Chapter 4: Who’s the killer?
We came in through the side door into the kitchen, and there was Ethan to greet us. I recognized him easily. He stepped forward to give Bonnie a hug, and all I could think of was Jack Spratt and his wife. Ethan was so thin he made Bonnie look fat. Hey, he would have made me look fat, and I work out.
After he released Bonnie, Ethan gave me a hearty handshake. “Nice to know you again, Emily. You look like you’ve done well for yourself. Shame you have to come back for this business.”
I was tempted to tell him I’d really rather have not come back, but knew it would be inappropriate to discuss my relationship with my employer, and foolish as well. It would encourage anyone who didn’t want my investigation to succeed. So I offered the neutral reply, “Nice to meet you again, too, Ethan. And my congratulations on marrying Bonnie. Any husband who makes my ex-babysitter happy is fine with me.”
Ethan gave a surprisingly whole-hearted laugh. “You might have second thoughts, Emily, if you knew some of the stories Bonnie tells about you.”
I looked over to Bonnie, who was enjoying this. She caught my eye, and with no shame said, “It was just the frog story. I didn’t tell him about your crush on . . . um, eh, well maybe I better just shut up.” And she laughed.
Ethan shushed us. “The kids are asleep, I hope. Bonnie, why don’t you check on them and on the dogs, too, while I set up Emily with a drink.”
Bonnie agreed, and tossed off her coat before heading upstairs. Meanwhile, Ethan guided me into the living room, where in quick order he made drinks for all three of us. He took up a seat on the couch, while I found myself in an easy chair facing him.
Ethan got right down to business. “So you’ve got the Nash case, Emily. I imagine you’re feeling a bit at sea here. I’m still in touch with the Children through my sister,” and with that he let out a nervous chuckle, the first sign I’d seen from him of any discomfort. “What do you need to know?”
Despite what Bonnie had said on the ride up, I was still surprised. I hadn’t expected Ethan to want to discuss the Children. The Fallen so rarely do. And, even though he was married to Bonnie, I didn’t know how trustworthy Ethan was. The Children have been known to send out spies who pretend to be Fallen. I’d been accused of being one, myself. So I contemplated my drink for a bit before diving in. Fortune favors the bold, so they tell me. “Who do you think killed Nash?”
Ethan thought for a second, and replied, “Well, the people who would probably benefit the most from Stephen Nash being out of the way are the followers of the Prophesied One. Stephen was the Young Turk leader of the opposing faction, the True Believers. With him dead, Adele Nelson will probably take over, if she can get on the High Council. No doubt she’s already trying to persuade the other councilors.”
Instant information overload. OK, Nash was a Young Turk type; that I’d already figured out. But the Prophesied One? Never heard of him/her/it. I racked my brains trying to think of any prophecy that should be coming due about now, and came up empty. So I replied, “You’re already a few steps ahead of me, Ethan. Who the hell is the Prophesied One? And what was the prophecy?”
Ethan leaned back in the sofa, looking at his drink. He sighed. “You remember one of the Instruments, Selena Sawyer?”
Of course I remembered Selena. Never mind that she was among the most honored of the Instruments, those who received direct communications from the Other World. She had been like a grandmother to me so long as I was among the Children. It really hurt that she’d never even tried to see me after we left. “Selena’s still alive? She must be nearing 100.”
“No, she died four years ago. But almost the last thing she did before she took to her deathbed was to identify the Prophesied One. She said that another Instrument from way back had prophesied that a stranger would come among the Children, that he would bear certain signs, and that he would be the next great leader of the Children. And this visitor she pointed out, a tourist named Alex Bancroft, was that stranger.
“Well, there was an uproar. Selena went so far as to stake her role as an Instrument on the High Council accepting Alex, and how could they turn her down when it was clear she was dying?” Ethan paused dramatically, and then added, “And then Alex told the Council he didn’t think he was the Prophesied One, and walked out on them.”
