A Sane Woman

"A sane woman is a crazy person."
– Jill Johnston

Copyright 1990-2004 by Anthony Lee Collins

For Maggie

Chapter One

Tuesday, The Morning After

Sarah sat in the kitchen, alone. She had made herself a cup of tea and it sat, untouched, on the counter in front of her.

For once, she was glad to be alone. Nicky hadn't even stirred when she'd crawled out of bed.

"It's not so easy as all that to be exempted from your culture," Perry had said the night before. "No matter who you sleep with."

Sarah wrapped her robe more tightly around her legs. The events of the previous night replayed themselves endlessly in her mind. She couldn't forget the look on Sam's face as he'd gone off to bed. She was furious at Terry, at Sam, at Perry even. And at herself, though she couldn't have said why. She wanted to hit something, but the pain in her hand reminded her how futile that could be. She clenched her fist experimentally, wondering if seeing a doctor might not be such a bad idea after all.

Perry opened the unlocked apartment door. He listened as he closed the door, quiet as a burglar. The apartment was silent.

He stood in the hallway for a moment, his head throbbing. The first door on the left, the girls' room, was closed. The door beyond, Sam's, was ajar and dark. The first door on the right, the living room, was open, a single light on.

It was empty, to his relief, and he sat down heavily on the sofa yawning.

The Today Show had been a disaster, as far as he'd been able to tell, and he was distressed (and somewhat amazed, everything considered) to discover that someone had had the presence of mind to program the VCR to record it. He considered erasing the tape, but he knew he couldn't bring himself to do that without watching it first, and he definitely wasn't up to that.

He kicked off his boots and stretched out on the sofa. He didn't expect anybody to get up anytime soon. The clock on the VCR said ten-twenty.

And Nicky slept, dreaming of being on television.

Perry found himself thinking how nice it would be to go home. Then he sat bolt upright as a howl of anguish came from Sam's room. He stumbled to his feet and crashed into Sarah as he ran to Sam's room.

They opened the door all the way and stood transfixed in the doorway. Sam stood naked, his back against the wall, looking at the bed. The bedclothes were tangled and ripped, and covered in blood. There was no sign of Terry.

Two Days Earlier, Sunday Evening

Terry took off her glasses and squeezed the bridge of her nose, her eyes clenched shut.

Sam wasn't surprised she had a headache. It had been a hard week. She closed her book on a finger and looked out the window at the twilight scenery.

There were only about a dozen people on the Boston to New York bus that Sunday night.

"Why don't you take a nap?" he asked.

She smiled wryly. "I usually can't sleep on busses, but today I could probably manage it." She dog-eared a page and stuffed the book into her handbag. She smiled, leaning back, and tapped the book he was reading as she closed her eyes.

"Don't you nap, now. I'm next in line and I'm getting antsy."

She folded her scarf and cushioned her head with it as she leaned against the window.

The book Sam was reading was Perry Nelson's latest novel, already moving up the best-seller lists. Perry was Terry's step-brother. Sam had met him a few times, the child prodigy, but Terry usually avoided him, though she liked him and conceded his genius. She just kept away from him because, since she was a fellow writer in the same family, completely unsuccessful so far, and several years his elder in the bargain, she felt enough in his shadow as it was without having to meet it face to face.

Sam read for a while, but what was between the lines was so full and challenging that he had to close the book and lean back to sort it out. He decided to buy Terry her own copy when they reached the city. He wanted to take his time. Perry would have given her a copy, but she never would have asked.

He looked over at Terry, who was fast asleep. He found himself looking for a long time at her face, or what he could see of it in the dim light, with her lank hair falling across it. It was about the only time he could ever look at her without her snapping, "What?"

It was dark outside except for the lights of the cars on the highway. Terry's glasses were between her fingers, dangling precariously. He rescued them, snapped them into their case and deposited them into her bag.

Sam looked her over with a feeling of incredible luck welling up in him. She was several years older than he, a high school English teacher by day, an unsuccessful writer by night. A smart, bright, supportive friend by day, a smart, agile, inventive lover by night, he thought. She was tall and lean, with shoulder-length ash-blonde hair framing a narrow face, with large eyes over a small nose, mouth and chin. She was dressed well as always, a cream sweater over a dark brown collared shirt, tan corduroy slacks and her knee-high dark brown boots.

She looked drawn and pale, even for her, and that was one reason he'd asked her to come down to New York for his birthday. He'd spent the weekend in Boston with her, and he'd been worried by how tired she was. It had been three weeks since the last time they'd seen each other, and on the phone it hadn't been clear she was in such bad shape. So, with some effort, he'd managed to persuade her to call in sick and come to New York with him for a couple of days.

She'd been teaching by day and writing feverishly every night, sleeping very little and drinking much too much coffee. He wondered if Perry's new book was the reason for the sudden intensification of activity, but he hadn't mentioned the possible connection to her. She'd probably figured it out anyway.

It would have been nearly impossible to pry her loose, except that she'd had to admit that what she'd been writing was seriously flawed.

Sam glanced at his watch. More than an hour to Port Authority. He was impatient to get Terry home to his apartment and to bed. She looked really rocky.

As if aware of his gaze on her, she opened her eyes and shivered. He held out his arm and she curled against his shoulder. In the cold light of day the sight of her six-foot frame folded compact enough to cuddle up to him like a child might have looked a little silly, but in the dark it was just nice, filling him with a special feeling of wonder that this thorny, hyper-intellectual creature trusted him enough to relax with him and maybe even to risk looking a bit foolish.

When they reached New York, Terry looked so queasy that Sam didn't even consider the subway. He kept his arm around her as he hailed a cab and bundled her into it. They each kept clothes at the other's apartments, so there was no luggage to worry about.

Ten dollars later, as Sam unlocked the apartment door, she said quietly, "I'm not up to any fun and games. Are they home, do you think?"

He shrugged. "Probably. You just go to bed and don't worry."

He opened the door and she steamed down the hall and into his bedroom. He followed somewhat more slowly, glancing into the living room as he passed. Empty. The door to the girls' room was closed.

When Terry was in bed, Sam came out of his room and closed the door. He heard voices from the kitchen, so he looked in.

Nicky and Sarah, dressed in long flannel nightgowns, were perched on stools at the kitchen counter, devouring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They looked up, grubby-faced and grinning, and Nicky said, "Hi, Sam. Want some PB&J?"

"Where's the Perfect Woman?" Sarah asked as he sat down and got himself some bread.

"She's asleep. You two leave her alone, now. She's pretty shaky."

"What's the matter with her?" Nicky asked.

He chewed and swallowed. "Overwork, far as I can tell. Maybe more, but I don't know yet for sure."

"I'm dying of suspense," Sarah said dryly. "So, what're we doing for your birthday?"

Sam pouted. "You mean you're not going to give me the usual surprise party?"

Nicky laughed as Sarah jumped off her stool and padded over to the refrigerator. "What surprise party?" Nicky asked. "We've never given you any kind of party at all."

He nodded as Sarah returned with a carton of milk. "I've been meaning to speak to you guys about that. I think it's time I got a party." His first sandwich was so good he started to make another.

"What do you need a party for?" Sarah asked around a mouthful of sandwich. "You've got the perfect woman girlfriend, an absolutely splendid sister and your sister's equally splendid girlfriend. How about a small, intimate dinner for the four of us at a nice restaurant of your choice? Your treat, of course."

He shook his head. "I'm starting to wonder whose birthday this is supposed to be."

"Oh, don't be so selfish," Nicky chided him. "Think about the rest of us for once."

He finished his second sandwich and drank some milk. "Well, I'm not going to make any plans until I see how Terry feels."

Sarah rolled her eyes. "That woman's just too fragile. She–"

The phone rang. Sam reached behind him to grab it before the bedroom extension awakened Terry. He chided himself for not thinking to shut it off.

"Hello," he said.

"Hey, welcome back," came Charley's cheerful voice. "You pry Terry loose?"

"Yeah, she's here. I don't think we're up for anything wild, though. She's asleep already."

Sarah and Nicky looked a question. Sam mouthed Charley's name and they chorused a giggly hello as they put away the dregs of the peanut butter and jelly.

"Well," Charley said with a laugh, "that certainly wasn't Terry. You and the kiddies want to go grab a brewski?"

Nicky put three boxes of cookies on the counter and climbed up on her stool again.

"I don't think so. That bus ride wore me out. As soon as we eat every cookie in the house I'm going to crash."

He sounded perplexed. "Okay, if you say so. You've got some pretty warped values, though. Cookies instead of beer? Huh!" Sam chuckled. "Oh, yeah," Charley went on, "the boy genius is on TV at eleven-thirty."

"He is? What channel?"

"Thirteen. I saw it in the paper. Well, see ya later."

Sam hung up and took a cookie. They were going fast.

"What did he want?" Nicky asked.

"The usual. He told me–"

"Hey," Sarah cut in, "what if we wanted to go out drinking with Charley?"

"Then go out drinking with Charley."

Their eyes widened and they threw their arms around each other, panic on their faces. "Us tender young things go out with that horrible, horny beast without our brave hero to protect us?" Nicky protested. "We'll be raped and pillaged!" Sarah nodded in furious agreement.

Sam laughed, checking his watch. "I see what you mean. You guys want to see Perry? He's on TV in a few minutes."

They looked at each other and shrugged. "Well," Sarah said carelessly, "it beats being raped and pillaged."

They sat next to each other on the couch, Sarah with her arm around Nicky, who had her feet tucked carefully under her. Sam turned on the TV and the VCR. Nicky whispered something and Sarah giggled.

Red hair next to blonde, faces never holding one expression for longer than a minute, always together and usually touching, they could seem ten years old one minute and three times that the next. They had their own language, their own jokes, their own rituals and habits and secret names. Being with them was to be a witness to a constant silent conversation, all gestures and expressions. He could already tell that Terry resented it, she thought it was silly and childish and frequently offensive. Sam could see her point, but he really rather enjoyed it.

The show started. Perry was the only guest. He was all of twenty-one, and looked about sixteen. The interviewer started out treating him as a child prodigy, talking about the amazing critical and financial success at such a young age and so on, but Perry gently and firmly moved the conversation onto the subject of his writing itself. He was already an expert at graciously refusing to be a sideshow attraction.

"What's the book like?" Nicky asked suddenly.

Sam considered the question. "It's supposed to be the best yet. I've only read about a quarter of it so far, and it's pretty good, but it's hard to tell exactly what he's getting at. I assume it'll become clearer as I get further into it."

"The question of men and women has to be looked at in an entirely new way," Perry was saying. "Why do these relationships usually follow such predictable patterns? Is it built into us as human beings? Of course not. The society and the world around us have much more of an effect than most of us would like to admit.

"But the danger with this realization is to lose the human element, to lose the recognition of free choice. The point of starting to understand these things is to get some power over them, not to find new excuses.

"No matter how clearly we see the world and its effect on us, our perception of our own emotional lives starts with the subjective. Any situation that actually affects our innermost feelings is felt before it can be analyzed and understood, if it ever is, and literature must embrace both processes, in that order."

He was asked why, if the point of the book was relations between men and women, were the two central relationships in the book homosexual.

"There are two main reasons. One is that it distances us a bit, forces us to see things more clearly than we do in their familiar contexts. The other reason is that the patterns I'm concerned with show up in all relationships, heterosexual or not. They're a reflection of society as a whole, and we're all a part of that society, like it or not. Having the two gay couples wrestle with these problems emphasizes this, especially since one of the couples, the women, think they're exempt because they're women. They've decided men are the problem. But, of course, they find it's not that simple."

By the time the show was over (one hour), they had consumed four beers (two for each of the girls) and one and a half mugs of tea (for Sam). He shut off the TV and the VCR and they just sat there for a minute. Then Sarah said, "That guy's no fool." She turned to Nicky. "You ever finish reading the one I gave you, Portland?"

Nicky looked a bit dazed, or maybe it was just sleepy. "I think so," she replied slowly. "Yes, I did."

She yawned as Sarah stood up and stretched. "I'll lend you the other ones, if you want." She hauled Nicky up and steered her towards their bedroom. "C'mon, Portland. Bedtime."

Sam picked up the beer bottles and put them into the bag in the hall. It was getting pretty full and he reminded himself to turn them in the next time he went shopping.

He rinsed out his mug, shut off all the lights and went into his bedroom.

Terry was lying on her back, the bedside light on, her glasses on, Perry's latest open beside her. She was fast asleep. Her face looked really unhealthy.

Sam put the book and her glasses on the bedside table, undressed, got into bed and turned off the light. He considered waking her up, there were a couple of things he wanted to talk to her about, but he knew that in the mood she'd been in sleep wouldn't come so easily twice, so he let her be.

Chapter Two


In the morning, Terry woke up and stretched. She opened her eyes and rubbed them, trying to remember where she was. It started to come back to her as she fumbled on the bedside table for her glasses. She put them on, wondering if coming to New York with Sam had been a good idea. She really didn't know.

Sam was still sound asleep. It was only seven-thirty, and she decided not to wake him. No way to tell when he'd finally come to bed, and she knew the weekend in Boston had been tiring for him, too.

Making as little noise as possible, she slipped out of bed and got dressed. She closed the bedroom door behind her and headed through the darkened apartment to the kitchen. There was no noise, the girls were obviously still asleep.

In the kitchen, she turned on the lights and started to make coffee. She made a full pot, since the others might get up at any moment. Then, as the coffee dripped, she went out to the hall to get the morning Times.

Coming back towards the kitchen, glancing over the headlines, she nearly bumped into a very sleepy-looking Nicky, who was drifting towards the bathroom.

"Is that coffee I smell?" Nicky asked dreamily. Terry nodded. "Enough for me, too?" Terry nodded again. "Oh, bless you," she said and vanished into the bathroom.

Terry got three mugs from the shelf in the kitchen, her own huge black one and the girls', since if Nicky was up Sarah wouldn't be far behind. For some reason, Nicky and Sarah's mugs bore the names Fidget and Widget. Sarah periodically threatened to get a Gidget mug for Terry, and one that said Midget for Sam, but she hadn't got around to it yet. Terry was just as glad.

Sarah came in, followed a minute later by Nicky. Sarah was dressed for work and looked reasonably awake. Nicky, who didn't have a job, wore only a huge gray T-shirt that reached her knees, and still looked mostly asleep. She climbed onto her stool and lay her head down on her folded arms, closing her eyes. Terry poured the coffee and Sarah went to the refrigerator and got a container of chocolate milk. She poured a liberal shot into Nicky's mug, then a slightly more moderate amount into her own. She offered it to Terry, who made a face. There was an uneasy minute of silence as they all sipped their coffee.

"We saw your brother on TV last night," Sarah said. "It was pretty interesting."

Terry grimaced. "I'm sure." She picked up her coffee and left the room.

Nicky patted Sarah's shoulder. "You always know just the right thing to say."

"That fucking nut. I was trying to be nice. I don't understand what he sees in her."

"I wonder if she's good in bed."

Sarah laughed. "Well, I don't know about you, but I'm not exactly going to die if I never get a chance to find out."

Nicky chuckled, starting to look more awake. "Me, too. You're enough trouble for me, Fidge."

Sarah kissed her on the cheek. "Thanks, Widge, I think. So, what're you up to today?"

"Not much. There's some cleaning to do. And somebody has to keep the peace."

"You really think it'll come to that?"

"I don't know, but you have to admit she does look about ready to explode."

Sarah finished her coffee and looked at her watch. "I'd better get going. I'll call you in the afternoon. You try to get that cheapskate to take us out tonight."

Nicky laughed. "I'll try. It'll probably depend on Perfect out there." She whirled her lover around and gave her a kiss.

Sarah smiled. "Why don't you get some more sleep, Portland? One of us might as well get our eight hours. Maybe you can sleep some for me."

"I'll try, but that's an awful big bed for one person. Maybe I'll try to make some peace first."

Sarah wished her luck. Nicky sipped her coffee as Sarah left. She was dreading talking with Terry, though she knew how foolish it was to let it get to her. She refilled her mug and went into the living room.

Terry was sitting looking out the window, her empty mug dangling from one finger.

"Sam taped the program, if you want to see it," Nicky said quietly, not wanting to startle her.

Terry turned slowly and nodded. "Maybe later. Sarah gone?"

Nicky nodded.

"What's she doing these days?"

It was obviously small talk, but Nicky appreciated the effort. She sat down.

"She's a receptionist, for an ad agency."

Terry, to Nicky's shock, giggled. "A receptionist?"

Nicky found herself giggling, too. "Hey, she's been at it for nearly two weeks now, and they haven't fired her yet." She stood up. "You want a doughnut?"

Terry smiled. "Yes, my stomach will cause me to regret it if I don't consume something besides coffee."

Nicky brought back a plate of doughnuts and placed it on the coffee table between them.

"You working these days?" Terry asked as she looked over the selection.

Nicky shook her head, taking the biggest, messiest jelly doughnut. "No, I quit that boutique job. I just can't stand dressing up every day. I really need a job where I get issued a uniform. Or a job where I can just dress like me."

"You're ruling yourself out of almost all good jobs," Terry commented.

Nicky looked down into her mug and smiled. "Maybe that's the point?"

Terry chuckled. "I expect you and I will never see eye to eye."

Sam opened the bedroom door and crossed to the living room. Nicky and Terry were sitting drinking coffee and eating doughnuts. He thought this was unusually cozy, but then he looked more closely at their expressions and realized that things weren't that far from normal after all.

"Morning, all," he said. "Is there more coffee?"

Terry stood up. "I'll get it for you," she said, and went to the kitchen.

"Yep," Nicky drawled as he sat down, "you've got that little woman well-trained. That's what I like to see, bud."

"Oh, that's nothing compared to the thrill I get from seeing our little family getting along so well."

Nicky laughed. "Hey, we're trying. I think we deserve a medal or two for that alone."

Terry came back with the coffee. She handed one mug to Sam, then she stood looking at the phone as if expecting it to ring. "I should check my messages," she said finally. "Just in case Mr. Pritchard didn't get the message that I'm going to be out today."

She dialed, the pressed a few more buttons. Sam sipped his coffee. Terry's eyes widened, then she said "Shit" under her breath. Sam and Nicky exchanged glances. After another minute, Terry shook her head and hung up the phone.

She turned and sat down. "Perry," she said. "He's in Boston. He wants to see me." She made a face and finished her coffee. She caught Sam's expression. "Oh, don't worry. I'm not going back. I do have to call him, though." She picked up the phone and dialed, then she hung up. "I'll call from the bedroom. I'll charge it to my phone."

They heard the bedroom door close and Nicky let out the breath she'd been holding for some time. "Worse than I thought," she said quietly.

Sam muttered, "Ditto."

Terry returned a few minutes later. She went right to Sam, sat down beside him and took his hand. Nicky, knowing this could only mean total disaster, stood up and said, "I'm gonna get dressed," and left the room.

Terry shook herself all over and forced a smile. "I'm sorry, Sam. Melodramatic of me, I realize. I was just looking forward to a few days of peace and quiet."

"You don't have to go back to Boston."

"That's just it. I don't have to go back. He's overjoyed and amazed that I'm here already. He was only in Boston to collect me and bring me down here. He's doing the Today Show tomorrow and wants to spend a couple of days in the big city with you and me and the monsters." She drew in a full breath and let it out slowly. "He'll call us up when he gets to his hotel. He wants to take us all out to dinner tonight, though I shudder to think how they'll act if he takes us somewhere nice, which I'm sure he will." She smiled. Being snide about the girls always cheered her up. "He even remembered it's your birthday, the creep." She chuckled and kissed him on the cheek. "Happy Birthday, by the way."

"I'll tell Nicky about tonight."

The bedroom door was open, and she was sitting on the bed. She was only half-dressed, wearing jeans and a bra. She was leaning forward, sorting through a pile of socks on the floor, trying to find a pair that contrasted pleasingly. She looked up as Sam came in.

"Perry's in Boston," he began, "but he's coming here. He was only there to collect Herself anyway. He wants to take us all out to dinner tonight."

Nicky was silent for a moment, giving him a very strange look as she straightened up. Then she leaned over again and picked up a flannel shirt from the floor. As she put it on, she shook her head quickly. "Sorry, Sam," she said, buttoning the shirt. "I spaced out. I'm looking forward to meeting him."

The middle of the day was pretty uneventful. Terry watched her step-brother on videotape several times, then went out to have lunch with a friend of hers. Sam went shopping, in order to have a variety of drinks and snack foods on hand in case Perry should decide to stop by before they went out to dinner. Nicky bought all the daily newspapers and spent about an hour going through the help-wanted ads, circling about fifteen that sounded pretty interesting. Then she neatly piled up all the papers and threw them down the incinerator chute. She came back in smiling, her work done.

Then, at about five-thirty, right after Sarah got home from work, the phone rang. Nicky was the closest, so she picked it up and said, "Yes?"

"No, this is Nicky," she went on after a moment. "Everybody makes that mistake. Yes, she's here." She held out the receiver to Terry, who took it and said, "Hello."

She caught Sam's eye and nodded. It was Perry.

After a few moments she said, "We'll be here," and hung up. "He'll be here in a few minutes," she said quietly.

"A few minutes!" Sarah squealed. "What'll I wear? What'll you wear?" she demanded of Nicky, who looked equally panic-stricken. They ran off to their room and slammed the door.

Sam laughed as he sat down. "Lord knows what they'll come up with."

Terry sighed and went to the cabinet to mix herself a drink. "Well, they did want to go out tonight. This will be way beyond their wildest dreams."

Sam went into the kitchen to fill the ice bucket. When he returned Terry was rewinding the tape of Perry's TV interview. She took it out of the machine and put it away. "Come on, sit down," Sam said, putting out his arm to indicate where her shoulders would be if she sat beside him. She shook her head.

"Too nervous. I'll go get some cheese." She headed for the kitchen as gales of laughter exploded from the girls' room.

As Terry came back with the cheese the girls, totally naked, burst from their room and made a mad dash for the bathroom. The door slammed as Terry sat down, smiling. "I'm glad they're coming along tonight," she said.

"Really?" Sam asked.

"Really, yes. It'll keep things from getting too heavy."

"Well, don't tell them they're fulfilling a useful function. They'll ask to get paid."

The downstairs bell rang and, with cries of "Stall him!" the girls scurried back into their lair.

Sam pressed the intercom button and said, "Yes?"

Perry identified himself. Sam buzzed him in, but not before telling him to take it slow. There was a confused noise from the speaker, and Sam said, "I'll explain when you get up here."

Terry was mixing herself another drink. She took off her glasses, closing her eyes, and squeezed the bridge of her nose. Sam had an urge to go over to her, to put his arms around her and offer some moral support, but that would only have made her angry.

The doorbell rang and Sam went over. He hadn't seen Perry Nelson in almost a year, and the young novelist looked almost too healthy and successful. They shook hands and Perry said, "Where is everybody?"

Sam gestured behind him as Perry came in. "Terry's in the living room. The girls are still dressing. I don't think you've met Sarah's friend ("lover!" the girls yelled from the bedroom) yet. Come on in."

He did, but before they could make it to the living room Nicky and Sarah popped out of their room and posed.

It was pretty impressive. Sarah had greased back her short red hair until it was tight to her scalp, and she wore a leather jacket, black T- shirt, jeans and boots. Nicky, meanwhile, had gone to the other extreme, wearing a beautiful yellow sweater and white slacks. Her blonde hair was brushed so that it glowed.

The posing done, they swarmed all over Perry, looking for all the world like kids welcoming home a Daddy they have good reason to think is bearing gifts.

Still in a boisterous mood, they all turned the corner into the living room.

Chapter Three

Three Weeks Earlier

The girl sitting at the end of the bar was, if anybody had cared enough to look closely, obviously underage.

In fact, she was fifteen, though she could pass for eighteen as long as she didn't move or speak too much. Her face and body were older than her mannerisms and conversation. She was short and had long, dirty-blond hair, parted in the middle and cascading down her back.

She was obviously underage, but it was the kind of a bar where they would let that slide so long as you were white and fairly presentable. In fact, she barely qualified as presentable, since she hadn't had a bath or a change of clothes in two days, but so far she was succeeding in making this look like a fashion statement. She was wearing jeans, a blue T-shirt and a man's tweed jacket, all giving evidence of heavy use and no recent cleaning. These were all the clothes she owned in the world, at least all the clothes she had with her, and she was very far from home.

There were three people at a small table near the bar, and the girl was trying not to look like she was watching them. Two of the people at the table were Black, and one of them was a girl probably very close to her own age, but they were nicely dressed and obviously respectable.

The girl shifted on her stool, taking another small sip of her beer. Every time she moved she was uncomfortably aware that she'd been wearing these clothes for two days, since that guy had swiped her bag, and it had been even longer since she'd bathed.

The guy she'd been planning on staying with the previous night had thrown her out after they'd had sex, and at that point she had started to wonder if this project was really going to work out after all. It's hard to follow somebody who's traveling when they have money and you don't. She didn't really have enough cash left to rent any kind of a room, and the prospect of going into yet another bar and finding yet another guy to go home with at that point was more than she could bear. She had been just about to risk sleeping on a park bench when she'd found the church.

The big doors had been closed against the cold, but something had made her try them and they were unlocked. Several other people were sleeping in the dark, eerie building already, and she found a corner where the smell was bearable and sat on one of the benches, wondering what right she had to feel superior about anybody else's stench.

She amused herself as she dozed off by imagining this as the big religious conversion scene in the movie of her life. That improved her spirits somewhat.

