the college mystery

Mail delivery was rather typical for U-town, in that it was casual, somewhat messy, and more or less functional.

Every morning, a post office truck came over the bridge and dropped a big canvas bag onto the huge piling that blocked the U-town end of the bridge. The bag was then put on a dolly and wheeled to a nearby storefront. The contents were sorted there (usually fairly accurately) by a group consisting of volunteers, people expecting mail, and runners. If people saw mail for their neighbors, they would usually take it as well (if they were on good terms). And the runners would also pick through the pile, looking for mail they could deliver (especially to people who were known to be generous tippers).

Our mail, the mail for the informal council that ran U-town, was collected somewhat more efficiently. A member of our staff, a young teenage girl named Ron, handled it. She clearly enjoyed the (supposed) status and prestige that this responsibility conferred on her and she wouldn't let anybody fill in, even when she was sick.

Every morning, Ron would go down to the bridge and wait for the mail truck. Then, when the canvas bag was dropped next to her, she bawled "Mail!" no matter who, if anybody, was around. She never transported the mail bag herself, but when people came with the dolly to bring it to our storefront post office she walked with them, usually watching them very carefully, especially if she didn't know them very well.

While the mail was being sorted, she would take anything for any of us and put it carefully into her bag. The bag was a battered canvas shoulder bag in olive green, with a faded red cross on it, and I never did see her without it. Then, when she was absolutely sure that she had every piece of "official U-town mail," she would set out for the hotel.

When she arrived, she would always attempt to interrupt whatever we were doing in order to deliver the mail immediately. This usually led to an altercation, most often verbal but occasionally involving kicking, with one of our young aides, usually either Pat (who couldn't stand her) or Fifteen (who took it as a friendly challenge whenever anybody tried to outdo him in officiousness).

Sooner or later, usually sooner, one of us would go to the door and let her in. The din she generated always made it impossible to concentrate on anything anyway. Ron was not large, but her lung power was nearly superhuman, and her voice resembled either a buzz saw, a chain saw, or the world's largest dentist's drill. Opinions differed on that point, but we all agreed that, of all the people we had ever met, she was the one we least wanted to hear singing.

When she had been admitted, she would walk around the table, giving each of us our mail. She would also tell each of us whether or not we had received any packages. In some cases she would actually give us the packages, but most of the time she would say, "It looked suspicious, so I disposed of it."

Ron was always very leery of packages. Her decisions may have been arbitrary, but it was not impossible to imagine someone sending us some kind of explosive, so we didn't complain. My employer had threatened Ron with various dire punishments (loss of her job, mostly) if any shipments from her tailor went astray, so they were always delivered.

We never did learn how she disposed of the packages she decided were suspicious, but none of them ever turned up.


On this particular morning, Ron was quite brusque when we saw her, and it wasn't until later that we learned what had happened.

When she'd shown up to deliver the mail, Fifteen had been especially adamant about not letting her into the meeting room, neglecting to mention that we weren't in there (we were having breakfast in the cafeteria). When she finally kicked him in the shin, ducked around him, and burst through the door, she had not been happy to discover that the room was empty.

She stormed into the cafeteria, spotted us and came over, looking very serious. We didn't know about her run-in with Fifteen, so we were somewhat surprised when, instead of starting to distribute the mail, she announced, "The mail is very important!"

"Yes, it is," Doc said. "Has somebody been interfering with the mail, Ron?" Even in the dining room, Doc usually sat at the head of our table. She took off her horn-rimmed glasses as she regarded Ron, who was obviously furious. Doc was concealing her amusement well (always a useful skill in a head of state).

"Some people," Ron said deliberately, "think it's a good idea to play stupid jokes and slow down the mail delivery."

"Did Fifteen play a joke on you?" Jan asked as Ron started to pull the mail out of her bag. She made a face but didn't answer.

"I think that means he likes you," Vicki said. "Boys often tease girls when they–"

"What?" she demanded. She was clearly so outraged by this idea that she could barely speak. She dumped out the remaining mail, slung her bag over her shoulder, and stormed off.

Doc sighed at Vicki. "That wasn't nice," she said, losing her battle to keep a straight face.

"Hee," Vicki giggled, covering her mouth. "I couldn't resist. When she calms down, she'll realize how ridiculous it is."

"Which won't be until after she takes out her ire on young Fifteen," Ray commented.

Pat made a face. "Well, he shouldn't tease her so much," she said. "It just encourages her to act up."

Vicki hopped up on the table, laughing. "Well, Fifteen will have to deal with the consequences. Let's see what we have here." She sat cross-legged in the center of the table and started to go through the envelopes. It was the usual mixture of fan mail, obscene screeds, peculiar questions, funny post cards, and family mail.

"Jan," she said, holding out one envelope, "this looks official. Maybe it's your diploma."

My employer looked at the envelope. "If they're sending me a diploma it must be honorary. I've never even heard of Barlowe... Hey!" Her eyes grew wide as she read. "They want me to come and speak. Like a guest speaker."

"How much are they offering?" Ray asked.

"What?"

He chuckled. "I know that the opportunity to address an audience would seem to be payment enough, but some amount of cash is usually involved as well."

"Cash which we could use," Doc added. "As usual."

"We should go and see Stuart," Jan said, grabbing her cane and getting to her feet. "If we hurry–"

"Jan," Doc said slowly.

She looked startled. "What?"

"It's Saturday. I don't think he'll be in his office."

My employer frowned. "Are you sure he doesn't have office hours on Saturday?"

"Almost certain," she said.

My employer smiled at me. "We know where he lives, don't we?"

"This is not an emergency," I said firmly. "It can wait until Monday."

She sighed and sat down again.

"Poo," she said.


"Car service."

"Lola? This is Marshall."

"Hello, Mr. Marshall. Do you need a car?"

"Yes, as soon as you can."

"Ten to fifteen."

"That sounds good. Thanks."

I hung up and went over to my employer. She had seated herself on the huge, colorfully-painted wooden piling that lay across the base of the bridge, marking the official border between U-town and the United States. This was where Ron sat every day, waiting for the mail truck. Due to my employer's impatience, however, we were there very early in the morning, far earlier than even someone as dedicated as Ron would have showed up to wait for a mail delivery.

The pay phone I had used was one of the few working ones in U-town. We relied on it from time to time, so someone we knew came and checked it once a week to make sure it was in good working order. He owned a small store now, but he had once worked for the telephone company.

"Ten to fifteen minutes," I said as I sat down. She was holding a cigarette and looking at me pointedly over her glasses, so I lit it for her.

