We had recently started eating dinner with Ron more often, and it was already becoming a problem that her culinary horizons were very limited. We were accustomed to eating food from a different part of the world almost every night, but Ron didn't like to try any food that she'd never eaten before.
Tonight, Jan had suggested Indian food, Japanese food, Chinese food, and even Italian food, but Ron was very suspicious of them all, so eventually we ended up eating in the hotel dining room, where Ron apparently had all of her meals. As she said, "They already know what I like."
It was clear that Ron didn't think it was a good use of her time to have to train a new restaurant staff.
Of course, in some ways her tendency toward intransigence was reassuring, at least to me. At her age, some people are already impatient to start dating, but Ron wasn't interested in that. She scoffed at the very idea that she would ever go on a date.
This was somewhat of a relief, since I wasn't sure how I would feel about having a bunch of prospective suitors hanging around. One hardy soul had already asked her to a movie, and she had (from what we had heard) dumped a bottle of ketchup on his head.
But I was aware that this would all change at some point. I wasn't exactly ready, but I was trying to prepare myself. I remembered my sister, when her oldest daughter had been around Ron's age, saying, "She's ready to start dating. The boys are ready for her to start dating. Apparently everybody is ready for this but me."
I knew how she felt.
We took a booth in the hotel dining room.
"Shall we go get the food?" I asked. I usually did this for my employer, since she couldn't carry a tray and have a free hand for her cane.
"Ron," she said, "let me see your hands."
Ron looked like she wanted to protest, but Jan slid her glasses down so she could give Ron a piercing look over the rims. Ron had already learned about that look, so she made a face and stalked off toward the bathroom.
I laughed. "I'll bet that doesn't happen when she eats with her friends."
My employer gave me the same stern look she had given Ron, including a glance at my hands, and I got up and followed Ron across the dining room.
She looked up as I came into the bathroom.
"She got you, too, huh?"
I clapped her on the back as I took the sink next to hers.
"You can't escape her eagle eye," I said, putting my hands under the frigid water. "Worse offenders than us have tried."
A few minutes later, as we started to eat, I said, "I was reading a report about the U-town school today."
Ron nodded, chewing seriously. She obviously thought this was idle dinner chit-chat.
"Ron," I asked, "how old are you?"
"Who wants to know?" she demanded around a mouthful of macaroni and cheese.
I leaned over and said, "I want to know. And don't talk with your mouth full."
She swallowed. "Almost thirteen."
"So," Jan said, "you're twelve years old."
"You need to go to school," I said.
She looked surprised. "I don't go to school."
Jan looked severe. "The statement, 'I don't have to go to school because I don't go to school,' is not logical, and in my opinion, the lack of logic illustrates that you need to go to school."
We went back and forth a few times, then I caught Jan's eye and we had a silent conversation. Put into words, it would have gone something like this:
Me: Leave us alone for a minute.
Me: Give me a moment–
Her: No. What are you up to?
Me: Trust me.
Me: I know what I'm doing.
"I have to step out for a moment, Ron," she said, getting to her feet. "I'll be right back." Her voice was pleasant, but she gave a touch of extra emphasis to the last two words.
As she limped off, Ron said, "It's funny when you make faces at each other like that."
"So, what's the big secret, Dad?"
"Just a question." I put my arm around her shoulders and leaned over to whisper. "Don't you want to grow up to be like her?" I asked.
She looked around to make sure nobody else could hear, then she whispered, "Yeah."
"Well, she didn't get to be that way without going to school."
She frowned. "I can't go to school," she said after a moment's thought. "I have to deliver the mail."
"Tomorrow, after you deliver the mail, I'll go to the school with you. We'll get you enrolled, and I'll tell the school people that you can only come in the afternoons, because of your responsibilities."
"Okay," she said slowly. "I guess I'll give it a try."
Mr. Guthrie sat in a small office, behind a small and much-worn wooden desk, in the U-town school. He wore a dark suit and horn-rimmed glasses. He was balding, but his remaining hair was trimmed and neatly combed. I got the impression that he had been working here long before U-town had been founded, and had just stayed on.
"This is Ron," I said, indicating my rather sullen-looking daughter. Her freckled face was stern but clean, and I had made sure her thick brown hair was washed and brushed. Her clothes (denim jacket, sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers) were shabby but clean. I had told her it was important to make a good first impression. She hadn't been convinced, so I had had to insist.
"Ron's a new student," I explained.
"Ah, very good," Mr. Guthrie said, taking a blank form from one of the racks on the wall next to him. "First name?" he asked.
"Ron," she replied.
"Short for Veronica?" He asked with a smile.
"No, just Ron."
"I see. Last name?"
"Just put Ron. Everybody knows me."
"That may be, young lady –"
"Don't call me that!" she snapped.
His eyes widened. "Oh, I am sorry, young Ronald. I –"
I put a hand on Ron's shoulder. "Ron is a girl, but she is not a young lady," I explained.
Mr. Guthrie wiped his forehead. "I see. However, gender aside, I do need to put a last name."
Ron looked thoughtful, then she glanced up at me. "What's your last name, Dad?" she asked.
