After his adventure in No Furs Land, and the upheaval in his life due to his appointment as the official reporter of The Ruling Family Of Suburbia, Bixyl found he had let his mail pile up a bit, and he was taking an evening to catch up on it.
He tended to the bills first, and the personal correspondence, occasionally allowing himself to be distracted by a small television sitting on the sink counter near the kitchen table where he was working.
The TV was tuned to the late night call in news program called Timeline, hosted by the red deer, Ted Stoval, which was of particular interest to Bixyl this night, as the subject of discussion was the soon to be new princess of Suburbia, Clover Lappina.
Not so long ago, whenever the subject of Miss Lappina was brought up in any forum, the mood would have been one of apprehension, if not outright anxiety. But since Perry had started taking his bride out on the town and letting her be seen, the mood of the town seemed to have softened towards Lappina almost overnight.
Miss Lappina's approval rating was suddenly top of the scale, the common citizens spoke of her with admiration and love, and well to do furs professed that they could not wait for Miss Lappina to be available for society functions.
Bixyl chuckled at the thought of Miss Lappina being the darling of the social elite, knowing that the best thing Miss Lappina had going for her was the same thing that made Miss Sonny such a perfect queen – the fact that she came from a common background and related more to the needs of the average citizen than to those of the well off. And, as such, Miss Lappina was not likely to have much patience with Suburbia's upper crust, whose only real interest in socializing with a new princess would be to lobby her for new laws that would make the rich richer, and the poor poorer.
Miss Lappina had Bixyl's personal approval, if just for the fact that he knew she'd have nothing to do with that sort of thing. He knew from talking to her that her Ash background was much more dominant of her personality than her more recent Noirnian background. That meant that Perry would have a strong supporter in his attempts to establish charities and level the playing field of social justice.
As far as Bixyl was concerned, there could be no better princess for Suburbia if The Goddess Of Nature herself had picked one. But it was not forgotten by Bixyl, as it seemed to be by the town, that The Goddess had not picked Miss Lappina. She was in her current position by very mysterious circumstances – possibly at the behest of some rather unscrupulous individuals whose intent for Suburbia might not be the best. He was keeping his fingers crossed that Miss Lappina would be able to overcome such people and put the welfare of the town first.
Coming to the end of his stack of mail, Bixyl found himself confronted by a plain envelop with no return address and no postmark, meaning it had not been placed in his mailbox by the regular postal service. Thus he assumed it was probably an advertisement of some sort from some local business. But when he opened it, using the claw of his index finger as a natural letter opener, he was surprised to discover it contained a handwritten letter, and a key.
Curiously, he unfolded the letter, smoothed it out on the table and began to read . . .
"Dear Bixyl. My name is Woody Bernstein. I'm a reporter for The Camelot Post. You might have heard of me.*****
"Recently a matter of intertownal urgency has been brought to my attention. It is the story of a lifetime. Yet the implications are so high up in the Camelodian government that it would be suicide for me to handle the story myself.
"I have stashed all the evidence I've obtained at the Camelot train station in a safety deposit box that will fit the accompanying key.
"I trust The Ruling Family Of Suburbia not to endorse a reporter who is not of the most extreme daring and integrity. I pray that this letter reaches you without being intercepted, and that you will have the daring to pursue this story.
"Be forewarned, The Ruling Family Of Camelot will stop at nothing to prevent this information from being exposed. There are also other formidable forces involved that will stop at nothing to prevent exposure.
"I am asking you to take your life in your hands, but I know of no other qualified individual who is not involved in this conspiracy or compromised in some way.
"Be careful who you trust.
Bixyl looked up from the letter and considered the potential implications, wondering if he was ready to put his life on the line again so soon after surviving No Furs Land. Was this what his life was going to be like from now on, one dangerous adventure after another?
He mused that well known reporters were often the ones who dared to brave such risks. But it also occurred to him that such well known reporters rarely lived to a ripe old age, and that he was anything but a strong Noirnian type who could take his life in his hands without a second thought.
Under his trench coat Bixyl was just a little Suburbian fox of comparatively weak disposition to furs like The AD Detectives, whom he thought this letter would have been better sent to, if Woody Bernstein could have projected any money into the situation for them. But, alas, Woody must have seen this as a job for a reporter, not a mercenary.
