Chapter 5: The frustrations of a police chief
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby.
Since I was already awake, I decided to get dressed and take a walk before breakfast. Bonnie and Ethan’s place was only a few blocks from Town Square, so I was there in a matter of minutes.
Town Square isn’t square. It’s a long rectangle of common land, bounded by streets on all sides. It’s partly open, partly wooded, mostly maples and pine trees with a few surviving elm trees that haven’t been killed by the blight. Since I’d left, it looked like someone had planted a flower garden opposite the town hall. And there was a watering trough that had long ago been turned into a planter at the north end, by the Union Church.
Quasopon isn’t really a great tourist destination. No one famous ever lived here. The mill and the houses below the common are unattractive. Some of the houses facing Town Square must have been pretty, with their mansard roofs and all, maybe a century ago. The strip mall at the south end adds nothing to the Square’s looks, however essential it was for buying food.
No, if you want a pretty picture in Quasopon, unless you venture onto the Children’s land, you have only three choices. You can take a long view of the mountains to the west. You can take a picture of the Union Church, which will look like every other white New England church with a steeple. Or you can take a picture of the library. Anywhere, outside or in.
The library is the glory of the town. Two-toned granite, light for the walls, dark for the trim, topped with a slate roof, and stained glass in the windows, it’s the most impressive building in town by far. It’s even better inside: marble and hardwood floors, polished wood and brass everywhere, and the colored light streams in from those windows and the skylights. I haven’t been in it since I left town, but I could picture every room from memory.
It wouldn’t exist, except for a rich lady who summered here a century or more ago. Why she came here, I don’t know; I don’t think anyone alive does. She gave all the money to build the library, and unlike rich people today didn’t even ask to have it named after her. It’s the Quasopon Free Public Library, and proud of it, not “Miss Sibley’s library.” Not that she’s been forgotten. There’s an oil portrait of her hanging in one of the reading alcoves. I spent my teen years curled up in the chair facing that portrait, wishing I could look as cool as Miss Artemisia Arabella Sibley. And once a year, on Miss Sibley’s birthday, the staff shuts down the library for the afternoon and serves iced coffee and chocolate ice cream on the common. It’s a town holiday that ranks right up there with the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
The library wasn’t open yet, of course, and not too many people were stirring. So I rounded the square and cut through the common, looking for the trees I’d climbed as a kid. Then I went back to Bonnie and Ethan’s place to shower and eat.
Breakfast with the kids was noisy. Bonnie had to get to the police station early, so Ethan did most of the work feeding the kids. He was surprisingly competent about it, using a good mixture of discipline and caring to get the kids to sit at the table and eat without many complaints.
Bonnie had on her police uniform this morning. In the morning sun, she looked a little older. Age had marked her round face with worry wrinkles on her forehead, and crow’s feet had started from the eyes. Ethan, in contrast, has no sign of wrinkles or gray hair. Some people just have all the genetic luck, I guess.
After breakfast, Bonnie took me over to the police station . . . well, what passes for a police station in Quasopon, namely the back end of the rambling town hall. Jed Stark was sitting at one of the desks. He looked even more ancient and gnarled than he had when I lived in town. A short man with an ugly face who always looked either drunk or sleepy, it was said the only reason he was a policeman was that he couldn’t get and hold any other job.
Bonnie tossed him the cruiser keys. “Here, Jed, so take a prowl up north, see if the Polaskis are burning trash without a permit, and if the Hunts’ dog is terrorizing the neighborhood again.”
Jed gave me a quizzical stare, as if he was trying to figure out who I was, and then took the keys and left without saying a word.
“Right,” said Bonnie after him. She turned to me with a smile. “You must of got on his good side. He didn’t say a word to you.”
I could do without Jed’s love. But I was curious about another matter. “You’ve got a leash law in town now?”
Bonnie shook her head. “Oh, you mean the Hunts’ dog? They’re from New Yawk.” Bonnie pronounced it an exaggerated accent. “Their dog is forever chasing after things he shouldn’t. One day he’s gonna get hit by a car, and the Hunts will be screaming at me to hunt down the villain. Some people have no sense.” Bonnie walked over to a table where there was a coffee maker and doughnuts. While she poured herself a cup and took a doughnut, she said, “I swear the only two reasons I keep Jed around are because he always remembers to make the coffee and get the doughnuts every day.”