I’d left the Children as a kid. I was one of the Fallen. I didn’t want to go back to the Children. But it still took me by surprise that someone would be offered a leadership position among them, and turn them down flat. Had to wonder what Alex Bancroft was that he felt confident enough to do that.
The surprise must have been evident on my face, because Ethan’s next words were, “That’s pretty much how the High Council felt, Emily. They were livid. Here they’d accepted Selena’s word against their better judgment, and some stranger from who knows where was kicking them in the teeth.
“It didn’t end there, though. Selena called Alex to her deathbed, and they had words. No one except Alex knows what they said, but Alex agreed to come visit the Children regularly. Which he’s done ever since. He comes early in the spring and leaves late in the fall.”
“So he did accept that he was the Prophesied One, then?”
Ethan shook his head. “Nope. He’s made it clear to the High Council, and to anyone else who asks, that he does not believe he is the Prophesied One.”
I was at a loss for words. “Then how . . . then why?”
“Why does he come?” Ethan took a swallow from his drink before continuing. “Best guess is that he promised Selena he would. He’s said that as long as the Children want him to come, he’ll come. And it doesn’t hurt that they pay him a stipend while he’s away, too, on the condition that he comes back every year.”
“Hell of a deal. They must want him really bad.”
Ethan shrugged. “They accepted him as the Prophesied One, as the next great leader. I guess they felt they had to do whatever was necessary to keep him.
“But that’s also why the True Believers came into existence. They didn’t like the deal, they didn’t like it that Alex Bancroft was here only part of the year, and in the end they just didn’t like Alex, period. They decided he wasn’t the real Prophesied One. Some of them have gone so far as to question whether there really was a prophecy. Selena was the only one who knew about it, so they’ve taken to claiming that she lost her Inspiration and was making things up just to seem important. Naturally, they have to say that very quietly, because to say so openly is to question the High Council’s authority and wisdom.”
Bonnie had just entered the room as Ethan concluded. She’d changed from casual clothing to a nightgown, red silk bathrobe, and blue slippers. The effect was a cross between a scarlet woman and a circus clown. She gave Ethan a peck on the cheek, took a gulp out of her drink, and announced, “Well, I’d like to question the wisdom of the High Council, too. What are we talking about?”
Ethan said, “How the True Believers have to be careful about questioning the Prophesied One’s credentials.”
Bonnie grunted. “It would seem to me that accusing him of murder was questioning his credentials.”
Ethan shook his head. “Yeah, dear, but they say that to you, and privately at that. Even Stephen Nash could never quite bring himself to say it publicly in a Council meeting.
“Anyhow, Emily, to return to the story, two years ago, there was a fracas over a teenager joining the Children, sort of like I did, though without a sister involved.” Once again, Ethan gave a nervous chuckle. “The townies formed a mob and went over to attack the Children. Alex Bancroft stood them off until Bonnie arrived and dispersed them.
“You’d think that would have solved his problems with the Children. Instead, it widened the split between his supporters and opponents. His supporters took his role in stopping the mob as a sign from God, and have been pushing to make him superior to the High Council. As for his opponents, they stepped up their whispering campaign, and added to it the charges that Alex is a false prophet and that he was corrupting the young.”
A memory out of my one class in philosophy returned. “You mean like Socrates corrupted the young? What’s he doing, seducing the councilors’ children?”
“Not quite, but something just as bad: most of his most fervent supporters are young women. You can imagine how that goes over with the Children.”
I could. It was axiomatic among the Children that young women want to have sex frequently and become pregnant. And it was an article of faith that to have children by men who were not of the Children was certain damnation for both mother and child, and by reputation for the mother’s family.
Bonnie picked up the conversation. “It’s kind weird, too, since Alex is no great shakes when it comes to looks. I met him the first year he was here in Quasopon. He was just some guy, nothing to write home about. But it’s like he’s been developing charisma ever since. Four years ago you wouldn’t have noticed him in a crowd. Now, crowds form around him. First time I noticed was the affair with the Miller boy, when he stood off the mob. Darndest thing I ever saw. He stood in front of half the town and talked ’em down with nothing to back him up but a pistol, and that wasn’t even loaded.”
