Chapter 9: The man of the prophecy
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
I had a stone thrown at me by a kid on my walk back to Milltown, but it was a clean miss. Otherwise, it was the usual story. I stopped in long enough to tell Tanya I might be a bit late for dinner. And then I took the eastern path to Lakeside. The western path is more scenic, but involves climbing along the slopes of Sacred Mountain, which I didn’t feel up to.
I was about two-thirds of the way to Lakeview when I met this girl coming the other way. She looked me up and down as we approached, smiled, and said, “You must be Emily Fisher.”
It finally occurred to me that something about my appearance must firmly identify me as an outsider. I suspected it was the clothes. I made a mental note to myself to ask Tanya about getting something that would make me less conspicuous.
But then what was I to make of the girl in front of me? She was quite distinctive in appearance. She looked to be about fifteen, just slightly shorter than me, curly orange hair, eyes large and close together behind a pair of clunky spectacles, mouth a bit too wide for her face, and a patch of unpigmented skin on her right cheek breaking up a pattern of freckles. She was wearing a bright red blouse and green jeans. The Children tend toward dull colors in their clothing. This girl stood out, no doubt intentionally.
I acknowledged the greeting. “Yes, I am. And you would be?”
“I’m Jezebel Johnson.” She saw my reaction to that name, because she added, “I see you remember some things from growing up around here.”
I’ll say. Jezebel Johnson, probably close to the last name I would expect among the Children. There are no Children named Johnson . . . not unless both their parents repudiated them. That usually doesn’t happen unless there’s a major scandal. And “the harlot Jezebel” is the ultimate evil woman in the Children’s imagery. Girl, I don’t know what you did, but someone sure didn’t like you.
I offered a neutral reply. “It’s coming back to me. Is there something I can do for you?”
Jezebel smiled. Her face wasn’t pretty, but when she smiled, it was wonderful. “Alex Bancroft is expecting you. I’m supposed to take you to see him.”
“That’s convenient. I was coming to see him.”
Jezebel replied, “Yeah, he knew. That’s why he sent me.”
I lifted my eyebrow to that. “I suppose Tanya called ahead.”
That got Jezebel laughing. “That one? No, she’s a good True Believer, so far. No, Alex just sometimes knows stuff. You get used to it. C’mon.” She turned about to face toward Lakeview, and together the two of us walked together.
Thinking about what she’d said, I asked Jezebel, “So you believe Alex Bancroft is the Prophesied One?”
With a smile, she answered, “Cripes, no. He said he isn’t, and I believe him. Though most people believe he is.”
“So you’re a True Believer.”
She shook her head emphatically. “No way. Nope, not everyone who supports Alex thinks he’s the Prophesied One, Ms. Fisher. We just think he’s good for the Children.”
“I guess things are more complicated than I thought.”
She gave me an amused look. A tinge of cynicism entered her voice. “Aren’t they always?” She paused and then said, “Speaking of complications, how do you like that sister of yours, Sonia Hoopes?”
I hadn’t realized my relationship with Sonia was public knowledge, so I was surprised by the question. On second thought, I had to wonder what made me think that the relationship wouldn’t be common knowledge among the Children. What I actually thought of Sonia was none of this girl’s business, so I picked out an incident to see what her reaction would be. “Well, she doesn’t like people spitting on her shoes.”
Jezebel stopped short and turned to me. “What are you talking about? When did this happen?”
It took me less than a second to realize I’d set myself up to do the very thing I didn’t want to do, offer a take on Sonia’s character. So I quickly explained the incident, framing it instead as part of a general shunning I’d been experiencing.
Jezebel listened attentively, and then mulled what I’d said over a bit before observing, “Sonia will go to the High Council about that. You’ll see. Tomorrow an order will go out that everyone will have to treat you properly. And Saturday they’ll have Jacob Lawrence publicly whipped for spitting on the both of you.” She turned to start walking, adding with sudden venom, “Yeah, Sonia likes to see them whipped.”
We walked the rest of the way in silence. To judge from the expression on her face, Jezebel was having unpleasant thoughts about Sonia. And I didn’t want to pursue that topic further. Jezebel had guessed right about Sonia going to the Council, and I wasn’t relishing the idea of someone being whipped on my behalf. Nor did the other obvious topic, how Jezebel got such an extraordinary name, seem like a safe choice, either.
Just before Lakeview, there was a grassy slope to the left of the path. Someone had put a bench there. There were four people sitting on the bench, and seven more sitting on the grass facing them. Jezebel lit up when she saw them, and rushed ahead. “Alex, I got her!” she called out as she ran up to the crowd.
