Ron looked somewhat disgruntled as she sat down to dinner. I thought for a moment that it might have been the food, since we had persuaded her to eat at an Italian restaurant with us. But I was pretty sure that wasn't it. She was almost never sullen in that way.
"People always fuck things up," she said as we looked at the menus. "They have it good, and then they fuck it up."
Jan put her menu down and smiled. "Can you give us an example?"
"I told you about my friend who messed around with that guy and got pregnant?" We nodded. "Well, now this other girl from the room is fooling around with a guy, too. Bad stuff will happen."
"She's around your age?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"Are you worried for her, or are you worried about losing a friend?" I asked.
She frowned and shrugged. Her elbow was on the table, and her cheek was resting on her fist. She didn't reply right away. "The room" was, I assumed, where she slept. We thought it was in the hotel, but we weren't sure.
"That happened to me," Jan said. "In high school, I knew this girl, and she and I got to be good friends. We hung out every day for a few months. But then she got a boyfriend and I pretty much never saw her again. I guess she thought that girls are okay as friends as long as you can't find a boy. But she didn't tell me in advance that this was her thinking."
Ron nodded. "Yeah, I guess that's part of it."
"Speaking as a father," I said, keeping my tone light, "I do think she's too young for a serious boyfriend."
That got a small grin out of her. "Serious," she said. "You mean with fooling around."
I laughed. "Yes, that's it."
It was at this point that I realized that, while Ron used the word "fuck" quite a lot, she never used it when she was talking about the sex act itself. When she did allude to sex, it was always with some term like "fooling around."
"Your father," Jan said, "is a bit torn. On one hand, he wants you to know that 'fooling around' is not always bad, and that sometimes good things come from it. Which is true. However, he also wants you to be aware that, for you, twelve is definitely too young. Which I also agree with, by the way."
Ron now looked even more disgruntled. "You're changing the subject," she said. "I'm not fooling around with anybody."
I nodded. "You're right. But we don't know much about where you sleep, or who shares the room with you. Maybe–"
"There are four of us. There used to be six, but bozo got pregnant, and then what's-her-name went home. She was useless anyway."
"And now this girl has gone off with a boy?"
"She wanted to have him move in!" she said, sounding appalled. "I said, 'No way!' No boys in the room. You know what would happen."
"Your father was a boy himself, once upon a time, so he has a pretty good idea. Perhaps even better than you do."
That got another brief smile out of Ron. "You want to see the room?"
"We'd like that," I said, trying to be casual about this major step in our relationship with our adopted daughter.
"How did you like the food, Ron?" Jan asked as we walked back to the hotel.
Ron shrugged. "It was okay." Her tone was neutral, but she had plowed through her ravioli with apparent enthusiasm.
"It's not surprising you liked it," Jan observed. "After all, you are part Italian."
"I am not!" she protested.
"Of course you are. I'm Italian, so you're one half."
Ron regarded this claim with evident skepticism. "'Sleet'?" she demanded. "That's Italian?"
Jan smiled. "That's my professional name. I was born Janice Stiglianese."
Ron looked at me and I confirmed this with a nod.
"That's a cool name," Ron said, putting her hands in her pockets. "You should have used that."
At the hotel, we followed Ron to the elevator (which was working that week) and we ascended to the top floor.
The fifth floor of the hotel was generally known to be the wildest, but I hoped this didn't extend to the room where Ron lived. I had a pretty good idea that, no matter what happened on the rest of the floor, Ron's room followed Ron's rules.
She opened a door at the far end of the hall and we stepped inside. I saw two single beds, a cot, a sleeping bag, and a teenage girl with a suitcase. She was standing up as we came in, smiling and then not smiling as she realized we weren't who she was expecting.
Then Ron came in behind us. The girl smiled, and Ron emitted a sound I had never heard before and attacked her.
I was caught flat-footed, I admit, and Ron got in several good punches before I moved to stop her. The girl had fallen back on the cot, which had collapsed, and she was trying to protect herself from this onslaught. She was older and bigger than Ron, but she wasn't even trying to fight back. This was not a stereotypical "girl fight," with kicking and biting and hair-pulling. Ron was punching like a pro as I pulled her off, then she suddenly yanked herself free and broke for the door.
I caught her in the hall, grabbing her wrist. She tried to pull away, not looking at me, and then she burst into tears.
Jan had stayed in the room, presumably tending to the girl, so I scooped Ron up and ducked into the stairwell. With the elevator working, I thought the stairs might be deserted, and I was right.
I had intended to talk to Ron there, or try to, but instead I quickly carried her down two flights, out into the corridor, around a corner, and into our room. I knew that part of the reason Ron was so upset was the chance that somebody other than me might see her crying.
I sat on the bed and stood her on her feet. She looked at me and started to cry even harder. I held her hand, and then, to my amazement, she climbed into my lap. I put my arms around her and she said, "She's gonna fuck it all up."
"No, she's not," I replied, wishing I had some idea what we were talking about.
"You don't know her," she gasped, burying her face in my chest.
"No, I don't. But I know you, and I know us, and that's not going to get fucked up." I tilted her head up so I could see her face. "I promise."
Many years later, Ron told me that, while she always admired her mother's devotion to facts, she was more drawn to me at first because I was, when necessary, willing to say (and to really mean) things that were obviously not based on facts, but that she really needed to hear.
Jan came in and stopped, looking at us. She reached behind her and closed the door gently. I could tell that she was making a quick adjustment. She had been geared up to demand that Ron justify her behavior. But she saw Ron in my lap, crying, holding onto me, and she said quietly, "She'll be okay. I thought her nose was broken, but it isn't. Ron, she says she's your sister."
Ron slid off my lap and sat next to me on the bed. "Fuck," she said quietly. She looked up at Jan. "You're gonna yell at me, aren't you?"
Jan looked a bit lost, so I said, "We're not going to yell at you, Ron. We do need to understand why you did that, and we do not think it's acceptable, no matter what, to attack somebody like that. But we're your parents. This isn't the first time we've had to talk to you about something you did, something we think was wrong, and it won't be the last, I'm sure. What you just did was inexcusable, but it was also completely out of character for you, so we need to understand, even if we don't condone it."
Jan had sat down on the other side of Ron, and she put her arm around our daughter and squeezed.
"Ron," I said, seeing her expression, "leaving is not an option. We're your parents, and if you run away we will find you and bring you home. And right now we have to have this conversation. You know we do."
She sighed a deep, wrenching sigh. "Do we have to talk about it tonight?"
I made a quick decision. "No, but it does have to be in the morning. First thing. Agreed?"
She nodded. Then her shoulders sagged. "Shit, that fucking bitch is in my room. Where am I gonna sleep?"
"Here," I said. "With us. We have a sleeping bag."
I expected a protest, but she said, "Okay. Can I go to bed now?"
"Sure," I said. I stood and got the sleeping bag from the closet. There wasn't a lot of floor space in the room, especially since we'd installed a second desk for Ron to do her homework. It barely fit between by employer's desk and the closet door, and it made the room quite crowded. I laid the sleeping bag at the foot of the bed, reminding myself that I had to walk carefully if I got up in the middle of the night and had to use the bathroom.