Realizing this was a decision he didn't have to make right away, Bixyl put the letter back in its envelope and placed it in a pocket of his trench coat, with the intension of consulting with Perry about it when he returned from his vacation.
After sleeping the night through in the clubhouse, Perry awakened to find Lappina contentedly snuggling with him. She seemed so totally happy that for a moment he wondered if she was somehow not herself, or if being removed from the need to put up a front for his family was bringing out her true self.*****
They got up and made breakfast together from the supplies Pammy had stuffed the large refrigeration unit with. And Lappina commented that there was enough food in there to feed a large extended family.
"That's what Pammy's used to," Perry explained. "There were, at one point, as many as 2 dozen kids living in this clubhouse. Pammy made sure we never went hungry."
"But there's just the 2 of us now," Lappina protested. "Isn't it shamefully wasteful to overstock the fridge, just for a sense of nostalgia?"
"Maybe Pammy didn't want me to see empty space in the fridge," Perry theorized. "It's not like I don't see enough reminders all around me that my friends aren't here anymore. Besides, the food will keep. We could live on it for a month, without ever having to go back to Suburbia."
"Do you want to" asked Lappina.
"Do you?" asked Perry.
"I'm in no hurry to get back," Lappina admitted. "I like being out in the woods, away from society. I was a vagrant most of my life. The kind of luxury I've had thrust on me since I got pregnant has seemed unnatural and unsettling. I can relax here. And that's good for the baby."
"I feel strangely relaxed myself," Perry admitted, looking around curiously. "I should be overcome with melancholy to see this place so empty. But it just doesn't feel empty to me. I feel like my friends are still here. I still sense the radiance of their closeness – like I'm still a part of something."
"Didn't Christine say this place was haunted?" Lappina recalled.
"Yes," said Perry. "But in ways I don't understand. It's only been 10 years. No one who lived here has died. At least, not physically. But Christine insists that people don't have to die to leave ghosts behind. Or perhaps what she means is we can die many deaths in one lifetime. Or is it that certain moments of intense joy or intense trauma leave some kind of indelible impression on places and things that is not subject to the flow of time?"
"You're a scientist," said Lappina. "You look for logical explanations of such things. But I don't think such things are meant to be explained logically. Some things just are. It doesn't matter why they are. You just enjoy them . . . or avoid them, if you find them unpleasant."
"Well, if you encounter a ghost here, we'll see if you find it unpleasant," said Perry.
"I've already met the ghosts that live here," Lappina admitted. "I don't understand them any better than you do, but I know they mean us no harm."
"When did you meet them?" asked Perry, curiously.
"Last night," said Lappina. "After you went to sleep I dreamed myself a child. I met a little cocker spaniel girl who invited me to join her gang. They had a little initiation ceremony for me, and they shared with me their sacred trust."
"And what was the sacred trust?" asked Perry, intently.
"25 right, 11 left, 33 right," said Lappina.
"Then you really did see Child Dorothy," said Perry, seeming dumbfounded. "I wonder why I can't see her."
"I don't know," said Lappina. "But I wonder if it has something to do with there being a Child Perry here too. Maybe only Child Perry can see Child Dorothy. I had to become Child Clover to see them."
"Even you have such powers," Perry marveled. "I'm constantly amazed by the things I find others can do. It's no surprise with Christine, of course. But even you and Kacey seem to have mental abilities beyond my understanding – ability to do things I can not. It makes me feel quite deficient."
"It shouldn't," said Lappina. "You have your talents and your limitations just like everyone else."
"And none of this frightens you?" asked Perry.
"Why should it frighten me?" Lappina shrugged.
"Noirnians aren't often comfortable with the supernatural," said Perry.
"One, I'm not really Noirnian," said Lappina. "Two, Ash theology has its own unique ideas about Nature. What a Noirnian would regard as supernatural I'm likely to regard as completely natural. An Ash doesn't feel a need to understand Nature. We just know we feel very comfortable around it. And I feel very comfortable in your clubhouse."
"It's your clubhouse too, now," said Perry. "If Dorothy gave you the combination to the door, that means you're a member of the gang now. And this is your home away from home, whenever you need one."
"At least until our child has a new gang to live here," said Lappina, optimistically.
"I wonder what will happen to the ghosts of my childhood if that happens," Perry mused. "Can two sets of ghosts be generated in the same place?"
