Monday, March 24, 2008

Chapter six: He looked like he had money but it wasn't doing him much good.

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Inside the Taylorville reception area there was a small clot of bloon fishers, haggling with a buyer over the price of bloon parts. Taylorville had a sign-in protocol for visitors, and we complied. The fellow talking to the fishermen waved us through.

"Down this corridor, then right," Anne told us. "That takes you to Andrew's office. He's the Mayor. Like I said, he's expecting you."

We thanked Anne and made our way toward the Mayor's office. Every bloon cluster has its own physical rhythm, the swing and sway as it adjusts to minor changes in the wind and air. Most of the time you don't notice it; it's all part of the atmosphere, like the smells and sounds. Taylorville felt a little funny to me, at least in its centerpiece, probably because I wasn't used to clusters of that particular size and shape. It made me uneasy.

"They seem to be friendly folks," Lewis said, and I agreed with him. They did seem friendly.

Andrew Ogren was the Mayor of Taylorville. I put him at 170 centimeters and maybe 85 kilograms, a beefy man beginning to go to fat. Square-jawed, red hair, florid complexion, he talked and acted like a man who paid attention to getting elected. Most clusters of any duration are bound together well enough so that election politics gets subsumed in the sort of back room dealing that gives a less voluble appearance. Mr. Ogren was quick to tell us the town's history.

"We're a democracy, Mr. Honlin, Mr. Lewis. Founded on the principles of Athenian democracy. I'm the elected Mayor, but big decisions go down by way of town meeting. Sometimes it can be tough to get a consensus, but that's my job."

Ogren spoke in a voice that always seemed about one note away from turning into a speech. It's not a style that I'm comfortable with, but I can fake polite attention as well as I can fake anything. I was a real cop for a long time.

"About thirty years ago, we had us a real squabble," Ogren continued. "I was just a kid, but it bruised feelings in a way that took years to heal. I never was too clear on how or why it happened, but there was an election that some folks didn't like, and a section of the town voted to secede. It might have had something to do with Walt Taylor losing the election; the Taylors founded the town, and Walt was the last remaining Taylor, so I guess he figured that he should be Mayor until he decided to retire, which other folks felt was taking 'way to long. So Walt and his supporters just up and moved out. They didn't go far, you understand. A trading community depends on being in pretty much the same place from day to day, so the fishermen can find you again. And they didn't want to go too far away from Sky City, since that's where we sell most of our stuff.

"So Walt set up shop maybe a kilometer away from the main Taylorville cluster. For a little while, him and those who joined him tried to call themselves 'Taylorville' but we wouldn't let them get away with it. It was kind of funny, I guess, like two brothers in a snit who won't talk to each other except to pass messages back and forth. Anyway, that went on for a few years, then Walt got sick and died. Naturally everybody was too proud to just call the whole thing off and reunite, so what happened was that a tether line was stretched between the two clusters so we could share power and such like. And it turned out that the central line made a good docking hitch, so it got reinforced, and a walkway was built. Good thing, too, because after the first megastorm hit the pole, the bloons grew like crazy for a while, from all the new dust that was stirred up, and the fisher traffic really picked up."

Maybe I was beginning to look impatient, or maybe Ogren just knew when to wind up a speech. In any event, he shook his head and leaned forward. "So what can I help you boys with?" he asked.

I tried to smile at him. "We called earlier about Molly Laird, I believe," I said to him.

He nodded. "Yes, we only got word of her a few days ago. A tragic case."

"Does she have any family who still live here in Taylorville?" I asked.

"No," he said. "Her mother, that would be Elizabeth Laird, she died about a year ago. Both of Betty's parents, Molly's grandparents are long dead. Betty left home many years ago after they died, in fact. She was a wild one. Went off and had Lord knows what kind of adventures, then came back with a ten year old daughter in tow. They were welcome, of course, but Betty always kept quiet about what she'd done while she was away. She never said who the father was, for instance."

"How did Elizabeth's parents die?"

"I'm not sure on the details," Ogren replied. "I'm good at remembering people, but that was quite a while ago. I think her father died from a bad heart, and her mother died pretty soon thereafter. Just sort of wasted away, as I recall. Lost the will to live, whatever. Might have even taken to drugs or drink. We had a few problems with Betty that way, over the years."

"How so?" I asked.

"We don't care much for drugs or drunkenness here in Taylorville, Mr. Honlin," Ogren said. "That's been made pretty clear by a lot of voters over the years. We're not completely dry, but we'll confiscate and destroy some drugs, and public intoxication earns you a spell in detention."

I nodded. "I see," I told him. I pulled out a photograph of Robert Grayling. "Have you ever seen this man?" I asked.

Ogren made a show of studying the photo, but it was obvious that he'd seen Grayling before. "Yes, I believe I have," he said. "Don't recall his name, though. He might have visited Betty a few times."

