Episode 39: Indigestion | Scryer's Gulch
There were times Annabelle regretted having used schoolteacher as a cover. Would that there were enough women in town to have come as a dressmaker, or a milliner. If she'd been either of them, she wouldn't have to be at uncomfortable occasions such this one. She tried not to fidget on the horsehair sofa in the Bonhams' stuffy front parlor as they all waited on Jedediah Bonham's arrival to his own dinner party.
Charity had done herself and her household up a little too fine. A down-on-his-luck greenhorn in ill-fitting formalwear had been pressed into service as butler; he presented Annabelle with a glass of sherry she desperately wished were something stronger. Bourbon. She liked that now and again, but wouldn't get any until she went back home. She probably wouldn't need it then. Might she bolt down the sherry? Not here, no matter how tempting. John and Tony looked as if they wouldn't have minded a snort, either.
Charity, meanwhile, preened before the men in a new plum-colored silk; its color was ever so slightly the wrong shade for her blazing red hair. Every excess of the French fashion plates plagued that poor dress: an overly-elaborate fringed overskirt, a huge bustle ending in a puddling train, feathers dyed to match at the shoulders and edging her fan, and if the dress had one ruffle it had a dozen. In her room, Annabelle's black faille had seemed drab, but next to her hostess's profusion of bad taste, drab looked good.
The cuffs of Annabelle's dress covered the marks her detector's bracelet had burned into her wrist. Despite the still-tender burns, she'd remained true to her duty and slipped the bracelet onto her other wrist. She prayed none of the tainted hermetauxite turned up tonight. She didn't really expect it to, but the Bonhams still made her nervous. Someone as controlling as Jed Bonham was likely to have a hand in anything suspicious.
Nevertheless, Tony Bonham had set off a slight buzzing when he'd arrived at the Hopewell, and perhaps not the buzz he'd hoped for; he was quite interested in her, wasn't he? A very handsome man, Bonham the younger, but too slick for her taste. He was carrying something--maybe a nugget like Jamie's?
Charity was making no effort to include Annabelle in conversation. Instead she murmured flirtatiously to Tony and fluttered her fan, sending tiny poofs of plum-colored fluff into the air. Flirting with her own stepson? That was all kinds of disturbing.
In desperation, Annabelle turned to John. "And how is Jamie?"
"Still a bit hangdog, I fear," he grimaced. "Rabbit's taking him shooting Monday after school out where you and--rather, at a canyon not far where we frequently target shoot."
A tiny musical chime broke in on the two stilted conversations. Tony absently took out a gold watch and thumbed it open, apparently out of habit; he gave it barely a glance before closing it again. Annabelle's bracelet prickled more forcefully. "What an unusual watch, Mr Bonham!" she said. "Such a charming little chime, I've never heard anything like it."
"On the quarters, half, and full hour, Miss Duniway," he said. "A present from my mother. No," he said at Annabelle's automatic glance at Charity, "the first Mrs Bonham. Would you like to see it? Though it is five years old now, it is still the pinnacle of magical timekeeping."
Annabelle accepted the watch, deftly keeping her fingers from touching Tony's though the watch's chain by necessity pulled them closer together; she stood to avoid a confrontation with his trouser fastenings. She turned the watch this way and that, pretending to examine the engraving, which was top-notch and in the finest style. Ma Bonham at least had possessed good taste, if her successor had none. Tony reached over and pressed the clasp; the cover flipped open to reveal an appropriately motherly admonition engraved inside.
All the while her bracelet did a tiny dance against her wrist. It wasn't half as painful as it had been inside Simon Prake's office, not even a tenth, but it still set her teeth on edge. "However does it work? I assumed it would take a very great hermetic battery to power such a watch, but it is so small!"
"I don't expect you to understand its principles, Miss Duniway, and I confess to no more than an interested amateur's understanding myself," he smiled.
I'll show you a thing or two about its principles, she fumed to herself.
"Suffice it to say that one reason why its makers were able to keep it so small is that the battery needs replaced more frequently than, say, a clock like my father's." He gestured to a large clock supported by two fat, bilious gilt cherubs squatting on the mantel. "I don't believe Father has changed the battery on that clock once in all the time he's had it--since before I was born--and it was one of the first hermetic timepieces on the market." He took the proffered watch from Annabelle's hand, this time making subtle contact. "I replace this battery once a year. In fact, I replaced it just last week."
"Oh?" said Annabelle. "Did you have to send back east for the battery? That would be odd, wouldn't it, sending back east for something that surrounds us!"
"No, no," smiled Tony. "Simon Prake is a dab hand at encoding just about anything. He ran this up for me with just a few days' notice. I believe the most time-consuming element was shaping it."
Simon Prake. Again. Annabelle sighed inside. She did not want her culprit to be that earnest young man, outwardly so conscientious and honest. Could he be that great a dissembler? He must be.
It was time to ethergram Chief Howman. Now that she had her man, she needed to know what to do with him.