The building where my employer and I lived still had an awning proclaiming it to be a hotel, but since the founding of U-town it had become our White House and Capitol, combined with a dorm, a cafeteria, a flop house, and sometimes a den of iniquity. Visitors to U-town still came there trying to find a place to stay, but mostly they were directed to one of the many boarding houses in the area.
There had been a couple of attempts to set up formal government offices somewhere else, somewhere more official, but everything always moved, inexorably, back to the hotel, mostly because it was just more convenient for everybody.
The hotel had a dining room, and a kitchen which functioned pretty much constantly, but we seldom ate there. This was partly because the food was rather predictable, and partly because my employer hated to discuss business when she was eating. When we ate at the hotel the business of running U-town often intruded on our meals.
We ate lunch from time to time in a very small coffee shop, apparently called "Eat." It was about at the halfway point betweeen the hotel and the hospital, so it was convenient on the days when one of us was volunteering, especially since my employer often got light-headed if she went too long without food.
We were eating there, immediately after the conclusion of the hospital case, when we first heard about the possibility that there might be vampires in U-town.
As we ate, I gradually became aware that somebody behind me, in the next booth, was saying, "–it sounds crazy, I know, but I've heard him in her room. You can hear them going at it, at night. But there's no way he could get into the building, other than through her window."
The man's companion said, "How do you get from there to 'vampire,' though?"
There was a pause, during which I caught my employer's eye and she shrugged, smiling impishly.
"He always comes at night," the man continued. "And one time, I was looking out my window at the stars, and I swear something black flew out of her window and across the face of the moon."
My employer looked a bit more dubious at this as she put her napkin down on her plate and lit a cigarette.
As we walked to the hotel, she said, "It is always important to keep an open mind."
"Do you believe in vampires?"
She laughed. "On the basis of that evidence? No, not even if I'd seen what he said he saw."
At dinner, several days later, we heard about vampires again. We were on the other side of town, in a brand new Indian restaurant which had been recommended to us. As we were sipping our after-dinner coffee, a man came over to our table.
"Excuse me, Miss Sleet," he said, holding his cap in his hands.
"Yes?" she said.
"I have a problem–"
"If it's medical in nature, please go to the hospital. You can mention my name, if you like, though it will have no effect on the treatment you receive. If your problem is not medical, please come to see me during regular office hours." He moved a fraction of an inch toward an empty chair at our table. "Someone your size," she said, "Marshall could overpower you without having to stand up, and he could eject you from this place without putting down his cup or spilling his coffee. Is there any reason this couldn't be handled normally?"
"I'd be embarrassed," he said, stepping back. "I think someone who lives in my building is a vampire." She waved a hand, dismissing him, and turned back to the table, tapping the ash from her cigarette.
After he had gone away, I smiled. "Are you even a little bit intrigued?" I asked.
"Not yet," she said. "Maybe soon, but not yet."
"So, we're not going to have a big vampire hunt?"
She laughed. "No. If there's something to all this, it will come to us."
Two days later, we were in a meeting when Fifteen, our young aide, came in. "Yes?" my employer asked.
He bowed. "Ladies and gentlemen," he announced, "it is my distinct honor and pleasure to introduce–"
"Oh, please," came a plaintive female voice from outside the half-open door.
I craned around to look out. "Christy," I called, "is that you?"
"Yes," she said.
Jan laughed. "Come on in, please."
Christy sidled into the room, looking a bit abashed. "I asked him not to do that," she said, smiling, as Fifteen approached her. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. He bowed deeply again and left the room, looking even more pleased with himself than usual.
"Welcome, Christy," Jan said. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"
"I have a message for you, Miss Sleet, from Dr. Lee." Dr. Lee was the leader of the Jinx, the motorcycle gang that Christy belonged to.
"Does it need to be conveyed privately?" Jan asked.
"Oh, no. She would like you to come to see her. At your earliest convenience."
Jan nodded. "I'm flexible this afternoon. Would that be good for her? After lunch?"
"Yes, that would be fine."
"Marshall will accompany me, of course."
Christy smiled. "I thought that went without saying," she said, and we all laughed.
Still smiling, Christy said goodbye and left the meeting room. It was unusual for someone from the Jinx to joke with us like that, but her position was unique. She was a member of the Jinx, but she was also in a relationship with Fifteen, so we saw her socially from time to time.
Fifteen was young, perhaps only a year or two older than his name. He was usually attired in cutoff jeans and a faded T-shirt, with his head shaved. Christy was somewhat older. My employer, the great detective, estimated her age as late thirties. I would have said a few years younger than that, but Jan accused me of being swayed by a pretty face, glorious red hair, and a shapely figure. I denied this accusation, of course.
In any case, Fifteen had fallen for Christy the first moment he'd seen her. She had been flattered, but she'd always made it clear to him that the very idea was silly. I will admit that the rest of us did tease him about this infatuation from time to time (although not in front of her, of course).
Then, one night at a party, they showed up together, she with her arm through his, and they were together all evening. At first we thought this was a joke, but then they left together, and my employer (despite my admonitions that this was none of her business) followed them and determined that they went to Fifteen's modest room and remained there together all night.
I had never been inside the abandoned warehouse building which the Jinx used as their headquarters. The door opened as we crossed the street, and we saw Rafe, the big, bearded Jinx we had met during the hospital case.
He nodded. "Come on in," he said, holding the door open for us. "She's in her office. I'll take you there."
We followed him down a long, gloomy corridor and up two flights of stairs. All the walls and floors were poured concrete, and our footsteps sounded very loud. My employer had affected a casual attitude about this visit to the Jinx, but she had changed her tie three times before leaving the hotel, and she'd briefly considered changing her suit. As I said in the hospital story, relations with the Jinx were important, and I know she was thinking what a feather it would be in her cap if she figured out a way to bring them more into the U-town project.
Rafe knocked on a door, tapping lightly on the frosted glass, and a voice called, "Come."
Dr. Lee stood up as we entered the room, which surprised me. I'd joked on the way over that we might be required to kneel. I had never met her, but everything I'd heard about her had indicated that she was a formidable person. She was fairly small, with dark curly hair, dressed in jeans, a black T-shirt, and a leather jacket. It was difficult to be sure about her age, but I thought she was at least in her thirties.
The room was plain, with a desk, a battered sofa, and two armchairs. There were no decorations.
"Please sit down," Dr. Lee said. We sat on the sofa, and she took one of the chairs. She said, "You may smoke, by the way. I appreciated that you identified Felix's murderer." She smiled a bit. "And Neil appreciated that you made it clear that his precautions were not at fault."
"I'm glad I could help," my employer replied. "I'm assuming that you have another mystery which you would like me to investigate?"
"That is correct."
She shook her head. "Nothing so dramatic. Or, actually, I should say that it's not that serious, at least so far. It is somewhat dramatic. But I don't want to prejudice you. I want you to see for yourself." She stood up. "Please come with me."
She led us back down two flights of stairs and along another hall. We ended up in a small room that was obviously being used as a medical office. A man, wearing a white lab coat over jeans and a T-shirt, stood up from a desk as we came in. Based on what I could see of his hands, wrists, and neck, he seemed quite heavily tattooed.
"She's through here," he said.
In the next room, which was smaller, a woman lay on a metal hospital table. She was thin and pale, with short blonde hair, and she appeared to be receiving a transfusion.
She opened her eyes as we came in, and then she closed them again.
"Her name is Åsa," Dr. Lee said. She pronounced it "Oh-sa." "And this is Nikolai."
The tattooed man inclined his head in acknowledgment, and my employer introduced herself. She almost never introduced me. Nikolai gestured at the woman on the table. "She's lost quite a bit of blood."
Jan limped forward and leaned over to regard Åsa. "How did she lose the blood?" she asked. Nikolai pulled down the collar of Åsa's shirt, showing two punctures on her neck, but Åsa reached up to cover them again, turning away from us.
"Leave me alone," she mumbled. "I'm fine."
Dr. Lee motioned for us to follow her back into the outer office, closing the door. Nikolai remained with Åsa. My employer lit a cigarette as Dr. Lee spoke.
"She was found by her roommate, unconscious, in bed, bleeding. It was raining that night, and her boots were wet, so she'd been out."
"What was she wearing?"
"She was naked, but her clothes were on the floor, damp. She was very pale, and nobody had seen her eat in a day or two, at least."
"Where are the clothes?"
"I'll take you," Dr. Lee said. I was surprised that she wasn't delegating this to someone else.
We went up one flight of stairs and into another wing. Dr. Lee pushed open a door, surprising Christy, who was sitting on one of the two mattresses on the floor of the small room. She had apparently just removed her T-shirt, and she quickly grabbed her leather jacket and pulled it on, zipping it up.
Dr. Lee ignored this. "Christy, we need to see Åsa's clothes, and her sheets."
Christy stood up. "The sheets are in the trash. I didn't think we could get the blood out. Her clothes are over there."
My employer went across the room to the pile of clothes in the corner, and I followed her. She squatted, steadying herself with her cane, and started to poke through the clothes.
"Christy," Dr. Lee said, "get the sheets from the trash and bring them here."
I heard the sound of Christy quickly removing her jacket and pulling her T-shirt back on, and my employer whispered, "Eyes front, mister."
I chuckled and she leaned forward to look at the jeans, the T-shirt, and the underwear, but her main attention was focused on the boots. She lifted them one at a time and examined them carefully. When she was done, I helped her back to her feet and she smiled. She had something in her hand, and she slipped it into her jacket pocket.
I wasn't going to ask what it was, and I knew she wasn't about to tell me.
A moment later, Christy came back in, her arms full of sheets. She put them on the other mattress, the one which presumably belonged to Åsa, and I went to pick them up one at time for my employer's examination. She looked at them, but I could tell she had already decided what we were going to do next.
I dropped the second pillowcase and she looked slowly around the room. "Christy," she said, "how well do you know Åsa?"
She shrugged. "Fairly well, I guess. We've been roommates since we got here, to U-town. But we're not close."
Jan turned to Dr. Lee. "Can we go somewhere to continue this? I have trouble standing for very long."
Dr. Lee nodded. "Of course. Christy, please put the sheets back in the trash and join us in my office."
In Dr. Lee's office, we resumed our seats.
"I have heard rumors of vampires," my employer said, lighting a cigarette.
Dr. Lee nodded. "So have I, for a couple of weeks now. I don't believe in that sort of thing, and I'm sure you don't either. However, I have had some experience with what can happen when you live in a community and that community turns against you because of rumors and hysteria."
"You see the potential for panic, apparently," my employer said. Dr. Lee nodded. "So do I. Most people are too savvy to fall for this, but a vocal minority can create all kinds of problems, for all of us. And, most importantly, if it becomes known that there are some sort of attacks going on, it doesn't require belief in the supernatural to become alarmed. And I am not, by the way, ruling out the possibility of–"
There was a knock at the door, and Dr. Lee called, "Come in, Christy. Please sit down."
Christy sat in the empty chair, smoothing her skirt, and my employer said, "I want to ask you a few questions. We're trying to figure out what's happening with Åsa, so we can try to help her. She hasn't confided anything to you, has she?"
Christy shook her head. "She doesn't talk about it. If you ask about why she's losing weight or anything like that, she just says she's fine."
Jan nodded. "She said that to us, too. I wasn't convinced. Have you noticed any other changes recently, aside from her weight?"
