the jan sleet mysteries

by Anthony Lee Collins

the hospital mystery

Many things in U-town were new, many other things were invented as we went along, and many things didn't work. So, we threw them out and tried others, or learned to do without. But one thing was easier than it might have been, which was solving crimes. Punishment was sometimes difficult to figure out, but when there was a mystery, well, we had a detective.

My employer, Jan Sleet, enjoyed most of what was going on, and participated in as much of it as she could as part of the informal council that was running things, but solving mysteries was still what she enjoyed most. When there was a mystery to solve, other business had to wait, or be delegated to someone else.

The hospital was the center of a lot of things in U-town, and everybody had to work there for at least a half a day each week. I could probably have got myself excused, but I didn't mind. I usually went on Monday mornings. It had evolved that way because my employer almost always had a meeting then. I tried to make sure that she and I did our hospital shifts on different days, since her idea of "volunteering" usually involved trying to re-organize the whole place. If I'd been there at the same time, she'd have tried to suck me into her schemes.

Things seemed pretty quiet when I got to the hospital that morning. Mona, the nurse who was usually in charge when I was there, stood behind the counter in the waiting room, sipping from a mug of coffee.

"Hi, Marshall," she said. "Grab a cup while you can."

I nodded and went through the swinging doors, down the short hall, and into the little pantry. As I poured myself a cup of coffee, I savored the smell. It was always fresh; too many people drank it for it to sit for very long.

And, sure enough, the pot was empty before my mug was half full. I sipped a little, blowing on it to cool it off, and then I took the empty pot to the sink to wash it.

A moment later, Mona poked her head in. "I wondered what was taking you so long," she said. She stepped inside and lit a cigarette, holding the swinging door open with her toe. She couldn't see out into the waiting room from there, but she could hear if anybody rang the bell on the counter.

"Have a good weekend?" she asked as I rinsed the pot. This was a ritual with us, since I usually worked on Monday mornings. It had been amusing at first, to pretend that "weekdays" and "weekends" were categories that meant very much in U-town. As I say, amusing at first, but I was getting a bit tired of it. However, I gamely played my part.

"Skiing," I said. "All weekend. Nice hard powder all day, and cute girls at the lodge at night. How about you?"

"Drugs and degenerate sex," she replied as I started to make a fresh pot of coffee.

"So, nice powder and cute girls for you, too."

She grinned and nodded.

A few moments later, we heard an unexpected sound. It was a deep roar of motors, and also an eerie, howling wail, both growing quickly louder. I knew what those sounds meant, and from her expression, so did she. The motors were unusual, since nobody in U-town had cars, but that howl was unique. Then we heard the bell on the front counter ring three times in rapid succession.

We grabbed our coffees and hurried back to the waiting room. We were just in time to see the street doors fly open and a group of motorcycle gang members come in, along with a blast of cold air.

There were quite a few gangs in U-town but I knew these were Jinx, though I had never met any of them before. The howl that always accompanied their motorcycles would have been enough to let me know, but also no other gang entered a room the way they did: calm, fast, expressionless, and with military precision.

I glanced at the counter, to see who had rung the bell, and it was a young aide named Lucy. She shrugged nervously, as if she thought I was going to chide her for bothering us. I smiled, hoping to convey that this was not something she was expected to be able to handle alone.

Around a half dozen Jinx had come in, male and female, and the last two were holding the doors open for a man I had met before. He was tall and blond, probably in his late thirties or forties, and his name was Neil. He was carrying another man, with long curly hair. The second man seemed to be unconscious and he was not small, but Neil carried him without apparent effort.

Mona turned to Lucy and jerked her head toward the door to the emergency room. Lucy scampered off through the door, and I saw that Neil noted this exchange. His eyes flashed to two of the others as he approached us, and I could see them become tense and poised to move.

"There'll be a gurney here in a moment," I said quickly, trying to let him know that Lucy had gone to summon help for him, not for us.

He looked at me and nodded. He and I had met a couple of times before, and I was hoping that I had impressed him as honest and reasonable.

Mona moved up next to Neil and started examining the unconscious man.

"A tire blew on his bike," Neil told her. "He took a bad spill, with a nasty knock on the back of his head, and there's something wrong with his ankle. I gave him a painkiller, but I'm no doctor." He had slowly turned his attention as he was speaking, and by now he was addressing me. "We usually handle our own medical needs, but our most experienced doctor is quite ill with the flu. She is feverish, and in any case she is probably contagious."

"You should bring her in, too," Mona said as Lucy and another aide hurried in with the gurney.

"Also, with the head injury," Neil continued, ignoring Mona's comment, "I'm sure he needs an X-ray, and we don't have facilities for that." His tone indicated that of course it would not have been surprising if they had had X-ray equipment, but they didn't happen to at the moment.

He laid the man on the gurney, moving gently and carefully, as the street doors opened again and another Jinx came in. She was short and obviously pregnant, with long blonde hair and a face that gave evidence of recent tears. Her eyes, a striking shade of pale blue, went to the unconscious man, and then to Neil. He was impassive, and she approached us slowly, as if she expected to be reprimanded for being there.

Neil ignored her, and she stood waiting. "His name is Felix," he said to Mona as the other aide, a man named Mark, left with the gurney. "Are there forms to be filled out?" I was standing behind him, and I shook my head slightly, which Mona caught.

"As long as we know his name, that's plenty for now," she said.

I was glad that Mona had taken my lead about the forms. In the world of the hospital, she was staff and I was a volunteer, so of course she outranked me. But she was also aware that I played a role in the government (which she teased me about whenever there was a problem getting supplies), and relations with the Jinx were definitely a diplomatic issue.

Neil nodded and gestured at the blonde woman. "Is it alright if she goes with him?" he asked.

It was not clear who he was addressing, but Mona replied. "That will be fine. She may have to wait if there are tests, but she can be with him otherwise."

Neil nodded at the woman, and she quickly followed the gurney out of the room. Lucy stayed with us, looking somewhat distracted. Neil and the other Jinx moved into the waiting room and sat down. Lucy, Mona, and I went behind the counter as one of the Jinx got up again and went out to the street. I assumed he was assigned to watch whatever vehicles they had arrived in. It was hard to imagine who would have dared touch a Jinx motorcycle, but I had noticed before that they were very careful.

I looked back at the waiting room. There were about fifteen people there other than the Jinx, all studiously looking out the windows, or at magazines, or at the floor.

Lucy shuddered. "They make me really nervous," she said when she saw us looking at her.

It may seem that we were more intimidated by the Jinx than was warranted. There were two reasons. One was that we knew so little about them. They had arrived right after the founding of U-town, but they kept mostly to themselves. They were highly disciplined, and a couple of other gangs had learned that they would respond quickly and violently to any challenge.

They appeared to be a motorcycle gang, but they acted more like a self-contained and mobile society. On a couple of occasions they had helped us with some problems involving our supplies of water and electricity, and it was obvious that they had a lot more knowledge in these areas than we did.

So, on one hand there was the possibility of serious trouble if we should antagonize them, and on the other hand there was the real assistance they could give if they started to see themselves as a full part of U-town.

As I said, this was a fairly important diplomatic issue. I was starting to wish that my employer was there after all.

The next half hour was tense. The Jinx sat patiently in the waiting room, apparently completely calm, but they weren't having a very calming effect on anyone else.

Lucy didn't seem to be able to stay still for more than a minute, and Mona had become unusually quiet.

Then a nurse named Portugal came out and approached us. She carried a clipboard, and she pointed to it as she asked, "Are we going to get any more information about this 'Felix' person? The forms were not filled out properly." She frowned. "Or, indeed, at all." She looked at us sternly over her half-glasses.

Mona jerked a thumb at me. "That's as per Mr. Government Man here, Miss P. Take it up with him."

"The circumstances–" I began.

"Be that as it may," Portugal continued, "I am told that you require constant updates regarding his condition."

"Well, not–"

"So," she continued, removing her glasses and letting them hang around her neck by a slender chain, "He has a concussion, we believe–"

"Please excuse me," I said quickly. I saw that Neil was looking at me, so I just nodded. He got up and came over.

"Neil," I said, "this is Miss Portugal." She made a curtsy. "Miss Portugal, this is Neil." She extended her hand, with the palm down, as if he was expected to kiss it, but he shook it instead.

"Enchanté," she said, making a minute adjustment to the tiny white cap which was perched on top of her luxurious dark hair. "You are related to Felix?" she asked.

He nodded. "By blood."

"The evidence indicates that he has a concussion. We believe his ankle is only sprained, not broken. X-rays are being taken of both areas as we speak. After that, as the film is being processed, we will check him into a room where he can rest. Now, purely as a formality, sir, are you to be regarded as his next of kin, or is it the individual who follows him everywhere, weeping?"

"I will make any decisions," Neil said. "The woman's name is Dorothy. She's not with him in the X-ray room, is she?"

Portugal chuckled, as if this was a very witty suggestion. "Of course not. She's waiting outside."

"Please ask her to come talk to me, then. Thank you."

Portugal made a curtsy and left with her clipboard.

Neil turned to me. "Marshall," he said, "may we talk for a moment? In private?"

I nodded, and he followed me down the short hall to the pantry. I noticed that his glance went right to the coffee pot, so I asked, "Would you like a cup?"

He smiled. "Desperately, thank you. I didn't get much sleep last night." I moved to pour (for once, the pot wasn't nearly empty) and he said, "Black, please."

When we had our coffee, he said, "I hope you're the person to talk to. None of us have been here before, in the hospital, and we don't know how it works."

"I'm sure I can help, if anybody can."

He nodded, leaning back against the sink and sipping the coffee.

"I am concerned for Felix's life. Not," he added quickly, "because of your care of him, but because we've been having some territorial disagreements with a gang called the Scorpions. You may have heard something about it. Felix has been handling a lot of the negotiations, and they have not been going well. It is possible that, especially when it becomes known that he is here and incapacitated..."

I nodded. "I understand. What are you looking for?"

"Two things. A room which is isolated, as much as possible, from the general population of patients. And your acceptance of the fact that we will post a guard, around the clock, and that we are going to exercise reasonable control over access to Felix's room."

I nodded slowly. "I'll have to check with Mona."

When Neil and I got back to the waiting room, I saw Dorothy coming out through the emergency room door, and I saw another Jinx going the other way.

This made sense. I had been wondering, given what Neil had said about security, why there wasn't a guard on Felix now. But then I realized that Dorothy had been playing that role (whether she realized it or not), and now this other Jinx was going to relieve her while she talked to Neil. Of course, I didn't mention any of this thinking to Neil. I already knew that the Jinx did not appreciate any interest, no matter how innocent or casual, in their affairs.

Contrary to Portugal's description, Dorothy looked fairly composed. She still looked upset and tired, but less distraught than when she had arrived.

I described Neil's request to Mona, who regarded me with resignation (which was only partly put on). "I'll go see what I can do," she said. "Make sure nothing happens while I'm gone, and don't promise anything to anybody."

Mona left as Dorothy and Neil went to a corner of the waiting room to sit and talk. A moment later, the street doors opened and a large, bearded man in a leather jacket and jeans came in. Neil immediately motioned him over, standing up to shake his hand. Dorothy stood up also, and the new man took her hand for a moment, holding it in his hands as he leaned over to say something to her.

She sat down again as Neil and the other man walked over toward me.

"This is Rafe," Neil said. I shook his hand across the counter. "He'll be responsible for Felix's safety."

I nodded. "We're making the arrangements now."

"It looks good," Neil said. He glanced into the room again, and then looked back down the hall, as if double-checking his own assessment.

We were near the end of a short hallway which had only four rooms, two on each side. The rooms had been empty, so it had been fairly easy to get this set up quickly.

Mona had delegated this entire project to me. The initial medical reports on Felix had been positive. It seemed the only real damage he'd suffered had been a broken ankle, which had already been put in a cast. He had a headache, and he had been given a sedative and a painkiller. After Mona had read the report, she had said, "Marshall, why don't you deal with this situation, and I'll run the hospital and heal the sick?"

She had phrased it as a question, but that had been a formality. I did enlist Lucy to help me, which was fine with Mona since Lucy was still very agitated and I could tell Mona was getting sick of her.

Rafe checked out the other three rooms as Portugal and an aide got Felix into the bed and made sure he was comfortable. He was awake, but fairly groggy.

When Rafe came out of the room across the hall, he was carrying a straight-backed chair. He set it against the wall, at the beginning of the short hall, between the four rooms and the rest of the hospital.

Neil nodded at these arrangements and turned to Dorothy. "You can stay, if you want, but only on the condition you lie down yourself." I thought that it seemed typical of Neil to turn even concern about someone into a command. He turned to Lucy. "Are the beds in the other rooms made up?"

She gestured at the room next to Felix's, at the far end of the short hall. "That one is. I don't think the others are."

He nodded and turned back to Dorothy. "Take a nap, and then you can check on Felix."

She nodded. "I will. Thanks."

Portugal and the aide came out of the room, and the aide wheeled the empty gurney toward the elevator.

"He is snoring rather outrageously," Portugal reported, consulting her clipboard as if this information was recorded there.

Neil smiled. "That's normal for him. I'd be worried if he wasn't snoring."

"Other than that," Portugal continued, "I predict a complete recovery."

Neil smiled. "Since you've stated this, I'm sure Felix wouldn't dare do anything else."

She curtsied again as Neil turned to Rafe.

"Are you set here? Anything you need?"

Rafe inclined his head and they stepped down the hall to confer for a moment.

Lucy came out of Felix's room and asked, "Anything else?" She turned to Rafe as he and Neil rejoined us. "Would you like some coffee?"

Rafe nodded. "Very much, thank you."

"How do you take it?"

He smiled. "Black, two sugars."

Lucy turned to go, but Neil said, "Dorothy, how about you?"

"I'd love some," she said as Lucy turned back. "With milk, please."

Lucy nodded and went down the corridor.

Neil looked around. "This all seems to be squared away. I'm going to leave now, and and I'll be taking the rest of my people with me. Much to the relief of the other people in the waiting room, I'm sure."

I made a noncommittal noise, and followed him to the elevator. I was satisfied if he was, and my shift was nearly over.

Downstairs, Neil and the rest of the Jinx had left. I wondered that Rafe had no backup, but then I realized that Neil had arranged for Dorothy to fulfill that role, resting within easy shouting distance if something should happen.

"Crisis averted?" Mona asked as we approached her. I walked around to join her behind the counter, indicating that I was still willing to work for a while. The waiting room was pretty crowded, and I noticed quite a few people filling out forms.

Lucy reappeared a few moments later, and she and I started collecting the forms and processing the people. When that rush was done, it seemed like we were in a lull, so Mona delegated someone to fill in and we stepped back into the pantry to have some lunch.

After a few moments, Mona said, "So, Lucy, are you going to tell us why you've been so jumpy?"

She grimaced and rolled her eyes. "Well," she said slowly, "I know that guy. Felix. We saw each other a couple of times. It was no big deal, but I saw that Dorothy woman looking at me funny, more than once, and I wonder if he told her. About me."

Mona laughed. "Probably not. People sometimes get stupid if they think they're about to die, but he hasn't thought he was about to die."

"And mostly he hasn't even been conscious," I added. "I wouldn't worry about it."

Then, once again we heard the Jinx howl, and we went back out to the waiting room as the street doors opened and Neil came back in, alone and walking quickly.

"I need to check on Felix," he said. This seemed rather abrupt, given that Felix hadn't been in any danger. Before we could respond, the doors opened again and Jan Sleet limped in. She looked around, spotted me, and moved in my direction.

Mona shook her head. "Marshall," she said, "please go with Neil. Lucy, I need you to file these forms."

She hadn't mentioned my employer, but Neil was already moving toward the elevators, and Jan indicated that we should follow him.

"Why are you here?" I asked her quietly as we waited for an elevator.

She smiled. "We've worked together a long time, you and I. We're connected now. Even across this great metropolis, I could sense your unease."

I regarded her with appropriate skepticism. She patted her dark gray tie, which was perfectly tied of course, and tugged her display handkerchief a bit farther out of her jacket pocket. Her three-piece suit was dark blue, with a pale blue shirt.

"Well," she added as the doors opened and we stepped in, "there was also this message we got at the meeting. Someone ran in and told us that the Jinx had occupied the entire hospital and taken everybody hostage. That seemed like it was probably worth investigating."

I nodded. "Probably."

"And you believed this story?" Neil asked.

She smiled. "If we had, we wouldn't have sent just a gal reporter with a bum leg."

That got a smile out of Neil, but then the doors opened and he moved quickly down the hall. We followed more slowly, but then as he turned the corner into the little cul-de-sac corridor where Felix's room was, we heard a curse and running footsteps.

I ran ahead of Jan, who was moving quickly, and when I turned the corner I saw Rafe slumped in his chair, either asleep, unconscious, or dead. The door to Felix's room was open, so I moved in that direction as Jan leaned over to examine Rafe.

Neil was standing next to the bed, his hands on his hips. He looked up as I stepped in.

"Dead," he said slowly, his mouth tight. "Murdered. Strangled." He sighed. "Shit." He shook himself and said, "Alright. Marshall, have all the exits sealed. I'm going to–"

"Ridiculous," my employer said sharply as she came into the room. "Do you have any idea how many exits this building has? Well, neither do I, but there are quite a few. Unless your friend died in the last two minutes there has been plenty of time for the murderer to escape. If escape was even part of the plan."

She had been looking Neil up and down as she spoke, and she continued, "No doubt your military service accustomed you to obedience from your subordinates, but Marshall does not fall into that category and neither do I. And perhaps it was sentimentality on my part to have hoped that the fact that you paint from time to time indicated a possible flexibility of temperament."

Neil was not intimidated; that was obvious. She could be somewhat overpowering at times, but it would have taken something far more impressive than a skinny reporter in a three-piece suit to intimidate him. He was holding his tongue now for a very different reason. The Jinx had expertise in many areas, but Jan Sleet was his best hope of solving this and he knew it, even before her quick deductions about his history and hobbies.

I wondered if Dr. Lee, the leader of the Jinx, had sent him back to the hospital, perhaps thinking that his precautions for Felix's safety hadn't been adequate. If this was true, and given that he had returned to find Felix dead, I could only imagine how much he wanted to know the murderer's name before making his next report. I had never met Dr. Lee, but from what I'd heard I had the idea that she didn't enjoy getting bad news.

"This is not a matter for just the Jinx, or just for U-town, or just for the hospital," my employer continued after a moment. "We are not the Scorpions, and this is not a territorial matter. Every single person involved, with one exception, wants the same thing. And I am going to be in charge, not because I outrank you in some way, but because I'm the best equipped to figure this out."

Neil rubbed his chin. "Assuming I accept this," he said slowly, "what's the next step?"

"Two things. Marshall will send somebody to get Mona, and then he will fill me in. Then we will proceed to solve this by using reason and analysis."

"And one more thing," I said. "Dorothy, who was apparently Felix's girlfriend or wife, is resting in the next room, or she should be. We need to make sure she's okay. She's pregnant, by the way. And then one of us needs to try to revive Rafe."

"Did you check on him?" Neil asked Jan.

"I did. He's unconscious, almost certainly drugged. He should be fine. Is Dorothy Jinx?"

I nodded, and Neil said, "I'll check on her."

Out in the hall, I went around the corner and caught an aide. I didn't know her, and she wasn't wearing a name tag.

"First," I said quietly, "nothing about what I'm going to tell you is to be discussed or speculated about. No gossip, understood?"

"Yes, sir," she said.

"We need an aide and a gurney in 407A. Arrange that, and send somebody downstairs to tell Mona that Marshall needs her in 407A, and that it's an emergency. Be sure they use the word 'emergency,' and tell them not to embellish. Got it?"


"Then see what you can do to revive that man there, but don't touch his coffee cup. And have somebody check on the woman in 407B. She's asleep, she may have been drugged, and she's pregnant. We'll be in 407A, and keep us posted. Okay?"

She nodded.


As I re-entered the room, my employer had Felix's hospital gown pulled aside and was examining the body carefully.

Neil came back in through the connecting door. He closed it carefully, then he said, "She's asleep. I–"

"Was she drugged? Rafe was."

"The nurse is going to check her," I said.

Jan straightened up and covered the body. She limped toward me, saying, "Tell me all." Neil started to speak, but she flicked up a forefinger. "Wait," she said, without even looking at him. Over her shoulder, as she approached me, I could see him debate how to respond to this. He decided to comply.

Meanwhile, she leaned toward me, her ear only inches from my mouth, steadying herself with a hand on my shoulder as I started to fill her in.

After a few moments, there was a knock at the door and an aide wheeled in a gurney.

"No autopsy needed," Jan said over her shoulder as Neil helped move Felix's body, "but a complete exam, and let me know immediately if there's anything inconsistent with death by strangulation."

Rafe and Mona joined us as the aide wheeled the gurney out. They quickly got the idea that they had to wait, and I could see that Neil was quietly filling them in.

When I was done, my employer murmured a couple of questions, which I answered, then she straightened up, looking slowly around the room.

"Should we let Dorothy know?" Rafe asked.

"Is she likely to be–"

"I am not hysterical, Miss Sleet," she said from the doorway to the next room. "I am Jinx. Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Not just now. Please sit down, Dorothy,"

She sat carefully in the one armchair.

"Please wait a moment," my employer said. She went through the connecting door into Dorothy's room.

The body was gone, and the aide had pulled up the covers, but nobody sat on the bed. We all stood, except for Dorothy. Mona was smoking, and Jan lit a cigarette as she came back into the room. She looked around and spoke to Neil.

"I'd like to ask a question. According to what Marshall has told me, you made arrangements for Felix's care this morning, and then you left. But then you came back rather abruptly and said you needed to see Felix. May I ask why?"

He nodded slowly. "It was suggested that my precautions for his safety might not have been adequate."

"Against the Scorpions?"


"Then let me ask you this. If the Scorpions were going to do this, would they do it in this way? Somehow drug Rafe, wait for him to pass out, and then sneak in to strangle Felix? That doesn't seem like their 'style,' so to speak."

"I don't think it was the Scorpions, and it has nothing to do with 'style.' The main reason for them to do it would be to send a message, to us, to the Jinx. It doesn't send much of a message if nobody knows they did it."

"And why would they kill him and leave me alive?" Rafe added. "Drug my coffee, even if they could have, and then wait around for me to pass out? Why not just kill me, too?"

Jan nodded. "That's what I was thinking." She looked at him more directly. "I believe your name is Rafe?"

He nodded.

She held out her hand. "My name is Jan Sleet. I'm investigating the murder of your friend, and I need to hear your story."

Rafe did not glance at Neil for an okay, but he did pause before replying.

"I came to guard Felix," he began. "I arrived and we came up here, to this floor."

"Who is 'we'?"

Neil, Dorothy, this gentleman, and an orderly, a girl. I never did learn her name."

"In order to save time, I'll tell you that I already have a report of that period of time. Was there anything that you observed which Marshall would not have seen?"

He shook his head slowly. "I don't think so."

"Then, please tell me what happened after Marshall and Neil left."

"The girl brought me a cup of coffee. Two cups, one for Dorothy. I took both of them. Dorothy was in the other room already, and if she was asleep I was going to leave her alone."

"To clarify, the two cups were different, weren't they?"

"Yes. I drink it black. Dorothy takes milk."

"Thanks. Please continue."

"The problem was that I didn't have anywhere to put the coffee. Except the floor, and that was kind of dirty. So, I balanced the two cups on the chair, on the seat, and then I looked into the first room across the hall, the one opposite this one. There was a little table there, so I propped open the door and went in to get it." He looked very serious. "The room is right opposite this one, and I'd left the door open, so I could see this door the whole time."

"Was it open or closed?"

"This door? It was closed. Nobody opened it, or walked past."

"Then what?"

"I brought out the table and put it next to my chair."

"To be clear, when you were in the room across the hall, getting the table, could you see the chair and the two coffee cups?"

"No. Just the door to this room."

"And the chair was where it is now? Nearer to the main corridor?"


"So, somebody could have stepped into this corridor and drugged the coffee."

"Yes, if they were quiet."

the hospital

"And how long were you in the room?"

"Not long. Maybe a minute or two. There were a few things on the table – an ashtray, a lamp, a couple of other things – that I had to move before I could take the table."

"Thank you. Please proceed. You put the table where it is now?"

"And I moved the two coffee cups onto the table."

"Did you drink any of your coffee?"

"I took a sip. It was still pretty hot."

"How did it taste?"

"Lousy. Institutional coffee."

She smiled. "And then what did you do?"

"I went and opened the door of Dorothy's room."

"You didn't knock?"

"I wasn't going to wake her if she was asleep. But she was awake, lying on top of the covers. I told her that the coffee was there. I offered to bring it to her, but she said she'd come and get it."

"Did you go into the room?"

"No, I kept Felix's door in sight the whole time."

"So, you both went back into the hall?"

"Yes, and we had some coffee. I told her I was sure Felix would be okay. And then, since she was there, I asked if she could watch things while I..." He seemed to be searching for a word.

"Relieved yourself?"

"Yes. Thank you."

"And where did you go to do this?"

"In the room across the hall. I saw there was a little bathroom in there."

"So, during that time, you did not have the door under direct observation?"

"Right. Dorothy had that responsibility."

"And then?"

"I came back. Dorothy said she would go lie down again. I sat down, drank my coffee. That's about all I remember."

"How much of your coffee had you drunk before you went to relieve yourself?"

"About half, I guess."

"And did it taste the same after as before?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. It was cooler by then, so I drank it pretty fast."

She nodded and turned to Neil. "Please take a look at the window," she said. "Do you think anybody could have got into the room that way?"

He went over and pulled the curtains aside. He looked out, then he took the bottom of the window and tried to raise it. It didn't budge, and he set his feet, took a deep breath, and tried again, and this time the window came up, slowly. Cold air blew in as he leaned out and looked around.

He closed the window and turned to face us. "Could it be done? Yes. Do I think it was? No. There is no ledge, no place to stand, and the window is hard to raise. If you had a couple of days to plan, and the right equipment, it would be possible. But, under these circumstances, I can't see it. Besides, it wouldn't make sense to drug Rafe if you were going to come in through the window."

"That was my conclusion also," she said, "Now, I'd like to show you something in the next room."

They left through the connecting door, and she closed it behind them.

Rafe and Dorothy were stone-faced. No matter what, I was sure they were both feeling some strong emotions, but they didn't reveal what those emotions might have been.

Mona was trying to be cool, but she was smoking more than usual. She would have scoffed at the suggestion that she felt protective about the hospital, but I knew she wasn't looking forward to reading tomorrow's newspaper.

Jan and Neil came back in, and she said, "Neil, do you want to describe what you saw?"

He gestured that she should tell it. She pointed at the row of aluminum cabinets on the wall. "As in all of the rooms here, that room has a row of cabinets like these. Locked cabinets. I work in the hospital myself, and I know that these cabinets are always locked. However, the lock on one of those cabinets, the one containing, among other things, sleeping pills, is broken. The cabinet is closed, so it isn't immediately obvious that it's broken, but it is. I examined it and my conclusion, which Neil agreed with, was that it was forced, rather than being a result of normal wear and tear."

She lit a cigarette. "I'm going to throw out a few possibilities," she said, looking around. "This is just to show how I'm thinking about this, so it will save time if we skip the protestations of innocence.

"One possibility is that Rafe did it. He could have murdered Felix, for some unknown reason, then drugged his own coffee and passed out, giving himself the appearance of innocence. Or Neil could have done it. It would have been a bold and daring move to strangle Felix in the moment before Marshall entered the room." She shook her head. "That's probably not possible, and in any case Felix had been dead for at least a half hour. So, I'd say Neil is eliminated.

"But what about Dorothy? She had the perfect opportunity to drug the coffee. Of course, she could have used the connecting door to get to Felix and then Rafe wouldn't have seen her. But that would have made it too obvious. And, as I described–"

"If I may anticipate," Neil said, stepping forward, "How do the people who work here get into the supply cabinets?" He looked grim.

"Keys," Mona said. She lit another cigarette as she spoke. "We all know where they are."

"So," he continued to Jan, "your premise is that it must have been one of us, one of the Jinx, since we don't work in the hospital and wouldn't know how to get into the cabinets. So, either Rafe or Dorothy did it, for some unknown reason, despite the fact that Rafe and Felix were good friends, and Felix is the father of Dorothy's unborn child." Dorothy stood up, steadying herself on Rafe's arm. "We're leaving, and I don't think you can stop us."

"Piffle," my employer said. "You said you wanted to know the answer. Stay and hear it, or not, that's up to you. Nobody will try to stop you. But don't try to sway me with talk of long friendships and unborn children. Neither is an obstacle to murder, as I'm sure you know. But I should mention that none of you is under suspicion of having committed this crime, and you have drawn an entirely incorrect conclusion from the broken cabinet."

"Explain," Neil said curtly. Dorothy remained standing, leaning on Rafe's arm.

My employer gestured at the row of identical cabinets on the wall. "Dorothy, which one of these cabinets contains sleeping pills?"

Dorothy looked at them in puzzlement. "I have no idea," she said slowly.

"Exactly. It has become somewhat of a tradition in U-town not to label things. Many of our street signs are missing, or they've been moved to different locations. Quite a few people take the numbers off of their buildings. So, the cabinets are not labeled, but anybody who works in the hospital knows where things are stored. Which is anybody, since we all work in the hospital sooner or later.

"Except the Jinx. of course. I believe this is the first time any of you have been in the hospital. And that's why I'm sure that, whoever did this, it was not a member of the Jinx. Which means that the broken cabinet was either a coincidence, or it was part of an attempt to frame Dorothy.

"However, to be thorough, is it not possible that somebody connected with the hospital told one of you where the pills were? Perhaps, but very unlikely. This was not a crime with a long time to plan it, since there was no way to know in advance that Felix would even have an accident, or that he would be so seriously injured that he'd be brought here despite your reluctance to use our medical facilities. And, to carry it to an extreme, you couldn't even have called somebody on the phone to ask them, because U-town has no telephone service."

Neil nodded, still looking grim, and Rafe steadied Dorothy as she sat down again.

"Do you know who did it?" Neil asked Jan.

She nodded. "I have a very good idea."

Neil was apparently a pretty good judge of human nature, because he didn't press her. His impatience was obvious, but apparently he had calculated, correctly, that if he tried to hurry her it would only cause her to slow down. She meant it when she said she was in charge, and she was capable of making things very difficult for anybody who tried to challenge that authority. She looked around the room, and her posture and expression told me that this was it.

"I'm going to ask a series of rhetorical questions, of all of you," she began, "but first I need to ask Dorothy one direct question. Dorothy, I am especially sorry to have to ask this under these circumstances, but it's a vital part of solving this. Was Felix faithful to you?"

"No," she said simply. "We don't expect complete fidelity, but even within our expectations, he was... unreliable."

Jan nodded. "Thank you. I didn't want to blindside you if you had any illusions. So, here are my questions:

"Who set up the rooms?

"Who brought the coffee for Rafe?

"Who had access to sleeping pills?

"Who had access to the cabinet to break it?

"Who was the last person we know was in Felix's room?

"Who asserted that the adjoining room here was the only one of the three suitable for Dorothy to rest in?

"Who admitted to having a casual affair with Felix – or at least she said it was casual – and tried to claim that Dorothy had found out about it, to throw suspicion on Dorothy?

"Who had a reason to kill Felix, and then to frame Dorothy?" She looked around. "Motive, means, and opportunity."

"Wait a minute," Mona said. "You mean Lucy? She brought the coffee to Rafe after Marshall left, right? After he came downstairs?" Several of us nodded. "But she came down only a couple of minutes after Marshall, long before the pills could have taken effect. Then she was with Marshall and me the whole time after that. She didn't leave, even for a minute, let alone long enough to come up here and murder somebody."

Jan smiled. "But what's to say that she murdered him while Rafe was unconscious? She could easily have done it before. She was the last person in his room, after all."

"But then why..." Neil demanded, his voice trailing off.

"For exactly that reason," my employer said. "Because the fact of the drugging drives you to the inevitable conclusion that the murder followed the drugging, when Rafe was unconscious. That was the only reason Rafe was drugged, to push us in that direction, to make us assume that the murder happened during the time when Lucy had a complete alibi. Felix was dead before she even brought Rafe the coffee."

Mona shook her head, as if she was finding this to be a difficult concept to absorb. I sympathized. This was the thing that had stumped me, once I had realized where my employer was going. Then Mona looked up. "One more thing," she said. "I've never strangled anybody, but from what I know I have the idea that it would take a lot of strength. Wouldn't it have to have been a man?"

"How was it done?" Neil asked. "Bare hands, or with a rope of some sort?"

Jan nodded at the window. "With a cord from those curtains. And remember, Felix was groggy."

"Then it could have been anybody," Neil said. "With bare hands, that's one thing, but with a cord and the right type of knot, and the man half-conscious? Any one of us could have done it. But how did she know we wouldn't hear it – we were right outside in the hall."

Jan gestured around. "Again, you don't know the hospital. This is the oldest of the four buildings, with the thickest walls and doors. Patients who are likely to be... loud, we always put them here. The ones who scream at night and so on."

"But why did she do it?" Dorothy asked quietly. "He fooled around before and nobody wanted to kill him, not even me."

"Well, this is somewhat speculative, but Marshall reported to me that Lucy was unusually tense all day, since Felix was first brought in. What if he never told her about you? What if she thought she was his one-and-only, and suddenly there he was, injured, and accompanied by another woman, and a pregnant one at that? People have killed each other for less than that."

Mona looked dissatisfied. "Well, I'm not convinced, but we should go down and talk to her."

Lucy was gone by the time we got downstairs, and we never saw her again.

I don't know what went through her mind, of course, but I can only imagine how she felt when she saw Neil returning, followed immediately by Jan Sleet. If she hadn't thought of it before, I'm sure she was aware at that moment that her only protection against the Jinx was that they didn't know she'd done it. And she knew that my employer usually solved the mysteries she encountered.

Late that night, in our room, Jan took off her tie and hung it up carefully. She pulled off her vest and shirt, and tossed them over her desk chair. Then I came to steady her arm as she kicked off her shoes and undid her trousers. As they dropped to the floor, she looked over her bony shoulder at me, and I could see her mouth twitch, though she was trying to keep her expression serious.

I lost the battle, laughing out loud as she leaned on my arm and stepped out of her trousers. She laughed also, but neither of us said anything.

She was waiting for me to ask how she had known of Neil's military history, and his hobby of painting, and I did want to know how she had pulled that out of her hat.

But I wasn't about to ask, and she wasn't about to tell me without being asked. This standoff could go on for some time, I knew.

As a matter of fact, there are a few of these issues which have never been entirely cleared up.


the vampire mystery

The building where my employer and I lived still had an awning proclaiming it to be a hotel, but since the founding of U-town it had become our White House and Capitol, combined with a dorm, a cafeteria, a flop house, and sometimes a den of iniquity. Visitors to U-town still came there trying to find a place to stay, but mostly they were directed to one of the many boarding houses in the area.

There had been a couple of attempts to set up formal government offices somewhere else, somewhere more official, but everything always moved, inexorably, back to the hotel, mostly because it was just more convenient for everybody.

The hotel had a dining room, and a kitchen which functioned pretty much constantly, but we seldom ate there. This was partly because the food was rather predictable, and partly because my employer hated to discuss business when she was eating. When we ate at the hotel the business of running U-town often intruded on our meals.

We ate lunch from time to time in a very small coffee shop, apparently called "Eat." It was about at the halfway point betweeen the hotel and the hospital, so it was convenient on the days when one of us was volunteering, especially since my employer often got light-headed if she went too long without food.

We were eating there, immediately after the conclusion of the hospital case, when we first heard about the possibility that there might be vampires in U-town.

As we ate, I gradually became aware that somebody behind me, in the next booth, was saying, "–it sounds crazy, I know, but I've heard him in her room. You can hear them going at it, at night. But there's no way he could get into the building, other than through her window."

The man's companion said, "How do you get from there to 'vampire,' though?"

There was a pause, during which I caught my employer's eye and she shrugged, smiling impishly.

"He always comes at night," the man continued. "And one time, I was looking out my window at the stars, and I swear something black flew out of her window and across the face of the moon."

My employer looked a bit more dubious at this as she put her napkin down on her plate and lit a cigarette.

As we walked to the hotel, she said, "It is always important to keep an open mind."

"Do you believe in vampires?"

She laughed. "On the basis of that evidence? No, not even if I'd seen what he said he saw."

At dinner, several days later, we heard about vampires again. We were on the other side of town, in a brand new Indian restaurant which had been recommended to us. As we were sipping our after-dinner coffee, a man came over to our table.

"Excuse me, Miss Sleet," he said, holding his cap in his hands.

"Yes?" she said.

"I have a problem–"

"If it's medical in nature, please go to the hospital. You can mention my name, if you like, though it will have no effect on the treatment you receive. If your problem is not medical, please come to see me during regular office hours." He moved a fraction of an inch toward an empty chair at our table. "Someone your size," she said, "Marshall could overpower you without having to stand up, and he could eject you from this place without putting down his cup or spilling his coffee. Is there any reason this couldn't be handled normally?"

"I'd be embarrassed," he said, stepping back. "I think someone who lives in my building is a vampire." She waved a hand, dismissing him, and turned back to the table, tapping the ash from her cigarette.

After he had gone away, I smiled. "Are you even a little bit intrigued?" I asked.

"Not yet," she said. "Maybe soon, but not yet."

"So, we're not going to have a big vampire hunt?"

She laughed. "No. If there's something to all this, it will come to us."

Two days later, we were in a meeting when Fifteen, our young aide, came in. "Yes?" my employer asked.

He bowed. "Ladies and gentlemen," he announced, "it is my distinct honor and pleasure to introduce–"

"Oh, please," came a plaintive female voice from outside the half-open door.

I craned around to look out. "Christy," I called, "is that you?"

"Yes," she said.

Jan laughed. "Come on in, please."

Christy sidled into the room, looking a bit abashed. "I asked him not to do that," she said, smiling, as Fifteen approached her. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. He bowed deeply again and left the room, looking even more pleased with himself than usual.

"Welcome, Christy," Jan said. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"

"I have a message for you, Miss Sleet, from Dr. Lee." Dr. Lee was the leader of the Jinx, the motorcycle gang that Christy belonged to.

"Does it need to be conveyed privately?" Jan asked.

"Oh, no. She would like you to come to see her. At your earliest convenience."

Jan nodded. "I'm flexible this afternoon. Would that be good for her? After lunch?"

"Yes, that would be fine."

"Marshall will accompany me, of course."

Christy smiled. "I thought that went without saying," she said, and we all laughed.

Still smiling, Christy said goodbye and left the meeting room. It was unusual for someone from the Jinx to joke with us like that, but her position was unique. She was a member of the Jinx, but she was also in a relationship with Fifteen, so we saw her socially from time to time.

Fifteen was young, perhaps only a year or two older than his name. He was usually attired in cutoff jeans and a faded T-shirt, with his head shaved. Christy was somewhat older. My employer, the great detective, estimated her age as late thirties. I would have said a few years younger than that, but Jan accused me of being swayed by a pretty face, glorious red hair, and a shapely figure. I denied this accusation, of course.

In any case, Fifteen had fallen for Christy the first moment he'd seen her. She had been flattered, but she'd always made it clear to him that the very idea was silly. I will admit that the rest of us did tease him about this infatuation from time to time (although not in front of her, of course).

Then, one night at a party, they showed up together, she with her arm through his, and they were together all evening. At first we thought this was a joke, but then they left together, and my employer (despite my admonitions that this was none of her business) followed them and determined that they went to Fifteen's modest room and remained there together all night.

I had never been inside the abandoned warehouse building which the Jinx used as their headquarters. The door opened as we crossed the street, and we saw Rafe, the big, bearded Jinx we had met during the hospital case.

He nodded. "Come on in," he said, holding the door open for us. "She's in her office. I'll take you there."

We followed him down a long, gloomy corridor and up two flights of stairs. All the walls and floors were poured concrete, and our footsteps sounded very loud. My employer had affected a casual attitude about this visit to the Jinx, but she had changed her tie three times before leaving the hotel, and she'd briefly considered changing her suit. As I said in the hospital story, relations with the Jinx were important, and I know she was thinking what a feather it would be in her cap if she figured out a way to bring them more into the U-town project.

Rafe knocked on a door, tapping lightly on the frosted glass, and a voice called, "Come."

Dr. Lee stood up as we entered the room, which surprised me. I'd joked on the way over that we might be required to kneel. I had never met her, but everything I'd heard about her had indicated that she was a formidable person. She was fairly small, with dark curly hair, dressed in jeans, a black T-shirt, and a leather jacket. It was difficult to be sure about her age, but I thought she was at least in her thirties.

The room was plain, with a desk, a battered sofa, and two armchairs. There were no decorations.

"Please sit down," Dr. Lee said. We sat on the sofa, and she took one of the chairs. She said, "You may smoke, by the way. I appreciated that you identified Felix's murderer." She smiled a bit. "And Neil appreciated that you made it clear that his precautions were not at fault."

"I'm glad I could help," my employer replied. "I'm assuming that you have another mystery which you would like me to investigate?"

"That is correct."

"Another murder?"

She shook her head. "Nothing so dramatic. Or, actually, I should say that it's not that serious, at least so far. It is somewhat dramatic. But I don't want to prejudice you. I want you to see for yourself." She stood up. "Please come with me."

She led us back down two flights of stairs and along another hall. We ended up in a small room that was obviously being used as a medical office. A man, wearing a white lab coat over jeans and a T-shirt, stood up from a desk as we came in. Based on what I could see of his hands, wrists, and neck, he seemed quite heavily tattooed.

"She's through here," he said.

In the next room, which was smaller, a woman lay on a metal hospital table. She was thin and pale, with short blonde hair, and she appeared to be receiving a transfusion.

She opened her eyes as we came in, and then she closed them again.

"Her name is Åsa," Dr. Lee said. She pronounced it "Oh-sa." "And this is Nikolai."

The tattooed man inclined his head in acknowledgment, and my employer introduced herself. She almost never introduced me. Nikolai gestured at the woman on the table. "She's lost quite a bit of blood."

Jan limped forward and leaned over to regard Åsa. "How did she lose the blood?" she asked. Nikolai pulled down the collar of Åsa's shirt, showing two punctures on her neck, but Åsa reached up to cover them again, turning away from us.

"Leave me alone," she mumbled. "I'm fine."

Dr. Lee motioned for us to follow her back into the outer office, closing the door. Nikolai remained with Åsa. My employer lit a cigarette as Dr. Lee spoke.

"She was found by her roommate, unconscious, in bed, bleeding. It was raining that night, and her boots were wet, so she'd been out."

"What was she wearing?"

"She was naked, but her clothes were on the floor, damp. She was very pale, and nobody had seen her eat in a day or two, at least."

"Where are the clothes?"

"I'll take you," Dr. Lee said. I was surprised that she wasn't delegating this to someone else.

We went up one flight of stairs and into another wing. Dr. Lee pushed open a door, surprising Christy, who was sitting on one of the two mattresses on the floor of the small room. She had apparently just removed her T-shirt, and she quickly grabbed her leather jacket and pulled it on, zipping it up.

Dr. Lee ignored this. "Christy, we need to see Åsa's clothes, and her sheets."

Christy stood up. "The sheets are in the trash. I didn't think we could get the blood out. Her clothes are over there."

My employer went across the room to the pile of clothes in the corner, and I followed her. She squatted, steadying herself with her cane, and started to poke through the clothes.

"Christy," Dr. Lee said, "get the sheets from the trash and bring them here."

I heard the sound of Christy quickly removing her jacket and pulling her T-shirt back on, and my employer whispered, "Eyes front, mister."

I chuckled and she leaned forward to look at the jeans, the T-shirt, and the underwear, but her main attention was focused on the boots. She lifted them one at a time and examined them carefully. When she was done, I helped her back to her feet and she smiled. She had something in her hand, and she slipped it into her jacket pocket.

I wasn't going to ask what it was, and I knew she wasn't about to tell me.

A moment later, Christy came back in, her arms full of sheets. She put them on the other mattress, the one which presumably belonged to Åsa, and I went to pick them up one at time for my employer's examination. She looked at them, but I could tell she had already decided what we were going to do next.

I dropped the second pillowcase and she looked slowly around the room. "Christy," she said, "how well do you know Åsa?"

She shrugged. "Fairly well, I guess. We've been roommates since we got here, to U-town. But we're not close."

Jan turned to Dr. Lee. "Can we go somewhere to continue this? I have trouble standing for very long."

Dr. Lee nodded. "Of course. Christy, please put the sheets back in the trash and join us in my office."

In Dr. Lee's office, we resumed our seats.

"I have heard rumors of vampires," my employer said, lighting a cigarette.

Dr. Lee nodded. "So have I, for a couple of weeks now. I don't believe in that sort of thing, and I'm sure you don't either. However, I have had some experience with what can happen when you live in a community and that community turns against you because of rumors and hysteria."

"You see the potential for panic, apparently," my employer said. Dr. Lee nodded. "So do I. Most people are too savvy to fall for this, but a vocal minority can create all kinds of problems, for all of us. And, most importantly, if it becomes known that there are some sort of attacks going on, it doesn't require belief in the supernatural to become alarmed. And I am not, by the way, ruling out the possibility of–"

There was a knock at the door, and Dr. Lee called, "Come in, Christy. Please sit down."

Christy sat in the empty chair, smoothing her skirt, and my employer said, "I want to ask you a few questions. We're trying to figure out what's happening with Åsa, so we can try to help her. She hasn't confided anything to you, has she?"

Christy shook her head. "She doesn't talk about it. If you ask about why she's losing weight or anything like that, she just says she's fine."

Jan nodded. "She said that to us, too. I wasn't convinced. Have you noticed any other changes recently, aside from her weight?"

"It's obvious that she hasn't been feeling well. She's always kind of pale, and she gets tired a lot. I don't think she's been eating much."

"Who are her friends? Is she in a relationship?"

"There was a guy, Lloyd. He liked her, but I don't think it turned into anything. She's pretty serious – kind of a romantic – and he's a joker. Not her type, I wouldn't think."

Jan turned to Dr. Lee. "Can we speak to Lloyd?"

Dr. Lee turned to Christy. "He'll be outside. Please send him in." She turned to Jan. "Will you want to speak to Christy any more?"

"Not right now. I'm trying to get a general picture, an overview, then I'll figure out where I need to look in more depth."

Dr. Lee turned back to Christy, who was waiting by the door. "Send Lloyd in, then you can leave."

Christy nodded and stepped out into the hall.

A moment later, a man came in. He was fairly small, his Jinx uniform of jeans, black T-shirt, and leather jacket supplemented by a porkpie hat. He had a small goatee.

"Lloyd," Dr. Lee said, "this is Jan Sleet, and Marshall O'Connor, her assistant. They will ask you some questions, which you should answer honestly and completely. Please sit down."

He complied, and after a moment he removed his hat and held it in his lap.

"Lloyd," Jan began, "what is your relationship to Åsa?"

He looked uncertain, and Dr. Lee said, "The truth, as I said. All of it."

"I was interested in her... romantically." He shrugged. "I don't think that's a big secret. But she made it pretty clear that she was not interested in me. But then, a few nights ago – it was the day Felix died in fact – I was asleep. My roommate–"

"Claire is away," Dr. Lee said quickly. "That's all we need to get into."

"So, I was alone. Then I woke up, and it was completely dark out. The window was open, and I knew I had left it closed. I sat up in bed and got my knife from under my pillow. The room was very dark, and I tried to see what was going on, but then I saw her, Åsa, on the windowsill. She was crouching there, naked, and her skin was very white. She smiled and said something, but I couldn't hear her for some reason. I put the knife down on the table."

He sighed. "This is going to sound crazy, but she... it seemed like she floated over to the bed and she landed on top of me. The sheets were gone..." His voice trailed off, and he looked uncomfortable.

"I gather that sexual relations ensued," my employer said after a moment.

He nodded. "They sure did. Repeatedly."

"You'll forgive me for asking, I hope, but you were asleep, and we know you were attracted to her and frustrated by her refusal, so is it not possible that this was a fantasy of some sort?"

He shook his head. "That's what I thought at first, when I woke up. It wouldn't have been the first time that I'd... thought about her like that. But when I woke up, I was..." He was clearly trying to figure out how to describe this delicately. My employer's three-piece suits and her precise diction and her owlish way of asking questions often reminded people of unpleasant experiences with stern schoolteachers.

"I was bruised," Lloyd said finally, "in a private area, where I hadn't known it was possible to get bruised. I even went to Nikolai about it, since I was concerned that there might be some sort of... damage. He commented on the odor, which was quite strong. He joked that, for once, I must have been enjoying someone other than my own hand. He asked who it was, but I didn't tell him anything."

She nodded. "And she was responsible for the bruise on your neck?" She smiled. "The 'hickey,' as I believe they are called?"

He hunched his shoulders. "That was the next night. This has happened every night since. But she still ignores me completely during the day." He shrugged. "It's kind of creepy. It's almost as if she's mad at me for some reason. She's never friendly, or loving; she almost never speaks, and she hasn't kissed me except one time when she bit my lip and drew blood." He pulled down his lower lip and showed us the punctures.

My employer went to the window and looked out. "Lloyd's room is on this side of the building," Dr. Lee said. "Just down the hall, in fact."

Jan nodded thoughtfully and lit another cigarette. "There are houses across the street," she said, "some of which I know to be inhabited. You'd think somebody would have noticed a naked woman climbing this wall every night."

As Lloyd left, Nikolai poked his head in and said, "Dr. Lee?"

She looked up. "Yes?"

"There is a disagreement between my patient and myself. She wants to go back to her room tonight and sleep there. I think she should sleep in the infirmary, where she can get help by the intercom if she should need it. I understand that Christy is not planning to sleep here tonight, so Åsa would be alone–"

"I get the picture. Is she with you?"

The door opened and Åsa and Nikolai came in. I caught a glimpse of Lloyd out in the hall, apparently waiting.

Åsa was looking somewhat better, but I could tell that she was still unsteady, though she seemed to be trying to hide it. She had a bandage on her neck.

Nikolai tried to hover as she moved to the empty chair, but she glared at him and he backed off. She sat down, and I wondered if it was a violation of protocol to sit in Dr. Lee's presence without being invited.

Jan Sleet and Dr. Lee glanced at each other for a moment, then my employer addressed Åsa. "Are you well enough to talk?" she asked.

"Of course. I'm fine. I'm just a little tired."

"Where did you go last night? Before your injury?"

"I didn't go out. I wasn't feeling well."

"I've examined your clothes. You were clearly outside during the rain."

She shrugged. "I don't remember going out."

"What about your neck?"

She chuckled. "Maybe I cut myself shaving. Why, do you think it was a... vampire?" She said it in a spooky voice, her eyes wide. Then she snorted. "I thought you were supposed to be a detective."

"Åsa," Dr. Lee said quietly, "you will sleep in the infirmary tonight. Nikolai, please arrange that you or Betty will be available by intercom all night if needed. And Åsa, please do let them know if you need any help, no matter how minor. Tomorrow we'll figure out what we need to do about tomorrow night." She nodded and turned her attention back to us, and from their reaction it was clear that this was a dismissal. Åsa did not look happy, but if she was annoyed or resentful she kept it under control. They left, and I noticed Lloyd in the hall again.

When the door was closed, Dr. Lee said, "I want her to be able to get medical help if she needs it, something Christy couldn't really provide anyway. On the other hand, I don't want somebody to stay in the room with her, because I'm curious to see what she will do. We know she went out last night, and either she doesn't remember or she refuses to tell us. If she goes out again, I want to know where she goes."

Jan nodded. "I agree. We need to watch and see what she does tonight. Will she go out? Will she visit Lloyd again? If so, will she climb up the outside of the building naked? Can you have a couple of people work with Marshall on this?"

"Aren't you going to be here?"

She smiled. "I let Marshall do the more strenuous parts of the investigations. He'll report everything I need to know."

Dr. Lee turned toward the door and called, "Neil." The door opened, and I wondered how many other people were waiting around out there in case she needed them. "Is Rex here?" she asked him.


"Get him, and Christy."

He nodded and left.

"The infirmary has two exits," she continued to us. "A door and a window. We'll keep both under observation, without letting her know she's being watched. There's a rec room across the hall from the infirmary door. Rex often plays cards in there during the evening, and Neil sometimes sits in as well. It won't arouse suspicion for them to spend the evening there, and they can keep an eye on the infirmary door."

Jan nodded. "That sounds good. I noticed a building across the street that seems to be empty. Marshall could operate from there, watching the window."

"And Christy can work with him." She turned to me. "Lloyd's window is on the same side of the building – Christy will know which one – so you can see if Åsa does any nocturnal climbing."

"What if she takes a motorcycle somewhere?" I asked. "Then we won't be able to follow her unless Christy has a motorcycle as well, and then she'd see us."

Dr. Lee shook her head. "All the bikes are accounted for, always. If she's going out and she wants to keep it a secret from me, she'll walk."

So, several hours later, Christy and I were sitting on a coffee table. It was the only item of furniture in the living room of the empty house across the street from the Jinx headquarters. We had long since exhausted our supply of small talk, and we were quietly sharing a thermos of coffee when she suddenly said, "Look."

The street was dark, and the light in the infirmary had been off for a while, but we could see the window being raised slowly. I quickly closed the thermos and stuck it into my knapsack.

A foot in a sandal appeared in the window, and then a pale, slender leg came slowly over the sill, followed by another, and then the pale globes of Åsa's posterior as she lowered herself carefully to the sidewalk. For a second, as her back came into view, I was afraid that we really would be following a naked woman around, but then, as the rest of her came out of the window, a dark and billowy garment appeared on her shoulders and fell around her body as she straightened up. She pulled the window most of the way down.

"Is she going to go somewhere," Christy whispered, "or is she going to climb up the building to Lloyd's window?"

I had been looking at that wall for a couple of hours, and I was not sure that it would be possible to climb from the street up to a window on the third floor. The wall was nearly smooth, all concrete. There were areas above and below each window where the concrete stuck out a little, shaped to look like a row of bricks, presumably for decoration, but I couldn't see how it could be done.

I was not about to find out right then, though, since Åsa immediately walked away down the block. We slipped out of the empty house and followed her.

It was a chilly, drizzly night, and the streets were nearly deserted. I wore a dark coat and slacks, and Christy wore a black trench coat and jeans, with a dark baseball cap pulled down over her full red hair. She'd explained that, since members of the Jinx wore their leather jackets all the time, they were often not recognized if they wore something else.

Then she'd looked somewhat sheepish, as if she'd revealed a state secret.

We made an effort to be inconspicuous as we followed Åsa, but it didn't seem to matter. She never looked around, though a couple of times she slowed and seemed to waver, and one time she put out a hand as she turned a corner, leaning against a building for a moment. She kept the coat (or whatever it was) wrapped around her, so it wasn't possible for the few people she passed to see that she was naked under it.

We followed her for eight or ten blocks, away from the center of U-town, toward the highway and the river. Then she turned a corner and slowed. We slowed also, and then stopped, ducking under an awning. After a moment, still without looking around, she walked forward. We came up to the corner as she crossed the street toward a tall fence with an ornate gate in the middle of the block.

All we could see on the other side of the iron fence was trees and foliage, but I remembered that there was a house in there, on a plot of land that covered a whole city block. I was trying to recall whose house it was as Åsa paused at the gate, and then she opened it and slipped inside.

"Who lives there?" Christy asked. She was whispering, though there was certainly no way Åsa could have heard.

I shook my head. "I'm trying to remember. A writer of some sort, maybe a poet."

"Poetry must pay better than I thought," she said with a chuckle.

I motioned and we crossed the street, peering in between the iron uprights of the fence. From there, the house itself was visible through the trees, and we could see Åsa hurrying around to the side of the house. We watched her open a door and slip inside.

The house was old and decrepit-looking, and there were no lights visible through the trees. "I don't remember the whole story," I said quietly, "but I think it's his family's house. They used to be rich, but no more. I believe he's popular with college kids."

We waited for about an hour. The rain had slowed to a light drizzle, but the cold wind was even stronger than it had been before. I wished I'd worn warmer clothes. My hands were getting familiar with every corner of my coat's pockets.

People walked by from time to time, but not many. At one point, Christy stayed put while I walked quickly around the block, just to see if there was anything significant to observe. I didn't see anything, but as usual I wondered what my employer might have noticed that I had missed.

Then, unexpectedly, Christy put her hand on my arm. It is probably an exaggeration to say that I jumped, but I was not able to completely conceal my surprise, and I saw that she noted my reaction. Christy was, I knew, as tough as any other member of the Jinx when she had to be, but the rest of the time she was fairly prim and proper, and not at all touchy-feely. Also, like some recovering alcoholics (which I knew her to be), she gave the impression that she never made a gesture without evaluating it first.

So, although I was sure that she wasn't making a pass at me, I did jump, a little, and she instantly got worried that I was going to think she was making a pass, but before she could speak to clarify her intentions, whatever they were, I saw her react to something she saw over my shoulder. She gave a wry smile to let me know that I was going to have to wait to find out what the sudden gesture had meant.

"Here she comes," she said quietly.

We sprinted back to the corner and concealed ourselves, but again it didn't seem to matter. Åsa stumbled out of the gate and headed back the way she'd come, so we followed her. It was starting to rain more steadily now.

Her progress was very different, though, and there were times when I was fairly sure she wasn't going to make it. She walked like she was drunk or drugged, shambling along, nearly losing her balance more than once. She wasn't managing to keep the coat closed, and at times we could see a bare arm or leg as the cold wind caught the thin fabric. People who were in front of her were clearly seeing somewhat more, and a couple of times she had to rally her remaining strength to unleash some impressive and colorful curses.

When we approached the Jinx headquarters, Åsa headed for the infirmary window, but when she opened it (obviously with more difficulty than before) she only took off her cloak and threw it in. Then, looking increasingly unsteady, she climbed up to stand on the windowsill, looking up at Lloyd's lighted window, two stories above.

It was at that moment that I found myself sprinting across the street, which certainly broke every rule in the "How to Tail Somebody" handbook, but it meant I was in position to catch her when she toppled off the sill and fell toward the sidewalk. She was unconscious by then, and for the first time I saw the blood which was running down her neck.

The next few moments were hectic. Christy ran around the building to the front door. She knocked as I followed her quickly. Somebody opened the door and we rushed in, Christy shouting orders.

I got to the empty infirmary, and Neil and Rex appeared from across the hall, then Christy rushed in with Nikolai, the tattooed medic. We got Åsa on the table and he started to examine her. He was wearing only a pair of sweatpants, and the art on his torso was quite striking. I noticed the coat on the floor by the window, where she had dropped it. I picked it up and held it out to examine it. It was a cloak, black, of fairly thin material.

Dr. Lee came in. "How is she?" she demanded.

"Alive," Nikolai said. "Somebody get Betty."

Dr. Lee tapped Rex on the shoulder and he ran out. She looked at us. "Please come to my office," she said.

Neil, Christy, and I followed her out.

I smelled the pipe smoke before we turned the final corner.

My employer smiled as we entered Dr. Lee's office, and I winked at her, since I hadn't believed for a moment that she was going to stay home. She was quite capable of going off and leaving me with any sort of unpleasant task, but this case was bothering her. If she had gone home, she would have paced and smoked and fretted. Besides, as I mentioned before, relations with the Jinx were quite important, and I was sure she'd been working with (and on) Dr. Lee.

We all sat down, and Dr. Lee said, "Please tell us everything."

We did. I told most of it; reporting quickly and completely was one of my job skills.

"The house," Dr. Lee said, "do you know who lives there?"

"A poet, named Isaac Ashford," my employer said. "She went there last night as well."

Dr. Lee frowned. "How do you know that?"

"There are lilac bushes on the grounds, around the house. The only ones I've ever seen in U-town. They're not native to this area." She reached into her pocket. "I found a lilac petal on Åsa's boot when I examined it this afternoon. It was stuck there by the rain the night before."

"Well, we need to visit this poet." Dr. Lee said.

Jan nodded. "I'm thinking that it might be better in the morning, better than now."

Neil chuckled. "Do you want to see if he appears in daylight?"

She smiled. "That's not the biggest question, but I would like to know the answer."

"Are you thinking that there might actually be a vampire in this?" Dr. Lee demanded. "I was assuming that would not be your solution."

"Well, I don't come to conclusions before I have all the facts. And there are a lot of things I don't know yet."

Dr. Lee looked unhappy, but she apparently didn't have an argument for this.

There was a quiet knock on the door, and Neil went to open it. He stuck his head out and listened for a moment, then he said, "It's Lloyd. He's heard that Åsa is worse, and–"

"Come in," Dr. Lee called. "Christy, you can go," she added.

Lloyd joined us, with some hesitation, and Dr. Lee said, "As I'm sure you've heard, Åsa is indeed worse."

"Can I see her?" he asked. He took off his hat and held it in his hands.

"If you want. She's unconscious." She turned to Neil. "Go and check on her. Take Lloyd with you, then come back here and report." She turned to Rex. "You can go. We don't need for you to stay up all night."

He laughed. "I was getting lousy hands anyway. Have a good night."

They all left, and Dr. Lee said, "Assuming that Åsa is stable, I think this is what we should do. Somebody will stay with her all night. There is no more reason to see where she'd go, we know that now. Now we have to restrain her from going, physically if necessary. No matter what's going on, it's obviously killing her."

Jan Sleet nodded. "I agree. And we can go see the poet in the morning."

"I'll send Christy with you. She can meet you at the hotel first thing tomorrow." She smiled. "Though she's probably gone there already."

"Do you have a photograph of Åsa?" my employer asked. "That would be helpful when we see Ashford."

Dr. Lee looked thoughtful. "I think I can find one. I'll make sure Christy brings it." She stood up. "And tomorrow I can introduce you to Spence. He should be back by then." She turned to go. "He's Åsa's boyfriend," she said as she left.

My employer turned and glared at me, as if it was my fault that Åsa had a boyfriend and we hadn't known a thing about him until this minute.

When we got back to the hotel, Jan surprised me by saying that we needed to go see Fifteen. I didn't bother to ask why.

She took us to his room and she knocked on the door. "Fifteen," she called, "it's Jan. Is Christy there?"

"Possibly," he answered slowly.

"If she is, I need to ask her a question."

"We were just playing Parcheesi, I swear," he said.

She laughed. "I don't care if you were playing strip cribbage. We can even wait for you to finish. But this question is important."

Fifteen opened the door. He was wearing a faded T-shirt and garish boxer shorts, his feet bare. Christy was sitting up in bed, wearing a T-shirt, her red hair tousled.

"Strip cribbage?" he asked as we came in.

"I'll explain the rules later," Jan said as she looked around the room, which contained a large bed, a small dresser, and several piles of paper. "I confess I did leave out one thing. The question is short, but it has a long preamble. May I sit on the bed?"

He nodded. "Okay, but behave yourself." He tilted his head toward Christy, who giggled. "We're not alone."

"I'll be on my best behavior, I promise. May I smoke?"

Fifteen looked surprised, since she almost never asked permission. He looked around quickly, not seeing anything that could be used as an ashtray. After a moment, Christy leaned over and retrieved a coffee mug from the floor. Fifteen bustled off to wash it in the bathroom, then he presented it to Jan, who inclined her head, thanked him, and tapped her ash into it.

