the mystery of the four women

“I am not happy about this,” my employer said. She lit a cigarette. “Are you sure I can’t get out of it?”

“Positive. Plus, as we know, it’s for the greater good.”

She made a face. Of course, I was fulfilling my proper role in this conversation, reminding her why she had to take up this potentially unrewarding case. But that didn’t improve her mood.

She drew deeply on her cigarette and exhaled a cloud of smoke through her nose, then she leaned back in her desk chair and regarded me.

“There is no point,” she said sternly, “in gazing at me with those bedroom eyes, mister. I plan on griping for several more minutes at least.”

I was indeed in bed, in my pajamas, but I had been reading a newspaper. I had not been gazing at her, with or without amorous intent. I folded my newspaper and put it down, prepared to provide an audience for her griping.

Ron looked around from her desk, frowning as she always did whenever she thought she detected an outbreak of flirtation in the room. Reassured by my bland expression, she turned back to her homework.

“The problems,” my employer said, “with missing-person cases are several. For one thing, they often involve travel, usually fruitless travel. They tend to take a long time to solve. And, most unfortunately, the missing person sometimes turns out to be dead. If you’re trying to find a murderer, and the murderer is dead, that still counts as a success. When you’re asked to find a missing person, the unspoken condition is usually that they want you to locate the person alive.”

“But what if he’s already dead?” Ron asked over her shoulder.

“Exactly my point.”

“In this case,” I said, “I think we’re fervently hoping he’s alive.”

“And no amount of fervent hoping is going to bring him back if he’s already dead.”

“Needless to say, but if he is (as we fervently hope) alive, moving quickly might help keep him that way.”

My employer smiled. “Since I’m the one who’s fully dressed, and you’re en deshabille, I assume you’re not proposing we rush out willy-nilly at this late hour.”

“No, but we should meet with the Lord High Protector in the morning. As planned. At Stu’s office.”

She had said “willy-nilly” for Ron’s benefit, and we could hear her snort a laugh as she worked on her homework. The word always tickled her for some reason.

“Is Doc going with us?” my employer asked.

I shook my head. “No, she decided that would make it too official. Which would make it worse if…” I caught her expression. “…if success takes some time to achieve.”

“Which, as I pointed out, is often the case.”

“Or if he’s dead,” Ron added without turning around.

“Or that,” I agreed. “We’re doing them a favor, as a diplomatic courtesy. In the car, I’m afraid we will have to be satisfied with the scintillating conversation and rapier wit of Miss Susan Tumolo.”

“You’re going with Miss T.?” Ron demanded. “What’s she got to do with it?”

“She brought the case to us,” my employer explained.

Ron shook her head. “That’s three cases she’s been in the middle of, isn’t it?” She turned back to her homework. “Pretty suspicious, if you ask me. I think it may be time to investigate her.” She shrugged. “Just a suggestion.”

 

“Miss Sleet,” Stu said, rising to greet us. He indicated the ashtray on his desk. “I gather this may be a long and stressful day.”

She smiled as she sat down and took her cigarette case from her jacket pocket.

This had been nicely done. As I’ve mentioned before, we had visited Stu quite regularly since he had become our lawyer, but my employer had never smoked in his office, although she smoked nearly everywhere else. Neither of them had ever mentioned this, but she had observed the lack of ashtrays and had apparently decided to refrain, because of her affection and respect for him. At least that had always been my assumption, though she and I had never discussed it either.

She frowned as I lit her cigarette. “I believe you may be right,” she said to Stu as he sat down again, “but I’m not sure how you know this, since we haven’t even begun to describe the case to you.”

I glanced at Miss Tumolo, expecting her to make a face, as she usually did when anybody smoked around her. But she caught my expression and her lips thinned a bit. She was not going to give me the satisfaction.

Stu smiled. “I got a phone call this morning, a few minutes after I got here, stating that the Lord High Protector, with outriders, would be here at eleven, and that you were expected as well, along with Miss Tumolo.” He inclined his head in her direction, and she smiled briefly in return. “My guess is that, whatever is going on, we may all need a cigarette by the time we’re done.”

“Or a drink,” Miss Tumolo said quietly.

Stu looked at the clock. “We have about half an hour. Why don’t you fill me in?”

