Chapter 20: Better living through chemistry
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
I took the secret path from the deserted village to North Village. Apparently all the villages were connected by these paths, if my limited experience was any indication. Whatever they really were, these secret paths were proving to be very handy. Especially in this case, because it saved me from having to bushwhack through the woods. That might have been fun as a kid, but I wasn’t looking forward to it now.
And that was one of the strange things about the secret paths. I went from the deserted village to North Village without going through any of the woods in between. I was in the deserted village, and then I was in North Village. I couldn’t tell when I’d ceased to be in one and entered the other, even though the two villages looked nothing alike. I had to wonder if the secret paths were playing games with my perceptions as well as with physics.
At least I came out in the same alley in North Village as I had when I’d taken the secret path from Hilltop. I’d have to investigate more thoroughly to be sure, but apparently the secret paths had fixed termini in each village. Whatever they were, they had some sort of sense to them.
I was thinking about the secret paths so much that I almost collided with someone again. I was beginning to feel as if I had the word “clumsy” branded on my forehead. This time, it wasn’t some guy, but the girl I’d seen earlier here talking to Ethan Knowles.
“Greetings, Emily Fisher,” she said to me.
It seemed like everyone knew who I was. “How do you know who I am?”
She smiled at that. “Among other times, I just saw you earlier today with your sister, Elsie, who visited me once before. She is not supposed to be on the Sacred Lands. Is she helping you with your investigations?”
I didn’t want to explain. “Yeah, something like that.” And then I was reminded of what Elsie had said to me. “Listen, do you have a moment? I want to ask you about my sister.”
“Of course,” she replied. “We can go to my place. Follow me.”
I hadn’t realized it when I’d seen her and her residence earlier, but she lived in a cottage that was even smaller than mine, and a look around inside showed that she lived alone. This was odd. The girl couldn’t be much older than fifteen, at most. She ought to be living with her parents, or more likely with a group of boys and girls her age, just learning about sex from each other.
Her front room was her living room. It spilled over on one side to a kitchen, and on the other to a door which I presumed led to her bedroom and bathroom. It was a tidy little house. The living room was furnished with two sofas and three rocking chairs arranged around a low coffee table.
My host, the girl, looked to be about five-three, skin showing barely any sign of the summer sun except for the freckles on her face, and reddish-brown hair cut in pageboy style. She sat down at one end of a sofa, and patted the other end to indicate I should sit down beside her. Once I did, she smiled and said, “And my apologies for not introducing myself, but you seem to know who I am. I am Hannah Wyatt, and I am an Instrument of the Divine.”
Well, that’s what you say; the High Council apparently doesn’t agree with you. But that wasn’t a point I wanted to bring up, lest I set this Hannah against me. “I understand you met my sister one night.”
“Your sister Elsie Fisher, that is, not one of your other siblings, all of whom I’ve met before,” she observed. “Elsie is an interesting woman. People here think she has lost her soul, that she is possessed by a demon. But that is not so. Far from having lost it, she clings to her soul more tightly than most.”
“Is that something you learned from talking to her?” I asked.
Instead of answering, Hannah got up, went over to the kitchen, and came back with two shot glasses and a bottle. It was a bottle of festival spirits. She placed them on the coffee table, sat down, and faced me again. She said, “Alex Bancroft, who lets himself be called the Prophesied One, gave your sister festival spirits. For most people, the spirits free them to be themselves. But your sister clings so tightly to her soul that the spirits could not free her. Instead, they were poisoning her. I felt her pain, and asked the Divine to bring her to me.”
I waited for her to go on. But Hannah said no more. So I prompted her. “And then?”
Again, she didn’t reply immediately. Instead, she opened the bottle and poured out two servings into the shot glasses. After stopping up the bottle, she turned back to me and said, “If you want to understand what happened to your sister, you must drink the festival spirits yourself. Then you will experience what she experienced with me.”
I shook my head. “I’m not up for an orgy.”
