“Get Outta My Way! I Need to See My Dad!”
The nurse looked up, startled, as that buzz saw of a voice cut through the walls and doors between us and the reception desk.
“That’s my daughter,” I said, keeping my tone neutral.
She gave me a wry look. “Well, I hope she calms down when she realizes she has to wait out there until we’re done.”
“She’ll quiet down in a minute,” I said, and before the nurse could respond the door slammed open and Ron strode in.
“You can’t go in there,” a young aide insisted as he limped in after her.
She turned to face him, and I could hear the trembling lips and the moist eyes even though I couldn’t see them.
“I’m worried about my mommy!” she quavered.
The nurse sighed and nodded, and the aide limped off.
Ron turned and came to sit beside me. “Hi, Dad,” she said. “How’s Mom?”
Ron had, by this point, developed the ability to know when I was giving her a pointed glance without actually having to look at me, so she stood up and walked across the small room to the nurse.
“I’m Ron,” she said, holding out her hand. “I’m Jan Sleet’s daughter.”
“Pleased to meet you. I’m sorry to interrupt.”
Lila nodded as Ron returned to sit beside me again.
We were in a small office behind the hospital admissions desk. Lila and I had been discussing the minor surgical procedure which was going to be performed on my employer.
“The operation is fairly routine,” Lila said. “I’ve never performed it before, but I read an article about it once, and it will be good to get the hands-on experience. I’ve always been curious about…”
I wasn’t looking at Ron, but I could feel her increasing unease as she tried to figure out whether this was a joke.
I had been pleased that she hadn’t looked at me to bail her out of trouble. This was one of the few rules we’d laid down when we’d adopted her. Yes, her parents were important in U-town and her mother was famous, but this didn’t entitle her to any special privileges.
Her life on her own had trained her to take any possible advantage she could grab, and it had been a new idea for her to refrain from seizing on this one. But we presented it to her seriously, the three of us sitting quietly, and we explained why this was wrong, and she took it to heart. And, when she did slip up, we calmly reminded her (and never in public, of course).
I caught Lila’s eye and tilted my head a bit to one side, raising my eyebrows, conveying (I hoped), “Hasn’t this gone on long enough?”
She smiled. “I’m joking, obviously.” Ron nodded seriously, as if of course we’d all known this all along.
When Ron and I were done with Lila we went back out to the reception area, which was quite crowded. Mona, the nurse I usually worked with when I did my shifts at the hospital, wasn’t there on Saturdays. If she had been, I would have felt I should start processing forms or talking to patients and families.
Ron was frowning , and I knew she was more worried than she would ever have admitted.
“Did you get caught in the rain?” I asked her.
She frowned. “It’s not raining.”
I inclined my head toward the waiting room, where the sound of heavy rain was audible through the windows.
I had brought my employer to the hospital early in the morning, but Ron had come later because there was mail delivery on Saturday.
I mention that this took place on a Saturday because it made a difference later on.
There was a woman waiting at the reception desk. She was drenched, with her blouse clinging to her and her hair dripping down her neck. She saw that she would have to wait for at least a minute or two, so she pulled off her blouse. She used it to dry her hair and her torso, then she took a T-shirt from her shoulder bag and slipped it on, draping the wet blouse over her bag to dry.
I could hear Ron make a gurgling sound as she absorbed this. I put a hand on her shoulder. “Come on,” I said, steering her toward the stairs. I knew that I wanted to postpone her comment, whatever it was going to be, until we were alone.
We came out of the stairwell on the second floor and nearly ran into Christy.
“Oh,” she said. She smiled, but I could tell she was uncomfortable seeing us. “You’re not sick, I hope,” she said quickly. “Is everything okay? I know this isn’t your usual day to volunteer.” She stuck her hands in the pockets of her leather jacket.
“I’m here with Jan. She’s okay, just a minor procedure.”
“Me, too,” she said, turning away. “I’ve got to run,” she said over her shoulder. “See you soon.” She trotted off down a hall.
“What’s up with her?” Ron demanded.
“Well, on one hand,” I began slowly, “I know you and Christy aren’t close, so I don’t think I should be telling you her secrets. On the other hand, I don’t know any secrets to tell you. She hasn’t confided anything to me. I could make an educated guess, but that’s all it would be. On the other hand, if I’m right, it isn’t anything to be ashamed of.”
She shook her head. “If Mom was here, she’d tell you that’s too many hands.”
I stopped. “What?”
She held up her (two) hands, and I got it. I laughed, and she smiled briefly. “You are your mother’s daughter,” I said. I patted her on the back. “Come on, we should see how she’s doing.”
We opened the door to my employer’s room and it seemed like a cloud of smoke billowed out into the hall. We groped our way inside and I closed the door. Ron coughed a couple of times.
“I’ll open the window a little bit,” I said. It was still raining outside but there wasn’t much wind, and I thought the rain wouldn’t come in if I raised the window a couple of inches. I did notice that it was not coming down as hard as it had been a few minutes before.
My employer was sitting up in bed, several medical textbooks open beside her. She was making notes on a pad. There was a man in the one comfortable chair, wearing a three-piece suit with his tie loosened and his collar open. His beard was gray and he appeared to be around sixty. They were both smoking pipes.
“This is Doctor Oliveira,” she said absently, gesturing as she used her magnifier to study a diagram in one of the books. “He’ll be performing the procedure.”
I held out my hand. “Marshall O’Connor,” I said. “And this is Ron, our daughter.” The doctor shook my hand, and then half-rose to shake Ron’s.
“This is fascinating,” my employer said, making a few more notes.
“Miss Sleet is a very well informed patient,” the doctor said as I pulled over the straight-backed chair from the other side of the room.
Ron looked uncertain, but Jan patted the bed. “Please sit by me,” she said. Ron climbed onto the bed and Jan squeezed her arm.
“I always try to spend some time with my patients,” the doctor said, “both before and after the surgery.”
Jan looked at us with a wry smile. “He was just commenting that he’d never met a civilian with so much medical information, all of it focused on different ways life could be ended.”
“It’s as if she went to some Satanic medical school which had the opposite goal of the one I attended. If I didn’t know she was a detective, I’d be worried.” He looked at his watch. “Well, this is all very pleasant,” he said, “but I expect there’s some sort of schedule we should be adhering to. I should probably examine my patient.”
I nodded and stood up. “Come on,” I said to Ron, and we went out into the hall. As we left, I heard my employer asking a question about something in one of the books she was studying. I had a feeling that the examination would probably have to wait until she’d received a satisfactory answer.
If Ron hadn’t been there I would have stayed in the room, but I knew that she would have been very uncomfortable. Not only because Jan was her mother, but Ron’s rule in general was that everybody should keep their clothes on at all times.
Which reminded me of something. I motioned at a couple of plastic chairs and we went and sat down.
“Ron,” I said, “we should talk about that woman at the reception desk.”
She cringed. “We don’t have to. It’s okay.”
“No, it’s no problem, and you were obviously upset. And you may see more of that sort of thing now that the weather is getting warmer.”
“People are gonna start taking their clothes off?” she demanded. “In public?”
“Maybe. It wouldn’t surprise me.”
“But she… she took off her shirt!” She was whispering, looking around to make sure nobody could overhear. “In front of all of those people! She–” She stopped herself, clearly wanting to further delineate what the woman had exposed, and why this was unacceptable, but unable to even say the words.
“Well, it is uncomfortable to stand around in wet clothes…” I was being reasonable, but I knew that she needed something else. However, before I could figure out how to proceed, a nurse popped his head around a corner, spotted me, and hurried in our direction. “We have a problem,” he said. “I want to ask Miss Sleet–”
I grabbed his arm and held him since he appeared to be about to barge into the room. He was tall, blond, and gangly, the kind of guy who always looks like he’d just dropped in from the farm.
“She’s busy!” Ron snapped, stepping between him and the door.
“What was this–” I began, then I heard the sound of a gunshot and shattering glass from inside my employer’s room.
I shoved the nurse out of the way and ran into the room, a step behind Ron. My employer and the doctor were both on the floor, with the bed between them and the broken window.
“Check them!” I said as I ran to the window, mostly to keep Ron out of the line of fire if there was going to be another shot.
I pulled down the shades on both windows as my employer called, “Be careful!”
I had closed the door behind me but I could see it opening as I turned. “Stay out!” I said, but it continued to open further and I could see the blond nurse looking in. “Keep them out!” I said. Ron ran and threw her shoulder against the door, slamming it shut.
The doctor had rolled onto his back by then, and I saw that some of the burning tobacco from his pipe had ended up on his vest. I quickly brushed it off and I asked if he was okay.
He drew in a deep breath as I helped my employer to stand. “I have no idea what just happened,” he said slowly.
My employer sat on the edge of the bed. “Someone shot through the window,” she said, fumbling on the bedside table for her cigarettes. “I grabbed you and threw you on the floor.”
“Ah,” he said, nodding slowly. “I see. So, do we think this is likely to happen again?” He was staring at the ceiling, making no effort to move.
She drew in a deep breath and let it out as I lit her cigarette. “No way to tell. I know as little as you do.”
Ron was still holding the door closed, explaining her reasoning to those outside with an impressive stream of profanity.
“One thing,” I said to my employer. “Christy is here in the hospital, for medical reasons. It’s possible we could grab her before–”
She nodded. “We could use her help. If possible.” I wondered if Christy was armed.
“Also,” I continued, “a nurse came up to me, right before the shot, and he said there was some sort of ‘problem’–”
“Bring him in.”
I went to the door and let the nurse in, then I took Ron to the other side of the room so we could talk while my employer questioned the nurse.
“I’m going to ask you to do something,” I said quietly, “and it has to be done very carefully. Okay?” She nodded. “You saw where Christy went? Around the other side of the big desk and down the hall to the right?” She nodded again. “There’s a small waiting room there, at the end of that hall. If Christy is there, please tell her we need her. I’ll make sure the procedure is rescheduled. If she’s not there, ask quietly at the desk. If she’s being prepped, or if she’s with the doctor, just come back. We want her help if we can get it, but I’m not going to pull her out if things are already in motion. Make sense?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Sure. What if she’s done?”
“She won’t be. It hasn’t been that long.”
Ron left, shouting as she went out, “Back off! You can’t fucking go in until I say so!”
I turned my attention to the interrogation of the nurse. I had just learned that the “problem” was that there was a gun missing from the lockup room, but then there was a brisk knock on the door and I heard an unexpected voice call, “Mr. O’Connor! Miss Sleet! Can I be of any assistance?”
I went to the door and opened it, admitting Father Frank, who we had met during the church mystery. At that moment I was glad to see any familiar face, especially if it belonged to somebody who might be calm during a crisis and who was probably not a sniper.
“Father Frank,” I said, shaking his hand. “Thank God.”
“So to speak,” my employer added from behind me and Father Frank smiled.
“What’s happened?” he asked. “What can I do?”
I turned and saw that the doctor was sitting up, his back resting against the chair. He didn’t look like he was planning to move any further any time soon, but then the chair slid slowly away from him and he subsided to the floor again.
“Someone shot through this window,” my employer said. “The courtyard outside is fully enclosed, with hospital buildings on all sides, and it’s almost certainly deserted, or nearly so, because of the rain. But we need to find out what happened.” It showed how rattled she was that she was wasting time telling the priest things that he already knew. “Father, could you talk to someone from the staff and have them check the courtyard? I don’t imagine the gunman is still there, but there may be footprints if we move quickly enough.”
“Have them send hospital security,” I said. “He or she may still be out there.”
“I’ll check and let you know,” he said and left.
“Why do you think the gunman was down in the courtyard,” I asked my employer, “as opposed to in the building across the way?”
She pointed up at the ceiling. “The bullet hole,” she said. I saw the black mark on the dirty ceiling tile. “The bottom of the window was shattered, and the bullet hit up there. He must have been down at ground level.”
I should explain that my employer was not jumping to the conclusion that the shot had been fired by a man. She was old-fashioned enough that she believed in referring to a person of undetermined gender as male.
The nurse had been waiting for an opening. “Miss Sleet,” he said quickly, before she could ask him another question, “can I check–”
“No,” she said sharply. “Please forgive me if I am brusque, but I have just been shot at. The doctor and I are fine, but we are both rather shaken up. I’ve been shot at before, but I am not used to it. I don’t suppose you ever… but never mind.”
Ron came back in. I went over to her as she closed the door, and she said, “Christy was…” She frowned.
“Busy,” I said, and she nodded.
The door opened again and Father Frank came back in. Ron suddenly got a very strange expression on her face, which I didn’t have time to think about right then.
“There is a dead body in the courtyard,” Father Frank said quietly. “You can see it from any window on this side of the building.” I pulled up the curtain and he pointed as he continued. “It’s a young man, a patient here at the hospital. I have heard that he is dead, and that there’s a gun on the ground near him. Security is investigating.”
My employer had jumped off the bed and moved to the window. She didn’t have her cane, which was on the floor on the other side of the bed, near the doctor, so I steadied her as she looked out.
The body was in a far corner of the courtyard, dressed in a hospital gown and half covered with mud. At that distance we couldn’t see the gun, if there was one.
“I need to see this,” my employer said, turning quickly and nearly losing her balance. “I hope–”
“They are not going near the body any more,” Father Frank said, “now that they are sure he is beyond help.”
“Jan,” I said sharply as she moved toward the door. She turned impatiently. “It is cold and it has just finished raining. The ground will be wet, and you’re not dressed for going out.” I gestured at her bare feet.
She frowned, about to protest that she had to investigate the crime scene while the traces were fresh, but then she nodded. “Of course,” she said. “Ron, will you bring me my shoes, please? They’re in that small closet.”
And so, the great detective strode forth, after a short delay, dressed in a flannel nightgown (she wouldn’t wear a hospital gown), a thin robe, and calf-high leather boots, accompanied by her loyal assistant, their charming daughter, and, of all things, a priest.
No three-piece suit, no carefully-folded display handkerchief, not even a necktie.
I steadied my employer as she squatted to examine the corpse. From what I could see, he was male, maybe in his late teens; thin, white, with a shaved head and a pale, wispy goatee; dressed in a hospital gown. I was holding the gun, a very small automatic. I had picked it up with a pencil in the barrel in case we wanted to check it for fingerprints, but it had been half buried in mud, so I wasn’t sure if any prints would still be recoverable.
When my employer was done, she looked around at the muddy ground again, then she looked up at the nurse who had found the body. “Where did you stand when you were examining him?” she asked.
“Just where you are now,” she replied.
“And you came out through that door, where Father Frank is?”
She nodded. “I had seen him though that window there. I thought he’d become disoriented and wandered outside.”
“Was he disoriented?”
She shrugged. “I have no idea. He wasn’t my patient.”
It had stopped raining and we were the only people in the large courtyard. Father Frank was at the closest door, discouraging people from coming outside. I had asked him to do this, since he would almost certainly be more diplomatic than Ron had been earlier. This was why it had been lucky that the murder had happened on a Saturday, since that was the day Father Frank and his congregation did their volunteering at the hospital. It was not the same as having Christy’s help, but it was far better than nothing.
Occasionally we saw one of the other doors open and somebody start to come out, but Ron discouraged this by her usual combination of bellowing and profanity. I had tried a couple of times to convince her that the bellowing might be just as effective without the profanity, but I had not succeeded.
Of course, there was also a downside to Ron’s parade-ground voice, which was that she was attracting a lot of attention. There were faces in many of the windows, and I knew it was only a matter of time before we were overrun with staff, volunteers, patients, and visitors, all wondering what was going on with the dead body and the famous detective in the hospital courtyard.
Despite my employer’s impatience, it had not been difficult to convince her to walk around through the hospital corridors rather than going directly across the courtyard. The soggy ground would have been particularly challenging for her to navigate with her cane, and she hadn’t wanted to appear on the crime scene to begin her investigation covered in mud.
It was at this point, as my employer lifted the corpse’s feet to examine them, that I realized Ron was no longer with us. I looked around, somewhat alarmed. It was not that I thought she was in any danger, but in a situation like this I was nervous about what she would get up to.
“Interesting,” my employer said as I helped her back to her feet. “I need to talk to whoever was treating him, and whoever is here with him – family and friends – and I need to see his chart. And I need to look at the…”
Her voice trailed off as the door opened and Ron appeared, coming toward us carrying what appeared to be a very large quilt. It dwarfed her, and she was working hard to keep any part of it from trailing on the muddy ground. “I got you a coat, Mom,” she said.
The challenge at these moments was to keep our faces from betraying how amazed we were at this behavior. Ron was not given to acts of kindness, but it would have been rude (and it would have made her self-conscious) to point this out. She was not selfish, at least in my view; she simply expected everybody, including herself, to be completely self-reliant.
I took the coat from Ron and helped Jan get into it. We thanked Ron, but I know we were both wondering where she had acquired this coat, and when we might be hearing from its rightful owner.
Ron’s appearance with the coat complicated things for my employer. She had been ready to go inside and start to meet the people connected with the victim. But to put on the coat and then immediately go in, taking the coat off again, would have made it seem that Ron’s effort had been wasted.
So, my employer reined in her impatience and started to go over the ground again, looking carefully at the little puddles and gullies that might have once been footprints. All of which she had examined very carefully already.
“Miss Sleet?” the nurse asked tentatively, glancing up to call attention to the fact that it was starting to rain again.
