Saturday, March 29, 2008

Chapter seven: …with dreams of a much larger, tiny pond.

Previous Chapter

The Andersons lived on the other side of the narrow docking area of Taylorville. As Lewis and I walked along the corridor past where our bloon was docked, we considered the town.

"Snap judgments are odious," Lewis said.

"Agreed."

"Still, this place is a lot less pleasant than I would have thought," he continued.

"Agreed on that as well," I said, thinking of the way that Betty Laird was "welcomed" back with a job of drudgery being her only option.

"Why is that, do you suppose?" he asked.

I shrugged. "Ever read any Twain?" He nodded.

"Well," I continued, "Twain has an essay somewhere about the South, and how utterly ruined it was by trying to mimic a book. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. Chivalry. All the Southern ladies wanted to be British aristocrats, and all the gentlemen wanted to be knights errant. But not just any aristocrats. Fictional aristocrats."

"Life mimics art?" Lewis asked.

"And badly," I said.

"So what do you think these people are mimicking?" he asked me.

I shrugged again. "Some movie, some play, some image of small town life and town meetings. How many times have you seen It's a Wonderful Life?"

"That ancient Christmas monstrosity? I prefer A Christmas Carol, especially the one where Scrooge winds up in the asylum for hearing voices."

"Revisionist," I told him. "These people like their fantasies more pure."

"Ugh," Lewis said.

___________________________

The Andersons lived in the big house on the hill, or the bloon equivalent thereof. Most of the upper level of Taylorville was for farming, but the Andersons had set themselves into a set of bloons that rose higher than even the farming layer. Someone had believed in panoramic views, and possibly the notion of looking down on other people.

And servants who answered the door. And not just any door, but a door that swung open rather than unzipped, a door surrounded by ornamentation that could only be called a 'facade.'

I'm used to the idea of servants; Marjori Low has several of them, all of whom she jokingly calls 'James' though none of them are named that. But Marjori treats them as valued employees and views their services as conveniences, not something that are hers by divine right. And she will answer the door herself if she is nearby.

She does not have her servants dress up in silly costumes like a period piece and them them affect silly accents. The Anderson's butler talked like he'd been forced to learn stage British as a second language.

The man who answered the door looked like someone who takes his daily dose of humiliation as a tonic before breakfast. His face was impassive, with the look of stone that had been slowly etched by dripping water, or something perhaps more vitriolic. Stiffly erect, his posture still managed to convey the look of someone carrying a heavy load. My first feeling was one of sympathy, but I let that die. Worrying about the servant problem in Taylorville was not part of my job description.

"What may I do for you, sirs?" the poor fellow asked, and Lewis and I struggled to keep a straight face.

"We are here to see William Anderson," I answered. "We attempted to call earlier, but no one answered, so we left a message."

From behind him came a woman's voice, also rich with affectation. "Let them in, Morris," the voice said. "This must be those policemen from the City."

"Yes, Madame," poor Morris said, and complied, leading us into a room just off the entrance hallway. Maybe it was the "sitting room." Certainly Mrs. Anderson had been sitting in it, but she rose to greet us.

Mrs. Anderson might have been attractive once, but I couldn't see it now. She was thin and gray with a mouth that looked like she'd just bit into something unexpected, in circumstances where she couldn't just spit it out. It isn't often that I take such an immediate dislike to someone, but Mrs. Anderson was an unusual person. If she employed poor Morris, that was reason enough to form an early opinion perhaps; there was also the matter of the furniture.

The Anderson domicile was loaded with bric-a-brac of the most tasteless sort, inflatable furniture designed and decorated to look, more or less, but mostly less, like the Earth-style furniture that we see in all the old movies and holovids. There was no particular unity to the decorating scheme, ersatz wooden tables were set next to overstuffed chairs, synthetic fur rugs used as wall hangings; a replica Tiffany lamp stood on a faux formica table. My first wild thought was that the people of Taylorville had made a mistake in not letting more drugs into town.

But I recovered. Not as quickly as Lewis, however, who said almost immediately, "Mrs. Anderson, I would imagine?"

His voice had picked up a sudden flavor of refinement, not an accent really, just a certain firmness of phrasing. Lewis can be quite a chameleon.

