Many things in U-town were new, many other things were invented as we went along, and many things didn't work. So, we threw them out and tried others, or learned to do without. But one thing was easier than it might have been, which was solving crimes. Punishment was sometimes difficult to figure out, but when there was a mystery, well, we had a detective.
My employer, Jan Sleet, enjoyed most of what was going on, and participated in as much of it as she could as part of the informal council that was running things, but solving mysteries was still what she enjoyed most. When there was a mystery to solve, other business had to wait, or be delegated to someone else.
The hospital was the center of a lot of things in U-town, and everybody had to work there for at least a half a day each week. I could probably have got myself excused, but I didn't mind. I usually went on Monday mornings. It had evolved that way because my employer almost always had a meeting then. I tried to make sure that she and I did our hospital shifts on different days, since her idea of "volunteering" usually involved trying to re-organize the whole place. If I'd been there at the same time, she'd have tried to suck me into her schemes.
Things seemed pretty quiet when I got to the hospital that morning. Mona, the nurse who was usually in charge when I was there, stood behind the counter in the waiting room, sipping from a mug of coffee.
"Hi, Marshall," she said. "Grab a cup while you can."
I nodded and went through the swinging doors, down the short hall, and into the little pantry. As I poured myself a cup of coffee, I savored the smell. It was always fresh; too many people drank it for it to sit for very long.
And, sure enough, the pot was empty before my mug was half full. I sipped a little, blowing on it to cool it off, and then I took the empty pot to the sink to wash it.
A moment later, Mona poked her head in. "I wondered what was taking you so long," she said. She stepped inside and lit a cigarette, holding the swinging door open with her toe. She couldn't see out into the waiting room from there, but she could hear if anybody rang the bell on the counter.
"Have a good weekend?" she asked as I rinsed the pot. This was a ritual with us, since I usually worked on Monday mornings. It had been amusing at first, to pretend that "weekdays" and "weekends" were categories that meant very much in U-town. As I say, amusing at first, but I was getting a bit tired of it. However, I gamely played my part.
"Skiing," I said. "All weekend. Nice hard powder all day, and cute girls at the lodge at night. How about you?"
"Drugs and degenerate sex," she replied as I started to make a fresh pot of coffee.
"So, nice powder and cute girls for you, too."
She grinned and nodded.
A few moments later, we heard an unexpected sound. It was a deep roar of motors, and also an eerie, howling wail, both growing quickly louder. I knew what those sounds meant, and from her expression, so did she. The motors were unusual, since nobody in U-town had cars, but that howl was unique. Then we heard the bell on the front counter ring three times in rapid succession.
We grabbed our coffees and hurried back to the waiting room. We were just in time to see the street doors fly open and a group of motorcycle gang members come in, along with a blast of cold air.
There were quite a few gangs in U-town but I knew these were Jinx, though I had never met any of them before. The howl that always accompanied their motorcycles would have been enough to let me know, but also no other gang entered a room the way they did: calm, fast, expressionless, and with military precision.
I glanced at the counter, to see who had rung the bell, and it was a young aide named Lucy. She shrugged nervously, as if she thought I was going to chide her for bothering us. I smiled, hoping to convey that this was not something she was expected to be able to handle alone.
Around a half dozen Jinx had come in, male and female, and the last two were holding the doors open for a man I had met before. He was tall and blond, probably in his late thirties or forties, and his name was Neil. He was carrying another man, with long curly hair. The second man seemed to be unconscious and he was not small, but Neil carried him without apparent effort.
Mona turned to Lucy and jerked her head toward the door to the emergency room. Lucy scampered off through the door, and I saw that Neil noted this exchange. His eyes flashed to two of the others as he approached us, and I could see them become tense and poised to move.
"There'll be a gurney here in a moment," I said quickly, trying to let him know that Lucy had gone to summon help for him, not for us.
He looked at me and nodded. He and I had met a couple of times before, and I was hoping that I had impressed him as honest and reasonable.
Mona moved up next to Neil and started examining the unconscious man.
"A tire blew on his bike," Neil told her. "He took a bad spill, with a nasty knock on the back of his head, and there's something wrong with his ankle. I gave him a painkiller, but I'm no doctor." He had slowly turned his attention as he was speaking, and by now he was addressing me. "We usually handle our own medical needs, but our most experienced doctor is quite ill with the flu. She is feverish, and in any case she is probably contagious."
"You should bring her in, too," Mona said as Lucy and another aide hurried in with the gurney.
