Walking up the stairs to Pete and Katherine’s apartment, Vinnie suddenly realized that this might be socially awkward. Henshaw and Pete had been in a band together, and he had just decked Henshaw. Well, maybe Pete and Katherine would be asleep, as they had been the night before when he and Daphne had got home.
He knocked at the door, lightly, hoping only Daphne would hear. There was a bark from inside (he was surprised to find himself smiling at the sound), but it was Katherine who opened the door. It was cooler that night, so she was dressed in more than underwear.
She smiled as he came in, nearly colliding with Daphne as she lunged forward to greet him. He squatted and rubbed her head, kissing her forehead, and she pressed her head against his.
“Vinnie,” Katherine said as she moved to the big kitchen table. “Good to see you.” She gestured at the stove. “There’s coffee.”
Vinnie went to the stove and poured himself a mug. He saw that Daphne’s bowl was half full, so he topped it off and carried it over next to his chair. He sat, and Daphne lapped up some coffee and rested her chin on his thigh.
“Where’s Pete?” he asked. Since the apartment, other than Daphne’s room, had no walls, it was easy to tell Pete wasn’t there. Then Vinnie noticed that the bass guitar case was missing also. “He got a gig?”
“No,” Katherine said. “He’s got an audition.” She shook her head. “I think he thought that his old band, Kingdom Come, might put itself back together at some point. Tom’s death, of course, ended that.”
“I was under the impression that it had ended some time before that.”
Daphne rolled her eyes, and Vinnie squeezed her head.
Katherine nodded. “It did. I gather Daphne told you about Jenny Owens and all that she brought with her.” She finished her coffee. “Pete thinks he’s not a good bass player, so he thinks getting into KC was a fluke and he’ll never get into that good a band again.” She gave Vinnie a sidelong glance. “I’m not telling you anything I haven’t said to him.”
Daphne barked quietly.
“Then this is probably a good time to let you know that I had an altercation with Mr. Henshaw earlier this evening. I hope that isn’t going to be an issue.” He told the story, and he could tell from their expressions that this was fine with both of them.
Katherine laughed when he was done. “Serves him right. I never did like him. He’s a good musician, I guess, but he’s always trying to prove he’s a tough guy. One time he stole a gun of mine while he was here. I got it back, but…” She made a face. “I thought of killing him, but Pete would have been upset.
“It is typical of him to make himself the hero of the story by talking about his ‘friend’ Tom when they couldn’t stand each other. But I am happy you hit him, like that time with Lauren.”
Vinnie laughed. “It was kind of similar at that.” He looked down at Daphne. “That was in a bar, in the town where I lived, many, many years ago. This woman made a joke about starling…” His voice trailed off.
Katherine smiled. “You can call me that, it’s okay.”
“Lauren made a nasty joke about starling and Alex, who were friends, and starling tripped her so she went flying, and I poured a beer on her head. So, similar, except that this time I did the knocking down and then Ron dumped a plate of salad.”
Katherine laughed. “I knew I liked her.”
Daphne barked a question.
“Alex was my friend,” Vinnie said. “She was Jan’s mother, a little later.”
* * * *
Vinnie looked up at the ceiling. It was barely visible in the light from a streetlight. He had a thought, and he was having a tough time getting rid of it.
Daphne was asleep, pressed against his side with her arm across his stomach. She was snoring quietly, and drooling into his armpit, but that wasn’t what was making it difficult for him to get back to sleep.
Well, if he was right, his daughter would react in a specific way, and probably soon. If not, then it wouldn’t. That was simple. So, why was he still awake?
“What is it?” Daphne murmured. “Getting restless already?”
“No, nothing like that.” He squeezed her. “A thought came to me, and it’s not a really happy one, but I have a possible idea about who killed Tom Drenkenson.”
She opened her eyes and raised her head to look at him in the gloom. “Really?” she whispered. “I didn’t realize there were two detectives in the family.”
“That’s just it. If I’ve figured this out, then she will, too, if she hasn’t already, and then she’ll react in a very particular way. If she doesn’t, then I’m wrong.”
She rested her chin on his chest, still looking at him. “Want to talk about it?”
“Are you sure you want to hear it?”
She shrugged. “If it’s enough to get you all wound up like this, then yes.”
When he was done, she let out a deep sigh. “That’s cutting pretty close to home,” she breathed.
He nodded. “Exactly.”
She sighed. “So, how are you going to test this theory of yours?”
“Well, I think we should go…” He smiled. “I mean I should go–”
“No,” she said. “We can go. I can be Doctor Watson.” He frowned, about to protest, but she continued, “I’ll show you. Watson had many good doggy qualities, you know. Loyal, fearless, helpful–”
“I’m sure you’ll make a fine Watson. I’m more dubious about my ability to hold up my end.”