My employer leaned back in her chair. “Miss Tumolo initiated this, she should probably start.”

She nodded without enthusiasm. “My name is Susan Tumolo. I was Mike Sheldon’s secretary when he was the mayor. Since his disappearance, I’ve lived in U-town, where I’m working as a teacher.”

I didn’t know Susan Tumolo at all well, but I knew her well enough to have some idea how much was being left unsaid in those few sentences. She’d left out everything she felt about her former boss, and everything she felt about U-town, the school, and her students. The ironic part was that I was sure Stu already knew the few facts she had told him. Not much happened around city politics that Stuart Anson didn’t know, before or after the founding of U-town.

“I still have friends who work at City Hall,” she continued, “and I was having lunch with two of them yesterday. It has been kept out of the papers, so far, but Mr. Prescott’s son has vanished. He has been missing for about a week. There is some evidence that he is in U-town, but nobody knows for sure.”

“He’s in college, if I’m not mistaken,” Stu said.

She shook her head. “He was, but he came home at the end of the fall semester, and I don’t know why.”

“Please continue.”

“The story I heard is that Mr. Prescott has ordered an investigation, but his son has not been found. Now he’s getting impatient, and he’s thinking of moving into U-town in force. A move that his superiors probably wouldn’t endorse, but he’s not asking them. If he did, they’d tell him no. He functions as a mayor, but he’s a federal administrator. He wasn’t elected, he has no mandate.” She didn’t mention that her former boss, “Uncle” Mike Sheldon, had handled his office somewhat differently, but she didn’t have to.

“I’ve seen Miss Sleet solve two cases now, and I suggested they ask her to help. It seemed to everybody’s benefit to find him quickly and quietly. If that’s possible.”

Stu nodded slowly. “Do we know what the evidence is? Why do they think he’s in U-town?”

“I have no idea. I asked my friends, but they didn’t know.”

My employer’s lips thinned and I knew she was thinking of all the ways that missing-person cases can end up being unrewarding.

 

At eleven, we were waiting patiently for arrival of Lawrence H. Prescott. At eleven-fifteen, we were getting somewhat restive. At eleven-thirty, Stu called the delicatessen downstairs, where he was clearly a regular customer, and ordered sandwiches and coffee.

The food appeared at ten to twelve, and when Mr. Prescott arrived at twelve-twenty, the sandwiches were gone and we were savoring the coffee, which was quite good.

Lawrence Harrison Prescott was the administrator of the city, appointed by the federal government to run things after the disappearance of Mayor “Uncle” Mike Sheldon. The reason, or excuse, had been that the city was in a state of chaos, one symptom being the founding of U-town in one corner of the metropolis.

This bypassing of the usual mechanisms of democracy had not been uncontroversial, and one of the opposition newspapers had immediately dubbed Prescott the “Lord High Protector.” It had become a local joke that nobody could ever remember his actual title, or if he even had one.

 

The door opened and Lawrence H. Prescott came in, obviously ready to tender an appropriate apology for being late. My employer stood to greet him, stepping forward and extending her hand, and in that small office this meant he had to check his forward momentum to keep from knocking her over.

“Mr. Prescott,” she said briskly, shaking his hand, “I’m Jan Sleet. This is my assistant, Marshall, and my attorney, Mr. Anson. I believe you know Miss Tumolo already. I asked you to meet me here not because I need legal representation to help you with this matter, but because for me to visit City Hall, or for you to visit U-town, would entail publicity and speculation that I’m sure we would both prefer to avoid. So, please, how can I help you?”

By this point, she had maneuvered Mr. Prescott into the empty chair and perched herself on the edge of the desk, looming over him in the small space.

It was pretty clear that, at least so far, this was not going exactly as he had pictured it. He turned to Susan and extended his hand. “Always a pleasure, my dear,” he said. She smiled and shook his hand, but I had the idea that she was not sharing his pleasure at this reunion.

I could see Stu from where I was sitting, but he was blocked from our visitor by my employer, and I teased him later that he had spent the initial part of the interview examining my employer’s posterior. This experience, he had immediately attested, had been the high point of his day, if not his entire week.

“My son is nineteen years old,” Mr. Prescott began. “He went away to college last fall, for one semester, then he had some sort of breakdown and decided he had to come home and get some help. He has been seeing a psychiatrist. We’re hoping he’ll pull himself together and go back to school next fall.”

