Stephanie sighed as Vinnie and Daphne left. She considered closing the store early, but she really wanted to think everything through before she acted. And she needed to make some sales, too. That morning she’d received the weekly shipment of pet food, which she’d paid for in cash, so she was pretty broke.
It had been the first time she’d gone to the bridge in the early morning to get the deliveries alone. Standing around with all the other people from area shops and restaurants, she suddenly felt one step closer to owning the store.
She had to think about whether she should try to get some part-time help. How was she even supposed to figure out whether she could afford to hire somebody? But that was not the main area where she wished she had help.
She wished she had somebody to review cases with. When she was young, she’d seen her father talking things through with his deputies when he had questions. And, as she grew up, more and more often she had been included in those discussions as well.
Ordinarily, if she was really stuck she could go talk to Miss Sleet, but that wouldn’t be possible now.
And sometimes she ran through things with Angel, who was polite enough to listen and comment even when she obviously didn’t care all that much.
But Stephanie definitely couldn’t talk to Angel about this, because the thing that Stephanie knew, the thing that Vinnie had wanted to know but hadn’t been able to figure out how to force her to reveal, was that Angel Valentine was actually Jan Sleet’s mother.
So, if the case was too close to home for the great detective, well, it was pretty close to home for Stephanie, too.
But Stevie One was not going to risk letting a murderer go free just because it might be somebody she cared about. That was not how she had been raised and trained, and she had a responsibility as U-town’s protector.
The rest of the afternoon was pretty busy as several of her steady customers came in for their pet food orders and other supplies. They knew what day the shipments came in, and she’d pre-packed the orders for her regulars and lined them up neatly on the counter. As Mr. Drenkenson had always told her, it was great when somebody bought a kitten or a puppy, but the backbone of the business was the regular customers for supplies like pet food.
But then it was time to close, and as she turned off the lights and locked the store she realized how hungry she was. She knew she should get going on the case, but she still had no idea what to do, so a meal seemed like a good idea. If she went home and Larry and Angel were eating they would invite her to join them, but she needed to think things through before she saw them.
She had some cash, but she didn’t want to spend any more than she had to until she had a firmer handle on the accounts for the store, so she planned to go to her usual Chinese takeout place. It was tiny, in a small basement storefront, and Angel had said it was the most unhealthy-looking place she’d ever seen. But the food was edible, at least by Stephanie’s standards, and very cheap.
Stephanie turned and stood motionless, the key still in her hand, surprised and amazed as her friend Priscilla ran up and hugged her.
After a moment, she hugged back.
“When… Why didn’t…”
“When did I get here? This afternoon. Why didn’t I call?”
“Because we don’t have any phones.”
“How did I find you? I asked around when I got over the bridge. People told me to go to the hotel, and there was this weird kid there who told me to come here.”
Priscilla shook her head. “I have a question for you. When can we eat, and when can I sit down? I’ve been walking for hours.” She arched an eyebrow. “Unless you have plans for tonight? Like a date…”
Stephanie hugged her again. “You’d be a priority over any date I could have. Which I don’t have anyway.”
Priscilla grinned and whispered, “I don’t imagine you have much time for dating, being a superhero and all.” She pulled back and said, “So, where are we going to eat?”
Stephanie stood stock still, telling her suddenly-aching stomach that she trusted Pris completely, including about secrets even more important than this one.
“Uh,” she said.
Priscilla waited (it would not be completely accurate to say that she waited “patiently”).
Stephanie stood up straighter. “Okay,” she said. “Dinner. I have a little cash, and I know a really nice place.” She picked up Priscilla’s suitcase. “I’m taking you to dinner.”
Priscilla looked around. “I don’t suppose there’s a bus, or a cab, or something.”
Stephanie shook her head. “That’s not how we do things here. Come on – I can give you a pan to soak your feet later.” She smiled. “And I can tell you how much I walk in an average night, when I’m doing that thing that we’re not going to talk about at dinner.”
Priscilla made a face. “You don’t mean that you’re not going to tell me–”
“At dinner. We are not going to talk about that in public. I’ll tell you all about it later, when we’re alone.” She put down the suitcase and looked Priscilla in the eye. “That thing, that thing that you know – somehow – that has to remain a secret. You need to promise that, Pris.”
Looking resigned, Priscilla extended her pinky. “Okay.” Stephanie hooked her pinky around Priscilla’s. “Pinky swear,” Priscilla said.
Stephanie nodded and picked up the suitcase again. “The restaurant is this way. They have the best seafood.”