As I got closer, it was easy to pick Alex Bancroft out of the crowd there. He was the only guy. I wasn’t impressed. He looked to be about my age, brown hair that lay flat on his head, square face, brown eyes, firm jaw, clean-shaven. He was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and I could see from his arms and legs that he worked out: firm without being overdeveloped. A guy, a lot like other guys, nothing special. The rest of the crowd was all female, all under twenty, and all looking at Alex as if he were the sun and the moon.
Jezebel whispered something in Alex’s ear that caused him to grin. He looked up at me, and then spoke to his followers. “End of conversation. The detective investigating Stephen Nash’s murder is here, and she’ll want to talk with me privately.”
The girls all got up, smiled at me briefly, and then headed off to the village. All except Jezebel. She tried to take a seat right beside Alex Bancroft on the bench, but he shooed her away with kindly mockery. “You, too, Merciless One. Just because I tell you all my secrets doesn’t mean Ms. Fisher has to do the same.” Jezebel frowned, got up, stuck her tongue out at Alex, smiled at me, and followed the others.
The Prophesied One stood up and greeted me. “Well, welcome back to the Sacred Lands, Emily Fisher, though I doubt you’re rejoicing much about it. In case there is any doubt in your mind, I am Alexander W. Bancroft, whom some of the Children call the Prophesied One. Have a seat.” At least he wasn’t pompous about it — rather, I detected a bit of irony in his friendly tones.
I took a seat at one end of the bench, and Alex sat down at the other. Thought I’d start out with something innocuous. “What does the ‘W’ stand for?”
Alex looked amused. “Oh, I don’t know: Wise, Weird, Wicked, Wine-soaked. Take your pick. I made it up with the rest of my name, but never got around to deciding what it actually stands for. And no one here has bothered to ask.”
“Then it’s not your real name?”
“Sure it is. It’s just not the name I was born with. Just as you weren’t born Emily Fisher or Jezebel was born with her name.”
Clearly Alex Bancroft was better versed on my past than I was on his, to know I’d originally gone by my mother’s surname of Daniels until we left the Children. But what about the other? “How did Jezebel ever come by her name?”
Alex leaned back against the bench for support. “You understand about the ‘Johnson’ part, of course.” When I nodded, he continued, “Well, the scandal goes all the way back to Jezebel’s conception. It was a case of incest, intergenerational incest.”
I understood that, too. The Children have nothing against incest with members of the same generation, even brothers and sisters, as the case of Ethan and Susan Knowles demonstrated. But incest between generations? Absolutely prohibited.
Alex picked up the story. “Jezebel’s mother refused to say whether the child was her father’s or belonged to one of her uncles. Apparently, more than one of them had had the opportunity. And when Jezebel was born, her mother ritually disowned her right then and there.”
The Children have a ritual formula to recite when one renounces a kinship tie. It’s supposed to be done only over something very serious that the other party has done. Being born usually wouldn’t qualify, not by a long shot. I observed, “That was tough.”
Alex grimaced. “Yeah. So they named the child Ruth Johnson, and sent her away from West Village to Milltown. Eventually, your half-sister, Sonia Hoopes, whom you’ve met, became her guardian.” Alex mentioned Sonia’s name in a matter-of-fact way. Whatever his opinion of her, he wasn’t revealing it. But I noticed he was watching me closely, as if he wanted to know my opinion. I kept my expression neutral.
Without a break, the Prophesied One continued. “While officially Ruth had no parents, everyone knew who her mother was and what family she came from. They probably could make a good guess as to the father, too, from what I hear. Anyhow, a few years before I arrived here, the Children were meeting in Full Assembly. Ruth was twelve. When time came for anyone to speak, Ruth stood up. She cursed her mother, her father, whoever he was, and her family. Understand, she didn’t just disown them. She formally cursed them all in a ritual form that no one had heard in a century or more. The Divine alone knows how she even found out about it. She concluded by saying that she’d rather be called Jezebel than be known as a member of her biological family.”
That was even more astounding than it sounds. The Children have very few sexual prohibitions. Intergenerational incest is one, rape is another. But worse than either is taking money for sex. There is no worse insult among the Children than to be called a whore. And the archetype of the whore is Jezebel.
Alex continued on. “As her guardian, Sonia had the right to speak next. She put two motions to the Assembly, saying they should pass both or neither. The first was that the Children should officially change Ruth’s name to Jezebel, in accordance with her wishes. And the second was that Jezebel should be publicly whipped for being a disobedient child. Both motions carried. As her guardian, Sonia personally carried out the whipping herself.”