She cocked her head to one side a bit and pursed her lips judiciously, making her look like a very small, very scruffy Jan Sleet. "That's alright," she said finally. "I was afraid it was going to be something stupid." She turned to Mr. Guthrie. "I'll use that."
"I see," he said. "Is she a transfer from another school?" He had apparently decided that it was a better idea to address his questions to me.
I shook my head. "She has not been going to school. I don't know for how long."
"Indeed. That is rather irregular." I had the feeling that if I hadn't been part of the government, his disapproval would have been expressed more forcefully.
"Also, Ron will only be able to attend classes in the afternoons," I said. "She has important governmental responsibilities in the mornings."
He nodded, filling out a few more things on the form. His new plan seemed to be to process us quickly and get us, or at least Ron, out of his office as soon as he could.
"Now," he said, referring to a clipboard, "we just have to figure out the best class–"
"Don't put me with the stupid kids!"
"Heaven forbid. Here." He wrote something on a pad and handed it to her. "Take this to room 404 and give it to Mrs. Baum. She'll take care of you."
"See you tonight, Ron," I said.
She nodded, looked around as if a last-minute reprieve might appear, and then she left.
"Mr. O'Connor," Mr. Guthrie said, "I didn't want to ask in front of the young lady, but I'm a bit concerned as to whether she is... 'slow.' I ask because it is somewhat unusual for a child of her age not to know her own last name, or indeed that of her father."
"Oh, no," I said. "She's far from slow. She's just been feral for a while. You may find her a bit of a handful, especially with her language."
He shook his head. "That's not unusual these days. I've learned some words this semester that I never heard before in my life, and I served in the Navy."
"And many people don't know my last name. I'm mostly just 'Marshall.'" I laughed. "Occasionally even 'Mr. Sleet.'"
Mr. Guthrie nodded seriously at this information.
"Also," I continued, "to be clear, we don't want you to try to civilize her or clean her up. Just educate her."
"Mr. O'Connor, I would count even that accomplishment as a tremendous achievement."
It was raining as I walked Ron to school. I held the large umbrella carefully, trying to cover us both as much as possible.
When she had started going to school, several weeks earlier, I got into the habit of walking with her to make sure she actually went. At this point, it was pretty obvious that she enjoyed going (much as she complained about it), but we both liked our daily walks across town together, so we continued them.
"Hey, look," she said as we turned the final corner.
There was a Jinx motorcycle at the curb in front of the school entrance. Black and gleaming, with a crimson "J" on the side, it was sleek looking, even dripping with rain water.
"Are there any Jinx children in the school?" I asked.
Ron shrugged. "I don't know."
"I thought they usually taught their own kids."
Ron shrugged again as the school doors opened and Christy came out. She wore a black baseball cap, but her red hair was stringy and wet.
"Hi," I said. "I'm surprised–"
"See you tonight, Dad," Ron said as she went into the building. This was so obvious a snub of Christy that it created an awkward moment, but Christy was too polite to mention it.
"I'm surprised to see you here," I said. We stood on the top step of the three steps leading to the school entrance. By standing right next to the building, we were under a small overhang and somewhat sheltered from the rain.
Christy smiled. "Usually we teach our own children, but my son wanted to try the school here. I think he's trying to be more independent from me. Which is good, I suppose."
I smiled. "We had a bit of a struggle to get Ron to go to school at all, so you should probably be glad that he's even interested in being educated."
She nodded, then she made a face. "I think she doesn't like me, though I have no idea why."
"I'm sure that's not it," I said. I thought of trying to claim that Ron was shy with strangers, but nobody would have believed that.
"Whenever I see the two of you together, she never looks at me."
The door slammed open and Ron came back out. "Dad!" she said. "There's a mystery! We should go get Mom!"
"What kind of mystery?" I asked.
"A friend of mine, they're saying he stole the answers to a test. I know he wouldn't do that. We should get Mom."
Reflecting that I wasn't sure if the great detective would interrupt her day for this particular type of crime, I said, "Well, maybe we should investigate first. We can get a runner to go tell her, and see if she can come later and tell us where we're wrong."
"I'm going past the hotel on my way home," Christy said. "I could stop by and let her know what's going on."
I nodded. "That would be great, thanks."
Christy trotted down the stairs to her motorcycle, and I turned to go in.
"Dad?" Ron asked hesitantly. She stepped aside so she wouldn't block two other kids who were coming out of the school, and she stuck her hands in the pockets of her jeans.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Mom jokes sometimes about you and Christy." She was looking down at the steps. "You wouldn't ever leave, would you?" She made a face. "That's evil when that happens."
In a way, the very idea was funny, but of course I didn't laugh. Thinking about the times my employer had joked about my supposed lust for Christy, I suddenly started to understand how this might have seemed to Ron.
I squatted and took her wrist, tugging her hand out of her pocket so I could hold it in mine.
"Ron," I said, "Christy is a very nice woman, and she and her boyfriend are good friends of ours, but there's no more chance that anything would happen with me and her than it would with your mother and Fifteen. I love your mother, and she knows it. That's why she can make jokes about it, because it won't ever happen. She is comfortable and confident in our marriage, and with good reason. And, if any of that wasn't true, if I did have any other ideas, she'd know it, wouldn't she?"
She looked up and smiled. "Yeah," she said. "You can't put anything over on her."
