The Bus Station Mystery

by Anthony Lee Collins

the bus station mystery -- part one

The bus pulled away from the station, swung around slowly, and headed off toward the highway. Viewed through the driving rain, it was quickly reduced to a pair of small taillights, and then darkness.

"So, that's it, right?" Billy said, leaning out over the counter so he could see Kelly across the empty waiting room. She was standing behind the ticket counter and looking out the window. She didn't bother to answer him.

Mr. Randall poked his head out of the hall that led to his private office. "Nobody leaves," he said sharply. "Just got the call -- forty-two is on the way after all."

Billy shrugged and laid out what he needed to make a fresh pot of coffee. If the last bus had been any indication, number forty-two would arrive late and carrying very few passengers -- but those passengers would probably want something hot to drink.

It felt very different than running away from home.

She looked out the window of the bus, though she couldn't see very much. The storm seemed to be getting even worse, if that was possible. It reminded her of the times when she'd gone out on emergency calls with her father during dangerous weather.

Of course, she could have turned back. She could have allowed the storm to provide an excuse for changing her mind.

There were very few people on the bus. She wondered how many others might have postponed their trips or canceled their plans entirely.

But when you're really scared to do something, you need to be suspicious of any escape hatch that suddenly presents itself.

Her father had told her that. And, as with some of the things he had told her, she had decided that it was true.

Looking out at the weather, feeling the bus shake as it came up a hill and a sudden blast of wind battered it, seeing how few cars were on the road, she wondered if they were going to make it all the way to their destination in any case.

Bus number forty-two was already twenty minutes late when Mr. Randall came into the waiting room. He was wearing a trench coat.

"I need to head home," he announced to nobody in particular. "Forty-two is the last for today -- you can shut down and close up after that. Kelly is in charge. Good luck."

As he said the last two words, he was already most of the way out the door.

Billy slouched behind his counter, leaning back against the little board that divided the two donut display cases. He heard a snort of laughter, and he leaned forward to see Kelly standing behind the ticket counter, her hands on her hips, looking wide awake and ready for anything -- apparently in contrast to his own unheroic posture.

Then, as they saw a pair of headlights turn off the road and into the bus station parking lot, Kelly relaxed and stuck out her tongue, aware that her square-shouldered stance had made her breasts stick out, and of course Billy had been caught looking in that direction. Again.

They couldn't see much through the rain-streaked windows, but they saw the headlights swing around the building, much more slowly than usual, pull into place, and then turn off. A few moments later, the big glass doors swung open and the first passenger came in.

the bus station mystery -- part two

The big glass doors swung open and the first passenger came in. She wore a bright yellow rain slicker and she looked around, with an expression that Billy knew very well.

Then, when she had determined where the restrooms were, she walked quickly in that direction as the others started to come in behind her.

The bus had more passengers than Billy had expected. They looked cold and wet as they trickled into the building, even though the overhang had covered them most of the way between the bus and the entrance. He wanted to yell at them to hurry up and get inside, since a lot of cold air was coming in with them.

He was glad he'd decided to make two pots of coffee. He was also planning to have some coffee himself, after the bus left, before he went home.

If the bus left, and if he was able to go home.

The bus station was far outside the center of town -- not near anywhere except the highway. Billy was sure the city buses had stopped running -- he could usually see them go by from his coffee stand, and he hadn't seen one for hours. If the bus left, he'd probably be able to get Cody to let him ride to thecampus stop, and he could walk home from there. He'd get drenched, but it would be better than staying in the station forever. Cody would be an ass about it, of course, but Billy had survived that before.

This was usually a forty-minute layover, but with the bus being so late, it would probably be only five or ten minutes.

The next passenger through the doors was a teenage girl. She had short, blonde hair and she went to one of the plastic chairs and sat down. She was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans.

Two men came in after the girl, and for a moment it looked like they might be together, but then the older one went toward corridor that led to the restrooms and the other, a younger man with horn-rimmed glasses, headed toward Billy and the possibility of coffee. He looked so desperate that Billy almost started pouring before he was even asked.

There was a woman with a huge purse -- at least Billy assumed it was a purse. Then there were three rich kids. Well, he had no idea if they were really rich, of course, but they were dressed the way rich students dress when going on vacation. They were two guys and a girl, and they seemed to move through the waiting room as a unit toward his coffee station.

When they came up to the counter, the first guy ordered cappuccino, and the other guy followed suit. The girl, who was tall and athletic-looking, ordered hot chocolate.

Billy moved to fill the orders. Ordinarily he'd have been tempted to mention to the girl that she'd made a wise choice -- the hot chocolate was good, and everybody who had the cappuccino complained about it -- but she'd looked over his head as she'd given her order. Clearly not interested in being chatted up by the help.

As the trio moved to take seats, Billy looked around. At least the passengers were all inside now and the doors were closed. He was starting to wonder if Mr. Randall had turned off the heat before he'd left. Maybe he'd been afraid Kelly would forget.

Kelly stood behind her ticket counter, looking very serious. Billy knew this was just her way of goofing around. She was technically in charge now, but that didn't mean much. Billy and Kelly were both at the bottom of the chain of command, but she worked for the bus company and Billy for the coffee company, so she was the boss. The only other one there was Harvey, the mechanic. He was out back, probably gassing up the bus that had just come in. The others had called out for the day.