My employer turned. “Yes? Oh, of course. Please have somebody take the body inside. I need an autopsy as soon as possible. Come along, Ron, let’s get in out of this rain.”
A few minutes later, we were in a very small room with a large number of people. The room was intended to provide privacy when somebody from the hospital wanted to talk to a patient’s family or friends, so it only had three chairs, and the window was frosted glass. I’m not sure what the thinking had been behind the frosted glass, but it was good in this situation because otherwise we would have been looking out on the muddy ground where the young man had died.
I had been hoping that Father Frank would realize that his usefulness was diminishing, if not actually over, but he continued to stay, even though there was barely any room for him to fit into the room with us. Also, his presence was still making Ron edgy, and it was unlikely anything good was going to come from that.
It was funny, though, standing there between my employer and the priest. Father Frank’s demeanor suggested a deep but unobtrusive sadness that a fellow human being had died. My employer looked like a hunting dog pointing.
We had tried to find a larger room for this conference, but the hospital was very full that day. My employer had only been able to get her private room by pulling rank. The room we were in now was across the hall from the room where the victim had been shot. That room was larger, but it was still being cleaned.
Doctor James, a small, impatient woman, had immediately taken over the presentation of the basic facts of the case, partly because the family members were upset but mostly because she had more important things to do and wanted to get it over with. As she explained, briefly, she had determined that the victim was dead, discharging her obligation to the corpse, and now she had living patients who needed her help.
She looked at the clipboard in her hand. “His name was Scott Duncan–”
“Scotty,” his mother murmured.
Dr. James ignored this and plowed ahead. “He was seventeen years old, admitted last night after he passed out in a hallway at his dorm. We’ve been running tests, but it was apparently malnutrition. I came on shift this morning and I had not seen him yet, though of course I did read his chart.”
My employer held out her hand.”May I see it?”
Dr. James pulled it from under the clipboard and handed it over without pausing. “It’s all there. May I go now? I will, of course, be in the hospital for the rest of the day and probably into the evening.” She paused as my employer kept on reading, then she said, “You’re noting his prior admission to the hospital, last summer.” Then, as the family reacted to this, she slipped out of the room and quietly closed the door behind her.
“Last summer?” Scott’s mother said sharply. “That’s ridiculous. He wasn’t here–”
“Please,” Father Frank said, stepping forward. “We should start with introductions. I’m Father Frank, and I want to offer my condolences on the loss of your son.”
“It seems to me–” one of the men began, but he was interrupted.
“Where are the police?” Scott’s mother demanded. “I want to talk to somebody official, not a priest and an escaped lunatic.” She frowned at my employer’s rather unusual attire.
Both Father Frank and my employer started to respond, but neither got out one word.
“Don’t be stupid! She’s Jan Sleet, she’s the best detective in the world, and she’s going to find out who killed your kid, so shut up and let her do it! Fuck!”
The older and grayer of the two men was standing somewhat behind the others, and I could see him smile a little at Ron’s outburst, but of course nobody on his side of the room could see his reaction.
I squeezed Ron’s shoulder after she was done, hoping to convey that, at this moment at least, she should stay quiet.
“I must apologize for my daughter’s language,” my employer said smoothly. “Please accept my condolences as well on the death of your son. I am Jan Sleet, and in addition to having some experience in solving mysteries I am one of the administrators of U-town. So, I apologize for appearing en deshabille, but I can assure you that nobody in U-town is more official than I am. As a matter of fact, I am dressed this way because I got up out of a hospital bed myself in order to catch your son’s killer. This is my assistant, Marshall, and my daughter, Ron.”
She did not introduce Father Frank. He had introduced himself, of course, and she wanted to make it clear that he was here on his own, not connected with her.
She had noted, as I had, that after Ron’s outburst the priest had been about to apologize, to smooth things over, to normalize the situation, and to chastise Ron, in an appropriately priestly way, for yelling at the family of a recently-murdered boy. But then he had caught my expression and had taken a step back, bumping into the wall. He had seen, obviously, that if he had criticized my daughter in front of me I’d have picked him up and thrown him out of the room, collar or no collar. And yes, they were bereaved, and they did have my sympathy, but we were there to find a killer, and I’d have given pretty good odds that the killer was in the room with us at that moment.
So, we finally got introductions.
Scott’s mother was Mrs. Jaffee. She was in one of the two occupied chairs, her purse on her lap. Her expression indicated that everything she’d seen recently could have used a good cleaning. She was wearing a dress, a collared blouse, some unobtrusive jewelry, and (at least in my opinion – and remember it was a very small room) too much perfume.
One of the men with her was Tom Jaffee, her husband. He was dressed in a suit and tie, and he appeared to be a few years younger than his wife. The older man was Nathaniel Skinner, their attorney. He was wearing a suit and tie also, of a much higher quality than Tom Jaffee’s, and he had a briefcase.
The fourth person on the family side of the room, in the other occupied chair, was a teenage girl. Unlike the Jaffees and their lawyer, she was obviously a native. She was small, not much bigger than Ron, with dyed black hair and several earrings. She was dressed entirely in black, and the pin on the lapel of her leather jacket showed that she was a hospital volunteer. She said her name was Debra. She didn’t give a last name, but she volunteered that she had been Scott Duncan’s girlfriend, which provoked the usual protests from Mrs. Jaffee.
My employer held up a hand as she lowered herself into the third chair. “We’re not going to get anywhere if every statement becomes the subject of a debate. Everybody will get a chance to speak, you can be sure about that. Debra, why don’t you tell us, briefly, how you knew Scott Duncan, and what you observed today?”
“Okay.” She looked around. “Does anybody have a cigarette? I ended up working a double–”
“This is a hospital!” Mrs. Jaffee said scornfully. “You can’t smoke–” She stopped and made a face as I pulled out my employer’s cigarette case. Debra and Jan took cigarettes and I lit them.
Father Frank coughed, murmured something, and left. He was a smoker himself, so I knew this was just a polite excuse. My employer thanked him for his help as he closed the door. Ron folded her arms and leaned back against the wall. Her expression as she regarded the four people on the other side of the room indicated that she didn’t believe in the concept “innocent until proven guilty.”
“Scott was in U-town last summer,” Debra said, drawing the smoke deep into her lungs. “He came across the bridge after he checked out a couple of colleges in the city. He stayed overnight, and that’s when he tried to kill himself. I was working here that night and we patched him up. The doctor said maybe he didn’t want to die. Apparently he did it really badly.”
“How did he do it?”
“Oh, he slit his wrists, or anyway he cut them.”
“I must say,” Mrs. Jaffee put in, “that Scotty never mentioned a girlfriend to me.”
“He did mention you to me, but I won’t go into that.”
“Do I have to sit here–” Mrs. Jaffee began, but Mr. Skinner took a step forward.
“May I ask a question, Miss Sleet?” he asked.
She looked up, somewhat surprised. “Yes, of course.”
“Perhaps I can help clarify the situation. The suicide attempt last summer is a matter of record, is it not?”
“It is.” She held up Scott’s chart.
“Is there any reason, other than self-denial, that he would have been suffering from malnutrition last night?”
“No. Nobody goes hungry here if they want to eat.”
“I’ve heard that. So, a young man is suicidal, he starves himself, and he passes out. He is taken to a hospital, but he does not want to be treated, he does not want to recover, and he ends his own life.” He turned to Mrs. Jaffee and said, “I’m sorry, Amelia, but it has to be asked.” He turned back to my employer. “Miss Sleet, why do you think this was murder?”
“I strongly suspect that it was murder, though I do not know for sure. The scenario you propose leaves two significant questions unanswered. But I am not certain, and in a few minutes I will send Marshall to try to get the answer to one of those questions. The other question has only one answer that I can imagine, but we’ll get to that presently.” She turned to Mrs. Jaffee’s husband. “Mr. Jaffee, may I ask you a few questions?”
He was surprised. “Yes, of course.”
“What time did you arrive here at the hospital this morning?”
“Around eleven, I believe. We met Mr. Skinner in the city and then we came over the bridge together. We–”
“The bridge was blocked so we had to leave the car, and we couldn’t find a cab, so we had to walk,” Mrs. Jaffee added.
The distance from the bridge to the hospital was all of eight or nine blocks and they all appeared to be healthy, but I didn’t say anything.
“And when you got here?” my employer asked Mr. Jaffee.
“We went to the desk and told them Scott’s name. Someone directed us here, to the room across the hall.”
“Did you talk to a doctor or anybody else from the hospital?”
“No. We tried to, but everybody was really busy. We decided that we’d see Scott first, and then try to talk to a doctor afterwards.”
“So, you went to the room…”
“Scott seemed to be okay, but he was very tired. He said it must have been food poisoning, but he’d lost a lot of weight. Then someone came in to take blood and we asked if there was a room where we could talk, and they directed us here.”
“And where were you when the first shot was fired?”
“In here. Well…”
“I had gone out to make a phone call,” Mrs. Jaffee said. “I wanted to call our doctor. This place doesn’t seem professional to me. But none of the phones in those booths out there worked.”
“I know. We don’t have telephone service.”
“How can you people live this way?”
“Quite happily, though it isn’t for everybody. Mr. Jaffee–”
“That coat,” Mrs. Jaffee said quietly, “the one you were wearing before.” She gestured at where it was hanging on the back of the door. “It was stuffed into one of those phone booths. I thought at first that somebody had passed out in there.”
“Indeed,” my employer said, her eyes widening. “Which booth?” She leaned forward.
“The first one, closest to this room.” I had seen the three booths, between the little conference room and the main hallway.
“Ron, is that where you found the coat?”
She nodded. “Yeah. Nobody was using it. I thought it was okay to take it.”
“It was more than okay, dear.” She turned her attention back. “What did you do when you found that none of the phones worked?”
“I went to the main desk, down the hall, and demanded to use their phone. They said they didn’t have one. I guess that was when Scotty was shot, because I didn’t hear anything. When I got back, he was already outside. In the mud…” Mr. Jaffee put his hand on her shoulder and she squeezed it. My employer waited a moment until Mrs. Jaffee nodded, indicating that she was ready to continue.
“Mr. Skinner and I were in this room the whole time,” Mr. Jaffee said. “We heard a noise – I guess it was the shot – but wasn’t very loud and we didn’t think much about it.”
“It was a very small gun, muffled by a pillow,” my employer said. “And this building is quite old, the oldest of the four buildings of the hospital, and the walls are thick. By the way, the use of the pillow is a minor indication that this was not suicide, since suicides almost never do that. Why would they? Murderers do, however, for obvious reasons. But that’s an indication; it’s obviously not conclusive.” She looked at all three of them, the Jaffees and the lawyer. “If I may ask: your son is in the hospital, you rush to see him, that’s all very natural, but why did you bring Mr. Skinner?”
“He’s a family friend,” Mr. Jaffee said with an uneasy shrug.
“That might explain his presence, but not the meeting the three of you were having in this room.”
There was a moment’s silence after that, then Debra said, “I’ll tell you why.” She gave me a half smile and I offered her another cigarette, which she accepted. “They were worried about the money.”
There was another brief silence.
“Money?” my employer asked. “What money would that be?”
Debra started to reply, but Mrs. Jaffee looked up at Mr. Skinner. “Tell them,” she said.
He nodded. “Mr. Stephen Duncan was Mrs. Jaffee’s first husband. They had one child, Scott Duncan. Mr. Duncan died when Scott was around two years old. His will left one half of his estate, which was substantial, to his widow. The other half was held in trust for Scott until he turned eighteen.”
“Who was the executor?”
“I am the executor. I was Mr. Duncan’s attorney, and he and I were good friends.”
“And Scott was seventeen?”
“Yes, his birthday would have been in about three weeks.”
“And so the money goes…”
“According to the terms of his father’s will–”
“It goes to me,” Mrs. Jaffee said. “All of it.”
Debra looked up, smoke swirling around her face. “Anything else you need to know?”
My employer shook her head. “I’m sorry, Debra, this still doesn’t explain the meeting between the Jaffees and Mr. Skinner.” She looked at the Jaffees. “You didn’t know he was going to be killed, you didn’t know he might have been starving himself, and you can’t even have known he was in the hospital, because as you’ve mentioned we have no phone service and he was only admitted late last night. So, you came to see him for your own reasons, with your attorney. You probably went to the dormitory first, and they told you he had passed out and been brought here.”
Mr. Jaffee looked at his wife. “Look, she’s as good as Scott always said she was. We need to tell her–”
“Wait a minute,” my employer said, leaning forward again. “We’ll come back to the other, but I have to ask this. Scott talked about me?”
“He was your biggest fan,” Debra said, rolling her eyes. “He followed your cases all the time, and he really had the hots for you. I think that’s why he wanted to–”
“Fuck!” Ron exploded. “Then why–” but Jan whipped around in her chair and held up a finger, and Ron immediately fell silent.
She turned back and faced the others again. “Let’s table that for now. Why were you here?”
“We were…” Mr. Jaffee began, but Debra interrupted.
“They were afraid he was going to join the quiet people.”
“Indeed,” my employer said slowly. She leaned back and I gave her another cigarette and lit it for her. She looked up at me. “What do we know about them?” She was such an ardent atheist that she sometimes liked to pretend that she couldn’t tell one religion from another.
“We don’t know much,” I said. “‘The quiet people’ is what other people call them, but they don’t use the term themselves. In fact, they deny that they are even an organized group. They first appeared last summer, more or less. The only way they distinguish themselves is that they all dress the same way: plain, handmade clothes, all dark gray, with sandals and a particular type of head covering, also handmade. There seem to be thirty or forty of them. They live in a few communal situations, not all together. As for what they believe, or why or how they are organized, we have no idea. They live very simply, and, literally, quietly. They seldom speak.”
“And they usually give away their money, if they have any,” Debra said. “Which is what they were afraid of.”
“We were worried about my son getting into some sort of cult,” Mrs. Jaffee said. “His last two letters were very disturbing.” She faced Debra. “Are you part of this–”
The girl rolled her eyes and tugged at the lapel of her jacket. “I’m wearing leather, I’m smoking a cigarette, I’m wearing makeup, and my hair is dyed.” She looked at me. “Is that what they do?”
“Not as far as we know, no. None of those things. They usually shave their heads, as a matter of fact. As Scott’s was.”
My employer used her cane to get to her feet. “We’re ready to proceed,” she said. “Marshall, may I talk to you out in the hall for a minute? I need to have you run an errand for me, as I said. Ron, keep an eye on things here while we’re outside, but please try not to hurt anybody.”
As we closed the door behind us, we heard Mrs. Jaffee demanding to know how many times Debra had slept with patients she’d been treating at the hospital, but she used a more descriptive term than “slept with.”
Christy was in the hallway, standing by the nearest of the three phone booths. She was dressed as usual, in a leather jacket, a black T-shirt, a black skirt, and boots. Her red hair was tied back, and her face was pale and tense.
She was holding a man by the scruff of the neck. “He was trying to listen at the door,” she said. “I know you were in there with the family, so I held him out here.”
“Thank you, Christy,” my employer said. She turned to the man and smiled. “Sparky, how are you?”
“Oh, just fine, ma’am.” He didn’t sound convincing.
“What happened to your eye?” He had a black eye, and a small bandage in front of his ear.
“Just a couple of stitches,” he said. “Bastard got in a lucky punch. You know, it’s kind of a funny thing. I was upstairs, getting this fixed up, when suddenly somebody runs in and says that there’s a dead body in the courtyard and Jan Sleet is on the case. Well, we ran to the window, of course, and I saw you. And I saw your kid bring you a coat. And I remember saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a coat just like that.’ I thought it was just a funny coincidence, an oddity. But then, when I went to the lockup, my coat was gone.”
“So, you came to get it back. Quite reasonable.”
“Exactly. And I didn’t want to interrupt you, of course, so I was waiting out here.” He smiled. “I do sort of want my coat back, though, if that’s okay.”
“Hang on,” I said. I could hear the muffled sounds of yelling from inside the room, but it got a lot louder when I opened the door for a second and reached in to grab the coat from the hook on the back of the door. I was glad that I didn’t hear Ron’s voice. She was apparently watching rather than participating. Good for her.
The sound became muffled again as I closed the door and handed the coat to Sparky. He put it on and felt in the pockets, looking sheepish.
“Where did you leave the coat?” I asked. “And what was in the pocket?”
“I left it in the lockup. And…” He looked around uneasily.
I pulled the small pistol from my pocket, wrapped now in a handkerchief. I showed it to him. “Is this your gun?”
“Well, maybe,” he said. “It could be. It looks kind of familiar. I could be wrong, though. Why do you ask?”
“It was used in the murder,” my employer said. “Which I’m pretty sure you didn’t commit. But you can’t have it back. Come to the office tomorrow afternoon and we’ll see.”
Sparky hustled off as my employer told me what she wanted. I nodded and said, “I’d like Ron to come with me, if you can spare her.”
She smiled. “Christy, can you give me a hand? We’ve missed your help until now.”
Christy nodded. “That’s why I’m here.”
“I’ll send Ron out in a minute.” My employer opened the door and stepped inside the room, closing the door after her. The yelling stopped the minute she went in.
“How are you?” I asked Christy.
Jan’s head poked out. “Hug her if you’re going to. I promise not to tell Ron.” She closed the door again.
Christy and I both smiled and I gave her a good hug. “Are you okay?” I asked quietly.