The girl at the end of the bar had very little cash left, but she tipped the bartender when she paid for each drink. This was partly in the hope that he'd overlook her age, and partly in the hope that he wouldn't mind how long she was nursing each beer. Even so, she was on her third one and it was hitting her pretty hard. She hadn't slept very well on the hard wooden bench in the cold church, and she hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. And, as she thought about it, she remembered that the guy she'd stayed with the previous night had snored all night in short, explosive bursts.

He had been relatively nice, buying her breakfast in the morning and sensing enough to know not to ask her a lot of questions. In fact, he was probably still waiting for her to call him. She put that out of her mind. If she wasn't going to think about her family, who were probably also wondering where she was, she wasn't going to think about the guys she was staying with.

The three people at the table were very familiar to her, since she had been watching them for several days. The man was named Sam Little. He was Black and somewhat plump, with short hair, wearing a sweater and corduroy pants. She knew that he made his living as a proofreader, working through a temp agency.

The girl was his younger sister, Sarah. She was thin, with short hair, dyed dark red, her face owlish behind black-rimmed glasses. She probably wasn't old enough to drink or hold a job, but she did both anyway, working part-time in a neighborhood record store.

The woman with them was Sam's girlfriend, Terry Nelson, and she was the reason the girl sitting at the bar was there. She'd been following Terry for a week. Terry Nelson was tall and angular, a couple of inches taller than Sam. She wore large wire-rim glasses and had straight, ash-blond hair which hung rather limply around her face. She wore a yellow sweater over a cream-colored shirt and tan slacks.

The girl at the bar had never been able to figure out how old Terry Nelson was. She was definitely older than Sam, who appeared to be in his late twenties, but there were times when she appeared to be around thirty and other times, especially under harsher lights than in this bar, when she looked much older.

Then, suddenly, there was an argument, ending with Terry standing up and throwing on her coat, knocking over her chair in the process, and storming out. Sam went after her, trying to soothe her, but it was like trying to soothe a tidal wave.

This left the girl at the bar in a quandary. Should she follow them, or start trying to find someone to give her a bed for the night? It was already late, and it didn't seem as though the person she was waiting for was going to show up tonight. But she cringed at the thought of having to find yet another conquest. Not that it was difficult, it was really all too easy. But she'd better–

"Hi," said a soft voice from right next to her. She looked up, startled, to see Sarah, Sam's young sister, smiling at her. She sat down on the next stool and put her beer on the bar.

"I noticed you staring," she said conversationally, leaning forward, "so I tried staring back, but then my brother and his girlfriend had one of their usual fights and you looked like you might be about to leave, so I decided I'd better be more direct. My name is Sarah."

She held out her hand and the blond girl, her mind reeling, heard herself say, "Nicky. My name is Nicole, but call me Nicky," which wasn't her name.

Sarah smiled. "Nicole. That's a nice name. It's also kind of a coincidence, but I don't want to talk about that. I'd rather talk about you. Do you often sit in bars and stare at girls you don't know?"

"No," said Nicky, forcing her brain to work, "and I didn't mean for you to see me doing it tonight either."

Sarah laughed and took a sip of her beer, and then Nicky laughed, too. And so they started talking, two underage girls in a lenient bar. Sarah told Nicky about her two brothers, their dead parents, her brother's girlfriend. Nicky already knew most of the story, but of course she didn't mention this.

And Nicky told Sarah about her family life, mostly sticking to the facts, just leaving out why she was in the city and everything about who she was looking for and why. She did manage to mention her lack of funds, her lack of a place to stay, and her embarrassment about the state of her clothing and her personal hygiene. This allowed Sarah to propose that Nicky come home with her so she could take a shower, borrow some clothes and sleep on the sofa.

They both knew this was a lie, except for the shower. Nicky certainly wasn't going to fit into any clothes of Sarah's, and nobody was going to end up on the sofa.

Nicky woke up with a sleeping form beside her and a friendly arm across her stomach. This wasn't an unfamiliar sensation, she'd been trading sex for shelter for a while. But something was different this morning, something even more fundamental than the fact that the arm was black and the person attached to it was female.

Then, as she shifted slightly under the warm comforter, eliciting a friendly mumble from her bed-mate, she realized what it was. She was clean. She was clean, her hair was clean, the sheets were clean, and the girl beside her was clean. She stretched with the pure joy of it. In the past weeks she had learned enough to say that, in general, single guys who picked up girls in bars changed their sheets approximately never.

She and Sarah had shared a long, giggly and ultimately erotic bath when they'd arrived at the apartment, the entire experience made even more delicious by the fact that either Sam or Terry could have walked in on them at any moment.

Nicky knew she'd better think things through before Sarah woke up, though. Was this really going to be as easy as it seemed? Would she be able to stay here, or was this a one-night stand? Had she made her mission easier or more difficult?

She immediately fell asleep again.

The next thing she knew the door was open and a head was poking in.

"Wake up, sleepyhead," Sam said, squinting as his eyes adjusted to the dark. "Breakfast . . ." his voice trailed off as he saw Nicky looking back at him, and she clutched the sheet up over her breasts.

Sam shrugged. "Well, you can have breakfast, too, whoever you are." He withdrew his head, closing the door softly.

Terry was reading the morning newspaper at the kitchen counter, wearing the purple bathrobe she always left at Sam's apartment. Sam came back in, saying, "I'd better make some more pancake batter."

"Sarah hungry?" Terry asked absently, sipping her coffee.

He shook his head, assembling ingredients. "No, she's plural. There's a girl in bed with her."

Terry looked up, her interest engaged. "A girl?" she asked.

Sam nodded. "White, blond, with long wavy hair and," he coughed, "attributes, which she covered up when she saw I was looking at them."

Terry rolled her eyes and went back to her reading. "Well, you can console yourself with dreams about her attributes until my next visit." She picked up the paper and turned a page, snapping it flat and laying it down again. "You following this local news?" she asked. "It's not getting into the papers at home, I can tell you that. You'd think it would be national news that the city's economy is about to collapse."

Sam shrugged, lifting the mixing bowl to stir the batter. "Well, my economy collapsed a while ago. I guess I'm ahead of my time again."

Terry made a face and tucked her bathrobe tighter around her long legs. Then she looked up as Sam poured more batter into the pan, watching him for a couple of minutes.

"Hey," she said hesitantly, taking off her glasses.

He shook his head, not looking at her. "Don't worry about last night," he said, waving it aside with his spatula. "Don't worry about it."

Sarah poked her head into the kitchen. "Is everybody decent?" she asked cheerfully.

"No," Terry said, not looking up from her newspaper. "I'm taking a bath."

Sarah stuck out her tongue and then stepped all the way into the room, pulling Nicky in after her. Sarah was wearing a bathrobe but Nicky was fully dressed except for her bare feet. "Hi," she said, waving.

"This is Nicky," Sarah said, gesturing as though she had just produced a rabbit from a hat.

"Hello, Nicky," Sam said, hastily wiping off his hand and sticking it out. "I'm Sam, as you probably already know."

Nicky nodded, shaking his hand. "Pleased to meet you," she said.

"And this is Terry," Sarah said, gesturing at the tall woman.

Terry looked up from her paper and stuck out her hand. "Terry Nelson," she said. "I don't live here."

Nicky shook her hand, obviously becoming uneasy as she realized that Terry was looking intently at her chest. "Isn't that Sam's T-shirt?" Terry asked.

"I lent it to her," Sarah said quickly. "Sam doesn't mind."

Sam turned his attention back to his pancakes. "Do you drink coffee?" he asked over his shoulder, "or should I put up water for tea?"

"Coffee would be fine," Nicky said quickly. "Can I do anything?"

"Well, it would be helpful if somebody set the table in the dining room. It'll be too crowded for all four of us to eat at the counter in here."

The girls both ran out of the room and Sam looked thoughtfully at Terry. After a moment of this, she glanced up from her paper. "What?" she demanded.

He went over to her and put his arms around her shoulders. "What in the world do I see in you?" he asked.

"I'm a shrewd judge of human nature, and you're not," she explained patiently. "Also, your personality defects happen to mesh with mine in a way that pleases you."

He nodded. "That must be it."

Suddenly she raised one hand and whacked him on the arm. "And the next time I try to apologize for something, don't brush me off," she said, twisting in his arms to face him. "You know you only do it to make me feel worse. I made a spectacle of myself last night, and I'm going to apologize. Whether you like it or not."

He nodded. "You're right, of course. You may apologize when ready." He pulled back a little so he could see her face, with his arms still around her shoulders.

She shook her head. "Not now. You're all braced for it. I'd rather catch you when your defenses are down."

At breakfast, it was obvious to Nicky that Sarah was trying to be all grown-up and mature, but she was about as blase as a kid on Christmas morning. Sam was very gentle and polite with his sister's giddiness, but Terry was so calm it seemed to Nicky as if she was mocking the girl.

"So," said Terry to Nicky, putting down her mug, "how did you happen to wash up on our shore?"

"That's–" Sarah began, but Nicky interrupted her.

"Things at home are kind of screwed up," she said. "I ran away." She paused for what seemed like an appropriate amount of time to indicate reluctance, then continued. "I don't like to talk about my family. Let's just say that I figured there had to be something better."

Sarah looked in agony to have her new lover quizzed like this, but Terry looked unexpectedly sympathetic. "Siblings or parents?" she asked.

Nicky sighed. "Both, I guess. You sound like you know all about it."

Terry nodded. "Yes, especially the siblings. Let's talk about something else."

Sarah looked relieved, but Nicky was very happy with how it had gone. She knew that her staying here for more than a night or two depended at least as much on Sam as it did on Sarah, and Sam was obviously strongly influenced by Terry's opinions. Sam and Sarah both wore the baffled expression of people who have heard about bad families but haven't actually been in one, but Nicky knew that she and Terry now had the very tenuous beginnings of a bond.

After breakfast, the girls did the dishes and then went out, with Sarah announcing she was going to "lend" Nicky money to buy some clothes.

"I wonder how long this is going to last," Terry said as she and Sam sat on the sofa together.

Sam shrugged and looked at her. "So, you're going home?" he asked.

She nodded. "I have a job, you know. And I trust you're not offering to support me, especially since you already have one new mouth to feed."

He ignored this blatant attempt to distract him. "And are you coming down next weekend?"

She shook her head patiently. "No, because Perry is coming to visit me. It wouldn't be very nice for me to sneak out of town right before he arrives."

"Oh, I'm sure he's used to it by now. The .  ." His voice trailed off at her expression, and he shrugged. "Bring him along."

"It seems to me," Terry said sharply, "that a brother and sister ought to be able to spend two days together without needing to have a bunch of other people around every minute."

Sam shrugged. "That's one view of family life. You seemed to have another when you were talking with Nicky at breakfast." She made a face as he leaned over and kissed her cheek. "You want me to go to the bus station with you?"

She shook herself, halfheartedly trying to squirm out of his embrace. "I know where it is," she said.

Chapter Four

Three Weeks Earlier (continued)

Sam reflected that nothing in the world makes your butt sweat like the molded plastic chairs they always have in bus station waiting rooms. Terry was wearing her biting-her-lip expression and after a while he sighed and said, "What is it? It's not good to keep things bottled up, you know."

"It's this Nicky business," she said. "How long are you going to let her stay here?"

He shrugged. "That's up to Sarah, I guess."

Terry shoulders slumped. "No, it's not. She's only fifteen. You have to take some responsibility."

"I'm not her parent, she's my sister."

"Sam, you and David are the only family she has. Somebody has to give her some guidance."

Sam squirmed a little. "Nicky seems nice."

Terry poked him in the shoulder. "The only reason you're putting up with this is because it's a girl and God forbid you should look like you disapprove. If Sarah had dragged home some smelly runaway boy she'd met in a bar, you'd say something."

A voice came over the loudspeaker and she paused to listen. "That's my bus," she said, standing up. She made a face. "I'll call you sometime this week."

Sam stood up and started to say something, but she cut him off. "And, if you must know, it pisses me off that she's named Nicky," she said with a wry smile. "I consider it a personal slap in the face."

"As well you should," Sam said piously.

"Oh, shut up," she said. After she'd made it halfway to the gate, she turned around and came back. If he was expecting a kiss, however, he was disappointed. She threw her newspaper at him and said, "And read this before my next visit."

He grinned and grabbed her hand, pulling her to him for a quick kiss. "Will there be a quiz, teach?" he murmured.

"Just shut up," she said she turned to run for the gate.

Sam sat down again, feeling his damp shirt and jeans sticking to the plastic again. Terry's impatience with him about Sarah and Nicky sounded silly when he couldn't even figure out his own life. There were times when Terry made him feel incredibly lucky, and there were other times it was like dating your mother. She was hard on everybody around her, but she was even harder on herself, so it was difficult to get too upset.

He thought sometimes about keeping a diary, a journal of some kind. He usually thought about this when people asked him questions like how long had it been since his parents had died, or exactly when he and Terry had started dating. Of course, he had a pretty good idea, but there was always a little hesitation. Two years or three? Which summer had it been? And people were always amazed that he didn't remember this information as easily as he remembered his birthday, or his shirt size. That's when he thought about keeping a journal.

Of course, the problem is that starting a journal now wouldn't help him remember when those things happened, and he was afraid that a journal of this part of his life would be too repetitious. Eat. Sleep. Proof some pages. Television. Bus to Boston. Bus from Boston. Movie Night. Tension. Fighting. Reading that would be depressing.

One month he'd kept track of how much he spent on bus tickets, then calculated how much of his annual income went to shuttling back and forth to Boston. The figure he'd arrived at wasn't comforting. Which was probably another reason not to keep a journal.

When he'd started dating Terry, he'd thought the relationship might end at any moment. Sometimes he woke up in the middle of the night and found himself in the middle of a fight which had apparently started some time before. Once, she punched him in the arm, waking him up, and announced, "I'm not your girlfriend!" By the time he figured out how to respond to that, she was fast asleep again.

Eventually, he'd realized that this was just what the relationship was going to be like.

He stood up and stretched, pulling on his coat. He was about to throw out the newspaper, but then he felt guilty, and folded it up and stuck it in his coat pocket instead.

Terry was definitely right about one thing. His reaction would have been very different if Sarah had brought home a boy. But that didn't answer the question about which reaction was the right one, if either one was.

He strolled toward the subway, buying a container of coffee and a donut on the way. He had offered to buy Terry a cup while they waited, but she'd taken one look at the grimy little donut shop, which seemed to be built into an unused doorway, wrinkled her nose and shook her head.

Sam certainly knew what his parents would have thought about all this. He could say with great certainty what his parents would have thought about almost anything.

Their daughter in a carnal relationship with a girl no older than she was, their younger son laying down with other men, and their older son having sex out of wedlock and, even worse, condoning his younger siblings' perversions.

He had loved his parents, and he felt his failure to do what he should in their absence, especially with Sarah, but there were times when he thought it was probably just as well they were dead. And they'd died together, in church, which is probably what they would have wanted.

Shot to death, along with the pastor and many of their fellow worshippers, by some crazy white woman who'd apparently just come in to use the bathroom.

Stately, plump Theresa Carbonieri sat at the small, high table in her kitchen, her pudgy forearms resting on the worn Formica, with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. There was a big pot of coffee on the stove, the small black and white TV perched precariously on top of the refrigerator was turned to a news program, and she was within comfortable distance of her ashtray.

T.C. was very fond of her ashtray. It was of a type more often found in the lobbies of hotels than in private homes, about three feet tall with a claw-footed base and a small handle at the top. The actual ashtray was glass, very deep and easily removable. Every morning, she emptied it, washed it carefully and dried it, then she set it back onto its stand.

Then she lit her first cigarette of the day.

The door opened and a thin, sandy-haired man came into the apartment. He was wearing a bathrobe and slippers and shaking his head. "Mail's still not here," he said. "You'd think–"

"You want some joe, Finch?" T.C. said, getting up and moving to the stove.

"Just a half–" he began as she handed him a full cup. She refilled her own mug and climbed back onto her stool, which creaked again in protest.

Finch went to the refrigerator and pulled the door open as T.C. barked, "Look at that!" She startled him so that he pulled open the door too abruptly and had to stick up one hand to keep the small TV from falling on his head. He turned to see what she was shouting about, but it was the TV she was pointing at with one stubby finger.

Finch moved to the table, blowing on his coffee. He climbed up on one of the stools, squinting at the TV. "Another protest?" he asked. "Well you have to expect that sort of thing. Why they even issued the checks when they knew–"

The door opened again and a slender Black man in his early twenties came in. "You'll never guess what's happened!" he announced happily.

T.C. peered at him for a moment. "Sarah's got a girlfriend," she said. She sipped her coffee as he slumped onto the remaining stool.

"You would take every little bit of enjoyment out of my life if you could, wouldn't you?" he asked.

"An unattainable goal," Finch began, "but one which does inspire–"

"How did you know?" David asked T.C.

"Simple. You just went down to the lower depths. Little Miss Sunshine went home, so it's just Sam and Sarah down there. You came in here wearing your 'Everybody in the world is really gay' expression. Is Sam gay? No, if Sunshine was going to drive him to that, it would have happened long ago. Is Sarah gay? Well she's been insisting on it for a while, but you've been skeptical. For her to convince you, something tangible must have happened. Therefore . . ."

She waved the hand which held her cigarette.

"And another little bit of mystery and wonder is leeched out of the universe," Finch observed sadly. "I think it was Oscar Wilde who said–"

"What's she like?" T.C. asked David.

"White, blond, blue eyes, about Sarah's height but chesty." He gestured in illustration.

"Thank God for that," T.C. said. "Between Sarah and Sunshine, every time I go down there I think boobs must have been made illegal. So, has this blond babe moved in already?" David nodded, smiling. "Where did Sarah find her?"

"Her name is Nicky, and apparently it all started in a bar. She's a runaway."

"I'd say she's going to rob them blind, but they barely have a pot or a window anyway."

"She's moved in already?" Finch asked, laughing. "I can't say I approve of that. In my day, you know, dating was entirely through the mails. No physical contact was allowed, except under strict ecclesiastical supervision. Well, I remember a time–"

"I'm fucking late again!" came a voice from the other room.

David cupped his hand to his ear. "Hark, can it be–"

"Late for what?" Finch called, clearly not expecting an answer. The door slammed and they all sighed.

"Anytime she leaves without casualties, that's a good day," T.C. said. "In fact, I think this calls for a little celebration." She opened the wooden box in the center of the small table, took out another cigarette and lit it with her lighter, which was in the shape of a small Scottie dog.

She favored David with a rather frightening smile. "So," she purred, "what do you think of your little sister's new playmate?"

Her frowned. "I don't know yet. She's cute and pleasant and all that, but . . . I'm holding back on making up my mind."

"No, you're not."

He laughed. "You're right. She's a runaway, underage, with nothing but the clothes on her back. And she's just fallen into paradise. Free food, a bed, sex, who wouldn't stick around? And how can anybody tell what she really feels about Sarah, or even if she really prefers girls at all? Not me, but I can certainly be suspicious."

"And Sam's obviously not going to say anything," Finch pointed out. "In his situation, how much can he say about anybody else's love life? If this new girl is cute and pleasant, that puts her two up on Sunshine already."

T.C. looked around the room. "Where did you put the mail?" she demanded of Finch. "I'm expecting Nasty's tax refund."

"The mail wasn't there when I went down," he explained patiently. "I think I said–"

"Not here yet? Typical. Makes you wonder why we pay taxes. I've got a good mind–"

"You haven't paid taxes since–"

"And now you know why I don't. Not enough value for my money."

"It's the lack of competition–" Finch muttered.

"It's the lack of competition that makes it . . ." she began, but her voice trailed off. She frowned fiercely at Finch. "Listen, Mr. Smarty-Pants–"

There was a knock at the door and David got up to answer it. Sam's voice came from the hall. "Hey, I forgot to ask you–"

Moving with alarming speed for one of her bulk, T.C. jumped down from her stool and ran over to the door. She reached out into the hall and clamped a pudgy hand around Sam Little's bicep, yanking him into the apartment. "Sam," she said, "you'll have a cup of coffee with us, won't you?" By then she'd hauled him into the kitchen and practically lifted him onto the stool his brother had just vacated.

"Well, perhaps just a quick–" he began as Finch handed him a mug. He looked around at their faces. "So," he said, "I guess you've heard the news?"

"News?" David asked vaguely. "I'm afraid we've been a little too busy this morning to bother with idle gossip..."

"That'll be the day," Sam said. "So, what have you been telling them?"

"Young man," Finch said, straightening up on his stool, "we think you're getting a raw deal here. The city is full of men who have magnanimously offered food, shelter and comfort to runaway teenage girls with large chests, but you're the only one who doesn't get to sleep with the girl himself. As my esteemed ex-wife here would say, you're not getting value for your money. In fact, you're not getting much of anything, as far as I can tell."

Sam smiled. "I think Terry would be a little bit upset if I–"

"Speaking of which," T.C put in, "did you ever find out how old she is?"

"Who?" he asked.

"Your girlfriend, Little Miss Sunshine."

Sam had obviously given up long ago on trying to get them to speak about his lover with any respect. "I really don't know. She doesn't like to talk about it. I think she feels bad about her lack of success. You see, she thinks–"

"Make a guess," Finch suggested.

Sam shrugged fatalistically, as if realizing that cooperation was the only way he would escape. "Late thirties, I would guess."

T.C. snorted a laugh. "Very late thirties," she said. "She's forty-five if she's a day."

Sam got to his feet. "Well, that's fine. I really should be–"

David got between him and the door. "There's only one way out," he said with mock ferociousness. "We propose a hostage swap. We'll let you go if you promise to send her up here in your place."

"Who, Terry? She–"

"No, not Terry. Nicky."

Sam pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Well, I might be willing to make a deal..."

T.C. leaned forward. "Deal?" she asked.

"I'll send her up, if you promise to fill me in on anything you find out about her."

Finch smiled. "Now that sounds eminently fair, I must say."

Chapter Five

Three Weeks Earlier (continued)

Nicky had met Sam's brother David only briefly, and she knew three things about him:

  1. he was the middle of the three siblings, younger than Sam but older than Sarah,
  2. he lived in another apartment in the same building, two floors higher and on the opposite side, and that he shared the apartment with several roommates, and
  3. he was gay.

This third fact had never been explicitly stated to Nicky, but she'd put a couple of comments together. And then, during his brief visit to their apartment (which she was already starting to think of as "home"), she had confirmed it to her satisfaction. She had the idea that she could tell if any man she met was gay or straight by certain small things about the way he reacted to her. This theory had never been subjected to rigorous testing.

Sarah had given a strange look when Sam had asked Nicky to trot up to David's apartment to borrow a couple of lemons. He'd outlined the complex series of hallways and then sent her off. Something was obviously going on besides just a search for lemons, but Nicky consoled herself with the thought that, if it had been something bad, Sarah would have said something.

She smelled the cigarette smoke before she even knocked on the door.

David opened the apartment door and said, "My, what a pleasant surprise. Please come in."

He gestured and she stepped inside, saying, "Sam sent me. I'm Nicky. He was wondering if we could borrow a couple of lemons."

"Oh, I'm sure that could be arranged," David said. "Come on in."

The kitchen seemed impossibly tiny, with a small, high, round table in one corner. There were three stools around the table, two of which were occupied, one by a small man in a bathrobe and the other by a large woman who wore a lot of rings and bracelets on her chubby fingers and wrists.

"Hi," Nicky said, "I'm Nicky, from–"

"Step up a little closer," the woman said, motioning her into the room. "Lemons are easily available, but why don't you sit and visit a minute? After all, we're all practically family now."

Nicky viewed this statement with a certain amount of alarm, since "family" was an extremely negative word in her vocabulary, but she moved forward as the woman said, "I'm T.C., by the way, and this is Finch. Have a smoke?" She took a wooden box from the table, opened it and held it out.

"Oh, thank you," Nicky said, "but I don't smoke."

"Of course you do. You can't indulge downstairs, I know, because Sarah is somewhat asthmatic, and Little Miss Sunshine dislikes smoking because of the possibility that some people might enjoy it."

Nicky's head was spinning and she had to stop herself from reaching into the wooden box. "Sunshine?" she asked in confusion. "Little Miss Sunshine?"

"Sam's girlfriend. You've met her. The one who turns the world on with her smile?"

Nicky covered her mouth as she stifled a giggle. Then she took a cigarette and climbed onto the remaining stool. T.C. held out her lighter, flicking it into life. It was ceramic, the size and shape of a large eggplant. Nicky leaned forward and got her cigarette going, then she gestured with it.

"How did you know?" she asked.

Finch smiled. "Oh, that was elementary. You gulped in air when you came through that door like you'd just spent a month on a submarine. Nobody but a smoker has that reaction to this apartment."

Nicky's favorite place in the apartment was the windowseat in the living room. It was padded with a piece of carpet, and wide enough for her to sit comfortably on it, her back against one side and her feet at the other, with her knees up. That way she could look out of the window as she sat. There was a little sliver of park visible in between the buildings, and she liked to look at that.

Sarah was in the shower. Nicky knew she would probably have been welcome to join her, but she didn't feel like it. The interrogation up in the other apartment had unsettled her. It was obvious that they has a pretty good idea she wasn't just living with Sarah for love, but it was equally obvious that they didn't really care, except for the possible entertainment value, and wouldn't say or do anything.

An arm draped itself across her shoulders, a familiar hip pressed against hers, and Sarah said, "Whussup, Gidget?"

Nicky shrugged. "Nuttin' much, Midget." It always unnerved her how Sarah could come up on her without warning.

"How was the third degree?"

Nicky turned to regard her lover, who was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, her feet bare, her face still shiny and damp from the shower. "You knew what it was going to be like?" Nicky demanded. "You knew they'd be grilling me?" She nudged her playfully with her hip. "I thought you were supposed to be looking after me, making sure nothing bad happens to me. Some girlfriend you are."