"After you left, Christy," she began, "Dr. Lee mentioned Åsa's boyfriend, Spence. I was somewhat surprised, since you hadn't told us about him. Dr. Lee mentioned him as she was leaving the room – clearly she didn't intend to tell us anything more than his name – but Marshall got a few details from Neil as we left. They've been going out for over six months. They're not demonstrative in public, but the relationship is not a secret. He was away for four days and he just got back today.

"So, why had you not mentioned the relationship? Was it real, or was Dr. Lee making it up? That seemed unlikely. I couldn't see why she'd do that, and in any case it would be too easy to see through.

"Were you hiding it from me for some reason? Again, I couldn't see what reason you could have, and besides, that would have been futile as well. I'd be bound to find out, as indeed I did.

"Did you not know? I don't think so. I couldn't visualize you sharing a room with somebody and not knowing that person had a lover. There are people who would be that incurious, that indifferent, but you're not one of them. You're a warm and friendly and empathic person, so you would have known. Unless Åsa was very anti-social, you and she would have talked about your boyfriends, how the relationships were similar, how they were different, and so on.

"That's if you were roommates. But what if you weren't her roommate, or maybe you were, but just for a day or two, not for all these months? That would explain it. And, if that was the truth, and you were lying, it was because you were told to.

"So, this is the question. Have you really been Åsa's roommate for all this time, or were you told to lie? And I should make it clear that, if you do tell me, the answer won't go outside of this room. I'm sorry to have to ask, but I want to figure this whole thing out, and this is a part of it."

Fifteen was sitting next to Christy by then, holding her hand, but she didn't look at him before answering. She looked down at the sheets as she said, "Yesterday morning, before I came to see you, Dr. Lee sent for me. She told me to move my stuff into Åsa's room, and then to go see you and invite you to see her. And she said that, when you came to investigate, I should tell you that I'd been Åsa's roommate since we got here." She looked up. "I'm sorry."

"In your situation, I'd have done the same thing, I'm sure. Do you know why Dr. Lee told you to do this?"

She shook her head. "No, she doesn't give reasons."

"I have an idea," Fifteen said. "We've been talking about it tonight, in between games of Parcheesi, and I have a guess."

Jan smiled. "I'd be very interested in hearing it."

"Dr. Lee wants to know what's going on. From what Miss Christy has told me, she always wants to know what's going on. She can't figure this out herself, so she wants your help. But you're a detective, a skeptic, you don't even believe in God, for goodness' sake, so you'd probably pooh-pooh the very idea of vampires. But she does want your help–"

"–and she doesn't strike me as somebody who likes to be pooh-poohed under any circumstances," I added.

"Exactly. So, she gets Miss Christy involved, right in the middle of the whole situation. She's the one who comes to see you, she's Åsa's roommate, and she might even be in danger herself from whatever-this-is." He smiled. "It would probably increase the chance that you'd want to help."

I took a quick shower before going to bed. The evening's adventures had left me feeling somewhat grimy, and I wanted to make sure I'd washed off all of Åsa's blood.

So far, I had no idea what was going on with this case, and I could tell Jan didn't know either.

When I opened the bathroom door, the lights in the bedroom were out. As I felt my way across the room to the chair where I'd left my pajamas, she said, "I'm asleep already. But you can wake me up if you want to."

"I may do that," I said. "If I do, will you explain this case to me?"

She sighed and turned on the bedside lamp. "No," she said. "Not yet." Her hair was freshly brushed around her thin face. She always looked younger without her large, horn-rimmed glasses.

I got into bed and lay back, stretching. "Do you know what I'm wondering about?" I asked.

She laughed. "Oh, wait," she said, squirming around. "Hang on." She fumbled on the bedside table until she found her pad and pencil. She scribbled for a second, then she said, "Okay. Go ahead." I held out my hand, and she folded the piece of paper and gave it to me.

This was a game that we played from time to time. It was her belief that she knew me well enough to predict what was on my mind in most situations. It was my belief that she couldn't do any such thing, and in matters like this it was not inconceivable that one of us might cheat a little. So, she wrote down her prediction and gave it to me, folded up, before I told her what was on my mind.

With the piece of paper safely in my hand, I said, "I'm wondering at Dr. Lee's motivation in this. Why does she call you in, rather than dealing with Åsa more directly? She admits that she doesn't believe in vampires, so what does she think is going on?"

"Look at the paper," she said, and her tone told me that, for this time at least, she had been right. She was pressed against my side, and I felt a silent giggle as I unfolded the paper and read the clumsy block printing that she always used when she wrote without her glasses.

"1) Why is Dr. Lee doing this?
2) Where did Åsa get the cloak?"

"The cloak?" I asked.

"She didn't have it on her. She didn't leave the infirmary by the door to get it; Neil and Rex would have seen her. She didn't have it the night before; she wore her regular clothes then. Where did it come from? Somebody must have brought it to her." She smiled. "Anyway, was I right or not?"

"You were right," I said, squeezing her bony shoulder. "But if you're so smart, what's the answer?"

She shook her head. "I'm not sure. I am sure that part of it is that Dr. Lee wants to know what the heck is going on. But there's something else." She sighed. "I don't know what, though, not yet, nor do I know what's going on with Åsa. Yet." She was quiet for a minute, then she said, "I can tell that, in general, Dr. Lee does want to know everything. Look at how she barged in on poor Christy." She chuckled. "Not that you were complaining, of course. I thought it was diplomatic of you not to drool."

There was no advantage to be gained by responding to that, so I said, "I have one more idea, too. I think this has something to do with you."

"With me? What do you mean? You think I'm a vampire?"

I laughed. "No, not that." I squeezed her again. "I'm talking about Dr. Lee's motivation. I think she's checking you out for some reason."

"Trying to figure out if I'm overrated, if I was just lucky with Felix?"

"No, more than that. I just don't know what."

"I agree," she said, nodding. "I agree that it is more than that, and I agree that you don't know what it is."

She looked so pleased with herself that I didn't have the heart to ask her to write down her answer to this question.

In the morning, there was a knock on the door, and Jan said, "I'm not here." She pulled a pillow over her head. I went to the door and asked who it was.

"It's me," Vicki said. "Duty calls," she continued as I opened the door.

"I don't know anybody named 'Duty,'" Jan said from under the pillow.

"I think you're about to be reintroduced," I said.

Vicki laughed. "I know it's early," she said, "but I wanted to be sure to catch you before you ran out to hunt more vampires."

Vicki Wasserman was around fifteen years old, very small, with long, straight black hair, dressed as always in a black T-shirt and black jeans. She was accompanied by Ray Stone, who was dressed in a worn flannel shirt and jeans, and looked like a derelict. Their appearances aside, they were two of the founders of U-town, and two of the smartest people I've ever met.

Jan still had the pillow over her head. "Who are you?" she asked. "I don't recognize your voice."

Vicki hopped up on the bed and picked up the pillow.

"Hi," she said, waving. "It's us."

Jan squinted. "I can't tell who you are. You're all blurry."

"Here," I said, sighing, "put on your glasses."

She took them, then she groaned and hauled herself up into a sitting position. I handed her a cigarette and lit it for her.

"This is about reporters, isn't it?" she asked dolefully.

Vicki nodded. "Yup."

"They're downstairs," Ray added, "and they want some answers." He lit a cigarette. "About vampires."

Jan groaned again.

I knew what was really bothering her, apart from her usual reluctance to get up in the morning. Dealing with the U-town press always rankled because, in her opinion (and mine, too, I admit) she was a better reporter than anybody on the U-town newspaper. But of course, you can't be part of a government and also report on that government in the press at the same time, no matter what your qualifications are (and no matter how much you might want to).

She shook herself. "I'm sorry," she said. "Tantrum over. What's the situation?"

"Fifteen told us you're investigating this vampire business," Ray said, "for Dr. Lee."

"Do you know what's going on?" Vicki asked, sitting on the edge of the bed.

Jan shook her head. "Not yet."

"Well, it's becoming kind of a problem," Vicki continued.

Ray nodded. "There have been a few unexplained incidents, and people have seen Åsa on her midnight prowls. Some people are really getting alarmed, and the whole thing is turning into a fad among some of the younger folks, which doesn't help. We'd like to issue a statement, saying that you're looking into it, but you're sure it isn't vampires."

"But that's not true. I can't rule out vampires until I know what really is going on."

Ray chuckled as Vicki said, "Wait a minute. You think there may really be vampires?" She laughed. "You don't believe in God, but you think there are vampires?"

"That's two different things," Jan said seriously. "I've thought and read about the question of god, and I've concluded that it's a lot of hooey. Until yesterday, I'd never thought about vampires at all."

"Aren't vampires supposed to be damned in some way?" I asked. "If there's no God, how can anybody be damned?"

Vicki smiled. "This is why I brought Ray."

"So," I said, "we're seeing this as a psychological problem? Some sort of mass insanity?" Since the founding of U-town most of Ray's attention had been focused on the hospital, specifically the psychiatric department.

Vicki laughed. "No, not because of that. Because he's read a lot of trashy books." She turned to him. "Are vampire myths always based on religion?"

He drew deeply on his cigarette. "Definitely not. First of all, many vampire stories don't deal with the question at all. Vampires are made by older vampires, but there's often no mention of a First Cause. In other stories, it's a form of blood disease, not supernatural at all. In some stories, in fact, a vampire is created by a curse (which doesn't require belief in a deity, after all, only a belief in magic), and then cured by science. So, it's a bit of a hodge-podge. And, of course, real vampires, if there are any, are not obliged to follow the rules set down for fictional ones."

Vicki said, "Well, we need to address this. We may think it's silly, or at least some of us do, but people are taking it seriously."

Ray nodded. "I agree. We should listen to what people are really saying, not just dismiss it."

"You agree with me?" Jan asked.

He shook his head. "No, my point is that we need to find out what they're really saying. We need specifics, not just the label 'vampire.' For example, do I believe that corpses rise as the living dead, roaming abroad by night, subsisting on the blood of the living, able to become bats or wolves or mist, vulnerable to daylight, and the stake, and the cross, and holy water, and garlic, sleeping in coffins during the day? No, I do not.

"I understand your point, but I think it would not be possible for vampires, as they are generally described, to exist in the modern world for any length of time and for that fact to remain secret. After all, we've only started to see any evidence, and the populace and the press are already all agitated about it.

"So, I don't believe in vampires as supernatural creatures. However, do I believe that someone could be out there, attacking people at night and feasting on their blood? Sure, that's human evil and insanity, and I do believe in that." He smiled as he stubbed out his cigarette butt in one of Jan's many ashtrays. "It wouldn't be the first time a natural situation was ascribed to supernatural causes out of ignorance."

"Now, here's something else," Jan said. "I don't want to issue a statement about vampires, but I'm perfectly willing to issue a statement along the lines of 'Jan Sleet is investigating this mystery, and she's solved every case she's undertaken since her arrival here in U-town.'" She smiled. "I would be very comfortable with a statement like that."

Vicki nodded. "I agree. Maybe we should call a meeting for tonight, too, to find out exactly what people have seen, and what they think. Have the runners spread the word."

Jan shook her head. "Make it for tomorrow night. Announce it now, but make it tomorrow."

I had thought that Isaac Ashford's house might look less gloomy in the clear light of morning, but it didn't. I pulled open the gate and we stepped inside. The path to the front door was overgrown, the crazy-paving tiles half-covered with dirt and moss. As we got closer to the house, it looked just as gloomy but quite a bit more shabby. I got the impression that Mr. Ashford was devoting more of his resources to atmosphere than to maintenance.

The paint on the double doors was faded and chipped. My employer raised her cane and used the head to rap on the door.

After a moment, the door opened (I won a small bet with myself – it did creak, and quite loudly) and a young woman regarded us. She was thin and pale, with long black hair. She wore a black mini-skirt and a small black bikini top. Her feet were bare, and her toenails were painted black to match her fingernails.

When it had become apparent that she was going to stand there looking at us until we went away, my employer said, "My name is Jan Sleet, and I need to see Isaac Ashford."

The girl nodded very slowly. "I'll see," she said, and she moved to close the door.

My employer's hand shot out to block the door, the head of her cane hitting the wood with an impressive crack. The girl looked stunned as Jan pushed her way into the small entryway between the outer and inner doors. "This is not a social call," she said. "Where is he?"

The girl was having some trouble comprehending this behavior, so my employer led us through the inner door and into the front hall.

Well, "front hall" may not be the appropriate phrase, given the unusual architecture of the house.

I have been in a couple of houses (mansions, really) where the first thing you see when you enter is a wide staircase right in front of you. This was true here, with the only difference being that the staircase went down, not up.

We were, in essence, on a balcony that ran around three sides of a large central pit. About a dozen feet ahead of us was the staircase, leading down to what seemed to be a rather shabby but elegant basement living room, illuminated by large candles on tall poles.

My immediate question was whether all this was business as usual around here, or if we were expected and this was for our benefit.

"You can't come in," the girl said. She sounded rather forlorn, since, after all, we were already in.

A tall young man, also pale, also dressed in black (though somewhat more modestly), rose from one of the couches that were placed around the outer wall of the balcony we were on. "Mr. Ashford is working," he said, walking toward us. "He can't be–"

He made the mistake of reaching for my employer's arm. His hand didn't make it, though, because Christy grabbed his wrist, twisted it around behind his back, and calmly said, "Miss Sleet? Shall I break it?"

My employer shook her head. "Of course not, at least not yet. I'm sure that when Mr. Ashford said that he was not to be disturbed, he was thinking of autograph seekers and gossip columnists, not–"

"Miss Jan Sleet," came a soft voice from behind me. I did my best not to jump, since there had been nobody there a moment before.

My employer turned, as calmly as if she had known he was there all along, and extended her hand. "I'm Isaac Ashford, my dear," he continued. "It's always so pleasant to meet a fellow writer. What brings you here today?"

Ashford was a couple of inches shorter than my employer, with a lined face under jet black hair. His clothes were dark, including a burgundy smoking jacket.

His two acolytes looked quietly pleased. However he had achieved his magical appearance, they were obviously aware of the mechanism.

"I am here officially," my employer said, shaking his hand. "I have some important questions to ask you."

He smiled. "Then why don't we go downstairs and be comfortable?"

There was no way to avoid it, but my employer was not happy about the invitation. With her bad leg, stairs were very difficult for her if she didn't have a railing to hold onto. This palatial staircase didn't have railings, except at the sides, and it would have been an admission of weakness for her to go that far out of her way.

I crooked my arm and extended it, as if I was her escort to a formal dinner (as I had been once or twice). She rested her hand on my forearm and we proceeded down the stairs, following Ashford and his acolytes, with Christy behind us. Jan did very well at appearing smooth and relaxed, but the reality was that her long fingers were holding my arm in a grip of iron.

When we had made it to the bottom, to the odd living room, she released my arm and suppressed her desire to sigh in relief.

The acolytes brought up three chairs as Ashford went to sit behind a huge wooden desk. The room seemed enormous, with clusters of furniture placed here and there, like the lobby of a hotel. The irregular illumination provided by the candles added to the spookiness, since it was difficult to see the walls.

My employer lit a cigarette as we sat down, and she leaned back in her chair.

"I need to ask about a visitor you had last night," she said, "named Åsa, of the Jinx."

Ashford looked puzzled, leaning back in his ornately carved chair. The girl came forward and gave him a cigarette, and the boy lit it for him.

He glanced at both of them before replying.

"I don't know anybody by that name, I'm afraid."

She shrugged. "It's possible you know her under another name. She is about five foot six, with short hair, dyed blonde, and her eyes are pale blue. She is quite thin, and her skin is pale. She is probably around thirty years old." I took out the photograph, which Christy had given me earlier, and placed it on his desk.

He glanced at it and smiled. "She sounds delightful. I hope she does come to visit us someday, but I'm afraid I don't know her."

My employer levered herself to her feet. "Åsa came here the night before last, and she left in a weakened state. She may have come before that also; we don't know. But we do know that she came back last night and left this house injured and bloody and unable to make it all the way home."

"And I've told you that I've never met her," he said mildly. "So, is this where you threaten me?"

Jan Sleet shook her head. "What's the cliché? 'This isn't a threat, it's a promise.' I don't do either. This is a mystery I've decided to solve, and my track record speaks for itself. And, when I do–"

"Excuse me," Christy said, stepping forward. "Miss Sleet will not threaten, but I will." She stood directly in front of Ashford's desk and leaned forward. "I am here with a message from Dr. Lee of the Jinx. If you have harmed our sister Åsa, the Jinx will descend upon this house in force, all of us, and we will destroy both you and it." She turned and left, walking slowly up the wide stairs and out.

Ashford had tried to interrupt Christy with some sort of mocking comment, but she had just continued talking, as impassive as a tape recording. As she left, it was obvious that he was somewhat shaken, and as he turned to Jan Sleet, she said, "I am, as you know, one of the administrators of U-town, and I should tell you that we do not, of course, endorse this type of threat. However, you should also be aware that we don't have the forces which would be required to protect you or this house against hundreds of angry gang members. Good day."

She turned and we climbed the stairs toward the door, her hand again resting on my arm. "I am going to examine the side entrance to this house," she called over her shoulder. "Don't worry, Marshall knows the way."

Outside, we pushed our way through the undergrowth to the corner of the house and around. What had looked like an entrance the night before now was revealed to be a small and dilapidated shed, leaning against the side of the house. There were windows on three sides of it, and it appeared to be some sort of small greenhouse. It didn't seem like it would receive very much light, with the surrounding trees as thick as they were, but perhaps the trees had come later.

I pushed open the door, which was coming off its hinges, and we stepped in. There were battered benches and tables along the outer walls, and broken clay pots on the uneven wooden floor. The smell of mildew was strong.

My employer brought out her pocket flash and turned it on. She looked around, focusing her attention on the side of the house, which formed the fourth wall of the shed.

"Odd place for an assignation," I observed. "Pretty unromantic, and there's no way to get into the house."

She smiled, running her fingers along the edges of the boards. "Yes, it would seem so." She continued her examination for a couple of minutes, then she triumphantly pressed something, there was a click, and part of the wall swung toward us.

We peeked around the edge of the open panel, seeing the interior of the house, the balcony, the dark walls, and the flickering candlelight.

It was not the secret door Ashford had used for his magical appearance – we were on the other side of the house – but if a building had one secret door it wasn't hard to imagine that it might have more.

Jan closed the hidden door again and grinned. "This is my kind of house," she said. "I always wanted to have a case with at least one secret panel."

I laughed. "I wonder who's in charge of making sure the regular doors creak and the secret panels don't."

"And look," she said, pointing the flash down at the boards beneath her feet, but I had already seen the blood stains there.

I spotted Christy as I pushed open the iron gate and we stepped out onto the street. She was barely visible around the corner, in the same place where she and I had waited the night before. As we crossed the street to her, I could tell that she felt awkward about the way she'd delivered the ultimatum, with no advance warning to us, though I was sure she'd been told to do it that way.

Jan was aware of this and wanted to settle the issue quickly, so she grinned as we approached Christy and said, "That couldn't have gone better if we'd planned it," and then she squeezed Christy's shoulder. Christy was surprised by this, and then I saw a smile flash across her face, as she realized that she had surprised me in exactly the same way the night before when she'd suddenly put her hand on my arm. We shared a brief grin as Jan said, "Let's go. We've got some things to tell Dr. Lee."

As we set off, I was suddenly sure that when Christy had put her hand on my arm the night before, she'd been about to tell me that the story of Åsa being her roommate had been a fake.

We were back in Dr. Lee's office, and we had described what had happened at Isaac Ashford's house. When we were done, Dr. Lee looked ready to dismiss Christy, but Jan said, "It might be good if Christy stayed. As Åsa's roommate, I'm sure she's concerned."

There was a glance between the Jinx leader and my employer, and I knew that Dr. Lee was now aware that the "roommate" deception had been discovered. She smiled and nodded thoughtfully.

"If Åsa was visiting there legitimately," she said slowly, "why enter the house through the side, through a shed and a secret panel? Why not use the front door?"

Jan nodded. "It's possible that Ashford was telling the truth. Åsa may have gone there to visit someone else, one of his staff perhaps. He may not have been aware of it at all."

"Or that may be exactly the reason," I suggested. "Remember how she was dressed. Why walk around naked, on a cold and rainy night? Unless you're going to visit someone, perhaps the same way she's been visiting Lloyd. In that case, arriving unexpectedly, through a secret panel, naked, that could be part of the effect. Maybe Ashford enjoys that sort of thing."

Dr. Lee nodded, and my employer was restraining herself. If we'd been alone, she would have made a comment about my surprisingly deep insights into the sexually adventuresome mind.

Instead, she asked, "What do we know about these young people he has around him?"

"I asked some questions about Ashford after you left last night," Dr. Lee replied. "They're college students, apparently. He makes speeches at universities – that's where most of his money comes from – and he often recruits an adoring fan or two as well. I think there's some sort of scam involved, internship or work-study or something like that."

Jan Sleet nodded. "In any case, he gets unpaid and adoring assistants, and they get college credit and reflected glory."

"There's more than that going on," Christy said. "That girl was practically naked."

My employer laughed. "She was indeed, but famous artists have seduced willing fans since the first popular cave painter. If that was all that was going on, I'd say that at least they were getting college credit out of it. But Åsa's condition indicates that something far more serious is happening here."

Dr. Lee looked grim. "Solving this is your department, primarily, but it is stopped, as of now, whatever it was. Åsa is not going to leave this building again until this is figured out. I will lock her in the basement if I have to. And Christy's message to Ashford is the literal truth."

Jan held up a hand. "We need to know a lot more before we do anything."

Dr. Lee nodded. "Of course. We never act without reason." She smiled. "There is another factor, however, that you may not be aware of." She reached down next to her chair and pulled up a large poster. "These started going up this morning. A couple of people brought them to me." She unfurled it so we could see.

The image was a painting of a house, looking very much like a highly romanticized version of Ashford's house, including creepy overhanging trees, a stormy sky, and a bolt of lightning. The text read, "First Blood," and the subtitle was, "The Vampire Poems, by Isaac Ashford." Near the bottom it said, "Coming Soon."

Jan sighed and drew on her cigarette. "Well, he's certainly not being subtle about this."

Dr. Lee put the poster down again. "Spence came back a few minutes before you did. Would you like to talk to him now?"

Jan nodded. "Very much so."

Dr. Lee turned to Christy. "Can you go get him? He was ravenous when he got in, so he'll probably be in the cafeteria."

Christy nodded and left.

"I don't wish to pry," my employer said after a moment (meaning that she very much wanted to pry, but knew in advance that it would be futile), "but are you satisfied that Spence has actually been away?"

Dr. Lee looked somewhat surprised. "Yes, completely satisfied, because he did what he was sent to do, which couldn't have been accomplished any other way."

The door opened a few minutes later, and I wondered if Spence had been able to finish his meal before being summoned to see us.

He certainly looked as if he'd just returned from a journey. He was unshaven and somewhat grimy, his dark hair disarrayed. For all that, he was fairly handsome and quite tall.

He paused as he reached us, and Dr. Lee said, "Please sit down." He did, and she continued, "This is Jan Sleet and her assistant Marshall. She is helping us to figure out what's been happening with Åsa."

"Have you seen her, since your return?" my employer asked him, lighting a cigarette.

He shook his head. "Neil met me when I got back, and he told me that she's worse, and that nobody knows what it is. I was going to stop in at the infirmary, but he said she was asleep."

There was a knock at the door, and Neil stepped in. To my surprise, he was followed by the girl from Ashford's house. She was wearing a black T-shirt and sneakers now, in addition to her miniskirt, and she looked thoroughly miserable. Spence stood up and offered her his chair, and she sat down and immediately burst into tears.

"Spence," Dr. Lee said, "we'll continue later." He nodded and left, though I could tell he wanted to stay.

"What is your name?" Dr. Lee asked the girl after a few moments.

"Your real name," my employer added.

She wiped her face and blew her nose. "Mindy Parrish, ma'am," she replied. "I'm from Missoula, Montana. Mr. Ashford calls me Marisa, but my name is Mindy."

"And why are you here?"

"I'm scared I'm gonna get into trouble, ma'am. Mr. Ashford didn't tell you the truth. That woman you asked about, she was there, at his house, about a week ago. She was there for a few hours. He showed her around, and then they talked for a while. I don't think she ever came back, but I don't see everybody who comes and goes."

"You did the right thing in coming to us," Jan said.

"Have you been staying there, at Ashford's?" Dr. Lee asked her.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Are you going back there now?"

She made a face. "I don't know. That woman, you said she was bloody and everything. What happened to her?"

"We don't know," Dr. Lee said. "Her name is Åsa, and she says she's fine, but we can tell she's been hurt, repeatedly. We know she'd been visiting Ashford, for at least the last two nights, but we don't really know what's going on."

"Not yet," my employer added.

"Mindy, would you be willing to see her?" Dr. Lee continued. "Just to make sure it is really the same woman? That would help us a great deal. Then, if you're still uneasy about going back to Ashford's, you can stay here tonight, or longer, until you're sure what you want to do."

This was something I had never really thought about before, as Neil came in and was instructed to turn Mindy over to somebody named Angie who would take her to see Åsa.

The Jinx were, in many ways, like Gypsys, but one difference was that they were not all the children of previous generations of Jinx (at least as far as I knew). So, they must have come from somewhere, and at that moment I would have bet even money that Mindy was going to end up a member of the Jinx, sooner or later.

I wasn't sure how I felt about this, since she was fairly young, and obviously confused and vulnerable, but fortunately (at least for me) our current situation of cooperation ruled out any response.

Dr. Lee smiled and said, "She will have a choice, of course, at every stage."

My employer frowned, and I knew she had no idea what this exchange had been about. As usual, she had been thinking along very different lines. I knew she would ask me about it later, when we were alone.

"Is Spence waiting out there?" Dr. Lee asked Neil.

He shook his head. "He's still trying to eat. He ran back to his food."

She smiled. "He will be displeased if we haul him back up here again."

"If it's possible," Jan said, "I'd like to eat something as well. Marshall and I can go out and–"

"Of course not," Dr. Lee said, standing up. "You're here to assist us. Feeding you is the least we can do. Come." I gave Jan my hand and helped her to her feet.

We went down to the basement floor, where there was a small kitchen and a large dining room. The tables were about half full, and I saw Jinx of all ages from elderly to children. We went into the kitchen, where we served ourselves from big pots of chili and stew and vegetables.

As usual in these situations, I carried Jan's plate on my tray, since she couldn't carry a tray herself because of her cane.

When we stepped back into the dining room, I saw Spence at a round table with three other Jinx. As we approached, obviously planning to sit there, the others quickly moved to another table.

Spence gestured for us to sit, and Dr. Lee said, "We thought we'd interrupted your meal enough for one day."

He chuckled. "I was eating quickly, just in case."

We occupied ourselves with our food for a few moments, then Jan said, "Spence, did you notice anything unusual about Åsa before you went away?"

He shrugged. "She was a little distracted, I guess. Had something on her mind."

"Do you have any idea what it was?"

He shook his head. "No."

The rest of the conversation was equally unproductive. He had been gone on his mysterious errand for four days, as we'd learned from Neil, and he wasn't aware of any of Åsa's visits to Lloyd (which had started before his departure), or any possible trips to Ashford's house.

Neil came over to our table and said, "You should be aware that there are a few reporters outside, being very insistent. They want to see Miss Sleet. About vampires."

Dr. Lee nodded and turned to us. "I can send some people with you, to clear them away and then to escort you home."

Jan smiled. "I'm sure you have other ways of getting out of this building besides the front door."

Dr. Lee nodded after a moment. "Of course," she said quietly. "Are you leaving now, or is there more you want to do here?"

Jan finished the bite she was chewing and swallowed. Her interrogation of Spence had meant that she still had food on her plate though the rest of us were done. And she knew I would have something to say if she didn't finish her meal.

"I'd like to talk to Christy for a moment," she said.

"She's over there," I said, pointing. I had spotted her distinctive red hair when we'd come in.

My employer considered making a sarcastic comment about my ability to locate Christy even in a crowded room, but she postponed it. As I've said, Christy was very attractive, and my employer, for reasons which are beyond the scope of this report, sometimes teased me about my (supposed) interest in her.

Seeing that Dr. Lee was about to summon Christy to us, Jan grabbed her cane and levered herself to her feet.

"We'll go over," she said. "It's no problem." She glanced at me. "And then I'll finish my lunch and we can go."

Christy smiled as we approached and indicated that we should join her. Jan sat, and then said, "Christy, can we have dinner with you and Fifteen tonight?"

She smiled. "I'd be glad to, but I don't know his schedule. He has a lot of responsibilities–"

"–which I can make go away with a wave of my hand."

Christy laughed. "I guess you can. That would be wonderful."

Jan got to her feet again. "I'm sure Marshall and I have meetings we should be attending this afternoon, so let's get together at the hotel around dinner time, and then we can go someplace nice from there."

"So, are we suspects?" Fifteen asked as we sat down. "Have you decided I'm a vampire?"

Jan laughed as the waiter hovered with the wine list. "No," she said, "neither of you is under any suspicion of anything. Well, except perhaps the improper use of a Parcheesi board." We all laughed as she waved a hand, dismissing the waiter.

We were back at the Indian restaurant where we had heard about vampires before. Jan had quizzed our guests very carefully about their preferences, and it had appeared that Indian food was fine with them.

"I don't mind if you all drink," Christy said quietly.

Jan shook her head. "Thank you, but I'm not much of a drinker. And, while I anticipate that this will be a very pleasant evening, I am actually working. To be frank, I need to know more than I know now, and you two are the only people involved in this case who I'm sure aren't guilty of anything. So, I want to quiz you, for hours and hours, about various subjects, and see what I can come up with."

The waiter brought us menus, and Jan said, "For example, Christy, I imagine it was pretty big news among the Jinx when I solved the murder of Felix."

Christy nodded. "We talked about it a lot. We were all glad you figured it out, though some people felt he kind of deserved it. Well, not to be killed, but it was pretty messed up how he treated Dorothy, and the girl who killed him."

"What did people think of my work on the case? I don't ask out of ego..." She caught my expression. "Well, ego may be a factor, but I do have another reason for asking."

"Some people were impressed. Dorothy definitely was."

"What about Neil?"

She chuckled. "I have no idea."

"What about Åsa, or Lloyd, or Spence?"

"I never heard Åsa talk about it at all. Or Spence, as far as I can remember." She smiled. "Lloyd thought you were overrated, that you'd got lucky."

Jan smiled and opened her menu. "We should probably order."

My employer skillfully balanced her questioning with casual conversation, so she learned quite a bit (none of which seemed significant to me) without Christy and Fifteen feeling like they were being interrogated.

After quizzing Christy for some time (and immediately changing the subject whenever it seemed as though she was bumping into Jinx secrets), she eventually turned her attention to Fifteen. We were well into coffee and dessert by then, and my employer was smoking.

"So," she asked him, "what can you tell me about vampires as a cultural phenomenon?"

He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "There aren't any?" he suggested after a moment.

She laughed as the waiter poured more coffee. "I should have been more specific. Are there recent events that relate somehow, or might relate, to the question of vampires?"

"You've heard about Ashford's new book, I assume?"

She nodded. "Oh, yes."

"Well, in addition to that, there are a few people dressing up, playing at biting passersby. There are rumors of an increase in vampire-based role playing in... shall we say, private situations, but of course that's difficult to quantify."

"Thank goodness for that."

"There isn't any general panic, but rumors are increasing, and some people are coming to us with various questions and fears." He shook his head, looking unusually serious. "It's not going in a good direction, let's just say that." Then he smiled. "And of course there's the fashion angle," he said with a tilt of his head, indicating the four people two tables away from us, all very pale with black hair and elegant black clothes.

Jan nodded. "Of course."

I looked more closely at the young woman of that group who was closest to me. Turning to Fifteen, I tapped myself on the side of the neck.

He smiled. "The scars are considered quite chic," he murmured. "In some circles."

Christy shook her head. "I made the mistake of telling my son how silly I thought this all was. So, of course now he wants to get bitten himself."

I could tell that Jan was restraining herself from asking a question. She was interested in learning the age of Christy's son, just out of idle curiosity. Given the age of Christy's boyfriend, however, even my employer realized that this could be an awkward topic.

"Is there any anti-Jinx sentiment," she asked instead, "because of people seeing Åsa?"

Fifteen shook his head. "Not really. Vampires were already a hot topic before Åsa started appearing, and the general theory seems to be that the Jinx wouldn't have called you in if they had had anything to hide."

My employer smiled. "Some people have asked for my help and ended up regretting it, but Dr. Lee would seem to be too smart to make that mistake."

Much later, as we were getting ready for bed, she was looking pleased with herself. I knew it wasn't about the case (she never preened until she had every question completely answered), but I had an idea what was on her mind. She caught my expression and I said, "I know that look. This is not the time."

"What do you mean?"

I looked at her, and she made a face.

"You're thinking about the meeting tomorrow night," I said. "Where you will bring up the subject of the non-existence of God, not because it's relevant to vampire murders, but just because you want to."

She looked miffed. "Well," she said after a moment, "you're just a poky old Catholic." She sat down next to me, and I put my arm around her.

"Well, let's take that apart," I said. "Catholic? I haven't been to church in over seven years. By common law, the church and I are divorced."

"That's an interesting theory," she said, drawing her head back to look at me skeptically. "It has the virtue of originality, anyway."

"As for 'old,' that's clearly a relative term, depending on the age of the observer."

"Well, this observer, your fetching young wife, finds you to be old." She nuzzled against my cheek. "Attractive, of course, but in an 'oldish' sort of way." She drew back her head to look at me again. "You're avoiding the question of 'poky.'"

"I am, of course, poky, in comparison to my young and fetching and somewhat lunatic wife. I do have to try to keep her alive, after all."

Later, when I was nearly asleep, she tapped me on the shoulder. "Marshall?"

I made a noncommittal noise, as if I might be Marshall, but I might be someone else.

"I have a question," she said.

I was tempted to sigh, but that would have been rude so I didn't.

"Come here," I said, and she rested her head on my shoulder, her long legs entwined around mine. "What's your question?" I asked, putting my arm around her.

"Am I wrong?"

"About what?" I asked, not mentioning that this was the first time she had ever asked me this question.

"Should I be telling people there are no vampires? Even though I'm not sure it's true?"

"Why would you want to tell people something that isn't true?"

"So nobody panics and does something stupid." She shook her head. "It was easier when all I had to do was solve the mystery and write the article."

"I think you're handling it the right way," I said. "For one thing, just making the blanket statement that there aren't any vampires wouldn't convince the people who are the most likely to panic. For another thing, if you do say that and then it turns out that you're wrong, then you've lost their trust." I hugged her. "Do you want to be a reporter, looking for the truth, or do you want to be a politician?"

I felt her chuckle. "You know the answer to that."

The next morning, I asked where we were off to, and she told me that we were waiting. That could have meant we were waiting for something specific, or it could have meant she had no idea what to do next. I didn't ask which it was.

In any case, we ended up in a meeting about sanitation, and I was idly wondering about the possibility and the advisability of getting a second cup of coffee when the door opened and Neil came in, followed by Christy and another Jinx who I didn't know.

"I'm sorry to interrupt," he said, "but we need your help. Spence has been murdered, and Lloyd has vanished–"

The door crashed open again and a very small teenage girl burst in, bellowing, "MAIL! HIGH PRIORITY! IMMEDIATE DELIVERY!" as she strode around the table, pushing Neil aside. Christy, who was more accustomed to our ways, had stepped back as soon as the door had opened.

Ron (for that was the girl's name) placed the large envelope in front of my employer, then turned to leave, only pausing on her way out to try to stomp on Fifteen's toes.

The door slammed behind her, and Neil asked, "What the hell was that?"

Jan smiled as she opened the envelope, using the stem of her pipe as a letter-opener. "Oh, that's Ron," she said, peering at him over her glasses. "She delivers our mail."

"Next time we negotiate with the Scorpions, I'm bringing her." He shook his head. "Anyway–"

My employer held up a hand as she flipped quickly through the papers, which appeared to be official documents (in fact, based on previous experience, I had a pretty good idea what they were). "I realize the situation," she said slowly, her eyes on the papers, "but this information may provide the answers. However, I must read and then think a bit, or I might make a mistake." She looked up. "Can you do something for me?" She was trying to seem calm, but I could tell she was excited.

Neil nodded. "Of course."

"Please go back and make sure nothing is touched or moved. Then send a vehicle back, a car or something–"

"We have a van."

"That would be fine. Then I'll come and investigate, and maybe we can settle some of this today."

We were in Spence's room. He was lying on his bed, naked, with his throat cut. It was not pleasant to look at, though it was not the first dead body I had ever seen. I found myself thinking that I hadn't particularly liked Spence anyway, but that was unfair since I hadn't really known him at all.

"A knife was used," Dr. Lee observed. "It's not here, but we found it in Lloyd's room, along with some bloody clothes. But no Lloyd."

My employer nodded. "The appearance is that it was a killing driven by jealousy. Lloyd, upset that Spence had succeeded where he had failed, murdered his rival, and then ran for it."

Dr. Lee frowned. "Your tone tells me that you're not buying that explanation. Neither am I."

"Do you have another?"

She nodded. "I do. I think I may have made a mistake."

"In what way?" my employer asked.

"Ashford must have known, after my ultimatum, that he wouldn't be able to get Åsa to come to him anymore. So, what did he do? He sent that Mindy girl to us. She was betraying him, so I'd tend to believe her, and I offered her sanctuary. So, she was inside our home, and able to act on Ashford's orders."

Jan nodded. "That's good thinking. You're wrong – that's not what happened – but it's a good thought."

Dr. Lee was about to ask a question, but Neil knocked and came in.

"Success?" Jan asked.

He nodded. "Yes."

My employer turned quickly to Dr. Lee. "May I run this?"

"Do you know the answer?"

"Yes. I know all of the answers, or at least I will in a few minutes."

The Jinx leader nodded. "Alright."

"Neil, I need to do one thing, with your help. Dr. Lee will accompany us. Then, while she and I are doing that, please bring the following people to Dr. Lee's office: Christy, Åsa, Nikolai, Mindy, and Rex. Don't let any of them talk to anyone alone after they talk to you, and don't let any of them know about..." She waved a hand, and he nodded.

"Got it," he said as he turned to the door, the two women following him out.

As I stood there, suddenly alone with the dead body, I reflected (and not for the first time) that sometimes it was difficult to tell which my employer enjoyed more: solving mysteries, or keeping me in the dark until the last possible minute.

About twenty minutes later, we were all in Dr. Lee's office. Dr. Lee was in her usual chair, and Åsa was in the other one, looking somewhat shell shocked. My employer sat on the sofa until everyone was assembled, then she got to her feet and walked slowly to the side of the room so she could be facing everybody.

Two Jinx who I didn't know stood on either side of the door.

"Marshall teases me sometimes about my reluctance to do conventional detective work," she began, "but I use those methods when they are necessary. With Dr. Lee's cooperation, I did two things the night before last. One was that I obtained fingerprint samples from three people: Åsa, Lloyd, and Spence. This was done without their knowledge, from items in their rooms. We have a friend who can get fingerprint information for us, and that information arrived this morning.

"Here is what we found out. Lloyd has no record. Spence had been arrested a couple of times, years ago, for petty theft and extortion. But there was some very significant information about Åsa." She turned to Dr. Lee. "Do you have a policy on members who were police officers in the past?"

"Yes. They are not allowed. Ever."

"And what if you discovered that a member in good standing had been a police officer at some point?"

"He or she would be kicked out immediately, because that would mean they had lied to become a member in the first place."

"And what would they take with them when they left?"

"Well, we wouldn't kick them out naked. They'd get whatever clothes they were wearing, not including their jacket, and nothing else."

"Well, then you will be interested to learn that Åsa's real name is Jillian Wells, and she was a police officer for–"

Åsa started to stand and protest, but Neil was standing behind her by then, and he grabbed her shoulders and slammed her back down into the chair. "Quiet," he said in a low voice. She slumped, her head hanging.

"How do you fill out a crossword puzzle?" my employer continued calmly. "Say the clue for 1 Across is 'not skimpy,' in five letters. Well, one way to figure that out is to start with some obvious possibilities, like ample, broad, vasty, bulky, massy, and large. Fill them in, one by one, in pencil, and see what you can figure out for 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 Down. At a certain point, it will start to fall into place, and then you check what that gives you for the other words across. Sooner or later, it will all fit.

"So, we have a blackmailer and someone with a dangerous secret. What if Spence was blackmailing her?"

"He never–" Åsa began.

"Silence!" Dr. Lee snapped. "You do not get to speak. No matter what, no matter who murdered who, you swore a false membership oath." She turned to Neil. "Bind and gag her."

Neil nodded at one of the Jinx by the door and she went out. Dr. Lee turned to my employer, but she said calmly, "I'll wait."

It was at this point that I began to wonder if Åsa was planning something. Her head was hanging again, but I wasn't convinced that she was as defeated as she appeared. There was no way she could hope to get to the door, let alone through it, but I wondered about the window. It was three stories straight down to the sidewalk, but that could have looked like a good option to her right then, whether or not she was the sort of creature who could survive a fall like that.

I started to move slowly in that direction, toward the window, and I was nearly there when the woman came back in with a pile of colored cloths which I realized were bandannas.

Neil looked up, at the woman coming in, and Åsa suddenly leaped for the window.

She didn't make it, to the window or to me, because Neil grabbed her by the collar of her leather jacket and tossed her back into the chair. It was nicely done, I must admit. Then, as he tied her up with the bandannas, I saw him note where I was now standing. He glanced at my previous position, and then he nodded at me, so slightly that I'm sure nobody else noticed it.

"To take it a bit further," my employer continued, when she was sure the interruptions were over, "we have a potential blackmailer, a potential blackmail victim, and a joker who thought I was at least a bit overrated. So, let's make some assumptions and see where we end up, what other blanks we can fill in.

"Let's assume that Spence was blackmailing Åsa, his price probably being her sexual favors, at least. I thought from the first that the romance between them was not very convincing. She had no apparent interest in having him with her as she was recovering, and he seemed to have no real interest in her condition. When I've been hurt, I've wanted Marshall to be with me, and he's wanted to be there, and vice versa.

"In any case, quite understandably, Åsa found this whole situation intolerable. Not only was she forced to have sex with a man she despised, but she was still in constant danger that he would reveal her secret. And Lloyd would have helped her, both because he was infatuated with her and because it would have struck him funny to prove that I'm overrated. So, he told us an incredible story about Åsa visiting his room and ravishing him every night, arriving by the window, naked, and floating across the room, and he was laughing at me for believing it.

"Now, how did the case first come to our attention? Åsa developed vampire-like wounds on her neck." She smiled and looked at me. "Can we imagine people inflicting wounds like that on themselves?"

"It's become something of a fad," I replied.

"Exactly. And, very cleverly, she never admitted that anything was happening. In fact, she denied it, repeatedly and sarcastically, which was one of the best parts of her plan.

"We know she went out on at least two nights and went to Isaac Ashford's house, going into a shed at the side of the house. There is an entrance from the shed into the house, but there is no evidence that she used it, or that she interacted with him or any of his staff on those nights. Ashford denied he had ever met her and we know that was a lie, but the only time we know she was in the house was a week earlier, when she may have been investigating, learning what she needed to know for her plan to work. So, she could have gone into the shed that night and waited there for a while, without anybody in the house knowing anything about it, opening the wounds on her neck in the process so she could leave a blood stain on the floor.

"It may seem outré for a person to do this, but an animal will chew off its own paw to get out of a trap. She was in a trap, and she was tough enough to get out of it however she could. And she didn't even have to lose a limb, just some blood, and she had to miss some meals and pretend to be even weaker than she actually was.

"In any case, she came out of the shed, bloody and staggering, and made her way back here. Then, as she was apparently about to scale the side of the building to Lloyd's window, she collapsed into Marshall's arms." She looked at me again. "It seems that, if you hadn't been there, she'd have taken a nasty fall, but could she have heard you running across the street to catch her?"


"But how did she know we were there at all?" Christy asked.

"Because, according to our current assumptions, she was putting on a show. She had probably put it on the night before as well, and she would have continued to give repeat performances until an audience showed up. From what Marshall has said, it would have been fairly easy for her to spot you at some point, since she was apparently quite oblivious and that may have caused you to lower your guard. Besides, she had seen me earlier in the day, so it probably wasn't difficult to figure out the investigation was about to start.

"So, that's my premise. The vampire rumors were already going around, probably started or abetted by Ashford and his minions. Åsa saw a chance to create a big smoke screen behind which she could get free."

She turned to Åsa, who had given up on testing her bonds and sat glaring. "I'm sure you're wishing you could ask me where my evidence is." She smiled sadly. "I said I did two things the night before last, with Dr. Lee's cooperation. One was getting the fingerprints. The other was suggested by something Neil said after Felix was killed. When we found Felix's body, Neil wanted to seal all the exits of the hospital, but I pointed out how useless that would have been, a half hour or more after the murder. But this case was different, and the person behind it, when exposed, might well try to run rather than face the vengeance of the Jinx.

"It is an interesting thing about U-town. Unless you have a boat, there are only two ways in or out of U-town. There's the Arklay Bridge, which most people call the city bridge, and there's the Ravens Gate Bridge, which most people call the highway bridge. Both of them have been being watched for the last forty-eight hours, by members of the Jinx." She shook her head. "You're hoping that I'm bluffing, I know. I do bluff sometimes, but I know when it won't work."

She nodded at Dr. Lee, who snapped her fingers with a surprisingly loud crack, and the door opened.

The Jinx who came in was the largest woman I have ever seen. She was tall and wide and muscular, with long red hair, and she was escorting Lloyd, who was looking at everything and everyone in the room except for Åsa.

"I offered Lloyd complete clemency if he told us the whole story," Dr. Lee said quietly, "and he accepted my offer."

Åsa freaked out at that point, thrashing around and trying to get free, but the bandannas held. Dr. Lee regarded her, frothing and struggling, and calmly said, "Take her away."

The two guards who had been standing by the door came over and carried Åsa out.

Mindy looked unsure of what she should do, but Rex clapped her on the shoulder and said, "C'mon, kid. I'll buy you a beer."

She nodded. "Okay."

Lloyd left after them, looking morose.

Dr. Lee's attention was on Christy, who was sitting on the sofa. She looked like she was about to cry. She saw us looking at her and waved a hand. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'll be–"

"Don't be sorry," Dr. Lee said softly. She squatted next to Christy and took her hand. "Our sister betrayed us. Every day she lived with us was a lie, and now we will have her blood in our veins for the rest of our lives to remind us. You're right–"

There was a quick knock and then the door opened and Fifteen peered in. Seeing Christy, he hurried over to her.

Dr. Lee got up as Fifteen sat next to Christy and embraced her.

"Oh, punkin," Christy murmured, starting to cry. Fifteen stroked her hair.

"We'll be in the cafeteria," Dr. Lee said quietly. "Join us later if you want to."

In the hallway, Jan asked, "How did Fifteen know to come?" I could tell that Neil and Nikolai knew the answer already.

"I sent for him," Dr. Lee said. "As soon as we heard Lloyd's story. I knew she'd be upset."

In the cafeteria, we got coffee and sat down. It was the middle of the afternoon, so most of the tables were empty.

"I'm not clear on what happened last night," Nikolai said.

My employer smiled. She always liked it when people asked questions like that.

"We heard some of it from Lloyd," she said, "and we can figure out the rest, or at least most of it. He went to visit Åsa in the infirmary in the middle of the night. She seduced him, knowing from past experience that he would fall asleep right after. Then she put on his clothes and went to Spence's room. It was very late at that point, and she was careful not to be seen. Then she killed Spence. It appeared as though he was asleep – his posture gave that impression – but they might have had a conversation first. We don't know.

"Then she went to Lloyd's room. She left the knife and the bloody clothes there, and returned to the infirmary, wearing clean clothes. She took off the clothes, and then she woke Lloyd up and told him she'd visited Spence and they'd had a fight and she'd knocked him out. She had always told Lloyd about how jealous Spence was, which was probably a lie, but she said that Spence had found out that she was sleeping with Lloyd, and that he'd be coming after both of them as soon as he woke up. She said she had to run and she wanted Lloyd to run away with her. Lloyd was stunned by this, and she pressed him that they should leave separately and meet at the other side of the bridge, in the city.

"By the time he was halfway to the bridge, wearing the clothes she'd had on, he'd figured out that he'd been conned. For one thing, why were the clothes different from the ones he'd been wearing before? But he figured there was no reason to return. He'd helped her, and he'd lied to us; his life with the Jinx was over."

When the questions were answered, the conversation changed abruptly. Dr. Lee leaned forward, and started to grill us with questions about U-town and how it functioned. She asked about food and water and transportation and economics and enforcement and medical care and sanitation (I was able to dredge up a few useful facts that I'd heard in the meeting that morning).

Nikolai left at some point during this, and then Christy and Fifteen joined us.

Fifteen, once he realized what was going on, immediately took over most of the answering, revealing an encyclopedic knowledge of every aspect of U-town life that surprised even me. A couple of the projects he described were news to me, and I wondered if he was inventing them on the spot, but I never asked.

I was not aware of any signal or request, but at one point people bought us food, and then more coffee.

Jan looked around suddenly. "What time is it?" She loved to ask what time it was, though she always carried a pocket watch.

"Nearly seven," I said.

She stood up. "We need to get over to that meeting and settle this vampire business."

"We'll come," Dr. Lee said. "Neil, have the van brought around." He left and she addressed my employer again. "I assume you'd prefer to travel in the van, rather than on a motorcycle."

Jan smiled. "Thank you. With my leg, a motorcycle would be a bit challenging."

Jan, Fifteen, and I entered the auditorium through the side door, and headed for the wings. As we reached the side of the stage, we heard a murmur from the crowd. Jan was consulting with Vicki, so I looked out to see Dr. Lee, Neil, Christy, Rex, Nikolai, and two other Jinx I didn't know enter the auditorium and make their way down the aisle to the front row. Rex had driven the van, but the others had ridden on their motorcycles.

This was unprecedented. There had been a Jinx or two at some previous meetings, as there were at this one, but never as a group and never including Dr. Lee or Neil. This was the clearest statement I could imagine that they were throwing in their lot with us.

As they reached the front row, by which time everybody in the crowd was aware of them, people moved so they could sit together.

Jan adjusted her tie. "How do I look?" she asked, peeking out at the crowd.

I leaned over to whisper, "You look beautiful."

This caught her off guard, and she was not able to completely conceal her look of pleasure. She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, then she limped to the lectern, hooked her cane over the edge, raised the microphone, and started to speak. "My name is Jan Sleet. I am a reporter by profession, I solve mysteries as a hobby, and I play a role in the U-town government, as you probably know. This is the first, and almost certainly the last, public meeting here to talk about vampires.

"When this first became an issue, some people thought that I should get up here and say that there is no such thing as a vampire. That's what conventional wisdom says, after all. But conventional wisdom (which is a contradiction in terms, by the way, in a way that 'common sense' is not – but I digress) would also tell us that U-town itself could not exist. And, of course, it does. So, we cannot use 'conventional wisdom' to rule out the existence of vampires.

"And, even now, I am not going to stand up here and tell you that there are no vampires anywhere in the world. But I am going to tell you that there is no evidence of any in U-town, now or ever, and the 'evidence' that did exist was deliberately created, in an attempt to confuse and mislead all of us.

"The attacks on the woman known as Åsa of the Jinx were self-inflicted, to create and feed the idea that there are vampires among us. This was to provide a cover for a murder which she committed, against a fellow member of the Jinx who was blackmailing her. To be honest, in general my sympathy is with Åsa, since he was using a secret that he knew about her in order to force her to sleep with him. But she lost my sympathy when I realized that her solution was to kill the blackmailer and then to frame someone else, an innocent man who was desperately in love with her.

"In addition, she attempted to implicate Isaac Ashford, a local poet. He is, as we all know, an eccentric, but he is not a vampire, much as he may like to play at being one. Also, for all that she tried to make it appear otherwise, he only ever met her once, a week before the murder.

"These facts are all known and they are not in dispute.

"Now, if you were fooled by any of this, I encourage you to examine the logical processes which brought you to your conclusions. There was a period of time in this case when I did not know the answer, and, as I said, I thought that vampirism was one possible explanation. But there is a big difference between thinking of that as a possible solution, and deciding that the existence of vampires was a proven fact. If you came that the latter conclusion, then your reasoning was faulty, because the evidence did not support that conclusion."

It was about a month after the end of the vampire case when we finally learned what had happened to Åsa.

Jan stretched and smiled. She was still in bed, and for once she didn't wince at the morning sun coming through the window, and she didn't pull the pillow over her head.

"No work today," she announced. "No meetings, no mysteries, no articles, no reading, no writing. Just sleeping and eating and smoking and drinking coffee."

"It sounds like you've suddenly decided to start living entirely for pleasure," I commented.

"For today," she said, her eyes still closed. "Is it nice out?"

"It looks very nice," I said. "It's supposed to be warm, too. Warmer, anyway."

"Warmer is fine. Let's promenade along the..." She frowned and opened her eyes. "Promenade along the promenade? That doesn't sound right."

"I think you stroll along the promenade," I said, "Or you promenade along the... something."

"That sounds too energetic anyway. Maybe we could sit along the promenade, or somewhere, and have a nice leisurely breakfast, lasting well into early afternoon, with many cups of coffee, and many cigarettes, and some pleasant conversation."

And so it was that, on the first warmish day of spring, we were sitting in an outdoor cafe, sipping coffee, chatting about this and that.

"Ah," she said, gesturing behind me, where I heard a motor approaching. I assumed it was one of the Jinx, since almost nobody else in U-town used motor vehicles. It was Neil, and he waved as he pulled up to the curb.

"Come join us," Jan called as he cut the motor. "We've decided to spend the day in idle debauchery."

He raised an eyebrow as he approached, but he didn't comment on her fairly quaint idea of what "debauchery" might consist of. He took a chair from an adjoining table and pulled it over as we made room for him.

"What brings you out in the middle of the day?" he asked. "I thought you'd be in a meeting or something."

She shook her head. "Not today. It's too nice out." She drew on her cigarette and regarded him for a moment. "May I ask a question?" she asked. "Possibly two?"

He shrugged, smiling. The waiter brought him a coffee and he sipped it. "You may," he answered, "as long as it's understood that my answers are not official, and you agree that none of this will appear in print anywhere."

She laughed. "Please, I am a professional. When I do an interview, it's formally identified as such. I don't ambush people. And these questions are probably not of general interest anyway."

"Okay, ask away."

"Why is the Jinx policy so strict against having members who were formerly police officers?"

He nodded. "Good question. It came about because of experience, actually. Twice, in different cities, the police tried to infiltrate us by having a cop 'go bad' and try to join. Both of them were rejected for other reasons, but it made us aware that this was a tactic that they adopt from time to time. And the most obvious way to block it was to make the rule." He sipped his coffee. "That's why it applies specifically to the police and not to the fire department or the military." He smiled. "As you deduced at the hospital, I was in the military myself for some years. And your other question?"

"What happened to Åsa?"

He leaned back and sighed. "We were wondering if you were ever going to ask. Everybody who suffered because of what she did was Jinx, so there was a basis for leaving the resolution to us, but you have made it clear that this is your territory and that you're not sharing authority with us, so a case could also be made that she should have been turned over to you."

"It was a complex decision, and the next time the answer might be different," she admitted.

"Well, I will tell you, but I want something in return, I want an answer from you."

She smiled, lighting another cigarette. "About what?"

"How you deduced that I was in the military, and that my hobby is painting. I've been trying to figure out how you knew that. It's possible that you might have deduced that I was in the military, but how did you know that I paint?" He laughed. "I wash my hands when I'm done, and I don't lug my easel around like that fellow."

He gestured, and we turned around to see that a man had set up an easel and was painting behind us, on the other side of the narrow street. The large canvas was turned away from us, and it looked as though he was painting the small traffic island in front of us, which had once contained a statue. The man was handsome, with unruly hair and a faint stubble, and his smock and his jeans were stained here and there with paint. The only item of clothing that seemed to be clean was the battered tweed trilby he wore.

There was a woman watching him paint, and after a moment she came up and shook her head, pointing at the canvas. She took the brush from him and gestured with it, though it wasn't clear if she was just making a point or if she was applying paint to the canvas. They were both smiling, though, and it seemed that whatever argument they were having was one they had had before and would almost certainly have again.

As she was talking, he lit a cigarette, and, when she had made her final point, she took the cigarette from his mouth and kissed him lustily. Then she took his hat, perched it on her own full, dark hair, and strolled off, still smoking the cigarette.

"If you did lug your easel around," my employer commented to Neil, "maybe you'd meet some cute girls like her."

Neil laughed and looked at me. "Someday, Marshall, you should educate the great detective here about the difference between 'cute girls' and 'beautiful women.'"

I laughed as well, and he turned back to Jan. "So, do we have a deal? I answered your question, and I will answer another, then you'll answer mine?"

She was stuck, and she knew it. She did want to know the answer, and he had already answered one of hers, and she knew I was also curious about how she had made those deductions about Neil during the hospital case.

She nodded. "Deal," she said.

"Contrary to what some people think," he said, "the Jinx don't take vengeance. Åsa was brought to the bridge and told never to return to U-town." He smiled. "Not very dramatic, I know, but sometimes part of the way we protect ourselves is to seem more threatening than we are."

"On the other hand, I assume that the threat Christy made to Ashford was real."

He nodded. "Good point. Yes, that was the literal truth. If he had harmed Åsa, we would have killed him and destroyed his house. But, as you pointed out at the meeting, Åsa was not the villain here, not really. Spence was. She had to be kicked out, but we weren't going to do more than that." He sipped his coffee and then continued. "It's a moot point now, of course, but I'm curious as to whether you approve. We did release a murderer, after all."

She shook her head. "What she did was wrong, but it was under duress, and under circumstances which were very unlikely to be repeated." She smiled as the waiter poured more coffee, topping off my cup as well. "The detectives from whom I take my inspiration usually reserved the right to make those sorts of decisions themselves – to allow a murderer to escape or to let him commit suicide – if they thought that the situation warranted it."

"But you're talking about fictional characters, aren't you? Can those rules really be applied to real life?"

She smiled. "When people make that objection, it's usually because I think The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a better fictional guide for life than, for example, the Holy Bible."

Neil hooted a laugh and said, "Point taken." Still chuckling, he peered over my shoulder again. "In illustration of my earlier point, by the way," he said as we turned again, "that's a cute girl."

She was indeed. Shorter and younger than the other woman, blonde and curvy, with full, lush lips, she approached the painter from behind, clearly planning to surprise him. "His daughter?" Neil murmured.

The man turned (he had apparently been aware of her approach), and they kissed.

"Not his daughter, I would think," Jan said sotto voce after a while, as the kiss continued.

"I certainly hope not," Neil said with a chuckle. The girl finally stepped back to look at the canvas, still holding the man's hand, and I noticed a camera around her neck. She nodded at the canvas, and then tilted her head up to kiss him again.

"Uh oh," Neil said, and I followed his gaze to see the dark-haired woman approaching from down the block, looking irate. "Paint will fly in a moment," he said. "She looks like a fighter."

"I deduce that no violence will ensue," my employer said quickly, and indeed the dark-haired woman's ire was apparently still directed toward the canvas. She gestured at it, frowning (but again trying not to smile). As she made her points, the younger woman came to stand beside her, squeezing her around the waist.

"I still want an answer to my first question," Neil said as the man started to pack up his supplies, the women kissing and then starting to help him, "but how did you know this was not going to end up in violence?"

The dark-haired woman had removed the hat, and she playfully plopped it on the younger woman's head, where it fell down and nearly covered her eyes. Laughing and turning as she tilted it back, she spotted us and waved. "Hi, Marshall! Hi, Jan!" she called, and the others noticed us for the first time and waved as well.

Neil raised an eyebrow at my employer. "Apparently, it seems that you knew them already."

Deciding that this had gone on long enough, I said, "We were present at their wedding."

"Whose wedding? Who's married?"

"All three of them."

He looked thoughtful, then he laughed and turned to my employer again. "So," he said, "sometimes when you come to amazing conclusions, it's because you have inside information?"

She smiled. "Occasionally, I confess, that is the case."

The three had joined us by that time. We moved to a larger table, and the question of Jan's deductions about Neil was dropped. However, at one point, when the three painters were comparing notes on where they bought their supplies, Jan did mention offhandedly that she knew which store Neil patronized, since she'd happened to see him shopping there once, some months before.

Neil smiled when she said this, but he didn't comment.


the college mystery

Mail delivery was rather typical for U-town, in that it was casual, somewhat messy, and more or less functional.

Every morning, a post office truck came over the bridge and dropped a big canvas bag onto the huge piling that blocked the U-town end of the bridge. The bag was then put on a dolly and wheeled to a nearby storefront. The contents were sorted there (usually fairly accurately) by a group consisting of volunteers, people expecting mail, and runners. If people saw mail for their neighbors, they would usually take it as well (if they were on good terms). And the runners would also pick through the pile, looking for mail they could deliver (especially to people who were known to be generous tippers).

Our mail, the mail for the informal council that ran U-town, was collected somewhat more efficiently. A member of our staff, a young teenage girl named Ron, handled it. She clearly enjoyed the (supposed) status and prestige that this responsibility conferred on her and she wouldn't let anybody fill in, even when she was sick.

Every morning, Ron would go down to the bridge and wait for the mail truck. Then, when the canvas bag was dropped next to her, she bawled "Mail!" no matter who, if anybody, was around. She never transported the mail bag herself, but when people came with the dolly to bring it to our storefront post office she walked with them, usually watching them very carefully, especially if she didn't know them very well.

While the mail was being sorted, she would take anything for any of us and put it carefully into her bag. The bag was a battered canvas shoulder bag in olive green, with a faded red cross on it, and I never did see her without it. Then, when she was absolutely sure that she had every piece of "official U-town mail," she would set out for the hotel.

When she arrived, she would always attempt to interrupt whatever we were doing in order to deliver the mail immediately. This usually led to an altercation, most often verbal but occasionally involving kicking, with one of our young aides, usually either Pat (who couldn't stand her) or Fifteen (who took it as a friendly challenge whenever anybody tried to outdo him in officiousness).

Sooner or later, usually sooner, one of us would go to the door and let her in. The din she generated always made it impossible to concentrate on anything anyway. Ron was not large, but her lung power was nearly superhuman, and her voice resembled either a buzz saw, a chain saw, or the world's largest dentist's drill. Opinions differed on that point, but we all agreed that, of all the people we had ever met, she was the one we least wanted to hear singing.

When she had been admitted, she would walk around the table, giving each of us our mail. She would also tell each of us whether or not we had received any packages. In some cases she would actually give us the packages, but most of the time she would say, "It looked suspicious, so I disposed of it."

Ron was always very leery of packages. Her decisions may have been arbitrary, but it was not impossible to imagine someone sending us some kind of explosive, so we didn't complain. My employer had threatened Ron with various dire punishments (loss of her job, mostly) if any shipments from her tailor went astray, so they were always delivered.

We never did learn how she disposed of the packages she decided were suspicious, but none of them ever turned up.

On this particular morning, Ron was quite brusque when we saw her, and it wasn't until later that we learned what had happened.

When she'd shown up to deliver the mail, Fifteen had been especially adamant about not letting her into the meeting room, neglecting to mention that we weren't in there (we were having breakfast in the cafeteria). When she finally kicked him in the shin, ducked around him, and burst through the door, she had not been happy to discover that the room was empty.

