Chapter 36: Abusers and the abused
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
Sometimes a night’s sleep is all you need to get some perspective. I woke up with the sun, heard Tanya’s lover depart, and just lay there thinking for a while.
My priority had to be finding Jim Abbott and learning what he knew about Stephen Nash’s murder. If he wouldn’t talk . . . well, I didn’t know if my gift would work on an Instrument. But I’d be willing to try. A murder was a good excuse for doing some tampering with another person’s mind.
Speaking of tampering, I should go about and remove what I’d done to the members of the High Council while I was under Lavinia’s domination. I was less concerned about that, since in most cases I’d just made them eager to respond to my questions and demands. It wasn’t entirely fair to them, but I was getting tired of this job, and having the wheels greased in my favor for a while didn’t seem like a bad idea as long as I didn’t abuse it.
What constituted abuse? That I wasn’t sure. I mean, it was obvious that twisting someone into your slave was abuse. Tampering with Tanya and her lover last night would definitely have been abuse. Getting people to answer questions in a murder investigation truthfully? Hey, if only that were the rule. Though how I’d square that with the Fifth Amendment I didn’t know.
Come to think of it, I hadn’t asked the Council members what they knew about Nash’s murder. Lavinia had not been concerned about Nash’s murder, really, just what was setting the Children against each other. (I would have thought the murder would qualify, but apparently not, as far as Lavinia was concerned.) That someone among the True Believers, possibly Jim, had killed Nash to frame Alex seemed likely. But I had no idea how broad the conspiracy was, or even if there was one. Maybe Jim Abbott was a lone wolf. So maybe I’d take advantage of what I’d already done to the Council to find out what they knew about the murder, then remove what I had done. Thinking that through made me feel better.
And then there was Alex Bancroft. I was through with him, even if Elsie still thought he walked on water. It seemed to me that what he did constituted abuse, manipulating people to get the future he wanted, though I had to admit it was a hazy kind of abuse, if abuse it was.
I got up, got showered and dressed, and went down to breakfast. After that, my first stop was to see Sonia and Stacia. Sonia was looking even more worn, and it was no wonder. Stacia had screamed herself hoarse last night while smashing her Stacy doll, calling it a bad girl all the while. And then she’d evaded Sonia and run out into the night. By the time Sonia and a search party had found her, she’d taken refuge in an apple orchard, and screamed her head off again when she was carried away from it.
Things I didn’t know: Stacia had a job. Well, everyone among the Children has a job, sometimes more than one, but it had never occurred to me to ask what Stacia’s was. Because of the way she lapsed into her dreamy state so often, she’d been unable to hold down a normal job. But she’d turned out to have a green thumb. She could walk through a field or garden, inspect a leaf here, pull up a plant there, and tell the Children how well the crops would turn out, and what to do to improve their yields. So she had become a roving agricultural inspector, living in West Village but with jurisdiction over all the Children’s lands, even those belonging to other villages.
What does this have to do with her behavior? Stacia’s favorite part of her job was checking the apple orchards. She knew every apple tree on the Children’s lands, how old it was and what variety of apples it yielded. And when they found her last night, she looked like she was trying to do her job, walking from tree to tree, inspecting each in turn. Sonia thought it was a positive sign. Me, I was going to reserve judgment.
Stacia was sitting in a window seat that morning, staring out at the fields. I tried talking to her, but the only response I got was a malevolent stare, backed up with waves of hatred. According to Sonia, she’d been like that since she’d woken up, and wouldn’t even eat anything.
I could see Sonia appealing to me for help with her eyes. And I tried, I really tried to help Stacia. But I could make no headway against that hatred. Far from it, I almost got caught up in it, it was so powerful. Rather than explain this to Sonia, I told her I’d just done some tests, and that I’d be back to look at Stacia when I had the time. Sonia’s gratitude for even that much was enough to make me feel like the worst of imposters.
I managed to run through the entire High Council by the end of the afternoon, even though it was a Saturday. Amazing how easy it is to get people to make time for you when they’re predisposed to do so. None of them knew anything about the murder. Oh, they all had their suspicions, and curiously enough most of them thought the True Believers were responsible, even the Council members who were True Believers themselves. To my amusement, there was one person they all agreed had nothing to do with Nash’s murder: Adele Nelson, his political heir-apparent. Adele was a popular and troublesome rabble rouser, but every Council member agreed that she had the brains of a retarded cocker spaniel. That was their metaphor, not mine, so don’t accuse me of calling Adele a stupid bitch. To this day, I’ve yet to meet her to know her, though I’m told she was at my trial, calling for my blood.
