Jan Sleet pulled out her pocket watch and looked at it again. “It’s been over forty-five minutes.” She sighed. “Daphne, I would ask you if you thought she was really coming, but you wouldn’t tell me, would you?”
“I didn’t think so.”
They were standing on the sidewalk in front of the pet store, and at this point the door opened and Stephanie poked her head out. “Hey, you guys,” she said. “What’s going on? Do you want to come in and visit?”
“Perhaps in a few minutes,” Jan said. “We’re waiting for somebody.”
“Okay. I can make a cup of tea, if you have a few minutes. I’d like to find out how things are going with the case.” She smiled suddenly. “And if you’re interested in some really cute kittens…”
Daphne’s bark was emphatically negative. Stephanie laughed and went back inside the store as Vinnie said, “There she is.”
This was starling in full regalia, as she was always depicted in posters. She was wearing a stained and worn fatigue jacket over a T-shirt and jeans, plus dark sunglasses. There was a gun belt across her hips, and she walked toward them slowly, with no expression and no indication that she even saw them.
Vinnie wondered if she was simply going to wipe them out. It seemed like a crazy thought, but of course she was known to be crazy.
“Pretty impressive, no?” came a raspy voice from behind them, and Vinnie and Jan jumped. They turned and saw Katherine, calmly lighting a cigarette. They turned back to the woman approaching them, who removed her sunglasses and smiled, revealing herself to be Pete.
Vinnie had half noticed that they looked a lot alike the day before – same height, both lean, similar hair color – but Pete had nailed her slow, ominous walk, and he’d obviously hacked off his long hair to look like hers.
Jan glanced back at Katherine and again at Pete as he put his glasses back on. He was about to speak, but Jan nodded. “Well known, iconic, easy to recognize, and therefore easy to imitate. I get the point.”
Pete unbuckled the gun belt and handed it to Katherine. “Having made the point,” he said, “I think we’ll go home. Professor?”
Vinnie handed over Daphne’s leash, but she didn’t seem to want to move from his side.
“Daphne!” Katherine said sharply, snapping her fingers.
Vinnie squatted and rubbed Daphne’s head, then he leaned forward and whispered, “I’ll come by tonight. Probably after dinner. If I’m invited of course.”
She licked his cheek and trotted off with Pete and Katherine.
Jan regarded her father. She sighed. “Words fail me,” she said. “Which, as you know, doesn’t happen very often.” Vinnie shrugged. “Well, since you have become… attached to one of my suspects, I suppose I should bring you up to date on the case.” She held up a finger. “With the understanding–“
“That whatever I learn goes no further. Of course.”
A small bell rang when the door to the pet store opened, and Stephanie stepped out of the back room. “Hi,” she said. “Give me a minute – I need to wash my hands.”
They heard running water, and then she came back in. “It’s really hard being behind the counter and doing everything else, too.” She was wearing jeans and a tank top, and when she went behind the counter she pulled on a blue sweater. “This is the nicest top I own,” she said, “and I’m trying to keep it clean so I’ll look nice for the customers.” She laughed. “Well, when they come in. I think I’ve taken it off and put it back on at least ten times so far today.”
She ran her fingers through her short blonde hair, then she grimaced and quickly patted it back into place.
“Do you have a few minutes?” she asked. “Would you like some tea? I want to hear about the case, and I have a couple of questions, too.”
Jan nodded. “We’d love some tea, thank you.”
They went into the small office where Tom Drenkenson’s body had been found. Stephanie put up water on the hot plate on top of the filing cabinet, and Jan took the desk chair. Stephanie leaned against the desk and Vinnie sat on a rather flimsy-looking folding chair.
“So,” Jan said, “what are your questions? Let’s start there.”
“Well, I was wondering who’s going to take over the store. I mean, I’m glad to handle things for now, but what’s going to happen?”
“We don’t know yet. As far as we’ve been able to learn, Mr. Drenkenson has no family in this area. We’ve written to his sister – she’s the only close relative we’ve been able to locate – but she lives in Oklahoma and I would imagine she might not want to come here to run this store. So, you should be thinking about whether you’d like to take over.”