"This may not work out, you know." I said after a moment.

Her lips twitched into a quick smile. "You think it's bogus?"

"Oh, no," I said. "To tell you the truth, that possibility hadn't even occurred to me. I meant that it may not end up making sense. Time and money, advantages and disadvantages, that sort of thing."

"I know. But I'll bet it does, especially if we can set it up to do more than one school."

I started to imagine what it would be like to go on a lecture tour.


"I think I'd be a good driver," my employer said thoughtfully as the car drove through the city traffic.

This topic had come up before, several times. Each time I had tried a different reply, and in each case the conversation had not gone in a good direction. I wracked my brain for a new response, one that I hadn't already used. I couldn't think of one, so I just said "Hmm" as noncommittally as I could.

"Hmm," she said in response. Then, since there were no more developments from my direction, she asked, "Do you still have your license?"

I nodded. "Oh, yes. I sent the renewal a couple of weeks ago. Ron's looking out for the envelope."

She nodded. By her expression, she considered it a small victory to have defeated me on the conversational front, even though she wasn't any closer to actually getting behind the wheel of a car.


Stuart Anson's office was in a busy commercial area, so it always took a while for the car to get us there through the traffic and construction and so on. The couple of times I'd gone there by myself I'd simply walked, but it was several miles from the bridge, and my employer couldn't walk that far.

Many of the buildings in the area were big and new, all glass and shining metal, but his small office was in an older building, made of stone, with creaky elevators. All the offices had transoms, from the days before air conditioners.

My employer knocked on the frosted glass door, and he called, "Come in." The glass still bore the name of the firm, Anson and LaJoie, but his partner had been dead for years. He no longer had a secretary, but his wife came in one or two days a week to handle filing and other clerical duties.

"Miss Sleet," he said, rising from behind his ancient wooden desk to greet us. "And Marshall. I'm so glad to see you."

He reached out and shook her hand, and then mine. His hair was nearly gone and his body was frail, but his grip was firm.

"To what do I owe this pleasure?" he asked as we sat down.

She put the letter on his desk. He put on a different pair of glasses and began to read.

Stu was our lawyer, and by "our" I mean the lawyer for U-town, though he was Jan Sleet's professional lawyer as well. That's how it had started. She had hired him to handle her contracts and other legal matters (including, but not limited to, bizarre and abrupt travel requests to odd parts of the world, conflicts with the local authorities when solving mysteries, protecting her sources, dealing with libel and slander suits based on her articles, and so on).

When U-town had been founded, there had been many new issues to deal with (citizenship, taxes, and many more), and I sometimes had the impression that he had no other clients anymore. He was in his seventies, at least. He charged for anything to do with my employer's professional life, but never for anything else.

His office had no ashtrays, and I had noticed that my employer never tried to smoke there. This was extremely unusual, and I never commented on it. This applied when we visited him. but not when he visited us, of course.

Once a week he came to U-town to report on various issues, and then we took him out to dinner at one of the best U-town restaurants. There were many to choose from, and we had never had to visit the same one twice.

By the way, Stu was the person who could get us fingerprint information when we needed it, as we did in the vampire case. He had built up many connections in his decades of practice.

Stu looked up and smiled. "I'm guessing that you want to do this."

"Well," she said casually, "only if it makes sense, of course."

He turned to me. "How desperate is she to do this?"

"Moderately desperate, but not foolishly so," I said, and we all laughed.

"It sounds fine to me," he said. "It's good money for a few hours work. I assume you have no problem with public speaking."

"No problem at all."

"I didn't think so."

"Do we try to dicker?" she asked.

"I'd say yes and no. The money itself seems fine. Leave that alone. I'll have them send me their standard contract and rider. The rider is where we'll negotiate. Transportation, for one. Food backstage. Availability to the press, including student press, and to the students themselves, before and after the speech. How long you'll answer questions. Hotel rooms for you to stay in, since it will end late and you may not want to drive home at that hour. Will it be just you and Marshall? What about security? What about security at the event? You're far more controversial than the average best-selling novelist, for example, because of your involvement with U-town."

I could see him working his mind through this as he talked.

"What do you think is the possibility of doing this at more schools?" she asked.

He shrugged. "Fairly good, I would think. I could make a few calls, see what interest there is."


Stu stood again as we got ready to leave, then he said, "Marshall, can you stay for a moment? There's something I want to mention to you."

Jan's thin lips pursed, and I knew she was not happy about being excluded. But then, as usual, she decided to treat it as a challenge, a mystery to solve.

When she was gone (and I had peeked out the door to make sure she wasn't lingering and trying to eavesdrop), I sat down again.

Stu smiled. "I wonder if she's realized how unusual this is," he said slowly.

"For her to be invited to speak at a college? She's certainly well-known enough."

"True, but the date is less than a month from now. I'm sure colleges usually book their speakers much farther in advance than that. So, my assumption is that someone else, another speaker, has canceled, and they're looking for a replacement."

I nodded. "That makes sense. And you think she'll throw a tantrum when she figures out that she was not their first choice."

"And you think so, too," he said with a laugh.

"Well," I admitted, "I do think it's a possibility."

"Of course it is. So, your responsibility is to break it to her in such a way as to reduce that possibility. And do it soon, so if she does throw a fit, it will be over by the time of the event itself."

When I got down to the street, she was signing autographs for a group of teenage girls. I waited patiently as she answered a couple of questions, then the girls moved off and she lit a cigarette. She smiled at me, the smoke framing her face. "Just tell me it's not Ashford," she said.

I laughed and I kissed her. The kiss surprised her so that she laughed, too, and I said, "I have no idea who you're replacing, but when I was doing research on him I noticed that he spoke there last year. It doesn't seem likely that they'd book him two years in a row."

She smiled. "Indeed it doesn't. When will the car be here?"

"In about ten minutes."

"Good." She took my hand. "Let's go practice our osculation in some convenient vestibule until it arrives."


After the trip to see Stu, things went back to "normal," but my employer was obviously thinking about the speech more than she let on during the day. She started working on it almost immediately, and there were many occasions when I woke up in the middle of the night to find that she'd got up out of bed and was sitting at her desk writing, the room hazy with pipe smoke.

In some cases, I just rolled over and went back to sleep. On a couple of nights I got up and opened the window slightly, just so I could breathe. On those occasions, she was so deeply involved in her work that I know she didn't even notice, though I'm sure she eventually wondered why her legs were getting cold.

