by Anthony Lee Collins

part one: in class

I wanted to talk to her the first time I saw her, but I didn't. We had the same journalism class, and she always sat in the same seat, right up front. She was always on time, always prepared, and always awake. Somewhat different from me, I must say (and from most of the rest of the class).

She usually wore slacks and a sweater, and I never saw her wear jewelry or makeup.

She seemed pleasant and smart, but nobody ever talked to her. This was probably partly because she was a "teacher's pet" type, but I think mostly it was because people thought she might be an alien.

She had ordinary human features, with a strong jaw and prominent cheekbones, and a fairly deep voice (which probably had a lot to do with my attraction to her - I'm a sucker for a woman with a masculine voice). Her hair was blond and shoulder length.

But her eyes were an odd gray color, and her skin was gold. Not gold like human tan, but pale gold like the gold crayon I'd had in the set of 64 that I'd grown up with. Her skin was absolutely without blemish or irregularity, as if she'd been spray-painted, and she apparently had no hair at all on her face, arms, or hands.

Okay, as you've probably been able to tell, I'd been studying her pretty closely. She didn't react to this, unlike most girls. Even when I moved my seat so it would be next to hers, she just gave me a quick smile.

I could hear some other people muttering comments, mostly about a "freak ghetto" being established in that part of the room. I ignored them, and Sharon didn't seem to notice. As always, her attention was focused entirely on the lessons.

I knew her name was Sharon, because the professor called on her quite often -- usually when he'd grown tired of our meanderings and wanted to get the correct answer so he could move ahead with the lesson. I knew that her last name was Golden and that she lived in U-town because her full name and address were written, in very precise handwriting (of course), on the cover of her notebook.

Then, one day, the heavens aligned in some unusual way and I was actually a minute early for class.

There was a note on the door, saying that the class had been canceled for the day. I stood glaring at it for a moment, then I went down the hall to the men's room. I wasn't mad that the class had been canceled, just that nobody was there to appreciate my punctuality.

As I came out of the men's room, I ran into a friend (well, an acquaintance, really) and we talked for a minute or two, and then I walked back down the corridor and past the classroom. I noticed that the note had gone missing from the door (which was probably somebody's idea of a joke).

I glanced into the room as I passed, and there was Sharon, in her usual seat, notebook and pen on the little desk in front of her. She was the only person in the room. Waiting patiently for a class that was never going to start.

Well, okay, I was never going to have a better opportunity to start a conversation with her.

I went in and sat next to her. She turned and smiled at me, but she looked somewhat perplexed. "It's odd," she said slowly, looking around the room, "that so many people are late all on the same day."

"The class was canceled," I said. "There was a sign on the door, but I guess somebody took it down."

She nodded thoughtfully, then she frowned. "Are you sure?" she asked. "I don't want to get in trouble."

I nodded. "I saw the sign before it was taken down."

She nodded again and closed her notebook.

"Would you like to go get a cup of coffee?" I asked. "Together?"

She smiled. "That would be nice. Thank you."

I held out my hand. "I'm Mike."

Her handshake was firm. "I'm Sharon."

The cafe was a regular student hangout, across the street from the campus. The college was in a busy commercial area of the city, but I did wonder how much business the place did between semesters. Pretty much everybody I ever saw there, employees and customers, was a student. There were about fifteen small, round tables -- most inside and a few out on the sidewalk.

Sharon took a table (outside, which would not have been my preference) while I went to get our coffee. When I brought the steaming paper cups back, she thanked me as I sat down. Because she always dressed so properly, I thought that being a gentleman and buying for both of us would be a good move (also, it was the first opportunity I'd ever had to be a gentleman in that way).

As I sipped my coffee, she asked what other classes I was taking. I thought this was just making conversation, since we didn't really know much of anything about each other, but she asked a lot of follow-up questions, as if she was adding data to a mental list of all the classes, professors, prerequisites, and so on.

She was particularly interested in a class I was taking on the psychology of art, and I offered to show her the textbook.

She stood up. "I appreciate this. Let's go."

Dorm life wasn't really an option for me, so my parents had rented me a tiny apartment -- basically just a room in a rooming house. It wasn't on campus, but it was just a couple of blocks away.

"I hope you don't think I lured you up here for immoral purposes," I said, attempting a joke as I closed the door behind us.

She smiled pleasantly. "That would be fine," she said. She reached down and took the hem of her sweater in both hands, pulling it up over her head. Under it she wore some sort of feminine undershirt thing (it may have been a "chemise," but I'm not completely sure), which she also removed, laying it carefully on the back of a chair, next to the sweater.

Her skin seemed more and more improbable the more of it was revealed. Even her nipples were exactly the same color as everything else.

Naked to the waist, she unbuttoned her slacks, then she paused and looked at me, still smiling, apparently wondering whether she had misinterpreted the situation, since I hadn't moved a muscle.

I burst into tears.

part two: in bed

Sharon ran a finger across her chin. "I grew a beard for a while," she said thoughtfully, "a nice little Van Dyke. But it seemed to make people nervous for some reason, so I got rid of it." She shrugged.

This was fairly typical of our pillow talk. I'd quickly figured out that either Sharon had the driest and most absurd sense of humor I'd ever encountered, or she had no sense of humor at all.

I had also learned very early on that it hurt her feelings when I laughed at things she said. Not that she cried or anything, but she frowned a small, baffled frown. I quickly recognized that this frown came from frustration that, once again, her attempts to behave normally were not working out.

We were sleeping together two or three nights a week. Never on the weekends, though. She always went back to U-town after her last class on Friday and returned for her first class on Monday morning.

She would always ask the day before: "Would you like me to stay over tomorrow night?" If I said yes -- and I'm pretty sure I never said no -- she would come to school the next day with a very small suitcase in addition to her school knapsack.

