Chapter 29: The damned and the demented
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
I woke up late the next morning not only feeling better, but with a sense of purpose and direction. I’d been letting events play me, letting myself get sucked into mysteries. Now that Stacia had cleared some of the mysteries out of the way, I would set the agenda.
First up was a trip to Hilltop. Alex Bancroft had been up there with my sister the night Stephen Nash was killed. So much they both admitted. I had found out because Jim Abbott had pointed me to the stable apartment. He must have known Alex used it, but he hadn’t told me so; in fact, he had denied knowing who used it. Why? What did he have to gain by concealing what he knew, when he wanted me to find out? Maybe he just didn’t want to be much involved. But if Alex wasn’t responsible, then maybe Jim knew who was, and was covering for him by throwing me off the scent. It was time to find out.
The Milltown Watch insisted on accompanying me up to Hilltop. They’d been unhappy when I returned from Sacred Mountain just before dawn and needed to have them let me in the front door, for they hadn’t seen me get out. They told me in so many words that Sonia would have their heads if anything happened to me, and they didn’t sound like they were joking. I suppose I could have tried escaping by the window again to make my way alone to Hilltop, but it was daylight, and my ankle was still a little sore from the previous escape. So I accepted their company. It meant I couldn’t use the secret paths, at least until I found out just how secret the paths were. That was something that Stacia should be able to tell me. So we took the route from Milltown to Hilltop via the flank of Sacred Mountain, the same way I’d gone there the first time since my return to the Sacred Lands. To my surprise, my ankle didn’t bother me that much, despite the climb to Hilltop.
Jim Abbott was at home. Like many Instruments, he lived alone; company does not seem to be congenial to Inspiration. (How did Stacia manage? Oh, right, she’s not an Instrument.) I had some difficulty convincing the Watch to stay outside, which they agreed to do only when I agreed to yell for help at the first sign of trouble.
I knew if I confronted Jim directly about the stable apartment that he’d simply deny knowing anything. So I decided to lead in with an unrelated topic. “Jim, something’s come up. What do you know about a relationship between Selena and my half-sister Stacia?”
Jim looked puzzled. “Never heard of her.”
“Eustacia Fletcher?” I suggested.
“Oh, Emma Fletcher’s kid. I’d forgot Gabe . . . your father, was her father. Silly me. It was kind of a scandal, Emma being so young and all.” Jim relaxed as he sat back. “Yeah, Selena had this idea of trying to find more Instruments, starting them early. Emma being an Instrument and all, her kid seemed a likely possibility. But after Emma . . . died, the kid went mental, and Selena gave up on her. She OK now?”
I’d asked an innocent question, and stumbled on what was beginning to sound like another complex affair. “I guess. Sort of. Something happened to her mother, to this Emma Fletcher?”
“They hushed it up, but, yeah. Emma hung herself in the kid’s bedroom. The girl was the one who discovered her mother’s body.”
I’d only thought of Stacia as being weird. I hadn’t thought exactly what might have shaped her personality. Sad. But taking me away from my main purpose. And I still couldn’t think of a way to sneak up on the subject. So I lied instead. “I’ve just been talking to several Instruments before I came to see you. Seems they all knew that Alex Bancroft was using that apartment in the old stable that you pointed out to me.”
Jim looked unconcerned. “So he was up here on the night Nash was killed. Quite a coincidence, if it was.”
“You don’t much like Alex Bancroft, do you, Jim?”
He shrugged. “What can I say? The man’s a fraud.”
“You dislike him enough to cooperate in trying to frame him?”
That caught him by surprise. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, for starters, Alex didn’t actually keep his use of that place a secret. I don’t think it will be too hard to prove you knew about it. So why didn’t you simply tell me, Jim, save me the trouble of having to find out?”
He tried to look unconcerned. “Maybe I just didn’t want to be involved.”
I laughed at that. “After showing me where Nash’s body was found and pointing out the stable apartment? Come on, Jim, I’m not nine years old anymore. It’s not like I’m going to forget what you said.”
As that last bit came out of my mouth, I realized it was lame, and that Jim could easily take the initiative from me. I figured I’d blown it, again. Would that I were even half the interrogator Bonnie was.
So I was completely unprepared for the effect of my words on Jim. He looked as if he had been struck by lightning. His face turned pale, his eyes bulged as he stared at me, and he looked as if he would scream if he could get enough control over himself to do so. And then he bolted! He jumped up and ran out of the room. A few seconds later I heard a door at the back of his place fly open and then close.
An Instrument of the Dead, a childhood friend, had fled from my questions. Exactly why, I didn’t understand, but Jim Abbot was somehow implicated in the murder of Stephen Nash. And I had to get to North Village immediately, or I might lose the only possible witness who could help me prove it.