Twice I woke up and she was sitting staring at a piece of paper in abstraction, her pipe cold and dead in its rack. On those nights I went over, blew out her candle, picked her up and carried her to bed. She didn't protest when I did this, and she was asleep before I even pulled up the covers.

I will spare you any details about the process of deciding what she would wear at the college. Suffice it to say that every possible outfit was considered very carefully, and she owned a lot of clothes. A few times she even proposed buying a new suit, but I told her no. We were trying to make money through this project, among other goals, not to spend it.


One day after lunch, Fifteen came into the meeting room and asked, "Have you thought about security? For the college gig?"

My employer shrugged. "No, but I almost have my speech ready. Would you like to hear it?" She said this with a smile, and we all laughed, since she'd been trying to get us to listen to it for almost a week. Not that we weren't interested, of course, but we did have other things which needed doing, and she would have read us a fresh draft every morning if we'd allowed it.

"Of course I'd be very interested to hear it, at some appropriate time," Fifteen temporized. "But on the security front, I wanted to let you know that Miss Christy would like to do it, and Neil gave the okay."

Jan nodded. "That would be perfect. Please let her know that we'd be happy to have her. Perhaps she would like to come and hear the speech this evening. I would be interested in getting her feedback." She looked around. "And everybody's."

Doc, apparently sensing that this was now inevitable, said, "Why don't we get together here, tonight, after dinner? Whoever can make it?"

Everybody agreed, and Fifteen said he would tell Christy.


So, after dinner that evening, with a fresh pot of coffee on the table, we were ready. Vicki and Pat were there, and they were clearly in "off-duty" mode, since they were holding hands and Vicki had removed Pat's ever-present baseball cap and hung it on a hook near the door.

Doc, Ray, and I were there as well. Ray and I had pads and pens in front of us, for taking notes. Doc had declined writing materials, saying, "Oh, just entertain me." I also had the most recent handwritten copy of the speech itself. Jan was going to deliver it from memory, and I was to mark every place where she deviated from the text.

Fifteen and Christy were there also. They were obviously off-duty as well, but they were both sitting quite properly. They were seldom demonstrative in public anyway, and Christy in particular was looking very serious, as if it was some sort of honor to have been invited to this.

Jan sat at the head of the table. By the way, this was one of the things that Stu had specified in his negotiations with the college, that she would have a table and a chair, rather than the usual podium and lectern, because of her bad leg. Someone from the student government, apparently unfamiliar with my employer, had asked if we needed a table with a modesty skirt. Stu had made it clear that she would definitely be wearing trousers.

It was also made clear to us in the negotiations that smoking was not allowed in the auditorium. My employer said this was fine, but, as she told me later, "Even if I start to smoke in the middle of the speech, I think it's fairly unlikely that guards will rush the stage, overpower me, and throw me out of the building. Especially if it's going well."

I had to admit that she was probably right.


The speech was still in a fairly early stage of its development, but it already had the basic form of the final version, which you may have read. It was based, generally, on drawing the connections between her career as a reporter, her hobby of solving mysteries, and her participation in U-town, both in the founding and in the government.

The biggest differences between the draft we heard on that day and the final speech that she delivered at Barlowe University (and at other colleges later) were the tone, and the material about her father. The tone was a gradual evolution over the different drafts. She described it later as "removing myself from the speech." In the version we heard that day, there were quite a few anecdotes and stories and digressions that were mostly there because they delighted her for some reason (or because they showed her in a particularly flattering light). They were gradually removed as she worked on it further.

The other difficulty was addressed almost as soon as she finished.

"That's it," she said, lighting a cigarette. Doc applauded, which was rapidly taken up by the rest of us. I could tell that Christy had wanted to applaud right away, but she hadn't been sure if it would be appropriate.

"This is not my only comment," Doc said, "but your voice was noticeably rougher at the end than it was at the beginning. We'll have to limit the number of times we do this, or it could be a problem when you deliver it for real."

This was true, though we all knew that part of Doc's reason was to restrict the number of hours we devoted to this over the next two weeks.

Ray was smoking and looking over his notes. "My biggest comment?" he said. "The material about your father needs to be cut, or at least trimmed a lot. It's really a distraction from the elegant construction of your arguments."

Jan smiled and turned to me, and I shook my head. "No, dear," I said, trying to keep a straight face. "I did not tell him to say that."

They laughed, and she said, "Marshall has been telling me the same thing. I thought it was because he knows so much about my parents."

"Well," Christy said tentatively, "I think that, at a certain point, we do whatever we do in our lives. Our parents have influenced us, of course, but the decisions are ours." She smiled. "I've been thinking about this because my son just turned fourteen. He's a man now, by our rules, and whatever he does, I can't take the credit. Or the blame."

Doc nodded. "Christy is right, and not only because she's the only one in this room who has actually reproduced, as far as I know. Also, Jan, it becomes awkward that you talk about your father so much and never mention your mother. I know you were raised by Vinnie, but the audience will just end up wondering about why your mother isn't being mentioned, and that will distract them from what you're actually saying."

"Think about them, the audience," Vicki said. "Focus on what they need from you. I think it will start to fall into place when you do that."


"Doug," my employer said, "there are two things you have to remember as a reporter. One is that you always need to be aware of when you're starting to annoy the person you're interviewing. Which in this case is me. The other is that this isn't supposed to be an interview at all. You're writing an article about the speech I'm giving tonight, the background, the scene, the audience, the reaction. That's what you should concentrate on, those are the things you can't get again if you miss them today. If you realize later that you need to get something from me, I'll be available." She smiled. "Is that clear?"

He nodded.

We were in a limousine, heading for the college. I was in the passenger seat, since I had the directions and the map. Jan, Christy, and Doug were in the spacious back seat. Doug was a reporter for the U-town newspaper, assigned to cover the speech. He was nervous – apparently this was his first big assignment – and my employer was a bit tense as well, so she was lecturing him on his responsibilities, just because he'd made the mistake of asking her a question.

Stu was planning to meet us at the college. He hadn't been able to drive for several years, so his wife was going to bring him there. They lived in a suburb north of the city, about a half hour from the campus.

Doug appeared to be about eighteen, tall and gawky, wearing a workshirt and jeans. I had a feeling that this was probably the best outfit he owned. I was wearing a dark suit. Christy was in her usual black skirt, black T-shirt, boots, and a leather jacket. Unlike Jan and Doug, she seemed very calm. I wondered if she was armed. On one hand, if we did run into trouble, it might be helpful. On the other hand, we were now in the land of concealed-carry laws. I decided I was just as happy not knowing.

