to see if you’re worth having as my sister.” She paused for a moment, thinking. “There’s no amends that you can make for the past. So don’t try. There’s no magic test you have to pass, either. So don’t wait for some moment where I’ll throw myself in your arms and cry about how I’m sorry we’ve misunderstood each other.”
I gave her an arch look. “You don’t honestly think I’m not going to try to make amends for running out on you all?”
Elsie looked away, watching the railroad bed as we walked along. I wondered whether I had said the wrong thing, and why it was the wrong thing. Then, without looking up at me, she spoke up. “Em, you ran away and I tried to kill myself. Skip what we did to ourselves, or what we did to each other. We put our parents through hell. But they did the same to us, getting kicked out by the Children, and I still don’t know why.” She stopped and turned to me. “You’re here playing detective, Em. Solve that mystery for me . . . and for our parents, too.”
I didn’t quite get what I was hearing. “Else, our parents weren’t kicked out. They left the Children because they’d ceased to believe. They had Fallen.”
Elsie emphatically shook her head. “That’s what they told us when we were growing up together, Em. But it’s not true. After I tried to kill myself, Mom and Dad were really afraid they were going to lose me, too. And Mom admitted one night that they had lied about why and how they had left the Children, because they were afraid it would upset you too much. Selena Sawyer had them kicked out, and neither one of them knows why. They were still believers at that point.”
A sick feeling ran through my body. “Selena, Else? Are you sure?”
“That’s what they told me, Em. You can understand why they never would have told you.”
I stood there, almost convulsed with feelings I couldn’t put a name to. Selena! And my parents hadn’t left because they had ceased to believe! It just made no sense. And I said so. “That just is so impossible. How could they be kicked out if they were still believers?”
Elsie threw up her hands. “I don’t know, Em. You’re the detective, you’re the one who grew up among them, you tell me. But didn’t you ever notice that they never tried to reclaim us? What’s the one thing the Children do to the Fallen, eh, Em? They try to reclaim them. They never tried to reclaim us. Ever.”
It still made no sense. But in a way it did make sense. Selena! No, she couldn’t have had us kicked out. She loved me. And yet, Elsie was right. I couldn’t recall a single time the Children had ever tried to visit us to win us back. But I couldn’t accept it. “Maybe they’ve stopped trying to reclaim the Fallen.”
Elsie gave me a look of frank disbelief. “Nice try, sister. No dice. Only us. Dad said that Selena not only got our family kicked out, she got the High Council to blacklist us in some way. We were never to be allowed back.”
I was at a complete loss. Selena! I still couldn’t accept it. I grasped at a straw. “But I’m here now. The High Council even brought me here.”
“Only because they didn’t want Alex to do it himself.”
It didn’t occur to me to wonder how my sister knew about the situation between Alex Bancroft and the High Council. I was too mad. A great and terrible anger was building up in me. I had been shot at. I had been lied to. My oldest friend from my childhood had betrayed me somehow for some unknown reason. I spun around, faced back toward Milltown. It was now dark, but I didn’t care. I began marching back, fury in every step.
Elsie quickly caught up with me. “Where are you going, Em?”
In an angry voice I almost shouted, “I am going back to my cottage to get the fireplace poker, and then I am going to beat Angus McPherson to a pulp until I get some answers. And anyone else I need to. The High Council, the Instruments, anyone.”
Elsie grabbed me. “And what good will that do, Em?”
“It’ll get me some answers.”
Elsie was going to reply, but then another voice from ahead of us interrupted. “What makes you think Angus has the answers?” And out of the gathering darkness Alex Bancroft stepped forward.
I was too exasperated to deal with this properly. In fact, I was wishing I had the poker in my hand already, and I had an idea of someone I wanted to use it on. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Alex gave me a bow. “Your humble servant was coming to talk with you and found out from Tanya that you had left with ‘the demon.’” He pointed at Elsie. “I followed in your footsteps, and I’m glad I did. Bludgeoning Angus won’t actually get any information out of him. Though I’m curious as to what information you want so badly.”