I sent my Milltown guards to search Hilltop for Jim Abbott and to alert the Watch in the other villages if they didn’t quickly find him. They protested that they were supposed to protect me, but I took a page from Sonia and told them I was entertaining no debates about the matter. To back me up, I hauled the police badge Bonnie had given me out of my wallet and showed it to them, and told them they were under my orders now. They bought it, and set to work.
With them busy, I ran north to the clearing where I knew the secret paths met, and took the path to North Village. I emerged out of the alley there, and sprinted over to Hannah’s cottage, bad ankle be damned.
There I came to a dead halt. I was not expecting to see what was in front of me. There was a line, a long line, a line that snaked out of sight. They were the Children, young and old, alone and in families, and they were waiting to see the Instrument of the Divine, Hannah Wyatt. Two members of the North Village Watch stood at her front door. It not just startled me, it disturbed me. Hannah clearly had more power and responsibility at this moment than anyone else among the Children. And it looked as if the Children were desperate for her advice and help. What were my needs, compared to this?
Well, my needs were to find the killer of one dead man, and possibly prevent the death of one demented woman who happened to be Hannah’s mother. I went up to the door, holding my police badge up where the Watch could see it. “I need to see Hannah Wyatt now. Official business.”
The senior member of the Watch shook his head. “No one gets in to see the Instrument without her permission.”
“You don’t understand. This is official police business.”
The Watch member in all seriousness replied, “You don’t understand. This is an Instrument of the Divine. No one gets in without her permission.”
Stubborn bastards. “Then go get her permission.”
“We do not have permission to intrude. You will have to wait until she finishes seeing her current petitioner.”
If this was a normal situation, I would have threatened them with arrest. But I was dealing with Watch members protecting an Instrument of the Divine. I rather doubted any threat I could make would get them to yield.
Instead, I took a look at the door. It still had no lock. So this might just work. I gave the Watch an unhappy look, turned my back on them, stuck my badge back in my wallet, replaced my wallet in my slacks, and took one step away.
My next move was supposed to be to pivot and attack the Watch member nearest the door latch and try to force my way in. I was all set to do so. But I never did.
I happened to look at the line of people waiting to see Hannah. It had disturbed me before, because I was considering what this said about Hannah’s power. But now I was looking at them for what they themselves were. They were standing here waiting for Hannah because they needed hope. They were sad, depressed, worried, frightened, and bewildered. It was pitiful.
It was as if I felt their despair. Just a little, but that little rapidly turned into a torrent. In moments it was as if all their despair were pouring into me. It weighed me down, weakening me. I was having trouble seeing, trouble standing, trouble breathing. It got worse and worse, minute after minute. There was no pain, but no relief from the steadily increasing pressure, either.
You’ve got to let go of it, Emily.
Easy enough for you to say. I don’t know how.
It’s not yours. All this despair, it doesn’t belong to you. It’s for me to deal with.
That didn’t matter. I was drowning. Water was pouring into me. I was drowning in the mill pond. I was trying to breathe, only to have water fill my throat, my lungs.
I don’t want to do this to you, Emily, but I have to. . . . Are you really going to let your little sister Elsie beat you at this? She didn’t drown.
That got me mad. Can’t let Elsie beat me, can I? There was a horrible pressure squeezing my chest. I kicked and kicked as hard as I could, until I finally broke the surface and sucked in so much air that my lungs felt as if they were going to explode.
I opened my eyes. I was lying on my back, just outside Hannah’s door. Hannah was kneeling down at my side, concern writ large on her face. I felt sick, rolled over, and water came pouring out of my mouth.
I was alternating between gasping for air and coughing up water for the next few minutes. It was an uncomfortable feeling, to say the least. Where had the water come from? My imaginary drowning? It seemed as if I was throwing up gallons. But as I recovered, I dismissed the matter out of my mind for the moment. I needed to get to the deserted village with Hannah.
I was still a bit shaky when I stood up with the help of Hannah and one of the Watch guards. Everyone was looking at us with worry and concern. I guess in their experience people just don’t vomit up gallons of water every day. The way my life was going, that almost seemed normal. Hannah urged me, “You need to come in and rest, Emily. That was the second time you’ve taken on more than you could handle.”
I shook her off. “I don’t have time. I need your help, and I need it now.”
She looked me up and down, I guess debating whether I was in any shape to do anything. I probably didn’t look like much. My clothes were all dirty, my face felt swollen, and my eyes were sore. Finally she answered, “You are my sister for what you were willing to do for me. Tell me what you want and I will do it.”
Inwardly I blessed my stars that I was dealing with what I was thinking of as the “normal” Hannah, the fourteen-year-old girl, and not the fearsome Instrument. I said to her, “Then come with me. We need to go talk to your mother, and get her out of danger if necessary.”