“Well,” she murmured, putting her head down and closing her eyes, “you lead and I’ll follow. There are advantages…” Her voice trailed off and she barked quietly as she snuggled up against him.
Vinnie was already regretting the idea of trying to solve this mystery himself. Even if his idea was correct (no, especially if it was correct), he couldn’t imagine the process was going to be pleasant.
Vinnie sighed as they walked slowly down the hotel steps. Marshall had told him pretty much what he had expected to hear, but Vinnie had hoped, until the last minute, that he would turn out to be wrong.
He slowed and stood motionless at the bottom of the steps. Daphne leaned against his leg. He looked down and saw that her expression was sad. He leaned over and rubbed her head. “I can go home,” she whispered, “if you don’t… if I’m not going to be helpful.”
He squatted and took her hand (which rested limply in his, like a dog’s paw). “I am very happy you’re here,” he said. “But I do… there are two things I need. Besides my Watson, of course.”
She looked quizzical.
“A private place to talk. Where I’m absolutely sure nobody can overhear. And… there’s someone whose advice I want to get. Stephanie, the girl who works at the pet store Drenkenson owned.”
Daphne was obviously puzzled by this, but she shrugged and turned to face the street that would take them to the pet store. When Vinnie didn’t start walking immediately, she raised one hand and pointed in that direction.
“Thanks,” he said. “Let’s go.”
As they approached the pet store, Vinnie slowed. “I need to talk to Stephanie alone for a minute. Wait here.”
He dropped her leash and stepped toward the door, but she moved with him.
“Daphne, stay!” he said. She looked up, expressionless, but again she stepped forward when he did.
He looked at her for a moment, then he picked up her leash and looped it around a fire hydrant.
She reached up and took it off again.
Vinnie burst out laughing and squatted, bringing her to him and holding her. She licked his cheek and whispered, “So, go on in already. What are you waiting for?”
He laughed again and kissed her. “I’ll be right back.”
A few minutes later, Vinnie, Daphne, and Stephanie sat together in the small office. Stephanie sat at the desk, and Vinnie sat in the other chair. Daphne curled up on the floor. She was enjoying watching Stephanie pretend not to look at her.
“I need to explain this,” Vinnie said, “and it may take a while.”
Stephanie shrugged. “There’s a bell that will ring if a customer comes in. Other than that, I’m all yours.”
“The thing that occurred to me last night,” Vinnie began, “was that Pete and Katherine’s little demonstration in the street yesterday meant something, but it left one big question unanswered. Yes, starling is easy to impersonate, and Daphne here has given her an alibi for that night, which I believe. And, as far as we can figure out, Katherine didn’t have any motive.
“But starling was seen in this area, which means that either she was here or somebody was impersonating her. Daphne tells me that it’s very unlikely that anybody was just walking around dressed as her. People put on starling costumes sometimes for parades or parties, but not just to walk around. Too much chance you’d get shot. She has a lot of enemies.
“So, who was it? Pete was able to pull it off, but a big man like Henshaw? Ridiculous. Larry Gerard? Marshall has described him and that’s even more ridiculous. Jenny Owens, if she’s still around somewhere? That’s possible, but then I had another thought.
“Alex – Jan’s mother – she and Katherine were friends, very briefly and very intensely, and they were known for dressing up like each other. Jan tries not to talk to me about Alex, but from what she doesn’t say I’ve always had the idea that Alex is here somewhere in U-town. I couldn’t get this idea out of my head, so I decided to test it. If I’d thought of this, Jan would, too, and how would she react? She wouldn’t be able to deal with suspecting her own mother, and she’d drop the investigation, or at least put it on the far back burner.”
He sighed. “So, first thing this morning we went to see her. We ran into Marshall, and he said that she was in meetings all day. When we saw him, she was in a meeting about sanitation.” He shook his head. “The lengths to which she will go, under normal circumstances, to avoid meetings about sanitation are a running joke with people who know her. But today? Apparently not.”
“Hang on,” Stephanie said. “I’m okay with…” She shook her head. “Isn’t it pretty far-fetched to assume that your ex-wife knew…” Her voice trailed off and she suddenly looked upset. “How did you know?” she asked.
There was an awkward moment of silence, then Vinnie said, “I’m not clever enough to fake you out. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Stephanie looked at him for a moment, then she said, “Well, to continue my question–”
“Wait a minute,” Vinnie protested. “You can’t just–”
“Ignore what I just said? Actually, I can.”
Vinnie made a rueful and inarticulate noise.
She shrugged. “You can’t force me, you shouldn’t threaten me, and you can’t run to Miss Sleet to figure it out because, according to your theory, she’s dropped the case. And besides, she already knows.”