I waited for her to finish, but she didn’t, so I prodded her, “And the other reason?”
Bonnie gave me a wicked smile. “Because I’d have to arrest him for vagrancy the day after I fired him. He wouldn’t know what to do with himself.”
I went and helped myself to coffee and doughnuts, while Bonnie rummaged through her desk for some paper. When I turned, she pointed to two folders. “Sign all the papers in this one, and this other one has all I’ve got on the Nash case.”
I picked up the first folder, looked at the paperwork, and gave Bonnie a questioning look. “Is this what I think it is?”
“Yep. Sign it all, and you’re officially a temporary member of the Quasopon police. Pain in the ass to get that approved, by the way. Had to go all the way to Montpelier to get authorization.”
I was sure Bonnie meant well, but this could be a problem. “Ah, Bonnie, aren’t I supposed to be up there as an independent investigator?
“But if I become a member of the police department, I’m not independent anymore. I have to take orders from you.”
Bonnie looked puzzled for a moment, and then sat down behind her desk, shaking her head. “That’s not what this is for, Emily.” She leaned forward, fixing me with her glance. “You are going to be up there all alone, you among all the Children. For all we know, the Council may be in cahoots with the killer. And there’s no way to get help up to you there in a hurry. Can’t drive up, and cell phones don’t work. The day may come when you need the full force of the law behind you, and if that happens, I want you to have it.
“As for the rest, no one here in Quasopon knows about this. I made sure of that. As far as everyone’s concerned, and that includes you and me, you are going to be running an independent investigation. If you think I’m interfering with you, then you can resign as a police officer, and that will be that. Satisfied?”
My ears were burning by this point. It hadn’t occurred to me that my coming here to run an independent investigation implied Bonnie wasn’t doing a good job. But by making it clear that I didn’t want to serve under her, I was not only questioning her ability, but even her character. So I nodded. “Sorry, Bonnie.”
She didn’t seem to notice, though. Instead, she just handed me a pen, and asked, “Then I suppose you won’t be wanting a badge or a gun?”
I sat down, started reading through the papers and signing them all, while replying, “Definitely not a gun. I’ve gone to the firing range with some of the detectives. The recoil always spoils my aim. They even place bets on whether I’ll hit the targets at all.”
I thought about it. “Got one I can hide and show only if I need to?”
Bonnie reached into a drawer, pulled out one. “This do?”
I picked it up. It was a thin shield-shaped piece of metal, stamped “Quasopon Police.” I pulled out my wallet, stuck it in with the bills. It fit in easily, so I just left it there, and slipped it back into my pocket. Bonnie looked a lot happier at that.
I finished signing the forms and picked up the file on the Nash murder. It didn’t take too long to read. To judge from Bonnie’s write-ups, the Children had stonewalled her as much as possible. Nash’s death certificate had been signed by a doctor among the Children, and the body had been buried before the end of the day. The crime scene had been cleaned up before they even called Bonnie to tell her Nash was dead. And the leadership had played “hear no evil,” “see no evil,” “speak no evil.”
I tossed the file back on her desk, got up, got another doughnut, and sat down. Looking at Bonnie, I asked, “Why the hell are the Children being so unco-operative?”
Bonnie tilted her head, stuck out her lower lip, and shrugged. “It’s like this, Emily. We’ve got an understanding, the Children and me. If the Children keep order on their own lands, I leave them alone. So when there’s a crime on their lands, they try to handle it themselves. They run their own investigations, and usually they do a good job. Fred Knowles’s attempted arson? I hardly had to do anything. They came to me with all the evidence I needed to get a warrant for his arrest.
“So when Nash was murdered, the Children just did what they always do, run their own investigation and call me in only when they needed to. But it all went wrong this time, and I’m not sure why.” She stood up, stretched, smiled and shook her head at me, and sat down again. “Some of the possibilities are innocent. There hasn’t been a murder on the Children’s land since 1937. Having one of their High Council members get killed must have been a shock, and they may have been more interested in getting him properly buried than in carefully examining things for clues.
“On the other hand, I can’t help but think it’s a lot more convenient for them if Nash’s killer is never identified. So long as no one knows, neither side can be blamed, and the two factions will continue on as they have, with Adele likely stepping into Stephen’s shoes. But, find the killer, and one side or the other gets the upper hand.”
