That Saturday’s meeting of the Tortus Bay Hiking and Wilderness Appreciation Society (as they preferred to be called) went on as scheduled. A dozen members congregated in the four-season patio of the Brihte Estate, which was as large itself as many houses in the village, and were served coffee and finger foods. They sat arranged in plush armchairs and cushioned dining seats, pleasantly chatting and waiting for their leader to arrive.
For a woman who supposedly knew a damning secret concerning her brother-in-law’s murder, Lucy Brihte exhibited no difficulties delivering the mundanities that the TBHWAS had to concern itself with that day. She was a thin woman, with a whispery voice and the tendency to stare at an unfixed point in the distance while speaking. Compared with her sister’s dramatic flair, she looked mundane in a brown blouse and a faded blue hair-band.
After the catching up and other social niceties, Henry was asked to stand and introduce himself. “I’ve already met a few of you,” he said, “but I apologize in advance if I can’t remember your names. To everyone else: my name is Henry. I’m new to Tortus Bay.”
A few people leaned in to whisper to their neighbors. “What brought you to our club?” Lucy asked, disconcertedly staring at the glass wall behind him.
“Niles invited me. I never got a chance to get outdoors, back where I came from. I figured while I’m still looking for a job, I might as well try something new.”
That generated even more whispers, but Lucy didn’t seem to notice. She thanked him, asked him to sit, and then every other member took it in turn to introduce themselves. The group was comprised primarily of older couples, but there were a few other people his age in attendance as well. They looked bored.
The meeting proper wrapped up with lengthy affirmations of each of the society’s long-term goals: establishing hiking paths in the forest; petitioning City Hall for wild-life protection; and finding better methods to educate the public that there are no wolves living in the trees outside of the village. Lucy disappeared back into the manor during this last discussion, with no indication that she meant to return.
Affairs then proceeded outside, where again people grouped up to chat. Niles was dragged away to discuss a piece of inscrutable society minutiae, leaving Henry to fend for himself against a tide of people who wanted to know if he would be attending their ‘live meeting’ next week.
“It means that we’ll actually go out into the woods,” Tod, a man with a proud pot-belly and stately white whiskers, explained politely. “There’s a lot to do out there, especially if you’re at all taken with the sport of bird watching.”
He feigned a nascent interest in birds until he heard several loud apologies from across the lawn, and saw Niles extricate himself from the group which had taken him. They rejoined each other by the pond. “I suppose you really must be looking for a job, then,” Niles said.
He nodded. “I had an interview earlier today, but they turned me down after I let it slip that I’ve only been in the village for a week.”
“I’m sure they just wanted to make sure that you would be in it for the long haul. A lot of people who move here end up leaving after a few weeks.”
They found the cobblestone path, and followed it away from the congregation. “Why is that?”
“There’s a lot of things you can’t know until you’ve been around for a while.”
Outside of the gates, starting down the wide avenue of Glosspool Lane, Henry decided they were safely out of earshot. “Was Lucy acting oddly back there?”
“No, that was classic Lucy, I’m afraid. She’s a little better in small groups, or out in the woods, but I don’t get the impression that she cares much about people. At least, not interacting with them.”
“So I suppose confronting her is out of the question?”
Niles shook his head. “She’d cut ties with me. I know she likes my food, but not that much.”
The sun was failing by the time they turned off Glosspool Lane. “She didn’t strike me as someone who’s harboring a secret like that.”
“I know what I heard.”
“Then I think you have to talk to the sheriff, if for nothing else than to clear your conscience.”
“You’re right.” Niles stopped, running a hand through his hair. “You don’t think I’ve done anything bad, do you? By waiting so long to tell anybody?”
“I don’t know.”
He looked at Henry for a long moment. “Do you like hiking?”
“I invited you to this club, and I never even asked if you actually care about hiking or not. Are you going to come to the live meeting? I promise to make it more entertaining than this was.”