"Very true. So, I'm afraid you're stuck with both of us. Let's go in and see what we can learn. Maybe we can detect some things on our own before she gets here."
"Mr. O'Connor!" came a shout as soon as we stepped into the building. I was surprised to see Mr. Guthrie gesturing from a doorway. The only other time I had met him had been the day I had brought Ron to the school to get registered, and it hadn't seemed that we'd ended that encounter as boon companions.
He gestured and we followed him into an office. It was small, and at the moment it was crowded. Behind the one desk sat a man I didn't know. He was in his thirties, with his long blond hair tied back. There were books and stacks of paper everywhere, including one precarious pile that was blocking the lower half of the one dirty window.
There were two straight-backed chairs. One was occupied by Ms. Tumolo, who I had met before. Mr. Guthrie took the other chair, leaving Ron and me standing.
"Mr. O'Connor–" the man behind the desk began.
"'Marshall' will be fine."
"Marshall, then. We have a bit of a mystery, though nothing on the level that Miss Sleet usually solves, thank goodness. Mr. Guthrie and Miss Tumolo disagree about pretty much everything, but they agree that you and Miss Sleet may be able to help."
"We will if we can. I'm getting a message to her, but I don't know her exact schedule today."
"Well, let me lay the basic facts before you. We were giving a test today, to five students, and it appears that one of the five stole the answers. Certainly somebody did."
"Is that the whole class?" I asked. "Five students?"
"No, the rest of the class took the test last week. But one boy, Corey, missed it the first time because he was in the hospital with a broken arm. One girl, Phoebe, missed it because she was out with the flu. And, since we had to give it to them anyway, we decided to give it again to three students who had taken it already, two brothers and a sister, because there was some evidence that they cheated–"
"Of course they cheated," Ms. Tumolo said impatiently. "They always cheat. I can't see–"
"Fuck you!" Ron snapped, but Mr. Guthrie interrupted Ms. Tumolo's response.
"I must say," he began firmly, "that it does say something about the state of the world that we have three students in the entire school who are prompt and polite and intelligent, and people persist in treating them as though they are the problem."
"Alright!" the man behind the desk said, slapping his desk blotter as things started to get out of control. "I'm pulling rank! I'm the principal here, and you two can skedaddle until I've explained this to Mr. O'Connor. Go help keep an eye on the students. We will join you soon."
They weren't happy, and Ms. Tumolo tried to insist that something be done about the fact that Ron had cursed at her, but he managed to get them out. He stood and gestured at the two chairs, and then he held out his hand and I shook it.
"Sorry for the rough-and-tumble introduction, Mr. O'Connor. Marshall. My name is Dan, and I have the dubious honor to be in charge of this menagerie. I do appreciate your help. I'm eager to talk to anybody who has an open mind about this business. As you can tell, that's in short supply."
"What's the big mystery about these three, the brothers and the sister?" I asked.
He smiled. "I could tell you stories all day, but here are two important ones. First, they get the same score on every test. They give the same answers to every question, and they never get an answer wrong. They don't get 100% every time, although they do very well, but if they don't know an answer, they leave it blank. They never guess. As you could tell, some people are convinced that they've been cheating somehow, and that's why we decided to put them in different rooms this time.
"It's a brand new test, of course, covering the same material. Once there was the possibility that there had been cheating, we were never going to give the original test again, to anybody."
"Doesn't it seem unlikely that people would cheat in such a way that it would create the appearance of cheating?"
"Exactly. That's why I don't believe they are cheating. But some of the other teachers, even apart from Miss T., are convinced it's some sort of scam. They are adamant about it, and they wrack their brains trying to figure out how they do it."
"Knowing the answers in advance would be one explanation of how they do it, though I agree it doesn't explain why."
"True. I don't buy it, though."
"Then what do you think is going on?"
He smiled. "I'd rather not say. I don't want to prejudice your investigation."
Dan leaned back in his chair. "The other story is that there's a girl in their class who's been trying to figure out whether she should have sex with her boyfriend. For some reason she chose Sharon to ask for advice – which would have seemed to have been an odd choice – and the next thing she knew they were all there, all three of them, Sharon and her brothers, and they were telling her that the three of them have sex every night, with each other, and that it's really good. But they also told her that she should probably wait if she wasn't sure she was ready, and that her boyfriend didn't really love her. He was mostly just attracted to her breasts, which are... lavish for a girl of her age. Or any age." He smiled. "I'm not implying they can read minds; most people figured Corey out a long time ago. Well, things got tense for a while. She broke up with Corey, and she told him what the Golden had said."
He chuckled. "That's what the kids call them. Anyway, Corey was angry, so he spread around the story about the Golden's sex lives."
"Do you believe them, by the way?"
"I do, if only because, as far as I can tell, they never lie. Anyway, the school doesn't have any rules about what the students can do at home, obviously. So, some parents got upset, but there was nothing we could do. Even if we'd wanted to. But it was awkward for a while." He smiled. "Would you like to meet them?"
"We have them in one room, the room where the test was supposed to be given. The other students, Corey and Phoebe, are in another room."
"Ron," I asked, "do you know where these rooms are?"
She nodded. "Sure."
