Copyright © 2012 by Brian Bixby.
Chapter 12: Abigail’s frustrations
When she began as the first magician in the Office of Occult Affairs, Abigail Lane had no experiences of her own to rely upon. So she had relied on Asa Porter’s experience and wisdom. As new magicians were hired, she used not just Asa’s advice, but also his stories, to help train her colleagues. Quite a few of those stories had been about the Farnsworths, both Israel and Rebecca.
The stories had not prepared Abigail for the Rebecca she met in Stockbridge. The Rebecca of Asa’s stories was a light-hearted girl who nevertheless was intensely disciplined in her use of magic. She had to be, to control the walking stick she used. Abigail had expected to recruit Rebecca as an assistant, much as she had served as an assistant to Asa Heard. (She no longer remembered exactly how little she had deferred to Asa once she had learned the rudiments of magic.) Rebecca’s initial fury, so unlike what she had expected, had shocked Abigail much more than she would ever admit, even to herself. What followed confounded Abigail even more. Rebecca had turned into a calm and determined woman, who fully realized her advantage in being the expert on her home town. She took the lead in formulating their plans as if it were a matter of course. She never raised her voice again to Abigail, but just quietly insisted on having her way. And unless she wanted to return to Washington and admit she had failed, Abigail felt she had no choice but to go along. It rankled.
Rebecca had decided, for no reason Abigail could discern, that the killer of the postmaster and the magician attacking her were the same person. Rebecca also decided that since Abigail had failed to find the killer while situated socially in the middle of the town, that they should cover the high and low ends of the town’s social structure instead. Rebecca and her walking stick were too conspicuous, so she would have to go as herself and cover the elite of the town. Obviously, in Rebecca’s eyes, it followed that Abigail should cover the dregs of the town by working in the mill and staying at the Burning Dog Lodging House while disguised against those who had met her before. Patty would be Rebecca’s maid, and serve as a go-between.
Abigail put her foot down at that. She would not stay at the Burning Dog, and she would definitely not work in the mill. She had seen the Burning Dog, a wretched establishment. And she had worked in a mill, once, hated it as the worst drudgery imaginable, and had sworn never to do so again. She would rather starve. But she did not tell Rebecca this. She just refused. Rebecca insisted. Abigail refused again. Finally, Rebecca suggested they put the matter up to Bridget Leigh Farnsworth, since Rebecca wanted to travel to Boston anyhow to consult her about taking along Patty. Abigail knew nothing about Bridget, as she had never figured into Asa’s stories, and did not want to drag in yet another member of the confusing Farnsworth-Leigh-Maxwell family. But she could suggest no better alternative. So she, Rebecca, and Patty left Stockbridge Saturday morning on the train to Boston.
Abigail was completely unimpressed with Bridget when she first met her. In 1886, Bridget was thirty-nine, the mother of two daughters who were fully grown, and had been a widow for the better part of a decade. She had been a rough girl when Israel had hired her, and that roughness remained in her big frame and her blunt ways. She greeted Abigail with suspicion, asking her in detail exactly where she fit into the Federal Government.
In contrast to Bridget, the Farnsworth townhouse in Boston demonstrated expensive and sophisticated tastes, without the tendency to clutter so common in the Victorian era. The library was the one exception, as it was packed not just with books but with various curiosities that Israel had accumulated in his travels. Abigail spent most of her time between their afternoon arrival and dinner in exploring the library.
That evening after dinner, Rebecca took the lead in explaining to Bridget her plans. Bridget sat there, silent, watching all three of them with what Abigail considered a stupid look on her face. Her mouth was open wider than her brown eyes, and she just rocked in her chair, sometimes looking at one or the other of them, but often just looking at her hands in her lap. Even when Rebecca explained how Abigail would not agree to certain elements of the plan, Bridget acted no differently.
When Rebecca finished, Bridget just sat there rocking for a minute, looking at her hands folded in her lap. She briefly looked up at Abigail, and then fixed on Rebecca. “This Miss Lane here, she’s yah partner, is she na, Rebecca?” she asked in her Irish brogue.
Rebecca nodded. “Of course she is.”
