Chapter 18: All things rest connected by hidden knots
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
Tanya had returned long before Bonnie left. She told me Sonia had come with her to see if I needed anything, but left when she saw I was occupied. That was a pity. I wanted Sonia to know that my father had acknowledged her and his other three offspring among the Children to me. I would have to go see her.
Tanya set up lunch for Elsie and me in the kitchen. I won’t say she was happy about it. She kept giving Elsie a fearful look. So I told her I wouldn’t be needing her before dinner, and sent her off to spend her time someplace where she wouldn’t feel threatened by a demon in the form of my sister.
Not that my sister felt much like threatening anyone. Bonnie had dressed her down so thoroughly that she had hardly a word to say for most of the meal.
Truth be told, I wasn’t feeling so chipper, either. I’d watched Bonnie put her questions to Elsie, and could see how much better she was doing than I had done questioning Alex. Bonnie never let Elsie get the upper hand. Though she hadn’t done that well with Alex, either, when she talked to him over the phone. It was meagre consolation.
I kept turning things over in my head, and realized there was at least one question Bonnie hadn’t thought to ask. “Else, your relationship with Alex is a secret, isn’t it?”
In between mouthfuls of her sandwich, Elsie replied, “Yeah. We both want it that way. So?”
“And you meet up in Lakeview and Hilltop?”
Elsie had her mouth full. She nodded.
“So,” and I pounced with my bright thought, “how do you get there without being seen? You’d have to go through Center Village or Milltown.”
Elsie shook her head, chewed her food, and then grinned at me as she answered, “Nope. I take the secret paths.”
“The secret paths,” she repeated. “And don’t tell me you never heard of them. They’re secret, get it?” Her grin got wider.
I was feeling cranky. “Funny. Is this some sort of stupid guessing game? Because if it is, I’m not interested in playing.”
Elsie’s smile didn’t waver. “Oh, no. This is real, Em. Let me finish my sandwich and I’ll show you.”
We walked out of the cottage, took a turn north toward Center Village, and just after we got started, Elsie suddenly cut left into a field. It was weird, it was as if a path just appeared where she was walking. I stepped right along after her. We were walking through a field just north of the cottage. And then suddenly we were in a clearing surrounded by woods.
I looked around. I didn’t recognize the spot. I turned to Elsie. “Where are we?”
Elsie was wearing a huge grin on her face. “Hilltop. The place I found Nash’s body is right over there in the woods.”
We could not be in Hilltop. We hadn’t ever gone far enough to reach Center Village, and we hadn’t climbed any hill. But I looked in the direction Elsie was pointing toward, and I could barely see a yellow house. I walked toward it, and got only a short distance in the woods before Elsie stopped me. “Here,” she said.
It was the spot where Nash’s body had been found, all right. And that had to be Ira Smith’s house ahead. I turned to Elsie. “How did we just get here in under a minute from Milltown?”
Elsie shrugged, a smile still on her face. “That’s how the secret paths work, Em. I don’t know how. But they do.”
OK, what we just did was impossible. But we’re here. And that has some nasty implications. I asked Elsie, “And you say there wasn’t much blood on the ground here when you found Nash’s body?”
She nodded. “He wasn’t shot here. We’d have heard.”
“But anyone who knows about these secret paths could have easily brought him here from Milltown,” I exclaimed.
“Or West Village. Or North Village. Or anywhere else on the Children’s lands, Em. The secret paths run everywhere across the Children’s lands.”
Everywhere? Oh shit, if true. I turned about and hurried back to the clearing. Not to my surprise, I couldn’t see any path leading away from it. “Where’s the path, Else?”
Elsie caught up with me. “You can’t see it? Hmm. Try looking for it.”
I gave her a look that suggested she was out of her wits, but she just smiled right back at me. So I turned about to look. The secret paths go everywhere? OK, show me a path to North Village.
Elsie interrupted my thoughts. “Try a little harder, Em. You’ve almost got it.”
Show me the friggin’ path to North Village! And then, where I didn’t recall seeing a path before, there was a path! I strode toward it, into the woods, Elsie right behind me. And less than a minute later we emerged out of an alley between two buildings on the edge of North Village. I spun around on my heels in amazement, and for the second time in as many days collided with someone and knocked him down.
This time, I immediately helped the man to his feet. To my mild surprise, for I’d already had enough surprises to scarcely notice one more, the man was Ethan Knowles. “Sorry about that, Ethan. I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
Ethan seemed much more discombobulated than I was. He began stammering out two or three half-formed thoughts before finally coming out with, “Hi, Emily. How goes the investigation?” He saw who was standing beside me and his eyes opened wide. “Is that your sister?”
“She’s helping me, Ethan. You here to see your sister?”
He shook his head and then nodded. “No. I mean, yes. I mean yes and no. No, I mean I’ve seen her and was going to visit a friend. I’ve got to be going.” And he hurried over to a small cottage about four doors away and knocked on the door. He glanced back at us, and gave us an uneasy smile. Then the door opened, a girl stepped out and greeted him, and the two went in. Though before they did, I saw the girl give Elsie and me a look.
Ethan had seemed so much more self-possessed, if a bit nervous, when I’d spoken with him at home. Nothing like the person we’d just run into. I turned to Elsie, saw that she was staring at the door Ethan had disappeared into. “You know something about that house or that girl, Else?”
Elsie grimaced. “Not as much as I need to. C’mon, let’s go back to your place and I’ll tell you about it.”
We got back to the Burns Cottage by yet another secret path, from North Village to the same place where we’d left Milltown when we started. Saying she needed a drink, Elsie went into the pantry to find a bottle of cider. I was getting out glasses when I heard Elsie exclaim something.