Lappina shrugged and said, "I don't see why not. Perhaps there won't be a second set, just a double sized gang of kids whose innocence is somehow immortal."
"While we adults are condemned to die," said Perry, thoughtfully. "I wonder if there's just something inherently evil about being an adult."
"I don't equate mortality with evil," said Lappina. "To an Ash, mortality is not a punishment. It's simply a necessity of the life we've chosen to live."
"And if we could somehow choose to never grow up," said Perry, "never mate or exchange our childish dreams for adult ambitions, might we live forever? Do you suppose that's what the elder race meant when they spoke of an original sin of mankind?"
"I'm sorry, Perry," said Lappina, in a kindly tone. "I know how you love to have philosophical go rounds with Christine. I'm just not the type to think about these things so hard. I hope you don't think it makes me deficient as a wife."
"Not at all," said Perry, admiringly. "But don't sell yourself short. I find your Ash philosophy fascinating. I think our child will be blessed to be influenced by it."
Ratzo spent days going through the records at Town Hall, but was not really surprised she didn't find evidence of a conspiracy out in the open. If she was to take this new aspect of her case seriously, she knew she'd be in for some serious digging.Next Episode
For the first time she was starting to seriously consider who besides Miyan Rutherford might be involved in this thing, should it turn out to be more than just a case of simple insurance fraud.
Once Perry and Lappina had returned from their vacation at the clubhouse, Ratzo paid a call on them at The Rhoades Mansion and interviewed them in their bedroom.
Ratzo once again inquired about the details of how Lappina came to Suburbia. And Lappina described, as faithfully as she could, all that she remembered of Geraldo's plan to take over Suburbia, and how she foiled it by killing him.
When Ratzo asked if anyone else had known about Geraldo's plan, Lappina seemed fuzzy for a moment, as if thinking there had been someone, but she could not remember who. She confessed that her pregnancy had made a total mess out of her memory and expressed her regret at not being able to be of more help.
Ratzo was disappointed, but still jotted down in her notebook that there might have been someone else in Noir who knew about the plan and could have it in mind to force Lappina to go through with it.
Ratzo then asked Lappina about the night of the fire and if she was sticking to her story about burning the house alone?
"That's how I remember it," said Lappina. "I remember every detail of setting a text book Noirnian Bar-B-Que."
"I gotta remind you again that all 3 of the victims survived," said Ratzo. "You gotta know how to set a Bar-B-Que so there wouldn't be no survivors."
"I did everything by the book," Lappina insisted. "The stairs to the upstairs apartment were made of wood. I made sure they would be one of the first things to burn. There should not have been any survivors."
"They didn't use the stairs to escape," Perry interjected. "They cut through the floor and got out through the window in Vicki's bedroom."
"I specifically lit a pile of trash under that window," said Lappina. "There should have been nothing but flames on the first floor for them to descend into. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad they survived. But they shouldn't have – not unless Christine did something impossible."
"Well," said Ratzo. "Nobody puts doin' somthin' impossible past The Magic Fox."
"She did do something impossible," said Perry. "They're all alive and healthy today because Christine did several impossible things. I think doing impossible things is a daily habit for Christine."
"That shouldn't make no difference," said Ratzo. "The Noirnian Bar-B-Que takes even impossibilities into consideration. We're talkin' about the only time in history one has been defeated. It don't make no sense that it was set right. Maybe you felt sorry for ‘em and decided to leave ‘em a way out?"
"Now why would I do that?" asked Lappina, in exasperation. "In the state of mind I was in I was convinced I was fighting for my baby's future. There was no mercy in my heart at that point."
"Settin' a Bar-B-Que is a big job for a pregnant bunny," said Ratzo. "Did you maybe have a hench-fur who bungled somethin'?"
"Where would I get a hench-fur in Suburbia?" asked Lappina, rolling her eyes.
"Maybe you brought one with you from Noir," Ratzo suggested.
"If anyone came with me from Noir they've been invisible the whole time," said Lappina. "Actually, if I'd had a hench-fur, I wouldn't have had to set the fire, let alone confess to it. Christine would just be dead under mysterious circumstances."
"No, not mysterious circumstances," said Ratzo. "Rutherford would still be takin' the heat. Just I'd be after her for murder instead-a just arsine and fraud."