She folded her arms and turned to look out the window at the rain, then turned back as Sarah nuzzled her neck. "Stop that," Nicky said, "I'm being mad at you."

Sarah put her other arm around Nicky, leaning against her. "How's it going?" she murmured. "You nice and mad yet?"

Nicky chuckled. "It's a lot easier to be mad at you when you're somewhere else," she admitted.

Sarah nodded and nudged her again with her hip. "Skootch over there and make some room for me."

Nicky turned so her legs were dangling and Sarah sat down next to her. "I knew you'd be okay up there," she said with a grin. "They're fun, you just have to get used to them. They like to know what's going on." She shrugged, smiling. "I figured you'd have to go up there sooner or later, why not get it over with?"

Nicky shrugged. "Well, I guess I escaped without any real injuries. They mostly wanted to know if Terry's coming down this weekend. Something about planning Movie Night, whatever that is. They want Sam to come, but they think he won't if Terry is here."

"Sam's still trying to get her to come down," Sarah said. "He's really worried about her, and she said Perry was going to be visiting her for the weekend. That always freaks her out."

Nicky had to control herself. Every muscle in her body wanted to react to this news, but with Sarah pressed against her, any tension would have given her away. "Perry?" she asked casually. "Who's that?"

Sarah grinned. "Perry is Terry's step-brother," she said. Then she paused, waiting for Nicky to get it.

"Terry's step-brother?" Nicky asked. "I don't get it, Fidget, why all the . . wait a minute. Perry . . . Nelson? The Perry Nelson? He's Terry's brother?" God, it was hard to pretend to be figuring out something you already knew.

Sarah nodded. "Yeah, that's our big family secret. Step-brother, actually."

"And have you met the mystery man?"

Sarah nodded again. "Oh, sure. Lots of times. He was here to visit just a couple of months ago. He's nice." She grinned wickedly. "Nothing like Terry."

Nicky laughed. "But you said he was going to be visiting Terry? And Sam's going to ask her to come down here? I don't get it."

"Terry wants to be a writer, and she gets weird around Perry because he's so successful, and a lot younger than she is. I guess things get intense when they're alone together, so a lot of times they hang out with us." She shrugged. "That way they get to spend time together without it being all weird."

"I'll bet it gets weird anyway," Nicky said with a smirk.

Sarah giggled. "Oh, you think you're so smart," she said, poking the other girl in the shoulder. "Of course it does. You saw how it got with just Terry, Sam and me, the night we met. There's usually some sort of fireworks, but there's usually some good times, too. I think sometimes Perry would like to come visit us when Terry wasn't here, but then she'd probably get mad about that." She sniffed at Nicky's hair. "Yuck, you reek of cigarette smoke. C'mon, let's go get you all scrubbed up and shiny clean."

"Oooh," Nicky said, standing up, though she was still not in a sexy mood. Then she saw the clock on the VCR. "What time do you have to be at work?" she asked.

Sarah looked at her watch and made a face. "Five minutes from now. Shit. Well, don't shower with anybody else until I get back."

Nicky smiled. "I promise."

Nicky got back into the windowseat as Sarah ran out. Then she went into the kitchen and made herself a cup of tea. The news that Perry Nelson might be visiting as soon as the coming weekend was vindication of the decision Nicky had made when Terry had left. She had been torn. Should she follow Terry, as she had been for a week? There were a lot of difficulties. For one thing, she now had almost no money. And she knew she couldn't bring herself to steal money from Sam and Sarah, even if they had had any to steal. Plus, following Terry would be even more difficult now that Terry knew her.

Was she losing her resolve, seduced by food, comfort, sex and affection? She didn't think so, but it was hard to tell. She told herself that it was just changing tactics, taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity. The big advantage of this approach was that, when she did meet Perry Nelson, she'd meet him as the lover of a trusted friend, not as a grungy little stranger. Given everything she'd read about the famously skittish novelist, that would probably make a big difference.

And all she was losing was time, and she was in no hurry. She took her mug of tea and went back into the living room, getting back into the windowseat. She held the mug of steaming tea between her hands and breathed in slowly, enjoying the smell. It was very quiet when there was nobody home except her. She sometimes felt that this was her favorite part of the day, the only time when she felt as if the apartment was at least a little bit hers.

Sometimes she poked around through Sarah and Sam's stuff, but she soon stopped that when she realized there really wasn't anything interesting to look at. If Sam and Sarah had any secrets, they were well hidden. And that was fine with Nicky. It seemed to invite discovery of her own secrets to poke too deeply into anybody else's. She was very content to take other people at face value.

She'd been staying there for three days already, and there didn't seem to be any reason to think she couldn't stay on. Sarah certainly seemed to want her to stay, and Sam was friendly enough, even though she was eating their food and not contributing any money.

It had been distressing to her to discover how easily she'd been able to seduce Sarah. Men were pretty easy, or at least you could always find one who was, but she'd always used this to support her unarticulated belief that men mostly weren't very bright. But if women were led around by their hormones as easily as men were . . .

Then she smiled. One thing she had been dreading was the inevitable exchange of sexual histories with Sarah. She had run it over and over in her head, wondering how much to reveal, how much to leave out. Would it be better to admit to only girls, or should she include some boys? And how many? She knew whatever story she did tell Sarah, she would have to remember it, so later conversations would make sense.

But the exchange never took place, and she wondered why. It usually came up fairly early on, in any serious relationship. But then, that morning, she had figured it out. Sarah had no sexual history. Nicky was it. And Sarah found this at least as embarrassing as Nicky did her cast of thousands. So, they would probably go on, never discussing it. And that was fine with Nicky.

Nicky looked around and saw a newspaper on the couch. On an impulse, she went over, picked it up and brought it back to the windowseat. It had been a while since she'd read a newspaper, and the international news was a little hard to follow.

When she got to the local news, though, it was strangely familiar. There seemed to be some sort of big crisis going on, or at least some people were talking as though there was, and others were talking as though it was just about over, or as if it had never happened at all.

There seemed to be some agreement that something was wrong with the city economy, variously blamed on graft, ineptitude, mismanagement, previous administrations, sabotage, foreign influence or mass hysteria.

She started reading the articles again, trying to figure out where the few definite facts were buried under all the fluff and opinions. The facts seemed to be these:

  1. The welfare checks hadn't gone out on schedule.
  2. A bank, run by a close supporter of the mayor, had closed its doors.
  3. Various public statements had been made, explaining away any possible connection between these two events, but nobody seemed to believe them.

Nicky didn't think this all applied to her in any way. She was only here until she could connect with Perry Nelson. But she did find it interesting, especially in how amorphous it was, and yet how familiar.

The apartment door opened and the phone rang at the same moment. Nicky picked up the phone and said, "Hello?"

There was a slight pause, as if the person on the other end of the line had to absorb the fact that an unfamiliar voice had answered the phone.

"May I speak with Sam Little please?" a man's voice asked.

"Hang on a minute please," Nicky said, then she covered the receiver with her palm and called, "Sam, is that you?"

He stepped into the room, his jacket still in his hand. "Is it Terry?" he asked.

She held out the receiver. "Not unless her voice is changing."

He took the receiver and said, "Yes? Sam here." Nicky recognized this as the formal voice he used when it might be somebody calling to give him work. "Oh, hi, Perry," he said, and Nicky had to fight down the urge to grab the receiver out of his hand.

"Hmmm?" Sam asked, looking up at the ceiling and loosening his tie. "Oh, really? Yes, I've been concerned about that, too." He shook his head. "No, she was down here last weekend."

He paused, then nodded again, looking out the window. "Well, we'd certainly be glad to have you. Uh-huh. Call when you get into town. Somebody should be here." He paused, then glanced at Nicky. "Oh, you heard, huh? Yes, you'll meet her. Okay. Talk to you soon."

He hung up the phone and Nicky laughed. "News travels fast, huh?"

Sam nodded. "Terry told him about you."

"I hope he didn't believe whatever she told him."

"Oh, don't worry about that. She doesn't dislike you, she's that way with everybody. The closer you are to her, sometimes, the worse treatment you get."

"I'd better hope she doesn't decide she likes me, huh?"

He laughed and sat down, carefully draping his jacket on the sofa beside him. "I've noticed," he said, "that there are some women who have mostly women friends, and there are other women whose friends are mostly men. The same is true of men, I guess. But Terry isn't close to many women. Her friends are almost all men. She has a sister, but they don't see each other very much."

"A sister?" Nicky asked, sitting down on a chair opposite Sam, reflecting that this was their first real conversation without Sarah. "Well, with Terry and Perry, what's the sister's name? Berry? Cherry?"

Sam laughed. "No, I'm afraid not. It's Tammy."

Nicky gave him a skeptical look. "Tammy? I didn't know anybody was really named Tammy. What is she, some babe in a bikini?"

Sam shook his head, smiling at the thought. "No, nothing like that. She's a tall, skinny lawyer with red hair, and I've never seen her in a bikini, but if she did wear one she'd look something like a pencil with two band-aids wrapped around it." He smiled again and sighed.

"A lawyer?" Nicky asked, dragging Sam back from a momentary fantasy about what she herself might look like in a bikini.

"Yes," he said, collecting himself, "and a very successful one. Which is another thing for Terry to whip herself about, of course." He smiled, leaning back. "Ambition is a dangerous thing. It really eats Terry up that her sister is a successful lawyer and her step-brother is a famous novelist. Me, as long as the rent is paid and there's food on the table, what do I care what anybody else does? But she doesn't see it that way."

Nicky nodded. "I'm with you on that one. When you've lived without food and a place to live, you see how important they are."

The apartment door slammed open and a voice yelled, "Goddamn it! Shit!" and a moment later something shattered in the kitchen.

Chapter Six

Three Weeks Earlier (continued)

Sam and Nicky were frozen for a moment as Sarah's voice filled the apartment. Then, hearing the crash from the kitchen, Nicky ran out of the living room with Sam a step behind.

Sarah was in the center of the kitchen, smashing plates and glasses. She was a frightening sight, her face streaked with tears, her hands shaking uncontrollably. When Sam and Nicky came in, she whirled like a cornered animal. Then she punched the refrigerator door with all her might. Nicky threw her arms around her and, with Sarah's arms pinned to her side, they fell to the floor. Sarah's eyes were clenched shut, tears streaming out.

They lay frozen for a moment. Nicky was crying, too, by then, her breath coming in huge, gulping sobs. Sarah just lay motionless, her eyes shut. Sam went over quickly and knelt next to them.

He touched his sister's arm and they both turned towards him and opened their eyes. "Can't you girls do this sort of thing in your room?" he asked peevishly, and both he and Nicky watched Sarah to see if she cracked a smile.

She did.

Ten minutes later they were sitting in the living room. The mess was swept up in the kitchen. Sarah had insisted on doing it herself, before she even allowed Nicky to look at her hand. Then Nicky had made an ice pack for her and tied it on. The skin wasn't broken, though they didn't know what else might be.

They were silent for a moment, then Nicky said, "Fudge, you want to tell us about it?"

Sarah was starting to look more like herself. She shook her head. Her arm was around Nicky as they sat close together on the couch. Nicky looked more upset at that moment than Sarah did.

"I got fired," Sarah said slowly. "The bastard said he was closing this store. He's afraid of riots or something. But he said he'd move me to the other store with him . . ." No one spoke. "Of course, it wasn't going to be something for nothing." She sighed and looked around the room. "I tried to ease out of it, told him I had someone already, but the goddamn son of a bitch said . . . he said all I needed was one good time with a man and I'd forget all this other stuff."

"Had you told him?" Sam asked.

She shrugged. "I never mentioned it, but I didn't try to hide it either. I didn't think it mattered." She shook her head. "Just another asshole guy, I know. I'm used to that. But we need the money."

She suddenly started to cry again and, realizing what was bothering her, Sam stood up and quietly left the room. Nicky held Sarah for a while, thinking.

She knew there were about three different things going on here at the same time. The first was Sarah being upset that her boss was such a prick, and that she'd just lost her job. The second was Sarah being furious with herself for losing control so badly in front of her new lover, which is the kind of thing that the worse you feel about it, the more frustrated you get with yourself, and then the worse you act. Nicky knew all about that.

She thought there was a third thing, too, but she had to get Sarah to talk about it. It wasn't the kind of thing Nicky could mention first.

"Smidge," she said quietly, "why did you start crying again when you said how much we need the money? Things can't be that bad, can they?"

Sarah sniffed and then blew her nose, making such a sound that they both had to laugh. Nicky pulled the end of her sleeve over her hand and wiped Sarah's eyes. Sarah sighed. "I . . . I was talking to Sam yesterday. He was sort of wondering if you were thinking of getting a job." She wasn't meeting Nicky's eyes. "I guess he's thinking it looks like you're planning on staying. I told him I didn't have any idea if you were staying or not. We haven't talked about it . . ." her voice drifted off. Nicky wondered how long Sarah would have put off bringing this up if she hadn't lost her own job.

Feeling more than usually rat-like, Nicky squeezed Sarah's hand. "Don't ask me how long I'm staying," she said quietly. "That's up to you. As for getting a job, I'd love to, but I don't think I can. I'm only fifteen, and I ran away from my folks. If I try to get a job..."

Sarah grinned, obviously so relieved that the question had been brought up and nothing awful had happened that she didn't care at all if Nicky ever get a job in her life.

One of these days, Nicky thought, I'm going to wake up with a pointy snout, whiskers and a long, hairless tail.

Nicky was sitting cross-legged on their bed, leaning back against the wall. Sarah was lying down with her head in Nicky's lap. "It's too bad I can't get unemployment," Sarah said as Nicky stroked her short hair. "But I was off the books and under the table, so there's no unemployment for . . . What's funny?"

Nicky's smile had been very small and fleeting, and she was surprised that Sarah had noticed it. "Under the table," she said, and Sarah nodded.

"I guess if I'd been willing to do that, I'd still have a job."

Nicky shook her head. "It's a good thing you didn't. If you had, I'd have to go down and try to beat up your boss, and he's probably bigger than I am."

This was right on the border of what Sarah could laugh about at that moment, but Nicky beeped her on the nose. "Oh, look at it this way," she said. "You're going to have all kinds of rotten bosses in your life, he's only the first one, and now he's in the past. Why worry about him?"

"You sure have a funny way of cheering a person up," Sarah said, frowning.

Nicky shrugged. "Besides, you probably couldn't get unemployment anyway. Haven't you read the papers?"

"Not recently, Terry," Sarah said and they both laughed. "I did hear something at work yesterday about unemployment, but I didn't ask what they were talking about. I knew it didn't mean anything to me. Do you know what it's all about?"

Nicky nodded. "A little. I read a bunch of stuff in the paper this afternoon, while you were out. It was kind of weird, really. I mean, it was all the same kind of thing we have back home, payoffs, deals and trading favors, but here it's all very hard to pin down and nobody agrees on any of it. Back home, we have all that stuff, but everybody knows all about who's doing what with who.

"The mayor's brother-in-law gets a contract to build a fancy new post office way out at the edge of town where nobody can get to it, on a piece of land that belongs to another local big shot. The guy who owns the bank is having a red-hot affair with the town librarian, so suddenly there's a fancy new library, in the building where the old post office was. And the house next door to that building has been condemned as unsafe for fifteen years, but suddenly the family has to move out so it can be torn down and turned into a big new parking lot for the new library." She shrugged.

"Where do you come from, Peyton Place?" Sarah asked.

Nicky laughed. "Any small town is Peyton Place, I guess. But everybody who lives in the town knows all about it, and it's all being done by people you see on the street every day. In fact, they're usually the people who go out of their way to say Hi and remember your name."

"Or maybe it's only you who gets that kind of treatment," Sarah suggested. "Do skinny little Black girls get the same big smile as–"

"Don't say it," Nicky put in. "And I don't really know what treatment skinny little Black girls get on Main Street, since I don't remember ever seeing any."

Sarah smiled. "And your first night in the big city, a skinny little Black girl comes along and picks you up. You're pretty broad-minded, aren't you, for somebody who grew up in the house next to Ozzie and Harriet?"

Nicky made a noncommittal grunt and then asked "So, how's your hand, Gadget?"

Sarah flexed it and shrugged. "It hurts a little," she admitted.

Nicky frowned, looking as pained as if it was her own hand which had been damaged. "And I guess the day you lose your job isn't the day we can afford to pay for you to see a doctor, huh?" Nicky was amazed to find herself trying to remember if she had any money still hidden in the lining of her jacket.

Sarah looked up. "I think Finch was once a doctor or something. Maybe we could have him look at it."

"That's it," Nicky said. "Come on." She nudged Sarah's shoulders with her knees.

But Sarah didn't move. "Actually," she said, "I think he was a pharmacist," but Nicky pushed her up into a sitting position.

"Come on," Nicky said, getting to her feet. "I don't want a damaged sweetie."

Sarah flopped back down onto the bed. "As I think about it, I think he was a veterinarian," she said. "I'm sure I'll be okay."

Nicky climbed back onto the bed and kneeled beside her. "I'm not taking no for an answer," she said, leaning forward and looking down at the other girl. "I don't care if he was an insect doctor, he's– Hey, none of that," she said as Sarah reached for her left breast. She stood up and picked up her bra from the floor. "You can't distract me that easily. Finch is the closest thing we have to a doctor, and you're going to see him if I have to carry you."

Sarah slid to the edge of the bed, rolled over on her stomach and reached down to the floor to poke through the clothes scattered around. "You get so fierce," she said.

Nicky was already halfway dressed. "I'm as ferocious as a tiger when I have to be," she said. "I don't want you to have a withered hand."

Sarah looked up. "What's a withered hand?" she asked.

Nicky shrugged. "I have no idea. I read it in a book once. Now, come on. You don't need socks, we're only going upstairs."

"This place is a mess," David observed, looking around. "Doesn't anybody ever vacuum?"

"You know, that's the funny thing about divorce," T.C. said thoughtfully. "When you're getting married–combining two households into one, so you've got two of a lot of things anyway–people fall all over each other to give you stuff."

"Damn," David said cheerfully, "maybe I should get married."

"On the other hand," T.C. went on, "when you get divorced and you have to make two households out of one, dividing everything into two piles, nobody gives you shit. You know, I haven't had a decent vacuum cleaner since I got divorced. Sometimes I wonder–"

"What, did Finch end up with your vacuum cleaner?" David asked. "I haven't seen it around."

"Not him," she said. "Justice."

"Oh. You know, I always did wonder what you saw in him–"

"What we need," T.C. continued, "is someone to move in here who's independently wealthy. Preferably with their own vacuum cleaner."

There was a knock at the door.

"See if they look wealthy," T.C. said as David went over and looked through the peephole.

David shook his head. "No chance. It's Fred and Ethel from downstairs." He opened the door. "Come on in," he said, "though we were hoping it was somebody with more money."

"That's why we're here," Nicky said. "We're in need of free medical assistance."

T.C. winced at the word "free," but she motioned them in. "Finch is down getting the mail, but he should be back in a minute."

"I lost my job," Sarah explained. "That's why–"

"Sounds damn careless to me," T.C. said. "What happened?"

"Her boss was a slug," Nicky said firmly. "He wanted her to–"

"Oh, please," David said, "no lurid details."

"He wanted you to put out?" T.C. demanded. "For what he was paying you? For that money, he was lucky you showed up at all. Nuts to him."

The door opened and Finch came in. He was wearing his bathrobe and slippers, with a battered fedora on the back of his head. "I've got the mail–" he began, then he saw Nicky and Sarah. "Well, greetings," he said, waving the envelopes cheerily. He took off his hat and bowed. "I'll have to brew up a fresh pot of strong coffee and start tuning my banjo–"

"Sarah needs medical help," T.C. said. "For which she is not prepared to pay at the present time."

Finch shrugged, rubbing his hands together briskly as he came into the kitchen. "Well, that's no problem," he said. "Take your shirt off."

"It's her hand," Nicky said firmly.

He looked distracted. "What?"

"Her hand," Nicky said, flexing her fingers into a fist and gesturing with it. "She doesn't have to take her shirt off."

Finch nodded. "That's reasonable. Okay, roll up your sleeve."

"Uh," said Sarah, whose T-shirt didn't have any sleeves. T.C. took a shoebox from the small shelf over the table and started rummaging through it.

Finch leaned over and looked at Sarah's hand. "What seems to be the problem?" he asked.

"It hurts when I do this," she said, holding it up and flexing her fingers.

He shrugged. "So, don't–"

"Here," T.C. said wearily. "Put your glasses on." She held them out.

"Ah," Finch said, putting on the glasses and looking at Sarah's hand again. He pressed his finger into her palm. "Does this hurt?"

"Shit, yes," Sarah said, trying to get her hand back.

As the examination went on, T.C. started humming idly, looking at a far corner of the ceiling, and casually nudging the open cigarette box across the table towards Nicky.

Nicky saw this and, glancing guiltily at Sarah, who wasn't paying attention, she started to push it back towards T.C. David, who was leaning in the doorway, was idly humming "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

"So," Sarah said, "will I ever play the violin again?"

"Keep your straight lines to yourself," Finch muttered. He looked up. "I think you should get an X-ray."

Sarah shrugged. "Can't afford it. I guess I'll have to end up with a withered hand."

"Well," Finch said, "I think a heating pad would be a good idea."

"Nicky told me said to put some ice on it," Sarah said.

Finch nodded. "Ice is good, too."

"You see?" T.C. said. "Free medical advice is worth what you pay for it. Say, is this job-related? You could get workers comp."

"I punched the refrigerator downstairs when my boss fired me," Sarah explained.

"That may be stretching the definition of 'job-related,'" David admitted.

"Okay, so much for health," T.C. said. "Now, on to more important things. Is Sunshine going to be visiting this weekend or not?"

Nicky grinned again, climbing up onto one of the stools. "Does Sam know you call Terry 'Little Miss Sunshine'?"

T.C. laughed. "I think he likes it," Finch said, smiling. "It means he can feel a little tiny bit naughty, and I think he enjoys that."

T.C. nodded, sipping her coffee. "Get a couple of beers into him and I'll bet he calls her worse than that."

"What does he see in her?" Nicky asked.

David laughed. "I'm sorry, that question won't be taken up this semester. That's for the advanced class."

T.C. nodded. "What we need to know now is if she's coming down this weekend to spread joy and glad tidings." She lit another cigarette.

"Sam's trying to get her to come down," Sarah said, coughing rather pointedly, which T.C. ignored.

"He didn't say anything about joy and glad tidings, though," Nicky added. She looked around. "So, why do you guys care if she's coming or not? You going to take her out to dinner in a big fancy restaurant?"

"Lord, no," T.C. said, getting up and moving to the stove to refill her mug. "We're planning Movie Night, and we wanted to do it when she's not here so Sam can come."

Nicky looked as thought she was having trouble following this, compounded by her confusion at the mug of coffee T.C. placed in her hand. She tried to remember if she'd asked for coffee.

"She doesn't let Sam come to Movie Night?" she asked hesitantly. "And what is Movie Night?" She looked into the mug and held it out. "I take it with coffee. I mean with milk," she said, holding it out. T.C. took it from her.

"Well, I don't think it's quite a blatant as her forbidding him to come," T.C. said, holding the mug. "It's more that she exudes strange gasses that make people think that having fun is somehow suspect. Are you following the news? Any news?"

"What? No, I just got into–"

"That's the strange gas my brother and sister give off," David explained as T.C. handed the mug back to Nicky. "It's like living in a little bubble where the outside world doesn't enter. How's the coffee?"

Nicky sipped it, then looked into the mug in puzzlement. "I–"

"Cigarette?" T.C. asked, taking the wooden box and holding it out.

"What? Oh, no, I don't–"

"Oh, go ahead," Sarah said, leaning back between Nicky's legs and draping her arms over her thighs. "I'll expire, coughing dramatically, but at least I'll never grow old."

"Or fat," T.C. added.

"Or disillusioned," Finch put in.

"Or with a withered hand," finished David.

T.C. shrugged. "See, what more could anybody ask?" She blew a smoke ring. "So, if we do have Movie Night on Saturday, what can we see?"

"Two good ones," David said. "'The Brain Eaters' and 'Busty Ninjas go to Hawaii.'"

"You're making those up," Nicky said.

He shrugged. "You'll have to come up on Saturday if you want to know for sure."

Chapter Seven

Three Weeks Earlier (continued)

"So," Sarah said, plopping herself down next to Nicky on the sofa, "how do you like it so far?"

Nicky laughed. "I've read almost five whole pages."

"Well, read faster. I want to know what you think."

"You want to know what I think? I think you're distracting me, that's what I think."

She turned her attention back to the book. When Sarah had learned that Nicky had never read any of Perry Nelson's novels, she had devoted a lot of thought to which of the three would be the best to start with. She had finally decided that Nicky should read all three, in order, as quickly as possible.

Of course, Nicky had read all three books already, many times, so she had to resist the temptation to skim as she started "The World." She had to read it as if this was the first time.

She read another page, then she looked up. "Hey," she said, "this is what you meant the night we met, about my name being a coincidence. You meant because the girl in this book is named Nicole, right?"

Nicky had asked Sarah about that comment a couple of times, but the other girl had just looked mysterious and refused to answer. In fact, of course, that was why the name Nicky had been the only one Nicky had been able to think of when she'd suddenly had to introduce herself to Sarah in the bar.

Now Sarah nodded. "She's in all three books, though not much in the second one. But she's in the third one a lot." Sarah still had the mysterious expression when she said this, and Nicky knew why, but she knew there was no point in asking about it. She turned her attention back to the page, but then Sarah nudged her as Sam came into the room.

