chapter one: arrival
Vinnie Stiglianese got out of the cab at the base of the large, unmarked bridge. It was a pleasant evening and the city sidewalks were crowded with people. He took his suitcase out of the trunk and then the cab edged into the traffic and moved away.
His flight had been delayed and he was about three hours later than he’d planned. He smiled. Being late was purely theoretical, of course, since this visit was going to be a surprise anyway. Well, he wanted it to be a surprise, but the person he was going to visit was extremely difficult to deceive. He couldn’t see how she would have found out, but…
He was suddenly aware that he was hungry, but he decided to wait to eat until he was across the bridge. It was a cliché that food on the U-town side of the river was almost always both better and cheaper than what you could find in the city, but, as he occasionally reminded his students, clichés become clichés for a reason.
The light turned green, and he picked up his suitcase and made his way across the street. Quite a few people crossed when he did, and some of them were also taking the bridge into U-town.
The bridge had no signs, but everybody knew where it went. It was blocked for vehicles at the U-town end, so there were no cars or trucks going over.
There was a stiff breeze coming off the water as he walked up the incline. He thought of stopping and getting a scarf out of his suitcase, but then he remembered that he hadn’t packed one. He tried to travel light when he went to U-town, because he knew he’d be carrying his suitcase a lot.
He stopped at the highest point of the bridge and turned around to look back at the city. It was a dark night, so the city lights were at their most impressive.
This was Vinnie’s third trip to U-town.
The first trip had been just a few days after the Founding. He’d traveled with almost no luggage then, having rushed to the airport and booked a seat on the first available flight from Italy as soon as he’d heard the news.
This was half because history was being made, as he told his students later to explain his sudden absence, and half because it was his daughter who was making it. (Of course, yes, she was just one of many, but people do make allowances for a proud father.)
That time it had been odd crossing the bridge, because there had been no electricity in U-town. It had been like walking down a hill into a huge, bottomless pit.
He picked up his suitcase and quickly moved to the side as he heard a motor behind him. The other people on the roadway moved aside without even looking around.
When the taxi was past him, he picked up his suitcase and started to walk down the incline toward U-town.
His second visit had been special, because that had been so that he could attend, and participate in, his daughter’s wedding.
He still remembered the letter she had written to him.
Dear Professor Stiglianese,
It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write this letter. It is my sad duty to inform you that your daughter, Jan Sleet (the famous amateur detective and intrepid gal reporter), has abandoned her life of chaste and selfless devotion to her vocation and is now quite openly living in sin with an older (though quite attractive) man.
The shame is bad enough, of course, but what’s even worse is that the man is an employee (Marshall, her loyal assistant). So, not only is this situation an affront to the laws of the Almighty, there may also be trouble with the Labor Board.
Many of the fine, upstanding citizens of U-town have urged her to get married, of course, but she won’t hear of it until her dear, sweet, sainted father is here to give her away.
Please come at your earliest convenience to rescue your daughter from a life of sin.
A shotgun is not required, but formal attire is. There will be photographers.
From a friend.
About a half hour later, Vinnie stopped and looked around. He’d been looking for a seafood restaurant that he remembered from his last visit, but somehow he’d got turned around and now he was lost.
There was almost nobody on the street. The buildings in this area were all warehouses and factories, apparently deserted at night. He wished he’d asked somebody for directions.
Too much wool-gathering and not enough attention to his surroundings. U-town wasn’t that large, but it was still possible to get lost in it. Particularly if you weren’t a native, and it was night, and you were lost in your thoughts.
“Drop the bag,” said a soft voice behind him. “Tourist.”
Vinnie held his breath, then he let it out slowly as he lowered his suitcase to the sidewalk.
He stood motionless. He was ready to reach for the switchblade in his trouser pocket, but his hand wasn’t going to move until he knew more about who was behind him, how many there were, and how they were armed.
He’d had the switchblade since high school. It had been years since he’d pulled it out, now that he was a respectable college professor rather than a small-town tough guy, but it was sharp, oiled, and ready.
“Wallet,” the same soft voice said as he heard the suitcase slide away from him.
The voice had sounded closer, which indicated that it might be one man, who had to get closer in order to take the suitcase.
Vinnie didn’t care about the suitcase, but he was reluctant to give up his wallet. Maybe if he stepped forward, turned, and pulled the blade quickly enough–
He heard a loud blow, a sharp exhalation of breath, and a piercing whistle all at the same moment, and he quickly executed his plan. A step forward, a quick turn, and the blade was in his hand and open.
There was a man, young and well dressed, lying on the sidewalk. He was gasping and holding his right arm. His right hand was limp, and there was a knife a few inches from it. The girl kicked the knife away and holstered the stick she’d been holding.
Vinnie had been told about Stevie One, or he would have been even more surprised to have been rescued by a teenage girl, dressed entirely in black, armed with two small billy clubs.
She turned to face him, and her right hand fell to one of her sticks. The holsters were low on her thighs, the ideal position for her to pull her weapons out quickly.
“The knife is not necessary now, sir,” she said firmly. “Please put it away.”
He closed the knife and returned it to his pocket. “I didn’t know the cavalry was about to arrive. Thanks, Stevie.”
Her mask covered her entire head, so he couldn’t tell if she was reacting to being addressed by name. She held out her hand and he shook it. “You appear to be a visitor, sir,” she said. “Are you lost?”
He laughed. “Is it that obvious?”
Before she could answer, two young security volunteers appeared at the corner and ran over to them.