She stormed into the cafeteria, spotted us and came over, looking very serious. We didn't know about her run-in with Fifteen, so we were somewhat surprised when, instead of starting to distribute the mail, she announced, "The mail is very important!"

"Yes, it is," Doc said. "Has somebody been interfering with the mail, Ron?" Even in the dining room, Doc usually sat at the head of our table. She took off her horn-rimmed glasses as she regarded Ron, who was obviously furious. Doc was concealing her amusement well (always a useful skill in a head of state).

"Some people," Ron said deliberately, "think it's a good idea to play stupid jokes and slow down the mail delivery."

"Did Fifteen play a joke on you?" Jan asked as Ron started to pull the mail out of her bag. She made a face but didn't answer.

"I think that means he likes you," Vicki said. "Boys often tease girls when they–"

"What?" she demanded. She was clearly so outraged by this idea that she could barely speak. She dumped out the remaining mail, slung her bag over her shoulder, and stormed off.

Doc sighed at Vicki. "That wasn't nice," she said, losing her battle to keep a straight face.

"Hee," Vicki giggled, covering her mouth. "I couldn't resist. When she calms down, she'll realize how ridiculous it is."

"Which won't be until after she takes out her ire on young Fifteen," Ray commented.

Pat made a face. "Well, he shouldn't tease her so much," she said. "It just encourages her to act up."

Vicki hopped up on the table, laughing. "Well, Fifteen will have to deal with the consequences. Let's see what we have here." She sat cross-legged in the center of the table and started to go through the envelopes. It was the usual mixture of fan mail, obscene screeds, peculiar questions, funny post cards, and family mail.

"Jan," she said, holding out one envelope, "this looks official. Maybe it's your diploma."

My employer looked at the envelope. "If they're sending me a diploma it must be honorary. I've never even heard of Barlowe... Hey!" Her eyes grew wide as she read. "They want me to come and speak. Like a guest speaker."

"How much are they offering?" Ray asked.


He chuckled. "I know that the opportunity to address an audience would seem to be payment enough, but some amount of cash is usually involved as well."

"Cash which we could use," Doc added. "As usual."

"We should go and see Stuart," Jan said, grabbing her cane and getting to her feet. "If we hurry–"

"Jan," Doc said slowly.

She looked startled. "What?"

"It's Saturday. I don't think he'll be in his office."

My employer frowned. "Are you sure he doesn't have office hours on Saturday?"

"Almost certain," she said.

My employer smiled at me. "We know where he lives, don't we?"

"This is not an emergency," I said firmly. "It can wait until Monday."

She sighed and sat down again.

"Poo," she said.

"Car service."

"Lola? This is Marshall."

"Hello, Mr. Marshall. Do you need a car?"

"Yes, as soon as you can."

"Ten to fifteen."

"That sounds good. Thanks."

I hung up and went over to my employer. She had seated herself on the huge, colorfully-painted wooden piling that lay across the base of the bridge, marking the official border between U-town and the United States. This was where Ron sat every day, waiting for the mail truck. Due to my employer's impatience, however, we were there very early in the morning, far earlier than even someone as dedicated as Ron would have showed up to wait for a mail delivery.

The pay phone I had used was one of the few working ones in U-town. We relied on it from time to time, so someone we knew came and checked it once a week to make sure it was in good working order. He owned a small store now, but he had once worked for the telephone company.

"Ten to fifteen minutes," I said as I sat down. She was holding a cigarette and looking at me pointedly over her glasses, so I lit it for her.

"This may not work out, you know." I said after a moment.

Her lips twitched into a quick smile. "You think it's bogus?"

"Oh, no," I said. "To tell you the truth, that possibility hadn't even occurred to me. I meant that it may not end up making sense. Time and money, advantages and disadvantages, that sort of thing."

"I know. But I'll bet it does, especially if we can set it up to do more than one school."

I started to imagine what it would be like to go on a lecture tour.

"I think I'd be a good driver," my employer said thoughtfully as the car drove through the city traffic.

This topic had come up before, several times. Each time I had tried a different reply, and in each case the conversation had not gone in a good direction. I wracked my brain for a new response, one that I hadn't already used. I couldn't think of one, so I just said "Hmm" as noncommittally as I could.

"Hmm," she said in response. Then, since there were no more developments from my direction, she asked, "Do you still have your license?"

I nodded. "Oh, yes. I sent the renewal a couple of weeks ago. Ron's looking out for the envelope."

She nodded. By her expression, she considered it a small victory to have defeated me on the conversational front, even though she wasn't any closer to actually getting behind the wheel of a car.

Stuart Anson's office was in a busy commercial area, so it always took a while for the car to get us there through the traffic and construction and so on. The couple of times I'd gone there by myself I'd simply walked, but it was several miles from the bridge, and my employer couldn't walk that far.

Many of the buildings in the area were big and new, all glass and shining metal, but his small office was in an older building, made of stone, with creaky elevators. All the offices had transoms, from the days before air conditioners.

My employer knocked on the frosted glass door, and he called, "Come in." The glass still bore the name of the firm, Anson and LaJoie, but his partner had been dead for years. He no longer had a secretary, but his wife came in one or two days a week to handle filing and other clerical duties.

"Miss Sleet," he said, rising from behind his ancient wooden desk to greet us. "And Marshall. I'm so glad to see you."

He reached out and shook her hand, and then mine. His hair was nearly gone and his body was frail, but his grip was firm.

"To what do I owe this pleasure?" he asked as we sat down.

She put the letter on his desk. He put on a different pair of glasses and began to read.

Stu was our lawyer, and by "our" I mean the lawyer for U-town, though he was Jan Sleet's professional lawyer as well. That's how it had started. She had hired him to handle her contracts and other legal matters (including, but not limited to, bizarre and abrupt travel requests to odd parts of the world, conflicts with the local authorities when solving mysteries, protecting her sources, dealing with libel and slander suits based on her articles, and so on).

When U-town had been founded, there had been many new issues to deal with (citizenship, taxes, and many more), and I sometimes had the impression that he had no other clients anymore. He was in his seventies, at least. He charged for anything to do with my employer's professional life, but never for anything else.

His office had no ashtrays, and I had noticed that my employer never tried to smoke there. This was extremely unusual, and I never commented on it. This applied when we visited him. but not when he visited us, of course.

Once a week he came to U-town to report on various issues, and then we took him out to dinner at one of the best U-town restaurants. There were many to choose from, and we had never had to visit the same one twice.

By the way, Stu was the person who could get us fingerprint information when we needed it, as we did in the vampire case. He had built up many connections in his decades of practice.

Stu looked up and smiled. "I'm guessing that you want to do this."

"Well," she said casually, "only if it makes sense, of course."

He turned to me. "How desperate is she to do this?"

"Moderately desperate, but not foolishly so," I said, and we all laughed.

"It sounds fine to me," he said. "It's good money for a few hours work. I assume you have no problem with public speaking."

"No problem at all."

"I didn't think so."

"Do we try to dicker?" she asked.

"I'd say yes and no. The money itself seems fine. Leave that alone. I'll have them send me their standard contract and rider. The rider is where we'll negotiate. Transportation, for one. Food backstage. Availability to the press, including student press, and to the students themselves, before and after the speech. How long you'll answer questions. Hotel rooms for you to stay in, since it will end late and you may not want to drive home at that hour. Will it be just you and Marshall? What about security? What about security at the event? You're far more controversial than the average best-selling novelist, for example, because of your involvement with U-town."

I could see him working his mind through this as he talked.

"What do you think is the possibility of doing this at more schools?" she asked.

He shrugged. "Fairly good, I would think. I could make a few calls, see what interest there is."

Stu stood again as we got ready to leave, then he said, "Marshall, can you stay for a moment? There's something I want to mention to you."

Jan's thin lips pursed, and I knew she was not happy about being excluded. But then, as usual, she decided to treat it as a challenge, a mystery to solve.

When she was gone (and I had peeked out the door to make sure she wasn't lingering and trying to eavesdrop), I sat down again.

Stu smiled. "I wonder if she's realized how unusual this is," he said slowly.

"For her to be invited to speak at a college? She's certainly well-known enough."

"True, but the date is less than a month from now. I'm sure colleges usually book their speakers much farther in advance than that. So, my assumption is that someone else, another speaker, has canceled, and they're looking for a replacement."

I nodded. "That makes sense. And you think she'll throw a tantrum when she figures out that she was not their first choice."

"And you think so, too," he said with a laugh.

"Well," I admitted, "I do think it's a possibility."

"Of course it is. So, your responsibility is to break it to her in such a way as to reduce that possibility. And do it soon, so if she does throw a fit, it will be over by the time of the event itself."

When I got down to the street, she was signing autographs for a group of teenage girls. I waited patiently as she answered a couple of questions, then the girls moved off and she lit a cigarette. She smiled at me, the smoke framing her face. "Just tell me it's not Ashford," she said.

I laughed and I kissed her. The kiss surprised her so that she laughed, too, and I said, "I have no idea who you're replacing, but when I was doing research on him I noticed that he spoke there last year. It doesn't seem likely that they'd book him two years in a row."

She smiled. "Indeed it doesn't. When will the car be here?"

"In about ten minutes."

"Good." She took my hand. "Let's go practice our osculation in some convenient vestibule until it arrives."

After the trip to see Stu, things went back to "normal," but my employer was obviously thinking about the speech more than she let on during the day. She started working on it almost immediately, and there were many occasions when I woke up in the middle of the night to find that she'd got up out of bed and was sitting at her desk writing, the room hazy with pipe smoke.

In some cases, I just rolled over and went back to sleep. On a couple of nights I got up and opened the window slightly, just so I could breathe. On those occasions, she was so deeply involved in her work that I know she didn't even notice, though I'm sure she eventually wondered why her legs were getting cold.

Twice I woke up and she was sitting staring at a piece of paper in abstraction, her pipe cold and dead in its rack. On those nights I went over, blew out her candle, picked her up and carried her to bed. She didn't protest when I did this, and she was asleep before I even pulled up the covers.

I will spare you any details about the process of deciding what she would wear at the college. Suffice it to say that every possible outfit was considered very carefully, and she owned a lot of clothes. A few times she even proposed buying a new suit, but I told her no. We were trying to make money through this project, among other goals, not to spend it.

One day after lunch, Fifteen came into the meeting room and asked, "Have you thought about security? For the college gig?"

My employer shrugged. "No, but I almost have my speech ready. Would you like to hear it?" She said this with a smile, and we all laughed, since she'd been trying to get us to listen to it for almost a week. Not that we weren't interested, of course, but we did have other things which needed doing, and she would have read us a fresh draft every morning if we'd allowed it.

"Of course I'd be very interested to hear it, at some appropriate time," Fifteen temporized. "But on the security front, I wanted to let you know that Miss Christy would like to do it, and Neil gave the okay."

Jan nodded. "That would be perfect. Please let her know that we'd be happy to have her. Perhaps she would like to come and hear the speech this evening. I would be interested in getting her feedback." She looked around. "And everybody's."

Doc, apparently sensing that this was now inevitable, said, "Why don't we get together here, tonight, after dinner? Whoever can make it?"

Everybody agreed, and Fifteen said he would tell Christy.

So, after dinner that evening, with a fresh pot of coffee on the table, we were ready. Vicki and Pat were there, and they were clearly in "off-duty" mode, since they were holding hands and Vicki had removed Pat's ever-present baseball cap and hung it on a hook near the door.

Doc, Ray, and I were there as well. Ray and I had pads and pens in front of us, for taking notes. Doc had declined writing materials, saying, "Oh, just entertain me." I also had the most recent handwritten copy of the speech itself. Jan was going to deliver it from memory, and I was to mark every place where she deviated from the text.

Fifteen and Christy were there also. They were obviously off-duty as well, but they were both sitting quite properly. They were seldom demonstrative in public anyway, and Christy in particular was looking very serious, as if it was some sort of honor to have been invited to this.

Jan sat at the head of the table. By the way, this was one of the things that Stu had specified in his negotiations with the college, that she would have a table and a chair, rather than the usual podium and lectern, because of her bad leg. Someone from the student government, apparently unfamiliar with my employer, had asked if we needed a table with a modesty skirt. Stu had made it clear that she would definitely be wearing trousers.

It was also made clear to us in the negotiations that smoking was not allowed in the auditorium. My employer said this was fine, but, as she told me later, "Even if I start to smoke in the middle of the speech, I think it's fairly unlikely that guards will rush the stage, overpower me, and throw me out of the building. Especially if it's going well."

I had to admit that she was probably right.

The speech was still in a fairly early stage of its development, but it already had the basic form of the final version, which you may have read. It was based, generally, on drawing the connections between her career as a reporter, her hobby of solving mysteries, and her participation in U-town, both in the founding and in the government.

The biggest differences between the draft we heard on that day and the final speech that she delivered at Barlowe University (and at other colleges later) were the tone, and the material about her father. The tone was a gradual evolution over the different drafts. She described it later as "removing myself from the speech." In the version we heard that day, there were quite a few anecdotes and stories and digressions that were mostly there because they delighted her for some reason (or because they showed her in a particularly flattering light). They were gradually removed as she worked on it further.

The other difficulty was addressed almost as soon as she finished.

"That's it," she said, lighting a cigarette. Doc applauded, which was rapidly taken up by the rest of us. I could tell that Christy had wanted to applaud right away, but she hadn't been sure if it would be appropriate.

"This is not my only comment," Doc said, "but your voice was noticeably rougher at the end than it was at the beginning. We'll have to limit the number of times we do this, or it could be a problem when you deliver it for real."

This was true, though we all knew that part of Doc's reason was to restrict the number of hours we devoted to this over the next two weeks.

Ray was smoking and looking over his notes. "My biggest comment?" he said. "The material about your father needs to be cut, or at least trimmed a lot. It's really a distraction from the elegant construction of your arguments."

Jan smiled and turned to me, and I shook my head. "No, dear," I said, trying to keep a straight face. "I did not tell him to say that."

They laughed, and she said, "Marshall has been telling me the same thing. I thought it was because he knows so much about my parents."

"Well," Christy said tentatively, "I think that, at a certain point, we do whatever we do in our lives. Our parents have influenced us, of course, but the decisions are ours." She smiled. "I've been thinking about this because my son just turned fourteen. He's a man now, by our rules, and whatever he does, I can't take the credit. Or the blame."

Doc nodded. "Christy is right, and not only because she's the only one in this room who has actually reproduced, as far as I know. Also, Jan, it becomes awkward that you talk about your father so much and never mention your mother. I know you were raised by Vinnie, but the audience will just end up wondering about why your mother isn't being mentioned, and that will distract them from what you're actually saying."

"Think about them, the audience," Vicki said. "Focus on what they need from you. I think it will start to fall into place when you do that."

"Doug," my employer said, "there are two things you have to remember as a reporter. One is that you always need to be aware of when you're starting to annoy the person you're interviewing. Which in this case is me. The other is that this isn't supposed to be an interview at all. You're writing an article about the speech I'm giving tonight, the background, the scene, the audience, the reaction. That's what you should concentrate on, those are the things you can't get again if you miss them today. If you realize later that you need to get something from me, I'll be available." She smiled. "Is that clear?"

He nodded.

We were in a limousine, heading for the college. I was in the passenger seat, since I had the directions and the map. Jan, Christy, and Doug were in the spacious back seat. Doug was a reporter for the U-town newspaper, assigned to cover the speech. He was nervous – apparently this was his first big assignment – and my employer was a bit tense as well, so she was lecturing him on his responsibilities, just because he'd made the mistake of asking her a question.

Stu was planning to meet us at the college. He hadn't been able to drive for several years, so his wife was going to bring him there. They lived in a suburb north of the city, about a half hour from the campus.

Doug appeared to be about eighteen, tall and gawky, wearing a workshirt and jeans. I had a feeling that this was probably the best outfit he owned. I was wearing a dark suit. Christy was in her usual black skirt, black T-shirt, boots, and a leather jacket. Unlike Jan and Doug, she seemed very calm. I wondered if she was armed. On one hand, if we did run into trouble, it might be helpful. On the other hand, we were now in the land of concealed-carry laws. I decided I was just as happy not knowing.

My employer was wearing a black suit, with a gray shirt and a charcoal tie. This was her traveling outfit; she had another suit (three piece, dark blue pinstripe, with an ivory shirt and a red tie) in a garment bag. She would change before the speech, since there was no way to keep her suit from becoming wrinkled from sitting in the car. Once she changed, she wouldn't sit down until she was on stage.

Old-time movie stars used to have a slanted board to lean against so they could rest between takes without rumpling their clothes. She had considered asking for one of those, but I had talked her out of it.

An hour later, we arrived at the college. Two hours after that, after a dubious dinner, my employer started her speech to a packed auditorium. Two hours after that, as the speech neared the end, I saw the first police officers enter the back of the auditorium.

(This was the last question in the question-and-answer session.)

Q: Miss Sleet, I've been reading some Sherlock Holmes for my short story class, and I had a question. Holmes sometimes does this thing where he watches Watson and then predicts what he's thinking, or he sees a new client and figures out all kinds of stuff about them just by their clothes and their hands and so on. Is that really possible? Do you do things like that? Or is that just in stories?

(My employer lit a cigarette.)

A: First of all, I want to congratulate you on your choice of reading material. [Laughter] If not for your hair color, I would think I'm addressing myself from about four or five years ago.

Seriously, there are really two different things here. One is Holmes' deductions about Watson, and that is very possible. I do that with my assistant Marshall all the time, and he can do it with me as well. It's not a supernatural feat of deduction; it's just applying the things you learn about someone when you spend a lot of time with them, especially if the two of you are together in many different types of circumstances, which is certainly true of Marshall and myself.

The other example you gave is more difficult. It's not impossible, but I think it's exaggerated in the stories. For example, I would never want to decide whether a particular person's flattened fingertips came from typewriting or piano playing based on how "spiritual" their facial expression was.

But we see things all the time which we don't analyze. Let me give you an example. There are two police officers in the rear of the room here, and when the side doors have been opened I've seen two more outside in the corridors. They were not here when I started, but they appeared about fifteen minutes before the break between my speech and the question-and-answer session. The people here with me – my assistant, my attorney, and the person responsible for my safety – have been watching this, as have I, but there hasn't been much for any of us to do about it.

Eleven people got up to leave after the speech itself, during the short break, and all of them returned to their seats within a few minutes. I'm not counting the people who used the side doors, to the rest rooms, I'm talking about the people who left through the rear doors, to the lobby, presumably intending to leave the building.

Obviously, all eleven of them didn't have a sudden change of heart in the lobby, so it seems reasonable to assume that no one is being allowed to leave the building. With the only available options being to stand in the lobby or to return and hear the questions and answers, they decided to come back in.

This is not a stunt, by the way, and it is not theatrics. I am going to ask you all to stay in your seats and stay calm.

The next question might be why the program has been allowed to continue. I assume it's so that the police can do some preliminary physical investigation, of whatever has happened, with all of us docile and occupied, rather than having to deal with a few hundred people all clamoring to be allowed to leave and go somewhere else.

Now, as I said, my assistant and my lawyer and my bodyguard have been in the wings throughout this presentation, but the other person who came with me has been conspicuous by his absence, and that's the reporter who was sent here from the U-town newspaper to report on this event.

Not to be facetious, but either he's a very bad reporter – to entirely miss the event he's supposed to be covering – or there is almost certainly a connection between his absence and the presence of the police. From this, I make the tentative deduction that, in whatever has happened, he is either a suspect, or a victim.

I'll make the further deduction that this presentation should end now, but that none of us will be leaving this auditorium any time soon.

Oh, and I'll make one more comment. In a way I hope this was not a premeditated crime, whatever happened. Because if it was planned, for this particular night, this would seem to have been a very bad choice. Good night.

Twenty minutes later, Jan, Stu, Christy, and I were in an empty dressing room backstage. It was around a corner from the one where my employer had changed before her speech, and it apparently hadn't been used recently.

There were two police officers with us, but they weren't answering any of our questions or volunteering any information, so we stopped asking. Stu and Jan sat down on two of the dusty straight-backed chairs, and Christy and I stood.

"Stu," Jan said after a few minutes, "I'm sorry you're stuck here with us."

He shrugged. "Well, this is new for me. I've never been held for a crime before without even knowing what crime it was."

"They must know we didn't have anything to do with it," Christy said. "We were on stage."

My employer shook her head. "That's not why they're holding us." She lit a cigarette. "They think that if they let us go, we'll go home. Which we wouldn't – not without Doug, or at least without knowing what happened to him – but they're afraid that we would, because then we'd be technically outside of their jurisdiction." She smiled at Stu. "At least we're providing you with new experiences."

He laughed. "You always do. That's what keeps me from retiring. U-town is a lawyer's dream. Before I met you, do you know how long it had been since I did something I'd never done before? Every year, the same types of clients, with the same types of cases. Now, I do new things every day, and often they are things no lawyer in the world has ever done before. That's much more appealing than retirement. Well, that and the fact that my wife has indicated, in no uncertain terms, that she doesn't want me underfoot all the time." He frowned. "Do you think Doug is being held for something? If so, I should–"

She shook her head. "It's possible, logically, but I don't think so. I think he's dead. That's why I'm willing to wait."

He nodded sadly. He had got half out of his chair, but he sat down again. "I think so, too. Unfortunately."

Things were quiet for a few minutes, then I noticed one of the cops talking to Christy. She smiled and excused herself, gesturing that she needed to talk to me about something. She crossed the room, making a face that I could see but he couldn't. I leaned over to listen.

"He's flirting with me!" she whispered. Her back was to the cops, and her expression was furious. "It's like... it's like being a cobra, caught in a trap, and having a mongoose come over to flirt with you. Not even to gloat, which would have been bad enough, but to flirt!"

"Well, come on," I whispered, "have some sympathy. Maybe the poor guy can't get dates any other way."

That got a smile out of her.

The door opened and a man came in. He was wearing a dark suit, with a badge on his jacket. He appeared to be in his forties, with black hair, graying at the temples, and a sardonic expression.

"Miss Sleet," he said, "I'm Inspector Ibarra. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but the young man who was with you, Douglas Matthews, has been murdered. Obviously, since he came here with you, I need to ask you some questions. But first, as a matter of formality, I need to see your identification, and that of the people with you."

"Marshall is my assistant," she said. She used her cane to get to her feet. "He has my identification."

I pulled out my wallet and hers, and handed them over. Stu did the same, standing up as he did so. When Ibarra turned to Christy, she held up her hand, her fingers extended. "I am pulling out an automatic," she said, slowly reaching under her jacket with two fingers, "for which I have a permit. And I am refusing a body search until a female officer or a matron is available."

"My client is completely within her rights," Stu said. "Especially–"

"Stow it, counselor. We know she's not guilty. Several witnesses place her backstage through the whole thing, along with you and Mr. O'Connor. In fact, quite a few of the students were watching her movements very closely. Boys, of course." He chuckled, taking Christy's wallet and handing her gun to one of the officers. "We'll hold the weapon, and it will be returned to her later. If it does become necessary to frisk her, I've already had a half dozen volunteers from among my men. I'll probably auction off the rights to the highest bidder and add the money to my retirement fund."

I could see Christy bristle at this, but she let it go.

"We're interviewing everybody who was in the area, either in or around the building," Ibarra said, as the officer slipped Christy's gun into a plastic bag and sealed it, writing on the outside with a marker. "Mostly to find out if anybody knew him, or if any of them saw anything. We don't expect much out of that, but we have to do it." He smiled. "We already have a pretty good suspect in custody, but we have to cover all the bases. Did any of you know him well?"

"I had met him before today," Jan said, "but I didn't know him well. He worked for the U-town newspaper, and I have given them some classes, as a group."

The rest of us explained that we had never met him before that day.

"You all drove here together, I believe," Ibarra continued. "Did he mention that he knew anybody at this college or in the surrounding area?"

We all said no, and Stu clarified that he hadn't come with us and had actually never met Doug at all.

Then, from the hallway, a voice – very loud and very grating and very familiar – blared, "Let go of me, you fucking cop sons of bitches!"

"Oh, no," Jan said, and I knew this was one development she had not anticipated.

The door opened and someone shoved Ron in. She looked around, her expression fierce, and then she belatedly realized who we were. Still trying to look fierce, she ran across the room and threw her arms around me.

"I gather she's with you," the inspector said dryly.

"We know her," Jan said carefully. "She works for us. But she didn't come here with us. You can confirm that with the driver–"

"Oh, thank you so much for that sage advice, Miss Sleet," he said, "but we already did that. And you're about to say that you didn't know she was here, and I believe you. Do you want to know what I do think?

"You and Mr. O'Connor and Mr. Anson and Miss Malin are in the clear. You were on stage, and they were clearly visible to a dozen people at all times. And I can't imagine that you would come all the way here to murder one of your own people in any case.

"I think this girl came here to kill him, and nobody was supposed to even know she was here, except that we caught her."

Ron was still holding me, and I could feel her start to shiver. I put an arm around her and held her close.

"I'm prepared to make you a deal," Ibarra said. "You're free to go, if you give me permission to investigate this in U-town, to establish a motive." Stu started to speak, but he continued. "We're going to hold the girl either way."

"On what charge?" Stu demanded.

"Well, it turns out she's listed as a runaway."

"Her name is Hazel Davis," Jan said, lighting a cigarette. "Her parents are from Carmel, California. I've spoken to them, some time ago, and they said they're willing to allow her–"

"She's on the books as a runaway," he said. "That's enough for me."

"Fair enough. And we're not taking your deal. U-town is not part of the United States. You have no authority there, and I couldn't grant you any even if I wanted do. Which I don't. May I examine the crime scene?"


"Do you have witnesses? May I speak to them?"

"Yes, we have witnesses, and no you may not speak to them. Let's save some time here, Miss Sleet. Whatever other questions you may have, the answer is no to those as well. Since you decided not to take my offer, I have work to do. Excuse me." He left the room, and one of the officers went to stand by the window. The other remained by the door.

I wondered about this change, but then I noticed the windows. The room was roughly square, with a few dusty tables and chairs around. There were lockers along one wall, and mirrors along another. A third wall had windows, very tall and thin. They were set to swivel out when a small crank was turned, though they were all closed now, and it occurred to me that, while the average person couldn't have fit through one of them, Ron probably could have.

Turning to face my employer, I saw her glance at me, smiling as she noticed that I had figured this out. Then she turned her attention to Ron.

Ron began, "How did you know about my–"

"Never mind that. Do you think we're playing, Ron? Do you think U-town is some fairyland that you get to by going through a wardrobe, or by getting caught in a tornado, or by going down a rabbit hole? But never mind that–"

"You're gonna get me out of this, aren't you?" Ron asked. "You're not going to let them send me back to my parents–"

Jan shook her head. "Ron, you need to understand one thing. I would sell you out in a minute to protect U-town. If that's what this comes to, you're on the next bus back to your parents, and I'll send somebody with you to make sure you get there. You'd just better hope I'm smart enough to do both."

Ron, for the first time in my experience, looked uncertain. "I don't want to go home," she said miserably. "To my parents. I want to go home."

Jan smiled. "Then it's past time that you got smarter. Stop relying on me to be smart and be smarter yourself. Also, did you think I wouldn't investigate you? You're underage, according to their laws, and you handle our mail. Do you think we'd trust our mail to– Anyway, we can talk about that later. But did you think–"

"She investigates her friends when she's bored," I said to Ron, "Just to keep in practice."

My employer looked furious that I had interrupted her, but then, seeing how Ron glanced up at me and smiled, a very small and tentative smile, she got it.

We needed Ron to answer a lot of questions, so right now we needed her to be less upset, rather than more. If I hadn't derailed my employer's tirade, she would have moved on to her next point, which would have been that Ron's most immediate danger wasn't being sent home, it was being arrested for murder. This would not have improved her usefulness as a witness. I hugged her again and then I let her go.

"Ron," Jan said, "please sit down. We need your help."

Ron took one of the straight-backed chairs, and I pulled another one over so I could sit next to her.

"Ron, do you know Latin?"

Ron looked around uncertainly. "Uh," she replied. "No?"

"There's a useful Latin phrase: in loco parentis. I'll translate it for you. 'Loco' means crazy, as you probably know, so what it means is that you're driving me crazy right now, but I'm still responsible for you, as if I was your parent." She smiled at that point, which was good. Otherwise, I don't think Ron would have understood that this was intended to be a joke. "So, if you want to do something like this again, be smart, and talk to one of us. Okay?"

Ron nodded. "Yes, I will."

"Now, we have work to do. You've been outside this room, where the rest of us have been cooped up. So, I need to know what you know. Everything you've seen and heard and felt and smelled and tasted. I want to climb inside your head. But first, what are they doing now? I need to know how much time we have."

"You'll have some time," said one of the officers, the one who had flirted with Christy. "They're interviewing all the students, every single one of them. And the old man's gonna hold you forever, if he can."

I'll spare you the details of my employer's interrogation of Ron, but this was the gist of it.

Ron had come to hear the speech, of course. She had scraped together enough money for a one-way ticket to the college. Then, after delivering our mail that morning, she had walked across the bridge and through the city to the bus station.

When she'd arrived at the college, she had forced her way into the auditorium by some combination of bluster and lies, and then she'd crouched in the back, where we wouldn't be able to see her. Her plan had been to approach us after it was all over, and get a ride back to U-town with us. She had thought, she said sheepishly, that we'd be glad to see her.

After the speech, during the intermission before the question-and-answer session, she'd sneaked out of one of the back doors, needing to find a rest room. Not being familiar with the building, she hadn't known where the rest rooms were, and in any case she wouldn't have gone to the side doors, being afraid that she'd be spotted by one of us.

She was grabbed by the cops as soon as she entered the lobby. It was easy for them to tell that she wasn't a college student. She told them that she was from U-town, thinking that this would give her some sort of immunity, but instead they brought her right to Ibarra, since he was looking for a suspect who might have known Doug, and who didn't have an alibi.

They took her to the adjoining building, which was connected by a covered breezeway, and they brought her to the room where Doug had been killed. His body was covered, but there was a lot of blood, and (reading between the lines of her answers) she had been quite upset by this. Which had probably been the idea of bringing her there in the first place.

By drawing out the questions that the police had asked Ron, my employer made the following tentative deductions:

  1. Doug had gone into a room, an empty classroom, a few minutes after the beginning of the speech, for no apparent reason.
  2. He had been seen by a security guard, who was stationed in that corridor. The guard swore nobody had entered the room after him.
  3. The guard's evidence was corroborated by a student (a resident assistant) who was playing chess with him at the time.
  4. After a while, the two men had wondered what this strange kid was doing in the empty room, so they went to investigate.
  5. They found Doug dead, with several stab wounds, and one of the tall, narrow windows was open.
  6. So, Ron was the prime suspect because:
    1. she was from U-town, and couldn't prove she didn't know Doug,
    2. she could have fit through the very narrow window,
    3. she had no alibi, and
    4. nobody else had entered the room, and even if somebody had been in the room already, waiting for Doug, how had that person escaped?

This clarified why Ron hadn't been arrested, since it wasn't that much of a case, and it also clarified why she had been placed in the room with us. The two cops were listening to every word, of course.

As the questioning went on, I glanced at Stu and saw that he was asleep in his chair.

I looked at Christy and she came over to me. "That cop," I whispered, "the one who likes you, do you think you could get him to supply us with some coffee, and something to eat?"

"What?" she demanded, almost inaudibly. "You want me to–"

"–use your feminine wiles, yes." I replied. "It's a tremendous sacrifice, I know, but think of poor Stu. And poor us if we need his legal advice, and–"

We were now in a contest to see who could keep a straight face the longest.

"Oh, alright," she said, attempting to look disgusted. "When I tell my boyfriend about this, he's going to give you what-for."

Of course, she simply went and asked the question. The only feminine wile she deployed was a dazzling smile, but a plan was immediately concocted to get us some sandwiches and some soda (the cops were apparently reserving the coffee for themselves).

After the questioning was over, as the rest of us were eating, my employer smoked a cigarette and sipped some of the soda. Then she looked up.


Ron, who had a huge hunk of sandwich in her mouth, nodded and started to chew very rapidly. I wondered how long it had been since she'd eaten.

Jan laughed and held up a hand. "Take your time. Chew your food thoroughly. We're not going anywhere."

When Ron had swallowed, finally, she said, "Yes?" which was a bit anticlimactic.

"I just want to be clear about one thing. As far as you could tell, Doug was probably in that room, alone, for some period of time before the murderer joined him?"

She nodded. "Yes."

My employer smiled. "Good. Then this is solved, or it soon will be."

My employer said, "Inspector, I just have one question. Am I correct that Doug was alone in the empty classroom for a period of time, before he was killed?"

He nodded. "It appears that way."

"Then where is it?" she asked.

"Where is what?" he snapped. He had come in response to her very polite request, conveyed by one of our guards, but he looked like he had many more important things on his mind.

"The piece of paper," she explained, "or the notebook, with writing on it that you can't read. Give it to me."

There was a moment of silence, then he said, "We're having it analyzed."

"Analyzed?" she demanded. "Are you trying to find out if it's radioactive? You don't want to analyze it, you want to read it, which I can do. Give it to me."

There was another moment of silence, then he left the room, slamming the door behind him.

After a minute, he came back in and handed her a crumpled and dirty piece of paper.

"Smart," she said absently, examining it. I was fairly sure the paper had been in Ibarra's pocket the whole time, but once he'd said it was being analyzed he couldn't very well bring it out. "He used college notepaper," she mused, "made it look like someone else might have left it..."

Her voice trailed off and her brow furrowed. She held the paper out for me, but her mind was far away and it slipped from her fingers. I had to snatch it in midair in order to read it.

And then, when I did, I understood it all as well.

a vital clue

My employer turned to face Ibarra.

"Your error was in thinking of Doug as a 'young person,'" she began. "He was that, but that's not all he was. Just seeing him on that one level, you assumed he was killed by someone he knew, because young people exist personally, but not yet professionally. When I mentioned that he worked on our newspaper, you didn't even ask what he did there. Did you think I was teaching them how to sort the mail?"

"Listen, don't give me a Goddamn lecture. If you know anything about this case, you'll tell me right now, or else–"

"Or else what? You'll lock me up? If you do, I'll stand mute, until I'm before the grand jury. And don't threaten me with withholding evidence. I have no evidence that you don't have. What I have is the ability to think coherently. Do you know what that means? It means the ability to make things cohere, to fit things together. Which I can do."

"Cuff her," he said to one of the cops. "Cuff them all. We'll straighten this out–" Stu started to protest, but my employer cut him off.

"Do you know why this crime was committed?" she demanded, stamping her cane on the floor. "Or how, or by whom? Of course not, or you'd be arresting the guilty parties, instead of threatening whatever innocent people happen to have the misfortune to wander into your field of vision."

Ibarra glanced at the chair where Ron had been sitting, but she was gone. "Where is that girl?" he demanded.

The officer by the window jerked a thumb at the small door in the corner of the room. "Bathroom," he said.

"Window. Road. Gone," Jan continued calmly as the inspector tried the bathroom door. Then, belatedly understanding her comment, he reared back and kicked, sending the door crashing open.

Ron was indeed gone. The bathroom window was narrow, but of course so was Ron.

"If you go after her," Jan said calmly, "I will tell every newspaper and magazine in the area that you missed capturing a murderer because you were more interested in chasing after..."

He stepped toward her, and I thought he was actually going to try to strike her. I could have reached him before he made contact, and I knew how I'd break his arm, but I was really hoping he wouldn't give in to the impulse.

I thought later that there wasn't anybody there who wanted him to hit her. He didn't want to, not if he was thinking it through. Strike an internationally-known journalist, one who was also a foreign national, and a woman at that? With her lawyer present? Not a good idea, even without the fact that I would have broken his arm.

But we didn't want it either. That level of conflict with the police would have been very bad, for us and for U-town in general.

Ibarra drew in a deep breath and said, "Okay. Show me what you've got."

"Doug was a reporter," she began, "and he was killed because he saw something he shouldn't have. He didn't know what was going to happen to him while he was being held in that room, by your two 'witnesses,' but he made sure that his information would get to me, and in such a way that only Marshall and I could understand it. The note is written in a modified version of Pittman shorthand, which is nearly obsolete now. But I taught it to the staff of the U-town newspaper. He knew I was here, and that I'd be able to read it.

"The note says: 'Apparent drug shipment, 8:15pm, security guard and male student involved. Back door of dorm opened from inside by guard for man to bring in cartons. Student wearing jeans and faded blue university T-shirt, with sleeves cut off. Check truck, Active Laundry.'"

Her voice trailed off because her only remaining audience was Stu, Christy, and myself.

"Come on," Stu said, getting to his feet. "Let's get out of here. Once he catches the killers he will probably decide to arrest you out of spite, and I've had enough excitement for one day. The car is waiting."

"What car?" my employer demanded as we followed him out. I grabbed Ron's bag, which she'd left on the chair.

In the hall, I could tell Jan wanted to go back to the original dressing room, to get her other suit. She gestured in that direction, but I gestured the other way, toward the exit, and she nodded, making a face. It was a good suit, as all of her suits were, but it wasn't worth being thrown in jail.

Outside, the campus was quiet and dark. A light rain was falling. There were police vehicles parked all over, mostly in places apparently chosen to cause the maximum amount of damage to the lawns, but nobody was visible. "Come," Stu said, gesturing down the hill toward the entrance to the campus. "She would have waited outside, with all the police cars in here."

By then, I had remembered that Stu had not planned to stay in the hotel with the rest of us. He lived fairly close by, as I mentioned, so his wife had been going to come by and pick him up.

Jan took my arm as we walked. The combination of darkness and wet ground made her uncertain of her footing.

Stu's wife was named Bea. As we approached the idling sedan, her first words were, "I assume this means you're in trouble again, you disreputable old shyster."

"Yes, of course," he said calmly, going around to the passenger side of the car. "And now my mob and I require a quick getaway."

"As usual," she said with a sigh. "Well, get in."

My employer and I had followed Stu to the passenger side, and I opened the rear door for her. She leaned on my arm as she got in. As she sat down and swung her legs into the car, a familiar voice said, "Hey!"

Jan peered down at the floor under her feet. "Hello, Ron," she said. "You'd better stay hidden until we're away." I heard Ron shift around, and then Jan planted her feet firmly on Ron's posterior. I climbed in, trying not to step on Ron's head.

Christy got in behind Bea, and we were off. When no one was looking, I reached down and ruffled Ron's hair. An indignity, of course, but one which she was not really in a position to reject.

Stu was able, with some difficulty, to persuade Bea to drop him off at their home and then to drive the rest of us back to U-town.

We drove mostly in silence. I'm sure my employer was sorry that nobody was asking her any questions about the case, but she was tired, so she was willing to postpone that particular pleasure.

After a few minutes, a muffled voice asked, "Can I get up now?"

"Christy, are we loose?" I asked.

She nodded. "Nobody's following us."

"You'd better stay down there, Ron," Jan said, "at least until we drop Mr. Anson off. There's nowhere for you to sit anyway."

We turned into the wooded cul-de-sac where Stu and Bea had lived for many years. As we pulled up in front of their small, pleasant house, Stu turned in his seat to face us. "Jan?" he said.

She looked up. He seldom addressed her by her first name. "Yes?"

"I know you'll do whatever is necessary and appropriate, given the untimely death of young Douglas, but please let me know if you need anything from me."

"I will," she said. "Yes, of course. And thank you, for everything, as usual."

"A pleasure, as always, my dear," he said, smiling.

"Will you go in and go to bed, you old fossil," Bea said. "I have hours of driving yet, and I'm only a few years younger than you are."

"As you always remind me. Drive safely, dear. If you have an accident, or if you're arrested for some heinous crime, call me after lunchtime. I should be up by then."

As we drove off, I could tell that Jan was thinking about Stu's very gentle reminder that Doug's murder had been something more than just another challenging problem for her to solve.

Christy got out to move up to sit beside Bea, and Jan maneuvered herself toward the door, wincing as she stretched her legs out a bit. Smiling at me, as if I was going to take it personally that she was moving away from me, she motioned with her head for me to slide across next to her, but Ron climbed up and settled herself in between us. I poked Ron in the shoulder and jerked a thumb toward the window. She climbed across my lap as I slid over so I was in the middle. My wife immediately leaned against me and I put my arm around her.

I must have dozed for a while, as we zipped through the night, because I woke up as we pulled up onto the bridge, and I saw that the sky was still black. Too early for the food deliveries. Christy had turned around in her seat and was regarding me with an impish smile.

Jan was leaning against me, her arm around my middle, sound asleep, but there wasn't anything in that to make Christy smile.

Then I noticed Ron, on my other side. She was also leaning against me, sound asleep, drooling slightly, her thin arm around my stomach, resting on Jan's arm.

The car stopped at the base of the bridge, right before the barricade, and I woke Jan and Ron. We got out and stretched, thanking Bea profusely as she turned the car around and drove away. I made a mental note to try to think of an appropriate "thank you" gift for her.

Christy smiled. "Well, I usually go for a run in the morning anyway. I'll see you later." She waved and trotted off.

Ron sat on the barricade. "I'm gonna wait for the mail," she said, then she looked up nervously, but Jan smiled.

"We rely on you, Ron," she said, and Ron smiled back as I placed her bag next to her. "If there's any mail for Marshall or me, hold it for tomorrow. We're going home to bed." Ron nodded.

My wife looked exhausted, and I knew her leg was sore, so I picked her up in my arms. "Shall I carry you home in triumph?" I asked.

She glanced around to make sure nobody was watching, except for Ron, but it was the middle of the night in U-town and not a creature was stirring. She nodded and leaned her head against my chest.

"The speech was really good," I said after a minute.

She smiled. "Thank you." She looked around, but there were still very few people on the street to see her being carried.

"What would you have done," she asked after a few moments, "if he had hit me?"

"He wouldn't have hit you," I said. "I would have stopped him. I was going to break his arm, but I'm glad it didn't come to that."

She smiled. "I always forget how quick you are, for someone of your age. But would it really have been necessary to break his arm?"

"No, but I was going to do it anyway. Except that Christy probably would have got there ahead of me." She smiled, her head pressed against my chest, and I chuckled. "You don't seem all that exhausted. Why am I carrying you again?"

"I'm conserving my energy," she said. "Lean over here, and I'll tell you what I'm conserving it for."

* * * * *

Years later, I read a memoir of those years, by someone who met Jan Sleet for the first time in U-town. He said that, based on having read her writing, he had expected her to be quite a bit older. It had surprised him, on meeting her, to find that she was in her early twenties. He said that his first impression of her was that she was "a big goofy kid in a man's clothes."

He was not the only person who had that idea upon meeting her, but very few people saw her that way after that night. Her firm and forceful and confident way of dealing with the police had been partly just her exhilaration at how well the speech had gone, but it was also deeper than that.

Years later, I mentioned this to her, and she said, "I was wondering if you were going to say anything about it at the time."

"If I had, you'd have just made a sarcastic reply."

"Of course. And I had my sarcastic reply all prepared, too, that's why it was so frustrating that you didn't say anything."

I smiled and put my arm around her. "Okay, what was your sarcastic reply?"

She took off her glasses and swooned against me, gazing up with watery eyes. In her deepest and throatiest voice (which, despite years of cigarette smoking, wasn't really very deep or throaty at all) she said, "Tonight, I became a woman."

I shook my head as she giggled. "You see," I said, "that's why I didn't mention it at the time."

We didn't re-emerge until dinner time, and then only because she couldn't wait a minute longer to tell the tale of our adventures. We located Doc and the others in the dining room, and she told them the whole story, in great detail. She even started to recount the entire question-and-answer session, verbatim, but we managed to stop her.

In the morning, when we came into the meeting room, there were newspapers all over the table. "We've read the morning papers," Vicki said, gesturing around. "You are barely mentioned. The criminal ring was busted by the sterling efforts of Inspector Ibarra and his officers, on a night when you just happened to be speaking at the school."

Doc nodded. "Are you going to write an article, setting the record straight?"

My employer shook her head as we sat down. "I will write an article, but not about that. Let him take the credit; it wasn't a triumph of deductive reasoning anyway. No, I'm going to write an article, for the U-town paper, about Doug. He did his job, even though I'm sure he knew he might get killed. He had seen their faces, after all. But he did what a reporter should do under those circumstances: he made sure the story got out. When it's done, I'm going to see about getting it printed in the school paper at Barlowe as well." She smiled. "Besides, if the murder gets tied up in people's minds with my speech, it might make it more difficult for me to get booked at other colleges."

Ray shook his head, lighting a cigarette. "It turned out Doug was wrong about one thing. It wasn't drugs at all. The contraband was bootleg college gear. Shirts, caps, all that sort of thing. They had it made cheaply, and then they sold it for full price. The school's soccer team has been doing particularly well this year, so they sold a lot in the nearby towns, as well as on campus."

"The guard ratted on the student," Doc said. "Claimed the killing was his idea. They'll fight it out in court, I guess."

Pat shook her head. "Such a stupid thing to die for. College T-shirts."

Jan shook her head, lighting a cigarette as I poured us coffee from the urn. "Well, no," she said. "He didn't die for contraband college clothes, any more than he died for the drug shipment he thought was in those cartons. He died for a principle."

Ray nodded. "That's it. They offered to buy him off, according to their story, but he refused."

Pat came in carrying a big plastic bag. "A cop came up and gave this to me. He wanted it to get to you right away."

It had Jan's name on it, so Pat placed it in front of her. My employer ripped it open, and inside, carefully folded, was her traveling suit from two days before. She pulled out jacket, trousers, vest, shirt, tie, and shoes. The shoes were in a smaller bag, to keep them from dirtying the suit.

Then she pulled out another small bag, which said "Miss Malin" on it. She opened it and pulled out Christy's gun.

"Was there a note?" I asked.

She shook her head. "No, but the whole thing is a big thank you note anyway, I would say."

"Well, it's probably as much of a thank you as you're ever going to get from him."

She shrugged. "It's enough. That's a good suit, I'd hate to lose it."

It did not occur to her until much later that Ibarra had manipulated the entire situation to make it likely that she would solve the case for him. Why else put Ron in the room with us and let us talk to her for so long? Also, he'd made no mention of the fact that my employer was a well-known amateur detective. In those types of encounters, there was usually some version of the "I don't like amateurs, they should leave it to the professionals" speech.

I didn't mention this idea at the time; I didn't want to spoil anything about the night for her. She didn't realize it until later, when we encountered Inspector Ibarra again. But that's another story, for another time.

The door slammed open and Ron came in.

"Mail Delivery!" she bawled as she started to go around the table, giving each of us our mail. As she reached my employer, who was starting to hold forth on how many bookings she was hoping to get at other colleges, she said, "Here's your mail, Mom. And you got a package from Grandpa."

She reached into her bag for the package as Jan suddenly stopped in mid-sentence and demanded, "What?"

Ron leaned over and kissed her on the cheek before moving along to me. "Mail for you, too, Dad," she said, handing it to me. "It's your driver's license. No packages today, though." She kissed me on the cheek as well, and then she left, reaching up to knock Pat's baseball cap to the floor as she went.

"'Mom'?" Jan demanded, as if she might have misunderstood, but Ron was already gone.

"Can't you do something about her?" Pat asked, leaning over to pick up her cap.

Jan shook her head and sighed. "Apparently not."

I nodded. "You see? I told you we should have sent her to Catholic school."


the church mystery

Father Frank was quite well-known in U-town. I had never met him before, and he was both taller and younger than I had expected. He held out his hand when he greeted us at the front door of his church, and it enveloped mine like a catcher's mitt.

"Miss Sleet," he said as my employer inclined her head in greeting. He turned to me. "And Mister..."

"Marshall O'Connor," I said.

He smiled. "Catholic?" he asked.

I laughed. "Once upon a time."

"I'm hoping you didn't ask us here with the idea of saving our souls," my employer said.

He smiled as he escorted us into the empty church, but he didn't reply.

We had received a note from Father Frank that morning, saying that he would be in his office all afternoon and asking us to visit him at our earliest convenience. The note was addressed specifically to my employer, so it didn't seem that it was an official request to the U-town government.

The church was quite old, with some fairly impressive statues, and there were stained glass windows which might have been quite beautiful if they had been cleaned recently. One area at the side was shrouded, but it looked to be a construction site rather than some sort of religious observance.

Father Frank's office was small and plain, clearly a working office. He waited for my employer to sit, then he and I sat as well.

"I am, I confess, wondering why you invited me to come here," my employer said.

"I'm hoping I can ask you a couple of questions," he replied, his hands clasped on the desk in front of him.

"That would be fine. Our time is not infinite, but we try to be accommodating."

"I am curious about marriage in U-town, for a start."

"In general, or in specific?"

"In general. I have heard that anybody can get married who wants to."

"I can see why people would say that, but it's not entirely true. It is true that we have no categorical restrictions. Men can marry men, women can marry women, marriage is not limited to only two people, and so on. All of that is true."

"What about children?"

He meant it sarcastically, but she didn't take the bait. "Good point," she said. "No, children are not allowed to marry. They are, by definition, not mature enough to make that sort of decision."

"Then who determines when somebody is old enough?"

"We do, but you're approaching this backwards. Start with the rule, not the exceptions. Say you want to get married. You come to us, you and the person you want to marry, and you make a request. We consider it, we talk to everybody concerned, and then we make a decision. If we decide we approve, then it depends on waiting for Doc Morse to be available to preside. If we don't approve, then you can get married by somebody else, or somewhere else, or not at all. Or you can reapply at a later date."

"This has always confused me," Father Frank continued, "and some of my parishioners as well. It seems almost as if anybody who says they're married is considered married."

"That's not far from the truth," my employer replied. "Most countries in the world, and most religions, consider marriage to be a good thing in the abstract. We don't care one way or the other. Because most societies consider it a good thing, they encourage people to get married, by giving them financial and other benefits for doing so.

"Once that starts to happen, then you have to be able to reliably identify who is married and who isn't, so you can be sure you're giving those benefits only to the right people.

"And, of course, societies use this to enforce their particular views on who should be able to get married and who shouldn't." She shrugged. "We don't do any of that, frankly because we don't care, as I said. Get married or not, what does it matter to us? You get no benefits from us, so we have no reason to track who is married and who isn't." She smiled. "It makes life so much easier.

"Which doesn't mean we're against marriage on an individual basis. Marshall and I are married, but I'm not going to impose that on other people, any more than I would try to force people to smoke cigarettes and wear neckties just because I do."

"What about incest?" Father Frank asked.

She frowned. "Are you asking in relation to marriage?"

"Yes. What if two people who were blood relations wanted to get married? A brother and sister, for example."

She looked thoughtful. "An interesting question, in theory. Does it have any basis in fact? Do you know of any instances of this happening?"

He shook his head. "No, thank God. But it sounds like you're leaving the door open."

She laughed. "I suppose we are, and thank you for pointing that out. But I think we'll hold off on worrying about that scenario until we find out if it's real. Not that incest of various sorts doesn't occur, but I don't believe it usually ends up with a desire for matrimony." She shrugged. "Abstract theoretical discussions can be challenging and fruitful, but public policy should really be bounded by reality."

There was more she could have said – that she would have said under different circumstances. But I could tell she was on her guard. She was trying to figure out what Father Frank was after, and she certainly wasn't going to discuss any personal matters with him.

What she would have said – under different circumstances – was that she and I had, rather unintentionally, set the tradition for weddings in U-town. We had asked Doc to preside, because she was in charge of the government and because she was our friend. What we had not anticipated was that, after that, everybody would want Doc to conduct their weddings.

Doc used to complain about this from time to time, saying, "If I had known what this would lead to, I'd have let you two continue to live in sin."

Whenever she said this, my employer would just smile, secure in the happy knowledge that, of all the couples who had ever been married in U-town, none of them had ever been better dressed than we had been.

The photographs of us, in our matching morning coats, had been published in many newspapers all over the world. Doc's theory for the surprising reach of the story had been that it both supported people's view of U-town (as a place where eccentric things happened) and subverted it (since the general impression of U-town was that the citizens were all quite scruffy and unkempt).

Of course, there was another theory, which was that many of the photographs showed the entire wedding party, and Vicki had surprised everybody by not wearing her usual all-black ensemble of jeans, T-shirt, and leather jacket. Instead, she had worn a dress, and newspaper editors are not too noble to run a photograph featuring a small teenage girl who just happens to be showing a lot of cleavage.

My employer frowned. "Is that it? Did you invite us here just to ask about marriage? The answers to these sorts of questions are publicly available. They don't require–"

"No, I have another question as well. I understand that you terminate unwanted pregnancies."

"In your eagerness to make this sound like an accusation, you have turned a potentially true statement into a false one. I don't perform abortions, not from any moral objection but for the same reason I don't perform appendectomies or hysterectomies. Those are surgical procedures and I have no medical training, apart from a few informal experiences in combat situations."

"I'm sorry," he said, "but I must interrupt. Are you saying that you have been in combat? I hope you're not referring to the few days following the beginning of U-town. That was chaotic, yes, but it hardly qualifies as combat."

She looked annoyed, as she always did when she met somebody who was not sufficiently familiar with her curriculum vitae and who tried to judge her based on her studious appearance and her impeccable three-piece suits.

"Before we came here," she said, "Marshall and I spent over six months in Bellona. During the worst part of the war."

Her annoyance, at the question and at the entire interrogation, was starting to creep into her voice, so I spoke up.

"In addition to reporting on the war, we sutured and bandaged wounds, set broken limbs, and even delivered a couple of babies. Under conditions which certainly seemed like combat at the time, based on the number of people who were being shot and blown up all around us."

"Ah," the priest replied, "I was not aware of this. I read your magazine pieces at the time, at least some of them, but perhaps I missed those installments."

She smiled, somewhat mollified. "Most of those experiences were not included, not unless they were relevant. I'm a reporter, not a diarist. In any case, yes, abortions are performed at the hospital, by people who have had the appropriate training."

"I have one more question," he said. "It's about starling."

"Not to be rude, but I'm starting to lose interest in this. The question of our resident mass murderer has been a matter of discussion with city, state, and federal officials, more than once. I–"

He held up a hand. "Please, you're anticipating what I'm going to say, and you're wrong."


"I am aware that you allow starling to live here despite all the people she has killed. She is evidently trying to change her life. A member of my congregation lives across the street from her, and he thinks she should be killed. I told him that I thought you were right, that everybody deserves a chance at redemption."

My employer leaned back and smiled. "My belief in redemption is conditional, depending on how you define the term. Do I believe in becoming free from the consequences of sin? No, because I don't believe in sin as such. But do I believe in someone becoming released from blame or debt, being changed for the better? Yes, absolutely. By the way, what is the purpose of all this? Are you interviewing me? I always think I'm not interviewed often enough."

"This is serious–"

"I'm afraid you'll have to convince me of that. So far, all you've done is ask me three questions. Two of them are a matter of public record, as I said, and you could easily have researched them yourself. For the third question, it turned out that you already knew my answer, and for some reason you wanted me to hear yours." She lit a cigarette.

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't smoke in my office."

"And I'd appreciate it if you'd come to the point."

Father Frank led us out to the street and around to the side of the building. There, on the rough stone wall, it said, in large letters, "Jesus sucks!"

My employer shook her head. "I often investigate crimes other than murder, but vandalism, though very regrettable, is–"

"–beneath you?"

She smiled. "I would have said that it wasn't the best use of my time."

"Well, I'm not asking you to investigate this. I know who did it. Please wait here."

As he went back inside, Jan muttered, "Oh, no," and I knew we were thinking the same thing.

Father Frank came back out a moment later with Ron. He was holding her upper arm in his huge hand, half pulling her and half lifting her. She was furious, tight-lipped and fierce. This was not going to be like the college case, with her running into my arms.

"This girl claims–" he began.

"Let go of her arm," I said.

"Please, I need to explain–"

"Let go of her arm first," I said, stepping toward him. I noticed that a couple of people had stopped to watch this.

I know it may seem that I was overreacting, and part of it was certainly annoyance at how he was treating Ron. There was another aspect to it, however, which was that I knew her well enough to know that if Father Frank yanked on her arm one more time she would probably haul off and punch him, priest or no. And given how tall he was, and how short Ron was, I really wanted to try to prevent that blow from being delivered.

"Are you threatening me?" Father Frank asked in disbelief.

"Marshall was raised Catholic," my employer said, exhaling a cloud of smoke, "so it's always been a dream of his to manhandle a man wearing a clerical collar. You're tall, but he could wrap you up and put a bow on you without breathing hard."

"So, this is how you settle disputes," the priest said, while I wondered where she got her exaggerated idea of my physical prowess.

"Of course not," she replied. "Don't be fatuous. We will talk, all four of us, about this and whatever else is on your mind. That's how we settle disputes. And that does not require physical coercion."

"You're trying to provoke me."

"Oh, definitely not," she said, "at least in the sense of starting a fight. To arouse you to action, though, yes. You had some reason for asking me here, something more serious than my daughter defacing your church, and I want to find out what it is." She glanced at Ron. "Serious as this vandalism is, of course."

"Your daughter? You must have been a very young mother." He released Ron's arm, and she stalked over to stand between Jan and me.

"We recognize many types of family relationships which you probably wouldn't countenance. Ron is our daughter. With whom I will have a substantial conversation later today about intellectual rigor, methods of argumentation and debate, and the importance of respect."

This was sufficiently unexpected and arcane that it shocked Ron out of her sullen attitude. She unfolded her arms and looked up, demanding, "What?"

Jan leaned over and hugged Ron, which also surprised her, and she said, "Later. For now, I need you to understand that it was wrong to write on the church. Not because it's a church, not because it's sacred in some way, but because the people who worship here have not harmed you. There are walls all over U-town which are explicitly set aside for people to express their opinions. Now, I will admit that, if you had written these same words on one of those walls, I would still be disappointed in you for making such a shallow and facile statement–"

"But that's the conversation we're going to have later," I put in.

"Yes, you're right. For now, Ron, you need to work with Father Frank and his parishioners to clean off their church. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Ron said quietly.

My employer turned to the priest. "Is that acceptable? She can come whenever you want, though I would request that it be in the afternoon. Ron performs a vital governmental function every morning, and she doesn't like to rely on anybody to replace her."

"That would be fine. Perhaps tomorrow afternoon. I do think that an apology is also in order," he said, smiling indulgently at Ron, who made a face.

"That is between you and Ron. I will not try to compel her to make a coerced and insincere apology. If you want to receive a coerced and insincere apology from her, for some reason, you're welcome to try to elicit one yourself, tomorrow afternoon when she's working with you. Meanwhile, I think we should let Ron go so that we can go back to your office and you can tell us why you really asked me to come here today." She lit another cigarette.

Back in Father Frank's office, we resumed our seats. Ron had gone off to wreak havoc somewhere else.

"My initial questions were not unimportant," the priest began. He opened one of his desk drawers and brought out a large glass ashtray, which he slid across the desk to my employer. "You always say people should bring their problems to you."

"True, though we don't claim that we'll always be able to solve them." She tapped her ash into the ashtray.

"Well, my first concern was whether you'd even see this situation as a problem." Seeing her impatience, he continued. "The diocese wants to close this church."

She nodded. "I see. And you wondered whether we'd care one way or the other, or if we'd even welcome it."

He raised his eyebrows, clearly asking the question.

"Well," she said. "speaking just for myself, do I want this church to close? No, I don't. From a personal point of view, I would like it to close someday for lack of interest. But there is clearly interest now. You have a large congregation, one which is quite active in the community. For example, I know that your church has taken on almost total responsibility for staffing the hospital on Saturdays, including arranging for replacements when one or more volunteers are going to be unavailable. I don't have to tell you what a help that is to the regular staff.

"There are several other factors as well, but I'm still not sure why you wanted to start our conversation with a discussion of some issues where you already know that we disagree."

"My bishop is very much in favor of dialog. Even if it does not yield immediate results."

"So, you want to be able to report to him that you're talking with us. Even..." She frowned. "By the way, I do hope that 'dialog' isn't being used as a verb. If you're reporting that you're 'dialogging' with us..." She shuddered. "I might have to abandon you to your fate."

The priest shook his head. "No, I have never said that. I will, however, tell you that my bishop has said exactly that. Twice."

She shuddered again, delicately. "Then we will have to help you triumph over him. Please describe the situation. You are about to tell me that you have a mystery for me to solve. Let's suspend discussion of these other topics and move right to that."

"Well, there is a connection, since there has been a murder here. That will–"

"Indeed. Now this all starts to make some sense. You want this murder solved, in such a way that the bishop never hears about it. Because it might sway his decision about closing the church."

"That would be ideal, of course. For various reasons, however, I suspect that it will not be possible."

She smiled. "I'm sure I don't need to tell you that I make no guarantees." She stood up. "Let's go. I'm impatient to see this."

He smiled. "One might almost think that you like it when one person murders another."

"One might almost think you're chiding me for enjoying the very thing you want me to do for you."

"Fair enough," he said. He stood up. "Please come with me."

As I mentioned before, there was one area of the church itself, near the altar but way on the side, which was hidden by several large pieces of cloth hanging from the edge of a balcony. I had assumed that there was construction of some sort, and the hanging cloths were to contain the dust and debris, but Father Frank led us around behind this impromptu curtain and there was no construction.

There, behind the curtain of sheets, were several pews, a beautiful stained glass window portraying the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and, facing the window, mounted on one of the wooden posts which held up the balcony, a crucified man.

Father Frank was watching my employer when we came upon this atrocity, and I wondered if he had been skeptical about her claims of toughness under fire.

If he did have any doubts about her ability to deal with the sight of a corpse, they were quickly dispelled as she limped forward, her eyes locked onto the body. "Fascinating," she said quietly, walking around to examine it from different angles.

The dead man was middle-aged and unshaven, with graying hair which didn't appear to have been washed recently. His clothes were worn, tattered, and dirty. He was not really crucified; he was hanging from the wooden pillar, his jacket nailed to it in such a way that his arms were lifted up to around a forty-five degree angle. Placed where he was, however, facing the crucifixion image, the intent was clear.

Without taking her eyes off of the body, my employer said, "Father Frank, please describe how and when you found this."

He sighed. "I came in to pray this morning, as I always do, and at first I didn't see him. I sat over there, in the second section of pews, and it was fairly dark. I was alone.

"When I was done, I got up and as I was turning to go back to my office, I saw his arms sticking out on either side of the pillar. I didn't know what they were, but I came over, and I saw what had been done. I was stunned, and as I tried to collect myself, I heard a sound outside on the street. I rushed out, and I found that girl. She had just finished writing her blasphemy on the wall."

"And you thought she had had something to do with the body?" Jan demanded.

"Oh, no, of course not. She was obviously just some street urchin. But then she said something about being related to you, and that gave me the idea of sending for you. Both to see if the girl was telling the truth and to see if you would have any ideas about this mess."

My employer turned to me and she pointed at Father Frank. "Marshall," she said, "please restrain this man." The priest looked up, startled, as she turned to him and demanded, "Who are you and what have you done with Father Frank?"

His face betrayed him in that minute and he knew it. It clearly revealed the effort of trying to figure out how Father Frank would have reacted to this accusation.

By that time I had his wrist, but my grip wasn't firm and he wrenched his hand loose and took a swing at my chin. That told me he was strong and fast, but not experienced. I was about to kick him in the knee when he stepped back and pulled out a small pistol.

"Fuck you, Father Fuckface!"

The familiar caterwaul seemed to fill the church, and "Father Frank" made the mistake of looking around to try to locate the source, then he made the bigger mistake of starting to swing his gun toward where he thought she was.