Our pillow talk was never romantic. We talked about all sorts of things, but there was no mention of love or anything like that. This was just as well -- I had no idea whether I was actually in love, or if this was just amazed gratitude that I had found somebody who was willing to be with me.

After a while, I began to think that this might be true of Sharon also. After all, she was beautiful (in my opinion) and smart, but she had no friends, at least at school, and I got the impression that she didn't have a lot of friends in U-town either. When she talked about her life there, she talked about her two brothers and the old man they lived with, but there was never any mention of friends or a social life.

When she'd started to take off her clothes that first time, I had thought that she was just "easy," one of those college girls you hear about who sleeps around a lot. But no, she didn't sleep around -- she was obviously with me. We went to movies together, we had lunch together on days when we had our breaks at the same time, and on Fridays she would wait for my last class to be over so I could walk her across the city to the bridge to U-town. Then we'd hug and she'd say, "I'll see you on Monday."

By the way, I could write a book about what it was like to go to the movies with her. She was often baffled by commonplace things and frequently misunderstood key plot elements. This was obviously inexperience, not stupidity, and she always listened attentively to my explanations. Part of it may have been that she'd never seen a movie before (she explained that there weren't any movie theaters in U-town), but it was more than that.

There were rocky moments, of course, starting with our first morning together.

I woke up and felt like I'd managed to get wrapped up in the bedclothes. I was almost completely immobilized, but I quickly realized I was wrapped up in Sharon.

I didn't remember how we'd fallen asleep, but now she seemed to be on all sides of me, as if she was trying to be a one-person cocoon. My arms and legs were pinned, but I knocked my forehead lightly against hers a couple of times and said her name.

She opened her eyes, very slowly, and focused them on my face. And then, almost inaudibly, she said my name.

Not the name I had told her, not the name that everybody at college knew, not "Mike." She used my original name, the name I'd been born with, the name I'd left behind (far behind, or so I'd thought) when I'd arrived at college.

My stomach got tight and I felt like I was going to throw up. I forced myself not to cry (there had been quite a bit of crying the night before -- all of it by me). She saw and felt my distress, and quickly unwrapped herself from around me, obviously wondering what she'd done wrong and how she could make it better. She didn't say anything; she just looked stricken.

Seeing her distress, I decided I needed to think less about myself and more about her. None of this was her fault, after all.

I took her hand. "Mike," I reminded her.

"Mike," she said slowly. She repeated it a couple of times, as if trying to fix it in her mind. Then she met my eyes. "I'd like to do this again," she said very quietly.

The mystery, though, was where she had ever learned that name in the first place. After she left, after I'd said that I also very much wanted to do this again, I lay in bed for a while and considered this.

There was no explanation that I could think of for how she'd learned that name.

I even toyed with the idea that she'd been sent by my parents to seduce me. But that was obviously not true -- if my parents had decided to send somebody to seduce me back onto the right path, they would have sent a guy, definitely not a girl.

I reminded myself that, yes, there were mysteries and more mysteries, but I had just spent the night with a girl, a really nice girl who I'd had a crush on, and, while it had not exactly gone as I'd envisioned it, she apparently wanted more.

If I got my act together and stopped crying so much, I might even end up with a girlfriend...

Okay, it was much too soon to be thinking about that, but I lay back and stretched, reminding myself to enjoy this moment.

part three: a visit to u-town

"I sort of got into a fight today," Sharon said quietly.

She had been silent for a few minutes before saying this and I'd started to doze off, but I raised my head to look at her.

I'd been exploring some areas of her body with pretty close attention over the previous hour or so, and I hadn't seen any bruises.

"Please don't tell me I have to go out and beat somebody up to defend your honor," I said.

She examined my face, squinting in the dim light from the window. We'd been together for a few weeks at this point, long enough for her to start to learn some ways of telling when I was trying to be funny.

We were lying in my narrow bed. She was naked, and I was wearing my T-shirt and boxers. It was a warm night, and the sheet was only pulled up to her waist. In the moonlight, her golden skin looked like it was glowing, and her pale eyes seemed to have no pupils at all.

"It wasn't a real fight, with fists," she explained seriously. "It was with Professor Potter. He's had trouble with a student who lives in U-town -- she doesn't always show up for class, hands in her assignments late, that sort of trouble -- and he started saying things about U-town, things which aren't true. I didn't know whether I should, but I raised my hand and I said that it's not right for him to generalize in that way, since I live in U-town and I'm always in class and I always do my work.

"He said something about people who live there are all freaks, and I objected to that, too, but then some people started to laugh, so I sat down."

She looked, for her, really upset. She never cried, but she looked pretty unhappy. I suddenly knew that the next thing which had happened, which she didn't want to say, was that somebody had mentioned me, in connection with the category "freak."

"People don't understand about U-town, I guess -- people who haven't been there." I shrugged. "I'm curious about it myself."

"You are?" she said. "You could come and visit, if you want to. Would you like to?"

I nodded. "Yes, absolutely. Whenever is good for me to come."

"You could come tomorrow, tomorrow night," she said. That was Friday, when she'd be going home anyway. "Craig will be making his baked fish for dinner -- it's really good."

"I don't want to impose--"

She smiled. "He'll make extra."

This was typical of us. We could talk frankly about war and peace and psychology and music and everything else, but when it came to each other we always tiptoed, as if the whole thing might turn out to be as fragile as a soap bubble.

Well, our weekend in U-town put an end to that, and to some other things as well.

When I woke up in the morning, with Sharon wrapped around me like a very friendly octopus as usual, I wondered about something.

U-town, quite famously, had no telephones. How was Sharon going to let her brother know that company was coming and he should make more of his excellent baked fish?