Then Billy had to shift his attention back to serving coffee and donuts for the last couple of passengers. One even ordered one of the frozen sandwiches that he heated up in the Radarange.

Then he heard the distant sound of a phone ringing. Kelly bolted from behind the counter and dashed back into the office.

After a minute or so, she came into the waiting room and looked around. "Is somebody here named Stephanie Monroe?"

The blonde girl looked up, frowning. "Yes," she said slowly. "That's me."

"They want you on the phone."

The blonde girl went into the office, looking puzzled. Kelly hesitated near the open door, and then she stepped forward into the waiting room. Billy noticed that she had put on her bright green company tie and straightened her uniform shirt.

the bus station mystery -- part three

"Excuse me," Kelly said, her voice raised to fill the waiting room. "My name is Kelly Fraser, and I'm in charge of this facility at the moment. I just heard from the home office in New York, and I'm afraid that we're all going to be here for a while. Because of the storm, it's not safe for the bus to continue on its route at the present time. Also, the bridge that you would have taken to get back on the interstate has been closed because of high winds."

"So, what does that mean?" the older man asked.

She spread her hands wide. "We have shelter, we have heat, and we have food and water."

Billy thought that the electricity might not last -- it had flickered in storms which were less intense than this one -- but he understood that this was probably not the best time to mention that possibility.

"So, they're not sending help?" asked the woman in the yellow rain slicker.

"Emergency services are dealing with the real emergencies. We will be fine if we shelter in place. If our situation changes, we can call for assistance."

At that moment there was a big gust of wind and the glass in a couple of the floor-to-ceiling windows rattled. The older man raised his head and looked around. "Somebody should tell the driver," he said. "That we're not going on. He should come in here with us, where it's comfortable."

Stephanie, the blonde girl, had come out of the office, and Kelly was leaning over to listen to something she was saying, so Billy went to one of the front windows and looked out, shading his eyes with his hand.

"Billy," Kelly called, "what's happening out there?"

"The bus is still there. No sign of Cody."

The woman with the huge purse stood up. "He said he was going to take the bus around back, for gas and maintenance."

"Well, it's still right there," Billy said.

"I'll check it out," Stephanie said, and she was out the door.

There was a pause, and then the "rich girl" (in Billy's assessment) went after her. Her two companions followed behind, with perhaps somewhat less enthusiasm.

Kelly caught Billy's eye and he held back.

"That girl told me that the phone just went dead," she murmured. "If we get into real trouble, we're sunk."

"What about Mr. Randall's phone?"

She shrugged. "If one line is out, the others probably are, too."

"Why did they want to talk to her? Does she work for the company?"

"No idea. They said they were transferring a call, from somebody who wanted to talk to her. After they told me what to do."

"Well, we should--"

"I'm going to go outside and figure out what happened to Cody. Then we can check the other phones, and see what the girl has to say. Come on."

The bus, the only one parked on that side of the station building, was silent and dark, and there was no sign of Stephanie. The "rich girl" was standing in front of the bus, trying to see inside. Her two companions were a bit off to one side, under a No Smoking sign, lighting cigarettes. All three were under the overhang of the building and protected from at least some of the rain.

Kelly went around to the far side of the bus, and there, getting soaked to the skin, was Stephanie. She was clinging to the side of the bus, peering in one of the windows. Her hands were gripping a lip above the windows, and her feet were supported, at least somewhat, by some decorative grooves in the metal as she tried to see inside.

"What..." Kelly started to ask, but Stephanie hopped down to the pavement and moved quickly around to the other side of the bus.

She looked at the closed door for a moment, apparently trying to figure out how to open it.

Kelly stepped around her, grabbed the edge of the door with her fingertips, and pulled it out and open. She was about to step onto the bus, but Stephanie held her forearm for a moment so that she could get inside first.

"Nobody come in!" she called.

The bulky body of the driver was crammed awkwardly into the well between the two rows of seats.

the bus station mystery -- part four

"Who are you?" Kelly demanded.

Stephanie pulled out a card and showed it to her. "Sheriff's deputy, Huron County." She was continuing to examine the body of the dead bus driver. Billy had taken the passengers back into the building, and the two women were alone on the bus.

"Wait a minute," Kelly said. "Let me see that." She squinted to read the laminated card in the gloom. "According to this, you got this ID when you were fifteen years old, which seems unlikely. And it's expired."

Stephanie shrugged. "I put the wrong card in my wallet."

"And, unlike the passengers, you know that the phone is dead, so I can't check up on you."

"Are there other phone lines?"

"We'll deal with that later." Kelly sat on the arm of one of the seats. "Now that I've questioned your credentials--" She handed back the ID card. "--what are you finding?"

Stephanie grinned. "Now that you're wondering whether you should have let me touch the body at all."

Kelly looked suddenly upset. "Look, I... I know, I'm only a ticket clerk, but... I'm responsible for those people in there -- to protect them from this storm, and from..."

"A murderer." Stephanie's voice was calm. "Yes, this man was murdered. And I have quite a bit of experience, and I also want to protect those people in there,and you, and me."

She looked at Kelly, who wiped her eyes with her sleeve. "I know," Kelly said, "that we're supposed to not mess up the crime scene, but, in my opinion, that's less important than trying to make sure nobody else dies. The cops aren't coming now--"

"And when they do come, you don't want to have them find all of us dead, our corpses in a series of very carefully preserved crime scenes."