“If you’re not being hunted like game by Lucy by then, I’ll be there.”
“Here, take this. In case you need to get in touch with me.” Niles rummaged in his pocket, producing another blank business card. “Thank you. You didn’t help how I thought you would, but you helped me all the same.”
Henry turned the card over in his hand, finding a phone number and an address scribbled on the back. “This is unbelievable. Do you just carry these around with you at all times?”
But Niles was already striding off in the other direction, looking back only to wave.
Henry returned to the Hell on a Shell Bar with tired legs, an aching shoulder, and a dark cloud hanging above his head. To his surprise, the bar had emptied out. Only the regulars remained. Perhaps everyone else had their fill of the daily gossip. He took a stool beside Clair, ordered a beer, and began stretching out his legs.
“Long day?” she asked. A single half-empty glass sat in front of her.
Jamal, who by now had thrown a colorful apron on over his nice clothes, served the beer without comment and then hurried off to help Clint on the other end of the room. There was an exhaustion behind the man’s eyes. “For everyone,” Clair said. “You heard the news?”
Apparently not everyone got their fill. “Is it true?”
“The sheriff herself came around a few hours ago to confirm it in person: Mathas Bernard died due to complications arising from blunt force trauma to the head, and the case has been re-opened as a homicide investigation. She also advised all of us to stop throwing around wild theories. Apparently it was a mixup over in Yungton that caused the confusion. You know, that’s where the examination happened. There’s no coroner here in the village.”
“You believe all that?”
“Don’t know why I shouldn’t. Does seem like a massive fuck up, though.” She sipped her beer. “You were asking about Beth Brihte, the other day.”
“I happened to meet her,” he said. “Only curious to know how you felt.”
“I feel the same about Beth as I do about any of the Brihtes.” She drained her glass. “You’re not here to deal with any of this. You don’t care about Mathas Bernard, do you?”
Henry thought about that. “I never met the man. I never knew him. Mostly, I care that everyone thinks I’m here because of him.”
“Is that what’s bothering you?”
He took a long drink for himself, and then told her about his interview with Aria Bethel. He left out everything that happened afterwards, with Niles and Lucy Brihte.
Clair slapped her palm down on the bartop. “That’s the problem with this place. Once these people think they know who you are, nothing can change their mind. I’ll bet you anything that Aria thinks you’re here to write a story on Mathas, and only want the job as a cover. Good luck making anyone hear reason on that.”
“It might be because she thinks I’m a tourist, instead.”
She waved that idea down. There was a spark to her now that he hadn’t seen since his first night in the village. “You want a job?”
“I do,” he said, nervously, “but not at the orchards or the fishery.”
She leapt off her stool. “Finish your beer.”
Henry upended the rest of his drink. “Just promise me there won’t be any skipping this time.”
Clair grabbed him, hauled him roughly out of his seat, and frog-marched him straight out of the bar and down the street. They ducked into the harsh florescent glow of Horizon Foods, where she released him into the fresh produce aisle. For a grocery store, the building was on the small side, but its shelves were narrowly spaced and densely packed. Most of the food was unlabeled, and there were very few price stickers. Only one check-out lane. “Howie!” Clair bellowed. “Where are you?”
A disheveled man with thick auburn hair and a deep scowl showed himself from behind a potato display. “Your shift’s over,” he said.
“I found you a cashier,” she said, pushing Henry forward.
The man considered him. “I’m Howard,” he said, pointedly emphasizing the name.
“You have any experience handling money, Henry?”
“He’s good with numbers,” Clair cut in, “and he’s eager to work.”
Howard’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve been looking to fill that position for a long time now. A little longer won’t hurt.”
“Tomorrow,” Clair said, “is Mrs. Fevra’s monthly grocery run. And I’m coming in late.”
Howard’s mouth twisted, but he smoothed it again at great apparent effort. “Okay, Henry, you can have it—as long as you start tomorrow. I’ll see you at nine in the morning.”