Hannah’s face fell. “I would you had asked me for anything else, Emily Fisher, but I have promised.” She turned to the Watch guard, gestured to indicate the people waiting. “Take their names. They have waited, and I don’t want them to think I am abandoning them. Tell them I will call them back when I am able.”
We set off, and I directed us to the secret path to the abandoned village. I think Hannah was wondering where I was taking her at first, but she recognized the alley for what it was. We emerged shortly thereafter in the deserted village.
It had not changed. It was still spooky. Hannah seemed as uneasy as I was. She turned to me. “I’m not sure what you want of me, Emily.” There was a quaver in her voice.
Somehow, that encouraged me. Even Hannah was spooked by this place! And yet there was nothing harmful here, save for a madwoman. Oh, and possibly two killers, but that was for later. I said to Hannah, “According to your mother, Stephen Nash was shot and killed somewhere in this village. At least I think that’s what she was saying. Jim Abbott ran out on me when I was interrogating him. Either he is the killer or, more likely, he knows who is. Either way the killer knows I’m closing in on him. We need to find your mother, have her show us where Nash was shot, and then get her out of here before the killer decides to cover up his traces.”
Hannah took all this in quickly. “And you brought me to talk to my mother.”
I nodded. “She thinks I’m damned, and that I’m trying to steal her soul. I can’t count on her cooperating with me.”
Hannah frowned and gave me a pleading look. “I may not be of much help, Emily. She thinks I’m damned, too. Some days she’ll listen to me. Other days . . . she won’t.”
The way my mind was working today, I had to wonder if Stacia had somehow done something to me last night on top of Sacred Mountain. The spiritual and the magical side still made no sense; among other things, just what had happened to me back in front of Hannah’s? But what happened in the normal world, that I seemed to understand even better than before. Penelope thought Hannah was damned? No, that wasn’t the whole story. Penelope thought her daughter Hannah Priest Wyatt was damned. A whole bunch of pieces fell into place, and I laughed out loud at what they revealed. It was so obvious.
Hannah’s expression had changed from worried to confused when I laughed, and I hastened to reassure her. “Don’t worry, Hannah. Your mother will listen to you today. I guarantee it. Come on, let’s find her.”
Hannah led the way. According to her, Penelope had several places in which she lived, as if she were hiding from people, which of course she was. Hannah claimed she could tell where Penelope was, and she led us to the northeastern part of the deserted village, until we reached the outskirts. There was a large house there, probably once a residential hall for young adults. Hannah motioned for me to get behind her, and we went in.
The first few rooms were vacant of anything indicating the place was in use. I suspect Penelope thought she was hiding by doing that. It might have worked, too, save for the fact that I had Hannah with me, and that Penelope had left an obvious track through the dust on the floor. We followed the track most of the length of the house, until it opened up on a kitchen. Like the one I’d seen before, this one was clearly in use, and had fresh vegetables laid out on a counter.
“Mother,” Hannah called. “Penelope?”
Through another doorway, there was a stirring, and then Penelope Wyatt came into the kitchen. She looked little different. She was wearing different clothes, but they were as tattered as the ones I’d seen her in a few days ago. She walked forward with a smile on her face to embrace her daughter. And then she saw me, and the smile died on her face. “Who is that?” she said to Hannah in alarmed tones.
“A friend,” Hannah replied.
Penelope advanced warily until she got close enough to see me clearly. I must have presented almost as ragged an appearance she did, after my roll in the dirt. She raised her finger to point at me. “You’re Emily Fisher the Damned.”
I laughed. “Wrong, Penelope, wrong, wrong, wrong. You’ve got it all wrong. Selena Sawyer got it wrong, too. I’m not damned. There’s no curse. And I can prove it to you.”
Penelope had backed up until she was standing just behind Hannah, as if using her as a shield against me. “Demons lie,” was her reply.
“Maybe,” I admitted, “but here’s something you can prove by asking anyone. Hannah,” I said, turning to her, “turn around and face your mother.” Hannah did so, and then I went on. “Penelope Wyatt, let me introduce you to your daughter. This is Hannah Priest Wyatt, Instrument of the Divine as officially and publicly recognized by the High Council of the Children of the New Revelation.”
Penelope stood for several seconds, thunderstruck. And then, with a great moan, she lurched forward and embraced her daughter in a hug. Her body shook with sobs and her tears flowed down her face.
It took Hannah many minutes to get Penelope quieted down. No sooner would Penelope stop crying then she started again. I couldn’t blame her. She’d lived with the guilt for years that she had spawned a damned child. And now she didn’t have to.
I set to making tea, hoping the sheer normalness of such an activity would help Penelope recover from the shock she had received, pleasant shock though it was. And so it did. She sat down to sip at her tea, smiling to herself and smiling at her daughter. She even bothered to smile at me once or twice, although I think it put a strain on her.
