Jan straightened up and quickly adjusted her tie as Marshall moved to open the door. This time it was a young man, maybe a year or two older than Ron and nearly as scruffy.
“Message from Stevie One,” he said. “There’s been a murder.”
“Ah,” the detective said, leaning forward. “Tell me.”
“It’s a guy who runs a pet store, the one down by the school. He was stabbed, in his store.”
“Who found the body?”
“Stevie did. She was on patrol and she wondered why the light was on in the back room of the store, since it closed hours ago.”
“Ah, good work, Stevie.” She turned to her father, who had moved away from the door to lean against one of the two desks. “Padre, I’m off to investigate. Would you like to come along? I’ll introduce you to our local superhero.”
He laughed. “It’s an attractive offer, cara, but I am… Well, first I would like to know where I’m going to sleep tonight.”
She waved a hand. “Oh, Marshall will arrange something while we’re gone.”
“I could come,” Ron said.
Marshall shook his head. “You have a test tomorrow, and you have been putting off studying until the last possible minute. Which happens to be right now. Young–”
“Okay,” she said quickly, going back to the chair where she’d been sitting before.
The great detective smiled as she adjusted her tie and quickly ran her fingers through her hair. “You see, padre: I need an assistant, and Ron needs her stern taskmaster. I’d say it was fate except, of course, I don’t believe in that sort of thing.”
Jan lit a cigarette as she strode through the lobby. She was moving fast, and as they reached the street Vinnie quickly realized that, in his role as Marshall’s replacement, he was going to be expected to keep up.
He had been half aware of a thunderstorm outside while he’d been eating his dinner, but he hadn’t thought much about it since he hadn’t imagined he’d be going out again until morning. The weather had cleared by now, but the sidewalks were still damp, and the air was humid and close.
Walking with his daughter was a completely different experience than walking through U-town alone, because U-town’s most well known citizen was also one of its most distinctive looking. There weren’t as many people on the street as there had been before, but most noticed the great detective and some said hello or waved.
Jan Sleet was six feet tall, very thin (though not quite as emaciated as she’d been in high school), with straight brown hair to her shoulders and large, horn-rimmed glasses. She wore a three-piece suit (today’s was charcoal gray, with a white shirt and a dark blue tie) which had obviously been tailored to fit her.
She had a slight limp and walked with a cane, but she moved quickly and a couple of times she got a step or two ahead of him and had to slow down. His legs were as long as hers, but he was, he told himself, older, more tired, and definitely somewhat less enthusiastic.
Not that he minded accompanying her, but he wouldn’t have minded a good night’s sleep either.
“I am so glad you came, padre,” she said after they had walked a couple of blocks. She dropped her cigarette and stubbed it out carefully with her toe, then she looped her free arm through his.
“How could I miss a chance to meet my granddaughter?”
She smiled and squeezed his arm. “She’s had a difficult life. She was living on her own when we adopted her. Her parents – her birth parents – abandoned her.”
“But you didn’t adopt her because she needed help. You’d get her the help she needed, but that would be that.”
She nodded sheepishly. “True. I got her out of a jam – she was accused of a murder – and she started calling us Mom and Dad. It could have been a joke, but I could tell Marshall was…” She gave him a sidelong glance. “He’s not like us. He’s always sort of wanted kids. Well, when he and I got together he assumed that kids weren’t going to be part of our lives. But then he and Ron… they clicked, like two pieces of a plastic toy that were meant to snap together in a certain way. And then I… Well, there’s the pet store.”
The store was small (at least it appeared small from the street), dark, and not well labeled. Vinnie had noticed on his previous visit that you could usually tell the businesses that catered to tourists, which always had big signs, from the ones that were mostly for locals, which were often labeled cryptically or not at all.
Two people stood outside the door. One was a woman in her thirties or so, wearing a poncho. Her jeans and sneakers were drenched.
The other woman was younger, and dressed entirely in black, and also soaking wet. No part of her was visible under a mask, vest, turtleneck, jeans, gloves, and boots.
Vinnie decided not to mention that he had already met Stevie One.
“You could have waited inside,” Jan told the two women.
Stevie shrugged. “We didn’t want to interfere with the crime scene, ma’am.”