Ron kicked off her sneakers and slid into the sleeping bag. "Don't you want to take off your jeans?" I asked as she vanished.
"Fine like this," came a muffled voice from deep within the layers of fabric.
I woke up with Fifteen tapping my shoulder.
"Marshall, Jan, wake up," he said. "We have an emergency."
I didn't hear sirens, so it didn't seem to be an invasion. I rolled over and got up on one elbow, indicating that I was at least somewhat awake. I could hear my wife moan unhappily behind me.
"A girl was murdered last night," Fifteen said quietly. "In the room where Ron usually sleeps. I–"
"Oh, my god," Jan said, and I felt the covers pull as she sat up. "Ron!"
Ron's head poked up at the foot of the bed. "Fuck. What?"
It was a good thing I was wearing pajamas, since Jan pulled all the covers away as she lurched to the foot of the bed to embrace Ron, who said, "Get off me!"
"Jan! Ron!" I said sharply, and they both turned. "We need to listen to this," I said. "It's important."
I could see them belatedly realize the implications of what Fifteen had said, and Jan slid over to sit beside me, tucking her nightgown around her bare legs. I took Ron's hand and pulled her over to sit next to me on the other side. For once, she didn't squirm or protest as I put my arm around her shoulders.
Fifteen continued. "The girl was apparently around fifteen or sixteen years old, dressed like a tourist, and she'd been beaten up some time before she was killed."
"How was she killed?" my employer asked, putting on her glasses.
"Stabbed. Several times. The body is being examined now."
I could feel Ron start to vibrate, so I held her close.
"She was Ron's sister," my employer said slowly. "Nothing should be touched except for the body. I will get dressed and come to do a thorough examination of the room. Then I will probably need to speak to the runners, all of them. Be ready to sound the signal."
He turned to go, but I said, "One more thing. Ron will not be able to pick up the mail this morning. Please be very careful about who is assigned to take over for today. It has to be somebody who will do it as carefully as she always does."
He nodded and said, "I'll do it myself. Ron, I'm sorry about your sister," and then he left the room. Ron hadn't reacted to any of this.
My employer grabbed her cane and got to her feet, limping around the bed and starting to get dressed.
"I will search the room," she said. "Ron, this is very important. You and Marshall will stay here, and he is going to ask you a lot of questions, about your sister and your birth parents and probably other things as well. I know this won't be pleasant for you, and I'm sorry about that, but I'm sure you see that it's necessary."
"Why did you tell him she's my sister?" she asked. She was motionless, looking at the floor.
"He would have found out. Trying to hide it would only have made you look guilty. I'm fairly certain we'll have to tell people that you were the one who beat her, too, but we can withhold that for the moment."
She looked up. "I didn't kill her."
"I know you didn't," I said. "We'll figure it out."
My employer was behind us, getting dressed, but I knew she didn't approve of my first statement. Since, of course, we didn't know any such thing.
"Are you going to solve this?" Ron asked as my employer prepared to leave.
She smiled and nodded. She was impeccably dressed as usual, wearing a three-piece dark charcoal pinstripe suit, a white shirt, and a black tie, but I could see the small signs that told me she had dressed in haste. "I plan to," she said. "There's already something fairly striking in what Fifteen said." She leaned over to kiss Ron on the cheek. "If you get done first, come up and see me in the room. If I get done first, I'll come back here. Then we can get something to eat."
She left, and Ron shook her head. "She thinks I did it."
"No, I disagree. She has no idea who did it, not yet. But, to be honest, you are on her list of suspects."
She sighed. "Do you think I did it?"
I shook my head. "No, I don't. If you had had a knife in your hand last night, when you were punching her, could you have stabbed her? Yes, I think that's possible. But I know you pretty well by now, and I have trouble imagining that you got up in the middle of the night, found a knife somewhere, went to the room, stabbed her, and then came back here and went back to bed."
"What did Mom mean about something in what Fifteen said?"
"I've been thinking about that, and I have an idea what it might be. But we need to talk about something else first. You agreed to this last night, and now it's obviously much more important than it was then. Come on." We stood up and I led her to her desk chair. She sat down, and I swung my employer's chair around so I was facing her.
"Ron, please tell me about your birth parents and your sister."
She sighed, then she said, "They... they knew each other in high school. They started dating... I just know this because of what they used to say about it. I wasn't there."
I nodded. "I understand."
"So, they started..."
"Fooling around," I guessed.
"Yeah. And she got pregnant." She sighed. "They used to fight about this a lot, but... He said she lied to him to get him to marry her. She said she..."
"Yeah, and didn't have the baby. But anyway, they got married, and then, later, she got pregnant again and had the baby. That was my sister." She gestured at the ceiling. "The one..."
"I understand. What was her name?"
"Tracy. Then, later, my mother..."
"Do you have any other brothers and sisters?" She shook her head. "So, your birth mother..."
"She ran off with another guy."
"She left town?"
"No, she... he lived around the corner. So, my... birth father, he was left with Tracy. And no money, I think."
"What do they do for a living?"
"She runs a gas station. She's the boss, so I guess that's a good job. He builds things, things in houses, like shelves and stuff, but he doesn't work that much. He always used to say that she left him with forty-two dollars in the bank."
"She stayed with the other guy for a while, but then she got pregnant, again." She shook her head. "She's not very bright. Anyway, the other guy kicked her out, so she came home."
"It was that easy?"
She shrugged. "I guess. I wasn't there. They did fight about it."
"She was pregnant, with no home," I said. "He was broke, with a daughter. She still had a good job..."
"Something like that. He... I think he promised to treat me like I was his."
"But you weren't. And he didn't."
"And you were a reminder that his wife had left him for another man, and had only come home when she'd had no choice."
Ron seldom looked really happy, but now that she'd reached the part of the story where she was an active participant she looked thoroughly miserable.
"Did he ever strike you?" I asked. "Any of you?"
"Oh, no. You mean like hit? No. If he ever hit her, her brothers would castrate him." It was clear that she had no idea what the word meant. It was just something she'd heard, probably quite often. "And he never hit Tracy. She's his little girl."
"What about you?"
"He never just hit me. But when I was bad, he'd spank me."
"With his bare hand?"
"No, usually with his belt."
"Or a stick," I said, because she had mentioned this before.
We were silent for a minute, then Ron looked up from the floor. I kept my expression blank, I hope, trying not to reveal my desire to punch her birth father in the mouth.
We continued to refer to the man who had raised her as her "birth father," even though he really wasn't, because we had never found a better way of referring to him (and because Ron became really unhappy if we alluded to the fact that she'd been the result of an affair – probably because she'd had this pointed out to her so often when she was young). My employer chafed at the lack of precision, but even she had to admit that it was the best solution.
"Ron, why did you attack Tracy like that?"
"I... I just got mad. She always used to tell lies about me. And then I'd get spanked."
"And you thought she was going to lie about you here and we'd believe her. And maybe we wouldn't love you anymore."
"Did you ever hit her before?"
"Oh, no. I was always scared. She'd make me pay."
"What kind of lies did she tell about you?"