“Go to hell, Alex.” I was in no mood to talk.
“Elsie?” Alex asked.
“I just told her about how Selena kicked us out,” Elsie replied.
“Oh, yes, that explains why she’s so upset.”
I was living in some sort of world where nothing made sense. I turned to Elsie. “You know this guy, the Prophesied One?”
Elsie gave me a cool glance before replying. “Yeah, Em. Alex and I are lovers. I guess that means you could say I know him.”
I must have just stood there, completely stunned, for maybe half a minute. And then I lost it completely. I turned and rushed at Alex to take a swing at him. Stupid move. I wasn’t thinking about what he might do. My punch never connected. Next thing I knew he had thrown me, and I was flat on my back. Guess who else had martial arts training.
I heard Elsie say to Alex, “You didn’t hurt her?”
He replied, “No, I made sure she missed the rails and came down on the ground. Think she’ll calm down now?”
Elsie replied, “Probably not. If she’s anything like what she used to be, she’s just had the wind knocked out of her. If I were you, I’d hightail it out of here for now and let me deal with her.”
Alex laughed. “No, I think I’ll let her take another swing at me.” And the next thing I knew he was helping me up.
I might have been surprised and confused, but I wasn’t stupid. I’d been thinking. I finished standing up on my own, looked Alex square in the face, and yelled, “That’s why you worked to get me here, isn’t it? Because you’re screwing my sister.”
Elsie started to say something, but I cut her off. “Else, stay out of this. We’ll fight later.” Elsie decided that would do, and kept her peace.
Alex didn’t seem too upset by my accusation. “Emily, if that had been my only reason, to make your sister happy, it would still have been a good one. But here’s a better one: who was it who really found Stephen Nash’s body?”
At first I couldn’t even parse what Alex was saying, I was still so mad. All I could figure out was that he was admitting he’d been up there at Hilltop in that stable apartment, and had found the body. I was even thinking of taking another swing at him when I glanced over at Elsie. She caught my eye, and raised her hand.
My anger died. Instead, I got a cold feeling running down my spine and a bad feeling in my gut, not for the first time this evening. All I could say was, “You?”
My sister found Nash’s body. My sister was involved with Alex Bancroft, mystery man and prime suspect. My sister . . . my head spun ’round and ’round. A whole new picture of what was going on was unfolding in my head. I must have stood there for a whole minute with my mouth wide open, trying to take it all in. My sister had found the body. That was not what the police report said. I had to ask again. “You found the body?”
Elsie echoed me. “I found the body.”
She replied, “About forty-five minutes after midnight. I’m often restless after sex.”
OK, more than I needed to know. But that was indeed a full hour before the body was supposedly found, according to Bonnie’s report. Elsie could be telling me the truth. She had better be telling me the truth. This also cleared up a few mysteries, such as why Alex Bancroft had been so cagey about that night. I turned to him. “Who else knows about this?”
He shook his head, looking amused. “You sure get down to business when you need to.”
That made me think for a moment about Stacia, but I didn’t want Alex to get away with avoiding the question. I barked, “I asked you who else knows about this. Answer my question, now.”
“That Elsie’s my lover or that she found the body?” Alex paused only a second before proceeding with the answers. He seemed not in the least put out. “Jezebel and Regina, whom you’ve not met, both know the former. Only Jezebel knows the latter.”
“Why the difference?”
Alex looked over to Elsie, then back to me. “Jezebel’s my confidant for just about everything, and was also at Hilltop that night. Regina’s my other lover and was at Lakeside that night.”
This was getting weirder and weirder. I turned to Elsie. “Else, you know about all this?”
She hesitated before answering. “Yes, Em, I do. It’s not . . .”