"Pay attention," Sarah said to Nicky.

"Pay attention to what?" Nicky asked, thinking that at this rate she'd be lucky to finish the first chapter before bedtime.

"I'm going to Boston," Sam said. "I'm taking the bus that leaves at midnight, and I'll be coming back tomorrow night. With Terry, I hope. Try not to break anything while I'm gone."

"This is it," Sarah whispered eagerly, nudging Nicky in the ribs. "He's going to say it."

"He's going to say what?" Nicky demanded.

"I'm not going to say it," Sam said, gesturing at Nicky with a slight movement of his elbow, "Not with–"

"Oh, she's family now," Sarah said. "You can say it."

Sam nodded. "Okay." He squared his shoulders and gazed at the far horizon. "A man's got to do what a man's got to do," he said, and Sarah closed her eyes and swooned against Nicky's side.

"I love it when he says that," she murmured. "It makes my girlish heart melt."

"Mine, too," Nicky said quickly. She grinned at Sam. "So, you're going to take the little woman in hand and tell her you know what's best for her, huh?"

He nodded. "Sometimes it's the only way."

"Does that mean Perry Nelson will be coming to visit this weekend, too?" she asked.

"I expect so."

Nicky opened the book again. "I'd better read faster, huh?"

"Oh, no," Sarah said, "we never talk about his books."

Sam nodded. "Both Terry and Perry get all weird if you bring it up. Perry gets all uncomfortable–"

"And you-know-who turns into the Wicked Witch of the West Side," Sarah whispered loudly.

Sam just smiled. "And I think I speak for all of us when I say that's not how I want to be spending my weekend."

"Doesn't it get awkward, not talking about it?" Nicky asked.

Sam shook his head. "Oh, no. We just stick to nice, safe subjects. Politics and religion, mostly."

There was a brisk knock on the apartment door. When Finch opened it, Nicky snapped to attention and threw him a salute. "Private Nicky reporting, sir," she announced. "I have news from the front."

"Come on in, Private," Finch said. "We were hoping for some new news."

Nicky marched straight in, deftly made a sharp right hand turn, and proceeded into the kitchen. She came to a halt in front of T.C. and saluted.

"At ease, Private," T.C. said. "Smoke if you got 'em. What's the news?"

Nicky climbed onto a stool as Finch came back into the room. She carefully lit a cigarette. "Big doings downstairs," she said, taking a deep drag.

"Never mind the foreshadowing," Finch said. "When we want–"

"Sam went to Boston last night. He's going to bring the little woman down for the weekend, or he'll know the reason why. Now, she was supposed to be spending the weekend with Perry, and so the idea is that he will show up here, too."

"Ah," T.C. said slowly, "these are interesting developments." She leaned back and puffed thoughtfully.

"Damn, I'm good!" crowed a female voice as the apartment door slammed open. A teenage girl maybe two or three years older than Nicky came into the kitchen carrying what looked like a small banjo case. She was dressed in sweats, and flushed with what was apparently victory. "I am fucking great!" she announced, yanking open the refrigerator and taking out a big bottle of water. Finch had to dive across the room, bathrobe flapping, to catch the TV before it toppled onto her head.

"I think it's inadequate competition," David said, trailing wearily after her. He was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, and was so covered in sweat that he looked like he'd been caught in a rainstorm. He climbed onto the remaining stool and sighed, laying his Ping-Pong paddle on the table.

Finch nodded. "I think it was Earl Weaver who used to say–"

"I whupped his ass," the girl said, wiping sweat from her head as she put the water bottle on the stove. "Hey, everybody, look at this." She flipped her case on top of the sink and opened the catches. Inside, cushioned in padding, was a Ping-Pong paddle, and, in a separate compartment, a neat row of Ping-Pong balls. Across the rubber surface of the paddle it said "Nasty" in bright red script.

Along the polished handle in block letters it said, "Pro-Line."

"Merchandising," she said proudly, holding it out for their inspection. She took a few practice swings. "Once I win the Gold, every Pong rat in the country will want one of these."

"Pong?" Nicky asked.

The girl looked startled. "Ping-Pong," she said. Then she looked at Nicky more closely. "Who are you?" she asked.

Nicky stuck out her hand. "My name is Nicky. I live–"

"Pleased to meet you," the girl said, shaking her hand vigorously. She turned and closed the paddle case, then she pulled off her sweatshirt and tossed it through the doorway into the living room. "Catch you later. I've got first dibs on the shower!" she said as she left, slapping David on the back.

"Of course, I suppose Perry Nelson is used to this kind of treatment by now," T.C. mused, looking up at the ceiling.

"Who was that?" Nicky asked, leaning back on her stool so she could look into the living room as all the girl's clothing seemed to come off in the same moment, landing all over the furniture.

"My name is Nancy!" she called as she started the water in the bathroom.

"But everyone knew her as Nasty," David added under his breath as he lay his head on his folded arms and closed his eyes.

"I'm going to be in the Olympics!" Nasty hollered as she closed the bathroom door.

Nicky leaned forward, lowering her voice. "Is Ping-Pong really an Olympic sport?"

Finch looked around nervously, put his finger to his lips and went "Sssshhh." Then he got up and put the water bottle back in the refrigerator.

"Okay, Private Nicky," T.C. said suddenly, "here's your assignment. Sell Mr. Perry Nelson on the many and varied pleasures of Movie Night. If he decides he wants to check it out, Sunshine will be trapped."

Finch nodded. "With Perry on one side and Sam on the other, there's no escape. A classic pincers movement."

Nicky got down from her stool and saluted. "It's as good as done, ma'am. If all else fails, request permission to unleash the full force of my feminine wiles."

"Oooh," said Finch as T.C. shook her head.

"From all reports, Private, that might not be your best plan. However, use your judgement. Keep your powder dry. Dismissed."

But as Nicky reached for the door, there was a knock. She opened the door and Sarah came in, kissing her on the cheek as she passed. "I thought you might be up here reporting," she said as Nicky followed her into the kitchen.

"More news," Sarah announced to the room as Nicky tried to figure out whether she should take a drag on her cigarette or put it out. "Sam just came back."

"Victorious?" T.C. asked.

"Defeated, but unbowed. Terry refused to see him. I gather that strong language was used. She won't be coming down this weekend, and neither will Perry. She made it quite clear that she's not seeing him either."

Nicky was tempted to turn and punch the refrigerator. If Terry was that annoyed, it might be a while before she visited again (if ever), and that meant she might never get to meet Perry Nelson. Shit.

T.C. smiled as she looked around. "Movie night is on. Give me a moment and I'll tell you your assignments."

Chapter Eight

Tuesday, The Morning After

Perry found himself thinking how nice it would be to go home. Then he sat bolt upright as a howl of anguish came from Sam's room. He stumbled to his feet and crashed into Sarah as they ran toward the sound.

They opened the door all the way and stopped. Sam stood naked, his back against the wall, looking at the bed. The bedclothes were tangled and ripped, and covered in blood. There was no sign of Terry.

Perry moved to the bed and pulled back the cover, with the irrational idea that Terry might be hiding somewhere. Sam bolted out the door of the room, yelling "Terry!" Perry turned and saw Sarah standing in the doorway.

"What happened?" she asked helplessly, though it was obvious he didn't know any more than she did.

"I don't know."

Sam barged back into the room and said, "Let me get dressed, then we've got to call the police."

Perry and Sarah went into the hall where they ran into Nicky, looking tousled and still half-asleep, wrapped in a sheet.

"Are they fighting this early?" she asked peevishly. "My head hurts."

Sarah steered her into the living room. "Something's happened. Terry's gone, and Sam's sheets are all covered in blood."

"Maybe she got her period," Nicky muttered. "Hell of a reason to leave, though."

"It wasn't that. Too much blood, and the sheets were all cut up." Sarah shuddered. "Whatever happened, how the hell could Sam sleep through it?"

A few minutes later, Sam came into the living room, his pants and a T-shirt on. He was still barefoot. He stood in the doorway, looking around. "Should I call the police?" he asked finally.

"To report what?" Nicky asked.

Nicky sat on the window seat in the living room. She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her pocket and extracted one slowly. She tamped down both ends, three taps each, then put it in her mouth. She paused for a moment, thinking, then took out a pack of matches. It was from one of the bars they'd been in the night before. She watched the sulfur head of the match flare up and then applied it to the cigarette. She drew in the first deep drag, savoring it as she shook out the match and put it carefully on the windowsill beside her.

Sam came in and sat down.

"Where's Sarah?" he asked.

"Out getting the papers." She took a deep drag, letting the smoke out slowly. "Sam, can I say something I've been thinking for a while? It may make you mad."

He shrugged. "Sure."

"Now, I don't know what happened to Terry any more than you do. But, something's been bugging me for some time now. Is she really worth all the fussing and fuming? All the trouble? I mean, are you really happier with her than you'd be without her?"

The bedroom door opened and Perry came in, looking a little refreshed.

Sam half-turned in his chair to face him. "Perry, can I ask you a question?"

He shrugged.

"Why are you here? Not that I mind, but why are you sleeping on our sofa? I'm sure your hotel bed is more comfortable. And how did you get in?"

Perry sat down, looking intent on formulating his answer.

"Terry wanted me to come here after the broadcast, so we could all go out for breakfast together when we recovered from last night. And she gave me her key, since she knew she was coming home with you."

"Well, I guess whatever happened was a surprise to her." Sam said slowly.

"But there's one more thing," Perry said. "I didn't need the key. The door was open when I got here."

Sam looked up sharply. "The door? The apartment door?"

Perry nodded. "I could see it from halfway down the hall." He thought for a minute. "I wonder if she's been in touch with Tammy."

Sam shrugged. "I don't have her number."

"Terry does like to keep people apart," Perry said. He reached for his jacket. "I've got it here."

He took a small notebook from his jacket pocket, picked up the phone and dialed the number. He was silent for a moment, listening, then said, "Hi, Tammy. This is Perry. I'm at Sam's apartment in New York. Give me a call when you can." He recited the number carefully.

"She's probably at her office, right?" Nicky asked.

Perry nodded. "Right. In my line of work I tend to forget what day it is." He referred to his book again and dialed another number.

"Oh, hi, Priscilla. Is Miss Nelson in?" He listened for a moment. "Okay. This is her brother." He gave Sam's number and said goodbye.

"She's meeting with a client," he said, his mind obviously elsewhere. "She'll be in the office around noon."

Nicky put out her cigarette on the windowsill and threw the butt out the window. "I'm going to make some coffee," she said and left in the direction of the kitchen.

Sam and Perry were silent for a few minutes, then Perry said, rather defensively, "I'm sure she's okay, Sam. If it's alright, I'd like to stick around for a day or two and see what happens."

Sam shrugged. "I wish I was that optimistic, but it's fine with me if you stay. I just can't help thinking that something terrible happened and I slept through it."

The phone rang and Sam picked it up. "Yes. Oh, hi, Mary." He made a face. "Sure. I can be there in an hour. How should I dress?" He pulled a pad from his shirt pocket and began to write things down. "Phone number?" he asked. He made some more notes. "Thanks, Mary."

He hung up the phone. "Shit," he said. "I've got work this afternoon, proofreading, from noon to seven tonight. I hate to take it under the circumstances, but we really need the money." He stood up. "I had to cancel two days of work over the weekend to go up to Boston for Terry. If I refuse too often, they'll stop calling."

He scribbled something on a piece of paper and gave it to Perry. "This is the number where I'll be. Call me up if anything happens."

Perry folded the paper and put it away in his wallet.

"We'll have dinner when I get home," Sam called from his bedroom.

"Sounds good," Perry replied.

Nicky came out of the kitchen, a cup of coffee in her hand. "What's going on?"

Sam came out of his room, tying his tie. "Work. Twelve to seven. Perry has the number."

The phone rang and Nicky answered it.

"Unique Garage, Harry speaking." She listened, sipping her coffee. "Oh, no, he's here."

She handed it over to Perry, who was looking like he'd rather be somewhere else.

"Perry Nelson speaking."

"Hey, Pete," Tammy Nelson's voice boomed from the receiver. "What's up?"

Perry took a deep breath, getting ready to start to explain what had happened, but Tammy leaped into the breach.

"Saw you on the Today Show this morning. Jesus, what did they do to your face? The–"

"Tammy, something's happened to Terry," he said deliberately. "She's vanished."

"Vanished? You mean she's run away from home? Can you do that at her age? Where are you anyway?"

Perry felt the conversation slipping away from him. "In New York, at Sam's. You called me here."

"Oh, I just had Pris dial the number. I–" There was a buzz and she said, "I've got to put you on hold. I think this is important."

Bouncy, cheerful music came on and Perry looked baffled. Sam waved and went out.

"What's up?" Sarah asked.

"Failure to communicate," he said. "She seems–"

There was a click and Tammy came back on the line. Before things could go further astray, Perry said slowly, "Terry vanished in the middle of the night last night, leaving ripped up sheets and a fair quantity of blood."

There was silence for a moment, then she said, "Tell me what happened."

He told her.

There was another moment of silence, then Tammy said, "Do you want me to come down? I could–"

"I don't think that's necessary. Not right now. You know Terry, she's subject to sudden explosions. And last night she was obviously really tied up in knots. This is her doing. I'm sure of it."

Tammy said, "Well . . . Okay. But call me if anything happens. And have her call me if she shows up." He agreed and they hung up.

"Are you as sure as you sound?" Nicky asked.

He shook his head. "Not at all. But there's no real point in her flying down here until we know more than we do now." He stood up and made a face. "I sometimes get fed up with everybody rearranging their lives whenever Terry sneezes." He shook his head. "It's just helping her to keep being helpless." He looked at the steaming mug in Nicky's hand. "Is there more coffee?"

"You could take a bath in the amount of coffee I made," she said proudly.

He smiled a little. "A cup at a time, internally, will be fine."

A few minutes later, the door opened and Sarah came in, her arms full of newspapers and several small paper bags.

"Bagels!" she announced loudly as she passed the living room. Nicky got up and followed her down the hall to the kitchen, where Perry was pouring himself a cup of coffee.

As Sarah was putting her parcels down on the counter, Nicky embraced her from behind, causing Sarah to go Eeep! and drop two small paper bags on the floor.

"Whaddya got there, Smidge?" Nicky asked, her mouth buried in the nape of Sarah's neck.

"Bagels. On the floor," she replied, and Perry blushed.

Nicky let go of Sarah and bent over to pick up the bags. "Funny place to leave your bagels," she said. "I was wondering what was taking you so long."

"Any sign of Terry?" Sarah asked, pulling her T-shirt back down.

"No. And Sam got some work this afternoon, until seven or eight tonight."

Nicky started pulling bagels and muffins and various small containers of cream cheese from the small bags. "That's good," Sarah said. "I thought they might stiff him since he canceled that work over the weekend at the last minute."

Perry made a face, but he didn't say anything. He sipped his coffee.

Sarah and Nicky clambered up on stools as Perry leaned against the stove.

"I'm going to call my hotel," Perry said suddenly. "Maybe there's some sort of message."

He reached for the wall phone and made the call. He identified himself as Sarah stuck her forefinger in a small container of nut flavored cream cheese and scooped out a small amount. Perry listened for a few moments, then he thanked the clerk and hung up.

"Nothing from Terry. My publisher called again, though. He's really pressuring me to allow them to make a movie out of 'Distance and Time.'"

"And you don't want to?" Sarah asked. "I think it would make a great movie."

"It could. Or it could make a really bad movie. No, the book's there. Let people read that."

"I've been re-reading 'Quartet,'" Nicky said. "Ever since I saw you on TV."

"Oh, God, not–"

She laughed. "No, not the Today Show. The night before, when you were on . . . No, two nights before. Sunday night, on Channel Thirteen."

"Oh, yes. That was taped a couple of months ago. I was pretty happy with that one."

Sarah got up and left the room.

"It..." Nicky said hesitantly. "It made me think. I mean... are you gay?"

He shook his head. "No, I'm not. And I've taken a fair amount of criticism–"

"Well, it made me think about how things are. How I used to think being gay or straight was just like preferring chocolate or vanilla. But it isn't really, is it?"

"Well, in an ideal–"

"It can't ever be, as long as things are the way they are. I've been reading your books, and I'd like to talk to you about them when we have a minute."

He shrugged. It was obvious that she wanted to talk to him about it right then, except that she wasn't quite sure what she wanted to say.

Tammy Nelson's walk was one thing she was proud of, one of many. She liked to move quickly, but she had a fairly severe limp, so she had decided very early on that it was worth almost any effort to avoid being clumsy and awkward. She didn't care if she fit in, but she was willing to work very hard to make sure she wasn't pitied.

Her walk was not like other people's, but it had its own grace and it got her where she was going. She was so used to attracting attention on the street that she didn't even notice it anymore. Six feet tall, broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped, propelling herself along with her cane, she made quite an impression.

She looked quite a bit like her sister Terry, but the effect was very different. Terry was all pastels and earth tones, seemingly smaller than she really was. Tammy was vibrant primary colors, larger than life, and hair was much redder (though that was artificial).

She always told the story about her days in law school, when everybody had assumed that she'd be going into something other than trial work. She was somewhat off-putting, the conventional wisdom ran, a little harsh and unsympathetic. One professor was heard to say simply, "she'd scare a jury to death." But trial work was her specialty, and she was very successful at it.

She took no pleasure in her walk today, however, as she grabbed her cane and levered herself erect. She strode out of her office, telling Priscilla that she'd be right back. She limped quickly to the Ladies Room and went inside. Going into an empty stall, she closed the door, sat down, and burst into tears.

Sam ran into Perry in the lobby of the building that evening. Perry had shaved and showered, changed his clothes and was wearing glasses.

"Disguise?" Sam asked.

"Oh, no. My contacts were in way too long so I thought I'd give my eyes a rest. How was work?"

"By the time I got there it was mostly done, so I just sat around most of the afternoon."

"Sounds like a good gig."

"Well, it's not always like that." They got on the elevator. "Sometimes it's wall to wall work. You can never predict."

"Do you work through an agency?" Perry asked, and Sam suddenly felt like a research subject.

"You almost have to. It's the only way to get in the door at any of these places. They take a pretty good cut, though, let me tell you. Almost fifty percent." They walked down the hall to the apartment. "And I miss paid sick days and–"

As Sam reached for his keys the door opened and Sarah, wearing a white shirt, black cutaway jacket and black tuxedo pants, bowed and motioned them into the apartment.

Sam looked nonplussed, then turned to Perry. "I hope you made a reservation."

Nicky, attired in a bright red kimono, had made them a delicious dinner of stir-fried vegetables and tofu over rice. Perry ducked out to buy a bottle of wine, and they all managed to have a pretty good time.

Sam found himself distracted a couple of times by Nicky, whirling around the table somehow serving, clearing and eating all at once. He was aware that she wore very little under her kimono, though it was not provocative or revealing at all. He was mad at himself for still being so aware of her in that way.

After dinner, Sam said, "I could use a little more alcohol–"

"I think we should go out and get some sinfully rich deserts and heavy duty caffeine," Sarah said.

Perry said, "I agree with that. I can't drink again like we did last night. Even one night was too much."

Sam shrugged. "Okay. Where should we go?"

"How about that place we went last weekend?" Sarah asked Nicky. "What was the name of it?"

Nicky looked dubious. "Something French, I think. But," she poked a thumb at Sam and Perry, "I don't think they . . ."

"Oh, I saw a couple of men there." Sarah said carelessly. "I wouldn't worry about that."

Perry had grown more and more quiet as the evening had worn on, and as they left the cafe he looked lost in deep thought.

"I think she's okay," Sam said with confidence he didn't feel. Sarah and Nicky had dropped a little behind, holding hands and giggling about something.

Perry looked up. "Hmmm?"

"Terry. I think she's okay." He threw his arm across Perry's narrow shoulders. "She usually manages to land on her feet."

"Ohh-hhh, Giiiirrrrls!" came a taunting sing-song from behind them, and as they turned a rock hit Perry on the cheek.

Chapter Nine

Twenty Years Earlier

Alex huddled down into her battered black trench coat, warming her hands around a steaming mug of tea. Her father was down in the basement, trying to fix the heater. Vinnie could hear him swearing through the hot air vent.

Vinnie worked behind the counter of the town's General Store, where he and Alex were sitting trying to keep warm. He saw quite a bit of her, since she was his boss's daughter, and she lived in a simple apartment over the store, but seldom as early as this morning. But the lack of heat affected her apartment as well as the store, and he guessed she'd decided that company was some compensation for the cold. He sipped his tea and wondered aloud if any customers would brave the high drifts of snow outside to get their Sunday papers.

Alex looked right through him as he said it, and he knew her mind was somewhere else. He didn't mind, it had been some time since her wandering attention had bothered him. She was the same with everybody, and you either got used to it or gave up on spending time with her. He thought she was worth it, at least he thought so more often than not.

Her eyes came back into focus and she said, "Mama thinks we should close, but Dad won't hear of it."

"You think he can fix it himself, or will he have to wait for Luke?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. As long as we don't run out of tea I'm okay."

"Why so cheerful this morning?" Vinnie asked. Her usual gloom would, he thought, have been made worse by the cold, but she seemed in good spirits.

"I'm not thinking about certain things. Maybe the cold has frozen certain parts of my brain. I hope so. I'm in trouble when they thaw, though."

Vinnie laughed, though he didn't know quite what she was talking about. He knew some things had been bothering her all week, but she hadn't been able to put them into words yet. He guessed that a day off from worrying might do her as much good as a whole week of brooding.

"I was thinking of going to the beach today," Alex said. "Looks like the weather may get pretty wild this afternoon."

Vinnie nodded. "By nightfall, anyway. If you'll wait until dinnertime I'll come along. If I'm invited."

"I don't know. I may just go by myself. I need some time to think."

He looked at her with amusement from under the bill of his cap. "Well, your brain seems to have thawed out. It was nice while it lasted, kiddo."

She was silent, looking down into her mug.

"I'm sorry, Lexie," he said after a minute. "You do look a little rocky."

She shook her head. "No problem. So, what were you up to last night? I had a feeling you might drop into the BatCave, but you never showed."

"You know, I did, really late, and you weren't there. I guess you'd left already. Lauren made some crack about you, but I didn't catch it. I hung out for a couple of drinks and split. It was pretty dead by then anyway."

She made a face. "Isn't it always? The whole thing is so played out. This whole town is, really. We're just kidding ourselves, you know? I mean, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, but–"

"I know what you mean. But that's the whole point, isn't it?"

She nodded, seeming somewhat happier again. "Of course it is. It's just so easy to lose track of that. To forget all our plans."

It's so easy to forget . . .

Vinnie touches her knee and she smiles. It isn't a lover's smile, but there is much affection and appreciation in it. "You know, Vin, we're getting dragged down a bit these days," she said. "We should . . . try to find some way to get away for a few days or something. Borrow a car and drive. This town isn't the whole world, you know."

He laughed. "So, let's go to Clifton for a few days, huh? Big thrill there." Clifton was fifteen miles away.

She fisted him in the shoulder. "Oh, shut up, you jerk. You know what I mean."

He nodded. "Yeah, I do. And if we managed to `think the right way,' I think going to Clifton would do the trick. Maybe even staying here would, for now."

"Very good thought, really. Getting out can just be a tease for what getting out will be like, when we do it for real. And nothing's going to do that but doing it." She got a faraway look in her eyes. "I wish this was the day, Vin. God, do I wish it was. That would be so perfect, wouldn't it?"

"Stop talking like you're in some play," he said harshly. "Don't make some hopeless romantic shit out of this. I don't have any interest in lost causes or anything like that."

She nodded. "You're right. I don't have any interest in that either." She finished her tea. "That's the problem. I keep feeling like I'm making speeches and striking poses. It's like I know there's somebody reading about everything I do, and I'm putting on an act for them. Not a bad act, but . . . I don't want any acts at all! It gives me the creeps!"

In the still of the snow-bound Sunday morning, Vinnie heard a sound that surprised him. There were footsteps coming down the outside stairs from Alex's apartment over the store. He looked at Alex, but she averted her eyes. The door opened and a man came in.

He was well known to both Alex and Vinnie. He was tall and hawk-like, attractively ugly, quite a bit older than Alex or Vinnie. His name was Ian. He frowned genially and moved towards Alex, obviously intending a rather warm greeting. Her face moved in strange ways and he stopped and turned to Vinnie.

"How's it going?" he asked.

"Okay," Vinnie said slowly. "Working hard as usual."

Ian nodded and turned to Alex. She frowned.

The night before, at the BatCave, Alex was being invisible. She watched the usual Saturday night bedlam absently, as if waiting for something or somebody. There were many familiar faces. She sort of wished Vinnie was there, but the BatCave on a weekend wasn't his favorite place to be. He liked it better when it was half-empty.

Alex saw Lenore drinking with Ian in a corner. Lenore ran her fingers through her long red hair and looked skeptical about whatever Ian was saying. She was drinking red wine, as usual, and Alex remembered that Vinnie always said she drank it because she was trying to match the color of her hair. It might even have been true. What a strange pair to be lovers, Vinnie and Lenore. You almost never saw them together. From outward appearances, you'd probably think Vinnie was sleeping with Alex and Lenore with nobody at all.

Lenore saw somebody she knew at the other end of the bar and got up to go over. Ian got up also, looking around the room. He spotted Alex and walked towards her, stopping on the way for two more beers. As usual, Alex's best invisibility act didn't work on Ian. He put one of the beers in front of her and waited. She waved a hand at the chair opposite her, and he sat down.

