Episode 6: One-Way Cat Fight | Scryer's Gulch
You know, I'm getting too old and crotchety to tell stories like this. I might be back, but I don't feel like saying much today. I don't feel so good.
While Misi stood on the windowsill at Hopewell's worrying about Annabelle, she herself was still visiting students. She'd met Jamie Runnels and the Prake twins, and the two children of L.L. Lockson, publisher of the Voice of the Gulch. Now she walked back up the boardwalk toward the great mansion on the hill to acquaint herself with Lily Bonham.
Just past Prake's Hardware, her detector bracelet buzzed and pricked at her wrist. She returned to the store, masking her excitement as she pretended to windowshop; the sensation faded. She strolled back up the street until the pricking became nearly unbearable: it came from the ethergraph office.
The door swung open and Simon Prake came barreling out, just avoiding a collision. "Oh--! Miss Duniway, please forgive me! I'm terribly sorry, I'm--I have an urgent ethergram to deliver to Mr Bonham."
"I'm calling on the Bonhams myself, Mr Prake," she smiled up at him.
"Please, then," he said, "let me escort you."
She took his proffered arm, and they walked toward the Bonham mansion. Such a pretty young man; she always had a soft spot for the boyish ones. If Simon were the source of the disturbance, charm or no she'd have to take him in, but the thought saddened her.
"What business brings you to Jed Bonham, if I may ask?" said Simon.
"You sound like Sheriff Runnels," she said. "He's always asking me questions like that!"
"I'm sorry--that was impertinent, wasn't it?"
"You're forgiven," Annabelle laughed. "I'm not calling on Mr Bonham. I hope to meet his daughter, Lily, and her mother."
"Bonham's wife, you mean," said Simon, his lips thinning. "Mrs Bonham isn't much of a mother to Lily. Lily's my sister Amelia's best friend, and my own mother tries...but I shouldn't gossip."
"I'm beginning to wonder about you, Mr Prake," Annabelle teased. "Impertinent questions, gossip. Is the ethergraph business so very slow?"
"Not at all," he grinned. "It's a very exciting business. Most days I have plenty to do, and then on the few days when I'm not as busy, I have my own projects to work on."
"Oh?" she prompted. She knew very well he was more than just an ethergraph operator; he was a highly skilled engineer, but she wouldn't let that knowledge slip.
"You see, I'm working on this new way of encoding hermetauxite for use in ethergraphy--I'm so very close! If I can just--"
He stopped abruptly, and Annabelle followed his icy gaze. There in the middle of the boardwalk before the Hotel LeFay stood Tony Bonham, coatless but otherwise elegant, a small diamond winking from his silk cravat. Tony gave Annabelle a very civil bow, but all he gave Simon was the briefest of nods. "Do you have an ethergram for me, Prake?" he said.
"It's for a Bonham, but not for you," snapped Simon.
Tony ignored him. "Miss Duniway, I haven't seen you since your arrival. I hope the town agrees with you? This business at the school hasn't troubled you too much, I hope?"
"Oh, no, not at all, Mr Bonham. Teachers are accustomed to resistance from their pupils, of all kinds. Were I to let a few misspelled words bother me, I'd have quit the profession before I began it!"
"And your accommodations? The Hotel LeFay's offer of lodgings still stands, miss."
"You're very kind," she said, watching Simon's darkening face out of the corner of her eye, "but I'm well-established at Hopewell's. Perhaps I might ask the parents to add a little room onto the schoolhouse for me."
"The lady said she's fine, Bonham, drop it," grated Simon.
"You're an ethergraph operator. Don't you have an ethergraph to operate?" hissed Tony. "Miss Duniway, if you'd prefer some refreshment to standing in the street...?"
"You're very kind," she said again, "but Mr Prake was just walking me up to your father's house, to see Lily and your mother."
"My mother?" stared Tony. "Oh--you mean the current Mrs Bonham. My mother's buried in the Methodic Church graveyard, Miss Duniway. I have no other mother. But you will perhaps take tea with me some time soon?"
"Hardly the thing for a bachelor to invite an unmarried lady to tea, Bonham, don't you think?" said Simon.
"Forgive me, Miss Duniway," said Tony. "No offense was intended. Our ways are less formal here. Sometimes Mr Prake lapses into small town conventionalities. Until later, then," he ended, an inviting glance directed at Annabelle and a more sullen one directed at Simon.
Annabelle and Simon walked on toward the mansion in silence; she could feel the muscles in his arm, corded and tense as if to strike out at someone. "I suppose you're wondering what that was all about," said Simon in time.
"To ask, I felt, was to pry, sir," she murmured.
"True enough, I suppose, though I wouldn't have taken it that way. Tony Bonham playing the sophisticate galls me, to say the least. My education is better than his, and he knows it. Money doesn't always make for quality, Papa says, and the Bonhams are the best example of that I can think of!" His face looked anything but boyish, and if looks really smoldered, the Bonham mansion would have turned into a heap of ashes on the spot. He must have felt Annabelle's quiet regard, for he looked down at her, blushing. "Tony accused me of over-caution in my conduct, but I fear, Miss Duniway, that I too often speak my mind without enough regard for convention."
"I have a few engineers among my acquaintance, Mr Prake," she smiled. "Bluntness seems to be a common thread among them."
"True enough! Well, here we are." Simon knocked on the door, and Annabelle surreptitiously straightened her bracelet. She'd felt not a single tickle since they'd left the ethergraph office, and she wondered if this plain-spoken, handsome young man could really be the one she sought. How sad that would be.