"It's obvious that she hasn't been feeling well. She's always kind of pale, and she gets tired a lot. I don't think she's been eating much."
"Who are her friends? Is she in a relationship?"
"There was a guy, Lloyd. He liked her, but I don't think it turned into anything. She's pretty serious – kind of a romantic – and he's a joker. Not her type, I wouldn't think."
Jan turned to Dr. Lee. "Can we speak to Lloyd?"
Dr. Lee turned to Christy. "He'll be outside. Please send him in." She turned to Jan. "Will you want to speak to Christy any more?"
"Not right now. I'm trying to get a general picture, an overview, then I'll figure out where I need to look in more depth."
Dr. Lee turned back to Christy, who was waiting by the door. "Send Lloyd in, then you can leave."
Christy nodded and stepped out into the hall.
A moment later, a man came in. He was fairly small, his Jinx uniform of jeans, black T-shirt, and leather jacket supplemented by a porkpie hat. He had a small goatee.
"Lloyd," Dr. Lee said, "this is Jan Sleet, and Marshall O'Connor, her assistant. They will ask you some questions, which you should answer honestly and completely. Please sit down."
He complied, and after a moment he removed his hat and held it in his lap.
"Lloyd," Jan began, "what is your relationship to Åsa?"
He looked uncertain, and Dr. Lee said, "The truth, as I said. All of it."
"I was interested in her... romantically." He shrugged. "I don't think that's a big secret. But she made it pretty clear that she was not interested in me. But then, a few nights ago – it was the day Felix died in fact – I was asleep. My roommate–"
"Claire is away," Dr. Lee said quickly. "That's all we need to get into."
"So, I was alone. Then I woke up, and it was completely dark out. The window was open, and I knew I had left it closed. I sat up in bed and got my knife from under my pillow. The room was very dark, and I tried to see what was going on, but then I saw her, Åsa, on the windowsill. She was crouching there, naked, and her skin was very white. She smiled and said something, but I couldn't hear her for some reason. I put the knife down on the table."
He sighed. "This is going to sound crazy, but she... it seemed like she floated over to the bed and she landed on top of me. The sheets were gone..." His voice trailed off, and he looked uncomfortable.
"I gather that sexual relations ensued," my employer said after a moment.
He nodded. "They sure did. Repeatedly."
"You'll forgive me for asking, I hope, but you were asleep, and we know you were attracted to her and frustrated by her refusal, so is it not possible that this was a fantasy of some sort?"
He shook his head. "That's what I thought at first, when I woke up. It wouldn't have been the first time that I'd... thought about her like that. But when I woke up, I was..." He was clearly trying to figure out how to describe this delicately. My employer's three-piece suits and her precise diction and her owlish way of asking questions often reminded people of unpleasant experiences with stern schoolteachers.
"I was bruised," Lloyd said finally, "in a private area, where I hadn't known it was possible to get bruised. I even went to Nikolai about it, since I was concerned that there might be some sort of... damage. He commented on the odor, which was quite strong. He joked that, for once, I must have been enjoying someone other than my own hand. He asked who it was, but I didn't tell him anything."
She nodded. "And she was responsible for the bruise on your neck?" She smiled. "The 'hickey,' as I believe they are called?"
He hunched his shoulders. "That was the next night. This has happened every night since. But she still ignores me completely during the day." He shrugged. "It's kind of creepy. It's almost as if she's mad at me for some reason. She's never friendly, or loving; she almost never speaks, and she hasn't kissed me except one time when she bit my lip and drew blood." He pulled down his lower lip and showed us the punctures.
My employer went to the window and looked out. "Lloyd's room is on this side of the building," Dr. Lee said. "Just down the hall, in fact."
Jan nodded thoughtfully and lit another cigarette. "There are houses across the street," she said, "some of which I know to be inhabited. You'd think somebody would have noticed a naked woman climbing this wall every night."
As Lloyd left, Nikolai poked his head in and said, "Dr. Lee?"
She looked up. "Yes?"
"There is a disagreement between my patient and myself. She wants to go back to her room tonight and sleep there. I think she should sleep in the infirmary, where she can get help by the intercom if she should need it. I understand that Christy is not planning to sleep here tonight, so Åsa would be alone–"
"I get the picture. Is she with you?"
The door opened and Åsa and Nikolai came in. I caught a glimpse of Lloyd out in the hall, apparently waiting.
Åsa was looking somewhat better, but I could tell that she was still unsteady, though she seemed to be trying to hide it. She had a bandage on her neck.
Nikolai tried to hover as she moved to the empty chair, but she glared at him and he backed off. She sat down, and I wondered if it was a violation of protocol to sit in Dr. Lee's presence without being invited.
Jan Sleet and Dr. Lee glanced at each other for a moment, then my employer addressed Åsa. "Are you well enough to talk?" she asked.
"Of course. I'm fine. I'm just a little tired."
"Where did you go last night? Before your injury?"
"I didn't go out. I wasn't feeling well."
"I've examined your clothes. You were clearly outside during the rain."
She shrugged. "I don't remember going out."
"What about your neck?"
She chuckled. "Maybe I cut myself shaving. Why, do you think it was a... vampire?" She said it in a spooky voice, her eyes wide. Then she snorted. "I thought you were supposed to be a detective."
"Åsa," Dr. Lee said quietly, "you will sleep in the infirmary tonight. Nikolai, please arrange that you or Betty will be available by intercom all night if needed. And Åsa, please do let them know if you need any help, no matter how minor. Tomorrow we'll figure out what we need to do about tomorrow night." She nodded and turned her attention back to us, and from their reaction it was clear that this was a dismissal. Åsa did not look happy, but if she was annoyed or resentful she kept it under control. They left, and I noticed Lloyd in the hall again.
When the door was closed, Dr. Lee said, "I want her to be able to get medical help if she needs it, something Christy couldn't really provide anyway. On the other hand, I don't want somebody to stay in the room with her, because I'm curious to see what she will do. We know she went out last night, and either she doesn't remember or she refuses to tell us. If she goes out again, I want to know where she goes."
Jan nodded. "I agree. We need to watch and see what she does tonight. Will she go out? Will she visit Lloyd again? If so, will she climb up the outside of the building naked? Can you have a couple of people work with Marshall on this?"
"Aren't you going to be here?"
She smiled. "I let Marshall do the more strenuous parts of the investigations. He'll report everything I need to know."
Dr. Lee turned toward the door and called, "Neil." The door opened, and I wondered how many other people were waiting around out there in case she needed them. "Is Rex here?" she asked him.
"Get him, and Christy."
He nodded and left.
"The infirmary has two exits," she continued to us. "A door and a window. We'll keep both under observation, without letting her know she's being watched. There's a rec room across the hall from the infirmary door. Rex often plays cards in there during the evening, and Neil sometimes sits in as well. It won't arouse suspicion for them to spend the evening there, and they can keep an eye on the infirmary door."
Jan nodded. "That sounds good. I noticed a building across the street that seems to be empty. Marshall could operate from there, watching the window."
"And Christy can work with him." She turned to me. "Lloyd's window is on the same side of the building – Christy will know which one – so you can see if Åsa does any nocturnal climbing."
"What if she takes a motorcycle somewhere?" I asked. "Then we won't be able to follow her unless Christy has a motorcycle as well, and then she'd see us."
Dr. Lee shook her head. "All the bikes are accounted for, always. If she's going out and she wants to keep it a secret from me, she'll walk."
So, several hours later, Christy and I were sitting on a coffee table. It was the only item of furniture in the living room of the empty house across the street from the Jinx headquarters. We had long since exhausted our supply of small talk, and we were quietly sharing a thermos of coffee when she suddenly said, "Look."
The street was dark, and the light in the infirmary had been off for a while, but we could see the window being raised slowly. I quickly closed the thermos and stuck it into my knapsack.
A foot in a sandal appeared in the window, and then a pale, slender leg came slowly over the sill, followed by another, and then the pale globes of Åsa's posterior as she lowered herself carefully to the sidewalk. For a second, as her back came into view, I was afraid that we really would be following a naked woman around, but then, as the rest of her came out of the window, a dark and billowy garment appeared on her shoulders and fell around her body as she straightened up. She pulled the window most of the way down.
"Is she going to go somewhere," Christy whispered, "or is she going to climb up the building to Lloyd's window?"
I had been looking at that wall for a couple of hours, and I was not sure that it would be possible to climb from the street up to a window on the third floor. The wall was nearly smooth, all concrete. There were areas above and below each window where the concrete stuck out a little, shaped to look like a row of bricks, presumably for decoration, but I couldn't see how it could be done.
I was not about to find out right then, though, since Åsa immediately walked away down the block. We slipped out of the empty house and followed her.
It was a chilly, drizzly night, and the streets were nearly deserted. I wore a dark coat and slacks, and Christy wore a black trench coat and jeans, with a dark baseball cap pulled down over her full red hair. She'd explained that, since members of the Jinx wore their leather jackets all the time, they were often not recognized if they wore something else.
Then she'd looked somewhat sheepish, as if she'd revealed a state secret.
We made an effort to be inconspicuous as we followed Åsa, but it didn't seem to matter. She never looked around, though a couple of times she slowed and seemed to waver, and one time she put out a hand as she turned a corner, leaning against a building for a moment. She kept the coat (or whatever it was) wrapped around her, so it wasn't possible for the few people she passed to see that she was naked under it.
We followed her for eight or ten blocks, away from the center of U-town, toward the highway and the river. Then she turned a corner and slowed. We slowed also, and then stopped, ducking under an awning. After a moment, still without looking around, she walked forward. We came up to the corner as she crossed the street toward a tall fence with an ornate gate in the middle of the block.
All we could see on the other side of the iron fence was trees and foliage, but I remembered that there was a house in there, on a plot of land that covered a whole city block. I was trying to recall whose house it was as Åsa paused at the gate, and then she opened it and slipped inside.
"Who lives there?" Christy asked. She was whispering, though there was certainly no way Åsa could have heard.
I shook my head. "I'm trying to remember. A writer of some sort, maybe a poet."
"Poetry must pay better than I thought," she said with a chuckle.
I motioned and we crossed the street, peering in between the iron uprights of the fence. From there, the house itself was visible through the trees, and we could see Åsa hurrying around to the side of the house. We watched her open a door and slip inside.
The house was old and decrepit-looking, and there were no lights visible through the trees. "I don't remember the whole story," I said quietly, "but I think it's his family's house. They used to be rich, but no more. I believe he's popular with college kids."
We waited for about an hour. The rain had slowed to a light drizzle, but the cold wind was even stronger than it had been before. I wished I'd worn warmer clothes. My hands were getting familiar with every corner of my coat's pockets.
People walked by from time to time, but not many. At one point, Christy stayed put while I walked quickly around the block, just to see if there was anything significant to observe. I didn't see anything, but as usual I wondered what my employer might have noticed that I had missed.
Then, unexpectedly, Christy put her hand on my arm. It is probably an exaggeration to say that I jumped, but I was not able to completely conceal my surprise, and I saw that she noted my reaction. Christy was, I knew, as tough as any other member of the Jinx when she had to be, but the rest of the time she was fairly prim and proper, and not at all touchy-feely. Also, like some recovering alcoholics (which I knew her to be), she gave the impression that she never made a gesture without evaluating it first.