Kelly nodded. "Exactly." She smiled. "Is this where you do like Jan Sleet and say, 'And I know who the murderer is!' and then point him out? That would be nice."

Stephanie laughed, moving to sit on the chair arm across from Kelly. "No. I'm just a trained investigator -- not a genius amateur detective."

"Fair enough. What have you... " She frowned at Stephanie's expression. "What..."

Stephanie stood up, looking over Kelly's shoulder. "There's a car coming. "

Kelly looked around quickly.

Billy hesitated for a moment before sitting down. He knew he wasn't supposed to sit when there were passengers in the station, but he wasn't going to stay on his feet for however many hours it was going to take for this to be over.

He sat down, a little distance away from the passengers. He'd thought at the beginning that everybody would introduce themselves at some point, but that hadn't happened.

The older man was sitting, reading a magazine, apparently not concerned about the situation. The younger man with the glasses was reading a book.

The two women were sitting and drinking coffee. The woman in the yellow rain slicker stood up and looked around, then she walked toward the restrooms. She came back after a moment and sat down again. "There's a pay phone in that back hall," she said, "but it seems to be broken."

The other woman reached into her huge purse, which was on the seat next to her. She pulled out a large quantity of yarn. "I know," she said "I tried it before. They need to let us use the phone back in the office." She looked up from the yarn, which she was trying to untangle. "I'm Hilda, by the way."

"Florence." She looked around. "I guess that girl is the one to talk to -- the one who went outside. She said she's in charge."

Hilda made a very small gesture toward Billy. "He works here," she said quietly. "He must know where the phone is."

Florence stood up and caught Billy's eye. "Where is a phone I can use? I need to call my daughter."

Billy thought of claiming that he didn't speak English, but it was probably too late for that. As he stood up, slowly, he saw the lights of a car approaching.

The younger man looked up from his book. "Oh, look," he drawled. "It's a rescue. Hallelujah."

Kelly and Stephanie watched as a pair of headlights moved very slowly down the ramp from the street, through the parking lot, and around the terminal building toward them.

"Come on," Stephanie said as she walked to the bus door and stepped down to the wet pavement. Kelly followed her, feeling that everything was getting further and further out of her control.

She wasn't sure if she felt better or worse when she recognized the car that was pulling in next to the bus.

Mr. Randall reached the door at the same time they did.

"Damn bridge is out," he said, taking off his hat and wiping his wet hair. He held the door so the two women could precede him into the building. "Couldn't get home -- they were closing it when I got there. Ten minutes earlier and I would have made it. I--" He looked around at the passengers, and at Kelly. "Forty-two couldn't leave, huh? Have you spoken to the passengers? I can take over -- that's okay." He drew in a deep breath, preparing to address the room.

"Cody Nugent, the bus driver, has been murdered," Stephanie said, stepping in front of him and pulling out her ID. "Stephanie Monroe. Sheriff's deputy, Huron County."

That stopped him. He froze for a moment, and then he said, "Have you called the cops? The police?"

"The phone is dead," Kelly whispered, gesturing at the ticket counter. "We haven't--"

"Did you check my phone?" He shook his head at them. "You should have checked all the phones." He turned -- the passengers, who were all watching this, apparently forgotten -- and walked down the short corridor to his office.

They heard him open the door, and then shout "Shit!"

the bus station mystery -- part five

When Billy heard Mr. Randall yell, he started to run to the office, but Stephanie got there ahead of him. He has always maintained that she picked him up bodily and moved him aside in order to get there first, but that's not how she tells it.

Mr. Randall's office was small and spare. There were no pictures on the wall, just a company calendar. There was a cheap desk chair behind a cheap desk, two straight-backed chairs that didn't match, and a file cabinet. And a dead woman, lying across the desk.

Stephanie went and took her pulse, but that seemed to be a formality, since she had a knife sticking out of her chest.

Mr. Randall was sitting on one of the chairs, looking like he might be about to be sick. Some of the passengers were crowding around the doorway, as if there were an invisible force field there preventing them from stepping into the room. Only Stephanie, Billy, and Kelly had come inside.

"Does anybody know this woman?" Stephanie asked. Mr. Randall shook his head, not looking up from the floor. Some of the others shuffled into the room, staying some distance away from the desk, getting just close enough to look and shake their heads and then back up again.

"Was she on the bus?" Stephanie asked.

The general consensus was that she hadn't been, though nobody seemed to be entirely certain.

"The tickets that Cody collected are probably still on the bus," Kelly said. "We can compare them to the stubs that the passengers have."

Stephanie nodded. "That makes sense. First, I'm going to see if she has any ID."

She and Kelly looked at each other. In a moment, they both understood some things. Their conversation, unspoken, took but a fraction of a second. Laid out in words, it would have gone like this:

Stephanie: If you don't trust me, then why are you letting me be in charge?

Kelly: Because, with Mr. Randall here, I can't be in charge. He's my boss. And better you than him.

Stephanie: This is his office, right? Do you think he did it?

Kelly: No I don't think so, but I know he shouldn't be in charge. Not of anything important. If he gives you trouble, feel free to accuse him of the murder.

The dead woman was wearing jeans, a sweater, and a corduroy jacket. Stephanie went through her pockets and pulled out a wallet. She looked at the cards, and then she turned to face the others.