"What's new, kid?" he asked pleasantly.

She shrugged. "Nothing. I don't know. I'm wondering about what I'm doing here, what I'm really accomplishing. It's sort of a pointless, privileged existence, you know. I should be out there among the real people, in the real world, or how am I ever going to do anything worthwhile? I'm so fucking fragile!" She stopped and looked out the window at the snow. Then, still looking out, she went on. "But the world is so fucking scary, the number of ways they try to control you and beat you down . . . Maybe the only way to be really honest is to avoid all that pressure. You have to be able to maintain your ideals."

Ian finished his beer and smiled, a strange sight indeed. "You know what I like about you? When I ask you what's up, you really tell me what's up."

She made a face, half-disgusted with him and half-amused with herself. She may have been ludicrous, Ian thought, but at least she knew it. She was more aware of it than anybody else, in fact, and others often didn't realize it until she told them.

"Enough about me," Alex said definitely. "What's been going on with you?"

Ian shook his head. "Same old same old. I don't know, this town's weird. All summer I wait for the tourists to leave, 'cause they're so horrible, and then they all go away and I realize that this isn't any better."

"So, why do you stay?"

Alex's hands always gave away more than she wanted them to, they were often far more expressive than her face. They moved uncontrollably when she was troubled, picking at her clothes and hair, they conveyed an electricity all their own when they touched the skin of somebody she liked and felt comfortable with, and they were red-blotched and claw-like when she was most trying to act as if she was healthy and happy.

This morning they were cold and hard to the touch, Vinnie noticed. Alex warmed them around her constantly-refilled mug, and held them in front of the heater when her father finally got it working, but these things didn't help in the slightest. And, when Ian was there, she made a point not to touch him, Vinnie noticed, as if hiding the coldness of her hands from him. As if he cared, Vinnie chuckled to himself. Warm hands might frighten Ian off.

Alex drained her mug and stood up as Ian went out. Vinnie looked at her questioningly, and she smiled. "It's getting more human in here." She stretched and took off her coat. She took off her hat and sat down again. Two people Vinnie didn't know bought Sunday papers and walked out.

"I don't know, maybe I should be worrying about last night, but I think it was the right thing to do. Ian's not quite the way everybody likes to make out. He's more . . ." She shook her head. "Not yet. I'll figure him out, though. There's quite a lot in there."

"And he works pretty hard at keeping it in." She chuckled. "So, last night wasn't just a one-shot deal?"

She laughed. "As Ian said last night, there aren't very many one-night stands in this town. You use up the available prospects too fast."

Vinnie laughed. "That's great. Maybe that's why I'm sleeping around less and less. I think I may be getting near the end of the list."

"Well, you could always start again at the beginning, you know."

"I tried that once. You wouldn't have me, remember?"

Her face broke out in a surprisingly affectionate smile, complete with dimples. "Serves me right for mentioning it. You want some more tea?"

He nodded, and she took their empty mugs into the back room. Vinnie remembered all of a sudden why he liked her so much. She was really the only thing that made life worth living in this jerkwater town. She was fully alive, fully aware, even if this made her crazy sometimes, made her think and say things that were totally wrong and stupid. Her skin was too thin for the city, he thought. If she ever left this safe harbor she'd either toughen up or fall apart, and whichever way it went something would be lost. Something that meant a lot to him, no matter how silly it had seemed when they had met.

Vinnie had always worked in the General Store. First he'd been the delivery boy and floor-sweeper after school. Then, when he'd had to drop out of high school to help support his family when his step-father had died, Alex's father had made him the cashier. One thing was for sure, he'd never regretted having to leave school. What a disaster that had been. He'd been close to being thrown out anyway, and it had pleased him to leave under his own steam.

He and Alex had had that in common, even back then, both dropping out. She was real different, of course, all those fits and breakdowns from the pressure. Not that Ross Regional was a high-pressure school. They didn't care what you did as long as you showed up and didn't cause too much trouble. But the pressure in her mind, and from her parents, had been too much for her.

A month after Vinnie had dropped out and started working full-time it had come to a head. Alex had come into the store and started talking to Vinnie. They didn't know each other too well in those days, the angry young tough in the leather jacket and the boss's awkwardly tall and bookish daughter didn't have too much in common, but she asked him something about the weather, then before he could answer, her father came in and said he was going home. He said she should come along, too, and get her homework done before dinner. She choked out that she'd be along in a minute. Her father said, "See that you are, young lady," and told Vinnie to turn out the lights and lock up at the usual time.

He left, and Vinnie watched in silence as Alex turned her back on him and clutched herself in the stomach. She doubled over and he heard small, choked sobs. Then, suddenly, before he could figure out how to react, she whirled around and her long arms flashed out, knocking down a display rack of magazines. Screaming, she yanked a shelf of fishing supplies off the wall, pulling six-inch screws out of hard, ancient timber as if they were nothing. She turned to knock over a long rack of paperback books, but as she got her hands on it Vinnie leaped off the counter and tackled her, the two of them ending up buried under books and lumber. He held her in a bear hug as she struggled, then suddenly she threw her arms and legs around him and started to cry, pulling so hard on his jacket that he thought the leather would rip like paper. She cried long and hard, huge raw sobs making it hard for her to breathe. It seemed like hours, but it must have been only a few minutes.

As soon as he could, seeing unemployment and debts for repair floating before his eyes, Vinnie eased free from her embrace and ran to the door. He locked it, then hung the Closed sign face outward. When he got back to Alex she was sitting up and looking around at what she'd done. "He'll kill me," she whispered as Vinnie sat down on the floor beside her.

"He'll kill both of us," Vinnie whispered back, "starting with me. But never mind about that. You look like you need somebody to talk to."

She looked at him as if such an idea had never occurred to her, and now that it was in front of her she couldn't believe her good fortune. He understood the feeling.

It took some time, they were both so used to keeping everything in, never expecting anything from parents, teachers or even schoolmates except incomprehension and anger, but both had longed, without ever thinking of it that specifically, for a kindred spirit, and now that such a person had appeared, the barriers came down and they talked, for the first time in their lives, about what they really felt. It was, for each, like meeting a long-lost twin.

They were, of course, very different in many ways, but under it all they were the same, two sides of the same coin. And, after all the frustration and anger and mixed-up rage had come out, they sat for a few minutes, arms around each other, and then Alex looked around and said, "I still say my father will kill us."

Vinnie stood up, helping her up with him. "We can fix this. Let me get the tools."

Within an hour, everything was pretty much as it had been before. They hugged, made arrangements to see each other the next day, and Alex departed.

Three days later they made love in the storeroom downstairs, on an inflatable beach mattress. It was the first time for both of them. Alex was a virgin simply because nobody had ever asked her before. She was totally unattractive by the standards of most of her peers, and her braininess, her strangeness and her refusal to play the right roles turned off the few potential suitors that might have looked past her appearance. Vinnie had never done it because one thing he had always hated, that had made him angry beyond words, was the way his schoolmates bragged, the competitiveness of it, the brutality of it, and the stupid way you had to act when you went out with girls if you ever wanted to get anywhere. It had never occurred to him that a girl might exist who wouldn't need dressing-up for, or manners, or politeness, or spending money, or any of that garbage, that would love his rough edges and his greased hair and his father's old World War Two leather flying jacket.

And love they did, despite all sorts of pressure from all around them. They didn't care, they were deaf and blind to disapproval.

Vinnie smiled, watching Alex return with fresh mugs of tea from the back room. He had kicked and screamed, panic-stricken at being abandoned, when she had said they should stop being lovers. But she had convinced him that she was right. She wasn't satisfied with just a safe haven, and she taught him not to be either. So, they stopped sleeping together, and tried to figure out what could be done instead of just hiding away.

Alex put the mugs down and Vinnie smiled. She looked at him for a moment, then smiled, too.

"It's good to remember," he said simply. She nodded.

Alex drew in a deep breath through her mouth and let it out slowly through her nose. Vinnie waited, knowing that this meant she was building up to something, something she didn't really want to talk about.

"I got a letter from Rick."

Vinnie looked carefully at the masthead of the newspaper on the counter in front of him.

"Didn't know they delivered mail on Sunday."

She made a face. "It came on Wednesday. I've . . . I haven't mentioned it because I knew what you'd say."

"What I'd say?" he asked. "You're tougher on him than I'd ever be."

"He wants money."

"What!?" Vinnie bellowed, slapping his hand on the counter. "Why the hell should you give him money? You should have let me–"

"I'm not going to give him any money," she said patiently. "I'm not that much of a sucker. I was only married to him for twenty-seven days, you know."

Vinnie sat back down. "I'm sorry. I know you're over that craziness. He just gets on my nerves." He smoothed the top newspaper on the pile. "Why does he think he deserves any money from you?"

"That's the funny part. He doesn't really say." She reached into the pocket of her coat and pulled out a battered piece of paper. "He just says he's found a way to make some money, but he doesn't really want to do it. It's something pretty rank, apparently. If he had some cash, then he wouldn't have to do this, but he really needs the money. He doesn't give a clue what it is he's talking about."

Vinnie laughed sourly. "That's lame even for him."

Alex looked like she wanted to say something else, but she folded up the letter again carefully and put it away. It was always hard to talk about Rick with Vinnie.

There was a storm that Sunday night that would be remembered for years afterwards. It started suddenly, almost out of nowhere, with a wild, moaning wind. The sky got dark, with sudden strange explosions of very bright light. A dark, unstoppable wind blew in off the highway and right through the center of town, up Main Street and down Commercial Street. It blew out to the pier, around the parking lot, and down the shore road to the beaches.

It blew howling past the door of the BatCave and then off into the night, leaving a single figure standing in front of the door. She watched as the sky cleared, the oppressive pressure lifted, the explosions of light started to fade. The night became still, and it started to snow again. The woman laughed out loud and walked into the bar.

Twenty Years Earlier (continued)


Ruth looked up at the clock on the wall. It was nearly five in the afternoon.

–Quitting time, she thought with a chuckle.

The thought was funny because it was Sunday. She was the only person in the Town Hall offices. She didn't get paid extra to come in on Sunday afternoons, she just did it from time to time to take care of some little things that she found it hard to get done during the week.

She'd filed everything from the To Be Filed box, and pulled from the files everything on the To Get list (which was sometimes more challenging, since not everybody was as scrupulous as she was about filing documents correctly).

She threw out the flower she'd brought for her desk, and emptied out the water in the sink. She looked things over one last time and left, being careful to turn off all the lights and lock the door behind her.

Outside, she took a moment to adjust her scarf against the chill breeze, then walked down the long, straight, sloping path from the Town Hall to the sidewalk. Directly across Main Street from the Town Hall was the General Store. She looked both ways for traffic and then darted across the street.

She opened the door of the store and went in, feeling the sudden warmth on her face.

Vinnie jerked his head up as she came in. There were no customers in the store.

–Sleeping on the job, I think. He must have been out late last night. I wonder sometimes when he does sleep.

"Hello, Ruth."

"Hello, Vinnie. How's your Sunday been?"

He shrugged. "Heat was off when I opened up this morning. For once Mr. Martin fixed it himself, though, and it's actually worked all day."

"Been busy?"

He shook his head. "Snow kept everybody home, I guess. I may close up early."

"Does Mr. Martin let you do that?"

"Oh, he'll never know. Nothing interrupts their sacred Sunday dinner. He won't be back today." He was silent for a few moments, shifting his shoulders around as if they were stiff.

"You want some coffee?" he asked.

–He was expecting me to leave, she thought, but she nodded before she knew what she was doing.

He got to his feet and went into the tiny side room where there was always a pot of coffee on a hot plate.

"Sugar? Milk?" he asked as he came back in, the paper cup held gingerly in his hands.

"Black is fine," she said, and he put the cup down in front of her.

They were silent again as she thought frantically of something to say.

"I got a call from Nettie down at the Police Station," she said finally. "The Chief of Police from Clifton called today. There's a big motorcycle gang hanging around out by the old campgrounds. They've been causing a lot of trouble, and he's been alerting all the police departments in the area."

Vinnie barely reacted, and she was trying to think of something else when he said, "What were you doing there on Sunday?"

She sipped the coffee.

–God, how long has this been cooking back there?

"Just catching up on a few things," she said quickly. "Has Lenore heard anything about the bikers?"

Lenore was a student at Cliff College in Clifton.

He shrugged.

"I've always wondered about something," Ruth said, then, when Vinnie didn't respond, she went ahead, "Why does Lenore live here in Ross? I mean, Clifton isn't that far away, but there were never any college students here in town until she moved here, and now there's quite a few."

Vinnie nodded. "She didn't have any choice. She transferred suddenly in the middle of the semester, and she couldn't find any place to stay in Clifton. You can never find anything there when school's in session.

"She thought she'd move to Clifton when the semester was over, but by then she'd discovered the difference in room rent between here and there. And she likes living in that big house with all those people coming and going."

"And she met you?" Ruth half-said, half-asked.

Vinnie laughed. "Yeah, she met me, but if you think she'd make her life less convenient for my sake . . . Well, I can only say that you've got a romantic way of looking at things." Ruth sipped her coffee and Vinnie continued. "But you want to know the real reason? And this is what she'll tell you if you ask her. There aren't any decent bars in Clifton. They're all student hang-outs, like the Rat and The Harbormaster. Or you can go to Tiny's, but that's a little too intense, even for her.

"Don't forget, she's from New York. She's been drinking in real bars since she was fifteen. After that, The Rat seems pretty tame."

"And expensive," Ruth ventured.

He laughed. "And expensive."

–I hope he doesn't wonder why I always ask so many questions about Lenore.

Vinnie said, "I'm gonna have a beer. You want one?"

Ruth looked surprised, turning to glance at the rear alcove of the store, where the lights were off and the refrigerators containing the beer and wine were covered.

"Should we?" she asked. "It's illegal, isn't it? On Sunday, I mean?"

Vinnie shrugged and vaulted over the counter. He went to the back and brought out two cold bottles of imported beer.

–He remembered that I like dark beer.

He took his seat again and pulled an opener from his jeans. He used it, then slid it across the counter to her. She didn't really want a beer, but it was an excuse to stop drinking the coffee.

"Just slip the bottle behind those bags of chips if anybody comes in," he said after taking a healthy swallow.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, then Vinnie finished his beer and said, "Let's get out of here."

Ruth looked at her watch, but Vinnie was already in motion, shutting of lights and bagging up the trash. She picked up her beer, which was still half full, but before she could ask what to do with it, he took it from her hand and drained it in one long swallow.

Outside, as Vinnie locked the door, she said, "So, how's Alex?"

He shrugged, turning up the collar of his leather jacket against the chill breeze. "She's about the same." They started to walk down Main Street. "Her folks are getting on her again. School, career, stability. It used to be `School, career, marriage,' but then they got a good look at Rick. Now they don't push the marriage part so hard." He paused. "She's getting a double dose of it right now. Sunday dinner at their house is something the Nazis might have thought up."

"Have you ever been there? For Sunday dinner, I mean?"

"Once. When Alex and I were going together. It was a bitch. All the little hints and digs and bullshit."

"So, where are you headed now?"

He shrugged. "Home I guess. You know what pisses me off about Alex's folks? They want her to do this and that. `For her own good.' Okay, that's not so bad. But when she was with Rick, when they were engaged and married, they left her alone. No more school-career-etcetera.

"Now, they hated Rick–"

"That seems pretty common–"

"Don't get me started on that." They were stopped in front of the Post Office. "But her parents let her alone. Obviously, they thought that if she was married, to anybody, that took care of things. She was set. And then when the marriage broke up, they started busting her chops all over again. They should have been cheering."

Ruth looked around. "I'm getting a little chilly here, and you must be frozen in that jacket. Why are we standing here?"

Vinnie laughed quietly. "I occasionally get the urge to drop in on Lenore. You know, get a free meal. But then I remember what happened the one and only time I tried that. She threw my ass out. As she put it, `My house, my terms.'"

He turned to the left, away from the road to Lenore's house and the highway, towards the road to his parents' house.

"See you later," he called back to her.


There was a storm that Sunday night. It started suddenly, almost out of nowhere, with a wild, moaning wind. The sky got dark, with sudden strange explosions of very bright light. A dark, unstoppable wind blew in off the highway and right through the center of town, up Main Street and down Commercial Street. It blew out to the pier, around the parking lot, and down the shore road to the beaches.

It blew howling past the door of the BatCave and then off into the night, leaving a single figure standing in front of the door. She watched as the sky cleared, the oppressive pressure lifted, the explosions of light started to fade. The night became still, and it started to snow. The woman laughed out loud and walked into the bar.

Alex sat in a dark corner of the BatCave, putting off writing a letter to Rick, her ex-husband. She looked around the room, keeping her mind from the blank sheet of paper in front of her.

The huge, square room was still only about half full. Viewed from the outside, the BatCave could have been anything from a laundromat to a bunker. A big square poured concrete building in the corner of the Super-Mart parking lot. Its floor was several feet below ground level, so the flat roof was only about four feet above the pavement, and on hot summer nights people would frequently wander out and sit on the roof, legs dangling over the edge. Open drinking was illegal in the county, but no one had ever been bothered about it. The town's few cops hung out at the BatCave like everyone else, and they didn't want to stop getting free drinks.

Alex took a swallow of her beer and looked morosely at the blank paper in front of her. She pulled Rick's letter from her pocket and spread it flat in front of her. She read it over again, then she felt a sudden pressure in her head as a terrifying thought occurred to her. She could hear her heart pounding in her ears as she realized exactly what Rick might be talking about. If she didn't give him money, he was going to reveal a secret she'd confided in him when they'd been married.

She drew in a deep breath, folding Rick's letter carefully and putting it away. She felt tears well up but forced herself under control, convincing herself that she was wrong. Even Rick had his limits. She looked up, wiping her eyes.

i see her and she thrills something in me. she's nearly as tall as i am, her hair blonde and straight to her shoulders, but these are mere details. she wears army surplus from top to toe, and looks like she's been in a war or two.

she looks around the room as if she can figure out everybody in it with just a glance, then she sees me, which is surprising. usually when i want to avoid people no one can see me, but her eyes go out across the crowded bar and lock onto mine, i look back for a minute, but it's too much for me. i give in.

The calendar doesn't tell the whole, all around and over and within. Let us proceed without any more, without eyes. A single day. i took the blows in my face, one person to elucidate all this! Don't let me go! What i'm trying to say is that, like you, i suddenly turned a blinding series of events but not at random. i was unlucky. Choices must be made to know that. Then i found out they had damn well better be conscious, coming into a room, of what i had accomplished. The world exists.

Afterwards, we pretended, with nothing, too, since not only does that exist i couldn't get near it. Part of it, a well, they look at with a light which had been turned on, small, on the whole picture. Never for one moment since has any object in the universe hovered near this kitchen candle. On eve

i see her and she thrills something in me.

People are not so different, are they?

i turn my attention back to the letter in front of me. It's from Rick, my ex-husband, a marriage that lasted exactly twenty-seven days. i read it again and i'm still not sure how to respond. i take my pen in hand and write, trusting to grace to take me beyond the first sentence.

Dear Rick,
This is a change. I remember all the different types of help I've offered you, usually whatever you were the surest you didn't need. I was usually right, you know, and I'm right now when I say that your asking me for money is way out of line. Not only don't I have it to spare, but I wouldn't send it even if I did, because it's the last thing you need (or have any right to expect) right now. In fact, it's way past time you learned to face up to all the different–

"Do you know who that is?" Kevin asked me as he sat down. i shook my head, not sure i wanted to hear what he had to say.

"I met her a couple of years ago, at a big party up on the hill. It was one of the fancy ones, like a ball, and my family made me go. I hung around for an hour or so, drinking quite a bit, and just when I figured I'd done my duty and I could leave, she came in. God, she was gorgeous, like Grace Kelly or something. She made the rest of the girls look tired and faded. All the guys were stunned, but somehow I found myself next to her, asking her to dance.

"We danced four dances in a row, then went to get something to drink. God, everything glowed by then. I guess I was really smashed. We went for a walk as the party died down, and we ended up down at the pier. The moon was so full on the water, and the air was so warm and sweet with salt smell you could wrap your fingers around it. I don't remember how we did it, but we managed to get rid of all our clothes in a second and dove into the water. She still glowed. God, even to remember it. We made love on the dock, on a pile of our fancy evening clothes. I never saw her again."

Alex looked up from her mug of beer. "She vanished?"

"Oh, no, anything but. I found out who she was, too. Her name was Samantha Jordan. Daughter of Rockwell Jordan."

"So, what happened to her? Why didn't you go after her?"

"Out of my class, frankly. And I was already engaged to Cyndy, and she was mad as a wet hen when her friends told her what had happened at the party. She hadn't gone because she was sick. She made me swear never to see Samantha again. And I never did, until she walked through that door."

Alex had never met Rockwell Jordan, but she knew well enough who he was. The man only owned about seventy-five percent of two neighboring towns. And she could imagine the sleek, confident princess his daughter would be. Playing with men like toys, none of them equal to her in any way. Ideally suited for the life she was born to.

But now she was this figure in camouflage, cigarette in the corner of her mouth, her eyes giving nothing away except for that electric moment when that had met Alex's own across the room. She looked like she'd been in bars, and with dangerous men and woman, all of her life. Alex was fascinated.

And, remembering the look that had sliced through her across the dark, smoky BatCave, she wondered if it was the same look that had sought Kevin out and mesmerized him across the society ball a couple of years before.

The blonde woman came over to Alex's table and looked down at her. "What're you looking at?" she demanded.

"Sit down," Alex said, determined to save face as much as possible. The woman looked at her for a moment, then complied. Alex held out her hand and said, "I'm Alex."

The woman hesitated again, then took the hand and shook it firmly. "I'm starling. You live here?"

"Well, not here in the BatCave. I live here in town, have my whole life."

"You don't look it, somehow."

"Everybody says that. That's why I always mention it when I meet somebody new. Which doesn't happen very often, of course. Where are you from?"

starling frowned. "Now, that is a good question, isn't it. I'm going to pass on it for now, if you don't mind."

Alex felt herself tense up. She got up and put on her black trenchcoat. As she turned to go up the stairs to the street, starling drained her beer and followed.

Outside, Alex turned and looked at her. Neither woman moved, starling's enigmatic smile almost made Alex angry, but she held it back and said, "You have a place to stay here in town?"

starling shook her head, still smiling.

Alex nodded. "Come on." They started the long walk to the center of town.

i see her and she thrills something in me.

I wake up in your bed

I know my own, in these hands I could trust. Much earlier, the alarm broke us. The more I think, two people together at your desk for hours. I know when housework seems the only outlet. Come into my room, where I've been you. Your lip curling at what, discarded words scattered everywhere. The fending off, which is the poem of my life. But, unworthy name for what we are, kissed my hair to take me. I am that clear to me, if politics are the poem I wanted to show someone. Sorting images of you, my hand again of the desire to show you, trembles. Last night we wrote together in the pull of gravity. Today you needn't write, the wall, imprisoned for years inside my skull, the headaches are terrible. What kind of beast would turn its small hands, precisely equal to the world, to me, and know I have been dreaming?

I know I have been dreaming the world, but the more I live, the more from it we know each other. You've been at it, it's a miracle. There are days when we dreamed the breathing air. What is burning its way out? The world into words? Your hands, your hands

starling dreamed. it came a little clearer this time. she opened a door.


It was pretty late when Vinnie finally showed up at the BatCave. Ruth had talked to Lenore a couple of times, but Lenore hadn't really held up her end of the conversation. Ruth couldn't tell if it was because she found Ruth boring, or if she was just impatient waiting for Vinnie to show up.

Then he did come in. He stood in the doorway, checking out the scene. The place was already starting to empty out. A couple of people said hello as he moved slowly towards the bar joking with a couple of guys from the lumber yard, saying something to his youngest sister that made her try to step on his foot.

He got to the bar and ordered a beer. As he drank, Lenore got up, stubbed out her cigarette and lurched in the direction of the ladies room.

Ruth moved towards the bar. If Vinnie and Lenore followed their usual routine, they would leave separately within the next few minutes, and she wanted to at least say hello. Vinnie was joking with the bartender.

Then Lenore appeared beside Vinnie, leaning against him.

–Like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Ruth watched Lenore lean against Vinnie as he whispered something to the bartender. It was the most physical Ruth had ever seen her. She seemed really drunk. Usually she and Vinnie didn't touch in public. Vinnie was lean and broad-shouldered in his jeans and leather jacket. Lenore was full-bodied, in her heels she was almost as tall as Vinnie. She was heavy, but carried herself so well you didn't notice it. Lauren, in a particular mood, had once nick-named her "Baby Fat," but it hadn't really caught on.

Even in jeans and an old T-shirt, there were always what Ruth thought of as the Lenore Touches. A little make-up, or a little perfume. High heels, or maybe chandelier earrings. Fancy painted fingernails.

She had once tried to talk to Vinnie about it (did he really appreciate Lenore? did he even notice?), but she'd got all twisted up and blushed and stammered and walked off. Vinnie must have thought she was a lunatic.

Ruth sidled up and said hello, and they moved to a table while she and Lenore told him about Alex and starling.

"I wonder if this will take Alex's mind off things," Vinnie said when they were done.

"Are you kidding?" Lenore said with a snort. "Within a week they'll be knee-deep in pet names and in-jokes, and they'll probably be wearing each other's clothes."

Lenore mussed Vinnie's hair and he pulled his comb from his back jeans pocket.

She bumped him playfully with her hip. "Come on, you. Stop primping and preening, you dago charmer. Go get me another drink."

"More?" he asked.

"You want me to slow down so you can catch up?"