“Has the doctor prescribed any medication?”

“No, I don’t believe so.”

“Then what happened?”

“It’s been difficult to tell if the doctor is helping, but I know these things can take time. The press has been very cooperative about respecting our privacy. But now he’s vanished. About two weeks ago. I called the doctor to see if he went to his appointment last week, but he wouldn’t tell me. Then, the day before yesterday, I got a note through the mail, asking for money. Here it is.”

She examined it. “What about the envelope?”

“The secretary opens the mail. It was discarded.”

She made a face and examined the letter again. “Interesting,” she said.

Dad,

I’m fine. Please don’t worry. Everything is okay, but I do need some money. Please send at least five hundred dollars to the address below. I’m sorry to have to ask, but after all, it’s a lot cheaper than tuition.

Give my love to Mom.

Jerry

When she had finished examining the letter, he said, “I sent a man to investigate the address, where I was supposed to send the money. He’s outside, if you want to hear from him directly.”

“Please.”

“One question, before you bring him in,” my employer said. “I need to understand one thing better than I do now. Mr. Prescott, exactly what do you want me to do?”

He frowned. “I want you to find my son. I thought that was obvious.”

“I understand that, but let me make my question clearer. Do you want me to locate him, or do you want me to bring him back? Do you want me to confront him, or just figure out where he is?”

He nodded slowly. “I understand. Yes, that is a good question. Miss Sleet, I want to know where he is, and I want him to be out of immediate danger, if he’s in any.”

“Do you think he’s in danger?”

“Miss Sleet, are you a parent?”

She nodded. “Yes, I am.”

That stopped him. His question had been rhetorical, and he was thrown off his stride by her answer, which clearly contradicted his research on her.

She waited a beat, until he had figured out how to reply, then she said, “We have a daughter. She’s adopted.”

He was tempted to assert that the bond between parent and child is different when blood is involved, but politicians are trained not to make those sorts of statements. The adopted-parent segment of the population could be key in a close election, after all.

He shrugged. “The detective is out in the hall.”

Since nobody else was moving toward the door, I went and opened it.

The detective came in and stood waiting as I resumed my seat. His hair was longish, and he had a neatly trimmed goatee. He wore tinted glasses, and his face was expressionless.

His T-shirt had a slight tear at the corner of the pocket, indicating that at times he carried something there, though the pocket seemed to be empty now. His jeans were faded and torn at the knees, but I thought they were deliberately distressed, rather than worn from use. His untucked T-shirt meant I couldn’t see his belt. His sneakers (which were actually white deck shoes) were hand-decorated with sunburst patterns.

His jeans were a bit more belled at the bottom than was currently fashionable in U-town, but that made it easier for him to conceal the rig that held his handgun.

He was a smoker, and he sometimes chewed his fingernails. He was not wearing a wedding ring at the moment, but he had worn one some time recently. He was in good shape, but he was about my age, a bit too old for the persona he was projecting

He was undercover, so we knew he wouldn’t be introduced, and we weren’t introduced to him, though I’m sure he knew who we were.

 

“Before you start,” my employer said, “I have a couple of questions. What were you told about this investigation?”

“I was told that Mr. Prescott’s son was missing, and I was given a photograph of him. I was given a letter to read, the one which asked for money.”

“And what assumptions did you make?”

“I’m not sure–”

“You’re a professional. I’m sure you made some assumptions, even if you didn’t voice them. I need to know what they were, since they would have affected what you did and how you understood the things you saw.”

He hesitated, but Mr. Prescott said, “Tell her.”

He nodded. “I figured that this was not a kidnapping, that he was not being held against his will.”

“Why?”

“Nobody would kidnap him and ask for such a small ransom.”

“Why not?”

He hesitated, and Mr. Prescott said, “Because I have money, and could easily pay much more than that.”

“And,” she said, “if I may be blunt, because kidnapping your son could be viewed as a very risky action, so that’s a small payoff for a big risk.”

The detective nodded, and it was clear that he agreed.

“Any other assumptions?” she asked him.

