Jan Sleet put down her newspaper and drew deeply on her cigarette. "His Majesty is not doing well," she said slowly.
I knew who she meant. She was referring to King Fernando of Bellona, now deposed. She and I had been present in Bellona during the revolution which had overthrown his rule. My employer had ostensibly been there to cover the events as a journalist.
Since that time, the king, along with his two young children and a few trusted servants, had moved into quiet exile in Europe.
There had been only occasional news over the years, but my employer always noted each item, as if following the career of a vanquished adversary.
"It says here that his doctors are making him comfortable, expecting that he will die soon."
"Does it say what's wrong with him?" I asked. "He's not that old, is he?"
"Fifty-two," she said, "according to my calculations." She sipped her coffee. "There is no mention of his exact condition."
"Do crowns still get passed down even if there's no longer an actual throne involved?"
"Of course. Now..." She frowned. "That's an interesting question. His daughter, as I know you'll remember, is older than her brother, but I'm not certain about the rules of succession. Does the crown go to the oldest child, or to the first-born male?"
"Well," I said, savoring the rare moment when I knew something she didn't, "you'll be able to ask her royal highness yourself, in a week or two."
My employer and I were having breakfast one morning in the hotel dining room when Fifteen came over and said, "Miss Sleet, there is a young lady to see you."
He pursed his lips at my employer's expression and the way she'd quickly reached for her cane. "Your visitor does not... appear to be of royal blood," he said casually, studying the faded mural on the far wall. "I believe she is a member of the princess's staff."
My employer had allowed her excitement about this visit to be a bit too obvious, and I admit some teasing had resulted over the previous ten days. So, with her already halfway out of her chair, there was an awkward moment, but Vicki said, "Well, you shouldn't keep the assistant waiting. That would be rude."
So, we left and walked down the hall to the hotel lobby. My employer was attempting to keep her pace appropriate for an internationally famous amateur detective who had, of course, been around the world, and who was not unused to dealing with prominent people and even heads of state.
We spotted the assistant almost immediately, though the lobby was far from empty. She was standing by the front desk, dressed in a skirt, jacket, and collared shirt, holding a slim briefcase. She had straight brown hair, imperfectly gathered into a bun, and piercing blue eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses.
She was looking around slowly, apparently in search of somebody who looked more official than the people slouching around on the various worn and rump-sprung sofas and chairs.
She smiled, therefore, when she saw my employer.
Jan Sleet was not only the best dressed person in the room -- as she usually was -- she was also very distinctive looking. Six feet tall, rail thin, wearing a man's three-piece suit and large horn-rimmed glasses -- it sometimes seemed like everybody recognized Jan Sleet when they saw her.
The assistant stepped forward and held out her hand. "Miss Sleet?" My employer nodded and shook her hand. "I'm Ana. I'm here to make arrangements for the visit of the princess Valeria." Her accent was faint, but very familiar.
My employer nodded. "We've been looking forward to her highness's visit. We've made arrangements for her to stay here, at the hotel. I realize that the accommodations may be somewhat more bohemian than the princess is used to..."
Ana smiled. "That is not a problem. The princess knows that this trip will put her in situations which will be new for her. She wants to explore the world, not to have the world presented to her."
I gathered that we were far from the princess's first port of call, since this speech sounded very practiced.
My employer nodded and gestured at a sofa that had just been vacated. "Why don't we sit? I'm sure we have things to discuss, arrangements to make."
My employer and Ana sat on the sofa, and I pulled over a straight-backed chair that I could immediately tell was not completely trustworthy. I sat very still as my employer took out her cigarette case, held it out to Ana, and then took one for herself. I leaned forward, carefully, and lit both cigarettes.
They thanked me, and my employer said, "This is my assistant, Marshall."
Ana nodded, acknowledging the introduction.
"The princess will be arriving tomorrow." she began.
"The princess is staying in a hotel in the city," Ana explained. "When I'm sure the necessary arrangements are made here, I will return to the city, and then I'll accompany the princess when she comes here tomorrow."
"We've set aside a room -- one of our better rooms -- for the princess. How many are there in her party?"
"Just the two of us, and a man who is responsible for her safety. He will need a room adjoining hers, with a connecting door. Will that be possible?"
"Of course. And a separate room for you?"
She nodded. "Yes, of course."
"Do you know how long the princess will be staying?"