Lewis introduced us, and shook Mrs. Anderson's hand very briefly. She wore white gloves, I noticed, but even with that protection, she refrained from offering her hand to me. I suppressed the urge to scratch myself indecently to see how she would react.

"Mr. Honlin and I are consulting to Sky City investigators to find possible heirs to Miss Molly Laird," Lewis told her. "She died recently, leaving a modest estate, and the law insists upon trying to find someone to inherit."

I saw Mrs. Anderson perk up briefly at the mention of "inheritance." Do they get that way from being rich, or do they get rich from being that way? No, that is being unfair to other, richer, people. This woman was a small fish in a tiny pond, with dreams of a much larger, tiny pond.

"My son, William, was very briefly involved with the girl, Mr. Lewis," she replied after some consideration. "I doubt that it qualifies as a legal connection. Besides, I do not think that any money that Miss Laird possessed could tempt anyone in the Anderson family."

"Agreed," Lewis told her. "However, we were primarily inquiring about any other family connections that Miss Laird might have had. Perhaps William might know of …"

"William isn't here right now," she snapped. She was lying from the slight reaction of Morris the butler, who had retreated to the entrance hallway again, but it was not worth pursuing. "Once he got over his infatuation, William wished to have nothing to do with the girl. He found her presence to be an embarrassment, as did I. I'm sorry that Miss Laird is dead, but I am not sorry that she is gone, if you can understand the distinction."

Lewis and I both nodded, mainly because we wanted out of there.

"Well," I said to Lewis, trying to look like I was his assistant or some other properly subservient person, "It's getting late, so we should maybe have dinner, spend the night in our bloon, then head back to the City in the morning." I looked at Mrs. Anderson and spoke to her. "We'll be in docking bay six until morning, so if William can think of anything when he comes in, please have him contact us."

Then we let Morris lead us to the door.

_____________________________

"What a repulsive woman," said Lewis when we were far enough away from the Anderson abode.

"No argument from me," I told him. "That was worse than I expected, and I expected it to be unpleasant."

"So now what?" he asked me.

"Well, first, I have to make a call to Calvin Lee," I told him. "Then, like I told Mrs. Anderson, we're going to have dinner and go back to our bloon for the night. I expect that William Anderson will visit us there tonight. Then we'll go home."

"How sure are you about little Willy?" Lewis asked me.

"Reasonably sure," I told him. "He was probably listening in during our visit, but even if he didn't, Morris will tell him."

"Yeah," Lewis said. "Didn't look like Morris liked Mrs. A. very much, did it?"

"I just think she'd better not have him cook for her," I told him. "Food taster would be much safer."

We were at the docking area by this time, and there were several public comm units there. Lewis sat down to watch the haggling, while I placed a call to Calvin.

"Hello, Ed," came Calvin's voice after the briefest connection delay. "What's up?"

"I need you to run a few numbers for me," I told him. "Molly made a couple of calls to a woman named Josie Bush," I gave him Bush's number and the approximate dates of the calls.

"So you want a backtrack?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said. "Give me all the calls placed in the past year, but subtract out any that came in more than, oh, make it five times. With point of origin listings. Also get me the numbers for the Anderson family in this cluster. If you could cross check calls to the Bush number to the Anderson number, that would help."

"Easy enough," he told me. "Priority?"

"Not very," I said. "A few days. Tomorrow. Whatever."

"I'll get on it," he said, and hung up.

I turned to Lewis. "Okay," I told him. "Let's go get something to eat."


______________________________

"Something to eat" turned out to be a small cafeteria that catered to the bloon fishermen. You'd think that people would want something different when they came to town, but most of the fare was standard stuff that can be made in any bloon: textured soy, bloon starch, and the mildly flavored drink that some call "bloon piss."

But they also had chicken, bread, and real vegetables. We were in a farming cluster, so Lewis and I made the most of it. There was even a low alcohol near-beer, and we bought an extra couple of bulbs for taking with us.

Back at the dock, Lewis excused himself briefly and went over to talk to Anne, who was still on duty. I heard her giggle again, and he shook her hand in a most charming way. When he came back, I asked, "She's a little young, don't you think?"

"You have a dirty mind, pardner. It's one of your few virtues. Actually, I just slipped her a few coins and told her to pretend that she doesn't see anybody coming out to our bloon tonight. If little Billy is as scared of mommy as the butler was, I think he might be a little skittish."