“Two main possibilities that I could see. The tenants in the building are all female, so it is possible that one of them is involved with him, and persuaded him to do it. The other is that someone is copying his handwriting and that he isn’t involved at all.”

“Three scenarios, actually, if I understand you,” my employer said, filling her pipe. “One, Jerry and a girlfriend, in collusion. Two, the girlfriend, forging his handwriting, sends the letter without his knowledge. Three, no involvement by Jerry at all, simply somebody with a handwriting sample, somebody who knows he’s missing. What do the experts say about the handwriting in the note?”

“They’re eighty to ninety percent sure it’s his.”

“The building is a three-story tenement,” the detective began, “typical of that area. There are two storefronts on the street level, with entrances on either side of the staircase and the front stoop. The storefront on the left is a restaurant, apparently closed for renovations. The storefront on the right is divided. The front area is a darkroom, used by one of the women in the building. She shares the space with two other photographers who live on the block. The rear area is used for storage by the restaurant.”

“How did you approach the building?”

“I decided to say I was a reporter, from an alternative paper in the city. I had some business cards made up in advance. The front door was closed, but not locked. Inside, I saw a small table, where mail for the tenants was spread out. There weren’t any mailboxes.”

“So, you learned the names of the tenants.”

“Yes, three of them. Zoe Alexander, Ashley Dawn, and PF DeVoe. I learned later that the fourth woman is called Willie, and I believe her real first name is Wilhelmina.”

“No mail for the restaurant?”

“No. The restaurant door has a mail slot, so I assume their mail goes there.”

“Logical. Please continue.”

I was thinking that he had been lucky, probably luckier than he knew, since mail delivery in U-town was usually on an irregular schedule at best. This must have been a day when a backlog of mail was delivered all at once, and the tenants hadn’t picked it up yet (or at least three of them hadn’t).

“I knocked on the right hand apartment door,” he continued, “the apartment over the darkroom. A young Oriental lady opened the door. I introduced myself and told her that I was a reporter. She gave her name as Ashley Dawn, and she invited me in.

“She said she had lived there for about two years, the longest tenant in the building. Zoe had moved in four months before, Wilhelmina about a month later, and PF DeVoe about three weeks ago. I never did learn Wilhelmina’s last name.”

“Did you find out if Miss Dawn is in a relationship?”

“She is in a lesbian relationship with Wilhelmina, who lives upstairs.”

“How did you determine that?”

“She mentioned it. Several times. The relationship is still quite new, and she seemed to be excited about it. Apparently it is her first relationship with a woman, and I gathered that Wilhelmina is more experienced in this area. Also, there were several very large black-and-white photographs on the walls of the apartment, depicting the two of them together, naked, engaging in various sexual acts.”

My employer nodded. “I think we can accept that as evidence, at least for now.” That got a momentary smile from the detective, though he tried to turn his head so his boss wouldn’t see. “I assume she’s the photographer who uses the darkroom below her apartment.” He nodded. “Is she a professional? Or does she have a job?”

“She comes into the city two days a week, to work in an art gallery. Other than that, I don’t know.”

“What about Wilhemina? Does she have a job?”

“I was not able to find out.”

“And Miss Alexander?”

“She worked in the restaurant when it was open, at least on weekends. Now that it’s closed, they think Mr. Mason may be supporting her.” He caught my employer’s glance. “That’s her gentleman friend. He’s older than she is, and he’s only there occasionally. Miss Dawn’s opinion is that he’s married and can’t always get away from his wife.” He allowed himself a brief smile. “She made me promise not to include that in the story I was writing.”

“And Miss DeVoe?”

“I don’t know. I got the idea that they’re a bit afraid of her. Not that she’s threatening – she is apparently quite pleasant – but if you ask her a question you can’t always tell what kind of information you may get. Usually more than you want, and probably inaccurate.”

“Can you describe PF DeVoe?” Miss Tumolo asked, surprising us all.

“I didn’t meet her. Miss Dawn did have a photograph of the four of them at a picnic, along with Mister Mason. Based on that, I would say that she’s of medium height, with straight blonde hair tied back in a pony tail, wearing very large, round, wire-rim glasses–”

“I know her,” Miss Tumolo said. “She comes to the school to volunteer sometimes. Mr. Guthrie maintains a list of people who are not allowed to volunteer, and she’s at the top of the list.”