"Then we'll meet you there in a minute, Dan. If that's alright."
He smiled. "Of course." He left and closed the door.
From Ron's expression, I could tell that she and Dan had jumped to the same conclusion.
"She gets on my nerves," she said defensively.
"What?" I said. "No, I want to talk to you about investigations. This is important. When you're trying to solve a mystery, never get excited. Never get angry and never get upset. Let everybody else get upset, and watch what happens. Take information in, don't give it away."
She nodded. "That makes sense." She gave me a sidelong look. "I thought you were mad at me because I cursed at Miss T."
"She's a teacher. She can figure out how to deal with that." I smiled as I stood up. "Of course, if you ever curse at me like that, I'll paddle your bottom."
She winced. "With a stick?" she asked quietly. "That really hurts."
I lifted her out of her chair and hugged her. "No, never like that," I said after a moment. "You should know that by now."
She hugged me back. "I know," she said. "I was just checking."
"Come on," I said. "Let's go see if we can solve this thing before your mother gets here."
As we climbed the stairs, I said, "Ron, you said that someone was accused, a friend of yours. Is that one of the Golden?"
She nodded. "His name is Will. He's nice. The other two are really stuck up." We turned a corner and she said, "That's the room."
There was a short hallway, with three doors on either side and a blank wall at the far end, where somebody had placed a bulletin board.
"Hang on," I said as she walked ahead. She came back to me and I said, "We're investigating, remember? What do these doors lead to?"
"These are offices," she said, gesturing at the three on the left.
She shrugged. "Teachers."
"Can you be a bit more specific?"
She caught my grin and she grinned back.
"Audrey uses the last one. She was giving the test."
"I sometimes use the first one," Ms. Tumolo said as she pushed past us. "We don't have assigned offices." She went into the nearest office and closed the door.
"What about the doors on the right?" I asked Ron.
"Classrooms," she said. She gestured again at the middle one. "That's where they are."
"You'll notice," I said, "that all the doors have glass panels. That could be significant." I winked at Ms. Tumolo through her closed door as we went down the hall.
They sat in a row, feet flat on the floor, hands folded in their laps, and they turned with the same motion as we entered the room. Their hair was blond and shoulder-length, their eyes were gray, and their skin was a pale golden color, apparently without blemish or imperfection. They wore jeans and sneakers, and their sweaters had the same design in different colors.
They appeared to be a couple of years older than Ron, but they were as androgynous as twelve-year-olds. I wasn't even sure which one was the sister, but then the middle one said, "My name is Sharon, and my brothers are William and Craig."
"We did not steal the test," one of the boys said. I was not surprised to find that his voice sounded identical to his sister's, which was rather husky.
They stood up and held out their hands, so I shook them one by one and introduced myself.
The only other person in the room was a woman, sitting behind the desk. She had a mass of long, frizzy hair, a round face, and thick glasses. She looked up from the papers on the desk in front of her. "Who are you?" she demanded, peering at me.
I held out my hand. "I'm Marshall," I said. "I'm looking into the theft of the test answers."
She shook my hand. "What have you figured out?" she demanded, but her attention was already being drawn back to the papers on the desk.
I heard a small intake of breath from my right, and I knew that Ron was gearing up for battle, so I quickly put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her to me.
"Nothing yet," I said, "but I've barely started. I'm Ron's father, by the way."
The woman seemed unimpressed by this information. I looked down at Ron and she grinned at me. She knew that I'd been reminding her about the importance of remaining calm when conducting an investigation.
Dan poked his head in through the open door, but before he could speak the woman said, "People don't appreciate how difficult it is to create a test like this. And now we need a third one, and they all have to be comparable in difficulty, or it wouldn't be fair–"
"Audrey," Dan said as he approached the desk, "we should probably work on figuring out what happened this morning. Then we can deal with creating a new test."
She looked miffed that her tirade had been interrupted, but she said, "Well, what do we have to do?"
"I'd like to get everybody in here," I said. "Everybody who was involved. Then I can find out the sequence of events." Then I interrupted myself (and I could imagine my employer's look of disapproval at my disorganization). "You mentioned that Corey had a broken arm. I'm curious about how he broke it."
Dan shrugged. "He just said he fell, but it seemed there was more to it."
"We broke it," one of the Golden said suddenly. I had already given up trying to figure out which of them was which. "He tried to put his hands on Sharon's body, under her clothes. So, we broke his arm to stop him."
Audrey looked dubious about this, but then Ron spoke up.
"He did that to me," she said. "Or he tried to. The first day I was in school."
I glanced at her, and I guess it was obvious to the others that I had not known about this before.
"Hazel wants to fight her own battles," one of the Golden said, "as much as possible. She has been defending herself from various human predators for some time, after all." He jumped nimbly away as Ron tried to kick him in the shin, and one of the others continued. "To run to you with every incident in her life would cause you to lose respect for her. She is fully aware that she can come to you whenever she encounters a situation she can't solve herself, and that feeling makes her happier than she will ever express to you directly."
It was almost like a dance. The Golden spoke in sequence, and as each one spoke Ron tried to deliver a kick, but she was always blocked by the other two, one of whom then started to speak.