So, although I was sure that she wasn't making a pass at me, I did jump, a little, and she instantly got worried that I was going to think she was making a pass, but before she could speak to clarify her intentions, whatever they were, I saw her react to something she saw over my shoulder. She gave a wry smile to let me know that I was going to have to wait to find out what the sudden gesture had meant.
"Here she comes," she said quietly.
We sprinted back to the corner and concealed ourselves, but again it didn't seem to matter. Åsa stumbled out of the gate and headed back the way she'd come, so we followed her. It was starting to rain more steadily now.
Her progress was very different, though, and there were times when I was fairly sure she wasn't going to make it. She walked like she was drunk or drugged, shambling along, nearly losing her balance more than once. She wasn't managing to keep the coat closed, and at times we could see a bare arm or leg as the cold wind caught the thin fabric. People who were in front of her were clearly seeing somewhat more, and a couple of times she had to rally her remaining strength to unleash some impressive and colorful curses.
When we approached the Jinx headquarters, Åsa headed for the infirmary window, but when she opened it (obviously with more difficulty than before) she only took off her cloak and threw it in. Then, looking increasingly unsteady, she climbed up to stand on the windowsill, looking up at Lloyd's lighted window, two stories above.
It was at that moment that I found myself sprinting across the street, which certainly broke every rule in the "How to Tail Somebody" handbook, but it meant I was in position to catch her when she toppled off the sill and fell toward the sidewalk. She was unconscious by then, and for the first time I saw the blood which was running down her neck.
The next few moments were hectic. Christy ran around the building to the front door. She knocked as I followed her quickly. Somebody opened the door and we rushed in, Christy shouting orders.
I got to the empty infirmary, and Neil and Rex appeared from across the hall, then Christy rushed in with Nikolai, the tattooed medic. We got Åsa on the table and he started to examine her. He was wearing only a pair of sweatpants, and the art on his torso was quite striking. I noticed the coat on the floor by the window, where she had dropped it. I picked it up and held it out to examine it. It was a cloak, black, of fairly thin material.
Dr. Lee came in. "How is she?" she demanded.
"Alive," Nikolai said. "Somebody get Betty."
Dr. Lee tapped Rex on the shoulder and he ran out. She looked at us. "Please come to my office," she said.
Neil, Christy, and I followed her out.
I smelled the pipe smoke before we turned the final corner.
My employer smiled as we entered Dr. Lee's office, and I winked at her, since I hadn't believed for a moment that she was going to stay home. She was quite capable of going off and leaving me with any sort of unpleasant task, but this case was bothering her. If she had gone home, she would have paced and smoked and fretted. Besides, as I mentioned before, relations with the Jinx were quite important, and I was sure she'd been working with (and on) Dr. Lee.
We all sat down, and Dr. Lee said, "Please tell us everything."
We did. I told most of it; reporting quickly and completely was one of my job skills.
"The house," Dr. Lee said, "do you know who lives there?"
"A poet, named Isaac Ashford," my employer said. "She went there last night as well."
Dr. Lee frowned. "How do you know that?"
"There are lilac bushes on the grounds, around the house. The only ones I've ever seen in U-town. They're not native to this area." She reached into her pocket. "I found a lilac petal on Åsa's boot when I examined it this afternoon. It was stuck there by the rain the night before."
"Well, we need to visit this poet." Dr. Lee said.
Jan nodded. "I'm thinking that it might be better in the morning, better than now."
Neil chuckled. "Do you want to see if he appears in daylight?"
She smiled. "That's not the biggest question, but I would like to know the answer."
"Are you thinking that there might actually be a vampire in this?" Dr. Lee demanded. "I was assuming that would not be your solution."
"Well, I don't come to conclusions before I have all the facts. And there are a lot of things I don't know yet."
Dr. Lee looked unhappy, but she apparently didn't have an argument for this.
There was a quiet knock on the door, and Neil went to open it. He stuck his head out and listened for a moment, then he said, "It's Lloyd. He's heard that Åsa is worse, and–"
"Come in," Dr. Lee called. "Christy, you can go," she added.
Lloyd joined us, with some hesitation, and Dr. Lee said, "As I'm sure you've heard, Åsa is indeed worse."
"Can I see her?" he asked. He took off his hat and held it in his hands.
"If you want. She's unconscious." She turned to Neil. "Go and check on her. Take Lloyd with you, then come back here and report." She turned to Rex. "You can go. We don't need for you to stay up all night."
He laughed. "I was getting lousy hands anyway. Have a good night."
They all left, and Dr. Lee said, "Assuming that Åsa is stable, I think this is what we should do. Somebody will stay with her all night. There is no more reason to see where she'd go, we know that now. Now we have to restrain her from going, physically if necessary. No matter what's going on, it's obviously killing her."
Jan Sleet nodded. "I agree. And we can go see the poet in the morning."
"I'll send Christy with you. She can meet you at the hotel first thing tomorrow." She smiled. "Though she's probably gone there already."
"Do you have a photograph of Åsa?" my employer asked. "That would be helpful when we see Ashford."
Dr. Lee looked thoughtful. "I think I can find one. I'll make sure Christy brings it." She stood up. "And tomorrow I can introduce you to Spence. He should be back by then." She turned to go. "He's Åsa's boyfriend," she said as she left.
My employer turned and glared at me, as if it was my fault that Åsa had a boyfriend and we hadn't known a thing about him until this minute.
When we got back to the hotel, Jan surprised me by saying that we needed to go see Fifteen. I didn't bother to ask why.
She took us to his room and she knocked on the door. "Fifteen," she called, "it's Jan. Is Christy there?"
"Possibly," he answered slowly.
"If she is, I need to ask her a question."
"We were just playing Parcheesi, I swear," he said.
She laughed. "I don't care if you were playing strip cribbage. We can even wait for you to finish. But this question is important."
Fifteen opened the door. He was wearing a faded T-shirt and garish boxer shorts, his feet bare. Christy was sitting up in bed, wearing a T-shirt, her red hair tousled.
"Strip cribbage?" he asked as we came in.
"I'll explain the rules later," Jan said as she looked around the room, which contained a large bed, a small dresser, and several piles of paper. "I confess I did leave out one thing. The question is short, but it has a long preamble. May I sit on the bed?"
He nodded. "Okay, but behave yourself." He tilted his head toward Christy, who giggled. "We're not alone."
"I'll be on my best behavior, I promise. May I smoke?"
Fifteen looked surprised, since she almost never asked permission. He looked around quickly, not seeing anything that could be used as an ashtray. After a moment, Christy leaned over and retrieved a coffee mug from the floor. Fifteen bustled off to wash it in the bathroom, then he presented it to Jan, who inclined her head, thanked him, and tapped her ash into it.
"After you left, Christy," she began, "Dr. Lee mentioned Åsa's boyfriend, Spence. I was somewhat surprised, since you hadn't told us about him. Dr. Lee mentioned him as she was leaving the room – clearly she didn't intend to tell us anything more than his name – but Marshall got a few details from Neil as we left. They've been going out for over six months. They're not demonstrative in public, but the relationship is not a secret. He was away for four days and he just got back today.
"So, why had you not mentioned the relationship? Was it real, or was Dr. Lee making it up? That seemed unlikely. I couldn't see why she'd do that, and in any case it would be too easy to see through.
"Were you hiding it from me for some reason? Again, I couldn't see what reason you could have, and besides, that would have been futile as well. I'd be bound to find out, as indeed I did.
"Did you not know? I don't think so. I couldn't visualize you sharing a room with somebody and not knowing that person had a lover. There are people who would be that incurious, that indifferent, but you're not one of them. You're a warm and friendly and empathic person, so you would have known. Unless Åsa was very anti-social, you and she would have talked about your boyfriends, how the relationships were similar, how they were different, and so on.
"That's if you were roommates. But what if you weren't her roommate, or maybe you were, but just for a day or two, not for all these months? That would explain it. And, if that was the truth, and you were lying, it was because you were told to.
"So, this is the question. Have you really been Åsa's roommate for all this time, or were you told to lie? And I should make it clear that, if you do tell me, the answer won't go outside of this room. I'm sorry to have to ask, but I want to figure this whole thing out, and this is a part of it."
Fifteen was sitting next to Christy by then, holding her hand, but she didn't look at him before answering. She looked down at the sheets as she said, "Yesterday morning, before I came to see you, Dr. Lee sent for me. She told me to move my stuff into Åsa's room, and then to go see you and invite you to see her. And she said that, when you came to investigate, I should tell you that I'd been Åsa's roommate since we got here." She looked up. "I'm sorry."
"In your situation, I'd have done the same thing, I'm sure. Do you know why Dr. Lee told you to do this?"
She shook her head. "No, she doesn't give reasons."
"I have an idea," Fifteen said. "We've been talking about it tonight, in between games of Parcheesi, and I have a guess."
Jan smiled. "I'd be very interested in hearing it."
"Dr. Lee wants to know what's going on. From what Miss Christy has told me, she always wants to know what's going on. She can't figure this out herself, so she wants your help. But you're a detective, a skeptic, you don't even believe in God, for goodness' sake, so you'd probably pooh-pooh the very idea of vampires. But she does want your help–"
"–and she doesn't strike me as somebody who likes to be pooh-poohed under any circumstances," I added.
"Exactly. So, she gets Miss Christy involved, right in the middle of the whole situation. She's the one who comes to see you, she's Åsa's roommate, and she might even be in danger herself from whatever-this-is." He smiled. "It would probably increase the chance that you'd want to help."
I took a quick shower before going to bed. The evening's adventures had left me feeling somewhat grimy, and I wanted to make sure I'd washed off all of Åsa's blood.
So far, I had no idea what was going on with this case, and I could tell Jan didn't know either.
When I opened the bathroom door, the lights in the bedroom were out. As I felt my way across the room to the chair where I'd left my pajamas, she said, "I'm asleep already. But you can wake me up if you want to."
"I may do that," I said. "If I do, will you explain this case to me?"
She sighed and turned on the bedside lamp. "No," she said. "Not yet." Her hair was freshly brushed around her thin face. She always looked younger without her large, horn-rimmed glasses.
I got into bed and lay back, stretching. "Do you know what I'm wondering about?" I asked.
She laughed. "Oh, wait," she said, squirming around. "Hang on." She fumbled on the bedside table until she found her pad and pencil. She scribbled for a second, then she said, "Okay. Go ahead." I held out my hand, and she folded the piece of paper and gave it to me.
This was a game that we played from time to time. It was her belief that she knew me well enough to predict what was on my mind in most situations. It was my belief that she couldn't do any such thing, and in matters like this it was not inconceivable that one of us might cheat a little. So, she wrote down her prediction and gave it to me, folded up, before I told her what was on my mind.
With the piece of paper safely in my hand, I said, "I'm wondering at Dr. Lee's motivation in this. Why does she call you in, rather than dealing with Åsa more directly? She admits that she doesn't believe in vampires, so what does she think is going on?"
"Look at the paper," she said, and her tone told me that, for this time at least, she had been right. She was pressed against my side, and I felt a silent giggle as I unfolded the paper and read the clumsy block printing that she always used when she wrote without her glasses.
"1) Why is Dr. Lee doing this?
2) Where did Åsa get the cloak?"
"The cloak?" I asked.
"She didn't have it on her. She didn't leave the infirmary by the door to get it; Neil and Rex would have seen her. She didn't have it the night before; she wore her regular clothes then. Where did it come from? Somebody must have brought it to her." She smiled. "Anyway, was I right or not?"