Stephanie knew the very limited food options Priscilla had grown up with, and she thought it was better not to start her off with any of U-town’s more exotic offerings. At least seafood would be something she’d heard of.
After they’d walked about half a block (Priscilla always got quiet for a few minutes when you forced her to get serious about anything), they turned to each other and said, “So, why did you cut your hair?”
“I’m the guest,” Priscilla said, “So I should go first, but mine is sort of depressing, so you can go first.”
“Well, mine is sort of depressing, too. When I ran away from home, I thought they’d be coming after me, looking for me, so I thought I’d better change my appearance.” She sighed. “I was so scared they’d catch me and bring me home and force me to have the baby. But then I found out that nobody was even looking for me…”
“Anyway, I kind of like it shorter. Easier to wash. What about you?”
Priscilla stopped, planted her hands on her hips, and said in her whiniest voice, “Are we there yet?”
“Don’t you give me trouble now, young lady. We’ll get there when we get there. What about your hair?”
“My stepmother… She decided I was a slut. Her word. It got pretty bad.” Stephanie suddenly felt very guilty for not staying in better touch since she’d left home. “It got so bad that I told her that, yes, I do sleep with boys, but that’s a lot better than sleeping with a married man.”
Stephanie winced, both because of what had happened and because she could imagine her father’s reaction if she’d ever said anything like that, to anybody.
Then she looked around and realized that they’d nearly walked past the restaurant, which didn’t have a sign. “Hey, your poor aching feet can rest a while. Here we are.”
Stephanie explained that the restaurant had several long tables, and people sat wherever they could. The ceiling had bare beams, with lanterns hanging here and there. The tables, the chairs, and the floor were made of rough-hewn, dark wood, thickly coated with varnish.
It was still fairly early in the evening, so there were some empty seats. In a couple of hours there would be a line out the door. Stephanie had been raised that dinner was always at 6:30pm sharp, so she was amazed at how late some people had dinner in U-town.
They started to move to a table which had some empty chairs at one end, but then they heard a loud bark from the other side of the room.
Eager to see Priscilla’s reaction to Daphne, Stephanie said, “Oh, there are two friends of mine. Let’s go sit with them.”
She led Priscilla across the room to the table where Vinnie and Daphne sat. They were side by side, with two open seats opposite them.
“Professor,” Stephanie said, “this is Priscilla. She’s visiting from my home town. Pris, this is Professor…” She laughed. “You’d better just call him Vinnie. I can’t pronounce his last name.” Daphne barked, and Stephanie added, “And this is Daphne.”
Vinnie half rose in his seat and held out his hand, so Priscilla shook it. Daphne barked again, and Vinnie said, “Let her smell your hand.”
Priscilla looked like she wasn’t sure whether this was a joke, but she leaned forward and held out her hand.
Stephanie made a mental note to mention to Priscilla later that both Vinnie and Daphne were obviously appreciating the view down the neck of Priscilla’s sweater as she leaned toward them.
Stephanie and Priscilla were about the same height, but they were different in pretty much every way. Stephanie was blonde, with thin hair and blue eyes. Priscilla had full, dark hair (with red highlights – but Stephanie knew that was from henna) and brown eyes. Stephanie’s body was lean and athletic, and Priscilla… well, as Stephanie’s cousin Betty had said once, girls liked to say that Priscilla was fat, but boys didn’t care. Boys, middle-aged college professors, and dogs, apparently.
Daphne sniffed Priscilla’s hand and licked it.
“May we join you?” Priscilla asked, straightening up and smiling.
Vinnie gestured. “Please do.”
They sat down, and Priscilla said, “So, where do you teach, professor? I’m here to look at colleges – and to visit Stephanie, of course.”
Vinnie laughed. “I’m here on a visit, too, though my goal is the opposite of yours. I’m here to get away from college.”
“He teaches in Italy,” Stephanie explained, and Priscilla laughed.
“Well, I am trying to get away from home,” she said, “but maybe not that far away.”
A waiter came over and asked, “What’ll you have?”
Priscilla looked confused, but Stephanie pointed at the chalkboard next to the door.
“That’s it,” she said. She turned to the waiter. “We’ll both have cups of chowder, and I’ll have the scallops.”
Daphne barked, and Vinnie said, “She had the scallops, and I gather they were first rate.”
Priscilla, who couldn’t quite read the chalkboard without her glasses, said, “I’ll have the scallops, too.”
The waiter went away, and she said to Vinnie, “You’ve eaten already?”
He nodded. “We have.” He seemed to stress the “we,” and Priscilla took that as a hint that she should have addressed the question to Daphne as well. “We were just having another glass of wine before we go.”