I cut her off. “Don’t tell me what it is or it isn’t right now, Else. That’s my job, to decide what I think about what I’m hearing.” Time to play the tough detective. “As of now, both of your asses belong to me. I tell you to jump, you jump. Tonight I have to still go and talk to my parents without wringing my sister’s neck. Tomorrow, you will both come to see me when I call you, without fail, and you are going to tell me everything I want to know, period. You two got that?”
Alex actually chuckled and nodded. Elsie looked very uncomfortable. “I don’t think . . .”
I was ready to blast my sister, but Alex dropped his hand on my shoulder. “Hold on there, Miss Iron Lady.” He spoke to Elsie. “I think your sister’s right.”
Elsie looked at Alex for a bit, as if she wasn’t going to agree, then nodded. “OK, Alex. If you’re willing to go along with my sister, I guess I can, too. Now, scoot. We have family to attend to.”
Alex lifted his hand from my shoulder and said to me, “Then I’ll come by your cottage first thing in the morning, Emily? You can track down Elsie later. That way you’ll know we’re not conspiring together.”
I swallowed the notion of taking another swing at Alex and nodded my agreement. He gave Elsie a smile, saluted us both, and headed back toward Milltown.
I turned to Elsie and said something I shouldn’t. “I’m just so happy you let the guy screwing you decide you should agree with your sister.”
Elsie made a face at me. “Don’t be an ass, Em. Tell me you’d trust me with your deepest secrets, and then maybe you can complain about loyalty. Alex may be screwing me, as you so delicately put it, but he’s also been there for me when I needed support. Until we both can say that to each other, sister, you do come in second place. Got it?”
Rather than answer that, and lose my temper again, I just started walking toward Quasopon. Elsie caught up with me, and silently fell in step. It took until we were clear of the Children’s property before I slowed down and started to consider the situation carefully. My sister and Alex Bancroft were definitely involved in Stephen Nash’s death. My sister was in a relationship with Alex Bancroft, the Prophesied One, but wasn’t his only sexual partner. Was the reverse true?
I stopped and turned to Elsie. “Are you sleeping with anyone else besides Alex Bancroft?”
She looked bewildered by my question at first, then gave me a hostile stare. “I’ll tell you that when it’s your business, Em, not before.”
That was it! I advanced on Elsie. She backed up to the edge of the railroad grade. When she turned to look at what was behind her, I grabbed her, picked her up(!), and slammed her into the tree that was there. With my face just inches from her, I said to her, “Elsie, I got hauled back against my will to Quasopon to solve a murder. My sister is implicated in it, and didn’t see fit to tell me before this. The guy she’s sleeping with is implicated in it, too. I’m meeting relatives I don’t know, trying to solve mysteries I don’t understand, someone shot at me today, and I need to go talk to my parents tonight for the first time in almost a decade. I don’t need any more crap from anyone. I sure as hell don’t need any crap from you. You think attempted suicide clarifies things, well, you just try some cold righteous anger and see how that clarifies things. This is not your sister speaking. This is someone who will toss your ass in jail if she doesn’t get straight answers from you. Now answer my question.”
It was hard to tell in this dim starlight, but Elsie seemed a bit paler from my lecture. In any case, she answered, “There’s no one else.”
I let her go, turned around, and started heading toward our parents’ home again. Elsie quickly caught up, and then shot in front of me and blocked my way. She held her arm out to stop me. “Em, you can’t go see our parents like this. Blame me if you want, but make peace with them, please.”
I was not feeling the love. “Maybe we should put this off to some other time, when I don’t feel angry at my sister for betraying me.”
Elsie flung her arms wide. “OK, Em, here I am. Take your best shot. Hit me. I won’t fight back. Maybe you can give me some matching bruises in front to go with the ones you just gave me on my back.”
I was tempted, oh I was tempted. But I couldn’t, or maybe I just didn’t trust myself to stop. Or maybe thinking of Sonia made me feel I didn’t want to be like her. So we both stood there in silence for a few minutes. Elsie lowered her arms. She finally broke the silence. “Now what?”