Bridget shook her head. “Then why ain’t she doin’ half the ’splainin’?”
Abigail did not mean to smile at the aptness of the remark, but she may have let slip the shadow of one.
Rebecca tried to speak, but Bridget silenced her. “Ya had ya say, Rebecca. It’s her turn.” Bridget turned to Abigail. “Ya don’t want to work in the mill, Miss Lane. Ya evah work in a mill?”
Bridget turned to Rebecca. “Ya evah work in a mill, Rebecca?”
Rebecca was surprised Bridget would ask her such a question. “You know I have not.”
“Then it’s settl’d,” said Bridget in decisive tones. “She does na work in the mill.”
Abigail watched Bridget and Rebecca stare at each other, both looking as if they were readying for a fight. Finally Rebecca nodded.
Bridget wasn’t through. “Ya apologize to the lady for bein’ such a donkey.”
Abigail was happy to have established the principle that she was an equal partner. She did not want to humiliate Rebecca. And she was trying to stop herself from laughing out loud. “An apology won’t be necessary,” she quickly interjected.
Bridget rounded on her. “That’s not fo’ ya to say, Miss Lane. The apology is fo’ the good of the both of ye, not you alone.”
Abigail had to admit the justice of this. So she nodded and accepted Rebecca’s apology. Having gained her point on the mill, Abigail was willing to concede on the Burning Dog. And after some discussion about what other work Abigail might do, they came up with the idea of Abigail becoming a sales clerk for Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s store was so central to the town, it would allow Abigail to cast an even broader net hunting for the killer than if she had worked in the mill. A phone call Sunday morning by Bridget, who after all was a partner in Jeremiah’s store, and Abigail was on the train that afternoon for the Burning Dog and a new job as a store clerk.
Abigail felt Bridget had rightfully taken her side against a family member, and her opinion of Bridget improved considerably. It was only once she was on the train from Boston that it occurred to Abigail that Bridget had helped maneuver her into accepting most of Rebecca’s plans. Abigail ruefully admitted to herself that she might have underestimated just how clever Bridget Leigh Farnsworth really was.
Abigail’s biggest reservation with the plan was not its contents, nor with the fact that Rebecca had taken the lead in putting it together. No, what bothered her the most was the walking stick. The more Abigail saw of it with Rebecca, the more she disliked the thing. She was sure it was not what it seemed. What it was, Abigail did not know. Worse, neither did Rebecca.
Abigail had found this out on Friday, the day before they left Stockbridge, when Rebecca described her encounter with the werewolf. Surprised by what the walking stick had done to the creature, Abigail interrupted Rebecca’s account. “I have researched legends from Japan about dragons. While I have not found out much, all the stories agree that dragons are water spirits. They do not breathe fire. So how can your walking stick do that?”
Rebecca did not hesitate to answer. “Because it isn’t inhabited by a Japanese dragon. At least I don’t think so.”
Abigail raised an eyebrow. “You don’t think so?”
Rebecca seemed unembarrassed by the question. “I was trying to bind a spirit of wisdom to the stick. But there was something already in the walking stick. Something had come with it from Japan. My surprise when I realized this caused me to make a mistake and alter the binding operation somehow. In retrospect, I could never figure out quite what I had changed or how. When the operation ended, there was something in the stick, not what I had called, not exactly what was in it before, either, and we were bound to each other through the walking stick.”
Abigail could not keep her shock out of her voice. “You don’t know what you are bound to?”
Rebecca gave Abigail a questioning stare, picked up the walking stick, looked it over carefully, turning it around, and then put it down. Returning her attention to Abigail, she said, “No, but it doesn’t matter. We have a compact between us.”
Abigail seriously doubted the value of any compact made with an unidentified supernatural entity. Knowing the name of the entity was critical to controlling it. Yet Rebecca seemed capable of controlling the entity . . . or at least the entity let her think so. And that raised yet another issue. Rebecca’s account of what had happened with the werewolf directly contradicted something Rebecca had said earlier. Abigail decided to confront Rebecca then and there. “As I recall, Rebecca, you told me that you can do lesser forms of magic by yourself, but you have to perform an operation to use the walking stick to its fullest.”