The crook of a cane snaked around his wrist, pulling the barrel of the gun farther away from me, and I stepped in and hit him in the stomach as hard as I could.

"Ron," I yelled as he crumpled, "go outside and find a runner. We need a nurse with a gurney and restraints. Two gurneys." I dropped to my knees, straddling the phony priest, my hands holding his wrists. He seemed docile, but I wasn't sure he was going to stay that way.

Ron's head popped up between two pews. "Two what?" she demanded.

I grinned at her. "Just tell them we have a dead body, and a murderer who may also be insane."

She nodded knowledgeably. "You want a loony jacket." She stood with her arms crossed behind her back in demonstration.

I nodded. "A loony jacket, yes."

"Got it!" she said and ran for the door.

"I'm not a murderer," the man said.

My employer tapped his cheek with the tip of her cane. "For now," she said, peering down at him, "the only question you need to answer is the one I asked a few moments ago, specifically the location of Father Frank."

"I wouldn't hurt him," he protested. I grabbed the clerical collar and ripped it off him, just because it annoyed me that he had it on. "He's my brother," he said, more quietly. "He's tied up in the basement."

I felt my employer's strong fingers on my shoulder. She leaned over to whisper, "I suppose it would be trite to mention Cain and Abel right now." I nodded as she kissed my cheek and managed to get erect again, leaning heavily on my shoulder.

"I sent the runner," Ron said as she came back to us. "I told him to burn rubber or he'd have to answer to me."

Jan smiled at this and said, "Ron, your father is rather busy right now, as you can tell, so I need you to assist me. Alright?"

She nodded. "Sure."

So, they set off to find and free the real Father Frank, while I restrained the phony one. He closed his eyes and started to mumble, evidently praying.

A hospital aide arrived a few minutes later, with a straitjacket. The phony priest tried to break free when he saw this, but we held him and the aide gave him a shot that quieted him down.

The real Father Frank appeared as we were tightening the straps, accompanied by Jan and Ron. He was, as I had originally expected, a bit smaller and older than the impostor. He was disheveled and walked unsteadily, but he appeared to be unhurt.

"Father Frank," my employer said as they came up, "please sit down."

He shook his head, looking down at the impostor. "I'm fine. After a few hours tied to that chair, I need to stretch my legs." He sighed.

"The first question is about his claim that he's your brother. Is this true?"

Father Frank nodded, looking down at the man. "Yes, he is."

This was more or less a formality, given the resemblance between the two men, but it was possible they were more distantly related.

"What's wrong with him?" Father Frank asked.

"He's been sedated, and he will be restrained."

"He's not crazy," he said sadly.

"With all due respect, Father," I said, "he apparently crucified a fellow human being in your church. He will be treated humanely, but we won't take any chances."

He closed his eyes and nodded. My employer turned to the aide. "He should be restrained during examination, and I need a very thorough autopsy on the corpse. I need to know how he died, beyond any possible question." She looked around. "You're not going to handle this alone, are you?"

She shook her head. "Oh, no. Two others are following me, with the gurneys. I came ahead on the bike with the runner."

Jan nodded. "Good. Do you need us to wait until they come?"

The aide shook her head. "No need. I'll be fine."

"Then, Father Frank, let me ask if we will need any information from your brother to help us understand what happened here, or can he be taken to the hospital when the others arrive?"

Father Frank shook his head. "I think I know the answers, at least to what he did."

"And we can fill in the rest."

So, my employer, the priest, Ron, and I adjourned to Father Frank's office.

My employer held out her cigarette case. "Please have one of mine," she said. "I'm sure your nerves could use it."

He smiled as he took one. "You've deduced my secret vice. I do try to hide it from my congregation, though I'm sure I'm not fooling them."

"That was the easiest deduction I made today. You keep this ashtray in a drawer. Why? If it's for guests to use, why hide it? Out of obsessive neatness? The rest of your office tends to indicate that neatness is not your particular vice. And the ashtray wasn't your brother's; he didn't want me to smoke, and then he made faces at me when I did."

"Don't tell me that's how you knew."

"Of course not, but it was one indication that something was not what it seemed."

Father Frank slid the ashtray to the middle of his desk, where they could both reach it.

Ron leaned forward, but I said, "You're too young to smoke."

She sighed.

"There are several places we could start," my employer said, drawing deeply on her cigarette, "but I am most curious about the things that your brother told us when he was pretending to be you."

Father Frank shrugged. "Of course, I have no idea what he told you. Not to be flippant, but with my brother it could have been almost anything."

"I'll summarize," she said, "rather than recounting it all verbatim."

She told Father Frank what his brother had said (with some indication of her responses), including the scene on the street with Ron, though she omitted my confrontation with the phony priest.

Father Frank nodded, stubbing out his cigarette butt in the ashtray as she finished. "The main thing that wasn't true is that the decision of the diocese has already been made. The church will be closed. That's what set my brother off, more or less, or really my decision that I wanted to stay and minister to my congregation anyway."

Her eyes widened. "Indeed? On your own?"

"It's not my preference, of course, but I disagree with the decision. This church has stood here for over a hundred and twenty-five years. It's one of the oldest buildings in this area. And it has usually ministered to people who would have been considered beyond help, people the Ashfords and the DuQuesnes and the Forresters wouldn't have looked twice at."

"I realize this is a very open-ended question," my employer said, "but why did your decision set off your brother so badly? And what was his position here in the church, if he had one?"

"I'll try to be brief, though as you'll see, I could write a book about my brother. In fact, I've thought about doing exactly that.

"My brother is about ten years younger than I am. There were two sisters in between. At first, like most healthy young boys, he hated going to church. The dressing up, the sitting still, the whole thing. But then, as he got older, and as I started to realize that I wanted to enter the priesthood, he began to be really interested." He smiled for a moment. "As his friends were getting into various scrapes, he was always the one there to chastise them.

"He became fixated on the idea that he would become a priest also, and it was fairly obvious that he thought he'd be a much better priest than I would ever be. Much more devout, much more pious. I never argued with him about it, but I always thought he was a bit too much... Well, let me not digress into things which probably wouldn't interest you."

"It sounds as if he lacked humility, which could be relevant."

"He did, but he also lacked intellectual rigor. Piousness without study and contemplation – and introspection – is not the way to become a priest, at least in my opinion.

"He was rejected by the seminary, and... he didn't take it well. I don't believe it had ever occurred to him as a possibility."

"In any case, it set him off. He stopped going to church, got married, started a business, started drinking, but it all fell apart. Some of it quickly, some of it slowly, and one night he called me from a pay phone, talking about suicide. I convinced him to come here.

"The short story is that he moved in, and he lived here for several years. He had no official standing, to answer your other question, but he assisted me and helped people in the congregation, and it settled him. The structure, the rituals and routines, being around people who treated him with concern and respect, it was all good for him."

"I gather something went wrong."

"To be honest, you did. U-town, it was – is – everything he hates. That's why he was asking you those questions, I believe. He knew the answers – he's been following things obsessively – but he wanted to give you a chance to repent, in the house of God. That's how it used to happen in the comic books we read when we were boys. You confront the wicked with their sins, and they fall to their knees and repent. He's never quite given up on that idea. But that's not what you did, of course. You confirmed everything he hated – well, at least some of it – so you were damned in his eyes."

"I can't tell if you're capping the 'h' in 'his.' Do you mean your brother's eyes, or god's eyes?"

"I'm afraid that, in my brother's mind, when he gets like this, that distinction can get blurred."

"Who was the dead man?" I asked. "Do you know who he was?" I thought this question engaged Ron's interest, though she was clearly getting bored.

"He was a tramp," Father Frank said. "We called him Toledo, since it seemed he came from there. He was a bit dotty, including about his name. Harmless, but not totally..." He tapped his forehead, and my employer nodded. "He slept in the church some nights. I'm always flexible about people sleeping here, especially if it's cold out. One of the many things which my brother considers shocking and improper. I'm hoping that Toledo just died of natural causes and my brother decided to use his body to create that awful tableau."

Ron was starting to get bored again, rocking back and forth and looking around the room, so I said, "I want to know what happened to Ron." I turned to her. "I thought you'd gone away, though I was certainly glad when it turned out you were here."

She smiled. "You would have taken him, Dad."

I laughed. "That wasn't the question."

"Well, Father Frank–" She pointed at him, to make it clear which "Father Frank" she meant. "–caught me writing on the wall this morning. He sent a note to you guys, then he told me to wait in a smelly little room, but then the loony guy came in–"

"In deference to Father Frank's feelings, maybe we could just call him by his name."

"Is this a quiz? I don't know his name."

I turned to Father Frank, half-expecting my employer to produce the name, but it was the priest who answered. "His name is Joe. Joseph."

Ron shrugged. "Okay. So, he came in and he told me I had to act like he was Father Frank when you got here. He showed me a gun and said he'd shoot you if I messed up.

"But I wasn't worried, because I thought you'd see through him, and you'd point at him and say, 'You're not Father Frank!' But you didn't say that, and then you took his side, against me." She was looking at the floor. "I was mad, so I went away...

"But then I started to think about the gun the loony guy had, and I knew I had to come back and rescue you."

Jan smiled as our attention turned to her. This was the other reason I had asked Ron to tell us her story. As we each told our part of the tale, I knew my employer would want her portion to be last.

"How did you know Joseph wasn't me, Miss Sleet?" the priest asked. "Had you seen a photograph of me?"

She frowned at the suggestion that it could have been anything so mundane.

"No, not that. I have read the articles about you, but the U-town newspaper doesn't have pictures. No, it was because of that poor man who was hanging there." The priest's expression was perplexed. "I'll explain. What was your reaction when you saw Toledo?"

"I was horrified, at what had been done to him and at the fact that my brother was apparently responsible."

"Exactly. Your brother wanted me to believe that Father Frank had left that body hanging there for several hours, just waiting for me to come and witness the tableau. That was preposterous. Everything I've read and heard about you has led me to believe that you are both devout and compassionate. For both of those reasons, the sacrilege and the disrespect to the dead, you would have made some effort to take the body down. And, if that wasn't enough, there was the story that the fate of the church was hanging in the balance. Under those circumstances, it was difficult to imagine that you would have left the body in the position where it would have caused the maximum amount of scandal.

"Combine that with the other things I'd seen, like the ashtray, and the apparent pointlessness of the questions that he had asked, and I became fairly sure that he was not really Father Frank. And the best way to find out was to surprise him with it, and see his reaction."

My employer glanced at our daughter. "There was another factor as well. It appeared that you'd been holding Ron here since the morning. I know my daughter, and she would never have allowed herself to be restrained in that way, priest or no, unless there was a real, life-threatening danger to her or somebody she cared about."

Father Frank smiled at Ron. "So, you're no respecter of authority, young lady?"

"Don't call me that!" she snapped.

He laughed as Jan said, "I think one could go as far as to say that Ron doesn't care for any authority at all. Except for us, but she selected us."

Father Frank smiled. "Which would be one more thing for my bishop to disapprove of. And my brother."

Jan turned to Ron. "But you are going to come tomorrow afternoon and help them clean off the church, Ron."

"Yeah," she said, looking none too happy (but, for her, not that unwilling either).

"At some point," Jan said to the priest, "when this business with your brother is resolved, I would like to interview you. The fact that you've decided to break from the church–"

"I'm sorry to interrupt, Miss Sleet, but we are not breaking from the church. This is, to us, not an academic distinction. We are going to continue, the congregation and I have agreed – at least most of them agreed – that we will continue here, as we have been. The great likelihood is that the bishop will continue in the course he has chosen, but there is a possibility that he will change his mind, seeing our resolve and hearing our reasons. If not, the final decision will be his, not ours. As I said, that distinction matters to us."

She nodded. "I see what you mean. In any case, I would like to interview you, and probably write an article. This situation is unusual and newsworthy." She smiled. "And we can also debate the existence of god."

He chuckled. "I would enjoy doing an interview, but I'm fairly certain that neither of us will change the other's mind about God."

"I expect you're right. But you were talking before about intellectual rigor, and the importance of study and contemplation. I would add discussion and debate to that list. When I talked to Ron outside the church, as I reported to you, I mentioned 'methods of argumentation and debate, and the importance of respect.' This is what I was talking about. Put your best arguments on the table, I'll do the same, and I bet we'll both learn something." She turned to Ron, who was clearly still bored, though she had started to pay attention when her name had been mentioned. "You don't have to come, Ron."

"You mean tomorrow?" she asked.

Jan laughed and ruffled Ron's hair (which Ron hated). "No, I mean when I interview Father Frank. You still have to come tomorrow and help clean up."

Ron shrugged. "It was worth a try."

As we left the church, into the light of a beautiful sunset, I expected Ron to run off to do whatever it was that Ron did when she wasn't delivering the mail, but instead she walked with us, demanding, "When are we gonna eat? I'm starved."

This seemed to assume that Ron ate with us quite often, whereas in reality the three of us had never had a meal together. Jan caught my eye, shrugged, and said, "We'll eat as soon as we go home. I need to change."

"Change what?" Ron demanded.

"My clothes," she explained.

It occurred to me that, though I had never considered the question before, Ron did always seem to wear the same clothes. I wondered if this was her preference, or if this ratty sweatshirt, denim jacket, jeans, and sneakers were the only clothes she had. And I wondered if she ever washed them, though I suspected I knew the answer to that question. I had momentary mental pictures of "Marshall and Ron do the laundry," and "Marshall and Ron go shopping for clothes."

As I was reflecting that having a daughter was turning out to be quite complicated, Jan caught my wrist, leaned over, and whispered, "You think this is bad, wait until she reaches puberty."

"Dear God," I said, but Ron took no notice. She was probably fairly used to hearing the people around her calling on the Lord for assistance.

"Ron," Jan said, "why did you write those words on the church? Why do you think Jesus sucks?"

She shrugged. "Well, because of my friend Becky. She started seeing this guy, and I told her not to fool around with him, but she didn't listen to me, and then she got pregnant, and I told her to go to the hospital and take care of it, but her family didn't want her to, they said it was a sin, but I said, 'You've got to go and take care of this. You're not smart enough to be a mom,' I told her, 'you're not even smart enough to be a teenager.'"

"You must have been a big comfort to her," I commented.

She smiled. "Well, she's my friend."

"So," Jan asked after a moment, "what happened?"

"Oh, she wasn't pregnant anyway. Her ... thing was just off schedule, probably because she was so freaked out. I told her, 'Listen, you need to calm the fuck down, right now.'"

"Her 'thing'?" Jan asked.

"You know... her ..." She scrunched up her face and glanced around us before whispering, "her period."

I knew that Jan would have a whole discussion with her about calling things by their real names, along with the one about intellectual rigor, methods of argumentation and debate, and the importance of respect, but we were at the hotel by then, and Ron was not going to tolerate any theoretical discussions without getting some food.

I was relieved to find out that there were at least some facts about human reproduction that Ron knew about already. That was a start. If there were gaps in her knowledge, however, I was willing to bet that it would end up being my job to fill them in.

"Were you scared, Ron?" I asked as Jan changed for dinner. Because Ron was there, Jan was changing in the bathroom.

Ron shrugged, not looking at me.

"Well, I was," I said. "When he was waving that gun around, and I didn't know where you were, I was really scared. I didn't know..."

I stopped, because her tears had started to come. I was sitting on the edge of the bed, so I could have my eyes on her level, and I took her into my arms and held her, her tears pouring down my cheek, her hands clutching at the back of my jacket.

She tried to say a couple of things at different times, but she was gasping and crying too hard, and I just held her and stroked her hair (making a mental note to insist that she had to have a shower and a shampoo before going to bed; and reflecting that, as her father, I should really have some idea where she did sleep).

Jan came in while Ron was crying, and she went and sat quietly in her desk chair. She just watched; she didn't even light a cigarette.

I did get some impressions from the few words Ron managed to get out in between her sobs, mostly about how much better we were than her birth parents. I never did press her for details, though as she grew older we did learn quite a bit more. We even met her birth parents eventually, but that was much later.

But, as I say, we never pressured her. Even the great detective realized that this was not a mystery that demanded investigation. Some things just require patience, and a willingness to listen.

I also got the idea that Ron was half expecting to find out at some point that we were kidding about her being our daughter. Given that fact, doing the laundry and shopping for clothes and insisting that we had to know where she slept might help convince her that we were serious.

The next morning we got the autopsy report. It said that Toledo had died of a heart attack. There was no evidence of foul play. We knew that Father Frank would want to know this, so we went with Ron when she went to help clean off the church, and we stopped to have lunch together on the way.


the school mystery

"The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound."

My employer made this pronouncement, then she leaned back in her chair, lit a cigarette, and sipped her coffee. I knew what had set her mind in this direction. This morning we were going to school.

Jan Sleet started every morning with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Some days, of course, coffee was not available, and on those mornings it was more difficult to get her out of bed. Unless there was a mystery to solve.

This morning there weren't any mysteries in sight, so it was fortunate that coffee was available, because we had an appointment.

"Are you speaking generally," I asked, "or is this a comment on the school we're visiting today?"

"Oh, it's just a general observation," she said with a smile. "I'm curious to see the school today. I don't know that much about it."

I wondered if this was true. It would not have been unusual for her to claim ignorance about a subject, in order to "discover" things about it later. On the other hand, I had never seen her exhibit any interest in children (other than our newly adopted daughter, Ron, of course), so perhaps she hadn't been paying much attention to the U-town School.

It was very much an ongoing experiment. I had heard that it was similar to a one-room schoolhouse in a small town, in that students were not automatically segregated by age. There was also a lot of effort to create a balance between having a mandated curriculum and allowing students, even young ones, to pick what they wanted to learn.

"What did they ask you to talk about?" I asked.

"Oh, I'm not really sure," she said. "About being a reporter, I would imagine, but I think the students should get a choice. There are so many topics I could help with. Reporting, writing, solving mysteries, Bellona, U-town itself, the benefits of tobacco, government administration..."

The original invitation had asked her if she would like to come in the morning. I had a feeling that, before the day was over, they were going to wish they had also specified exactly what time she would be expected to leave.

This morning, I anticipated a quiet and possibly tedious visit to a school. Of course, I was wrong.

As we approached the school, I saw a familiar figure leaning against the fence, smoking a cigarette. "It's Pete!" Jan said (rather unnecessarily), and he waved casually as we approached him.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

He smiled. "I'm preparing to molest some schoolgirls. I've heard that they can often be found in the vicinity of schoolyards." He waved at greeting at me, then he looked around pointedly, in case some molestable schoolgirls might suddenly appear.

Jan laughed and lit a cigarette. "I did not mean to imply that you wouldn't have anything to contribute to education. Are you here teaching music?"

"No," he said, "they haven't added rock and roll to the curriculum yet, though I have suggested it." He dropped his cigarette and stubbed it out with his toe. "No," he said, "I'm here for another reason."

Pete was well-known around U-town. He was a rock and roll musician, a popular local character, an expert on a variety of arcane subjects, a fairly small man with glasses and longish hair, almost always dressed in ripped jeans and a faded T-shirt, but these descriptions don't cover his best known characteristic.

What was best known about Pete was that he lived with starling, the notorious (and apparently reformed, at least for the moment) lunatic murderer. She doesn't appear in this story, but it was difficult to see Pete and not think about her.

We went down the hall together. Pete had dropped the question of why he was there, and I could tell my employer was trying to figure it out. I was amused to imagine what he could be shy about that would have been worse than living with starling.

There were a few students around, of various ages, but not many. Classes were apparently in session. The walls were painted two unpleasant shades of institutional green, darker below and lighter above. Some areas had been defaced with graffiti and posters, and near the corner someone had started a nice painting of a seashore, right on the wall. My employer gestured at this, about to make a comment, when we heard a voice behind us.

"Ah, Miss Sleet," called a woman who was coming down the hall toward us. "I was just looking for you." She looked familiar, but I couldn't place her.

Jan Sleet paused as the teacher reached for the door of the classroom. She tugged at the bottom of her vest, though it already hugged her slender torso without a crease or fold. Then she reached up and quickly touched the knot of her tie, reassuring herself that it was perfect, which it was.

She had affected casual indifference about the U-town School, but I had noticed that she'd dressed very carefully for this event. She was wearing her newest suit (dark blue, single-breasted), freshly cleaned and pressed, with a pale blue shirt. Her shoes and her cane were polished, her shoulder-length, brown hair was brushed, and she smiled as she did when people were about to see her looking her best.

Amusingly, the first thing we saw in the classroom was a full-page newspaper advertisement, taped to the wall. I was quite familiar with it, since it was an advertisement for a top haberdasher and it featured a picture of Jan Sleet. The photograph was striking, and I supposed it was being displayed in honor of her visit.

The advertising campaign had been somewhat controversial. Doc and Ray had been concerned that it would appear that U-town itself was endorsing the clothier in question, and the agreement had been that the ads would not feature her name or any mention of U-town.

So, it was just a photograph of Jan Sleet: very tall, very slender, one hand on her hip, the other holding her cane. Her expression was pensive, as if regarding an unexpected corpse. The only text on the page was the name of the company, in small type, at the bottom.

My employer didn't mind the publicity, or the assumption that a significant number of people would recognize her photograph, or the indirect publicity for U-town, but the main attraction was that the company paid her not only in cash, most of which we donated to the U-town treasury, but also in clothing, all tailored to her exacting specifications, including the suit she was wearing today (though the dark maroon tie she wore, her current favorite, had been a gift from me).

"Class," the teacher began as we sat down, "this is Miss Sleet, as I'm sure you're aware. She has consented to come and speak to us this morning as part of our career program. She–"

She stopped and turned as she became aware that my employer was lighting a cigarette. Before she could speak, one of the students said, "I guess this means we can smoke, too, right?"

The teacher, who I had finally recognized, turned back, but my employer responded first. "If the policy is that you're not allowed to smoke in this class," she said, "then you can't smoke. Ms. Tumolo is your teacher, and it's her decision." She looked at the boy who had spoken. "What is your name?" she asked.

"I'm Willy," he said, tensing a bit. He was slender, with straight, sandy hair, wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a denim jacket.

"Willy," she said, drawing on her cigarette and leaning back in her chair, "one of the first things you learn as a reporter is that authority exists in every situation. You may think it's valid authority, or not, but it's there and you have to deal with it. I've interviewed world leaders who had no legitimate claim to authority, who schemed and lied and assassinated to get where they were, and if they said I couldn't smoke, I didn't smoke, because I wanted the interview."

She gestured at the advertisement on the wall. I noticed that Willy seemed to be relaxing again. "One time I had to wear a dress, because a particular general would not even speak to a woman who was wearing pants." She shrugged. "I hadn't worn a dress or a skirt in over ten years, but I did then, because I wanted the interview. Then I wrote an article which nearly got me killed, but that's a different story.

"On the other hand, there have been situations where the subject, for whatever reason, needed the interview more than I did. In those cases, I smoked, and I dressed normally." She turned to the teacher. "I'm sorry, Ms. Tumolo, I'm taking over your class as well as flouting your rules. Please continue."

As I said, I had finally recognized the teacher. Her name was Susan Tumolo. Before the founding of U-town, she had been the secretary of the mayor, Mike Sheldon, known as "Uncle Mike." Immediately after the founding, Uncle Mike had vanished. The common assumption, hers and ours, had been that he had been removed, since he had (from the government's point of view) bungled things so badly that one area of his city had been able to secede and become U-town.

She had been upset and angry about what had happened to her employer, so much so that she had come to us and told us of a plot against Doc's life, even though she had thought the whole idea of U-town was a big joke.

When we'd first met her, she had disapproved of cigarettes, and that opinion (and the facial expression which went with it) hadn't changed. Some things had changed, though. When we'd met her, she'd been wearing a blouse, a skirt, nylons, and pumps. Now, she'd gone native enough that she wore jeans and flat shoes, but she was also wearing a nice blouse, a touch of makeup, nail polish, and some unobtrusive jewelry. Of course, sitting next to Jan Sleet, she still looked rather casual.

Ms. Tumolo made the mistake of hesitating for a split second before responding, so my employer continued, "Why don't we all get introduced to start off? I'll be able to help a lot more if I know you all better. That way, we can make the best use of our time here." She glanced at Ms. Tumolo, which I thought was a nice gesture, but apparently the teacher didn't have any objections.

In fact, as my employer turned back to face the class, I noticed a smile quirk Ms. Tumolo's full lips. She knew where the authority was in this situation (authority which I knew from past experience she considered to be at least somewhat questionable), but she had figured out what I had seen earlier that morning, that this was going to be much more than a brief presentation on career choices. I had the idea that she was curious to see where this was going to go.

"So, why don't we start this way," my employer began. "Let's go around the room, and each of you can tell me your name, and ask me one question, whatever you want. You'll have plenty of time for more questions later; this is just so I can get an idea of what's on your minds." She gestured at the boy seated closest to the window. "Why don't you start, if you don't mind, and then we can go around the room."

He nodded. If he was uncomfortable, he didn't show it. He was a bit taller than Willy, also with fair hair, though his hair was shorter.

"My name is Roger," he said, "and I'm glad you've come to visit us, but I am confused. Ms. Tumolo said yesterday that you were a reporter, and she gave us a couple of your articles to read. But, when I mentioned you to my parents last night, my father said you were running the government, and my mother said you were a detective, that you caught criminals." He smiled. "So, I guess I'm wondering how many careers you have, and how many we're going to be expected to have."

That got a bit of a laugh, and my employer said, "That's a good question, Roger. I'm a reporter. If you've read my articles, then you know what I do. Solving mysteries is my hobby, and, like many people, there are times when I'd rather be doing my hobby than my job." He nodded. "After all," she continued, "Ellery Queen was a novelist, Dr. Fell was a lexicographer, Sir Henry Merrivale was . . ." She noticed their expressions. "Fictional characters. Before your time, I realize. I'm sure you get the idea.

"As for the government, I'm certainly not running it; Doc Morse is. I'm in a position to help her, so I do, as I hope any of you would also. Does that answer your question?"

He nodded. "Yes, thank you."

She turned to the next student, who was a pretty girl with long, straight, blonde hair.

"I'm Carol," she said, "and here's my question. Who's the cute guy?"

That got a laugh, and their reaction told me that this was not an unexpected question from Carol. My employer glanced at me, as if to make sure I wasn't going to let this go to my head.

"Marshall is my assistant," she said. "He travels everywhere with me, and I couldn't get very much done without him. He produces the things I need, when I need them, no matter how impossible they seem, and he's saved my life more than once." She smiled. "If you really want to be successful in life, get a good assistant. That's going to be the single most important thing you can do."

She pulled her glasses down her nose and peered over them at the students. "And he's also my husband," she continued, "so don't get any ideas, girls."

That got a laugh, and she turned her attention to the next student. He was a young man, a bit smaller than the others. He had straight, brown hair, and he looked fairly serious.

"My name is Jimmy," he said, then he corrected himself. "James. I wanted to ask what you think about college, ma'am. My teachers say I'm ready to go, but there aren't any colleges around here. Did you go to college?"

She smiled. "Before I answer that, James, let me ask you a question. Do you not want to go to college? Do you not want to travel?"

He shrugged. "Well, my parents are always saying how much better it is here in U-town. What if I go somewhere else and I don't like it?"

She laughed. "Well, I think it is a pretty great place to live, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't travel. U-town is very small, and the world is very large. I like it here, but I've been to a lot of places, so I have a basis for comparison. Are you going to marry the first person who asks you out on a date?

"Besides, U-town can't survive on what people can learn here. For example, we need doctors, obviously, and it will be years before we can even think about starting a medical school here. I read an article recently – not written by me – which said that if your ailment is fairly common, you'll receive better care in U-town than anywhere else in the world. However, if your ailment is uncommon, or complex, or difficult to diagnose, you'll get sent somewhere else. We can be proud of the former, but we have to be working on the latter. There are doctors in the city who come to our hospital one day a week, and some of them refer certain patients to us, but we need more full-time staff, doctors who are always here, and who are doing research, not just treating patients. As Ray said to me recently, we can send you to some great therapists, but that doesn't help if you need back surgery."

"Thanks," he said, "That makes sense. But did you go to college?"

"Yes, I did," she said, "but I didn't graduate. When I got to college, I just went through the catalog and marked all the classes I thought would help me solve mysteries. And I took all the journalism classes, too, of course."

"What was your major?"

She shrugged. "I didn't have one. I had no interest in getting a degree, I just wanted an education. When I'd taken all the courses I needed, I left."

"You dropped out?"

"Oh, I don't think of it as dropping out. Dropping out implies quitting in the middle of something. I just followed through on the plan I'd laid out when I was in high school. So, I left college, I found Marshall and hired him, and I was ready to go."

She held up a hand.

"I don't recommend doing that, by the way, though it has worked quite well for me. But now, when I've taken on some responsibilities in the government, I do wish I'd taken some other courses. Economics, for example. I did take languages, since all of the classic detectives were polylingual, and that's been helpful in diplomatic work, but I wish I'd taken a much wider range of courses when I was there."

The next question came from a girl with dark hair and glasses, and she seemed rather shy and apologetic. I had the impression that she would have been just as happy if she had been skipped over.

"I have a question," she said. "It's really from my mother, when she heard you were going to be here." She hesitated.

"First off," my employer said in her friendliest voice, "what is your name?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, ma'am. I'm Amy, Amy Brewster."

Jan leaned forward and said conspiratorially, "Well, Amy, you don't have to ask your mother's question, if you'd rather ask one of your own. We won't tell. Or, if you want, you can ask me two questions, hers and one of your own."

"No, that's okay," she said very seriously. "It's about... There's this woman. She lives across the street from us, and my mother says that she's crazy and she's killed hundreds of people. My mother wants to know why you don't arrest her and put her away."

Jan nodded slowly. "I could say that that's not my job, but that would be an evasion." She smiled. "And I don't want to teach you to evade the difficult questions.

"The woman you're talking about is starling, of course. She is a murderer, many times over, but she has not murdered anybody here, at least not anybody who was not threatening her or someone she cared about.

"So, should we prosecute her for crimes committed elsewhere? Would the United States prosecute anybody for a crime committed here? We know they wouldn't.

"Many people come here to live in some way they couldn't live anywhere else." She smiled. "There's probably never been a country in human history where so many people are living under new names, names they weren't born with. A lot of that is just in fun, but perhaps she's come here to reinvent herself in a more important way. If so, we should give her that chance."

"My dad says she should be put down," Willy said. "Like a mad dog."

Jan shook her head. "I disagree with that, since she is neither of those things. In any case, I don't think that's the solution. Does she deserve death, for what she's done? Perhaps. Many who live deserve death. Do her victims, or at least some of them, deserve life? Probably, but we can't give it to them, no matter how much we might think they got a raw deal. So, if you can't restore life to the dead, don't be too eager to deal out death in judgment to the living."

Amy asked, "Is that from the Bible?"

Jan smiled. "I'm an atheist, so no, it's not."

"My name is David," said the next student, a plump young man with frizzy hair and glasses. "I'm sorry if my question isn't career-oriented, but I have to ask why you dress so funny." He smiled at his own impudence. "And you were talking about people with phony names. Is Jan Sleet your real name?"

My employer laughed, nearly dropping her cigarette case and her lighter. "I can tell already that a couple of you may end up being reporters," she said. "First James pins me down on my education, and now this. That was very sharp, so I'm going to let you get away with asking two questions instead of one.

"You're right, Jan Sleet is not the name I was born with. I was born Janice Stiglianese, but people usually mispronounce it, so I decided it would be good to have a shorter name, for professional use. So, that was a good question. Another thing you learn as a reporter is to be thorough, including asking questions that might seem very obvious.

"As for my attire," she gestured with a certain pride at the newspaper ad on the wall, "let me ask a question of my own. Do you mean funny as in peculiar, or do you mean really funny?"

"Well, both, I guess," he said slowly, as if realizing belatedly that his questions might not have been entirely appropriate.

"I want to try, as much as possible, to keep people from jumping to conclusions about me. I want them to look at me and realize that there isn't an easy box or category they can put me into.

"Also, we go to some dangerous places, Marshall and I, and dressing well can give people the impression that there might be a price to pay for torturing or killing you."

"When did you decide you wanted to be a detective?" he asked.

She smiled. "I'm sorry, you've used up your questions for now. I'm sure we'll get back to this subject."

Ms. Tumolo, apparently sensing that this morning was going to be only the first act (if not, in fact, merely the prologue) of a very long play, said, "Now that we're all introduced, this might be a good time for us to take a short break. I'm sure somebody's put up a fresh pot of coffee by now, and I'm probably not the only person who could use some."

There was general assent on this point, so we stood and stretched, and she started to lead us to the cafeteria.

Our progress through the halls of the school was slow, and Ms. Tumolo's patience with all the distractions told us that this was not unusual. Our speed seemed to vary between "slow" and "stopped" as people saw friends, popped into offices, looked at bulletin boards, paused to neck with random strangers (or at least that's what appeared to be happening, and Ms. Tumolo did move to break up a couple of clinches which seemed likely to occupy one or another of her students for the rest of the day), and generally meandered around.

We caused a comparatively minor delay ourselves when we passed one door just as it opened and Pete came out. He was looking back over his shoulder, evidently in conversation with somebody behind him, and he walked right into my employer. She lost her balance (which wasn't that secure at the best of times), and I grabbed her elbow to steady her.

David came up to greet Pete, and I noticed that Ms. Tumolo was finally starting to look impatient. She was also, if I was reading her expression correctly, thinking that Pete didn't really belong in a school in the first place.

Apparently Jan noticed this as well, because she said, "We're just on our way for coffee, Pete. Would you like to join us?"

This would have tickled my employer's sense of humor, to give the appearance of moving us along, because Ms. Tumolo was getting impatient, and in reality to annoy her for a bit longer with the scruffy presence of Pete.

The cafeteria was familiar. We had been to some sort of event there, or perhaps more than one, but I couldn't recall the details.

Roger said, "I'll check on the coffee," and he went off to the kitchen.

The large room was full of long tables, some with attached benches (like picnic tables) and others with chairs. If there was a system to how the tables were arranged, it was based on mathematical formulae which were beyond me.

"So," David said, "Miss Sleet, you're a big fan of detective fiction?"

She smiled. "Of course. I assume you have a reason for asking?"

"He hates mystery stories," Carol said. "That's what one of his courses is about."

David laughed. "She's not one of my students," he said. "That's purely hearsay."

"But with, perhaps, an element of truth," Jan commented. "What is your premise?"

"In brief," he said, "science fiction encourages us to imagine other worlds. In most cases, the imagination applied is pretty paltry, but the potential is there, and occasionally it is realized. Mystery stories, on the other hand, are, in a basic sense, about repairing what exists now, about maintaining order."

Jan sighed and stretched. I could feel how much she wanted a cigarette, but apparently she had decided that smoking in the cafeteria would be a bit much, even for her.

"It is no coincidence, I think," David continued, "that the person who thought up the idea of U-town was a science fiction fan."

Roger came out of the kitchen with a tray which, instead of coffee, seemed to contain cups of soda.

"Dr. Alexander's blown up the coffee pot again," he announced. "Somebody's gone for a new one, but I thought this was better than nothing."

He brought the tray around to us first, since we were the guests, and handed each of us a cup, balancing the tray with his other hand. Jan and I were not soda drinkers, but we each took a cup to be polite.

"Doctor Alexander was performing chemical experiments in the kitchen?" Jan asked as Roger held out a cup for Pete, who took it and immediately put it on the table.

Roger laughed as Ms. Tumolo replied, "No, she teaches literature. She knows even less about chemistry than I do, and she tends to forget that a glass pot on a hot stove will eventually shatter, once its contents have boiled away."

Roger was moving to the far side of the table, to serve Ms. Tumolo, so Pete leaned toward us and whispered, "I'm not really much of a soda drinker."

"When in Rome," my employer murmured, sipping from her cup.

"Just put it on the table," Ms. Tumolo said to Roger, and he put the tray down. A couple of the other students took cups.

David was patiently waiting for Jan Sleet to comment on the apparent fact that, in addition to being a student, he was also teaching some classes. If he had known her better, he would have realized that he was going to have a very long wait indeed.

"David," she said, "that's an interesting premise. There's almost certainly some truth to it, at least as far as Ray is concerned." She smiled, throwing her arms wide. "Sorry to disappoint you, if you thought I was going to start brandishing verbal cudgels in defense of the mystery story."

"You think he's right?" Roger demanded as two students marched through in a very short (but solemn) procession, one of them carrying a glass coffee pot in front of her reverently.

"Not at all," she replied, "but I think there's little point in arguing about things which can never be proven. I am not, after all, a writer of fiction. I'm a reporter, and what really entrances me is facts, not fictions. Science fiction may expand your mind in some ways, and mystery stories may teach you that human intelligence can solve even apparently impossible conundrums, but what counts is what you do with that information."

"I'll go help make the coffee," Roger said.

As he got up and walked toward the kitchen, David said, "That's pretty general."

"Fair enough," she said, leaning forward. "Here's something a bit more specific. I imagine there are millions of science fiction enthusiasts in the world. Would you say that's accurate?"

He nodded. "Absolutely."

"And, of all those millions, only one has done what Ray Stone did. So, science fiction was, I agree, a factor, but there were apparently other factors as well."

"Miss Sleet," Ms. Tumolo put in, "what would you say those other factors might have been?"

"That is a very interesting question," Jan replied. She looked around at the students. "I'd like to find out how all of you would answer it."

Ms. Tumolo's expression indicated that she was surprised my employer was finally doing something which might actually be educational.

David said, "I would think that having the idea was half the battle, and figuring out how to make it happen was the other half."

Jan allowed a grin to flick on and off. "That's pretty general, I must say." He laughed as she went on. "I'd like to hear what everybody else thinks, though."

There was a moment of silence, then Ms. Tumolo pointed at James, who gulped.

"Well," he said, "um, I guess one thing is that Ray didn't do it alone."

Jan nodded. "James, that's very true, and it's true in two different ways. Were you talking about Doc and Vicki and the others, or about people in general?"

"I was thinking about Doc, mostly," he said.

"It certainly wouldn't have happened without Doc and Ray and the rest of us. But, most importantly, it couldn't have happened without your parents and your neighbors and maybe even some of you."

"I was there," Amy said suddenly, raising her hand.

"So was I," said Willy.

Jan turned and peered at him more closely. "I remember you," she said slowly. "You were right in front. You threw a rock, and then Doc told you to cool it."

Willy grinned. "That was me."

There was a piercing whistle from the kitchen. Pete stood up and said, "Apparently the coffee is nearly ready."

"Let's go help out," Jan said, levering herself erect with her cane. "There's no reason Roger has to serve us."

Ms. Tumolo stood also, and she and one or two of the other students followed us into the kitchen.

There was a big coffee urn behind the counter, but it appeared to be broken. A couple of the glass tubes on the front were twisted out of position, and one was cracked.

On the side of the small, L-shaped room, there was a stove, and water had obviously been boiled in the new coffee pot. Roger was pouring it over the grounds in the basket in the battered aluminum coffeemaker. I decided not to ask the next question, which was whether any of this machinery had been washed recently.

"Make a note," my employer said to me, gesturing at the broken urn. "It must be possible to fix that."

With Roger and the other students behind the counter, and the rest of us on the other side, I had the urge to get a tray and put it on the tracks so I could slide it along and load it up with food. There was no food, of course, but the surroundings were making me realize how hungry I was getting. I hoped that lunch was going to be on the schedule at some point.

Jan and I poured mugs of coffee for ourselves, Pete poured one, then Ms. Tumolo poured her own, and by then the pot was nearly empty.

"I'll make more," Roger said, "and then I'll be right out."

I looked around as we went back to our table. Except for our group and a class of younger students on the other side of the room, the cafeteria was empty.

As we sat down, Roger came out of the kitchen and said, "We'll hear the whistle when the water boils, then I'll go make another pot."

"You should have taken a cup for yourself, from the first batch," I said.

He shook his head. "I don't drink coffee."

"How do you end up making the coffee if you don't drink it?"

"I make it right," he said with a shrug. "Some of the students who drink the most are hopeless at making it."

He picked up the soda that Pete had left behind, and drank some as I turned to my employer.

A second later, I heard Roger groan behind me, and when I turned back he was doubled over, clutching his stomach. He tried to say something, his face pale and sweaty, but his throat was obviously so dry he couldn't speak. He reached for the cup, which was still half full of soda, but my employer's long, bony hand shot out and moved it away from him.

He looked at her, startled, as she got up and limped quickly around me to stand next to him. She leaned over to peer at his face as he bent over again, moaning. Then she grabbed his hair, yanked his head up, and shoved her fingers down his throat.

As he threw up, she said, "Poison, runner, hospital, nurse, kit, go!"

I heard Willy say, "I'm a runner," as I ran for the door. I was gone before I heard her reply, but I knew what it would have been: "You're also a suspect, please sit down."

I pulled the whistle from my pocket as I ran down the hall and out the front door.

There was a runner at the corner, and she heard the whistle. She held up an envelope as she turned, indicating that she was on a job, but then she recognized me, and biked over quickly as I trotted down the wide steps.

"Hospital emergency," I said. "Bring back a nurse with a kit. Tell them it's most likely poisoning. Give the nurse a ride back on your bike. We're in the cafeteria. Fast as you can. Go."

She went.

Going back down the hall, I saw Willy. He saw me, too, and he tried to get to the staircase, but I caught up with him and grabbed his arm. "Did you get permission to leave the cafeteria?" I asked, knowing the answer.

He stammered out the beginnings of a few possible replies, squirming in my grip as I hauled him back to the scene of the crime.

Roger was lying on his side on one of the long tables, clutching at his stomach. His skin was pale and his eyes were closed. Jan was standing next to him, and I could tell from her posture that he was out of danger, at least for the moment. Amy and Carol were cleaning up the table where he'd thrown up.

My employer smiled when she saw that I had Willy. She gestured at the table where some of the others were sitting, and I pulled him over there and sat him down. I did a quick check and confirmed that the rest were all there: Ms. Tumolo, James, David, and Pete. Other than the nine of us, the large cafeteria was empty.

"Here is the situation," Jan said, addressing them all, her hands folded on top of her cane. "This is almost certainly an attempted murder, one of you is probably the culprit, and I am in charge now.

"My first priority is Roger's life, but he seems to be out of danger and medical help is on the way, so now I can concentrate on identifying who did this.

"Also, don't even try to get away. Marshall can outrun any of you, and he could beat any two of you in a fight. I let the other students leave the room because they were all very young. I doubt if any of them were responsible for this, and some of them were getting upset. That doesn't apply to you, however. You can be upset or not, as you prefer, but you're not leaving."

She addressed me without turning her head. "Marshall," she said, "please stand by the door. Nobody gets in until the nurse gets here."

I complied, standing with my back against the door, watching the suspects. They had, for the moment, lost any desire to ask questions or talk back.

"Let's start with this," she said to them. "Your classmate, Roger, has been poisoned. Until we figure this out, nobody should eat or drink anything. Now, do any of you know of a reason for anybody to want to hurt or kill Roger?"

"But it wasn't his cup of soda," Pete said. "It was mine, but I hadn't touched it. How could anybody have–"

"But it was Roger who–" Carol began, but my employer held up her hand.

"Wait, please," she said. "With any investigation, we start with motive, means, or opportunity. With this one, I'm starting with motive."

"Why?" Ms. Tumolo asked. "I would think–"

"Please excuse my interruption," my employer said, "but I will tell you my reason." I saw her shift her weight, and I knew this meant that her leg was getting tired. I abandoned my post for a moment and brought a chair over to her. I placed it behind her, and she extended her arm slightly, so I took it and helped her to sit down. She thanked me, but she did not take her eyes off the suspects.

Returning quickly to the door, I noticed that Roger had rolled onto his back. He had one hand on his stomach, and the other arm across his eyes.

"My reason is this," my employer continued. "The question of means is easy to answer, at least for now. I don't know how many of you saw the box of rat poison in the kitchen, but I did. Opportunity is very difficult. There are several contradictory indications, as I'm sure you've all noticed. We will work our way through them in due time, but systematically and logically, not by interrupting each other willy-nilly. And I have some ideas about the question of opportunity, as well as means, but most of you are strangers to me, so I have no idea about motive. So, we'll start there, because that's where there's the most to learn.

"Motive, means, and opportunity, any one of the three can ruin a perfectly good theory that's based on the other two. So, who likes him, dislikes him, loves him, hates him–"

I felt the door move behind me, and then there was an impatient knock on the frosted glass.

I stepped out into the hall, closing the door behind me. It took some conversation to convince the three teachers waiting that there had been an accident, that they were not going to be allowed into the cafeteria, that I was not going to tell them anything about the nature of the accident, and that I was not going to bring them their lunch.

Finally, when they had gone away, I went back in and heard David say, "She has a crush on him."

"I do not!" Carol insisted.

Jan held up her hand. "It really doesn't matter. People don't murder each other because of a crush. After all, a crush is based on hope. It's if and when that hope is dashed, when we've been rejected, either in reality or in our imaginations, that murder can happen."

I had obviously missed some things, but I didn't mind, since I could tell that she was just marking time. She was waiting for something, and this discussion of adolescent infatuation was not occupying much of her attention.

I wondered what she was waiting for. Probably for the arrival of the nurse, but it was difficult to be sure.

There was another knock at the door. This time it was four students, and they were easier to convince than the teachers had been. I asked one of them to go and make a sign for the door, saying that the cafeteria was closed because of a possible contamination. Which was true, in a way.

When I stepped back into the room, my employer was saying, "I'd like to focus now on two big questions. Either this was an attempt to poison a specific person, or it was a random act of malice, directed against whoever happened to drink from that cup. And, either the cup was poisoned before it was handed to Pete, or after he put it down. I was looking at Pete during the moment it was in his hand, and I can say with confidence that he did not have the opportunity to poison it himself."

James raised his hand, as if he was in class, and Jan smiled and nodded.

"Would somebody really poison a cup of soda that was just sitting on a table?" he asked. "What if nobody came along and drank it?"

"Those things do happen, but I agree that they don't usually happen in this way. If it was a random act of malice, why was it so focused? Several of us drank soda, and none of us suffered any ill effects. Except by accident, we might never have even found out that the soda in that particular cup had been poisoned. If it was motiveless malignancy, I think it would have been broader, with more of the cups poisoned.

"So, let's take that as a hypothesis, and see where it takes us. Let's say it was an attempt to poison Pete, thwarted only by the fact that he doesn't drink soda. Did anybody here know Pete before today?"

Nobody said anything, then Willy said, "I've seen him around, here and there, in different bars. I don't think I ever said anything to him."

"Pete, did you know anybody here before today?"

He gestured at Amy. "She lives across the street. I've never met any of the others."

I heard another knock, and a voice called, "Nurse!"

I opened the door and a familiar-looking young man held up a medical bag. "Where's the patient?" he asked cheerfully.

I let him in and pointed at the table where Roger was lying. As he crossed the room, through the sudden silence, he waved at the group at the table, and I realized that he looked a lot like James, the young man who had just spoken. I thought they were probably related, but I never did find out for sure.

Living in U-town had forced me to give up a lot of my prejudices, but even so I was a bit alarmed that Roger was being treated by someone who seemed to be even younger than he was.

The young man's T-shirt, ripped jeans, and sandals may have looked unprofessional to my eyes, but he went to work quickly and efficiently. My employer picked up the poisoned cup and brought it over to him as the examination progressed.

After a few moments, Jan and the nurse moved a bit away from Roger and conferred. She was still holding the cup of poisoned soda. Then the nurse picked up his medical bag and they crossed the room and went into the kitchen together.

I examined the group around the table. They weren't talking very much and they all looked pretty tense, or at least the students did. I could tell that they were listening to the noises from the kitchen and trying to figure out what was going on in there, but they were trying not to be obvious about it. Ms. Tumolo was looking thoughtful, and Pete seemed completely relaxed, smoking a cigarette.

After a moment, I heard a noise from out in the hall, and I opened the door to see that the sign I'd requested was in place. There were a couple of spelling mistakes, but it conveyed the message.

My employer stepped out of the kitchen and motioned me over. She wasn't in a mood to preen, but she couldn't completely suppress her excitement as I approached and she said quietly, "Gather the suspects."

Of course, the suspects were all gathered already, but I knew how much she enjoyed saying that.

As she limped back across the room, she said, "Marshall, I may need your help."

I knew what that meant. "One of the students put a sign on the door," I said, following her. "We won't be disturbed."

She nodded as I stood beside her and helped her to sit down again.

"Are we going to get to watch you try to solve the case?" David asked.

She smiled and lit a cigarette. "No, I've already solved it. You're going to get to listen to me explain how.

"To summarize," she began, addressing them all, "either someone tried to kill Pete, which seems unlikely since it appears that the only person who had the opportunity was Roger and he ended up getting poisoned himself. Or else someone poisoned the cup later, when it was sitting on the table, and why would anybody do that when there was a very good chance that nobody would ever touch it?

"So, it's a bit of a conundrum, but here are two more facts which are very suggestive. One is that the drinks were served in a very particular way. Roger came out and, rather than holding out the tray for each of us to take a cup of soda, he balanced the tray with one hand, which was obviously not easy, and handed a cup to me, and then one to Marshall. We both drank from those cups, and we know the soda in those cups was not poisoned. Then, still balancing the tray in his other hand, he handed the third cup to Pete, who put it down on the table. From then on, people just took cups, there was no further attempt to–"


"Wait," she said, silencing Carol. She stood up slowly, her face stern. She was not only a detective about to reveal an attempted murderer but also also an official of the government, and she was not going to be interrupted again. She started to walk slowly around the table as she spoke.

"As I said, that was suggestive, but certainly not definitive. But this, the second fact, is incontrovertible. Based on an analysis of the remaining soda, and considering the amount that Roger drank, it would seem he exaggerated his symptoms, and the speed with which they came on. In fact, he began to exhibit symptoms before he would even have felt any effects from the poison, and how would he have known–"

This was, as my employer would have called it, flummery, since the nurse had arrived with a lifesaving kit, not a chemical testing lab. But, as she is fond of pointing out, people expect things to happen as they do in movies and books. So, if you give them that, they tend to believe you. And Roger apparently did believe her, because he jumped up and ran for the door.

I was there before him. He aimed a kick at my shin, but I managed to dodge it (mostly) and it left him off-balance so I knocked his other foot out from under him, grabbing his wrists. I was about to drop him to the floor and fall on him when I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. Someone else was moving at me, quickly, so I twisted Roger's right arm around behind his back, yanked it up between his shoulder blades, hard, and swung him around so he bore the brunt of the attack.

"Ms. Tumolo," my employer said, "this question is up to you. Would you prefer to hear the explanation yourself, and then share it with your class, or would you like for them to hear it with you?"

The teacher looked around. "I think that should be up to them."

A few minutes before, Roger had become sullen and unresponsive when it had become apparent that he couldn't escape. The nurse had taken him into another room to examine him. There was a possibility that I had dislocated his shoulder, plus he had a couple of deep scratches on his face from when I had used him as a shield against Carol.

She had been the attacker I had seen out of the corner of my eye, coming to Roger's defense. She had burst into tears when she had realized that the only tangible result of her move to assist Roger had been that she herself had injured him. But then she had rallied, with some encouragement from Ms. Tumolo, and she had helped the nurse get Roger out of the room.

So, we were sitting around the table again. Jan, Ms. Tumolo, David, Willy, James, Amy, Pete, and me. When Ms. Tumolo asked her question, David made a motion of checking his (nonexistent) wristwatch and said, "I think I have a class to teach in a few minutes. If you'll excuse me."

He got up and left, followed by Willy who made a muttered, but heartfelt, declaration that he needed a cigarette.

"My assumption from the beginning was that Roger was responsible," my employer began, "but I couldn't figure out why. Of course, I still don't know why for sure, but his attempt at flight convinces me that I was probably–"

"I'm confused," Amy said. "Was the soda poisoned or not?"

"That's a good question. Yes, it was, and it was a sincere attempt to poison Pete. It failed, as we discussed, and Roger would almost certainly have tried again with the coffee if he'd been alone in the kitchen when it was being served. But we each came in and poured our own, so there was no opportunity."

"But why? What did he have against me?" Pete asked. "And how did he think he'd get away with it?"

"That was where I was stumped for a while, I admit. I was trying to think what the connection was. An attempt on Pete's life, and a later attempt on Roger's life. What was the link? There was no indication that they knew each other, apparently no common...

"Then I saw it. Both scenarios, Pete's death and Roger's death, would have had the same final result. Roger would have died."

Ms. Tumolo shook her head. "No it wouldn't. U-town has no death penalty..." Her voice trailed off as she got it.

"Pete," Jan said, turning to face him, "I must speak frankly."

He nodded. "I understand." It was clear that he had some idea what she was going to say.

"Pete has a roommate, " she said carefully, "named starling. starling clearly cares very deeply about Pete, and in the past she has killed to protect his life. If Pete was murdered, the logical assumption would be that she would get her revenge on whoever was responsible. How did Roger expect to get away with it, when he was the only person who could have poisoned the cup of soda? I don't think he did. I think he was counting on not getting away with it. I think he wanted to die."

Pete sighed and ran his fingers through his long hair. "It would not, I admit, be the first time somebody has tried to commit suicide using Katherine." He shook his head.

"So," my employer continued after a moment, "I had a theory which accounted for all the available facts. Roger wanted to commit suicide, but didn't have the nerve to do it himself. He poisoned the soda, which only he was in a position to do, but Pete doesn't drink soda. He couldn't poison the coffee, because we all came into the kitchen to pour our own. Then he decided to drink the poisoned soda himself, to end his life that way, but he lost his nerve and only drank half, then he displayed exaggerated symptoms so that he'd get help. It all fit, but I had no evidence."

"So, you goaded him into panic," Ms. Tumolo said.

She nodded. "Exactly. That was why I had Marshall move away from the door. To give him a clear field."

There was a moment of uneasy silence, before James asked the inevitable next question.

"What happens now?"

"To some extent, that's going to be up to you, all of you, including Roger and Carol. Nobody is going to come and arrest him, at least not now." She leaned back in her chair. "Ms. Tumolo, with your permission, I'd like to assign your class some homework." The teacher nodded. "This is going to be due the day after tomorrow at nine a.m. You know Roger, all of you, and I'm sure at least some of you will have an idea about why this happened. My assignment to all of you, including Roger and Carol, is to think about this, and talk about it, and make a recommendation, a real one, about what should be done, both about this specific situation and in order to alleviate the condition or conditions which might have led to it, whatever you think they might have been.

"So, we will be back, the day after tomorrow, first thing in the morning. I look forward to hearing what you will come up with. If I think it's wrong or inadequate, I'll say so, but you will get a chance to argue for your position. I'm also going to see if Ray Stone can come with me. I'm sure he'll have something to contribute."

As the students trailed out, Jan said, "Ms. Tumolo, could you stay for a moment?"

She paused and turned, and then she said to James, "I'll meet you all back in the classroom."

He nodded and left, following the others, and she came back and sat with us. She regarded us in silence, waiting, her face expressionless.

"Ms. Tumolo, since this will apparently be an ongoing process, I wanted to ask what you thought about how this was resolved, so far."

"Do you want the truth?"

Jan nodded. "Always," she said quietly.

Ms. Tumolo nodded. "I must admit that I think you handled Roger in the right way. He's not a criminal, he's just troubled. I knew that already, though I had no idea how bad it was." She turned to Pete. "In my opinion, though, it should be up to you. You were the victim, or you were supposed to be, and, if you think he should be punished, then he should be punished. It's a shame that he wanted to end his life, but there's no excuse for trying to do it by killing you."

Pete smiled and lit a cigarette. "Jan knows me. I don't see any reason to lock him up."

Ms. Tumolo watched him for a minute, waiting to see if he'd say more, then she said, "No, I don't suppose you would, would you? This is what does bother me. Quite a bit. Do you want to hear the truth?"

He smiled as he exhaled smoke. "Under the circumstances, it would be awkward for me to say no. Please go ahead."

She turned back to face my employer. "It does bother me that his girlfriend or whatever the hell she is–"

"Assuming you're talking about Katherine – starling – then she is my girlfriend," Pete said quietly.

She nodded, not looking at him. "It bothers me that she's walking around free as a bird. Roger isn't a criminal, but she is, and a lunatic, too. Is he going to tell her about this? Is she going to come down and shoot my students?"

"I will tell her," Pete said firmly, before Jan could reply (though I think she would have deferred to him in any case), "and she will not come here, not to shoot people or for any other reason."

Ms. Tumolo stood up and said to Jan, "Well, if anything does happen, you'll be responsible."

She walked out, and Pete puffed on his cigarette. "She won't do anything, you know," he said quietly.

Jan nodded. "I know. I've been reading the reports on her therapy sessions with Ray."

Pete chuckled. "So much for doctor-patient confidentiality."

She smiled. "Ray's not a doctor."

"That's true. Not that it matters anyway. He seems to be effective, even though he claims he has no idea what he's doing. I gather he hasn't had any training or anything."

Jan laughed. "If you're trying to be a surgeon, that would be a problem. With therapy . . . well, I studied psychology in college, and it is, to say the least, not an exact science." She shook her head. "I do have to apologize, though, Pete. If I hadn't invited you to join us for coffee, none of this would have happened."

He chuckled. "And if you hadn't decided that all of us should go and get our own coffee from the kitchen, I'd probably be dead. So, I'd say we're square."

She nodded. "That sounds fair."

She hesitated then, and Pete chuckled. "I've seen that look before," he said. "What's your question?"

She laughed. "Nothing criminal. I'm just wondering why you're here in the school in the first place. You seemed reluctant to talk about it when we got here, but I'm assuming, or at least hoping, that it doesn't actually involve schoolgirls."

He shook his head, smiling. "No schoolgirls, except as students. No, I'm teaching a class." He noted her expression. "Not music. Nineteenth century English novels." He leaned forward conspiratorially. "I try to keep it quiet, but I do have a Master's degree in English literature."

"Ah," she said, absorbing this. "But if you are trying to conceal this... blot on your character, then why are you teaching in the first place?"

"Well, to be honest, it is my own fault. I was drinking in Duffy's one night, and I'm afraid I was being pretty opinionated, and, well, a bet was proposed, that I was okay in an informal situation like that, but that I wouldn't be able to teach a college-level class." He looked sheepish. "Katherine wasn't there to dissuade me, so I accepted.

"When I got home she pointed out that there was no way I'd ever get paid no matter what, given the deadbeats in question, but I can't back out on that basis. I was hoping that the school administration would reject me for some reason, but they seemed very glad to have my services. So, here I am."

Jan hesitated for a moment, then she said, "I do have one more question though, Pete. What if you had been hurt or killed? What would starling have done then?" This was overstepping, and we all knew it, but sometimes her reporter's instincts get the better of her.

Pete stood up, dropping his cigarette to the floor and stubbing it out with his toe. "I have my opinion," he said carefully, "but that's all it is, and I think I will reserve it." He stood and stretched.

Jan nodded. "Fair enough. Have a good day, Pete."

He smiled. "It'll be a better day once I have a drink or two."

A few moments later, standing on the steps of the school, my employer stopped to light a cigarette. "We should–" she began.

"Eat," I said.

"Well, we do have to–"

"Eat," I insisted.

She looked miffed, but she knew I was right. With the mystery solved, and with no food since breakfast, she was due for a collapse. She glanced at me, considering whether she should argue one more time.

I shrugged, "It's no problem," I said. "You're easy to carry."

She sighed. "But it is so undignified." She gestured with her cane. "There's a good restaurant down that block."

As we crossed the street, she said, "You have questions."

"I had a comment and a couple of questions, actually," I said.

She frowned thoughtfully. "I can guess at the questions," she said, "but what is the comment?"

"I noticed something in the school today, something that's missing."

"Missing? In the school? That could be a lot of things. Which one specifically?"

"Our daughter."

"Ron?" She frowned. "Doesn't she go to school?" I shook my head. "Why not?"

"Because we don't make her go."

"Ah." She absorbed this, then she smiled. "So, what were your questions?"

"Well, one was that I noticed a flaw in your reasoning."

She looked at me sharply, as if I'd accused her of spitting on the French ambassador. "In my reconstruction?" she demanded, frowning.

"No, later. You implied that starling is allowed to walk around freely because of what you've seen in the reports from Ray. But then a minute later you were talking about your low opinion of psychology. There must be more to it, isn't there? You wouldn't base a life-and-death decision on such an inexact science."

We were stepping into the restaurant by then, so she didn't reply immediately. A waiter bustled up and escorted us to a table, gave us menus, and hovered around until I indicated that we didn't want drinks.

"That's Doc's answer," she said, ignoring the menus, "so that's the policy. Vicki has argued for a tougher approach, but I had to tell them that I think we need to keep starling on our side. We need her to be free and armed and comfortable."

"Are you afraid of what she'd do otherwise?"

She shook her head. "No, that's not it," she said. "Things are going to happen in the future, I don't know what, and we will need her help. And, if we push her away now, we won't be able to get her back when we need her." She smiled. "Even starling may have a part to play, before the end."

The waiter came back, and I indicated that she should order, or I'd order for her.

When we had ordered and the waiter had gone away again, she asked, "What's your other question?"

I started to reply, but her expression was entirely too smug. "What?" I asked.

"Oh, I'm just assuming you're going to ask about the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime."

"I don't think so," I said slowly, wondering what I was missing.

She laughed. "I'm referring to the teapot that never whistled. You remember, Roger said he'd put up the second pot of water, but it never did whistle." She shrugged. "Just another indication in Roger's direction. But if that wasn't your question, what was?"

"Pete remarked that he'd have been killed if Roger had been able to serve the coffee as he did the soda. But he couldn't, because we all went into the kitchen and served our own."

"We talked about that already."

"True, but here's what we didn't talk about. You were the one who suggested we go into the kitchen, instead of waiting for him to bring it to the table. Was that deliberate, did you know you were saving Pete's life, or was that just luck?"

She smiled. "Well, I know the answer to that, of course, but I think I'll reserve it."

Sometimes I wonder why I even ask these questions.


the golden mystery

We had recently started eating dinner with Ron more often, and it was already becoming a problem that her culinary horizons were very limited. We were accustomed to eating food from a different part of the world almost every night, but Ron didn't like to try any food that she'd never eaten before.

Tonight, Jan had suggested Indian food, Japanese food, Chinese food, and even Italian food, but Ron was very suspicious of them all, so eventually we ended up eating in the hotel dining room, where Ron apparently had all of her meals. As she said, "They already know what I like."

It was clear that Ron didn't think it was a good use of her time to have to train a new restaurant staff.

Of course, in some ways her tendency toward intransigence was reassuring, at least to me. At her age, some people are already impatient to start dating, but Ron wasn't interested in that. She scoffed at the very idea that she would ever go on a date.

This was somewhat of a relief, since I wasn't sure how I would feel about having a bunch of prospective suitors hanging around. One hardy soul had already asked her to a movie, and she had (from what we had heard) dumped a bottle of ketchup on his head.

But I was aware that this would all change at some point. I wasn't exactly ready, but I was trying to prepare myself. I remembered my sister, when her oldest daughter had been around Ron's age, saying, "She's ready to start dating. The boys are ready for her to start dating. Apparently everybody is ready for this but me."

I knew how she felt.

We took a booth in the hotel dining room.

"Shall we go get the food?" I asked. I usually did this for my employer, since she couldn't carry a tray and have a free hand for her cane.

"Ron," she said, "let me see your hands."