"You were right," I said, squeezing her bony shoulder. "But if you're so smart, what's the answer?"
She shook her head. "I'm not sure. I am sure that part of it is that Dr. Lee wants to know what the heck is going on. But there's something else." She sighed. "I don't know what, though, not yet, nor do I know what's going on with Åsa. Yet." She was quiet for a minute, then she said, "I can tell that, in general, Dr. Lee does want to know everything. Look at how she barged in on poor Christy." She chuckled. "Not that you were complaining, of course. I thought it was diplomatic of you not to drool."
There was no advantage to be gained by responding to that, so I said, "I have one more idea, too. I think this has something to do with you."
"With me? What do you mean? You think I'm a vampire?"
I laughed. "No, not that." I squeezed her again. "I'm talking about Dr. Lee's motivation. I think she's checking you out for some reason."
"Trying to figure out if I'm overrated, if I was just lucky with Felix?"
"No, more than that. I just don't know what."
"I agree," she said, nodding. "I agree that it is more than that, and I agree that you don't know what it is."
She looked so pleased with herself that I didn't have the heart to ask her to write down her answer to this question.
In the morning, there was a knock on the door, and Jan said, "I'm not here." She pulled a pillow over her head. I went to the door and asked who it was.
"It's me," Vicki said. "Duty calls," she continued as I opened the door.
"I don't know anybody named 'Duty,'" Jan said from under the pillow.
"I think you're about to be reintroduced," I said.
Vicki laughed. "I know it's early," she said, "but I wanted to be sure to catch you before you ran out to hunt more vampires."
Vicki Wasserman was around fifteen years old, very small, with long, straight black hair, dressed as always in a black T-shirt and black jeans. She was accompanied by Ray Stone, who was dressed in a worn flannel shirt and jeans, and looked like a derelict. Their appearances aside, they were two of the founders of U-town, and two of the smartest people I've ever met.
Jan still had the pillow over her head. "Who are you?" she asked. "I don't recognize your voice."
Vicki hopped up on the bed and picked up the pillow.
"Hi," she said, waving. "It's us."
Jan squinted. "I can't tell who you are. You're all blurry."
"Here," I said, sighing, "put on your glasses."
She took them, then she groaned and hauled herself up into a sitting position. I handed her a cigarette and lit it for her.
"This is about reporters, isn't it?" she asked dolefully.
Vicki nodded. "Yup."
"They're downstairs," Ray added, "and they want some answers." He lit a cigarette. "About vampires."
Jan groaned again.
I knew what was really bothering her, apart from her usual reluctance to get up in the morning. Dealing with the U-town press always rankled because, in her opinion (and mine, too, I admit) she was a better reporter than anybody on the U-town newspaper. But of course, you can't be part of a government and also report on that government in the press at the same time, no matter what your qualifications are (and no matter how much you might want to).
She shook herself. "I'm sorry," she said. "Tantrum over. What's the situation?"
"Fifteen told us you're investigating this vampire business," Ray said, "for Dr. Lee."
"Do you know what's going on?" Vicki asked, sitting on the edge of the bed.
Jan shook her head. "Not yet."
"Well, it's becoming kind of a problem," Vicki continued.
Ray nodded. "There have been a few unexplained incidents, and people have seen Åsa on her midnight prowls. Some people are really getting alarmed, and the whole thing is turning into a fad among some of the younger folks, which doesn't help. We'd like to issue a statement, saying that you're looking into it, but you're sure it isn't vampires."
"But that's not true. I can't rule out vampires until I know what really is going on."
Ray chuckled as Vicki said, "Wait a minute. You think there may really be vampires?" She laughed. "You don't believe in God, but you think there are vampires?"
"That's two different things," Jan said seriously. "I've thought and read about the question of god, and I've concluded that it's a lot of hooey. Until yesterday, I'd never thought about vampires at all."
"Aren't vampires supposed to be damned in some way?" I asked. "If there's no God, how can anybody be damned?"
Vicki smiled. "This is why I brought Ray."
"So," I said, "we're seeing this as a psychological problem? Some sort of mass insanity?" Since the founding of U-town most of Ray's attention had been focused on the hospital, specifically the psychiatric department.
Vicki laughed. "No, not because of that. Because he's read a lot of trashy books." She turned to him. "Are vampire myths always based on religion?"
He drew deeply on his cigarette. "Definitely not. First of all, many vampire stories don't deal with the question at all. Vampires are made by older vampires, but there's often no mention of a First Cause. In other stories, it's a form of blood disease, not supernatural at all. In some stories, in fact, a vampire is created by a curse (which doesn't require belief in a deity, after all, only a belief in magic), and then cured by science. So, it's a bit of a hodge-podge. And, of course, real vampires, if there are any, are not obliged to follow the rules set down for fictional ones."
Vicki said, "Well, we need to address this. We may think it's silly, or at least some of us do, but people are taking it seriously."
Ray nodded. "I agree. We should listen to what people are really saying, not just dismiss it."
"You agree with me?" Jan asked.
He shook his head. "No, my point is that we need to find out what they're really saying. We need specifics, not just the label 'vampire.' For example, do I believe that corpses rise as the living dead, roaming abroad by night, subsisting on the blood of the living, able to become bats or wolves or mist, vulnerable to daylight, and the stake, and the cross, and holy water, and garlic, sleeping in coffins during the day? No, I do not.
"I understand your point, but I think it would not be possible for vampires, as they are generally described, to exist in the modern world for any length of time and for that fact to remain secret. After all, we've only started to see any evidence, and the populace and the press are already all agitated about it.
"So, I don't believe in vampires as supernatural creatures. However, do I believe that someone could be out there, attacking people at night and feasting on their blood? Sure, that's human evil and insanity, and I do believe in that." He smiled as he stubbed out his cigarette butt in one of Jan's many ashtrays. "It wouldn't be the first time a natural situation was ascribed to supernatural causes out of ignorance."
"Now, here's something else," Jan said. "I don't want to issue a statement about vampires, but I'm perfectly willing to issue a statement along the lines of 'Jan Sleet is investigating this mystery, and she's solved every case she's undertaken since her arrival here in U-town.'" She smiled. "I would be very comfortable with a statement like that."
Vicki nodded. "I agree. Maybe we should call a meeting for tonight, too, to find out exactly what people have seen, and what they think. Have the runners spread the word."
Jan shook her head. "Make it for tomorrow night. Announce it now, but make it tomorrow."
I had thought that Isaac Ashford's house might look less gloomy in the clear light of morning, but it didn't. I pulled open the gate and we stepped inside. The path to the front door was overgrown, the crazy-paving tiles half-covered with dirt and moss. As we got closer to the house, it looked just as gloomy but quite a bit more shabby. I got the impression that Mr. Ashford was devoting more of his resources to atmosphere than to maintenance.
The paint on the double doors was faded and chipped. My employer raised her cane and used the head to rap on the door.
After a moment, the door opened (I won a small bet with myself – it did creak, and quite loudly) and a young woman regarded us. She was thin and pale, with long black hair. She wore a black mini-skirt and a small black bikini top. Her feet were bare, and her toenails were painted black to match her fingernails.
When it had become apparent that she was going to stand there looking at us until we went away, my employer said, "My name is Jan Sleet, and I need to see Isaac Ashford."
The girl nodded very slowly. "I'll see," she said, and she moved to close the door.
My employer's hand shot out to block the door, the head of her cane hitting the wood with an impressive crack. The girl looked stunned as Jan pushed her way into the small entryway between the outer and inner doors. "This is not a social call," she said. "Where is he?"
The girl was having some trouble comprehending this behavior, so my employer led us through the inner door and into the front hall.
Well, "front hall" may not be the appropriate phrase, given the unusual architecture of the house.
I have been in a couple of houses (mansions, really) where the first thing you see when you enter is a wide staircase right in front of you. This was true here, with the only difference being that the staircase went down, not up.
We were, in essence, on a balcony that ran around three sides of a large central pit. About a dozen feet ahead of us was the staircase, leading down to what seemed to be a rather shabby but elegant basement living room, illuminated by large candles on tall poles.
My immediate question was whether all this was business as usual around here, or if we were expected and this was for our benefit.
"You can't come in," the girl said. She sounded rather forlorn, since, after all, we were already in.
A tall young man, also pale, also dressed in black (though somewhat more modestly), rose from one of the couches that were placed around the outer wall of the balcony we were on. "Mr. Ashford is working," he said, walking toward us. "He can't be–"
He made the mistake of reaching for my employer's arm. His hand didn't make it, though, because Christy grabbed his wrist, twisted it around behind his back, and calmly said, "Miss Sleet? Shall I break it?"
My employer shook her head. "Of course not, at least not yet. I'm sure that when Mr. Ashford said that he was not to be disturbed, he was thinking of autograph seekers and gossip columnists, not–"
"Miss Jan Sleet," came a soft voice from behind me. I did my best not to jump, since there had been nobody there a moment before.
My employer turned, as calmly as if she had known he was there all along, and extended her hand. "I'm Isaac Ashford, my dear," he continued. "It's always so pleasant to meet a fellow writer. What brings you here today?"
Ashford was a couple of inches shorter than my employer, with a lined face under jet black hair. His clothes were dark, including a burgundy smoking jacket.
His two acolytes looked quietly pleased. However he had achieved his magical appearance, they were obviously aware of the mechanism.
"I am here officially," my employer said, shaking his hand. "I have some important questions to ask you."
He smiled. "Then why don't we go downstairs and be comfortable?"
There was no way to avoid it, but my employer was not happy about the invitation. With her bad leg, stairs were very difficult for her if she didn't have a railing to hold onto. This palatial staircase didn't have railings, except at the sides, and it would have been an admission of weakness for her to go that far out of her way.
I crooked my arm and extended it, as if I was her escort to a formal dinner (as I had been once or twice). She rested her hand on my forearm and we proceeded down the stairs, following Ashford and his acolytes, with Christy behind us. Jan did very well at appearing smooth and relaxed, but the reality was that her long fingers were holding my arm in a grip of iron.
When we had made it to the bottom, to the odd living room, she released my arm and suppressed her desire to sigh in relief.
The acolytes brought up three chairs as Ashford went to sit behind a huge wooden desk. The room seemed enormous, with clusters of furniture placed here and there, like the lobby of a hotel. The irregular illumination provided by the candles added to the spookiness, since it was difficult to see the walls.
My employer lit a cigarette as we sat down, and she leaned back in her chair.
"I need to ask about a visitor you had last night," she said, "named Åsa, of the Jinx."
Ashford looked puzzled, leaning back in his ornately carved chair. The girl came forward and gave him a cigarette, and the boy lit it for him.
He glanced at both of them before replying.
"I don't know anybody by that name, I'm afraid."
She shrugged. "It's possible you know her under another name. She is about five foot six, with short hair, dyed blonde, and her eyes are pale blue. She is quite thin, and her skin is pale. She is probably around thirty years old." I took out the photograph, which Christy had given me earlier, and placed it on his desk.
He glanced at it and smiled. "She sounds delightful. I hope she does come to visit us someday, but I'm afraid I don't know her."
My employer levered herself to her feet. "Åsa came here the night before last, and she left in a weakened state. She may have come before that also; we don't know. But we do know that she came back last night and left this house injured and bloody and unable to make it all the way home."
"And I've told you that I've never met her," he said mildly. "So, is this where you threaten me?"