“Why is that?” Mr. Prescott asked.

“She’s insane, or at least not very well connected to reality.”

“I’ve met her, too,” I said. “She comes to the hospital every couple of weeks, trying to volunteer there. We used to let her, but she had an unsettling effect on the patients. And, to be honest, on the staff.”

“I gather you don’t approve of locking up crazy people,” Mr. Prescott commented.

“We’re not opposed to it,” my employer said, “and in some cases it is necessary. But she doesn’t appear to be dangerous, and she seems quite happy the way she is.” She nodded at the detective. “What else did you find out?”

“I congratulated Miss Dawn on her relationship, because I know that sort of thing is encouraged in U-town. I also asked about Mr. Mason. She said she and Wilhelmina had met him a couple of times, but they do not know him well. Then we heard a noise in the hall, and she got up and went to the door. It was Miss Alexander and Mr. Mason, and she invited them in, explaining that I was a reporter. Miss Alexander was just cautious, but Mr. Mason expressed reluctance to get involved at all, though he was polite.”

“Not surprising, if he was there to visit his mistress.”

“True. But then Mr. Mason made me, or at least he figured out I wasn’t a reporter. He seemed to think I was a private detective, and the others believed him and Miss Dawn asked me to leave.”

My employer fired her pipe back to life and looked out the window for a moment.

“What was your impression of Mr. Mason?” she asked.

“Not a criminal, I think. Not a laborer, and not wealthy. Clothing of good quality, but worn. Well groomed. He spoke very well. Some sort of professional, I would say.”

She nodded slowly, giving the impression that this confirmed a theory she had already been developing, and then she asked, “Detective, where were you born?”

“Excuse me?”

“I asked where you were born. Is that information classified?”

“No, but I don’t see the relevance.”

“This is not a courtroom and you are not a lawyer. I’m conducting an investigation and anything is relevant if I say it is. Where were you born?”

“Muscatine, Iowa, but I was raised in Cedar Rapids.”

“Indeed.” She nodded. “I have never been to either city, but I know something about them. When did you move here, and why?”

“Do you honestly think he is in any way connected to my son’s disappearance?” Mr. Prescott demanded.

“No, not for a minute. But I usually do my own investigating, and if my data is going to be filtered before it gets to me I want to know as much as I can about the filter.”

She puffed on her pipe. “Now, I need to send Marshall to that building, to ask each of those women one question. Can you arrange for transportation there and back, to save time?”

“There’s a police cruiser downstairs. He–”

“Not the best solution,” I said. “The building is almost at the other end of U-town from the city bridge, so it would be a very long walk, both ways, even if I got a ride from here to the bridge and back. The most efficient way to do this is to have a car drive me over the highway bridge and then stop by the side of the highway. It’s elevated there, but I think I know a good place where there’s an access ladder down, which will let me off about three blocks from the building. But if a police car waits there, on the highway, it will attract interest, and certain security procedures may go into effect. An unmarked sedan, with a plainclothes detective driving, would be much better.”

My employer had not given any indication that she and I would have a private word before I left, so I asked, “What is the question I’m going to ask these women?”

She smiled, as if it should have been obvious (though I could tell this was for the benefit of the others). “Why, to ask them the same question I just asked this gentleman, of course. I need to know where they were born.”

Stu and the detective didn’t react. Miss Tumolo pursed her lips in disapproval, assuming this was flummery of some sort. Mr. Prescott looked thoughtful.

“Should I ask Mr. Mason the same question, if he’s there?”

“No, there’s no need for that.”

It was about twenty minutes after the car dropped me off that I climbed back up the short ladder with Jerry Prescott preceding me. He had come willingly, but if he was going to change his mind, I wanted him in front of me.

 

I opened Stu’s office door and stepped in. Everybody turned to face me, and I said, “Mr. Prescott, I would like to introduce Miss Zoe Alexander.”

I held the door open and she came in. Mr. Prescott frowned for a moment, then he sighed as he realized that “Zoe” was his son.

“I see,” he said.

Zoe looked quite nervous, understandably, as Mr. Prescott got slowly to his feet. He turned to the detective and said, “Nothing about this should ever be mentioned to anybody. Go down and tell the driver the same thing. Then resume your regular duties.” The detective nodded and left.