"Also, with the head injury," Neil continued, ignoring Mona's comment, "I'm sure he needs an X-ray, and we don't have facilities for that." His tone indicated that of course it would not have been surprising if they had had X-ray equipment, but they didn't happen to at the moment.
He laid the man on the gurney, moving gently and carefully, as the street doors opened again and another Jinx came in. She was short and obviously pregnant, with long blonde hair and a face that gave evidence of recent tears. Her eyes, a striking shade of pale blue, went to the unconscious man, and then to Neil. He was impassive, and she approached us slowly, as if she expected to be reprimanded for being there.
Neil ignored her, and she stood waiting. "His name is Felix," he said to Mona as the other aide, a man named Mark, left with the gurney. "Are there forms to be filled out?" I was standing behind him, and I shook my head slightly, which Mona caught.
"As long as we know his name, that's plenty for now," she said.
I was glad that Mona had taken my lead about the forms. In the world of the hospital, she was staff and I was a volunteer, so of course she outranked me. But she was also aware that I played a role in the government (which she teased me about whenever there was a problem getting supplies), and relations with the Jinx were definitely a diplomatic issue.
Neil nodded and gestured at the blonde woman. "Is it alright if she goes with him?" he asked.
It was not clear who he was addressing, but Mona replied. "That will be fine. She may have to wait if there are tests, but she can be with him otherwise."
Neil nodded at the woman, and she quickly followed the gurney out of the room. Lucy stayed with us, looking somewhat distracted. Neil and the other Jinx moved into the waiting room and sat down. Lucy, Mona, and I went behind the counter as one of the Jinx got up again and went out to the street. I assumed he was assigned to watch whatever vehicles they had arrived in. It was hard to imagine who would have dared touch a Jinx motorcycle, but I had noticed before that they were very careful.
I looked back at the waiting room. There were about fifteen people there other than the Jinx, all studiously looking out the windows, or at magazines, or at the floor.
Lucy shuddered. "They make me really nervous," she said when she saw us looking at her.
It may seem that we were more intimidated by the Jinx than was warranted. There were two reasons. One was that we knew so little about them. They had arrived right after the founding of U-town, but they kept mostly to themselves. They were highly disciplined, and a couple of other gangs had learned that they would respond quickly and violently to any challenge.
They appeared to be a motorcycle gang, but they acted more like a self-contained and mobile society. On a couple of occasions they had helped us with some problems involving our supplies of water and electricity, and it was obvious that they had a lot more knowledge in these areas than we did.
So, on one hand there was the possibility of serious trouble if we should antagonize them, and on the other hand there was the real assistance they could give if they started to see themselves as a full part of U-town.
As I said, this was a fairly important diplomatic issue. I was starting to wish that my employer was there after all.
The next half hour was tense. The Jinx sat patiently in the waiting room, apparently completely calm, but they weren't having a very calming effect on anyone else.
Lucy didn't seem to be able to stay still for more than a minute, and Mona had become unusually quiet.
Then a nurse named Portugal came out and approached us. She carried a clipboard, and she pointed to it as she asked, "Are we going to get any more information about this 'Felix' person? The forms were not filled out properly." She frowned. "Or, indeed, at all." She looked at us sternly over her half-glasses.
Mona jerked a thumb at me. "That's as per Mr. Government Man here, Miss P. Take it up with him."
"The circumstances–" I began.
"Be that as it may," Portugal continued, "I am told that you require constant updates regarding his condition."
"So," she continued, removing her glasses and letting them hang around her neck by a slender chain, "He has a concussion, we believe–"
"Please excuse me," I said quickly. I saw that Neil was looking at me, so I just nodded. He got up and came over.
"Neil," I said, "this is Miss Portugal." She made a curtsy. "Miss Portugal, this is Neil." She extended her hand, with the palm down, as if he was expected to kiss it, but he shook it instead.
"Enchanté," she said, making a minute adjustment to the tiny white cap which was perched on top of her luxurious dark hair. "You are related to Felix?" she asked.
He nodded. "By blood."
"The evidence indicates that he has a concussion. We believe his ankle is only sprained, not broken. X-rays are being taken of both areas as we speak. After that, as the film is being processed, we will check him into a room where he can rest. Now, purely as a formality, sir, are you to be regarded as his next of kin, or is it the individual who follows him everywhere, weeping?"
"I will make any decisions," Neil said. "The woman's name is Dorothy. She's not with him in the X-ray room, is she?"
