Chapter 17: Confusing confessions
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
My meeting with my parents was an awkward affair. All of us, my mother, my father, Elsie, and I all wanted to bury the hatchet. Make that “hatchets,” plural, myriads, even. We all had long-standing grudges and complaints, too. So we’d try to resolve our differences, run into some thorny issue or some unexpected resentment, and come to a dead halt. Silence would follow, until someone switched to a new topic for us to run aground on.
It could have been worse. I had the murder investigation hanging over my head, including my sister Elsie’s involvement in it, but was able to shut that off for a few hours. My father, generally the strong, silent type (that is, stubborn and unwilling to consider anyone else’s opinion worth valuing), unbent enough to admit that he had made some mistakes. And Elsie seemed the most determined to keep us talking whenever things started to go astray.
Probably the most surprising thing that came up was exactly how the Children had kicked out my parents. The High Council had not excommunicated the two of them, as I had always thought, which would have required testimony from witnesses that my parents had deviated from the faith. Instead, the High Council had pronounced a sentence of expulsion. My parents had never heard of such a thing, and were completely bewildered by it. The Council offered no explanation at all, and refused to give any when asked. And I was specifically included, even though I was only a child of nine. We were given two hours to leave. Oh, and the High Council gave my parents a substantial amount of money, enough to get them started in the outside world, again without a word of explanation.
It was not until later that my father heard from his kin among the Children that Selena Sawyer had been behind the expulsion order. He snuck onto the Children’s land once to confront Selena. She admitted to being the instigator, but refused to say any more. I got the impression that my father had gone so far as to actually hurt Selena to try to get an answer, but to no avail.
My parents said they’d given up the faith in the years since. But if their faith was gone, they still retained some of the attitudes. When I was getting ready to leave, my mother asked me if there was a man in my life. When I said I didn’t have one at the moment, she suggested that I take the opportunity to have a brief affair with some fellow among the Children while I was there, but to be careful not to lose my heart to him. I told her I would consider it. I was lying, though I was tired enough that it almost seemed tempting.
I was so emotionally exhausted by the time I got back to the Burns Cottage that I just went up to my room and immediately fell sound asleep. If Tanya had one of her guys over, I was sleeping too soundly to notice.
I came down in the morning to find Alex Bancroft already here, and having a cozy little conversation with Tanya. The two of them looked like they were old mates.
Alex saw me, turned to Tanya, and said, “Time for you to go run off to Eldress Hoopes and confess, Tanya. Your boss and me, we have some things to talk about in private.”
Tanya got up, but gave me a questioning look. I started to say, “I wanted her to wait . . .”
Alex quickly interrupted, “I’ve already addressed your concerns with Sonia, Emily. It’s OK. So time for you to get running along, Tanya.”
Tanya looked relieved, and left the room. A few moments later I heard the outside door open and close. I turned to Alex. “How would you know what my concerns are?”
He had got up and was fussing with the breakfast things. Without turning around, he answered, “Sonia’s not going to strike Tanya. Tanya’s going to be suffering so much when she confesses to Sonia that even Sonia wouldn’t feel like hitting her.” He turned around, dropped a glass of orange juice on the table in front of me.
OK, that was my concern. So let’s move on. “And what punishment did Jezebel draw?”
Alex was working at the stove. “I explained to her what she did wrong. It’s not worth punishing Jezebel any other way. It doesn’t teach her anything.”
“Oh? Then why isn’t she allowed to leave Lakeview on her own?”
Alex dropped some bacon on the plate in front of me. “That’s not punishment. That’s protection.” He searched my face. “You don’t understand? No reason why you should. Tell me, how does Jezebel impress you?”
I thought about it. “She seems bright but ill-disciplined.”
He was back at the stove top again. He nodded, then said, “Jezebel is probably the smartest person in Quasopon. She’d act like it, too, if she hadn’t been unmercifully abused most of her life.”
Naturally, one name came to mind. “Sonia?”
Alex turned around, dropped two eggs on my plate, and sat down himself. “No. Sonia may be a bit too handy with the rod, which is why I had the one here weakened, but she’d never deliberately try to harm a child. In fact, the two years she was Jezebel’s guardian were among the few years Jezebel wasn’t abused. Not many people dare meddle in Sonia’s affairs. It’s a sad irony that Sonia’s one of the few people Jezebel hates.”