She attempted a smile, then she shook her head. “No, not really.”
I nodded and hugged her again. “We’ll talk later, when this is over.”
She nodded. “I’d like that.”
Jan poked her head out again, motioning with an impish smile that we should step a bit farther away from each other. Then Ron came out. She looked up at Christy.
“Hey,” she said.
Christy smiled. “Hey.” She went into the room and closed the door.
Ron’s greeting to Christy had been pretty low key, but it was actually a big step up from her usual practice of ignoring Christy’s existence completely.
Ron and I set out on our mission. It had stopped raining again, but it was getting cold and I zipped up my coat, and Ron buttoned her denim jacket. She didn’t really believe in temperature – she wore the same sneakers, jeans, sweatshirt and jacket every single day – but when it was cold she did make this one concession.
We walked in companionable silence. I walked her to school almost every day, sometimes in silence and sometimes in conversation. She would never have admitted it, but she really minded it the few days I was too busy.
After we had walked a few blocks, I said, “I have to ask, Ron. Why were you so nervous when Father Frank was with us? Have you been writing graffiti on his church again?”
She looked up. “No!” she protested.
I believed her. “Then why so nervous?”
She looked down. “It’s nothing.”
I waited. I didn’t need to make the inevitable argument, which was that her mother, the great detective, could find out if she wanted to.
She made a face. “If I tell you, you’ll tell Mom, and then she’ll be mad at me.”
“I’ll use my judgment about telling her.”
We walked another block.
“Okay,” she said. “I go talk to him sometimes. Not about God, I told him that God stuff was no good, but about other stuff. School and things.”
“Did you start after you helped him clean off the church that time?”
“Yeah.” She looked up. “Are you mad?”
I smiled and squeezed her shoulder. “No, of course not. You can have whatever friends you want, and you don’t have to sneak around and try to keep it a secret. I won’t tell your mother, because you asked me not to, but she wouldn’t be mad either.”
“She doesn’t like anything to do with God.”
“True, but Father Frank is a person, not just a priest. He was helping us today, because Christy was busy.” I pointed ahead. “We’re here.”
An aide approached Ron and me as we re-entered the hospital and told us that my employer and the suspects had moved across the hall to the room where Scott Duncan had died (of course, she didn’t refer to them as “the suspects”). It turned out that we didn’t need the heads-up, though, because as we entered the short hallway we heard Mrs. Jaffee shouting, “How can you people live this way?”
My employer thundered, “And how can you be so arrogant that you go to visit a foreign country and you don’t bother to learn anything about it in advance? Now be quiet and let me solve the murder of your son.”
Ron charged for the door, ready to do battle on behalf of her adopted mother, but I grabbed her arm and held her back. “Ron!” I whispered sharply. She turned, her face flushed, and I squatted, pulling her to me. “Remember what I told you before,” I said. “Never get upset during an investigation.”
“But she’s yelling at Mom!” she whispered back.
“Your mother has handled that and far worse. She may well have provoked it to see what would happen. Also, Mrs. Jaffee has just lost her only child. That’s enough to get anybody upset and irrational. Plus, there’s the fact that she’s clearly a nincompoop.”
That got a smile out of her. I gave her a quick hug and stood up. “Calm and ready?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. She squeezed my hand, so quickly that I wasn’t completely sure it had happened.
I knocked on the door, and my employer came out. “Did you find her?” she asked.
“Sure did,” Ron said.
Jan chuckled and looked at me. I told her what we had learned, and then I added, “Once we told her what had happened she was more than willing to return, even though she just finished a fourteen-hour shift a couple of hours ago.”
She looked around. “So, where is she?”
“She was eating,” Ron said. “She’s coming when she’s done.”
“It may be a few more minutes,” I added. “She hadn’t eaten all night, and she had a lot of breakfast to work her way through.”
“I’m hungry,” Ron said quietly. And then her eyes widened as Dr. James appeared coming down the corridor, followed by an aide wheeling a cart with a huge platter of sandwiches on it.
“They’re not all for you,” I murmured.
“I heard the yelling in there,” Dr. James explained as the aide opened the door and wheeled the tray inside (Ron and I grabbing sandwiches as they went past). “It’s blood sugar, that’s why people get upset like that. Just blood sugar.”
And so, after a few sandwiches were consumed (Mrs. Jaffee took some convincing, and her husband and lawyer refrained from eating until she took one, but then they ate as well), my employer gathered the suspects. The room where Scott Duncan had been shot was much larger than the small room where we had been before, which was good because we had more people now and everybody wouldn’t have fit into the other room. And certainly the cramped conditions in there would have made it difficult for my employer to walk around and dominate the proceedings.
The Jaffees, Mr. Skinner, Debra, and Christy were there, along with Dr. James and Father Frank. We had been joined by two new people as well. One was Dr. Warren, who ran the hospital. The other was Francine, who had been in charge the night before.
Francine had been the person Ron and I had gone to see. We had not found her at her apartment, but, on a hunch, we had visited the coffee shop across the street. We had found her there, eating a huge breakfast, hungry after a long and difficult shift. I had asked her the question my employer wanted answered, she had answered it, and then I had told her what had happened the night before. After that, it had not been difficult to persuade her to come back to the hospital. In fact, she had insisted on it. After finishing her breakfast.
We had brought in chairs, and Mrs. Jaffee, Mr. Jaffee, and Debra were sitting.
“Miss Sleet,” Mrs. Jaffee said, “do you know who killed my son?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Are you going to tell us? Or is there some rigmarole?”
“There is, I’m afraid, a rigamarole, and, as my daughter pointed out earlier, this will go more smoothly if you let me proceed. I cannot be rushed, because I know what I’m doing and why it has to be done this way.” She looked around. “I want to start by talking about the possibility of suicide, as Mr. Skinner proposed earlier. Scott had been suicidal, he was starving himself, the shot was point blank and could easily have been self-inflicted. Motive, apparently, and opportunity, but no means. Where did he get the gun?”
“He brought it in with him?” Mr. Jaffee suggested.
“No, we know whose gun it is, and where it was stored. It was two buildings away from here, at the opposite end of the hospital. I don’t think a patient, no matter how busy and chaotic things were, could have wandered over there in a hospital gown and retrieved it.” She looked around the room. “I should explain where the lockup is and how it works, for those of you who don’t live here, because it figures into the solution of this case. In U-town, we don’t have concealed-carry laws, and some of our citizenry goes around armed. Which is also true in places that do have concealed carry laws, of course. But we have discovered that things go more smoothly in the hospital if the patients don’t have weapons.
“So, part of the procedure for admitting patients is an unobtrusive search, and then, if necessary, a firm insistence that their guns and knives need to be locked up for the duration of their stay. We use a room that used to be a nurse’s locker room. So that’s where the gun was, in a locked locker in a locked room, and any theory we accept needs to account for how it got from there to here. So, I would say that suicide is out, because it doesn’t account for the gun, and it doesn’t answer the two questions I will pose in a minute.
“Now, I’ll move on to another possible explanation. Debra accused Mrs. Jaffee, who will come into a substantial inheritance as a result of her son’s death. She has admitted that she looked into the phone booth and saw the coat. She could have touched it or moved it and found the gun. And her exact whereabouts are not definitely accounted for at the time of the murder.”
Mrs. Jaffee sighed. “I did not murder my son,” she said.
“No, you didn’t. And you weren’t deliberately framed, either. It was just coincidence. Motive, means, and opportunity are necessary, but they’re only the beginning. As I said before, any solution to this murder has to answer the two questions that I’m about to ask, but in any case while it’s possible that you found the gun in the coat pocket, that doesn’t explain how the coat and the gun got from the lockup to the phone booth in the first place.
“So, the first of the two big unanswered questions is this: we’ve heard again and again how busy the hospital was last night and today, how few beds there are, Dr. James expects to have to work into the night tonight, Debra worked a double shift last night, Francine worked fourteen hours, I had to pull rank to get a private room, and so on.” She waved her arm. “How did Scott Duncan get this enormous room all to himself? This is even bigger than a standard two-person room, in fact. So, I sent Marshall to ask Francine, who was in charge last night, and she said–”
“That I asked her to give him a single,” Debra said, rolling her eyes. “Why didn’t you just ask me? I would have told you. I was hoping to come in and visit him, find out what was going on with him, but I didn’t have the time. It was too crazy.”
My employer nodded. “I’ll come back to that, but now I’m going to move to the biggest question. Scott is wounded and dying, and what does he do? He gets up, dressed in a thin hospital gown, with bare feet, and goes out to the courtyard, through that side door and then outside, quickly so nobody had time to see him and stop him, into the rain, carrying the gun that was used to shoot him, and then he shoots at the window of my room, and then he dies.
“This is, first of all, a very striking thing for him to do. If he wants to accuse his murderer, why not tell somebody or write the name or buzz for a nurse? But here’s the central question: I’m a detective, on an amateur basis, and he’s been the victim of a murderous attack. In addition to that, he’s a fan of mine and perhaps even has a crush on me. Is it conceivable that he fired at my window by coincidence? Of all of the hundreds of windows that look out over this courtyard, he just happens to fire at mine as he died?” She held up a finger, clearly quoting. “‘In a world that operates largely at random, coincidences are to be expected, but any one of them must always be mistrusted.’ This might possibly be a coincidence, but I would find it a very difficult one to swallow.”
“So,” she continued, speaking slowly and carefully, “let’s take the other tack. Perhaps Scott did not know who had shot him. Maybe he’d been asleep. And let’s say he wanted me to find out who was responsible for the attack on him. But then – if that was true – how did he know I was even in the hospital, and how did he know which window, of all the hundreds around him in the courtyard, was mine? Somebody must have told him. Not his mother or step father, and not Mr. Skinner; they didn’t speak to anybody before they saw him. It had to be somebody who was plugged into the hospital gossip grapevine, somebody who knew of his interest in me, who knew he’d be excited that he and I were both patients at the hospital at the same time. And someone who, at that moment, was probably not yet planning to murder him.”
Debra was crying by then, her face buried in her hands.
“Somebody who knew where the lockup is, and how it works,” my employer continued more quietly, “and who knew that with the hospital so busy the lockers would probably be full and that some of the coats and weapons might be lying around the room. Someone who told Francine that she wanted her boyfriend to be in a private room so that she could have a tryst with him and, as she put it, ‘change his mind about a few things.’ And, if I’m right, someone whose boyfriend rejected her advances, because he was on the verge of joining a group whose members, among other characteristics, are known for self-denial, including in the area of sex.”
Debra looked up and wiped her face with her sleeve. “He… He told me that he was sorry. That it was all his fault that he had… succumbed in the first place. He said that women were temptresses by nature, seducing men from the righteous path, but that it was up to the men to resist and lead the women back to the… to the right way. Something like that. So, not only am I evil but it’s not even my fault, it was all on him. He’d been in charge all along.” She made a face. “He was never in charge of anything. He said he wanted me to pray with him, give up my sinful ways, join him on the righteous path. If not, we would have to break up, but he’d always pray for me. He told me I had a lot to atone for.”
“Had you told him about your abortion?” my employer asked. Debra looked up, frowning. “I checked your chart while we were waiting for Marshall to return.”
“Yeah. The last guy I was with got me knocked up and then ran off. I took care of it, and then I decided that men were really assholes and maybe I was gay. So, I tried being with a girl, but it wasn’t right for me. So, I ended up with Scott, and he seemed to be really nice. And I told him about the abortion and about Rachel, and he was…” She shook her head. “Back then, it turned him on that I’d been with Rachel.”
She made a face. “I was really pissed off. I seduced him in the first place – he was a scared virgin when I met him, so grateful that I’d… for everything. And now, in his mind, he was in charge the whole time. He was never in charge of anything in his life! I got mad… and I shot him.” She looked up. “I really wish I hadn’t, but I was very angry.”
“I’m sorry,” my employer said quietly, “but this was not a crime of impulse. When you decided to shoot him, you had to walk to the lockup to get the gun, two buildings away, and then back. I think that makes it premeditation.” She shrugged. “In my opinion. That will be decided at the trial, of course.”
Mrs. Jaffee sighed as she got to her feet. Two people from hospital security were standing by Debra, but my employer had indicated that they shouldn’t take her just yet.
“Mrs. Jaffee,” my employer said, “the trial–”
“I don’t care,” she said, looking at the bed. “Or maybe I do. I…” her voice trailed off and she looked out the window.
“Amelia,” Mr. Skinner said, “why don’t you and Tom go home? I’ll stay and find out the details, then I’ll call you later tonight or in the morning.”
She sighed and nodded. “Alright, Nat. I’ll do that. Thank you.” She turned to my employer. “Miss Sleet, your child is unpleasant, foul-mouthed, ill-behaved, and in desperate need of a bath.” I clamped a hand on Ron’s shoulder and squeezed, hard. I knew what Mrs. Jaffee was saying, even though she pressed her lips together and left the thought incomplete, and I knew Ron wouldn’t understand.
“Thank you,” Mrs. Jaffee said after a moment.
“You’re welcome,” my employer replied. “And you have my sympathy.”
“Thank you.” She left, with her husband trailing after her.
“How can I find out the details of the trial?” Mr. Skinner asked.
By reflex, my employer reached for her vest pocket, where she always carried business cards (hers and our attorney’s), but of course she was still wearing her nightgown and robe. I handed the card to her and she gave it to Skinner.
“Our attorney,” she said, “Mr. Anson–”
“Oh, I’m well aware of Stuart Anson,” he said with a smile. “I look forward to talking with him.” He took out a card case and slipped the card into it, and pulled another one out, which he held in his hand as he put the case away. “But you had something else to mention,” he said.
“I do, and it’s important that everybody here is aware of this. I will need to talk to Vicki to see what she says.” She looked at Mr. Skinner.
“I know who Miss Wasserman is,” he said. He looked for a second as though he was considering adding something, perhaps one of the usual responses to the fact that U-town was being run by a teenage girl, but he didn’t say anything else.
“I will have to check this with her,” my employer continued, “but I am going to recommend that this be prosecuted as a case of assisted suicide. The evidence, if not examined in too much detail, could lead to that conclusion, and we probably want to avoid publicizing that a hospital aide murdered a patient.”
“Especially since it is not the first time,” Mr. Skinner added quietly. “I completely understand.” His expression was even more noncommittal than usual.
My employer was not able to completely conceal her disappointment that he was aware of the earlier crime. “And I should make it clear that the punishment, if Debra is convicted, will be commensurate with a murder charge.” She turned to Debra. “I’m assuming you won’t say anything to contradict this.”
Debra nodded. She looked like she didn’t much care about anything at that moment, but I was fairly sure she would be happier not being known as a murderer.
“Are we done?” Mr. Skinner asked.
“Yes, though I need Dr. Warren and Debra to stay for a moment.”
As Father Frank turned to go, he said, “See you soon, Ron.” My employer’s eyebrows shot up, and I caught her eye and shook my head slightly. Not the right time and not the right audience to get into that question. Ron’s expression was blank, and she didn’t respond to Father Frank.
Mr. Skinner, Father Frank, Dr. James, and Francine went out, leaving just Christy, Ron, Debra, Dr. Warren, the hospital security, and me. Mr. Skinner made sure he was the last one to leave and he handed his business card to my employer as he went, though he made no comment about it. We did have additional dealings with him later, but that’s another story.
“Debra,” my employer said, lowering herself into a chair, “one final question. Why did you bring the coat when you got the gun from the lockup and then stash it in the phone booth? Why not leave the coat and carry the gun in your pocket? It was a very small gun.” I would tell that she had a pretty good idea what the answer was.
Debra shrugged. “There were a couple of people in the lockup room. I couldn’t just take a gun and leave. But I found a coat with a gun in the pocket and took the whole thing. If they’d asked, I’d have said it belonged to a patient who was being released.”
“And what were those people doing in the lockup room?” my employer asked.
Debra made a face. “They were smoking. Smoking pot.”
“I thought so. I noticed the smell when Ron brought me the coat.” She turned to Dr. Warren. “This has to be addressed, of course. We cannot have the hospital staff partaking of intoxicants while they’re working. Please draft a plan to stop this, and have it on my desk by Tuesday morning. Understood?”
She nodded. “Of course.”
“And obviously we need to take stricter measures to make sure that hospital staff aren’t assigned to patients who they are related to or involved with. This will be more difficult, but please give me your thinking on this as well.” She got to her feet as the security people took Debra out, followed by Dr. Warren.
“I guess we’ll have to reschedule your procedure,” I said.
She laughed. “I’ve forgotten all about that a couple of times today, and then it comes back to me when I start to wonder why I’m dressed in this outlandish fashion. Yes, Dr. Oliviera will need time to recover before I’ll let him anywhere near me with a scalpel. We should go back to the room so I can get dressed… Ron, what is it?”
Ron was frowning. Not upset, but apparently puzzled by something. “I have a question,” she said.
Jan smiled, hoping against hope that Ron actually had a question about the case. Ron’s confidence in her mother’s deductive abilities was complete, but she had never been very interested in the details. Jan perched on the edge of the bed and asked Ron what the question was. Christy and I sat down also, and then Ron took the remaining chair. If we’d been alone she would probably have gone to sit beside her mother on the bed, but that would have been too informal with Christy there.
“He was gonna inherit all that money. But that wasn’t why he was killed? Or was that part of it?”