Portugal chuckled, as if this was a very witty suggestion. "Of course not. She's waiting outside."
"Please ask her to come talk to me, then. Thank you."
Portugal made a curtsy and left with her clipboard.
Neil turned to me. "Marshall," he said, "may we talk for a moment? In private?"
I nodded, and he followed me down the short hall to the pantry. I noticed that his glance went right to the coffee pot, so I asked, "Would you like a cup?"
He smiled. "Desperately, thank you. I didn't get much sleep last night." I moved to pour (for once, the pot wasn't nearly empty) and he said, "Black, please."
When we had our coffee, he said, "I hope you're the person to talk to. None of us have been here before, in the hospital, and we don't know how it works."
"I'm sure I can help, if anybody can."
He nodded, leaning back against the sink and sipping the coffee.
"I am concerned for Felix's life. Not," he added quickly, "because of your care of him, but because we've been having some territorial disagreements with a gang called the Scorpions. You may have heard something about it. Felix has been handling a lot of the negotiations, and they have not been going well. It is possible that, especially when it becomes known that he is here and incapacitated..."
I nodded. "I understand. What are you looking for?"
"Two things. A room which is isolated, as much as possible, from the general population of patients. And your acceptance of the fact that we will post a guard, around the clock, and that we are going to exercise reasonable control over access to Felix's room."
I nodded slowly. "I'll have to check with Mona."
When Neil and I got back to the waiting room, I saw Dorothy coming out through the emergency room door, and I saw another Jinx going the other way.
This made sense. I had been wondering, given what Neil had said about security, why there wasn't a guard on Felix now. But then I realized that Dorothy had been playing that role (whether she realized it or not), and now this other Jinx was going to relieve her while she talked to Neil. Of course, I didn't mention any of this thinking to Neil. I already knew that the Jinx did not appreciate any interest, no matter how innocent or casual, in their affairs.
Contrary to Portugal's description, Dorothy looked fairly composed. She still looked upset and tired, but less distraught than when she had arrived.
I described Neil's request to Mona, who regarded me with resignation (which was only partly put on). "I'll go see what I can do," she said. "Make sure nothing happens while I'm gone, and don't promise anything to anybody."
Mona left as Dorothy and Neil went to a corner of the waiting room to sit and talk. A moment later, the street doors opened and a large, bearded man in a leather jacket and jeans came in. Neil immediately motioned him over, standing up to shake his hand. Dorothy stood up also, and the new man took her hand for a moment, holding it in his hands as he leaned over to say something to her.
She sat down again as Neil and the other man walked over toward me.
"This is Rafe," Neil said. I shook his hand across the counter. "He'll be responsible for Felix's safety."
I nodded. "We're making the arrangements now."
"It looks good," Neil said. He glanced into the room again, and then looked back down the hall, as if double-checking his own assessment.
We were near the end of a short hallway which had only four rooms, two on each side. The rooms had been empty, so it had been fairly easy to get this set up quickly.
Mona had delegated this entire project to me. The initial medical reports on Felix had been positive. It seemed the only real damage he'd suffered had been a broken ankle, which had already been put in a cast. He had a headache, and he had been given a sedative and a painkiller. After Mona had read the report, she had said, "Marshall, why don't you deal with this situation, and I'll run the hospital and heal the sick?"
She had phrased it as a question, but that had been a formality. I did enlist Lucy to help me, which was fine with Mona since Lucy was still very agitated and I could tell Mona was getting sick of her.
Rafe checked out the other three rooms as Portugal and an aide got Felix into the bed and made sure he was comfortable. He was awake, but fairly groggy.
When Rafe came out of the room across the hall, he was carrying a straight-backed chair. He set it against the wall, at the beginning of the short hall, between the four rooms and the rest of the hospital.
Neil nodded at these arrangements and turned to Dorothy. "You can stay, if you want, but only on the condition you lie down yourself." I thought that it seemed typical of Neil to turn even concern about someone into a command. He turned to Lucy. "Are the beds in the other rooms made up?"
She gestured at the room next to Felix's, at the far end of the short hall. "That one is. I don't think the others are."
He nodded and turned back to Dorothy. "Take a nap, and then you can check on Felix."
She nodded. "I will. Thanks."
Portugal and the aide came out of the room, and the aide wheeled the empty gurney toward the elevator.
"He is snoring rather outrageously," Portugal reported, consulting her clipboard as if this information was recorded there.
Neil smiled. "That's normal for him. I'd be worried if he wasn't snoring."