He took a sip from a mug in front of him and continued. “I met Jezebel shortly after I came here the first time. She was nothing like what you see now. You would have thought her stupid and infantile in her behavior, she was that badly damaged. She had no idea how messed up she was, either. Once I realized what had been done to her, I yanked her out of Milltown, made Elizabeth Miller her official guardian, and took her under my wing. It was the only way I could keep her safe from further abuse. And that’s why she isn’t allowed to run free, so she doesn’t fall into the hands of her abuser again. Her abuser does not set foot in Lakeview, period. I’ve seen to that.”
I was horrified. “This person is still free?”
Alex gave me a grim look. “For now. I have no proof. And if you ask Jezebel, she won’t know what you’re talking about. She doesn’t realize what was done to her to make her miserable. So, nothing can be done yet. But I’m working on it.” And then he gave a subdued laugh. “And, no, it wasn’t Stephen Nash, either. If it were, I’d be pleading justifiable homicide.”
Well, we finally get to the murder, the reason I’m supposed to be here. “So you’re not going to confess to killing Nash and make it easy for me?”
Alex shook his head, smiling. “Nope. I didn’t tell Bonnie or you about my presence at Hilltop because I wanted to keep your sister out of it. When she revealed our relationship, there was no point anymore.
“So here’s the story. One of the reasons I use that apartment is for nights with your sister. I took Jezebel up with me, and after we talked with some of the Instruments, we settled down for the night, your sister and me in bed, Jezebel on a couch in the living room. Your sister is a very restless woman. After I fall asleep, she sometimes gets up and takes a stroll. It being summer, she didn’t bother putting on any clothes, either. She went walking in the woods, heard a noise, and went over to investigate. She found Stephen’s body and recognized it instantly.”
“Why is that? How did she know Nash?”
Alex nodded. “Right question. Your parents tell you about the unusual way they were kicked out?”
“Expulsion,” I said. “Never heard of it before.”
“That’s because it’s never happened before, ever. Your sister asked me to look into it, which is why I know that. To get the High Council to reopen the matter, you need eight members to agree. Despite our differences, Stephen and I were on friendly terms. I introduced him to Elsie, and she managed to convince him to support a motion to reopen your parents’ case. Since we don’t have eight members in total yet, it hasn’t come up at Council. I’ll write you up a list of which Council members we approached, if you want.”
“OK. So, Elsie came back and woke me up. I thought it highly unlikely that Elsie had killed him, for all sorts of reasons, and did not want her involved, so I got her and Jezebel out of there, and then got some friends of mine among the Instruments to claim they found Nash. And that’s it. Naturally, I’m dependent on what your sister told me about her actions. But I can’t think of a reason for her to kill Stephen. Rather the contrary: he was supporting her efforts to have your family’s case reopened.”
“How about the means?”
Alex got a sour expression on his face. “Possible, but unlikely. I brought a pistol and ammunition with me when I came here this spring. I bought them at a private sale, so there are no records, but I’ll get the specifications for you. The ammunition and pistol have both gone missing. Your sister doesn’t know this, but I know she took them. Since she hasn’t produced them, I take it she’s lost them, too?”
I wasn’t going to answer that question. I was supposed to be interrogating Alex, not the other way around. “Get on with your story, Alex. Elsie will tell me what she did.”
My refusal to answer didn’t seem to bother Alex in the least, which I thought suspicious. He said, “The bullets found in Nash’s body are of the same type as the ones that were stolen from me. So on that basis, your sister would have to be a prime suspect, whatever she says about what happened to the gun, except for two things. First, she didn’t have the gun on her when we stripped down for the night during which Stephen was killed. That means she would have to have hidden the gun nearby and arranged to meet Stephen secretly after I fell asleep, which is pretty unlikely. Second, I know she can’t shoot worth a damn. She’s even a worse shot than you are.”
That got my attention. “How do you know about my bad shooting ability?”
He shrugged. “I just know things.”
I’d had enough of that. I slammed my fist on the table. “Damn it, man, do you understand what sort of trouble you’re in? You’ve impeded a murder investigation. You’re a suspect yourself. And how long do you think your phony identity will stand up, Mister Alexander Whatever Bancroft?”