The door swung open. "Yes?" sniffed an older woman in a plain black dress.
"Good afternoon, Mrs Walters," began Simon.
"Are you expected?" the woman interrupted.
"Are ethergrams usually expected?" he said in irritation. "I have an ethergram for Mr Bonham. That's my only business."
"And your lady...friend?"
Annabelle stiffened at the implied insult.
"I'm surprised you don't know our new schoolteacher. She's here to meet Lily and Mrs Bonham. Could you announce her, please, and tell Mr Bonham I have an ethergram--" he ignored the housekeeper's reach-- "to be delivered to his own hand? I can entrust it to no one else, ma'am."
Mrs Walters sniffed again, but showed them both into the front parlor.
The room should have been bright and airy, with its tall windows overlooking the town. But its dark paneling and oppressive level of ostentation left Annabelle longing to be back in her simple rooms. A restless, uncouth hand had selected the furnishings, all different styles and time periods, but marked as expensive even by the untrained eye. Every tabletop struggled under the burden of a thousand little gewgaws, each proclaiming its owner's magnificence if not his taste.
Into this rich confusion came the Bonhams. Simon handed Jed the ethergram, while Lily greeted her new teacher affectionately. Mrs Bonham stood unmoving to one side. She wore a gas-green silk dress that played up her lush figure and the waves of dark red hair framing her beautiful, dissatisfied face.
Annabelle cast her mind over her files. Mrs Bonham was some years younger than her husband, a beauty who claimed to be from Chicago, though on investigation no one in its top social circles seemed to know who the former Charity Grant was.
Charity's gray eyes met Annabelle's blue ones with an appraising glance Annabelle knew too well; it told her there was room for only one great beauty in Scryer's Gulch, and it was Charity Bonham. Annabelle simply ducked her head in an outward show of shyness and submission, and focused on little Lily's artless prattling.
Meanwhile, Simon took Jed's signature in his receipt book, and excused himself in short order with one backward smile at Annabelle. Jed followed the smile, and joined his little daughter at Annabelle's side. He shook Annabelle's hand, and reluctantly released it; she felt Charity's hot gaze leveled at her in response.
Throughout the conversation with Lily, Charity stood beside the sofa and chairs, unspeaking, unmoving but for the increasing swell of her breast, while Jed spared her not a glance. He focused entirely on Annabelle, commenting on her charming bonnet, inquiring whether he could send her a hamper to augment the lamentable food at Hopewell's (he could not), and generally doing his best to fluster a pretty young schoolteacher.
Annabelle pondered whether she should play that part, but decided her own honest reaction was best; she deflected every attempt at flirtation with a cool but friendly demeanor, ignoring anything with the least hint of impropriety. She kept waiting for an introduction to Mrs Bonham, but when one wasn't forthcoming, she sighed inwardly and said, "Mrs Bonham, I should very much like to hear your concerns for Lily's schooling."
"My concerns for Lily's schooling?" erupted Charity. "My only concern was to send her away! I'm sure," she continued, recovering herself, "that you are a fine teacher, Miss Duniway, but it cannot be thought that the rough life here at Scryer's Gulch can be good for the refinement of a young lady like our Lily."
The girl in question looked up at her stepmother with grave eyes. "Now, sweetheart," her father said, taking her hands. "We're not sending you away. I'd never send my own, my only Lily far from me, now would I?" The little girl shook her head. He put his arm around her and pulled her close to his side; she snuggled in with a sigh, and he kissed the top of her head. Charity clenched her hands, and for a moment, Annabelle wondered just how safe little Lily was in her own home.
Annabelle left the Bonham mansion and returned to Hopewell's. As she untied her bonnet strings, she heard a frantic scratching at the window. She opened it, and Misi came flying into her arms. "O DARK ONE, ANNIE, ARE YOU ALRIGHT?" he yowled.
"Be quiet, you simpleminded cat!" she whispered, detaching his claws one by one from her bodice. "This is my nice poplin!"
"I was so worried!" whimpered the cat.
"Calm down, what's happened?"
Misi related his encounter with Mamzelle. "If she knows who I am, she'll tell her owner, and then the jig is up!"
Annabelle put her bonnet away and patted her hair as she thought. "So Jed Bonham has a demon, running a brothel? Why would he waste a demon like that?"
"Aren't you at all worried? She knows who I am! Annie, we should be packing!"
"How would she know who you are?"
"How many black cats do you suppose there are in Scryer's Gulch?"
Misi looked at her blankly. "A half-dozen that I've seen. But Annie, she can tell us apart, I swear she can."
"Come here, kitty," she said, sitting down and smoothing her lap; Misi jumped up, putting his front paws on her shoulders and his head against her neck.
"I was so scared for you, Annie."
"I know, sweetie. Answer me this: if the tables were turned, and you found a captive demon, would you tell me?"
"I'd have to if you made me."
"Yes, but you try all the time not to tell me what I want to know as a point of pride."
"True, but you always smoke me out."
"Ah, that's because I'm a professional! I've had you eight years now. How long do you think Bonham's had Mamzelle?"
Misi considered. "We didn't talk much, but just from her attitude, not long, I think. The sign out front of the Palace says it was established two years ago, so I'm thinking at least that, but not much more. You think she might hold out on him somehow?"
"If you were her, what would you do?"
"Hold out on him any way I could. And plot his slow, horrible death nine ways to Sunday. I plot yours, you know," he added self-consciously.
"I know you do, pussycat," she soothed, scratching him behind the ears until he flexed his paws helplessly. "I know you do."