"Well, there was this boy, Bobby Truman. He and I used to play ball together after school. But Tracy, she said she'd caught us in my room, playing..." It was obvious that she'd reached something she could barely talk about.
I went and knelt next to her chair. "She said you were fooling around with Bobby?"
"With our pants down!" she wailed. "I never did anything like that. And he spanked me really hard, and called me names and said I was just like my mother, just another..."
I put my arms around her. Determination had carried her this far, but now she looked pretty defeated.
"Hey," I said, returning to my chair, "You just told me a lot, so now I should tell you a few things. Fair?" She shrugged. I reached into my employer's desk drawer and pulled out a pen and paper.
"I'm going to make my guess about what's so interesting about what Fifteen said, and I'm going to write it down."
"Like you do," she said. "So you can prove to Mom that you got it right."
"Exactly. Fifteen told us Tracy's age, and how she was dressed, but he didn't know who she was or where she was from."
"Of course not. He's not a detective."
"Ah, but here's the thing. People in U-town mostly don't carry identification. We don't need it. But in the rest of the world, people usually do carry ID of some sort, especially when they're traveling. Fifteen is very thorough, and if Tracy had had any ID on her, he would have found it. Plus, she had a suitcase, and if you travel by plane or train or bus there's usually a sticker or a tag that they attach to your bag. If that had been there, he would have known where she'd come from, even if he didn't know her name."
"So, how do you think she got here?"
"Oh, one of those ways, probably, though we do need to find out if she was traveling alone. But I'm not just guessing. My memory isn't as good as your mother's, but I did see that suitcase for a moment, in the room, and there was a tag tied to the handle. So, that means that somebody removed the tag, and probably took whatever ID she had on her. The logical assumption is that it was the murderer. And the next logical assumption is that you didn't kill her. We already knew who she was and where she was from, and you knew that we knew. So, you'd have had no reason to take anything."
Of course, in a detective story it would have been a clever move for Ron, if she had been the murderer, to take the ID to deflect suspicion from herself. There are people who think that way (I was married to one, in fact), but I was sure that Ron was not one of them. Even apart from her age, that way of thinking would have been completely antithetical to Ron's direct approach to things.
This bluntness continued to be part of Ron's character. She could withhold information – she was good at that – but if she had something to say, she said it. A few years later, when she had finally decided that dating wasn't such a bad idea after all, she told me that she was considered somewhat odd in her school because when she said no to a boy she meant no, and when she meant yes she said so, apparently quite plainly. I commented that the boys must have found this somewhat refreshing. She shrugged. She didn't really care how they found it – this was what they were going to get.
We did wonder sometimes if we were doing a good job at being parents. It is true that we were totally unprepared for the experience, and our only rule was to try to examine every guideline we set for Ron, to make sure, as much as possible, that it was actually right and appropriate, rather than just doing unto her as had been done unto us.
Well, I guess there was another rule. We always had to be aware that Ron had come to us with a rather unusual history. She had lived on her own for quite a while before we adopted her, including avoiding or fighting off the various creatures that prey on prepubescent girls. So, she was stronger and more wily than most children her age, certainly in the United States. Combined with her pride and independence, this meant there were some things she didn't need, or in any case would not have accepted, from us.
Other than getting into fights, it didn't seem there was much in Ron's life that qualified as "fun." There were activities that she enjoyed, like delivering the mail and our daily walks together to school, but there was nothing that I could really compare to my own memories of being her age. But that was who she was, and we respected that.
There were times when she reminded me of the fierce children we had met during the war in Bellona, where there were soldiers as young as Ron, and unit commanders only a few years older.
The air raid siren blared twice, two short blasts.
Ron's head jerked up. "What the fuck?" she demanded.
"That's 'Runner's Call,'" I reminded her. "The time will be next." There was one more short blast. "One o'clock," I said. "We'd better think about eating something. Come on."
As I reached for the doorknob, it turned and my employer poked her head in. "Come on," she said impatiently. "I want to get something to eat before the meeting."
In the dining room, my employer lit a cigarette and drew the smoke deep into her lungs. This was evidence of how urgently she wanted to solve this and protect Ron, since I could tell this was her first cigarette of the day.
I held out the folded piece of paper. "Anything in the room?" I asked.
She smiled, not even taking the paper. "No ID, no wallet, no luggage tags, no bus or train tickets. No indication of whether she was traveling with anybody else. Ron, when your birth parents came here, when you ran away, was Tracy here also?"
Ron nodded. "It was our big family trip. We got money when my grandfather died."
My employer nodded as if this confirmed a theory of hers, but she did that quite often.
"Ron," she said, "rumors are already starting to circulate, and that will increase exponentially after I talk to the runners."
"Nobody spreads more rumors than the runners," I clarified.
Ron nodded. "That's for sure."
"So," my employer continued, "I will try to get information from the runners, but they'll be learning things, too. Those things will start to get spread around, no matter what I say."
"What are you talking about?" Ron asked uneasily.
"You had a fight with your sister, and then she got murdered. As far as we know so far, she didn't know anybody else in the area. Some people will probably start to consider the possibility that you killed her. And that could get ugly if we don't move fast, especially if people start to think that you're getting special treatment because you're my daughter."
Ron's shoulders slumped. "You're gonna lock me up."
My employer laughed and reached across the table to take Ron's hand. "The exact opposite. We're going to keep you with us until this is figured out. Every minute. That way I don't have to worry about whether you're okay and I can concentrate on my work."
"Oh," Ron said, thinking about this. "That sounds okay."
"What about the weapon?" I asked.
"One of the knives from the kitchen." She shook her head. "There were fingerprints on it, but that isn't much use until we have somebody to check them against. And even so, a lot of people use those knives." She turned to our daughter. "Ron, I need to ask you about your sister's underwear."
"You saw how she was dressed. Quite ordinary: sweater, skirt, sneakers, and socks. But her underwear was very racy, almost nonexistent. Her knickers–"
"Aaaah!" Ron protested, looking like she was about to plug up her ears and hum as loud as she could.
"Maybe it would be a good idea," I suggested, "if you explained how this will help solve the mystery."
My employer shrugged. "Alright."
Jan Sleet was, in her private life, very unlikely to discuss anybody's underwear. But, when there was a mystery to solve, she would, with clinical detachment, happily discuss anything that was relevant, including sexual preferences and habits, and even, in one case, the specifics of a suspect's anatomy. So, she found it rather peculiar that Ron was reluctant to discuss something as comparatively innocuous as her sister's underwear.
"The question, Ron," she began, "is why was your sister here?"
"In that moment when you saw her," I added, "you thought she might have come here to ruin your life with us."
My employer nodded. "Possible, but unlikely. We do need to try to find out if she came alone. But the fact that she was wearing exotic lingerie, especially if that was unusual for her, could indicate a possible liaison."
"She could have been coming here to meet a lover," I explained.
Ron shrugged. "I always did the laundry," she said. "I never saw anything weird."
"Did Tracy have a boyfriend? Or a girlfriend?"
Ron shook her head. "She likes boys. Not girls. I don't know if she was dating. We didn't talk much."
"She never brought anybody home?"
"Not when I was there."
