seven conversations

“Dad?” Ron said as they walked to school.

“Yes?”

“I thought Grandpa was coming here to U-town to spend time with me.”

Marshall laughed. “That was the idea. I’m sure he’ll get around to it, but you know how things get when your mother has a case.”

“He’s helping her?”

“Yes, I think he’s doing some investigation. You know, related to the murder.”

“Oh. Okay.”

 
After he dropped Ron off, as he was walking back to the hotel, Marshall was hailed from across the street.

“Marshall!”

He turned, and it took him a second to recognize Larry Gerard.

“Hold up a minute, Watson,” Larry said as he trotted across the street. He stuck out his hand and they shook. “So, how’s the little woman?”

Marshall laughed. “She doesn’t often get called that.”

Larry clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, Watson. I’ll buy you a beer.”

 
Ron went to her regular classroom for her literature class, but there was a note on the door that the teacher was sick and the class was cancelled.

Ron frowned, not because she was especially upset about missing literature, but because there was a boy in the class who wanted to be friends with her. She knew that if he showed up and found out that they both had a free period, he’d want to hang out with her.

She quickly looked both ways and made for the staircase. She raced up to the next floor and went into the room where her next class was scheduled to be. It was empty, and she closed the door and went to her usual seat.

Well, she was here so she guessed she might as well finish the reading that was due today.

 
Larry led Marshall a couple of blocks away to a ratty and unlabeled bar. They were greeted as soon as they came in, so Larry was clearly a regular. He gestured Marshall to a booth near the back and called to the bartender, “This is Marshall. He’s investigating me for something, for his boss, but he doesn’t want me to know that. I’m going to get him drunk and find out what’s going on.”

When they were sitting, Larry grinned. He looked about as Marshall remembered him, big and muscular, handsome with slicked-back dark hair, sideburns, and a mustache.

“So, Watson,” he said as the mugs of beer arrived and the bartender made a gesture as if he was wiping the rough wooden table. “I understand there’s been a murder, at the pet store where Stephanie works. Has your boss figured it out yet?”

“Not yet, as far as I know.”

“How’d he die?”

“Stabbed, in the store, after it was closed for the night.”

“The door locked?”

Marshall was starting to get an idea about what the other man was getting at, but he didn’t react visibly except to shrug. “I don’t know,” he said.

 
The door opened and Ron’s head jerked up, but it was a grownup, someone she didn’t know. She turned back to her book, but the woman said, “Excuse me, what class is scheduled in this room next?”

“Civics. Why?”

The woman smiled. “Because I’m your new teacher.”

Ron frowned. “Since when?”

She came and sat next to Ron. “Since today. My name is Miss Nelson. I’m afraid your regular teacher had to go out of town suddenly – some sort of family illness.” She paused, but Ron didn’t react. “I was hoping someone would be here a little early, so I could find out where you are in the curriculum. Have you been a student here long?”

Ron shrugged. “Yeah, a while. My parents make me go.” She made a face. “It’s okay. I’m only here in the afternoons anyway.”

“Only in the afternoon? Why is that?”

“I deliver the mail in the morning. I pick it up at the bridge and then I bring it to the hotel, for Vicki and my mother and father and the others. The important mail.”

“You deliver the mail? Isn’t there a post office or something? Why do they make you do it?”

Definitely a teacher. She didn’t understand anything.

“Nobody makes me do it. It’s what I do.”

“And what do you study? I’ve read about the school here and it sounds quite innovative, if you’re a fan of unstructured learning environments. This is my first day of actually teaching here, though, so I want to learn all I can before the class starts.”

“Well, they change the classes around all the time. I used to take history. We were learning about slavery. Then they changed the schedule, so now I’m taking civics instead. History is in the morning now. Civics is like history, but it’s the history of U-town.

“I only went to one class so far for civics. One girl said that my dad wasn’t as important in the government as the others, as my mother and Vicki and them. So I busted her in the nose and she had to go to the nurse.” Miss Nelson frowned disapprovingly and Ron shrugged. “She only said it to bother me, to see what I’d say. Well, she found out.”

 
“Let me ask you a question, Watson. I’ve seen you around town with that kid of yours. She looks like a tough little brat. She get into a lot of fights?”

Marshall shrugged. “Some.”

“When she does get into a fight, do you jump in and help her?”

“No, of course not.”

Larry leaned forward. “Why not?”

“Because she can probably handle it by herself.”

“And if she can’t? And if she gets a black eye or a bloody nose?”

“Well, there’s probably a lesson in there for her to learn.”

“And when would you step in? If there was a chance she’d get seriously hurt, right?”