Ana shrugged an expressive shrug. "I do not know her plans to that extent. Is it--"
"She will be welcome for as long as she wishes to stay. As our guest, of course."
Ana smiled, briefly but with some amount of feeling, probably mostly because my employer had managed to settle the question of money without anybody having to mention it explicitly.
The following morning we sat expectantly in the hotel lobby. We were sipping coffee and my employer was smoking.
Vicki was not there. As the head of our government (and also our head of state -- as my employer had pointed out, to Vicki's complete indifference), she had more important things to do than sit around all morning, and maybe part of the afternoon as well, waiting for a guest with a title but no actual authority.
So, we sat, comfortably, waiting.
Then, by complete coincidence, it was lunchtime, and Vicki and Pat were crossing the lobby together, holding hands, headed to the dining room, when the revolving door admitted a stern-faced man in a dark suit and mirror sunglasses.
He might just as well have been wearing a sign that said, "I am handling security for somebody important."
My employer took her cane and got to her feet.
Vicki saw the man, stopped, and whispered something to Pat. She had not been going to wait around all day to receive our visitor, but it would have been childish for her to hurry out of the room in order to deliberately miss her arrival.
And Vicki, though not yet twenty when these events took place, was never childish, particularly in her official capacity.
She caught my eye, aware that I knew why she was waiting, and reached up to her throat to make a motion to adjust her tie, exactly as my employer, oblivious to this byplay, was adjusting her own tie.
Vicki, of course, wore no tie. As on pretty much every day since I'd met her, she was wearing a black T-shirt, black jeans, black high-top sneakers, and a black leather jacket.
The security man, having apparently reassured himself that no immediate dangers were lurking in the lobby, went back out through the revolving door, which immediately admitted two women. He followed, trying to look unobtrusive.
Princess Valeria stood motionless for a moment, as blank-faced as her bodyguard. Ana was at her elbow.
I had a momentary image of the princess looking slowly around at the state of the lobby, the furniture, and the inhabitants, and turning to leave, perhaps muttering, loudly, "What the hell was I thinking?"
But, no, she took off her sunglasses and started to move in the direction of my employer.
The princess approached us and my employer held out her hand. "Your highness," she said.
"I'm very pleased to meet you, Miss Sleet," the princess said as they shook hands. "May we now move to being 'Val' and 'Jan'?"
My employer laughed. "That would be fine. This is my husband, Marshall."
The princess smiled as we shook hands. "Anybody who has followed your career, Jan, is aware of Marshall. It's good to meet you."
"I'm very pleased to meet you," I responded.
Her handshake was firm, and her gaze was direct. She was somewhat taller than Ana, and her brown hair was shorter. She wore a pantsuit, and her off-white shirt was open wide at the collar. It was apparently made of some very fancy material that I was not familiar with. She wore no jewelry.
"And may I present--" my employer began as Vicki came up.
"Miss Wasserman," the princess said, smiling. She started to extend her hand again, but Vicki instead made a perfect curtsey. The princess inclined her head. I could not have been more surprised if Vicki had performed a quick stepdance.
"Miss Wasserman," the princess said, "you're probably not aware of this, but when I was born there was a possibility that I would have been named Victoria. At that time, though, the general opinion was that it would have been too British."
Vicki smiled and nodded. "That was not a concern for me, since I'm a mongrel. My parents were an Italian and a lunatic, and I was raised by the world's least observent Jewish family."
"Ah," said the princess. "That sounds... interesting."
Vicki gestured at Pat. "This is Patricia, my girlfriend, and I do hope you'll call me Vicki while you're here. Have a good afternoon."
She took Pat's hand and led her away. Pat had not attempted a curtsey, though she had looked like she was imagining trying one and falling down in the attempt. She had managed to remove her baseball cap as she had been presented to the princess.
The princess turned back to us, and my employer said, "Would you like to sit down? Are you hungry or thirsty?"
The princess nodded. "I will confess that I would be happy to sit down, and perhaps have a cup of coffee or tea, if that's possible. That was a rather tiring walk."
"Of course," my employer said.
A few minutes later, we were sitting in a small alcove off the lobby. It had a large window, and the midday sun was pleasant. Ana and I had brought a coffee service from the kitchen -- a large carafe, four cups and saucers (which matched, more or less), and related supplies.
The princess sipped her coffee and looked out the window for a moment.