Jan smiled. “Very good question, dear. The answer is that I don’t know. It’s interesting to speculate, but there’s no way to know for sure. Debra was in a relationship with a boy who was about to come into a lot of money. Was she in love with him for himself, and indifferent to the money? Was she looking forward to how their lives would change once he received his patrimony? Was she upset about his increasing interest in the quiet people because it was not something she believed in, or because they would encourage him to give away the inheritance? Or both? I don’t know, and as much as we might wonder, there’s no way to know for sure. That answer is only in Debra’s heart, and even she may not be clear about what it is.”
Ron looked thoughtful, chewing this over.
“Can I ask you a question, Ron?” Jan asked gently.
Ron’s face froze. “Yeah,” she said slowly.
“Why did Father Frank say that he would see you later?”
She glanced at me, and I nodded encouragingly. And so, slowly, she told the story of her friendship with Father Frank, emphasizing the limits she had put on their conversations. I could tell that Jan’s urge was to take this revelation lightly, to make a joke out of it, but she knew that Ron was really afraid of her reaction.
“That’s nice,” she said when Ron was done, “that you and he have become friends. It’s very good to have friends who are different from us, older and younger and from different places. We learn a lot that way. I’ve only met him two or three times, but he seems nice, and he’s very intelligent. I interviewed him once, as you may remember, and it was a fascinating afternoon. Marshall finally had to drag me away or we’d have been at it all night.”
“So, that was Father Frank,” Christy said. “I’ve heard about him, but I’d never seen him.” She smiled awkwardly. “I was hoping he couldn’t tell how much I didn’t want him to be here.”
“Are you an atheist, too?” Ron asked.
She shook her head. “No, that’s the problem.” She shrugged. “As you’ve probably figured out, I had an abortion earlier today.” It was not clear which of us she was addressing. She wasn’t looking at any of us. “I’m saying that because if I don’t mention it I’ll feel like I’m hiding it from you, from my friends. Which I really want to do, but I know how silly that is. Anyway, I was not in the mood to be standing next to a man in a dog collar, especially listening to a girl talking about her abortion.”
Ron was sitting very still, and I thought I knew what was on her mind. She was thinking, “Somehow I’ve ended up in the middle of a grownup conversation, and maybe if I don’t move they won’t notice I’m here.” I remembered that feeling.
“I feel sorry for that boy,” Christy said. “Do you know much about these ‘quiet people’? It sounds like they really screwed him up.”
“Not much more than you heard today,” I said. “And I’m no expert on these things, but it sounds like he had problems long before he met them.”
Jan nodded and lit a cigarette. “The suicide attempt happened on his first visit here, apparently before he met them, and maybe even before they existed.”
“Before, when I was…” Ron began, and then she frowned.
“Before we adopted you.”
“Yeah. There were people who wanted me to come pray with them or whatever. They wanted to take care of me. I told them to get stuffed.” She shrugged. “Sometimes I got food anyway.”
I could tell that Christy wanted to say something to Ron, though I have no idea what, but she was unable to figure out how to get past the barrier that existed because Ron didn’t like her.
I had a thought, and not for the first time, which was that in other circumstances Ron might have ended up with the Jinx if she’d encountered them before she met us. I had the feeling that, even if that had happened, she wouldn’t have lasted with them. Not that I knew for sure, of course. I was certainly not vain enough to think that I was an expert on the subject of our adopted daughter.
There was a diffident knock on the door.
“Come on,” Jan said, using her cane to get to her feet. “They probably want the room.”
I laughed. “There are probably a half dozen patients on gurneys outside, ready to be wheeled in…”
I stopped as Christy stood up, swayed, and grabbed the back of the chair. I took her arm and steadied her.
“Are you okay?” Jan asked.
“I’m a little wobbly. They had me under sedation, before, and they told me I should lie down for at least an hour after they were done. But I knew you needed me, and I wanted to be doing something–”
“How did you know we were looking for you?” Jan asked as I helped Christy sit down again. Her face was so pale that it was nearly white, making her freckles much more obvious than usual.
“I heard Ron asking for me at the desk, while they were putting me out.” She looked at Ron and smiled. “I know you were trying to be quiet, but I could hear you through the wall.”
“You should lie down for a while,” Jan said. “They’ll probably kick us out of this room, but I’m a patient here. You can use my bed. Let’s go there, and then I can finally get dressed and go home.”
I helped Christy to her feet and we went to the door. Outside, instead of the aides and patients we expected, there were two of the Golden. They were as striking looking as ever, with blonde hair, gray eyes, and golden skin, dressed in matching sweaters and slacks, but the oddest thing was to see two of them without the third. Their faces were not expressive, but I could tell something was wrong.
Ron demanded, “Where’s Will?”
“Will’s been beaten up.” “It happened last night.” “We knew you were in the hospital.” “But we didn’t want to bother you until you’d solved the murder of that boy.” “But we would really like your help.” “Will doesn’t know who it was.” “And we’re afraid it might happen again.”
“Fuck! Then why did you leave him alone? Where is he?”
That last was Ron, of course. The rest was Craig and Sharon Golden, speaking alternately as they often did.
Christy leaned against me, and I asked, “Is Will in the hospital?” They both nodded. I turned to my employer. “Why don’t I get Christy to your room and pick up your clothes, and I’ll meet you there?” I expected Christy, who was Jinx after all, to protest that she could get there on her own. She didn’t say a word, though, which told me how bad she felt.
Jan nodded. “That makes sense. What room is Will in?”
“A-14.” “In the North Building.”
“I thought that North was closed because of all the plumbing problems,” I put in.
“It’s a long story,” Sharon said (I think it was Sharon). They were obviously impatient to get back to their brother, so we dropped the question.
I walked through the corridors with my arm around Christy, who was still unsteady. I saw some people note this and perhaps make assumptions. I was glad Ron wasn’t there.
“We’re starting gossip,” she said.
“I’ve been the subject of gossip before,” I said. “People used to tell all sorts of wild stories about my employer and me.” She glanced up at me. “Long before the stories were actually true, I mean.” I could feel her chuckle.
I opened the door of the room, and I felt a blast of chilly air, accompanied by a fairly outlandish noise. The cold air came from the shattered window, of course, and the outlandish noise came from Dr. Oliviera, who was stretched out on the bed, snoring. I helped Christy to sit on the edge of the bed, and Dr. Oliviera’s eyes opened.
“Ah,” he said, looking at Christy.
“Behave yourself,” I suggested.
“It’s okay,” he said, smiling. “I’m a doctor.”
Without even looking at him, Christy held her hand in front of his face and quickly made the sign language gestures for “j” and “x.” Everybody in U-town knew what that meant.
I helped Christy swing her legs up onto the bed as the doctor sped out of the room. “You know what I’m going to do,” I said as she lay down.
She looked at me as I unlaced her boots . “Yes,” she said. “That’s another thing I felt stupid about. I know he would have come with me, but I just felt so.. stupid. And careless.”
“Tell him. Jan always says you should never start to tell a lie that you won’t be able to sustain.”
She nodded and squeezed my hand. “You’re right,” she said. “Thank you.”
As I left, carrying Jan’s clothes, I stopped at the desk and gave one of the runners a message for Fifteen, to come to the hospital, and that it was important but not an emergency.
Walking back through the hospital toward the North Building, I had a few moments to remember how much I disliked being absent for the beginning of a case, since my employer never made it a high priority to fill me in on what she had learned when I wasn’t there.
It was unusual for my employer to investigate a beating, but of course it was unusual for a beating to be a mystery to solve. And, unusual or not, I knew she would investigate because Ron’s friend had been the victim. But I also knew that in the back of her mind was the possibility that this might mean she could find out more about the Golden.
As I went down the corridor toward the North Building, I saw Miss Portugal. I knew her from my own shifts at the hospital, so I went over. She was busy, so I stood at the counter and waited. I knew that my employer would have gone directly to Will’s room to talk to him, and I thought it would be helpful if I brought his chart to her.
“Miss P,” I said when she was free. “It’s charming to see you.”
She smiled and fluffed up her luxurious, dark hair, nearly dislodging the tiny nurse’s cap perched on top. “Mr. Marshall,” she said. “So nice to see you, too. Are you here to help?”
“Only indirectly. My employer is investigating the boy who was beaten, Will Golden.”
She frowned. “She investigates beatings now? There aren’t enough murders? I heard she was investigating one in the other building.”
“That was solved, and then Will’s brother and sister came and asked for her help. Will, the boy who was beaten, is a friend of our daughter’s, so we’ll try to help.”
“Not too close a friend, I hope,” she said, looking at me sternly over her glasses. “There seems to be something… improper going on with him and his siblings.”
“Indeed,” I said noncommittally.
“They were very upset when Doris tried to kick them out last night at nine. Apparently they sneaked back in, because this morning I found the three of them in bed together.”
“They’re very close.”
“They’re very peculiar.”
“And close. May I see his chart?”
She shrugged, located it, and handed it to me.
I didn’t stop to look at it. Every minute’s delay meant more information I was missing. As I got ready to leave the desk, though, I thought of one more question.
“Has there been an elderly man here, in a wheelchair?”
Miss Portugal gave me a withering look. “This is a hospital, honey. We’re up to here with sick people, elderly people, and wheelchairs. Can you be a tiny bit more specific?”
“His name is Mr. Bostwick. I don’t know his first name. The Golden live with him and take care of him. I’m concerned that he’s okay if they’ve been here all night.”
She shrugged. “I haven’t seen him, as far as I know.”
“Have an aide ready, with a house kit, if we need to check on him. Thanks.”
She was about to protest that there weren’t enough staff people to send them all over the city chasing wild geese, but I turned to go through the doors and into the North Building. As the swinging doors closed behind me, I heard her commenting that she hadn’t known I was planning to take the chart with me.
The hallway was quiet and rather gloomy, an abrupt change from the rest of the hospital. I remember thinking that if this had been a horror movie, this would be where the bad things would start to happen.
There was one lighted doorway in the hallway ahead of me and I could hear familiar voices, so I went there. Stepping into the room, I saw Will lying in the bed. His arm was in a cast, his long hair was tied back, and one eye was bruised. His brother and sister were perched on either side of him, symmetrical mirror images of each other. All three were regarding my employer. She stood at the foot of the bed (continuing the symmetry) and turned as I came in. She moved toward me and I handed her the pile of clothes that I was carrying. Will’s chart was on top of the pile, and I took it back when my hands were free. I knew she’d want to get dressed before doing anything else.
It would have been possible, of course, for her to have stopped at some point during the investigation of Scott Duncan’s murder to get dressed, but she would have regarded that as an admission of weakness. She much preferred appearing in public in her usual three-piece suit, shirt, and tie, but she’d wanted to make it clear that she could work just as effectively wearing a nightgown and robe.
However, that case was over and this new investigation was just beginning (and the Golden were not strangers to us), so she was comfortable asking them if she could step into the small bathroom for a moment to change her clothes. They shrugged and nodded, indicating that this was fine with them, but also showing that they did not understand why she had to leave the room for this purpose.
Ron was on the far side of the room, leaning against a small metal table. Her expression was blank. I thought it likely that she was being particularly guarded so as not to reveal how concerned she was about her friend.
And, like Miss Portugal, Jan and I were both hoping that her friendship with Will was just a friendship, but of course we didn’t know for sure.
When my employer returned, she was dressed and her hair was combed. She smiled, but then she put the smile away because the Golden still looked worried.
“Mrs. O’Connor.” “Do you know who did this?” “Do you think it will happen again?”
Jan shook her head. “I don’t know. I will try to find out. For now, I think you should stay together, all three of you, until I figure this out. You’ll be safer that way.”
They nodded very seriously.
“Do you know when you’re getting out of the hospital?”
“Today.” “They discharged me already.” “But we wanted to wait until you were free so we could talk to you.”
“Is that why you’re here, in the North Building, which is supposed to be closed down?”
They shook their heads and looked uncomfortable. “No.” “That’s…” “The person I was in a room with,” “He…”
She nodded. “I can imagine. I’ll come by Mr. Bostwick’s house tomorrow night and tell you how it’s going. It’s probably best for you to stay home tomorrow, or at least stay together. Go to school Monday if you feel up to it, but take the day off if you don’t.”
They nodded. “We’ll go.” “We don’t want to miss any more time.” “We’re behind on our assignments as it is.”
It was getting dark as we left the hospital (after returning Will’s chart to Miss Portugal, of course). I suggested we eat at the hotel, in case there were other things we needed to do there.
The response was positive but not enthusiastic. My employer was thinking about the case, and as usual when she was concentrating she wasn’t aware of food at all. Ron, who usually liked eating at the hotel where we lived, just grunted. I could tell she was upset about something, and a moment’s reflection told me what it probably was. I knew she would brood and fume about this as we walked, getting more and more angry, so I wanted to tackle it right away.
“Ron,” I said, “what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she muttered, as expected.
We were at a corner, and I stopped. “Ron,” I said, “something is obviously wrong. Please tell me what it is.”
Jan looked somewhat surprised at this, since her thoughts had been elsewhere, but she stopped and regarded Ron as well.
I’d expected more resistance, but Ron said, “You’re…” Then she made a face, looking away from us.
“We’re what?” Jan asked, clearly perplexed.
Ron sighed angrily. “You’re not doing anything!” she said. She spoke with great urgency but not loudly, since there were people walking by. “That guy got killed, and you ran off to solve it and you didn’t even get dressed. Now Will’s beat up and…” She waved her arms in frustration.
“And you think I don’t really care because it’s just a beating, nobody was murdered, is that it?” Jan asked softly. She pulled Ron over so she could sit on a stoop and look at her eye to eye. “Ron, you asked me to figure this out and I will. But the crime didn’t happen at the hospital, and the solution probably isn’t there either. It’s getting dark now, but tomorrow morning I’m going to go to where it happened and look around. Tonight I’m going to see what we have in the files about the quiet people. I don’t know how long this will take – you never know that in advance – but I will solve it.
“And it’s not ‘just’ a beating, not to my mind. For one thing, you asked me to do this. That alone makes it very important to me. Also, the Golden get picked on for being different, as you know, and that’s wrong. But what if the quiet people are actually going around hurting people, people they don’t approve of? We need to know that right away, because there are a lot of them and new people are joining. But if somebody is pretending to be one of them, to get them in trouble, then they’re getting picked on for being different, just like the Golden, and we need to know that. So, for all those reasons, this is important, and I will solve it. But mostly because you asked me to.”
I smiled. “After all, your mother and I figured out what happened when the Golden were accused of stealing test answers. And a beating is far worse than stealing test answers.” She was being won over, but she was trying not to show it. “Do you want to help us, Ron? Help us with the investigation tomorrow?”
She decided to put up some resistance. “I have to deliver the mail,” she insisted, her arms folded. “You know that.”
I leaned over and whispered. “Tomorrow is Sunday.”
“Aaaah!” she said in frustration, then she hauled off and punched me in the arm (not hard enough to bruise, but a lot more than a tap). She took a certain amount of pride in being one of the few people in U-town who always knew what day it was, so she was mad at herself for the slip.
I slowly drew back my fist and punched her in the arm (not hard enough to bruise, but more than a tap). She smiled, briefly, and said, “I’m hungry.”
Jan used her cane to get to her feet, brushing off her trousers. She was getting used to the idea of the occasional punch as a sign of affection, but she wasn’t about to adopt it herself (even apart from the fact that – as she always put it – she herself could get a bruise from a raindrop). Her idea of an appropriate resolution would have been a hug, but we knew Ron hated to be hugged in public.
I walked to school with Ron every day, and the two things that always made her grimace were public displays of affection and misbehaving children. If we saw a couple walking with their arms around each other, that usually rated a frown. If they were kissing, she’d make a face. Once, walking in the evening, we’d passed a couple making out in an alley. The guy’s hand had been up under the girl’s shirt and Ron had looked like she was going to throw up.
Misbehaving children usually got a grimace, too. I think this was because she saw them as members of her tribe, and this crying or acting out might reflect badly on kids in general.
“You know, Ron,” my employer said, looking up from the papers on her desk, “solving mysteries isn’t all asking questions and collecting suspects. A lot of it is reading reports and doing research.” Ron looked up, frowning. “Why don’t you tell your father what we learned from the Golden?” I was glad that I was finally going to find out how the quiet people figured into this case.
“Okay,” Ron said slowly. She turned to me. She was sitting at her desk, but it was Saturday night and she didn’t have homework to do. “They were home, the Golden and the old guy…”
“Mr. Bostwick,” I supplied.
“Yeah. They had dinner – this is last night – and they decided to bake something.”
“They often bake on the weekends,” my employer supplied over her shoulder, “because they don’t have school.”
Ron pursed her lips at the interruption, then she continued. “They didn’t have all the stuff they needed, the ingredients, so…”
Jan turned, apparently ready to supply a list of the missing ingredients, and perhaps even the recipes they were going to use, but she saw Ron’s expression and turned back to her reading.
“So, Will said he would go out. He was walking to the store, a couple blocks away, and he was going by an alley and two guys jumped him.” She sighed as Jan turned around again.
“It’s not definitely established that they were male,” she said, then she quickly went back to the reports.
“They cursed at him, called him names–”
“What kind of names?” I asked. “Personal names, like they knew him, or just general insults?”