"I don't think I could." She laughed and pulled out a cigarette. Vinnie pulled a lighter from his jacket pocket and lit the cigarette for her. They said good night and left.

Suddenly feeling a little light-headed herself, Ruth put down her drink, still half-full, and followed them.

Lenore kissed Vinnie suddenly in the parking lot. They were the only two people around. She smiled at how uneasy he looked. He borrowed a puff on her cigarette.

–Like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Ruth had once drawn a pencil sketch of Lenore in the nude, from imagination. When she'd finished it she'd ripped it up, and didn't draw anything else for months afterwards.

She left quickly, her throat tight.

–Lucky bastard, she thought.


Alex turned on starling, angry. "Look, I've heard it all before! There's nothing you can tell me that I haven't known for years. So what."

starling stood up and went to the refrigerator. She opened it and took out a beer. Alex hesitated, then stuck out her hand.

starling handed the bottle to her, and got another for herself. Alex half-sat on the window-sill as starling sat on the one chair. They opened their beers and drank.

"All it takes is imagination and will," starling said quietly. "Not even that much imagination if the will is strong enough. Like anything else, it's mostly practice. You ever do something complicated all the way through without thinking about it?" Alex nodded. "You just find yourself at the end, with the memory of doing it, but it happened automatically? Well, there's a lot of things that can work that way."

Alex was silent as they finished their beers. starling took off her olive drab jacket and dropped it on the floor next to her chair. It thudded on the rug.

Alex pulled out her flask and drank deeply. starling held out her hand. After the drink she said, "You're designed more for mystique than for efficiency. But where you take things from here is up to you."

Alex didn't respond immediately.

Alex looked at her and starling smiled. Then Alex smiled, her eyes lighting up, and starling ran her finger around the mouth of the flask she was holding.

is it really possible? that's what i ask myself as i sit here. she's asleep, lying on my old couch, the river, cradling a pistol in her looks, so relaxed and young. she looks like a night of red hands all around. i lean against the tree, watching children. i've sold my soul. i'm across the river at the thick, stories should never be easy or they're a gun in her hand and fires across, trapped by easy victories, like cat nighting. i keep coming back to children. Ms. but the child, the woman to be like that again. she seems to be giggling as i get out of where i am.

starling sits on the shore as if she isn't quite sure what it is, a wild animal just discovering. she looks up at me. i want to get to the bottom of her, a wild animal. i ask myself as i sit here, trees on the far side. she talks, huddled up like a baby. she is the river, across the bright water, and i feel so old. it's been a strange, then looks at me with the wild flashing smile reaching towards me like a hungry something, for approval. no easy victories. the gun is me, and the observer becomes meaningless. i'm glad she and i enter the real world. i wish maybe she can teach me how to see any of this...

i just don't know how. yet.

Monday Morning

Alex was at Lenore's door first thing in the morning. She looked eager and healthy as she invited Vinnie out for breakfast. He combed his hair, got his jacket and went with her.

"How are you feeling?" he asked.

"Oh, don't take me so seriously," she said with a smile.

At the diner, after they'd ordered, they sat in silence for a moment. He was trying to remember if she'd ever worn a fatigue shirt before. It looked really good on her.

Chapter Eleven

Twenty Years Earlier (conclusion)

Even in the highest, hottest days of summer, when the tourists were in bloom and ripe for the plucking everywhere you looked, even on the rare occasions when she deigned to spend several days in a row at the beach, her books and notepads in tow, Alex still looked like a city girl. For one thing, there was the matter of her body. Only a city girl, the locals always said, could be so tall, so skinny and so totally . . . unhealthy looking. And there was her skin, always deathly pale. Her jet black hair made it even more striking. Not only didn't she tan, she didn't even have the decency to burn and blister. She just stayed pale and translucent.

Vinnie spent too much time with Alex to think very much about how she looked, but he was aware of it again when they spent Monday evening at the BatCave with starling.

Now, starling was somewhat more attractive, by Vinnie's standards, than Alex was. She was blonde, a little shorter and fuller than the emaciated Alex (though still nothing to get too excited about), and her skin was a little closer to the preferred shade of bronze. Just a little closer. But she still didn't fit in, and he couldn't quite figure out why this was so obvious. There was nothing physical he could point to, but it was palpable and he felt very conspicuous at a table with these two strange woman. He shrugged, drained his mug and went to the bar for a refill.

"I don't get it," starling said quietly. "What's the big deal with this guy? He doesn't seem like anything special."

Alex shrugged and smiled.

"You two an item?"

Alex shook her head. "Don't worry about it. It'll come clear–"

She was interrupted by Vinnie's return. He sat down and looked around. "Pretty good crowd. I didn't see Lenore. She said she'd come by later."

"Of course she'll be here," Alex said half-humorously. "Where else is there to go?"

Vinnie didn't pay much attention to that. He was used to how Alex talked. "You meet Alex's dad yet?" he asked starling. She shook her head. "He's quite a guy. Today he tells me this story–"

"Let's get out of here," Alex said suddenly, finishing her beer. Before they could respond, a dark-haired woman came up to them with an evil smile on her face.

"Mind if I join you?" she asked Vinnie, pointedly ignoring Alex and starling. "I want to meet your new friend." She sat down, reversing the empty chair and straddling the chair back.

"What are you doing here, Lauren?" Alex asked wearily. "What trouble are you trying to cause?"

Lauren brayed a laugh. "That's good. Sweet little me cause any trouble? Why don't you introduce me to your new friend, and I'll forget your usual bad manners."

starling held out her hand. "I'm starling. I've heard a lot about you."

Lauren shook her hand. "Don't believe everything you hear from the drop-out twins here. So, where did you pop in from? And how long are you staying? And where are you living?"

"I'm from out of town. I'm gonna stay as long as I like. And I'm living with Alexandra."

Lauren raised one eyebrow. "Oho. I must say this is a surprise, Alex. I never suspected . . ." She smiled. "Well, maybe once or twice. No wonder your marriage didn't last." Vinnie's hands tensed on the table-top. "I guess that's what comes from starting out with the barbarian–"

Vinnie started to stand up, but Alex said, "Vin, don't. It's not worth it."

Lauren stood up. "Keep him on a tight leash, dear. He needs to learn some manners before he's ready for civilized–" As she moved away from the table, starling's leg swung out, tripping her up. She went down, drink flying, and Vinnie emptied his beer over her head. Ian, two tables away, applauded, which was taken up by others around the room. Two of Lauren's friends came and took her out. Everybody settled down again. The crowd at the BatCave was used to occasional outbreaks of senseless violence.

starling reached across the table and shook Vinnie's hand. Alex beamed.

Ian came over and sat down. "You should introduce me. Anybody who'd do that to her is okay with me."

starling stuck out her hand. "starling. I'm from out of town."

"Well, you're learning fast. May I buy you ladies a drink?"

They nodded and he got up and went across the crowded room to the bar. starling asked, "Who's that?"

"His name's Ian," Alex said. "He's the captain of a charter boat that takes people out on fishing trips and like that."

"And he's your boyfriend. Does Vinnie mind?"

Alex laughed. "You'll have to ask Vinnie about that." Vinnie smiled. "And, no, Ian's not my boyfriend. No one is, or will be. Ian and I slept together night before last. Everything else is still under negotiation."

starling was about to ask another question, but Ian came back, drinks in hand, and she decided not to.

"So, what did Lauren say that got you people so riled up?"

"It's not worth repeating," Alex said quickly. "That woman just likes to start trouble."

Alex suddenly realized something, and kicked herself for not thinking of it sooner. Ian was assuming that he was going to sleep with her that night. That was obvious. Under most circumstances she might have resented anybody making that kind of assumption. But she did feel like getting laid.

The only problem was that starling was obviously assuming that she could sleep at Alex's apartment that night. Also not an unreasonable assumption, but Alex couldn't have Ian in her bed and starling on her couch at the same time. Not in her little one-room apartment

She glanced at starling.

"It's okay. I don't want to mess up your love life. I'll find somewhere else to stay tonight."

Alex felt the small hairs at the nape of her neck stand up and her scalp tighten. Without knowing quite what she was doing she replied silently, "Okay, thanks. But when will I–"

"I'll come by in the morning. Sleep well."

Vinnie's Night with starling

Ian and Alex got up, said good night and left. starling shrugged and looked at Vinnie. "Well, it looks like you're going to need a place to stay tonight," he said. "I can probably–"

starling shook her head. "Thanks for the offer. Let's just see how it goes, okay?" He nodded. "So, what do you folks do for thrills around here?"

He laughed. "This is about it. Don't wear it out all in one night."

"Oh, well. Want to go for a walk? You can show me the town."

It was pretty cold out, but the snow had stopped and Vinnie shrugged. Why not? They finished their drinks and got their coats on.

Outside, the air was cold and still, the snow on the ground still almost completely unbroken by footsteps. "Which way?" starling asked.

"Well, that way is the pier, and the center of town beyond that. The other way is the beaches, and eventually the highway."

"Some choice. Let's go down and look at the boats."

"Not much to see in the boat department," Vinnie said as they set out. "Most of them have been pulled up for the winter, or they're all covered with tarps. Pretty unexciting to look at."

She shrugged, her hands jammed deep in the pockets of her army jacket. "I'm not really here in town for the sights, you know."

He wondered if she was inviting him to ask why she was there. He thought not, any question about that would probably get him an evasive answer and not much else.

They were silent for a few minutes, trudging through the snow. They walked in the center of the road except when a car drove by.

"So, who's this starling?" Ian asked as he started his car. "She looks familiar to me."

"I'm not really sure," Alex said evasively. She didn't want to tell anybody what she'd been thinking, or what Kevin had told her.

"Wait a minute, I've got it," Ian said suddenly as he pulled out on the road to town. "Remember that woman who ran the big protest about the nuclear power plant a couple of years ago?"

"Stella Case? Sure. She's pretty hard to forget. I met her when she had an office here in town and Ruth was doing volunteer work for her."

"Well, she chartered my boat to look at the shore line to plan the big boat blockade. And then again after it was all over, to look at the half-built power plant that never would be finished. She wanted to take pictures of it. Her daughter came with her both times. I didn't pay much attention to her, the mother was much more interesting to me, but that's her. starling is Trina Case. I wonder how she ended up back here, and how she got to seem so different."

Alex wondered if she should speak, and decided there was no reason not to. "Kevin told me she's Rockwell Jordan's daughter. He says he met her at one of those big balls up at the country club a couple of years ago."

Ian shook his head, pulling into the alley next to the General Store. He turned off the motor. "No, she's Trina Case. Besides, I've met Samantha Jordan. She's much better looking."

Alex was tempted to jump to the defense of her new friend, but Lauren's joke came back to her, and she didn't want Ian to get the wrong idea.

There were no cars parked at the pier, no signs of activity on any of the boats. Vinnie and starling walked to the railing and looked down at the water. It reflected the stars and the half-moon above.

"So, Mr. Vinnie," starling said, "what do you do?"

He shrugged. "Work, mainly. For Alex's dad, in the store. I do what I can for my family, but I don't hang out at the house too much. I go out drinking sometimes, when I can afford it. If I had a car I'd get around more, but cars cost way too much to keep going. Gas alone costs a lot of money. It's hard around here without wheels, though. We always have to ask the neighbors if they'll take my kid brother and sister to the beach with them."

"You don't go to the beach?"

He made a face. "That's for kids, or tourists. I don't care about that shit." He looked at her. "I bet people who live in New York don't spend all their time at the Statue of Liberty either."

"Well, you're right about that."

"I go swimming down here sometimes, that beach over there. People mostly don't swim there, it's kind of rocky, so I like it." His voice grew softer. "Dawn is the best time, you know. The best."

"I think I'd like that. Too bad it's a little cold right now."

They were silent for a minute, watching the empty boats bob against the dock, then starling pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one. "Alex is important to you, isn't she?"

"Yeah, she's a good friend. Why?"

"Don't worry. That's all. Just don't worry about me."

A car horn honked across the big empty parking lot. They turned and the headlights swung towards them as the car turned in their direction, speeding up. starling stiffened. Her hand shot into her coat and came out with a pistol.

Vinnie, who had recognized the car, grabbed her wrist and yelled something, but starling knocked him on the ground and his senses reeled.

He regained them to see Lenore standing over him, an amused grin on her face and a clear plastic glass of red wine in her hand. She reached down and helped him up.

"You try to get fresh?" she asked. "She took care of you pretty smoothly, my boy." They got into her car as Vinnie tried to remember exactly what had happened. He looked around.

"Where did she go?"

Lenore shook her head. "I surely don't know. Vanished over the railing into the water as far as I could tell, but when I looked down there wasn't any sign of her." Her voice got more serious. "Did she really pull a gun? Did I really see that?"

Vinnie nodded. "You sure did. She's kind of weird."

"Where did you get her?"

"Alex had other plans for tonight." She pulled out a pack of cigarettes, shook one out and stuck it in the corner of her mouth. Vinnie pulled out his lighter. "She seems to be a stranger in these parts, and doesn't have any other friends."

"Trust Alex to find somebody like that, and then to dump her off on someone else. So, sport, where to?"

He shrugged. "Where were you going?"

"To the BatCave to look for you, if you must know. There, you forced it out of me."

Vinnie chuckled. "God, I must be pretty tough. Didn't know I had it in me. Well, I've had enough of the BatCave for one night."

She laughed. "Me, too, and I never even got there."

She started turning the car around. Vinnie laughed suddenly.

"Wait'll you hear what happened to Lauren tonight . . ."

Vinnie made a face, looking out the window, the moonlight in his eyes.

"What's bugging you, sport?" Lenore asked gently, her mouth inches from his ear.

"That's kind of hard to explain." He hesitated, feeling foolish, given how warm Lenore's flannel sheets were, how comfortable her arm was across his bare stomach. Then he sighed.

"I just have this feeling there's unfinished business."


He laughed quietly, squeezing her. "For once, no. Am I that bad about her?" He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, the cold air in the room making the hairs on his legs stand up. She reached a hand out and pulled his head down to hers. She kissed him softly, the familiar taste of stale cigarettes.

"No, I'm just busting your chops," she said. "She's your friend, and I don't know how she'd cope without you. I just hope she never has to find out."

Vinnie closed Lenore's door gently behind him and walked down the stairs. None of her roommates seemed to be up.

Outside, he sighed, thinking that it was a long walk back to the center of town, and if he'd only ignored his uneasy feeling and slept until morning Lenore would have given him a ride.

He found starling sitting on his doorstep. She looked a bit sheepish. "I couldn't locate any other accommodations. I hope this isn't too much of an inconvenience. I guess you had other plans."

Vinnie said, "Unfortunately, she's used to it."

"Alex keeps you hopping, I'm sure. Anyway, can you put me up?"

He nodded. "C'mon around here. I live over the garage."

starling dreamed ... it came clearer this time ... she opened a door and stepped through ...

starling had a lot of trouble sleeping that night. She was on the sofa in Vinnie's small room. From his army cot, only a few feet away, he could hear an almost endless series of sighs, moans and cries. From time to time he could hear her grinding her teeth. He couldn't sleep, but couldn't bring himself to be irritated with her. She was obviously in the grip of forces that were way beyond her control.

At first he'd wondered what Alex saw in this strange woman. She seemed like a stray for Alex to worry about and figure out, with enough of a touch of danger to make it interesting. But, as time passed, he began to get the idea. There was something about her that demanded attention. For one thing, much to his surprise, she was for real. He had no idea who she really was, who she had been before falling into their lives, but the way she seemed was no act.

Vinnie just couldn't figure out what it was, though. He couldn't pin it down, and neither could Alex, he knew. He had a feeling that starling had been just as glad to leave Alex's apartment for his cramped room. Being watched twenty-four hours a day can be wearing, even if you think you want an audience for your act.

He was starting to wonder again who starling really was when every thought was driven out of his head by a horrible scream from the sofa.

It seemed to go on forever, but Vinnie had a pillow over her mouth before anyone in the house was awakened. Before he could even realize exactly what had happened, her hands shot up and around his throat, squeezing with incredible force.

He fought back with everything he had, but it was like fighting a machine. As he was about to pass out, her eyes opened all the way (the pillow had fallen away) and her grip loosened immediately. He fell backwards onto his cot, clutching his throat, his face full of amazement that he was still alive and breathing. She got up and he instinctively shied away from her, almost capsizing the cot.

She sat quietly back down on the sofa, trying to look non-threatening. Vinnie managed to get back up into a sitting position and they sat that way for a minute, his wheezing breath the only noise in the room. Finally, he took a deep breath and held out his hand. Tears running down her cheeks, she looked at it, then quickly took it in both of her own.

"I'm pretty scared, Vin," she said quietly. "Right now mostly scared of myself, of what I may do. But I'm also scared of what I'm seeing in my dreams. Vinnie, I'd better get out of here. Either I'll kill you, or someone else, or somebody will get hurt when they come after me."

"Can you tell me about it?" he asked.

She shook her head. "Not yet. I don't see it very clearly yet. And I'm not going to involve you anyway." She stood up slowly. "I've got to get out of here."

Alex stood at her window, looking down on Main Street. Ian had gone home, declining to stay over. Her apartment was rather cold, but she didn't turn up the heat. She liked the way the chill made her feel. She reached over to her desk and picked up a small flask, which contained bourbon. She cradled it against her sweater for a few moments, then opened it and drank. Then she started to write.

Let's lay our cards on the table, the whole story. There are wheels moving in double-talk. I've nothing to do with the wheels we are privileged to see, and in my body. All those deaths in a single moment. It's all too complexdoesthatsurpriseyou? Forgive me. I don't dream of trying. Watchtowers along the way, and my cards on the table. I was next to see very little of the truth, a light on something that has always had very limited delineation.

He came to be help. I didn't. I am circumscribed by my design, in all the worst possible ways. Made, consciously or not, so that thought, which was empty, which was empty. As if anything useful was going to be discovered. A few moments, even in Ross, we have to deal with the crowding. Everybody wants realism. I want magic! It exerts gravitational attraction. Lights on! See how distinct they are from each other. Are they?

starling was floored.

Alex looked down at her hands.

She lit a cigarette and waited, smiling slightly.

all it takes is will and imagination.

is it really possible? that's what i ask myself as i sit here. she's asleep, lying on my couch, huddled up like a baby. she looks so young, and i feel so old. i don't care how long it takes, how difficult it is, i'm tired of hiding. i'm tired of invisibility, and i think she must be the key. the one who can show me how to do it.

starling sits on the shore of a river, cradling a pistol in her hands as if she isn't sure what it is or how to use it. she looks like a wild animal just discovering tools. I lean against a tree, watching her. she looks up at me, then across the river at the thick trees on the far side. she takes the gun in her hand and fires across the river, across the bright water, at nothing. She fires twice, then looks up at me with the wide smile of a child who has just done something it knows will get approval. But the child, the woman with the gun she doesn't know how to aim, is me, and the observer, the parent who is being asked for approval, that woman is sleeping on my couch. She seems to be giggling in her sleep. I'm glad she and I are alone.

All it takes is will and imagination. Things can work that way, too.

Alex pulled out her flask and drank in the band. After she drank and said, "You're designed more for mystique than efficiency." Alex didn't respond.

Alex looked down at her hands, and thought about getting a job. Her summer projects almost fell on Alex. If she was off-stride, abandoned, and the weeks ahead looked to be competent. And that night she was at a summer of experimentation. She needs structure on her life. It would have sliced through everyone in the room. No more waitressing, keeping her from being swept up into the air and away. Very early on she'd discarded her jacket, rolled up her sleeves and loosened her tie.

Alex shook her head. "Are you assuming that I know who you are? Or is this supposed to make no sense?"

starling stuck out her hand. "starling. flesh resistors. Boston."

Alex shook her hand.

Alex looked at her, and starling smiled. Then Alex smiled, her eyes lighting up, and starling ran her finger around the mouth of the bottle she was holding. She was suddenly nervous.

When Vinnie was unlocking the door of the store before dawn the next morning, a police car pulled up and two officers got out. There were only six police officers in town and Vinnie knew all of them pretty well. One of the two who walked up stony-faced was Billy Fraser, who had dated one of Vinnie's sisters for a while. The other was Vinnie's cousin, Davey.

"You just getting here?" Billy asked.

"I do go home from time to time. What's up?"

"Alexandra home?" he asked, eyes straying up to the second floor window.

"I have no idea. Why don't you go up and see if you can detect if she's there or not?"

They were not paying any attention to his wise cracks, but their attitude was getting on his nerves.

"You seen her husband Rick recently?"

"He left town when they split up. Everybody knows that."

"If he did, he's back," Billy said, acting like he was doing Vinnie a huge favor by telling him. "Old Mr. Snow, from the hardware store, he opened his back door this morning to get something from his tool shed. And there's Rick, shot through the heart. And you know where the hardware store is."

They left to walk up the outside stairs to Alex's apartment.

Main Street was a bit above sea level, running parallel to Commercial Street, which ran along the shore-line. Behind the General Store the ground sloped off sharply, and if you went down that steep incline you ended up at the back of Snow's Hardware Store.

Alex stood at her window, looking down on Main Street. Her apartment was rather cold, but she didn't turn up the heat. She liked the way the chill made her feel. She reached over to her desk and picked up a small flask, which contained bourbon. She cradled it against her sweater for a moment, then opened it and drank. She sat down and picked up her pen.

Dear Rick,
This has been a tough letter to begin, a tough letter to write, a tough letter to know... to really know what to say. Oh, I had all sorts of ideas. I had it all figured out. I was going to be this way, I was going to be that way. I was going to be tough, I was going to be really tough. And I am, I am going to be tough. As far as this, anyway: You aren't going to get any money out of me. You definitely won't get much of anything out of me. That's why I have trouble giving you the advice I was going to give you. Without giving you all the . . . without everything that went into it, all the caring and the thought. It's really hard to try to explain how I got to figure out what I've got to figure out about you. I really don't know. I tried to write this letter night before last. I guess I didn't really mean to do it or I wouldn't have tried to do it like that. No serious letters on any subject were ever written in the Batcave, that's for sure. But it came out, the letter came out as I was writing it very holy, very maternal, and that wasn't the tone was aiming for. As I read it over yesterday, the little bit I got to finish (and there's a story in that, too, there's definitely a story in why I didn't finish that version of this letter), but as I read it over it really didn't do it. It wasn't worthy of you, I guess, or it wasn't worthy of me. It wasn't worth much, frankly. So, I don't know, don't know if I can explain what I was thinking about. I don't know–

There was a knock at the door.

After the police had left, Alex took a long drink of whiskey. Then she went downstairs and into the store.

Vinnie had already made her a cup of tea and she picked up the mug as she sat on her usual stool. They were silent for a few minutes.

"Have you seen starling?" she asked.

He shrugged. "She stayed over my place last night, but she left even before I did. I thought she was coming to see you. She didn't get here?"

She shook her head. Then she asked, "Did Davey tell you about it? What do they think happened?"

"Oh, he didn't say anything to me. You know what a prick he is when it's 'police business.' Like being a cop is so fucking great."

Alex sipped her tea for a few minutes, obviously lost in thought. Then she put her mug down and left abruptly. This was rude, even for her, but Vinnie just shrugged.

Alex, for all her deliberateness in leaving, had no idea where she was going. She walked around the town for a while, keeping her mind as empty as possible. She finally ended up at the town beach, beside the dock, and she sat on a rock, oblivious to the cold early morning drizzle that fell on her.

It occurred to her that this was probably the last time she would ever sit on this rock, feeling this damp air and smelling this salt spray.

She looked out across the water, thinking about starling. She thought so hard she felt her head might burst.

"I didn't know he was your husband. I didn't have any idea who he was. He was just snooping around, so I thought he was after me."

Alex turned to face her, breathing deeply. "I thought that was it," she said. "But it was me he was after, not you, and the police found a note in his pocket. My father has it now, or he will have it soon." She looked out across the water. "If Rick was planning to betray me that way, if he was going to let my father in on that secret, then I'm not sorry he's dead."

"What do the police think?" starling asked.

"I was the person who knew him best in the area, who'd been seen having fights with him all over town before we broke up. I'm the one who started divorce proceedings against him. And he was found behind my house. I'm suspect one-and-only."

"What are you going to do?"

"I've got to get out of town. Not because of this, but because of what my father will do when he gets that note. He's forgiven a certain amount of bohemian behavior, as he sees it, but there's one thing that he will never forgive.

"What about Vinnie?" starling asked quietly.

starling pulled her gun from its holster and fired at the opposite side of the river. The sound echoed away through the hills before Vinnie said anything. "What the hell was that?" he demanded. He sounded tired.


"I might have known."

She shrugged and leaned back against a tree trunk, tilting her cowboy hat forward over her eyes. The sun glinted on the ends of her black hair as it fell around her shoulders.

Lenore sat on the edge of her bed, looking out the window. She'd been sitting there for a long time, unlighted cigarette dangling between her fingers, open bottle of Scotch forgotten on the floor beside her. She thought about the events of the evening before. Looking out her window, she wondered how long it would be until dawn. She couldn't tell if the light on the horizon was real or if it was just in her imagination, but she knew it would have to come eventually.

Chapter Twelve


I woke up with Jan Sleet shaking me. She looked very excited, and I half-expected her to say, "Come, Marshall, the game's afoot!"

However, all she said was, "Get dressed. We have to go."

She turned and quickly limped out of my bedroom as I got up and started to get dressed. I looked at the bedside clock and it said it was 4:12am. I wondered what we were on the trail of now.

We had a large suite in a shabby hotel, two bedrooms and a living room. As I came into the living room, she was tapping her cane impatiently on the carpet. "Hurry," she said, "Perry Nelson was attacked, he's in the hospital. I have a cab downstairs."