My employer was wearing a black suit, with a gray shirt and a charcoal tie. This was her traveling outfit; she had another suit (three piece, dark blue pinstripe, with an ivory shirt and a red tie) in a garment bag. She would change before the speech, since there was no way to keep her suit from becoming wrinkled from sitting in the car. Once she changed, she wouldn't sit down until she was on stage.

Old-time movie stars used to have a slanted board to lean against so they could rest between takes without rumpling their clothes. She had considered asking for one of those, but I had talked her out of it.


An hour later, we arrived at the college. Two hours after that, after a dubious dinner, my employer started her speech to a packed auditorium. Two hours after that, as the speech neared the end, I saw the first police officers enter the back of the auditorium.


(This was the last question in the question-and-answer session.)

Q: Miss Sleet, I've been reading some Sherlock Holmes for my short story class, and I had a question. Holmes sometimes does this thing where he watches Watson and then predicts what he's thinking, or he sees a new client and figures out all kinds of stuff about them just by their clothes and their hands and so on. Is that really possible? Do you do things like that? Or is that just in stories?

(My employer lit a cigarette.)

A: First of all, I want to congratulate you on your choice of reading material. [Laughter] If not for your hair color, I would think I'm addressing myself from about four or five years ago.

Seriously, there are really two different things here. One is Holmes' deductions about Watson, and that is very possible. I do that with my assistant Marshall all the time, and he can do it with me as well. It's not a supernatural feat of deduction; it's just applying the things you learn about someone when you spend a lot of time with them, especially if the two of you are together in many different types of circumstances, which is certainly true of Marshall and myself.

The other example you gave is more difficult. It's not impossible, but I think it's exaggerated in the stories. For example, I would never want to decide whether a particular person's flattened fingertips came from typewriting or piano playing based on how "spiritual" their facial expression was.

But we see things all the time which we don't analyze. Let me give you an example. There are two police officers in the rear of the room here, and when the side doors have been opened I've seen two more outside in the corridors. They were not here when I started, but they appeared about fifteen minutes before the break between my speech and the question-and-answer session. The people here with me – my assistant, my attorney, and the person responsible for my safety – have been watching this, as have I, but there hasn't been much for any of us to do about it.

Eleven people got up to leave after the speech itself, during the short break, and all of them returned to their seats within a few minutes. I'm not counting the people who used the side doors, to the rest rooms, I'm talking about the people who left through the rear doors, to the lobby, presumably intending to leave the building.

Obviously, all eleven of them didn't have a sudden change of heart in the lobby, so it seems reasonable to assume that no one is being allowed to leave the building. With the only available options being to stand in the lobby or to return and hear the questions and answers, they decided to come back in.

This is not a stunt, by the way, and it is not theatrics. I am going to ask you all to stay in your seats and stay calm.

The next question might be why the program has been allowed to continue. I assume it's so that the police can do some preliminary physical investigation, of whatever has happened, with all of us docile and occupied, rather than having to deal with a few hundred people all clamoring to be allowed to leave and go somewhere else.

Now, as I said, my assistant and my lawyer and my bodyguard have been in the wings throughout this presentation, but the other person who came with me has been conspicuous by his absence, and that's the reporter who was sent here from the U-town newspaper to report on this event.

Not to be facetious, but either he's a very bad reporter – to entirely miss the event he's supposed to be covering – or there is almost certainly a connection between his absence and the presence of the police. From this, I make the tentative deduction that, in whatever has happened, he is either a suspect, or a victim.

I'll make the further deduction that this presentation should end now, but that none of us will be leaving this auditorium any time soon.

Oh, and I'll make one more comment. In a way I hope this was not a premeditated crime, whatever happened. Because if it was planned, for this particular night, this would seem to have been a very bad choice. Good night.


Twenty minutes later, Jan, Stu, Christy, and I were in an empty dressing room backstage. It was around a corner from the one where my employer had changed before her speech, and it apparently hadn't been used recently.

There were two police officers with us, but they weren't answering any of our questions or volunteering any information, so we stopped asking. Stu and Jan sat down on two of the dusty straight-backed chairs, and Christy and I stood.

"Stu," Jan said after a few minutes, "I'm sorry you're stuck here with us."

He shrugged. "Well, this is new for me. I've never been held for a crime before without even knowing what crime it was."

"They must know we didn't have anything to do with it," Christy said. "We were on stage."

My employer shook her head. "That's not why they're holding us." She lit a cigarette. "They think that if they let us go, we'll go home. Which we wouldn't – not without Doug, or at least without knowing what happened to him – but they're afraid that we would, because then we'd be technically outside of their jurisdiction." She smiled at Stu. "At least we're providing you with new experiences."

He laughed. "You always do. That's what keeps me from retiring. U-town is a lawyer's dream. Before I met you, do you know how long it had been since I did something I'd never done before? Every year, the same types of clients, with the same types of cases. Now, I do new things every day, and often they are things no lawyer in the world has ever done before. That's much more appealing than retirement. Well, that and the fact that my wife has indicated, in no uncertain terms, that she doesn't want me underfoot all the time." He frowned. "Do you think Doug is being held for something? If so, I should–"

She shook her head. "It's possible, logically, but I don't think so. I think he's dead. That's why I'm willing to wait."

He nodded sadly. He had got half out of his chair, but he sat down again. "I think so, too. Unfortunately."

Things were quiet for a few minutes, then I noticed one of the cops talking to Christy. She smiled and excused herself, gesturing that she needed to talk to me about something. She crossed the room, making a face that I could see but he couldn't. I leaned over to listen.

"He's flirting with me!" she whispered. Her back was to the cops, and her expression was furious. "It's like... it's like being a cobra, caught in a trap, and having a mongoose come over to flirt with you. Not even to gloat, which would have been bad enough, but to flirt!"

"Well, come on," I whispered, "have some sympathy. Maybe the poor guy can't get dates any other way."

That got a smile out of her.


The door opened and a man came in. He was wearing a dark suit, with a badge on his jacket. He appeared to be in his forties, with black hair, graying at the temples, and a sardonic expression.

"Miss Sleet," he said, "I'm Inspector Ibarra. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but the young man who was with you, Douglas Matthews, has been murdered. Obviously, since he came here with you, I need to ask you some questions. But first, as a matter of formality, I need to see your identification, and that of the people with you."

"Marshall is my assistant," she said. She used her cane to get to her feet. "He has my identification."