I had heard of people completing each other's sentences, but this seemed extraordinary to me. It was apparently not unusual, though, since Audrey and Dan barely reacted, except for Dan's smile at Ron's increasing determination to land a good kick on somebody.
When that was done, Ron made a face, but she was clearly not upset. We had already observed that kicking was mostly a friendly game with Ron. When she was really angry, she cursed, loudly and at length. I wondered how the Golden had managed to learn that her real name was Hazel. She detested the name, and I would have been very surprised if she'd told it to them. We only knew it because Jan had investigated Ron when she'd started to deliver our mail.
"Well," Dan said, "now that we've had our exercise, let me get the others."
Ron leaned over to whisper something to one of the Golden (her expression said that it was probably her friend Will). As she finished, they all three smiled.
A few minutes later, we were ready to begin. I stood near the door, in a position where I could observe everybody. Ron stood next to me. Audrey had ignored Dan's obvious desire to take her place behind the desk, so he stood between the desk and the door. Corey and Phoebe had been brought in from the other rooms. They sat in the front row of desks, at the far end from the Golden, near the window.
Ms. Tumolo stood near the back of the room, as if none of this really involved her. She hadn't wanted to come, and we'd heard her argue with Dan about it in the hall, but she'd lost.
"We're going to thrash this thing out," Dan said, "and find out what happened and who was responsible. And that may take a while, which is fine. Other things can wait."
I closed the door and pulled down the shade over the glass panel.
"Now," he continued, "I'm going to outline my understanding of the sequence of events, then we'll see where I'm right or wrong. The test was supposed to start promptly at eleven. The Golden were waiting here, Corey was in the next room, and Phoebe was late. The plan was that Corey, Phoebe, and Will would take the test in the first room, Sharon would be in this room, and Craig would be in the third room.
"Audrey had left the test forms, and the answer sheet, on her desk, and she came to see what was causing the delay. When she found out we were going to wait a few minutes to see if Phoebe would arrive, she stepped out to..."
I was about to provide a suitable euphemism, but Audrey said sharply, "I had to pee!"
"Exactly," Dan continued. "And I went to see if Phoebe had forgotten about the test and had gone to her regular class instead."
"So, Corey was alone in the first room, and the Golden were in here?" I asked.
"Were the doors open? To both rooms?"
"I was in my office," Ms. Tumolo said, adding a bit of emphasis to the possessive pronoun. "With the door closed. I was working."
"By the time I returned," Dan continued, "Audrey was back, and Phoebe was here, and we were going to start. Audrey went to her office and found that the answers were missing. We did a thorough search of these two classrooms, and found nothing. Then we searched the students, and found nothing there either. I searched Corey, and Audrey searched Phoebe, and ..." his voice trailed off.
"Who searched the Golden?" I asked.
He glanced at them (they were impassive, as usual). "We offered to divide them by gender..." Dan began.
"But by then they'd already stripped off," Audrey said.
The Golden shrugged. "We have no problem with being naked," one of them said.
"And you searched their clothes?" I asked. "Everybody's clothes?"
"And you searched Audrey's office?"
"We looked around. It had been on her desk, but the window was closed, so it's hard to see how a breeze–"
"It was on my desk, clipped to the copies of the test, and it didn't blow anywhere in the nonexistent wind."
"Just to be thorough," I said, "there was no search of the other two offices, or of the third classroom?"
"I was in my office," Ms. Tumolo said deliberately, "and I can assure you that nobody came in, to hide a piece of paper or for any other reason. I was working – I was not sitting staring at the door to see who was walking by – but nobody came in."
"It seemed the purpose of stealing the answers was to use them," Dan said. "So, we didn't–"
"But Craig was going to be in that room," I pointed out, gesturing at the last room, the one opposite Audrey's office.
"Damn," he said, "we didn't think of that. Should we search it now?"
I shook my head. "No, not now. I'd rather figure out what our options are." I went to the blackboard and started a list.
- The Golden
- Ms. Tumolo
"So," I said, "to go down the list, the Golden, one or all, could easily have done it. Corey could have done it, if he had managed to get past this door, in both directions."
Dan turned to Corey. "Were you looking out the door of the room you were in? Would you have seen anybody who walked past?"
"No, I was reading."
"So, Phoebe could have done it, if she could have got past this door," I said. "The same for Dan."
"Why would Dan have done it?" Audrey demanded. "Besides, if Corey wasn't watching, anybody else in the school could have come by."
Phoebe raised her hand, as if she was in class.
"Yes, Phoebe?" Dan asked.
She stood up, looking uncomfortable.
"Principal Dan, can I talk to you? In private?"
He glanced at me, and I tilted my head toward the rear of the room.
"Marshall will have to join us," he said.
She nodded, and the three of us went to the back of the room. Ms. Tumolo moved to the front to get away from us. Dan and I sat down, so we wouldn't loom over Phoebe, who was not tall.
"I was late," she whispered to Dan. "I saw you leaving, but I didn't know you were looking for me, so I didn't say anything. I looked in the room..."
"And you preferred to wait outside," I said. "In the hall."
She nodded. "I waited around the corner, by the drinking fountain, until Audrey came."
"Did anybody else come down this hall?"
She shook her head. "No."
"Did anybody else leave this hall?"