Jan laughed. “Yes, you. Who else? You might need to pay some money to his family over time, something like that. Anyway, we don’t know yet, but you should be thinking about whether you’d want it.”
Stephanie leaned back, almost losing her balance. “Wow,” she said. She looked around at the shabby little office. “I was not expecting this.”
“Apparently. What was the other question?”
“Huh? Oh.” She smiled. “I do have to ask what that scene was out on the street with starling. I saw some of it through the window.”
“As you know, I put out a call to all the runners to find out if any of them saw anybody suspicious in the vicinity of the store at around the time of the murder. Well, somebody did come forward, and he said he saw starling.”
Stephanie’s eyes got wide – they could see her start to invent scenarios where starling had killed her boss.
“I went to see starling,” Jan continued. “She lives with Pete, who was in the same band as Mr. Drenkenson.” Stephanie’s eyes got even wider. Her brain was obviously steaming forward at full speed now. “The little vignette outside on the street was their demonstration that starling would have been easy to imitate.”
The teapot whistled and Stephanie moved to make the tea. There were only two mugs – Mr. Drenkenson’s and the one she had brought in for herself – so she decided she wouldn’t have any. She didn’t like tea that much anyway, but it was cheaper than buying soda every day.
Over her shoulder, she asked, “And what’s with that girl who walks around like a dog? I’ve seen her a few times, when I’m out on patrol, but why did she go off with starling?”
There was a pause as she turned with the two steaming mugs.
“She lives with them, with Pete and Katherine,” Jan said. “‘Katherine’ is starling’s real name.”
Stephanie gave them their tea and they thanked her. “I hope you don’t want milk,” she said. “We don’t have a refrigerator.” They assured her that this was fine, and declined her offer of sugar.
Stephanie leaned against the desk again. “I have another question, but first I have to say that the dog girl gives me the willies. I mean, when I’m on patrol I see all sorts, and I try not to judge. My father used to say that our job was to stop crime, not to judge how people live their lives.” She smiled a rueful smile. “I think that’s right, and, unlike him, I actually try to do that.”
Vinnie laughed. “You must get a lot of practice here.”
She smiled. “Oh, I do. It’s been an experience for a small-town girl, I can tell you.”
Jan laughed. “Well, as the professor here can tell you, I was a small-town girl once myself. Have you met the Golden?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Three of them, around fourteen years old, gold skin, gray eyes, blonde hair, they all look exactly alike?”
“Oh, sure, I’ve seen them on the street. Yeah, they’re pretty odd. Are they brothers?”
“Two brothers and a sister, actually.”
“Really? They all look the same.”
“Once, by accident, I saw them… well, let’s say that I saw enough to know for sure that one is a girl and the other two are boys.” Stephanie started to blush. “Trust me, however odd they look on the street, they’re much more peculiar to talk to.”
“They look like they’re aliens or something,” Stephanie said.
“They may well be. I was investigating them once, and when I got a little too nosy one of them said, ‘Mrs. O’Connor, you are seeking to understand more about this situation, and us, out of a general desire to understand the world, which we completely respect; however, when the phenomena under investigation are sentient, and are posing no provable risk to the community, we would suggest that the rights of the phenomena under investigation should outweigh the rights of the scientific investigator.’
“I had to admit that they were right, of course. And, in that spirit, and in the spirit of your father’s words, we should probably talk about the case.”
Which was, Vinnie thought, an elegant way of stopping Stephanie from getting back to her queasiness about Daphne. He appreciated that, though probably not as much as Jan thought he would. She might think it was icky to have her father involved with a suspect, and a suspect who lived her life as a dog at that, but he didn’t see anything wrong with it.
“Stephanie,” the detective began, “did Mr. Drenkenson usually lock the door when the store closed? Did he lock the door that day? Was the door locked when you came in to check why the light was on when it was well past closing time?”
“He usually locked the door when it was time to close the store, but on Sunday I locked it when I left. He said he was going to stay for a few minutes – he was at his desk here – and he asked me to lock the door and turn out the lights out front when I left, so no customers would try to come in.”
“Was this normal behavior? Did he often stay late?”