I pulled out my wallet and hers, and handed them over. Stu did the same, standing up as he did so. When Ibarra turned to Christy, she held up her hand, her fingers extended. "I am pulling out an automatic," she said, slowly reaching under her jacket with two fingers, "for which I have a permit. And I am refusing a body search until a female officer or a matron is available."

"My client is completely within her rights," Stu said. "Especially–"

"Stow it, counselor. We know she's not guilty. Several witnesses place her backstage through the whole thing, along with you and Mr. O'Connor. In fact, quite a few of the students were watching her movements very closely. Boys, of course." He chuckled, taking Christy's wallet and handing her gun to one of the officers. "We'll hold the weapon, and it will be returned to her later. If it does become necessary to frisk her, I've already had a half dozen volunteers from among my men. I'll probably auction off the rights to the highest bidder and add the money to my retirement fund."

I could see Christy bristle at this, but she let it go.

"We're interviewing everybody who was in the area, either in or around the building," Ibarra said, as the officer slipped Christy's gun into a plastic bag and sealed it, writing on the outside with a marker. "Mostly to find out if anybody knew him, or if any of them saw anything. We don't expect much out of that, but we have to do it." He smiled. "We already have a pretty good suspect in custody, but we have to cover all the bases. Did any of you know him well?"

"I had met him before today," Jan said, "but I didn't know him well. He worked for the U-town newspaper, and I have given them some classes, as a group."

The rest of us explained that we had never met him before that day.

"You all drove here together, I believe," Ibarra continued. "Did he mention that he knew anybody at this college or in the surrounding area?"

We all said no, and Stu clarified that he hadn't come with us and had actually never met Doug at all.

Then, from the hallway, a voice – very loud and very grating and very familiar – blared, "Let go of me, you fucking cop sons of bitches!"

"Oh, no," Jan said, and I knew this was one development she had not anticipated.


The door opened and someone shoved Ron in. She looked around, her expression fierce, and then she belatedly realized who we were. Still trying to look fierce, she ran across the room and threw her arms around me.

"I gather she's with you," the inspector said dryly.

"We know her," Jan said carefully. "She works for us. But she didn't come here with us. You can confirm that with the driver–"

"Oh, thank you so much for that sage advice, Miss Sleet," he said, "but we already did that. And you're about to say that you didn't know she was here, and I believe you. Do you want to know what I do think?

"You and Mr. O'Connor and Mr. Anson and Miss Malin are in the clear. You were on stage, and they were clearly visible to a dozen people at all times. And I can't imagine that you would come all the way here to murder one of your own people in any case.

"I think this girl came here to kill him, and nobody was supposed to even know she was here, except that we caught her."

Ron was still holding me, and I could feel her start to shiver. I put an arm around her and held her close.

"I'm prepared to make you a deal," Ibarra said. "You're free to go, if you give me permission to investigate this in U-town, to establish a motive." Stu started to speak, but he continued. "We're going to hold the girl either way."

"On what charge?" Stu demanded.

"Well, it turns out she's listed as a runaway."

"Her name is Hazel Davis," Jan said, lighting a cigarette. "Her parents are from Carmel, California. I've spoken to them, some time ago, and they said they're willing to allow her–"

"She's on the books as a runaway," he said. "That's enough for me."

"Fair enough. And we're not taking your deal. U-town is not part of the United States. You have no authority there, and I couldn't grant you any even if I wanted do. Which I don't. May I examine the crime scene?"

"No."

"Do you have witnesses? May I speak to them?"

"Yes, we have witnesses, and no you may not speak to them. Let's save some time here, Miss Sleet. Whatever other questions you may have, the answer is no to those as well. Since you decided not to take my offer, I have work to do. Excuse me." He left the room, and one of the officers went to stand by the window. The other remained by the door.

I wondered about this change, but then I noticed the windows. The room was roughly square, with a few dusty tables and chairs around. There were lockers along one wall, and mirrors along another. A third wall had windows, very tall and thin. They were set to swivel out when a small crank was turned, though they were all closed now, and it occurred to me that, while the average person couldn't have fit through one of them, Ron probably could have.

Turning to face my employer, I saw her glance at me, smiling as she noticed that I had figured this out. Then she turned her attention to Ron.

Ron began, "How did you know about my–"

"Never mind that. Do you think we're playing, Ron? Do you think U-town is some fairyland that you get to by going through a wardrobe, or by getting caught in a tornado, or by going down a rabbit hole? But never mind that–"

"You're gonna get me out of this, aren't you?" Ron asked. "You're not going to let them send me back to my parents–"

Jan shook her head. "Ron, you need to understand one thing. I would sell you out in a minute to protect U-town. If that's what this comes to, you're on the next bus back to your parents, and I'll send somebody with you to make sure you get there. You'd just better hope I'm smart enough to do both."

Ron, for the first time in my experience, looked uncertain. "I don't want to go home," she said miserably. "To my parents. I want to go home."

Jan smiled. "Then it's past time that you got smarter. Stop relying on me to be smart and be smarter yourself. Also, did you think I wouldn't investigate you? You're underage, according to their laws, and you handle our mail. Do you think we'd trust our mail to– Anyway, we can talk about that later. But did you think–"

"She investigates her friends when she's bored," I said to Ron, "Just to keep in practice."

My employer looked furious that I had interrupted her, but then, seeing how Ron glanced up at me and smiled, a very small and tentative smile, she got it.

We needed Ron to answer a lot of questions, so right now we needed her to be less upset, rather than more. If I hadn't derailed my employer's tirade, she would have moved on to her next point, which would have been that Ron's most immediate danger wasn't being sent home, it was being arrested for murder. This would not have improved her usefulness as a witness. I hugged her again and then I let her go.

"Ron," Jan said, "please sit down. We need your help."

Ron took one of the straight-backed chairs, and I pulled another one over so I could sit next to her.

"Ron, do you know Latin?"

Ron looked around uncertainly. "Uh," she replied. "No?"

"There's a useful Latin phrase: in loco parentis. I'll translate it for you. 'Loco' means crazy, as you probably know, so what it means is that you're driving me crazy right now, but I'm still responsible for you, as if I was your parent." She smiled at that point, which was good. Otherwise, I don't think Ron would have understood that this was intended to be a joke. "So, if you want to do something like this again, be smart, and talk to one of us. Okay?"

Ron nodded. "Yes, I will."