I looked at Dan. He nodded. He understood why Phoebe hadn't wanted to be alone in the room with Corey.
When we rejoined the others, Dan stood in front of the Golden. "Sharon, Will, Craig," he said, "you were evasive before, but now we need an answer. You were sitting here, in the front row, right near the door, and the door was open. Did you see somebody walk by?"
"Someone did go by."
"We can't say who it was."
"It's not good to accuse somebody when you're not completely sure."
"That's bullshit!" Audrey snapped. "Dan is a tall, white man with a blond ponytail. I've got frizzy brown hair and dark skin. Miss Tumolo has black hair. She has the neatest hair in the world, and I have the messiest." She grabbed a handful of her hair and waved it around for emphasis. "Corey is a white boy with dark hair, and Phoebe is a Black girl with no hair. Which two of us could you have got mixed up?"
"The story is obviously a lie," Ms. Tumolo said. "They can't accuse a specific person, because it won't hold up. But they have to say that somebody walked by the door, or they will be admitting that they did it."
"But then where are the test answers?" Dan demanded.
"I found the answers," Jan Sleet said as she limped into the room. "They were exactly where I expected them to be." She held up a piece of paper between two fingers.
My employer got the reaction she wanted. The teachers jumped. Corey and Phoebe jumped. Ms. Tumolo looked furious, once she had collected herself, as if this was a show-off stunt. The Golden smiled very slightly, but they hadn't jumped. Ron just grinned, apparently not surprised at all. Of course, it is possible that she'd heard what I had heard, and had known what it meant, as I had.
I had heard a tap from the hallway, just as Dan had started retracing the crime. I thought I knew what it meant, but I didn't look and I didn't react. It had been, I thought, the tap of a cane on linoleum, and the fact that it had been followed by silence told me two things.
A certain well-known amateur detective, tall and thin and impeccably dressed, had been approaching the room. But when she had heard what was going on, that the investigation was proceeding without her, she had decided to wait, and listen, and see what was going to happen.
This was why I'd closed the door and pulled down the shade, and why I'd made sure Dan and I spoke to Phoebe in the back of the classroom, rather than out in the hall.
"Where did you find the answers?" Dan asked.
"In Audrey's office," my employer replied. She stood in the front of the room, hands crossed on top of her cane, looking at everybody through her large, horn-rimmed glasses. She was wearing a three-piece dark blue pinstripe suit, a pale blue silk shirt, and a burgundy ascot. The handkerchief in her breast pocket was pale blue, matching her shirt.
"Wait a minute–" Audrey said.
"Hang on!" Dan said, continuing to look at my employer. "Why did you expect to find them there?"
"Because the answers were not stolen to be used. The theft was intended to be noticed – that was the point. How could anybody have thought that the test would be delivered, that the theft would be undetected, when the answers had been clipped to the test copies?"
"So, who took them?"
She looked at me, and I knew this was my show.
"There was no reason for the Golden to take the answers and hide them in the office," I said. "The only possible result of that was that they themselves would be under suspicion. So, somebody else came down this hall and took the answers and hid them and then went back. Nobody, not even Ms. Tumolo, could have got to that room without passing this one."
I turned to the Golden. "You were all in the room. The door was open, and you were facing it, sitting right in the front, so you would have seen anybody who went down the corridor. Therefore, you are shielding someone.
"So, who are you protecting? A friend? I don't mean this to sound unkind, but I get the idea that you don't have any close friends, other than each other." They were impassive, listening. "But what about an enemy?"
"Why would they shield an enemy?" Ms. Tumolo demanded.
"They would, if it was Corey. They couldn't accuse him without it looking like it was tit-for-tat for his spreading stories about them. And he has two reasons for wanting to get them into trouble. They were a factor in a girl breaking up with him, and they broke his arm." Ms. Tumolo's eyes widened at this, but she didn't speak.
Corey was thinking about whether he could make it to the door, but Ron moved slightly, blocking him.
"Was it Corey?" I asked the Golden, and they all nodded.
Corey made his move for the door, and I grabbed his wrist.
"Hey, careful," he protested. "I have a broken arm." He held up his cast.
I leaned over and whispered carefully in his ear. "You tried to molest my daughter on her first day of school. Of course, she is perfectly capable of dealing with that, and you, without any help from me. But if you squirm one more time, or say anything other than 'Yes, sir,' you're going to have two broken arms. Am I making myself clear to you?"
"Yes, sir," he replied.
"So," Ms. Tumolo said to the Golden, "you didn't cheat, this time, but you did lie. You lied about not recognizing Corey when he walked by, as he knew you would."
They didn't react, but my employer limped forward. "I'm more pedantic than the Golden, apparently, and I know I'm more pedantic than my husband, so I will explain. The Golden didn't lie, at least in what they told us today. They made three statements, all of them true, in order to lead you to a false conclusion."
She held up one finger. "They did see somebody walk past the door. That's obviously true."
She held up a second finger. "They couldn't say who it was. Also true, because nobody would have believed them."
A third finger. "It's not good to accuse people if you're not sure." She smiled. "Also true. It can cause a lot of harm. They never asserted a connection between the second and third statements, they just let you assume that there was one. As most people would have. But they didn't lie."