“Of course.”

“So, let me ask you this. Do you think there was any chance that skinny bastard at the pet store could have really hurt Stevie One?”

 
“Well,” Miss Nelson said judiciously, “not to take anything away from your father, but your mother is a fairly extraordinary woman. She–”

The door opened and Molly, the regular civics teacher, came in. Miss Nelson stood up and said, “Excuse me, Ron. I’ll see you again soon.”

She slipped by Molly and left the room.

“Who was that?” Molly asked as she moved to her desk.

“Fuck if I know,” Ron said, turning back to her book.

 
“And if she had done it, she wouldn’t have used a knife,” Larry said, leaning forward and tapping the table with his finger. “Remember, her old man was training her to be a cop. Cops don’t fight with knives – they don’t learn how. They learn how to defend themselves against knives, but not how to use them.”

He shook his head as the bartender brought two more beers.

“I tried to get her to carry something besides those sticks of hers, but she won’t do it.”

Marshall shrugged. “She seems to do pretty well with them.”

“So far, yeah.”

 
“So,” Jan said as they walked back to the hotel, “padre, is tonight the night you’re going to spend some time with your family?”

Vinnie laughed. “That’s my plan, cara.”

She smiled. “I hope Ron is there.”

“You don’t eat together? As a family?”

“Oh, padre, you’re so traditional.” She caught his expression. “Well, whatever your expectations about parents and children, I’m sure we don’t fit. For a long time we didn’t even know where she slept.”

“I notice she’s got a mouth on her.”

“She does indeed.”

“I can’t remember the last time I ever heard you curse, or Marshall. You don’t try to…”

“No, never. And we’ve had some complaints from her teachers – and the U-town school is not exactly strict – but we’ve told them that we’re fine with it.”

She pulled out her cigarette case and got a cigarette out, between her lips, and lit, all one-handed (since her other hand was busy with her cane). Vinnie was impressed with the dexterity of her long fingers, notwithstanding the fact that he knew this was the sort of thing that she practiced in front of the mirror.

“There are two reasons,” she said, exhaling a cloud of smoke. “One is that it was clear she was expecting it. She sees how we are, how we talk, how we dress, and she was waiting for us to pressure her to be more like us. Which we never do. She doesn’t need to be like us – that is not a condition of her being our daughter or of our loving her, and we want to make that clear.”

She smiled. “We are quite strict in some ways, but about things that really matter. She has to go to school, she has to study, and she has to work at it. She has to tell us the truth. We’re trying to curb her tendency to get into fights, but without ever telling her that all fights are wrong. She knows her parents covered a war, and it was a war that we thought was completely justified.”

Vinnie gestured at the side street they were passing, where there was a large crater in the middle of the pavement.

She laughed. “Yes, that, too. We’ve left some of those unfilled, to remind everybody. We had to fight to get here, and we will probably need to fight again, sooner or later.”

“And there’s no point in shielding her from that fact.”

“Her or anybody, but especially her.” She drew deeply on her cigarette and threw it away. He knew how rare it was for her to get so passionate.

What he wanted to say, as always, was: “You remind me of your mother,” but what he actually said was: “What’s the other reason?”

Passionate or not, of course she remembered exactly where they’d been in the conversation. “We feel we’ve adopted somebody from a different culture, a different world, and we want to honor her native tongue and her native customs. She shouldn’t have to give them up just because she’s with us now.”

 
Larry was sitting at the kitchen table, enjoying a beer. It seemed that Stephanie was in the clear for the killing, but he planned to keep an eye on things as they developed. Marshall was obviously pretty canny – he’d have to be sharp to work for Jan Sleet – so he may have been holding something back.

He snorted a laugh as he lit a cigarette and looked at the newspaper he’d picked up in the city. To the best of his knowledge he’d never fathered any kids, so it struck him funny that he’d ended up acting like a father to a girl who liked to dress up in a costume and stop crimes.

He’d stayed in a cheap motel on his trip, and he’d watched television to kill time (he missed TV when he was home, but Angel wouldn’t have one in the house).

He’d fallen asleep with the TV on, and he’d dreamed that they were characters in a sitcom, the three of them. The gruff dad who didn’t seem to have a definite job, the gorgeous mother who always had impeccable hair and spotless clothing, even when she was doing housework, and the tomboy daughter who got into various kinds of scrapes while pursuing her very ambitious dreams.

He heard the front door open, and he thought for a moment that it might be Angel, but the footsteps were wrong. Shit.