I let the matter drop. I'd get more out of friends and associates. "Who can I ask for information about Betty and Molly? Employers, close friends, that sort of thing?"

"Well, Betty worked for Josie Bush, who runs our cleaning services. You'd best start with her. As for Molly, the real people to check with are the Andersons. Molly was engaged to Billy Anderson, but they broke it off just before Molly left. Molly's mother died right around that time, too. I imagine it was all pretty stressful and confusing for such a young woman."

"As opposed to the calm and collected way that we older people accept death and heartbreak?" I asked.

"Hmm," Ogren said. "You may have a point." He sighed. "I'm just upset at Molly's death, Mr. Honlin," he said. "These are my people and I care for them. 'Every man's death diminishes me,' okay, sure, but when my people die, I'm diminished a whole lot more."

I smiled, and it felt real this time. "I know, Mr. Ogren," I said. "I apologize for giving you a hard time. If your secretary could give us directions to..." I looked at Lewis, who was taking notes.

"Josie Bush and the Anderson family," Lewis said.

"Right," I said. "If you or your secretary could give us directions, I'd appreciate it."

"No problem," Ogren said. "If you need anything else, my door is open."

I smiled again. "Thanks," I told him. "That's a big help."


Josie Bush was a small woman who was in her fifties, at least, maybe older, and had the stern face of a school librarian. Her hair was gray, but she must have used a rinse to give in a reddish tinge that came out mildly pink. I expect that there was no one around her who dared tell her that she'd look better in her natural color. The same was probably true of her use of makeup, where she was just on the wrong side of overdoing it.

She had an office quite near to Ogren's, and it had only taken us a couple of minutes to walk over there, but we had to wait a while longer while she finished meeting with one of her employees. After we were ushered into her office, I briefly explained the purpose of our visit.

"I don't think you'll get much from the people here, Mr. Honlin," she told me. "We're mostly a small town, close-knit and close-mouthed. Betty Laird didn't endear herself to the community by running away after her parents died, and she was barely readmitted when she showed up again with a child in tow. A child of unknown parentage, I might add. That didn't sit too well with the folks here."

Her face softened a little. "I liked Betty, though" she said. "She'd gotten out of it, at least for a while, and she never seemed to regret it."

"Do you know where she was during her time away, or what she was doing?" I asked.

"I daresay that she was a prostitute," Josie said. "At least those were the accusations that were made at the meeting to decide whether or not to readmit her, and she never denied them. In the end, it all came down to whether or not we could find a job for her here. I was the only one who offered to take her on, so she came to work for me."

"Very open minded," I said.

She snorted in disgust. "Don't patronize me," she snapped. "I get no points for being a little less close minded than the folks around here. I run the cleaning service, the lowest jobs in town. I'm always short handed. I needed the help, and Betty turned out to be a good worker. Molly, too, for that matter. I just wish she hadn't gotten involved with William Anderson."

"That's Billy Anderson, the boy that she was engaged to?" I asked.

"Hah!" she said. "Engaged? Maybe for a day or two, before his mother found out. An Anderson marrying a cleaning woman? Little Billy must have been feeling pretty rebellious that day. Or maybe he just wanted to get in her pants.

"Molly was a quiet girl, not much like her mother at all," Josie said. "When her mother died she probably slipped her tracks for a little while, and got involved with Billy. He told her the usual lies, and she believed them. Then, when she learned the truth, the whole thing fell apart. The 'engagement' was called off, and the whole thing collapsed into whispers and innuendo. Molly stuck it out for a couple of weeks, then she left."

"Any idea of where she went?" I asked.

"Not really," she said. "Somewhere near the City, I think. She only called a couple of times after she left, just to let me know she was okay."

Josie looked at me and said, "I'm a hard woman, Mr. Honlin, with little in the way of maternal instincts, as nearly as I can tell. But I liked Molly, and I'm very sorry that she is dead. It pleased me when Molly called to let me know that she was all right, and it pains me to think of her dead from some ruffian's knife. I haven't cried for years, but if I were to take it up again, I'd cry for Molly."

"I see," I told her. "I understand how you feel, I think. I only met her once, but I can see how she might have had that effect."

I thought for a moment. "Can you narrow the times when she called down to any specific dates?" I asked.

She thought for a moment. "Only that she called about three weeks after she'd left here, so that would put it at last December. Then she called maybe a month ago, to ask if anyone had been looking for her. No one had, and I thought it an odd question."

"Thanks," I told her. "That's a big help." I showed her Grayling's photograph. "Have you ever seen this man?" I asked.

She examined it. "Graybob," she said. "That's what Betty called him. He visited a few times. He wouldn't sign in, though, so he stayed out on his bloon and Betty and Molly visited him. He was traveling alone, I think, but I never went to his bloon; I only saw him once. He looked like he had money but it wasn't doing him much good."

I nodded. A perceptive woman was Josie Bush. Then Lewis and I said the requisite pleasantries and we left.

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