She turned back to us and smiled. "I'm very glad that you were able to receive me on such short notice. I had intended to come next week, or the week after..."
"Marshall noticed a small article in one of the European newspapers that we subscribe to. They mentioned that you were planning to visit the United States, and us."
"I had intended to spend more time in the United States before coming here, but... I had not realized that my visit would attract so much attention."
"From the press?"
"No." She smiled. "The newspapers have been almost completely uninterested in me, which is fine. There have been times, with my father..." She shrugged. "I am aware, of course, that you've been on both sides of the pad and pencil."
"I am... surprised and pleased that you are aware of my work. It has been a while since I earned my living with the pad, the pencil, and the typewriter."
"I was young when we met the first time, but I was certainly aware of who you were and what you were doing there."
"And we've read your book," Ana said suddenly.
Well, now my employer was really discombobulated, which was a rare occurrence indeed. She had never published a book.
"One of the bootleg versions?" I asked, to give her a moment to recover.
Ana nodded. "We found it very interesting."
My employer's magazine reports from Bellona, during the revolution, had been very popular, but a planned collection in book form had encountered many vague and inexplicable difficulties, and ultimately had not been published. There had never been direct evidence of government interference and suppression, but no other plausible explanation had ever been proposed.
Because of the level of interest in the book, however, bootleg copies did circulate, and my employer never objected.
We spoke for a while longer, quite relaxed, and the women all smoked as we drank the coffee. My employer and I recommended a few local restaurants and other sites of interest, and Ana made a list in a small notebook.
Then the princess said that she wanted to lie down for a while, still tired after her walk, although she looked about as weary as a sprinter the moment before the starting pistol is fired.
As she and Ana left the room, the princess leaned over and murmured something to my employer. Then they were gone, and through the open door I could see the bodyguard stand up to follow them.
I'd offered to show the princess and Ana to their rooms, but they had declined and I'd told them the room numbers.
After they were gone, we sat down again and I split the remaining coffee between our two cups.
"Do you know what I wonder?" she asked, tapping her forefinger on her cigarette case. Then she looked up quickly and frowned. "I am not thinking of the obvious. Obviously."
"Is it related to whatever her highness whispered to you?"
She laughed. "That was quite innocuous, actually. She just wanted me to know that Ana will not require a separate room. She'll be sharing the princess's quarters during their visit."
"Well, in my situation, I certainly can't raise an eyebrow about that."
She snorted a laugh. "I should say not."
"And the other thing that's on your mind, apart from the obvious?"
"Well, I'm wondering when and how the royal luggage will arrive."
Okay, she had been ahead of me on that one. The question of the princess's luggage had not occurred to me.
I was awake before I was aware of it.
Jan was awake also, sitting up in bed.
It was still dark out, and I glanced at the clock on the bedside table by habit. 4:42 a.m.
Then we heard the sound again. Faint, as if there were several walls between us and the gun, but we knew that sound.
"Robe," I said as I quickly pulled on a pair of pants, knowing that modesty was pretty much the last thing on her mind in situations like this.
I opened the locked case in my bottom bureau drawer and took out a pistol, carefully locking the case again as she pulled on her shoes.
Out in the hall, a couple of people were poking their heads out of their rooms and looking around. I gestured and they stepped back..
The princess's room was down the hall from ours, and I think we were both sure, with no real evidence, that that's where the shooting had been. Then we heard a scream.
I moved to knock on the door, but my employer gestured as she limped up and I tried the door. It was locked, but I knew how lousy most of the locks were and I gave it my shoulder, hard.
That popped the lock and I was in, my employer right behind me.
My brain was still figuring out how one apologizes for breaking into a princess's bedroom in the middle of the night, and what I might quickly say if it turned out that her bodyguard was present, when my eyes informed my brain that it had a whole different set of problems to worry about, since the bodyguard was stretched out on the floor, obviously dead.
My employer limped in and quickly closed the door to the hall. She scanned the room as I went to the princess, who was sitting on the bed, shaking and staring at something on the floor, on the far side of the bed.
My employer and I hurried around, and there was Ana, on the floor. I kneeled and checked her, knowing what I would find. I could hear my employer moving around the room. I knew she'd see everything there was to see, so I turned my attention to the princess.
It looked like another scream was coming, so I said, "Don't look, Val." I was standing beside the bed, trying to block her view of Ana's body. I took her shoulders and gently turned her so that she was facing the foot of the bed.