"Other than that," Portugal continued, "I predict a complete recovery."
Neil smiled. "Since you've stated this, I'm sure Felix wouldn't dare do anything else."
She curtsied again as Neil turned to Rafe.
"Are you set here? Anything you need?"
Rafe inclined his head and they stepped down the hall to confer for a moment.
Lucy came out of Felix's room and asked, "Anything else?" She turned to Rafe as he and Neil rejoined us. "Would you like some coffee?"
Rafe nodded. "Very much, thank you."
"How do you take it?"
He smiled. "Black, two sugars."
Lucy turned to go, but Neil said, "Dorothy, how about you?"
"I'd love some," she said as Lucy turned back. "With milk, please."
Lucy nodded and went down the corridor.
Neil looked around. "This all seems to be squared away. I'm going to leave now, and and I'll be taking the rest of my people with me. Much to the relief of the other people in the waiting room, I'm sure."
I made a noncommittal noise, and followed him to the elevator. I was satisfied if he was, and my shift was nearly over.
Downstairs, Neil and the rest of the Jinx had left. I wondered that Rafe had no backup, but then I realized that Neil had arranged for Dorothy to fulfill that role, resting within easy shouting distance if something should happen.
"Crisis averted?" Mona asked as we approached her. I walked around to join her behind the counter, indicating that I was still willing to work for a while. The waiting room was pretty crowded, and I noticed quite a few people filling out forms.
Lucy reappeared a few moments later, and she and I started collecting the forms and processing the people. When that rush was done, it seemed like we were in a lull, so Mona delegated someone to fill in and we stepped back into the pantry to have some lunch.
After a few moments, Mona said, "So, Lucy, are you going to tell us why you've been so jumpy?"
She grimaced and rolled her eyes. "Well," she said slowly, "I know that guy. Felix. We saw each other a couple of times. It was no big deal, but I saw that Dorothy woman looking at me funny, more than once, and I wonder if he told her. About me."
Mona laughed. "Probably not. People sometimes get stupid if they think they're about to die, but he hasn't thought he was about to die."
"And mostly he hasn't even been conscious," I added. "I wouldn't worry about it."
Then, once again we heard the Jinx howl, and we went back out to the waiting room as the street doors opened and Neil came back in, alone and walking quickly.
"I need to check on Felix," he said. This seemed rather abrupt, given that Felix hadn't been in any danger. Before we could respond, the doors opened again and Jan Sleet limped in. She looked around, spotted me, and moved in my direction.
Mona shook her head. "Marshall," she said, "please go with Neil. Lucy, I need you to file these forms."
She hadn't mentioned my employer, but Neil was already moving toward the elevators, and Jan indicated that we should follow him.
"Why are you here?" I asked her quietly as we waited for an elevator.
She smiled. "We've worked together a long time, you and I. We're connected now. Even across this great metropolis, I could sense your unease."
I regarded her with appropriate skepticism. She patted her dark gray tie, which was perfectly tied of course, and tugged her display handkerchief a bit farther out of her jacket pocket. Her three-piece suit was dark blue, with a pale blue shirt.
"Well," she added as the doors opened and we stepped in, "there was also this message we got at the meeting. Someone ran in and told us that the Jinx had occupied the entire hospital and taken everybody hostage. That seemed like it was probably worth investigating."
I nodded. "Probably."
"And you believed this story?" Neil asked.
She smiled. "If we had, we wouldn't have sent just a gal reporter with a bum leg."
That got a smile out of Neil, but then the doors opened and he moved quickly down the hall. We followed more slowly, but then as he turned the corner into the little cul-de-sac corridor where Felix's room was, we heard a curse and running footsteps.
I ran ahead of Jan, who was moving quickly, and when I turned the corner I saw Rafe slumped in his chair, either asleep, unconscious, or dead. The door to Felix's room was open, so I moved in that direction as Jan leaned over to examine Rafe.
Neil was standing next to the bed, his hands on his hips. He looked up as I stepped in.
"Dead," he said slowly, his mouth tight. "Murdered. Strangled." He sighed. "Shit." He shook himself and said, "Alright. Marshall, have all the exits sealed. I'm going to–"
"Ridiculous," my employer said sharply as she came into the room. "Do you have any idea how many exits this building has? Well, neither do I, but there are quite a few. Unless your friend died in the last two minutes there has been plenty of time for the murderer to escape. If escape was even part of the plan."