She laughed at that. “Two is hardly an orgy. And you will be safe in my hands. The choice is yours: drink, or leave with your questions unanswered. You are free to choose either.”
I considered the matter. I wasn’t too concerned with Hannah seducing me; I was more concerned about just what was in festival spirits. Thanks to some colleagues at the agency, I had tried quite a few drugs, so I didn’t think there was much they could do I hadn’t encountered before. Still, it was a risk. I have to admit that what finally swayed me was my frustration over the large number of unanswered questions I was accumulating. Here was a way to solve a few, I hoped.
I picked up a glass, Hannah did likewise, and we both drank down the contents. We put our glasses back on the table. So far, so good: we had both drunk, so whatever happened to me would also happen to her. So I thought, incorrectly as it would turn out.
I turned to ask Hannah something about what we were to do next. I was thinking about making some joke about taking off our clothes. Instead, I found myself looking at Hannah’s eyes. I hadn’t noticed what color they were before. And now that I was looking at them, I couldn’t tell at all. They seemed to swing back and forth from blue to green to yellow in a sort of pulsing rhythm. I think it was the rhythm of my heartbeat. Or maybe it was hers. I could see the blood pulsing in her eyes. Or maybe in my eyes.
Hannah asked me some question, and I know I answered her, but I couldn’t tell you what either of us said. She asked me some more questions, and I kept answering. There was a chorus accompanying us, keeping perfect time with our singing. I think we were singing a jazz number. Or maybe that was an orchestra accompanying us.
I smelled tea. It was a good smell. I opened my eyes, sat up, and stretched. I must have been sleeping. The blanket fell off me onto the floor. My clothes were down there, too, between the sofa and the coffee table. Hannah handed me a cup of tea. She was wearing just a bathrobe and slippers, not the clothing she’d had on earlier. She sat down beside me with a cup herself. We both sipped at our tea, and couldn’t help but smile at each other.
Hannah asked, “How are you feeling, Emily Fisher?”
I didn’t have to think about it. “Wonderful. Thank you, Hannah.”
“Do you remember what we talked about?”
That I did think about. “No. Should I?”
She shook her head. “No. I told you you’d experience what your sister experienced. I told her not to remember, so I told you not to remember, too. But I will tell you what we did. I asked you a lot of questions about yourself, and about Stephen Nash’s murder. And you answered all my questions and unburdened your soul, which is why you feel so good. Oh, and we took off our clothes and gave each other back rubs. You liked it when I used my nails, so I’m afraid there are some scratches on your back. Nothing permanent, though.”
That was fine. I sipped some more tea. And then I thought to ask, “Did I use my nails on your back?”
Hannah shook her head. “That wasn’t needed.” She gave me a thoughtful glance. “You trouble me, Emily.”
I tried to feel concerned, but I couldn’t, I was too serene. “What do I have to do help you, Hannah? I don’t want you to be troubled.” And I genuinely didn’t.
“I don’t know that there is anything you can do.” She closed her eyes for a bit, then opened them again. “You are not one of the Children, but the hand of the Divine is on you, guiding you.”
I considered the idea. “I don’t feel that way.”
“I would not expect you to. And this is a puzzle that will not be solved tonight.” She shook her head repeatedly. “Well, that is the work for another day. Let us await that day. Now I want you to finish up your tea, get dressed, go home, and get a good night’s sleep. When you wake up tomorrow, you will be very angry with me. But know this, Emily Fisher: I will never use anything you said to me to hurt you in any way.”
I started to protest that I could never be angry with Hannah, but she put her finger to my lips. “Hush,” she said. “Drink your tea.”
I woke up in my bed the next morning. Hannah was only half right. It was only half of me that was so angry at what she’d done to me that I could kill her. The other half was wondering just what she had done to me. I didn’t remember what had happened in between drinking the festival spirits and waking up to tea. And my disposition then was equally a mystery. I’d felt so pleased with everything, especially Hannah. I did remember that Elsie had said something similar about being unable to argue with Hannah. I didn’t understand what had happened to both of us, but at least now I could say I understood how she had felt.