Jan Sleet shook her head. "What's the cliché? 'This isn't a threat, it's a promise.' I don't do either. This is a mystery I've decided to solve, and my track record speaks for itself. And, when I do–"
"Excuse me," Christy said, stepping forward. "Miss Sleet will not threaten, but I will." She stood directly in front of Ashford's desk and leaned forward. "I am here with a message from Dr. Lee of the Jinx. If you have harmed our sister Åsa, the Jinx will descend upon this house in force, all of us, and we will destroy both you and it." She turned and left, walking slowly up the wide stairs and out.
Ashford had tried to interrupt Christy with some sort of mocking comment, but she had just continued talking, as impassive as a tape recording. As she left, it was obvious that he was somewhat shaken, and as he turned to Jan Sleet, she said, "I am, as you know, one of the administrators of U-town, and I should tell you that we do not, of course, endorse this type of threat. However, you should also be aware that we don't have the forces which would be required to protect you or this house against hundreds of angry gang members. Good day."
She turned and we climbed the stairs toward the door, her hand again resting on my arm. "I am going to examine the side entrance to this house," she called over her shoulder. "Don't worry, Marshall knows the way."
Outside, we pushed our way through the undergrowth to the corner of the house and around. What had looked like an entrance the night before now was revealed to be a small and dilapidated shed, leaning against the side of the house. There were windows on three sides of it, and it appeared to be some sort of small greenhouse. It didn't seem like it would receive very much light, with the surrounding trees as thick as they were, but perhaps the trees had come later.
I pushed open the door, which was coming off its hinges, and we stepped in. There were battered benches and tables along the outer walls, and broken clay pots on the uneven wooden floor. The smell of mildew was strong.
My employer brought out her pocket flash and turned it on. She looked around, focusing her attention on the side of the house, which formed the fourth wall of the shed.
"Odd place for an assignation," I observed. "Pretty unromantic, and there's no way to get into the house."
She smiled, running her fingers along the edges of the boards. "Yes, it would seem so." She continued her examination for a couple of minutes, then she triumphantly pressed something, there was a click, and part of the wall swung toward us.
We peeked around the edge of the open panel, seeing the interior of the house, the balcony, the dark walls, and the flickering candlelight.
It was not the secret door Ashford had used for his magical appearance – we were on the other side of the house – but if a building had one secret door it wasn't hard to imagine that it might have more.
Jan closed the hidden door again and grinned. "This is my kind of house," she said. "I always wanted to have a case with at least one secret panel."
I laughed. "I wonder who's in charge of making sure the regular doors creak and the secret panels don't."
"And look," she said, pointing the flash down at the boards beneath her feet, but I had already seen the blood stains there.
I spotted Christy as I pushed open the iron gate and we stepped out onto the street. She was barely visible around the corner, in the same place where she and I had waited the night before. As we crossed the street to her, I could tell that she felt awkward about the way she'd delivered the ultimatum, with no advance warning to us, though I was sure she'd been told to do it that way.
Jan was aware of this and wanted to settle the issue quickly, so she grinned as we approached Christy and said, "That couldn't have gone better if we'd planned it," and then she squeezed Christy's shoulder. Christy was surprised by this, and then I saw a smile flash across her face, as she realized that she had surprised me in exactly the same way the night before when she'd suddenly put her hand on my arm. We shared a brief grin as Jan said, "Let's go. We've got some things to tell Dr. Lee."
As we set off, I was suddenly sure that when Christy had put her hand on my arm the night before, she'd been about to tell me that the story of Åsa being her roommate had been a fake.
We were back in Dr. Lee's office, and we had described what had happened at Isaac Ashford's house. When we were done, Dr. Lee looked ready to dismiss Christy, but Jan said, "It might be good if Christy stayed. As Åsa's roommate, I'm sure she's concerned."
There was a glance between the Jinx leader and my employer, and I knew that Dr. Lee was now aware that the "roommate" deception had been discovered. She smiled and nodded thoughtfully.
"If Åsa was visiting there legitimately," she said slowly, "why enter the house through the side, through a shed and a secret panel? Why not use the front door?"
Jan nodded. "It's possible that Ashford was telling the truth. Åsa may have gone there to visit someone else, one of his staff perhaps. He may not have been aware of it at all."
"Or that may be exactly the reason," I suggested. "Remember how she was dressed. Why walk around naked, on a cold and rainy night? Unless you're going to visit someone, perhaps the same way she's been visiting Lloyd. In that case, arriving unexpectedly, through a secret panel, naked, that could be part of the effect. Maybe Ashford enjoys that sort of thing."
Dr. Lee nodded, and my employer was restraining herself. If we'd been alone, she would have made a comment about my surprisingly deep insights into the sexually adventuresome mind.
Instead, she asked, "What do we know about these young people he has around him?"
"I asked some questions about Ashford after you left last night," Dr. Lee replied. "They're college students, apparently. He makes speeches at universities – that's where most of his money comes from – and he often recruits an adoring fan or two as well. I think there's some sort of scam involved, internship or work-study or something like that."
Jan Sleet nodded. "In any case, he gets unpaid and adoring assistants, and they get college credit and reflected glory."
"There's more than that going on," Christy said. "That girl was practically naked."
My employer laughed. "She was indeed, but famous artists have seduced willing fans since the first popular cave painter. If that was all that was going on, I'd say that at least they were getting college credit out of it. But Åsa's condition indicates that something far more serious is happening here."
Dr. Lee looked grim. "Solving this is your department, primarily, but it is stopped, as of now, whatever it was. Åsa is not going to leave this building again until this is figured out. I will lock her in the basement if I have to. And Christy's message to Ashford is the literal truth."
Jan held up a hand. "We need to know a lot more before we do anything."
Dr. Lee nodded. "Of course. We never act without reason." She smiled. "There is another factor, however, that you may not be aware of." She reached down next to her chair and pulled up a large poster. "These started going up this morning. A couple of people brought them to me." She unfurled it so we could see.
The image was a painting of a house, looking very much like a highly romanticized version of Ashford's house, including creepy overhanging trees, a stormy sky, and a bolt of lightning. The text read, "First Blood," and the subtitle was, "The Vampire Poems, by Isaac Ashford." Near the bottom it said, "Coming Soon."
Jan sighed and drew on her cigarette. "Well, he's certainly not being subtle about this."
Dr. Lee put the poster down again. "Spence came back a few minutes before you did. Would you like to talk to him now?"
Jan nodded. "Very much so."
Dr. Lee turned to Christy. "Can you go get him? He was ravenous when he got in, so he'll probably be in the cafeteria."
Christy nodded and left.
"I don't wish to pry," my employer said after a moment (meaning that she very much wanted to pry, but knew in advance that it would be futile), "but are you satisfied that Spence has actually been away?"
Dr. Lee looked somewhat surprised. "Yes, completely satisfied, because he did what he was sent to do, which couldn't have been accomplished any other way."
The door opened a few minutes later, and I wondered if Spence had been able to finish his meal before being summoned to see us.
He certainly looked as if he'd just returned from a journey. He was unshaven and somewhat grimy, his dark hair disarrayed. For all that, he was fairly handsome and quite tall.
He paused as he reached us, and Dr. Lee said, "Please sit down." He did, and she continued, "This is Jan Sleet and her assistant Marshall. She is helping us to figure out what's been happening with Åsa."
"Have you seen her, since your return?" my employer asked him, lighting a cigarette.
He shook his head. "Neil met me when I got back, and he told me that she's worse, and that nobody knows what it is. I was going to stop in at the infirmary, but he said she was asleep."
There was a knock at the door, and Neil stepped in. To my surprise, he was followed by the girl from Ashford's house. She was wearing a black T-shirt and sneakers now, in addition to her miniskirt, and she looked thoroughly miserable. Spence stood up and offered her his chair, and she sat down and immediately burst into tears.
"Spence," Dr. Lee said, "we'll continue later." He nodded and left, though I could tell he wanted to stay.
"What is your name?" Dr. Lee asked the girl after a few moments.
"Your real name," my employer added.
She wiped her face and blew her nose. "Mindy Parrish, ma'am," she replied. "I'm from Missoula, Montana. Mr. Ashford calls me Marisa, but my name is Mindy."
"And why are you here?"
"I'm scared I'm gonna get into trouble, ma'am. Mr. Ashford didn't tell you the truth. That woman you asked about, she was there, at his house, about a week ago. She was there for a few hours. He showed her around, and then they talked for a while. I don't think she ever came back, but I don't see everybody who comes and goes."
"You did the right thing in coming to us," Jan said.
"Have you been staying there, at Ashford's?" Dr. Lee asked her.
"Are you going back there now?"
She made a face. "I don't know. That woman, you said she was bloody and everything. What happened to her?"
"We don't know," Dr. Lee said. "Her name is Åsa, and she says she's fine, but we can tell she's been hurt, repeatedly. We know she'd been visiting Ashford, for at least the last two nights, but we don't really know what's going on."
"Not yet," my employer added.
"Mindy, would you be willing to see her?" Dr. Lee continued. "Just to make sure it is really the same woman? That would help us a great deal. Then, if you're still uneasy about going back to Ashford's, you can stay here tonight, or longer, until you're sure what you want to do."
This was something I had never really thought about before, as Neil came in and was instructed to turn Mindy over to somebody named Angie who would take her to see Åsa.
The Jinx were, in many ways, like Gypsys, but one difference was that they were not all the children of previous generations of Jinx (at least as far as I knew). So, they must have come from somewhere, and at that moment I would have bet even money that Mindy was going to end up a member of the Jinx, sooner or later.
I wasn't sure how I felt about this, since she was fairly young, and obviously confused and vulnerable, but fortunately (at least for me) our current situation of cooperation ruled out any response.
Dr. Lee smiled and said, "She will have a choice, of course, at every stage."
My employer frowned, and I knew she had no idea what this exchange had been about. As usual, she had been thinking along very different lines. I knew she would ask me about it later, when we were alone.
"Is Spence waiting out there?" Dr. Lee asked Neil.
He shook his head. "He's still trying to eat. He ran back to his food."
She smiled. "He will be displeased if we haul him back up here again."
"If it's possible," Jan said, "I'd like to eat something as well. Marshall and I can go out and–"
"Of course not," Dr. Lee said, standing up. "You're here to assist us. Feeding you is the least we can do. Come." I gave Jan my hand and helped her to her feet.
We went down to the basement floor, where there was a small kitchen and a large dining room. The tables were about half full, and I saw Jinx of all ages from elderly to children. We went into the kitchen, where we served ourselves from big pots of chili and stew and vegetables.
As usual in these situations, I carried Jan's plate on my tray, since she couldn't carry a tray herself because of her cane.
When we stepped back into the dining room, I saw Spence at a round table with three other Jinx. As we approached, obviously planning to sit there, the others quickly moved to another table.
Spence gestured for us to sit, and Dr. Lee said, "We thought we'd interrupted your meal enough for one day."
He chuckled. "I was eating quickly, just in case."
We occupied ourselves with our food for a few moments, then Jan said, "Spence, did you notice anything unusual about Åsa before you went away?"
He shrugged. "She was a little distracted, I guess. Had something on her mind."
"Do you have any idea what it was?"
He shook his head. "No."
The rest of the conversation was equally unproductive. He had been gone on his mysterious errand for four days, as we'd learned from Neil, and he wasn't aware of any of Åsa's visits to Lloyd (which had started before his departure), or any possible trips to Ashford's house.