After my last class, we walked together to the bridge as we did every week, but this time, instead of giving her a goodbye hug, I started up the bridge with her. She took my hand as we walked up the incline.

We'd never held hands before, and, knowing her, she had thought long and hard about making this move. She might even have drawn a line down the center of a page of looseleaf paper, using a ruler to make sure it was straight, and made a list of pros and cons.

She didn't look at me as she took my hand, but I was careful to squeeze her hand as we walked, to let her know that this was okay (to say the least) with me.

I suddenly wondered how her brothers were going to feel about us sleeping together in their house. Obviously she was a college student and not a kid, but brothers can be weird about that sort of thing, and I knew they were a very close family.

Well, I'd deal with that if it came up. The important part to me was that she was bringing me to meet her family. She'd never talked about her parents and I'd always had the idea that they were dead, so meeting her brothers was a pretty definite statement that I was her boyfriend. And she was my girlfriend.

I squeezed her hand again as we reached the top of the bridge. In the back of my mind, always, was the question of my parents. Thanksgiving break was coming, inevitably, and I know they expected that I would come for a visit, for the long weekend.

Well, that was weeks (fewer and fewer weeks, of course) away, and here I was nearly over the bridge to U-town and I wasn't even paying attention.

part four: a short history of u-town

Sharon pointed at the huge wooden piling that blocked the U-town end of the bridge. It looked really old and weathered -- even the multicolored paint that covered a lot of it was very faded.

"This is the barricade," she said. "It was placed here, blocking the bridge, on the night of the founding of U-town. This was to stop the trucks and troop carriers that were coming over the bridge from the city."

We helped each other climb up onto the barricade.

"Some people," she said seriously, "say that the barricade was placed here to block the tanks, but that's not true. I've seen the photographs -- we studied them in school -- and there were no tanks on that first night. The tanks came later. In fact--"

On an impulse, I pulled her to me and hugged her.

"Oh," she said, and then she hugged me back.

"I'm very glad you invited me here," I said.

"I didn't know if you'd want to come," she said. "For a whole weekend."

That morning, after we'd established that, yes, I did in fact want to visit for the whole weekend, she'd opened her small suitcase and, between that and my school knapsack, we managed to pack enough clothes for me for the three days.

We climbed down from the barricade on the U-town side, and I asked, "How did they move this into place, on that first night? How many people did it take?"

She frowned. "I asked that question when I was in school, and the teacher just laughed and said that Vicki did it all by herself."


"Vicki Wasserman. She was one of the founders. She's the head of the government now, but she wasn't originally." She smiled. "Come on. I'll show you around. Craig had to stay late at work, so dinner will be a little late anyway."

"That coffee wasn't very good, I take it." Mr. Bostwick said, leaning forward in his wheelchair.

He and I were alone in the living room, with the door to the kitchen closed, so I nodded and said, very quietly, "It was pretty bad."

He smiled. "I won't tell them. They only made it because Sharon has said that you like it. They don't drink it, or at least the boys don't, and I can't anymore. I was prepared to envy you the flavor, but then I saw your expression -- which I know you were trying to hide -- and then I didn't mind so much."

This conversation (or interview -- at least that's what it felt like) had obviously been prearranged. After dinner, Mr Bostwick had asked me to wheel him into the living room, and to close the door behind us. Sharon and her brothers had said that they would clean up the kitchen and do the dishes.

"What is your name?" he asked.

I hesitated, since we had been introduced.

He smiled, slightly. "You were not born named Michael."

"Margo," I said, my throat dry.

He shook his head. "That was probably inappropriate. I'm sorry, and I won't mention it again."

He leaned back in his wheelchair. "I should explain something, Michael. I first met the Golden quite a few years ago. They had..." He noted my expression. "That's what people around here call them. The Golden. They were much younger then -- by appearance around ten years old -- and they had arrived here with no money and no possessions other than the clothes on their backs. They might even have stolen the clothes; I never asked.

"We got together by mutual interest. They needed food and shelter, and I had this house and a small income. I needed help around the house after I lost the use of my legs, and I certainly couldn't have afforded to hire somebody. So they moved in. They learned how to cook and how to fix things around the house, and I insisted that they go to school.

"School was a bumpy experience for them at first, but they had each other, and they really like to learn. I had a new will drawn up to leave this house and my little money to them when I died. I'm sorry I'm going on and on, but it's important that you understand how I feel about them."

He sighed. "This is perhaps inappropriate to say, but at my age I don't care. They are far more important to me than my own children. And I cannot describe how grateful I am to them -- the Golden -- for saving me from having to go live with my daughter.

"But then the unexpected happened, as it usually does, and I have continued to live, decrepit and feeble and well into my nineties. I had assumed, and maybe even hoped, that I would die with at least a little money left, but the money is gone. The Golden had wanted to go to college, but instead Will and Craig got jobs and Sharon went to college by herself. And every night after dinner, or at least every night Sharon is here, they sit around the kitchen table and review what she learned that day.

"I had assumed that Sharon would not be popular at school -- she is very odd, as I'm sure you've noticed -- and for a while she had no friends. But then, very suddenly, she had a boyfriend and she was staying with him two or three nights a week." He spread his hands wide. "You can understand why I was concerned. I imagined that some young Lothario had seen how lonely and inexperienced she was, and... Well, she is, if you have unconventional tastes, quite attractive.

"Having met you now, I see that you're not the... Well, you're not what I was afraid of." I felt myself blushing. "You can understand my concern, I hope."

I nodded. "I had worried about something like this... today, but I thought I would be getting it from her brothers."

He laughed. "Well, you see how out of character that would have been. It does not occur to them, I think, that boys and girls are supposed to be different."