"Good idea," I told him.

Back in our bloon, we listened to some news and drank our beer, letting the day close down. The sun was nearly overhead, and most of the cluster would be staying up late, for work, or whatever else needed doing by the light.

"Still think he'll show?" Lewis asked me.

"Yeah," I told him. "But if he doesn't, that will tell us something, too."

"Like what?" he asked me. But I didn't have to answer, because then someone buzzed our comm from the external button.

I opened the flap.

William Anderson was a young man in his early twenties with the look of a golden boy about him, moderately tall, blond, with an unlined face that spoke of decisions deferred and easy choices. He was almost shy as he entered our bloon, but I expect that he lost the shyness when around his friends and cronies. He lost some of it once inside, away from prying eyes.

"Mr. Lewis?" he asked. "Mr. Honlin?" He looked from Lewis to me and back again.

"I'm Lewis," Lewis told him. "It's not really a last name; I've only got the one. This here is Ed Honlin. He's the boss, no matter what you might have heard."

Anderson looked over at me, trying to size me up, which may have been a mistake, since the longer he looked, the less like a good idea this might have seemed. Still, he found his voice quickly enough.

"I understand that you're looking for word about Molly," he said. His voice had a tight quality to it.

I nodded. "You know she's dead, I assume."

He swallowed and nodded. "I'm really sorry about that," he said.

"I expect," I said neutrally. "I only met her once, but she seemed like a fine person. Why did you break up with her?"

He looked around, as if the walls might have ears. Then he looked back at me and said, "You've met my mother." It was halfway between a question and a statement.

I nodded. "Yes, but I haven't done any digging into your family history. Frankly, I'm not much interested in it, except where it has to do with Molly. We're from a long way off, and Taylorville is not a stop on my regular itinerary. Whatever you tell me goes no further than here."

That seemed to lift some of his burden, because he relaxed a bit. "My mother has the money in the family, and she never lets anyone forget it. My dad left ten years ago; when she talks about it, she says it was to run off with some floozy, but everybody knows that he just got sick of her."

He looked over at Lewis, hoping for an extra helping of sympathy, perhaps. "She's not really a bad person, you know? She just thinks that because her money and her standing in the community is the most important thing in her life, that it should be the most important thing in everybody else's life, too. I've tried standing up to her, but, well…" His voice trailed off.

"And one of those times was over Molly," Lewis supplied.

Anderson gave a sick smile. "Yeah," he said. "I really screwed that up. I did love her. A lot. But when Mom started in on me, well, most people think I just caved in. Molly probably did, too. But it wasn't like that. It's just that I started thinking about how much of what I felt for Molly was because she wasn't my mother, if that makes any sense. It didn't seem fair to Molly, to be using her to get back at Mom."

That was as good a rationalization as I'd heard in a long time, the more so because it was probably true. I said, "So did you try to tell Molly that?"

"Yeah," he said dully. "But I don't think I said it very well. She got pretty chilly. Then Mom gave her money to go away."

He looked over at me with his eyes almost to the point of tearing. "Molly told me that I could come away with her if I wanted, that there was enough money to get us to the City, or at least one of the clusters down Under, or out on the Rim. I almost went with her."

"Why didn't you?"

"Because I didn't want to take charity," he said. "I know that sounds strange, but there it is. And it would have been charity, too."

"Why is that?" Lewis asked.

"Because Molly didn't love me any more. I lost her sometime during the arguments with Mom. You know the way that you'll make excuses for those you love? I just felt it when she stopped making excuses for me. When she stopped loving me."

That left us silent. I don't really have much of a comeback when someone just suddenly dumps his guts onto your floor. I looked over at Lewis and found him looking back at me.

"There's another thing, too," William said.

"Yes?" I asked.

"I . . ." he hesitated. "From some things she said when we said goodbye, just before she left. From the way she said some things. Nothing I could put my finger on, but…" His voice trailed off again, but I let the silence grow. Some times you have to let them start up again on their own.

After a few more seconds, he said in a small voice, "I think she may have been pregnant," he said. "I'd have been the father, but I couldn't ask her about it; I didn't feel like I had the right. But she might have been pregnant."

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