Jan Sleet had created the runners and, while she no longer had direct involvement with them on a day-by-day basis, she did still feel somewhat proprietary about them. A couple of times, in private, she had referred to them as her "irregulars." Of course, this was not exactly how they saw themselves.
In theory, sounding "Runner's Call" meant that all of the runners had to assemble at the given time. In practice, in the absence of a general emergency, you wouldn't get them all. Which was okay, in this case. To have insisted, simply to solve a mystery, would have opened us up to the accusation that this case was getting special attention because our daughter was involved. The runners were, after all, our telephone system and our post office, and to take them off the streets even for an hour was not something we did lightly.
In the beginning, during the chaotic first few hours and days after the founding of U-town, the runners had been our only means of communication. Most of their time and energy had gone to locating people who had been wounded in the bombing and helping to get assistance to them. Since then, as things had become more stable, they mostly conveyed mail and messages. This was not the most efficient postal system ever (occasionally, in frustration, we declared that it might be the worst – but that wasn't true either), and we had been very glad when Ron had taken over handling our mail.
People gathered in the big auditorium where we held most of our meetings, a few blocks from the hotel. The runners were scattered around the room. They were mostly young, many of them around Ron's age or a little older. Their bicycles were leaning against the walls, or lying on the floor. I estimated that about half of the runners were there.
My employer limped to the podium and hooked her cane over the edge of the lectern. She raised the microphone and said, "Welcome. Thank you for coming. There has been a murder, and I need your help to solve it.
"A teenage girl with shoulder-length blonde hair entered U-town quite recently, probably yesterday. She was stabbed to death last night in the hotel." She described what Tracy had been wearing, and her suitcase. "Did anybody see her, did anybody speak to her, did she ask directions? How did she get to the hotel? If anybody did speak to her, did she say anything about who she was or why she was here? Someone, almost certainly her murderer, took all of her identification."
This was interesting. Without saying anything untrue, she had given the impression that we had no idea who the murdered girl had been or where she had come from. And that led me to the possibility, which hadn't occurred to me before, that Tracy (underage, perhaps traveling alone to meet a lover) might have been using a false name.
I was standing at the side of the stage. I glanced farther into the wings, where Ron sat on a folding chair, looking morose. There was no problem with people seeing me, but we had been careful that nobody would be able to see Ron.
I heard my employer asking for the runners to spread the word as I saw Fifteen and Christy come in through the stage door and go to speak to Ron. Christy was apparently offering condolences. Fifteen came over and showed me a stack of mimeographed flyers, featuring a description and a rough drawing of Tracy. I nodded and he brought them to my employer. She glanced at them and then encouraged the runners, who were already starting to get ready to leave, to come over and get some flyers to spread around.
Apparently none of the runners had been able to help.
As we'd walked to the auditorium, my employer had cleared up one question which had been puzzling me. We knew where Ron had been during the murder (to my satisfaction, anyway), but where had her roommates been?
Apparently Dora, the one Ron had complained about the night before, had spent the night with her boyfriend. The other two girls had gone over the bridge to the city for the evening, and had only returned in the wee hours, when they had found the body. So, they alibied each other, and Dora's boyfriend alibied her.
These were not strong alibis, of course, but on the other hand there was no evidence, at least so far, that any of them had known Tracy. My employer had also conveyed, in terms which were designed to be meaningless to Ron, that she was fairly sure that Krissy and Karen, the other two girls, were a couple, which amused me. Ron was determined to keep her room sex-free, but she did have a blind spot about unconventional roles and relationships.
It was too early to tell whether the runners were going to produce results or not, but I could tell my employer was uneasy. She sat on a folding chair backstage, tapping her forefinger on the crook of her cane. For her, this was quite a tizzy.
She took out her pocketwatch and glanced at it, then she looked up. "We need to go see Stu. This afternoon. How late will he be in his office?"
"I can call him, when I call for the car, and ask him to stay late if necessary."
She nodded and got to her feet. "Let's go."
I turned to Christy and asked, "Can you come with us?"
Both Jan and Ron looked somewhat annoyed. This was for different reasons, but I was amused to note that their mouths quirked in exactly the same way. They were standing out of Christy's line of sight, of course.
My employer was annoyed, very mildly, because she still chafed at the rule that she couldn't leave U-town without security. She complied with it, but not always graciously.
Ron had never liked Christy, as I've reported before. Given what I'd just learned about her family history, I wasn't surprised she had jumped to the assumption that Christy and I might be about to run off together.
I had not been watching closely when Christy had arrived, and I hoped Ron had been polite when Christy had offered condolences. Given Ron's feelings about her sister, her feelings about Christy, and her rather sketchy set of social skills, I could easily imagine that it hadn't gone smoothly.
In any case, Christy smiled and said, "Of course. I'm glad I can help."
As we walked to the bridge, Ron and I ended up walking half a block ahead of Jan and Christy. My employer couldn't walk very quickly, of course, and Christy, in her role as a bodyguard, stayed with her. I walked a bit more quickly because I wanted to talk to Ron about something I didn't think she'd want to discuss in front of Christy.
"Ron," I said, "I wanted to ask you about your friend Bobby. Does he know where you are? Does he know what happened to you?" She shrugged and shook her head. "Because I had an idea. And I was thinking you could write him a letter. Then he'd know where you are and that you're okay."
This possibility had never occurred to her. "I don't know the address," she said slowly.
"Do you remember the street?"
"Oh, sure. But I don't know the number."
"Well, you could go to the library. They'll know how to find out." She nodded reluctantly, unwilling to get her hopes up.
I squeezed her shoulder (briefly, not long enough to be embarrassing – Christy was behind us, after all). "You think your mother couldn't find out an address if she wanted to?"
This had just been a stray thought, but a few minutes later I was glad I'd had it. We were at the foot of the bridge, and the others were sitting on the massive piling that blocked the bridge as I went to the pay phone and called the car service. Then I called Stu's office, and his wife answered the phone.
Stuart Anson, our lawyer, was quite elderly, and at this point I think his entire practice consisted of my employer's professional needs, and the many and varied legal needs of U-town itself. He had no staff, and his partner was long dead, but one or two days a week his wife, Bea, came into the office to do his filing and typing. And, as he always put it, to keep an eye on him.
As I heard her voice, I had a sudden inspiration.
"Mrs. Anson, " I said, "it's Marshall O'Connor."
"Mr. O'Connor," she said briskly. "It's very nice to hear from you."
"Is Mr. Anson available later this afternoon? It's fairly urgent, I'm afraid. There's been a murder, and we're concerned that Ron may be accused. Do you remember Ron?"
"Of course. The young lady who didn't ever bathe, as far as I could tell."
"Well, we've adopted her, Jan and I, and–"
"Really," she said neutrally. I got the idea that she was trying to decide which was more improbable: that anybody would have willingly adopted such a scruffy and unpleasant child, or that my wife and I had decided to have a family at all.
"Yes," I said after a moment. "It was her sister, her blood sister, who was killed. She–"
"Oh, the poor dear child," she said, and I was surprised to hear not a trace of sarcasm in her voice. She was clearly speaking about Ron, and for a second I wasn't sure what to say. Stu and Bea had produced several children, all fully grown now, so presumably she wasn't a complete stranger to maternal impulses. However, it was a bit of a shock to have them come to the surface all of a sudden like this.