When I was finished with each Council member, I removed my influence over them. I also removed whatever Susan Knowles had done to them. Susan’s changes were easy to spot. They were crude, disruptions in the normal emotional balance of the people she affected. Though she seemed able to implant ideas or thoughts, not just emotions, as near as I could judge.
I was reevaluating my opinion of Susan as I worked my way through the Council. Before I came back, I’d always assumed that Susan was a just a very manipulative woman who used her beauty and sex appeal to get her way. Obviously, that wasn’t all she was using. She was capable of tampering with minds directly, and did so frequently, to judge from the Council.
Whether she had any purpose in doing this beyond self-gratification, I didn’t know. I couldn’t see much of a pattern to what she’d done, except that it leaned in favor of the True Believers and against me. But it was hit or miss. If I’d been her, and wanted power among the Children, I’d have taken control of Angus McPherson. Yet there was no sign that Susan had ever tried to influence Angus, and I even interrogated Angus on the subject. True, it was possible that what Hannah had done to the man might have obliterated any sign of anything Susan might have done. Angus was now so completely devoted to Hannah that I couldn’t even try to remove her influence on him. It would have meant radically changing his personality, and that was more than I could justify. Angus had long desired to be dominated by a young bossy teenager. Well, now he was.
Considering how she’d influenced the High Council against me, it really burned me up that Susan had twice influenced me! Worse, she’d influenced me to like her and want to go along with her ideas. Digging through my own mind and memories, I realized she’d made me sort of forget her second visit as well. That was worrisome. If I happened to run into her again, could I keep her from influencing me yet again? I didn’t know. I resolved to steer clear of her for now. The murder investigation came first. Figuring out what to do about Susan, if anything, came later.
I had to wonder if Susan Knowles had influenced anyone else I knew. I knew she’d been with Sonia and Tanya. So I figured I’d better check those two out, and Stacia as well. In fact, I figured I’d better check out everyone I knew, just in case.
I had a laugh thinking about Susan trying to influence Alex. Would Alex have known it was going to happen? Would he have arranged things so it didn’t? Or did he not know what she could do until he met her, which gave her time to influence him?
The more I thought about it, the more it ceased to be a joke. I became seriously worried. What if Susan had influenced Alex before he knew what she was? What if Alex, the man who manipulated the future, the puppet master of us all, were actually a puppet of Susan himself? What if both sides of the controversy, Alex’s followers and the True Believers, existed only because Susan had brought them into being?
I was so disturbed by this creepy notion that I made a beeline for the Burns Cottage and immediately went to my study. But what to do? I had an inspiration. I called up the Lakeside village council’s line and, luck being with me this Saturday, got Elizabeth Miller, Jezebel’s guardian and the secretary to the village council. I asked her if she could track down Hannah on the q.t., and within minutes she had Hannah on the phone to me. I explained my worries and asked her if there were any way she could check to see if Alex had been influenced by Susan Knowles. Hannah thought she could do this, and promised to ring me back within an hour or two with the results.
I remember getting up from my chair and heading to the study door . . .
And then groggily waking up. I had a splitting headache. I had trouble focusing my eyes. I smelled something sweet. Thanks to hanging out with detectives, I knew what it was: chloroform. No wonder I was groggy. I heard a voice saying, “I guess there’s no need for that anymore. You’re not going anywhere.”
Whoever the voice came from, he was right. I couldn’t move. I was sitting in a chair, my hands tied behind my back to the chair, my legs tied to the chair legs. At least my head was free and I wasn’t gagged. So I opened my mouth and screamed for help.
Once I stopped screaming, the voice came back. “Won’t do you any good. This isn’t called the deserted village because there’s a whole lot of people just wanting to help you, Emily.”
I knew that voice. It was Jim Abbott’s. My eyes seemed to be working now. Well, my right eye was working. I was having trouble with getting the left eye open. So I looked up, to see Jim sitting in a chair off to my right. I didn’t recognize the room, which, if it was in the deserted village, made perfect sense. The room wasn’t exactly overfurnished: one more chair and a table with a kerosene lamp burning. It had to be after dark, which meant I’d been out for a few hours.
My sense of empathy kicked back on at that point, and I realized that there was someone else in the room. And that person was terrified, utterly and totally scared out of her wits. I looked around, and in the far corner to my left, where I hadn’t looked at first, I could see a girl huddled in a corner, a completely blank look on her face. It was Jezebel. My head ached so much that I had trouble thinking, but as near as I could tell, Jezebel was so frightened that she couldn’t even think properly, and didn’t even notice us.
I turned to Jim, as angry as I’d ever been. “What did you do to her?”