Mr. Prescott turned to my employer. He seemed to be making a deliberate effort not to look at Zoe. “I have just had a very unhappy thought,” he said. “You are a reporter. I–”

Oh, goodness gracious,” she snapped. “I won’t write about this. To you, this may seem unusual and newsworthy, but to me it’s neither. It’s not news, it’s gossip; and in U-town it’s not even unusual.” He glanced at me. “Marshall has concealed secrets far more interesting and important than this one, I assure you.”

“I’m sorry, all of you, for wasting your time.” He turned and left.

Zoe looked a bit shaky. I steered her to a chair and she sat. My employer held out her cigarette case, and Zoe took one, which I lit for her.

She smoked for a moment, looking out the window, then she said, “This is not how I thought this would work out.”

“How did you know?” Miss Tumolo asked my employer.

“Occam’s Razor. Always look at the simplest explanation first. If Jerry is using that address, maybe he lives there. It seemed–”

Stu looked up. “Excuse me, is this the part where we ask how this was solved? Because I do want to know, but I also want something to eat.”

My employer turned to Zoe. “Would you please join us, Zoe?”

She shrugged an unexpectedly Gallic shrug. “Can I get a ride home afterwards?”

“Of course, my dear,” Stu said, coming around his desk. He crooked his arm. “Will you do me the honor?”

Zoe slipped her arm through his, and we proceeded out of the office.

 

The restaurant was large and dark, with smells of stews, steaks, beer, and cigarettes. At that hour, just after five in the afternoon, there were a lot more people in the bar than in the restaurant area, and we easily got a large table. The mâitre d’ gave us menus and then stepped away.

“I have to ask why it was so important to know where people were born,” Stu said as he examined the menu.

Zoe looked puzzled, so we explained. Then she still looked puzzled, but now for the same reason as Stu.

My employer smiled. “I had the idea that Jerry might be one of the four women, just a thought. So, I wondered if that detective would have known the difference. I have the impression that, in general, people from the coasts encounter this sort of thing much more often than people from the middle of the country.

“The second part, having Marshall ask the same question of the four women, was a blind, a way of mystifying your father, Zoe. The question was meaningless, just an excuse for Marshall to meet you.” She smiled. “My husband’s experience with women is extensive and varied. I was fairly certain he would be able to tell the difference if he met you face to face. Of course, I did know you were the only possibility of the four.”

“How? I know Ashley is Korean, but–”

“The detective saw Ashley’s photographs, explicit nude photographs, of herself and Wilhelmina. He is not that savvy in this area, but–”

“I get the idea. What about PF?”

“Marshall has already met her, several times.”

“And you’re the authority on transvestites?” she asked me, smiling.

“My husband, though he is too modest to speak of it, is an expert on women in general. Said experience acquired before our marriage, of course.”

“That’s not modesty,” Zoe said, “that’s being a gentleman. Like Mr. Mason. I think sometimes they’re a vanishing breed.” She smiled at me again. “When Marshall was bringing me to the car, he made me climb the ladder first, I guess in case I suddenly decided to attempt a daring escape, and I did notice that he carefully averted his eyes as we climbed, so as not to look up my dress. I’ll bet that detective wouldn’t have been so polite.”

Zoe was wearing a turquoise mini-dress with white leather sandals and large white hoop earrings. She wore a bit of makeup, expertly applied, and appeared to be a slender, healthy girl in her mid-twenties. Her masculine origin had not been easy to detect.

“There were other indications in your favor,” my employer continued. “You had worked at the restaurant on weekends, which was consistent with being at school during the week. You lost that income while the restaurant was closed, which was consistent with suddenly needing more money. It was certainly enough to justify sending Marshall to meet you.”

The waiter came over and we ordered.

“And, of course,” Miss Tumolo said, “since you didn’t tell us your theory, you didn’t risk looking foolish if it had turned out to be wrong.”

Jan shook her head. “There’s more to it than that. Remember who Zoe’s father is, and remember how precarious U-town is. He isn’t in a position to act, but if we should suddenly implode, maybe with a little help, he would be very happy to take some quiet credit for it. So, the more impressive I am to him, the more he thinks that I know everything, the better it is. For all of us.”