There wasn't a cab downstairs, and I didn't ask how she had made the arrangements, I just hailed one and we got into it. She didn't even wince as she hauled her lame leg into the cab, and I knew that she was riding on pure adrenaline.

The city streets were nearly deserted at that hour, and we made good time. Jan Sleet leaned forward in the seat, as if silently urging the cab to go more quickly. I didn't ask any details about where we were going, I didn't want to break her train of thought, and I knew she would probably get all coy and mysterious on me. She usually did when she was this excited.

At the hospital, we went to the Emergency Room Entrance, and I noticed her start to exaggerate her limp as we entered.

There were about six people in the waiting room, they all looked like they hadn't moved in hours. Jan Sleet limped over to the desk and spoke to the bored-looking receptionist there. The woman jotted down some information on a clipboard, and then handed it to Jan Sleet, who carried it across the room to an empty seat next to a very upset-looking blonde girl. As she passed me, she indicated with a slight tilt of her head where I was supposed to sit.

She sat down next to the girl, across from where I was sitting, and started to fill in the form on the clipboard. There was a pencil attached to it by a dirty piece of string.

After a moment, she asked the girl a question. The girl looked up, startled, and replied with a word or two. Then, as my employer went back to the form, the girl continued to study her with surprisingly intense interest, lowering her gaze to the floor only when Jan Sleet turned to ask her another question.

In a way, I wasn't surprised at the curious gaze, Jan Sleet was a rather unusual-looking specimen. She was six feet tall, extremely thin, with a narrow face and lank, brown hair down to her shoulders. She was dressed as usual, in a man's three-piece suit, carefully tailored. This one was blue with white pinstripes, and she wore a pale blue shirt and a dark blue tie. She had large, horn-rimmed glasses and carried a thin black cane.

Somehow, though, the intensity of the girl's scrutiny was beyond what was justified by my employer's unusual appearance.

As Jan Sleet finished filling out the form, she absently took out her cigarette case and her lighter. As she opened the case, the girl pointed out the "No Smoking" signs which were all over the room. As she gestured, I saw a couple of band-aids on her hand.

Jan Sleet nodded and asked if the girl would go out with her for a smoke, feigning surprise that the girl was a smoker as well (I had seen her sniff the air as she first approached her, checking for evidence of cigarette smoke).

They went out together, dropping the clipboard off at the desk as they went, and I knew that by the time they returned they would be fast friends. Jan Sleet was a reporter, and one of her great talents was her ability to use her non-threatening (if unusual) appearance and her seeming guilelessness (largely sincere) to get people to trust her.

While they were outside, the woman at the desk picked up a microphone and said, "Nelson? Anybody here from the Nelson family?" which amused me, because all of the people in the room could easily have heard her without the amplification.

I stood up and said, "They went outside. Hang on a minute."

I went outside and found them standing a little way from the entrance, talking. Jan Sleet looked up as I came out, and I went over to them.

"They just announced something about the Nelson family, and nobody reacted," I explained. I looked at the girl. "Is that you?"

She turned and ran inside, and we followed more slowly. Jan Sleet was not exaggerating her limp any longer.

"Her name is Nicky Porter," she explained as we approached the door. "She came in with Perry Nelson and the others, but she's not related to him. It's sort of complex."

Inside, Nicky was at the desk, demanding information about somebody named Sarah. The receptionist motioned her through the double doors and we followed, indicating by gestures that we were all together. It was obvious she didn't care.

Inside the Emergency Room itself, there was a row of beds separated by curtains. Most of them were empty. A rather nondescript Black man came over to Nicky. He had one arm in a sling and a bandage over his left eyebrow.

"I just saw Sarah," he said. "They're taking her for some tests. I asked, and you can't see her yet." He said this quickly and in a low voice, glancing at us a couple of times to try to figure out who we were.

Jan Sleet immediately stuck out her hand. She introduced herself (neglecting to mention me, as usual), and the man said his name was Sam Little.

He began looking at Jan Sleet more intently, but before he could say anything else, a nurse came in. "Has Mister Nelson been here?" she asked.

Sam shook his head. "I haven't seen him. I didn't think he was up and around."

"He's not. That is, he's not supposed to be. But he's not in his room. I thought he might be down here. He–"

Another nurse poked her head in. "We can't find him anywhere," she said.

They scurried out, and Sam shook his head. "What happened to Perry?" he whispered.

"I know as little as you do" Nicky replied. "After what happened to Terry, I couldn't even guess. I wonder if there was blood, or ripped-up sheets."

"And would they tell us if there was?" Sam asked quietly, looking at the half-open hall door.

Nicky left, announcing that she was damn well going to be allowed to see Sarah, whoever that was. This left us with Sam, who had started to look at Jan Sleet at least as intently as Nicky had. Had my employer been anybody else, she would have started to check if she had a smudge on her face, or if her tie was crooked, but of course she took no notice at all.

The swinging doors opened again and another Black man came through. He looked like a thinner and somewhat younger version of Sam. Sam said, "David," and stood up quickly. They embraced, David avoiding Sam's injured arm.

"How's Sarah?" David asked as they sat down.

Sam shrugged. "She took a nasty crack on the head, so they're giving her all sorts of tests. They're doing some right now. She's got some bruises and stuff, too, we all do. Nicky's trying to see her, but I don't know if they'll let her."

"What happened?" David asked. He looked at Jan Sleet with the same perpexed and intent stare that everybody was giving her.

"We went out for coffee and dessert. Nothing more than that. Nicky and Sarah and Perry and me. We–"

"What about Terry? I thought you went up to Boston over the weekend just to bring her back."

Sam sighed and gave a half grin, his swollen eye making it look like a wink. "That's another story. I'll tell you that one, too, but which one do you want first?"

"Last night."

"We went out for coffee and dessert. To some place that Nicky and Sarah knew." David raised one eyebrow. "Yeah, kind of like that. And, when we came out, when we were about a block away from the place, four guys jumped us." He took in a deep breath. "With baseball bats."

"White guys?"

Sam nodded. "Yeah. And mostly about eight feet tall. Calling us faggots and dykes and all that." His voice had fallen to a whisper.

"How are Nicky and Perry?"

"Nicky's okay, she just got a few bruises. She was trying to get away, and Sarah was trying to fight back, so Sarah got hurt a lot worse."

"And Perry?"

"Pretty bad, but that's not the worst of it. Now he's vanished. They're running all over the hospital looking for him, but–"

Nicky came around the corner, hands stuffed deep into her jacket pockets. She sat down next to Sam, barely acknowledging David.

"I can't get in to see her," she said. "They won't let me in because I'm not her 'family.'" She closed her eyes, then opened them and look down at her pale, freckled hands. "I'd tell them I'm her sister if anybody'd buy it."

"Nicky–" David started, but the double doors at the end of the corridor swung open and a nurse came through pushing a wheelchair which contained a young Black girl.

Nicky launched herself down the corridor and David found himself talking to thin air.

After a brief consultation among the nursing staff, it was apparently decided that it was okay to transport Ms. Little with Ms. Porter on her lap, since Ms. Porter was not very heavy, and, in any case, there was probably no way to remove her short of surgery.

When they were gone, Sam introduced David (who was, as I'd assumed, his brother) to Jan Sleet, giving me a chance to mention my name as well.

"Okay," David said, "I know about last night. I know about Perry vanishing. But I still don't know about Terry. Didn't she come down from Boston after all?"

"Oh, she came down alright. And then Perry showed up, he was going to be on the Today Show. The last person she wanted to see, of course. We all went out Sunday night . . . no, it was Monday. Perry took us all out to dinner. Terry was in one of her moods. Perry brings out the worst in her."

David nodded. "I still remember that big party last spring. She really changed the minute he came into the room. And she got worse when she found out Tammy wasn't going to show. I gathered that she would have been a lot happier if Tammy had been here and Perry had stayed home."

"And she's not all that damn crazy about Tammy sometimes, either. It just really gets to her that both of them are so successful, have such good jobs, and she thinks of herself as such a failure." He sighed. "The girls want to have another party, but I've been putting it off. I mean, just a simple dinner with Perry and she blows her top."

"So, what did happen?"

"She got more and more sullen, just making nasty cracks from time to time. And Sarah was getting fed up with her, so that made it worse. And Perry just looked more and more upset. He knew it was because of him, but what could he do?"

David laughed. "I'd never treat anybody like that, at least not if they were picking up the tab."

"Then, when we got home, she surprised the hell out of me. I was expecting the Ice Queen routine in bed. You know, no kissing or hugging, just lying there like a statue and saying, 'Oh, no, nothing's wrong.' Let alone screwing. But she grabbed me the minute the girls' door closed. I could barely stand up anyway, and I just sort of swung her into my room before we fell onto the floor. She was all over me like a spin dryer."

It was very embarrassing for us to hear this, but of course Jan Sleet wasn't aware of that. She just listened, taking it all in and filing it all away. I hoped she was making more sense of it all than I was.

Sam tapped his fingers on the bench under him. "That's all I remember, just looking at her riding me, with the light from the hall behind her." He shook his head. "Her hair was all wild, and all I could think about was how broad her shoulders were." He drew in a deep breath. "Are, I guess I should say. Anyway, when I woke up I was in bed, the sheets were all bloody and ripped up."

"Sounds like she got even wilder after you checked out," David said with a grin. "It's a shame–"

"She was gone," Sam said quietly. "And we haven't heard from her since. Neither has Tammy. Dammit! Terry vanished without a trace. Perry vanishes without a trace. What the hell is going on here?"

"Maybe he just went home," Jan Sleet put in. "He's supposed to be pretty publicity-shy, he may have just left before reporters like me showed up."

Sam shook his head. "But what about Terry? What about both of them vanishing? That doesn't make sense."

After a few moments, the doors opened again and Nicky came in pushing Sarah's wheelchair.

"Possible concussion," Nicky announced as they passed us. "She's staying here overnight. I'm taking her to her room. Come on." We fell in step behind them. Apparently Jan Sleet and I had been accepted into the family, at least for the moment.

We took a cab to the apartment (Jan Sleet casually mentioning that I carried the money, so I paid) and went up in the small elevator.

I was surprised that Sam and Nicky had left the hospital, given that Sarah's condition was not completely clear, but Sam explained that he really didn't want to miss a possible phone call from Terry. I wasn't sure what Nicky was thinking of, she was keeping quiet and she looked very unhappy.

The apartment itself was pleasant, with a bit too much furniture (from Sam and Sarah's parents, now deceased, I found out later), and not really all that clean, but certainly not slovenly. I noted approvingly that the living room was laid out for conversation as much as for watching television.

It could have been awkward, our being there, but for some reason Sam went out of his way to make us feel comfortable. It was well into the morning, and he and Nicky had been up all night, but he bustled off to make coffee. Perhaps he felt too wired to sleep, but he looked dead on his feet, and so did Nicky. She looked unhappily at the blood on her shirt and went off into another room and closed the door.

Sam came back with some coffee on a tray and started to pour. "I'd call Perry's house, to see if he did just go home, but I don't know where he lives. Terry never wanted us to get chummy, I guess. And he is a pretty private person."

Jan Sleet nodded, taking a mug of coffee from him. "I've read that," she said.

Nicky came back in, wearing a bathrobe, still in the process of belting it closed, and I caught Sam's furtive look, after which he quickly focused his entire attention on the coffee. I wondered how he felt about being alone in the apartment with his sister's blonde and nubile lover. Maybe that's why we were there, though that seemed unlikely.

So," Sam said as he sat down with his coffee, "how did you find out about Perry so quickly? Are you planning on writing something about this?" He smiled. "How careful should I be about what I say to you?"

I had to control my expression, since it was a little late to be asking that question.

Jan Sleet leaned back, sipping her coffee. "I don't know yet what I'm going to write, if anything. I'm not going to reveal Perry's secrets just to reveal them, I hate that sort of 'journalism.' I'd like to figure out what happened to both of them, to Perry and Terry, and then take it from there."

"But how did you find out about Perry?" Nicky asked. Her robe was tightly closed now, and tucked in snugly around her legs, and I wondered if she'd noticed Sam's interest. I was willing to bet that she had, she looked like a pretty canny young woman.

"Oh," Jan Sleet simpered, "I have my sources." I have told her how ridiculous she looks when she acts coy, but of course she never pays any attention.

I was wondering about this myself, since she had been out all evening until she'd come into my room and awakened me. I would have liked to know what she had been up to, but I wasn't about to ask. The coyness and simpering were even more unbearable when they were directed at me.

I did want to find out, though. Usually when she didn't want me to know something, it was because she knew I'd think it was a really bad idea. And those were the things I most wanted and needed to know about.

"Could I see the sheets?" Jan Sleet asked. "I don't mean to be morbid, but there might be a clue I could find."

Sam nodded. "Fine. You can help me make the bed. I haven't touched it since yesterday morning, and I'm going to need to go to sleep pretty soon."

Nicky stood up and drifted off in the direction of her own bedroom. I followed Sam also, thinking I could help with the more practical aspects of bed making.

In the small bedroom, Sam went right to the dresser and started to take out clean sheets. Jan Sleet pulled one of the sheets from the bed with her free hand, and I took the other corner so we could hold it up.

The rips and the blood were mostly in the middle. There was no pattern I could see to the way it had been cut, but the result was a big jagged bloody hole in the middle of the sheet. Through the hole, we could see Sam pick up the clean sheets and turn toward us. We pulled the sheet completely off the bed, and something fell on the floor.

I leaned over to pick it up, half expecting it to be a knife, but it was a pair of glasses. I held them up.

Sam put the sheets down and took them. "They're Terry's," he said slowly. "She's nearly blind without them."

In the cab back to the hotel, Jan Sleet leaned back in the seat, looking exhausted. She closed her eyes.

We had left after the bed had been made. She had searched the bedroom, but hadn't found anything else. Sam had insisted on getting the name and phone number of the hotel where we were staying, and promised to call us as soon as he and Nicky woke up. He really seemed to think that we, or at least Jan Sleet, were going to figure this all out. Or maybe he was just worried that we were going to be the next to vanish.

When we got back to the hotel room, I expected Jan Sleet to have something else for me to do, but she looked drained and tired. "I'm going to sleep now," she said. "There's nothing else we can do at the moment. Wake me if anybody calls. Anybody at all."

She went into her bedroom and closed the door. She had told the desk clerk to hold all our calls. I knew there was very little chance he would remember to do it, but just in case I called down and told him not to.

I took off my shoes and sat down on the sofa, half-expecting her to poke her head out of her bedroom and complain that I was in my stocking feet, and that said stocking feet were on the coffee table.

I was eager to get back to bed, and I could have used a shower, but I wanted to take a minute alone and think about what had happened.

There was something bothering me. How had Jan Sleet known we had to go to that hospital at that time? If I asked her, I knew she'd claim either that she had a network of informants, or some type of psychic power, and I knew she didn't possess either.

And what were we after? There was certainly a mystery, but so far I couldn't see where the story was. I knew she'd been telling the truth when she said she didn't want to expose Perry Nelson's secrets. But where was the story in this? She liked solving mysteries for the pleasure of it, that was true, but there was usually a way to get a good story out of it.

I was starting to come to a conclusion. She'd been out all evening, and she hadn't told me where. I hadn't heard her return to our suite, but I would have heard the phone if somebody had called her.

I was starting to think that she had seen what had happened, the attack on Perry Nelson and the others. Maybe she'd just happened to see it and had recognized him, or maybe she'd been at the cafe and had seen them here.

If so, she must have come back to the hotel to get me, as opposed to just phoning, because she didn't want me to know she'd been out, because then I could have guessed that she'd seen it all first hand.

If she'd been at the cafe, why had she been there? Following Perry Nelson? If so, why?

I rejected the idea that she'd been at a lesbian bar for the usual reasons. Her few crushes since I'd met her had all been on men, and none of them had come to anything. I had actively discouraged a couple of them because they were obviously a bad idea, and the others had fizzled out on their own.

I stretched and stood up. Either I was too tired to go any further in my thinking, or there was no way to go further with the information I had. I turned off the living room light and went to bed.

Chapter Thirteen


I was awakened by the phone. I fumbled the receiver from its cradle and dropped it on the floor. I hauled it back up by the cord and got it to my ear, just in time to hear Sam Little say, "–up and around. I think we'll be in all afternoon, I don't want to miss a phone call. I–" There was a click. "Oh, hang on," he said and clicked off.

"Marshall?" Jan Sleet said suspiciously, as though I was eavesdropping on her phone conversation.

"Just woke up," I said.

"Get dressed," she said. "We're going over there."

That was about as clear as she could be without saying, "Hang up!" so I cradled the receiver and started to get dressed. I was sorry I hadn't taken a shower before I'd gone back to bed, because I obviously wasn't going to get one now.

A few moments later, she rapped on my door and I called, "hang on!" I finished tying my shoes and stood up. "Come on in," I said. She opened the door and poked her head in. She was impeccably dressed, as usual, but I could tell that she hadn't slept well.

"We're going over there," she said. "Tammy Nelson is coming down from Boston, and I want to meet her. She's Perry and Terry's sister."

"If she makes it in one piece," I said. "Maybe she'll vanish from the plane while it's in mid-air."

Her eyes widened as I followed her out into the living room. She grinned. "Boy, that would be something, wouldn't it?"

"What does Tammy do for a living?" I asked, trying to bring her back down to earth.

"She's a lawyer. A good one, apparently."

"Magical disappearances never happen to lawyers. Come on."

When we got to the apartment, Sam opened the door to our ring.

"Come on in," he said. "I've got coffee started, and I think there are some leftover danish. They're okay if you warm them up a little. Tammy just called from the airport, she's on her way."

"Has she heard from Perry or Terry?" Jan Sleet asked.

He shook his head. A weight seemed to settle over him. We came into the living room. "Nicky's at the hospital with Sarah," he said. "I'd be there, too, except for the fact that Tammy is coming. And I'm still hoping there might be a phone call. How do you take your coffee?"

"Black," I said, though I would have preferred tea. My stomach felt very empty, and the stale reheated danish didn't sound appealing.

"Light and sweet," Jan Sleet said. She put her free hand on the arm of a chair and lowered herself into it.

"I'll give you a hand," I said, and I followed Sam into the kitchen.

"So, how long have you two been together?" he asked as he poured the coffee.

"I've worked for her for almost three years," I replied, spooning sugar into her mug. "I've seen her solve some pretty tricky mysteries. I'll bet she solves this one, too."

He nodded. "I have a feeling she may. I sure hope so, and soon."

We carried the coffee back into the living room.

As Tammy Nelson came in, I finally understood quite a few things.

Tall, very thin, lame in her right leg, well-dressed, thin-faced, my employer and the successful attorney looked alarmingly similar. So, this was why everybody in the case had done a double-take at the first sight of Jan Sleet, and why Sam had been so eager to stay in touch with us. I doubted if he had any kind of theory, but he must have thought that Jan Sleet was the key to the answer. And obviously, in some way, she was.

There were differences between the two women, of course. Tammy's hair was full and strawberry blonde, she didn't wear glasses, she had a bit of a tan, and she exuded health and self-confidence. My employer's hair was lank and dull brown, she wore horn-rimmed glasses, her skin was pale, and she was somewhat awkward. Tammy was clearly older. But they had to be related by blood, there was no other explanation. And even that didn't explain the lame right legs.

Looking back, I wished I'd focused more on Tammy's reaction. After all, Sam already knew how similar the two women looked, he had met Tammy before. And Jan Sleet didn't react except to step forward and introduce herself, but that could have been because she knew about the resemblance already, or it could have meant she hadn't noticed it.

But Tammy's face might have told me something. Had she expected to meet someone who looked this much like her? If she knew such a person existed, did she know that person was going to be in Sam's apartment? But by the time I really looked at her, she was smiling, shaking Jan Sleet's hand, asking my name, not giving anything away. Just what one would have expected from a successful attorney.

Then, before anybody could say anything more, the phone rang. Sam answered it, and he indicated that it was Nicky. The rest of us all stood silent, until Jan Sleet and Tammy Nelson turned in one motion, limped to the sofa and sat down.

Sam palmed the receiver. "I'm afraid I have to go. They're going to release Sarah soon, and Nicky doesn't have enough money for a cab."

"Oh, Marshall can go," Jan Sleet said airily. "Tammy's just arrived, you don't want to leave now. Marshall can take a cab over there and bring them home."

Sam started to protest, but under the circumstances all I could say was, "Oh, it's no problem."

I was starting to worry about how many cabs we were paying for, and I wondered if there would ever be a story to cover all these expenses.

Nicky looked up as I came over to her in the hospital corridor. She smiled. "How did you get selected for this?" she asked.

I sat down next to her. "I'm not sure. I don't mind, though. Where is Sarah?"

She pointed down the corridor. "They're examining her one last time, then she has to get dressed. So, your boss assigned you to come?"

I nodded.

She smiled. "What kind of name is 'Sleet,' anyway?"

"A pen name," I replied with a laugh. "Her real name is long and hard to pronounce. She hates to hear people say it wrong, so she changed it."

"And she thought 'Sleet' was a nice normal name?"

"Well, apparently. It is easy to pronounce, you have to admit that."

"True. I was sort of wondering if her real name might be Nelson." She gave me a sidelong glance.

I shook my head. "Not so far as I know."

"You've met Tammy?"

I nodded. "Just before you called."

She said, "Hmmm," and then turned to face me a little more. "What happened to her leg? Your boss, I mean."

"They don't know. It came on about nine months ago, very suddenly, and the doctors don't know what caused it. They gave her some exercises, but she doesn't do them."

This was the first lie I'd told her. Jan Sleet's leg had started to become lame nine months ago, that was true, but she had never seen a doctor about it, though I had tried to convince her that she should. She just bought a cane and used that to get around.

Nicky and I helped Sarah out of the cab and up the three steps to the front door of the apartment building. The doorman stood at his lectern, and he inclined his head in greeting, but he didn't move to open the inside door or signal for the elevator. I was glad that I'd come along.

In the elevator, I wondered where Jan Sleet was, and why she'd wanted me out of the way.

Upstairs, Nicky unlocked the apartment door and we went in. There didn't seem to be anybody home.

"Hey, where's the brass band?" Nicky called.

"And the dancing girls!" Sarah added.

Nicky started to help her toward the living room as we heard a yell of "Shit!" from Sam's room, followed by another voice and a heavy thud. The door was ajar and I moved quickly to push it open.

Two very alarming thoughts had come to me right away. One was that Sam might be doing some violence to somebody, the other was that he might have seduced my employer.

Neither turned out to be true, and I forced myself to relax in the doorway. Sarah and Nicky came up beside me.

Sam had fallen out of bed. He scrambled to his feet, naked, holding a corner of a sheet over his crotch. The woman in the bed, also naked, wasn't Jan Sleet, thank goodness, it was Tammy Nelson. Her face was flushed and her hair was wild.

We all stood motionless for a moment, then Tammy stood up with her cane, gathering a sheet around her waist like a long skirt. She limped to the door and closed it in our faces.

We went into the living room and sat down in silence. Nicky and Sarah were holding hands as they sat on the sofa.

My first thought was that, no matter what, this was a pretty shabby thing for Sam to do (and for Tammy, too, of course). My second thought was to wonder if one or both of them had killed Terry. That didn't seem to make much sense, but maybe there was some scenario I wasn't seeing.

"So, I guess that was Tammy, huh?" Nicky said.

Sarah nodded. "And Sam must really think Terry is dead," she said quietly.

"Even if he does," Nicky said, "what the hell was the hurry?"

After a few minutes, Tammy and Sam came in as if they had rehearsed it. Sam went to his usual easy chair and sat down. Tammy stood in the center of the room, facing Nicky and Sarah.

"The old cliche is, don't speak ill of the dead," she began. "I'm not going to speak ill of my sister, and I don't believe she's dead. But everybody here knows what a difficult person she can be. Both of you had encouraged Sam to break up with her. He didn't, and he hasn't yet. But he is a decent, patient and good-hearted man, and I have been very fond of him for some time. I wouldn't say that he has made Terry happy, but he has helped her to be happier than she has ever been with anybody else, or by herself. And that means a lot to me.

"But tonight, while we were alone here together, I started to think, 'what if I'm next?' Terry and Perry are gone, how much longer am I going to be around? So, I decided to let Sam know how much I admire and cherish him. It ended up going somewhere I hadn't anticipated, but I'm not sorry. What happens next? I don't know. But this made me happy, and I think it made him happy, too, and who knows if we'll get another chance. If I'm about to die, I'll have a lot of regrets, but this won't be one of them."

We were all silent for a moment. Nobody looked at Sarah, but we all knew it was up to her. Finally, she got to her feet, with Nicky's help, and walked over to Tammy. She embraced the tall, thin woman, then said, "whatever happens, come visit more often, okay? Even if Terry doesn't like it."

Tammy held Sarah with her free hand. "And she won't, you know that," she replied, and Nicky helped Sarah off to their bedroom.

Tammy went to sit down on the sofa. Sam suddenly got up and moved to the girls' bedroom, probably realizing that he'd never even asked how his sister was feeling since her discharge from the hospital.

Tammy Nelson and I regarded each other. It had been an impressive performance, and there was some truth in it, but she and I both knew it had been self-serving as well. I wondered if she had been unnerved to come face to face with Jan Sleet. So unnerved that she'd seduced Sam, either because she needed emotional support, or because she needed him on her side for some more practical reason.

She smiled. "Terry kept me away from Sam and Sarah, even more than she did with Perry. She feels conflicted about Perry, because of his success, but she really doesn't like me. I've hardly even met them, though I've heard all about them." She sighed. "If this all works out, I'm not going to let her get away with that anymore, though it won't be easy."