"Sharon told me about her--"

He read my expression and we said the word "beard" at the same time, laughing, and for the first time I started to relax.

"Oh, yes," he said. "I didn't say anything about that. Sometimes I try to intervene, but with that one I confess that I couldn't resist just letting it play itself out." He got serious again. "I did try to step in when they decided that Sharon would be the one to go to college. I thought it would be better if one of the boys... But she got a better scholarship offer, so that decided it."

He smiled wryly and leaned forward, extending his hand. "I'm glad to meet you, Michael."

For someone so decrepit and feeble, his grip was firm.

part five: the bedroom

It took me a while to fall asleep that night. It was an unfamiliar bed, of course -- that was probably part of it.

So I lay there on my back, hands clasped behind my head, staring at the ceiling.

The house itself was comfortable, but shabby and very old. When we'd got there, Sharon had introduced me to her brothers and to Mr. Bostwick, and then she'd showed me around the house.

It had two stories. The downstairs contained the kitchen, where Craig was cooking dinner, the living room, where Mr. Bostwick was listening to a news program on the radio, and Mr. Bostwick's bedroom.

Sharon took my hand as we climbed the creaky stairs to the second floor. The staircase was so narrow that I had to walk a little behind her, and the stairs tilted to one side, but we made it in one piece.

"This is the bedroom," she said, suddenly looking awkward as I glanced in to see a very large bed, neatly made up, with three pillows in a row, and three bureaus lined up across the opposite wall.

She tugged lightly on my hand. "Come on. My brother Will made up another room for us, for you and me." A little farther down the hallway was another door, and she pushed it open to reveal a very small room, with a twin bed and no other furniture.

Like everything else in the house, no matter how ancient and worn, it was spotlessly clean.

I looked at the bed, which was about as narrow as mine, and then I looked at Sharon.

"It's just our size," I said.

She looked like she was suppressing a grin or a laugh. This was surprising enough, but then she leaned over and whispered, "I thought of that."

She sometimes seemed embarrassed at how she always slept all wrapped around me, and I had tried to reassure her that it was fine with me. But for her to even think about making a joke, about our sleeping habits or anything else, that was unprecedented.

Dinner had been wonderful. Craig's baked fish had been worth the wait, and I had decided not to even think about how Sharon had known he had been late getting off work.

Will and Craig were very pleasant, and almost eerily similar to Sharon (and to each other, though at least Craig had a beard and Will didn't, so it was possible to tell them apart). The three of them had the same build, the same way of moving, and, most unnerving, exactly the same voice.

Mr. Bostwick had been friendly, although I had noticed him looking at me intently a few times. He didn't talk much during dinner, but a couple of times when Sharon or one of her brothers said or did something really odd, he gave me kind of a bemused smile, as though well aware of how peculiar the three of them were.

The kitchen table was a folding card table, which was obviously comfortable for the four of them. Adding a fifth person -- me -- made it crowded, and they offered to set up something in the living room instead, but I said the kitchen was fine.

The stated reason was that I didn't want to be a bother, but the real reason was that I didn't want to make "a visit from Sharon's boyfriend, Michael" into a special occasion, requiring a lot of extra preparation. I was hoping those visits would become a pretty regular occurrence. Just another member of the family.

Conversation at dinner had been very formal. Not that we addressed each other as mister and miss, but we talked about U-town, college, classes, art, and other subjects like that. There were no questions about my family, my history, or my home town. Which was fine with me, but I did wonder if this was because Sharon had warned them in advance that certain topics were to be avoided, or because they didn't want me to ask any personal questions about them.

In the dim light from the window, I could see the painting on the wall at the foot of the bed. There were three in the living room and another in the downstairs hall -- all obviously by the same artist. I'm no expert on art, but they looked very disturbing to me. There were strange, jagged shapes that almost looked human or animal, but not quite. The colors were odd also, as though the pallette went into parts of the spectrum that human eyes couldn't perceive.

They certainly didn't seem like anything Mr. Bostwick would have liked, so it must have been Sharon and her brothers. Maybe the ominous image staring at me was another reason I was having trouble getting to sleep.

I felt the mattress shift, and Sharon's arm slid slowly across my stomach.

Her breathing had been steady for a while, and now she was moving into her usual sleeping position, gradually wrapping herself around me. Considering how we slept, a wider bed would have been wasted on us anyway.

The surprising thing -- not that I'd ever had any other bed partners to compare this to -- was that it was never uncomfortable to sleep this way. I never woke up with a stiff neck or with my foot asleep.

Okay, I told myself, it's time to stop avoiding the truth. Your girlfriend -- the one who can communicate with her brothers over long distances, the one who has trouble understanding movies, the one whose skin is a color that no human skin has ever been, the one who presumably finds these monstrous paintings beautiful, the one who learned your real name by magic -- that girlfriend is an alien.

I had trouble accepting this, of course, but then I told myself that I wasn't exactly a prize either. And obviously none of that mattered to her, including in bed.

She shifted slightly and made a noise that sounded like assent to my unspoken thought.

The next thing I knew, it was morning, the sun was pouring into the partly open window, and I was not wrapped up in Sharon.

I stretched, figuring that she might have got up, or...

She was lying next to me, on her back, looking up at the ceiling. I poked her nose. "Hey," I said.

She didn't react. "Are you okay?" I asked.

No reaction.

Okay, this was alarming. I had the urge to take her pulse, but I wasn't really sure how to do that. Then I watched her for a moment, and she was clearly breathing. Was she asleep? Her eyes were open. Was she having some sort of seizure or something?

I stroked and squeezed her arm and said her name again. She turned her head toward me, very slowly, her expression bleak. I asked her what was wrong, but she obviously couldn't answer me.

part six: the living room

I had no idea what to do. I squeezed Sharon's arm and told her I was going to get help. She didn't react and I stood up on the cold wooden floor.