Neil came over to our table and said, "You should be aware that there are a few reporters outside, being very insistent. They want to see Miss Sleet. About vampires."
Dr. Lee nodded and turned to us. "I can send some people with you, to clear them away and then to escort you home."
Jan smiled. "I'm sure you have other ways of getting out of this building besides the front door."
Dr. Lee nodded after a moment. "Of course," she said quietly. "Are you leaving now, or is there more you want to do here?"
Jan finished the bite she was chewing and swallowed. Her interrogation of Spence had meant that she still had food on her plate though the rest of us were done. And she knew I would have something to say if she didn't finish her meal.
"I'd like to talk to Christy for a moment," she said.
"She's over there," I said, pointing. I had spotted her distinctive red hair when we'd come in.
My employer considered making a sarcastic comment about my ability to locate Christy even in a crowded room, but she postponed it. As I've said, Christy was very attractive, and my employer, for reasons which are beyond the scope of this report, sometimes teased me about my (supposed) interest in her.
Seeing that Dr. Lee was about to summon Christy to us, Jan grabbed her cane and levered herself to her feet.
"We'll go over," she said. "It's no problem." She glanced at me. "And then I'll finish my lunch and we can go."
Christy smiled as we approached and indicated that we should join her. Jan sat, and then said, "Christy, can we have dinner with you and Fifteen tonight?"
She smiled. "I'd be glad to, but I don't know his schedule. He has a lot of responsibilities–"
"–which I can make go away with a wave of my hand."
Christy laughed. "I guess you can. That would be wonderful."
Jan got to her feet again. "I'm sure Marshall and I have meetings we should be attending this afternoon, so let's get together at the hotel around dinner time, and then we can go someplace nice from there."
"So, are we suspects?" Fifteen asked as we sat down. "Have you decided I'm a vampire?"
Jan laughed as the waiter hovered with the wine list. "No," she said, "neither of you is under any suspicion of anything. Well, except perhaps the improper use of a Parcheesi board." We all laughed as she waved a hand, dismissing the waiter.
We were back at the Indian restaurant where we had heard about vampires before. Jan had quizzed our guests very carefully about their preferences, and it had appeared that Indian food was fine with them.
"I don't mind if you all drink," Christy said quietly.
Jan shook her head. "Thank you, but I'm not much of a drinker. And, while I anticipate that this will be a very pleasant evening, I am actually working. To be frank, I need to know more than I know now, and you two are the only people involved in this case who I'm sure aren't guilty of anything. So, I want to quiz you, for hours and hours, about various subjects, and see what I can come up with."
The waiter brought us menus, and Jan said, "For example, Christy, I imagine it was pretty big news among the Jinx when I solved the murder of Felix."
Christy nodded. "We talked about it a lot. We were all glad you figured it out, though some people felt he kind of deserved it. Well, not to be killed, but it was pretty messed up how he treated Dorothy, and the girl who killed him."
"What did people think of my work on the case? I don't ask out of ego..." She caught my expression. "Well, ego may be a factor, but I do have another reason for asking."
"Some people were impressed. Dorothy definitely was."
"What about Neil?"
She chuckled. "I have no idea."
"What about Åsa, or Lloyd, or Spence?"
"I never heard Åsa talk about it at all. Or Spence, as far as I can remember." She smiled. "Lloyd thought you were overrated, that you'd got lucky."
Jan smiled and opened her menu. "We should probably order."
My employer skillfully balanced her questioning with casual conversation, so she learned quite a bit (none of which seemed significant to me) without Christy and Fifteen feeling like they were being interrogated.
After quizzing Christy for some time (and immediately changing the subject whenever it seemed as though she was bumping into Jinx secrets), she eventually turned her attention to Fifteen. We were well into coffee and dessert by then, and my employer was smoking.
"So," she asked him, "what can you tell me about vampires as a cultural phenomenon?"
He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "There aren't any?" he suggested after a moment.
She laughed as the waiter poured more coffee. "I should have been more specific. Are there recent events that relate somehow, or might relate, to the question of vampires?"
"You've heard about Ashford's new book, I assume?"
She nodded. "Oh, yes."
"Well, in addition to that, there are a few people dressing up, playing at biting passersby. There are rumors of an increase in vampire-based role playing in... shall we say, private situations, but of course that's difficult to quantify."
"Thank goodness for that."
"There isn't any general panic, but rumors are increasing, and some people are coming to us with various questions and fears." He shook his head, looking unusually serious. "It's not going in a good direction, let's just say that." Then he smiled. "And of course there's the fashion angle," he said with a tilt of his head, indicating the four people two tables away from us, all very pale with black hair and elegant black clothes.
Jan nodded. "Of course."
I looked more closely at the young woman of that group who was closest to me. Turning to Fifteen, I tapped myself on the side of the neck.
He smiled. "The scars are considered quite chic," he murmured. "In some circles."
Christy shook her head. "I made the mistake of telling my son how silly I thought this all was. So, of course now he wants to get bitten himself."
I could tell that Jan was restraining herself from asking a question. She was interested in learning the age of Christy's son, just out of idle curiosity. Given the age of Christy's boyfriend, however, even my employer realized that this could be an awkward topic.
"Is there any anti-Jinx sentiment," she asked instead, "because of people seeing Åsa?"
Fifteen shook his head. "Not really. Vampires were already a hot topic before Åsa started appearing, and the general theory seems to be that the Jinx wouldn't have called you in if they had had anything to hide."
My employer smiled. "Some people have asked for my help and ended up regretting it, but Dr. Lee would seem to be too smart to make that mistake."
Much later, as we were getting ready for bed, she was looking pleased with herself. I knew it wasn't about the case (she never preened until she had every question completely answered), but I had an idea what was on her mind. She caught my expression and I said, "I know that look. This is not the time."
"What do you mean?"
I looked at her, and she made a face.
"You're thinking about the meeting tomorrow night," I said. "Where you will bring up the subject of the non-existence of God, not because it's relevant to vampire murders, but just because you want to."
She looked miffed. "Well," she said after a moment, "you're just a poky old Catholic." She sat down next to me, and I put my arm around her.
"Well, let's take that apart," I said. "Catholic? I haven't been to church in over seven years. By common law, the church and I are divorced."
"That's an interesting theory," she said, drawing her head back to look at me skeptically. "It has the virtue of originality, anyway."
"As for 'old,' that's clearly a relative term, depending on the age of the observer."
"Well, this observer, your fetching young wife, finds you to be old." She nuzzled against my cheek. "Attractive, of course, but in an 'oldish' sort of way." She drew back her head to look at me again. "You're avoiding the question of 'poky.'"
"I am, of course, poky, in comparison to my young and fetching and somewhat lunatic wife. I do have to try to keep her alive, after all."
Later, when I was nearly asleep, she tapped me on the shoulder. "Marshall?"
I made a noncommittal noise, as if I might be Marshall, but I might be someone else.
"I have a question," she said.
I was tempted to sigh, but that would have been rude so I didn't.
"Come here," I said, and she rested her head on my shoulder, her long legs entwined around mine. "What's your question?" I asked, putting my arm around her.
"Am I wrong?"
"About what?" I asked, not mentioning that this was the first time she had ever asked me this question.
"Should I be telling people there are no vampires? Even though I'm not sure it's true?"
"Why would you want to tell people something that isn't true?"
"So nobody panics and does something stupid." She shook her head. "It was easier when all I had to do was solve the mystery and write the article."
"I think you're handling it the right way," I said. "For one thing, just making the blanket statement that there aren't any vampires wouldn't convince the people who are the most likely to panic. For another thing, if you do say that and then it turns out that you're wrong, then you've lost their trust." I hugged her. "Do you want to be a reporter, looking for the truth, or do you want to be a politician?"
I felt her chuckle. "You know the answer to that."
The next morning, I asked where we were off to, and she told me that we were waiting. That could have meant we were waiting for something specific, or it could have meant she had no idea what to do next. I didn't ask which it was.
In any case, we ended up in a meeting about sanitation, and I was idly wondering about the possibility and the advisability of getting a second cup of coffee when the door opened and Neil came in, followed by Christy and another Jinx who I didn't know.
"I'm sorry to interrupt," he said, "but we need your help. Spence has been murdered, and Lloyd has vanished–"
The door crashed open again and a very small teenage girl burst in, bellowing, "MAIL! HIGH PRIORITY! IMMEDIATE DELIVERY!" as she strode around the table, pushing Neil aside. Christy, who was more accustomed to our ways, had stepped back as soon as the door had opened.
Ron (for that was the girl's name) placed the large envelope in front of my employer, then turned to leave, only pausing on her way out to try to stomp on Fifteen's toes.
The door slammed behind her, and Neil asked, "What the hell was that?"
Jan smiled as she opened the envelope, using the stem of her pipe as a letter-opener. "Oh, that's Ron," she said, peering at him over her glasses. "She delivers our mail."
"Next time we negotiate with the Scorpions, I'm bringing her." He shook his head. "Anyway–"
My employer held up a hand as she flipped quickly through the papers, which appeared to be official documents (in fact, based on previous experience, I had a pretty good idea what they were). "I realize the situation," she said slowly, her eyes on the papers, "but this information may provide the answers. However, I must read and then think a bit, or I might make a mistake." She looked up. "Can you do something for me?" She was trying to seem calm, but I could tell she was excited.
Neil nodded. "Of course."
"Please go back and make sure nothing is touched or moved. Then send a vehicle back, a car or something–"
"We have a van."
"That would be fine. Then I'll come and investigate, and maybe we can settle some of this today."
We were in Spence's room. He was lying on his bed, naked, with his throat cut. It was not pleasant to look at, though it was not the first dead body I had ever seen. I found myself thinking that I hadn't particularly liked Spence anyway, but that was unfair since I hadn't really known him at all.
"A knife was used," Dr. Lee observed. "It's not here, but we found it in Lloyd's room, along with some bloody clothes. But no Lloyd."
My employer nodded. "The appearance is that it was a killing driven by jealousy. Lloyd, upset that Spence had succeeded where he had failed, murdered his rival, and then ran for it."
Dr. Lee frowned. "Your tone tells me that you're not buying that explanation. Neither am I."
"Do you have another?"
She nodded. "I do. I think I may have made a mistake."
"In what way?" my employer asked.
"Ashford must have known, after my ultimatum, that he wouldn't be able to get Åsa to come to him anymore. So, what did he do? He sent that Mindy girl to us. She was betraying him, so I'd tend to believe her, and I offered her sanctuary. So, she was inside our home, and able to act on Ashford's orders."
Jan nodded. "That's good thinking. You're wrong – that's not what happened – but it's a good thought."
Dr. Lee was about to ask a question, but Neil knocked and came in.
"Success?" Jan asked.
He nodded. "Yes."
My employer turned quickly to Dr. Lee. "May I run this?"
"Do you know the answer?"
"Yes. I know all of the answers, or at least I will in a few minutes."
The Jinx leader nodded. "Alright."
"Neil, I need to do one thing, with your help. Dr. Lee will accompany us. Then, while she and I are doing that, please bring the following people to Dr. Lee's office: Christy, Åsa, Nikolai, Mindy, and Rex. Don't let any of them talk to anyone alone after they talk to you, and don't let any of them know about..." She waved a hand, and he nodded.
"Got it," he said as he turned to the door, the two women following him out.