Ms. Tumolo left without a word, and the Golden stood up. "Mrs. O'Connor?"
She had turned toward the rear of the room, where Dan, Audrey, and Corey were talking, but she turned back, surprised. Nobody ever addressed her by her married name (other than her husband, occasionally, in private).
"We live with a man, Mr. Bostwick, and he is a fan – of your writing and of your detective work. We know he would enjoy meeting you. Would you and Mr. O'Connor like to come and have dinner this evening?"
"Is Mr. Bostwick a relative?"
"We have no relatives."
"Then how did you come to live with him, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Mr. Bostwick is quite elderly, and he can't get around without a wheelchair. We take care of him. We prepare his breakfast, and we leave him something for lunch when we can't get there in the middle of the day. Then we cook his dinner and we eat with him. He always wants to hear how our day was at school, but we learn all sorts of things from him. He is very old, and he knows a great many things. Soon he will die, and that will all be lost. We also keep the house clean, and we do small repairs and run errands for him."
They gestured at the clock over the door. "We have to get to class now. We look forward to seeing you this evening."
I looked at Ron as they left. "You probably have a class to get to as well."
She nodded, somewhat disgruntled that I had figured that out.
"I have a question, Dad," she said. "I thought you said not to get upset when you're on a case."
"You looked kind of upset when you were talking with Corey."
"Well, the case was already solved at that point."
"Oh." She nodded. "That makes sense." Then, to my surprise, she threw her arms around me and hugged me. Then she ran off to her class.
Corey and Audrey left also, but Dan stopped. He could tell that my employer wanted to talk to him. "Will there be any repercussions from the Golden breaking Corey's arm?" she asked. "Miss Tumolo looked like she might start something."
He shrugged. "She may. If she does, I don't think it will go anywhere, because I'm sure Corey doesn't want to accuse them. He doesn't want quite that much discussion of how he treats girls. And he will probably be suspended for stealing the answers anyway. We'll have to take that up at the next staff meeting, though, since usually when answers are stolen it's to cheat on the test, which wasn't what happened here. Do you want to be informed?"
She shook her head. "Ron will tell us, and it will be in the regular reports. That's plenty. But wait!" she said sharply, stamping her cane on the floor. He had started to move away, but he turned back quickly. You didn't have to know her as well as I did to know that she was very serious. She was gripping her cane so tightly that her hand was nearly vibrating.
"Screw the test answers," she said. "What I do want to hear about is your plan for dealing with the fact that you have a student who apparently molests every girl he sees, or tries to. I'm far more interested in that than I am in stolen test answers, no matter why they were stolen."
He hesitated. "Well, we'll have to take that up at the next meeting, too, but none of the girls have been willing to–"
"Ron will speak up," I said. "I'll talk to her tonight. When is your meeting?"
"Tomorrow. We usually get together around ten."
"Can you make it later? Maybe eleven or noon?"
"We can do it at noon, I guess. People can bring their lunches."
I nodded. "Ron and I will be there."
"Listen," Jan said. "Not every girl can defend herself as well as my daughter can. Not every girl has two brothers to help her, as Sharon does. And the longer this goes on, the more clearly you're telling Corey that this is okay, and you're giving the same message to every other boy and girl here. And that is not an acceptable lesson in our school.
"And I will tell you this. If there's another student, bigger and stronger, who sees that you let Corey get away with this, in plain sight, again and again, and if that student tries to touch my daughter and she is not able to defend herself, then I will swoop down on this school like an avenging angel, and that is not something you will want to experience. Good day." She turned on her heel and I followed her out.
I knocked on the front door of the ancient tenement building, and after a moment a raspy voice called, "Come on in."
I opened the door, and my employer and I stepped into a narrow, dark hallway. There was a staircase that seemed to be sagging a bit to one side. An old man in a wheelchair moved slowly toward us from the back of the building.
"Miss Sleet," he said. "I am so happy to meet you. Please do come in."
"This is Marshall," she said, and he shook my hand as a door opened at the far end of the hallway and the Golden came toward us. They were all drying their hair with big fluffy towels, and they were all naked.
"We have to snake out the drain upstairs," they explained as they padded past us and up the stairs. "We'll do that later tonight. But we had to shower, since we had gym class today, and we can't use the showers at school anymore. Mr. Bostwick let us use his shower so we could clean up before dinner."
"You'll get used to that," Mr. Bostwick said as we heard a door close upstairs.
I wasn't sure about that. Now that they were at home, they weren't even bothering to put on a show of speaking normally. They spoke in some sort of rotation, each saying a phrase. The effect was something like this:
"We have to snake out the drain upstairs."
"We'll do that later tonight."
"But we had to shower,"
"since we had gym class today,"
"and we can't use the showers at school anymore."
"Mr. Bostwick let us use his shower,"
"so we could clean up before dinner."
"Why can't they shower at school?" my employer asked.
"A few of the parents got upset, for some reason."
I could tell that he knew the reason – the stories Corey had told about their active and incestuous sex life – but he was being vague in case we didn't know.
Mr. Bostwick led us into the living room, which was small, shabby, and comfortable. He smiled as we sat down, and he addressed my employer. "You're a detective, Miss Sleet, and they are indeed a mystery, so I might as well tell you up front that I know none of the answers."