"Her name is Amelia Nugent," she said slowly, watching for reactions.

This didn't mean anything to the passengers, as far as she could tell, but Kelly, Billy, and Mr. Randall all reacted.

"Cody's ex-wife," Billy said, frowning.

"Wife," Mr. Randall said, looking up. "They were separated, but not divorced."

"He always called her his ex-wife," Billy said.

"Wishful thinking." He looked at Stephanie. "They hated each other."

"He hated her..." Kelly said slowly. She shrugged. "We never heard her side of the story."

"Nobody knew her here, except for Cody," Mr. Randall said slowly. "And he did hate her..."

"But if he killed her, then who killed him?" Billy asked.

Stephanie shook her head. "The knife is here, and I didn't see a knife on the bus. The wound in Mr. Nugent's body looked about the same size. Unless there are two knives, this murder must have happened second."

"Somebody should search the bus more carefully..." Kelly's voice made it a question.

"We have quite a few things to do," Stephanie said slowly, looking around the room. There was another crash of thunder.

"And there's going to be a lot of time in which to do them," the older man said, turning away. "I'm going to go finish my coffee and have another donut."

The young man with the glasses came back into the room and reached around the dead body to pick up the phone. He listened for a moment and then hung up. He shrugged. "Dead. Imagine that."

He caught Kelly's eye as he left the room and winked.

the bus station mystery -- part six

Stephanie stood in the middle of the waiting room. "I asked Kelly to get the ticket stubs from the bus, but first I want to ask Mr. Randall some questions." She turned to face him. "You'd never met Mrs. Nugent?"

He shook his head, still looking somewhat stunned. "No, none of us had. His co-workers, I mean."

"And had you ever seen her -- without knowing who she was? Around the station here, for example?"

He shook his head. "Not that I remember. A lot of people come through here every day." He straightened his back a little and breathed in.

"As far as you know, you were the last person in your office?" she asked sharply.

"I don't know--" he began, frowning, but then the big glass doors opened and Kelly came in, a thick envelope in her hand.

"Here they are," she said. Stephanie took the envelope and peered inside.

Kelly stepped into the office and came back with a green company jacket.

Stephanie looked up from the ticket stubs and regarded the jacket dubiously. "Are you offering me a job?"

Kelly laughed. "No, I'm offering you a jacket. You're soaked."

Stephanie smiled and pulled off her sweatshirt. "Thanks," she said, putting on the jacket, which was large on her. "I--"

"Wait a minute," said the woman with the large purse. "Hang on. I have two questions. One is that... Well, I appreciate that you're Teen Sheriff or whatever, but why don't we just wait for the cops to come and solve this officially?"

"The police can't get here until the storm lets up," Stephanie said, "and that's probably going to be a while. Either the murderer is one of us, here in this room, or there's a murderer in or around this building somewhere. Of course, it's possible that the murderer has left the area by now, but..." She gestured at the front windows and the storm outside.

"Travel conditions are not ideal," the older man said, sipping his coffee.

"Wait a minute," the younger man said, taking off his horn-rimmed glasses and looking around at the windows. "You mean somebody could be out there, with a gun, ready to shoot us?"

Stephanie shrugged. "That's possible, but I don't think it's likely. We've all been here for a while, very visible in this well-lighted room, and nobody's shot at any of us yet. And we don't have any reason to think the murderer has a gun in the first place."

Mr. Randall looked up. "I think we should move into the office, the big office." He gestured at the ticket counter. "It will be safer--"

The older man stood up. "Okay, wait," he said to Mr. Randall. "One of us may be a murderer, right? One of the people in this room, right? And there are three people here who knew the dead bus driver, and at least knew about his wife. The rest of us didn't know anything about them, as far as we know. So, I'm thinking you, the Black girl, and the Chinese guy -- you shouldn't be deciding shit right now. The deputy girl here seems to know what she's doing, which puts her a few steps ahead of everybody else. Now, I'd really like to see more investigating and less wasting time." He looked around the room. "Is that okay with everybody?"

Billy quickly discarded any idea of clarifying that he was half Japanese and not at all Chinese, and instead he said firmly, "There is another person in this building, who isn't in this room, and he knew Cody very well and he may have known Cody's wife, too."

For a moment it was clear on the faces of Mr. Randall and Kelly that they had completely forgotten about Harvey, the mechanic, and then all the lights went out.

"Nobody move," Stephanie said firmly. "This is probably just an electrical problem, because of the storm. Who has a cigarette lighter or a flashlight? Are there candles?"

The "rich girl" lit a lighter and held it out in front of her. "This will get rather hot in a minute," she said calmly. "Are there flashlights, or candles?"

Stephanie looked at Kelly, who said, "There is a flashlight or two in the office..."

Mr. Randall stood up. "I'll get candles -- Kelly, you should get the flashlights, and the batteries, and check on Harvey."

Kelly frowned. "That makes sense, but I didn't know we had candles."

Mr. Randall smiled. "They're small, but we have a whole box of them. For when we have the birthday parties."

the bus station mystery -- part seven

Kelly and Stephanie stepped behind the dark ticket counter and Kelly squatted, waving her hand around in the various open compartments under the counter.

"I'm pretty sure there's a flashlight under here somewhere... Ew!" She pulled out her hand and wiped it on her pants. "I do not want to know what that was..." She reached into the next compartment and pulled out a flashlight.