"Val," I said again, trying to get her to look at me, "Are you hurt? Are you okay?"
Then the deluge came. She buried her face in my stomach and cried -- great, heaving sobs, her hands clutching at my lower back.
This was somewhat awkward, since I was only wearing slacks and shoes, and she was naked, so I put my hand on her back and held it there, not moving it, as I looked around the room.
The bodyguard lay on his back, blood on his white shirt. A gun was lying in between the two bodies. The bed clothes were all tangled around, and some were scattered across the floor.
The princess's grip had loosened enough that I was able to bend over, grab the corner of a blanket, and wrap it around her shoulders. She clutched it around her, as if suddenly aware that she was naked. She was looking down at the mattress and I couldn't see her face.
"I'm going to get help," my employer said, limping toward the door. "Pick up the gun."
I did (checking it -- two chambers empty), and dropped it into my pocket.
I now had a heavy gun in each pocket, and I hitched up my pants, wishing I'd put on a belt.
My employer enlisted a couple of people from neighboring rooms to help, and they quickly brought Fifteen, our young aide.
Fortunately, whoever had rousted Fifteen out of bed had apparently mentioned that the emergency had involved gunshots, because Christy came with him. Her ensemble consisted of a big fuzzy bathrobe, some puffy slippers, and a large revolver. Her red hair was tousled, but her expression said that she was fully awake and ready for anything.
We clustered in the doorway. My employer addressed her comments to Fifteen, but they were for Christy and me also.
"There are three things which need to be done immediately, and two more which need to happen as quickly as possible:
"1. We need a medic to examine the princess, to make sure she's uninjured.
"2. We need security for the princess, immediately, because her bodyguard has been murdered by person or persons unknown.
"3. We need to move her highness to a more secure location. Marshall broke the lock on this door so that we could get into the room, and in any case I need to do a thorough examination of the crime scene.
"4. We need to get the bodies to the hospital.
"5. I need at least a preliminary autopsy as soon as that's possible."
"I don't need a doctor," the princess said. She'd come up behind me without making a sound. She was still wrapped up in the blanket, looking like a refugee from some sort of natural disaster. "I would like to get out of this room, though."
"Christy and I will take the princess to our room," I said. "The door and the windows have good locks."
"Clear the hallway," my employer said, then she turned to Christy. "We have to assume that the princess is in immediate danger. Please don't leave her for a moment."
When the hallway was cleared of the curious, we moved quickly. As we reached the door, the princess suddenly grabbed the door frame and started crying again. I scooped her into my arms and got her into the room. Christy closed and locked the door as I lay the princess on the bed. She curled up, as if trying to occupy as small a space as possible, the blanket still wrapped around her.
Christy made sure the window was locked and the drapes were closed while I got a robe out of the closet. Christy took it from me and twirled a finger, telling me to turn my back. I did, and she helped the princess put on the robe. I took the opportunity to unlock my drawer and put the guns away. I can use a gun when I have to, but I always prefer to leave them to the experts, like Christy.
After a few minutes, the princess recovered and sat up. Even with the robe on, she still kept the blanket wrapped around her. Her face was blotchy and swollen.
There was a knock on the door, and Christy went to open it a crack and look out.
"It's coffee," she said.
The princess frowned as if she'd never heard the word before, and I found myself trying to remember if I'd ever met anybody named Coffee.
Christy, seeing our perplexed expressions, raised a hand and mimed drinking a cup of coffee -- which was obviously something the princess and I needed. Then Christy's eyes met mine and she frowned. Probably I did also.
"Is there a problem?" the princess asked.
I went to the door, keeping it half closed so that the princess wasn't visible from the hallway. Christy was behind me, her gun in her hand.
A man who I didn't recognize said, "Fifteen asked me to--"
"Very thoughtful, and please thank him for that, but not now. Thank you, also."
I closed and relocked the door, and the princess frowned. "Do you really think--" she began.
"No. It's unlikely, I admit, but it's not impossible. I had somebody get poisoned right in front of me once. It's not--"
She nodded and sighed. "I would appreciate some coffee at some point, though. I..." Her shoulders sagged.
"But not enough to die for it, I know," I said. I went to my desk, opened the bottom drawer, and pulled out a small electric tea kettle.
Christy shook her head. "Isn't there a rule..."