As I stood there, suddenly alone with the dead body, I reflected (and not for the first time) that sometimes it was difficult to tell which my employer enjoyed more: solving mysteries, or keeping me in the dark until the last possible minute.
About twenty minutes later, we were all in Dr. Lee's office. Dr. Lee was in her usual chair, and Åsa was in the other one, looking somewhat shell shocked. My employer sat on the sofa until everyone was assembled, then she got to her feet and walked slowly to the side of the room so she could be facing everybody.
Two Jinx who I didn't know stood on either side of the door.
"Marshall teases me sometimes about my reluctance to do conventional detective work," she began, "but I use those methods when they are necessary. With Dr. Lee's cooperation, I did two things the night before last. One was that I obtained fingerprint samples from three people: Åsa, Lloyd, and Spence. This was done without their knowledge, from items in their rooms. We have a friend who can get fingerprint information for us, and that information arrived this morning.
"Here is what we found out. Lloyd has no record. Spence had been arrested a couple of times, years ago, for petty theft and extortion. But there was some very significant information about Åsa." She turned to Dr. Lee. "Do you have a policy on members who were police officers in the past?"
"Yes. They are not allowed. Ever."
"And what if you discovered that a member in good standing had been a police officer at some point?"
"He or she would be kicked out immediately, because that would mean they had lied to become a member in the first place."
"And what would they take with them when they left?"
"Well, we wouldn't kick them out naked. They'd get whatever clothes they were wearing, not including their jacket, and nothing else."
"Well, then you will be interested to learn that Åsa's real name is Jillian Wells, and she was a police officer for–"
Åsa started to stand and protest, but Neil was standing behind her by then, and he grabbed her shoulders and slammed her back down into the chair. "Quiet," he said in a low voice. She slumped, her head hanging.
"How do you fill out a crossword puzzle?" my employer continued calmly. "Say the clue for 1 Across is 'not skimpy,' in five letters. Well, one way to figure that out is to start with some obvious possibilities, like ample, broad, vasty, bulky, massy, and large. Fill them in, one by one, in pencil, and see what you can figure out for 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 Down. At a certain point, it will start to fall into place, and then you check what that gives you for the other words across. Sooner or later, it will all fit.
"So, we have a blackmailer and someone with a dangerous secret. What if Spence was blackmailing her?"
"He never–" Åsa began.
"Silence!" Dr. Lee snapped. "You do not get to speak. No matter what, no matter who murdered who, you swore a false membership oath." She turned to Neil. "Bind and gag her."
Neil nodded at one of the Jinx by the door and she went out. Dr. Lee turned to my employer, but she said calmly, "I'll wait."
It was at this point that I began to wonder if Åsa was planning something. Her head was hanging again, but I wasn't convinced that she was as defeated as she appeared. There was no way she could hope to get to the door, let alone through it, but I wondered about the window. It was three stories straight down to the sidewalk, but that could have looked like a good option to her right then, whether or not she was the sort of creature who could survive a fall like that.
I started to move slowly in that direction, toward the window, and I was nearly there when the woman came back in with a pile of colored cloths which I realized were bandannas.
Neil looked up, at the woman coming in, and Åsa suddenly leaped for the window.
She didn't make it, to the window or to me, because Neil grabbed her by the collar of her leather jacket and tossed her back into the chair. It was nicely done, I must admit. Then, as he tied her up with the bandannas, I saw him note where I was now standing. He glanced at my previous position, and then he nodded at me, so slightly that I'm sure nobody else noticed it.
"To take it a bit further," my employer continued, when she was sure the interruptions were over, "we have a potential blackmailer, a potential blackmail victim, and a joker who thought I was at least a bit overrated. So, let's make some assumptions and see where we end up, what other blanks we can fill in.
"Let's assume that Spence was blackmailing Åsa, his price probably being her sexual favors, at least. I thought from the first that the romance between them was not very convincing. She had no apparent interest in having him with her as she was recovering, and he seemed to have no real interest in her condition. When I've been hurt, I've wanted Marshall to be with me, and he's wanted to be there, and vice versa.
"In any case, quite understandably, Åsa found this whole situation intolerable. Not only was she forced to have sex with a man she despised, but she was still in constant danger that he would reveal her secret. And Lloyd would have helped her, both because he was infatuated with her and because it would have struck him funny to prove that I'm overrated. So, he told us an incredible story about Åsa visiting his room and ravishing him every night, arriving by the window, naked, and floating across the room, and he was laughing at me for believing it.
"Now, how did the case first come to our attention? Åsa developed vampire-like wounds on her neck." She smiled and looked at me. "Can we imagine people inflicting wounds like that on themselves?"
"It's become something of a fad," I replied.
"Exactly. And, very cleverly, she never admitted that anything was happening. In fact, she denied it, repeatedly and sarcastically, which was one of the best parts of her plan.
"We know she went out on at least two nights and went to Isaac Ashford's house, going into a shed at the side of the house. There is an entrance from the shed into the house, but there is no evidence that she used it, or that she interacted with him or any of his staff on those nights. Ashford denied he had ever met her and we know that was a lie, but the only time we know she was in the house was a week earlier, when she may have been investigating, learning what she needed to know for her plan to work. So, she could have gone into the shed that night and waited there for a while, without anybody in the house knowing anything about it, opening the wounds on her neck in the process so she could leave a blood stain on the floor.
"It may seem outré for a person to do this, but an animal will chew off its own paw to get out of a trap. She was in a trap, and she was tough enough to get out of it however she could. And she didn't even have to lose a limb, just some blood, and she had to miss some meals and pretend to be even weaker than she actually was.
"In any case, she came out of the shed, bloody and staggering, and made her way back here. Then, as she was apparently about to scale the side of the building to Lloyd's window, she collapsed into Marshall's arms." She looked at me again. "It seems that, if you hadn't been there, she'd have taken a nasty fall, but could she have heard you running across the street to catch her?"
"But how did she know we were there at all?" Christy asked.
"Because, according to our current assumptions, she was putting on a show. She had probably put it on the night before as well, and she would have continued to give repeat performances until an audience showed up. From what Marshall has said, it would have been fairly easy for her to spot you at some point, since she was apparently quite oblivious and that may have caused you to lower your guard. Besides, she had seen me earlier in the day, so it probably wasn't difficult to figure out the investigation was about to start.
"So, that's my premise. The vampire rumors were already going around, probably started or abetted by Ashford and his minions. Åsa saw a chance to create a big smoke screen behind which she could get free."
She turned to Åsa, who had given up on testing her bonds and sat glaring. "I'm sure you're wishing you could ask me where my evidence is." She smiled sadly. "I said I did two things the night before last, with Dr. Lee's cooperation. One was getting the fingerprints. The other was suggested by something Neil said after Felix was killed. When we found Felix's body, Neil wanted to seal all the exits of the hospital, but I pointed out how useless that would have been, a half hour or more after the murder. But this case was different, and the person behind it, when exposed, might well try to run rather than face the vengeance of the Jinx.
"It is an interesting thing about U-town. Unless you have a boat, there are only two ways in or out of U-town. There's the Arklay Bridge, which most people call the city bridge, and there's the Ravens Gate Bridge, which most people call the highway bridge. Both of them have been being watched for the last forty-eight hours, by members of the Jinx." She shook her head. "You're hoping that I'm bluffing, I know. I do bluff sometimes, but I know when it won't work."
She nodded at Dr. Lee, who snapped her fingers with a surprisingly loud crack, and the door opened.
The Jinx who came in was the largest woman I have ever seen. She was tall and wide and muscular, with long red hair, and she was escorting Lloyd, who was looking at everything and everyone in the room except for Åsa.
"I offered Lloyd complete clemency if he told us the whole story," Dr. Lee said quietly, "and he accepted my offer."
Åsa freaked out at that point, thrashing around and trying to get free, but the bandannas held. Dr. Lee regarded her, frothing and struggling, and calmly said, "Take her away."
The two guards who had been standing by the door came over and carried Åsa out.
Mindy looked unsure of what she should do, but Rex clapped her on the shoulder and said, "C'mon, kid. I'll buy you a beer."
She nodded. "Okay."
Lloyd left after them, looking morose.
Dr. Lee's attention was on Christy, who was sitting on the sofa. She looked like she was about to cry. She saw us looking at her and waved a hand. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'll be–"
"Don't be sorry," Dr. Lee said softly. She squatted next to Christy and took her hand. "Our sister betrayed us. Every day she lived with us was a lie, and now we will have her blood in our veins for the rest of our lives to remind us. You're right–"
There was a quick knock and then the door opened and Fifteen peered in. Seeing Christy, he hurried over to her.
Dr. Lee got up as Fifteen sat next to Christy and embraced her.
"Oh, punkin," Christy murmured, starting to cry. Fifteen stroked her hair.
"We'll be in the cafeteria," Dr. Lee said quietly. "Join us later if you want to."
In the hallway, Jan asked, "How did Fifteen know to come?" I could tell that Neil and Nikolai knew the answer already.
"I sent for him," Dr. Lee said. "As soon as we heard Lloyd's story. I knew she'd be upset."
In the cafeteria, we got coffee and sat down. It was the middle of the afternoon, so most of the tables were empty.
"I'm not clear on what happened last night," Nikolai said.
My employer smiled. She always liked it when people asked questions like that.
"We heard some of it from Lloyd," she said, "and we can figure out the rest, or at least most of it. He went to visit Åsa in the infirmary in the middle of the night. She seduced him, knowing from past experience that he would fall asleep right after. Then she put on his clothes and went to Spence's room. It was very late at that point, and she was careful not to be seen. Then she killed Spence. It appeared as though he was asleep – his posture gave that impression – but they might have had a conversation first. We don't know.
"Then she went to Lloyd's room. She left the knife and the bloody clothes there, and returned to the infirmary, wearing clean clothes. She took off the clothes, and then she woke Lloyd up and told him she'd visited Spence and they'd had a fight and she'd knocked him out. She had always told Lloyd about how jealous Spence was, which was probably a lie, but she said that Spence had found out that she was sleeping with Lloyd, and that he'd be coming after both of them as soon as he woke up. She said she had to run and she wanted Lloyd to run away with her. Lloyd was stunned by this, and she pressed him that they should leave separately and meet at the other side of the bridge, in the city.
"By the time he was halfway to the bridge, wearing the clothes she'd had on, he'd figured out that he'd been conned. For one thing, why were the clothes different from the ones he'd been wearing before? But he figured there was no reason to return. He'd helped her, and he'd lied to us; his life with the Jinx was over."
When the questions were answered, the conversation changed abruptly. Dr. Lee leaned forward, and started to grill us with questions about U-town and how it functioned. She asked about food and water and transportation and economics and enforcement and medical care and sanitation (I was able to dredge up a few useful facts that I'd heard in the meeting that morning).
Nikolai left at some point during this, and then Christy and Fifteen joined us.
Fifteen, once he realized what was going on, immediately took over most of the answering, revealing an encyclopedic knowledge of every aspect of U-town life that surprised even me. A couple of the projects he described were news to me, and I wondered if he was inventing them on the spot, but I never asked.
I was not aware of any signal or request, but at one point people bought us food, and then more coffee.
Jan looked around suddenly. "What time is it?" She loved to ask what time it was, though she always carried a pocket watch.
"Nearly seven," I said.
She stood up. "We need to get over to that meeting and settle this vampire business."