"Taa daa!" she announced as she turned it on. The light flared briefly, and then started to flicker and dim.

"Quick," Stephanie said, peering into the next compartment. "Let's find batteries!"

A couple of minutes later, there were fresh(er) batteries in the flashlight, and a couple more in Stephanie's jacket pocket. Kelly pointed at a closed door. "That's the way to the garage." She made a face. "If I had to guess, I'd say we'll find him asleep, or gone, but..."

Stephanie nodded. "This is not the time to make assumptions -- that's for sure. Is it just a big garage area, or are there rooms, or what?"

"A big garage -- enough room for six buses, I think, though there won't be that many right now. Fuel pumps, toolboxes... other stuff. I've never spent much time back there, to tell the truth."

"Okay, let's..." She smiled. "I'm getting as paranoid as the guy with the glasses, like somebody will shoot at us the minute we step in there. Let's go."

Kelly opened the door, and they went into the garage. It was open to the elements, so it was colder than the rest of the building. The rain was still coming down outside, and Stephanie was suddenly aware of how she'd got used to tuning out the sound when she was in the waiting room.

They looked around. It was spooky with no lights and only the flashlight to see by. There were three buses, one of which was apparently being worked on -- the hood was open and there were tools all around -- and there was the strong smell of gasoline and cigarettes.

"Harvey!" Kelly called.

A few minutes later, they were back in the waiting room.

Apparently, while Stephanie and Kelly had been out of the room, Mr. Randall had made another attempt to get everybody to move into the office, for safety, but this idea had fizzled out.

The birthday cake candles had proved to be a bit tricky, since there was no way to prop them up -- until Billy had suggested they use donuts in place of cakes. That had worked well, so everybody sat in the gloomy waiting room, illuminated by a few candles, stuck into donuts, on the small tables which were bolted to the floor in between the plastic chairs.

Harvey looked as though he was disgruntled at having been awakened when there was no work for him to do. He seemed determined to understand as little as possible about what was going on, and he soon fell asleep again, after clarifying that he had never met Cody's wife and he'd always thought Cody was a jerk.

Stephanie said, "I'm hoping that you all have your ticket stubs. If anybody doesn't, we'll have to do a search." She shrugged. "They would have to be somewhere in the bus, or here in the station -- where else would they be?"

"What about the staff -- the people who work here?" the older man said. "They--"

"The employees all confirm each other's identities. For the passengers, we don't even know who everybody is." He started to reply, but she kept going. "You said you wanted to see some real investigation -- well, this is often what it looks like. Slow, and methodical, and not cutting corners or making assumptions."

He nodded and leaned back in his seat. "Fair enough."

She smiled. "Why don't I start with you. Do you have your ticket stub?"

He reached into his jacket pocket.

the bus station mystery -- part eight

"I'm Dr. Grassi," the older man said. "I have identification." He handed over his ID and the stub of his bus ticket. Stephanie examined them and gave him back his ID.

"I remember you on the bus,"she said. "You sat a few rows back from me."

She turned to Kelly, who stood up and said, "I'll get a stapler." Taking the flashlight, she went behind the ticket counter and into the office.

The woman in the yellow slicker handed Stephanie her ID and her ticket stub. "Florence Coe," she said. "Mrs."

Stephanie looked at the papers and handed the ID back. "Thanks. If I remember right, you slept most of the way here, near the front of the bus."

Mrs. Coe nodded. "I'd had a long night at work. I work in a hospital."

Kelly had returned with the stapler, so Stephanie stapled Dr. Grassi's stub to his ticket, and then did the same for Mrs. Coe.

She looked at the "rich kids." "Let's take you three as a unit, since you seem to be one. Your identification, please?"

The two boys brought out their wallets and handed over their licences and ticket stubs. The girl shrugged.

"Here's my ticket stub, and you're welcome to see my wallet, but I don't have a driver's license. I'm only seventeen."

Stephanie nodded. "Let's take the two gentlemen first, then." She looked at the licenses. "Gregory and Jason Brenner. Brothers?"

"Cousins," one of them said.

"And how long had you both known Miss..." Her voice trailed off as she turned to look at the girl.

"Violet Quest," the girl supplied.

The cousins hesitated for a moment, and Stephanie said, "For all your appearance of... being old friends, I know that you two met Miss Quest on the bus. I saw you notice her, discuss her (in low tones, of course), and then move to seats next to and in front of her, engaging her in conversation."

Miss Quest didn't betray her feelings, if any, about this description. She handed over her wallet and Stephanie examined the contents.

"How do you use these credit cards if you have no identification?"

Miss Quest shrugged and smiled. "In the stores where I shop, they know me. And my family."

Stephanie then turned to the woman with the large purse, who frowned. "I can't see that this is getting us anywhere, but here's my driver's license and my ticket. Hilda Powell."

Stephanie looked at the papers, and then handed the license back.

"I slept most of the way, too, so I guess I missed all the romantic goings-on."

Stephanie nodded. "I envy you both. I tried to sleep a few times but I couldn't manage it with all the thunder and lightning." She turned to the young man with the horn-rimmed glasses. "And you, sir?"

He looked up, frozen for a moment, then he said, "I don't acknowledge that any of this is legitimate, or that you're any sort of real law enforcement officer."