"Because of the wiring in this place..."
She watched as I filled the kettle in the tiny bathroom, set it on my desk, and plugged it in.
"Well, I guess I'll have some, too," she said, which got a small smile out of the princess.
I was glad to see that smile. Knowing my employer, her investigation of the crime scene could take hours, and, having spent a lot of time with people who were recently bereaved in my career as a detective's assistant, I knew that the earlier you can introduce at least a tiny bit of humor, the better in the long run.
Christy caught my eye. She didn't need to do any more than that -- I'd attended her father's funeral with her, fairly recently, and we'd had quite a long discussion of this question.
I suppose I should add that her father had died of natural causes, aided by a lifetime of heavy drinking.
The next few hours were probably hectic for some, but not for Christy, Princess Valeria, or me.
We ended up sitting in silence for a while, drinking our tea, and then the princess went into the bathroom and closed the door.
As I was mentally double-checking that the bathroom was absolutely secure -- with only one tiny window that was several stories above the street -- Christy stood up and moved silently toward me. She leaned way over, so that we were almost nose-to-nose, and she whispered, "You know something."
She waited a moment, discovered that I wasn't prepared to explain any further, and made a moue of disapproval. And then, before straightening up, she apparently decided that this was not sufficiently emphatic, so she stuck her tongue out at me.
When the princess emerged from the bathroom, she went to the window, apparently about to pull back the curtain, but I was across the room before she touched it. I reached for her wrist, but she let her hand drop.
"I get..." she said, looking around the room. Her face was clean, but it was still puffy.
I nodded. "I know," I said, aware of exactly what she meant. "When my employer investigates the scene of a crime, she's very thorough, and that takes time."
"This is Miss Sleet's room, isn't it?" the princess asked suddenly.
"Hers and mine, yes," I said.
A smile flickered across her face. "I am aware that, in addition to being her loyal assistant, you are also her husband, but my point is that this is her room, correct?" By this time she was smiling more steadily.
Not seeing where she was going, I nodded. "It is."
"Then I'm sure there must be cigarettes around here somewhere."
We all laughed.
By the time my employer arrived, the princess was asleep, and I was close to dozing myself, leaning back as far as I could in my desk chair. Christy, of course, was awake and alert.
My employer, still in her pajamas and robe, regarded us from the doorway. As the princess raised her head, my employer said, "Val, your highness, I have, as the saying goes, good news and bad news. The bad news is that I have many questions to ask you, and then I will have some things to tell you. The good news is this: I bring coffee." She glanced at me. "Which I am personally willing to vouch for."
Her mouth quirked. We both knew that she would have had some sharp words if we'd allowed the princess to drink the possibly-poisoned coffee earlier.
She opened the door wide and Fifteen wheeled in a small rolling table containing a coffee service, plus a stack of pastries and bagels.
Jan took her own desk chair, displacing Christy, and Fifteen brought in two straight-backed chairs. There was some back and forth about who would sit where (other than my employer, who was obviously not about to surrender her own chair for anybody, not even royalty -- so I gave the princess my chair), but eventually we settled down.
The princess sipped her coffee, and, after swallowing a bite of a danish, said, "Miss Sleet, do you know what happened? Am I still in danger now? Why..."
My employer put down her coffee cup (she never ate in the morning -- her breakfast was always a cigarette and coffee) and said, "I'm afraid that, as I said, I need some answers before I can provide any."
The princess sighed. "I know that's reasonable. Can we get started now?"
"Of course. The first thing I need to know is what happened last night, from your point of view."
The princess sighed again, more deeply, and sipped her coffee.
"I was asleep. When I woke up, Ana was struggling with Archie. They were fighting over a gun, and it had gone off -- that's what woke me up. I don't know what happened before that."
She paused for a moment and wiped her eyes. "I tried to get to them, to help her--"
"Where were they?"
"Near the door to his room. I tried to climb over the foot of the bed, but then there was another shot -- so loud -- and he fell back and I could see the blood on his shirt--"
"So, the light was on, in your room?"
"I... I guess it must have been."
"And his room? The doorway would have been behind him, based on where you say he was and where he fell. Was his light on?"
She looked off into space for a moment, then she shook her head.
"I don't know, not for sure."
"Understandable. And after the second shot?"
"He fell back, as I said, and I guess he shoved her at the last moment -- Ana -- or at least she stepped backward a couple of steps, losing her balance, swinging her arms around, and then she tripped over something and she fell.