"We'll come," Dr. Lee said. "Neil, have the van brought around." He left and she addressed my employer again. "I assume you'd prefer to travel in the van, rather than on a motorcycle."
Jan smiled. "Thank you. With my leg, a motorcycle would be a bit challenging."
Jan, Fifteen, and I entered the auditorium through the side door, and headed for the wings. As we reached the side of the stage, we heard a murmur from the crowd. Jan was consulting with Vicki, so I looked out to see Dr. Lee, Neil, Christy, Rex, Nikolai, and two other Jinx I didn't know enter the auditorium and make their way down the aisle to the front row. Rex had driven the van, but the others had ridden on their motorcycles.
This was unprecedented. There had been a Jinx or two at some previous meetings, as there were at this one, but never as a group and never including Dr. Lee or Neil. This was the clearest statement I could imagine that they were throwing in their lot with us.
As they reached the front row, by which time everybody in the crowd was aware of them, people moved so they could sit together.
Jan adjusted her tie. "How do I look?" she asked, peeking out at the crowd.
I leaned over to whisper, "You look beautiful."
This caught her off guard, and she was not able to completely conceal her look of pleasure. She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, then she limped to the lectern, hooked her cane over the edge, raised the microphone, and started to speak. "My name is Jan Sleet. I am a reporter by profession, I solve mysteries as a hobby, and I play a role in the U-town government, as you probably know. This is the first, and almost certainly the last, public meeting here to talk about vampires.
"When this first became an issue, some people thought that I should get up here and say that there is no such thing as a vampire. That's what conventional wisdom says, after all. But conventional wisdom (which is a contradiction in terms, by the way, in a way that 'common sense' is not – but I digress) would also tell us that U-town itself could not exist. And, of course, it does. So, we cannot use 'conventional wisdom' to rule out the existence of vampires.
"And, even now, I am not going to stand up here and tell you that there are no vampires anywhere in the world. But I am going to tell you that there is no evidence of any in U-town, now or ever, and the 'evidence' that did exist was deliberately created, in an attempt to confuse and mislead all of us.
"The attacks on the woman known as Åsa of the Jinx were self-inflicted, to create and feed the idea that there are vampires among us. This was to provide a cover for a murder which she committed, against a fellow member of the Jinx who was blackmailing her. To be honest, in general my sympathy is with Åsa, since he was using a secret that he knew about her in order to force her to sleep with him. But she lost my sympathy when I realized that her solution was to kill the blackmailer and then to frame someone else, an innocent man who was desperately in love with her.
"In addition, she attempted to implicate Isaac Ashford, a local poet. He is, as we all know, an eccentric, but he is not a vampire, much as he may like to play at being one. Also, for all that she tried to make it appear otherwise, he only ever met her once, a week before the murder.
"These facts are all known and they are not in dispute.
"Now, if you were fooled by any of this, I encourage you to examine the logical processes which brought you to your conclusions. There was a period of time in this case when I did not know the answer, and, as I said, I thought that vampirism was one possible explanation. But there is a big difference between thinking of that as a possible solution, and deciding that the existence of vampires was a proven fact. If you came that the latter conclusion, then your reasoning was faulty, because the evidence did not support that conclusion."
It was about a month after the end of the vampire case when we finally learned what had happened to Åsa.
Jan stretched and smiled. She was still in bed, and for once she didn't wince at the morning sun coming through the window, and she didn't pull the pillow over her head.
"No work today," she announced. "No meetings, no mysteries, no articles, no reading, no writing. Just sleeping and eating and smoking and drinking coffee."
"It sounds like you've suddenly decided to start living entirely for pleasure," I commented.
"For today," she said, her eyes still closed. "Is it nice out?"
"It looks very nice," I said. "It's supposed to be warm, too. Warmer, anyway."
"Warmer is fine. Let's promenade along the..." She frowned and opened her eyes. "Promenade along the promenade? That doesn't sound right."
"I think you stroll along the promenade," I said, "Or you promenade along the... something."
"That sounds too energetic anyway. Maybe we could sit along the promenade, or somewhere, and have a nice leisurely breakfast, lasting well into early afternoon, with many cups of coffee, and many cigarettes, and some pleasant conversation."
And so it was that, on the first warmish day of spring, we were sitting in an outdoor cafe, sipping coffee, chatting about this and that.
"Ah," she said, gesturing behind me, where I heard a motor approaching. I assumed it was one of the Jinx, since almost nobody else in U-town used motor vehicles. It was Neil, and he waved as he pulled up to the curb.
"Come join us," Jan called as he cut the motor. "We've decided to spend the day in idle debauchery."
He raised an eyebrow as he approached, but he didn't comment on her fairly quaint idea of what "debauchery" might consist of. He took a chair from an adjoining table and pulled it over as we made room for him.
"What brings you out in the middle of the day?" he asked. "I thought you'd be in a meeting or something."
She shook her head. "Not today. It's too nice out." She drew on her cigarette and regarded him for a moment. "May I ask a question?" she asked. "Possibly two?"
He shrugged, smiling. The waiter brought him a coffee and he sipped it. "You may," he answered, "as long as it's understood that my answers are not official, and you agree that none of this will appear in print anywhere."
She laughed. "Please, I am a professional. When I do an interview, it's formally identified as such. I don't ambush people. And these questions are probably not of general interest anyway."
"Okay, ask away."
"Why is the Jinx policy so strict against having members who were formerly police officers?"
He nodded. "Good question. It came about because of experience, actually. Twice, in different cities, the police tried to infiltrate us by having a cop 'go bad' and try to join. Both of them were rejected for other reasons, but it made us aware that this was a tactic that they adopt from time to time. And the most obvious way to block it was to make the rule." He sipped his coffee. "That's why it applies specifically to the police and not to the fire department or the military." He smiled. "As you deduced at the hospital, I was in the military myself for some years. And your other question?"
"What happened to Åsa?"
He leaned back and sighed. "We were wondering if you were ever going to ask. Everybody who suffered because of what she did was Jinx, so there was a basis for leaving the resolution to us, but you have made it clear that this is your territory and that you're not sharing authority with us, so a case could also be made that she should have been turned over to you."
"It was a complex decision, and the next time the answer might be different," she admitted.
"Well, I will tell you, but I want something in return, I want an answer from you."
She smiled, lighting another cigarette. "About what?"
"How you deduced that I was in the military, and that my hobby is painting. I've been trying to figure out how you knew that. It's possible that you might have deduced that I was in the military, but how did you know that I paint?" He laughed. "I wash my hands when I'm done, and I don't lug my easel around like that fellow."
He gestured, and we turned around to see that a man had set up an easel and was painting behind us, on the other side of the narrow street. The large canvas was turned away from us, and it looked as though he was painting the small traffic island in front of us, which had once contained a statue. The man was handsome, with unruly hair and a faint stubble, and his smock and his jeans were stained here and there with paint. The only item of clothing that seemed to be clean was the battered tweed trilby he wore.
There was a woman watching him paint, and after a moment she came up and shook her head, pointing at the canvas. She took the brush from him and gestured with it, though it wasn't clear if she was just making a point or if she was applying paint to the canvas. They were both smiling, though, and it seemed that whatever argument they were having was one they had had before and would almost certainly have again.
As she was talking, he lit a cigarette, and, when she had made her final point, she took the cigarette from his mouth and kissed him lustily. Then she took his hat, perched it on her own full, dark hair, and strolled off, still smoking the cigarette.
"If you did lug your easel around," my employer commented to Neil, "maybe you'd meet some cute girls like her."
Neil laughed and looked at me. "Someday, Marshall, you should educate the great detective here about the difference between 'cute girls' and 'beautiful women.'"
I laughed as well, and he turned back to Jan. "So, do we have a deal? I answered your question, and I will answer another, then you'll answer mine?"
She was stuck, and she knew it. She did want to know the answer, and he had already answered one of hers, and she knew I was also curious about how she had made those deductions about Neil during the hospital case.
She nodded. "Deal," she said.
"Contrary to what some people think," he said, "the Jinx don't take vengeance. Åsa was brought to the bridge and told never to return to U-town." He smiled. "Not very dramatic, I know, but sometimes part of the way we protect ourselves is to seem more threatening than we are."
"On the other hand, I assume that the threat Christy made to Ashford was real."
He nodded. "Good point. Yes, that was the literal truth. If he had harmed Åsa, we would have killed him and destroyed his house. But, as you pointed out at the meeting, Åsa was not the villain here, not really. Spence was. She had to be kicked out, but we weren't going to do more than that." He sipped his coffee and then continued. "It's a moot point now, of course, but I'm curious as to whether you approve. We did release a murderer, after all."
She shook her head. "What she did was wrong, but it was under duress, and under circumstances which were very unlikely to be repeated." She smiled as the waiter poured more coffee, topping off my cup as well. "The detectives from whom I take my inspiration usually reserved the right to make those sorts of decisions themselves – to allow a murderer to escape or to let him commit suicide – if they thought that the situation warranted it."
"But you're talking about fictional characters, aren't you? Can those rules really be applied to real life?"
She smiled. "When people make that objection, it's usually because I think The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a better fictional guide for life than, for example, the Holy Bible."
Neil hooted a laugh and said, "Point taken." Still chuckling, he peered over my shoulder again. "In illustration of my earlier point, by the way," he said as we turned again, "that's a cute girl."
She was indeed. Shorter and younger than the other woman, blonde and curvy, with full, lush lips, she approached the painter from behind, clearly planning to surprise him. "His daughter?" Neil murmured.
The man turned (he had apparently been aware of her approach), and they kissed.
"Not his daughter, I would think," Jan said sotto voce after a while, as the kiss continued.
"I certainly hope not," Neil said with a chuckle. The girl finally stepped back to look at the canvas, still holding the man's hand, and I noticed a camera around her neck. She nodded at the canvas, and then tilted her head up to kiss him again.
"Uh oh," Neil said, and I followed his gaze to see the dark-haired woman approaching from down the block, looking irate. "Paint will fly in a moment," he said. "She looks like a fighter."
"I deduce that no violence will ensue," my employer said quickly, and indeed the dark-haired woman's ire was apparently still directed toward the canvas. She gestured at it, frowning (but again trying not to smile). As she made her points, the younger woman came to stand beside her, squeezing her around the waist.
"I still want an answer to my first question," Neil said as the man started to pack up his supplies, the women kissing and then starting to help him, "but how did you know this was not going to end up in violence?"
The dark-haired woman had removed the hat, and she playfully plopped it on the younger woman's head, where it fell down and nearly covered her eyes. Laughing and turning as she tilted it back, she spotted us and waved. "Hi, Marshall! Hi, Jan!" she called, and the others noticed us for the first time and waved as well.
Neil raised an eyebrow at my employer. "Apparently, it seems that you knew them already."
Deciding that this had gone on long enough, I said, "We were present at their wedding."
"Whose wedding? Who's married?"
"All three of them."
He looked thoughtful, then he laughed and turned to my employer again. "So," he said, "sometimes when you come to amazing conclusions, it's because you have inside information?"
She smiled. "Occasionally, I confess, that is the case."
The three had joined us by that time. We moved to a larger table, and the question of Jan's deductions about Neil was dropped. However, at one point, when the three painters were comparing notes on where they bought their supplies, Jan did mention offhandedly that she knew which store Neil patronized, since she'd happened to see him shopping there once, some months before.
Neil smiled when she said this, but he didn't comment.