Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Chapter Twenty-Six: Relative Strangers

It was a long, awful night. Compass was exhausted and more than a tad drunk, and she desperately wanted to sleep. But sleep was out of the question now, impossible with the word “murder” banging around her brain.

Compass lay in bed, fully dressed down to her shoes and jacket, listening to the whispers and the creeping of elderly, arthritic feet. From time to time, the voices seemed elevated, angry, and twice her bedroom door creaked open. Compass lay with her face turned away, feeling watched and vulnerable and trying to control her breathing. Long seconds later, the door was pulled shut with a careful click. Only when the watery March sun limped in her window did Compass feel safe enough to shut her eyes.

Two thin hours later, Ginny knocked gently to wake Compass for breakfast. Her grandmother looked so fresh and cheerful, Compass briefly wondered if her whole horrible night had been just a bad dream. But the bags under her grandfather’s eyes – as big and brown and sagging as used tea bags – confirmed her worst fears.

Astonishingly, despite a Henry the 8th-sized meal last night and nearly no sleep, Compass was ravenous. She loaded up her plate with delicious-smelling scrambled eggs, biscuits with homemade blackberry jam, grapefruit halves with each pocket of fruit meticulously cut out so she didn’t even need a grapefruit spoon. She piled eggs onto half a butter-heavy biscuit and raised the fragrant, teetering foodpile to her mouth. Just as she was about to bite, she looked up to see her grandparents eagerly watching her. Her mind screamed an alarm, and Compass dropped the the biscuit and its suddenly inedible cargo. The plopping sound of her food hitting her plate was the sound of rudeness, of hospitality warmly offered and coldly refused. When Compass saw the confused, hurt looks on her grandparents’ faces, she almost would have preferred to eat poison.

“Is anything wrong?” Ginny asked, gently.

Compass couldn’t think of an excuse that wouldn’t be an insult to their kindness. They had done nothing to deserve her suspicion, and yet she couldn’t force herself to feel safe.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered and put her head in her hands.

Arthur picked up his fork, reached over to Compass’s plate and speared a large chunk of the eggs. He doused it liberally with Tabasco before Ginny could object, then popped the forkful into his mouth.

“Have you ever noticed,” he said, morning voice growly and low, “how other people’s food tastes better than your own?”

He spun the small glass bowl that held Compass’s grapefruit, and when it stopped spinning, he speared a chunk of the fruit with his fork and ate that too. He even snagged the other half of her biscuit, though that was likely because Ginny wouldn’t let him have biscuits rather than to prove a point. He landed an enormous smear of butter on it, spooned jam and honey onto it, then stuffed the whole drippy mess into his mouth.

“O me of little faith,” Compass said quietly, party to herself, partly to her butter-whiskered grandfather. He winked at her, and Compass picked up her fork.

The food tasted as wonderful as it smelled, and Compass wanted to shovel it in with both hands and a trowel. Her grandparents were too polite to discuss Compass’s little relapse into suspicion, but Compass felt she owed them an explanation.

“You were up all night,” she said, unsure how to begin. “I heard you moving around. I suspected a tree loaded with Christmas presents this morning.”

“I doubt that’s what you suspected,” said her grandfather, grinning. “But it’s a nice way to open the topic.”

Ginny said nothing, and disappeared into the kitchen. Shortly there came noises of pans being thrashed about and food – hopefully – being violently chopped.

“Does she always do that when she’s upset?”

“Took me 45 pounds to figure that out,” Arthur replied. “I never pick fights any more. My cholesterol level can’t take it.”

“Granddad,” Compass said, “what is it you’re not telling me?”

“Granddaughter,” Arthur responded, taking one of Compass’s hands in both of his, “can you wait on that? It’s not time for the telling yet. I know trusting relative strangers – no pun intended – is hard, but please try to trust me on this. There is something you need to know, but first we need to get our facts perfectly straight.”

“Is it about the Hines emerald?”

The noises from the kitchen abruptly stopped and Ginny emerged, chopping knife still in one hand, carrot in the other.

“You know about that?” she said, her face pale.

“You could hear us?” Compass asked. “Man, I hope I inherited your ears. Yes, I know about the emerald. Ethan told me.”

Ethan?!” The shout came from both grandparents, and for a moment everyone was startled into silence.

“Junior Idiot. Sidekick to the Idiot,” her grandfather grumbled. “I might have known he was in there somewhere. Tell us.”

“He called me recently. He’s worried that Mom’s going to flush my father out of the bushes and all hell will break loose.”

“Well, he may be right about that,” said Ginny. “Or maybe he wants the emerald, and he's trying to flush it out first.”

“I don’t think so,” said Compass. “He advised me to throw it into the lake. He believes in the curse; he doesn’t want it for himself.”