“They knew him,” Ron continued. “Called him a freak, mentioned… about his sister.” She looked uncomfortable.
As we had learned when we were investigating the theft of the test answers, the Golden apparently had a sexual relationship with each other, despite being (apparently) barely teenagers, and (apparently) siblings. I found that I usually thought of them as being aliens of some sort. Which they may well have been. But it was no surprise that Ron didn’t want to talk (or even think) about this.
I imagined that it was something like this which had got Will exiled to the North Building. This didn’t mean that they had necessarily misbehaved in the hospital room, but they were becoming quite notorious around town.
“So, they knew who he was…” I prompted Ron.
“Yeah. They hit him and he tried to fight back, but they were both bigger than him. Craig and Sharon rushed to help him, but they got there too late.”
“The attackers were gone?”
“Yeah. They ran off when they saw Craig and Sharon were coming. They helped him back to the house, but they could tell that his arm was broken, so they took him to the hospital.”
“What about Mr. Bostwick?” I asked. “Who was going to look after him? I know they all three stayed over at the hospital.”
She shrugged. “There’s a neighbor who does stuff for him when they’re at school. Maybe she helped him.”
“What did the attackers look like?” I asked.
“They were dressed like those quiet people we heard about,” Ron said. “They were wearing gray clothes, with those funny hats. And masks across their faces.”
My employer turned from her desk, putting down the folder she’d been going through. “Observations?” she asked.
I shrugged. “There’s no way to tell if they were really quiet people or not, but it doesn’t sound like they were very quiet.”
She smiled. “True.”
“Any mention of the quiet people attacking anybody, anything like this?”
She shook her head. “Nothing at all in these reports. But they do disapprove of a lot of things, including most things to do with sex. As we saw today with Scott Duncan. On the other hand, their way of dressing would be very easy to copy.”
“Whoever they were,” I said slowly, “we can say the following. They were prepared to attack somebody, whether or not they meant it to be Will Golden. They were prepared…” I looked at Ron.
“The masks,” she said.
“Exactly. And, whether or not they were really from the quiet people, they wanted people to know that’s who did the attack.”
“They could have changed their clothes,” Ron said.
“Any more observations?” Jan asked
“They knew who he was, but they weren’t laying for him. Not two blocks from his house on a night when they would have had no idea he’d be coming out at all, let alone going in that direction. So, either they followed him from the house, or they were ready to attack somebody and he was just unlucky.”
We didn’t mention the other obvious thing, which was that the story, if true, made it clear that the Golden could communicate when they weren’t together. Otherwise, how did Sharon and Craig know their brother was being attacked two blocks away from home?
“I have a comment,” I said as Jan turned out her bedside light.
She put her arm around me and kissed my cheek. “On what topic?” she purred.
“Ah,” she said, “and would you like to make this comment now?”
“Yes. And here it is.” I cleared my throat. “You referred a couple of times to the fact that Ron asked you to find out who beat up Will Golden. But, of course, you realize that she never asked any such thing.”
She smiled (when you’ve been married for a while, you can tell even in the dark). “She wanted to. She would have, if I hadn’t started to investigate.”
“True. And you’ve been telling her various useful things about solving mysteries, though she hasn’t asked for those either.”
“And your point is?” she whispered, throwing one long leg over mine.
“I thoroughly endorse your attempt to interest her and involve her in the family business, as it were, but I didn’t want you to think that I was oblivious to your sneaky ways.”
“Duly noted for the record,” she said.
* * * * *
The staff of the U-town newspaper was mostly made up of young people with no previous newspaper experience, so my employer had trained them in various skills.
The only problem was that she herself had never worked on a newspaper. She was a reporter, so she could and did help them in writing articles, but she had always been published in magazines, and her ideas about how a newsroom should function came mostly from old movies. So, the newspaper did come out, and sometimes it was pretty good, but the newsroom always looked to me like a high school production of The Front Page.
As we came into the smoke-filled newsroom (she had pretty much insisted that at least some of them had to smoke – I think they took turns), Phyllis got up from the editor’s desk and trotted over to greet us. She was about twenty-five, and apparently she was the editor this month. She wore jeans and her feet were bare (which showed unusual optimism for somebody in the newspaper game, given the state of the floor), but she was wearing the approved rumpled white shirt and loosely tied necktie.
“Come see!” she said, exhibiting almost no world-weariness or cynicism at all. She pulled us over to a small display in the corner, where there was a blurry photo of Doug, the young reporter who had been murdered during the college case. Above the snapshot was a headline they had obviously had typeset especially for this display. It said, “Douglas Matthews: He Got the Story,” and gave the years of his birth and death.
My employer regarded this for a moment. “Very appropriate,” she said. She gestured at Ron. “Do you know my daughter? Ron, this is Phyllis. Phyllis, Ron.” Ron nodded seriously and shook her hand. “She’s helping us on this investigation.”
Phyllis raised an eyebrow. “Investigation?”
“Which we need to talk to you about in private.”
Phyllis nodded. She didn’t have an office – nobody did – but she led us down the hall to a tiny room with two chairs. Phyllis and my employer sat, and Ron and I leaned against the wall. Phyllis had offered me the second chair, but I had declined.
“I have a proposal which I would like to describe to you,” my employer said, lighting a cigarette. “Have you heard about the murder of Scott Duncan?”
Phyllis took a cigarette also, but that was probably just to be polite. “Yes. We have somebody at the hospital doing interviews. We’re going to do an article, but it’s not clear–”
“Assisted suicide,” my employer said.
Phyllis nodded. “I see. But you didn’t need to come here just to tell me that.”
My employer looked up at me. “Marshall?”
I knew what she wanted. In some situations it would have been a verbatim account of everything that had happened the day before , but that would have taken hours and would have wasted everybody’s time. She wanted a concise, summarized recap instead, focusing on the elements which involved, or seemed to involve, the quiet people.
We knew from experience that I was far better at this sort of thing than she was. My employer’s mind was very discursive, which was one reason she was so good at solving mysteries, but it also meant that her “summary” could easily be longer than the thing being summarized.
As I told the story, I emphasized the need to understand more about the quiet people, including the possibility that they had expanded their disapproval of sexual activity to include physical violence, and I de-emphasized that we wanted to figure this out because Will Golden was our daughter’s friend.
When I was done, Phyllis dropped her cigarette butt on the floor and I stepped on it for her. There were no ashtrays in the empty little room.
“You’re welcome to look through our files on the quiet people,” she said, “but I can tell you that there isn’t much there.”
“I thought that might be the case. I will look them over, but I’m thinking of something more active. I’m proposing that a reporter investigate and, if possible, infiltrate, and try to learn the story from the inside. Marshall and I are too well known, of course, and I’m pretty notoriously an atheist. Christy, who works with us, wouldn’t be suitable either. Nobody would believe a member of the Jinx would be interested in the quiet people, especially at her age. Based on the reports I’ve read, most of their converts are apparently in their late teens or early twenties.”
Ron pursed her lips but remained silent. We had told her the plan at breakfast, knowing she would probably volunteer. We told her that she had also been pretty vocal about being an atheist, and people would also suspect her because she was our daughter. What we didn’t tell was that she was a terrible liar (a skill we didn’t want to encourage her to develop), and also that this might be dangerous. Her survival skills were established, but there was no way we were going to send her into possible danger by herself.
Knowing that she would probably volunteer, and that she would then certainly balk when we told her no, we’d brought it up at breakfast so as to keep the argument in the family.
Then, after breakfast, we had visited the scene of the beating. It was two blocks from the house where the Golden lived with Mr. Bostwick and, because of the heavy rain after the attack, there was nothing significant there. Any clues had been washed away.
Unless my employer had seen something and was keeping it to herself. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
Phyllis nodded. “Of course, we will want to publish a story if we get anything good.”
“Definitely. When the case is solved, you can publish whatever you want. Until then, not a word, even if you have good material, since it would reveal that someone has infiltrated the group.”
“Fair enough.” She leaned back in her chair. “Ordinarily, of course, this would be difficult for us to do. Our challenge is that this is a small town. Everybody knows us. ‘Oh, that’s Phyllis from the newspaper.’ That’s how I’m known. And the quiet people would be suspicious if somebody from the newspaper suddenly wanted to join.”
She was preening a bit, but my employer let her go on because it was clear that she had something.
“However, realizing this problem, we’ve made plans. One of our interns is very sharp. We’ve kept her away from the office here, and I only meet with her in the city. I see her every Monday morning. She gives me what she’s done, we talk about it, and I give her new assignments.”
“The article last week about the subways?” my employer put in. “And the two theater reviews? I remarked to Marshall that they were particularly good.”
“The subway piece was mine, and thank you, but yes, the reviews were hers. I think she even said she had religious training when she was growing up, so she’ll know the right things to say. If not, she’ll learn them quick enough,”
“So, you’ll be seeing her tomorrow morning?”
“Yes. At a coffee shop over in the city, near the campus.”
“May I come and propose this project to her?”
Phyllis looked dubious. “I may be well known here, but you’re well known everywhere. Other students at her school have internships around U-town. Word could spread, which is the last thing we want.”
My employer concealed her disappointment since obviously Phyllis was right. “Would it be helpful if Marshall came along?”
Phyllis nodded. “Yes, very much.” She seemed relieved that my employer had agreed with her objection. “If I know Wendy, she’ll have a zillion questions and I won’t know the answers to most of them.”
As we got ready to leave, after making plans for the following morning, my employer said, “One more thing. Is Wendy familiar with U-town at all? I imagine this will be easier for her if she knows the lay of the land.”
“No problem. She’s got a boyfriend here, over by the foundry. She’s here quite a lot, but she stays away from us.”
“You’ll need security,” my employer said to me as we walked back toward the hotel. “If I have to follow the rules, so do you. Why don’t you check with Christy? We’ll meet you at home later. I want to let Vicki know what’s going on.”
So, she and Ron went back to the hotel, and I headed to the headquarters of the Jinx. My employer had handled this adroitly. She knew that Christy and I had some unfinished business from the day before.
I knocked on the door of the abandoned warehouse building where the Jinx lived. After a moment, it opened and a man said, “Yes?”
He was dressed as Jinx always dressed: a leather jacket, a black T-shirt, and jeans. I reflected for a moment that the Jinx were another group, like the quiet people and the Golden, who always appeared somewhat interchangeable.
“My name is Marshall. I’d like to see Christy, if she’s around.”
He frowned, and I found myself remembering high school and the frowns I’d received from some fathers when I showed up to take their daughters out on dates.
But this frown apparently only meant that he was trying to remember where she was. “She’s in the gym, I think. Downstairs.” He let me in and pointed at the door to the stairwell.
I walked down, my footsteps echoing, and into a hallway. It was all poured concrete and cinder blocks with metal doors, which heightened the feeling that I was back in high school. Each door had a glass panel near the top, and I looked in the first one. It was a large cafeteria. We’d been there once or twice during the vampire case.
The third door was it. I could see a basketball hoop and a stack of mats. I opened the door and went in. At the far end of the room there were two people sparring. Facing me was Neil. He was dressed in black trunks and shoes, with a bandanna around his head to keep the sweat out of his eyes. And boxing gloves, of course.
Facing him, with her back to me, was a woman, also in black trunks and shoes, with a snug black top that looked like it only covered a bit more than a bikini. Her red hair, which was tied back, told me that she was Christy. Neil noticed me and said something, but she didn’t turn. He shrugged, and I wondered if he’d have tagged her if she’d turned her head. He threw another series of punches, which she blocked. As I got closer I could see that they were both covered in sweat. They had been at this for a while.
Neil put up his gloves, palms out, and then dropped them to his side.
Christy turned and saw me. “Oh,” she said, and she quickly looked around for her robe, which Neil brought over. He unlaced her gloves (I have no idea how he’d removed his own). She pulled on the robe and belted it, then she turned to face me. Neil tossed her a towel and then left through another door, drying his hair.
“What’s up?” she asked. “You don’t usually come to visit us.”
I motioned toward the bench that ran along one wall, and we went and sat down. She looked better than she had the day before, but she was still pale, her expression tense. She wiped her face with the towel.
“I have a couple of questions. The first is, how are you?”
“I’m okay,” she said. She untied her hair and started to dry it. We both knew she wasn’t telling me the whole truth, and we both knew some other things, too. We knew she wasn’t going to be really relaxed and forthcoming there, in the Jinx headquarters; we knew that she felt bad that she couldn’t relax there as she could in other places; and we both knew she wasn’t going to be comfortable with me as long as she was wearing those clothes. She tugged the top of the robe closed, then made a face at herself for doing that.
So, both of us knowing all of these things, I didn’t press. “Can you go to the city with me tomorrow morning? We’ll be going with Phyllis from the newspaper. She and I have to meet with somebody.” I smiled. “Then we can ditch her somewhere and I’ll take you to lunch.”
She smiled, too, aware that I had just solved all of the things which had been tying her up. “I’d like that,” she said.
The next morning Ron and I walked to the bridge together. She had to be there to collect the daily mail delivery, and I had to meet Christy for our trip to the city. Christy spent a lot of her nights at the hotel where we lived, because Fifteen lived there, but I had not explored the possibility of the three of us walking together.
We walked in silence for a couple of blocks, then Ron asked, “What about the hospital?”
“The hospital. You always work there on Monday morning.” I was often surprised to learn how much she noticed about our lives, how many things she filed away without comment.
“Oh, your mother is filling in for me.” I laughed. “She was eager to do it, actually. I think it got her out of going to some meeting, and she has another scheme to reorganize their filing system. I’m glad I’m not there for that.”
Christy was waiting at the base of the bridge, looking somewhat winded. I remembered that she usually jogged in the mornings. I think she did a complete circuit around U-town, maybe more than one. The very thought made me tired.
“Good morning,” I said.
“Good morning,” she replied. “And good morning, Ron. Looks like a nice day.”
“Morning,” Ron said. Her frown may have been for Christy, or it may have been for the idea that anything, including the weather, could be “nice.”
I had already told Ron that I almost certainly wouldn’t be back in time to walk her to school. She would have been mortified to have Christy know how much she enjoyed our walks. This was why I had made sure that our walk to the bridge would be just the two of us, to make up for missing our regular midday walk to school.
I realize, by the way, that the words I use most often to describe my daughter’s state of mind are “disgruntled” and “mortified.” I thought of looking for alternatives, just for variety, but those words are pretty accurate. Her other common states of mind were “wary” and “asleep.” We’d got a note from one of her teachers that she was “not cheerful” and “inclined toward violence.” We spoke to her about the second of those assessments. After that conversation, she had been disgruntled for a while.
Christy and I started walking up the slope of the bridge. The base of the bridge was permanently blocked at the U-town end, so very few cars came over.
“I think she’s starting to like me,” Christy said. She glanced at me. “Well, maybe not. So, what is this trip all about? I’m out of action for one day and I have no idea what’s going on.”
I started explaining what we were investigating and why, and who we were going to visit.
“You realize,” she said slowly, “that you have just revealed your undercover reporter to me, or you will when we meet her.”
I shrugged. I knew what she was saying. She was our friend and she often worked with us, but her sworn allegiance was to the Jinx. We tried to be careful not to put her in positions where those loyalties might come into conflict. Of course, we knew why Dr. Lee was fine with Christy working with us so often. It was all to the good for the Jinx to have one of their members so close to us.
As we walked down to the end of the bridge, we saw Phyllis waiting, reading one of the city newspapers. She looked up as we got close and smiled. We had planned to meet her there, rather than on our side of the bridge, so as to avoid having people wonder why Marshall and Christy were going to the city with Phyllis from the newspaper (and without Jan Sleet).
I introduced Christy and Phyllis. They shook hands, and Phyllis said, “Jinx?” Christy nodded. “So,” she said to us, “are you ready for the big, bad city?”
We laughed because we knew what she meant. We were stepping into the land of cars and traffic lights and trucks and honking horns. None of which we had on our side of the river.
As we set out, I was also reminded that we were now in the land of the wolf whistle. Not that this never happened in U-town, but it was comparatively rare. But in the city, walking with a tall young woman with dark skin and blonde hair, and a striking and shapely red-head, we did get the occasional comment and whistle and so on.
Phyllis was wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and after we’d walked about a mile she said, “Memo to Phyllis: when you go to the city, always wear a bra. The natives get restless otherwise.”
Christy laughed. “They get restless anyway.” She was making a joke out of it, but I could see that her posture and gait were different than they were at home. I wondered if she was even aware of the change.
“I even bought one a few weeks ago,” Phyllis said. “But every week I forget to wear it.”
The coffee shop was large, clean, and obviously efficient. The waiters wore black vests and slacks with white shirts and no ties. Some of them were carrying several plates each, all moving quickly down narrow aisles and between customers. The place was packed.
A girl in a small booth for two waved at Phyllis, then she looked understandably surprised as Christy and I approached as well. She was already eating, her full breakfast taking up more than half of the tiny table.
“This is Marshall,” Phyllis said, leaning over to Wendy could hear her in the din. “Why doesn’t he sit down and tell you why he’s here. I’ll tell the waiter we need a bigger booth when one opens up.” I slid into the narrow seat as a huge menu appeared in front of me.
I held out my hand, which was awkward in the confined space, and she shook it. I don’t know how I expected her to look, but this wasn’t it. She had a round face, dark, bowl-cut hair with low bangs, and horn-rimmed glasses.
