Chapter 35: Going off the reservation
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
As I found out when I left Sonia’s place, she had summoned the Watch to guard me again. There had been “disturbances” in both West Village and now Center Village as well. Stacia’s ex-quad mates had been forced to flee to Lakeside. And according to Sonia, the High Council was now “extremely worried.” I drew a number of hostile stares while passing through Center Village. Some person shouted something about killing me, but one of the two members of the Watch escorting me broke off to calm him down. It all made me feel like it was the beginning of my stay all over again. At least no one spat on my shoes.
I left the Children’s lands and my bodyguard at the main entrance on Over Mountain Road and headed into town to see Bonnie. I arrived at the station in mid-afternoon. Bonnie wasn’t at the station, only Jed was, but he called her and she turned up a few minutes later, fresh coffee and doughnuts in hand. Jed took off in the cruiser to patrol, so Bonnie and I had a sit down talk.
Bonnie led off. “So far, everything points to that room you told us about being Nash’s murder scene. The bullets we found match the ones in Nash’s body, which the Children thoughtfully provided me while burying all the other evidence.” The exasperation was as obvious in Bonnie’s voice as in the vibes I was picking up off of her. “We’ve collected some hairs and a few fingerprints, so we can at least try to match them with this Abbott fellow when we find him. The Children’s Watch tells me they’re extending the search into the deserted village and the rest of the Children’s lands, and I’ve gone on the local news with a photo of the guy. So, here’s my first question to you, Emily: how good a witness is this Penelope Wyatt going to be? I haven’t had the chance to ask her questions yet. No one seems to know where she is.”
I shook my head. “She’s in Lakeview with her daughter Hannah. Alex Bancroft can tell you.” I didn’t particularly want to discuss Alex, but I couldn’t keep anger from creeping into my voice when I mentioned him. “I don’t know about Penelope, Bonnie. They say she’s mad, and she’s certainly strange. She wouldn’t describe the two people she saw with Nash to me. And yet she manages, and she’s not without some smarts. Best bet is to get her daughter to sit beside her when you question her.” I considered mentioning that Hannah was my half-sister, then decided against it. I still hadn’t talked to my father on that thorny subject yet, and didn’t feel free to discuss it with Bonnie until I did.
Bonnie leaned back in her chair behind the desk. “Pity, that. You think the killers carried the body to Hilltop to frame Alex Bancroft?”
I nodded to that.
“I think so, too. But I can’t understand how they could kill him in the deserted village and then drag the body all the way to Hilltop without leaving any trace or running into anyone.”
Oh. That’s right, Bonnie doesn’t know about the secret paths.
I must have twitched or something, because Bonnie sat up and gave me a questioning look. “You know something about this?” My reluctance to answer made Bonnie more insistent. “Look, Emily, I’ve had no complaints about you doing your own thing here. I’d like to keep things that way. You understand?”
I tilted back in my chair, looked up at the ceiling for a bit before I answered. “There’s some really strange things going on up there, Bonnie. I’m not sure you’d believe me if I told you about some of them.”
I righted myself, looking at Bonnie. She was considering what I said, seriously. What did she know? And then she told me. “A few nights ago, I got a report of someone crawling down the middle of Over Mountain Road. I drove over there. Sure enough, this guy was just crawling along, right smack down the middle of the road. He stank of shit. A couple of bystanders helped me pick him up. His shirt was shredded from rubbing against the road, and the skin on his chest was torn and bloody. He never said a word. Just hissed at us. And that’s all he’s done ever since. He’s down in the hospital in Brattleboro.
“They tell me the guy’s name is Harold Lewis. Until that night, he had been one of the members of the Children’s High Council, like Nash was. According to the Children I talked to, an Instrument removed him from the Council and turned him into a snake.
“So you tell me there’s weird stuff going on among the Children, Emily? I might just believe you.”
“OK, you asked for it. There’s a network of magical secret paths that connects all the villages. You step on one, a minute later you’re in the other one. The one from the deserted village to Hilltop comes out in a clearing near where Nash’s body was found. The killers must have taken the body over the path and were going to plant it near Alex’s hide-out when my sister interrupted them.”
Bonnie’s eyes popped out, and then she sat back, looked at the ceiling a bit, and then looked me full in the face and asked, “You been on these magic paths? Sober and not on drugs, I mean.”
I met her gaze. “Repeatedly. In fact, I couldn’t say for sure I could get you to the deserted village without taking them.”
Bonnie was intrigued, even if it still sounded like moonshine. “You’re not bullshitting me? You can show me these paths?”
Now that was a horse of a different color. “I think so. I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. I don’t know who can and can’t use them. That’s something I was going to ask my half-sister Stacia Fletcher, but she’s, ah, indisposed.”
Bonnie absorbed that, and then asked a natural follow-up. “Indisposed as in something weird happened to her?”
I shrugged. This was not going to go over well. “She ate a ghost. I think it disagreed with her.”