Hannah, on the other hand, while grateful for her mother’s happiness, was baffled as to its meaning. After she’d seen her mother settled and happy, in a soft, low voice she said to me, “I understand why being an Instrument means I’m not damned, Emily. But how does that prove you’re not damned in my mother’s eyes?”
Hannah had not meant for her mother to hear the question. But I answered in a normal voice; I wanted to make sure they both fully understood. “Penelope actually gave me most of the clues when I met her the other day. She told me all of my father’s children were damned. She also told me she and Selena had both tried to break the curse and failed. But none of that made any sense until I put together things I learned from Hilda Strong, from my sister Stacia, and from you.
“Stacia told me all of my father’s children in West Village were considered a bit weird. And Hilda Strong told me something I’d never known, that my father Gabriel Fisher’s mother had been one of the last of the Children to bear the Priest name. Put those two things together, and somehow the idea arose that, as your mother put it, all of Gabriel Fisher’s children were cursed. So when Selena Sawyer took me to Sacred Mountain, she wasn’t just trying to make me an Instrument; she was trying to break the curse. Well, she failed, and based on what happened she assumed I was eternally damned. That’s what she told the High Council. And that’s what she must have told Penelope.”
I turned slightly so I was facing Penelope. “Selena was wrong about me. She didn’t realize it until the last year of her life, and the only person she ever confessed her mistake to was Alex Bancroft. And Alex can prove that.” I wasn’t sure he actually could, since his explanation depended on Lavinia Priest’s prophecy, and didn’t quite prove I wasn’t damned, but I didn’t think Penelope would be double-checking me any time soon.
Turning back to Hannah, I continued. “There was this other thing your mother had said, that she’d also tried to break the curse and failed. I didn’t figure that out until we arrived here and you told me that Penelope thought you were damned, too. And then I knew how your mother tried to break the curse. All of Gabriel Fisher’s children are damned, she told me. She named you Hannah Priest Wyatt as the sign of your inheritance and your damnation, and no man among the Children claimed you because your father wasn’t among the Children, and hadn’t been for years. He’d been kicked out, because he was my father. He may not even know you exist.”
I stopped at that point and let Hannah draw the obvious conclusion. Hannah sat there, quietly taking it in, still not quite seeing it all. To Penelope, mad though she was, it was mostly old news, and so it was she who spoke first. “You’re not as stupid as you look, Emily Fisher.”
Suddenly I felt very tired. “Sometimes I am, Penelope, sometimes I am. I suppose I should call you Aunt Penelope now.” Aunt is the courtesy title among the Children for women other than one’s mother who bear children to one’s father.
Maybe it took that one comment to finally bring it all home to Hannah. She turned to her mother. “My father is Gabriel Fisher?”
Penelope nodded. “You heard the girl, your sister, I mean.”
Hannah turned to me, a big smile on her face. “Then you are my sister after all?”
I waved the matter aside. “Half-sister, to be exact. Just like Stacia and Sonia and the others.”
The next thing I knew, Hannah had gotten up, rushed over, and threw her arms around me. She was shaking and crying just as hard as her mother had been. “I’m so happy,” she kept saying over and over. I have to admit I also shed a tear or two along the way.
After quite a bit of that, Hannah pulled back and stood up straight again, that big smile back on her face. She groped for words, and then said, “You would defend me, Emily, when I had need, and I called you sister for it, unknowing of the truth. You have lifted a burden from the shoulders of my mother, though she called you damned.” She turned to Penelope. “Mother, I owe Emily Fisher a great debt. And while it is not for a daughter to instruct her mother, I think you owe her a debt, too.”
Penelope didn’t exactly look overjoyed at this announcement. She eyed me suspiciously. And then she proved that, while she was mad, she was not stupid. “It sounds as if I’m expected to pay that debt right now. What is it you want, Emily Fisher the . . . Emily Fisher?”
I wondered how best to frame this. “You told me of a man who was shot three times.”
Penelope seemed disturbed by my words, but she nodded.
“Do you remember where he was shot?”
With reluctance, Penelope nodded again.
“Did you see the people who were with him?”
Penelope’s eyes almost popped as she raised her eyebrows. And then she replied, “You mean the people who shot him, don’t you? Why can’t you just say it?”
I almost broke out laughing in relief. “Very well, Aunt Penelope, the people who shot him. Did you see them?”
“Can you describe them?”
Unexpectedly, Penelope answered, “No.”
Hannah started to break in, saying, “But, Mother . . .” until she saw me signal her to desist. I was afraid that if we pushed Penelope, her apparent sanity would collapse.
So I switched questions. “Can you take us to where he was shot?”
Penelope abruptly looked down into her lap where she began twiddling her thumbs. This went on long enough that Hannah and I were looking at each other, wondering if we’d hit a dead end. And then she just stood up and walked right past us, heading out the entrance to the kitchen by which we entered. Hoping she was leading us to the place, we followed.
End of chapter twenty-nine