"Now, we have work to do. You've been outside this room, where the rest of us have been cooped up. So, I need to know what you know. Everything you've seen and heard and felt and smelled and tasted. I want to climb inside your head. But first, what are they doing now? I need to know how much time we have."

"You'll have some time," said one of the officers, the one who had flirted with Christy. "They're interviewing all the students, every single one of them. And the old man's gonna hold you forever, if he can."


I'll spare you the details of my employer's interrogation of Ron, but this was the gist of it.

Ron had come to hear the speech, of course. She had scraped together enough money for a one-way ticket to the college. Then, after delivering our mail that morning, she had walked across the bridge and through the city to the bus station.

When she'd arrived at the college, she had forced her way into the auditorium by some combination of bluster and lies, and then she'd crouched in the back, where we wouldn't be able to see her. Her plan had been to approach us after it was all over, and get a ride back to U-town with us. She had thought, she said sheepishly, that we'd be glad to see her.

After the speech, during the intermission before the question-and-answer session, she'd sneaked out of one of the back doors, needing to find a rest room. Not being familiar with the building, she hadn't known where the rest rooms were, and in any case she wouldn't have gone to the side doors, being afraid that she'd be spotted by one of us.

She was grabbed by the cops as soon as she entered the lobby. It was easy for them to tell that she wasn't a college student. She told them that she was from U-town, thinking that this would give her some sort of immunity, but instead they brought her right to Ibarra, since he was looking for a suspect who might have known Doug, and who didn't have an alibi.

They took her to the adjoining building, which was connected by a covered breezeway, and they brought her to the room where Doug had been killed. His body was covered, but there was a lot of blood, and (reading between the lines of her answers) she had been quite upset by this. Which had probably been the idea of bringing her there in the first place.


By drawing out the questions that the police had asked Ron, my employer made the following tentative deductions:

  1. Doug had gone into a room, an empty classroom, a few minutes after the beginning of the speech, for no apparent reason.
  2. He had been seen by a security guard, who was stationed in that corridor. The guard swore nobody had entered the room after him.
  3. The guard's evidence was corroborated by a student (a resident assistant) who was playing chess with him at the time.
  4. After a while, the two men had wondered what this strange kid was doing in the empty room, so they went to investigate.
  5. They found Doug dead, with several stab wounds, and one of the tall, narrow windows was open.
  6. So, Ron was the prime suspect because:
    1. she was from U-town, and couldn't prove she didn't know Doug,
    2. she could have fit through the very narrow window,
    3. she had no alibi, and
    4. nobody else had entered the room, and even if somebody had been in the room already, waiting for Doug, how had that person escaped?

This clarified why Ron hadn't been arrested, since it wasn't that much of a case, and it also clarified why she had been placed in the room with us. The two cops were listening to every word, of course.


As the questioning went on, I glanced at Stu and saw that he was asleep in his chair.

I looked at Christy and she came over to me. "That cop," I whispered, "the one who likes you, do you think you could get him to supply us with some coffee, and something to eat?"

"What?" she demanded, almost inaudibly. "You want me to–"

"–use your feminine wiles, yes." I replied. "It's a tremendous sacrifice, I know, but think of poor Stu. And poor us if we need his legal advice, and–"

We were now in a contest to see who could keep a straight face the longest.

"Oh, alright," she said, attempting to look disgusted. "When I tell my boyfriend about this, he's going to give you what-for."

Of course, she simply went and asked the question. The only feminine wile she deployed was a dazzling smile, but a plan was immediately concocted to get us some sandwiches and some soda (the cops were apparently reserving the coffee for themselves).


After the questioning was over, as the rest of us were eating, my employer smoked a cigarette and sipped some of the soda. Then she looked up.

"Ron?"

Ron, who had a huge hunk of sandwich in her mouth, nodded and started to chew very rapidly. I wondered how long it had been since she'd eaten.

Jan laughed and held up a hand. "Take your time. Chew your food thoroughly. We're not going anywhere."

When Ron had swallowed, finally, she said, "Yes?" which was a bit anticlimactic.

"I just want to be clear about one thing. As far as you could tell, Doug was probably in that room, alone, for some period of time before the murderer joined him?"

She nodded. "Yes."

My employer smiled. "Good. Then this is solved, or it soon will be."


My employer said, "Inspector, I just have one question. Am I correct that Doug was alone in the empty classroom for a period of time, before he was killed?"

He nodded. "It appears that way."

"Then where is it?" she asked.

"Where is what?" he snapped. He had come in response to her very polite request, conveyed by one of our guards, but he looked like he had many more important things on his mind.

"The piece of paper," she explained, "or the notebook, with writing on it that you can't read. Give it to me."

There was a moment of silence, then he said, "We're having it analyzed."

"Analyzed?" she demanded. "Are you trying to find out if it's radioactive? You don't want to analyze it, you want to read it, which I can do. Give it to me."

There was another moment of silence, then he left the room, slamming the door behind him.

After a minute, he came back in and handed her a crumpled and dirty piece of paper.

"Smart," she said absently, examining it. I was fairly sure the paper had been in Ibarra's pocket the whole time, but once he'd said it was being analyzed he couldn't very well bring it out. "He used college notepaper," she mused, "made it look like someone else might have left it..."

Her voice trailed off and her brow furrowed. She held the paper out for me, but her mind was far away and it slipped from her fingers. I had to snatch it in midair in order to read it.

And then, when I did, I understood it all as well.

a vital clue


My employer turned to face Ibarra.

"Your error was in thinking of Doug as a 'young person,'" she began. "He was that, but that's not all he was. Just seeing him on that one level, you assumed he was killed by someone he knew, because young people exist personally, but not yet professionally. When I mentioned that he worked on our newspaper, you didn't even ask what he did there. Did you think I was teaching them how to sort the mail?"

"Listen, don't give me a Goddamn lecture. If you know anything about this case, you'll tell me right now, or else–"

"Or else what? You'll lock me up? If you do, I'll stand mute, until I'm before the grand jury. And don't threaten me with withholding evidence. I have no evidence that you don't have. What I have is the ability to think coherently. Do you know what that means? It means the ability to make things cohere, to fit things together. Which I can do."

"Cuff her," he said to one of the cops. "Cuff them all. We'll straighten this out–" Stu started to protest, but my employer cut him off.

"Do you know why this crime was committed?" she demanded, stamping her cane on the floor. "Or how, or by whom? Of course not, or you'd be arresting the guilty parties, instead of threatening whatever innocent people happen to have the misfortune to wander into your field of vision."

Ibarra glanced at the chair where Ron had been sitting, but she was gone. "Where is that girl?" he demanded.