Ron looked like she wanted to protest, but Jan slid her glasses down so she could give Ron a piercing look over the rims. Ron had already learned about that look, so she made a face and stalked off toward the bathroom.

I laughed. "I'll bet that doesn't happen when she eats with her friends."

My employer gave me the same stern look she had given Ron, including a glance at my hands, and I got up and followed Ron across the dining room.

She looked up as I came into the bathroom.

"She got you, too, huh?"

I clapped her on the back as I took the sink next to hers.

"You can't escape her eagle eye," I said, putting my hands under the frigid water. "Worse offenders than us have tried."

A few minutes later, as we started to eat, I said, "I was reading a report about the U-town school today."

Ron nodded, chewing seriously. She obviously thought this was idle dinner chit-chat.

"Ron," I asked, "how old are you?"

"Who wants to know?" she demanded around a mouthful of macaroni and cheese.

I leaned over and said, "I want to know. And don't talk with your mouth full."

She swallowed. "Almost thirteen."

"So," Jan said, "you're twelve years old."

She nodded.

"You need to go to school," I said.

She looked surprised. "I don't go to school."

Jan looked severe. "The statement, 'I don't have to go to school because I don't go to school,' is not logical, and in my opinion, the lack of logic illustrates that you need to go to school."

We went back and forth a few times, then I caught Jan's eye and we had a silent conversation. Put into words, it would have gone something like this:

Me: Leave us alone for a minute.
Her: What?
Me: Give me a moment–
Her: No. What are you up to?
Me: Trust me.
Her: Hmph.
Me: I know what I'm doing.
Her: Hmph!

"I have to step out for a moment, Ron," she said, getting to her feet. "I'll be right back." Her voice was pleasant, but she gave a touch of extra emphasis to the last two words.

As she limped off, Ron said, "It's funny when you make faces at each other like that."


"So, what's the big secret, Dad?"

"Just a question." I put my arm around her shoulders and leaned over to whisper. "Don't you want to grow up to be like her?" I asked.

She looked around to make sure nobody else could hear, then she whispered, "Yeah."

"Well, she didn't get to be that way without going to school."

She frowned. "I can't go to school," she said after a moment's thought. "I have to deliver the mail."

"Tomorrow, after you deliver the mail, I'll go to the school with you. We'll get you enrolled, and I'll tell the school people that you can only come in the afternoons, because of your responsibilities."

"Okay," she said slowly. "I guess I'll give it a try."

Mr. Guthrie sat in a small office, behind a small and much-worn wooden desk, in the U-town school. He wore a dark suit and horn-rimmed glasses. He was balding, but his remaining hair was trimmed and neatly combed. I got the impression that he had been working here long before U-town had been founded, and had just stayed on.

"This is Ron," I said, indicating my rather sullen-looking daughter. Her freckled face was stern but clean, and I had made sure her thick brown hair was washed and brushed. Her clothes (denim jacket, sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers) were shabby but clean. I had told her it was important to make a good first impression. She hadn't been convinced, so I had had to insist.

"Ron's a new student," I explained.

"Ah, very good," Mr. Guthrie said, taking a blank form from one of the racks on the wall next to him. "First name?" he asked.

"Ron," she replied.

"Short for Veronica?" He asked with a smile.

"No, just Ron."

"I see. Last name?"

"Just put Ron. Everybody knows me."

"That may be, young lady –"

"Don't call me that!" she snapped.

His eyes widened. "Oh, I am sorry, young Ronald. I –"

I put a hand on Ron's shoulder. "Ron is a girl, but she is not a young lady," I explained.

Mr. Guthrie wiped his forehead. "I see. However, gender aside, I do need to put a last name."

Ron looked thoughtful, then she glanced up at me. "What's your last name, Dad?" she asked.


She cocked her head to one side a bit and pursed her lips judiciously, making her look like a very small, very scruffy Jan Sleet. "That's alright," she said finally. "I was afraid it was going to be something stupid." She turned to Mr. Guthrie. "I'll use that."

"I see," he said. "Is she a transfer from another school?" He had apparently decided that it was a better idea to address his questions to me.

I shook my head. "She has not been going to school. I don't know for how long."

"Indeed. That is rather irregular." I had the feeling that if I hadn't been part of the government, his disapproval would have been expressed more forcefully.

"Also, Ron will only be able to attend classes in the afternoons," I said. "She has important governmental responsibilities in the mornings."

He nodded, filling out a few more things on the form. His new plan seemed to be to process us quickly and get us, or at least Ron, out of his office as soon as he could.

"Now," he said, referring to a clipboard, "we just have to figure out the best class–"

"Don't put me with the stupid kids!"

"Heaven forbid. Here." He wrote something on a pad and handed it to her. "Take this to room 404 and give it to Mrs. Baum. She'll take care of you."

"See you tonight, Ron," I said.

She nodded, looked around as if a last-minute reprieve might appear, and then she left.

"Mr. O'Connor," Mr. Guthrie said, "I didn't want to ask in front of the young lady, but I'm a bit concerned as to whether she is... 'slow.' I ask because it is somewhat unusual for a child of her age not to know her own last name, or indeed that of her father."

"Oh, no," I said. "She's far from slow. She's just been feral for a while. You may find her a bit of a handful, especially with her language."

He shook his head. "That's not unusual these days. I've learned some words this semester that I never heard before in my life, and I served in the Navy."

"And many people don't know my last name. I'm mostly just 'Marshall.'" I laughed. "Occasionally even 'Mr. Sleet.'"

Mr. Guthrie nodded seriously at this information.

"Also," I continued, "to be clear, we don't want you to try to civilize her or clean her up. Just educate her."

"Mr. O'Connor, I would count even that accomplishment as a tremendous achievement."

It was raining as I walked Ron to school. I held the large umbrella carefully, trying to cover us both as much as possible.

When she had started going to school, several weeks earlier, I got into the habit of walking with her to make sure she actually went. At this point, it was pretty obvious that she enjoyed going (much as she complained about it), but we both liked our daily walks across town together, so we continued them.

"Hey, look," she said as we turned the final corner.

There was a Jinx motorcycle at the curb in front of the school entrance. Black and gleaming, with a crimson "J" on the side, it was sleek looking, even dripping with rain water.

"Are there any Jinx children in the school?" I asked.

Ron shrugged. "I don't know."

"I thought they usually taught their own kids."

Ron shrugged again as the school doors opened and Christy came out. She wore a black baseball cap, but her red hair was stringy and wet.

"Hi," I said. "I'm surprised–"

"See you tonight, Dad," Ron said as she went into the building. This was so obvious a snub of Christy that it created an awkward moment, but Christy was too polite to mention it.

"I'm surprised to see you here," I said. We stood on the top step of the three steps leading to the school entrance. By standing right next to the building, we were under a small overhang and somewhat sheltered from the rain.

Christy smiled. "Usually we teach our own children, but my son wanted to try the school here. I think he's trying to be more independent from me. Which is good, I suppose."

I smiled. "We had a bit of a struggle to get Ron to go to school at all, so you should probably be glad that he's even interested in being educated."

She nodded, then she made a face. "I think she doesn't like me, though I have no idea why."

"I'm sure that's not it," I said. I thought of trying to claim that Ron was shy with strangers, but nobody would have believed that.

"Whenever I see the two of you together, she never looks at me."

The door slammed open and Ron came back out. "Dad!" she said. "There's a mystery! We should go get Mom!"

"What kind of mystery?" I asked.

"A friend of mine, they're saying he stole the answers to a test. I know he wouldn't do that. We should get Mom."

Reflecting that I wasn't sure if the great detective would interrupt her day for this particular type of crime, I said, "Well, maybe we should investigate first. We can get a runner to go tell her, and see if she can come later and tell us where we're wrong."

"I'm going past the hotel on my way home," Christy said. "I could stop by and let her know what's going on."

I nodded. "That would be great, thanks."

Christy trotted down the stairs to her motorcycle, and I turned to go in.

"Dad?" Ron asked hesitantly. She stepped aside so she wouldn't block two other kids who were coming out of the school, and she stuck her hands in the pockets of her jeans.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Mom jokes sometimes about you and Christy." She was looking down at the steps. "You wouldn't ever leave, would you?" She made a face. "That's evil when that happens."

In a way, the very idea was funny, but of course I didn't laugh. Thinking about the times my employer had joked about my supposed lust for Christy, I suddenly started to understand how this might have seemed to Ron.

I squatted and took her wrist, tugging her hand out of her pocket so I could hold it in mine.

"Ron," I said, "Christy is a very nice woman, and she and her boyfriend are good friends of ours, but there's no more chance that anything would happen with me and her than it would with your mother and Fifteen. I love your mother, and she knows it. That's why she can make jokes about it, because it won't ever happen. She is comfortable and confident in our marriage, and with good reason. And, if any of that wasn't true, if I did have any other ideas, she'd know it, wouldn't she?"

She looked up and smiled. "Yeah," she said. "You can't put anything over on her."

"Very true. So, I'm afraid you're stuck with both of us. Let's go in and see what we can learn. Maybe we can detect some things on our own before she gets here."

"Mr. O'Connor!" came a shout as soon as we stepped into the building. I was surprised to see Mr. Guthrie gesturing from a doorway. The only other time I had met him had been the day I had brought Ron to the school to get registered, and it hadn't seemed that we'd ended that encounter as boon companions.

He gestured and we followed him into an office. It was small, and at the moment it was crowded. Behind the one desk sat a man I didn't know. He was in his thirties, with his long blond hair tied back. There were books and stacks of paper everywhere, including one precarious pile that was blocking the lower half of the one dirty window.

There were two straight-backed chairs. One was occupied by Ms. Tumolo, who I had met before. Mr. Guthrie took the other chair, leaving Ron and me standing.

"Mr. O'Connor–" the man behind the desk began.

"'Marshall' will be fine."

"Marshall, then. We have a bit of a mystery, though nothing on the level that Miss Sleet usually solves, thank goodness. Mr. Guthrie and Miss Tumolo disagree about pretty much everything, but they agree that you and Miss Sleet may be able to help."

"We will if we can. I'm getting a message to her, but I don't know her exact schedule today."

"Well, let me lay the basic facts before you. We were giving a test today, to five students, and it appears that one of the five stole the answers. Certainly somebody did."

"Is that the whole class?" I asked. "Five students?"

"No, the rest of the class took the test last week. But one boy, Corey, missed it the first time because he was in the hospital with a broken arm. One girl, Phoebe, missed it because she was out with the flu. And, since we had to give it to them anyway, we decided to give it again to three students who had taken it already, two brothers and a sister, because there was some evidence that they cheated–"

"Of course they cheated," Ms. Tumolo said impatiently. "They always cheat. I can't see–"

"Fuck you!" Ron snapped, but Mr. Guthrie interrupted Ms. Tumolo's response.

"I must say," he began firmly, "that it does say something about the state of the world that we have three students in the entire school who are prompt and polite and intelligent, and people persist in treating them as though they are the problem."

"Alright!" the man behind the desk said, slapping his desk blotter as things started to get out of control. "I'm pulling rank! I'm the principal here, and you two can skedaddle until I've explained this to Mr. O'Connor. Go help keep an eye on the students. We will join you soon."

They weren't happy, and Ms. Tumolo tried to insist that something be done about the fact that Ron had cursed at her, but he managed to get them out. He stood and gestured at the two chairs, and then he held out his hand and I shook it.

"Sorry for the rough-and-tumble introduction, Mr. O'Connor. Marshall. My name is Dan, and I have the dubious honor to be in charge of this menagerie. I do appreciate your help. I'm eager to talk to anybody who has an open mind about this business. As you can tell, that's in short supply."

"What's the big mystery about these three, the brothers and the sister?" I asked.

He smiled. "I could tell you stories all day, but here are two important ones. First, they get the same score on every test. They give the same answers to every question, and they never get an answer wrong. They don't get 100% every time, although they do very well, but if they don't know an answer, they leave it blank. They never guess. As you could tell, some people are convinced that they've been cheating somehow, and that's why we decided to put them in different rooms this time.

"It's a brand new test, of course, covering the same material. Once there was the possibility that there had been cheating, we were never going to give the original test again, to anybody."

"Doesn't it seem unlikely that people would cheat in such a way that it would create the appearance of cheating?"

"Exactly. That's why I don't believe they are cheating. But some of the other teachers, even apart from Miss T., are convinced it's some sort of scam. They are adamant about it, and they wrack their brains trying to figure out how they do it."

"Knowing the answers in advance would be one explanation of how they do it, though I agree it doesn't explain why."

"True. I don't buy it, though."

"Then what do you think is going on?"

He smiled. "I'd rather not say. I don't want to prejudice your investigation."

"Fair enough."

Dan leaned back in his chair. "The other story is that there's a girl in their class who's been trying to figure out whether she should have sex with her boyfriend. For some reason she chose Sharon to ask for advice – which would have seemed to have been an odd choice – and the next thing she knew they were all there, all three of them, Sharon and her brothers, and they were telling her that the three of them have sex every night, with each other, and that it's really good. But they also told her that she should probably wait if she wasn't sure she was ready, and that her boyfriend didn't really love her. He was mostly just attracted to her breasts, which are... lavish for a girl of her age. Or any age." He smiled. "I'm not implying they can read minds; most people figured Corey out a long time ago. Well, things got tense for a while. She broke up with Corey, and she told him what the Golden had said."

"The Golden?"

He chuckled. "That's what the kids call them. Anyway, Corey was angry, so he spread around the story about the Golden's sex lives."

"Do you believe them, by the way?"

"I do, if only because, as far as I can tell, they never lie. Anyway, the school doesn't have any rules about what the students can do at home, obviously. So, some parents got upset, but there was nothing we could do. Even if we'd wanted to. But it was awkward for a while." He smiled. "Would you like to meet them?"

"Very much."

"We have them in one room, the room where the test was supposed to be given. The other students, Corey and Phoebe, are in another room."

"Ron," I asked, "do you know where these rooms are?"

She nodded. "Sure."

"Then we'll meet you there in a minute, Dan. If that's alright."

He smiled. "Of course." He left and closed the door.

From Ron's expression, I could tell that she and Dan had jumped to the same conclusion.

"She gets on my nerves," she said defensively.

"What?" I said. "No, I want to talk to you about investigations. This is important. When you're trying to solve a mystery, never get excited. Never get angry and never get upset. Let everybody else get upset, and watch what happens. Take information in, don't give it away."

She nodded. "That makes sense." She gave me a sidelong look. "I thought you were mad at me because I cursed at Miss T."

"She's a teacher. She can figure out how to deal with that." I smiled as I stood up. "Of course, if you ever curse at me like that, I'll paddle your bottom."

She winced. "With a stick?" she asked quietly. "That really hurts."

I lifted her out of her chair and hugged her. "No, never like that," I said after a moment. "You should know that by now."

She hugged me back. "I know," she said. "I was just checking."

"Come on," I said. "Let's go see if we can solve this thing before your mother gets here."

As we climbed the stairs, I said, "Ron, you said that someone was accused, a friend of yours. Is that one of the Golden?"

She nodded. "His name is Will. He's nice. The other two are really stuck up." We turned a corner and she said, "That's the room."

There was a short hallway, with three doors on either side and a blank wall at the far end, where somebody had placed a bulletin board.

"Hang on," I said as she walked ahead. She came back to me and I said, "We're investigating, remember? What do these doors lead to?"

"These are offices," she said, gesturing at the three on the left.

"Whose offices?"

She shrugged. "Teachers."

"Can you be a bit more specific?"

She caught my grin and she grinned back.

"Audrey uses the last one. She was giving the test."

"I sometimes use the first one," Ms. Tumolo said as she pushed past us. "We don't have assigned offices." She went into the nearest office and closed the door.

"What about the doors on the right?" I asked Ron.

"Classrooms," she said. She gestured again at the middle one. "That's where they are."

"You'll notice," I said, "that all the doors have glass panels. That could be significant." I winked at Ms. Tumolo through her closed door as we went down the hall.

They sat in a row, feet flat on the floor, hands folded in their laps, and they turned with the same motion as we entered the room. Their hair was blond and shoulder-length, their eyes were gray, and their skin was a pale golden color, apparently without blemish or imperfection. They wore jeans and sneakers, and their sweaters had the same design in different colors.

They appeared to be a couple of years older than Ron, but they were as androgynous as twelve-year-olds. I wasn't even sure which one was the sister, but then the middle one said, "My name is Sharon, and my brothers are William and Craig."

"We did not steal the test," one of the boys said. I was not surprised to find that his voice sounded identical to his sister's, which was rather husky.

They stood up and held out their hands, so I shook them one by one and introduced myself.

The only other person in the room was a woman, sitting behind the desk. She had a mass of long, frizzy hair, a round face, and thick glasses. She looked up from the papers on the desk in front of her. "Who are you?" she demanded, peering at me.

I held out my hand. "I'm Marshall," I said. "I'm looking into the theft of the test answers."

She shook my hand. "What have you figured out?" she demanded, but her attention was already being drawn back to the papers on the desk.

I heard a small intake of breath from my right, and I knew that Ron was gearing up for battle, so I quickly put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her to me.

"Nothing yet," I said, "but I've barely started. I'm Ron's father, by the way."

The woman seemed unimpressed by this information. I looked down at Ron and she grinned at me. She knew that I'd been reminding her about the importance of remaining calm when conducting an investigation.

Dan poked his head in through the open door, but before he could speak the woman said, "People don't appreciate how difficult it is to create a test like this. And now we need a third one, and they all have to be comparable in difficulty, or it wouldn't be fair–"

"Audrey," Dan said as he approached the desk, "we should probably work on figuring out what happened this morning. Then we can deal with creating a new test."

She looked miffed that her tirade had been interrupted, but she said, "Well, what do we have to do?"

"I'd like to get everybody in here," I said. "Everybody who was involved. Then I can find out the sequence of events." Then I interrupted myself (and I could imagine my employer's look of disapproval at my disorganization). "You mentioned that Corey had a broken arm. I'm curious about how he broke it."

Dan shrugged. "He just said he fell, but it seemed there was more to it."

"We broke it," one of the Golden said suddenly. I had already given up trying to figure out which of them was which. "He tried to put his hands on Sharon's body, under her clothes. So, we broke his arm to stop him."

Audrey looked dubious about this, but then Ron spoke up.

"He did that to me," she said. "Or he tried to. The first day I was in school."

I glanced at her, and I guess it was obvious to the others that I had not known about this before.

"Hazel wants to fight her own battles," one of the Golden said, "as much as possible. She has been defending herself from various human predators for some time, after all." He jumped nimbly away as Ron tried to kick him in the shin, and one of the others continued. "To run to you with every incident in her life would cause you to lose respect for her. She is fully aware that she can come to you whenever she encounters a situation she can't solve herself, and that feeling makes her happier than she will ever express to you directly."

It was almost like a dance. The Golden spoke in sequence, and as each one spoke Ron tried to deliver a kick, but she was always blocked by the other two, one of whom then started to speak.

I had heard of people completing each other's sentences, but this seemed extraordinary to me. It was apparently not unusual, though, since Audrey and Dan barely reacted, except for Dan's smile at Ron's increasing determination to land a good kick on somebody.

When that was done, Ron made a face, but she was clearly not upset. We had already observed that kicking was mostly a friendly game with Ron. When she was really angry, she cursed, loudly and at length. I wondered how the Golden had managed to learn that her real name was Hazel. She detested the name, and I would have been very surprised if she'd told it to them. We only knew it because Jan had investigated Ron when she'd started to deliver our mail.

"Well," Dan said, "now that we've had our exercise, let me get the others."

Ron leaned over to whisper something to one of the Golden (her expression said that it was probably her friend Will). As she finished, they all three smiled.

A few minutes later, we were ready to begin. I stood near the door, in a position where I could observe everybody. Ron stood next to me. Audrey had ignored Dan's obvious desire to take her place behind the desk, so he stood between the desk and the door. Corey and Phoebe had been brought in from the other rooms. They sat in the front row of desks, at the far end from the Golden, near the window.

Ms. Tumolo stood near the back of the room, as if none of this really involved her. She hadn't wanted to come, and we'd heard her argue with Dan about it in the hall, but she'd lost.

"We're going to thrash this thing out," Dan said, "and find out what happened and who was responsible. And that may take a while, which is fine. Other things can wait."

I closed the door and pulled down the shade over the glass panel.

"Now," he continued, "I'm going to outline my understanding of the sequence of events, then we'll see where I'm right or wrong. The test was supposed to start promptly at eleven. The Golden were waiting here, Corey was in the next room, and Phoebe was late. The plan was that Corey, Phoebe, and Will would take the test in the first room, Sharon would be in this room, and Craig would be in the third room.

"Audrey had left the test forms, and the answer sheet, on her desk, and she came to see what was causing the delay. When she found out we were going to wait a few minutes to see if Phoebe would arrive, she stepped out to..."

I was about to provide a suitable euphemism, but Audrey said sharply, "I had to pee!"

"Exactly," Dan continued. "And I went to see if Phoebe had forgotten about the test and had gone to her regular class instead."

"So, Corey was alone in the first room, and the Golden were in here?" I asked.


"Were the doors open? To both rooms?"


"I was in my office," Ms. Tumolo said, adding a bit of emphasis to the possessive pronoun. "With the door closed. I was working."

"By the time I returned," Dan continued, "Audrey was back, and Phoebe was here, and we were going to start. Audrey went to her office and found that the answers were missing. We did a thorough search of these two classrooms, and found nothing. Then we searched the students, and found nothing there either. I searched Corey, and Audrey searched Phoebe, and ..." his voice trailed off.

"Who searched the Golden?" I asked.

He glanced at them (they were impassive, as usual). "We offered to divide them by gender..." Dan began.

"But by then they'd already stripped off," Audrey said.

The Golden shrugged. "We have no problem with being naked," one of them said.

"And you searched their clothes?" I asked. "Everybody's clothes?"

"Of course."

"And you searched Audrey's office?"

"We looked around. It had been on her desk, but the window was closed, so it's hard to see how a breeze–"

"It was on my desk, clipped to the copies of the test, and it didn't blow anywhere in the nonexistent wind."

"Just to be thorough," I said, "there was no search of the other two offices, or of the third classroom?"

"I was in my office," Ms. Tumolo said deliberately, "and I can assure you that nobody came in, to hide a piece of paper or for any other reason. I was working – I was not sitting staring at the door to see who was walking by – but nobody came in."

"It seemed the purpose of stealing the answers was to use them," Dan said. "So, we didn't–"

"But Craig was going to be in that room," I pointed out, gesturing at the last room, the one opposite Audrey's office.

"Damn," he said, "we didn't think of that. Should we search it now?"

I shook my head. "No, not now. I'd rather figure out what our options are." I went to the blackboard and started a list.

  1. The Golden
  2. Corey
  3. Phoebe
  4. Dan
  5. Audrey
  6. Ms. Tumolo

"So," I said, "to go down the list, the Golden, one or all, could easily have done it. Corey could have done it, if he had managed to get past this door, in both directions."

Dan turned to Corey. "Were you looking out the door of the room you were in? Would you have seen anybody who walked past?"

"No, I was reading."

"So, Phoebe could have done it, if she could have got past this door," I said. "The same for Dan."

"Why would Dan have done it?" Audrey demanded. "Besides, if Corey wasn't watching, anybody else in the school could have come by."

Phoebe raised her hand, as if she was in class.

"Yes, Phoebe?" Dan asked.

She stood up, looking uncomfortable.

"Principal Dan, can I talk to you? In private?"

He glanced at me, and I tilted my head toward the rear of the room.

"Marshall will have to join us," he said.

She nodded, and the three of us went to the back of the room. Ms. Tumolo moved to the front to get away from us. Dan and I sat down, so we wouldn't loom over Phoebe, who was not tall.

"I was late," she whispered to Dan. "I saw you leaving, but I didn't know you were looking for me, so I didn't say anything. I looked in the room..."

"And you preferred to wait outside," I said. "In the hall."

She nodded. "I waited around the corner, by the drinking fountain, until Audrey came."

"Did anybody else come down this hall?"

She shook her head. "No."

"Did anybody else leave this hall?"


I looked at Dan. He nodded. He understood why Phoebe hadn't wanted to be alone in the room with Corey.

When we rejoined the others, Dan stood in front of the Golden. "Sharon, Will, Craig," he said, "you were evasive before, but now we need an answer. You were sitting here, in the front row, right near the door, and the door was open. Did you see somebody walk by?"

"Someone did go by."

"We can't say who it was."

"It's not good to accuse somebody when you're not completely sure."

"That's bullshit!" Audrey snapped. "Dan is a tall, white man with a blond ponytail. I've got frizzy brown hair and dark skin. Miss Tumolo has black hair. She has the neatest hair in the world, and I have the messiest." She grabbed a handful of her hair and waved it around for emphasis. "Corey is a white boy with dark hair, and Phoebe is a Black girl with no hair. Which two of us could you have got mixed up?"

"The story is obviously a lie," Ms. Tumolo said. "They can't accuse a specific person, because it won't hold up. But they have to say that somebody walked by the door, or they will be admitting that they did it."

"But then where are the test answers?" Dan demanded.

"I found the answers," Jan Sleet said as she limped into the room. "They were exactly where I expected them to be." She held up a piece of paper between two fingers.

My employer got the reaction she wanted. The teachers jumped. Corey and Phoebe jumped. Ms. Tumolo looked furious, once she had collected herself, as if this was a show-off stunt. The Golden smiled very slightly, but they hadn't jumped. Ron just grinned, apparently not surprised at all. Of course, it is possible that she'd heard what I had heard, and had known what it meant, as I had.

I had heard a tap from the hallway, just as Dan had started retracing the crime. I thought I knew what it meant, but I didn't look and I didn't react. It had been, I thought, the tap of a cane on linoleum, and the fact that it had been followed by silence told me two things.

A certain well-known amateur detective, tall and thin and impeccably dressed, had been approaching the room. But when she had heard what was going on, that the investigation was proceeding without her, she had decided to wait, and listen, and see what was going to happen.

This was why I'd closed the door and pulled down the shade, and why I'd made sure Dan and I spoke to Phoebe in the back of the classroom, rather than out in the hall.

"Where did you find the answers?" Dan asked.

"In Audrey's office," my employer replied. She stood in the front of the room, hands crossed on top of her cane, looking at everybody through her large, horn-rimmed glasses. She was wearing a three-piece dark blue pinstripe suit, a pale blue silk shirt, and a burgundy ascot. The handkerchief in her breast pocket was pale blue, matching her shirt.

"Wait a minute–" Audrey said.

"Hang on!" Dan said, continuing to look at my employer. "Why did you expect to find them there?"

"Because the answers were not stolen to be used. The theft was intended to be noticed – that was the point. How could anybody have thought that the test would be delivered, that the theft would be undetected, when the answers had been clipped to the test copies?"

"So, who took them?"

She looked at me, and I knew this was my show.

"There was no reason for the Golden to take the answers and hide them in the office," I said. "The only possible result of that was that they themselves would be under suspicion. So, somebody else came down this hall and took the answers and hid them and then went back. Nobody, not even Ms. Tumolo, could have got to that room without passing this one."

I turned to the Golden. "You were all in the room. The door was open, and you were facing it, sitting right in the front, so you would have seen anybody who went down the corridor. Therefore, you are shielding someone.

"So, who are you protecting? A friend? I don't mean this to sound unkind, but I get the idea that you don't have any close friends, other than each other." They were impassive, listening. "But what about an enemy?"

"Why would they shield an enemy?" Ms. Tumolo demanded.

"They would, if it was Corey. They couldn't accuse him without it looking like it was tit-for-tat for his spreading stories about them. And he has two reasons for wanting to get them into trouble. They were a factor in a girl breaking up with him, and they broke his arm." Ms. Tumolo's eyes widened at this, but she didn't speak.

Corey was thinking about whether he could make it to the door, but Ron moved slightly, blocking him.

"Was it Corey?" I asked the Golden, and they all nodded.

Corey made his move for the door, and I grabbed his wrist.

"Hey, careful," he protested. "I have a broken arm." He held up his cast.

I leaned over and whispered carefully in his ear. "You tried to molest my daughter on her first day of school. Of course, she is perfectly capable of dealing with that, and you, without any help from me. But if you squirm one more time, or say anything other than 'Yes, sir,' you're going to have two broken arms. Am I making myself clear to you?"

"Yes, sir," he replied.

"So," Ms. Tumolo said to the Golden, "you didn't cheat, this time, but you did lie. You lied about not recognizing Corey when he walked by, as he knew you would."

They didn't react, but my employer limped forward. "I'm more pedantic than the Golden, apparently, and I know I'm more pedantic than my husband, so I will explain. The Golden didn't lie, at least in what they told us today. They made three statements, all of them true, in order to lead you to a false conclusion."

She held up one finger. "They did see somebody walk past the door. That's obviously true."

She held up a second finger. "They couldn't say who it was. Also true, because nobody would have believed them."

A third finger. "It's not good to accuse people if you're not sure." She smiled. "Also true. It can cause a lot of harm. They never asserted a connection between the second and third statements, they just let you assume that there was one. As most people would have. But they didn't lie."

Ms. Tumolo left without a word, and the Golden stood up. "Mrs. O'Connor?"

She had turned toward the rear of the room, where Dan, Audrey, and Corey were talking, but she turned back, surprised. Nobody ever addressed her by her married name (other than her husband, occasionally, in private).

"We live with a man, Mr. Bostwick, and he is a fan – of your writing and of your detective work. We know he would enjoy meeting you. Would you and Mr. O'Connor like to come and have dinner this evening?"

"Is Mr. Bostwick a relative?"

"We have no relatives."

"Then how did you come to live with him, if you don't mind my asking?"

"Mr. Bostwick is quite elderly, and he can't get around without a wheelchair. We take care of him. We prepare his breakfast, and we leave him something for lunch when we can't get there in the middle of the day. Then we cook his dinner and we eat with him. He always wants to hear how our day was at school, but we learn all sorts of things from him. He is very old, and he knows a great many things. Soon he will die, and that will all be lost. We also keep the house clean, and we do small repairs and run errands for him."

They gestured at the clock over the door. "We have to get to class now. We look forward to seeing you this evening."

I looked at Ron as they left. "You probably have a class to get to as well."

She nodded, somewhat disgruntled that I had figured that out.

"I have a question, Dad," she said. "I thought you said not to get upset when you're on a case."

"That's right."

"You looked kind of upset when you were talking with Corey."

"Well, the case was already solved at that point."

"Oh." She nodded. "That makes sense." Then, to my surprise, she threw her arms around me and hugged me. Then she ran off to her class.

Corey and Audrey left also, but Dan stopped. He could tell that my employer wanted to talk to him. "Will there be any repercussions from the Golden breaking Corey's arm?" she asked. "Miss Tumolo looked like she might start something."

He shrugged. "She may. If she does, I don't think it will go anywhere, because I'm sure Corey doesn't want to accuse them. He doesn't want quite that much discussion of how he treats girls. And he will probably be suspended for stealing the answers anyway. We'll have to take that up at the next staff meeting, though, since usually when answers are stolen it's to cheat on the test, which wasn't what happened here. Do you want to be informed?"

She shook her head. "Ron will tell us, and it will be in the regular reports. That's plenty. But wait!" she said sharply, stamping her cane on the floor. He had started to move away, but he turned back quickly. You didn't have to know her as well as I did to know that she was very serious. She was gripping her cane so tightly that her hand was nearly vibrating.

"Screw the test answers," she said. "What I do want to hear about is your plan for dealing with the fact that you have a student who apparently molests every girl he sees, or tries to. I'm far more interested in that than I am in stolen test answers, no matter why they were stolen."

He hesitated. "Well, we'll have to take that up at the next meeting, too, but none of the girls have been willing to–"

"Ron will speak up," I said. "I'll talk to her tonight. When is your meeting?"

"Tomorrow. We usually get together around ten."

"Can you make it later? Maybe eleven or noon?"

"We can do it at noon, I guess. People can bring their lunches."

I nodded. "Ron and I will be there."

"Listen," Jan said. "Not every girl can defend herself as well as my daughter can. Not every girl has two brothers to help her, as Sharon does. And the longer this goes on, the more clearly you're telling Corey that this is okay, and you're giving the same message to every other boy and girl here. And that is not an acceptable lesson in our school.

"And I will tell you this. If there's another student, bigger and stronger, who sees that you let Corey get away with this, in plain sight, again and again, and if that student tries to touch my daughter and she is not able to defend herself, then I will swoop down on this school like an avenging angel, and that is not something you will want to experience. Good day." She turned on her heel and I followed her out.

I knocked on the front door of the ancient tenement building, and after a moment a raspy voice called, "Come on in."

I opened the door, and my employer and I stepped into a narrow, dark hallway. There was a staircase that seemed to be sagging a bit to one side. An old man in a wheelchair moved slowly toward us from the back of the building.

"Miss Sleet," he said. "I am so happy to meet you. Please do come in."

"This is Marshall," she said, and he shook my hand as a door opened at the far end of the hallway and the Golden came toward us. They were all drying their hair with big fluffy towels, and they were all naked.

"We have to snake out the drain upstairs," they explained as they padded past us and up the stairs. "We'll do that later tonight. But we had to shower, since we had gym class today, and we can't use the showers at school anymore. Mr. Bostwick let us use his shower so we could clean up before dinner."

"You'll get used to that," Mr. Bostwick said as we heard a door close upstairs.

I wasn't sure about that. Now that they were at home, they weren't even bothering to put on a show of speaking normally. They spoke in some sort of rotation, each saying a phrase. The effect was something like this:

"We have to snake out the drain upstairs."
"We'll do that later tonight."
"But we had to shower,"
"since we had gym class today,"
"and we can't use the showers at school anymore."
"Mr. Bostwick let us use his shower,"
"so we could clean up before dinner."

"Why can't they shower at school?" my employer asked.

"A few of the parents got upset, for some reason."

I could tell that he knew the reason – the stories Corey had told about their active and incestuous sex life – but he was being vague in case we didn't know.

Mr. Bostwick led us into the living room, which was small, shabby, and comfortable. He smiled as we sat down, and he addressed my employer. "You're a detective, Miss Sleet, and they are indeed a mystery, so I might as well tell you up front that I know none of the answers."

"Aren't you curious?"

"Of course. But I'm curious about a good many things that I know I'll never learn. And, to be honest, if not for them I'd probably have to go live with my daughter and her kids. Which would be miserable for all of us, but especially for me."

He smiled. "I try not to ask them too many questions. I gather they are treated as freaks at school every day, and I know that it bothers them. I get the impression that their attempts to 'act normal' and 'fit in' have been less than successful. But they shouldn't feel that way in their own home, too."

He noticed my expression. "Marshall," he said, "were you popular in high school?"

I was surprised at the question, and I shrugged. "I guess so. I played sports, and I was pretty good, so that helped. I didn't drink, which was considered very odd, but mostly the sports made up for it."

"How about you, Miss Sleet?"

She laughed, nearly dropping the cigarette I was lighting for her. "Of course not," she said. "I was taller than most of the boys, and thinner than I am now – if you can imagine that – and I had absolutely none of the skills and interests expected of a girl my age in my town."

"How were you treated at home?"

She smiled, exhaling a cloud of smoke. "Very well. With complete, if sometimes bemused, acceptance. And you're right, it made a huge difference."

He nodded. "By the way," he said, "do you know a good lawyer?"

"Yes, a very good lawyer, in fact."

He smiled. "Does he make house calls?"

"He'll make this one. He visits U-town once a week or so to meet with us. I'll ask him to stop by."

"I'm always here. Well, we go to the park quite often on the weekends, when the weather is good, but I assume he comes during the week."

She nodded. We were both imagining Stu's wife's reaction if he had decided to work on a weekend.

Mr. Bostwick smiled as we heard the Golden trooping down the stairs. "I need to change my will. I'm going to leave them the house, and the little money I have."

One of the Golden came in and sat down. "Will and Sharon are preparing dinner, but we thought one of us should be social."

My employer smiled. "That's very nice, Craig. Thank you very much for inviting us."

"We knew Mr. Bostwick would enjoy it."

"How long have you lived here with Mr. Bostwick?"

"Nearly a year. We met him at the hospital. We used to help out there, and they would usually give us food and a bed, if we helped all day."

Mr. Bostwick made a face. "That was when the hospital refused to release me unless I had somebody to go home with me. How was I going to do that; there's no phones. Even if I had somebody I could call."

Craig smiled, briefly and tentatively. "We offered to help him get home. On the way, we stopped and bought some things he needed."

"And by the time we got here, they proposed that they would move in. They had it all figured out. It looked like a good idea, so I accepted."

"He insisted we had to go to school," Craig added. "We didn't want to, at first, but we've been learning a lot." He smiled again. "Similar to Hazel, who is learning a lot as well, despite her initial reluctance."

"That's our daughter," Jan explained, and Mr. Bostwick laughed.

"Oh, I've heard about her."

My employer then tried to probe a bit more: where the Golden had lived before, what had happened to their parents, but Craig's answers quickly grew terse, and Mr. Bostwick said, "This is supposed to be a social evening, Miss Sleet. Not an interrogation."

She nodded, knowing she had overstepped. "I am sorry," she said to Craig. "Force of habit."

"Mrs. O'Connor," he said, "you are seeking to understand more about this situation, and us, out of a general desire to understand the world, which we completely respect; however, when the phenomena under investigation are sentient, and are posing no provable risk to the community, we would suggest that the rights of the phenomena under investigation should outweigh the rights of the scientific investigator."

She digested this. "May I ask one question?"

He nodded. "Of course."

"Did you wind up here by accident? Or did you select U-town?"

"It is our belief that this is the best place for us to live, requiring the least amount of effort to pretend to be something which we are not."

She nodded, levered herself to her feet, and held out her hand. "Welcome to U-town."

The other two came in, drying their hands, as Craig stood up, and one after the other they shook her hand, looking very serious. Then two of them returned to the kitchen to finish preparing the dinner, which already smelled wonderful.

"There is still one mystery, or one additional one," I said as we walked home. Dinner had been very enjoyable, including a complete recounting of the case of the missing test answers for Mr. Bostwick, who was clearly very well informed about the various people involved.

"Which is?" she asked, frowning as she tried to figure out what I was going to say.

"Ron says she's friends with Will, but she doesn't like the other two. How does she tell them apart?"

"Have you asked her?"

I shook my head. "I have a feeling that the answer would involve some eye rolling about clueless old Dad. I try to avoid that."

"I see your point." She frowned. "You don't think she's interested in Will, do you? I mean, she's only twelve. I don't think she's ready for an incestuous ménage à quatre."

I shook my head again. "I don't think so. She was very open about Will being her friend, and I have the idea that when she is interested in a boy, she'll be much more secretive about it. I would be very surprised if she wasn't."

"Ah," she said. "I think you're right." She smiled and took my hand. "I will admit that this is a conversation I never thought I'd be having."

I laughed and squeezed her hand. "I know what you mean."

"Are you sure Ron will speak up about Corey?" she asked after a moment.

"Yes," I said. "She won't want to, but she'll do it. Because it's what you would do."

The great detective searched my face for evidence that I was kidding. When she didn't find any, she frowned, working to adjust her view of the world to include this new information.


the sister mystery

Ron looked somewhat disgruntled as she sat down to dinner. I thought for a moment that it might have been the food, since we had persuaded her to eat at an Italian restaurant with us. But I was pretty sure that wasn't it. She was almost never sullen in that way.

"People always fuck things up," she said as we looked at the menus. "They have it good, and then they fuck it up."

Jan put her menu down and smiled. "Can you give us an example?"

"I told you about my friend who messed around with that guy and got pregnant?" We nodded. "Well, now this other girl from the room is fooling around with a guy, too. Bad stuff will happen."

"She's around your age?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"Are you worried for her, or are you worried about losing a friend?" I asked.

She frowned and shrugged. Her elbow was on the table, and her cheek was resting on her fist. She didn't reply right away. "The room" was, I assumed, where she slept. We thought it was in the hotel, but we weren't sure.

"That happened to me," Jan said. "In high school, I knew this girl, and she and I got to be good friends. We hung out every day for a few months. But then she got a boyfriend and I pretty much never saw her again. I guess she thought that girls are okay as friends as long as you can't find a boy. But she didn't tell me in advance that this was her thinking."

Ron nodded. "Yeah, I guess that's part of it."

"Speaking as a father," I said, keeping my tone light, "I do think she's too young for a serious boyfriend."

That got a small grin out of her. "Serious," she said. "You mean with fooling around."

I laughed. "Yes, that's it."

It was at this point that I realized that, while Ron used the word "fuck" quite a lot, she never used it when she was talking about the sex act itself. When she did allude to sex, it was always with some term like "fooling around."

"Your father," Jan said, "is a bit torn. On one hand, he wants you to know that 'fooling around' is not always bad, and that sometimes good things come from it. Which is true. However, he also wants you to be aware that, for you, twelve is definitely too young. Which I also agree with, by the way."

Ron now looked even more disgruntled. "You're changing the subject," she said. "I'm not fooling around with anybody."

I nodded. "You're right. But we don't know much about where you sleep, or who shares the room with you. Maybe–"

"There are four of us. There used to be six, but bozo got pregnant, and then what's-her-name went home. She was useless anyway."

"And now this girl has gone off with a boy?"

"She wanted to have him move in!" she said, sounding appalled. "I said, 'No way!' No boys in the room. You know what would happen."

"Your father was a boy himself, once upon a time, so he has a pretty good idea. Perhaps even better than you do."

That got another brief smile out of Ron. "You want to see the room?"

"We'd like that," I said, trying to be casual about this major step in our relationship with our adopted daughter.

"How did you like the food, Ron?" Jan asked as we walked back to the hotel.

Ron shrugged. "It was okay." Her tone was neutral, but she had plowed through her ravioli with apparent enthusiasm.

"It's not surprising you liked it," Jan observed. "After all, you are part Italian."

"I am not!" she protested.

"Of course you are. I'm Italian, so you're one half."

Ron regarded this claim with evident skepticism. "'Sleet'?" she demanded. "That's Italian?"

Jan smiled. "That's my professional name. I was born Janice Stiglianese."

Ron looked at me and I confirmed this with a nod.

"That's a cool name," Ron said, putting her hands in her pockets. "You should have used that."

At the hotel, we followed Ron to the elevator (which was working that week) and we ascended to the top floor.

The fifth floor of the hotel was generally known to be the wildest, but I hoped this didn't extend to the room where Ron lived. I had a pretty good idea that, no matter what happened on the rest of the floor, Ron's room followed Ron's rules.

She opened a door at the far end of the hall and we stepped inside. I saw two single beds, a cot, a sleeping bag, and a teenage girl with a suitcase. She was standing up as we came in, smiling and then not smiling as she realized we weren't who she was expecting.

Then Ron came in behind us. The girl smiled, and Ron emitted a sound I had never heard before and attacked her.

I was caught flat-footed, I admit, and Ron got in several good punches before I moved to stop her. The girl had fallen back on the cot, which had collapsed, and she was trying to protect herself from this onslaught. She was older and bigger than Ron, but she wasn't even trying to fight back. This was not a stereotypical "girl fight," with kicking and biting and hair-pulling. Ron was punching like a pro as I pulled her off, then she suddenly yanked herself free and broke for the door.

I caught her in the hall, grabbing her wrist. She tried to pull away, not looking at me, and then she burst into tears.

Jan had stayed in the room, presumably tending to the girl, so I scooped Ron up and ducked into the stairwell. With the elevator working, I thought the stairs might be deserted, and I was right.

I had intended to talk to Ron there, or try to, but instead I quickly carried her down two flights, out into the corridor, around a corner, and into our room. I knew that part of the reason Ron was so upset was the chance that somebody other than me might see her crying.

I sat on the bed and stood her on her feet. She looked at me and started to cry even harder. I held her hand, and then, to my amazement, she climbed into my lap. I put my arms around her and she said, "She's gonna fuck it all up."

"No, she's not," I replied, wishing I had some idea what we were talking about.

"You don't know her," she gasped, burying her face in my chest.

"No, I don't. But I know you, and I know us, and that's not going to get fucked up." I tilted her head up so I could see her face. "I promise."

Many years later, Ron told me that, while she always admired her mother's devotion to facts, she was more drawn to me at first because I was, when necessary, willing to say (and to really mean) things that were obviously not based on facts, but that she really needed to hear.

Jan came in and stopped, looking at us. She reached behind her and closed the door gently. I could tell that she was making a quick adjustment. She had been geared up to demand that Ron justify her behavior. But she saw Ron in my lap, crying, holding onto me, and she said quietly, "She'll be okay. I thought her nose was broken, but it isn't. Ron, she says she's your sister."

Ron slid off my lap and sat next to me on the bed. "Fuck," she said quietly. She looked up at Jan. "You're gonna yell at me, aren't you?"

Jan looked a bit lost, so I said, "We're not going to yell at you, Ron. We do need to understand why you did that, and we do not think it's acceptable, no matter what, to attack somebody like that. But we're your parents. This isn't the first time we've had to talk to you about something you did, something we think was wrong, and it won't be the last, I'm sure. What you just did was inexcusable, but it was also completely out of character for you, so we need to understand, even if we don't condone it."

Jan had sat down on the other side of Ron, and she put her arm around our daughter and squeezed.

"Ron," I said, seeing her expression, "leaving is not an option. We're your parents, and if you run away we will find you and bring you home. And right now we have to have this conversation. You know we do."

She sighed a deep, wrenching sigh. "Do we have to talk about it tonight?"

I made a quick decision. "No, but it does have to be in the morning. First thing. Agreed?"

She nodded. Then her shoulders sagged. "Shit, that fucking bitch is in my room. Where am I gonna sleep?"

"Here," I said. "With us. We have a sleeping bag."

I expected a protest, but she said, "Okay. Can I go to bed now?"

"Sure," I said. I stood and got the sleeping bag from the closet. There wasn't a lot of floor space in the room, especially since we'd installed a second desk for Ron to do her homework. It barely fit between by employer's desk and the closet door, and it made the room quite crowded. I laid the sleeping bag at the foot of the bed, reminding myself that I had to walk carefully if I got up in the middle of the night and had to use the bathroom.

Ron kicked off her sneakers and slid into the sleeping bag. "Don't you want to take off your jeans?" I asked as she vanished.

"Fine like this," came a muffled voice from deep within the layers of fabric.

I woke up with Fifteen tapping my shoulder.

"Marshall, Jan, wake up," he said. "We have an emergency."

I didn't hear sirens, so it didn't seem to be an invasion. I rolled over and got up on one elbow, indicating that I was at least somewhat awake. I could hear my wife moan unhappily behind me.

"A girl was murdered last night," Fifteen said quietly. "In the room where Ron usually sleeps. I–"

"Oh, my god," Jan said, and I felt the covers pull as she sat up. "Ron!"

Ron's head poked up at the foot of the bed. "Fuck. What?"

It was a good thing I was wearing pajamas, since Jan pulled all the covers away as she lurched to the foot of the bed to embrace Ron, who said, "Get off me!"

"Jan! Ron!" I said sharply, and they both turned. "We need to listen to this," I said. "It's important."

I could see them belatedly realize the implications of what Fifteen had said, and Jan slid over to sit beside me, tucking her nightgown around her bare legs. I took Ron's hand and pulled her over to sit next to me on the other side. For once, she didn't squirm or protest as I put my arm around her shoulders.

Fifteen continued. "The girl was apparently around fifteen or sixteen years old, dressed like a tourist, and she'd been beaten up some time before she was killed."

"How was she killed?" my employer asked, putting on her glasses.

"Stabbed. Several times. The body is being examined now."

I could feel Ron start to vibrate, so I held her close.

"She was Ron's sister," my employer said slowly. "Nothing should be touched except for the body. I will get dressed and come to do a thorough examination of the room. Then I will probably need to speak to the runners, all of them. Be ready to sound the signal."

He turned to go, but I said, "One more thing. Ron will not be able to pick up the mail this morning. Please be very careful about who is assigned to take over for today. It has to be somebody who will do it as carefully as she always does."

He nodded and said, "I'll do it myself. Ron, I'm sorry about your sister," and then he left the room. Ron hadn't reacted to any of this.

My employer grabbed her cane and got to her feet, limping around the bed and starting to get dressed.

"I will search the room," she said. "Ron, this is very important. You and Marshall will stay here, and he is going to ask you a lot of questions, about your sister and your birth parents and probably other things as well. I know this won't be pleasant for you, and I'm sorry about that, but I'm sure you see that it's necessary."

"Why did you tell him she's my sister?" she asked. She was motionless, looking at the floor.

"He would have found out. Trying to hide it would only have made you look guilty. I'm fairly certain we'll have to tell people that you were the one who beat her, too, but we can withhold that for the moment."

She looked up. "I didn't kill her."

"I know you didn't," I said. "We'll figure it out."

My employer was behind us, getting dressed, but I knew she didn't approve of my first statement. Since, of course, we didn't know any such thing.

"Are you going to solve this?" Ron asked as my employer prepared to leave.

She smiled and nodded. She was impeccably dressed as usual, wearing a three-piece dark charcoal pinstripe suit, a white shirt, and a black tie, but I could see the small signs that told me she had dressed in haste. "I plan to," she said. "There's already something fairly striking in what Fifteen said." She leaned over to kiss Ron on the cheek. "If you get done first, come up and see me in the room. If I get done first, I'll come back here. Then we can get something to eat."

She left, and Ron shook her head. "She thinks I did it."

"No, I disagree. She has no idea who did it, not yet. But, to be honest, you are on her list of suspects."

She sighed. "Do you think I did it?"

I shook my head. "No, I don't. If you had had a knife in your hand last night, when you were punching her, could you have stabbed her? Yes, I think that's possible. But I know you pretty well by now, and I have trouble imagining that you got up in the middle of the night, found a knife somewhere, went to the room, stabbed her, and then came back here and went back to bed."

"What did Mom mean about something in what Fifteen said?"

"I've been thinking about that, and I have an idea what it might be. But we need to talk about something else first. You agreed to this last night, and now it's obviously much more important than it was then. Come on." We stood up and I led her to her desk chair. She sat down, and I swung my employer's chair around so I was facing her.

"Ron, please tell me about your birth parents and your sister."

She sighed, then she said, "They... they knew each other in high school. They started dating... I just know this because of what they used to say about it. I wasn't there."

I nodded. "I understand."

"So, they started..."

"Fooling around," I guessed.

"Yeah. And she got pregnant." She sighed. "They used to fight about this a lot, but... He said she lied to him to get him to marry her. She said she..."


"Yeah, and didn't have the baby. But anyway, they got married, and then, later, she got pregnant again and had the baby. That was my sister." She gestured at the ceiling. "The one..."

"I understand. What was her name?"

"Tracy. Then, later, my mother..."

"Do you have any other brothers and sisters?" She shook her head. "So, your birth mother..."

"She ran off with another guy."

"She left town?"

"No, she... he lived around the corner. So, my... birth father, he was left with Tracy. And no money, I think."

"What do they do for a living?"

"She runs a gas station. She's the boss, so I guess that's a good job. He builds things, things in houses, like shelves and stuff, but he doesn't work that much. He always used to say that she left him with forty-two dollars in the bank."

I nodded.

"She stayed with the other guy for a while, but then she got pregnant, again." She shook her head. "She's not very bright. Anyway, the other guy kicked her out, so she came home."

"It was that easy?"

She shrugged. "I guess. I wasn't there. They did fight about it."

"She was pregnant, with no home," I said. "He was broke, with a daughter. She still had a good job..."

"Something like that. He... I think he promised to treat me like I was his."

"But you weren't. And he didn't."


"And you were a reminder that his wife had left him for another man, and had only come home when she'd had no choice."

Ron seldom looked really happy, but now that she'd reached the part of the story where she was an active participant she looked thoroughly miserable.

"Did he ever strike you?" I asked. "Any of you?"

"Oh, no. You mean like hit? No. If he ever hit her, her brothers would castrate him." It was clear that she had no idea what the word meant. It was just something she'd heard, probably quite often. "And he never hit Tracy. She's his little girl."

"What about you?"

"He never just hit me. But when I was bad, he'd spank me."

"With his bare hand?"

"No, usually with his belt."

"Or a stick," I said, because she had mentioned this before.


We were silent for a minute, then Ron looked up from the floor. I kept my expression blank, I hope, trying not to reveal my desire to punch her birth father in the mouth.

We continued to refer to the man who had raised her as her "birth father," even though he really wasn't, because we had never found a better way of referring to him (and because Ron became really unhappy if we alluded to the fact that she'd been the result of an affair – probably because she'd had this pointed out to her so often when she was young). My employer chafed at the lack of precision, but even she had to admit that it was the best solution.

"Ron, why did you attack Tracy like that?"

"I... I just got mad. She always used to tell lies about me. And then I'd get spanked."

"And you thought she was going to lie about you here and we'd believe her. And maybe we wouldn't love you anymore."

"I guess."

"Did you ever hit her before?"

"Oh, no. I was always scared. She'd make me pay."

"What kind of lies did she tell about you?"

"Well, there was this boy, Bobby Truman. He and I used to play ball together after school. But Tracy, she said she'd caught us in my room, playing..." It was obvious that she'd reached something she could barely talk about.

I went and knelt next to her chair. "She said you were fooling around with Bobby?"

"With our pants down!" she wailed. "I never did anything like that. And he spanked me really hard, and called me names and said I was just like my mother, just another..."



I put my arms around her. Determination had carried her this far, but now she looked pretty defeated.

"Hey," I said, returning to my chair, "You just told me a lot, so now I should tell you a few things. Fair?" She shrugged. I reached into my employer's desk drawer and pulled out a pen and paper.

"I'm going to make my guess about what's so interesting about what Fifteen said, and I'm going to write it down."

"Like you do," she said. "So you can prove to Mom that you got it right."

"Exactly. Fifteen told us Tracy's age, and how she was dressed, but he didn't know who she was or where she was from."

"Of course not. He's not a detective."

"Ah, but here's the thing. People in U-town mostly don't carry identification. We don't need it. But in the rest of the world, people usually do carry ID of some sort, especially when they're traveling. Fifteen is very thorough, and if Tracy had had any ID on her, he would have found it. Plus, she had a suitcase, and if you travel by plane or train or bus there's usually a sticker or a tag that they attach to your bag. If that had been there, he would have known where she'd come from, even if he didn't know her name."

"So, how do you think she got here?"

"Oh, one of those ways, probably, though we do need to find out if she was traveling alone. But I'm not just guessing. My memory isn't as good as your mother's, but I did see that suitcase for a moment, in the room, and there was a tag tied to the handle. So, that means that somebody removed the tag, and probably took whatever ID she had on her. The logical assumption is that it was the murderer. And the next logical assumption is that you didn't kill her. We already knew who she was and where she was from, and you knew that we knew. So, you'd have had no reason to take anything."

Of course, in a detective story it would have been a clever move for Ron, if she had been the murderer, to take the ID to deflect suspicion from herself. There are people who think that way (I was married to one, in fact), but I was sure that Ron was not one of them. Even apart from her age, that way of thinking would have been completely antithetical to Ron's direct approach to things.

This bluntness continued to be part of Ron's character. She could withhold information – she was good at that – but if she had something to say, she said it. A few years later, when she had finally decided that dating wasn't such a bad idea after all, she told me that she was considered somewhat odd in her school because when she said no to a boy she meant no, and when she meant yes she said so, apparently quite plainly. I commented that the boys must have found this somewhat refreshing. She shrugged. She didn't really care how they found it – this was what they were going to get.

We did wonder sometimes if we were doing a good job at being parents. It is true that we were totally unprepared for the experience, and our only rule was to try to examine every guideline we set for Ron, to make sure, as much as possible, that it was actually right and appropriate, rather than just doing unto her as had been done unto us.

Well, I guess there was another rule. We always had to be aware that Ron had come to us with a rather unusual history. She had lived on her own for quite a while before we adopted her, including avoiding or fighting off the various creatures that prey on prepubescent girls. So, she was stronger and more wily than most children her age, certainly in the United States. Combined with her pride and independence, this meant there were some things she didn't need, or in any case would not have accepted, from us.

Other than getting into fights, it didn't seem there was much in Ron's life that qualified as "fun." There were activities that she enjoyed, like delivering the mail and our daily walks together to school, but there was nothing that I could really compare to my own memories of being her age. But that was who she was, and we respected that.

There were times when she reminded me of the fierce children we had met during the war in Bellona, where there were soldiers as young as Ron, and unit commanders only a few years older.

The air raid siren blared twice, two short blasts.

Ron's head jerked up. "What the fuck?" she demanded.

"That's 'Runner's Call,'" I reminded her. "The time will be next." There was one more short blast. "One o'clock," I said. "We'd better think about eating something. Come on."

As I reached for the doorknob, it turned and my employer poked her head in. "Come on," she said impatiently. "I want to get something to eat before the meeting."

In the dining room, my employer lit a cigarette and drew the smoke deep into her lungs. This was evidence of how urgently she wanted to solve this and protect Ron, since I could tell this was her first cigarette of the day.

I held out the folded piece of paper. "Anything in the room?" I asked.

She smiled, not even taking the paper. "No ID, no wallet, no luggage tags, no bus or train tickets. No indication of whether she was traveling with anybody else. Ron, when your birth parents came here, when you ran away, was Tracy here also?"

Ron nodded. "It was our big family trip. We got money when my grandfather died."

My employer nodded as if this confirmed a theory of hers, but she did that quite often.

"Ron," she said, "rumors are already starting to circulate, and that will increase exponentially after I talk to the runners."


"Nobody spreads more rumors than the runners," I clarified.

Ron nodded. "That's for sure."

"So," my employer continued, "I will try to get information from the runners, but they'll be learning things, too. Those things will start to get spread around, no matter what I say."

"What are you talking about?" Ron asked uneasily.

"You had a fight with your sister, and then she got murdered. As far as we know so far, she didn't know anybody else in the area. Some people will probably start to consider the possibility that you killed her. And that could get ugly if we don't move fast, especially if people start to think that you're getting special treatment because you're my daughter."

Ron's shoulders slumped. "You're gonna lock me up."

My employer laughed and reached across the table to take Ron's hand. "The exact opposite. We're going to keep you with us until this is figured out. Every minute. That way I don't have to worry about whether you're okay and I can concentrate on my work."

"Oh," Ron said, thinking about this. "That sounds okay."

"What about the weapon?" I asked.

"One of the knives from the kitchen." She shook her head. "There were fingerprints on it, but that isn't much use until we have somebody to check them against. And even so, a lot of people use those knives." She turned to our daughter. "Ron, I need to ask you about your sister's underwear."


"You saw how she was dressed. Quite ordinary: sweater, skirt, sneakers, and socks. But her underwear was very racy, almost nonexistent. Her knickers–"

"Aaaah!" Ron protested, looking like she was about to plug up her ears and hum as loud as she could.

"Maybe it would be a good idea," I suggested, "if you explained how this will help solve the mystery."

My employer shrugged. "Alright."

Jan Sleet was, in her private life, very unlikely to discuss anybody's underwear. But, when there was a mystery to solve, she would, with clinical detachment, happily discuss anything that was relevant, including sexual preferences and habits, and even, in one case, the specifics of a suspect's anatomy. So, she found it rather peculiar that Ron was reluctant to discuss something as comparatively innocuous as her sister's underwear.

"The question, Ron," she began, "is why was your sister here?"

"In that moment when you saw her," I added, "you thought she might have come here to ruin your life with us."

My employer nodded. "Possible, but unlikely. We do need to try to find out if she came alone. But the fact that she was wearing exotic lingerie, especially if that was unusual for her, could indicate a possible liaison."

Ron sighed.

"She could have been coming here to meet a lover," I explained.

Ron shrugged. "I always did the laundry," she said. "I never saw anything weird."

"Did Tracy have a boyfriend? Or a girlfriend?"

Ron shook her head. "She likes boys. Not girls. I don't know if she was dating. We didn't talk much."

"She never brought anybody home?"

"Not when I was there."

Jan Sleet had created the runners and, while she no longer had direct involvement with them on a day-by-day basis, she did still feel somewhat proprietary about them. A couple of times, in private, she had referred to them as her "irregulars." Of course, this was not exactly how they saw themselves.

In theory, sounding "Runner's Call" meant that all of the runners had to assemble at the given time. In practice, in the absence of a general emergency, you wouldn't get them all. Which was okay, in this case. To have insisted, simply to solve a mystery, would have opened us up to the accusation that this case was getting special attention because our daughter was involved. The runners were, after all, our telephone system and our post office, and to take them off the streets even for an hour was not something we did lightly.

In the beginning, during the chaotic first few hours and days after the founding of U-town, the runners had been our only means of communication. Most of their time and energy had gone to locating people who had been wounded in the bombing and helping to get assistance to them. Since then, as things had become more stable, they mostly conveyed mail and messages. This was not the most efficient postal system ever (occasionally, in frustration, we declared that it might be the worst – but that wasn't true either), and we had been very glad when Ron had taken over handling our mail.

People gathered in the big auditorium where we held most of our meetings, a few blocks from the hotel. The runners were scattered around the room. They were mostly young, many of them around Ron's age or a little older. Their bicycles were leaning against the walls, or lying on the floor. I estimated that about half of the runners were there.

My employer limped to the podium and hooked her cane over the edge of the lectern. She raised the microphone and said, "Welcome. Thank you for coming. There has been a murder, and I need your help to solve it.

"A teenage girl with shoulder-length blonde hair entered U-town quite recently, probably yesterday. She was stabbed to death last night in the hotel." She described what Tracy had been wearing, and her suitcase. "Did anybody see her, did anybody speak to her, did she ask directions? How did she get to the hotel? If anybody did speak to her, did she say anything about who she was or why she was here? Someone, almost certainly her murderer, took all of her identification."

This was interesting. Without saying anything untrue, she had given the impression that we had no idea who the murdered girl had been or where she had come from. And that led me to the possibility, which hadn't occurred to me before, that Tracy (underage, perhaps traveling alone to meet a lover) might have been using a false name.

I was standing at the side of the stage. I glanced farther into the wings, where Ron sat on a folding chair, looking morose. There was no problem with people seeing me, but we had been careful that nobody would be able to see Ron.

I heard my employer asking for the runners to spread the word as I saw Fifteen and Christy come in through the stage door and go to speak to Ron. Christy was apparently offering condolences. Fifteen came over and showed me a stack of mimeographed flyers, featuring a description and a rough drawing of Tracy. I nodded and he brought them to my employer. She glanced at them and then encouraged the runners, who were already starting to get ready to leave, to come over and get some flyers to spread around.

Apparently none of the runners had been able to help.

As we'd walked to the auditorium, my employer had cleared up one question which had been puzzling me. We knew where Ron had been during the murder (to my satisfaction, anyway), but where had her roommates been?

Apparently Dora, the one Ron had complained about the night before, had spent the night with her boyfriend. The other two girls had gone over the bridge to the city for the evening, and had only returned in the wee hours, when they had found the body. So, they alibied each other, and Dora's boyfriend alibied her.

These were not strong alibis, of course, but on the other hand there was no evidence, at least so far, that any of them had known Tracy. My employer had also conveyed, in terms which were designed to be meaningless to Ron, that she was fairly sure that Krissy and Karen, the other two girls, were a couple, which amused me. Ron was determined to keep her room sex-free, but she did have a blind spot about unconventional roles and relationships.

It was too early to tell whether the runners were going to produce results or not, but I could tell my employer was uneasy. She sat on a folding chair backstage, tapping her forefinger on the crook of her cane. For her, this was quite a tizzy.