Priscilla looked around. “Can we get wine, too?”
Vinnie held up a hand. “It’s our bottle, and it’s good wine. Please have some.”
He caught the waiter’s eye and pointed two fingers at the table in front of the girls.
“Oh, thank you,” Priscilla said as two wine glasses appeared.
Vinnie held up the bottle, but Stephanie put her hand over her glass. “None for me, thanks, professor. I have some things to do later.” She saw that Priscilla might be about to say something clever, so she added, “I really need to get a handle on the finances of the store, and I think it’s probably not a good idea to do bookkeeping when you’re drunk.”
Vinnie nodded as he filled Priscilla’s glass. “I imagine that’s true.” He split the remainder between his own glass and the small bowl in front of Daphne.
“So,” he said, “It sounds like you’re taking over the store. Will that be permanent?”
“Taking over the store?” Priscilla asked. She looked from Vinnie to Stephanie. “I don’t understand.”
“I’m sorry,” Vinnie said, leaning forward, “did I bring up the wrong thing?”
Stephanie shook her head. “No, it’s not like it’s a secret. I was just enjoying a few minutes of not thinking about it.” She turned to Priscilla and said, “My boss, Mr. Drenkenson, he was knifed to death in the store, night before last.”
Priscilla’s eyes were wide. “Oh, my God. Do they know who did it?”
Stephanie shook her head. “Not yet.”
Priscilla drank some of her wine as the bowls of chowder arrived.
Stephanie dove right in, ignoring her friend’s distraction. Vinnie smiled, sipping his wine.
Priscilla swallowed the wine, looked down, frowned at her chowder, cleared her throat, and picked up her spoon.
“It tastes even better if you actually eat it,” Stephanie said after a moment.
Priscilla nodded slowly, dipping her spoon into the soup.
“Don’t feel bad about Drenkenson,” Daphne said. “He was a creep. He tried to force himself on Stephanie.”
Priscilla’s expression flickered between surprise that Daphne had spoken, shock at what she’d just learned, and sudden appreciation for the soup she had just put in her mouth.
Daphne smiled, looking pleased with herself, as she leaned forward to lap up some wine from her bowl.
“So, where do you live? And, most important, is it close?”
“I’m carrying the bag, what do you care?”
“You just do not care about my poor, aching feet.”
“True, but you knew that already. Are you going to ask me about Daphne?”
“Probably, at some point, but there are a lot of other things that I’m more curious about.”
“Like where you’re going to sleep.”
“And other things. Should I ask about Stevie One first, or about your boss getting murdered?”
“Well, let’s take the bad one first. He was killed one night, in the store, long after closing. Jan Sleet has investigated–”
“Jan Sleet? Oh, my God. You’ve met her?”
“Uh, well, I’ve worked with her on a couple of cases, actually.”
“Okay, now I’m impressed. I guess you’ve worked with her as Stevie One, right?”
“Does she know who you are?”
“Of course. I couldn’t keep a secret from her. But how do you know?”
“I’m hoping to go to college over in the city, so I sent for information from all the ones that seemed good… and, you know, that I had a prayer of getting into.”
“Because you’re getting away from–”
“One thing at a time. One of the colleges – Schermerhorn – they included a copy of their school newspaper in the packet they sent me. I guess they have interns at your newspaper here, and one of them wrote a thing about you, about Stevie One. Including when she – you – first appeared, which wasn’t that long after you left home. I knew you came here, and I just knew it was you.”
“You… how did you know? Just from that?”
She laughed. “Who else would it possibly be?”
Stephanie laughed, too. “We’re nearly there–” she began.
“Praise the Lord!”
“Shush. I need to tell you about Angel and Larry.”
“The people I live with. I hope they’re going to be okay with you staying for a few days… How long are you staying?”
“Uhhh… Well, so what about these Angel and Larry people?”
“Larry picked me up on the highway, hitchhiking, when I was coming here. We kind of hit it off–”
“Oh, my God–”
“No. Nothing like that. He’s a grown man, an adult, and he’s with Angel. He’s training me. Weapons, unarmed fighting, everything.”
“And how does he know so much–”
“Officially, I don’t know.”
“Unofficially? Wait a minute, you’re living with a crook?”
“No. Let’s not get into that. And Angel, I don’t know that much about her.”
“And what you do know, you’re not going to tell me. Why did you even bring this up if you weren’t going to tell me anything?”
“Here we are.”
Priscilla stopped and looked at the shabby little building. “This is it?”
“It is. Home. Come on.”