The detective held out her hand to the security volunteer. “Jan Sleet,” she said, and the woman smiled, since the introduction was almost certainly unnecessary.
“Pola. Do you need me for anything else? The runner who got the word to you was also supposed to go to the hospital, to let them know that there’s a body here.”
Jan shook her head. “That would seem to be everything, thank you. Go home and dry off.”
Pola laughed. “How did you know that’s what I wanted to do?”
“One of those incredible feats of deduction that I’m so well known for.” The woman trotted off, and Jan turned back to Stevie. “Before we go inside, Stevie, I’d like to introduce this distinguished gentleman–”
This time Vinnie could tell Stevie was smiling under her mask as she held out her hand. “It’s good to see you again, sir,” she said as he shook her hand. “I hope you found the hotel without any problems?”
Jan raised an eyebrow, so Vinnie gave her a quick recap of his earlier adventure. Under other circumstances, she might have chided him for going off on his own and getting lost, but right now her attention was elsewhere. She pointed at the door. “Let’s go inside.”
Stevie cocked her head. “So, I don’t get to go home and dry off?”
“You wouldn’t go home anyway. You’re too dedicated, and it’s early yet. As soon as you show me the body, I’m sure you’ll go back out on patrol.”
She nodded.” You’re probably right.”
The store was dark, and the front room had a small counter with a cash register, a few couches and comfortable chairs, some small padded pens where animals could play, and rows of cages along two walls. A single light was burning near the display window, but it was darker in the back of the store and most of the animals seemed to be asleep.
Jan looked around. “Who’s going to take care of the animals?” she asked. “Did he have family in the area?”
“I don’t know about his family,” Stevie said quickly, “but there’s a girl who works here. She’ll come in the morning, I guess, and she can take care of the animals, until somebody can work out something else.” She gestured at a half-open door. “That’s the office,” she said.
Jan peered down at the body, lying on the floor of the shabby little office, near the very messy desk. “Stabbed to death, from the front, one wound,” she said. “His nose was broken, it looks like, some time before death.” She looked up slowly, her expression blank. “Why did you break his nose, Stevie?” she asked.
Stevie froze in place, then she made a gurgling sound and laughed. She reached for her mask, then she hesitated.
Jan smiled. “Professor Stiglianese is my father, and is therefore completely reliable and discreet.”
Stevie laughed and pulled off her mask to reveal a teenage girl with short blonde hair (currently dripping wet). “How did you know?” she asked as she leaned back against the file cabinet.
“It was a guess, I admit.” She held up a bony forefinger. “I tell you that as a fellow professional; it’s not a word I like to use with civilians.
“As you know, I know who you are, your ‘secret identity.’ As you didn’t know, I was aware that you have a job here, in this store. U-town looks like a city, but in many ways it’s a small town, and in any case I’m very nosy.
“Your awkwardness in answering the question about the animals confirmed that you are the girl who will come here in the morning to take care of the feeding and so on.”
Stevie grinned. “Okay, I get that part. How did you know I broke his nose?”
“As I say, that was a guess. There had been a complaint before about him making inappropriate suggestions to a young female employee. Nothing we were able to prove. But then I found out that you were working here, and I had a pretty good idea how you’d react if he tried anything like that with you. So, I see him with a broken nose, and I start to wonder.”
Stevie nodded. “That was it. When I came in to work this morning, he told me to come in here, to his office, and he said I was doing very well, and he was thinking about giving me a raise.” She made a face. “That made me feel good, since I have been working really hard. Then he started to talk about how I could come to him if I ever needed help, or someone to talk to, and I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about–”
“He thought you were in an abusive relationship.”
Stevie’s eyes widened. “I… Yeah. How did you know?”
The detective smiled. “You’re a superhero, but you’re not superhuman. Your nightly heroics have been known to end you up in the Emergency Room. He sees his young employee coming in with a black eye here, a bruise there, and so on, what else would he think? That’s what I would think, if I didn’t know better.”
Stevie clenched up her shoulders and shook her head. “One moment it was like he was being fatherly, then the next minute he’s trying to sit down with me in his lap. That’s when I popped him.”
“Then what happened? Did you quit and storm out?”