She took out her pocketwatch and glanced at it, then she looked up. "We need to go see Stu. This afternoon. How late will he be in his office?"

"I can call him, when I call for the car, and ask him to stay late if necessary."

She nodded and got to her feet. "Let's go."

I turned to Christy and asked, "Can you come with us?"

Both Jan and Ron looked somewhat annoyed. This was for different reasons, but I was amused to note that their mouths quirked in exactly the same way. They were standing out of Christy's line of sight, of course.

My employer was annoyed, very mildly, because she still chafed at the rule that she couldn't leave U-town without security. She complied with it, but not always graciously.

Ron had never liked Christy, as I've reported before. Given what I'd just learned about her family history, I wasn't surprised she had jumped to the assumption that Christy and I might be about to run off together.

I had not been watching closely when Christy had arrived, and I hoped Ron had been polite when Christy had offered condolences. Given Ron's feelings about her sister, her feelings about Christy, and her rather sketchy set of social skills, I could easily imagine that it hadn't gone smoothly.

In any case, Christy smiled and said, "Of course. I'm glad I can help."

As we walked to the bridge, Ron and I ended up walking half a block ahead of Jan and Christy. My employer couldn't walk very quickly, of course, and Christy, in her role as a bodyguard, stayed with her. I walked a bit more quickly because I wanted to talk to Ron about something I didn't think she'd want to discuss in front of Christy.

"Ron," I said, "I wanted to ask you about your friend Bobby. Does he know where you are? Does he know what happened to you?" She shrugged and shook her head. "Because I had an idea. And I was thinking you could write him a letter. Then he'd know where you are and that you're okay."

This possibility had never occurred to her. "I don't know the address," she said slowly.

"Do you remember the street?"

"Oh, sure. But I don't know the number."

"Well, you could go to the library. They'll know how to find out." She nodded reluctantly, unwilling to get her hopes up.

I squeezed her shoulder (briefly, not long enough to be embarrassing – Christy was behind us, after all). "You think your mother couldn't find out an address if she wanted to?"

This had just been a stray thought, but a few minutes later I was glad I'd had it. We were at the foot of the bridge, and the others were sitting on the massive piling that blocked the bridge as I went to the pay phone and called the car service. Then I called Stu's office, and his wife answered the phone.

Stuart Anson, our lawyer, was quite elderly, and at this point I think his entire practice consisted of my employer's professional needs, and the many and varied legal needs of U-town itself. He had no staff, and his partner was long dead, but one or two days a week his wife, Bea, came into the office to do his filing and typing. And, as he always put it, to keep an eye on him.

As I heard her voice, I had a sudden inspiration.

"Mrs. Anson, " I said, "it's Marshall O'Connor."

"Mr. O'Connor," she said briskly. "It's very nice to hear from you."

"Is Mr. Anson available later this afternoon? It's fairly urgent, I'm afraid. There's been a murder, and we're concerned that Ron may be accused. Do you remember Ron?"

"Of course. The young lady who didn't ever bathe, as far as I could tell."

"Well, we've adopted her, Jan and I, and–"

"Really," she said neutrally. I got the idea that she was trying to decide which was more improbable: that anybody would have willingly adopted such a scruffy and unpleasant child, or that my wife and I had decided to have a family at all.

"Yes," I said after a moment. "It was her sister, her blood sister, who was killed. She–"

"Oh, the poor dear child," she said, and I was surprised to hear not a trace of sarcasm in her voice. She was clearly speaking about Ron, and for a second I wasn't sure what to say. Stu and Bea had produced several children, all fully grown now, so presumably she wasn't a complete stranger to maternal impulses. However, it was a bit of a shock to have them come to the surface all of a sudden like this.

"Are you bringing her with you?" she asked.

"Yes, we are. And I was going to ask a favor. She has a project she's working on, and I was wondering if you could keep an eye on her while we talk to Mr. Anson. I'm sure Ron would prefer not to have to hear about the details of the murder all over again."

"Oh, of course. The poor thing. I'm sure she and I will have a fine time. Please come whenever is convenient, and I'll tell that decrepit old shyster that he needs to wait for you."

Stu leaned back in his chair and shook his head. "I'm sorry to hear about Ron's sister."

"She's not sorry, as far as I can tell," I said. "It seems that they despised each other, or at least Ron despised her sister. Not without reason, apparently, and I'm fairly sure I don't know the whole story."

Stu nodded. "Then I won't offer my condolences." Ron was in the outer office with Bea, working on the letter to her friend Bobby, and the door was closed.

"The problem," my employer explained, "is that, because of that animosity, which led Ron to punch her sister several times earlier in the day, it's quite likely that Ron will be accused at some point, especially if we can't establish that Tracy – that was the girl's name – knew other people in this area. We have no idea if she came here alone, for example. We're investigating on a couple of different fronts, but what I want to do is establish where Ron's birth parents are.

"I could call them, of course, but I don't want to tell them anything about what's happened. Not until I know everything about the situation. They do not seem to be thoughtful, rational people, and I don't want to get them alarmed. They might try to set some plan in motion to get Ron back. That's not a battle I intend to fight except from a position of strength."

Stu nodded slowly. "I was afraid of this. I really can't help, for two reasons. The first reason is that, without going into details, my main contact for this sort of information was in a clerical position. So, any information in city records, and some state records, was usually available. But this sort of information, from a different state, would have been more difficult. If the family had been involved in a crime, or with law enforcement..." He shrugged. "I observe your impatience, and of course you noted my use of the past tense. My friend has very recently retired and she is on a cruise. There is someone else who works in a similar capacity, on a lower level and with more restricted access, but she is currently out on maternity leave."

My employer shook her head and turned to me. "Make a note. Never get pregnant and never get old." She glanced at Christy and smiled. "I will not make that joke in front of Ron, of course." Then she took off her glasses and polished them slowly. She always carried a second handkerchief in a side pocket for this purpose, since the display handkerchief in her breast pocket was folded very precisely, showing three sharp points, and once it was in place she didn't like to have to refold it.

"There is another possibility," I said.

My employer looked up sharply. "There is?" she demanded, putting on her glasses.

"Inspector Ibarra," I explained.

She frowned. "Why would he help us?"

"Because he owes you one. You solved a case for him, the college case, for which he took the credit. He owes you."

"That was just coincidence. I... What are you saying?"

"He set it up so that you would solve that case for him. That was his plan from the beginning. He put us in the room, and then he put Ron in the room with us so you could interview her. And he had that piece of paper in his pocket. If you hadn't asked about it, he would have made sure it got to you somehow. And you solved the case, and he got the credit."

She started to speak, stopped, frowned, shook her head, and finally said, "Poo!" Which was, for her, a powerful oath indeed.

Stu had kept his expression blank throughout this, but I had a pretty good idea it was not news to him. Christy, who had been with us during the college case (where this had all happened) was also expressionless.

"Shall I call him?" Stu asked.

"Give me a minute," she said. She closed her eyes and pursed her lips for a moment, then she nodded.

Then, an extraordinary thing happened. My employer said later that it was the most interesting part of the entire case.

Stu reached for the phone, removed the handset from the cradle, pressed the speaker button, and dialed a number.

So, we were all aware of the following facts:

1. Stuart Anson had dialed Inspector Ibarra's number without consulting a phone book.

2. Stu did not have an extraordinary memory. To have a telephone number memorized, he must have used it fairly often.

3. As far as we knew, the only time Stu and Ibarra had met was during the college case, which had not involved any telephone communication at all.

4. If Stu had had further communication with Ibarra after that, in his capacity as Jan Sleet's attorney or as U-town's legal representative, he would have told us.

5. Which he hadn't, so it was something else.

6. He was aware that we now knew this, and that was alright with him, or he would have made a show of looking up the number.

7. He was a lawyer, of course, so he wouldn't tell us what this meant.

8. And it would have been rude, to say the least, for my employer to investigate and find out the answer on her own.

"This is Stuart Anson," he said. "May I speak to Inspector Ibarra?"

My employer shook her head as she reminded herself to put this new question aside and concentrate on the case.

"Inspector Ibarra, this is Stuart Anson. I'm on speaker with my client, Miss Jan Sleet, and Marshall O'Connor. How are you today?"

"Fair to middling, counselor. Good afternoon, Miss Sleet and Mr. O'Connor. Is Miss Malin with you?"

"I'm here," Christy said.

"Ah," Ibarra said, and it was about as lascivious a single syllable as I've ever heard.

Christy stuck out her tongue in the direction of the phone.

"Inspector," my employer said, "I need to call in a debt."

"A debt?" he asked, and I could hear his sardonic amusement. "Do I owe you some favor that's slipped my mind?"

"No, you owe me something that I'm sure you remember. The murder of Douglas Matthews. I solved the case for you, as you arranged, and you got the credit and you were able to go to bed at a reasonable hour that night. I did you a good turn, and now I need something in return."

"And if I don't..."

"Don't be obtuse, and don't be insulting. I'm not threatening you. I'm acting on the assumption that you're an honorable man."

There was a moment of silence, then Ibarra said, "Why don't we act on that assumption for a moment or two and see where we end up. What happens next?"

"Here is the situation. Do you remember Ron?"

"Oh, yes."

"We have adopted her, my husband and I."

"No wonder you need help."

"Inspector, I'm afraid this situation is serious. But first I must say that adopting Ron was one of the best decisions I have ever made."

"You're young yet. You probably haven't made very many decisions in your life. Please continue."

"Ron's sister, her blood sister, was just murdered. In U-town, under our jurisdiction. We need to find out if any of her other family members are in the area."

"So," he said slowly, "you want to find a suspect that isn't your adopted daughter."

"No, I want to find a murderer. I think my daughter is innocent, but if she's guilty I will not protect her. But Tracy, the murdered girl, came to U-town for some reason. There are indications that she was coming here to meet a lover. So, there are two questions. Are her parents, her birth parents, here? Her identification and any other papers she had on her were stolen, probably by the murderer. But if she'd had a long-distance lover there might be indications in her parents' home."

"Hmmm," he said as Christy got up. She moved silently to the door and out. I wondered what had prompted this, but I was sure that she could handle whatever it was.

"Will you be in Mr. Anson's office for a while?" Ibarra asked. "I know there are no telephones in the primitive tribal village where you live."

"We will wait here for your call."

He hung up without saying goodbye. I turned to the door as Christy came back in. "They're gone," she said. "Mrs. Anson and Ron."

I started to get tense, but Stu said, "I'm sure they're fine. Who would dare to pick on the two of them? Even separately they scare the heck out of me."

"Stu," my employer said, "this may take a while. You can go home if you want. We can stay... but of course it's your wife who drives."

He smiled. "I'd stay in any case. I may be able to help. If it was my child, wouldn't you stay?"

"Of course."

"They probably went out," I said. "There was a bit of research involved in the project Ron was working on."

My employer turned to me. "We haven't had a chance to compare notes, since Ron has been with us all day. What did you find out about her birth family?"

I told them the whole story, mostly verbatim.

Stu listened impassively, his hands clasped on the desk blotter in front of him. My employer was attempting to be calm as well, but her lips thinned as I described how Ron had been beaten because of her sister's lies.

Christy looked surprisingly upset as I told the story. I almost stopped at one point, but that would have embarrassed her. She was sitting on the far side of my employer, so nobody else was in a position to notice her reaction.

When I finished, my employer shook her head. "I confess that I've always thought my determination to keep Ron with us was somewhat selfish, because she means so much to me. But she is never going back to those people."

"If they did get custody somehow," I said, "I'm quite sure that she would run away at the first opportunity and try to get back to us."

"A journey which might be beyond even young Ron's capabilities," Stu said. "We should make sure it doesn't come to that."

Christy blew her nose and they turned to look at her. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's just that the description of her father sounds a lot like Jason's father." She glanced at Stu. "Jason is my son," she explained. "Do Ron's parents drink?"

I shrugged. "She didn't mention it. Maybe."

"Doesn't matter. I hope not. It sounds bad enough without that."

Stu sat up straighter. "Well, after that, I think we need some sustenance. I'll order sandwiches." He called the deli downstairs. He was such a regular customer that all he had to do was identify himself and tell them how many people were there.

I heard a noise from the outer office, and Christy and I got up to investigate. We found Bea back at her desk, with Ron sitting opposite her. Ron was stuffing something into her battered Red Cross bag. I didn't comment, since it was obviously something she didn't want us to see.

"We were a bit concerned," I said, "but we thought you probably went to the library."

Bea shook her head. "To find out that address? Mr. O'Connor, on this side of the river we have a wonderful modern device called the telephone. It has many uses, including – but not limited to – finding out street addresses. You should try it some time." She turned to Ron. "Young lady, I believe you have homework to do?"

Ron was so nervous about whatever she was concealing in her bag that she didn't even protest being addressed as "young lady," a phrase which usually sent her into a fury. She reached into her bag, feeling her way past the mysterious object (which appeared to be a pink plastic bag), and pulled out a notebook.

Bea indicated that we should all proceed into Stu's office. She closed the door behind us, leaving Ron in the outer office.

"I had a good conversation with young Ron," Bea said, "and I gather that your approach to child-rearing is rather..." She hesitated.

"Bohemian," Jan suggested.

Bea nodded, though I had the idea that she'd been thinking of something stronger.

"I doubt that I'm going to get you to change that, or to get her to dress decently for a young girl. But I did wonder why she insisted on wearing that bulky, dirty sweatshirt even though it's a warm day. Well, we talked and she relaxed, and it turned out that your 'daughter'" – I could hear the quotes – "doesn't own any underwear. It's all fallen to rags. And now she is just beginning to develop and she is mortified that people will notice, especially because she doesn't own a brassiere and she was not comfortable asking you to buy her one."

She sighed. "I tried to get her to buy some other clothes, something more appropriate for a girl her age, but she declined."

We were saved from hearing the details of Ron's refusal because the phone rang. Stu reached for it, but Bea grabbed it out of his hand. "Hello," she said, "Stuart Anson's office." She paused as Stu waved at me. I had pulled out my wallet, prepared to reimburse Bea for the things she had purchased for Ron, but he shook his head and I put it away.

Bea pantomimed, "Take the money, you old fool," as she said, "Please hold, Inspector. I'll see if he's available." She pressed the Hold button, hung up the receiver, and returned to the outer office, closing the door behind her.

Stu pressed a button and said, "Inspector, we've been eagerly awaiting your call. We're on speaker again, with the same cast as Act One."

"Miss Sleet," Ibarra said, "you said you were making the assumption that I'm an honorable man."

"I am, for the moment at least. Why?"

"Then I suppose I will have to make the same assumption about you, that you are also honorable. Because otherwise I will have to wonder whether you dropped me in this on purpose."

"Inspector, you have my word that I had no idea what you would encounter. Please tell me what's happened."

He sighed. I could not tell how much of his annoyance was assumed and how much, if any, was sincere. "I will preface this by saying that my opinion is that, by the time this is over, we will not be square. You will owe me."

"We'll see."

"Fair enough. Here it is. Hazel's father... Does it offend you if I call her Hazel?"

"Not at all. I know you're talking about Ron. It would offend her, but she's not in the room."

"Hazel's father found out, almost a week ago, that his wife was having an affair with a guy who lives around the corner. The two men ran into each other in the local bar. Strong language was used. Fisticuffs ensued, accompanied by some racial invective. The boyfriend apparently has, as we used to say, a touch of the tarbrush. In any case, the authorities showed up and the combatants were detained overnight, mostly to give them time to sober up."

Christy's expression said that she would have punched Ibarra in the nose if he'd been present. My employer was impassive, however. She was completely focused on protecting her daughter, and everything else was secondary to that.

"It was on the next day, as far as we can determine, that young Tracy ran away. Based on the calls which were received by the local precinct, the loving parents were mostly concerned about the cash she took with her, which was somewhere around one hundred dollars.

"Then, last night, there was Round Two in the local bar, ending with hubby in the hospital, and wifey and the boyfriend in pretty bad shape as well. Today, she has spent most of her time at the local police station, bothering people and incoherently demanding that her daughters be found and returned to her. A couple of her brothers accompany her everywhere now.

"So, after all this, when I call up the local constabulary, with me all wide-eyed and innocent, and I start asking questions about these losers, suddenly I'm being greeted with suspicion. People think that I know everything, and they start demanding answers."

"What did you tell them?"

"I told them that Tracy had been killed in U-town. I wasn't going to get any information otherwise. I said I was cooperating with the U-town authorities on the investigation. I didn't mention Ron at all."

"Thank you for that."

"Frankly, Miss Sleet, I have no idea how you're raising that little terror, and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't approve if I did know, but it's got to be better than what she got at home. And I assume you don't require any further proof that none of these people were responsible for the girl's death."

"I'll accept that as a working hypothesis. Did you manage to find any other indications?"

He chuckled. "I'd say so. There was no diary, no letters, no address book. but the officers out there did find a couple of things. One was a school notebook, from a class in social studies. Apparently the girl's attention wandered from her lessons one day and she started doodling 'Tracy Trainor' over and over, with hearts and flowers and birds. So, I figure that's the guy's last name, Trainor. They didn't know where to look, and there are a lot of Trainors in the world, but you have a much better idea."

"Excellent. And the other thing?"

"A strip of photos, from one of those tourist booths where you get four pictures for a buck. They described it to me. It's a tight closeup on the two of them. She looks deliriously happy. The guy looks happy, though not delirious, and somewhat older. The officer out there reported that Trainor was wearing some kind of dark jacket with a high, stiff collar, with light-colored piping around it. They're looking into marching bands."

"Hotel livery."

"That's my guess. So, are we square?"

"At least. Maybe a little bit better. Call me the next time you're stuck, and I'll see if I can set you straight."

He barked a laugh and hung up.

In the outer office, we found Ron and Bea happily working their way through a plate of sandwiches.

"Oh," Bea said, "did you want some of these?"

"When we get there," my employer said, "Christy and I will go in. Ron, you will wait in the car with your father."

"Why?" she demanded. "Are you going to arrest him?"

My employer laughed. "We're not in U-town now. I can't arrest anybody. No, I need to find out his work hours and where he lives, so we can catch him on our side of the river. I have no authority here, so my only way of getting information is to intimidate them because I'm a public figure."

Ron frowned, not completely understanding that my employer's ability to bamboozle people as a noted reporter and amateur detective was going to be somewhat diminished if her daughter was there also.

The car pulled up in front of the Empire Hotel, which Ron had identified as the hotel where she and her family had stayed during their trip to the city. I got out to go around and open the door for my employer, steadying her as she climbed out onto the sidewalk.

Christy came around, and my employer straightened her tie and said, "Let's go."

I got back into the car and sat next to Ron, who was still looking vexed. I thought this was because she had been left out of the excitement, but she had other things on her mind.

"Dad," she said after a minute, "do I have to start dressing different?" To my surprise, it sounded as though she would do it if we wanted her to.

"Of course not," I said. "Mrs. Anson is right about some things, which I'll get to in a minute, but she's not right about you, or about us. You can dress how you want, just as you have. You can sleep in our room, or in your room, or we can find you another room if you'd prefer.

"But here's the thing she is right about. When you need something, especially something as basic as clothes, you can come to us. You should come to us. We're responsible for you, for taking care of you and making sure you have the things you need."

She looked like this was a new concept to her.

"Didn't your birth parents buy you clothes?"

"Sometimes. Mostly I got Tracy's old stuff. It was awful, all flowers and lace and shit. And then I had to fix them if they ripped or something." She had been squirming off and on as we drove from Stu's office to the hotel, and now she started again, working her shoulders up and down. "Do I really have to wear this fucking thing?" she demanded.

"I think you'll recall, 'young lady,' that I said, just a moment or two ago, that you can wear whatever you want."

Frustrated, mostly at herself for being such an easy target, she made a fist and punched me in the arm. Then her expression went blank as she wondered if she'd gone too far. I made a fist and punched her, lightly, in the arm.

She smiled. "I hope that fucking Fifteen didn't screw up the mail delivery," she said happily. "I may have to beat him up."

"Of course," I said earnestly, "it was very nice of him to volunteer to fill in for you."

She shook her head, unwilling to dignify this with a response.

Seeing my employer and Christy coming down the wide front steps of the hotel, I opened the car door and stepped out onto the sidewalk. This was ostensibly to hold the door for my employer, but in reality it was so I could catch her as she swooned. I had recognized the uncertainty in her step as she'd limped down the stairs.

It had been too many hours on too little food. I'd tried to get her to take at least half of the one sandwich we'd managed to rescue from Ron and Bea, but she had insisted that it go to Stu. Also, I could tell she'd been successful in the hotel. When a case was unsolved she could keep going on nerves and excitement, but then when she had the answers it would sometimes all catch up with her. Which it did, and I took her arm.

"Oh," she said in surprise, leaning on me. "When we get home–"

"Not when we get home," I said. "We're going to have dinner now. I've paid off the driver. Let's go."

She started to protest, but Ron was with us by then and the car was pulling away, so she nodded.

"There's a good place around that corner," Ron said, pointing. We all looked at her in surprise. "We went there, my family, when we were staying here," she explained.

I smiled. This just showed how completely I saw Ron as part of our family. I had forgotten for a moment that she had been part of the Davis family when they'd been staying at this hotel. That had been when Ron had run away, and when her sister had been seduced (I assumed) by a hotel employee named Trainor. Who had quite possibly killed her.

So, Ron took charge. She led us to the restaurant, directed us to her preferred booth, and recommended the franks and beans. I was the only one who took her up on this suggestion.

"I met with Mr. Bailey, the hotel detective," my employer said as she sipped her soup. "He has some fancy title because it's a fancy place, but he's the house dick. It turned out that he was eager to help. This is not the first time there's been an intimation of an impropriety by Trainor – his first name is Donald – but he's related to the manager and is therefore difficult to fire. And, of course, scandal is the worst option, but until now Mr. Bailey has been thinking that scandal was inevitable, sooner or later.

"But I gave him another option, which he was eager to seize. We will arrest Trainor, on our side of the river, and from the point of view of the hotel he will simply stop coming to work one day. The scandal would be averted. This made Mr. Bailey quite happy, and he had no problem giving me the information I wanted."

So, we ate and we discussed the details of dealing with Donald Trainor, and the only possibly awkward moment was narrowly averted.

Ron would periodically start squirming, shifting her shoulders around, then she'd realize she was doing it and force herself to stop. Christy observed this and at one point she smiled and was about to say something to Ron, but I caught her eye and emphatically shook my head. I had no idea what she'd been about to say, but I knew it was a bad idea.

Jan observed this, of course, but she didn't comment. Fortunately, Ron was absorbed in seeing how much butter she could slather on a warm piece of corn bread and she didn't notice any of this.

At the end of the dinner, Ron excused herself and went off toward the bathrooms. When she returned, her posture and expression told me that the offending undergarment had been disposed of.

While we were waiting for Ron, Jan was about to light a cigarette when I motioned that this activity was probably more appropriate out on the sidewalk. We weren't in U-town, after all. So, she and Christy went outside as I paid the bill.

When I got out to the street, Jan said, "Christy has just made a good point. I do let you do most of the work with Ron, but she and I need to have a talk." She smiled. "You know many things, I realize, but you are not female. Ron is never going to come to us with–"

Ron joined us and Jan said, "Ron, I'd like to talk to you when we get home. Would you like to go get a milkshake together?"

And Jan was not oblivious to the fact that Ron's reaction was to look around uneasily, wondering what she had done wrong and why she was in trouble. Jan leaned over and they had a short whispered conversation, then she straightened up and looked around. "And where is the car?" she asked, raising one eyebrow.

I smiled. "We are in no hurry. It's a pleasant evening, with pleasant company. I thought we might take a stroll, in the direction of the bridge. Whenever we get tired, we can take a taxi the rest of the way."

"Oh, what an excellent idea." She circled her arm through mine. "Christy, you aren't in a rush, I hope?"

She shook her head. "Not at all. When I'm traveling with you folks, I never make definite plans."

It was a cool evening, with a nice breeze. The sky was clear, and the moon was nearly full. There were a lot of people out on the street, and occasionally someone recognized my employer. A couple of people even asked for autographs, which she signed. One man wanted to take a photograph, but Christy discouraged him.

Donald Trainor's shift at the Empire Hotel ended at midnight. His wife had thrown him out two weeks earlier, so he was staying in a room at the U-town Hotel (that's the "hotel" where we lived, which was sort of U-town's White House and Capitol, combined with a dorm, a cafeteria, a flop house, and sometimes a den of iniquity – pretty much the opposite of the hotel where Trainor worked).

He took his time getting home, arriving around two-thirty in the morning, having stopped for a couple of drinks somewhere along the way.

As he stepped into his room, he flipped the light switch, but the overhead light didn't go on. I stepped behind him and slammed the door shut as my employer turned on the floor lamp next to the easy chair where she was sitting. He glanced at me as I took another step so I blocked the door, then he looked at my employer.

"Mr. Trainor," she said, indicating the kitchen knife on the side table next to her chair, "we need to talk about the murder of Tracy Davis." She lit a cigarette. "This knife was found buried in her body, and your fingerprints are on it." I was noticing the aroma of the beer he'd been drinking. Which was all to the good, from our point of view.

"Who's Tracy Davis?" he asked, trying to sound defiant. "I never heard of her."

My employer levered herself to her feet and stepped toward the wall. "She was staying only a few doors down the hall." She gestured. "How convenient for you. We just came from talking to your wife. She told us how she threw you out, but you protested that you'd changed. You wanted to get back to your wife and children, but now this girl shows up. An underage girlfriend, who you seduced on your job, who came back to town to be with you, probably thinking that she would become your wife. This could have permanently ruined your marriage, it could have cost you your job, and it could have got you arrested. It's no wonder–"

She had moved a few steps away from the chair and the table, and Trainor lunged forward and grabbed the knife.

My employer regarded him. "This will not help you get back together with your wife," she observed.

"It will if I kill you," he said, waving the knife around. "Both of you. Who's going to solve the mystery if you're dead?"

She shook her head. "Not possible. There are two of us, standing far apart from each other, and you have a knife, not a gun." We had searched the room before he'd arrived, to make sure there wasn't a gun. The search had been easy, since he was living out of a single suitcase. It seemed pretty clear that, at least in his mind, this was a very temporary living situation.

"Okay," he said, "you're right." He moved closer to her, holding the knife out in front of him, but he was looking at me. "Get away from that door." I complied, moving farther away from where my employer stood. "All I need to do is to get over the bridge and you can't touch me. Any objections?"

I spread my arms wide. "None at all," I said. "But was it really necessary to kill her?"

"She was a stupid girl," he said, "and she wouldn't listen to reason."

"Her family–" my employer began.

"Fuck her family," he said. "She was going to ruin my family, screw up my kids, too." He gestured with the knife. "Get out of my way."

He backed toward the door, opened it with one hand, and stepped out backwards without taking his eyes off me.

Christy grabbed his wrist, twisted it until he dropped the knife, yanked him around, and knocked his feet out from under him. He fell on his stomach and she landed on top of him, straddling his waist.

"Face on the floor!" she snarled. "Jinx, motherfucker, and I will ventilate your skull if you twitch!"

He tried to look at her, and she slammed the butt of her gun down on the back of his head, hard. After that he didn't move, though I could tell he was still conscious.

Christy looked up at me and smiled. If the situation hadn't been so serious, I think she would have winked. With her free hand, she tugged her skirt down so that her thighs were decently covered.

When we got back home, all the procedures having been followed and all the paperwork having been completed, the sky was starting to get light.

Ron had wanted to come with us to capture Trainor, but I had told her firmly that she was not going to be there. She had made a face, but she didn't argue and she didn't try to sneak out and follow us. She'd sat cross-legged in the center of our bed, prepared to wait all night if necessary for our return.

When we came back, she was lying on the bed, curled up on top of the covers, still fully dressed, and sound asleep.

Before waking her, I stepped quickly into the bathroom and removed the protective vest I'd worn, just in case Trainor had gone after me with his knife. I didn't want Ron to think too much about the very real danger that we'd been in. Our thought had been that if he moved to attack either of us, it would have been me. I was the one blocking the door, and he wouldn't have wanted to have me behind him if he attacked my employer. So I'd been prepared, but we'd hoped that it would go pretty much as it had.

It had been a risky plan – my employer's certainty that he wouldn't be carrying a gun hadn't had any evidence to support it – but I knew she had wanted to resolve things quickly to protect Ron.

I sat on the bed as my employer hung up her jacket and tie, and unbuttoned her vest. Ron blinked a couple of times and I squeezed her shoulder. "We're back," I said quietly.

She nodded as she sat up and rubbed her eyes. "Okay," she said, yawning. "What happened?"

I gave her the very short version. As I talked, she slid over to sit on the edge of the bed next to me, and Jan sat next to her.

Ron nodded as I finished the story. She liked it when her mother's cases were solved, since it confirmed her idea that her mother could figure out anything, but she wasn't usually interested in the details. Apparently not even when the victim had been her sister.

Jan and I had talked as we'd walked back from the hospital, and we had decided not to try to have the conversation with Ron about her unprovoked attack on her sister right then, mostly because we were too tired. We did end up having it the next night, but we did not win her over to our position.

"Ron," Jan said when I had finished telling the story, "we're going to get some sleep now, but there is one other thing. We have your sister's suitcase. Do you want any of her clothes?"

She shuddered. "No," she said.

"I didn't think so. I'll donate them downstairs. There are two other things." She got up and took a photograph from her jacket pocket. "Do you want this?" She handed it to Ron.

It was a family snapshot, maybe taken on their trip to the city. The parents were blond and tall, and Tracy was blond and pretty, and they were standing on a street corner, smiling at the camera.

Ron was standing at the side, making a face that was probably intended to be a smile. Her clothes were shabby, her hair was brown and bushy, her body language was awkward, and she looked like she'd wandered into the frame by mistake.

"There's also this," Jan said, holding out a small stuffed animal.

Ron took it carefully, her mouth tight, determined not to cry. She examined it, saying very quietly, "It's Mister Bunny."

My wife restrained her pedantic urge to point out that "Mister Bunny" was not in fact any sort of bunny at all. He appeared to be a rather bedraggled donkey. He'd probably started out with fur, but by now it was all worn down to the bare fabric.

Ron held this object in her hands, but she clearly couldn't figure out what to do with it. She wanted to clutch it to her chest and cry, but that was not an option. She looked around, then she got up and went to our trophy shelf.

My employer and I had traveled extensively before settling in U-town. We had mostly traveled light, often under difficult conditions, so we hadn't collected a lot of mementos along the way. A couple of times we'd had to leave treasured items behind in favor of escaping with our skins intact, so we'd learned not to get too attached to anything. But we had managed to hold onto a few keepsakes, and they were now displayed on a small shelf in our room.

Cradling Mister Bunny in the crook of one arm, Ron reached up to the shelf and carefully moved things around in order to make some room. Then she lifted Mister Bunny and slid him into the empty space. He had lost a bit of stuffing somewhere along the line and she had to work to get him to sit up straight. "Is that okay?" she asked when she was done.

"Of course," I said as she came back to sit with us again.

"Ron," Jan said, "I think your sister wanted to make peace with you. That's the only reason I can imagine for her to bring Mister Bunny to you."

Ron shook her head. She picked up the photograph and tore it down the middle. "No fucking way," she said. She tore it again and dropped it into the wastebasket. She picked up her Red Cross bag and said, "I'm gonna go get the mail."

She was not in a mood to be hugged, but I hugged her anyway, holding her tight until she sighed and hugged me back. Then she went off to collect the mail.


the rock band mystery

I had met Ron after school. She and I were going to meet Jan for dinner, to celebrate Ron's birthday. Ron was somewhat ambivalent about this; she was always uncomfortable about anything which meant she was the center of attention. But she had agreed, once I had made it clear that it would just be the three of us, and there would be no singing of "Happy Birthday" or party hats or anything like that.

Which was fine with us. We didn't make too big a deal about each other's birthdays, but with Ron it was a real resistance and we had to respect that.

"So," I said, "we spent most of the afternoon making a huge cake. We figured–"

She glanced at me to make sure I was kidding, then she shook her head. She was about to speak when we heard a sound from the doorway next to us. We both stopped, and I put a hand on her shoulder. There was nobody near us on the sidewalk, and I was pretty sure we were the only people who had heard it. And I was pretty sure it had been a gunshot.

The building was a tenement, three stories high, with a shuttered storefront a few steps down from street level. The steel curtain was covered with graffiti, and it seemed that this was where the noise had come from, but it had been muffled and hard to locate.

Ron and I were motionless, waiting to see what would happen next, and then she said, "That was a gun. Wasn't it?"

I was tempted to lie to her, to try to keep her away from whatever it was, but I said, "Yes, I think it was. Please move over there, and I'll–"

I had motioned for her to go to the other side of the stone steps that went up to the front door of the building, but she shook her head. "We should–"

We looked at each other, and there was no point in even starting the argument we were about to have. She knew I would try to get her away from the danger, and I knew she would try to go in with me. So, we just looked at each other, each of us trying to figure out the argument that would convince the other one.

This standoff could have gone on for a while, but then the door opened, causing both of us to jump, and Pete hurried out.

"Marshall," he said, coming over to us, "did you–"

"We heard what sounded like a gunshot. From inside. We were–"

"We need your help. I need your help, and really I need Jan's help." He turned to Ron and held out his hand. "I'm Pete," he said, "and I know you're Ron, Marshall's daughter. I'm pleased to meet you."

"Pleased to meet you, too," she said, looking at him with some surprise.

"Ron, I need a big favor. I have a mystery, and I desperately need your mother's help to solve it. I'm wondering if you can go get her for me? And meanwhile I'll explain some of it to your father. I hate to impose..."

She grinned. "Sure thing," she said. She ran into the street, flagged down a passing runner, terrorized the poor lad into giving up his bicycle, and pedaled off.

Pete gave me a wry look. I didn't bother to ask how he had known who Ron was. It often seemed that Pete knew pretty much everybody in U-town.

I hadn't seen him since the school mystery. During that case, even though someone had tried to kill him, he had been pretty calm throughout. But he was rattled right now. He took off his glasses and wiped his face with a bandanna that seemed far from clean, and then he shook his head. "We do need Jan's help, but I'll confess that the main reason I sent Ron away was so she wouldn't get killed. Ron, I mean."

"Why?" I asked. "What's going on in there? And I appreciate that, by the way."

He shook his head. "I can't take the time to explain it. Do you want to come in with me, or wait out here?"

"If you need to go back in, I guess I will, too."

We went down the few steps and into the building, and Pete closed the thick, padded door behind us. It was like stepping out of a cool, pleasant day and into a fetid swamp. The light was dim, and the air was close and warm. It reeked of beer, and smoke from various kinds of cigarettes. I felt like asking Pete to leave the door open, but that would have meant danger for anybody passing by on the sidewalk, because starling, the internationally known lunatic killer, was standing in the center of the room with a gun in each hand.

There were other people in the room, plus equipment, places to sit, and a door or two, but all I could look at was starling.

I asked, "What's going on here?" It sounded to me like my voice veered from authoritative to idly curious to terrified, all in four words.

"There's been a murder," Pete said. He gestured at the half-open door at the back of the room. "There's another rehearsal room down that hall. Barney, the drummer, he was practicing there. Alone."

"And she shot him," one of the men said, looking at starling. His tone veered a bit, too.

She didn't react.

"I heard a shot from out on the street," I said. "It sounded like it came from closer–"

"That was Katherine," Pete said. "They tried to overpower her." His voice was tense, but he was under control. It was possible that he'd experienced this sort of scene before, because Katherine, also known as "starling," was his girlfriend.

I had seen her around U-town a few times, usually with Pete. She was around Pete's height, about five foot eight. Her light brown hair was shorter than Pete's, and always looked as if she hacked off a hunk with a scissors whenever it got in her way. She was thin, and in the hot and stuffy room she had removed her coat. She wore a T-shirt and jeans, with her sleeves pushed up over her shoulders. Without her coat, the first thing you noticed was her shoulder holster and gunbelt.

"I'm not guilty," she rasped. "And I will not surrender my guns."

"Hang on," I said, holding up a hand. "Let's get introductions first. I'm Marshall O'Connor, if you don't know, and I work for Jan Sleet. She's on her way, and she will solve this, but let's at least get each other's names, and then maybe we can start to put this together."

"There isn't anything to 'put together,'" one man said. "This is not some fancy whodunit. She went back there to go to the can. Barney probably said something stupid – he was a jerk around women – and she shot him, without even thinking about it."

"I want to get names," I said, looking around. I caught Pete's eye, hoping he'd back me up, since he obviously wanted to keep this situation under control.

"I'm Pete," he said, attempting a smile, "in case anybody can't recognize me in the gloom." He gestured at starling. "And this is Katherine."

"My name is Lenore," said a throaty voice, "and I'm just sitting in."

She was sitting on the edge of the small platform that held the drums. Her red hair was full, and her expression was somewhat sardonic. She held a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other. It was difficult to tell in the dim light and smoke, but she looked to be older than the others, maybe in her late thirties or early forties (which appeared to be starling's age as well, as near as I could tell).

"Lenore and I are not in the band," Pete said. "We just came to jam this afternoon." He smiled a bit. "These guys are really rough on rhythm sections, so they can't hold onto one. Typical guitarists."

The taller man seemed to relax. "I'm Mac," he said. "I sing and play guitar." He was big and solid, with dark, bushy hair and a beard. He moved and spoke slowly, but I could tell he was aware of everything that happened in the room.

I was forcing myself to be calm, with indifferent success. I looked around the small room, slowly and deliberately, noting the drums and guitars and home-made speaker cabinets and so on, including the foam and carpets and perhaps other invisible layers that covered the walls. I hadn't noticed many details until then because it was difficult to take my eyes off starling. My tendency, unless I controlled it, was to glance back at her every second or so.

She hadn't murdered anybody since the founding of U-town, and I knew she was in therapy. I'd even read some reports of Ray's sessions with her, including their disagreement about whether she should continue to carry her guns. I reminded myself that if she should decide to start slaughtering all of us, it wouldn't make much difference how closely I was watching her.

And I reminded myself that they had tried to overpower her, and she had fired a gun to keep control of the situation, but that apparently she had managed to do this without injuring or killing anybody. Given her history, that must have been deliberate.

"I'm Somerset," the other man said, "Lead guitar. And I am very excited to be part of a mystery solved by the famous Jan Sleet, the great detective. But this will not be one of her incredible triumphs, because it's a stupid and obvious crime, and even I know who did it." He looked at starling and winked, but she ignored him. He was smaller than Mac, a bit taller than Pete, with rimless glasses and long, straight hair. "I do think–"

"Pete," I said, "please tell me what happened."

He sighed. "We'd been playing for a couple of hours." He held out his cigarette so starling could take a puff. "We decided to take a break. Lenore went out for a smoke, and Mac went down to the corner to get a couple of sixes. There's only one bathroom, back in the other rehearsal room. Barney was practicing back there, but he's used to people coming through to use the bathroom. Somerset went first, then he came back–"

"And I should mention, for the record," Somerset said, stretching elaborately, "that Barney was alive when I was there. I'd like to see Miss Sherlock Holmes prove–"

"Please proceed, Pete," I said. I was finding Somerset really annoying.

"I think we will all agree that Barney was alive when Somerset came back," Pete said, "since the doors were open and we could still hear him playing."

"Can I go now?" Somerset asked.

"No," starling said.

"Then Katherine went back to use the bathroom," Pete continued. "I was waiting to go after her. While she was in the bathroom, there was a gunshot."

"If she was in the bathroom," Mac said.

"When we got back there," Pete said, "right after the shot, she was standing by the bathroom door–"

"–with a gun in her hand, pulling up her pants," Somerset added.

"Keep it clean," I said, and he made a face.

"I heard the gunshot, very close," starling said suddenly. "I pulled my gun and stepped out of the bathroom. I was more concerned with survival than modesty, but I did not shoot him."

Mac was sitting with a big paper bag between his legs, and he reached in to pull out a can of beer. Lenore caught his eye and he handed one to her. Nobody else asked for one.

I held out my hand to starling. "Let me examine your gun."


"I don't want to answer questions at gunpoint," Mac said suddenly. "This isn't appropriate. It seems to me–"

I held up a hand and turned to starling. "We will figure this out," I said to her. "If you are innocent, I'm sure you want that, too. I think this will go more quickly and smoothly if you..."

It was almost funny. Somerset shifted a fraction of an inch, and starling and I both turned to face him.

"He tried to jump me before," she said. "He'll try it again, if he sees an opening."

I shook my head. "Somerset," I said, "sit up straight. Don't move again, or I will knock you out. Which beats being shot. Or I might tie you up in an uncomfortable and embarrassing position."

Somerset was obviously a smart aleck, a wise guy. Ready to take any opportunity to show off, either verbally or physically. You have to be very firm with people like that, as with some children. I was glad Ron wasn't like that, though at the moment mostly I was glad she wasn't there. If we got out of this alive, I wanted to take Pete out for a drink or dinner or something, to thank him for protecting her.

And it seemed likely that, as much as Somerset didn't like being yelled at by me, he would prefer that to being shot by starling.

"There are two rehearsal rooms," Pete explained as we walked down the hall to the murder room.

"First off, what's behind there?" I said, pointing at a big double door with a hasp and a large padlock.

Pete looked at Mac, who said, "That's where the Blaydz – the other band – that's where they store their equipment, the stuff they don't share."

I nodded as we stepped into the rear practice room. It was larger than the front room, and the equipment looked in somewhat better repair (as far as I could tell with my very limited knowledge). A logo of the name "The Blaydz," with a stylized sword behind the band's name, was stenciled on every piece of equipment.

Barney's body was lying between his drums and the window, which was open about six inches. He was stocky, with short black hair and a big beard.

"Has he been moved?" I asked.

"We rolled him over, to see if he was still alive," Pete said, "but nobody has touched him since. There was no pulse." Mac's expression indicated that even the thought of touching a corpse made him queasy.

I squatted and gave him a quick examination. There was one bullet wound that I could spot. He'd been shot from the back, probably right into his heart. The bullet had not come out.

I had three thoughts.

  1. starling was on internationally famous homicidal lunatic. Was it really likely that Barney had turned his back on her the minute after she'd unexpectedly entered the room where he was practicing?
  2. It would be pretty easy to do an autopsy to find out if the bullet matched either of starling's guns. It was not going to be so easy to defuse the situation in the other room so that we could prevent more deaths while waiting for the autopsy results.
  3. Both of starling's guns, the revolver and the automatic, were pretty big guns. I was no expert on firearms, but I was surprised that the bullet hadn't gone through him. Also, the bullet hole in his back looked smaller than I would have expected. But, of course, she might be carrying other guns.
The rehearsal space.

I turned to Pete and Mac. "Who rents the rooms?" I asked. "The same band?"

Pete looked at Mac, who said, "The whole space is rented by the Blaydz, and they usually practice in here. This is the better room. The PA is better, and there's a bathroom. They rent time in the other room to other bands; and sometimes in this room, too, when they're not using it."

"Was he here alone? What about the rest of the band?"

"He practices in here during the day. I mean, he used to."

I leaned over and looked out the window at a small, scrubby back yard. "They close the window when the whole band practices, and they put up that big baffle thing," he said. "I think Barney usually left it open. He mostly practiced with pads anyway." He gestured at the black rubber pads on the tops of most of the drums.

Barney had had his drums set up with his back to the window, but it was difficult to figure out what direction he'd been facing by the way he'd fallen, even apart from the fact that they'd rolled him over. And, of course, the padded drum stool didn't face in any particular direction. I pressed it with my fingernail and it seemed to spin easily.

So, somebody could have come up to the uncovered window and shot him, but how would you ever figure out who? And how would starling be treated while suspicion fell mostly on her? And how would she react to that?

I thought I knew the answer to the last question.

I looked around. Pete was gone. Mac was still there, watching me, but Pete had apparently returned to the other room. This was fine with me, since I had the idea that he might be helpful in keeping starling calm. The floor was carpeted, like the walls, which must have been why I hadn't heard him go.

I looked around the room again. I wasn't looking for some apparently innocuous clue (a hairpin, a dead ladybug, a tobacco stain, etc.) which might lead us directly to the killer. My employer was on her way, and if there was such a clue she would find it and figure out its significance.

What I wanted was something, some clue that would provide a reasonable doubt that starling had done it. I was confident that my employer would solve the mystery, but we had to break up the standoff in the other room or more people would die, and probably quite soon.

I opened the window all the way and leaned out. Broken concrete. Not even a chance for footprints.

I had one advantage in dealing with starling. She was in therapy, which was more or less an unofficial condition of her remaining free, and I had read some of Ray's reports on their sessions.

I did not believe that she had killed Barney in outrage at some offensive remark he might have made to her. There had been a time when she had killed people over pretty much anything, but that was no longer true. I knew of situations in U-town where she had been confronted and insulted on the street by people who had a grievance against her (real or imagined) and she had either waited patiently or walked away.

However, my tentative belief in her innocence aside, there was a lot of evidence against her, and we needed to solve this or put her in custody. Which she wouldn't stand for, I knew, and the musicians in the front room were her hostages.

But apparently she didn't want to escape, and she clearly didn't want to hurt anybody. She wanted the case to be solved, and she wanted to be able to continue to stay in U-town, which was probably the only place in the world where she could live comfortably.

Entirely too comfortably, as some people saw it, but that decision had been made over my objections.

"Interesting," my employer said, putting her hand on my shoulder as I turned away from the window. I didn't actually shriek in surprise, but I did gurgle a bit.

She smiled. "They told me a few things in the other room, but give me everything."

As usual, she leaned toward me, her ear only inches from my mouth, steadying herself with her hand on my shoulder. Her impeccable three-piece suit looked especially out of place in these surroundings.

"So, Sherlock, find anything out yet?" Somerset boomed as he came in. "Traces of clay on the victim's–"

He stopped as her cane whipped up and poked into the center of his chest, her grip on my shoulder tightening as she leaned on me to keep her balance. "Go back into the other room," she said without turning around. "You are annoying me."

Mac grabbed his arm and moved him out.

We re-entered the front room, and things appeared to be pretty much the same except that Somerset and Mac looked even more tired and disgruntled than they had before, and someone new had arrived. He was somewhat better dressed than the musicians, with dark curly hair and a nearly-trimmed beard.

"I'm Foster," he said, rising as we came in, "I manage the band. I just..." His voice trailed off as it became obvious that my employer was paying no attention to him. Instead, she went and stood in front of starling, who had apparently not moved since I'd left the room.

"Please let Marshall check your guns," my employer said.


"Katherine, I am trying to figure out a way to get through this without anybody dying. And I think that's what you want, too."

I went up to starling and said, "Point your gun at my head." She did, the muzzle about an inch from my forehead. "Now hand me the other gun and let me check it."

She nodded. Never taking her eyes off of me, she reversed her automatic and handed it to me. I pulled the magazine and checked it. "Full." I announced as I handed it back to her. "Now let me see the revolver."

Somerset chose that moment to twitch again, so she swung the automatic around and fired at his foot. He jumped, but I think she missed him, or at least just grazed his sneaker, because he stayed silent.

She pointed the automatic at my head and handed me the revolver. I spun the cylinder. "One shot fired," I said. I handed it back to her. "Do you carry any other guns?"

She nodded, swinging the revolver back into line and holstering the automatic. "Two," she said. "Pete, would you get them, please?"

Pete came over and reached into the back of her waistband and pulled out another gun, and then squatted and pulled up her jeans, taking a small gun from an ankle holster. I checked them also, and handed them back to Pete. "Fully loaded," I said.

"I need to search you," my employer said to starling.

She frowned, the revolver still pointed at my forehead. "Why?" she asked.

"To make sure you're not carrying any other guns, or any ammunition."

"What difference does it make if she has bullets?" Somerset demanded. "He got killed with–"

"You don't get your questions answered," my employer snapped at him. "You're an imbecile and your questions are puerile. Marshall, if he tries to say anything else, please stop him." She turned to starling. "May I search you? You may continue to hold your gun on my husband."

starling nodded. "Okay."

The search was very thorough, and starling did not react. Her gaze remained steady on my face, and I was sure that the slightest wrong move on my part would have resulted in a bullet through my head.

"No ammunition," my employer said. "No other guns. Now, if you're thinking that she reloaded the revolver after shooting it the first time, that would require me to believe that Katherine came here with one loose bullet in her pocket for that purpose. Since I am not an imbecile, I find that hard to believe. So, this was very likely a setup, the whole thing. Or else it was certainly a rather striking coincidence.

"So, let's say someone wanted to kill Barney – I have no idea why, – and that person wanted a scapegoat. Someone who would be blamed, someone who would not get the benefit of the doubt, someone who people would just assume was guilty. So, what can we say about this plan? That it depended entirely on Katherine's presence here today. Now, Pete, I believe you are not a part of this band. Is that true?"

He nodded, lighting a cigarette. "I am not. I just came here to jam."

"So, even Pete's participation was not a sure thing. Katherine, when Pete gets together with other musicians to play, do you always accompany him?"

She shook her head. "Not always. It depends if I feel like it, and sometimes they don't want me there."

"So, the question is who got Pete involved, and who wanted you–"

That was as far as she got. Katherine turned, picked up her coat from the floor, pulled out a large knife, grabbed Foster's hand, and slammed it against the wall. She drove the knife through his hand, pinning him to the wall.

Then, as he screamed, she stepped back, folded her arms, and looked at him.

Somebody said, "Shit!"

Lenore dropped a lit match and quickly stamped it out.

Mac swallowed as if he was about to be sick.

Somerset stood up and stepped forward, but I pushed him in the center of his chest and he sat down again. starling's guns were holstered and all of her attention seemed to be on Foster, but given how quickly she had just moved I wasn't going to take any chances.

My employer looked uncertain. She had been shocked at first. We had witnessed violence before, some far worse than this, but never anything this quick and unexpected. I had the idea that starling's facial expression hadn't even changed. She wasn't angry at Foster, though he had apparently tried to frame her for murder. Something in what my employer had been saying had told her that Foster was guilty, and this was the most efficient way of getting him to confess.

I'm sparing you a detailed description of Foster's yells, curses, screams, and unsuccessful attempts to pull the knife out of the wall. I have no idea how long this went on, probably nowhere near as long as it seemed, and starling never moved or changed expression until Foster finally yelled his admission that he had shot Barney through the window while starling was in the bathroom, knowing she would be blamed.

starling moved forward, planted her foot on the wall for leverage, and pulled the knife free.

Foster crumpled to the floor, clutching his injured hand and crying. starling picked up a dirty towel from the floor and started wiping off the knife. I moved to the door and pulled it open, yelling, "Medic!"

Two aides rushed in with their kits.

I had known, of course, that my employer hadn't arrived alone. Not with the report of a gunshot and the possible involvement of starling. She had told everybody else to wait outside while she went in and investigated.

As the medics tended to Foster, I made it clear to them that he was in custody. Lenore and Mac had pulled beer cans from the paper bag, and she was lighting a cigarette for him. They looked stunned. Somerset started to say a few things, but his heart wasn't in it and nobody paid any attention, so he stopped.

Pete picked up his bass guitar, wiped it down, and put it into its case, then he and starling moved to leave. A second after they went out, I heard a familiar voice yell, "Fuck!"

Imagining the worst, I hurried to the door, where I saw starling squatting with her hand on Ron's shoulder. She was saying, "–Marshall's daughter, aren't you? I've seen you around town. I'm Katherine. I don't think you should go in there right now. Look, here's your father."

Ron rushed over to me and hugged me, and Pete and starling walked away. I blinked in the bright sunshine, breathing in the cool autumn air. I felt like I'd been in that dark, dank space for days. Looking around, I saw Christy and a reporter from the U-town newspaper. He was about to go inside, but I motioned him over and made it clear that the article should say that starling had assisted Jan Sleet in apprehending a murderer. Which was true, after all.

I looked at Christy, who had a definite bruise under one eye.

"Lucky punch," she said.

I pointed at Ron and raised an eyebrow.

Christy nodded. "When we heard the shot, she really wanted to go in. I almost had to tie her up."

I squatted to address Ron, putting my hand on her shoulder. "Do you remember the phrase 'in loco parentis'?"

She frowned and then shrugged. "Yeah."

"When your mother and I aren't around, you need to listen to Christy, the same way you would listen to us."

She made a face. Christy had stepped inside, probably to give us some privacy, so I leaned forward and whispered, "You don't have to like her, that's up to you. But you do need to do what she says."

She was starting to look upset, so I took her in my arms again so she could bury her face in my jacket and hide her tears. "Would you?" she asked, her voice muffled.

I knew what she meant.

"I would have wanted to go in," I said softly, "just as much as you did. But if anybody had burst into that room at the wrong moment we would probably all be dead now. Christy was right."


We walked for a block or so, the three of us, and I noticed that Ron's shoulders were hunched and her hands were jammed deep in her jacket pockets. It wasn't that cold, so I knew she was wrestling with something.

She looked up at Jan. "Mom?" she asked.

Jan looked startled. Her thoughts had been far away. "Yes, dear?" she asked.

Ron looked around for a moment, then looked up again. "What's wrong?" she asked.

We had to conceal our surprise. It was the first time she had ever asked either of us about anything to do with our feelings.

"Oh, it's..." Jan said, and then her voice trailed off. She put her arm around Ron's shoulders and squeezed as we walked. "I was about to say, 'Oh, it's nothing,' but that would have been far from accurate.

"To tell the truth, Ron, I'm rehearsing an argument that your father and I are going to have later this evening."

"A disagreement," I amended.

She nodded. "A disagreement."

"About what?" Ron asked.

"About the fact that a murderer is now in custody because he was... you would have to say he was tortured into confessing. And that is wrong. Always."

Ron thought about this, then she looked at me for my side of the disagreement.

"You are not complicit if your life is under immediate threat," I said. "What was done was wrong, sickening to watch, and morally indefensible, but we didn't have any options. We were not in control of that situation."

We ended up getting takeout food and bringing it back to our room to eat. This was partly because I thought Ron had been through enough without also being subjected to a birthday celebration that she didn't want, but mostly it was because I knew she was wondering why this argument (disagreement) that her mother and I were going to have had to be done later in the evening, when she wouldn't be there.

And she was right; there was no reason to exclude her. We couldn't talk about those things in a public place, where we might be overheard, but that was a different question.

So, we sat around our small bedroom and ate Chinese food out of containers and talked about what had happened, and Jan said later that she had learned quite a lot from that talk. It had been a process, over quite a long time, for her to accept the fact that she couldn't think her way out of every situation, that some problems require more long-term solutions, if they can be solved at all.

But what Jan did not say that night was that the biggest part of learning that lesson was Ron herself. Our adopted daughter had been outside of normal life, living on the street with no friends. Then she had discovered U-town, and had found a place to live and a few friends, and then we had adopted her (or she had adopted us), and all of this had been a process of bringing her back from the wild, as it were. That was a slow and complex process, and it was still going on.

And I realized something as we talked, though I didn't say it until Jan and I were in bed together and Ron was gone to sleep in her own room with her friends. This was what Pete must be doing with starling: slowly and carefully bringing her back to human society. That was pretty clearly demonstrated in her quick transition from torturing a man into a confession to protecting Ron from seeing something that she might find upsetting.

Jan commented that this was a loose analogy at best, trying to compare our 13-year-old daughter, a former street urchin, with a mass murderer who was probably in her forties. But then I reminded her about Ron's abrupt and unprovoked attack on her own sister and her subsequent indifference to her sister's violent murder, and she conceded that there might be more of a parallel there than she had thought.

On reading this report, my employer noted that I didn't mention Foster's motive. To tell the truth, we didn't investigate this at the time. I think we were just glad the case was over, and we were both uncomfortable with how it had been resolved, but of course there was a trial and it all came out there.

Ron had wanted to know from the first night, and she had been miffed that we didn't have all the answers at our fingertips. Not that she cared why Foster had committed the crime, but she did seem to think that solving a crime without knowing the motive was sloppy workmanship.

So, we did a thorough investigation before the trial, and it became clear almost immediately that there had been a disagreement between Foster and Barney about a drug deal they had been working on together. This led us into a whole different and much more complex investigation, which I will chronicle in its own right at some point.

Barney had wanted to sell the drugs to their friends in U-town. His main concern had been breaking even and having a good time. Foster had needed cash, however, and had wanted to sell the drugs over in the city, where there was much more profit to be made, but also the chance of arrest.

However, as I said, that's another story.


the mystery of the quiet people

"Get Outta My Way! I Need to See My Dad!"

The nurse looked up, startled, as that buzz saw of a voice cut through the walls and doors between us and the reception desk.

"That's my daughter," I said, keeping my tone neutral.

She gave me a wry look. "Well, I hope she calms down when she realizes she has to wait out there until we're done."

"She'll quiet down in a minute," I said, and before the nurse could respond the door slammed open and Ron strode in.

"You can't go in there," a young aide insisted as he limped in after her.

She turned to face him, and I could hear the trembling lips and the moist eyes even though I couldn't see them.

"I'm worried about my mommy!" she quavered.

The nurse sighed and nodded, and the aide limped off.

Ron turned and came to sit beside me. "Hi, Dad," she said. "How's Mom?"

Ron had, by this point, developed the ability to know when I was giving her a pointed glance without actually having to look at me, so she stood up and walked across the small room to the nurse.

"I'm Ron," she said, holding out her hand. "I'm Jan Sleet's daughter."


"Pleased to meet you. I'm sorry to interrupt."

Lila nodded as Ron returned to sit beside me again.

We were in a small office behind the hospital admissions desk. Lila and I had been discussing the minor surgical procedure which was going to be performed on my employer.

"The operation is fairly routine," Lila said. "I've never performed it before, but I read an article about it once, and it will be good to get the hands-on experience. I've always been curious about..."

I wasn't looking at Ron, but I could feel her increasing unease as she tried to figure out whether this was a joke.

I had been pleased that she hadn't looked at me to bail her out of trouble. This was one of the few rules we'd laid down when we'd adopted her. Yes, her parents were important in U-town and her mother was famous, but this didn't entitle her to any special privileges.

Her life on her own had trained her to take any possible advantage she could grab, and it had been a new idea for her to refrain from seizing on this one. But we presented it to her seriously, the three of us sitting quietly, and we explained why this was wrong, and she took it to heart. And, when she did slip up, we calmly reminded her (and never in public, of course).

I caught Lila's eye and tilted my head a bit to one side, raising my eyebrows, conveying (I hoped), "Hasn't this gone on long enough?"

She smiled. "I'm joking, obviously." Ron nodded seriously, as if of course we'd all known this all along.

When Ron and I were done with Lila we went back out to the reception area, which was quite crowded. Mona, the nurse I usually worked with when I did my shifts at the hospital, wasn't there on Saturdays. If she had been, I would have felt I should start processing forms or talking to patients and families.

Ron was frowning , and I knew she was more worried than she would ever have admitted.

"Did you get caught in the rain?" I asked her.

She frowned. "It's not raining."

I inclined my head toward the waiting room, where the sound of heavy rain was audible through the windows.

I had brought my employer to the hospital early in the morning, but Ron had come later because there was mail delivery on Saturday.

I mention that this took place on a Saturday because it made a difference later on.

There was a woman waiting at the reception desk. She was drenched, with her blouse clinging to her and her hair dripping down her neck. She saw that she would have to wait for at least a minute or two, so she pulled off her blouse. She used it to dry her hair and her torso, then she took a T-shirt from her shoulder bag and slipped it on, draping the wet blouse over her bag to dry.

I could hear Ron make a gurgling sound as she absorbed this. I put a hand on her shoulder. "Come on," I said, steering her toward the stairs. I knew that I wanted to postpone her comment, whatever it was going to be, until we were alone.

We came out of the stairwell on the second floor and nearly ran into Christy.

"Oh," she said. She smiled, but I could tell she was uncomfortable seeing us. "You're not sick, I hope," she said quickly. "Is everything okay? I know this isn't your usual day to volunteer." She stuck her hands in the pockets of her leather jacket.

"I'm here with Jan. She's okay, just a minor procedure."

"Me, too," she said, turning away. "I've got to run," she said over her shoulder. "See you soon." She trotted off down a hall.

"What's up with her?" Ron demanded.

"Well, on one hand," I began slowly, "I know you and Christy aren't close, so I don't think I should be telling you her secrets. On the other hand, I don't know any secrets to tell you. She hasn't confided anything to me. I could make an educated guess, but that's all it would be. On the other hand, if I'm right, it isn't anything to be ashamed of."

She shook her head. "If Mom was here, she'd tell you that's too many hands."

I stopped. "What?"

She held up her (two) hands, and I got it. I laughed, and she smiled briefly. "You are your mother's daughter," I said. I patted her on the back. "Come on, we should see how she's doing."

We opened the door to my employer's room and it seemed like a cloud of smoke billowed out into the hall. We groped our way inside and I closed the door. Ron coughed a couple of times.

"I'll open the window a little bit," I said. It was still raining outside but there wasn't much wind, and I thought the rain wouldn't come in if I raised the window a couple of inches. I did notice that it was not coming down as hard as it had been a few minutes before.

My employer was sitting up in bed, several medical textbooks open beside her. She was making notes on a pad. There was a man in the one comfortable chair, wearing a three-piece suit with his tie loosened and his collar open. His beard was gray and he appeared to be around sixty. They were both smoking pipes.

"This is Doctor Oliveira," she said absently, gesturing as she used her magnifier to study a diagram in one of the books. "He'll be performing the procedure."

I held out my hand. "Marshall O'Connor," I said. "And this is Ron, our daughter." The doctor shook my hand, and then half-rose to shake Ron's.

"This is fascinating," my employer said, making a few more notes.

"Miss Sleet is a very well informed patient," the doctor said as I pulled over the straight-backed chair from the other side of the room.

Ron looked uncertain, but Jan patted the bed. "Please sit by me," she said. Ron climbed onto the bed and Jan squeezed her arm.

"I always try to spend some time with my patients," the doctor said, "both before and after the surgery."

Jan looked at us with a wry smile. "He was just commenting that he'd never met a civilian with so much medical information, all of it focused on different ways life could be ended."

"It's as if she went to some Satanic medical school which had the opposite goal of the one I attended. If I didn't know she was a detective, I'd be worried." He looked at his watch. "Well, this is all very pleasant," he said, "but I expect there's some sort of schedule we should be adhering to. I should probably examine my patient."

I nodded and stood up. "Come on," I said to Ron, and we went out into the hall. As we left, I heard my employer asking a question about something in one of the books she was studying. I had a feeling that the examination would probably have to wait until she'd received a satisfactory answer.

If Ron hadn't been there I would have stayed in the room, but I knew that she would have been very uncomfortable. Not only because Jan was her mother, but Ron's rule in general was that everybody should keep their clothes on at all times.

Which reminded me of something. I motioned at a couple of plastic chairs and we went and sat down.

"Ron," I said, "we should talk about that woman at the reception desk."

She cringed. "We don't have to. It's okay."

"No, it's no problem, and you were obviously upset. And you may see more of that sort of thing now that the weather is getting warmer."

"People are gonna start taking their clothes off?" she demanded. "In public?"

"Maybe. It wouldn't surprise me."

"But she... she took off her shirt!" She was whispering, looking around to make sure nobody could overhear. "In front of all of those people! She–" She stopped herself, clearly wanting to further delineate what the woman had exposed, and why this was unacceptable, but unable to even say the words.