He sighed. “Okay, what’s your question?”
“You’re basing a lot on two people who liked to dress up like each other twenty years ago. So, let’s assume that Miss Sleet has dropped the case, and because it was hitting too close to home. Who would she do that for?”
“Well, me, I suppose, but I couldn’t impersonate starling.”
Stephanie shook her head. “starling is a murderer. She says she wasn’t there, but I don’t believe anything she says – not without a witness.”
Daphne raised her head and barked, looking angry.
“A reliable and unbiased witness,” Stephanie said, continuing to look at Vinnie.
Daphne stuck out her tongue and put her head down again.
“But I don’t suspect you,” Stephanie said. She shrugged. “No motive. Which also goes for Marshall and Ron. And I don’t think starling did it, because Miss Sleet wouldn’t want to protect her.”
“So, you’re sort of back to Alex.” Vinnie frowned. “I wonder if Jan would lie to protect you. She thinks very highly of you.”
“If she thinks highly of me, it’s because… I’m not the sort of person who’s going to go around murdering people.”
Daphne looked up and barked a question. Vinnie reached down and squeezed her shoulder.
“That makes sense,” he admitted.
“Well,” Vinnie said as they walked along, “at least my daughter will be happy.”
“She’d have been upset if we’d been able to solve it without her. Not that…”
His voice trailed off as they turned a corner and Daphne suddenly started to pull against her leash, straining toward the stone arch across the street which led to a park.
Vinnie allowed himself to be pulled across the street and into the park, which was small — two small city blocks, with several paved paths lined with benches, trees, and grass, and a small playground at the far end.
He felt another tug, and he turned to see Daphne standing up and unclipping the leash from her collar. He handed his end of the leash to her, which seemed to be the appropriate thing to do, and she rolled it up and stuck it into her back pocket.
She took his hand. “I hope you like ice cream,” she said, leading him toward the playground.
A few minutes later, sitting on a bench, back at the far end of the park from the playground, they licked their cones. Daphne had persuaded him to try the papaya/mango/coconut flavor, which was surprisingly tasty.
She sat with one arm around his shoulders, smiling. “It was funny that Stephanie jumped to the conclusion that Alex was your ex-wife, just because you guys had a kid together.”
He nodded, licking up a bit of melting ice cream before it could fall on his hand.
“Alex and I were friends, and we were parents, but we weren’t married, and I never even thought of us as lovers. We just…” He caught her eye and grinned. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but sex can be much more enjoyable than a lot of other activities.”
She nodded seriously. “That’s a very good observation, professor.”
“And we were friends, and we were young and horny, and we weren’t having a lot of luck with any other prospects in our small town.”
“And she got pregnant.”
“Yes, and I was prepared to do my part.”
“But you ended up doing both parts.”
He shrugged. “That was okay. It was… It was easier than if she’d been there, to be honest, and she left so quickly that Janice had no memories of her. She’d have left eventually, so…” He shrugged again and ate some more ice cream.
“So,” he continued after a moment, “just in case you were wondering, my curiosity about Alex was simply to find out whether she’s involved in this case. No other reason.”
Daphne nodded slowly, finishing chewing and swallowing her cone. She pursed her lips thoughtfully, and Vinnie wondered if this was the time that she would start talking about herself, at least a little.
But then he realized that her eyes were closed, and those pursed lips were moving inexorably in the direction of his face.
It had been quite a while since he’d necked on a park bench. And, as they kissed, he reflected that, although he was pretty sure he wouldn’t get anywhere asking nosy questions, he really did want to figure out this odd woman.
After a few minutes, he considered pointing out that she was really too big to be a lap dog, but he decided against it.
one night at the quarter (part six)
Katherine saw Jenny Owens, standing by the side of the stage, leaning forward intently as the band careened from one song into the next. She held a beer bottle loosely in her hand. Her entire attention was apparently focused on Henshaw. Katherine thought that she might attack him in some way, but she didn’t care what happened to him.
If Jenny moved toward Pete, Katherine planned to shoot her in the head. With the rest of the audience sitting down, it would be a nice clear shot. Nobody ever stood up to dance at the Quarter – they just bounced around in their seats (“chair-dancing,” as Pete always called it).
Then, with no warning, Jenny smashed her beer bottle against the edge of the stage and lunged for Henshaw. Katherine stood, her revolver in her hand, but Pete didn’t seem to be in any danger.
Katherine holstered her gun, but she remained standing. Pete had put his bass down and gone to Henshaw’s side, helping to support him. Henshaw had been holding onto the microphone stand, but both he and it were about to fall to the stage. Katherine could see the blood starting to run down his pant leg.
Drenkenson was watching all of this with no expression, his arms folded.
part nine: priscilla