The smell of breakfast cooking was coming up from below, so I just tossed on a bathrobe and headed downstairs. And got a new and unwelcome surprise. It wasn’t Tanya in the kitchen, but Alex Bancroft. I pulled my bathrobe a bit tighter. I was not going to allow the Prophesied One to leer at my uncovered cleavage, especially because he was bedding my sister.
As usual, Alex was smiling. He greeted me by saying, “Tanya didn’t look like she’d be getting up in time to make your breakfast, and since it’s my fault, sort of, I thought I’d fill in for her.”
My attitude toward Alex was about the same as my attitude toward Hannah at this point: one-half “I’m going to kill you,” one-half “what the hell is going on here?” So my response was a mix of both. “What happened to Tanya? You add her to your harem?”
A glass of grapefruit juice appeared in front of me as I sat down. Alex turned back to the stove. He said, “Not exactly. Tanya decided to join us for a festival celebration last night. I’m afraid she thought she had to pay some sort of admission, so she took your bottle of festival spirits. It will be replaced.”
I almost choked on my juice. “You introduced a girl like Tanya into one of your orgies?”
Alex turned to face me, looking annoyed for once. “‘A girl like Tanya,’” he repeated in an exasperated tone, “Tanya has been having sexual relations for three years. And not that it’s any of your business, but her current relationships have been going sour. This isn’t the outside world, Emily. Leave your notions about teenagers being immature and innocent back out there. Tanya knows what she wants, and she can handle herself.” He turned back to the stove top. In an undertone, he added, “Besides, Jezebel’s right: Tanya’s even louder than Sonia.”
I barked out a laugh at that. Couldn’t help myself. But that didn’t mean I was any happier. I sat in silence, stewing in my problems, while Alex whipped up a batch of pancakes. He sat down with me to eat them, and we both ate a while in silence.
For once, Alex wasn’t smiling. Instead, he was looking at me as if he was worried. After we’d worked through half the pancakes, he decided to open a conversation. “Most of the people I know who have just seen Hannah Wyatt look a lot less unhappy than you do now.”
I gave him a bleary eye. “More spies, or is this just something you know?”
He shrugged. “Whichever. Not that Hannah’s one of my spies; she’s made it quite plain that she does not approve of my staying here since I admit I’m not the Prophesied One. Still, I’m fairly familiar with how she operates, so if you have any questions, maybe for once I can give you some answers you’ll like.”
I gave him an exaggerated smile. “That would be so nice.” Then I decided I’d see what he could tell me. “She used festival spirits on me. Does this mean she and I just had an orgy?”
Alex looked quizzically at me. “You don’t remember?”
I shook my head. “She told me she made me forget, because she promised me the same experience as Elsie, and she’d made Elsie forget.”
The Prophesied One’s expression switched from quizzical to bemused. “Hannah’s sense of fairness can be so unreal, sometimes. But she probably didn’t have an orgy with either of you, for two reasons. First, sexual festivals are just one possible use for the spirits. Hannah uses it for another reason altogether. She drinks the spirits to get in touch with the Divine. It’s an old practice, though Hannah is one of the few to use it that way these days. And Hannah administers more of the spirits to some of the people who consult her so they’ll loosen up and tell her what’s really bothering them. How did you feel after you woke up?”
“Weird. Great. Happy. It was like I was drugged. When Hannah told me I wouldn’t remember anything I had said, it didn’t even bother me.”
Alex nodded. “Confession, particularly the way Hannah manages it for people, can be quite purging. What you were feeling afterwards had nothing to do with the spirits; that was just your natural reaction to what Hannah had put you through. You’ll probably be the better for it.”
Hmmm. Could be, could be. “You said there were two reasons why we probably didn’t have sex?”
“Ever hear of any homosexuality, male or female, among the Children?”
I thought about it. “No.”