"Are you bringing her with you?" she asked.
"Yes, we are. And I was going to ask a favor. She has a project she's working on, and I was wondering if you could keep an eye on her while we talk to Mr. Anson. I'm sure Ron would prefer not to have to hear about the details of the murder all over again."
"Oh, of course. The poor thing. I'm sure she and I will have a fine time. Please come whenever is convenient, and I'll tell that decrepit old shyster that he needs to wait for you."
Stu leaned back in his chair and shook his head. "I'm sorry to hear about Ron's sister."
"She's not sorry, as far as I can tell," I said. "It seems that they despised each other, or at least Ron despised her sister. Not without reason, apparently, and I'm fairly sure I don't know the whole story."
Stu nodded. "Then I won't offer my condolences." Ron was in the outer office with Bea, working on the letter to her friend Bobby, and the door was closed.
"The problem," my employer explained, "is that, because of that animosity, which led Ron to punch her sister several times earlier in the day, it's quite likely that Ron will be accused at some point, especially if we can't establish that Tracy – that was the girl's name – knew other people in this area. We have no idea if she came here alone, for example. We're investigating on a couple of different fronts, but what I want to do is establish where Ron's birth parents are.
"I could call them, of course, but I don't want to tell them anything about what's happened. Not until I know everything about the situation. They do not seem to be thoughtful, rational people, and I don't want to get them alarmed. They might try to set some plan in motion to get Ron back. That's not a battle I intend to fight except from a position of strength."
Stu nodded slowly. "I was afraid of this. I really can't help, for two reasons. The first reason is that, without going into details, my main contact for this sort of information was in a clerical position. So, any information in city records, and some state records, was usually available. But this sort of information, from a different state, would have been more difficult. If the family had been involved in a crime, or with law enforcement..." He shrugged. "I observe your impatience, and of course you noted my use of the past tense. My friend has very recently retired and she is on a cruise. There is someone else who works in a similar capacity, on a lower level and with more restricted access, but she is currently out on maternity leave."
My employer shook her head and turned to me. "Make a note. Never get pregnant and never get old." She glanced at Christy and smiled. "I will not make that joke in front of Ron, of course." Then she took off her glasses and polished them slowly. She always carried a second handkerchief in a side pocket for this purpose, since the display handkerchief in her breast pocket was folded very precisely, showing three sharp points, and once it was in place she didn't like to have to refold it.
"There is another possibility," I said.
My employer looked up sharply. "There is?" she demanded, putting on her glasses.
"Inspector Ibarra," I explained.
She frowned. "Why would he help us?"
"Because he owes you one. You solved a case for him, the college case, for which he took the credit. He owes you."
"That was just coincidence. I... What are you saying?"
"He set it up so that you would solve that case for him. That was his plan from the beginning. He put us in the room, and then he put Ron in the room with us so you could interview her. And he had that piece of paper in his pocket. If you hadn't asked about it, he would have made sure it got to you somehow. And you solved the case, and he got the credit."
She started to speak, stopped, frowned, shook her head, and finally said, "Poo!" Which was, for her, a powerful oath indeed.
Stu had kept his expression blank throughout this, but I had a pretty good idea it was not news to him. Christy, who had been with us during the college case (where this had all happened) was also expressionless.
"Shall I call him?" Stu asked.
"Give me a minute," she said. She closed her eyes and pursed her lips for a moment, then she nodded.
Then, an extraordinary thing happened. My employer said later that it was the most interesting part of the entire case.
Stu reached for the phone, removed the handset from the cradle, pressed the speaker button, and dialed a number.
So, we were all aware of the following facts:
1. Stuart Anson had dialed Inspector Ibarra's number without consulting a phone book.
2. Stu did not have an extraordinary memory. To have a telephone number memorized, he must have used it fairly often.
3. As far as we knew, the only time Stu and Ibarra had met was during the college case, which had not involved any telephone communication at all.
4. If Stu had had further communication with Ibarra after that, in his capacity as Jan Sleet's attorney or as U-town's legal representative, he would have told us.
5. Which he hadn't, so it was something else.
6. He was aware that we now knew this, and that was alright with him, or he would have made a show of looking up the number.
7. He was a lawyer, of course, so he wouldn't tell us what this meant.
8. And it would have been rude, to say the least, for my employer to investigate and find out the answer on her own.
"This is Stuart Anson," he said. "May I speak to Inspector Ibarra?"
My employer shook her head as she reminded herself to put this new question aside and concentrate on the case.
"Inspector Ibarra, this is Stuart Anson. I'm on speaker with my client, Miss Jan Sleet, and Marshall O'Connor. How are you today?"
"Fair to middling, counselor. Good afternoon, Miss Sleet and Mr. O'Connor. Is Miss Malin with you?"
"I'm here," Christy said.
"Ah," Ibarra said, and it was about as lascivious a single syllable as I've ever heard.
Christy stuck out her tongue in the direction of the phone.
"Inspector," my employer said, "I need to call in a debt."
"A debt?" he asked, and I could hear his sardonic amusement. "Do I owe you some favor that's slipped my mind?"
"No, you owe me something that I'm sure you remember. The murder of Douglas Matthews. I solved the case for you, as you arranged, and you got the credit and you were able to go to bed at a reasonable hour that night. I did you a good turn, and now I need something in return."
"And if I don't..."
"Don't be obtuse, and don't be insulting. I'm not threatening you. I'm acting on the assumption that you're an honorable man."
There was a moment of silence, then Ibarra said, "Why don't we act on that assumption for a moment or two and see where we end up. What happens next?"
"Here is the situation. Do you remember Ron?"
"We have adopted her, my husband and I."
"No wonder you need help."
"Inspector, I'm afraid this situation is serious. But first I must say that adopting Ron was one of the best decisions I have ever made."
"You're young yet. You probably haven't made very many decisions in your life. Please continue."
"Ron's sister, her blood sister, was just murdered. In U-town, under our jurisdiction. We need to find out if any of her other family members are in the area."
"So," he said slowly, "you want to find a suspect that isn't your adopted daughter."
"No, I want to find a murderer. I think my daughter is innocent, but if she's guilty I will not protect her. But Tracy, the murdered girl, came to U-town for some reason. There are indications that she was coming here to meet a lover. So, there are two questions. Are her parents, her birth parents, here? Her identification and any other papers she had on her were stolen, probably by the murderer. But if she'd had a long-distance lover there might be indications in her parents' home."
"Hmmm," he said as Christy got up. She moved silently to the door and out. I wondered what had prompted this, but I was sure that she could handle whatever it was.
"Will you be in Mr. Anson's office for a while?" Ibarra asked. "I know there are no telephones in the primitive tribal village where you live."
"We will wait here for your call."
He hung up without saying goodbye. I turned to the door as Christy came back in. "They're gone," she said. "Mrs. Anson and Ron."
I started to get tense, but Stu said, "I'm sure they're fine. Who would dare to pick on the two of them? Even separately they scare the heck out of me."
"Stu," my employer said, "this may take a while. You can go home if you want. We can stay... but of course it's your wife who drives."