She had been looking Neil up and down as she spoke, and she continued, "No doubt your military service accustomed you to obedience from your subordinates, but Marshall does not fall into that category and neither do I. And perhaps it was sentimentality on my part to have hoped that the fact that you paint from time to time indicated a possible flexibility of temperament."
Neil was not intimidated; that was obvious. She could be somewhat overpowering at times, but it would have taken something far more impressive than a skinny reporter in a three-piece suit to intimidate him. He was holding his tongue now for a very different reason. The Jinx had expertise in many areas, but Jan Sleet was his best hope of solving this and he knew it, even before her quick deductions about his history and hobbies.
I wondered if Dr. Lee, the leader of the Jinx, had sent him back to the hospital, perhaps thinking that his precautions for Felix's safety hadn't been adequate. If this was true, and given that he had returned to find Felix dead, I could only imagine how much he wanted to know the murderer's name before making his next report. I had never met Dr. Lee, but from what I'd heard I had the idea that she didn't enjoy getting bad news.
"This is not a matter for just the Jinx, or just for U-town, or just for the hospital," my employer continued after a moment. "We are not the Scorpions, and this is not a territorial matter. Every single person involved, with one exception, wants the same thing. And I am going to be in charge, not because I outrank you in some way, but because I'm the best equipped to figure this out."
Neil rubbed his chin. "Assuming I accept this," he said slowly, "what's the next step?"
"Two things. Marshall will send somebody to get Mona, and then he will fill me in. Then we will proceed to solve this by using reason and analysis."
"And one more thing," I said. "Dorothy, who was apparently Felix's girlfriend or wife, is resting in the next room, or she should be. We need to make sure she's okay. She's pregnant, by the way. And then one of us needs to try to revive Rafe."
"Did you check on him?" Neil asked Jan.
"I did. He's unconscious, almost certainly drugged. He should be fine. Is Dorothy Jinx?"
I nodded, and Neil said, "I'll check on her."
Out in the hall, I went around the corner and caught an aide. I didn't know her, and she wasn't wearing a name tag.
"First," I said quietly, "nothing about what I'm going to tell you is to be discussed or speculated about. No gossip, understood?"
"Yes, sir," she said.
"We need an aide and a gurney in 407A. Arrange that, and send somebody downstairs to tell Mona that Marshall needs her in 407A, and that it's an emergency. Be sure they use the word 'emergency,' and tell them not to embellish. Got it?"
"Then see what you can do to revive that man there, but don't touch his coffee cup. And have somebody check on the woman in 407B. She's asleep, she may have been drugged, and she's pregnant. We'll be in 407A, and keep us posted. Okay?"
As I re-entered the room, my employer had Felix's hospital gown pulled aside and was examining the body carefully.
Neil came back in through the connecting door. He closed it carefully, then he said, "She's asleep. I–"
"Was she drugged? Rafe was."
"The nurse is going to check her," I said.
Jan straightened up and covered the body. She limped toward me, saying, "Tell me all." Neil started to speak, but she flicked up a forefinger. "Wait," she said, without even looking at him. Over her shoulder, as she approached me, I could see him debate how to respond to this. He decided to comply.
Meanwhile, she leaned toward me, her ear only inches from my mouth, steadying herself with a hand on my shoulder as I started to fill her in.
After a few moments, there was a knock at the door and an aide wheeled in a gurney.
"No autopsy needed," Jan said over her shoulder as Neil helped move Felix's body, "but a complete exam, and let me know immediately if there's anything inconsistent with death by strangulation."
Rafe and Mona joined us as the aide wheeled the gurney out. They quickly got the idea that they had to wait, and I could see that Neil was quietly filling them in.
When I was done, my employer murmured a couple of questions, which I answered, then she straightened up, looking slowly around the room.
"Should we let Dorothy know?" Rafe asked.
"Is she likely to be–"
"I am not hysterical, Miss Sleet," she said from the doorway to the next room. "I am Jinx. Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Not just now. Please sit down, Dorothy,"
She sat carefully in the one armchair.
"Please wait a moment," my employer said. She went through the connecting door into Dorothy's room.
The body was gone, and the aide had pulled up the covers, but nobody sat on the bed. We all stood, except for Dorothy. Mona was smoking, and Jan lit a cigarette as she came back into the room. She looked around and spoke to Neil.
"I'd like to ask a question. According to what Marshall has told me, you made arrangements for Felix's care this morning, and then you left. But then you came back rather abruptly and said you needed to see Felix. May I ask why?"