Jim shrugged, even gave a smile. “Nothing.” He shook his head. “Not my doing, Emily. No, my problems are all with you. Why did you have to come back? Couldn’t you leave well enough alone?” His voice sounded odd, as if he were pleading for understanding, but didn’t actually care if he got it.
“Leave what alone?” I asked.
“You know,” was his sullen reply.
Before I could say anything more, two more people entered the room through an open doorway on the oposite side of the room. I finally got the eyelids on my left eye unstuck (which implied things I didn’t want to think about), so I could see quite clearly who the new company was. It was Susan Knowles. And her brother Ethan was at her side. Jezebel caught one sight of Susan, and, unbelievably, her fear became even more extreme. She let out a bleat of terror.
Susan noticed and smiled at Jezebel’s reaction. Then she turned to Jim. “Actually, she doesn’t know, Jim. So why don’t you tell her?”
Jim’s mouth dropped open. “She doesn’t know?”
“Doesn’t know what?” was all I could add.
Susan’s enjoyment of the situation was growing by the moment. She turned to me. “Oh, that you overheard Selena Sawyer and Jim talking about how their Inspiration failed them, and how they sometimes had to fake it. They even discussed specific examples. It would have been great evidence to discredit Selena, and with her discredited, that would have been enough to get rid of Alex Bancroft.”
I racked my brain for whatever conversation she was talking about. I didn’t remember any. But then I remembered the way Jim reacted when I was questioning him, and I figured out the answer. “Wait, this is the conversation the two of them were having in the gazebo the day I snuck up on them? I never heard a word of it.”
Jim snorted in disbelief. “Then why did Selena get rid of you? And why did you come back?” He turned to Susan. “She has to be lying. We have to kill her.”
Hallelujah! Some more pieces fell together and I finally got it. “You killed Stephen Nash over this? Why?”
Susan just kept smirking. After a few moments, Jim frowned and answered me. “I tried to get him to use it to denounce Selena. But he wouldn’t. Said it was raking up old affairs that were best forgotten. Fool.”
Someone else I remember had called Nash a gentleman. Well, I guess he was, at that. What was also clear was that he was certainly smarter than Jim Abbott. I didn’t hide the contempt in my voice as I told Jim, “Fool you. If Nash had used that conversation to expose Selena as a fraud, wouldn’t he also have had to expose you as one, too?”
Jim raised his eyebrows in amazement. Clearly the thought had never occurred to him. Susan must have played him as she played everyone else. He looked over to her for an explanation.
Far from being dismayed that her game was revealed, Susan was positively radiant. She gave me a smile. “You’re not so stupid after all, Emily Fisher. Certainly brighter than this one here,” and she gestured toward Jim. I had to admit to myself that so far we were in agreement. I doubted that chummy situation was going to last, to judge from the fact that I was tied up and Susan was in control here.
Jim was puzzled and confused. He still didn’t quite see what a patsy he’d been, but he knew something was wrong. “Then why did we bother kidnapping her and bringing her here to be killed?”
Pity Jim still didn’t understand the situation. He wasn’t the one in control. Susan was, and she proved it right then. She turned and gave Jim her best smile. And I could feel all Jim’s doubts and fears vanish. Susan had Jim twisted round her finger. Without looking away, she called, “Jezebel.”
At the sound of Susan’s voice, Jezebel suddenly became alert. She stood up and walked to Susan’s side, her face blank and her mind empty of any thought but to avoid punishment. Susan raised her hand as if to strike Jezebel, and Jezebel cowered. Susan laughed. And then she opened her purse and pulled out a pistol, the pistol. Looking back at Jim, she said, “It’s time to clean up the mess that killing Stephen created. Now that she knows, we can’t very well have Emily blabbing the real story to Bonnie Knowles. That would be a bit too much for you to handle, wouldn’t it, Ethan?”
Ethan nodded. I wondered at his presence here, until I sensed his emotions. To my horror, I realized he was still in love with his sister.
Susan turned to me. “And I’m sure, Emily, you will agree that the best way to end the investigation is to come up with a fall guy, someone Bonnie will accept is the killer. And what better person than the actual killer?”
That was enough to make Jim finally realize he was in trouble, despite Susan’s hold on him. He started to get up out of his chair while crying out, “Wait, wait . . .”
I could hardly believe what happened next. Susan smiled at him again, and so powerful was her hold on him that he sank back into his chair, enthralled at the sight of her. Susan turned to Jezebel and said, “Jezebel? Here, take this gun.” And once Jezebel had taken it, Susan instructed her, “Now kill Jim Abbott. Shoot him dead.”
End of chapter thirty-six