"She... she hit her head, the back of her head, on the edge of the coffee table, and she didn't get up. I went to her, and her eyes were open, but..."
She was obviously finding this part harder and harder to tell.
"I tried to help her. Her... her eyes were open, but I couldn't tell if she saw me. She was twitching, like cats do when they're sleeping, and I couldn't get her to..."
"And then you screamed."
The princess nodded.
My employer leaned back in her chair. "Well, let me tell you what I know about Archie Glover, your bodyguard, based on my examination of his room and his body."
The princess glanced up, and my employer paused. "I never knew his last name," the princess said. She shook her head. "I'm sorry. Please continue."
"He did not go to bed last night. He stayed awake, and at some point he went downstairs and got coffee from the cafeteria and a couple of magazines from the lobby.
"He sat in his chair, drank coffee and read magazines, and apparently watched the time on his wristwatch, which was propped up on the bedside table where he could see it from the chair.
"Then, presumably soon before his attack on you, he took his gun, turned off the light in his room, and opened the door. The window was raised in his room, and he had a fake passport and a substantial amount of cash in his pockets, so presumably his plan was to murder you, and then escape through the window, down the fire escape, and away. He probably switched on the light as he stepped in -- the connecting rooms here have switches next to both doors -- and was ready to fire as soon as he'd located his victims."
She shrugged. "It was a good plan, and it almost certainly would have worked."
"Except for Ana."
"Yes, except for Ana."
We were silent for a moment, then the princess said, "So, that's what you know. That my bodyguard deliberately set out to kill me?"
"I know much more than that. But now I need to ask you some things, because what I don't know is the motive. I need your help with that."
"The motive?" the princess asked vaguely, as if she'd been thinking of this entire situation as some sort of natural disaster.
"We can start this way: Is there any reason to think that Mr. Glover's animus was personal? Did you have any interactions with him which could have resulted in enmity?"
"Rancor. Malignant ill will. Odier."
She nodded. "No, definitely not. We... I never... I didn't know him before this trip. He was assigned to come with us. We... Ana and I tried to draw him out -- just out of curiosity -- but he wouldn't talk." She gave a wry smile. "We made it sort of a game, to try to get him to react, to say something personal."
My employer nodded. "Two girls playing -- I understand. And I understand why he didn't react. He was being professional, though not a professional bodyguard, as it turned out, but a professional killer."
The princess drew deeply on her cigarette and exhaled a cloud of smoke.
"This sounds like a cliche, I know," she said slowly, her eyes moving around the room, "but have you ever felt like you were waiting for someone to appear out of nowhere and kill you? At any moment? It's... a very particular sensation."
My employer shook her head. "I have never been in exactly your situation. I've had people try to kill me, but I've always known who my adversary was. And of course during the revolution in your country, during the days of the shelling in particular... But perhaps we shouldn't talk about those days."
The princess gave a slow and expressive shrug. "That was a long time ago. I was a child back then, really. I don't..." She gave a half smile. "My father follows your career, you know. 'My old adversary,' he calls you at times. He respects you. It's the United States that he hates -- they... encouraged him to do terrible things--"
"And then abandoned him to his fate when the situation became difficult. That has occurred to me. Offering him a safe haven in Europe was no compensation for losing a kingdom, I would imagine."
"And even that. They set it up, but most of the money comes from some corporations who are trying to figure out a way to clear out the rebels and reestablish a more business-friendly... That's their term, of course."
"They want to get their hands on the oil again."
"Of course. And they think that, at the right time... well, their idea is that returning the king to the throne would make the whole thing seem more legitimate."
"But the revolution was years ago -- why haven't they implemented this plan? Based on what I've read of your father's health, and I was very sorry to read it, of course, it would seem to be too late now."
"Thank you. I was not privy to the conversations -- negotiations might be a more appropriate term -- since I was underage and not next in line for the throne, but..."
"A man, a proud man, a real king, might not want to take on the role of an imitation king, as a performance, as an actor with no real power."
"Exactly. He has never said this to me, but I believe that is how he feels about it."
"Now, you said you were not next in line for the throne, I have been wondering about that. So, the line of succession is to the first born male -- in this case your brother?"
The princess nodded. "That has always been the rule..."
My employer leaned forward. "But now it's changed?"