He smiled. "I'd stay in any case. I may be able to help. If it was my child, wouldn't you stay?"
"They probably went out," I said. "There was a bit of research involved in the project Ron was working on."
My employer turned to me. "We haven't had a chance to compare notes, since Ron has been with us all day. What did you find out about her birth family?"
I told them the whole story, mostly verbatim.
Stu listened impassively, his hands clasped on the desk blotter in front of him. My employer was attempting to be calm as well, but her lips thinned as I described how Ron had been beaten because of her sister's lies.
Christy looked surprisingly upset as I told the story. I almost stopped at one point, but that would have embarrassed her. She was sitting on the far side of my employer, so nobody else was in a position to notice her reaction.
When I finished, my employer shook her head. "I confess that I've always thought my determination to keep Ron with us was somewhat selfish, because she means so much to me. But she is never going back to those people."
"If they did get custody somehow," I said, "I'm quite sure that she would run away at the first opportunity and try to get back to us."
"A journey which might be beyond even young Ron's capabilities," Stu said. "We should make sure it doesn't come to that."
Christy blew her nose and they turned to look at her. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's just that the description of her father sounds a lot like Jason's father." She glanced at Stu. "Jason is my son," she explained. "Do Ron's parents drink?"
I shrugged. "She didn't mention it. Maybe."
"Doesn't matter. I hope not. It sounds bad enough without that."
Stu sat up straighter. "Well, after that, I think we need some sustenance. I'll order sandwiches." He called the deli downstairs. He was such a regular customer that all he had to do was identify himself and tell them how many people were there.
I heard a noise from the outer office, and Christy and I got up to investigate. We found Bea back at her desk, with Ron sitting opposite her. Ron was stuffing something into her battered Red Cross bag. I didn't comment, since it was obviously something she didn't want us to see.
"We were a bit concerned," I said, "but we thought you probably went to the library."
Bea shook her head. "To find out that address? Mr. O'Connor, on this side of the river we have a wonderful modern device called the telephone. It has many uses, including – but not limited to – finding out street addresses. You should try it some time." She turned to Ron. "Young lady, I believe you have homework to do?"
Ron was so nervous about whatever she was concealing in her bag that she didn't even protest being addressed as "young lady," a phrase which usually sent her into a fury. She reached into her bag, feeling her way past the mysterious object (which appeared to be a pink plastic bag), and pulled out a notebook.
Bea indicated that we should all proceed into Stu's office. She closed the door behind us, leaving Ron in the outer office.
"I had a good conversation with young Ron," Bea said, "and I gather that your approach to child-rearing is rather..." She hesitated.
"Bohemian," Jan suggested.
Bea nodded, though I had the idea that she'd been thinking of something stronger.
"I doubt that I'm going to get you to change that, or to get her to dress decently for a young girl. But I did wonder why she insisted on wearing that bulky, dirty sweatshirt even though it's a warm day. Well, we talked and she relaxed, and it turned out that your 'daughter'" – I could hear the quotes – "doesn't own any underwear. It's all fallen to rags. And now she is just beginning to develop and she is mortified that people will notice, especially because she doesn't own a brassiere and she was not comfortable asking you to buy her one."
She sighed. "I tried to get her to buy some other clothes, something more appropriate for a girl her age, but she declined."
We were saved from hearing the details of Ron's refusal because the phone rang. Stu reached for it, but Bea grabbed it out of his hand. "Hello," she said, "Stuart Anson's office." She paused as Stu waved at me. I had pulled out my wallet, prepared to reimburse Bea for the things she had purchased for Ron, but he shook his head and I put it away.
Bea pantomimed, "Take the money, you old fool," as she said, "Please hold, Inspector. I'll see if he's available." She pressed the Hold button, hung up the receiver, and returned to the outer office, closing the door behind her.
Stu pressed a button and said, "Inspector, we've been eagerly awaiting your call. We're on speaker again, with the same cast as Act One."
"Miss Sleet," Ibarra said, "you said you were making the assumption that I'm an honorable man."
"I am, for the moment at least. Why?"
"Then I suppose I will have to make the same assumption about you, that you are also honorable. Because otherwise I will have to wonder whether you dropped me in this on purpose."
"Inspector, you have my word that I had no idea what you would encounter. Please tell me what's happened."
He sighed. I could not tell how much of his annoyance was assumed and how much, if any, was sincere. "I will preface this by saying that my opinion is that, by the time this is over, we will not be square. You will owe me."
"Fair enough. Here it is. Hazel's father... Does it offend you if I call her Hazel?"
"Not at all. I know you're talking about Ron. It would offend her, but she's not in the room."
"Hazel's father found out, almost a week ago, that his wife was having an affair with a guy who lives around the corner. The two men ran into each other in the local bar. Strong language was used. Fisticuffs ensued, accompanied by some racial invective. The boyfriend apparently has, as we used to say, a touch of the tarbrush. In any case, the authorities showed up and the combatants were detained overnight, mostly to give them time to sober up."
Christy's expression said that she would have punched Ibarra in the nose if he'd been present. My employer was impassive, however. She was completely focused on protecting her daughter, and everything else was secondary to that.
"It was on the next day, as far as we can determine, that young Tracy ran away. Based on the calls which were received by the local precinct, the loving parents were mostly concerned about the cash she took with her, which was somewhere around one hundred dollars.
"Then, last night, there was Round Two in the local bar, ending with hubby in the hospital, and wifey and the boyfriend in pretty bad shape as well. Today, she has spent most of her time at the local police station, bothering people and incoherently demanding that her daughters be found and returned to her. A couple of her brothers accompany her everywhere now.
"So, after all this, when I call up the local constabulary, with me all wide-eyed and innocent, and I start asking questions about these losers, suddenly I'm being greeted with suspicion. People think that I know everything, and they start demanding answers."
"What did you tell them?"
"I told them that Tracy had been killed in U-town. I wasn't going to get any information otherwise. I said I was cooperating with the U-town authorities on the investigation. I didn't mention Ron at all."
"Thank you for that."
"Frankly, Miss Sleet, I have no idea how you're raising that little terror, and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't approve if I did know, but it's got to be better than what she got at home. And I assume you don't require any further proof that none of these people were responsible for the girl's death."
"I'll accept that as a working hypothesis. Did you manage to find any other indications?"
He chuckled. "I'd say so. There was no diary, no letters, no address book. but the officers out there did find a couple of things. One was a school notebook, from a class in social studies. Apparently the girl's attention wandered from her lessons one day and she started doodling 'Tracy Trainor' over and over, with hearts and flowers and birds. So, I figure that's the guy's last name, Trainor. They didn't know where to look, and there are a lot of Trainors in the world, but you have a much better idea."
"Excellent. And the other thing?"
"A strip of photos, from one of those tourist booths where you get four pictures for a buck. They described it to me. It's a tight closeup on the two of them. She looks deliriously happy. The guy looks happy, though not delirious, and somewhat older. The officer out there reported that Trainor was wearing some kind of dark jacket with a high, stiff collar, with light-colored piping around it. They're looking into marching bands."
"That's my guess. So, are we square?"
"At least. Maybe a little bit better. Call me the next time you're stuck, and I'll see if I can set you straight."