I turned to Bonnie, “Do you agree with Ethan that this Alex fellow, this Prophesied One, or one of his followers, are the ones who most probably killed Nash?”
Ethan hurriedly chimed in, “That’s not quite what I said. I said they were the most likely suspects, based on motive.”
Bonnie added, “Oh, if you don’t count about half the Children and most of the town, yeah, Alex Bancroft or his girl groupies are the most likely people to do it. But I don’t think they did.”
Bonnie fidgeted a bit before replying. “Call it a hunch, but I don’t think Alex wants to lead the Children. Right now he gets so many benefits from being the ‘Prophesied One’ without having to lift a finger. Why should he take on a leadership role, knowing it will bring him nothing but trouble?”
Ethan turned to Bonnie. “He might not want the leadership position, but a lot of his followers want it for him. I’ve heard them say so, Bonnie.”
Bonnie nodded. “Well, that’s true. I guess then it depends on how firmly he’s got his followers under control. And that I don’t know the answer to.”
Ethan nodded in agreement. “They pretty much do whatever he asks them to do, but he doesn’t ask them to do much. So it’s hard to say. My sister says some of his followers act like he’s hypnotized them into being his slaves, but who’s to say?”
So much for one side. Figured I’d better ask about the other. “How much of a threat are the True Believers to this Prophesied One?”
Bonnie and Ethan both thought long about that one, exchanging confused glances with each other. Bonnie spoke first. “If the True Believers took control of the Council, they could revoke Alex’s position any one of several different ways, anything from arguing that Selena Sawyer was mistaken about Alex to claiming there was no prophesy at all. After all, they had only Selena’s word.”
Ethan chipped in next. “While what Bonnie says is hypothetically true, it would never happen. The High Council accepted Alex as the Prophesied One on the word of an Instrument. They can’t reverse that without tremendous loss of face all around. A vote like that might even split the Children, and they remember too well what happened the last time there was a schism. No matter how hard the ‘True Believers’ try, they’ll never get Alex Bancroft kicked out.”
“And that,” Bonnie added, “is one reason why the True Believers are so bitter about Alex Bancroft.”
Ethan and Bonnie had more to say, but the Prophesied One remained the central figure in their accounts both theologically and politically, as if there were much of a difference among the Children. He had to be suspect number one until I found a better candidate. It was clear that Bonnie and Ethan both didn’t want to think he was involved in the murder. While they both seemed like reasonable people, and I remembered Bonnie being a great babysitter, I had to wonder about their judgment. Bonnie had as much as admitted being attracted to this guy with that talk of charisma. And who knew about Ethan? He seemed normal enough now, but his sister Susan had played games with his mind for years. In fact, I had to wonder just how he had broken free from her and from the Children. Bonnie was a nice person, but I couldn’t believe that talking with her had been enough to get Ethan to leave the Children.
Bonnie finally sent me packing to bed in a nice guest room. I’d almost settled down to sleep when I heard a scratching at the door. It was their cat, Sara, a tortoiseshell. She came in, jumped up on the bed, and settled down at the foot. Not knowing where her litter box was, I left the door open a bit, and got back into bed. Sara moved until she was nestled behind my knees. The last thing I heard before I fell asleep was her low purr.
I usually work late, stay up late, and get up late. But I woke up just around dawn. I woke up with this feeling that people were watching me. Not just someone, several people, specifically three people. I sat up in bed and looked around. With the shades pulled down, the dim light left the room in shadows. I got up, feeling creepy because I was naked and felt I was being watched, and walked over to the light switch by the door and switched it on. Something flickered at the corner of my eye. I turned. But there was nothing there.
I stood there for about a minute, looking around. The feeling was gone. Had I imagined it? Had to be, but it felt so real. I could swear I could tell you where each of the three people were standing. And how could I do that? They had felt different. That made no sense, now.
Then the cat, Sara, came back into the room. She’d not been on the bed when I woke up, but she’d come back the moment I’d chased . . . nothing out of the room?
End of chapter four