I wasn't about to go out in the hall in my T-shirt and boxers, so I wrapped myself up in the blanket and hurried out, nearly tripping over the edge of the blanket in my haste.

I went down the hall to the main bedroom and knocked on the door. "Craig? Will? There seems to be something wrong with Sharon."

There was no response, so I pushed open the door and looked in.

One brother was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, motionless. He was alone in the room. I felt my heart pounding. "Craig?" I said, and then I suddenly couldn't remember which brother was the clean-shaven one. "Will?"

He slowly turned his head toward me, exactly as Sharon had, with the same dismal expression.

Okay, he wasn't going to help. Where was Craig? Or Mr. Bostwick might know what to do -- he lived with them, after all.

The other door in the upstairs hall was locked, so I went downstairs.

I found them in the living room.

Mr. Bostwick was on the floor, next to his wheelchair, and Craig was near him, also on the floor, also covered in blood.

I held the door jamb to keep from falling. I slowly sank to my knees, still holding on. I told myself that I needed to do something, since I was clearly the only person in the house capable of doing anything.

I tried to remember where the phone was, but instead I remembered that U-town didn't have telephones. What did they do in emergencies?

Then it came to me, remembering something Sharon had told me once. I got to my feet and stumbled to the front door. Next to the door, beside the coat rack, there were three nails, each holding a whistle on a string. I took one, opened the door, stepped out onto the stoop, and blew as hard as I could.

I stood there for a moment, holding onto the doorknob for support, thinking about how the front door had not been locked, wondering if I was supposed to blow the whistle in a specific way, and wondering what time it was.

There wasn't anybody on the street, though a couple of people looked out their windows at me. At least they didn't yell at me to stop making noise.

I guess they knew, or assumed, that something serious was going on. I considered blowing the whistle again, but then someone appeared at the corner and pedaled toward me on a bike.

She looked like she was about fifteen as she jammed on her brakes and skidded to a stop in front of me. She clearly saw how shaken I was because she said quietly, "What's the problem, miss?"

"Sir," I said, belatedly clutching the blanket more tightly around me. "I mean, you don't have to call me..." I stuck out my hand. "I'm Mike. Michael."

"Oh, uh, sorry." She suddenly looked much younger as she tried to find some reason to look at something on the deserted street other than me.

She swallowed after a second, obviously still trying to figure out what to say. "I need help," I said. I gestured inside the open door. "There's been a murder... I mean--"

"Oh," she said. She obviously had no idea what to do, and I wondered if I'd have to end up helping her rather than the other way around.

Then there was a short blast on a whistle from the corner, and a couple of teenagers ran up. "SVs," one of them said, then he caught my expression and clarified, "Security Volunteers. What's the problem?"

Once I said the word "murder" again, things started to move quickly. The girl on the bicycle, one of U-town's "runners" that Sharon had told me about, was dispatched to the hospital, to get medical assistance and then to notify Jan Sleet. The two security volunteers came in and checked the bodies, and then they asked me to stay out of the living room. One remained in there, and the other waited out on the stoop.

They asked no questions, which surprised me until I figured out that it was because Jan Sleet, the great detective and U-town's most famous citizen, was coming. She'd be asking the questions.

I sat on the stairs to the second floor for a moment. I was feeling woozy, but I took a deep breath and told myself firmly that I barely knew Craig or Mr. Bostwick, or even Will. My responsibility was to Sharon.

I climbed the stairs and went back into our room. Sharon hadn't moved, as far as I could tell, and her eyes were still staring at nothing.

She didn't react as I sat next to her on the narrow bed. I reached down, gently pulling her up so that I was holding her to me. "Sharon," I said softly, "I'm sorry I took so long downstairs. I need to tell you something, though. It won't take long."

I was holding her close so that she was looking over my shoulder and I was looking over hers. Some things are easier to say when you can't see somebody's face.

"Back when I was in high school," I began, "There was a period of time when I didn't want to get out of bed. I just couldn't face one more day of... things being the way they were. I didn't know what the problem was -- not then -- but I just wanted to stay in bed.

"My mother came in one morning and she said, 'Listen, you have to get up, every day, and face the day. Otherwise the day wins.' She didn't know what was wrong, and she didn't... she wasn't harsh about it or anything. She just..."

I felt Sharon shift in my arms, and I leaned back to look at her face. She looked a little more like herself -- I could see the beginnings of a skeptical frown. I couldn't help smiling for a second. "I know," I said, "It doesn't mean anything, but you have to do it anyway. Jan Sleet is coming, and there will be an investigation."

She nodded slowly. "You're right. It's what we have to do."

This had been my plan, to use the story about my mother to get her attention, and then to give her the argument that I knew would convince her -- civic responsibility. She took that very seriously, and I knew from the conversation at dinner the night before that her brothers did also.

She started to sag down toward the bed again, and I could tell that this was physical rather than emotional weakness.

"I'll help you," I said. I looked at her clothes from the day before, which were folded on top of her suitcase on the floor. "Do you want me to..." I gestured towards the bedroom that she shared with her brothers.

She shook her head. "Yesterday's clothes will be fine."

This showed how distraught she was, since ordinarily she always put on fresh clothes in the morning.

It took some effort to get her dressed, and she helped as much as she could. She didn't bother with her bra, and I lent her a pair of clean underwear, and eventually we were done. She was sitting down and I was standing, and she reached for me -- I thought for an embrace -- but she took the bottom of my T-shirt and started to pull it up.

I expected to feel panic. I'd never been naked in front of her, but there was no panic. We were apparently beyond that now. She took off my T-shirt and boxers, and then she helped me with the complicated process of getting me dressed for the day.