Bonnie rolled her eyes, slapped her hands on her desk, and then stood up. “Not my concern. But those magic paths, those are my concern. They’re directly pertinent to the murder investigation. We’re going to the Children’s lands and you’re going to show me how to get from the deserted village to Hilltop, just like you said.”
By the time we got back to the parking lot at the edge of the Children’s lands, I had persuaded Bonnie that I wanted to try this with her alone, and that she’d help me convince the Watch to go home and leave me in her care. That was easy. Convincing the Watch was another matter. They finally agreed to retire to the Burns Cottage and wait for me, if Bonnie would guarantee to deliver me there when we were done.
So I took Bonnie from the parking lot to the deserted village and from there to Hilltop by the secret paths. It didn’t turn out to be a problem per se. Like me at first, Bonnie couldn’t see the paths without me. Unlike me, she couldn’t see them even after being shown them, except in my company. That meant she couldn’t use them on her own. And the paths behaved a bit differently. It seemed to take about twice as long to traverse them as before, two minutes or so, which was still much less time than it would take by normal means, but a disturbing change. I couldn’t tell if that was because of Bonnie, or some other factor.
Bonnie was impressed by the secret paths. Hell, she was floored. But it made sense out of what had happened to Nash, and that for her was key. Naturally, she wanted to know who could use the paths, whether Jim Abbott knew about them, and a whole bunch of other questions to which my answer was almost always, “I don’t know, but I’ll ask around.”
We were standing in the clearing at Hilltop, and I’d just confessed my ignorance on yet another point, when Bonnie abruptly switched subjects. “I talked to Ethan about Hannah Wyatt.” She made a face. “I have to admit it’s the first time I’ve ever been unable to understand what Ethan was telling me. She’s some kind of Instrument, isn’t she?”
“A certified Instrument of the Divine, able to talk with the Children’s equivalent of God. She’s the one who deprived Harold Lewis of his position on the High Council and cursed him as a viper,” I told her.
Bonnie mulled that over before replying. “Well, that doesn’t sound much like the way Ethan describes her. According to him, she’s sort of like a father confessor and moral instructor rolled into one.”
“Oh, she’s that, too, Bonnie.” I had to laugh. “I gather she used to provide romantic advice to teenagers, and on Wednesday I saw a line of people waiting for her advice. Hell, I’ve even confessed to her, though I couldn’t tell you much about it.”
Bonnie gave me a sidelong glance. “Weird stuff?”
I nodded. “Weird stuff.”
Bonnie snorted. “That’s a bit more like it. Ethan tells me he goes to her to try to square away his conscience over his time among the Children. I would think someone among the Children would be the last person he should go to see about something like that, but he tells me she’s actually been quite helpful in helping him work out what was right and wrong about what he did.”
“If it’s any help, Bonnie, even though she knows I’m not one of the Children, she still thinks I’m guided by the Divine. And despite the Children’s belief on the subject, she doesn’t think Elsie is possessed by a demon because she attempted suicide. So I’d say she’s pretty open-minded.”
Bonnie was relieved. I was kind of tempted to say something about how I would have appreciated it if Bonnie had told me about Elsie’s suicide attempt back when she picked me up from Logan Airport, but decided to let the matter drop.
Getting away from the Children was turning out to be more difficult than I figured it would be. I’d gone to see Bonnie, and the next thing I knew I was back on the Children’s lands, giving her a tour of the secret paths. So when Bonnie was satisfied, she figured she’d escort me back to the Burns Cottage and turn me over to the Watch. But I still wanted to get away from the Children. I convinced her to escort me back to the parking lot and then drive me to my parents’ place.
Both my parents were already home, my mother fixing dinner, my father drinking a beer and chatting with her all the while. It was Friday, they didn’t have work until Monday, so they were in a relaxed mood. I was happy to see them getting along with each other. Though it meant I couldn’t ask my father about Penelope and Hannah.
Elsie turned up only as dinner was coming to the table, repeating a pattern I’d used at the same age to avoid uncomfortable questions from our parents. Not that it mattered tonight. After our emotional discussion last week, my parents were hunting for safe topics this time, and settled on asking me about the riots among the Children. I tossed in an account of my trial as well. It made for a good story, suitably edited.
I felt strange talking about Sonia and Stacia, because I could sense with my empathy that my mother was more concerned for them than my father was, though they were his children, not hers. And his reaction to Hannah’s name told me nothing. I was tempted to ask him about Penelope, but the possibility of that hurting my mother kept my mouth shut.
Elsie was also getting practice in keeping her mouth shut. She was a study in frustration during dinner. I could see her wanting to jump in to add to the stories of what was going on among the Children, or to ask me detailed questions. But she couldn’t do either for fear of revealing her relationship to Alex Bancroft. At least she understood it was a problem of her own devising, and didn’t blame me for it.
Instead, she waited until dinner was over, and suggested the two of us go off for a nice sisterly talk. We ended up taking a walk to Burnt Mill Pond and settling down on the bluff as the sun was setting.
Considering I hadn’t seen her since Monday, I was surprised to hear that Elsie had been spending time with Alex every day. As she put it, she and Alex had gotten so good at sneaking around without being seen that it was no wonder I’d not seen them together since the night before my trial.