I turned to look. There was Elsie, holding up the bottle of festival spirits. She looked at me and asked, “Where the hell did you get this?”
I couldn’t help but be amused. “Your boyfriend gave it to me. You want to tell me what it’s used for? Tanya got all embarrassed about it when I asked her.”
“I’ll bet.” Elsie looked at the bottle in her hand, and then back at me. “Alex gave you this? When?”
“When I first arrived. I guess he left it at the store here in Milltown for me. So what’s it used for?”
Elsie shook her head. “I just can’t . . . oh, hell, I’ll explain in a minute. Funny thing is, it’s actually related to the story I was going to tell you.”
We settled down in my study with cider and chips. After she’d swallowed down about half a glass, Elsie began talking. “Festival spirits. High alcohol content, bunch of herbs, and I suspect some sort of magic mushrooms or something that gives you a high. I don’t actually know. The usual use of festival spirits is in a festival. Imagine what the Children do in a festival, Em.”
I shook my head. “Never heard of any sort of festival that used something like that.”
“Yeah, well no wonder, you were still too young when you left. Orgies, Em. You get enough people sitting around drinking that stuff, and it doesn’t take much, and they start stripping off their clothes and having sex with each other, apparently without paying much attention to who’s who. It’s considered a sacrament. At least that’s what they tell me.
“I wasn’t particularly interested, but I was in Lakeview when they were holding one, so I let Alex talk me into drinking some festival spirits. Instead of making me want to have sex, I got sick. It was horrible. I was nauseous. It felt like there was something clawing at my stomach, at my eyes, even inside my head. Supposedly it hits a few people like that, instead of what it’s supposed to do. Alex took me away from the festival to his bedroom, and I told him to go enjoy himself. I have to admit I wasn’t exactly happy about it, but there was no point in him staying with me if I was sick but going to be OK eventually.”
“Wait,” I interjected. “You mean Alex Bancroft has you, this other woman, and participates in orgies?”
Elsie gave me a rueful smile. “Honestly, I don’t know, Em. I’ve never asked, and he’s been vague when he mentions his role. I just didn’t want to think about it. OK?”
I nodded (making a mental note to myself to have a few words with Alex Bancroft, as if it would do any good), and Elsie continued. “I was lying on the bed, and it just kept getting worse and worse. And then I woke up. I was fine. I was also under the covers and naked. I figured Alex had come back, stripped off my clothes and tucked me in. So I turned over in bed to give him a kiss. But it wasn’t him. It was her, the girl you just saw with Ethan Knowles. And she was naked, too.
“Her name is Hannah Wyatt. Related to Bonnie’s family way, way back, but that’s beside the point. She claims to be an Instrument, though Alex tells me the High Council hasn’t recognized her as such. We were in her bedroom, all the way in North Village, just where you saw her earlier. It was early the next morning, just after the sun had come up. I had no idea how I could have gotten there. I’d felt so sick, I knew I couldn’t have got there under my own power. I asked her what had happened. She wouldn’t tell me. She just told me she’d acted for my own good, and that I should get back home so my parents wouldn’t worry about me. And that’s just what I did.”
“Doesn’t sound like you, Else. You mean you didn’t argue with her, try to get her to tell you how you’d made it into her bed?”
Elsie looked down into her lap, thinking a bit, before she answered. “I don’t understand why, Em, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I didn’t even try. I don’t know, maybe I was afraid I’d find out I’d had some sort of lesbian experience with her. And I don’t even know that. I don’t even know that.” Elsie’s voice had trailed off by the end.
I didn’t quite know what to say to this. Apart from the presumed impossibilities, my sister was clearly unhappy about the experience, but why, exactly? Was my sister more concerned about having lesbian sex, sex that she didn’t remember, or sex that she hadn’t consented to? It was another mystery, a mystery on top of a mystery at that, and I didn’t need more mysteries. In fact, it was a mystery on top of one that seemed more important. I asked Elsie, “Any idea why Ethan Knowles would be seeing this Hannah Wyatt?”
Elsie shook her head. “No idea.” Then she added, “But, Em, if you do go investigating that, I’d really like to find out what happened to me. I mean, really. It bothers me a lot. Y’know?”
Elsie left not long after to go into town to make her statement to Bonnie. And I sat in my study, contemplating the mysteries that were piling up faster than I could deal with them.
Item, someone had a gun in the Children’s lands, had killed Stephen Nash, and had taken a few shots at me. Either my sister was conspiring with Alex Bancroft to hide the fact that they’d killed him, or someone might have been trying to frame Alex, or something. And whoever was responsible was afraid I might find out the truth. Which showed more confidence in my investigative powers than I had in the matter.
Item, apparently the Children’s lands were riddled with “secret paths,” which seemed to defy the laws of physics. At least two of those paths, from Milltown and North Village, terminated just short of where Nash’s body was found. And no one had heard any shots, and there wasn’t enough blood where Nash was found. Stephen Nash had been killed elsewhere.
I sat bolt upright in my chair, and went to look at the map of the Children’s lands. It showed the four major and two minor villages, and the paths between them. It didn’t show these secret paths, whatever they were. And there was one other thing the map didn’t show.
If no one had heard the shots when Nash was killed, maybe that was because he was shot where there weren’t any other people. And no one would think to look there for traces, either, because the spot was not on the map, and had been mostly forgotten.
I checked my watch. It was only 3:30 PM, time enough on a summer’s day to go exploring for several hours yet. I left a note for Tanya, telling her I would be late. And then I headed out the door. It was time to visit the deserted village.
End of chapter eighteen