“My name is Marshall,” I said. “I work for Jan Sleet. I expect–”
“Jan Sleet?” she demanded, nearly tipping the coffee cup she held in one hand and dropping the toast she held in the other. “Why are you here? I really want to meet her – interview her, really. Do you think that would be possible? This is really unexpected. We read one of her articles in class last week. I was going to ask Phyllis if I could interview her. For my college paper. But I have to tell you, who I really want to interview is starling! Phyllis said that’s off limits, but maybe for my school paper. Does she give interviews? That would be a feather in my cap, I can tell you. Does she still shoot people? Who’s that redhead you came in with?”
“Wendy!” Phyllis said, clapping her hands quickly in front of Wendy’s face.
“I really want to… what?” She looked up in happy confusion.
“We’re moving,” Phyllis said. She gestured toward a booth in the back where Christy was standing.
“Oh,” Wendy said. She looked like she was about to try to pick up her entire breakfast by herself, plus her large, black shoulder bag, but two busboys came and helped her.
Phyllis and I moved toward the booth, a couple of steps ahead of Wendy and her assistants.
“Did you tell her all about it?” Phyllis asked me.
“I think I managed to tell her my name, or at least part of it.”
She smiled. “I thought so. I’ll show you how to do it.”
Christy slid into the booth and I sat next to her. There wasn’t very much space. Phyllis and Wendy sat on the other side. The menus were already there waiting for us.
“I was telling Marshall–” Wendy said as someone appeared to refill her coffee cup. I wanted to grab the guy and insist on decaf for her, but he was moving too fast.
“Wendy!” Phyllis said, clapping her hands in front of Wendy’s face. “Marshall needs to tell you a few things.”
“This is why she doesn’t let me do interviews,” Wendy said, putting an additional layer of butter on her toast. “She’s afraid that I’d–” Clap, clap. “Okay, sorry,” she said. She looked contrite for a fraction of a second, then she resumed eating.
“To answer your four questions,” I said, “I do work for Jan Sleet, we’ll see about an interview later, starling is absolutely off limits, and this is Christy. She’s my security.”
“She doesn’t do any interviews? None at all? Why not? And why do you need security?”
“In U-town, starling is an ordinary private citizen. She is not wanted for any crimes, and she has not committed any crimes.”
“But she’s murdered hundreds of–”
“In the United States.” I didn’t point out that “hundreds” was an exaggeration. Her point was still valid, and I didn’t want to lose whatever conversational momentum I might have. ‘”We have no extradition treaties. But let me tell you why we’re here.”
The waiter came and we gave our orders, then we managed to keep Wendy under control until she started to understand what I was saying, then her eyes widened and she fell silent. I finally had her attention, at least for the moment.
I should explain that Wendy was not just a chatterbox (or, as my employer would have said, a flibbertigibbet). She was just revved up to a higher speed than the rest of us, and it made her impatient. Once she understood what I was proposing, her questions were sharp and pertinent. I thought my employer would like her, and I hoped they would meet at some point.
After we were done and some plans had been made, Wendy pulled out a sheaf of paper from her pack and plopped it on the table. This was the work she had done during the previous week, which she was eager to review with Phyllis, in detail. This provided a perfect opportunity for Christy and me to make our excuses and leave.
Outside, the weather was clear and there was a nice breeze. “Well, I certainly don’t want another meal just now,” Christy said.
I nodded. “Let’s take a stroll. I think I know where there’s a good cafe where we can get some coffee or something. But I do need to walk off some of that breakfast first.”
So, we walked a while, chatting about Wendy and the quiet people and other things. She considered circling her arm through mine, but we both knew that was out of bounds.
But it was very enjoyable, like gradually slowing down to normal again after being driven around in the speeding car that was Wendy’s brain.
Then we went to a very pleasant Italian cafe, where we had cappuccinos and cannolis in a quiet corner, sitting in ornate chairs on either side of a tiny marble-topped table, and we had a real talk, about a variety of subjects which are not relevant to this report.
The next couple of days passed quietly, as far as the investigation went. Wendy was on the case, and there wasn’t much for us to do.
I didn’t know how Ron would react to the waiting, but she seemed to be okay. She delivered the mail in the mornings, I walked her to school after lunch, and the three of us had dinner together in the evenings. My employer had covered my hospital shift on Monday morning, so I took her shift on Wednesday afternoon.
Thursday morning, as I was getting a cup of coffee from the hotel cafeteria, Fifteen came over to me.
He saluted as he approached me.
“Your salute is duly noted,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Someone to see you. She says it’s important.”
I shrugged and followed him out to the lobby. There was a young Asian woman sitting on one of the ratty sofas, and she stood up as Fifteen and I came over. She looked like she was in her early twenties, and I was fairly sure I had never met her.
“Mr. Marshall?” she asked.
I held out my hand. “Yes, and you are?” It was usually not worth it to explain that “Marshall” is my first name.
“Ashley Dawn,” she said, shaking my hand firmly.
That name clicked in after a second. “You live in the same building as Zoe Alexander,” I said. I smiled. “Well, I imagine you knew that already.”
She smiled, but she wasn’t in the mood for jokes. “Zoe needs to see you. I want to take you to her. It’s important.”
“Why didn’t she just come to see me herself?”
“You’ll see. She’s nearby.”
I could tell this was serious, and it seemed silly to ask more questions when Zoe was waiting to give me the answers. We had met Zoe during a previous investigation, and I was curious about why she was coming to see me now, and in this roundabout fashion.
“I’ll tell them you’re going to be busy for a while,” Fifteen said.
Ashley led me out of the hotel and down to the corner. We turned, walked down a block, around another corner, and into a very small, dark cafe. I could see Zoe sitting at a small table in a dark corner. She was wearing a large pair of sunglasses, which didn’t entirely hide her black eye, and the white lip gloss didn’t conceal her bruised lip.
She wore a miniskirt and white boots, with large, white hoop earrings. She had a white sweater wrapped around her shoulders, held in front with a clasp, and I wondered if there were bruises on her arms.
Ashley and I sat at the table and I said quietly, “Zoe, it’s good to see you, but what happened?”
Zoe hesitated. “I made her come see you,” Ashley said. The waiter approached, and I indicated that I’d like a coffee. Ashley shook her head as she continued. “She didn’t want to talk to anybody; she was just going to hide herself away until she healed up, but I told her she needed to report this. Those guys will probably attack somebody else, and–”
“Two guys? Masked? Dressed like the quiet people?” I asked, keeping my voice low. The tables were very close together.
Zoe nodded. “Yes. How did you know?”
“You’re not the first. And Ashley is right, you’re probably not the last, unless we find these guys. We’re looking for them now. It is very important that you reported this. Thank you.”
“I… I couldn’t go into the hotel. Not like this. News travels so fast around here. Some people might think Mr. Mason did it.” Mr. Mason, who I had never met, was her lover.
“She’s talked about you ever since she met you,” Ashley said with a friendly smirk. “What a gentleman you were. How unusual that is. So, I said she should talk to you.”
I smiled at Zoe. “I appreciate that. Please tell me all about it.” The waiter brought my coffee and I sipped it as she told the story.
“She was going to a party,” I reported later to my employer. “Alone. It was around nine last night. They jumped her from an alley. She got a black eye, a bruised lip, and a couple of scrapes. Then she broke free. She’s sure they were both male, by the way. They ran after her, but she was faster.”
“She was stronger and faster than they thought,” Ron added sagely. “Because ‘she’ is really a guy.”
This was an interesting observation. Ron was probably right, I thought, but I didn’t point out that this was at odds with her regular assertion that boys weren’t really all that tough, and that there wasn’t a boy in the school that she couldn’t beat up if she had to.
“They didn’t mention Zoe’s name,” I continued, “so they may not have known her–” (“him,” Ron muttered) “–but they knew that she’s a transvestite, which is not easy to tell.”
We had told Ron about the rules of etiquette as they apply to transvestites, but she had not been convinced. The one time she had met Zoe had been when we’d eaten at the restaurant where Zoe worked as a waitress. As she’d approached our table, smiling, pad in hand, Ron had blurted out, “You’re a guy!”
I’d tapped her arm; Zoe had ignored the outburst and taken our order; and then we’d explained to Ron, quietly, that we were sure Zoe was already aware that she had been born male, and that it was therefore not necessary to point this out to her.
I did most of the explaining. Jan’s attention was focused on how happy she was. As you can imagine, the great detective was pleased that her adopted daughter had been sharp enough to spot this, since it was far from obvious. Zoe made a very convincing girl.
When I had finished telling Zoe’s story, my employer leaned back in her chair and lit another cigarette. “This leads me to three questions,” she said. “For one, why didn’t you bring her to me, so I could talk to her? For another, and I know you don’t know the answer to this, how many other attacks have there been, unreported? After all, both of the people who have reported this know us personally. That’s why they came to us. Unless we imagine that people are being targeted because they know us – which seems unlikely – there must be others who haven’t come forward. And for a third question, also unknown but I can guess, since the assailants failed in their goal of really injuring Zoe, as they injured Will, are they going to start using weapons of some sort instead of just their hands?
“And, since both of the attacks were interrupted – the first by the arrival of Sharon and Craig, and the second by Zoe’s escape – we can’t even be sure that their intentions aren’t to kill and they just haven’t succeeded yet.”
“Shit,” Ron said.
“To answer your first question,” I said, “the only one I can answer, Zoe finds you rather scary. She was more comfortable talking to me. And she only did that because Ashley pressured her into it.”
“Well,” she said, smiling, “you must have made quite an impression, Mr. Gentleman.”
I turned to Vicki, who was sitting cross-legged on our bed, listening.
“I’m not going to have a big public meeting or anything,” she said slowly. “There’s no point in creating panic, and it will only turn people against the quiet people. We have no idea if these two are even really in the group. But I will mention at the regular meeting that people should be careful at night, and I’ll see if I can beef up the volunteer patrols. But the most important thing is that I will let the hospital know about this, so that we get notified if anybody comes in who’s been beaten, even if they don’t want to report it.” She looked up. “When do you get a progress report from Wendy?”
“Not until Monday,” Jan said. “Marshall and Phyllis will go meet her again. But I don’t think she’s going to get results that quickly. The quiet people aren’t evangelists; they’re very cautious about strangers. We’ve seen that in the reports. It will take her a while to get anywhere. And, as you pointed out, these two may have nothing to do with the quiet people. I’m going to go now to look at the street where they attacked Zoe, but I don’t expect to find much. It’s only in stories that criminals conveniently drop their cards or matchbooks or their electric bills.”
But we did see Wendy sooner than Monday morning. It was Saturday night and we were just getting in from a play.
There had been a meeting that afternoon where Vicki had talked about people being careful when walking alone after dark. Then we had gone out to a play, during which I had started to worry about Ron. She was a girl who had adopted a boy’s name, who wore her hair fairly short, who dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, and who liked to settle problems with her fists (when they couldn’t be solved by cursing). What if she was too masculine for the men we were after?
I told myself I was being overprotective. Will was a sexually active boy in an apparently incestuous triad. Zoe was a transvestite boy in a relationship with a man. Surely a foul-mouthed tomboy wasn’t in the same category. I tried to imagine telling Ron not to go around alone at night. Would she even listen?
I don’t remember much about the play, except that it involved some actors, in costumes, and it took place on a stage.
As the house lights came up, I regarded my employer. She was a tall woman, a fraction over six feet, extremely thin, with shoulder-length brown hair, dressed in a man’s three-piece suit.
She frowned at my scrutiny as she used her cane to get vertical. “Egg on my tie?” she asked, peering down.
I took her hand as we moved slowly toward the exit with the rest of the audience. “These guys disapprove of a boy wearing a girl’s clothes. How would they feel about a beautiful woman wearing a man’s clothes?”
She almost looked around to see who I was talking about, then she started to say, “I’m not…” and then she frowned. She looked down. “These aren’t a man’s clothes; they’re mine. That’s why they fit me so well.”
“Surely not,” she said. “I’m a respectable married woman. I cleave only unto my husband. I’m almost ostentatiously monogamous and heterosexual.”
“O would some power the giftie gie us…”
She rolled her eyes. “Thank you, Robert Burns. In fact, I’ll bet…” Her voice trailed off and she stopped, causing somebody to bump into her from behind. I took her arm and moved her toward the exit. “Ron,” she said.
I nodded. “That’s where I started. I wonder if we’re overreacting.”
“Yes,” she said firmly. “She’s in no more danger than anybody else.”
We argued about it as we walked back home to the hotel, if you can call it an argument when both participants seem to have trouble deciding which side to be on.
As we walked down the hall to our door, Jan said, “I think Vicki is right. If she makes a big deal of this, people will panic and react badly. Look how worked up we’ve been getting.”
“Not only that, but I think it’s what these guys want. If they think they’re getting a real reaction, I think it will only make them bolder and more determined.”
I opened the door and Ron looked up from the book she was reading. “Hey,” she said, and she was somewhat surprised when Jan went over and hugged her. “What?” she demanded.
I moved to close the door, but it was pushed open from outside. A young woman with short, blonde hair came in, brushing past me. “Close the door,” she said, “I’m pretty sure I wasn’t seen – I came up the back stairs and waited in the stairwell – but you can’t be too careful. I had something I had to tell you, and I just couldn’t wait until… Oh, my God! It’s you! This is so–”
I clapped my hands in front of her face and she became, momentarily, silent, apparently stunned that she was face-to-face with her idol.
“This is Wendy,” I said as Wendy grinned, almost vibrating with excitement.
“I was guessing that might be the case, though I must say that your physical description of her was somewhat faulty.”
“Oh,” Wendy said negligently, “I’m pretty good at changing my appearance. I always think–”
“Please sit down, Wendy,” I said, steering her to a chair. “It must have been pretty important for you to take the risk of coming here. Why don’t you tell us what you’ve discovered?”
I’d already figured out that it helped to get her attention if you addressed her by name.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ve got to be friends with a couple of people, and I’ve found out that there’s a ‘prophet’ – he’s at the center of this thing, but nobody ever sees him (at least that’s what they say) – and the prophet has ‘revelations’ from time to time.” She was using her fingers to indicate the quotation marks. “The ‘revelations’ are typed up and distributed. Some revelations are for everybody, some are only for the higher-ups. There is one revelation, the ‘First Revelation,’ that’s for new people, if they think you’re sincere, and I may be able to read that one pretty soon. The other thing they tell new people is to start making your garment, if you’re serious, because you have to make it by hand and that’s supposed to teach you to be patient and methodical and … something. Focus, and if you do it sloppily they make you do it over, so I’ve started on that. There are even rules about what kind of underwear you can wear under the garment, and I may have to go buy some things because my regular stuff is really not going to cut it – if they ever check, and I don’t know if they do–”
She grabbed the bottom of her T-shirt, apparently about to whip it up and illustrate the extent to which her current lingerie was inappropriate, but Ron yelled, “Hey!” causing Wendy to turn around, apparently noticing her for the first time.
“Hi,” she said, releasing her grip on her T-shirt. “Who are you?”
“Ron is our daughter–” I began.
“Your daughter? Both of you?” She looked from my employer to me and back. “I didn’t know you guys were–”
“Do you have any idea when you’ll learn more?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Soon, I hope. I’ll let you know.” She stood up. “I’d better go. My boyfriend is waiting.” She turned to my employer. “Can you come Monday? With Marshall and Phyllis? If would be so cool if people from my school could see me with you.”
My employer smiled indulgently. “Which is why I can’t come. I would be noticed, and word would start to get around, and news might reach the wrong people.”
Wendy nodded slowly, turned to go, and then turned back and sat down again. “I want to talk about starling,” she said. “Marshall says she doesn’t do interviews, but maybe if you talked to her–”
“Wendy,” my employer said, packing tobacco into her pipe, “here’s a quick lesson in how things work. You want to interview starling. That would be good for you. You would become, potentially, world famous, in fact. Now, is she going to give you an interview to help your career, even apart from the fact that it would make her life here more difficult? She lives very quietly, and that’s for a reason. In answer, no, of course she’s not going to make her life worse – potentially much worse – to give your career a boost. People give interviews when it will benefit them, or when they think it will.”
Wendy nodded slowly. “Okay, that makes sense. What if I met her casually–”
“No.” My employer used her cane to get to her feet, stepping forward so that she loomed over Wendy. “You want to be a reporter? You need to do what your editor tells you. Phyllis is your editor and she is your boss, and ultimately I am her boss. You have already been told that starling is off-limits.” Her voice became sharper. “If you bother her at all, even slightly, if you make any attempt to get into contact with her, I will end your internship here, I will sever your connection to our newspaper, and I will write a letter to your professor saying that, in my opinion, you are not qualified to be a professional journalist. That should carry some weight, coming from me. Of course, that’s assuming you survive the encounter, which you probably wouldn’t. Am I making myself clear?”
Wendy sighed, looking somewhat stunned. “Yes, of course. Sorry.”
“If I am harsh, it is because you obviously have tremendous potential, and I would hate to have that potential wasted because you got a bullet in your brain. You have done amazing work, frankly, in what you’ve told us tonight. I never imagined that you’d learn so much so quickly.”
“She’s very cocky.” Jan observed after Wendy had departed.
I nodded. “Remind you of anybody you know?”
She snorted a laugh that was, as she would have said, very unladylike, then she quickly composed herself.