However, she didn’t know about my quarrel with Alex, even though she’d seen him earlier in the afternoon. I was ticked off about this, and figured I had to warn Elsie, so I explained to her Alex’s dubious gift. I’d hoped she’d see my point that Alex was something of a monster. And at first, I thought I’d succeeded. Elsie was initially baffled and then disturbed by what I was saying. And once I’d finished, she got up and paced back and forth a bit, thinking it over.
Then she sat down beside me again, sighed, and said, “It must be tough for Alex, having a gift like that.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “What?”
Elsie went on in all honesty. “Well, imagine what’s it’s like to know the consequences of everything you do. You can’t plead ignorance. You can’t be surprised, either.” Elsie turned to me, excitement in her voice, “Imagine what it would be like to meet someone, and already know what sort of relationship you were going to have with them. Hey, half the excitement about sex is meeting someone new and learning about them, taking risks to be with them. Alex can’t have any of that. It must really be hard on him.”
“Says one of his two mistresses. Real hard for him.”
Elsie gave me a light slap on my hands. “Don’t be an ass, Em. I mean, Alex has to be able to see the worst things I’ve ever done, or will do, and he still fell in love with me. And Regina, too. And it’s not like he didn’t have a lot of other choices. Cripes, if I was the jealous type, I’d have made his life unlivable, the way so many other girls want to sleep with the Prophesied One. Well, alleged Prophesied One. I’ve got the real one here.” And Elsie gave me a hug.
Elsie’s reactions made no sense to me. “But he can play you, Else. You, me, everyone. He knows how you’re going to react. Maybe he only wants you because he knows you’ll blindly follow him no matter what.”
That got Elsie laughing. “Em, you don’t know what I’m like around Alex. Regina’s nickname for me is Xanthippe, because I’m always arguing with Alex the way Xanthippe argued with Socrates. If anyone’s a doormat, it’s Regina, but she’ll let anyone walk over her if it will make them happy, she’s just that sort of person.”
I tried again. “How do you know Alex isn’t just manipulating you? Maybe that’s what he wants, you to think you’re so free with him, when he’s already got you pegged out.”
Elsie shrugged, still smiling. “Getting kind of paranoid, Em? Hey, I do as I please. If that’s what Alex also wants, bully for him. Isn’t that part of being in love, doing for each other what the other wants? And you can be sure Alex does things for me that I want.”
I shouldn’t have said it, but this whole business was leaving a sour taste in my mouth, so I observed, “Yeah, so I hear. You even let Jezebel watch the two of you. Didn’t know you were such an exhibitionist, Else.”
Far from taking offense, Elsie was more concerned for me! “C’mon, Em, Jezebel was abused. We were just trying to help her out. And now she’s like totally in love with you. She was asking me to tell her all of your favorite things so she could do stuff for you. Boy, you are in for some real tearful scenes. I know Jez can be overwhelming, but kind of be nice to her when you let her down, please?”
I gave up. Elsie was just blinded by love. Or so I told myself. But her reaction got me worried, too. It wasn’t just that she was so certain, it was that what she said made a certain amount of sense, enough to make me wonder if I was right. Maybe Alex wasn’t so bad. Hey, for all I knew, maybe he went out of his way to annoy me, because that was the best way to help me find the killers. But that was madness. That kind of thinking really would lead to paranoia. Best just to stay annoyed at him.
And then there was one other very troubling problem. My empathy picked up a wide range of emotions off of Elsie. That included her sexual feelings for Alex. Which got me having some sexual thoughts, visualizing sex with Alex, and that was something I so definitely didn’t want. But was I attracted to him? Was this going to be like one of those TV show relationships, where we’re hostile to each other only to conceal our future love? I sure as hell hoped not. I had a moment imagining myself in bed with Alex and Elsie, both. That killed any thought of sex with Alex right then and there. Incest may be acceptable among the Children, but I wanted no part of it.
Elsie took off to go back home. I headed back to Icy Glen Road and then to the railroad to make my way back to Milltown and the Burns Cottage. The Watch was there, worried about what might have happened to me, and made some complaining noises about my walking around unescorted. The glare I gave them silenced them in a hurry.
Overall, it had been a depressing day. And I had to face one more problem before going to sleep. I’d gone to bed and was trying to fall asleep when I heard Tanya starting to get it on with her new boyfriend. Oh, not just heard it — felt it. My empathy was picking up a big healthy double dose of teenage lust coming to fulfillment. It made me feel so lonely and needy that I almost went downstairs and asked to join them. What if they turned me down? What a fool I would look. And then I realized I could prevent that from happening, that I could make them accept me. I could use my gift and they’d both want me, both love me. We’d be a happy, joyful threesome. I started to get out of bed to go down to them when the enormity of what I was thinking hit me. I froze, horrified at myself. And then I sank back down into bed again, pulled the covers over me, and tried to shut out the lovers while crying myself to sleep.
End of chapter thirty-five