“Not often, but sometimes. When he had paperwork to do, and I know sometimes he had business reports which were due on Monday. So, it could have been that. Oh, and no, the door was… Hey wait. This means I’ll need to do the reports–”
“We’ll get to that later. Under the circumstances, I’m sure the delay won’t be a problem. Was the door locked when you came back to investigate?”
“No, it wasn’t.”
The great detective smiled. “That’s too bad. I was wondering if I’d have to figure out a fiendishly clever method for how the door got locked, since Mr. Drenkenson had his keys in his pocket.” She leaned back in her chair. “This store has, as you know, only one door – the front door to the street. The windows in this room are high and small, so no one entered that way. That’s also true in the storage room on the other side of that wall. The windows to the street are show windows, which don’t open. So, it appears that whoever killed Mr. Drenkenson came in through the street door.
“As Vinnie can tell you, Stephanie, when I was growing up I often read mystery novels where a crafty killer would have lurked outside that window, waited for the ideal moment, thrown a knife with deadly accuracy, a skill perhaps learned during his circus days, and killed without ever entering the room.
“Well, I went out last night and examined the ground. It got very muddy in that sudden and intense rain last night, so it’s impossible to tell if there were tracks from before that, but I have never, unfortunately, encountered a murder like the one I just described, and it would take some hard evidence to convince me that this is the one.”
Stephanie looked about to speak, but the detective continued, “To anticipate your next comment, you are correct. The knife was not found in the room, so… I’ll spare you a reconstruction of a fiendishly clever way that could have been accomplished if you’ll both agree, at least tentatively, that Mr. Drenkenson admitted his killer to the store.”
“To continue, there’s no evidence that the lock was forced, and no sign of a struggle, so it doesn’t seem that he was attacked out in the front of the store and then brought back here. So, if he let his murderer in and they came back here, after the store was closed, it would seem that they knew each other.”
“Maybe the murderer threatened him, to get him to unlock the door,” Stephanie suggested.
“Possible, but then we’re looking for somebody with a gun. You can’t force somebody to unlock a door and let you in by threatening him with a knife.”
“starling has guns,” Stephanie said.
“And she carries a knife, too, as I happen to know. Are you favoring starling as our murderer?”
Stephanie shrugged as Jan brought out her cigarette case and her lighter.
“I have no idea who did it, but I do have to point out that I could make a case against you that’s at least as good as the one I could make against starling. For one thing, you had a motive. You don’t carry a gun but I know you are experienced with them, and in any case you wouldn’t need a gun to get into the store since you have a key.” She smiled at Stephanie’s expression as she lit a cigarette. “I’m not accusing you, but I’m cautioning you to avoid deciding who you want to be the killer. Let the evidence lead you, not the other way around. I say this with all due respect, but I imagine you don’t approve of starling.”
Stephanie made a face. “She’s a murderer!”
Jan nodded. “She is indeed. Many times over. But we are a nation of laws, as the phrase goes, and she has not murdered anybody here. She has killed, but only in self-defense, or in defense of Pete, her boyfriend.”
Vinnie was watching the two women with great interest. It had been a long time since he’d seen his daughter conducting an investigation, and he was struck by how confident she was. He would tell she was completely aware of every spoken and unspoken nuance in the room, and he was pretty sure she had started to light a cigarette at the exact moment that she had Stephanie on the defensive, suggesting that Stephanie might be the killer, in order to make it awkward for Stephanie to object to her smoking. This was, of course, Stephanie’s office now, but he knew the girl wasn’t yet thinking of it that way.
From the dynamics of the conversation, it felt like Jan Sleet was much older than the young superhero, but Stephanie seemed to be around eighteen, so the real age gap was more like seven years. Of course Jan’s imperious demeanor and her three-piece suit added to the feeling of disparity (plus the fact that she towered over the younger woman), but part of it was also that Stephanie had apparently been raised to be respectful to authority. Vinnie had raised his daughter to be suspicious of authority, and never to respect anybody simply because they had a title.
“As far as motive goes,” he put in, “my sources tell me that there was some bad blood in the band that Pete and Mr. Drenkenson belonged to. That could have provided a motive for Katherine.”