"You refuse to reveal your name?" Stephanie asked.

"My name is Lombard," he said. "I refuse to show my ID or my ticket stub."

Kelly thought that he was trying to decide if he should stand up, to appear more determined, or whether it was better to continue to sit and to appear unruffled.

Stephanie seemed to be thinking about something else, so Kelly stepped forward. "You should read the fine print on your ticket," she said to Lombard. "You are obliged to surrender it, on request, to any employee of the bus company." She tapped the patch on her shirt pocket, and then stepped forward and held out her hand. "I'm an employee, and I'm requesting your ticket stub. Sir."

He pursed his lips, then he reached into his pocket and handed her the stub, which she gave to Stephanie.

Stephanie looked at it, briefly, then stapled it to his ticket.

Billy asked, "Is that it?"

Stephanie pulled her own ticket stub from her pocket and stapled it to the final ticket in the envelope. "That's it."

"So, what have you learned from all this?" Dr. Grassi asked.

She looked out the window. "Two things. One is that the rain seems to be coming down even harder than before. The other is that I think I know who the murderer is."

the bus station mystery -- part nine

The birthday candles were doing a pretty good job of illuminating the waiting room, and it was surprising how quickly you got used to them.

Billy kept an eye on them, though. He didn't want to start a fire, or to suddenly end up back in complete darkness.

One of the cousins stood looking out the window at the bus outside. "What do you think they're doing out there?" he asked over his shoulder. Stephanie and Kelly had gone out right after Stephanie's announcement that she thought she knew who had committed the murders.

"Do you think she really knows the answers?" his cousin asked, walking over to stand beside him, shading his eyes as he looked out.

"I'll bet they're making out in the bus," said Lombard. He saw the general reaction to this suggestion. "Oh, come on. You've seen how they look at each other."

"That's disgusting!" Hilda Powell said. She looked around. "No, but if they're on the bus, whatever they're doing, there's a dead body on that bus with them."

Lombard nodded slowly. "Okay, that is a point."

Dr. Grassi lit a cigarette, offering the pack to Miss Quest, who accepted one and lit up also.

* * *

"Does it really say that on the tickets, that you have to surrender them to somebody from the bus company?"

Kelly laughed. "How would I know?"

They were sitting side-by-side near the front of the bus.

"Something's bugging you," Kelly said after a moment.

Stephanie slumped in her seat. "I should have figured it out sooner, by searching this bus, as you said before, and the body, and the other murder scene, much more carefully, before I started questioning people. As Jan Sleet -- the great detective, yes, and yes, I know her -- said to me once, if you don't examine the scene, thoroughly, before you question the people, you won't know what questions to ask."

* * *

Mr. Randall looked at Billy. "Come on. We should check the fridge."

Billy almost asked what fridge, but he followed Mr. Randall behind the ticket counter and into the office. Where he had almost never been.

As they moved through the darkness behind the counter, Mr. Randall reached up to a high shelf and took a flashlight.

"Those people are going to need something to eat besides donuts," he said as he led Billy to a far corner of the office, where there was a small, cube-shaped refrigerator, which made Billy think of his one year of college.

"Ah," Mr. Randall said, kneeling and pointing the flashlight beam into the refrigerator. "I guess I'll have to reimburse Patsy for all this yogurt." He frowned. "I wonder if I can expense it..."

* * *

"Will your daughter worry, when she doesn't hear from you?"

Mrs. Coe looked up. "Maybe. She's pretty level-headed." She smiled and reached into her pocket. "Besides, she has other things on her mind these days." She held out a snapshot.

Ms. Powell looked and smiled. "How old?"

"Six months, almost. That's why I'm going, to take care of the little one, so my daughter and her husband can get away for a couple of days. What about you? Is somebody going to be worrying about you?"

Ms. Powell nodded. "My boss, if I don't show up tomorrow. My landlord, if I don't pay the rent three days from now."

* * *

Mr. Randall and Billy came back into the waiting room, each carrying several containers of yogurt. As they stepped into the room, Mr. Randall slowed.

He gestured at where Miss Quest had been sitting. "Where's..." his voice trailed off.

"Miss Quest," Dr. Grassi supplied, "along with the two young gentlemen, her admirers, has repaired to one of the busses, back in the garage. I gather there was a flask involved."

Mr. Randall glared at Harvey, as if this inappropriate behavior might have somehow been his fault, but Harvey continued to sleep quietly, smiling.

Mr. Randall and Billy put the containers of yogurt on one of the little tables. "These are for everybody," Mr. Randall said. "There are a few more, if we run out." Billy went to the coffee station and leaned way over, reaching behind the counter to grab a handful of small, plastic spoons. He brought these over, along with a napkin dispenser from the condiment stand.

"Thank you both," Dr. Grassi said, taking a container of yogurt and a spoon. Mrs. Coe and Ms. Powell followed suit.

Lombard took one also, though his posture seemed to be trying to convey his indifference to the whole idea of food.

Billy waited a moment to see what Mr. Randall would do. When he didn't reach out to take a yogurt, Billy took one for himself.

Given his pay rate -- and was he even going to get paid for this time? -- he didn't intend to go hungry, at least not until the food ran out completely.

He glanced at the front window. What were Kelly and Stephanie doing out there?

* * *

Violet Quest regarded her two suitors.

