The first part is located here. More to come.
It all started because of the books.
Jan Sleet had been “a literate girl” when she was younger (that was her term — others might have said “shy, awkward, and bookish”), so she’d owned a lot of books. When she’d left college to start her life as a famous amateur detective and “intrepid gal reporter” she’d needed to travel light, so she’d carefully packed up her books and stored them in a neighbor’s basement.
For several years after that, she and her assistant, Marshall, were pretty much always in motion, staying in one hotel room after another — or sometimes sleeping in bombed-out buildings or even once in an abandoned mine — so they basically had the clothes on their backs (and her typewriter, and her notebooks, and her cigarettes…).
After they had settled in U-town, though, she’d said several times that they should go get her books, but there were always other things to do and it kept getting put off.
What changed her mind, though, was her daughter, Ron.
At dinner one night, Ron had told Jan and Marshall about a new class she was thinking of taking. The class had a fancy name, as was common at the U-town school, but it was apparently a statistics class. Most schools, of course, do not offer statistics classes to thirteen-year-old students, but the U-town school was very flexible in this area.
They could tell that at least part of the reason Ron was interested was because it sounded like something which would be useful in solving mysteries. If Ron had had her way, schools would offer pre-detective in addition to pre-med and pre-law. She’d have been mortified if they’d ever mentioned it, but she was obviously planning to grow up to be some version of her mother.
“I studied that in college,” Jan said. “I think I still have my old textbooks.” She smiled. “We should go get my books. All of them. We can find somewhere to put them.”
Marshall turned to Ron. “Would you like to come? You can see where your mother grew up.”
Ron shrugged. “What about school?”
“You’ve got time off coming, don’t you? You can take a week.”
“Yeah, okay,” she said. This was, for her, a very enthusiastic reaction indeed, so they were satisfied.
Later that night, as they were getting ready for bed, Jan turned to Marshall as she unbuttoned her shirt.
“It is a quandary,” he said.
Jan smiled. “I’m sure you’ll think of something clever. Let’s go to bed.”
Stephanie enjoyed working out with Christy. Growing up she’d always worked out with her father. Since she’d left home she’d continued to exercise, of course, using the plan she and her father had developed for her, but it was much more fun to do it with someone else.
And the exercise was only part of it anyway. You couldn’t box by yourself, after all. And the Jinx, the gang Christy belonged to, had a real boxing ring in the basement gym of the huge warehouse building that was their headquarters. Stephanie thought that was so cool, to have your own boxing ring. “The squared circle,” as her father had always called it.
Today, though, after they’d been sparring for a while, Christy suddenly reacted to something she saw over Stephanie’s shoulder. Stephanie wasn’t about to turn around, though. Christy would have made her regret that, the same way her father would have.
Christy held up her gloves and Stephanie dropped hers and turned around.
It was Marshall, Jan Sleet’s assistant. He waved from the doorway and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt.”
Christy panted loudly and leaned over, her gloved hands on her knees. “It’s okay. She’s wearing me out anyway.”
Stephanie had the momentary urge to talk trash, to call Christy “old woman” or some such, but they all understood that Christy was just being polite or making a joke — that she was the Jedi Knight and Stephanie the eager apprentice. Stephanie considered it an achievement when she could get Christy to break a sweat.
But then there was an awkward moment as Marshall stepped inside the room and said something, and Christy suddenly straightened up and turned her back on him. She quickly climbed out of the ring and pulled on a T-shirt.
She came around the outside of the ring, drying her red hair with a towel. It was probably just exertion, Stephanie thought, but Christy actually looked like she might be blushing.
Stephanie thought this was very unusual behavior for adults. Yes, by leaning forward the way she had, Christy had given Marshall a bit of a show down the front of her top. But Stephanie thought that two adults, friends, people who’d worked and traveled together, wouldn’t be as awkward as teenagers about something like a view of some freckled cleavage.
And she wondered when she would start including herself in the category “adults.” Did that happen automatically at some point? Maybe when she turned twenty, or twenty-one.
“So,” Christy said as she approached Marshall, “what do you need?”
That could have sounded obnoxious, or very formal, but she gave him a dazzling smile and he smiled back.
“Some advice, I confess,” he said, stepping forward.
Christy gestured at the narrow bench that ran along one wall. “Have a seat and tell me about it.” Stephanie wasn’t sure if this meant her session with Christy was over, but the older woman gestured for her to join them.
Stephanie was to wonder later if Christy had had an inkling, even then, of Marshall’s question.
“We’re going on a trip,” Marshall said. “Jan and Ron and I. Some family history — we’re going to show Ron the places where Jan grew up — and there’s also the practical matter of collecting Jan’s books, which have been in storage since she left college.”
“Sounds like fun,” Christy said. She’d finished drying her hair, and she draped the towel around her shoulders. “So, I guess she’s admitting that you’ve settled down here?”
He nodded, smiling. “At first, she liked to maintain the idea that she was still an ‘intrepid gal reporter’ who might rush off to some far part of the world in search of a story at any moment. What changed that was Ron. Not,” he added quickly, “because she couldn’t, but because Ron led a very uncertain life before we adopted her, as you know, and she’s always sort of half expecting us to run off or kick her out or something like that. So, we always try to emphasize to her that we’re staying put, and that she’s staying with us. During that trouble with her sister, I told her that if she ever ran away we’d follow her and bring her back home.”