I had my arm around Sharon as I opened the door to the hall, and Will was there, leaning on the doorjamb.

"You were right," he said, putting his hand on my shoulder. "We have to do this. Thank you for reminding us of our responsibility."

We moved toward the stairs together.

part seven: the investigation begins

Jan Sleet limped to the sink and took a saucer from the dish drainer. She stubbed out her cigarette in it and carried it over to the folding table where we sat.

Sharon was sitting on one side of me, Will was on the other, and the great detective sat opposite us. She leaned her slender cane against the table and put the saucer in front of her, Even sitting down, she seemed to tower over us. At least six feet tall, very thin, dressed in a man's three-piece suit, she looked almost eerily like her photographs as she peered at us through her large horn-rimmed glasses.

"I find myself in an unusual position," she said, leaning back in her chair. "Which, I suppose, is not unusual."

She pulled a pipe and pouch from her jacket pocket. After she had filled her pipe, her assistant Marshall came up to light it for her. Then he stepped back and leaned against the sink again.

"I have known you, Will and Sharon, for quite some time," she began, "and my experience has been that you always tell the truth." She shrugged. "It is an axiom of my profession that everybody has secrets and everybody lies. So, if I seem to disbelieve things that you say, it's not personal, and it doesn't mean that I think you have suddenly become liars. I'm just being thorough."

She turned to me. "Michael, of course I make no assumptions about your honesty, any more than I would with anybody else, so I'm afraid your secrets will be fair game." She was looking me over quite carefully. "In fact, I'd say--"

"Michael didn't do it," Sharon said suddenly, surprising everybody, probably including herself. She dropped my hand and leaned forward. "He was with me."

Jan Sleet nodded slowly, leaning back in her chair and turning her attention to Sharon. "Preliminary indications are that the murders took place between three and four in the morning. Were you awake at that time?"

"No," she said, "but after we have sex we sleep in such a way that Michael can't move a muscle without me knowing, let alone get up and leave our bed."

The detective puffed on her pipe, and I saw an expression flicker across Marshall's face for a moment. He could have been suppressing a smile.

He had arrived before the detective, and he had expressed his condolences to Will and Sharon, who he had obviously met before. He'd then asked if we wanted anything. At first we'd said no, but it had ended up with him making us coffee. Sharon and I had thanked him, and even Will had taken a few sips.

"That may well be true," the detective said after a moment, "but you're evidently involved with him, so..." She shrugged. "I want to get more systematic now," she continued.

She leaned back in her chair and began a very thorough interrogation. It was not hostile, but it covered a lot of ground. She asked about Mr. Bostwick, his history, his family, his finances, his will, the house, and so on. Some of it was apparently things she knew already, but, as she said, she was being thorough.

She asked about Will and Craig's jobs, and about Sharon's life at college, and her relationship with me, including how we'd met and how well, or how little, I had known Mr. Bostwick and Craig before the previous night. She asked me what name I'd been born with, and I told her.

She took no notes, but a couple of times she referred back to something one of us had said some time earlier, or to something that one of the Golden had said to her years before, so it was obvious that everything was being filed away.

After this was all over, she closed her eyes for a moment and pursed her lips, drawing in a deep breath and letting it out slowly.

The door opened and a young woman came in. She was tall, with bushy hair and freckles, and she went to Will and squatted next to his chair. He leaned toward her and they embraced.

Jan Sleet opened her eyes. "Hello, Ron," she said. "Thank you for waiting to come in until I was done." She picked up her cane and got to her feet. "I'm sure I will have more questions, but now I need to search the house. This may take a while, since I have no idea what I will be searching for..."

Ron looked at Will and tilted her head toward the door. "Come on. I'll buy you breakfast."

They left and Jan Sleet said, "Ron is my daughter, and she is therefore very familiar with my methods."

Sharon nodded and took my hand. "We can go out also, so we won't get in your way."

The detective smiled. "Thank you, Sharon. I appreciate that."

Outside, as we walked, Sharon said, "Ron is Will's friend. She doesn't really like me. They'll talk more easily if they're alone. That's why--"

I put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed. "How could anybody not like you?"

"A lot of people don't," she said.

I wasn't sure what to say to that, so I said, "Do you know what happened? Do you have any idea?"

She shook her head. "No. I woke up when Craig died, but I don't know what happened before that. I know... I mean I'm sure that they didn't kill each other. That makes no sense..."

Her voice trailed off and she stopped walking. She stood, motionless and expressionless. I wasn't alarmed, as I had been first thing that morning. I just stopped and put my arms around her.

After a moment, her arms went around me, and we stood that way for a while. I felt her sort of sag, and I said, "Breakfast."

She nodded and we started out again.

The restaurant where we ended up was called the February Island Coffee Shop. It was L-shaped, with booths going off in two directions from a corner entrance. It did not seem to be held to the same high standard of cleanliness as the house we'd just left.

Saturday morning, brunch time, was apparently a popular time to eat, because we had to wait a few minutes for a booth to be available. As we stood by the cash register, I was surprised by a bark and the smell of cigarette smoke from behind us.

I turned as something bumped into my thigh.

There was a woman there, on all fours. She had short brown hair and wore a black sweatshirt and jeans. She had apparently bumped me with her head.

She wore a dog collar, and a small, scruffy man held her leash. He smiled and addressed her. "We have to wait," he explained as he tapped his cigarette ash into an ashtray on top of the cash register. "They were here ahead of us."

The woman barked again, and the man smiled, "She gets impatient when she hasn't had her breakfast."

I nodded. "Me, too."