He nodded slowly. "It was suggested that my precautions for his safety might not have been adequate."
"Against the Scorpions?"
"Then let me ask you this. If the Scorpions were going to do this, would they do it in this way? Somehow drug Rafe, wait for him to pass out, and then sneak in to strangle Felix? That doesn't seem like their 'style,' so to speak."
"I don't think it was the Scorpions, and it has nothing to do with 'style.' The main reason for them to do it would be to send a message, to us, to the Jinx. It doesn't send much of a message if nobody knows they did it."
"And why would they kill him and leave me alive?" Rafe added. "Drug my coffee, even if they could have, and then wait around for me to pass out? Why not just kill me, too?"
Jan nodded. "That's what I was thinking." She looked at him more directly. "I believe your name is Rafe?"
She held out her hand. "My name is Jan Sleet. I'm investigating the murder of your friend, and I need to hear your story."
Rafe did not glance at Neil for an okay, but he did pause before replying.
"I came to guard Felix," he began. "I arrived and we came up here, to this floor."
"Who is 'we'?"
Neil, Dorothy, this gentleman, and an orderly, a girl. I never did learn her name."
"In order to save time, I'll tell you that I already have a report of that period of time. Was there anything that you observed which Marshall would not have seen?"
He shook his head slowly. "I don't think so."
"Then, please tell me what happened after Marshall and Neil left."
"The girl brought me a cup of coffee. Two cups, one for Dorothy. I took both of them. Dorothy was in the other room already, and if she was asleep I was going to leave her alone."
"To clarify, the two cups were different, weren't they?"
"Yes. I drink it black. Dorothy takes milk."
"Thanks. Please continue."
"The problem was that I didn't have anywhere to put the coffee. Except the floor, and that was kind of dirty. So, I balanced the two cups on the chair, on the seat, and then I looked into the first room across the hall, the one opposite this one. There was a little table there, so I propped open the door and went in to get it." He looked very serious. "The room is right opposite this one, and I'd left the door open, so I could see this door the whole time."
"Was it open or closed?"
"This door? It was closed. Nobody opened it, or walked past."
"I brought out the table and put it next to my chair."
"To be clear, when you were in the room across the hall, getting the table, could you see the chair and the two coffee cups?"
"No. Just the door to this room."
"And the chair was where it is now? Nearer to the main corridor?"
"So, somebody could have stepped into this corridor and drugged the coffee."
"Yes, if they were quiet."
"And how long were you in the room?"
"Not long. Maybe a minute or two. There were a few things on the table – an ashtray, a lamp, a couple of other things – that I had to move before I could take the table."
"Thank you. Please proceed. You put the table where it is now?"
"And I moved the two coffee cups onto the table."
"Did you drink any of your coffee?"
"I took a sip. It was still pretty hot."
"How did it taste?"
"Lousy. Institutional coffee."
She smiled. "And then what did you do?"
"I went and opened the door of Dorothy's room."
"You didn't knock?"
"I wasn't going to wake her if she was asleep. But she was awake, lying on top of the covers. I told her that the coffee was there. I offered to bring it to her, but she said she'd come and get it."
"Did you go into the room?"
"No, I kept Felix's door in sight the whole time."
"So, you both went back into the hall?"
"Yes, and we had some coffee. I told her I was sure Felix would be okay. And then, since she was there, I asked if she could watch things while I..." He seemed to be searching for a word.
"Yes. Thank you."
"And where did you go to do this?"
"In the room across the hall. I saw there was a little bathroom in there."
"So, during that time, you did not have the door under direct observation?"
"Right. Dorothy had that responsibility."
"I came back. Dorothy said she would go lie down again. I sat down, drank my coffee. That's about all I remember."
"How much of your coffee had you drunk before you went to relieve yourself?"
"About half, I guess."
"And did it taste the same after as before?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. It was cooler by then, so I drank it pretty fast."
She nodded and turned to Neil. "Please take a look at the window," she said. "Do you think anybody could have got into the room that way?"
He went over and pulled the curtains aside. He looked out, then he took the bottom of the window and tried to raise it. It didn't budge, and he set his feet, took a deep breath, and tried again, and this time the window came up, slowly. Cold air blew in as he leaned out and looked around.
He closed the window and turned to face us. "Could it be done? Yes. Do I think it was? No. There is no ledge, no place to stand, and the window is hard to raise. If you had a couple of days to plan, and the right equipment, it would be possible. But, under these circumstances, I can't see it. Besides, it wouldn't make sense to drug Rafe if you were going to come in through the window."