The princess made a face. "As I said, my father was not willing to... be used -- as we were just discussing. However, my brother has made it clear that he would be very willing, if enough money were involved. He has made this so clear that my father has become angry and has threatened to change the line of succession so that the crown would simply go to the eldest child. Which would be me, of course."
"Ah. So you think it's possible that Mr. Glover was hired to kill you by your brother, so that the crown would be sure to go to your brother no matter what?"
The princess sighed and nodded. "That would seem logical."
"It does seem logical. Well, that's probably as far as we can get on that question while we're sitting here in this room. Before we go on to the next point, though, let me just ask two questions which I've been wondering about.
"Yesterday, you said you had come to U-town earlier than planned, because of 'interest' in your visit. What did you mean by that?"
"Almost as soon as we arrived, businessmen started appearing, offering to take me out to dinner, to the theater, to dancing clubs, and so on." She grimaced. "Some of them were apparently chosen because they were young and attractive."
My employer shook her head. "Just in case you should end up being queen someday."
"Exactly. One even went so far as to hint that they thought I'd be easier to deal with than my brother." She drew herself up. "You do not get on my good side by insulting my family."
"You said you had two questions."
My employer smiled. "How did your luggage get here?"
The princess laughed, looking surprised. "My luggage?"
"You and Ana arrived yesterday with no bags, but your room -- the room where you slept -- contains several suitcases of your belongings and hers. How did they get here?"
"Why does that matter?"
"Well, look at it this way. Ana came here yesterday -- the day before yesterday, actually -- to make arrangements. Then she returned the next day with you and Mr. Glover. It is possible, of course, that you were followed, but otherwise, who knows where you are now, where you're staying here in U-town? Well, whoever brought your luggage would know. So, that's relevant to how much danger you might be in right now."
The princess looked abstracted, and then she shrugged. "Ana made some arrangement -- paid a couple of men. I don't know the details."
My employer leaned back in her chair, but I could tell she was far from relaxed. I felt a tingle, even as tired as I was. She was building up to something. I knew the signs.
"Three more things," she said. "The first one is really incidental, but it has to come next. Why did you and Ana pretend to be lovers?"
The princess froze for a moment. "How did you know?"
My employer smiled, briefly. "How did I know? Two general observations, really: the rule of the sheets, and the rule of traveling couples, I guess we can call them. Plus one very specific observation.
"Two people, sharing a bed, may use any number of pillows, pillow cases, comforters, and blankets, but they seldom use more than one top sheet and one fitted sheet. What would they use them for? But in your room, obviously in use, there were four sheets.
"And here's the specific observation: The bedclothes were scattered all over the floor. Why?
"There was nothing in your account of the crime that would explain the way the bedclothes were scattered around the room, even apart from the question of the number of sheets.
"On close examination, though, it became apparent that someone had been sleeping on the floor. A comforter folded up as a mattress, two sheets, a blanket on top, a pillow, and then the whole thing kicked around to hide what was going on, probably right before we stepped into the room.
"Leading me to the rule of traveling couples. A couple at home may fight and one may end up sleeping on the couch or elsewhere in the house -- but this almost never happens when traveling. That's a big bed. No matter how bad the fight, you'd have just moved to opposite sides and gone to sleep.
"So, why did you pretend to be lovers?"
The princess nodded slowly. "We...I had started to become uneasy about Archie. We both felt it. Just... If he was loyal, we were very safe. But if he wasn't, we were totally at his mercy."
She shrugged. "It may seem odd to you, Miss Sleet -- as a woman of the world -- but I was suddenly aware that this was my first trip away from home, and sometimes it seemed like it was a big adventure...
"Anyway, I decided I wanted Ana with me at night, in my room, so it wasn't just me, with Archie on the other side of the door. I was going to make up some sort of story, but then I found out that Vicki Wasserman was -- you know -- that way, and it seemed the easiest solution. We laughed about it, Ana and I..." Her voice trailed off.
My employer nodded. "I thought it was something like that. I wanted to establish that you were not lovers before I tell you how I believe she betrayed you. To be betrayed by a friend and companion is bad enough, but to be betrayed by a lover is worse, and I didn't want you to feel compelled to act out a level of grief that you didn't actually feel."
The princess frowned. "She betrayed me?" she asked slowly. Then her voice sharpened. "Miss Sleet, may I remind you that she died trying to protect me?"