We were directed to a table by a morose-looking waiter. As we looked at our menus, the scruffy man and the dog woman went past our table. They had been joined by another woman, this one walking upright, with dirty blonde hair and a cowboy-style gun belt across her hips. I don't know a revolver from an automatic, but her gun certainly looked real.

I watched them pass us, heading toward a booth in the rear, then I turned to Sharon. "I guess some of the things people say about U-town are true after all."

There was a bark from the back of the restaurant, and Sharon smiled for the first time that day.

"You're right," she said. "I guess we are kind of... But some of us do get our assignments done on time!"

I smiled, hoping she knew that, even on a day like this, it was okay to laugh.

"I know," she said. "It's--"

"Ahem," said the waiter, gesturing in the direction of his pad with his pencil.

I gave my order -- eggs and bacon and so on -- and then he turned to Sharon. She shrugged. "I don't think--"

"She'll have the same," I said. "The same as me."

Sharon looked out the window as the waiter moved away. "Will and Ron are talking about money," she said quietly. "It's practical, I know, but... I can't think about that yet. He's afraid I'll have to quit school and get a job, and he knows how much..."

"We'll figure it out," I said. I would have said more, but that wasn't the right time.

"He wanted us to go to school," Sharon said. "Mr. Bostwick, I mean. We... we weren't sure. But he insisted, so we went. It turned out well, though sometimes people..."

I smiled. "School is never perfect. I used to get beat up and called names a lot."

"We never had that, nothing like... well, we got called names, but nobody ever hit any of us." She sighed, looking at the Formica table top. "We enjoyed school, but we also tried to learn as much as we could from Mr. Bostwick. He'd lived a long time, and there was no record... When he died, that was it. All gone."

She clearly had more to say, but she paused and looked up at me. After a moment she nodded. "It's different with Craig," she said. "It's... We miss him, but we know everything he knew. If I do need to quit school and go to work, I'm going to try to get his job, since I already know how to do it."

She looked out the window again. "Will did get beat up once. Not in school -- just going to the store one night. By two men wearing masks... Jan Sleet figured that out. And she'll figure this out, too."

part eight: the theory

We took our time over breakfast, but then Sharon realized that people were still waiting for tables and insisted we get moving.

Outside, though, we had to figure out where we were moving to.

"Should we go back?" I asked. "To the house?"

She shrugged.

I didn't know what to do or say next. As I thought about it, I realized that I'd never really lost anybody. A grandmother who I hadn't known very well, a pet cat -- that was about it. What qualified me to comfort anybody who had just lost two people so important to her?

Sharon took my hand, but then she stopped and frowned. "Oh," she said. "Ron just asked Will about the funeral -- about when it's going to be." She turned to look at me, still frowning. "Funeral. Do we have to do that?"

I shrugged. "If there's going to be one, you'll probably have to set it up. You -- we -- I'll help, if I can."

She nodded, somewhat distracted, and then she turned to me with a look of horror. "And the will... what happens--"

"It won't be like that," I said quickly.

It didn't take mind reading abilities to know that she was thinking about a movie we'd seen together, a comedy mystery with a will-reading scene which had been full of yelling and violence.

"That was a movie," I explained. "Real will readings aren't like that." She gave me a sidelong glance. "Well, I'm pretty sure they're not."

She squeezed my hand. She may have been unworldly, however you want to take that word, but she was not even a little bit gullible.

"What about his family?" she asked. "What if they want to..." Her shoulders sagged. "They don't know. How are they going to find out?"

"Someone will have to call them. Did Mr. Bostwick have an address book or something?"

She nodded slowly. "I think he did. And they sent him cards and letters sometimes, so we'll be able to get their addresses." She sighed. "I'm really tired."

"Did you sleep, last night..."

She knew what I was asking. "No, not after Craig died. I just lay there..."

Her voice trailed off, and I thought I'd asked the wrong question and triggered some sort of relapse, but she said, "We should go home. Will says that Miss Sleet wants to talk to us."

This was good -- because it may have meant that the crime was solved, and because it saved me from making some stupid comment about how she should have awakened me while she lay awake and motionless for several hours after her brother's murder.

We sat in the living room. The blood was still on the rug, but the furniture had been straightened up, and the bodies were gone.

Miss Sleet stood facing us. Sharon, Will, and I sat on the sofa together. There was no sign of Marshall or Ron, or anybody else.

"I have a theory," the detective said, "but so far no evidence. And I have a question. Sharon, do you know of a key to the locked door on the second floor? Will said that he was not aware of one, and we didn't find one during the search."

Sharon shook her head. "Mr. Bostwick never liked to talk about that room, so we never asked about it."

Miss Sleet smiled briefly. "As Will said. In exactly the same words, of course. May we break down the door?"

"This house is ours now."
"And we don't want it damaged."
"Surely you can--"
"--solve this another way."

The detective nodded. "Of course. I know some rather disreputable people, a couple of whom can open any lock ever made."

She hadn't reacted to the way Will and Sharon had quickly completed each other's thoughts, so I guessed she'd heard them do it before. It was the first time for me, and I found it impressive and a little unsettling. I'd soon get used to it, though.

The detective nodded. "Would it be convenient if I returned either this evening or tomorrow morning? I'm not sure how long it will take to make the arrangements."

"Of course,"
"Miss Sleet."
"But you said you had a theory."
"May we know what it is?"

I had the idea that her usual response would have been to say no, but instead she looked thoughtful and said, "With the understanding that it will go no further?"

They nodded, and I said, "Definitely not."

She gestured around the room. "The indications so far are that the tableau Michael found this morning was staged, and not very convincingly. Someone wanted us to think that Craig and Mr. Bostwick struggled, with knives, and both of them perished.