The most common adjective used to describe Tammy Nelson was “striking.” She was tall and slender, dressed, as usual, in a three-piece suit. Larry would have said the suit was yellow, but he was sure that the tailor had come up with some fancier name for the color. And he was sure a tailor had been involved – the suit fit her very well. Whatever the color was called, it did seem that it had been chosen to go with her long, wavy hair, which was strawberry blonde (he’d made the mistake of saying she was a redhead once, and she’d quickly corrected him).

“Mr. Gerard, good afternoon,” she began, putting down her briefcase. “I understand–”

He extended his leg under the table and nudged the chair opposite him with his toe. “Have a seat, doll.”

“I…” She hesitated, then she pulled out the chair and sat down, moving her briefcase until it was beside her.

“Cup of joe?” he asked gesturing at the stove, where there was obviously no coffee brewing.

Larry found Tammy annoying, just the fact of her existence more than anything she did, and he dealt with this by always acting differently than she seemed to want. If she was professional and formal, he got friendly and relaxed. If she acted like they were friends, which they weren’t, then he became severe.

“No coffee,” she said. “Thank you. No, I am here because I understand you may require legal representation–”

“That’s bull,” he said. He sighed as he stubbed out his cigarette. “I appreciate the offer, doll, but I’m not… Nobody thinks I did it. And I didn’t, if you’re wondering.”

He hesitated, and she stood up. “Give me a penny,” she said as she went to the refrigerator.

He went through his pockets and came up with a nickel, which he slid across the table to her. She popped the top of her beer can and sat down again, reversing the chair and straddling the back.

Larry made a mental note that he was going to have to figure out a new tactic for dealing with her.

She picked up the nickel and he said, “So, now I’m paying you to drink my beer?”

She made a face at the can in her hand. “You really should. This stuff is hideous. No, you’re hiring me with that nickel, so this conversation is now privileged communication.” She tossed the nickel into the air, grabbed it, and then opened her hand to show him that the coin had vanished. “What’s on your mind?”

Larry reflected that, whatever he thought about Tammy Nelson personally, he’d heard it from more than one source that she was a very good lawyer – “frighteningly good,” one person had said.

He finished his beer and went to the refrigerator for another one.

“It’s not me that I’m worried about,” he began.

 
“So,” Jan said to Ron, “how was school today?”

Ron shrugged. “It was okay.”

Marshall scooped up some mashed potatoes and swirled them in his gravy. He was glad Vinnie hadn’t offered his opinion of this food, given how many really first class restaurants there were in U-town. Ron liked to eat in the hotel dining room, though, where there were never any surprises.

“Did you have your civics class again?” Jan asked.

“Hopefully without violence this time,” Marshall added.

Jan laughed. “Please don’t misuse the word ‘hopefully’ in front of you-know-who. We need to set a good example.”

They all laughed, except for Ron – Vinnie wasn’t sure she ever laughed.

“Literature was canceled,” she said after the grownup hilarity had died down. “What’s-her-name was sick.” She looked up from her baked beans. “Something weird happened after that. I was in the room for the civics class, before everybody else, and this woman came in.” She ate another spoonful. “She was dressed real nice, and she said she was a teacher. She said she was the substitute, that Molly was out, and then she asked me a bunch of questions. You know, not weird, but just about school and stuff.” She shrugged. “But then, Molly came in and Miss Nelson jumped up and split. I have no fucking idea…” Her voice trailed off as she recognized the looks that were going back and forth between her parents. “Fuck, what?” she demanded.

“What did Miss Nelson look like?” Marshall asked.

“Let me guess,” Vinnie said. “She murdered Thomas Drenkenson? Maybe she…”

They were ignoring him, so he stopped.

“Kind of tall,” Ron said slowly. “Her hair was…” She gestured at the level of her shoulder. “To there. Kind of light colored, but not blonde-blonde. She wore a sweater thing, like tan color, and pants. Not jeans, but real pants. Brown… light brown boots, like leather but soft-looking. She had the boots inside her pants, so I don’t know how high they went.” She gestured at her calf. “She was wearing glasses.”

Jan nodded. “That’s very good, Ron. Did you know she was suspicious, is that why you were studying her?”

Ron shrugged and ate another mouthful of baked beans. Vinnie guessed this was what happened when you were being raised by a detective and her assistant. Then she looked up. “She called me ‘Ron’ when she left, but I didn’t tell her my name.”

“Ron,” Marshall said slowly, “if you see her again, please let us know right away.” The glances between Marshall and Jan were going hot and heavy by this point, and Vinnie had to restrain himself from smiling. The eye contact was almost comical, but it was obvious that the situation was serious. He had the idea they were silently debating whether to warn Ron that this woman was dangerous.