“No, of course not. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She didn’t meet my eyes, trying to keep a straight face as she thought of another young reporter who had once had the idea of interviewing the notorious murderer, only to be dissuaded, with some difficulty, by her long-suffering assistant.
The next few days were relatively quiet, but we were optimistic because of all the progress Wendy had made already.
We decided to let Phyllis make the Monday trip to the city by herself. We had just seen Wendy, after all, and it was unlikely she had made a lot more progress since Saturday night. Also, the hospital was short-staffed and Jan was not able to fill in for me as she had the week before.
After I was done at the hospital, I did a couple of errands and then I went by the newspaper office. I arrived just as Phyllis was returning from the city. We went to the same small, private room to talk. Phyllis said that Wendy had not learned any more than she had told us, but that she was hopeful that she would be able to see the First Revelation within a few days.
Phyllis smiled. “I also told her that she should be bringing her information to her editor first, not to her idol the great reporter.”
“We had to yell at her, too, or at least Jan did. About starling. I hope we got her attention, but it was hard to tell.”
Phyllis nodded. “I know what you mean. She didn’t mention it today, so maybe she’s finally got the message.”
We met with Vicki on Friday morning to bring her up to date. We had not had another late-night visit from Wendy.
Vicki sat cross-legged in the middle of the meeting table and listened intently. People who didn’t know her often wondered how a teenage girl could run a country (even a very small country), but those who had met her and watched her work didn’t wonder.
“There have been two more assaults that we know of,” Jan said, tapping her ash into an ashtray. “Both of them we found out about through the hospital. One was a local woman who calls herself Z.” Vicki smiled and I had the impression that she knew Z. “She was at the Foxtrot, drinking, and she picked up a girl. They were walking back to Z’s apartment when the two guys jumped them. The girl got away, but Z fought back. She got hit in the head, and then the guys were scared off by one of the volunteer patrols. Z declined medical help at the time, but then she woke up dizzy the next morning and thought she should have her head checked out. She was okay, but the ER reported it to us and Marshall went to interview her.”
Vicki turned to me. “Z said that the guys had insulted her,” I said, “but they hadn’t mentioned her name and there was no indication that they knew her or the girl. Z didn’t think they mentioned the girl’s name, but she didn’t remember it either so we haven’t been able to locate her. It seems likely they were just reacting to the sight of two women walking and holding hands, and perhaps to the age difference as well.”
“I’ve told Pat not to go around at night alone,” Vicki said. “Which is a fucked-up thing to have to do, I know.” Pat was her girlfriend. “What about the other assault?”
“No definite facts,” I said. “I asked people at the hospital on Monday if they remembered anything, from before they were told to report, and they remembered a man coming in a few days before. He’d obviously been beaten. We tried to follow up, but he’s apparently left town so we were unable to even get confirmation, let alone details.”
Vicki sighed. “I’ve tried to approach the quiet people, officially, but none of them are willing to meet in any formal way. I–”
The door opened and Ron came in. This was not Ron as she usually delivered the mail. She looked very serious, with no yelling or stomping. She had her Red Cross bag, but it appeared to be empty.
“Mom, Dad,” she said, coming around the table to us. “Something happened.”
“What is it, Ron?” I asked.
She paused before replying. Not to build suspense, but so she could take a breath. She was working at not crying, but I wasn’t sure she was going to make it. I wondered if something had happened to Will.
“Wendy’s dead,” she said.
“Oh, my god,” Jan whispered.
“What happened?” I asked. I took Ron’s hand in mine and she squeezed, hard.
“I was waiting for the mail, and somebody came down from the bridge and said that there was a dead body. A bunch of us went to look, and it was her.” She was gripping my hand with all her strength by this point. “She was in one of those little shed things, in the middle of the bridge.”
Jan had taken off her glasses and was leaning forward, her face in her hands. I knew what she was thinking, but I couldn’t respond until she put it into words.
“Had you seen her go past you onto the bridge?” I asked.
She nodded. “I saw her a lot of days, early. She was one of the regulars.”
“Regulars?” I asked.
“People who go over the bridge a lot in the morning. Or the other way. I’m always there, so I get to know them. Some of them say ‘Hi!’ and, you know, ‘Running late today!’ or whatever. If they ask why I’m there, I tell them I’m waiting for the mail. I saw her a lot, but I never knew who she was until she came into our room that night. I never find out their names.”
“Was she alone this morning?”
“Yeah, she’s always alone. Sometimes she says, ‘Early class!’ or ‘Overslept!’
“Did you see any quiet people go over the bridge?”
She started to look more upset, and I squeezed her hand.
“I see them sometimes. They never say anything, but sometimes they smile.”
“What about today?” I asked quietly.
“There were two of them,” she said, not looking at me. “Guys. I don’t know if they were together, but they were one right after the other.” She looked as if she was about to start crying. I heard the door close, and I looked around. Vicki had left us alone. I pulled Ron to me and put my arms around her.
“There was no way for you to know, if that is even what happened, and there was nothing you could have done,” I told her. I hugged her, then straightened her up with my hands on her shoulders. “What did Wendy die from?” I asked her.
She set her mouth. She was not going to cry. “She was stabbed, they think,” she said. “They sent a runner to the hospital. To get somebody to come.”
“If I had figured out another way to do this…” Jan said.
“It was the right way,” I said softly. “And you didn’t send her after this story. She wanted to do it, and it was important that she do it. If we didn’t realize before how important it was, we should now.”
Jan sighed, and Ron went over and put her arms around her mother. Jan shook her head, holding Ron tight. “Thank god,” she said, and I knew what she meant. She was thinking, as I was, that it could have been Ron.
“It stinks,” I said after a moment. “It sure does. But Wendy was doing her job, an important job, and now we need to do our job and figure this out. Before anybody else gets hurt.”
Jan nodded after a moment and straightened up. I went to the door, and Ron stood up straight. Vicki and Fifteen were in the hall.
“Come on in,” I said. “We need help.”
“I already sent somebody for the mail,” Fifteen said. He had seen Ron’s distress and her empty bag, and had acted accordingly. I wondered if anything ever got past him.
“Do you need Christy?” he asked.
Jan nodded. “We will, I think. Here’s what I think. Let me know if this makes sense.” I couldn’t remember the last time she had ever asked anybody if one of her ideas made sense.
“Christy should go to Wendy’s apartment, right now, and make sure nothing is touched there until I can get there. It may be too late, but let’s hope not. Marshall and I are going to the newspaper office, to go through her desk, and to let Phyllis know about this if she doesn’t already. Then we’ll go to the apartment – her boyfriend’s apartment – and search that. If Wendy was killed because of something she learned, we need to know what that was.”
“She didn’t have a desk at the office,” I said. “She was never even there.”
“Of course,” she said, bumping the heel of her hand against her temple. “We’ll go to the apartment first.”
I shook my head. “No, you were right the first time. We have to go to the newspaper office first, unless you know where the boyfriend’s apartment is. I don’t.”
“Me, neither. Okay, we go to the newspaper office first.”
“What about the body?” I asked.
“I assume that will end up at the hospital,” She turned to Fifteen. “Can you send them a message to seal her personal effects? Clothes, what she had on her, everything.”
“I can have them brought here, if that will help.”
“Great, thanks.” She shrugged. “We’ll do that last. If that is why she was killed, it is likely that the body was searched.”
“What about me?” Ron asked.
Jan tried for a smile. “You need to go to school.”
“What the fuck–”
“I was attempting a joke, dear. I’m sorry. Fifteen, can you get Ron a bicycle?”
“Ron, I do want you to go to school, as fast as you can. The Golden will be there. You need to find them, and tell them what’s happened. This is very important. I have no idea what’s going on here, but they may be in more danger now. This has gone to murder now, not just beatings. They should stick together, the three of them, no matter what, and you should stay with them for the rest of the day. I know you may have different classes, but you should stay together. That’s more important.”
“I don’t think the teachers will have a problem,” Vicki said quietly, “but if they do, tell them they can come talk to me.”
Jan turned back to Ron. “You should go home with the Golden after school, and we’ll meet you there when we’re done with the searching. I’m sure they’ll give you dinner.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “I sound just like a mother, don’t I? When did that happen?”
That was the laugh that we all needed, and we took it, even Ron. Then we started to split up, but as Ron was following Fifteen out, she turned, frowning. “Hey,” she said, “am I protecting the Golden, or are they protecting me?”
“Both,” Jan said. Ron frowned. “This is important,” Jan continued after a moment. “Please do as I ask.”
Ron sighed. “Okay,” she said.
When she was gone, Jan said, “I wasn’t sure that would work.”
“I think it may have been a one-time thing,” I said. “Just for today.”
“Well, I hope so,” she said, which made Vicki laugh.
As my employer and I were leaving, I said, “There is one more thing. I didn’t want to mention this in front of Ron, but I thoroughly agree with finishing this before anybody else gets killed, but that includes us. Should we wait for Christy before we go see the boyfriend and search the apartment?”
She shook her head. “No. No more waiting. Besides, there’s no evidence he’s guilty of anything.”
“No, but I’m not declaring anybody innocent until we figure out who’s guilty. And, in addition to that, of all the young women who are murdered in a year, how many of them are killed by a husband or a boyfriend or a lover?”
She knew the statistics as well as I did. “Okay, bring your gun.”
I trotted to the staircase and up to our room. As I unlocked the bottom drawer in my bureau and loaded the automatic, I reflected that this showed how serious she was right now. Usually she referred to the gun as my “old service revolver,” though it was not a revolver and I have never been in the service. Not today, though. She was in no mood for jokes.
I dropped the gun into my jacket pocket, took a couple of other things from the drawer, locked it, and went back down to the lobby.
We set out across town to the newspaper office. I had a lot of things in my head, as you can imagine, but I kept quiet. I could tell my employer was thinking hard, trying to compose herself.
When we’d been about to leave the hotel, Fifteen had stopped us and pointed out that he couldn’t send a runner to have Christy meet us at Wendy’s boyfriend’s apartment because we didn’t have any idea where he lived or even what his name was. If my employer had been thinking clearly, she’d have realized this herself. I admit the same is true of me, too, of course.
When we got to the newspaper office, we learned that Phyllis was out. My employer made a face. She really wanted to get to the boyfriend’s apartment as soon as possible. Seeing her irritation, a young man came over to us and said, “Phyllis has a deadline, Miss Sleet, so she’s probably in that coffee shop across the street. That’s where she goes to write.”
And that’s where she was: in a booth, the last of a row of seven or eight. She had a cup of coffee, a lit cigarette, and a pad of paper and a pen. She looked up as we approached, started to smile, and then stopped when she saw our expressions.
I took the seat opposite her, sliding in so that my employer could sit next to me.
“We’re sorry to bring you this news,” my employer began, “but Wendy was murdered early this morning.”
Phyllis capped her pen and sighed, her shoulders slumping. A waiter came over and I indicated that we’d both like coffees. “Because of the story she was working on?” she asked as the waiter walked away.
“We don’t know,” my employer said. “It seems likely, but we don’t know for sure. Not yet.” She turned to me and I quickly summarized what we’d learned (omitting the personal details, of course).
Phyllis sighed again, and then she nodded. “And you want to go talk to Jake.”
“To give him the news, yes, and to go through whatever papers she may have left at his apartment.”
The coffee arrived and we both drank some. “I think she was basically living there,” Phyllis said, “especially since she started the investigation. I’m not surprised she went over the bridge early in the mornings. To get to her first class, I’m sure.”
“You’ve had no word from her since Monday?” my employer asked.
She shook her head. “Nothing. You?”
“No. Which may mean she hadn’t made a lot of progress, but not necessarily.”
“Should I come with you?”
“Do you know Jake?”
“No, never laid eyes on him. She used to talk about him a lot, but I never met him.”
“Then I would prefer not. To tell you the truth, I have no idea what’s going on, or what happens next, but we’re expecting the worst. Marshall is armed, Christy will be joining us, and we have our daughter and the Golden staying together for protection. We’ve sent word to the other victims – the ones we know about – to be careful.”
Phyllis nodded. “Okay.”
My employer made a face. “I’ve been working on the assumption that you can tell me where the boyfriend’s apartment is, but I just realized that you may not know either.”
Phyllis frowned, then she nodded. “I don’t know, but I know how to find out. Come on.” She got up and led us back across the street to the newspaper office. She apparently ran a tab at the coffee shop, because they just waved as we left.
In the office, she took us into a small corner room where there were several filing cabinets. “She asked for a subscription to the paper, for Jake. That way, she could read it whenever she was here, without having to pick up her own copy. We always file the original forms, in case the address is copied down wrong onto the lists.” She went through a couple of folders, and then she pulled out the piece of paper. “Here it is.” I made a note of the address, then handed the form back to her.
As we left, I said, “Christy from the Jinx will be coming here as soon as she can. Please give her the address as well, so she can join us.”
“I will. And come back and fill me in when you can. I’ll be at the office late today.”
So, we set out again. Ordinarily, I would have insisted my employer get some food before we went, but she was running on excitement now, possibly near the solution to the mystery that had vexed her for over a week.
It was only about four blocks to Jake’s address, and when we entered the narrow hallway and climbed the creaky stairs there was no answer to the doorbell. I knocked and called his name, but there was still no response.
My employer tilted her head at the door, and I got out the tools I’d taken from the locked drawer in our bedroom. I had the door open in under a minute. Inside, there was one room with a tiny kitchen and an even tinier bathroom. The main room was cluttered but fairly clean.
“Look for something that doesn’t fit,” she said. “Something that–”
“Here,” I said, picking up the black shoulder bag I’d seen the day I’d met Wendy. My employer took a pile of newspapers from the card table and placed them on the floor, then I pulled out a stack of papers from the bag and she started to go through it.
Her methodical approach didn’t last long, though, because she spotted the stiff, blue paper. It was larger than the others. I slid a folding chair over and she sat down, her attention focused on the paper.
I still have it. It was unusually large (10.25″ x 9.8″), stiff, and pale blue. It was covered with several long paragraphs of typing. At the top it said, “The First Revelation.”
She read it through, then she read it again, more slowly, frowning. She scratched her nose and looked at the blank wall in front of her, then she got up and went to the one bookcase, which was taller than she was. She searched for a minute, then she took a volume from the top shelf and returned to the table. She lit a cigarette and began to check something in the book against the First Revelation.
She had something, that was obvious. I decided to search the rest of the apartment.
I was going through the closet when I heard a knock at the door. It was obviously not Jake, so I went and opened it.
Christy and Fifteen came in, “We ran into each other downstairs,” he explained.
“Jake isn’t here yet,” I said, though I guess that was obvious unless he was hiding in the shower. My employer didn’t even look up from her studies. I thought I recognized the book she was using, but I couldn’t see how it fit in.
“I came as fast as I could,” Fifteen said, “because I knew Miss Sleet would want to see this.” He handed me a strip of gray cloth, torn along one side. “It was clutched in Wendy’s hand.”
I went back to the closet. Sure enough, there was a dark gray garment there, apparently complete. I pulled out the pieces – the pants, the top, and the head covering – and examined them carefully. They seemed to be intact. I also discovered something else, and I went to tell my employer as the door opened again and a man came in. He was short and slender, with long, dark hair and striking green eyes, and he was obviously surprised to find people in his apartment (and one of them a celebrity at that).
“Miss Sleet,” he said hesitantly, stepping toward her, “are you here for Wendy? I know she said she’d met you, but I don’t think she…”
I’d caught Fifteen’s eye and he stepped forward to tell Jake that his girlfriend had been murdered. Fifteen may have looked far from official – he was shorter than Jake, with a shaved head, wearing a faded T-shirt and baggy shorts – but he knew how to act in almost any situation.
I took the opportunity to lean over and whisper some things in my employer’s ear. Her eyes widened as I talked, then she frowned, and the whole time she kept a fingertip on the First Revelation, as if to make sure it didn’t fly away.
When I was done, she took her cane and got to her feet.
“Jake,” she said, “Wendy was a very promising young reporter, with potentially a great future ahead of her. Because of some very good work on her part, I have this–” she held up the stiff, blue paper “–which has cleared up a lot of questions about the quiet people. Wendy didn’t know what she had, but she would have figured it out. The key was right in your bookcase as a matter of fact.” She stepped forward. “I would offer condolences on your loss, but under the circumstances that would not be appropriate. Christy, hold him.”
She was in position already, behind Jake, and she reached forward and grabbed his upper arms.
“Hey,” he said in protest, squirming. “You’re crazy. I don’t have anything to do with the quiet people!”
“No, you don’t. But you did murder your girlfriend.”
We were in an Indian restaurant that we knew Christy and Fifteen liked. My employer was at the head of the table, and Vicki and Phyllis had joined us as well. Jake had been taken into custody, of course.
We were going to talk about things that couldn’t be discussed in a public place, but the restaurant had a back room which was private and quiet, and it had been available.
“If this was the dénoument,” my employer said as the waiters served us, “I would have made sure Ron was here, but the frustrating part of all this is that, in trying to solve the mystery that she asked me to investigate, the beating of her friend, I solved two other mysteries instead – well, one was at least partly solved by Marshall, which is not unusual – and we’re still no closer to solving the original mystery. If Ron was here, she would probably be looking at me reproachfully throughout the meal. Also, she can’t stand Indian food.