"That's true... But let me start at the beginning." The princess folded her arms, looking stern.
"A careful study of your room revealed more than your sleeping arrangements. Let's look at the events from Mr. Glover's point of view. He is prepared and he is a professional. He is ready to come quickly into a room and kill two sleeping women." She shrugged. "There was no reason to keep Ana alive, and every reason to kill her, too.
"So, how did Ana get all the way across the room to struggle with him for the gun? How did he allow that to happen? The answer -- the only answer -- is that he didn't see her as a threat."
"Yes, but. She did get across the room to him, pretending to be on his side, and then she did struggle with him, to save the life of her mistress, so she must have had a change of heart.
"But then, her mistress jumped in to help her, and got knocked down and suffered a fatal injury, and somehow the bodyguard was killed, and then Ana was stuck with the fact that she and the princess had been pretending to be each other, another of their games.
"But then, why did she not say so right away, at the moment when it would have been natural for her to admit the truth, when Marshall and I burst into the room? Because of her guilt about her original plan to betray her mistress, and then it was too late to tell us, because why hadn't she said it at first, and also there was the fear that I would discover it anyway, as I have.
"Isn't that how it happened, Ana?"
"So, mom, when did you know?"
We were having dinner that night with our daughter, Ron -- after doing the paperwork for Ana's arrest, and then, I confess, taking a nap -- and Ron was, as usual, cutting right to the most important point.
"Well, of course I had the chance to go through their luggage..."
Ron rolled her eyes. "Their passports," she said.
Jan laughed. "That certainly would have made it easy, but no. Their passports were not there, and they didn't have very much cash, either. I believe that they left those things in the safe at the hotel where they stayed in the city." She shrugged. "We do have a reputation for lawlessness around here, after all.
"No, the clue was their clothes. Ana is substantially larger than the princess was, and a princess's clothes are not identical to an assistant's. The items which were more luxurious, and in many cases handmade, were all the princess's size, not Ana's."
Ron nodded thoughtfully. "Why did she do it? And why did the princess make her sleep on the floor? I mean, shit, I shared a bed with a girl at camp, and it wasn't that bad."
"Apparently it didn't occur to the princess -- the real princess -- that they could share a bed. They were friendly, but they were not friends -- although it seems that for a while Ana thought they were.
"Ana has admitted that she was offered money -- a lot of money -- not to interfere with the murder, but I believe that resentment played a part as well."
"What will happen to her?"
"The court will decide. She betrayed the princess -- I'm not sure if there's enough evidence to establish that, but she's admitted it -- but then she did try to save her. She also admits shooting Glover, but that was in a struggle and apparently it was an accident or self-defense. We'll see what the verdict is."
Ron looked thoughtful. "Ana was gonna get stiffed, right? No money in her luggage, and all the cash was about to go out the window in whats-his-name's pocket."
Jan nodded, smiling. "I can't argue with that. Very good."
Ron's smile was so fleeting that it may have been a trick of the light.
"So, can I come along with you guys?"
"Come along?" Jan asked innocently.
"Well, you're gonna go see the king, right? To tell him what happened?"
Jan nodded. "One of his children has apparently been involved in the death of the other one. His majesty should hear the details of what happened as accurately as possible."
Ron snorted. "The prince is going to be fucked."
"We don't know that it was him. It could have been somebody around him, somebody who thought they'd benefit."
Ron made a face which said she was sure of the prince's guilt, but she didn't pursue the question. Instead she said, "And you're going to find out whether the king's son is killing him."
Jan nodded. "That, too, of course. It does seem possible that the sudden decline in his majesty's health, at a relatively young age, is not entirely natural..."
"So, mom, when did you know?"
Jan looked at me, and I shrugged. "If she's coming with us, she'll figure it out."
Jan nodded. "That's true." She reached over to her desk and picked up a magazine, which she handed to Ron.
Ron looked at it. The cover was King Fernando -- a photograph of his last official portrait. It showed his impressive mane of dark hair, his luxurious salt-and-pepper beard and mustache, a dark suit crossed by a red sash of state, and his striking, pale blue eyes. Which we knew he had passed down to both of his children.
Ron nodded. She knew that a world famous amateur detective would not want it known that she had solved a mystery by such a plebian method as noticing the eye color of two women.
After all, even I had spotted that.
© Copyright 2016 Anthony Lee Collins. All rights reserved.