That explained Jezebel’s comment about Sonia. I was learning to like my half-sister less and less. And this time, Alex must have seen it in my face, because he then said, “I wouldn’t be too judgmental about Sonia, if I were you. She had a hard childhood, herself, being the daughter of a Fallen father. That still carries a stigma, particularly in West Village. Unlike your other siblings in West Village, she had the guts to strike out and move to Milltown, and rose to become treasurer there before she turned twenty-five. She’s certainly harsh and rather bossy, too, but she’s also scrupulously fair. People take cases to her for arbitration, and she’s renowned for her judgments. Even though she doesn’t like me, I’d take a dispute to her in a minute, and expect a just decision. And she is absolutely loyal to family. If you ever get into trouble while you’re here, Emily, Sonia will stand beside you, no matter what.”
I had to admit Alex Bancroft had a smooth tongue. We’d been talking for some time, and I hadn’t even gotten around to asking him any questions about the murder. I’d figured questioning a suspect would be easy; I’d heard our detectives describe how they do it. But I sat there and realized I really didn’t know enough to question a suspect effectively.
So I led with the obvious. “Let’s get back to the murder investigation. Did you kill Stephen Nash?”
Alex was taken aback by my directness. “I thought I’d already covered this ground with Bonnie Knowles, the police chief.”
“Then humor me. I have an infallible ability to tell when someone is lying to me. Did you kill Stephen Nash?”
My claim caused Alex to grin. He waited me out, then replied, “No, I did not kill Stephen Nash.”
“Where were you when he was killed?”
“Seeing I don’t know when he was killed, I couldn’t tell you.”
True, there was an eight hour window. Alex Bancroft was being cautious. “Where did you spend the evening and night preceding the discovery of his body?”
“Oh, out and about. I have no alibi. No one will tell you they saw me that evening.”
“I’m not asking for an alibi. I want you to tell me where you were.”
My turn to be taken aback. “What do you mean, ‘no’?”
Alex had dropped his grin. “I could say I don’t want to run afoul of your infallible ability to detect a lie by trying to tell you one. But the simple truth is that I’m not going to tell you, Emily.”
“Why not? You must know this makes you the main suspect.”
Alex’s grin returned. “If I told you my reasons, then you’d know where I was, now, wouldn’t you? And as far as being the main suspect, why would I want to kill Stephen Nash?”
“He was your political opponent among the Children.”
Alex shrugged. “Stephen’s death isn’t going to put an end to the True Believers. Adele Nelson will take over. Frankly, I’d rather have continued dealing with Stephen. Adele is just as harsh as your half-sister, but without the fairness and integrity Sonia has. While Stephen, for all he was a firebrand, didn’t have a mean bone in his body. Nope, by that logic, you ought to be questioning Adele. With Nash out of the way, she’ll be the True Believers’ leader.”
“You think Adele Nelson killed Stephen Nash?”
“No. On the contrary, I know she didn’t.”
The man was becoming infuriating. “Then who do you think did?”
Alex lost his grin again. “You’ll have to figure that out yourself, Emily. If it’s any consolation, I know you will figure it out, eventually. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have bothered to drag you back here.”
What? “The High Council hired me, not you.”
“And I had to threaten to hire you myself before they agreed to do so. The High Council doesn’t really want you here, Emily, but they’d like it even less if you were working for me.”
That actually matched up with some of the things Bonnie had been saying. So I followed it up. “Why would the High Council not want me here?”
“Well, to start with, they don’t like outsiders. Then, they’re more afraid that an investigation will turn up a scandal and cause further divisions among the Children. The Children aren’t very big on their history, but they all remember how badly things turned out the last time there was a schism. Lastly, they know you’re not a trained investigator. In fact, they think you’re incompetent.”
Gee, thanks. “Then why do you want me here, Alex?”
Alex stood up and stretched before answering. “Because I know you’ll succeed, Emily. You’ll do the best you can, and that will be just what is needed.”
The Prophesied One was beginning to sound like Angus McPherson and his “Divine Favor.” I treated the idea with scorn. “Oh? I’m supposed to believe that? I thought you weren’t the Prophesied One. That sounds a lot like a prophecy to me.”
Alex looked serious, shook his head. “I’m not the Prophesied One, and I don’t claim the gift of prophecy. And no, I don’t expect you to believe me. But that is why I brought you here. You’re the only person who can bring the murderer to justice.”
I stood up, too. “Your telling me this doesn’t win you any sympathy from me. You’re still a suspect, and likely one, in my books.”
Alex gave me a bow. “Believe it or not, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
End of chapter nine