"Well, it is uncomfortable to stand around in wet clothes..." I was being reasonable, but I knew that she needed something else. However, before I could figure out how to proceed, a nurse popped his head around a corner, spotted me, and hurried in our direction. "We have a problem," he said. "I want to ask Miss Sleet–"

I grabbed his arm and held him since he appeared to be about to barge into the room. He was tall, blond, and gangly, the kind of guy who always looks like he'd just dropped in from the farm.

"She's busy!" Ron snapped, stepping between him and the door.

"What was this–" I began, then I heard the sound of a gunshot and shattering glass from inside my employer's room.

I shoved the nurse out of the way and ran into the room, a step behind Ron. My employer and the doctor were both on the floor, with the bed between them and the broken window.

"Check them!" I said as I ran to the window, mostly to keep Ron out of the line of fire if there was going to be another shot.

I pulled down the shades on both windows as my employer called, "Be careful!"

I had closed the door behind me but I could see it opening as I turned. "Stay out!" I said, but it continued to open further and I could see the blond nurse looking in. "Keep them out!" I said. Ron ran and threw her shoulder against the door, slamming it shut.

The doctor had rolled onto his back by then, and I saw that some of the burning tobacco from his pipe had ended up on his vest. I quickly brushed it off and I asked if he was okay.

He drew in a deep breath as I helped my employer to stand. "I have no idea what just happened," he said slowly.

My employer sat on the edge of the bed. "Someone shot through the window," she said, fumbling on the bedside table for her cigarettes. "I grabbed you and threw you on the floor."

"Ah," he said, nodding slowly. "I see. So, do we think this is likely to happen again?" He was staring at the ceiling, making no effort to move.

She drew in a deep breath and let it out as I lit her cigarette. "No way to tell. I know as little as you do."

Ron was still holding the door closed, explaining her reasoning to those outside with an impressive stream of profanity.

"One thing," I said to my employer. "Christy is here in the hospital, for medical reasons. It's possible we could grab her before–"

She nodded. "We could use her help. If possible." I wondered if Christy was armed.

"Also," I continued, "a nurse came up to me, right before the shot, and he said there was some sort of 'problem'–"

"Bring him in."

I went to the door and let the nurse in, then I took Ron to the other side of the room so we could talk while my employer questioned the nurse.

"I'm going to ask you to do something," I said quietly, "and it has to be done very carefully. Okay?" She nodded. "You saw where Christy went? Around the other side of the big desk and down the hall to the right?" She nodded again. "There's a small waiting room there, at the end of that hall. If Christy is there, please tell her we need her. I'll make sure the procedure is rescheduled. If she's not there, ask quietly at the desk. If she's being prepped, or if she's with the doctor, just come back. We want her help if we can get it, but I'm not going to pull her out if things are already in motion. Make sense?"

"Yeah," she said. "Sure. What if she's done?"

"She won't be. It hasn't been that long."

Ron left, shouting as she went out, "Back off! You can't fucking go in until I say so!"

I turned my attention to the interrogation of the nurse. I had just learned that the "problem" was that there was a gun missing from the lockup room, but then there was a brisk knock on the door and I heard an unexpected voice call, "Mr. O'Connor! Miss Sleet! Can I be of any assistance?"

I went to the door and opened it, admitting Father Frank, who we had met during the church mystery. At that moment I was glad to see any familiar face, especially if it belonged to somebody who might be calm during a crisis and who was probably not a sniper.

"Father Frank," I said, shaking his hand. "Thank God."

"So to speak," my employer added from behind me and Father Frank smiled.

"What's happened?" he asked. "What can I do?"

I turned and saw that the doctor was sitting up, his back resting against the chair. He didn't look like he was planning to move any further any time soon, but then the chair slid slowly away from him and he subsided to the floor again.

"Someone shot through this window," my employer said. "The courtyard outside is fully enclosed, with hospital buildings on all sides, and it's almost certainly deserted, or nearly so, because of the rain. But we need to find out what happened." It showed how rattled she was that she was wasting time telling the priest things that he already knew. "Father, could you talk to someone from the staff and have them check the courtyard? I don't imagine the gunman is still there, but there may be footprints if we move quickly enough."

"Have them send hospital security," I said. "He or she may still be out there."

"I'll check and let you know," he said and left.

"Why do you think the gunman was down in the courtyard," I asked my employer, "as opposed to in the building across the way?"

She pointed up at the ceiling. "The bullet hole," she said. I saw the black mark on the dirty ceiling tile. "The bottom of the window was shattered, and the bullet hit up there. He must have been down at ground level."

I should explain that my employer was not jumping to the conclusion that the shot had been fired by a man. She was old-fashioned enough that she believed in referring to a person of undetermined gender as male.

The nurse had been waiting for an opening. "Miss Sleet," he said quickly, before she could ask him another question, "can I check–"

"No," she said sharply. "Please forgive me if I am brusque, but I have just been shot at. The doctor and I are fine, but we are both rather shaken up. I've been shot at before, but I am not used to it. I don't suppose you ever... but never mind."

Ron came back in. I went over to her as she closed the door, and she said, "Christy was..." She frowned.

"Busy," I said, and she nodded.

The door opened again and Father Frank came back in. Ron suddenly got a very strange expression on her face, which I didn't have time to think about right then.

"There is a dead body in the courtyard," Father Frank said quietly. "You can see it from any window on this side of the building." I pulled up the curtain and he pointed as he continued. "It's a young man, a patient here at the hospital. I have heard that he is dead, and that there's a gun on the ground near him. Security is investigating."

My employer had jumped off the bed and moved to the window. She didn't have her cane, which was on the floor on the other side of the bed, near the doctor, so I steadied her as she looked out.

The body was in a far corner of the courtyard, dressed in a hospital gown and half covered with mud. At that distance we couldn't see the gun, if there was one.

"I need to see this," my employer said, turning quickly and nearly losing her balance. "I hope–"

"They are not going near the body any more," Father Frank said, "now that they are sure he is beyond help."

"Jan," I said sharply as she moved toward the door. She turned impatiently. "It is cold and it has just finished raining. The ground will be wet, and you're not dressed for going out." I gestured at her bare feet.

She frowned, about to protest that she had to investigate the crime scene while the traces were fresh, but then she nodded. "Of course," she said. "Ron, will you bring me my shoes, please? They're in that small closet."

And so, the great detective strode forth, after a short delay, dressed in a flannel nightgown (she wouldn't wear a hospital gown), a thin robe, and calf-high leather boots, accompanied by her loyal assistant, their charming daughter, and, of all things, a priest.

No three-piece suit, no carefully-folded display handkerchief, not even a necktie.

I steadied my employer as she squatted to examine the corpse. From what I could see, he was male, maybe in his late teens; thin, white, with a shaved head and a pale, wispy goatee; dressed in a hospital gown. I was holding the gun, a very small automatic. I had picked it up with a pencil in the barrel in case we wanted to check it for fingerprints, but it had been half buried in mud, so I wasn't sure if any prints would still be recoverable.

When my employer was done, she looked around at the muddy ground again, then she looked up at the nurse who had found the body. "Where did you stand when you were examining him?" she asked.

"Just where you are now," she replied.

"And you came out through that door, where Father Frank is?"

She nodded. "I had seen him though that window there. I thought he'd become disoriented and wandered outside."

"Was he disoriented?"

She shrugged. "I have no idea. He wasn't my patient."

It had stopped raining and we were the only people in the large courtyard. Father Frank was at the closest door, discouraging people from coming outside. I had asked him to do this, since he would almost certainly be more diplomatic than Ron had been earlier. This was why it had been lucky that the murder had happened on a Saturday, since that was the day Father Frank and his congregation did their volunteering at the hospital. It was not the same as having Christy's help, but it was far better than nothing.

Occasionally we saw one of the other doors open and somebody start to come out, but Ron discouraged this by her usual combination of bellowing and profanity. I had tried a couple of times to convince her that the bellowing might be just as effective without the profanity, but I had not succeeded.

Of course, there was also a downside to Ron's parade-ground voice, which was that she was attracting a lot of attention. There were faces in many of the windows, and I knew it was only a matter of time before we were overrun with staff, volunteers, patients, and visitors, all wondering what was going on with the dead body and the famous detective in the hospital courtyard.

The U-town Hospital

Despite my employer's impatience, it had not been difficult to convince her to walk around through the hospital corridors rather than going directly across the courtyard. The soggy ground would have been particularly challenging for her to navigate with her cane, and she hadn't wanted to appear on the crime scene to begin her investigation covered in mud.

It was at this point, as my employer lifted the corpse's feet to examine them, that I realized Ron was no longer with us. I looked around, somewhat alarmed. It was not that I thought she was in any danger, but in a situation like this I was nervous about what she would get up to.

"Interesting," my employer said as I helped her back to her feet. "I need to talk to whoever was treating him, and whoever is here with him – family and friends – and I need to see his chart. And I need to look at the..."

Her voice trailed off as the door opened and Ron appeared, coming toward us carrying what appeared to be a very large quilt. It dwarfed her, and she was working hard to keep any part of it from trailing on the muddy ground. "I got you a coat, Mom," she said.

The challenge at these moments was to keep our faces from betraying how amazed we were at this behavior. Ron was not given to acts of kindness, but it would have been rude (and it would have made her self-conscious) to point this out. She was not selfish, at least in my view; she simply expected everybody, including herself, to be completely self-reliant.

I took the coat from Ron and helped Jan get into it. We thanked Ron, but I know we were both wondering where she had acquired this coat, and when we might be hearing from its rightful owner.

Ron's appearance with the coat complicated things for my employer. She had been ready to go inside and start to meet the people connected with the victim. But to put on the coat and then immediately go in, taking the coat off again, would have made it seem that Ron's effort had been wasted.

So, my employer reined in her impatience and started to go over the ground again, looking carefully at the little puddles and gullies that might have once been footprints. All of which she had examined very carefully already.

"Miss Sleet?" the nurse asked tentatively, glancing up to call attention to the fact that it was starting to rain again.

My employer turned. "Yes? Oh, of course. Please have somebody take the body inside. I need an autopsy as soon as possible. Come along, Ron, let's get in out of this rain."

A few minutes later, we were in a very small room with a large number of people. The room was intended to provide privacy when somebody from the hospital wanted to talk to a patient's family or friends, so it only had three chairs, and the window was frosted glass. I'm not sure what the thinking had been behind the frosted glass, but it was good in this situation because otherwise we would have been looking out on the muddy ground where the young man had died.

I had been hoping that Father Frank would realize that his usefulness was diminishing, if not actually over, but he continued to stay, even though there was barely any room for him to fit into the room with us. Also, his presence was still making Ron edgy, and it was unlikely anything good was going to come from that.

It was funny, though, standing there between my employer and the priest. Father Frank's demeanor suggested a deep but unobtrusive sadness that a fellow human being had died. My employer looked like a hunting dog pointing.

We had tried to find a larger room for this conference, but the hospital was very full that day. My employer had only been able to get her private room by pulling rank. The room we were in now was across the hall from the room where the victim had been shot. That room was larger, but it was still being cleaned.

The U-town Hospital (detail)

Doctor James, a small, impatient woman, had immediately taken over the presentation of the basic facts of the case, partly because the family members were upset but mostly because she had more important things to do and wanted to get it over with. As she explained, briefly, she had determined that the victim was dead, discharging her obligation to the corpse, and now she had living patients who needed her help.

She looked at the clipboard in her hand. "His name was Scott Duncan–"

"Scotty," his mother murmured.

Dr. James ignored this and plowed ahead. "He was seventeen years old, admitted last night after he passed out in a hallway at his dorm. We've been running tests, but it was apparently malnutrition. I came on shift this morning and I had not seen him yet, though of course I did read his chart."

My employer held out her hand."May I see it?"

Dr. James pulled it from under the clipboard and handed it over without pausing. "It's all there. May I go now? I will, of course, be in the hospital for the rest of the day and probably into the evening." She paused as my employer kept on reading, then she said, "You're noting his prior admission to the hospital, last summer." Then, as the family reacted to this, she slipped out of the room and quietly closed the door behind her.

"Last summer?" Scott's mother said sharply. "That's ridiculous. He wasn't here–"

"Please," Father Frank said, stepping forward. "We should start with introductions. I'm Father Frank, and I want to offer my condolences on the loss of your son."

"It seems to me–" one of the men began, but he was interrupted.

"Where are the police?" Scott's mother demanded. "I want to talk to somebody official, not a priest and an escaped lunatic." She frowned at my employer's rather unusual attire.

Both Father Frank and my employer started to respond, but neither got out one word.

"Don't be stupid! She's Jan Sleet, she's the best detective in the world, and she's going to find out who killed your kid, so shut up and let her do it! Fuck!"

The older and grayer of the two men was standing somewhat behind the others, and I could see him smile a little at Ron's outburst, but of course nobody on his side of the room could see his reaction.

I squeezed Ron's shoulder after she was done, hoping to convey that, at this moment at least, she should stay quiet.

"I must apologize for my daughter's language," my employer said smoothly. "Please accept my condolences as well on the death of your son. I am Jan Sleet, and in addition to having some experience in solving mysteries I am one of the administrators of U-town. So, I apologize for appearing en deshabille, but I can assure you that nobody in U-town is more official than I am. As a matter of fact, I am dressed this way because I got up out of a hospital bed myself in order to catch your son's killer. This is my assistant, Marshall, and my daughter, Ron."

She did not introduce Father Frank. He had introduced himself, of course, and she wanted to make it clear that he was here on his own, not connected with her.

She had noted, as I had, that after Ron's outburst the priest had been about to apologize, to smooth things over, to normalize the situation, and to chastise Ron, in an appropriately priestly way, for yelling at the family of a recently-murdered boy. But then he had caught my expression and had taken a step back, bumping into the wall. He had seen, obviously, that if he had criticized my daughter in front of me I'd have picked him up and thrown him out of the room, collar or no collar. And yes, they were bereaved, and they did have my sympathy, but we were there to find a killer, and I'd have given pretty good odds that the killer was in the room with us at that moment.

So, we finally got introductions.

Scott's mother was Mrs. Jaffee. She was in one of the two occupied chairs, her purse on her lap. Her expression indicated that everything she'd seen recently could have used a good cleaning. She was wearing a dress, a collared blouse, some unobtrusive jewelry, and (at least in my opinion – and remember it was a very small room) too much perfume.

One of the men with her was Tom Jaffee, her husband. He was dressed in a suit and tie, and he appeared to be a few years younger than his wife. The older man was Nathaniel Skinner, their attorney. He was wearing a suit and tie also, of a much higher quality than Tom Jaffee's, and he had a briefcase.

The fourth person on the family side of the room, in the other occupied chair, was a teenage girl. Unlike the Jaffees and their lawyer, she was obviously a native. She was small, not much bigger than Ron, with dyed black hair and several earrings. She was dressed entirely in black, and the pin on the lapel of her leather jacket showed that she was a hospital volunteer. She said her name was Debra. She didn't give a last name, but she volunteered that she had been Scott Duncan's girlfriend, which provoked the usual protests from Mrs. Jaffee.

My employer held up a hand as she lowered herself into the third chair. "We're not going to get anywhere if every statement becomes the subject of a debate. Everybody will get a chance to speak, you can be sure about that. Debra, why don't you tell us, briefly, how you knew Scott Duncan, and what you observed today?"

"Okay." She looked around. "Does anybody have a cigarette? I ended up working a double–"

"This is a hospital!" Mrs. Jaffee said scornfully. "You can't smoke–" She stopped and made a face as I pulled out my employer's cigarette case. Debra and Jan took cigarettes and I lit them.

Father Frank coughed, murmured something, and left. He was a smoker himself, so I knew this was just a polite excuse. My employer thanked him for his help as he closed the door. Ron folded her arms and leaned back against the wall. Her expression as she regarded the four people on the other side of the room indicated that she didn't believe in the concept "innocent until proven guilty."

"Scott was in U-town last summer," Debra said, drawing the smoke deep into her lungs. "He came across the bridge after he checked out a couple of colleges in the city. He stayed overnight, and that's when he tried to kill himself. I was working here that night and we patched him up. The doctor said maybe he didn't want to die. Apparently he did it really badly."

"How did he do it?"

"Oh, he slit his wrists, or anyway he cut them."

"I must say," Mrs. Jaffee put in, "that Scotty never mentioned a girlfriend to me."

"He did mention you to me, but I won't go into that."

"Do I have to sit here–" Mrs. Jaffee began, but Mr. Skinner took a step forward.

"May I ask a question, Miss Sleet?" he asked.

She looked up, somewhat surprised. "Yes, of course."

"Perhaps I can help clarify the situation. The suicide attempt last summer is a matter of record, is it not?"

"It is." She held up Scott's chart.

"Is there any reason, other than self-denial, that he would have been suffering from malnutrition last night?"

"No. Nobody goes hungry here if they want to eat."

"I've heard that. So, a young man is suicidal, he starves himself, and he passes out. He is taken to a hospital, but he does not want to be treated, he does not want to recover, and he ends his own life." He turned to Mrs. Jaffee and said, "I'm sorry, Amelia, but it has to be asked." He turned back to my employer. "Miss Sleet, why do you think this was murder?"

"I strongly suspect that it was murder, though I do not know for sure. The scenario you propose leaves two significant questions unanswered. But I am not certain, and in a few minutes I will send Marshall to try to get the answer to one of those questions. The other question has only one answer that I can imagine, but we'll get to that presently." She turned to Mrs. Jaffee's husband. "Mr. Jaffee, may I ask you a few questions?"

He was surprised. "Yes, of course."

"What time did you arrive here at the hospital this morning?"

"Around eleven, I believe. We met Mr. Skinner in the city and then we came over the bridge together. We–"

"The bridge was blocked so we had to leave the car, and we couldn't find a cab, so we had to walk," Mrs. Jaffee added.

The distance from the bridge to the hospital was all of eight or nine blocks and they all appeared to be healthy, but I didn't say anything.

"And when you got here?" my employer asked Mr. Jaffee.

"We went to the desk and told them Scott's name. Someone directed us here, to the room across the hall."

"Did you talk to a doctor or anybody else from the hospital?"

"No. We tried to, but everybody was really busy. We decided that we'd see Scott first, and then try to talk to a doctor afterwards."

"So, you went to the room..."

"Scott seemed to be okay, but he was very tired. He said it must have been food poisoning, but he'd lost a lot of weight. Then someone came in to take blood and we asked if there was a room where we could talk, and they directed us here."

"And where were you when the first shot was fired?"

"In here. Well..."

"I had gone out to make a phone call," Mrs. Jaffee said. "I wanted to call our doctor. This place doesn't seem professional to me. But none of the phones in those booths out there worked."

"I know. We don't have telephone service."

"How can you people live this way?"

"Quite happily, though it isn't for everybody. Mr. Jaffee–"

"That coat," Mrs. Jaffee said quietly, "the one you were wearing before." She gestured at where it was hanging on the back of the door. "It was stuffed into one of those phone booths. I thought at first that somebody had passed out in there."

"Indeed," my employer said, her eyes widening. "Which booth?" She leaned forward.

"The first one, closest to this room." I had seen the three booths, between the little conference room and the main hallway.

"Ron, is that where you found the coat?"

She nodded. "Yeah. Nobody was using it. I thought it was okay to take it."

"It was more than okay, dear." She turned her attention back. "What did you do when you found that none of the phones worked?"

"I went to the main desk, down the hall, and demanded to use their phone. They said they didn't have one. I guess that was when Scotty was shot, because I didn't hear anything. When I got back, he was already outside. In the mud..." Mr. Jaffee put his hand on her shoulder and she squeezed it. My employer waited a moment until Mrs. Jaffee nodded, indicating that she was ready to continue.

"Mr. Skinner and I were in this room the whole time," Mr. Jaffee said. "We heard a noise – I guess it was the shot – but wasn't very loud and we didn't think much about it."

"It was a very small gun, muffled by a pillow," my employer said. "And this building is quite old, the oldest of the four buildings of the hospital, and the walls are thick. By the way, the use of the pillow is a minor indication that this was not suicide, since suicides almost never do that. Why would they? Murderers do, however, for obvious reasons. But that's an indication; it's obviously not conclusive." She looked at all three of them, the Jaffees and the lawyer. "If I may ask: your son is in the hospital, you rush to see him, that's all very natural, but why did you bring Mr. Skinner?"

"He's a family friend," Mr. Jaffee said with an uneasy shrug.

"That might explain his presence, but not the meeting the three of you were having in this room."

There was a moment's silence after that, then Debra said, "I'll tell you why." She gave me a half smile and I offered her another cigarette, which she accepted. "They were worried about the money."

There was another brief silence.

"Money?" my employer asked. "What money would that be?"

Debra started to reply, but Mrs. Jaffee looked up at Mr. Skinner. "Tell them," she said.

He nodded. "Mr. Stephen Duncan was Mrs. Jaffee's first husband. They had one child, Scott Duncan. Mr. Duncan died when Scott was around two years old. His will left one half of his estate, which was substantial, to his widow. The other half was held in trust for Scott until he turned eighteen."

"Who was the executor?"

"I am the executor. I was Mr. Duncan's attorney, and he and I were good friends."

"And Scott was seventeen?"

"Yes, his birthday would have been in about three weeks."

"And so the money goes..."

"According to the terms of his father's will–"

"It goes to me," Mrs. Jaffee said. "All of it."

Debra looked up, smoke swirling around her face. "Anything else you need to know?"

My employer shook her head. "I'm sorry, Debra, this still doesn't explain the meeting between the Jaffees and Mr. Skinner." She looked at the Jaffees. "You didn't know he was going to be killed, you didn't know he might have been starving himself, and you can't even have known he was in the hospital, because as you've mentioned we have no phone service and he was only admitted late last night. So, you came to see him for your own reasons, with your attorney. You probably went to the dormitory first, and they told you he had passed out and been brought here."

Mr. Jaffee looked at his wife. "Look, she's as good as Scott always said she was. We need to tell her–"

"Wait a minute," my employer said, leaning forward again. "We'll come back to the other, but I have to ask this. Scott talked about me?"

"He was your biggest fan," Debra said, rolling her eyes. "He followed your cases all the time, and he really had the hots for you. I think that's why he wanted to–"

"Fuck!" Ron exploded. "Then why–" but Jan whipped around in her chair and held up a finger, and Ron immediately fell silent.

She turned back and faced the others again. "Let's table that for now. Why were you here?"

"We were..." Mr. Jaffee began, but Debra interrupted.

"They were afraid he was going to join the quiet people."

"Indeed," my employer said slowly. She leaned back and I gave her another cigarette and lit it for her. She looked up at me. "What do we know about them?" She was such an ardent atheist that she sometimes liked to pretend that she couldn't tell one religion from another.

"We don't know much," I said. "'The quiet people' is what other people call them, but they don't use the term themselves. In fact, they deny that they are even an organized group. They first appeared last summer, more or less. The only way they distinguish themselves is that they all dress the same way: plain, handmade clothes, all dark gray, with sandals and a particular type of head covering, also handmade. There seem to be thirty or forty of them. They live in a few communal situations, not all together. As for what they believe, or why or how they are organized, we have no idea. They live very simply, and, literally, quietly. They seldom speak."

"And they usually give away their money, if they have any," Debra said. "Which is what they were afraid of."

"We were worried about my son getting into some sort of cult," Mrs. Jaffee said. "His last two letters were very disturbing." She faced Debra. "Are you part of this–"

The girl rolled her eyes and tugged at the lapel of her jacket. "I'm wearing leather, I'm smoking a cigarette, I'm wearing makeup, and my hair is dyed." She looked at me. "Is that what they do?"

"Not as far as we know, no. None of those things. They usually shave their heads, as a matter of fact. As Scott's was."

My employer used her cane to get to her feet. "We're ready to proceed," she said. "Marshall, may I talk to you out in the hall for a minute? I need to have you run an errand for me, as I said. Ron, keep an eye on things here while we're outside, but please try not to hurt anybody."

As we closed the door behind us, we heard Mrs. Jaffee demanding to know how many times Debra had slept with patients she'd been treating at the hospital, but she used a more descriptive term than "slept with."

Christy was in the hallway, standing by the nearest of the three phone booths. She was dressed as usual, in a leather jacket, a black T-shirt, a black skirt, and boots. Her red hair was tied back, and her face was pale and tense.

She was holding a man by the scruff of the neck. "He was trying to listen at the door," she said. "I know you were in there with the family, so I held him out here."

"Thank you, Christy," my employer said. She turned to the man and smiled. "Sparky, how are you?"

"Oh, just fine, ma'am." He didn't sound convincing.

"What happened to your eye?" He had a black eye, and a small bandage in front of his ear.

"Just a couple of stitches," he said. "Bastard got in a lucky punch. You know, it's kind of a funny thing. I was upstairs, getting this fixed up, when suddenly somebody runs in and says that there's a dead body in the courtyard and Jan Sleet is on the case. Well, we ran to the window, of course, and I saw you. And I saw your kid bring you a coat. And I remember saying, 'Hey, I've got a coat just like that.' I thought it was just a funny coincidence, an oddity. But then, when I went to the lockup, my coat was gone."

"So, you came to get it back. Quite reasonable."

"Exactly. And I didn't want to interrupt you, of course, so I was waiting out here." He smiled. "I do sort of want my coat back, though, if that's okay."

"Hang on," I said. I could hear the muffled sounds of yelling from inside the room, but it got a lot louder when I opened the door for a second and reached in to grab the coat from the hook on the back of the door. I was glad that I didn't hear Ron's voice. She was apparently watching rather than participating. Good for her.

The sound became muffled again as I closed the door and handed the coat to Sparky. He put it on and felt in the pockets, looking sheepish.

"Where did you leave the coat?" I asked. "And what was in the pocket?"

"I left it in the lockup. And..." He looked around uneasily.

I pulled the small pistol from my pocket, wrapped now in a handkerchief. I showed it to him. "Is this your gun?"

"Well, maybe," he said. "It could be. It looks kind of familiar. I could be wrong, though. Why do you ask?"

"It was used in the murder," my employer said. "Which I'm pretty sure you didn't commit. But you can't have it back. Come to the office tomorrow afternoon and we'll see."

Sparky hustled off as my employer told me what she wanted. I nodded and said, "I'd like Ron to come with me, if you can spare her."

She smiled. "Christy, can you give me a hand? We've missed your help until now."

Christy nodded. "That's why I'm here."

"I'll send Ron out in a minute." My employer opened the door and stepped inside the room, closing the door after her. The yelling stopped the minute she went in.

"How are you?" I asked Christy.

Jan's head poked out. "Hug her if you're going to. I promise not to tell Ron." She closed the door again.

Christy and I both smiled and I gave her a good hug. "Are you okay?" I asked quietly.

She attempted a smile, then she shook her head. "No, not really."

I nodded and hugged her again. "We'll talk later, when this is over."

She nodded. "I'd like that."

Jan poked her head out again, motioning with an impish smile that we should step a bit farther away from each other. Then Ron came out. She looked up at Christy.

"Hey," she said.

Christy smiled. "Hey." She went into the room and closed the door.

Ron's greeting to Christy had been pretty low key, but it was actually a big step up from her usual practice of ignoring Christy's existence completely.

Ron and I set out on our mission. It had stopped raining again, but it was getting cold and I zipped up my coat, and Ron buttoned her denim jacket. She didn't really believe in temperature – she wore the same sneakers, jeans, sweatshirt and jacket every single day – but when it was cold she did make this one concession.

We walked in companionable silence. I walked her to school almost every day, sometimes in silence and sometimes in conversation. She would never have admitted it, but she really minded it the few days I was too busy.

After we had walked a few blocks, I said, "I have to ask, Ron. Why were you so nervous when Father Frank was with us? Have you been writing graffiti on his church again?"

She looked up. "No!" she protested.

I believed her. "Then why so nervous?"

She looked down. "It's nothing."

I waited. I didn't need to make the inevitable argument, which was that her mother, the great detective, could find out if she wanted to.

She made a face. "If I tell you, you'll tell Mom, and then she'll be mad at me."

"I'll use my judgment about telling her."

We walked another block.

"Okay," she said. "I go talk to him sometimes. Not about God, I told him that God stuff was no good, but about other stuff. School and things."

"Did you start after you helped him clean off the church that time?"

"Yeah." She looked up. "Are you mad?"

I smiled and squeezed her shoulder. "No, of course not. You can have whatever friends you want, and you don't have to sneak around and try to keep it a secret. I won't tell your mother, because you asked me not to, but she wouldn't be mad either."

"She doesn't like anything to do with God."

"True, but Father Frank is a person, not just a priest. He was helping us today, because Christy was busy." I pointed ahead. "We're here."

An aide approached Ron and me as we re-entered the hospital and told us that my employer and the suspects had moved across the hall to the room where Scott Duncan had died (of course, she didn't refer to them as "the suspects"). It turned out that we didn't need the heads-up, though, because as we entered the short hallway we heard Mrs. Jaffee shouting, "How can you people live this way?"

My employer thundered, "And how can you be so arrogant that you go to visit a foreign country and you don't bother to learn anything about it in advance? Now be quiet and let me solve the murder of your son."

Ron charged for the door, ready to do battle on behalf of her adopted mother, but I grabbed her arm and held her back. "Ron!" I whispered sharply. She turned, her face flushed, and I squatted, pulling her to me. "Remember what I told you before," I said. "Never get upset during an investigation."

"But she's yelling at Mom!" she whispered back.

"Your mother has handled that and far worse. She may well have provoked it to see what would happen. Also, Mrs. Jaffee has just lost her only child. That's enough to get anybody upset and irrational. Plus, there's the fact that she's clearly a nincompoop."

That got a smile out of her. I gave her a quick hug and stood up. "Calm and ready?" I asked.

"Yeah," she said. She squeezed my hand, so quickly that I wasn't completely sure it had happened.

I knocked on the door, and my employer came out. "Did you find her?" she asked.

"Sure did," Ron said.

Jan chuckled and looked at me. I told her what we had learned, and then I added, "Once we told her what had happened she was more than willing to return, even though she just finished a fourteen-hour shift a couple of hours ago."

She looked around. "So, where is she?"

"She was eating," Ron said. "She's coming when she's done."

"It may be a few more minutes," I added. "She hadn't eaten all night, and she had a lot of breakfast to work her way through."

"I'm hungry," Ron said quietly. And then her eyes widened as Dr. James appeared coming down the corridor, followed by an aide wheeling a cart with a huge platter of sandwiches on it.

"They're not all for you," I murmured.

"I heard the yelling in there," Dr. James explained as the aide opened the door and wheeled the tray inside (Ron and I grabbing sandwiches as they went past). "It's blood sugar, that's why people get upset like that. Just blood sugar."

And so, after a few sandwiches were consumed (Mrs. Jaffee took some convincing, and her husband and lawyer refrained from eating until she took one, but then they ate as well), my employer gathered the suspects. The room where Scott Duncan had been shot was much larger than the small room where we had been before, which was good because we had more people now and everybody wouldn't have fit into the other room. And certainly the cramped conditions in there would have made it difficult for my employer to walk around and dominate the proceedings.

The Jaffees, Mr. Skinner, Debra, and Christy were there, along with Dr. James and Father Frank. We had been joined by two new people as well. One was Dr. Warren, who ran the hospital. The other was Francine, who had been in charge the night before.

Francine had been the person Ron and I had gone to see. We had not found her at her apartment, but, on a hunch, we had visited the coffee shop across the street. We had found her there, eating a huge breakfast, hungry after a long and difficult shift. I had asked her the question my employer wanted answered, she had answered it, and then I had told her what had happened the night before. After that, it had not been difficult to persuade her to come back to the hospital. In fact, she had insisted on it. After finishing her breakfast.

We had brought in chairs, and Mrs. Jaffee, Mr. Jaffee, and Debra were sitting.

"Miss Sleet," Mrs. Jaffee said, "do you know who killed my son?"

"Yes, I do."

"Are you going to tell us? Or is there some rigmarole?"

"There is, I'm afraid, a rigamarole, and, as my daughter pointed out earlier, this will go more smoothly if you let me proceed. I cannot be rushed, because I know what I'm doing and why it has to be done this way." She looked around. "I want to start by talking about the possibility of suicide, as Mr. Skinner proposed earlier. Scott had been suicidal, he was starving himself, the shot was point blank and could easily have been self-inflicted. Motive, apparently, and opportunity, but no means. Where did he get the gun?"

"He brought it in with him?" Mr. Jaffee suggested.

"No, we know whose gun it is, and where it was stored. It was two buildings away from here, at the opposite end of the hospital. I don't think a patient, no matter how busy and chaotic things were, could have wandered over there in a hospital gown and retrieved it." She looked around the room. "I should explain where the lockup is and how it works, for those of you who don't live here, because it figures into the solution of this case. In U-town, we don't have concealed-carry laws, and some of our citizenry goes around armed. Which is also true in places that do have concealed carry laws, of course. But we have discovered that things go more smoothly in the hospital if the patients don't have weapons.

"So, part of the procedure for admitting patients is an unobtrusive search, and then, if necessary, a firm insistence that their guns and knives need to be locked up for the duration of their stay. We use a room that used to be a nurse's locker room. So that's where the gun was, in a locked locker in a locked room, and any theory we accept needs to account for how it got from there to here. So, I would say that suicide is out, because it doesn't account for the gun, and it doesn't answer the two questions I will pose in a minute.

"Now, I'll move on to another possible explanation. Debra accused Mrs. Jaffee, who will come into a substantial inheritance as a result of her son's death. She has admitted that she looked into the phone booth and saw the coat. She could have touched it or moved it and found the gun. And her exact whereabouts are not definitely accounted for at the time of the murder."

Mrs. Jaffee sighed. "I did not murder my son," she said.

"No, you didn't. And you weren't deliberately framed, either. It was just coincidence. Motive, means, and opportunity are necessary, but they're only the beginning. As I said before, any solution to this murder has to answer the two questions that I'm about to ask, but in any case while it's possible that you found the gun in the coat pocket, that doesn't explain how the coat and the gun got from the lockup to the phone booth in the first place.

"So, the first of the two big unanswered questions is this: we've heard again and again how busy the hospital was last night and today, how few beds there are, Dr. James expects to have to work into the night tonight, Debra worked a double shift last night, Francine worked fourteen hours, I had to pull rank to get a private room, and so on." She waved her arm. "How did Scott Duncan get this enormous room all to himself? This is even bigger than a standard two-person room, in fact. So, I sent Marshall to ask Francine, who was in charge last night, and she said–"

"That I asked her to give him a single," Debra said, rolling her eyes. "Why didn't you just ask me? I would have told you. I was hoping to come in and visit him, find out what was going on with him, but I didn't have the time. It was too crazy."

My employer nodded. "I'll come back to that, but now I'm going to move to the biggest question. Scott is wounded and dying, and what does he do? He gets up, dressed in a thin hospital gown, with bare feet, and goes out to the courtyard, through that side door and then outside, quickly so nobody had time to see him and stop him, into the rain, carrying the gun that was used to shoot him, and then he shoots at the window of my room, and then he dies.

"This is, first of all, a very striking thing for him to do. If he wants to accuse his murderer, why not tell somebody or write the name or buzz for a nurse? But here's the central question: I'm a detective, on an amateur basis, and he's been the victim of a murderous attack. In addition to that, he's a fan of mine and perhaps even has a crush on me. Is it conceivable that he fired at my window by coincidence? Of all of the hundreds of windows that look out over this courtyard, he just happens to fire at mine as he died?" She held up a finger, clearly quoting. "'In a world that operates largely at random, coincidences are to be expected, but any one of them must always be mistrusted.' This might possibly be a coincidence, but I would find it a very difficult one to swallow."

"So," she continued, speaking slowly and carefully, "let's take the other tack. Perhaps Scott did not know who had shot him. Maybe he'd been asleep. And let's say he wanted me to find out who was responsible for the attack on him. But then – if that was true – how did he know I was even in the hospital, and how did he know which window, of all the hundreds around him in the courtyard, was mine? Somebody must have told him. Not his mother or step father, and not Mr. Skinner; they didn't speak to anybody before they saw him. It had to be somebody who was plugged into the hospital gossip grapevine, somebody who knew of his interest in me, who knew he'd be excited that he and I were both patients at the hospital at the same time. And someone who, at that moment, was probably not yet planning to murder him."

Debra was crying by then, her face buried in her hands.

"Somebody who knew where the lockup is, and how it works," my employer continued more quietly, "and who knew that with the hospital so busy the lockers would probably be full and that some of the coats and weapons might be lying around the room. Someone who told Francine that she wanted her boyfriend to be in a private room so that she could have a tryst with him and, as she put it, 'change his mind about a few things.' And, if I'm right, someone whose boyfriend rejected her advances, because he was on the verge of joining a group whose members, among other characteristics, are known for self-denial, including in the area of sex."

Debra looked up and wiped her face with her sleeve. "He... He told me that he was sorry. That it was all his fault that he had... succumbed in the first place. He said that women were temptresses by nature, seducing men from the righteous path, but that it was up to the men to resist and lead the women back to the... to the right way. Something like that. So, not only am I evil but it's not even my fault, it was all on him. He'd been in charge all along." She made a face. "He was never in charge of anything. He said he wanted me to pray with him, give up my sinful ways, join him on the righteous path. If not, we would have to break up, but he'd always pray for me. He told me I had a lot to atone for."

"Had you told him about your abortion?" my employer asked. Debra looked up, frowning. "I checked your chart while we were waiting for Marshall to return."

"Yeah. The last guy I was with got me knocked up and then ran off. I took care of it, and then I decided that men were really assholes and maybe I was gay. So, I tried being with a girl, but it wasn't right for me. So, I ended up with Scott, and he seemed to be really nice. And I told him about the abortion and about Rachel, and he was..." She shook her head. "Back then, it turned him on that I'd been with Rachel."

She made a face. "I was really pissed off. I seduced him in the first place – he was a scared virgin when I met him, so grateful that I'd... for everything. And now, in his mind, he was in charge the whole time. He was never in charge of anything in his life! I got mad... and I shot him." She looked up. "I really wish I hadn't, but I was very angry."

"I'm sorry," my employer said quietly, "but this was not a crime of impulse. When you decided to shoot him, you had to walk to the lockup to get the gun, two buildings away, and then back. I think that makes it premeditation." She shrugged. "In my opinion. That will be decided at the trial, of course."

Mrs. Jaffee sighed as she got to her feet. Two people from hospital security were standing by Debra, but my employer had indicated that they shouldn't take her just yet.

"Mrs. Jaffee," my employer said, "the trial–"

"I don't care," she said, looking at the bed. "Or maybe I do. I..." her voice trailed off and she looked out the window.

"Amelia," Mr. Skinner said, "why don't you and Tom go home? I'll stay and find out the details, then I'll call you later tonight or in the morning."

She sighed and nodded. "Alright, Nat. I'll do that. Thank you." She turned to my employer. "Miss Sleet, your child is unpleasant, foul-mouthed, ill-behaved, and in desperate need of a bath." I clamped a hand on Ron's shoulder and squeezed, hard. I knew what Mrs. Jaffee was saying, even though she pressed her lips together and left the thought incomplete, and I knew Ron wouldn't understand.

"Thank you," Mrs. Jaffee said after a moment.

"You're welcome," my employer replied. "And you have my sympathy."

"Thank you." She left, with her husband trailing after her.

"How can I find out the details of the trial?" Mr. Skinner asked.

By reflex, my employer reached for her vest pocket, where she always carried business cards (hers and our attorney's), but of course she was still wearing her nightgown and robe. I handed the card to her and she gave it to Skinner.

"Our attorney," she said, "Mr. Anson–"

"Oh, I'm well aware of Stuart Anson," he said with a smile. "I look forward to talking with him." He took out a card case and slipped the card into it, and pulled another one out, which he held in his hand as he put the case away. "But you had something else to mention," he said.

"I do, and it's important that everybody here is aware of this. I will need to talk to Vicki to see what she says." She looked at Mr. Skinner.

"I know who Miss Wasserman is," he said. He looked for a second as though he was considering adding something, perhaps one of the usual responses to the fact that U-town was being run by a teenage girl, but he didn't say anything else.

"I will have to check this with her," my employer continued, "but I am going to recommend that this be prosecuted as a case of assisted suicide. The evidence, if not examined in too much detail, could lead to that conclusion, and we probably want to avoid publicizing that a hospital aide murdered a patient."

"Especially since it is not the first time," Mr. Skinner added quietly. "I completely understand." His expression was even more noncommittal than usual.

My employer was not able to completely conceal her disappointment that he was aware of the earlier crime. "And I should make it clear that the punishment, if Debra is convicted, will be commensurate with a murder charge." She turned to Debra. "I'm assuming you won't say anything to contradict this."

Debra nodded. She looked like she didn't much care about anything at that moment, but I was fairly sure she would be happier not being known as a murderer.

"Are we done?" Mr. Skinner asked.

"Yes, though I need Dr. Warren and Debra to stay for a moment."

As Father Frank turned to go, he said, "See you soon, Ron." My employer's eyebrows shot up, and I caught her eye and shook my head slightly. Not the right time and not the right audience to get into that question. Ron's expression was blank, and she didn't respond to Father Frank.

Mr. Skinner, Father Frank, Dr. James, and Francine went out, leaving just Christy, Ron, Debra, Dr. Warren, the hospital security, and me. Mr. Skinner made sure he was the last one to leave and he handed his business card to my employer as he went, though he made no comment about it. We did have additional dealings with him later, but that's another story.

"Debra," my employer said, lowering herself into a chair, "one final question. Why did you bring the coat when you got the gun from the lockup and then stash it in the phone booth? Why not leave the coat and carry the gun in your pocket? It was a very small gun." I would tell that she had a pretty good idea what the answer was.

Debra shrugged. "There were a couple of people in the lockup room. I couldn't just take a gun and leave. But I found a coat with a gun in the pocket and took the whole thing. If they'd asked, I'd have said it belonged to a patient who was being released."

"And what were those people doing in the lockup room?" my employer asked.

Debra made a face. "They were smoking. Smoking pot."

"I thought so. I noticed the smell when Ron brought me the coat." She turned to Dr. Warren. "This has to be addressed, of course. We cannot have the hospital staff partaking of intoxicants while they're working. Please draft a plan to stop this, and have it on my desk by Tuesday morning. Understood?"

She nodded. "Of course."

"And obviously we need to take stricter measures to make sure that hospital staff aren't assigned to patients who they are related to or involved with. This will be more difficult, but please give me your thinking on this as well." She got to her feet as the security people took Debra out, followed by Dr. Warren.

"I guess we'll have to reschedule your procedure," I said.

She laughed. "I've forgotten all about that a couple of times today, and then it comes back to me when I start to wonder why I'm dressed in this outlandish fashion. Yes, Dr. Oliviera will need time to recover before I'll let him anywhere near me with a scalpel. We should go back to the room so I can get dressed... Ron, what is it?"

Ron was frowning. Not upset, but apparently puzzled by something. "I have a question," she said.

Jan smiled, hoping against hope that Ron actually had a question about the case. Ron's confidence in her mother's deductive abilities was complete, but she had never been very interested in the details. Jan perched on the edge of the bed and asked Ron what the question was. Christy and I sat down also, and then Ron took the remaining chair. If we'd been alone she would probably have gone to sit beside her mother on the bed, but that would have been too informal with Christy there.

"He was gonna inherit all that money. But that wasn't why he was killed? Or was that part of it?"

Jan smiled. "Very good question, dear. The answer is that I don't know. It's interesting to speculate, but there's no way to know for sure. Debra was in a relationship with a boy who was about to come into a lot of money. Was she in love with him for himself, and indifferent to the money? Was she looking forward to how their lives would change once he received his patrimony? Was she upset about his increasing interest in the quiet people because it was not something she believed in, or because they would encourage him to give away the inheritance? Or both? I don't know, and as much as we might wonder, there's no way to know for sure. That answer is only in Debra's heart, and even she may not be clear about what it is."

Ron looked thoughtful, chewing this over.

"Can I ask you a question, Ron?" Jan asked gently.

Ron's face froze. "Yeah," she said slowly.

"Why did Father Frank say that he would see you later?"

She glanced at me, and I nodded encouragingly. And so, slowly, she told the story of her friendship with Father Frank, emphasizing the limits she had put on their conversations. I could tell that Jan's urge was to take this revelation lightly, to make a joke out of it, but she knew that Ron was really afraid of her reaction.

"That's nice," she said when Ron was done, "that you and he have become friends. It's very good to have friends who are different from us, older and younger and from different places. We learn a lot that way. I've only met him two or three times, but he seems nice, and he's very intelligent. I interviewed him once, as you may remember, and it was a fascinating afternoon. Marshall finally had to drag me away or we'd have been at it all night."

"So, that was Father Frank," Christy said. "I've heard about him, but I'd never seen him." She smiled awkwardly. "I was hoping he couldn't tell how much I didn't want him to be here."

"Are you an atheist, too?" Ron asked.

She shook her head. "No, that's the problem." She shrugged. "As you've probably figured out, I had an abortion earlier today." It was not clear which of us she was addressing. She wasn't looking at any of us. "I'm saying that because if I don't mention it I'll feel like I'm hiding it from you, from my friends. Which I really want to do, but I know how silly that is. Anyway, I was not in the mood to be standing next to a man in a dog collar, especially listening to a girl talking about her abortion."

Ron was sitting very still, and I thought I knew what was on her mind. She was thinking, "Somehow I've ended up in the middle of a grownup conversation, and maybe if I don't move they won't notice I'm here." I remembered that feeling.

"I feel sorry for that boy," Christy said. "Do you know much about these 'quiet people'? It sounds like they really screwed him up."

"Not much more than you heard today," I said. "And I'm no expert on these things, but it sounds like he had problems long before he met them."

Jan nodded and lit a cigarette. "The suicide attempt happened on his first visit here, apparently before he met them, and maybe even before they existed."

"Before, when I was..." Ron began, and then she frowned.

"Before we adopted you."

"Yeah. There were people who wanted me to come pray with them or whatever. They wanted to take care of me. I told them to get stuffed." She shrugged. "Sometimes I got food anyway."

I could tell that Christy wanted to say something to Ron, though I have no idea what, but she was unable to figure out how to get past the barrier that existed because Ron didn't like her.

I had a thought, and not for the first time, which was that in other circumstances Ron might have ended up with the Jinx if she'd encountered them before she met us. I had the feeling that, even if that had happened, she wouldn't have lasted with them. Not that I knew for sure, of course. I was certainly not vain enough to think that I was an expert on the subject of our adopted daughter.

There was a diffident knock on the door.

"Come on," Jan said, using her cane to get to her feet. "They probably want the room."

I laughed. "There are probably a half dozen patients on gurneys outside, ready to be wheeled in..."

I stopped as Christy stood up, swayed, and grabbed the back of the chair. I took her arm and steadied her.

"Are you okay?" Jan asked.

"I'm a little wobbly. They had me under sedation, before, and they told me I should lie down for at least an hour after they were done. But I knew you needed me, and I wanted to be doing something–"

"How did you know we were looking for you?" Jan asked as I helped Christy sit down again. Her face was so pale that it was nearly white, making her freckles much more obvious than usual.

"I heard Ron asking for me at the desk, while they were putting me out." She looked at Ron and smiled. "I know you were trying to be quiet, but I could hear you through the wall."

"You should lie down for a while," Jan said. "They'll probably kick us out of this room, but I'm a patient here. You can use my bed. Let's go there, and then I can finally get dressed and go home."

I helped Christy to her feet and we went to the door. Outside, instead of the aides and patients we expected, there were two of the Golden. They were as striking looking as ever, with blonde hair, gray eyes, and golden skin, dressed in matching sweaters and slacks, but the oddest thing was to see two of them without the third. Their faces were not expressive, but I could tell something was wrong.

Ron demanded, "Where's Will?"

"Will's been beaten up." "It happened last night." "We knew you were in the hospital." "But we didn't want to bother you until you'd solved the murder of that boy." "But we would really like your help." "Will doesn't know who it was." "And we're afraid it might happen again."

"Fuck! Then why did you leave him alone? Where is he?"

That last was Ron, of course. The rest was Craig and Sharon Golden, speaking alternately as they often did.

Christy leaned against me, and I asked, "Is Will in the hospital?" They both nodded. I turned to my employer. "Why don't I get Christy to your room and pick up your clothes, and I'll meet you there?" I expected Christy, who was Jinx after all, to protest that she could get there on her own. She didn't say a word, though, which told me how bad she felt.

Jan nodded. "That makes sense. What room is Will in?"

"A-14." "In the North Building."

"I thought that North was closed because of all the plumbing problems," I put in.

"It's a long story," Sharon said (I think it was Sharon). They were obviously impatient to get back to their brother, so we dropped the question.

I walked through the corridors with my arm around Christy, who was still unsteady. I saw some people note this and perhaps make assumptions. I was glad Ron wasn't there.

"We're starting gossip," she said.

"I've been the subject of gossip before," I said. "People used to tell all sorts of wild stories about my employer and me." She glanced up at me. "Long before the stories were actually true, I mean." I could feel her chuckle.

I opened the door of the room, and I felt a blast of chilly air, accompanied by a fairly outlandish noise. The cold air came from the shattered window, of course, and the outlandish noise came from Dr. Oliviera, who was stretched out on the bed, snoring. I helped Christy to sit on the edge of the bed, and Dr. Oliviera's eyes opened.

"Ah," he said, looking at Christy.

"Behave yourself," I suggested.

"It's okay," he said, smiling. "I'm a doctor."

Without even looking at him, Christy held her hand in front of his face and quickly made the sign language gestures for "j" and "x." Everybody in U-town knew what that meant.

I helped Christy swing her legs up onto the bed as the doctor sped out of the room. "You know what I'm going to do," I said as she lay down.

She looked at me as I unlaced her boots . "Yes," she said. "That's another thing I felt stupid about. I know he would have come with me, but I just felt so.. stupid. And careless."

"Tell him. Jan always says you should never start to tell a lie that you won't be able to sustain."

She nodded and squeezed my hand. "You're right," she said. "Thank you."

As I left, carrying Jan's clothes, I stopped at the desk and gave one of the runners a message for Fifteen, to come to the hospital, and that it was important but not an emergency.

Walking back through the hospital toward the North Building, I had a few moments to remember how much I disliked being absent for the beginning of a case, since my employer never made it a high priority to fill me in on what she had learned when I wasn't there.

It was unusual for my employer to investigate a beating, but of course it was unusual for a beating to be a mystery to solve. And, unusual or not, I knew she would investigate because Ron's friend had been the victim. But I also knew that in the back of her mind was the possibility that this might mean she could find out more about the Golden.

As I went down the corridor toward the North Building, I saw Miss Portugal. I knew her from my own shifts at the hospital, so I went over. She was busy, so I stood at the counter and waited. I knew that my employer would have gone directly to Will's room to talk to him, and I thought it would be helpful if I brought his chart to her.

"Miss P," I said when she was free. "It's charming to see you."

She smiled and fluffed up her luxurious, dark hair, nearly dislodging the tiny nurse's cap perched on top. "Mr. Marshall," she said. "So nice to see you, too. Are you here to help?"

"Only indirectly. My employer is investigating the boy who was beaten, Will Golden."

She frowned. "She investigates beatings now? There aren't enough murders? I heard she was investigating one in the other building."

"That was solved, and then Will's brother and sister came and asked for her help. Will, the boy who was beaten, is a friend of our daughter's, so we'll try to help."

"Not too close a friend, I hope," she said, looking at me sternly over her glasses. "There seems to be something... improper going on with him and his siblings."

"Indeed," I said noncommittally.

"They were very upset when Doris tried to kick them out last night at nine. Apparently they sneaked back in, because this morning I found the three of them in bed together."

"They're very close."

"They're very peculiar."

"And close. May I see his chart?"

She shrugged, located it, and handed it to me.

I didn't stop to look at it. Every minute's delay meant more information I was missing. As I got ready to leave the desk, though, I thought of one more question.

"Has there been an elderly man here, in a wheelchair?"

Miss Portugal gave me a withering look. "This is a hospital, honey. We're up to here with sick people, elderly people, and wheelchairs. Can you be a tiny bit more specific?"

"His name is Mr. Bostwick. I don't know his first name. The Golden live with him and take care of him. I'm concerned that he's okay if they've been here all night."

She shrugged. "I haven't seen him, as far as I know."

"Have an aide ready, with a house kit, if we need to check on him. Thanks."

She was about to protest that there weren't enough staff people to send them all over the city chasing wild geese, but I turned to go through the doors and into the North Building. As the swinging doors closed behind me, I heard her commenting that she hadn't known I was planning to take the chart with me.

The hallway was quiet and rather gloomy, an abrupt change from the rest of the hospital. I remember thinking that if this had been a horror movie, this would be where the bad things would start to happen.

There was one lighted doorway in the hallway ahead of me and I could hear familiar voices, so I went there. Stepping into the room, I saw Will lying in the bed. His arm was in a cast, his long hair was tied back, and one eye was bruised. His brother and sister were perched on either side of him, symmetrical mirror images of each other. All three were regarding my employer. She stood at the foot of the bed (continuing the symmetry) and turned as I came in. She moved toward me and I handed her the pile of clothes that I was carrying. Will's chart was on top of the pile, and I took it back when my hands were free. I knew she'd want to get dressed before doing anything else.

It would have been possible, of course, for her to have stopped at some point during the investigation of Scott Duncan's murder to get dressed, but she would have regarded that as an admission of weakness. She much preferred appearing in public in her usual three-piece suit, shirt, and tie, but she'd wanted to make it clear that she could work just as effectively wearing a nightgown and robe.

However, that case was over and this new investigation was just beginning (and the Golden were not strangers to us), so she was comfortable asking them if she could step into the small bathroom for a moment to change her clothes. They shrugged and nodded, indicating that this was fine with them, but also showing that they did not understand why she had to leave the room for this purpose.

Ron was on the far side of the room, leaning against a small metal table. Her expression was blank. I thought it likely that she was being particularly guarded so as not to reveal how concerned she was about her friend.

And, like Miss Portugal, Jan and I were both hoping that her friendship with Will was just a friendship, but of course we didn't know for sure.

When my employer returned, she was dressed and her hair was combed. She smiled, but then she put the smile away because the Golden still looked worried.

"Mrs. O'Connor." "Do you know who did this?" "Do you think it will happen again?"

Jan shook her head. "I don't know. I will try to find out. For now, I think you should stay together, all three of you, until I figure this out. You'll be safer that way."

They nodded very seriously.

"Do you know when you're getting out of the hospital?"

"Today." "They discharged me already." "But we wanted to wait until you were free so we could talk to you."

"Is that why you're here, in the North Building, which is supposed to be closed down?"

They shook their heads and looked uncomfortable. "No." "That's..." "The person I was in a room with," "He..."

She nodded. "I can imagine. I'll come by Mr. Bostwick's house tomorrow night and tell you how it's going. It's probably best for you to stay home tomorrow, or at least stay together. Go to school Monday if you feel up to it, but take the day off if you don't."

They nodded. "We'll go." "We don't want to miss any more time." "We're behind on our assignments as it is."

It was getting dark as we left the hospital (after returning Will's chart to Miss Portugal, of course). I suggested we eat at the hotel, in case there were other things we needed to do there.

The response was positive but not enthusiastic. My employer was thinking about the case, and as usual when she was concentrating she wasn't aware of food at all. Ron, who usually liked eating at the hotel where we lived, just grunted. I could tell she was upset about something, and a moment's reflection told me what it probably was. I knew she would brood and fume about this as we walked, getting more and more angry, so I wanted to tackle it right away.

"Ron," I said, "what's wrong?"

"Nothing," she muttered, as expected.

We were at a corner, and I stopped. "Ron," I said, "something is obviously wrong. Please tell me what it is."

Jan looked somewhat surprised at this, since her thoughts had been elsewhere, but she stopped and regarded Ron as well.

I'd expected more resistance, but Ron said, "You're..." Then she made a face, looking away from us.

"We're what?" Jan asked, clearly perplexed.

Ron sighed angrily. "You're not doing anything!" she said. She spoke with great urgency but not loudly, since there were people walking by. "That guy got killed, and you ran off to solve it and you didn't even get dressed. Now Will's beat up and..." She waved her arms in frustration.

"And you think I don't really care because it's just a beating, nobody was murdered, is that it?" Jan asked softly. She pulled Ron over so she could sit on a stoop and look at her eye to eye. "Ron, you asked me to figure this out and I will. But the crime didn't happen at the hospital, and the solution probably isn't there either. It's getting dark now, but tomorrow morning I'm going to go to where it happened and look around. Tonight I'm going to see what we have in the files about the quiet people. I don't know how long this will take – you never know that in advance – but I will solve it.

"And it's not 'just' a beating, not to my mind. For one thing, you asked me to do this. That alone makes it very important to me. Also, the Golden get picked on for being different, as you know, and that's wrong. But what if the quiet people are actually going around hurting people, people they don't approve of? We need to know that right away, because there are a lot of them and new people are joining. But if somebody is pretending to be one of them, to get them in trouble, then they're getting picked on for being different, just like the Golden, and we need to know that. So, for all those reasons, this is important, and I will solve it. But mostly because you asked me to."

I smiled. "After all, your mother and I figured out what happened when the Golden were accused of stealing test answers. And a beating is far worse than stealing test answers." She was being won over, but she was trying not to show it. "Do you want to help us, Ron? Help us with the investigation tomorrow?"

She decided to put up some resistance. "I have to deliver the mail," she insisted, her arms folded. "You know that."

I leaned over and whispered. "Tomorrow is Sunday."

"Aaaah!" she said in frustration, then she hauled off and punched me in the arm (not hard enough to bruise, but a lot more than a tap). She took a certain amount of pride in being one of the few people in U-town who always knew what day it was, so she was mad at herself for the slip.

I slowly drew back my fist and punched her in the arm (not hard enough to bruise, but more than a tap). She smiled, briefly, and said, "I'm hungry."

Jan used her cane to get to her feet, brushing off her trousers. She was getting used to the idea of the occasional punch as a sign of affection, but she wasn't about to adopt it herself (even apart from the fact that – as she always put it – she herself could get a bruise from a raindrop). Her idea of an appropriate resolution would have been a hug, but we knew Ron hated to be hugged in public.

I walked to school with Ron every day, and the two things that always made her grimace were public displays of affection and misbehaving children. If we saw a couple walking with their arms around each other, that usually rated a frown. If they were kissing, she'd make a face. Once, walking in the evening, we'd passed a couple making out in an alley. The guy's hand had been up under the girl's shirt and Ron had looked like she was going to throw up.

Misbehaving children usually got a grimace, too. I think this was because she saw them as members of her tribe, and this crying or acting out might reflect badly on kids in general.

"You know, Ron," my employer said, looking up from the papers on her desk, "solving mysteries isn't all asking questions and collecting suspects. A lot of it is reading reports and doing research." Ron looked up, frowning. "Why don't you tell your father what we learned from the Golden?" I was glad that I was finally going to find out how the quiet people figured into this case.

"Okay," Ron said slowly. She turned to me. She was sitting at her desk, but it was Saturday night and she didn't have homework to do. "They were home, the Golden and the old guy..."

"Mr. Bostwick," I supplied.

"Yeah. They had dinner – this is last night – and they decided to bake something."

"They often bake on the weekends," my employer supplied over her shoulder, "because they don't have school."

Ron pursed her lips at the interruption, then she continued. "They didn't have all the stuff they needed, the ingredients, so..."

Jan turned, apparently ready to supply a list of the missing ingredients, and perhaps even the recipes they were going to use, but she saw Ron's expression and turned back to her reading.

"So, Will said he would go out. He was walking to the store, a couple blocks away, and he was going by an alley and two guys jumped him." She sighed as Jan turned around again.

"It's not definitely established that they were male," she said, then she quickly went back to the reports.

"They cursed at him, called him names–"

"What kind of names?" I asked. "Personal names, like they knew him, or just general insults?"

"They knew him," Ron continued. "Called him a freak, mentioned... about his sister." She looked uncomfortable.

As we had learned when we were investigating the theft of the test answers, the Golden apparently had a sexual relationship with each other, despite being (apparently) barely teenagers, and (apparently) siblings. I found that I usually thought of them as being aliens of some sort. Which they may well have been. But it was no surprise that Ron didn't want to talk (or even think) about this.

I imagined that it was something like this which had got Will exiled to the North Building. This didn't mean that they had necessarily misbehaved in the hospital room, but they were becoming quite notorious around town.

"So, they knew who he was..." I prompted Ron.

"Yeah. They hit him and he tried to fight back, but they were both bigger than him. Craig and Sharon rushed to help him, but they got there too late."

"The attackers were gone?"

"Yeah. They ran off when they saw Craig and Sharon were coming. They helped him back to the house, but they could tell that his arm was broken, so they took him to the hospital."

"What about Mr. Bostwick?" I asked. "Who was going to look after him? I know they all three stayed over at the hospital."

She shrugged. "There's a neighbor who does stuff for him when they're at school. Maybe she helped him."

"What did the attackers look like?" I asked.

"They were dressed like those quiet people we heard about," Ron said. "They were wearing gray clothes, with those funny hats. And masks across their faces."

My employer turned from her desk, putting down the folder she'd been going through. "Observations?" she asked.

I shrugged. "There's no way to tell if they were really quiet people or not, but it doesn't sound like they were very quiet."

She smiled. "True."

"Any mention of the quiet people attacking anybody, anything like this?"

She shook her head. "Nothing at all in these reports. But they do disapprove of a lot of things, including most things to do with sex. As we saw today with Scott Duncan. On the other hand, their way of dressing would be very easy to copy."

"Whoever they were," I said slowly, "we can say the following. They were prepared to attack somebody, whether or not they meant it to be Will Golden. They were prepared..." I looked at Ron.

"The masks," she said.

"Exactly. And, whether or not they were really from the quiet people, they wanted people to know that's who did the attack."

"They could have changed their clothes," Ron said.

"Very good."

"Any more observations?" Jan asked

"They knew who he was, but they weren't laying for him. Not two blocks from his house on a night when they would have had no idea he'd be coming out at all, let alone going in that direction. So, either they followed him from the house, or they were ready to attack somebody and he was just unlucky."

We didn't mention the other obvious thing, which was that the story, if true, made it clear that the Golden could communicate when they weren't together. Otherwise, how did Sharon and Craig know their brother was being attacked two blocks away from home?

"I have a comment," I said as Jan turned out her bedside light.

She put her arm around me and kissed my cheek. "On what topic?" she purred.

"The case."

"Ah," she said, "and would you like to make this comment now?"

"Yes. And here it is." I cleared my throat. "You referred a couple of times to the fact that Ron asked you to find out who beat up Will Golden. But, of course, you realize that she never asked any such thing."

She smiled (when you've been married for a while, you can tell even in the dark). "She wanted to. She would have, if I hadn't started to investigate."

"True. And you've been telling her various useful things about solving mysteries, though she hasn't asked for those either."

"And your point is?" she whispered, throwing one long leg over mine.

"I thoroughly endorse your attempt to interest her and involve her in the family business, as it were, but I didn't want you to think that I was oblivious to your sneaky ways."

"Duly noted for the record," she said.

* * * * *


The staff of the U-town newspaper was mostly made up of young people with no previous newspaper experience, so my employer had trained them in various skills.

The only problem was that she herself had never worked on a newspaper. She was a reporter, so she could and did help them in writing articles, but she had always been published in magazines, and her ideas about how a newsroom should function came mostly from old movies. So, the newspaper did come out, and sometimes it was pretty good, but the newsroom always looked to me like a high school production of The Front Page.