The officer by the window jerked a thumb at the small door in the corner of the room. "Bathroom," he said.

"Window. Road. Gone," Jan continued calmly as the inspector tried the bathroom door. Then, belatedly understanding her comment, he reared back and kicked, sending the door crashing open.

Ron was indeed gone. The bathroom window was narrow, but of course so was Ron.

"If you go after her," Jan said calmly, "I will tell every newspaper and magazine in the area that you missed capturing a murderer because you were more interested in chasing after..."

He stepped toward her, and I thought he was actually going to try to strike her. I could have reached him before he made contact, and I knew how I'd break his arm, but I was really hoping he wouldn't give in to the impulse.

I thought later that there wasn't anybody there who wanted him to hit her. He didn't want to, not if he was thinking it through. Strike an internationally-known journalist, one who was also a foreign national, and a woman at that? With her lawyer present? Not a good idea, even without the fact that I would have broken his arm.

But we didn't want it either. That level of conflict with the police would have been very bad, for us and for U-town in general.

Ibarra drew in a deep breath and said, "Okay. Show me what you've got."

"Doug was a reporter," she began, "and he was killed because he saw something he shouldn't have. He didn't know what was going to happen to him while he was being held in that room, by your two 'witnesses,' but he made sure that his information would get to me, and in such a way that only Marshall and I could understand it. The note is written in a modified version of Pittman shorthand, which is nearly obsolete now. But I taught it to the staff of the U-town newspaper. He knew I was here, and that I'd be able to read it.

"The note says: 'Apparent drug shipment, 8:15pm, security guard and male student involved. Back door of dorm opened from inside by guard for man to bring in cartons. Student wearing jeans and faded blue university T-shirt, with sleeves cut off. Check truck, Active Laundry.'"

Her voice trailed off because her only remaining audience was Stu, Christy, and myself.

"Come on," Stu said, getting to his feet. "Let's get out of here. Once he catches the killers he will probably decide to arrest you out of spite, and I've had enough excitement for one day. The car is waiting."

"What car?" my employer demanded as we followed him out. I grabbed Ron's bag, which she'd left on the chair.

In the hall, I could tell Jan wanted to go back to the original dressing room, to get her other suit. She gestured in that direction, but I gestured the other way, toward the exit, and she nodded, making a face. It was a good suit, as all of her suits were, but it wasn't worth being thrown in jail.

Outside, the campus was quiet and dark. A light rain was falling. There were police vehicles parked all over, mostly in places apparently chosen to cause the maximum amount of damage to the lawns, but nobody was visible. "Come," Stu said, gesturing down the hill toward the entrance to the campus. "She would have waited outside, with all the police cars in here."

By then, I had remembered that Stu had not planned to stay in the hotel with the rest of us. He lived fairly close by, as I mentioned, so his wife had been going to come by and pick him up.

Jan took my arm as we walked. The combination of darkness and wet ground made her uncertain of her footing.

Stu's wife was named Bea. As we approached the idling sedan, her first words were, "I assume this means you're in trouble again, you disreputable old shyster."

"Yes, of course," he said calmly, going around to the passenger side of the car. "And now my mob and I require a quick getaway."

"As usual," she said with a sigh. "Well, get in."

My employer and I had followed Stu to the passenger side, and I opened the rear door for her. She leaned on my arm as she got in. As she sat down and swung her legs into the car, a familiar voice said, "Hey!"

Jan peered down at the floor under her feet. "Hello, Ron," she said. "You'd better stay hidden until we're away." I heard Ron shift around, and then Jan planted her feet firmly on Ron's posterior. I climbed in, trying not to step on Ron's head.

Christy got in behind Bea, and we were off. When no one was looking, I reached down and ruffled Ron's hair. An indignity, of course, but one which she was not really in a position to reject.


Stu was able, with some difficulty, to persuade Bea to drop him off at their home and then to drive the rest of us back to U-town.

We drove mostly in silence. I'm sure my employer was sorry that nobody was asking her any questions about the case, but she was tired, so she was willing to postpone that particular pleasure.

After a few minutes, a muffled voice asked, "Can I get up now?"

"Christy, are we loose?" I asked.

She nodded. "Nobody's following us."

"You'd better stay down there, Ron," Jan said, "at least until we drop Mr. Anson off. There's nowhere for you to sit anyway."


We turned into the wooded cul-de-sac where Stu and Bea had lived for many years. As we pulled up in front of their small, pleasant house, Stu turned in his seat to face us. "Jan?" he said.

She looked up. He seldom addressed her by her first name. "Yes?"

"I know you'll do whatever is necessary and appropriate, given the untimely death of young Douglas, but please let me know if you need anything from me."

"I will," she said. "Yes, of course. And thank you, for everything, as usual."

"A pleasure, as always, my dear," he said, smiling.

"Will you go in and go to bed, you old fossil," Bea said. "I have hours of driving yet, and I'm only a few years younger than you are."

"As you always remind me. Drive safely, dear. If you have an accident, or if you're arrested for some heinous crime, call me after lunchtime. I should be up by then."

As we drove off, I could tell that Jan was thinking about Stu's very gentle reminder that Doug's murder had been something more than just another challenging problem for her to solve.

Christy got out to move up to sit beside Bea, and Jan maneuvered herself toward the door, wincing as she stretched her legs out a bit. Smiling at me, as if I was going to take it personally that she was moving away from me, she motioned with her head for me to slide across next to her, but Ron climbed up and settled herself in between us. I poked Ron in the shoulder and jerked a thumb toward the window. She climbed across my lap as I slid over so I was in the middle. My wife immediately leaned against me and I put my arm around her.

I must have dozed for a while, as we zipped through the night, because I woke up as we pulled up onto the bridge, and I saw that the sky was still black. Too early for the food deliveries. Christy had turned around in her seat and was regarding me with an impish smile.

Jan was leaning against me, her arm around my middle, sound asleep, but there wasn't anything in that to make Christy smile.

Then I noticed Ron, on my other side. She was also leaning against me, sound asleep, drooling slightly, her thin arm around my stomach, resting on Jan's arm.

The car stopped at the base of the bridge, right before the barricade, and I woke Jan and Ron. We got out and stretched, thanking Bea profusely as she turned the car around and drove away. I made a mental note to try to think of an appropriate "thank you" gift for her.

Christy smiled. "Well, I usually go for a run in the morning anyway. I'll see you later." She waved and trotted off.