Greg took another pull from his flask. "What's funny?" he asked her.

She hadn't realized that she'd been smiling. She reminded herself not to drink too much more.

"Nothing," she said. "So, who do you think did it -- the murders?"

They were sitting on a bus in the garage -- the only one where the door had been left open. They had taken the same seats they'd had on bus number forty-two. Violet was on the right hand side of the bus, in a window seat, with Jason next to her, and Greg in the row in front of theirs, looking over the seat back at them. He handed her the flask and she took a small sip, tilting it way back as if she was swallowing more.

"I'll bet you have a theory," Jason said. "I'll bet that's what that smile was about."

She handed him the flask. "The only thing I know is that he was a creep. The bus driver. He... When he looked at my ticket, when I got on the bus, he wasn't looking at my ticket -- let's just say that. And I had to scoot around him to keep him from 'helping' me up onto the bus."

The cousins were looking sympathetic, to the best of their abilities, but she could tell they were imagining themselves in the position of the dead man.

"Here's my theory, if that's what it is. Unless this is some kind of... conspiracy, it was somebody alone. So, not either of you. You're the safest people here, really, because there are two of you."

She frowned. "I've been trying to remember who was the last person off of the bus, but I can't. We were all just rushing to get in out of the rain."

She looked up. "Gentleman service?"

Greg produced a cigarette and Jason lit it for her.

Greg sighed (she was reasonably sure it was Greg, though she was now starting to wonder if she'd remembered the introductions correctly... it was definitely time to ease off on the drinks). "What worries me," he said, "is whether this is the end of it. I saw a movie once, and it was kind of like this." He waved a hand and continued in a spooky voice. "Isolated location, a group of strangers trapped, unable to get away, murdered one by one..."

Jason shook his head. "We don't need a movie to tell us that."

* * *

A little while later, a figure climbed out of one of the windows in the bus station and jumped down to the pavement. The rain might have been beginning to let up, but the sky was still dark, and of course there were no electric lights anywhere around.

The figure moved cautiously around the building to the side where bus number forty-two was parked. It stood motionless for a moment, facing the bus, until there was a movement in one of the windows. The figure pulled out a small pistol and aimed it.

The gun didn't fire, though, because someone jumped down from the roof of the bus and landed on the figure, knocking it to the wet pavement. The pistol skidded away and went under the bus.

"Don't move," Stephanie said. She was straddling the murderer's back, and she cocked her revolver for emphasis.

the bus station mystery -- conclusion

Mr. Randall stood up as Stephanie and Kelly came into the waiting room. "Mrs. Coe went to the restroom," he said, gesturing in that direction, "but she didn't come back. When Miss Powell went to look for her, she wasn't there. We were--"

"Mrs. Coe is outside, in the bus, handcuffed. And she's not Mrs. Coe. Mrs. Coe is dead, in your office."

Mr. Randall shook his head -- almost a shiver. "What?" he demanded after a moment.

"Let's sit down. Billy, is there any coffee? Or tea?"

Billy looked as if he wasn't sure what to say, and Stephanie smiled. "The case is solved, the murderer is caught, and there's no more danger."

Billy nodded. "There's some hot coffee, which is now lukewarm, and there's iced tea, which is probably also lukewarm, and it's nasty (the tea)."

Stephanie laughed. "You've sold me on the coffee, though feel free to make it a small cup if we're running out."

"Never mind all that--" Dr. Grassi began.

"You're right," Stephanie said. "The short story is this: Cody was killed by his wife, Amelia. She had climbed out the window of the ladies room and surprised her husband on the bus after the passengers all came in here. She was then surprised by Mrs. Coe when she climbed back into the ladies room.

"She -- Amelia Nugent -- killed Mrs. Coe and switched identification and outer clothes with her. She left Mrs. Coe's body in Mr. Randall's office and passed herself off as Mrs. Coe, who nobody here knew.

"When I said I knew who it was -- who the murderer was -- she went to the ladies room and climbed out the window again. She saw someone, or something, moving around in the bus -- which was not lighted -- and tried to shoot, but I subdued her. What she saw was Kelly moving an overcoat around, draped over a pole. Kelly herself was crouching down, to be safe."

"Wait a minute," Lombard said. "Was she just assuming that nobody would be in there? In the ladies room, when she returned?"

"No. I don't think she expected to come back, after she killed her husband. It sounded like her original idea was to leave after the murder. Her car was in the parking lot. But she hadn't planned on the storm getting so bad. She should have dropped the whole thing, but apparently she was determined to carry it through, no matter what. So, she snuck back into the ladies room, and then apparently had to kill Mrs. Coe.

"Then, as I said, she had her big idea -- to switch places with Mrs. Coe. After all, if she was discovered here, as herself, everyone would immediately realize she was the killer. And they did look a little alike. So, she switched the clothes and so on, and she put the body in Mr. Randall's office. She could move it there without being seen from most of the waiting room, and she wanted to shift attention away from the ladies room, so nobody would think too much about the window."

Kelly frowned. "But that window is always locked. Last year there was a pervy guy who used to lurk around outside, trying to peek in."

"The lock is on the inside," Mr. Randall said. "It's easy enough to unlock it to get out -- the point was to keep people from getting in, not out." He shrugged. "Fire regulations, too."

Stephanie looked around. "Wait. Where are..."