"That was my conclusion also," she said, "Now, I'd like to show you something in the next room."
They left through the connecting door, and she closed it behind them.
Rafe and Dorothy were stone-faced. No matter what, I was sure they were both feeling some strong emotions, but they didn't reveal what those emotions might have been.
Mona was trying to be cool, but she was smoking more than usual. She would have scoffed at the suggestion that she felt protective about the hospital, but I knew she wasn't looking forward to reading tomorrow's newspaper.
Jan and Neil came back in, and she said, "Neil, do you want to describe what you saw?"
He gestured that she should tell it. She pointed at the row of aluminum cabinets on the wall. "As in all of the rooms here, that room has a row of cabinets like these. Locked cabinets. I work in the hospital myself, and I know that these cabinets are always locked. However, the lock on one of those cabinets, the one containing, among other things, sleeping pills, is broken. The cabinet is closed, so it isn't immediately obvious that it's broken, but it is. I examined it and my conclusion, which Neil agreed with, was that it was forced, rather than being a result of normal wear and tear."
She lit a cigarette. "I'm going to throw out a few possibilities," she said, looking around. "This is just to show how I'm thinking about this, so it will save time if we skip the protestations of innocence.
"One possibility is that Rafe did it. He could have murdered Felix, for some unknown reason, then drugged his own coffee and passed out, giving himself the appearance of innocence. Or Neil could have done it. It would have been a bold and daring move to strangle Felix in the moment before Marshall entered the room." She shook her head. "That's probably not possible, and in any case Felix had been dead for at least a half hour. So, I'd say Neil is eliminated.
"But what about Dorothy? She had the perfect opportunity to drug the coffee. Of course, she could have used the connecting door to get to Felix and then Rafe wouldn't have seen her. But that would have made it too obvious. And, as I described–"
"If I may anticipate," Neil said, stepping forward, "How do the people who work here get into the supply cabinets?" He looked grim.
"Keys," Mona said. She lit another cigarette as she spoke. "We all know where they are."
"So," he continued to Jan, "your premise is that it must have been one of us, one of the Jinx, since we don't work in the hospital and wouldn't know how to get into the cabinets. So, either Rafe or Dorothy did it, for some unknown reason, despite the fact that Rafe and Felix were good friends, and Felix is the father of Dorothy's unborn child." Dorothy stood up, steadying herself on Rafe's arm. "We're leaving, and I don't think you can stop us."
"Piffle," my employer said. "You said you wanted to know the answer. Stay and hear it, or not, that's up to you. Nobody will try to stop you. But don't try to sway me with talk of long friendships and unborn children. Neither is an obstacle to murder, as I'm sure you know. But I should mention that none of you is under suspicion of having committed this crime, and you have drawn an entirely incorrect conclusion from the broken cabinet."
"Explain," Neil said curtly. Dorothy remained standing, leaning on Rafe's arm.
My employer gestured at the row of identical cabinets on the wall. "Dorothy, which one of these cabinets contains sleeping pills?"
Dorothy looked at them in puzzlement. "I have no idea," she said slowly.
"Exactly. It has become somewhat of a tradition in U-town not to label things. Many of our street signs are missing, or they've been moved to different locations. Quite a few people take the numbers off of their buildings. So, the cabinets are not labeled, but anybody who works in the hospital knows where things are stored. Which is anybody, since we all work in the hospital sooner or later.
"Except the Jinx. of course. I believe this is the first time any of you have been in the hospital. And that's why I'm sure that, whoever did this, it was not a member of the Jinx. Which means that the broken cabinet was either a coincidence, or it was part of an attempt to frame Dorothy.
"However, to be thorough, is it not possible that somebody connected with the hospital told one of you where the pills were? Perhaps, but very unlikely. This was not a crime with a long time to plan it, since there was no way to know in advance that Felix would even have an accident, or that he would be so seriously injured that he'd be brought here despite your reluctance to use our medical facilities. And, to carry it to an extreme, you couldn't even have called somebody on the phone to ask them, because U-town has no telephone service."
Neil nodded, still looking grim, and Rafe steadied Dorothy as she sat down again.
"Do you know who did it?" Neil asked Jan.
She nodded. "I have a very good idea."
Neil was apparently a pretty good judge of human nature, because he didn't press her. His impatience was obvious, but apparently he had calculated, correctly, that if he tried to hurry her it would only cause her to slow down. She meant it when she said she was in charge, and she was capable of making things very difficult for anybody who tried to challenge that authority. She looked around the room, and her posture and expression told me that this was it.