“You can’t escape from the world’s greatest detective,” Christy said with a grin.
“Exactly. And she thinks her mother is superhuman, so that impressed her. So, it was kind of a threat, but it was really a promise, that she’s our daughter no matter what.”
Christy nodded. “I know what her first parents did, so I guess she got the point.”
Stephanie raised an eyebrow, and Christy turned to her. “She ran away from her parents, I think mostly to get them to chase her and prove they loved her, and they just let her go.” Christy was, to Stephanie’s surprise, apparently on the edge of tears. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m always upset when I even think about it.”
“And I guess she didn’t run back, like most kids would?”
Marshall shook his head. “Not Ron. She’s tough as nails.” He smiled, and Stephanie could see his pride in his daughter. “She stayed away, living on the streets until she made her way to U-town, and eventually we adopted her.”
“Anyway,” Christy said, apparently eager to move the conversation to more pleasant topics, “I gather there’s a question in here somewhere?”
“Well, for Jan to travel outside U-town, we’d need security, of course, but this is going to be–”
“How long a trip–”
“We’re planning to take a week–”
“And, of course, we were sure that you couldn’t–”
“Not for that long…”
Stephanie was keeping quiet, listening, quietly amused at how hard they were working, both of them, to make it clear, as quickly and definitely as possible, that Christy was not going to be asked to serve as security for this trip. She had been security for the great detective many times before, and Stephanie knew that she was an excellent shot in addition to her hand-to-hand skills, but that had all been on day trips or quick overnight jaunts.
Marshall and Christy having collaborated to establish this, as thoroughly as they could, they paused before continuing.
“I could do it,” Stephanie put in.
Both Marshall and Christy looked surprised.
“Don’t you have… responsibilities?” Marshall asked.
She shrugged. “When were you planning to go?”
“Probably the week after next.”
“Could it be the week after that?”
He shrugged. “I imagine so. I can check.”
“Because that’s when Priscilla is on spring break. She can cover things at the store while I’m gone.” She glanced at the clock and stood up. “I’d better get back. She’s got a class, and she’ll have to leave soon.”
Marshall and Christy looked at each other.
“Let me know!” Stephanie called as she ran out.
Marshall chuckled. “I do wonder how Priscilla will feel about running the pet store all by herself for a week.”
“And on spring break, too.”
“Exactly. And I do wonder why she volunteered in the first place. Stephanie, I mean.”
“And I wonder about the two of them. Steph and Pris.”
Marshall frowned. “What about them?”
Christy smiled, her dimples and freckles suddenly very much in evidence. “You know. They live together, they run the pet store together, you never see them out on dates…” She wiggled her eyebrows at him in a suggestive fashion.
Marshall laughed. “I confess I’ve never thought about it one way or another.”
She shook her head. “You’ve been married to a detective for too long. You’ve let it blunt your own natural snoopiness.”
Stephanie had a plan. She felt so good about it that she jogged part of the way home after she’d closed the store.
As her father had taught her, some problems can be resolved with swift and decisive action, but others require you to bide your time, watching for your opportunity. And then, as her friend Prudence had always put it, the way opens.
She made a mental note to write a letter to Prudence.
“Priscilla was actually willing to run the store for a week while you’re away? All by herself? Not that I want to imply that she’s…”
“Adverse to hard work.”
“Lazy. Well, not really lazy. There are just some parts of her job that she likes more than others.”
Angel made a face. “Please spare me the details.”
“Well, I made her a deal. She’s not taking any classes this summer, since she’s got to earn some money to pay for the fall–”
“With a pet store, you can’t just close it up for a couple of weeks and go to the beach. The animals have to be fed, the dogs have be walked…”
Angel held up a hand. “And other things have to be done — we don’t need to go into specifics.”
“And if we hire somebody do that, even if we could find somebody who was completely reliable, that’s two weeks of money going out and nothing coming in. That would really put us in a hole. So, I told her that if she covers this week, she can take two weeks off this summer.” She grinned. “Plus, there’s this guy — I think she’ll get him to help out. He’s really smitten.”
“Has she granted him her favors yet?”
Stephanie giggled. “I don’t think so, but I confess that sometimes when she’s telling me about her conquests, my mind starts to wander. Maybe I should take notes.”
“Does your mind wander, perhaps, to possible conquests of your own…” Angel asked, regarding her perfect fingernails with elaborate unconcern.
“Stop!” Stephanie said, making a face as she drew out the word with several extra syllables. “I’m not going to–”
“You’re not going to date just any guy, and of course there’s your hours at the pet store, and your superhero activities, and your exercising…”
She stopped as Stephanie’s expression got serious. This was always the most difficult subject with her.
“I’m… I know it’s too late to think about ‘saving myself,’ but…” She caught Angel’s expression. “And I know that, of course, ‘saving myself’ is a silly idea in general, as we’ve talked about before, but… No. Not if it’s not right.”
to be continued…