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The lunch break was far too short. Before Daphne knew what had happened she was back sitting on the hard bench, once again rocking the baby awake while Lemon felt asleep underneath her skirt on the floor.
The Miller case’s verdict was as expected. A community can only survive if the members work together and share their resources. Mariposa and her fellow ombudsmen could really only rule in favour for the plaintiff, as obnoxious as his complaints about his neighbour might be.
A brief silence overtook the room as the plaintiff and defendant walked out of the small, stuffy room.
“Do we have any more business for today?” asked the head ombudsman. Mariposa shook her head as Daphne’s hopes rose. They might actually get to go home early!
“I have a question,” a short, man sitting in the corner said bristly.
“Yes?” Daphne sighed as he walked to the front of the room. She didn’t recognize him but knew from experience that audience members who took that liberty also tended to be long-winded. At least Lemon could sleep through whatever was coming next.
“What are you going to do about all of the foreigners coming into Peoria?”
“Sir – ”
“There are getting to be too many of them. We’ve absorbed what we could, but we need to send the rest packing. You represent all of us and it’s your job to carry out our wishes. Now how do you plan to do that?”
“Sir, this isn’t the right – ”
“Every month there’s a new one! You have to do something about this.”
“That’s not something we have the resources to handle,” said the man on the opposite end of the table. They barely had the authority to make their own people pay attention to their rulings. Telling strangers what to do and actually having them listen to strangers who honestly could do nothing to stop them was impossible.
“Then who in the hell does?”
“Our sheriff – ”
“He’s useless. All he does is sit around and drink.” Daphne stifled a giggle. She’d been so excited to meet the sheriff a few months after moving here as Mingus had never had a position like that before, but the man who was supposed to keep Peoria safe seemed far more interested in long naps and winking at the last dregs of his bottle before it fully emptied. It was a wonder the man could walk in a straight line, never mind do any of his other duties. And yet every time he came up for reelection he won again without a whiff of competition.
Of course, it probably helped that his father was the head of the council and had been for the past 20 years. Having a small group of experienced ombudsmen had its advantages when it came to complicated cases or questions that weren’t raised very often, but it also made it easy for a handful of families to calcify their influence on the rest of the community in ways that Daphne wasn’t convinced were entirely helpful.
“But we need support! I can’t keep everyone safe on my own.” The man’s face reddened as his temper grew more tender.
“No one is asking you to do that, Henry. But you haven’t to understand – ”
“There’s been enough understanding. We have to act now before those damn foreigners come back.” The atmosphere in the room became prickly. Well over a third of the people sitting and standing there had been born elsewhere. Peoria had become quite the popular place to migrate into after disease and a series of battles with Mingus killed off so many of its original inhabitants. Without immigrants it was doubtful that the community would have survived the past thirty years.
The argument droned on as the baby fell back asleep. It would have been amusing to watch the ombudsmen argue with their fed-up neighbour if Daphne hadn’t been so tired of sitting on the cold, hard bench. Her tailbone ached as if she was carrying a baby inside of body instead of cradling it on her lap. Razor-sharp memories of the time she was trying to forget scraped against her skull as she adjusted her weight and stretched her feet out in the aisle. At least her ankles weren’t swollen today. It had been quite irritating to walk around without shoes when her feet became too cumbersome to fit into the only shoes she had owned back then.
“Are there any other relevant matters to discuss today?” Daphne felt the sharp edge in Mariposa’s voice cut through the restlessness in the room. Silence. Even Lemon stopped wagging his groggy tail as everyone waited for an answer to the youngest ombudsman’s question. There was no response.
“The meeting is adjourned. We will reconvene at the beginning of next month.”
“Well, I guess I’ll just have to bury the bodies myself, then.” The man grumbled as he paced back to his original seat to gather up his travelling cloak and water bottle. He said it just loudly enough that Daphne heard his growl. She looked around the nearly-empty room with wide eyes. No one else seemed to react to his pronouncement. If anything, they acted like he was an invisible man.
He slid through the door with the last of the audience members as Daphne rocked the baby and waiting for Mariposa to finish the quiet conversation she was having with the head ombudsman. She must have misheard him. It was the only rational explanation for why no one else was reacting to the terrible image he’d planted into Daphne’s mind.