“That’s because to the Children it’s so sinful, they don’t even acknowledge it exists.” Alex paused and tilted his head back until he was staring at the ceiling. As if speaking more to himself, he softly added, “At least that’s the most obvious explanation. For all I can tell, maybe they consider it so sacred that it can’t be mentioned. It would be taboo either way.” He tilted his head forward to look at me with an uncertain smile, and continued in a normal voice, “Whatever, their sexual guides mention almost every form of sexuality, except that one. Their penal code covers all the possible sexual crimes, except that one. Even the word ‘homosexual’ doesn’t exist among them, and as a consequence, they never use the word ‘heterosexual,’ either.”
“So there are no gays or lesbians?”
“You mean, just like there are no blacks or Asians among the Children?” Alex chuckled. “That is true; this is Vermont, after all. Nothing much but white people here, though the story goes there were once runaway slaves among the Children. But homosexuality? It’s here. Ever hear the story of how Hilltop was founded?”
“Yeah, two really weird people, one from Lakeview, one from North Village. Wait, you mean they were gay?”
Alex made a popping noise with his mouth. “Bingo. Lesbians, actually. Mind you, the records never say so. But that was what Hilltop originally was: the homosexual refuge among the Children. The Instruments moved in later. Both groups wanted to be left alone. It’s one of the reasons why Hilltop still shares a council with Lakeview, awkward arrangement though that is. The High Council doesn’t want to acknowledge that homosexuality exists, even now.”
“So you’re saying Hannah didn’t seduce me, or Elsie, for that matter.”
“Probably not. Besides all that, so far as I know, Hannah’s not sexually active yet.”
I was tempted to ask him how he knew that, then recalled how readily gossip traveled anywhere in Quasopon. “You ought to tell Elsie that.”
Alex got this rueful look on his face. “I have. She hears me, but it doesn’t sink in. That’s unusual for your sister; she’s normally quite reasonable. I think she confessed something to Hannah that she subconsciously resents admitting. Quite possibly that she stole my gun. Maybe now that she’s admitted that to me, this worry of hers will also go away.”
“Oh, and when did my sister get around to telling you this?”
Alex resumed his usual grin. “Oh, last night. She wanted to tell me about taking and losing the gun before Bonnie or you did. I told her I’d already figured it out, and we thrashed through it all.”
I was finally beginning to realize why I found Alex so irritating. He always seemed to be in control of the situation. And he was proving it once again. So I vented my irritation at him. “You managed to fit all that in before holding your festival, or did you discuss this with my sister while boinking your followers?”
Alex laughed, shook his head, and gave me a sly grin. “Your sister is another one you shouldn’t worry about. And to answer your question, I dislike dividing my attention between two women at the same time.”
“But you do participate in the festival?”
“Participate, yes. How I participate is none of your business, so don’t expect an answer. Anything else you want to ask about?”
I could think of several things. But I didn’t want to tip my hand about things like the deserted village, not yet. While my sister was involved with Alex, I didn’t want to think of him as the killer. But he was still a suspect, and it would be unwise to reveal my best lead in the case to him. I shook my head. “No.”
Alex laughed at that. “Meaning ‘yes’ but you’re still worried I might be the killer.” He stood up. “I’ll be going. See you at the whipping.”
“The whipping.” Alex saw I still had no idea what he was talking about and explained. “Remember the fellow who spat on you and Sonia? His whipping is scheduled for noon today in Center Village. As one of the injured parties, you’re expected to attend. In fact, I’m surprised Sonia hasn’t already stopped by to collect you.”
The notion sickened me. “I am not going to a whipping.”
Alex leaned forward on the table, fixed me with a serious look. “It’s your choice. But if I were you, I’d go. If you don’t show up, people may speculate on your motives, but that’s it. If you do show up, and visibly disapprove, you’ll have taken a stand that people will notice.”
“You’re going,” I retorted. “What stand are you taking?”
He stood up. “My own, Emily, not yours. I’ll see you there.”
End of chapter twenty