“Have your sources told you the details of this bad blood?”
“Well, I’ve spoken to Fifteen, who, in addition to being our aide, is friends with Pete and starling, and he was a roadie for Kingdom Come when it was a going concern. So, I know a little more about the bad blood.
“There was a woman named Jennifer Owens, who was Mr. Drenkenson’s girlfriend when the band was formed. She was newly arrived in U-town at that time. And there was a man named Philip Henshaw, who was also in the band. He sang and wrote the songs and played guitar.” She frowned at Vinnie. “Does that happen – two guitarists in the same band?”
“It’s very common. One plays more chords and the other melodies. Rhythm and lead.”
“Ah, thank you. Anyway, Miss Owens quickly changed her allegiance to Mr. Henshaw, who is apparently quite a bit more charismatic than Mr. Drenkenson was. This caused some of the bad blood, as you can imagine. Also, Fifteen told me, and he made me promise that I wouldn’t spread this around, that Miss Owens spent some time with Pete as well, before his relationship with starling became romantic. The theory is that neither Mr. Drenkenson nor Mr. Henshaw knew of this.”
“How long ago was all this?” Vinnie asked. “Pete and Katherine give the impression that they’ve been a couple for a long time.”
“They have been close friends and roommates for a year at least; I gather their romantic liaison has been more recent.” She smiled. “I’m sure you’ve heard of that: a close friendship that unexpectedly becomes something else.”
Vinnie turned to Stephanie, who looked a little lost. “To bring you up to date,” he said, “my daughter is smiling because she is thinking of her mother and I, who were good friends until we… became her parents. Or she could be thinking of her loyal assistant, who followed her around the world helping her write articles and solve mysteries until they rather unexpectedly got married and then adopted a child.”
Stephanie nodded. “I’ve had that happen, too, though it didn’t… Anyway, I get it. But I’m not seeing a motive for anybody to kill Mr. Drenkenson.”
Jan nodded. “Exactly. Drenkenson could have wanted to kill Henshaw, or possibly Pete, his rivals for Miss Owens, but I can’t see a reason for either of them to kill him. starling could have wanted to kill Miss Owens (or any of them could have, really), but as far as anybody knows she left town after stabbing Mr. Henshaw.”
“Wait a minute,” Stephanie said. “He’s dead – the charismatic one?”
“Oh, no. It was a drunken altercation, in a club called The Quarter, during what turned out to be the last performance by the band Kingdom Come. She stabbed him on stage with a broken beer bottle. Apparently she left town later that night.”
Stephanie frowned. “I’m still not seeing how this helps.”
“I don’t think it does, except in a negative way. I can find motives in there against Henshaw, against Pete, against Jenny Owens, but I’m not seeing why any of this would lead any of these people to want to kill Mr. Drenkenson. But there may be something we don’t know yet, or something we’re not seeing.”
She turned to Stephanie. “I have to let you know that I’m also looking at Larry Gerard.” Stephanie started to protest. “I spoke to Angel Valentine this morning, and she explained how out of character it would have been for Mr. Gerard, and the fact that he’s out of town, but it does have to be considered.”
one night at the quarter (part four)
There was a murmur by the area of the door, and Katherine turned to look.
Several members of the Jinx, a local motorcycle gang, had just come in. Katherine knew that the small, dark-haired woman in the lead was Dr. Lee, the head of the gang. The Jinx were known to be fans of Kingdom Come, or at least Dr. Lee was, but they didn’t usually show up en masse. Maybe they were also thinking that tonight could be the last gig for the band, or maybe they were expecting trouble, too.
Katherine really didn’t like it that Neil still called her “Kat,” but she didn’t know how to stop it. If she told him to stop, he’d make a big show out of stopping, which would be unpleasant. And she couldn’t threaten him – he was Jinx, after all, and he was Dr. Lee’s bodyguard besides. He couldn’t be intimidated.
She took a sip of her beer, looked around slowly, and said, “Hi.”
Then, as she waited to see if he had anything else to say for himself, he noticed that Dr. Lee was going back toward the dressing room, and he hustled after her.
Katherine smiled. Duty trumped conversation. She was glad about that.
part seven: seven conversations