Marshall nodded finally. “Just let us know.”

Ron nodded and picked up one of her hot dogs with her fingers, biting off about half of it. She caught her father’s expression.

“Hot dog,” she explained, her mouth still full.

“A hot dog with a bun is one thing,” Marshall said. He looked like he was wondering whether this was worth pursuing when there was a murmur from the area of the door.

The hotel dining room was pretty big, with probably around fifty tables and booths, and at the moment it was about half full. A man was limping in, and he was attracting quite a bit of attention. He was tall and gaunt, with long, dark, curly hair and a hawk-like face. He wore all black, with a long black coat.

“Miss Sleet,” he said, his expression stern, “we need to talk.”

“Mister Henshaw,” she said, wiping her mouth, “I am having dinner with my family, and I do have regular office hours. You may come tomorrow–”

“I demand to know what you’re doing about the murder of my friend Tom Drenkenson!”

She turned to face him. “I am investigating it, and, when I have solved it, the appropriate people will be informed. Since you are a suspect yourself–”

“Don’t threaten me,” he said. He gestured with the head of his cane, rather closer to her face than Vinnie liked, but she slammed her fist on the table.

“No,” she said firmly, “I appreciate your possible grief, but that does not entitle you to–”

He poked her shoulder. “I demand–”

Ron looked ready to climb over the table and attack this guy, but Vinnie could tell that Marshall was holding her arm under the table to keep her under control. Marshall wouldn’t interfere without a signal from his boss, who liked it when suspects got upset and might possibly reveal something useful.

However, as Vinnie reflected, there were advantages to not being on the payroll.

He stood up. “Mr. Henshaw,” he said firmly.

Henshaw turned, “Look, this doesn’t–”

Vinnie drew back and punched him in the stomach, as hard as he could. Henshaw dropped his cane and stumbled backwards, falling on his rear end. As he looked up, startled, a small figure zipped around Vinnie and dumped a plate of salad on his head.

Vinnie had his knife out by then. “Come on, pegleg,” he said softly. “In here or outside, whichever you want.”

Henshaw got to his feet, angrily wiping the salad off his head. He addressed the detective. “This is outrageous!” he said. “Are you going–”

“I agree,” she said. “Completely outrageous. Please come to my office in the morning. I’ll have the paperwork ready for you to file a complaint. Good evening.”

The great detective had not finished her salad, but she wiped her mouth and dropped her napkin on her plate as Henshaw stalked out.

“Padre, I…” She sighed. “We’ll talk later. And Ron, I’m sure your father will have some improving things to say to you at some point about the importance of resolving conflicts without resorting to fisticuffs.” She turned to Marshall. “You and I need to talk.” He came around and pulled back her chair.

As they left, Ron ate the remainder of her hot dog and blotted up the rest of her baked beans with a piece of bread.

“Where did you get the knife?” she asked.

“No knives for you,” he said. “That’s what your father would say, if he was here, though he’d use more words.” She started to speak, but he shook his head. “No. No knives.”

She looked miffed, but not too seriously.

“Actually,” he said thoughtfully, eating some of his corn, “dumping that salad on his head was the smartest thing you could have done. He looked to me like a guy who thought he was tough but didn’t get into a lot of fights. For a guy like that, to get knocked down and to get back up and fight could be a badge of honor. But the salad made him look silly, and he wasn’t going to come back from that.” He looked up and caught her expression. “Plus, of course, it got you out of having to eat it.”

Her reaction wasn’t a smile, exactly, but it was in that general neighborhood.

 
one night at the quarter (part five)

Katherine saw Henshaw come back in, and Frances’ half-joke had been right. His face was bruised, and he was limping, although, knowing him, he was probably exaggerating that part. He was very aware of the effect of his gaunt figure, his long coats and black clothes, and his hawk-like face. A limp was a plus, really. Very dramatic.

This was another thing that annoyed Katherine about Jenny (living with Pete was definitely having an effect on her – she was actually thinking of sitting down and writing a list of “annoying things about Jenny Owens”). Her theoretical helplessness was even more ridiculous than it might have been, given that she could have beaten the crap out of Henshaw if she’d wanted to. He was bigger and stronger, but he’d had no training at all.

Then, very quickly, the house lights went down, the jukebox was turned off, and Kingdom Come took the stage.

It was interesting to Katherine how a band with this much personal disunity could still play so well together on stage. Loud, fast, aggressive – the two guitar parts fitting together so tightly that at first it seemed odd, given that the two musicians despised each other. But maybe this was carrying out their personal arguments by other means. Maybe, for the moment at least, it was helping.

 
part eight: vinnie and watson

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