Rebecca nodded, whereupon Abigail continued, “You were using the walking stick when you slew the werewolf?”
Rebecca innocently answered, “Of course.”
She doesn’t see it, Abigail thought. “When did you conduct the operation to call on the power of the walking stick?”
Rebecca shrugged. “I didn’t. The dragon came of its own accord. It can do that.”
“And when has it ever done that before?”
Rebecca pondered. “Never. But . . .” Rebecca was about to say that the walking stick had been doing some other unprecedented things lately, but checked herself. There is something important here, she thought to herself, but until I can connect all the oddities, I do not know what, and will not alarm Abigail Lane needlessly. To Abigail, she said, “But it naturally would come to defend me. That is part of our compact.” Rebecca had not known what she would say, and was surprised herself. She knew well that the dragon had not come to protect her unbidden in the past. Yet as she said it, Rebecca knew that it was true, now. How she knew it, she could not say. Nor why it was true.
Although she meant well, Rebecca made a serious error in not explaining to Abigail how the walking stick’s behavior was changing. Abigail was certain Rebecca was holding something back, and consequently did not believe what Rebecca had told her. She tried to say as much, as diplomatically as she could, and cautioned Rebecca about the dangers of a more powerful entity taking her over. Rebecca, who was quite familiar with the dangers from her lessons with her Uncle Israel, dismissed Abigail’s warnings at the time, although she did not forget them.
Every so often, while they were in Stockbridge and Boston, Abigail would look at Rebecca, and Rebecca’s eyes would seem to change for a moment, to become larger, different, golden. Dragon eyes, Abigail thought, and shuddered. Neither Patty nor Bridget seemed to notice, so Abigail decided it would be pointless to mention this to Rebecca. That was Abigail’s error.
Abigail was firmly of the belief that most of the time people went through life with so many fixed notions that they simply would not see or think about the unexpected. Her experience with magic had reinforced her belief. So she had taken few steps to disguise herself when she took up work at Jeremiah’s store. Those few had proved sufficient. This was her third day working for Jeremiah. In that time she had served three customers who had met her as herself on her earlier visit, and none had recognized Fanny O’Rourke, store clerk, as Abigail Lane of the United States Secret Service. It helped that Abigail had worked as a store clerk before, and had quickly adapted to Jeremiah’s rules and practices. She looked and acted her part easily.
It made her wonder about Rebecca. Just what had that woman done a decade ago that had set the town so much against her? Why hadn’t the town just closed its eyes? Abigail had heard a few stories, some of which she knew had originally been told about the earlier Rebecca Farnsworth. But she hadn’t bothered to ask Rebecca Maxwell which, if any, of the stories were true, or what she had actually done. Too much else had occupied their time together. Now Abigail regretted the lost opportunity.
Between her work and her misgivings, Abigail almost missed seeing Patty Leigh come through the store. Patty was supposed to come by, just to let Abigail know that Rebecca had arrived. Abigail had expected Patty to be far too obvious, and was preparing explanations to cover their encounter. To her surprise, Patty came in midafternoon, arm in arm with two other servant girls, laughing away and chatting about the people for whom they worked. Abigail didn’t even realize it was Patty until she heard her telling the other girls a wild story about how Rebecca had ridden a magic carpet! Patty didn’t even stop in the same room with Abigail, but just winked at her as she passed by. Abigail was left torn between admiration for Patty’s talent as an actress, and her worry about trusting an important role to “the scamp,” as Bridget had called her sister Patty.
A quarter hour later, when she was in the front lobby wrapping up a customer’s purchase, a tall, portly man in a brown suit and hat came dashing in. Without even taking off his hat, he looked about and shouted, “Jeremiah! Jeremiah!”
Jeremiah Farnsworth had been kneeling behind a counter in the lobby, trying to unjam a drawer that had swelled shut. He stood up with an irritated look on his face, recognized the man as the town’s druggist, and greeted him in a civil voice. “Hello, Henry. What can we do for you today?”
The man shook his head. “You’ve got to come along. Your sister has shot and killed the Congregational minister!”
End of chapter twelve