He barked a laugh and hung up.
In the outer office, we found Ron and Bea happily working their way through a plate of sandwiches.
"Oh," Bea said, "did you want some of these?"
"When we get there," my employer said, "Christy and I will go in. Ron, you will wait in the car with your father."
"Why?" she demanded. "Are you going to arrest him?"
My employer laughed. "We're not in U-town now. I can't arrest anybody. No, I need to find out his work hours and where he lives, so we can catch him on our side of the river. I have no authority here, so my only way of getting information is to intimidate them because I'm a public figure."
Ron frowned, not completely understanding that my employer's ability to bamboozle people as a noted reporter and amateur detective was going to be somewhat diminished if her daughter was there also.
The car pulled up in front of the Empire Hotel, which Ron had identified as the hotel where she and her family had stayed during their trip to the city. I got out to go around and open the door for my employer, steadying her as she climbed out onto the sidewalk.
Christy came around, and my employer straightened her tie and said, "Let's go."
I got back into the car and sat next to Ron, who was still looking vexed. I thought this was because she had been left out of the excitement, but she had other things on her mind.
"Dad," she said after a minute, "do I have to start dressing different?" To my surprise, it sounded as though she would do it if we wanted her to.
"Of course not," I said. "Mrs. Anson is right about some things, which I'll get to in a minute, but she's not right about you, or about us. You can dress how you want, just as you have. You can sleep in our room, or in your room, or we can find you another room if you'd prefer.
"But here's the thing she is right about. When you need something, especially something as basic as clothes, you can come to us. You should come to us. We're responsible for you, for taking care of you and making sure you have the things you need."
She looked like this was a new concept to her.
"Didn't your birth parents buy you clothes?"
"Sometimes. Mostly I got Tracy's old stuff. It was awful, all flowers and lace and shit. And then I had to fix them if they ripped or something." She had been squirming off and on as we drove from Stu's office to the hotel, and now she started again, working her shoulders up and down. "Do I really have to wear this fucking thing?" she demanded.
"I think you'll recall, 'young lady,' that I said, just a moment or two ago, that you can wear whatever you want."
Frustrated, mostly at herself for being such an easy target, she made a fist and punched me in the arm. Then her expression went blank as she wondered if she'd gone too far. I made a fist and punched her, lightly, in the arm.
She smiled. "I hope that fucking Fifteen didn't screw up the mail delivery," she said happily. "I may have to beat him up."
"Of course," I said earnestly, "it was very nice of him to volunteer to fill in for you."
She shook her head, unwilling to dignify this with a response.
Seeing my employer and Christy coming down the wide front steps of the hotel, I opened the car door and stepped out onto the sidewalk. This was ostensibly to hold the door for my employer, but in reality it was so I could catch her as she swooned. I had recognized the uncertainty in her step as she'd limped down the stairs.
It had been too many hours on too little food. I'd tried to get her to take at least half of the one sandwich we'd managed to rescue from Ron and Bea, but she had insisted that it go to Stu. Also, I could tell she'd been successful in the hotel. When a case was unsolved she could keep going on nerves and excitement, but then when she had the answers it would sometimes all catch up with her. Which it did, and I took her arm.
"Oh," she said in surprise, leaning on me. "When we get home–"
"Not when we get home," I said. "We're going to have dinner now. I've paid off the driver. Let's go."
She started to protest, but Ron was with us by then and the car was pulling away, so she nodded.
"There's a good place around that corner," Ron said, pointing. We all looked at her in surprise. "We went there, my family, when we were staying here," she explained.
I smiled. This just showed how completely I saw Ron as part of our family. I had forgotten for a moment that she had been part of the Davis family when they'd been staying at this hotel. That had been when Ron had run away, and when her sister had been seduced (I assumed) by a hotel employee named Trainor. Who had quite possibly killed her.
So, Ron took charge. She led us to the restaurant, directed us to her preferred booth, and recommended the franks and beans. I was the only one who took her up on this suggestion.
"I met with Mr. Bailey, the hotel detective," my employer said as she sipped her soup. "He has some fancy title because it's a fancy place, but he's the house dick. It turned out that he was eager to help. This is not the first time there's been an intimation of an impropriety by Trainor – his first name is Donald – but he's related to the manager and is therefore difficult to fire. And, of course, scandal is the worst option, but until now Mr. Bailey has been thinking that scandal was inevitable, sooner or later.
"But I gave him another option, which he was eager to seize. We will arrest Trainor, on our side of the river, and from the point of view of the hotel he will simply stop coming to work one day. The scandal would be averted. This made Mr. Bailey quite happy, and he had no problem giving me the information I wanted."
So, we ate and we discussed the details of dealing with Donald Trainor, and the only possibly awkward moment was narrowly averted.
Ron would periodically start squirming, shifting her shoulders around, then she'd realize she was doing it and force herself to stop. Christy observed this and at one point she smiled and was about to say something to Ron, but I caught her eye and emphatically shook my head. I had no idea what she'd been about to say, but I knew it was a bad idea.
Jan observed this, of course, but she didn't comment. Fortunately, Ron was absorbed in seeing how much butter she could slather on a warm piece of corn bread and she didn't notice any of this.
At the end of the dinner, Ron excused herself and went off toward the bathrooms. When she returned, her posture and expression told me that the offending undergarment had been disposed of.
While we were waiting for Ron, Jan was about to light a cigarette when I motioned that this activity was probably more appropriate out on the sidewalk. We weren't in U-town, after all. So, she and Christy went outside as I paid the bill.
When I got out to the street, Jan said, "Christy has just made a good point. I do let you do most of the work with Ron, but she and I need to have a talk." She smiled. "You know many things, I realize, but you are not female. Ron is never going to come to us with–"
Ron joined us and Jan said, "Ron, I'd like to talk to you when we get home. Would you like to go get a milkshake together?"
And Jan was not oblivious to the fact that Ron's reaction was to look around uneasily, wondering what she had done wrong and why she was in trouble. Jan leaned over and they had a short whispered conversation, then she straightened up and looked around. "And where is the car?" she asked, raising one eyebrow.
I smiled. "We are in no hurry. It's a pleasant evening, with pleasant company. I thought we might take a stroll, in the direction of the bridge. Whenever we get tired, we can take a taxi the rest of the way."
"Oh, what an excellent idea." She circled her arm through mine. "Christy, you aren't in a rush, I hope?"
She shook her head. "Not at all. When I'm traveling with you folks, I never make definite plans."
It was a cool evening, with a nice breeze. The sky was clear, and the moon was nearly full. There were a lot of people out on the street, and occasionally someone recognized my employer. A couple of people even asked for autographs, which she signed. One man wanted to take a photograph, but Christy discouraged him.
Donald Trainor's shift at the Empire Hotel ended at midnight. His wife had thrown him out two weeks earlier, so he was staying in a room at the U-town Hotel (that's the "hotel" where we lived, which was sort of U-town's White House and Capitol, combined with a dorm, a cafeteria, a flop house, and sometimes a den of iniquity – pretty much the opposite of the hotel where Trainor worked).