She shrugged. To Vinnie she looked like his students did when they were preparing to express an opinion that they knew was contrary to his.
“I told him I liked the job, which I do. And it took me a while to find it, so I’d rather not have to start again to find a new one. My father, back when we were speaking to each other, raised me to be his deputy, so I don’t know much about being a waitress or anything like that. And I like the animals. So, I told him that I’d forget the whole thing, but if it happened again I’d report him. He got quiet after that. I didn’t know he’d been reported before, but I guess he did.”
“We made sure he knew,” Jan said.
“I was going to offer to check his nose for him, but then I decided that was a bad idea. So, I left.”
Jan frowned. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing at something in between the desk and the filing cabinet.
It was black, about four feet high, maybe a foot and a half deep, and three or four inches thick, the exact width of the space between the desk and the cabinet.
“It’s a case for an electric guitar or a bass or something,” Stevie said, “or at least some kind of musical instrument.”
“A guitar, I’d say,” Vinnie said. He slid it out and laid it on the floor. The case had “Kingdom Come” stenciled on both sides.
“Open it up,” the detective said, leaning over to watch.
He opened the two catches and lifted the lid. “Strat,” he said, running his finger along a couple of places where the varnish was worn.
“I didn’t realize you kept up with such things, padre, now that you’re all respectable.”
He laughed. “I don’t, but this is somewhat of a classic.” He looked up. “It’s definitely older than either of you.” He closed the case and said, “This would be worth some money. So, I guess we can rule out robbery?”
The minute he said it, he knew he should have kept his mouth shut. Fortunately, his daughter believed in showing respect toward one’s parents, most of the time, or at least she didn’t like to show disrespect in front of strangers, so she turned to Stevie and said, “I suppose we should eliminate that possibility – that there was a robber who just didn’t happen to know the value of vintage musical instruments. Was anything stolen?”
Stevie frowned and looked around the office. “There’s nothing… What would anybody steal?” After a moment’s thought, she pulled out the top drawer of the filing cabinet and reached into the back, taking out a small manila envelope. She opened it and showed them the money – about ten or twelve bills. “That’s the petty cash. There isn’t anything else. The cash register wasn’t touched – I checked that when I came in before.” She returned the money and closed the drawer. “Do you need me for anything else?”
The great detective shook her head. “Not right now. I will want to question you more, I’m sure, but I want to examine the physical evidence first.” She pulled out her cigarette case and slipped a cigarette between her lips. As she closed the case, Stevie suddenly leaned forward and tapped it with her forefinger.
“You know,” she said quickly, “those are really bad for you.”
She leaned back, as if expecting to be yelled at for this impertinent behavior.
Jan smiled gently. “My one vice. And there are reputable scientists who assert that it improves brain activity.” Her smile grew impish. “I have been offered exorbitant amounts of money to advertise one or another brand of cigarettes – though never the brand that I actually smoke – and I have always declined. I am, I know, thought highly of by some young women, and I’m not comfortable that tobacco companies would use that regard to sell more cigarettes.”
She shrugged. “That is perhaps not an entirely logical distinction, but it’s one that fits with my idea of myself as a person.”
Stevie looked relieved that she hadn’t been yelled at, but Vinnie was sure that she’d realize eventually that the detective hadn’t really replied to her comment.
“Thanks, Stevie,” Jan said as the young superhero pulled her mask back on. “Good work in spotting that the light was on.”
“All in a night’s work, ma’am.” She turned to Vinnie. “Good to meet you again, sir. Take care.”
The professor and the detective strolled back to the hotel. Vinnie wondered how late it was. He’d taken a nap on one of the sofas while Jan had searched the office, and then he’d realized that he’d forgotten to set his wristwatch to local time. He tried to do the math in his head, but he was too tired. At least the sky was still dark.
He looked up. “Yes, cara?”
“The last time you were here, you used to enjoy going to the hospital to do volunteer work with Marshall, didn’t you?”
“Well, I went that one time–”
“Exactly. He’s going tomorrow morning – this morning, his regular Monday shift – and you can go with him. You’ll enjoy that.”
She gave him a dazzling smile and squeezed his arm. He didn’t bother to ask any questions.
part three: home care