“Well, I do take some pleasure from the fact that, knowing how gossip travels through police circles, this won’t stay secret for long.”

“Does your gentleman friend know who you are?” my employer asked Zoe. “Who your father is, I mean?”

“Oh, yes, He was one of my professors at college.”

“Hence his aversion to reporters,” Miss Tumolo said.

“Yes. He isn’t married, though I know Ashley and Willie think he is–”

“And I’m sure his name is not Mason,” Stu put in.

“Of course. His career could be in trouble, for a variety of reasons, if this became public. He suggested I live in U-town, where rent is cheap and where I wouldn’t be viewed as peculiar. And it’s some distance from where he lives and teaches, so probably nobody would recognize him. He visits as often as he can.”

“And you don’t mind missing out on your education?”

“For a couple of months, I lived two lives. From Monday morning to lunchtime Friday, I was at school, where I had no friends, and where I got beat up a few times. I was wearing boy clothes, but still… well, I didn’t fit in. Then, I’d take the bus to the city, after my Friday morning class. I’d walk to the bridge, to U-town, and I’d always stop at that coffee shop by the bridge to eat a sandwich, and then I’d change clothes and do my makeup in the bathroom.”

She smiled. “The waitress there, Dot, would always compliment me on my outfit or my hair, and she’d tell me that I made a very unconvincing boy. She used to say, ‘You should just give it up, dear. You haven’t got the knack.'”

“The worst was Monday morning, of course. I had to get up at an ungodly hour to make it back in time for my first class. It was one Monday morning, in the bus station, when I had my little… episode and ended up in the hospital.” She drew on her cigarette. “Which was when I knew I needed to stop going to school. I tried living at home again, trekking back and forth to my apartment when I could, but that was even worse.

“Then I just said to hell with it and moved into the apartment, full time. But the restaurant had closed, and I needed money, so I sent that note. And… I thought he’d come. Himself. And see everything. But of course he just sent some flunky instead.”

Miss Tumolo shook her head. “I agree that he acted badly today, I have no sympathy for him on that score, but you should have realized that he can’t just pop over to U-town for a visit. He has–”

“Well, he made it clear today what he thinks.”

They gave each other a brief look. Miss Tumolo was prepared to deliver a lecture on civic responsibility and Zoe was prepared to respond negatively to such a lecture, but Miss Tumolo dropped the subject. Being a teacher must give you a sense of when students are willing to learn and when they aren’t.

 

When we were done, Stu set off for the train station, and I got a cab for the rest of us. My employer sat in front, where there was more legroom, and Miss Tumolo, Zoe, and I got into the back. Miss Tumolo had maneuvered Zoe into the less comfortable middle seat (Zoe was taller, but apparently Miss Tumolo wasn’t feeling chivalrous). So, Zoe had to spend the first few minutes of the trip tugging at the hem of her miniskirt to keep it in a decent position.

Then, a few minutes later, I felt Zoe shift and nudge me in the side. I glanced over and she tilted her head to draw my attention to Miss Tumolo, who was looking out at the dark city streets. Her face was turned away from us, but not enough to hide the fact that she was crying.

Zoe shrugged slightly, clearly asking me what was up. I shrugged and shook my head a bit, hoping to convey, “Don’t embarrass her. Let it be.”

I had an idea, but it was just a guess, and I wasn’t going to share it with Zoe.

“Uncle” Mike’s daughter lived in U-town. I had seen her here and there, though we had never been introduced. From local scuttlebutt, I understood that she had been rejected by her father before his disappearance, more or less as Zoe had just been, though for very different reasons. The rumor was that Miss Tumolo had been close to Uncle Mike (I had no definite information about how close, of course). Even my limited experience with her gave me the strong impression that she would not have approved of his decision. And, from what I understood, this had been right before his disappearance, so he hadn’t had the opportunity to change his mind and reconcile with his daughter. As I say, it was all hearsay and speculation, and I kept it to myself (though of course I shared it with my wife that night).

 

A couple of weeks later, when the restaurant in Zoe’s building was open again and she was working there full time, we went there for dinner. As Zoe approached our table, smiling, her pad in hand, Ron blurted out, “You’re a guy!” But that’s another story.

 

The End


© Copyright 2012 Anthony Lee Collins. All rights reserved.

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