“I won’t outline the case itself; I think you’re all familiar with the facts so far, and I’m going to turn over the first part of this to Marshall. If I don’t eat some of this wonderful food then he will start looking at me reproachfully, and I’ll get enough of that from Ron later on.”
They all chuckled, as much as they could while they were eating, and I began.
“When Wendy was killed, two of the quiet people went onto the bridge soon after she did. It was assumed that they were together, because we have been searching for two men, but that was not clear from what Ron observed. It could have been one man following another, trying to look like they were together. Or it could have been a coincidence.
“When Wendy’s body was found, there was a strip of gray cloth with a ragged edge clutched in her hand. It seemed likely that it had been torn from the garment of her attacker, or one of them, if there were two.
“Wendy was working on infiltrating the quiet people, as you know, so she was making a garment for herself. This had to be done properly, slowly and carefully, almost as a form of meditation.
“There was a garment in her closet when I searched it. I took it out and examined the parts, to see if a strip of cloth had been torn off. Everything seemed to be intact, but I quickly discovered something else significant. The garment was a fake. It was crudely made, stitched by a machine, from a cheap, artificial fabric. Real garments are made from a specific type of rough cotton, and always handmade. My guess is that the quiet people are now well enough known that the local costume shops are including their garments along with the witches and princesses and superheroes.” I looked at my employer. “Your turn. I’m hungry, too.”
Everybody laughed and she finished the piece of chicken that she was eating, taking her time, then she wiped her lips and put down her napkin. “I could think of no plausible reason why Wendy would have had a joke-shop garment, and, in any case, where had the real one gone?
“The only thing that made sense was that Jake had decided to kill Wendy, and he had worn her garment as a disguise. He is a small man, and the garments are loose-fitting, so I’m sure it fit him. I would imagine he waited out of sight of the bridge until Wendy had passed by, then he followed the next person who was wearing a garment, so that any observer would remember there were two of them. I’m sure he knew what Wendy was working on, and people would assume the two men she was after had killed her.
“So, he went on the bridge, waylaid Wendy, got her into the construction shed and stabbed her. If somebody saw him, they still only saw one of the quiet people. Then, at some point, he took off the garment, which he’d worn over his regular clothes. It was torn, and perhaps bloody, so he got rid of it. If he was still on the bridge, maybe he dropped it over the side into the river.
“But he knew she’d been making the garment, and we knew it, and its absence might be noted. There was no time to make another one, certainly not to the standard of the quiet people, so he bought a joke-shop one and hoped that it would pass. Which it didn’t, of course, thanks to Marshall. Is that all clear?”
They all nodded, continuing to eat. Then Phyllis looked up. “Why did he kill her?” she asked.
“Jealousy. She was having a relationship of some sort with a student at her school, and she was very open about this with Jake. Since she had more or less moved into his apartment while she was pursuing the investigation, he had started to feel that her real affections were elsewhere, and she was continuing the relationship with him primarily because his apartment was useful to her.” Phyllis sighed and shook her head.
“So,” my employer continued, “that was Part One, the first mystery. While Marshall was solving that, I was going through Wendy’s papers.” She explained about the Revelations, and the First Revelation. “As I was reading it, two things struck me. One was that it was complete and utter nonsense. The other was that the writing seemed oddly familiar. The use of words, the paragraphing, the punctuation. I couldn’t see how my idea made sense, but I went to Jake’s bookshelf and found this.” She held up a slender volume. The cover showed a single brown and gold leaf. The title was “Sere and Gold,” and the author was Isaac Ashford.
“Our local celebrity poet,” she continued. “Marshall, Christy and I met him during the vampire case. This volume contains poems and also some prose pieces, called “Meditations.” Close textual analysis made it almost undeniable that the writer who had perpetrated the First Revelation had also written the Meditations.
“This seemed incredible on the face of it. The quiet people are ascetic and reverent. Isaac Ashford is a hedonistic sybarite. He has college interns and other young adoring fans living with him in his family’s mansion and the appearance is that they provide various services for him which are not, shall we say, entirely literary in nature.
“So, as I said, it seems incredible that he wrote the First Revelation, but that’s my assumption, and I’m going to confront him, or I should say that we are. Textual analysis is all well and good, but juries like tangible evidence. So, we’re going to find the typewriter the First Revelation was written on, which I’m sure is in his house somewhere.”
She looked at Christy, who held up a hand as she wiped her mouth, then she said, “I guess the next part of the story is mine. I saw the book that Jan was looking at, and I wondered how Ashford fit in. So, I asked Marshall to hold Jake out in the hall while I spoke to Jan. She told me, and I said that I thought the Jinx would help. Mindy, one of our members, used to live at Ashford’s house. She was one of his young followers, as part of a college internship. Since she’s been with us, she’s told us some of what goes on there.” She sighed. “I know I’m somewhat of a prude in some ways, but she was a kid, away from home for the first time, attracted by his celebrity, and she was pressured into doing things that she didn’t really want to do.
“The only reason I mention this is that we have no love for Isaac Ashford. I checked, and the Jinx are going to assist in this.” She smiled. “When I met Ashford the first time, we thought he might be harming one of the Jinx, and I told him that, if he was guilty, we would kill him and destroy his house. This is nothing like that, but we will help Jan in one way.”
So, at midnight, we were standing at Isaac Ashford’s door. We had stopped by the house where the Golden lived and quickly brought them up to date. We had agreed to meet them for breakfast the next morning to let them know how it had gone. We had suggested Ron stay over at their house, for safety, but it was obvious that this idea made her very uncomfortable so we didn’t press it. Fifteen agreed to accompany her back to the hotel where she would wait for us in our room.
At the stroke of midnight, my employer knocked on the door with the head of her cane. After a minute, Ashford himself opened the door. He regarded us with some surprise, belting his ornate robe more tightly around him. “I was writing,” he said, “and it is pleasant to see you–”
“Mr. Ashford,” my employer said, “we need to talk to you in connection with a very serious crime, then we intend to search your house.”
As he was about the reply, he heard the sound of the approaching motorcycles, and the disembodied howl that always accompanied the Jinx. He looked past my employer and saw the headlights coming, in strict formation.
“We are going to look for an object which is, we believe, somewhere in your house. The Jinx are going to surround the house, just in case you have some idea of sneaking this object out before we find it.”
“What is this all about?” he demanded. “I’m not involved in anything criminal. I must say–”
“We know you’re behind the quiet people, and we intend to find the typewriter that was used to write the First Revelation, which we have. Typewriters are, as you may know, as distinctive as fingerprints.”
He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Even if this were true,” he said after a moment, “I don’t think writing and distributing religious revelations is a criminal act. I can’t see–”
“Two men, in the garments of the quiet people, have beaten at least three people, apparently as a punishment for their sexual practices. That is a criminal act, both carrying it out and inciting it.”
He sighed and nodded. “Indeed it is. Will you come in? We can talk in my office.”
My employer had decided to insist that we not talk in Ashford’s huge sunken living room, mostly because it was very difficult for her to go up or down stairs without something to hold onto, but Ashford led us around the central pit and through a concealed door to a small office. The parts of the house we’d been in before had been very theatrical, including illumination by huge candles on poles, but this office had an electric light, which he turned on.
He sat behind his desk, and my employer sat in the only other chair. Christy stood by the door, her arms folded. Ashford tapped his forefinger the typewriter on a small table next to his desk. “Here is the machine. You don’t need to search for it. May I ask what you intend to do?”
“You’re right, there is nothing illegal about starting a religion. But people who join a religion have a right to know who is behind it. In the next issue of the newspaper, there will be a front page article, written by me, though I will share the byline with the late Wendy Kalmus, whose investigation I’m building on. I will detail that you are, for whatever reason, behind the quiet people. If you cooperate with us now, you will be given a two column sidebar, front page, to give your own explanation of why you were doing this. Subject to editorial approval, of course. If not–” Ashford held up a hand and pressed a button on the edge of his desk. A panel in the wall opened up and a young man poked his head in.
“Victor,” Ashford said, “how is Selene?”
“Resting. She is still somewhat uncomfortable, but the pain is less, and her arm doesn’t seem to be broken–”
“One of your people was attacked by these two men?” I demanded. “Why isn’t she at the hospital?”
“She got away, with only minor injuries,” he said hesitantly, “and the questions–”
I turned to Victor. “You’re going to take me to her,” I told him. “Now. Don’t look at him to find out if it’s okay. I’m telling you.” I grabbed his arm. “I said now.”
Back in our room, much later, we found Ron sitting at her desk, her head on her folded arms, asleep. I touched her shoulder and she squirmed and then opened her eyes. Her cheek was creased from where it had rested on her sleeve. “What happened?” she asked sleepily, rubbing her eyes.
“We went to Ashford’s house,” I told her. “He admitted everything, and he showed us the typewriter and allowed us to take a sample. He has young people who stay with him–”
“I know about that,” she said darkly. “I…” she turned to Jan. “You should stop him. It’s…”
“It’s not right,” I agreed. “One of those young people, a girl he called Selene, was attacked by the same men who attacked Will. She got away, but she should have gone to the hospital. He didn’t want her to, because it would have–”
“Is she okay?” she asked. “I… fuck.”
“I took her to the hospital. I talked to her, and she’s not going back to Ashford. We’re getting a message to her parents.”
Ron nodded. She was clearly angry and upset, but unable to articulate why. I imagined it had to do with things that happened to her when she was younger, but we never pressed her about that.
“Two things are going to happen,” Jan said. “For one, we’re going to have an article in the paper exposing that Ashford was behind the quiet people. He’s cooperating, so he will write something also, explaining why he did it. As far as what he said, he started it as something of a lark, leading into an idea he had for a new book. But it took off, beyond what he’d imagined, and he got caught up, wondering where it would go. I think for his article he will claim that it was some sort of experiment to show how gullible people are, but that’s not really true.”
“And this is the other thing we’re going to do. Vicki is going to write to every college where he speaks or where he gets interns, detailing some of what Selene and Mindy have gone through. We’re going to talk to some of his other acolytes as well, and offer them counseling, places to live and so on, if that’s what they want. That part of Ashford’s life is over. There may be some prosecution, but that’s up to the court.”
Ron nodded. “Good. Bastard.”
Jan sighed. “But Ashford didn’t have anything to do with the men who attacked Will and the others. So, we still don’t know about them.”
Ron nodded. “You’ll figure it out, Mom.”
Jan smiled. “You’re more confident than I am, dear.”
Ron slept in our room that night, in her sleeping bag, and by the time we got up she was already gone, off to pick up the mail. It was Saturday, so there was mail delivery but no school. We were exhausted, but we had committed to seeing the Golden for breakfast, and they deserved to hear what had been happening.
When we got to the dining room, they were there, at a large table, and Christy was with them. Will was completely healed (which made me aware again of how long this was taking to solve) and so once again the three siblings were pretty much indistinguishable. Most of the tables and booths were full, and I could see a few people pretending not to look at the Golden, who were quite striking.
We got our breakfast (with large mugs of coffee) and sat down. They greeted us politely, as usual, but we had barely started to fill them in when there was a commotion near the entrance. We turned to look.
It was starling. She was limping badly, her jeans were ripped, and there was blood on the side of her face. She was making her way across the room to us, looking very determined, and I wondered how far she had come. I noticed she was holding her right arm awkwardly.
People got up and moved away as they saw her, leaving food, drinks, and even coats behind. The Golden had stood up and moved away also, their eyes wide.
Her appearance and her grim expression aside, it never occurred to me that she might represent a threat. This indicates either empathy or lunacy on my part, because she was generally considered to be insane. She had killed a lot of people before coming to U-town, and she was always armed.
“What happened?” Jan asked, getting to her feet.
“We need to get you to the hospital,” I said, moving toward her.
She shook her head. “I’ll be okay. I need to talk to you. Now. It’s important.”
I took her left arm and helped her to our table. She was having some difficulty bending her left leg, but with Christy’s help we got her into a chair. The room was nearly deserted by then. The Golden were still standing some distance away (as if that would have helped if she had decided to shoot them), and I motioned for them to come back. They sat down at the table again, still looking nervous. They moved their chairs so they were sitting very close together.
“We really should get you to the hospital,” I said.
She shook her head again. “I need to tell you this. I got up early this morning. Pete was still asleep. We were out of cigarettes, so I went out to get some while I waited for him to wake up. I walked to the store, but two guys jumped me.”
My employer had taken out her cigarette case, but her eyes widened at this point. Probably mine did as well.
“They had baseball bats and they were dressed in strange gray clothes, wearing masks. Thanks.” My employer had placed a cigarette between her lips and lit it for her. She drew in a deep lung full of smoke and let it out slowly. “They hit my leg and I went down, then they hit my right arm. I drew my gun with my left and shot them. One I got in the chest and the stomach. The other started to run, but I got him in the leg and maybe in the shoulder before he went around the corner. He was limping, but going a lot faster than I could. I got up and came here. The first guy is probably still lying there. I’m sure he’s dead by now.”
She drew in more smoke and sighed. “You probably understand why I had to tell you this right away. If that guy goes to the hospital and tells them that I went crazy and shot him and his friend for no reason, people will probably believe him.”
“Never mind that,” my employer said. “We’re looking for those guys. They beat Will here, and attacked a transvestite named Zoe and maybe others. I need to know, did they say anything when they attacked you?”
starling was looking at the Golden in some surprise, having apparently noticed them for the first time, but she didn’t comment.
“One guy said I was… unnatural was the word. Masculine.”
“Did they know your name? I mean–”
“One of them called me ‘starling.’ They knew who I was.”
“Runner!” my employer called as I turned to Christy, but then I turned back to starling. “Can you ride a motorcycle? As a passenger?”
She gave a wry smile, exhaling smoke through her nose. “Probably better than I can walk at the moment.”
I turned back to Christy, but she was ahead of me. “I’ll get her to the hospital.”
“They won’t treat me,” she said. “I won’t surrender my guns.”
“She should get emergency room treatment,” I said. “Then we’ll arrange for home care if necessary. And make sure they know that this guy may be there already, or he may show up later. If so, he is to be held. Treated, obviously, but held.” I heard Jan telling the runner to take a message to Pete about what had happened and that he should meet starling at the hospital. But then she turned to me, her eyes getting wide.
“Marshall, get to the bridge, run, right now, go!”
I was out the door, running through the lobby, with no idea what had struck her. Then I realized that the Golden were running right behind me.
We were out on the street when I figured it out. The man who had escaped might go to the hospital, where he would be interrogated while he was being treated and then almost certainly restrained, or he might make for the bridge, to get out of U-town. Where Ron was waiting for the mail to be delivered. And where she would certainly try to stop a wounded man wearing the garments of the quiet people. I was glad I was still armed.
As we approached the bridge, I saw the usual morning chaos of the daily food deliveries and so on, and in the middle of all the confusion of people and carts and haggling I saw Ron, her face set and her arms folded, standing between a man and the bridge. He was dressed all in gray and he seemed to tower over her. I suddenly realized that the Golden were running ahead of me, slipping through the people and the carts, stepping around the man from behind, circling him slowly in opposite directions as they spoke to him, calmly and reasonably.
“They know it was you.” “They know you didn’t do the murder.” “You’re having no effect.” “Your friend is dead or dying.” “You’re clearly insane.” “A girl was killed.” “You’re having no effect.” “The quiet people are a complete fabrication.” “You attacked starling.” “Tell us the truth!”
The last was delivered by Ron, punching him in the shoulder.
“We were angry,” he said calmly, looking straight ahead, “at the things we saw here. The way people lived… everything. We wanted to send a message–”
“Fuck your message!” Ron said, and I had to grab her arm to keep her from punching him in a very sensitive area.
starling had been correct. The first attacker was dead on the sidewalk where she had shot him. The other one, the one the Golden had mesmerized at the bridge, was restrained in the psychiatric wing of the hospital where his wounds were being treated. He refused to tell us his name, and then he was apparently frustrated by the fact that we didn’t care.
I ended up doing starling’s home care myself as she recovered from the beating, partly because nobody else wanted to do it and partly out of curiosity. My employer insisted on verbatim reports of everything that went on there during my visits, but she was disappointed in how normal most of it was. “They are,” I told her, “everything considered, surprisingly wholesome.”
The article about Ashford was published in the U-town newspaper, and then reprinted in various other places (sometimes with and sometimes without his sidebar article). His next book of poetry was called “Leaving the Garden.” I didn’t read it. I didn’t like his poetry, but mostly it was because I really didn’t want to find out if he was equating, even metaphorically, the end of his supply of gullible teenagers with being tossed out of the Garden of Eden.
Jake was convicted of murder. The bridge where he had killed Wendy was not our territory (the massive piling which blocked the bridge on our side was the legal border of U-town), so the trial was held in the city. We were not obligated to allow him to be extradited, but we decided those issues on a case-by-case basis and Wendy’s parents said they would be more comfortable with a trial in the city.
We testified at the trial, of course, which was quite a sensation in the press. It had been a while since Jan Sleet had testified at a murder trial in the United States.
There was a memorial for Wendy at her college a few weeks later. We attended, along with Phyllis, and my employer and Phyllis spoke.
It was Ron’s idea to go to the memorial with us. She took it very seriously, including wearing a dark sweater and pants which she had borrowed from the Golden.
We never did ask the Golden how they had mesmerized the man at the bridge. Ron and Will remained friends so we saw the three of them from time to time, but they continued to be a mystery.