"I'm going to ask a series of rhetorical questions, of all of you," she began, "but first I need to ask Dorothy one direct question. Dorothy, I am especially sorry to have to ask this under these circumstances, but it's a vital part of solving this. Was Felix faithful to you?"
"No," she said simply. "We don't expect complete fidelity, but even within our expectations, he was... unreliable."
Jan nodded. "Thank you. I didn't want to blindside you if you had any illusions. So, here are my questions:
"Who set up the rooms?
"Who brought the coffee for Rafe?
"Who had access to sleeping pills?
"Who had access to the cabinet to break it?
"Who was the last person we know was in Felix's room?
"Who asserted that the adjoining room here was the only one of the three suitable for Dorothy to rest in?
"Who admitted to having a casual affair with Felix – or at least she said it was casual – and tried to claim that Dorothy had found out about it, to throw suspicion on Dorothy?
"Who had a reason to kill Felix, and then to frame Dorothy?" She looked around. "Motive, means, and opportunity."
"Wait a minute," Mona said. "You mean Lucy? She brought the coffee to Rafe after Marshall left, right? After he came downstairs?" Several of us nodded. "But she came down only a couple of minutes after Marshall, long before the pills could have taken effect. Then she was with Marshall and me the whole time after that. She didn't leave, even for a minute, let alone long enough to come up here and murder somebody."
Jan smiled. "But what's to say that she murdered him while Rafe was unconscious? She could easily have done it before. She was the last person in his room, after all."
"But then why..." Neil demanded, his voice trailing off.
"For exactly that reason," my employer said. "Because the fact of the drugging drives you to the inevitable conclusion that the murder followed the drugging, when Rafe was unconscious. That was the only reason Rafe was drugged, to push us in that direction, to make us assume that the murder happened during the time when Lucy had a complete alibi. Felix was dead before she even brought Rafe the coffee."
Mona shook her head, as if she was finding this to be a difficult concept to absorb. I sympathized. This was the thing that had stumped me, once I had realized where my employer was going. Then Mona looked up. "One more thing," she said. "I've never strangled anybody, but from what I know I have the idea that it would take a lot of strength. Wouldn't it have to have been a man?"
"How was it done?" Neil asked. "Bare hands, or with a rope of some sort?"
Jan nodded at the window. "With a cord from those curtains. And remember, Felix was groggy."
"Then it could have been anybody," Neil said. "With bare hands, that's one thing, but with a cord and the right type of knot, and the man half-conscious? Any one of us could have done it. But how did she know we wouldn't hear it – we were right outside in the hall."
Jan gestured around. "Again, you don't know the hospital. This is the oldest of the four buildings, with the thickest walls and doors. Patients who are likely to be... loud, we always put them here. The ones who scream at night and so on."
"But why did she do it?" Dorothy asked quietly. "He fooled around before and nobody wanted to kill him, not even me."
"Well, this is somewhat speculative, but Marshall reported to me that Lucy was unusually tense all day, since Felix was first brought in. What if he never told her about you? What if she thought she was his one-and-only, and suddenly there he was, injured, and accompanied by another woman, and a pregnant one at that? People have killed each other for less than that."
Mona looked dissatisfied. "Well, I'm not convinced, but we should go down and talk to her."
Lucy was gone by the time we got downstairs, and we never saw her again.
I don't know what went through her mind, of course, but I can only imagine how she felt when she saw Neil returning, followed immediately by Jan Sleet. If she hadn't thought of it before, I'm sure she was aware at that moment that her only protection against the Jinx was that they didn't know she'd done it. And she knew that my employer usually solved the mysteries she encountered.
Late that night, in our room, Jan took off her tie and hung it up carefully. She pulled off her vest and shirt, and tossed them over her desk chair. Then I came to steady her arm as she kicked off her shoes and undid her trousers. As they dropped to the floor, she looked over her bony shoulder at me, and I could see her mouth twitch, though she was trying to keep her expression serious.
I lost the battle, laughing out loud as she leaned on my arm and stepped out of her trousers. She laughed also, but neither of us said anything.
She was waiting for me to ask how she had known of Neil's military history, and his hobby of painting, and I did want to know how she had pulled that out of her hat.
But I wasn't about to ask, and she wasn't about to tell me without being asked. This standoff could go on for some time, I knew.
As a matter of fact, there are a few of these issues which have never been entirely cleared up.