Ron sat on the barricade. "I'm gonna wait for the mail," she said, then she looked up nervously, but Jan smiled.

"We rely on you, Ron," she said, and Ron smiled back as I placed her bag next to her. "If there's any mail for Marshall or me, hold it for tomorrow. We're going home to bed." Ron nodded.

My wife looked exhausted, and I knew her leg was sore, so I picked her up in my arms. "Shall I carry you home in triumph?" I asked.

She glanced around to make sure nobody was watching, except for Ron, but it was the middle of the night in U-town and not a creature was stirring. She nodded and leaned her head against my chest.

"The speech was really good," I said after a minute.

She smiled. "Thank you." She looked around, but there were still very few people on the street to see her being carried.

"What would you have done," she asked after a few moments, "if he had hit me?"

"He wouldn't have hit you," I said. "I would have stopped him. I was going to break his arm, but I'm glad it didn't come to that."

She smiled. "I always forget how quick you are, for someone of your age. But would it really have been necessary to break his arm?"

"No, but I was going to do it anyway. Except that Christy probably would have got there ahead of me." She smiled, her head pressed against my chest, and I chuckled. "You don't seem all that exhausted. Why am I carrying you again?"

"I'm conserving my energy," she said. "Lean over here, and I'll tell you what I'm conserving it for."

* * * * *

Years later, I read a memoir of those years, by someone who met Jan Sleet for the first time in U-town. He said that, based on having read her writing, he had expected her to be quite a bit older. It had surprised him, on meeting her, to find that she was in her early twenties. He said that his first impression of her was that she was "a big goofy kid in a man's clothes."

He was not the only person who had that idea upon meeting her, but very few people saw her that way after that night. Her firm and forceful and confident way of dealing with the police had been partly just her exhilaration at how well the speech had gone, but it was also deeper than that.

Years later, I mentioned this to her, and she said, "I was wondering if you were going to say anything about it at the time."

"If I had, you'd have just made a sarcastic reply."

"Of course. And I had my sarcastic reply all prepared, too, that's why it was so frustrating that you didn't say anything."

I smiled and put my arm around her. "Okay, what was your sarcastic reply?"

She took off her glasses and swooned against me, gazing up with watery eyes. In her deepest and throatiest voice (which, despite years of cigarette smoking, wasn't really very deep or throaty at all) she said, "Tonight, I became a woman."

I shook my head as she giggled. "You see," I said, "that's why I didn't mention it at the time."


We didn't re-emerge until dinner time, and then only because she couldn't wait a minute longer to tell the tale of our adventures. We located Doc and the others in the dining room, and she told them the whole story, in great detail. She even started to recount the entire question-and-answer session, verbatim, but we managed to stop her.


In the morning, when we came into the meeting room, there were newspapers all over the table. "We've read the morning papers," Vicki said, gesturing around. "You are barely mentioned. The criminal ring was busted by the sterling efforts of Inspector Ibarra and his officers, on a night when you just happened to be speaking at the school."

Doc nodded. "Are you going to write an article, setting the record straight?"

My employer shook her head as we sat down. "I will write an article, but not about that. Let him take the credit; it wasn't a triumph of deductive reasoning anyway. No, I'm going to write an article, for the U-town paper, about Doug. He did his job, even though I'm sure he knew he might get killed. He had seen their faces, after all. But he did what a reporter should do under those circumstances: he made sure the story got out. When it's done, I'm going to see about getting it printed in the school paper at Barlowe as well." She smiled. "Besides, if the murder gets tied up in people's minds with my speech, it might make it more difficult for me to get booked at other colleges."

Ray shook his head, lighting a cigarette. "It turned out Doug was wrong about one thing. It wasn't drugs at all. The contraband was bootleg college gear. Shirts, caps, all that sort of thing. They had it made cheaply, and then they sold it for full price. The school's soccer team has been doing particularly well this year, so they sold a lot in the nearby towns, as well as on campus."

"The guard ratted on the student," Doc said. "Claimed the killing was his idea. They'll fight it out in court, I guess."

Pat shook her head. "Such a stupid thing to die for. College T-shirts."

Jan shook her head, lighting a cigarette as I poured us coffee from the urn. "Well, no," she said. "He didn't die for contraband college clothes, any more than he died for the drug shipment he thought was in those cartons. He died for a principle."

Ray nodded. "That's it. They offered to buy him off, according to their story, but he refused."

Pat came in carrying a big plastic bag. "A cop came up and gave this to me. He wanted it to get to you right away."

It had Jan's name on it, so Pat placed it in front of her. My employer ripped it open, and inside, carefully folded, was her traveling suit from two days before. She pulled out jacket, trousers, vest, shirt, tie, and shoes. The shoes were in a smaller bag, to keep them from dirtying the suit.

Then she pulled out another small bag, which said "Miss Malin" on it. She opened it and pulled out Christy's gun.

"Was there a note?" I asked.

She shook her head. "No, but the whole thing is a big thank you note anyway, I would say."

"Well, it's probably as much of a thank you as you're ever going to get from him."

She shrugged. "It's enough. That's a good suit, I'd hate to lose it."

It did not occur to her until much later that Ibarra had manipulated the entire situation to make it likely that she would solve the case for him. Why else put Ron in the room with us and let us talk to her for so long? Also, he'd made no mention of the fact that my employer was a well-known amateur detective. In those types of encounters, there was usually some version of the "I don't like amateurs, they should leave it to the professionals" speech.

I didn't mention this idea at the time; I didn't want to spoil anything about the night for her. She didn't realize it until later, when we encountered Inspector Ibarra again. But that's another story, for another time.


The door slammed open and Ron came in.

"Mail Delivery!" she bawled as she started to go around the table, giving each of us our mail. As she reached my employer, who was starting to hold forth on how many bookings she was hoping to get at other colleges, she said, "Here's your mail, Mom. And you got a package from Grandpa."

She reached into her bag for the package as Jan suddenly stopped in mid-sentence and demanded, "What?"

Ron leaned over and kissed her on the cheek before moving along to me. "Mail for you, too, Dad," she said, handing it to me. "It's your driver's license. No packages today, though." She kissed me on the cheek as well, and then she left, reaching up to knock Pat's baseball cap to the floor as she went.

"'Mom'?" Jan demanded, as if she might have misunderstood, but Ron was already gone.

"Can't you do something about her?" Pat asked, leaning over to pick up her cap.

Jan shook her head and sighed. "Apparently not."

I nodded. "You see? I told you we should have sent her to Catholic school."

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