"Aren't you curious?"
"Of course. But I'm curious about a good many things that I know I'll never learn. And, to be honest, if not for them I'd probably have to go live with my daughter and her kids. Which would be miserable for all of us, but especially for me."
He smiled. "I try not to ask them too many questions. I gather they are treated as freaks at school every day, and I know that it bothers them. I get the impression that their attempts to 'act normal' and 'fit in' have been less than successful. But they shouldn't feel that way in their own home, too."
He noticed my expression. "Marshall," he said, "were you popular in high school?"
I was surprised at the question, and I shrugged. "I guess so. I played sports, and I was pretty good, so that helped. I didn't drink, which was considered very odd, but mostly the sports made up for it."
"How about you, Miss Sleet?"
She laughed, nearly dropping the cigarette I was lighting for her. "Of course not," she said. "I was taller than most of the boys, and thinner than I am now – if you can imagine that – and I had absolutely none of the skills and interests expected of a girl my age in my town."
"How were you treated at home?"
She smiled, exhaling a cloud of smoke. "Very well. With complete, if sometimes bemused, acceptance. And you're right, it made a huge difference."
He nodded. "By the way," he said, "do you know a good lawyer?"
"Yes, a very good lawyer, in fact."
He smiled. "Does he make house calls?"
"He'll make this one. He visits U-town once a week or so to meet with us. I'll ask him to stop by."
"I'm always here. Well, we go to the park quite often on the weekends, when the weather is good, but I assume he comes during the week."
She nodded. We were both imagining Stu's wife's reaction if he had decided to work on a weekend.
Mr. Bostwick smiled as we heard the Golden trooping down the stairs. "I need to change my will. I'm going to leave them the house, and the little money I have."
One of the Golden came in and sat down. "Will and Sharon are preparing dinner, but we thought one of us should be social."
My employer smiled. "That's very nice, Craig. Thank you very much for inviting us."
"We knew Mr. Bostwick would enjoy it."
"How long have you lived here with Mr. Bostwick?"
"Nearly a year. We met him at the hospital. We used to help out there, and they would usually give us food and a bed, if we helped all day."
Mr. Bostwick made a face. "That was when the hospital refused to release me unless I had somebody to go home with me. How was I going to do that; there's no phones. Even if I had somebody I could call."
Craig smiled, briefly and tentatively. "We offered to help him get home. On the way, we stopped and bought some things he needed."
"And by the time we got here, they proposed that they would move in. They had it all figured out. It looked like a good idea, so I accepted."
"He insisted we had to go to school," Craig added. "We didn't want to, at first, but we've been learning a lot." He smiled again. "Similar to Hazel, who is learning a lot as well, despite her initial reluctance."
"That's our daughter," Jan explained, and Mr. Bostwick laughed.
"Oh, I've heard about her."
My employer then tried to probe a bit more: where the Golden had lived before, what had happened to their parents, but Craig's answers quickly grew terse, and Mr. Bostwick said, "This is supposed to be a social evening, Miss Sleet. Not an interrogation."
She nodded, knowing she had overstepped. "I am sorry," she said to Craig. "Force of habit."
"Mrs. O'Connor," he said, "you are seeking to understand more about this situation, and us, out of a general desire to understand the world, which we completely respect; however, when the phenomena under investigation are sentient, and are posing no provable risk to the community, we would suggest that the rights of the phenomena under investigation should outweigh the rights of the scientific investigator."
She digested this. "May I ask one question?"
He nodded. "Of course."
"Did you wind up here by accident? Or did you select U-town?"
"It is our belief that this is the best place for us to live, requiring the least amount of effort to pretend to be something which we are not."
She nodded, levered herself to her feet, and held out her hand. "Welcome to U-town."
The other two came in, drying their hands, as Craig stood up, and one after the other they shook her hand, looking very serious. Then two of them returned to the kitchen to finish preparing the dinner, which already smelled wonderful.
"There is still one mystery, or one additional one," I said as we walked home. Dinner had been very enjoyable, including a complete recounting of the case of the missing test answers for Mr. Bostwick, who was clearly very well informed about the various people involved.
"Which is?" she asked, frowning as she tried to figure out what I was going to say.
"Ron says she's friends with Will, but she doesn't like the other two. How does she tell them apart?"
"Have you asked her?"
I shook my head. "I have a feeling that the answer would involve some eye rolling about clueless old Dad. I try to avoid that."
"I see your point." She frowned. "You don't think she's interested in Will, do you? I mean, she's only twelve. I don't think she's ready for an incestuous ménage à quatre."
I shook my head again. "I don't think so. She was very open about Will being her friend, and I have the idea that when she is interested in a boy, she'll be much more secretive about it. I would be very surprised if she wasn't."
"Ah," she said. "I think you're right." She smiled and took my hand. "I will admit that this is a conversation I never thought I'd be having."
I laughed and squeezed her hand. "I know what you mean."
"Are you sure Ron will speak up about Corey?" she asked after a moment.
"Yes," I said. "She won't want to, but she'll do it. Because it's what you would do."
The great detective searched my face for evidence that I was kidding. When she didn't find any, she frowned, working to adjust her view of the world to include this new information.