Jan Sleet limped to the sink and took a saucer from the dish drainer. She stubbed out her cigarette in it and carried it over to the folding table where we sat.
Sharon was sitting on one side of me, Will was on the other, and the great detective sat opposite us. She leaned her slender cane against the table and put the saucer in front of her, Even sitting down, she seemed to tower over us. At least six feet tall, very thin, dressed in a man’s three-piece suit, she looked almost eerily like her photographs as she peered at us through her large horn-rimmed glasses.
“I find myself in an unusual position,” she said, leaning back in her chair. “Which, I suppose, is not unusual.”
She pulled a pipe and pouch from her jacket pocket. After she had filled her pipe, her assistant Marshall came up to light it for her. Then he stepped back and leaned against the sink again.
“I have known you, Will and Sharon, for quite some time,” she began, “and my experience has been that you always tell the truth.” She shrugged. “It is an axiom of my profession that everybody has secrets and everybody lies. So, if I seem to disbelieve things that you say, it’s not personal, and it doesn’t mean that I think you have suddenly become liars. I’m just being thorough.”
She turned to me. “Michael, of course I make no assumptions about your honesty, any more than I would with anybody else, so I’m afraid your secrets will be fair game.” She was looking me over quite carefully. “In fact, I’d say–”
“Michael didn’t do it,” Sharon said suddenly, surprising everybody, probably including herself. She dropped my hand and leaned forward. “He was with me.”
Jan Sleet nodded slowly, leaning back in her chair and turning her attention to Sharon. “Preliminary indications are that the murders took place between three and four in the morning. Were you awake at that time?”
“No,” she said, “but after we have sex we sleep in such a way that Michael can’t move a muscle without me knowing, let alone get up and leave our bed.”
The detective puffed on her pipe, and I saw an expression flicker across Marshall’s face for a moment. He could have been suppressing a smile.
He had arrived before the detective, and he had expressed his condolences to Will and Sharon, who he had obviously met before. He’d then asked if we wanted anything. At first we’d said no, but it had ended up with him making us coffee. Sharon and I had thanked him, and even Will had taken a few sips.
“That may well be true,” the detective said after a moment, “but you’re evidently involved with him, so…” She shrugged. “I want to get more systematic now,” she continued.
She leaned back in her chair and began a very thorough interrogation. It was not hostile, but it covered a lot of ground. She asked about Mr. Bostwick, his history, his family, his finances, his will, the house, and so on. Some of it was apparently things she knew already, but, as she said, she was being thorough.
She asked about Will and Craig’s jobs, and about Sharon’s life at college, and her relationship with me, including how we’d met and how well, or how little, I had known Mr. Bostwick and Craig before the previous night. She asked me what name I’d been born with, and I told her.
She took no notes, but a couple of times she referred back to something one of us had said some time earlier, or to something that one of the Golden had said to her years before, so it was obvious that everything was being filed away.
After this was all over, she closed her eyes for a moment and pursed her lips, drawing in a deep breath and letting it out slowly.
The door opened and a young woman came in. She was tall, with bushy hair and freckles, and she went to Will and squatted next to his chair. He leaned toward her and they embraced.
Jan Sleet opened her eyes. “Hello, Ron,” she said. “Thank you for waiting to come in until I was done.” She picked up her cane and got to her feet. “I’m sure I will have more questions, but now I need to search the house. This may take a while, since I have no idea what I will be searching for…”
Ron looked at Will and tilted her head toward the door. “Come on. I’ll buy you breakfast.”
They left and Jan Sleet said, “Ron is my daughter, and she is therefore very familiar with my methods.”
Sharon nodded and took my hand. “We can go out also, so we won’t get in your way.”
The detective smiled. “Thank you, Sharon. I appreciate that.”
Outside, as we walked, Sharon said, “Ron is Will’s friend. She doesn’t really like me. They’ll talk more easily if they’re alone. That’s why–”
I put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed. “How could anybody not like you?”
“A lot of people don’t,” she said.
I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I said, “Do you know what happened? Do you have any idea?”
She shook her head. “No. I woke up when Craig died, but I don’t know what happened before that. I know… I mean I’m sure that they didn’t kill each other. That makes no sense…”
Her voice trailed off and she stopped walking. She stood, motionless and expressionless. I wasn’t alarmed, as I had been first thing that morning. I just stopped and put my arms around her.
After a moment, her arms went around me, and we stood that way for a while. I felt her sort of sag, and I said, “Breakfast.”
She nodded and we started out again.
The restaurant where we ended up was called the February Island Coffee Shop. It was L-shaped, with booths going off in two directions from a corner entrance. It did not seem to be held to the same high standard of cleanliness as the house we’d just left.
Saturday morning, brunch time, was apparently a popular time to eat, because we had to wait a few minutes for a booth to be available. As we stood by the cash register, I was surprised by a bark and the smell of cigarette smoke from behind us.
I turned as something bumped into my thigh.
There was a woman there, on all fours. She had short brown hair and wore a black sweatshirt and jeans. She had apparently bumped me with her head.
She wore a dog collar, and a small, scruffy man held her leash. He smiled and addressed her. “We have to wait,” he explained as he tapped his cigarette ash into an ashtray on top of the cash register. “They were here ahead of us.”
The woman barked again, and the man smiled, “She gets impatient when she hasn’t had her breakfast.”
I nodded. “Me, too.”
We were directed to a table by a morose-looking waiter. As we looked at our menus, the scruffy man and the dog woman went past our table. They had been joined by another woman, this one walking upright, with dirty blonde hair and a cowboy-style gun belt across her hips. I don’t know a revolver from an automatic, but her gun certainly looked real.
I watched them pass us, heading toward a booth in the rear, then I turned to Sharon. “I guess some of the things people say about U-town are true after all.”
There was a bark from the back of the restaurant, and Sharon smiled for the first time that day.
“You’re right,” she said. “I guess we are kind of… But some of us do get our assignments done on time!”
I smiled, hoping she knew that, even on a day like this, it was okay to laugh.
“I know,” she said. “It’s–”
“Ahem,” said the waiter, gesturing in the direction of his pad with his pencil.
I gave my order — eggs and bacon and so on — and then he turned to Sharon. She shrugged. “I don’t think–”
“She’ll have the same,” I said. “The same as me.”
Sharon looked out the window as the waiter moved away. “Will and Ron are talking about money,” she said quietly. “It’s practical, I know, but… I can’t think about that yet. He’s afraid I’ll have to quit school and get a job, and he knows how much…”
“We’ll figure it out,” I said. I would have said more, but that wasn’t the right time.
“He wanted us to go to school,” Sharon said. “Mr. Bostwick, I mean. We… we weren’t sure. But he insisted, so we went. It turned out well, though sometimes people…”
I smiled. “School is never perfect. I used to get beat up and called names a lot.”
“We never had that, nothing like… well, we got called names, but nobody ever hit any of us.” She sighed, looking at the Formica table top. “We enjoyed school, but we also tried to learn as much as we could from Mr. Bostwick. He’d lived a long time, and there was no record… When he died, that was it. All gone.”
She clearly had more to say, but she paused and looked up at me. After a moment she nodded. “It’s different with Craig,” she said. “It’s… We miss him, but we know everything he knew. If I do need to quit school and go to work, I’m going to try to get his job, since I already know how to do it.”
She looked out the window again. “Will did get beat up once. Not in school — just going to the store one night. By two men wearing masks… Jan Sleet figured that out. And she’ll figure this out, too.”