"I don't get the impression that much is easy with Terry," I said.

"You're right about that," she said. She looked around. "I was only here once before. They pestered Terry until she invited me down for a weekend. I got here a little earlier than they expected, or maybe they were just disorganized, but Sam and Sarah were still out at the store when I got here. Terry was being really pissy and passive-aggressive. I thought she was going to ruin the weekend and I told her so.

"She got mad at me and left before they got home. She went home and didn't speak to me for a month." She smiled. "I did have a nice dinner with Sam and Sarah, though."

"Do you happen to know where my employer has wandered off to?" I asked.

She shook her head. "She said she was going to do some investigating. That's all she said."

That could have meant anything. I tried to play the mental game "If I were Jan Sleet, where would I be?" but, as usual, it didn't get me anywhere.

"She was quite the busy little bee before she went out," Tammy commented after a moment. "I expected her to take out a magnifying glass and put on a Sherlock Holmes hat while she wandered around here."

I found this somewhat alarming, and I was not happy that I had no idea what she was doing or where she was now.

"Sam said you're very protective of her," Tammy remarked.

I forced a casual laugh. "She takes some protecting sometimes. She still thinks a press pass means you can turn into Superman in an emergency. So, how long are you here?"

"Only until tomorrow morning, at the latest. I have to be in court the day after that, and I need to prepare."

Nicky looked at me with a level gaze. Sarah was resting, and she and I were alone in the living room. "You know what's weirder than the fact that your employer and the lawyer look so much alike?" She lit a cigarette. "The fact that nobody says anything about it."

"Well, you've had the same opportunity to comment as everybody else. So, if it's so weird, why are you keeping quiet, too?"

"That's what I'm trying to figure out. Maybe that's why it bugs me, because I'm doing something and I don't know why. Why don't you say something about it?"

I laughed. "That's easy. When in doubt, I take my cue from my boss, especially when we're on a case. She hasn't mentioned it, so I don't. Being an employee can make some situations easier."

"'On a case,'" she quoted. "I thought she was a reporter. You're sounding like a cop now."

"Bad experiences with cops?"

"None of your business. Answer the question."

"She's a reporter. You remember the Jacob Everett murder a year or so ago?" She shook her head. "Famous writer, not so hip now, died about a year ago while kayaking down a particularly tricky river. Everybody said he was an old fool, trying to prove he was still as tough as he'd been as a young man. She proved it was a murder, by his fourth wife, and she wrote a big article about it for The New Yorker.

"She likes mysteries, she likes to figure them out, and then write about it. So, it's a 'story,' but it's a 'case,' too."

"And the story here is Perry Nelson, assuming she finds him? The rest of us are nobodies."

I shrugged, since I wasn't sure of the answer to that one myself. "If something sufficiently unusual happens, it's news, even if it happens to a 'nobody.'"

But, even as I said this, I knew it didn't satisfy either of us.

We were silent for a minute, and she looked down at her hands. She pointed at the scratches. "You know what's embarrassing about this? I ran away. Sarah tried to fight back. She was like a whirlwind, and she got hurt pretty bad. Me, I chickened out and ran, and I didn't get hurt at all. That seems wrong, like I got rewarded for being a louse, and she got punished for doing the right thing."

I thought about this. "How do you feel about what she did?" I asked.

Nicky's eyes started to tear up. "She did it for me, even though she's short and small and not very strong. She was trying to protect me." She shrugged, looking at the floor. "How do you think I feel?"

"Well, maybe that's her reward."

Chapter Fourteen

Perry at Home

I was sitting in the living room of Sam's apartment, wondering what I would do if Jan Sleet never appeared again (not an entirely ridiculous thought, given how people were vanishing around us), when I heard a familiar rap on the door. I got up quickly and went over to open it.

She stood in the doorway, almost bobbing up and down in her excitement.

"Come on," she said. "They want to meet you."

I followed her out, closing the door behind me until I heard it lock.

She was waiting for me to ask who "they" were, so she could not tell me, so I said, "do you want my news?"

She nodded as she pressed the button for the elevator. I told her about Sam and Tammy as we rode up to the fourteenth floor. Fortunately, we were alone in the elevator.

As we stepped out of the elevator, she said, "don't say a thing about this to them."

She pressed the buzzer for an apartment and the door was opened by a short, muscular girl with curly light brown hair. She was carrying what looked like a tiny banjo case

"Go on in," she said, pushing past us. "I'm late."

We ended up in a kitchen which seemed much smaller than the one in Sam's apartment. There was a tiny black and white television on top of the refrigerator, but the noise was nearly drowned out by the conversation, which all stopped the minute we appeared. In the sudden silence, the TV newscaster said, "–Nelson has still not appeared, and his publisher–"

"Welcome," said an elderly man in pajamas and a bathrobe. He was seated on a stool at the tiny table, along with a plump woman with a lot of rings and bracelets, and Sam's brother David. David got down from his stool and offered the seat to Jan Sleet. "This is Marshall," she said, pointing at me as David and I helped her up onto the stool he had just vacated.

The woman introduced herself as T.C., and she said, "We're very pleased to meet you. So, Sarah's home from the hospital?"

Jan Sleet looked at me, so I said, "Yes, she–" and then I was distracted when a mug of hot coffee was shoved into my hand by the elderly man, who introduced himself as Finch. At least the coffee was black, the way I like it.

"Sarah just came home," I continued. "She's pretty weak, and she went right to bed."

Finch nodded, getting back onto his stool. "Always a good idea in these cases. As Andy Warhol used to say–"

"We're suspicious of Nicky," David said. "Or at least I am. T.C. is withholding judgment because Nicky has been giving us a lot of entertainment and information. But her being here is still suspicious."

"In what way?" I asked, sipping my coffee.

"Well, suddenly appearing as she did," T.C. said judiciously. "Happens to have the first name of the protagonist of two of Perry's novels. Her whole name is a character from classic detective fiction, and in that fiction it was a false name. Seduces Sarah, who is very inexperienced, and gets food and shelter and clothing out of the deal, in addition to the sex, of course. Terry didn't like her and didn't trust her, which is Terry's reaction to almost everybody, but Sam and Sarah are on her side. She asks a lot of questions about Perry Nelson and then pretends not to care very much about the answers. David thinks she's not really gay, but the deal she's got going here is just too good to let that interfere." She shrugged. "No definite evidence so far. If she was stalking Perry Nelson, why is she still here when he's gone?"

"Maybe she doesn't know where he went," Jan Sleet said brightly.

"True," Finch said. "Just because she's a stalker, that doesn't mean she's good at it."

T.C. nodded and lit a cigarette. She held out the lighter for Jan Sleet to light hers as well.

"She would be off after him," Jan Sleet said, "if that was what she wanted."

T.C. puffed thoughtfully. "You know where Perry hied himself off to?"

"No, but I'm pretty sure she does." She paused to let that sink in. "I'm willing to trade information for information."

"What are you offering?" David asked.

"Marshall has an interesting story to tell."

"And what do you need?" T.C. asked.

"Information about Nicky Porter and Tammy Nelson. Whatever you know or have surmised."

T.C. smiled. "Done. Let's hear the story."

After I had told my story about Sam and Tammy, and after we had heard a lot of apparently irrelevant hearsay about Nicky Porter and Tammy Everett, we left the apartment. As we waited for the elevator, Jan Sleet said, "Now we're about ready to move."

We got onto the elevator. "Move where?" I asked.

"To Perry's house. To wrap this up."

"Do we know where he lives?"

"No, but Nicky does, as I said. And I think I know how to get her to tell us. But I had to wait until I had everything else in place."

"Tammy must know where he lives," I said.

"I'm sure she does. But there are two things. One is that we don't have a lever to use on her, and we do on Nicky. Two, if we tell her that's where we want to go, she might call Perry, or she may be in touch with Terry and tell her. I need our arrival to be a surprise."

We stepped out of the elevator on Sam's floor and she was about to ring the doorbell when she stopped and looked at me. "What?" she asked quietly.


"Marshall," she said, speaking very softly, "there are a lot of things I can't tell you. This isn't an ordinary case. It isn't much fun, and it may get worse, but I really need to solve it. And, even then, there will be things I can't tell anybody, not even you."

This was an extraordinary speech from her, and I knew what she really meant. She needed my help to solve this, and she couldn't fill me in. I had to go along with it blind.

"Okay," I said. "Are we going to get a story out of it?"

"I sure hope not," she said, and then we were quiet for a moment. I thought for a second she was actually going to try to take my hand.

We rang the doorbell and Nicky opened the door. She motioned us in. "Where is everybody?" Jan Sleet asked as the three of us went into the empty living room.

"Sarah is asleep," she said quietly. "Sam and Tammy are in his room. Talking, so to speak."

"Listen to me," Jan Sleet said to Nicky in a voice I had never heard before. "I need to know where Perry Nelson lives. We need to go there to solve this."

Nicky shrugged and laughed. "Okay, fine. Go ahead. I only met the man once, and I sure–"

"You know," Jan Sleet said, leaning forward. "You were stalking him, that's how you ended up here. You were probably following Terry to find Perry. When he was admitted to the hospital, he didn't have his wallet. It hasn't turned up since. He was quite badly injured, but you weren't. When his wallet fell out of his pocket in the fight, you were able to grab it."

Nicky was ready to ridicule this, but Jan Sleet didn't pause. "You've seen his driver's license and his other ID. You hid the wallet in Sam's room, which was very clever, but you kept the driver's license. I found the wallet, but nothing in it has his address, and that is what I need.

"Nicky, I saw you pick up the wallet from the street, and I need that driver's license. If you don't give it to me, Marshall will take it from you, and I'll tell Sam and Sarah what you're really doing here. If you give it to me, nobody ever finds out where I got it. Because as much as you wanted to find Perry Nelson, that isn't the most important thing to you anymore, is it? Or you'd have been out on his trail, instead of staying here. You–"

She stopped because Nicky had reached into her pocket and pulled out a driver's license. She handed it over and left the room without a word.

"Did you really think I was going to strip-search her?" I asked. "That's a bit beyond my job description."

She shook her head, not taking her eyes off the driver's license. "It wasn't going to come to that. Come on, we need to rent a car."

"We" meant me, of course, since I was the one with the money, and I was the one who was licensed to drive.

When Tammy and Sam came out of his room, Jan Sleet gathered everybody together in Sarah and Nicky's room, since Sarah was still in bed. "I'm going to see Perry," she announced. "I know where he lives, and I want to find out if he's okay." She looked at Tammy. "You've called him, I assume?"

Tammy nodded. "Several times. There hasn't been any answer."

"I think he's there and he's not answering the phone. But we won't know for sure unless we go and see. Who wants to come with me?"

"I do," Sam said. "If he is there, he may be able to tell us something about Terry."

"I'll go, too," Sarah said. Nicky started to express concern, but Sarah said, "I'll be okay, Portland. I assume we're driving?"

Jan Sleet nodded.

"I'll go, too," Tammy said. She smiled. "To make sure he's okay, and to try to convince him that I didn't reveal his precious secret address." She looked around. "We're not all going to fit in one car. I'll rent a car, too, if Sam will do most of the driving."

Fortunately, I wasn't the only one who felt that food was necessary before we set out. Sam and Nicky went out for take-out Chinese food as Tammy was calling to rent a car. Jan Sleet was impatient, but I explained that the adrenaline which had been powering her all day wasn't available to everybody.

I did notice that she watched Tammy pretty much every minute until we left the apartment. I was sure this was to make sure that the attorney didn't get in touch with Perry (or Terry) to let them know our plans.

I expected the Chinese food to be unexciting, and I was right, but all I had had to eat all day were two of the reheated danish that I'd disdained when we'd arrived, so I wasn't about to be finicky.

And then, finally, we were ready to go. There was a lot of back-and-forth about who was going to ride with who. Jan Sleet was impatient, but I signaled her to let it play itself out.

Sarah had apparently recovered from Tammy's speech, at least a little, and seemed less thrilled about the relationship than she had been before. Or maybe it was just that it had become clearer that it was a relationship, at least for the moment, not just a fling.

So, Nicky and Sarah decided to drive with us. They sat in the back seat, I drove and Jan Sleet sat beside me. The plan was that we would drive to Perry's and, assuming he was there, make sure he was okay. Then, Jan Sleet and I would drive Sam and the girls back to New York. Tammy would drive her rented car to Boston so she could prepare for the case she had coming up.

As far as I knew, Jan Sleet had not mentioned to anybody else that this was a vital part of solving the mystery, and, true to her word, she had not revealed how she had obtained Perry's address.

We were all quiet for a few minutes as I negotiated the city streets toward the highway. Then, as I pulled into the stream of traffic going north, Nicky asked, "Is Terry going to be there? Are we going to find out what happened to her?"

Jan Sleet nodded, lighting a cigarette. "Yes, Terry will be there. We'll hear her story, all of it."

"It didn't occur to me that she might have gone to Perry's," Sarah said. "I guess because she vanished first."

"That's what made it more mysterious than it should have been," Jan Sleet said. "If Perry had just vanished from the hospital the way he did, it would have been pretty obvious to anybody who knew anything about him that he had skipped out to avoid publicity. But, since it came after Terry's disappearance, that made it seem like there must be a connection. There wasn't, though, not that way."

She turned in her seat and held out her cigarette case to Nicky. There was apparently a brief consultation in the back seat, then Nicky took a cigarette and Sarah rolled down her window a little.

Nicky started to ask another question, but Jan Sleet shook her head. "I can't explain any more of it yet. Terry has to explain a lot of it herself. But when we get there, don't mention anything about Terry, that we're expecting to see her there. Not to Perry or to Sam or Tammy. Something really bad might happen. There could easily be more violence. I think I can prevent it, but I have to do things very carefully, and in the proper order."

That was sufficiently vague and mysterious that there weren't any more questions. Jan Sleet reached forward, turning on the radio and twirling the dial until she found a classical music station.

It seemed she had hold of something, but I wasn't sure. Maybe this was all a smokescreen to get us to Perry Nelson. But she had told me I would be going into this blind, and I had agreed, as she'd known I would. So, I just drove the car and tried not to worry.

I didn't like the idea that there might be more violence, though.

We pulled off the dirt road and I parked next to a battered station wagon. A moment later, Tammy's car pulled up next to us. We both turned off our lights and shut off our motors. I got out and went around to help Jan Sleet out of the car. I knew she'd be stiff after sitting for so long.

We all stood for a moment in the dark, as if suddenly hesitant to invade the author's privacy. The windows of the small house were lit, the only lights visible in any direction through the trees, so it looked like somebody was home. Then Jan Sleet started toward the door and we all trailed behind.

She rapped on the door and after a moment it opened. I'd never met Perry Nelson, of course, but I knew him from his photographs. He had a bruise over one eye and he held his left arm stiffly. He looked surprised, because Jan Sleet and I were in front, but then he saw more familiar faces behind us and motioned all of us inside his house.

"This is somewhat of a surprise," he said dryly.

Jan Sleet held out her hand. "My name is Jan Sleet. I'm a reporter, but I'm not here to write about you. I brought Sam and the others because they were worried about you."

Perry looked resigned. "Well, you're all here, so come in and sit down." Then he smiled. "I'm sorry, that sounded more ungracious than I meant it to." We all sat in the small but comfortable living room and he said, "I thought of getting in touch, many times, but I didn't know what was behind what happened to Terry, or I should say who, so I didn't know if I'd be exposing myself to them, letting them know where I was."

Nicky and Sarah sat together on a couch, Nicky with her arm around Sarah's shoulders. Sam sat next to Tammy on the other sofa. They didn't touch, but I could tell that Perry was aware of the chemistry. I wondered if Terry was observing us, and how she would react.

My employer was sitting in a comfortable chair, but she sat straight up, trying not to look as eager as she was. I saw her looking around, checking the doors and windows, cataloguing the room's contents. Perry looked at her for a while, and then at Tammy, but he didn't say anything about that either.

Chapter Fifteen

The Solution

So, we sat around Perry's comfortable living room, drinking coffee and tea against the chill. After a few quiet minutes, Jan Sleet took her cane and levered herself to her feet.

"Sam," she said, "what did Terry do before she became a teacher?"

He shrugged. "I don't know exactly. She had some sort of office job." He turned to Tammy, but Jan Sleet interrupted him.

"Perry," she asked, "what did she do? What kind of office job?"

Perry looked at her thoughtfully for a moment. "She was an administrative assistant, at a law firm."

"The same law firm where Tammy is now a partner?"

He nodded. "She quit when Tammy was hired. As you know, she felt conflicted about–"

Tammy interrupted him. "She didn't want to work next to me every day. It was–"

"No," Jan Sleet said simply. For some reason, at that moment I was sure she really had something. "Or, really, yes and no," she went on. "She helped Tammy get hired, though. She used her position to control and create information, to create the fiction that her sister is a qualified attorney licensed to practice law. She isn't. I've checked, and Tammy Nelson never graduated law school, she never took or passed a bar exam in any state."

Tammy smiled and motioned for her to continue.

Jan Sleet nodded. "You can object later, of course. Tammy, you got your current job the same way you keep it, by your incredible ability to convince people of things. With some behind-the-scenes help from your sister, you convinced the partners that you're an attorney. They know you're not good at technicalities, at nuts and bolts, but you're the best person they have in front of a judge or a jury. I doubt if any of them have ever suspected that you're a complete fraud."

Tammy raised a hand. "Objection, miss."

Jan Sleet nodded.

"Apart from your aspersions on my professional qualifications, which I may ask you to prove at some point, there's a big hole in your 'theory,' or at least the part of it we've heard already.

"Terry, as we all know, feels resentful and conflicted about my success, and Perry's. Why in the world would she help me get a job at the firm where she worked, whether or not she helped me forge professional qualifications? Why would she help create a situation that, almost immediately, became so intolerable that she quit her job?"

Jan Sleet nodded. "At least one person in this room knows the answer to that already, in addition to you and me. Probably two. Perry?"

She looked at him, but the young novelist just smiled blandly.

Jan Sleet went on. "Sam? You know, too, don't you?"

Sam just sat, stone-faced.

Jan Sleet nodded again. "Very loyal. That would be morally questionable, of course, if a murder had in fact taken place. But you both know there's been no crime, or at least no capital crime, so loyalty might be appropriate.

"But a lot of hurt has been done to some people, and I think everybody here in this room deserves to know what you and I know. As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't need to go any further than that, but it needs to go that far. Sam, your own sister has thought, at least from time to time, that you did some violence to your lover. And she definitely thinks it's disgraceful how you and Tammy have been carrying on."

For at least a minute, nobody moved or spoke.

"This is not how it was supposed to end up," Tammy said quietly. "When I got this job, Terry was going to cease to exist. Being Tammy was a much better deal, all the way around."

"That's the one thing I couldn't figure out," Jan Sleet admitted. "I couldn't see why you continued to be Terry as well as Tammy."

"There are two possible answers, and I don't know which one is true. Either I really am crazy, or it was because, at the last minute, when the plan was already in motion, Terry met Sam."

Jan Sleet just stood and looked at her, raising one eyebrow.

"I met Sam, I should say. Suddenly, when I was ready to stop being Terry forever, I had a reason to keep on being her." She smiled. "It was quite annoying."

Sam and Perry looked fairly relaxed, even relieved. But Nicky and Sarah looked quite tense, though Sarah appeared confused and Nicky did not.

"Wait a minute," Sarah said. "You mean there never was a Terry?"

Tammy shook her head. "No, there never was a Tammy."

"I only have one sister," Perry said. "Half-sister. I didn't see that it would help to 'out' her, as it were. I tried to help her find her way to work it out, which was made more difficult by the fact that Terry, the one I really had to reach, hated my guts." He rubbed his eyes. "Also, I did think that there was a chance that if I did reveal what was going on, she might do something violent."

"Which she did, I guess," Sarah said, "or where did all that blood come from?"

There was a long silence, or at least it seemed fairly long, then Tammy grabbed her cane and stood up. "I'll be right back," she said, and she strode in the direction of the bathroom.

After a moment, we heard running water. Sam stood up suddenly, but Perry shook his head. "She's not going to hurt herself."

I looked at Jan Sleet. She was standing still, eyes bright behind her glasses, her hands resting on the top of her cane. She was obviously impatient to continue. This was her big moment, and I could already tell that, perhaps even more than usual, this was going to be a disappointment to her. I didn't think anybody was going to thank her for solving this mystery, and nobody was going to praise her intellect, or her detective skills, or her keen insights into human nature.

"How did she hold two jobs?" Sam asked after a moment.

"She didn't," Perry said. "She was never a school teacher. She just made that up."

Sam shook his head. "She sure told some convincing stories about it."

Sarah turned to Sam, then she hesitated. "I do need to ask one thing," she said. "When did you figure this out?" He started to speak. "Before you slept with Tammy, or after?"

He smiled sheepishly. "In the process, I'm afraid. So, did I intend to cheat on Terry? With her own sister? Yes, I'm afraid I did."

Terry Nelson came in, wearing a bathrobe, her blonde hair mostly covered by a towel, all her makeup washed off. She looked so different that it took a minute for me to be sure that this was the same woman. There was an long, ugly scar down the side of her right leg. It was obviously healing, but it was discolored and the entire length of it looked bruised.

She stood blinking for a moment as she looked around, then she walked slowly toward Sam. I remembered what he had said about how much she needed her glasses.

She sat down next to Sam, and pulled the bathrobe closed around her, mostly concealing the scar. "I did it to myself," she said to Sarah. "I can't describe my state of mind, not so you'd understand it, but it was my hand which held the knife."

"Doesn't it hurt?" Sarah asked. "How come you don't limp?"

"Tammy limps. I don't." She turned to Sam. "You wouldn't happen to have my glasses, would you?"

Nicky snorted at this idea, but Sam reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled them out. He handed them to her and she put them on.

"So," Jan Sleet said proudly, "that's it. The case is solved." She waited for the applause.

"That's it?" Nicky demanded. "What about the rest of it?"

"The rest of it?" the great detective asked, looking somewhat perplexed. "I'm not sure I understand."

Nicky paused, looking from Terry Nelson to my employer, then threw up her hands, momentarily speechless.

"Well," Terry said, "for one thing, who is she?" She pointed at Nicky.

"That's Nicky," Jan Sleet said solicitously. "Don't you recognize her?"

"I mean, who is she really? Why did she drop into our laps, what was she after, and what is her real name? That's what I mean by–"

"So?" Nicky demanded, leaning forward on the sofa. "What's your real name, and why do you pretend to be Perry's sister when it's obvious you're old enough to be his mother?"

There was a moment of silence after that. Everybody looked startled at Nicky's outburst, but nobody more so than Jan Sleet, who had apparently never thought about these questions at all.

"My name is Alexandra Ross," Terry said. "I'm not related to Perry. He befriended me a few years ago when I was in a pretty bad way, and I thought a change would do me good, so I changed my name to Terry Nelson and started saying I was his sister. He went along with it, and helped me get the job at the law firm. Thereby earning my resentment ever since, I guess." She turned to Nicky. "Okay, your turn."

But Sarah put her small hand over Nicky's mouth before she could speak. "Not necessary," she said simply.

Terry nodded slowly, relaxing a little. "Fair enough," she said. She stood up. "Sam–"

"Perry," Sam said, "you're going to write a book about this, aren't you? About Terry? That's why you've gone along with all this for so long."

Perry nodded. "I had planned to. I have a lot of notes. I even have a title. But I was worried about revealing–"

"Don't," Sam said. Perry looked a question. "Terry's going to write it. She's going to write a book, and I think it will be better than the one you would write."

Perry chuckled, almost laughing. "I'll bet it will be. Very well, that's fine."

As we got ready to leave, Terry stood up and smiled at Jan Sleet. She held out her hand. "That was very good work, Ms. Sleet. I'm impressed."

Jan Sleet smiled and shook her hand. "Thank you. I was pretty pleased."

In our rental car, as we drove back down the windy dirt road, she was silent for a few minutes. Terry, Sam, Nicky and Sarah were going to drive back to the city later, in the other car.

"It was like a movie," she said. "Everybody ended up in pairs at the end." We pulled up to the highway and I waited for a break in the traffic.

"Except Perry," I pointed out.

"True. And except for us, of course."

I pulled into traffic and accelerated. "Of course. Let's go home."


There was a big flurry of news about Tammy Nelson, of course, first when she vanished right before a major trial, and then when it was discovered that she wasn't licensed to practice law, and then again when it was discovered that no such person had ever existed. It faded out after that, though, since there were no further developments.

Of course, her "vanishing" consisted of cutting her hair, dying it back to its natural black, taking back her real name and moving into Sam's apartment.

Tammy's disappearance and the other revelations focused a good deal of attention on Perry, her "brother," but his publisher said he had left the country. He had gone to Bellona, the announcement said, to write a book about the war there. Jan Sleet commented that a man must really hate publicity if he was willing to go to a war zone to avoid it.

To this day, Jan Sleet has never given any indication that she's ever wondered why she and Alexandra Ross look enough alike to be mother and daughter. But I do know that they have started to correspond from time to time. And those letters my employer types herself, and she seals the envelopes before she gives them to me to mail.

She just told me to book two seats on the first available flight to Italy, and she won't tell me any more than that. I do know that she's been in touch with a geneological society specializing in Italian families. The envelopes from them always come addressed to "Janice Stiglianese," so I'm sure it's her own family she's investigating.

I have to go pack now. I'm looking forward to meeting her father.

The first chapter of A Sane Woman was written and published in chapbook form in 1990.

The last chapter was completed in 2005.

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