Lombard held up three fingers, pointed at the rear of the building, where the garage was, made a hand gesture indicating drinking, and then, before he could bring his other hand into action for a further gesture, Kelly quickly brought up both of her hands to signal "Time out."

"Is she dead?" Ms. Powell asked after a moment.

"Who?" Stephanie asked. "The murderer? No, of course not. As I said, she's handcuffed on the bus."

"Has she admitted anything?"

"No. She's denied that she killed her husband, and she's trying to figure out a reason she was lurking around in the rain with a gun in her hand. When I asked her about that, she decided that I didn't have enough authority to question her, and she'd wait until somebody arrived who did -- by which time maybe she'll have figured out a story."

"Where did you get handcuffs?" Billy asked.

"From my luggage. The same place I got my gun."

"So, how did you figure it out?" Dr. Grassi asked. "Or were you just saying that you knew who did it?"

She laughed. "I was going to try to hide that part, because I really just got lucky, but here it is. I hadn't been paying close attention on the bus -- I didn't know two people were going to be killed, after all -- and I got Mrs. Coe and Ms. Powell mixed up.

"Mrs. Coe's most obvious identifier was her bright yellow rain slicker, which of course she didn't wear on the bus. Ms. Powell's was her large purse, which she'd stowed away somewhere. I knew one of them had slept and the other one had been reading a book, but I got confused about which one.

"When I mentioned that Mrs. Coe had been sleeping -- which she hadn't -- the false Mrs. Coe seized on that and added the very convincing bit about working in the hospital all night. She knew about the hospital job because she had Mrs. Coe's wallet, including her hospital identification card.

"But then Ms. Powell said she'd been sleeping also (though in fact it wasn't 'also' -- she was the only sleeper), and I suddenly realized that I'd made a mistake. I'd set a trap, entirely by accident, and she -- Amelia Nugent, pretending that she was Mrs. Coe -- had stepped into it. Because I knew one of the two women had not been sleeping. She'd been sitting right in front of me, her reading light on, reading her book, and she'd got up at least once to go to the toilet. But of course Amelia Nugent had no idea what had happened on the bus -- she'd been right here, hiding in the bus station, waiting for her husband to arrive so she could kill him.

"But then what? That wasn't exactly evidence. So, I said I'd solved it, and set up a trap, with the brave assistance of Kelly here, to lure her into making a move."

"That sounds pretty dangerous," Billy said, frowning. "Why not just wait for the police to come and solve it?"

Stephanie ducked her head. "I have reasons," she said slowly. She looked up with an awkward smile. "Stupid reasons, maybe, but reasons."

"So, 'reasons'?" Kelly asked Stephanie later. They were sitting on a bench outside of the building. The overhang shielded them from the rain, which seemed to be letting up.

Stephanie nodded. "Yeah. I mean, there was also the possibility of another murder -- that she'd kill again. So, I was trying to make sure that didn't happen, too. I didn't want to just wait around. But there were also the reasons."

She made a face. "My father is the sheriff of Huron County. I grew up wanting to be his deputy. So, he got me the ID and everything, and he trained me, though I was too young to be a real deputy back then. That's why I don't have a badge.

"But then... some things happened, and I ran away... I left home, and then I wasn't going to be his deputy." She paused, and Kelly made a "keep it rolling" motion with her hands.

"I would have been the first girl deputy in our part of the state -- as far as I could find out. Anyway, my roommate -- where I live now -- is still in touch with her father, who is one of my dad's deputies, and she found out that one of my sisters is getting married.

"I decided to call, and maybe I'd go home for the wedding, if I'd be welcome. I called... and, well, my dad and I talked for a long time. He said that everybody would be very happy if I was there. So, I was going back for the wedding, and he knew which bus I was going to be on, because he was going to pick me up at the bus stop."

Kelly nodded. "That was him on the phone before, calling you, right?"

Stephanie nodded. "When he found out that I'd made it this far, he wanted to make sure I'd shelter in place here until the storm died down. The flooding was really bad, he said, and they expected it to get worse."

Kelly nodded slowly, then she looked up.

"Do you know what I wondered about? Mrs. Coe was supposed to be some sort of nurse or something -- something medical -- and yet she didn't come forward to examine the body." She shrugged. "I didn't say anything because you seemed to know what you were doing."

Stephanie made a face. "Okay, the next case we get, you do the detecting. I'll provide the muscle."

Kelly laughed. "So, you're really not a detective -- even though you did pretty good here. And you travel with a gun and handcuffs -- and who knows what else -- even when you're going to a wedding." Stephanie started to say something, but Kelly held up her hand. "You're not a real detective -- even though, yes, I know, you've met Jan Sleet -- and you never really became a deputy. And I... I'm pretty sure you're not a crook..."

"I'm involved in law enforcement, a little, in kind of an unofficial way, where I live, and..."

"And you knew your dad would find out what happened here, and whether or not you'd solved it. That's the point. But let's get back to you. Not a cop, or a deputy, or a crook, and you leap from tall buildings--"

"It was not a 'tall building,'" corrected Stephanie, who was starting to turn pink. "It's a bus."

Kelly ignored her. "If it wasn't for the fact that there isn't any such thing, I'd almost think you were a..." Her voice trailed off.

Stephanie put her hand over Kelly's mouth.

The End

© Copyright 2016 Anthony Lee Collins. All rights reserved.