"I don't know anything about that," said Lappina. "If someone's framing Rutherford for what I did it has nothing to do with what I was thinking that night."
"But Rutherford must have been set up to take the fall for it before you even got the idea," said Ratzo. "Somebody knew what you were gonna do before you knew. You must have had contact with somebody. And that somebody must have come with you from Noir."
"I was pushed on the train too fast to even think about bringing any help along," said Lappina.
"Who pushed you on the train?" asked Perry, intently. "It couldn't have been Geraldo if he was already dead."
"I . . . I don't know," said Lappina, seeming dumbfounded. "I remember vaguely that somebody pulled me away from the scene after Geraldo's car exploded and rushed me to the train. But for the life of me I can't remember who."
"These holes in your memory are damned inconvenient," Ratzo griped.
"Curious," said Perry, thoughtfully. "That's exactly the word Miyan used - holes in her memory. And they both have holes in their memories for the same night, which I think supports the idea that they were both there at the house burning."
"I tell you Rutherford was not there," Lappina protested.
"Well, maybe you weren't there either," Perry shrugged.
"I had to be somewhere to get petrol all over me," said Lappina.
"You wouldn't douse yourself with petrol," said Ratzo. "And we know you got doused, ‘cos we got witnesses who smelled the fumes. We also got what puppy prince here saw in your memory, plus an eye witness account from a vagrant sleepin' under a porch across the street. All of which puts Rutherford at the scene. She's the one who set the fire, and not being Noirnian she botched something, and that's why the victims survived."
"There's only one problem with that," said Perry. "Miyan wouldn't have done it."
"Not even for the insurance money?" asked Ratzo.
"Miyan had just inherited one of the biggest companies in the world," said Perry. "It makes no sense that she should have been so hard up for cash as to even consider such a dangerous scheme. No, if Miyan was there, she had to have been under hypnosis, doing the bidding of someone else."
"She can only ride that hypnosis defense so far without us knowin' who did the hypnotizin'," said Ratzo.
"More curious still," said Perry, "who does Lappi know that Miyan also knows who could have done the hypnotizing?
"I have never met Miyan Rutherford," said Lappina, wearily, her eyes drooping slightly. "She was not there."
"But I saw Miyan very clearly in your memory that night," said Perry, eying her curiously.
"That's impossible," said Lappina, absently, then repeating, as if from a tape loop recorded in her mind, "I have never met Miyan Rutherford. I have never met Miyan Rutherford. I have never met Miyan Rutherford."
Perry and Ratzo watched her curiously for a time. Then Perry snapped his fingers in Lappina's face and she fell silent, looking up at him in bewilderment.
"She has been hypnotized," Ratzo surmised. "Either that or she's puttin' on a good act."
"How do you feel, Lappi?" asked Perry.
"Confused," said Lappina. "I feel tired, and my neck hurts?"
"Your neck?" said Perry, curiously. "You don't have a headache?"
"My mind feels strained," Lappina explained, "but the pain is in my neck."
Lappina rubbed her neck to indicate where the pain was, and this reminded Perry of something he was loathed to recall.
"Lappi," said Perry, hesitantly. "I had made up my mind never to ask you this, but . . . did Toby maul your neck?"
"Toby?" said Lappina, curiously. "I hardly remember Toby at all. He just drove me to the hospital that one night."
"That was the night he died, you know," said Perry.
"I heard he died on some TV show," said Lappina, again seeming confused. "I was surprised you didn't tell me about it."
"I suppose that whole night has disappeared into one of those holes in your memory," said Perry.
"I woke up in the hospital," said Lappina. "I assumed I had started to miscarry again, and that Christine had saved me. All anybody said was that I'd been very sick."
"You had actually been on the very edge of death," said Perry. "I elected to tell everyone to not bother you about Toby, as your condition was obviously quite fragile."
"Surely you don't think I killed Toby," said Lappina, in disbelief. "I'm sure I wasn't even there."
"Oh, you was there alright," said Ratzo. "We scented you at the scene."
"Toby never took you to the hospital," said Perry. "I found you asleep in our bed. I didn't realize how ill you were. But there were marks on your neck. I assumed you and Toby had . . ."
"You thought I cheated on you?" Lappina exclaimed. "With the chauffer? Oh, come on. He was a nice looking dog, but hardly a step up from a prince."