They went up the stairs and Stephanie let them in. “I don’t know if they’re home,” she said as they went down the dark hallway. “We usually hang out in the kitchen. It’s the warmest room in the…” Her voice trailed off as they turned the corner, saw that the kitchen was empty, and heard a guttural howl from upstairs.
“Ah,” Stephanie said. “They’re here.” She caught Priscilla’s look. “Angel is not quiet when they get going.”
There was another bellow from upstairs. “I’ll say,” Priscilla said, looking up at the ceiling, her eyes wide.
“Come on,” Stephanie said, motioning for Priscilla to follow her up the narrow stairs. They tiptoed up, though Stephanie knew that there was no chance they could possibly be heard over the rhythmic thumping and related noises from Angel’s bedroom.
Stephanie pointed at the door to her bedroom and they went in. Priscilla looked around, frowning at Stephanie’s meager furnishings. She pointed at Stephanie’s bed and whispered, “I am not sharing that tiny bed with you. No wonder you can’t get any dates.”
Stephanie laughed. “You don’t need to worry. You can have the bed. I’ll bring up a couple of exercise mats from downstairs later. I can sleep on those.”
Priscilla sat on the bed and kicked off her sneakers. “I really need a shower, but I’m too tired. I’ll have one in the morning.” She lifted her suitcase up on the bed, opened it, and took out a toothbrush and toothpaste. “Where’s the bathroom?”
Stephanie pointed. “Right across the hall.”
Priscilla shuffled off in that direction as Stephanie started to remove her clothes. She noticed that there was a lull in the noise from the other bedroom.
She had the bottom half of her costume on and was smelling the armpits of her three tops, trying to figure out which was the cleanest (and making a mental note that she had to do laundry that night or in the morning) when Priscilla came back in with a dazed look on her face.
Stephanie frowned. “What’s up?” she asked. She tossed two of the tops into a corner and pulled the other one on.
Priscilla grabbed her wrist and pulled her over so they were sitting next to each other on the bed.
“The weirdest thing just happened,” she whispered, her mouth so close to Stephanie that the smell of toothpaste was almost overwhelming. “I was brushing my teeth, and looking around to see if there was any mouthwash, when the bathroom door opened and this woman came in. She just kind of drifted in, like she didn’t even see me. She was completely naked, with white skin and white hair. Everywhere. She sort of glided over to the… toilet and sat down, then she noticed me and smiled.
“‘Oh, hello dear,’ she said. She held out her hand and said, ‘I’m Angel.’
“I shook her hand, and then I had to spit before I could tell her who I was, but she just smiled and waited. I told her my name and I’m not even sure she heard the part about me being your friend. She just finished up and smiled, and as she left she squeezed my shoulder and said, ‘So nice to have you here.'”
Stephanie chuckled. “At least she didn’t throw you out.”
“Is she on drugs?”
“Oh, no, I don’t think so. She was probably just… you know. Relaxed.”
“Yeah. At least for the moment.” She caught Priscilla’s expression. “And don’t even start about me.” She stood up and pulled on her mask. “I’m going out to help some people, and maybe kick some ass. Don’t wait up.”
one night at the quarter (part seven)
Jenny, recovering from her apparent shock at what she had done, reached for Henshaw, but she was grabbed from behind. CJ, a Jinx who was the largest woman Katherine had ever met, picked her up by her collar and held her like a puppy as Neil barked orders.
The crowd was somewhat disorganized, not helped by the fact that some of them were plastered. Some were moving toward the exit, including a few who seemed to be trying to seize the opportunity to sneak out without paying. Some had stood up and were backing away, but obviously they hadn’t decided yet whether to stay or go. Some were remaining in place, either pretending that nothing had happened or watching events with rapt attention. After all, Katherine reflected, Kingdom Come were local celebrities. This story would be all over town by the morning. And some of the people sitting closest to her had moved away quickly when she’d stood up with her gun in her hand.
The Jinx had gone into motion with military efficiency, as usual. They’d taken Henshaw out quickly, someone already binding his leg as others carried him. CJ had tossed Jenny away as they moved toward the door, and she’d sat on the edge of the stage, looking stunned.
Pete had trailed out after the Jinx, but then he’d frowned and glanced at Katherine. She’d nodded and he’d gone out, following the others.
Katherine moved to the stage and climbed up. Even in the emergency Pete had taken care of his bass, carefully leaning it where it wouldn’t fall. She pulled the case out from behind the amplifier, opened it up, and placed the bass in it. She carefully coiled the cord and put that in the little compartment where it belonged. Then she noticed Jenny getting to her feet.
part ten: priscilla learns some things