I’d finally gotten my temper under control, for real this time. I was actually surprised at myself for slamming Elsie into a tree. I didn’t know if that was frustration, displaced anger, whether I was ticked at her for events a decade and more in the past, or I was just so frustrated that I took it out on her because she was to hand. But I did know what my duty required me to say at this point. “Just to make it clear, Else, you’re on trial, too, as a sister, and so far you’re not doing well in that loyalty department you talked about. And I am here to solve a murder, and if you ever, ever again withhold even the smallest bit of information from me, you will be a stranger to me until I leave. Am I clear?”
“Good.” I took a deep breath, trying to keep my hard-won calmness, which really wasn’t all that calm. “Now what have you told our parents, and how am I expected to behave?”
Elsie didn’t respond immediately, and then barely got out the words. “Em, there’s something else you need to know.”
I didn’t know what to say. So for once I was wise and said nothing.
Elsie dropped her head, and then raised it and looked me straight in the eye. “The murder weapon, the gun? It’s probably Alex’s.” I started to say something, but Elsie held up her hand and I let her finish. “He didn’t have it, though. I don’t like guns. I took it and hid it. And the morning after I found Nash’s body, I went looking for it. It was gone.”
I thought of a million different things to say, including giving Elsie a kiss, slapping her silly, and everything in between. But I was here as a detective, and though I didn’t really know how to be a detective, I knew enough to ask the right question. “Who else knows about this?”
Elsie shook her head. “No one. No one knows I took the gun. No one knew where I hid it. And definitely not Alex.”
To which the obvious response was, “Well, either somebody did, and you didn’t know they did, or you are in so deep, sister, that I don’t know whether I can dig you out. Or even want to.” Rather than say that, I just took a deep breath. Suddenly I felt wiped out. Must have been all that adrenaline wearing off.
We stood there, looking at each other for a few more minutes. Then Elsie asked, “Now what?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know, Else. It’s all too complicated for me to think through right now. And I’m tired of fighting you. We need to deal with our parents tonight. The murder can wait until morning.”
Elsie stood there, staring at me, and then lowered her eyes. “I’m trying, Em.”
I could have laughed, just to be relieved of any further conflict, but I didn’t. “I know, Else.”
She looked back up at me. “One other thing, not about the murder: please don’t mention to Mom and Dad that I’m involved with Alex. They know I’ve been gone all night at times, and they probably figure I’m sleeping around or something, but I’d just rather they didn’t know about this.”
At that, I had to laugh. The juxtaposition was too ludicrous: murder and soap opera romance. “Now we’re getting down to brass tacks, Else. What else am I supposed to say or do with our parents? What have you signed me up for?”
Elsie looked confused by my laughter, but rolled with it. “You’re the prodigal daughter who wants to come back to the fold, but it’s understood there are issues on both sides. I’ve told them how pissed off you were about being one of the Fallen, and you’re supposed to understand that you made them feel like failures as parents.” Elsie paused, considering what else to say. “Oh, and you do know about my attempted suicide. And, I’m not too sure about this, Em, but I think they feel that they got kicked out of the Children on account of you, even though they don’t actually know why, and then you left them. I think they might hold a grudge against you there.”
I could live with that. I had a few burdens of my own to unload on my parents. But Elsie was leaving out one thing. “What about the main reason I’m here? The murder?”
Elsie shook her head. “We didn’t talk much about that. I think you can wing it. But, Em, please, please, leave my role out of it.”
I gave Elsie a wry smile. “I’m not going to say anything that isn’t public knowledge. But Else, if I ever have to ask them questions as part of my investigation, all bets are off. Hear me?”
Elsie gave a glum nod.
We walked the rest of the way in silence. It was an uneasy silence. On my part, I was trying to concentrate on what I would say to my parents after a decade of deliberately not talking to them. Oh, and I couldn’t help but think of my sister’s involvement in the murder. Charming.
End of chapter sixteen