He took his time getting home, arriving around two-thirty in the morning, having stopped for a couple of drinks somewhere along the way.
As he stepped into his room, he flipped the light switch, but the overhead light didn't go on. I stepped behind him and slammed the door shut as my employer turned on the floor lamp next to the easy chair where she was sitting. He glanced at me as I took another step so I blocked the door, then he looked at my employer.
"Mr. Trainor," she said, indicating the kitchen knife on the side table next to her chair, "we need to talk about the murder of Tracy Davis." She lit a cigarette. "This knife was found buried in her body, and your fingerprints are on it." I was noticing the aroma of the beer he'd been drinking. Which was all to the good, from our point of view.
"Who's Tracy Davis?" he asked, trying to sound defiant. "I never heard of her."
My employer levered herself to her feet and stepped toward the wall. "She was staying only a few doors down the hall." She gestured. "How convenient for you. We just came from talking to your wife. She told us how she threw you out, but you protested that you'd changed. You wanted to get back to your wife and children, but now this girl shows up. An underage girlfriend, who you seduced on your job, who came back to town to be with you, probably thinking that she would become your wife. This could have permanently ruined your marriage, it could have cost you your job, and it could have got you arrested. It's no wonder–"
She had moved a few steps away from the chair and the table, and Trainor lunged forward and grabbed the knife.
My employer regarded him. "This will not help you get back together with your wife," she observed.
"It will if I kill you," he said, waving the knife around. "Both of you. Who's going to solve the mystery if you're dead?"
She shook her head. "Not possible. There are two of us, standing far apart from each other, and you have a knife, not a gun." We had searched the room before he'd arrived, to make sure there wasn't a gun. The search had been easy, since he was living out of a single suitcase. It seemed pretty clear that, at least in his mind, this was a very temporary living situation.
"Okay," he said, "you're right." He moved closer to her, holding the knife out in front of him, but he was looking at me. "Get away from that door." I complied, moving farther away from where my employer stood. "All I need to do is to get over the bridge and you can't touch me. Any objections?"
I spread my arms wide. "None at all," I said. "But was it really necessary to kill her?"
"She was a stupid girl," he said, "and she wouldn't listen to reason."
"Her family–" my employer began.
"Fuck her family," he said. "She was going to ruin my family, screw up my kids, too." He gestured with the knife. "Get out of my way."
He backed toward the door, opened it with one hand, and stepped out backwards without taking his eyes off me.
Christy grabbed his wrist, twisted it until he dropped the knife, yanked him around, and knocked his feet out from under him. He fell on his stomach and she landed on top of him, straddling his waist.
"Face on the floor!" she snarled. "Jinx, motherfucker, and I will ventilate your skull if you twitch!"
He tried to look at her, and she slammed the butt of her gun down on the back of his head, hard. After that he didn't move, though I could tell he was still conscious.
Christy looked up at me and smiled. If the situation hadn't been so serious, I think she would have winked. With her free hand, she tugged her skirt down so that her thighs were decently covered.
When we got back home, all the procedures having been followed and all the paperwork having been completed, the sky was starting to get light.
Ron had wanted to come with us to capture Trainor, but I had told her firmly that she was not going to be there. She had made a face, but she didn't argue and she didn't try to sneak out and follow us. She'd sat cross-legged in the center of our bed, prepared to wait all night if necessary for our return.
When we came back, she was lying on the bed, curled up on top of the covers, still fully dressed, and sound asleep.
Before waking her, I stepped quickly into the bathroom and removed the protective vest I'd worn, just in case Trainor had gone after me with his knife. I didn't want Ron to think too much about the very real danger that we'd been in. Our thought had been that if he moved to attack either of us, it would have been me. I was the one blocking the door, and he wouldn't have wanted to have me behind him if he attacked my employer. So I'd been prepared, but we'd hoped that it would go pretty much as it had.
It had been a risky plan – my employer's certainty that he wouldn't be carrying a gun hadn't had any evidence to support it – but I knew she had wanted to resolve things quickly to protect Ron.
I sat on the bed as my employer hung up her jacket and tie, and unbuttoned her vest. Ron blinked a couple of times and I squeezed her shoulder. "We're back," I said quietly.
She nodded as she sat up and rubbed her eyes. "Okay," she said, yawning. "What happened?"
I gave her the very short version. As I talked, she slid over to sit on the edge of the bed next to me, and Jan sat next to her.
Ron nodded as I finished the story. She liked it when her mother's cases were solved, since it confirmed her idea that her mother could figure out anything, but she wasn't usually interested in the details. Apparently not even when the victim had been her sister.
Jan and I had talked as we'd walked back from the hospital, and we had decided not to try to have the conversation with Ron about her unprovoked attack on her sister right then, mostly because we were too tired. We did end up having it the next night, but we did not win her over to our position.
"Ron," Jan said when I had finished telling the story, "we're going to get some sleep now, but there is one other thing. We have your sister's suitcase. Do you want any of her clothes?"
She shuddered. "No," she said.
"I didn't think so. I'll donate them downstairs. There are two other things." She got up and took a photograph from her jacket pocket. "Do you want this?" She handed it to Ron.
It was a family snapshot, maybe taken on their trip to the city. The parents were blond and tall, and Tracy was blond and pretty, and they were standing on a street corner, smiling at the camera.
Ron was standing at the side, making a face that was probably intended to be a smile. Her clothes were shabby, her hair was brown and bushy, her body language was awkward, and she looked like she'd wandered into the frame by mistake.
"There's also this," Jan said, holding out a small stuffed animal.
Ron took it carefully, her mouth tight, determined not to cry. She examined it, saying very quietly, "It's Mister Bunny."
My wife restrained her pedantic urge to point out that "Mister Bunny" was not in fact any sort of bunny at all. He appeared to be a rather bedraggled donkey. He'd probably started out with fur, but by now it was all worn down to the bare fabric.
Ron held this object in her hands, but she clearly couldn't figure out what to do with it. She wanted to clutch it to her chest and cry, but that was not an option. She looked around, then she got up and went to our trophy shelf.
My employer and I had traveled extensively before settling in U-town. We had mostly traveled light, often under difficult conditions, so we hadn't collected a lot of mementos along the way. A couple of times we'd had to leave treasured items behind in favor of escaping with our skins intact, so we'd learned not to get too attached to anything. But we had managed to hold onto a few keepsakes, and they were now displayed on a small shelf in our room.
Cradling Mister Bunny in the crook of one arm, Ron reached up to the shelf and carefully moved things around in order to make some room. Then she lifted Mister Bunny and slid him into the empty space. He had lost a bit of stuffing somewhere along the line and she had to work to get him to sit up straight. "Is that okay?" she asked when she was done.
"Of course," I said as she came back to sit with us again.
"Ron," Jan said, "I think your sister wanted to make peace with you. That's the only reason I can imagine for her to bring Mister Bunny to you."
Ron shook her head. She picked up the photograph and tore it down the middle. "No fucking way," she said. She tore it again and dropped it into the wastebasket. She picked up her Red Cross bag and said, "I'm gonna go get the mail."
She was not in a mood to be hugged, but I hugged her anyway, holding her tight until she sighed and hugged me back. Then she went off to collect the mail.