"What do you know about Kriska and Phira bein' in town?" asked Ratzo.
"Nothing," said Lappina, seeming mystified. "Why would they be here?"
"I was thinkin' they might be the hench-furs you brought from Noir," said Ratzo.
"If they're here they don't work for me," said Lappina. "Do you think they killed Toby?"
"My nose puts ‘em at the scene, the same as it does you," said Ratzo. "And I've since learned they're in the employ of Montgomery Technical."
"That doesn't make any sense," said Lappina. "They work for Rutherford."
"Heh?" said Ratzo, incredulously. "Where'd that come from? You just said you didn't know nothin' about ‘em."
"I'm getting flashes," said Lappina, rubbing her forehead, as if the effort of remembering was quite painful. "I'm somewhere sitting on a couch with Toby. He's tending to me, like I've been hurt. The door bursts open. Kriska and Phira come in. Someone comes in behind them – someone they call the boss. It's . . . It's . . . It's Miyan Rutherford."
"Miyan was at the scene of Toby's murder?" asked Perry, in disbelief.
"Oh my Goddess," cried Lappina, in rising anxiety. "Perry, hold me. I'm terrified. She's coming at me. She's grabbing me, holding me. I can't move. She's bearing her teeth! She's chomping down on my neck! Oh Goddess! I'm gonna die!"
Perry held tight to Lappina while exchanging bewildered glances with Ratzo, neither having any doubt that Lappina was truly in a state of terror, which could be dangerous to her in her precarious state of pregnancy.
Perry began to gently shake her, saying urgently, "Lappi, snap out of it. You're at home. You're safe. Don't remember any more."
"Don't say that!" said Ratzo, urgently. "We gotta find out why Rutherford offed the chauffer."
"Lappi, do you know?" asked Perry. "Do you know why Miyan had Toby killed?"
Lappina suddenly became still, staring at Perry, as if in mystification. Then she let go of him, returning to her previous state of calmness, saying, "I have never met Miyan Rutherford."
"Oh, fur," Ratzo exclaimed. "Somebody has really done a job on that bunny's head."
"Or maybe she's doing it to herself," said Perry. "It could be a self-defense mechanism in her mind, blocking out things that are too stressful for the baby to live with."
"Well, I imagine bein' chomped on by a Siamese cat would be pretty stressful for a bunny," said Ratzo.
"Miyan Rutherford is a prideful human fur," said Perry, with great certainty. "She does not chomp on people. Please don't take anything Lappi says literally. Her memory must be all jumbled up."
"Do you make anything outta what she just said?" asked Ratzo.
"Just that she must have been there when Toby was killed," said Perry.
"That's a no brainer," said Ratzo. "But if she saw Kriska and Phira, then the one they call the boss should-a been the skunk."
"Michelle?" said Perry, dismissively. "Awww, give me a break. Michelle doesn't chomp people either."
"But she does work for a pharmaceutical company, does she not?" Ratzo suggested. "She might have injected somethin' into the bunny's neck."
"That does make a bit more sense," Perry admitted. "Except that I saw the marks on her neck. They were bite marks – not hypodermic punctures.
"I'm sorry, Ratzo," said Lappina, sincerely. "I wish I could be more helpful."
"You haven't been unhelpful," Ratzo sighed. "If I wasn't convinced before, I am now. There's way more goin' on here than just insurance fraud."
"Do you think pursuing this as a conspiracy is likely to save Miyan?" asked Perry.
"Ehhh, I wouldn't put any money on it," said Ratzo. "A conspiracy just means I get to fry a lot of people. There's no reason to think Rutherford isn't part of any conspiracy I might uncover."
"That's assuming you can uncover it," said Perry. "Remember, the conspiracies of the elder race were so involved that they remain mysteries to this day. And if the Cygnesian race is following that example, this conspiracy most likely goes to the top of the ruling class in who knows how many towns. One detective is not likely to crack such a conspiracy unless one of the key players decides to blab."
"And if I can't uncover some deeper crime," said Ratzo. "Rutherford will just have to go up against the evidence as it stands. And now with the bunny puttin' her at the scene of the chauffer's murder, and the suggestion that she tried to kill a pregnant female, not once but twice, Rutherford'll be lucky if this town don't lynch her before the trial."