Alex just sat there for a bit, not at all abashed, before he replied in a quiet voice. “I know exactly how much trouble I’m in, Emily. Do you? Tell me, if Elsie or I didn’t kill Nash, what’s the next most likely possibility?”
I considered, and realized what he was driving at. “Someone knew about your presence at Hilltop and was trying to frame you.” And I know at least one person at Hilltop who almost certainly knew: my childhood friend, the Instrument Jim Abbott. So I asked, “Who would know?”
Alex replied, “I’ve thought about that. Unfortunately, probably quite a few people would know I was going to be there. Maybe a dozen people in Lakeview, probably two-thirds of Hilltop. Mind you, only Jezebel and Regina would know Elsie was going to be there, too.”
I didn’t want to think about Regina, and hearing Jezebel’s name in that context still sounded odd. “You said last night Jezebel is your confidant?”
Alex’s usual amused look returned. “Don’t believe it? I’m not kidding, Emily, when I tell you she’s probably the smartest person in town. And I like smart women. But it’s for her own good, too. The more I get her engaged in thinking about adult matters, like an adult, the faster she’s growing up out of her childishness. That’s why she likes questioning strangers. She not only learns about what they know, she also learns how adults think.”
“OK, so you’re the noblest soul that ever lived, Alex.” I was getting tired of this, and let the sarcasm come through. “You told me you knew who killed Nash. You want to tell me now? Is there someone else whose love life I have to expose before you’ll tell me the rest of the story? Or are you just going to sit there with that stupid grin on your face and continue to be my suspect number one? Maybe a stint in jail would help?”
Alex looked unfazed. “It’s like Jezebel’s abuser, Emily: I have no evidence to give you to back up an accusation. You’re going to have to find the killer by your own methods. And Bonnie Knowles isn’t going to throw me in jail. She’d have to throw your sister in jail first. She’s not going to do that, not when your sister and I are voluntarily spilling the beans.”
I was getting frustrated with just how cocksure Alex seemed to be. So I tried a long shot. My sister was only 17. I had to wonder just how long she and Alex had been having sex. “I could get you on a statutory rape charge.”
Alex stood up, a serious look on his face. “As far as I’m concerned, this meeting is over. When you have questions that relate to the murder investigation that I can answer in a useful fashion, just let me know.” With that he walked out of the kitchen. A few seconds later, I heard the outside door open and close.
I wouldn’t swear to it, but I thought I barely caught the sound of Alex Bancroft chuckling to himself as he walked away.
I ended up putting my questions to Elsie while sitting in my study about an hour later. We were not alone. Bonnie Knowles was sitting there, too, and she was not happy.
Bonnie arrived just after I had called Elsie to tell her to come over for questioning. Bonnie’s purpose in coming over was to tell me that the Center Village Watch Committee had found two bullets and brought them to Bonnie for analysis. It looked like whoever was shooting at me was using the same gun as the one that killed Nash.
Under the circumstances, I had to tell Bonnie about my conversations with Alex and Elsie. And I had to let her sit in on my interrogation of Elsie, which rapidly became Bonnie’s interrogation of Elsie. Bonnie tore Elsie a new one. At one point, Alex called up with the information he had promised me, including the specs of the pistol, and Bonnie tried to tear him one, too. Judging from her end of the phone call, she was not so successful with Alex. Probably because of that, she became even more aggressive in questioning Elsie. My sister didn’t break down into tears, but she was definitely cowed quite a few times. Bonnie ripped her up and down for not coming forward at once and for her stupid behavior with Alex’s gun. It didn’t help that Elsie admitted to knowing the gun had vanished even before Nash’s murder, though she couldn’t remember when she’d found out. Bonnie went so far as to run through a whole list of charges she could press against Elsie for what she’d done. The whole business ended up with Elsie agreeing to go down to the station to make a statement later in the day.
I left Elsie in the study as I escorted Bonnie to the door. As she was about to leave, she quietly asked me, “You don’t think I was too hard on Elsie, do you, Emily?”
I shook my head. “Even if I thought so, Bonnie, I’d be too afraid to tell you.”
End of chapter seventeen