That didn’t make sense to me, and I said so. “I can see how the Prophesied One’s side would lose if it turned out he had ordered Nash’s death. But why would the True Believers knock off their own leader?”
Bonnie replied, “They might have hoped to blame the killing on Alex Bancroft. Killing Nash to take down the Prophesied One might seem like a bargain. But that wasn’t what I was thinking of. Suppose Nash was killed because he was involved in something that would destroy his reputation, like running a meth lab or holding heretical opinions? Discredit Nash, and the True Believers would suffer a blow.”
“Speaking of Alex Bancroft, I see he didn’t give you much to go on, either. Was he co-operating with the High Council?”
Bonnie smiled in a disgusted sort of way. “More likely he was trying to conceal the fact that he had spent the night shacked up with one of his groupies. Alex co-operates with the Council only when it pleases him.”
“Why would he conceal an alibi like that? It’s not like the Children are all that prissy about sex, Bonnie.”
Bonnie shrugged and replied, “I don’t know, Emily. There’s something else going on there, and I don’t know where it starts. It’s the common belief that Alex beds most of his young female followers, but none of them are actually bragging about it, at least not according to what Ethan hears. And you’d think, him being the Prophesied One, that they would talk.”
I had to say it. “Maybe he’s not very good in the sack and there’s nothing to brag about.”
Bonnie chuckled at that. “I think it would be even harder to keep that under wraps, Emily, given the way the Children are. That might even cost Alex his position.” She thought about it, and then continued, “It’s a possibility, Emily. Would even give him a motive to have Nash knocked off, if Nash had found out. But I doubt it’s the truth.”
That got us back to where we were the night before, and I wasn’t happy with that. I wanted to know what Bonnie really thought, and I had a suspicion she might not have said everything she might while Ethan was present. So I asked, “Who do you think did it, Bonnie?”
“Hmph.” Bonnie pulled open a drawer, fiddled with a letter opener, put it back and closed the drawer. She leaned back, stared at the ceiling. “Truth be told, Emily, I don’t know. The simple answer is that Alex Bancroft agreed to meet with Stephen Nash that night in Hilltop, and killed him. But if that’s true, why aren’t the True Believers doing everything in their power to pin it on him?
“That’s just one of the things I don’t like about this case. I don’t like it that they cleaned up the site where they found the body before the called me. I don’t like it that the High Council acted like they didn’t want an investigation, then tell me they want to hire you to conduct one. And I don’t like it that nobody’s worried that the killer might strike again.”
To show I agreed with her, I said, “It smells.”
Bonnie righted herself, leaned forward, and slapped her hand on the desk. “Damn right it smells. There’s something political behind all of this, Emily. You won’t find out what from following the clues. There aren’t any worth a damn. You’re going to have to follow the politics. Get up there. Nose around. Gossip, suck up the scuttlebutt. Find out who’s doing what to whom and who’s unhappy about it. Get to the bottom of the Children’s affairs, especially Nash’s affairs, and you’ll figure out who killed him and why. There’s no other way. And that’s why I agreed to have you come in on this.”
I shook my head. “I’m a stranger, Bonnie, an outsider. They won’t talk to me.”
Bonnie looked incredulous, and then gave me a pitying look. “I know how much you’re going to hate my saying it, Emily, but face facts. You’re one of the Fallen. And it looks like they want you back so badly that they’ve paid to drag you back here.”
Face facts. That, dear Bonnie, is the one fact I would rather forget about completely. Thank you for sticking it in my face. I didn’t hide my annoyance as I answered, “In that case, they are going to be quickly disappointed.”
Bonnie growled, “No. Your job is to investigate a murder. If the only way they’ll talk to you is if they think they might get you back, then, honey, you better lead them on.” I shook my head repeatedly, but Bonnie plowed on. “This isn’t about your feelings, Emily. I know how much you suffered, being one of the Fallen. But that’s irrelevant right now. Your job is to find a killer. If you can’t handle doing what needs to be done, then you just turn around and go back to where you came from right now.”
Bonnie had worked herself up into a temper by the time she finished speaking. And I was feeling pretty angry, myself. The two of us sat there silently, glaring at each other. I was tempted, oh, I was tempted to give her back the badge, tell her to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine, and go home. But I knew I wouldn’t. Not because I wanted to find the killer, though that should have been my reason. Nope, it was just because I didn’t want to lose my job. Kind of shameful, isn’t it?
End of chapter five