As we came into the smoke-filled newsroom (she had pretty much insisted that at least some of them had to smoke – I think they took turns), Phyllis got up from the editor's desk and trotted over to greet us. She was about twenty-five, and apparently she was the editor this month. She wore jeans and her feet were bare (which showed unusual optimism for somebody in the newspaper game, given the state of the floor), but she was wearing the approved rumpled white shirt and loosely tied necktie.

"Come see!" she said, exhibiting almost no world-weariness or cynicism at all. She pulled us over to a small display in the corner, where there was a blurry photo of Doug, the young reporter who had been murdered during the college case. Above the snapshot was a headline they had obviously had typeset especially for this display. It said, "Douglas Matthews: He Got the Story," and gave the years of his birth and death.

My employer regarded this for a moment. "Very appropriate," she said. She gestured at Ron. "Do you know my daughter? Ron, this is Phyllis. Phyllis, Ron." Ron nodded seriously and shook her hand. "She's helping us on this investigation."

Phyllis raised an eyebrow. "Investigation?"

"Which we need to talk to you about in private."

Phyllis nodded. She didn't have an office – nobody did – but she led us down the hall to a tiny room with two chairs. Phyllis and my employer sat, and Ron and I leaned against the wall. Phyllis had offered me the second chair, but I had declined.

"I have a proposal which I would like to describe to you," my employer said, lighting a cigarette. "Have you heard about the murder of Scott Duncan?"

Phyllis took a cigarette also, but that was probably just to be polite. "Yes. We have somebody at the hospital doing interviews. We're going to do an article, but it's not clear–"

"Assisted suicide," my employer said.

Phyllis nodded. "I see. But you didn't need to come here just to tell me that."

My employer looked up at me. "Marshall?"

I knew what she wanted. In some situations it would have been a verbatim account of everything that had happened the day before , but that would have taken hours and would have wasted everybody's time. She wanted a concise, summarized recap instead, focusing on the elements which involved, or seemed to involve, the quiet people.

We knew from experience that I was far better at this sort of thing than she was. My employer's mind was very discursive, which was one reason she was so good at solving mysteries, but it also meant that her "summary" could easily be longer than the thing being summarized.

As I told the story, I emphasized the need to understand more about the quiet people, including the possibility that they had expanded their disapproval of sexual activity to include physical violence, and I de-emphasized that we wanted to figure this out because Will Golden was our daughter's friend.

When I was done, Phyllis dropped her cigarette butt on the floor and I stepped on it for her. There were no ashtrays in the empty little room.

"You're welcome to look through our files on the quiet people," she said, "but I can tell you that there isn't much there."

"I thought that might be the case. I will look them over, but I'm thinking of something more active. I'm proposing that a reporter investigate and, if possible, infiltrate, and try to learn the story from the inside. Marshall and I are too well known, of course, and I'm pretty notoriously an atheist. Christy, who works with us, wouldn't be suitable either. Nobody would believe a member of the Jinx would be interested in the quiet people, especially at her age. Based on the reports I've read, most of their converts are apparently in their late teens or early twenties."

Ron pursed her lips but remained silent. We had told her the plan at breakfast, knowing she would probably volunteer. We told her that she had also been pretty vocal about being an atheist, and people would also suspect her because she was our daughter. What we didn't tell was that she was a terrible liar (a skill we didn't want to encourage her to develop), and also that this might be dangerous. Her survival skills were established, but there was no way we were going to send her into possible danger by herself.

Knowing that she would probably volunteer, and that she would then certainly balk when we told her no, we'd brought it up at breakfast so as to keep the argument in the family.

Then, after breakfast, we had visited the scene of the beating. It was two blocks from the house where the Golden lived with Mr. Bostwick and, because of the heavy rain after the attack, there was nothing significant there. Any clues had been washed away.

Unless my employer had seen something and was keeping it to herself. It wouldn't have been the first time.

Phyllis nodded. "Of course, we will want to publish a story if we get anything good."

"Definitely. When the case is solved, you can publish whatever you want. Until then, not a word, even if you have good material, since it would reveal that someone has infiltrated the group."

"Fair enough." She leaned back in her chair. "Ordinarily, of course, this would be difficult for us to do. Our challenge is that this is a small town. Everybody knows us. 'Oh, that's Phyllis from the newspaper.' That's how I'm known. And the quiet people would be suspicious if somebody from the newspaper suddenly wanted to join."

She was preening a bit, but my employer let her go on because it was clear that she had something.

"However, realizing this problem, we've made plans. One of our interns is very sharp. We've kept her away from the office here, and I only meet with her in the city. I see her every Monday morning. She gives me what she's done, we talk about it, and I give her new assignments."

"The article last week about the subways?" my employer put in. "And the two theater reviews? I remarked to Marshall that they were particularly good."

"The subway piece was mine, and thank you, but yes, the reviews were hers. I think she even said she had religious training when she was growing up, so she'll know the right things to say. If not, she'll learn them quick enough,"

"So, you'll be seeing her tomorrow morning?"

"Yes. At a coffee shop over in the city, near the campus."

"May I come and propose this project to her?"

Phyllis looked dubious. "I may be well known here, but you're well known everywhere. Other students at her school have internships around U-town. Word could spread, which is the last thing we want."

My employer concealed her disappointment since obviously Phyllis was right. "Would it be helpful if Marshall came along?"

Phyllis nodded. "Yes, very much." She seemed relieved that my employer had agreed with her objection. "If I know Wendy, she'll have a zillion questions and I won't know the answers to most of them."

As we got ready to leave, after making plans for the following morning, my employer said, "One more thing. Is Wendy familiar with U-town at all? I imagine this will be easier for her if she knows the lay of the land."

"No problem. She's got a boyfriend here, over by the foundry. She's here quite a lot, but she stays away from us."

"You'll need security," my employer said to me as we walked back toward the hotel. "If I have to follow the rules, so do you. Why don't you check with Christy? We'll meet you at home later. I want to let Vicki know what's going on."

So, she and Ron went back to the hotel, and I headed to the headquarters of the Jinx. My employer had handled this adroitly. She knew that Christy and I had some unfinished business from the day before.

I knocked on the door of the abandoned warehouse building where the Jinx lived. After a moment, it opened and a man said, "Yes?"

He was dressed as Jinx always dressed: a leather jacket, a black T-shirt, and jeans. I reflected for a moment that the Jinx were another group, like the quiet people and the Golden, who always appeared somewhat interchangeable.

"My name is Marshall. I'd like to see Christy, if she's around."

He frowned, and I found myself remembering high school and the frowns I'd received from some fathers when I showed up to take their daughters out on dates.

But this frown apparently only meant that he was trying to remember where she was. "She's in the gym, I think. Downstairs." He let me in and pointed at the door to the stairwell.

I walked down, my footsteps echoing, and into a hallway. It was all poured concrete and cinder blocks with metal doors, which heightened the feeling that I was back in high school. Each door had a glass panel near the top, and I looked in the first one. It was a large cafeteria. We'd been there once or twice during the vampire case.

The third door was it. I could see a basketball hoop and a stack of mats. I opened the door and went in. At the far end of the room there were two people sparring. Facing me was Neil. He was dressed in black trunks and shoes, with a bandanna around his head to keep the sweat out of his eyes. And boxing gloves, of course.

Facing him, with her back to me, was a woman, also in black trunks and shoes, with a snug black top that looked like it only covered a bit more than a bikini. Her red hair, which was tied back, told me that she was Christy. Neil noticed me and said something, but she didn't turn. He shrugged, and I wondered if he'd have tagged her if she'd turned her head. He threw another series of punches, which she blocked. As I got closer I could see that they were both covered in sweat. They had been at this for a while.

Neil put up his gloves, palms out, and then dropped them to his side.

Christy turned and saw me. "Oh," she said, and she quickly looked around for her robe, which Neil brought over. He unlaced her gloves (I have no idea how he'd removed his own). She pulled on the robe and belted it, then she turned to face me. Neil tossed her a towel and then left through another door, drying his hair.

"What's up?" she asked. "You don't usually come to visit us."

I motioned toward the bench that ran along one wall, and we went and sat down. She looked better than she had the day before, but she was still pale, her expression tense. She wiped her face with the towel.

"I have a couple of questions. The first is, how are you?"

"I'm okay," she said. She untied her hair and started to dry it. We both knew she wasn't telling me the whole truth, and we both knew some other things, too. We knew she wasn't going to be really relaxed and forthcoming there, in the Jinx headquarters; we knew that she felt bad that she couldn't relax there as she could in other places; and we both knew she wasn't going to be comfortable with me as long as she was wearing those clothes. She tugged the top of the robe closed, then made a face at herself for doing that.

So, both of us knowing all of these things, I didn't press. "Can you go to the city with me tomorrow morning? We'll be going with Phyllis from the newspaper. She and I have to meet with somebody." I smiled. "Then we can ditch her somewhere and I'll take you to lunch."

She smiled, too, aware that I had just solved all of the things which had been tying her up. "I'd like that," she said.

The next morning Ron and I walked to the bridge together. She had to be there to collect the daily mail delivery, and I had to meet Christy for our trip to the city. Christy spent a lot of her nights at the hotel where we lived, because Fifteen lived there, but I had not explored the possibility of the three of us walking together.

We walked in silence for a couple of blocks, then Ron asked, "What about the hospital?"

"Excuse me?"

"The hospital. You always work there on Monday morning." I was often surprised to learn how much she noticed about our lives, how many things she filed away without comment.

"Oh, your mother is filling in for me." I laughed. "She was eager to do it, actually. I think it got her out of going to some meeting, and she has another scheme to reorganize their filing system. I'm glad I'm not there for that."

Christy was waiting at the base of the bridge, looking somewhat winded. I remembered that she usually jogged in the mornings. I think she did a complete circuit around U-town, maybe more than one. The very thought made me tired.

"Good morning," I said.

"Good morning," she replied. "And good morning, Ron. Looks like a nice day."

"Morning," Ron said. Her frown may have been for Christy, or it may have been for the idea that anything, including the weather, could be "nice."

I had already told Ron that I almost certainly wouldn't be back in time to walk her to school. She would have been mortified to have Christy know how much she enjoyed our walks. This was why I had made sure that our walk to the bridge would be just the two of us, to make up for missing our regular midday walk to school.

I realize, by the way, that the words I use most often to describe my daughter's state of mind are "disgruntled" and "mortified." I thought of looking for alternatives, just for variety, but those words are pretty accurate. Her other common states of mind were "wary" and "asleep." We'd got a note from one of her teachers that she was "not cheerful" and "inclined toward violence." We spoke to her about the second of those assessments. After that conversation, she had been disgruntled for a while.

Christy and I started walking up the slope of the bridge. The base of the bridge was permanently blocked at the U-town end, so very few cars came over.

"I think she's starting to like me," Christy said. She glanced at me. "Well, maybe not. So, what is this trip all about? I'm out of action for one day and I have no idea what's going on."

I started explaining what we were investigating and why, and who we were going to visit.

"You realize," she said slowly, "that you have just revealed your undercover reporter to me, or you will when we meet her."

I shrugged. I knew what she was saying. She was our friend and she often worked with us, but her sworn allegiance was to the Jinx. We tried to be careful not to put her in positions where those loyalties might come into conflict. Of course, we knew why Dr. Lee was fine with Christy working with us so often. It was all to the good for the Jinx to have one of their members so close to us.

As we walked down to the end of the bridge, we saw Phyllis waiting, reading one of the city newspapers. She looked up as we got close and smiled. We had planned to meet her there, rather than on our side of the bridge, so as to avoid having people wonder why Marshall and Christy were going to the city with Phyllis from the newspaper (and without Jan Sleet).

I introduced Christy and Phyllis. They shook hands, and Phyllis said, "Jinx?" Christy nodded. "So," she said to us, "are you ready for the big, bad city?"

We laughed because we knew what she meant. We were stepping into the land of cars and traffic lights and trucks and honking horns. None of which we had on our side of the river.

As we set out, I was also reminded that we were now in the land of the wolf whistle. Not that this never happened in U-town, but it was comparatively rare. But in the city, walking with a tall young woman with dark skin and blonde hair, and a striking and shapely red-head, we did get the occasional comment and whistle and so on.

Phyllis was wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and after we'd walked about a mile she said, "Memo to Phyllis: when you go to the city, always wear a bra. The natives get restless otherwise."

Christy laughed. "They get restless anyway." She was making a joke out of it, but I could see that her posture and gait were different than they were at home. I wondered if she was even aware of the change.

"I even bought one a few weeks ago," Phyllis said. "But every week I forget to wear it."

The coffee shop was large, clean, and obviously efficient. The waiters wore black vests and slacks with white shirts and no ties. Some of them were carrying several plates each, all moving quickly down narrow aisles and between customers. The place was packed.

A girl in a small booth for two waved at Phyllis, then she looked understandably surprised as Christy and I approached as well. She was already eating, her full breakfast taking up more than half of the tiny table.

"This is Marshall," Phyllis said, leaning over to Wendy could hear her in the din. "Why doesn't he sit down and tell you why he's here. I'll tell the waiter we need a bigger booth when one opens up." I slid into the narrow seat as a huge menu appeared in front of me.

I held out my hand, which was awkward in the confined space, and she shook it. I don't know how I expected her to look, but this wasn't it. She had a round face, dark, bowl-cut hair with low bangs, and horn-rimmed glasses.

"My name is Marshall," I said. "I work for Jan Sleet. I expect–"

"Jan Sleet?" she demanded, nearly tipping the coffee cup she held in one hand and dropping the toast she held in the other. "Why are you here? I really want to meet her – interview her, really. Do you think that would be possible? This is really unexpected. We read one of her articles in class last week. I was going to ask Phyllis if I could interview her. For my college paper. But I have to tell you, who I really want to interview is starling! Phyllis said that's off limits, but maybe for my school paper. Does she give interviews? That would be a feather in my cap, I can tell you. Does she still shoot people? Who's that redhead you came in with?"

"Wendy!" Phyllis said, clapping her hands quickly in front of Wendy's face.

"I really want to... what?" She looked up in happy confusion.

"We're moving," Phyllis said. She gestured toward a booth in the back where Christy was standing.

"Oh," Wendy said. She looked like she was about to try to pick up her entire breakfast by herself, plus her large, black shoulder bag, but two busboys came and helped her.

Phyllis and I moved toward the booth, a couple of steps ahead of Wendy and her assistants.

"Did you tell her all about it?" Phyllis asked me.

"I think I managed to tell her my name, or at least part of it."

She smiled. "I thought so. I'll show you how to do it."

Christy slid into the booth and I sat next to her. There wasn't very much space. Phyllis and Wendy sat on the other side. The menus were already there waiting for us.

"I was telling Marshall–" Wendy said as someone appeared to refill her coffee cup. I wanted to grab the guy and insist on decaf for her, but he was moving too fast.

"Wendy!" Phyllis said, clapping her hands in front of Wendy's face. "Marshall needs to tell you a few things."

"This is why she doesn't let me do interviews," Wendy said, putting an additional layer of butter on her toast. "She's afraid that I'd–" Clap, clap. "Okay, sorry," she said. She looked contrite for a fraction of a second, then she resumed eating.

"To answer your four questions," I said, "I do work for Jan Sleet, we'll see about an interview later, starling is absolutely off limits, and this is Christy. She's my security."

"She doesn't do any interviews? None at all? Why not? And why do you need security?"

"In U-town, starling is an ordinary private citizen. She is not wanted for any crimes, and she has not committed any crimes."

"But she's murdered hundreds of–"

"In the United States." I didn't point out that "hundreds" was an exaggeration. Her point was still valid, and I didn't want to lose whatever conversational momentum I might have. '"We have no extradition treaties. But let me tell you why we're here."

The waiter came and we gave our orders, then we managed to keep Wendy under control until she started to understand what I was saying, then her eyes widened and she fell silent. I finally had her attention, at least for the moment.

I should explain that Wendy was not just a chatterbox (or, as my employer would have said, a flibbertigibbet). She was just revved up to a higher speed than the rest of us, and it made her impatient. Once she understood what I was proposing, her questions were sharp and pertinent. I thought my employer would like her, and I hoped they would meet at some point.

After we were done and some plans had been made, Wendy pulled out a sheaf of paper from her pack and plopped it on the table. This was the work she had done during the previous week, which she was eager to review with Phyllis, in detail. This provided a perfect opportunity for Christy and me to make our excuses and leave.

Outside, the weather was clear and there was a nice breeze. "Well, I certainly don't want another meal just now," Christy said.

I nodded. "Let's take a stroll. I think I know where there's a good cafe where we can get some coffee or something. But I do need to walk off some of that breakfast first."

So, we walked a while, chatting about Wendy and the quiet people and other things. She considered circling her arm through mine, but we both knew that was out of bounds.

But it was very enjoyable, like gradually slowing down to normal again after being driven around in the speeding car that was Wendy's brain.

Then we went to a very pleasant Italian cafe, where we had cappuccinos and cannolis in a quiet corner, sitting in ornate chairs on either side of a tiny marble-topped table, and we had a real talk, about a variety of subjects which are not relevant to this report.

The next couple of days passed quietly, as far as the investigation went. Wendy was on the case, and there wasn't much for us to do.

I didn't know how Ron would react to the waiting, but she seemed to be okay. She delivered the mail in the mornings, I walked her to school after lunch, and the three of us had dinner together in the evenings. My employer had covered my hospital shift on Monday morning, so I took her shift on Wednesday afternoon.

Thursday morning, as I was getting a cup of coffee from the hotel cafeteria, Fifteen came over to me.

He saluted as he approached me.

"Your salute is duly noted," I said. "What's up?"

"Someone to see you. She says it's important."

I shrugged and followed him out to the lobby. There was a young Asian woman sitting on one of the ratty sofas, and she stood up as Fifteen and I came over. She looked like she was in her early twenties, and I was fairly sure I had never met her.

"Mr. Marshall?" she asked.

I held out my hand. "Yes, and you are?" It was usually not worth it to explain that "Marshall" is my first name.

"Ashley Dawn," she said, shaking my hand firmly.

That name clicked in after a second. "You live in the same building as Zoe Alexander," I said. I smiled. "Well, I imagine you knew that already."

She smiled, but she wasn't in the mood for jokes. "Zoe needs to see you. I want to take you to her. It's important."

"Why didn't she just come to see me herself?"

"You'll see. She's nearby."

I could tell this was serious, and it seemed silly to ask more questions when Zoe was waiting to give me the answers. We had met Zoe during a previous investigation, and I was curious about why she was coming to see me now, and in this roundabout fashion.

"I'll tell them you're going to be busy for a while," Fifteen said.


Ashley led me out of the hotel and down to the corner. We turned, walked down a block, around another corner, and into a very small, dark cafe. I could see Zoe sitting at a small table in a dark corner. She was wearing a large pair of sunglasses, which didn't entirely hide her black eye, and the white lip gloss didn't conceal her bruised lip.

She wore a miniskirt and white boots, with large, white hoop earrings. She had a white sweater wrapped around her shoulders, held in front with a clasp, and I wondered if there were bruises on her arms.

Ashley and I sat at the table and I said quietly, "Zoe, it's good to see you, but what happened?"

Zoe hesitated. "I made her come see you," Ashley said. The waiter approached, and I indicated that I'd like a coffee. Ashley shook her head as she continued. "She didn't want to talk to anybody; she was just going to hide herself away until she healed up, but I told her she needed to report this. Those guys will probably attack somebody else, and–"

"Two guys? Masked? Dressed like the quiet people?" I asked, keeping my voice low. The tables were very close together.

Zoe nodded. "Yes. How did you know?"

"You're not the first. And Ashley is right, you're probably not the last, unless we find these guys. We're looking for them now. It is very important that you reported this. Thank you."

"I... I couldn't go into the hotel. Not like this. News travels so fast around here. Some people might think Mr. Mason did it." Mr. Mason, who I had never met, was her lover.

"She's talked about you ever since she met you," Ashley said with a friendly smirk. "What a gentleman you were. How unusual that is. So, I said she should talk to you."

I smiled at Zoe. "I appreciate that. Please tell me all about it." The waiter brought my coffee and I sipped it as she told the story.

"She was going to a party," I reported later to my employer. "Alone. It was around nine last night. They jumped her from an alley. She got a black eye, a bruised lip, and a couple of scrapes. Then she broke free. She's sure they were both male, by the way. They ran after her, but she was faster."

"She was stronger and faster than they thought," Ron added sagely. "Because 'she' is really a guy."

This was an interesting observation. Ron was probably right, I thought, but I didn't point out that this was at odds with her regular assertion that boys weren't really all that tough, and that there wasn't a boy in the school that she couldn't beat up if she had to.

"They didn't mention Zoe's name," I continued, "so they may not have known her–" ("him," Ron muttered) "–but they knew that she's a transvestite, which is not easy to tell."

We had told Ron about the rules of etiquette as they apply to transvestites, but she had not been convinced. The one time she had met Zoe had been when we'd eaten at the restaurant where Zoe worked as a waitress. As she'd approached our table, smiling, pad in hand, Ron had blurted out, "You're a guy!"

I'd tapped her arm; Zoe had ignored the outburst and taken our order; and then we'd explained to Ron, quietly, that we were sure Zoe was already aware that she had been born male, and that it was therefore not necessary to point this out to her.

I did most of the explaining. Jan's attention was focused on how happy she was. As you can imagine, the great detective was pleased that her adopted daughter had been sharp enough to spot this, since it was far from obvious. Zoe made a very convincing girl.

When I had finished telling Zoe's story, my employer leaned back in her chair and lit another cigarette. "This leads me to three questions," she said. "For one, why didn't you bring her to me, so I could talk to her? For another, and I know you don't know the answer to this, how many other attacks have there been, unreported? After all, both of the people who have reported this know us personally. That's why they came to us. Unless we imagine that people are being targeted because they know us – which seems unlikely – there must be others who haven't come forward. And for a third question, also unknown but I can guess, since the assailants failed in their goal of really injuring Zoe, as they injured Will, are they going to start using weapons of some sort instead of just their hands?

"And, since both of the attacks were interrupted – the first by the arrival of Sharon and Craig, and the second by Zoe's escape – we can't even be sure that their intentions aren't to kill and they just haven't succeeded yet."

"Shit," Ron said.

"To answer your first question," I said, "the only one I can answer, Zoe finds you rather scary. She was more comfortable talking to me. And she only did that because Ashley pressured her into it."

"Well," she said, smiling, "you must have made quite an impression, Mr. Gentleman."

I turned to Vicki, who was sitting cross-legged on our bed, listening.

"I'm not going to have a big public meeting or anything," she said slowly. "There's no point in creating panic, and it will only turn people against the quiet people. We have no idea if these two are even really in the group. But I will mention at the regular meeting that people should be careful at night, and I'll see if I can beef up the volunteer patrols. But the most important thing is that I will let the hospital know about this, so that we get notified if anybody comes in who's been beaten, even if they don't want to report it." She looked up. "When do you get a progress report from Wendy?"

"Not until Monday," Jan said. "Marshall and Phyllis will go meet her again. But I don't think she's going to get results that quickly. The quiet people aren't evangelists; they're very cautious about strangers. We've seen that in the reports. It will take her a while to get anywhere. And, as you pointed out, these two may have nothing to do with the quiet people. I'm going to go now to look at the street where they attacked Zoe, but I don't expect to find much. It's only in stories that criminals conveniently drop their cards or matchbooks or their electric bills."

But we did see Wendy sooner than Monday morning. It was Saturday night and we were just getting in from a play.

There had been a meeting that afternoon where Vicki had talked about people being careful when walking alone after dark. Then we had gone out to a play, during which I had started to worry about Ron. She was a girl who had adopted a boy's name, who wore her hair fairly short, who dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, and who liked to settle problems with her fists (when they couldn't be solved by cursing). What if she was too masculine for the men we were after?

I told myself I was being overprotective. Will was a sexually active boy in an apparently incestuous triad. Zoe was a transvestite boy in a relationship with a man. Surely a foul-mouthed tomboy wasn't in the same category. I tried to imagine telling Ron not to go around alone at night. Would she even listen?

I don't remember much about the play, except that it involved some actors, in costumes, and it took place on a stage.

As the house lights came up, I regarded my employer. She was a tall woman, a fraction over six feet, extremely thin, with shoulder-length brown hair, dressed in a man's three-piece suit.

She frowned at my scrutiny as she used her cane to get vertical. "Egg on my tie?" she asked, peering down.

I took her hand as we moved slowly toward the exit with the rest of the audience. "These guys disapprove of a boy wearing a girl's clothes. How would they feel about a beautiful woman wearing a man's clothes?"

She almost looked around to see who I was talking about, then she started to say, "I'm not..." and then she frowned. She looked down. "These aren't a man's clothes; they're mine. That's why they fit me so well."

I waited.

"Surely not," she said. "I'm a respectable married woman. I cleave only unto my husband. I'm almost ostentatiously monogamous and heterosexual."

"O would some power the giftie gie us..."

She rolled her eyes. "Thank you, Robert Burns. In fact, I'll bet..." Her voice trailed off and she stopped, causing somebody to bump into her from behind. I took her arm and moved her toward the exit. "Ron," she said.

I nodded. "That's where I started. I wonder if we're overreacting."

"Yes," she said firmly. "She's in no more danger than anybody else."

We argued about it as we walked back home to the hotel, if you can call it an argument when both participants seem to have trouble deciding which side to be on.

As we walked down the hall to our door, Jan said, "I think Vicki is right. If she makes a big deal of this, people will panic and react badly. Look how worked up we've been getting."

"Not only that, but I think it's what these guys want. If they think they're getting a real reaction, I think it will only make them bolder and more determined."

I opened the door and Ron looked up from the book she was reading. "Hey," she said, and she was somewhat surprised when Jan went over and hugged her. "What?" she demanded.

I moved to close the door, but it was pushed open from outside. A young woman with short, blonde hair came in, brushing past me. "Close the door," she said, "I'm pretty sure I wasn't seen – I came up the back stairs and waited in the stairwell – but you can't be too careful. I had something I had to tell you, and I just couldn't wait until... Oh, my God! It's you! This is so–"

I clapped my hands in front of her face and she became, momentarily, silent, apparently stunned that she was face-to-face with her idol.

"This is Wendy," I said as Wendy grinned, almost vibrating with excitement.

"I was guessing that might be the case, though I must say that your physical description of her was somewhat faulty."

"Oh," Wendy said negligently, "I'm pretty good at changing my appearance. I always think–"

"Please sit down, Wendy," I said, steering her to a chair. "It must have been pretty important for you to take the risk of coming here. Why don't you tell us what you've discovered?"

I'd already figured out that it helped to get her attention if you addressed her by name.

"Okay," she said. "I've got to be friends with a couple of people, and I've found out that there's a 'prophet' – he's at the center of this thing, but nobody ever sees him (at least that's what they say) – and the prophet has 'revelations' from time to time." She was using her fingers to indicate the quotation marks. "The 'revelations' are typed up and distributed. Some revelations are for everybody, some are only for the higher-ups. There is one revelation, the 'First Revelation,' that's for new people, if they think you're sincere, and I may be able to read that one pretty soon. The other thing they tell new people is to start making your garment, if you're serious, because you have to make it by hand and that's supposed to teach you to be patient and methodical and ... something. Focus, and if you do it sloppily they make you do it over, so I've started on that. There are even rules about what kind of underwear you can wear under the garment, and I may have to go buy some things because my regular stuff is really not going to cut it – if they ever check, and I don't know if they do–"

She grabbed the bottom of her T-shirt, apparently about to whip it up and illustrate the extent to which her current lingerie was inappropriate, but Ron yelled, "Hey!" causing Wendy to turn around, apparently noticing her for the first time.

"Hi," she said, releasing her grip on her T-shirt. "Who are you?"

"Ron is our daughter–" I began.

"Your daughter? Both of you?" She looked from my employer to me and back. "I didn't know you guys were–"

"Do you have any idea when you'll learn more?" I asked.

She shrugged. "Soon, I hope. I'll let you know." She stood up. "I'd better go. My boyfriend is waiting." She turned to my employer. "Can you come Monday? With Marshall and Phyllis? If would be so cool if people from my school could see me with you."

My employer smiled indulgently. "Which is why I can't come. I would be noticed, and word would start to get around, and news might reach the wrong people."

Wendy nodded slowly, turned to go, and then turned back and sat down again. "I want to talk about starling," she said. "Marshall says she doesn't do interviews, but maybe if you talked to her–"

"Wendy," my employer said, packing tobacco into her pipe, "here's a quick lesson in how things work. You want to interview starling. That would be good for you. You would become, potentially, world famous, in fact. Now, is she going to give you an interview to help your career, even apart from the fact that it would make her life here more difficult? She lives very quietly, and that's for a reason. In answer, no, of course she's not going to make her life worse – potentially much worse – to give your career a boost. People give interviews when it will benefit them, or when they think it will."

Wendy nodded slowly. "Okay, that makes sense. What if I met her casually–"

"No." My employer used her cane to get to her feet, stepping forward so that she loomed over Wendy. "You want to be a reporter? You need to do what your editor tells you. Phyllis is your editor and she is your boss, and ultimately I am her boss. You have already been told that starling is off-limits." Her voice became sharper. "If you bother her at all, even slightly, if you make any attempt to get into contact with her, I will end your internship here, I will sever your connection to our newspaper, and I will write a letter to your professor saying that, in my opinion, you are not qualified to be a professional journalist. That should carry some weight, coming from me. Of course, that's assuming you survive the encounter, which you probably wouldn't. Am I making myself clear?"

Wendy sighed, looking somewhat stunned. "Yes, of course. Sorry."

"If I am harsh, it is because you obviously have tremendous potential, and I would hate to have that potential wasted because you got a bullet in your brain. You have done amazing work, frankly, in what you've told us tonight. I never imagined that you'd learn so much so quickly."

"She's very cocky." Jan observed after Wendy had departed.

I nodded. "Remind you of anybody you know?"

She snorted a laugh that was, as she would have said, very unladylike, then she quickly composed herself.

"No, of course not. I don't know what you're talking about." She didn't meet my eyes, trying to keep a straight face as she thought of another young reporter who had once had the idea of interviewing the notorious murderer, only to be dissuaded, with some difficulty, by her long-suffering assistant.

The next few days were relatively quiet, but we were optimistic because of all the progress Wendy had made already.

We decided to let Phyllis make the Monday trip to the city by herself. We had just seen Wendy, after all, and it was unlikely she had made a lot more progress since Saturday night. Also, the hospital was short-staffed and Jan was not able to fill in for me as she had the week before.

After I was done at the hospital, I did a couple of errands and then I went by the newspaper office. I arrived just as Phyllis was returning from the city. We went to the same small, private room to talk. Phyllis said that Wendy had not learned any more than she had told us, but that she was hopeful that she would be able to see the First Revelation within a few days.

Phyllis smiled. "I also told her that she should be bringing her information to her editor first, not to her idol the great reporter."

"We had to yell at her, too, or at least Jan did. About starling. I hope we got her attention, but it was hard to tell."

Phyllis nodded. "I know what you mean. She didn't mention it today, so maybe she's finally got the message."

We met with Vicki on Friday morning to bring her up to date. We had not had another late-night visit from Wendy.

Vicki sat cross-legged in the middle of the meeting table and listened intently. People who didn't know her often wondered how a teenage girl could run a country (even a very small country), but those who had met her and watched her work didn't wonder.

"There have been two more assaults that we know of," Jan said, tapping her ash into an ashtray. "Both of them we found out about through the hospital. One was a local woman who calls herself Z." Vicki smiled and I had the impression that she knew Z. "She was at the Foxtrot, drinking, and she picked up a girl. They were walking back to Z's apartment when the two guys jumped them. The girl got away, but Z fought back. She got hit in the head, and then the guys were scared off by one of the volunteer patrols. Z declined medical help at the time, but then she woke up dizzy the next morning and thought she should have her head checked out. She was okay, but the ER reported it to us and Marshall went to interview her."

Vicki turned to me. "Z said that the guys had insulted her," I said, "but they hadn't mentioned her name and there was no indication that they knew her or the girl. Z didn't think they mentioned the girl's name, but she didn't remember it either so we haven't been able to locate her. It seems likely they were just reacting to the sight of two women walking and holding hands, and perhaps to the age difference as well."

"I've told Pat not to go around at night alone," Vicki said. "Which is a fucked-up thing to have to do, I know." Pat was her girlfriend. "What about the other assault?"

"No definite facts," I said. "I asked people at the hospital on Monday if they remembered anything, from before they were told to report, and they remembered a man coming in a few days before. He'd obviously been beaten. We tried to follow up, but he's apparently left town so we were unable to even get confirmation, let alone details."

Vicki sighed. "I've tried to approach the quiet people, officially, but none of them are willing to meet in any formal way. I–"

The door opened and Ron came in. This was not Ron as she usually delivered the mail. She looked very serious, with no yelling or stomping. She had her Red Cross bag, but it appeared to be empty.

"Mom, Dad," she said, coming around the table to us. "Something happened."

"What is it, Ron?" I asked.

She paused before replying. Not to build suspense, but so she could take a breath. She was working at not crying, but I wasn't sure she was going to make it. I wondered if something had happened to Will.

"Wendy's dead," she said.

"Oh, my god," Jan whispered.

"What happened?" I asked. I took Ron's hand in mine and she squeezed, hard.

"I was waiting for the mail, and somebody came down from the bridge and said that there was a dead body. A bunch of us went to look, and it was her." She was gripping my hand with all her strength by this point. "She was in one of those little shed things, in the middle of the bridge."

Jan had taken off her glasses and was leaning forward, her face in her hands. I knew what she was thinking, but I couldn't respond until she put it into words.

"Had you seen her go past you onto the bridge?" I asked.

She nodded. "I saw her a lot of days, early. She was one of the regulars."

"Regulars?" I asked.

"People who go over the bridge a lot in the morning. Or the other way. I'm always there, so I get to know them. Some of them say 'Hi!' and, you know, 'Running late today!' or whatever. If they ask why I'm there, I tell them I'm waiting for the mail. I saw her a lot, but I never knew who she was until she came into our room that night. I never find out their names."

"Was she alone this morning?"

"Yeah, she's always alone. Sometimes she says, 'Early class!' or 'Overslept!'

"Did you see any quiet people go over the bridge?"

She started to look more upset, and I squeezed her hand.

"I see them sometimes. They never say anything, but sometimes they smile."

"What about today?" I asked quietly.

"There were two of them," she said, not looking at me. "Guys. I don't know if they were together, but they were one right after the other." She looked as if she was about to start crying. I heard the door close, and I looked around. Vicki had left us alone. I pulled Ron to me and put my arms around her.

"There was no way for you to know, if that is even what happened, and there was nothing you could have done," I told her. I hugged her, then straightened her up with my hands on her shoulders. "What did Wendy die from?" I asked her.

She set her mouth. She was not going to cry. "She was stabbed, they think," she said. "They sent a runner to the hospital. To get somebody to come."

"If I had figured out another way to do this..." Jan said.

"It was the right way," I said softly. "And you didn't send her after this story. She wanted to do it, and it was important that she do it. If we didn't realize before how important it was, we should now."

Jan sighed, and Ron went over and put her arms around her mother. Jan shook her head, holding Ron tight. "Thank god," she said, and I knew what she meant. She was thinking, as I was, that it could have been Ron.

"It stinks," I said after a moment. "It sure does. But Wendy was doing her job, an important job, and now we need to do our job and figure this out. Before anybody else gets hurt."

Jan nodded after a moment and straightened up. I went to the door, and Ron stood up straight. Vicki and Fifteen were in the hall.

"Come on in," I said. "We need help."

"I already sent somebody for the mail," Fifteen said. He had seen Ron's distress and her empty bag, and had acted accordingly. I wondered if anything ever got past him.

"Do you need Christy?" he asked.

Jan nodded. "We will, I think. Here's what I think. Let me know if this makes sense." I couldn't remember the last time she had ever asked anybody if one of her ideas made sense.

"Christy should go to Wendy's apartment, right now, and make sure nothing is touched there until I can get there. It may be too late, but let's hope not. Marshall and I are going to the newspaper office, to go through her desk, and to let Phyllis know about this if she doesn't already. Then we'll go to the apartment – her boyfriend's apartment – and search that. If Wendy was killed because of something she learned, we need to know what that was."

"She didn't have a desk at the office," I said. "She was never even there."

"Of course," she said, bumping the heel of her hand against her temple. "We'll go to the apartment first."

I shook my head. "No, you were right the first time. We have to go to the newspaper office first, unless you know where the boyfriend's apartment is. I don't."

"Me, neither. Okay, we go to the newspaper office first."

"What about the body?" I asked.

"I assume that will end up at the hospital," She turned to Fifteen. "Can you send them a message to seal her personal effects? Clothes, what she had on her, everything."

"I can have them brought here, if that will help."

"Great, thanks." She shrugged. "We'll do that last. If that is why she was killed, it is likely that the body was searched."

"What about me?" Ron asked.

Jan tried for a smile. "You need to go to school."

"What the fuck–"

"I was attempting a joke, dear. I'm sorry. Fifteen, can you get Ron a bicycle?"


"Ron, I do want you to go to school, as fast as you can. The Golden will be there. You need to find them, and tell them what's happened. This is very important. I have no idea what's going on here, but they may be in more danger now. This has gone to murder now, not just beatings. They should stick together, the three of them, no matter what, and you should stay with them for the rest of the day. I know you may have different classes, but you should stay together. That's more important."

"I don't think the teachers will have a problem," Vicki said quietly, "but if they do, tell them they can come talk to me."

Jan turned back to Ron. "You should go home with the Golden after school, and we'll meet you there when we're done with the searching. I'm sure they'll give you dinner." She closed her eyes and shook her head. "I sound just like a mother, don't I? When did that happen?"

That was the laugh that we all needed, and we took it, even Ron. Then we started to split up, but as Ron was following Fifteen out, she turned, frowning. "Hey," she said, "am I protecting the Golden, or are they protecting me?"

"Both," Jan said. Ron frowned. "This is important," Jan continued after a moment. "Please do as I ask."

Ron sighed. "Okay," she said.

When she was gone, Jan said, "I wasn't sure that would work."

"I think it may have been a one-time thing," I said. "Just for today."

"Well, I hope so," she said, which made Vicki laugh.

As my employer and I were leaving, I said, "There is one more thing. I didn't want to mention this in front of Ron, but I thoroughly agree with finishing this before anybody else gets killed, but that includes us. Should we wait for Christy before we go see the boyfriend and search the apartment?"

She shook her head. "No. No more waiting. Besides, there's no evidence he's guilty of anything."

"No, but I'm not declaring anybody innocent until we figure out who's guilty. And, in addition to that, of all the young women who are murdered in a year, how many of them are killed by a husband or a boyfriend or a lover?"

She knew the statistics as well as I did. "Okay, bring your gun."

I trotted to the staircase and up to our room. As I unlocked the bottom drawer in my bureau and loaded the automatic, I reflected that this showed how serious she was right now. Usually she referred to the gun as my "old service revolver," though it was not a revolver and I have never been in the service. Not today, though. She was in no mood for jokes.

I dropped the gun into my jacket pocket, took a couple of other things from the drawer, locked it, and went back down to the lobby.

We set out across town to the newspaper office. I had a lot of things in my head, as you can imagine, but I kept quiet. I could tell my employer was thinking hard, trying to compose herself.

When we'd been about to leave the hotel, Fifteen had stopped us and pointed out that he couldn't send a runner to have Christy meet us at Wendy's boyfriend's apartment because we didn't have any idea where he lived or even what his name was. If my employer had been thinking clearly, she'd have realized this herself. I admit the same is true of me, too, of course.

When we got to the newspaper office, we learned that Phyllis was out. My employer made a face. She really wanted to get to the boyfriend's apartment as soon as possible. Seeing her irritation, a young man came over to us and said, "Phyllis has a deadline, Miss Sleet, so she's probably in that coffee shop across the street. That's where she goes to write."

And that's where she was: in a booth, the last of a row of seven or eight. She had a cup of coffee, a lit cigarette, and a pad of paper and a pen. She looked up as we approached, started to smile, and then stopped when she saw our expressions.

I took the seat opposite her, sliding in so that my employer could sit next to me.

"We're sorry to bring you this news," my employer began, "but Wendy was murdered early this morning."

Phyllis capped her pen and sighed, her shoulders slumping. A waiter came over and I indicated that we'd both like coffees. "Because of the story she was working on?" she asked as the waiter walked away.

"We don't know," my employer said. "It seems likely, but we don't know for sure. Not yet." She turned to me and I quickly summarized what we'd learned (omitting the personal details, of course).

Phyllis sighed again, and then she nodded. "And you want to go talk to Jake."

"To give him the news, yes, and to go through whatever papers she may have left at his apartment."

The coffee arrived and we both drank some. "I think she was basically living there," Phyllis said, "especially since she started the investigation. I'm not surprised she went over the bridge early in the mornings. To get to her first class, I'm sure."

"You've had no word from her since Monday?" my employer asked.

She shook her head. "Nothing. You?"

"No. Which may mean she hadn't made a lot of progress, but not necessarily."

"Should I come with you?"

"Do you know Jake?"

"No, never laid eyes on him. She used to talk about him a lot, but I never met him."

"Then I would prefer not. To tell you the truth, I have no idea what's going on, or what happens next, but we're expecting the worst. Marshall is armed, Christy will be joining us, and we have our daughter and the Golden staying together for protection. We've sent word to the other victims – the ones we know about – to be careful."

Phyllis nodded. "Okay."

My employer made a face. "I've been working on the assumption that you can tell me where the boyfriend's apartment is, but I just realized that you may not know either."

Phyllis frowned, then she nodded. "I don't know, but I know how to find out. Come on." She got up and led us back across the street to the newspaper office. She apparently ran a tab at the coffee shop, because they just waved as we left.

In the office, she took us into a small corner room where there were several filing cabinets. "She asked for a subscription to the paper, for Jake. That way, she could read it whenever she was here, without having to pick up her own copy. We always file the original forms, in case the address is copied down wrong onto the lists." She went through a couple of folders, and then she pulled out the piece of paper. "Here it is." I made a note of the address, then handed the form back to her.

As we left, I said, "Christy from the Jinx will be coming here as soon as she can. Please give her the address as well, so she can join us."

"I will. And come back and fill me in when you can. I'll be at the office late today."

So, we set out again. Ordinarily, I would have insisted my employer get some food before we went, but she was running on excitement now, possibly near the solution to the mystery that had vexed her for over a week.

It was only about four blocks to Jake's address, and when we entered the narrow hallway and climbed the creaky stairs there was no answer to the doorbell. I knocked and called his name, but there was still no response.

My employer tilted her head at the door, and I got out the tools I'd taken from the locked drawer in our bedroom. I had the door open in under a minute. Inside, there was one room with a tiny kitchen and an even tinier bathroom. The main room was cluttered but fairly clean.

"Look for something that doesn't fit," she said. "Something that–"

"Here," I said, picking up the black shoulder bag I'd seen the day I'd met Wendy. My employer took a pile of newspapers from the card table and placed them on the floor, then I pulled out a stack of papers from the bag and she started to go through it.

Her methodical approach didn't last long, though, because she spotted the stiff, blue paper. It was larger than the others. I slid a folding chair over and she sat down, her attention focused on the paper.

I still have it. It was unusually large (10.25" x 9.8"), stiff, and pale blue. It was covered with several long paragraphs of typing. At the top it said, "The First Revelation."

She read it through, then she read it again, more slowly, frowning. She scratched her nose and looked at the blank wall in front of her, then she got up and went to the one bookcase, which was taller than she was. She searched for a minute, then she took a volume from the top shelf and returned to the table. She lit a cigarette and began to check something in the book against the First Revelation.

She had something, that was obvious. I decided to search the rest of the apartment.

I was going through the closet when I heard a knock at the door. It was obviously not Jake, so I went and opened it.

Christy and Fifteen came in, "We ran into each other downstairs," he explained.

"Jake isn't here yet," I said, though I guess that was obvious unless he was hiding in the shower. My employer didn't even look up from her studies. I thought I recognized the book she was using, but I couldn't see how it fit in.

"I came as fast as I could," Fifteen said, "because I knew Miss Sleet would want to see this." He handed me a strip of gray cloth, torn along one side. "It was clutched in Wendy's hand."

I went back to the closet. Sure enough, there was a dark gray garment there, apparently complete. I pulled out the pieces – the pants, the top, and the head covering – and examined them carefully. They seemed to be intact. I also discovered something else, and I went to tell my employer as the door opened again and a man came in. He was short and slender, with long, dark hair and striking green eyes, and he was obviously surprised to find people in his apartment (and one of them a celebrity at that).

"Miss Sleet," he said hesitantly, stepping toward her, "are you here for Wendy? I know she said she'd met you, but I don't think she..."

I'd caught Fifteen's eye and he stepped forward to tell Jake that his girlfriend had been murdered. Fifteen may have looked far from official – he was shorter than Jake, with a shaved head, wearing a faded T-shirt and baggy shorts – but he knew how to act in almost any situation.

I took the opportunity to lean over and whisper some things in my employer's ear. Her eyes widened as I talked, then she frowned, and the whole time she kept a fingertip on the First Revelation, as if to make sure it didn't fly away.

When I was done, she took her cane and got to her feet.

"Jake," she said, "Wendy was a very promising young reporter, with potentially a great future ahead of her. Because of some very good work on her part, I have this–" she held up the stiff, blue paper "–which has cleared up a lot of questions about the quiet people. Wendy didn't know what she had, but she would have figured it out. The key was right in your bookcase as a matter of fact." She stepped forward. "I would offer condolences on your loss, but under the circumstances that would not be appropriate. Christy, hold him."

She was in position already, behind Jake, and she reached forward and grabbed his upper arms.

"Hey," he said in protest, squirming. "You're crazy. I don't have anything to do with the quiet people!"

"No, you don't. But you did murder your girlfriend."

"Everybody should settle in," my employer said. "I'm afraid this is going to go on for a while."

We were in an Indian restaurant that we knew Christy and Fifteen liked. My employer was at the head of the table, and Vicki and Phyllis had joined us as well. Jake had been taken into custody, of course.

We were going to talk about things that couldn't be discussed in a public place, but the restaurant had a back room which was private and quiet, and it had been available.

"If this was the dénoument," my employer said as the waiters served us, "I would have made sure Ron was here, but the frustrating part of all this is that, in trying to solve the mystery that she asked me to investigate, the beating of her friend, I solved two other mysteries instead – well, one was at least partly solved by Marshall, which is not unusual – and we're still no closer to solving the original mystery. If Ron was here, she would probably be looking at me reproachfully throughout the meal. Also, she can't stand Indian food.

"I won't outline the case itself; I think you're all familiar with the facts so far, and I'm going to turn over the first part of this to Marshall. If I don't eat some of this wonderful food then he will start looking at me reproachfully, and I'll get enough of that from Ron later on."

They all chuckled, as much as they could while they were eating, and I began.

"When Wendy was killed, two of the quiet people went onto the bridge soon after she did. It was assumed that they were together, because we have been searching for two men, but that was not clear from what Ron observed. It could have been one man following another, trying to look like they were together. Or it could have been a coincidence.

"When Wendy's body was found, there was a strip of gray cloth with a ragged edge clutched in her hand. It seemed likely that it had been torn from the garment of her attacker, or one of them, if there were two.

"Wendy was working on infiltrating the quiet people, as you know, so she was making a garment for herself. This had to be done properly, slowly and carefully, almost as a form of meditation.

"There was a garment in her closet when I searched it. I took it out and examined the parts, to see if a strip of cloth had been torn off. Everything seemed to be intact, but I quickly discovered something else significant. The garment was a fake. It was crudely made, stitched by a machine, from a cheap, artificial fabric. Real garments are made from a specific type of rough cotton, and always handmade. My guess is that the quiet people are now well enough known that the local costume shops are including their garments along with the witches and princesses and superheroes." I looked at my employer. "Your turn. I'm hungry, too."

Everybody laughed and she finished the piece of chicken that she was eating, taking her time, then she wiped her lips and put down her napkin. "I could think of no plausible reason why Wendy would have had a joke-shop garment, and, in any case, where had the real one gone?

"The only thing that made sense was that Jake had decided to kill Wendy, and he had worn her garment as a disguise. He is a small man, and the garments are loose-fitting, so I'm sure it fit him. I would imagine he waited out of sight of the bridge until Wendy had passed by, then he followed the next person who was wearing a garment, so that any observer would remember there were two of them. I'm sure he knew what Wendy was working on, and people would assume the two men she was after had killed her.

"So, he went on the bridge, waylaid Wendy, got her into the construction shed and stabbed her. If somebody saw him, they still only saw one of the quiet people. Then, at some point, he took off the garment, which he'd worn over his regular clothes. It was torn, and perhaps bloody, so he got rid of it. If he was still on the bridge, maybe he dropped it over the side into the river.

"But he knew she'd been making the garment, and we knew it, and its absence might be noted. There was no time to make another one, certainly not to the standard of the quiet people, so he bought a joke-shop one and hoped that it would pass. Which it didn't, of course, thanks to Marshall. Is that all clear?"

They all nodded, continuing to eat. Then Phyllis looked up. "Why did he kill her?" she asked.

"Jealousy. She was having a relationship of some sort with a student at her school, and she was very open about this with Jake. Since she had more or less moved into his apartment while she was pursuing the investigation, he had started to feel that her real affections were elsewhere, and she was continuing the relationship with him primarily because his apartment was useful to her." Phyllis sighed and shook her head.

"So," my employer continued, "that was Part One, the first mystery. While Marshall was solving that, I was going through Wendy's papers." She explained about the Revelations, and the First Revelation. "As I was reading it, two things struck me. One was that it was complete and utter nonsense. The other was that the writing seemed oddly familiar. The use of words, the paragraphing, the punctuation. I couldn't see how my idea made sense, but I went to Jake's bookshelf and found this." She held up a slender volume. The cover showed a single brown and gold leaf. The title was "Sere and Gold," and the author was Isaac Ashford.

"Our local celebrity poet," she continued. "Marshall, Christy and I met him during the vampire case. This volume contains poems and also some prose pieces, called "Meditations." Close textual analysis made it almost undeniable that the writer who had perpetrated the First Revelation had also written the Meditations.

"This seemed incredible on the face of it. The quiet people are ascetic and reverent. Isaac Ashford is a hedonistic sybarite. He has college interns and other young adoring fans living with him in his family's mansion and the appearance is that they provide various services for him which are not, shall we say, entirely literary in nature.

"So, as I said, it seems incredible that he wrote the First Revelation, but that's my assumption, and I'm going to confront him, or I should say that we are. Textual analysis is all well and good, but juries like tangible evidence. So, we're going to find the typewriter the First Revelation was written on, which I'm sure is in his house somewhere."

She looked at Christy, who held up a hand as she wiped her mouth, then she said, "I guess the next part of the story is mine. I saw the book that Jan was looking at, and I wondered how Ashford fit in. So, I asked Marshall to hold Jake out in the hall while I spoke to Jan. She told me, and I said that I thought the Jinx would help. Mindy, one of our members, used to live at Ashford's house. She was one of his young followers, as part of a college internship. Since she's been with us, she's told us some of what goes on there." She sighed. "I know I'm somewhat of a prude in some ways, but she was a kid, away from home for the first time, attracted by his celebrity, and she was pressured into doing things that she didn't really want to do.

"The only reason I mention this is that we have no love for Isaac Ashford. I checked, and the Jinx are going to assist in this." She smiled. "When I met Ashford the first time, we thought he might be harming one of the Jinx, and I told him that, if he was guilty, we would kill him and destroy his house. This is nothing like that, but we will help Jan in one way."

So, at midnight, we were standing at Isaac Ashford's door. We had stopped by the house where the Golden lived and quickly brought them up to date. We had agreed to meet them for breakfast the next morning to let them know how it had gone. We had suggested Ron stay over at their house, for safety, but it was obvious that this idea made her very uncomfortable so we didn't press it. Fifteen agreed to accompany her back to the hotel where she would wait for us in our room.

At the stroke of midnight, my employer knocked on the door with the head of her cane. After a minute, Ashford himself opened the door. He regarded us with some surprise, belting his ornate robe more tightly around him. "I was writing," he said, "and it is pleasant to see you–"

"Mr. Ashford," my employer said, "we need to talk to you in connection with a very serious crime, then we intend to search your house."

As he was about the reply, he heard the sound of the approaching motorcycles, and the disembodied howl that always accompanied the Jinx. He looked past my employer and saw the headlights coming, in strict formation.

"We are going to look for an object which is, we believe, somewhere in your house. The Jinx are going to surround the house, just in case you have some idea of sneaking this object out before we find it."

"What is this all about?" he demanded. "I'm not involved in anything criminal. I must say–"

"We know you're behind the quiet people, and we intend to find the typewriter that was used to write the First Revelation, which we have. Typewriters are, as you may know, as distinctive as fingerprints."

He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Even if this were true," he said after a moment, "I don't think writing and distributing religious revelations is a criminal act. I can't see–"

"Two men, in the garments of the quiet people, have beaten at least three people, apparently as a punishment for their sexual practices. That is a criminal act, both carrying it out and inciting it."

He sighed and nodded. "Indeed it is. Will you come in? We can talk in my office."

My employer had decided to insist that we not talk in Ashford's huge sunken living room, mostly because it was very difficult for her to go up or down stairs without something to hold onto, but Ashford led us around the central pit and through a concealed door to a small office. The parts of the house we'd been in before had been very theatrical, including illumination by huge candles on poles, but this office had an electric light, which he turned on.

He sat behind his desk, and my employer sat in the only other chair. Christy stood by the door, her arms folded. Ashford tapped his forefinger the typewriter on a small table next to his desk. "Here is the machine. You don't need to search for it. May I ask what you intend to do?"

"You're right, there is nothing illegal about starting a religion. But people who join a religion have a right to know who is behind it. In the next issue of the newspaper, there will be a front page article, written by me, though I will share the byline with the late Wendy Kalmus, whose investigation I'm building on. I will detail that you are, for whatever reason, behind the quiet people. If you cooperate with us now, you will be given a two column sidebar, front page, to give your own explanation of why you were doing this. Subject to editorial approval, of course. If not–" Ashford held up a hand and pressed a button on the edge of his desk. A panel in the wall opened up and a young man poked his head in.

"Victor," Ashford said, "how is Selene?"

"Resting. She is still somewhat uncomfortable, but the pain is less, and her arm doesn't seem to be broken–"

"One of your people was attacked by these two men?" I demanded. "Why isn't she at the hospital?"

"She got away, with only minor injuries," he said hesitantly, "and the questions–"

I turned to Victor. "You're going to take me to her," I told him. "Now. Don't look at him to find out if it's okay. I'm telling you." I grabbed his arm. "I said now."

Back in our room, much later, we found Ron sitting at her desk, her head on her folded arms, asleep. I touched her shoulder and she squirmed and then opened her eyes. Her cheek was creased from where it had rested on her sleeve. "What happened?" she asked sleepily, rubbing her eyes.

"We went to Ashford's house," I told her. "He admitted everything, and he showed us the typewriter and allowed us to take a sample. He has young people who stay with him–"

"I know about that," she said darkly. "I..." she turned to Jan. "You should stop him. It's..."

"It's not right," I agreed. "One of those young people, a girl he called Selene, was attacked by the same men who attacked Will. She got away, but she should have gone to the hospital. He didn't want her to, because it would have–"

"Is she okay?" she asked. "I... fuck."

"I took her to the hospital. I talked to her, and she's not going back to Ashford. We're getting a message to her parents."

Ron nodded. She was clearly angry and upset, but unable to articulate why. I imagined it had to do with things that happened to her when she was younger, but we never pressed her about that.

"Two things are going to happen," Jan said. "For one, we're going to have an article in the paper exposing that Ashford was behind the quiet people. He's cooperating, so he will write something also, explaining why he did it. As far as what he said, he started it as something of a lark, leading into an idea he had for a new book. But it took off, beyond what he'd imagined, and he got caught up, wondering where it would go. I think for his article he will claim that it was some sort of experiment to show how gullible people are, but that's not really true."


"And this is the other thing we're going to do. Vicki is going to write to every college where he speaks or where he gets interns, detailing some of what Selene and Mindy have gone through. We're going to talk to some of his other acolytes as well, and offer them counseling, places to live and so on, if that's what they want. That part of Ashford's life is over. There may be some prosecution, but that's up to the court."

Ron nodded. "Good. Bastard."

Jan sighed. "But Ashford didn't have anything to do with the men who attacked Will and the others. So, we still don't know about them."

Ron nodded. "You'll figure it out, Mom."

Jan smiled. "You're more confident than I am, dear."

Ron slept in our room that night, in her sleeping bag, and by the time we got up she was already gone, off to pick up the mail. It was Saturday, so there was mail delivery but no school. We were exhausted, but we had committed to seeing the Golden for breakfast, and they deserved to hear what had been happening.

When we got to the dining room, they were there, at a large table, and Christy was with them. Will was completely healed (which made me aware again of how long this was taking to solve) and so once again the three siblings were pretty much indistinguishable. Most of the tables and booths were full, and I could see a few people pretending not to look at the Golden, who were quite striking.

We got our breakfast (with large mugs of coffee) and sat down. They greeted us politely, as usual, but we had barely started to fill them in when there was a commotion near the entrance. We turned to look.

It was starling. She was limping badly, her jeans were ripped, and there was blood on the side of her face. She was making her way across the room to us, looking very determined, and I wondered how far she had come. I noticed she was holding her right arm awkwardly.

People got up and moved away as they saw her, leaving food, drinks, and even coats behind. The Golden had stood up and moved away also, their eyes wide.

Her appearance and her grim expression aside, it never occurred to me that she might represent a threat. This indicates either empathy or lunacy on my part, because she was generally considered to be insane. She had killed a lot of people before coming to U-town, and she was always armed.

"What happened?" Jan asked, getting to her feet.

"We need to get you to the hospital," I said, moving toward her.

She shook her head. "I'll be okay. I need to talk to you. Now. It's important."

I took her left arm and helped her to our table. She was having some difficulty bending her left leg, but with Christy's help we got her into a chair. The room was nearly deserted by then. The Golden were still standing some distance away (as if that would have helped if she had decided to shoot them), and I motioned for them to come back. They sat down at the table again, still looking nervous. They moved their chairs so they were sitting very close together.

"We really should get you to the hospital," I said.

She shook her head again. "I need to tell you this. I got up early this morning. Pete was still asleep. We were out of cigarettes, so I went out to get some while I waited for him to wake up. I walked to the store, but two guys jumped me."

My employer had taken out her cigarette case, but her eyes widened at this point. Probably mine did as well.

"They had baseball bats and they were dressed in strange gray clothes, wearing masks. Thanks." My employer had placed a cigarette between her lips and lit it for her. She drew in a deep lung full of smoke and let it out slowly. "They hit my leg and I went down, then they hit my right arm. I drew my gun with my left and shot them. One I got in the chest and the stomach. The other started to run, but I got him in the leg and maybe in the shoulder before he went around the corner. He was limping, but going a lot faster than I could. I got up and came here. The first guy is probably still lying there. I'm sure he's dead by now."

She drew in more smoke and sighed. "You probably understand why I had to tell you this right away. If that guy goes to the hospital and tells them that I went crazy and shot him and his friend for no reason, people will probably believe him."

"Never mind that," my employer said. "We're looking for those guys. They beat Will here, and attacked a transvestite named Zoe and maybe others. I need to know, did they say anything when they attacked you?"

starling was looking at the Golden in some surprise, having apparently noticed them for the first time, but she didn't comment.

"One guy said I was... unnatural was the word. Masculine."

"Did they know your name? I mean–"

"One of them called me 'starling.' They knew who I was."

"Runner!" my employer called as I turned to Christy, but then I turned back to starling. "Can you ride a motorcycle? As a passenger?"

She gave a wry smile, exhaling smoke through her nose. "Probably better than I can walk at the moment."

I turned back to Christy, but she was ahead of me. "I'll get her to the hospital."

"They won't treat me," she said. "I won't surrender my guns."

"She should get emergency room treatment," I said. "Then we'll arrange for home care if necessary. And make sure they know that this guy may be there already, or he may show up later. If so, he is to be held. Treated, obviously, but held." I heard Jan telling the runner to take a message to Pete about what had happened and that he should meet starling at the hospital. But then she turned to me, her eyes getting wide.

"Marshall, get to the bridge, run, right now, go!"

I was out the door, running through the lobby, with no idea what had struck her. Then I realized that the Golden were running right behind me.

We were out on the street when I figured it out. The man who had escaped might go to the hospital, where he would be interrogated while he was being treated and then almost certainly restrained, or he might make for the bridge, to get out of U-town. Where Ron was waiting for the mail to be delivered. And where she would certainly try to stop a wounded man wearing the garments of the quiet people. I was glad I was still armed.

As we approached the bridge, I saw the usual morning chaos of the daily food deliveries and so on, and in the middle of all the confusion of people and carts and haggling I saw Ron, her face set and her arms folded, standing between a man and the bridge. He was dressed all in gray and he seemed to tower over her. I suddenly realized that the Golden were running ahead of me, slipping through the people and the carts, stepping around the man from behind, circling him slowly in opposite directions as they spoke to him, calmly and reasonably.

"They know it was you." "They know you didn't do the murder." "You're having no effect." "Your friend is dead or dying." "You're clearly insane." "A girl was killed." "You're having no effect." "The quiet people are a complete fabrication." "You attacked starling." "Tell us the truth!"

The last was delivered by Ron, punching him in the shoulder.

"We were angry," he said calmly, looking straight ahead, "at the things we saw here. The way people lived... everything. We wanted to send a message–"

"Fuck your message!" Ron said, and I had to grab her arm to keep her from punching him in a very sensitive area.

starling had been correct. The first attacker was dead on the sidewalk where she had shot him. The other one, the one the Golden had mesmerized at the bridge, was restrained in the psychiatric wing of the hospital where his wounds were being treated. He refused to tell us his name, and then he was apparently frustrated by the fact that we didn't care.

I ended up doing starling's home care myself as she recovered from the beating, partly because nobody else wanted to do it and partly out of curiosity. My employer insisted on verbatim reports of everything that went on there during my visits, but she was disappointed in how normal most of it was. "They are," I told her, "everything considered, surprisingly wholesome."

The article about Ashford was published in the U-town newspaper, and then reprinted in various other places (sometimes with and sometimes without his sidebar article). His next book of poetry was called "Leaving the Garden." I didn't read it. I didn't like his poetry, but mostly it was because I really didn't want to find out if he was equating, even metaphorically, the end of his supply of gullible teenagers with being tossed out of the Garden of Eden.

Jake was convicted of murder. The bridge where he had killed Wendy was not our territory (the massive piling which blocked the bridge on our side was the legal border of U-town), so the trial was held in the city. We were not obligated to allow him to be extradited, but we decided those issues on a case-by-case basis and Wendy's parents said they would be more comfortable with a trial in the city.

We testified at the trial, of course, which was quite a sensation in the press. It had been a while since Jan Sleet had testified at a murder trial in the United States.

There was a memorial for Wendy at her college a few weeks later. We attended, along with Phyllis, and my employer and Phyllis spoke.

It was Ron's idea to go to the memorial with us. She took it very seriously, including wearing a dark sweater and pants which she had borrowed from the Golden.

We never did ask the Golden how they had mesmerized the man at the bridge. Ron and Will remained friends so we saw the three of them from time to time, but they continued to be a mystery.


The End

© Copyright 2019 Anthony Lee Collins. All rights reserved.