Stevie turned to face them. “What took you so long?” she asked. Her tone wasn’t sarcastic, but it was clear she was going to get an answer.
“We were helping a guy who’d fallen off his bicycle. He–”
“You should probably have split up when you heard the whistle. This gentleman was about to have to defend himself when I got here.” She gestured at the robber, still lying motionless and clutching his arm. He looked like he could have got to his feet and tried to escape, but what would have been the point? “Get him up and take him to the hospital.”
She turned back to Vinnie. “Where are you trying to go, sir?” she asked.
“To the hotel. My daughter lives there.” He had the idea that the masked girl was smiling, but it was impossible to be sure.
“You’re pretty far off course.”
“Oh, I knew that. I was looking for a seafood restaurant that I remembered from my last visit.”
“Do you remember the name?”
He sighed. “I think right now I’ll settle for the hotel. I can eat there. Can you point me in the right direction, please?”
It was fairly late in the evening by the time Vinnie arrived at the hotel, so the selection in the dining room was limited, but he was very hungry by then so he didn’t care.
The hotel dining room had always seemed to him to be a microcosm of U-town. The food was prepared by volunteers, of varying skill, but it was nutritious and, technically, free. Well, people were asked to pay, and people like him who were obviously tourists were encouraged more strongly, but nobody was sent away hungry. Even the hotel itself wasn’t a real hotel, though it had been one in the past. Now it was just a place where people stayed, including the administrators who ran U-town.
Vinnie paid for his food willingly, of course, though the macaroni & cheese and succotash he was eating was a few steps down from the seafood dinner he’d been anticipating.
He ate quickly, both because he was hungry and because it was getting late to appear unexpectedly at his daughter’s door.
When she’d been a teenager, her sleep patterns had been, to say the least, unpredictable. He remembered more than once awakening in the middle of the night to hear her slipping in from some midnight excursion. When he asked where she’d been, she’d only say “investigating.”
When he talked to other parents in their small town, their teenagers were always getting caught having sex under the docks, or drinking on top of the dunes. He was reasonably sure that his gawky, bookish daughter wasn’t engaged in those sorts of pursuits. Or, if she was, she was smart enough not to get caught.
But now she had responsibilities in the U-town government, so she had apparently adopted sleeping hours which were at least somewhat closer to normal. Except when there was a mystery to solve, of course.
As he ate, he took out the most recent letter he had received from his daughter.
Please come visit us at your earliest convenience, to meet your granddaughter. She is twelve years old, foulmouthed, ill-tempered, occasionally violent, and absolutely wonderful.
I can’t imagine that you would, but when you do meet her, please do not attempt any sort of embrace. She will resist, probably forcefully and profanely, and it will start things off on the wrong foot. I speak from experience, since I was unable to conceal my fondness for her early on, and now she always regards me with suspicion, as if in trepidation that I might, without warning, pull her to me and hug her.
Marshall, of course, struck exactly the right note from the first, so she is devoted to him. Once, during a crisis, she even got into his lap so he could hold her. I saw this with my own eyes, and I’m still not sure I believe it.
Come as soon as you can, but only when it’s convenient. She’s not going anywhere.
This was extraordinary.
That his daughter had become an internationally famous amateur detective was to have been expected, since she had set her mind on that goal when she was around fourteen. That she had helped found a small country was not all that surprising. That she had got married had been somewhat unexpected, but Vinnie had never really believed her protests that her commitments to journalism and detective work precluded romance.
But that she had adopted a child was amazing. He smiled as he picked up his tray to bring his dirty dishes back to the kitchen. After all, Janice (as he still thought of her) had come from parents who hadn’t wanted children either.
In the third floor hallway, after a ride in the rather rickety elevator, he approached the door and wondered again whether this would be a surprise.
He knocked briskly. A stentorian voice from inside demanded, “What the fuck?”
It hadn’t occurred to Vinnie that they might have company. Maybe he was interrupting some sort of important meeting. Well, it was too late to back out now.
There was a quick, muffled conversation, then Marshall opened the door.
Seeing Vinnie, Marshall held the door halfway open and said, “I’m afraid it is really rather late for this. I’m sure these reports are important, but I doubt she’s going to read them tonight.” Vinnie heard a chair creak as Marshall winked. “In the morning she has…”
Long, slender fingers appeared and pulled the door all the way open. “It is late,” the great detective said, “and I think you’ll find… Padre!”
Her cane fell to the carpet, and she fell into his arms.
After a few moments, during which she made various sounds which, under other circumstances, she herself would have condemned as childish, Vinnie stuck out his right hand.
“Marshall,” he said. “It’s good to see you.”
Marshall nodded and shook his hand. “It’s good to see you, too, Vinnie.” He turned to the girl who was watching this with a very suspicious eye from the other side of the small room. “Ron, please come over here. There’s someone you should meet.”
She stood up and came over slowly. She was small, with unruly hair, a pug nose, and freckles. Her expression said that Vinnie might be a lot bigger than she was, but she’d take him on in a minute if he was hurting her mother.
Marshall put his arm around her narrow shoulders and said, “Ron, this is your grandfather.”
“Fuck!” she blurted out, and he was surprised that the booming voice he’d heard through the door had been hers. She froze, as if having trouble processing this unexpected information. Then she carefully wiped her hand on her jeans and stuck it out. “Sir,” she said, looking very serious.
As Vinnie shook her hand, there was another knock at the door.
part two: investigation