“Oh, the curse is real enough,” said Arthur, “but there are ways around it.”

“I think he’s concerned about his reputation more than anything. He’s some sort of academic: published a couple of books no one’s ever read, that sort of thing. He also seemed concerned that Oliver might come after him, which is what’s making me nervous for myself. And for Mom, I guess.”

“Whatever happens to your mom, she brought it on herself,” said Ginny, pouring more orange juice into Compass’s glass. “I’m sorry, but it’s true.”

Arthur looked sternly at his wife, but she only glared back at him. “She could have done better,” he admitted.

“We have a 39-year-old granddaughter we’ve only just met, and who’s afraid to eat at our table because her mother consorts with thieves and mur-.” She stopped, then started again. “I’ll say she ‘could have done better.’” And she stormed off into the kitchen again to bang some more pans around.

Before Compass could clarify her grandmother’s near-slip, Arthur stood up and began stacking dirty plates. “You mustn’t pay your grandmother too much attention. Your mother’s flair for the dramatic she came by honestly, if not much else.” And he too disappeared into the kitchen.

Murderers, thought Compass. My mother consorts with murderers. Well, that’s wholesome.

Compass gathered up her bags; Arthur was taking her back to the Bremerton ferry terminal. Her class wasn’t until the evening, but she wanted to do some research in the library. On the ferry, she called Mark and asked him to meet her. She was going to need help.

When Compass arrived at the downtown library, a bit breathless from walking up the steep hill from the waterfront, Mark was already there.

“Newspapers. Springfield, Illinois, 1968,” she told him, between pants. “My birthday or thereabouts.”

The Springfield State-Journal Register’s online archives only went back as far as 1985, but happily, the library had some older papers on microfiche. It took awhile to find a microfiche machine that worked, but finally they got the fiche in right-side-up and focused.

“Garbage Collectors’ Strike Enters Eighth Week,” was the headline on the day after Compass’s birth. Apparently, they read, in January of 1968, the city was knee-deep in garbage, and only the cold weather had been keeping the smell and the rats at tolerable levels. However, a predicted warming trend had the city in a panic. The Springfield municipal board was hiring scabs as quickly as they could scoop them up and dry them out, commercial driver’s licenses be damned. No one knew who was running which routes in all the chaos, and the drivers seemed to be collecting on an entirely random basis. Those willing to pay a “surcharge” had their rubbish removed. A couple who complained of extortion were found in their own garbage cans. And in their neighbors’. And in a couple of other cans a few houses down.

Compass flipped through the paper until she found a short article describing Jeremy Jones’ death. He was, Compass read, “another victim of the strike. Had the usual, legally licensed driver been behind the wheel of that truck, this tragic accident would never have happened, and Jeremy Jones would even now be celebrating the birth of his first child: Constance. No one knows who was driving the truck; the driver fled the scene, leaving Mr. Jones to bleed to death in the alley, just inches away from medical help. An eye-witness who heard the driver said the faux-garbageman ‘had an English accent. And he cursed like the devil.’ Anyone with information is urged to contact Springfield police.”

“So that’s the murder they didn’t want to tell me about.”

“Your dad killed your other dad?”

“It sounds like it.”

“Compass, I think you need to be really careful here. It’s a big leap from ‘has an English accent’ to ‘my father did it,’ you know.”

“My grandparents think he’s guilty. I heard them talking about it.”

Mark turned back to the microfiche machine, fiddled with a knob. “Your grandparents are ready to believe anything about Oliver, you said so yourself. Compass? Are you OK?”

Mark’s fiddling had brought up the lower half of the newspaper. And a picture of Jeremy Jones. It was the same man from the fishing picture, more serious, but still handsome and young. He was only 27 when he died – so much of a life unlived. It made her feel sick.

“He would have been my father, and I never would have known the difference,” Compass whispered. “We look enough alike.” She pointed at the grainy old photograph, twice reproduced and fuzzy. “Look: my eyebrows, or close enough. Similar lips, high cheekbones, even a widow’s peak like mine. No one could tell I wasn’t his. I would have called him dad, and he would have called me sugar or poo, or something else horrible and embarrassing.” Compass’s eyes teared up. “He would have intimidated my boyfriends and taught me to drive a stick shift. My mom was happy with him, Grandma Ginny said so. Can you imagine how different my life would have been with a mom who was happy?”

Mark folded Compass into his arms. “I’m sorry that was taken from you.”

“God, Mark, what if my father is the one who took it?”

When they left the library, it was raining again.


NuclearToast said...

This chapter is loaded with "wha-POW"! Murder and intrigue, even in the garbage strike when she was born. And Constance? No way!

Ash said...

Very interesting! The plot thickens! :)