"It was well known that Mr. Bostwick was not on good terms with his children, but there's no indication of enmity to the level of patricide. If he'd had an estate worth a substantial amount, that would have been significant, of course. You are his heirs, but if one of you murdered him the estate might well revert to his relatives."

She shrugged. "A plausible scenario, if there were an estate worth mentioning, but every indication is that there isn't."

"I don't believe..."
"He knew how much we--"
"--all wanted to go to college."
"He wouldn't have held back money--"
"--if he'd had it."

"I would like to think you're right, and even if he did, somehow concealing the money from you, you who lived with him for years, how did anybody else find out about it?" She shrugged again, with a rueful smile. "I am hoping, definitely romantically and probably futilely, that once we get that mysterious room open, everything will become clear." A smile played around her mouth, and it looked like she'd thought of a joke but realized it would not be appropriate under the circumstances.

Then, frowning slightly, she pulled her glasses down her nose and looked at us over them. "If I may say so," she said,. "Sharon and Will, you look really tired. Why don't you lie down and rest for a while? Ron said she'll be back later to cook dinner for you. Maybe you'd like to rest until then."

I glanced at both of them and it did look as if everything had suddenly caught up with them, but Sharon shook her head. "We have to call Mr. Bostwick's family," she said wearily. "They need to know that he's dead. It's our responsibility."

"I'll call them," I said. "You should get some rest."

She looked at me for a moment, then she leaned over and hugged me. Will squeezed my shoulder and they left the room.

Miss Sleet was using her cane to get to her feet. "Do you know if Mr. Bostwick had an address book?" I asked, having just realized that my big gesture didn't count for much if I didn't have a phone number to call.

"Top left-hand drawer of the desk in his bedroom, under an expired bank book and on top of three letters from family members."

I had risen to my feet when she'd stood, but I sat down again as she left. I had committed myself to making the phone call, but I was in no hurry. U-town had no phones, so I'd have to go to the city to make the call.

Then, sitting there, looking around the scene of the crime, I suddenly realized something. I had more than one call to make.

part nine: omelettes

When I got back to the house, having made my phone calls, I knocked at the front door. I didn't know whether it had locked behind me when I'd left, but I was suddenly aware that I was a guest. I didn't feel comfortable just walking in.

It was early evening by then. The walk across the bridge to the city had been pleasant, but the walk back had been quite chilly, with a sharp breeze coming off the water. I hadn't minded the length of the walk; I'd had a lot to think about.

And now I was tired. Physical exertion was one factor, I'm sure -- I don't usually get a lot of exercise (I planned to go through my entire college career without ever setting foot in the gym).

I knocked again. Of course, if Sharon and Will were still upstairs asleep, who was going to let me in?

"Who is it?" boomed a voice from inside.

"It's Michael?" I called with some trepidation. "Mike?"

The door opened and Ron, Jan Sleet's daughter, looked at me. After a moment she said, "Come on in. I'm making dinner."

In the kitchen, I made a gesture to convey that I could help with the food preparation. She made a gesture that pretty clearly said I should sit at the table and try not to get in her way.

She chopped tomatoes for a moment, then she asked over her shoulder, "So, you're what, like, a guy?"

I said yes, though not with as much conviction as I'd intended.

"Hm," she replied.

She shifted to grating cheese.

"Do you know how Mr. Bostwick's family is going to find out?" she asked after a moment. "About him being dead?"

"I called them," I said. "That's where I was -- I walked to a pay phone in the city." She grunted. "I talked to the daughter -- Barbara -- and she said she'd call her brother."

"How'd she take it? Did she act suspicious?"

"Well, at first she seemed pretty calm, that he was dead, but then I explained that he'd been murdered, violently, and she got upset."

Ron nodded sagely. She opened the oven and took out a small frying pan. "I'm making omelettes," she said. "That's what I make." She turned to face me. "How did you leave it with the suspect?"

I almost asked who she was talking about. "She was pretty upset. I told her I'd call her again on Monday morning. To give her a chance to--"

"She's gonna want to do her own funeral thing. Well, my mother will figure it out. She's coming back in the morning, with somebody to open that door upstairs." She turned on the stove, then she said quickly over her shoulder, "You get to go and wake them up."

This was not an unreasonable request, particularly since she was doing everything else, but as I went out to the hall, I had a hunch about why Ron didn't want to do this herself.

And I was right. Sharon and Will were lying on their bed, together, wrapped around each other. The position seemed very familiar, though I had never seen it from the outside before. Climbing the stairs, I'd suddenly wondered if they'd be naked, but they were still dressed, except for their matching sneakers, which were in a neat row at the foot of the bed.

I stood next to the bed for a moment, looking down. Their eyes flickered open and they smiled, smiles which gradually faded as they apparently remembered what had happened.

It was a little awkward, since of course I wanted to console Sharon, my girlfriend, my lover, but Will was just as bereaved and I barely knew him.

We ended up standing and hugging, all three of us.

"Ron is downstairs," I said after a moment.

"Making omelettes."
"That's what she makes."

I made a face. "I don't think she likes me."

We broke our embrace, and Sharon and Will looked like they were agreeing and disagreeing at the same time.

"You make her uncomfortable,"
"as many things do,"
"but also the situation..."
"Her sister was murdered,"
"here in U-town, years ago, and..."
"they didn't get along--"
"Ron hated her sister, so she never mourned,"
"but she feels conflicted about it..."

I found that their way of speaking was already starting to seem normal to me.

"Ron is..."
"not flexible."

Downstairs, we sat around the table in the kitchen as Ron made omelettes and served them, one by one. Will got the first one, then Sharon, then me, and then Ron served herself.

The omelettes were very good, and I made a point of saying so. Ron's grunt of acknowledgement would have horrified my mother, but I was already learning her ways.

As we ate, we compared notes about funerals. Even by pooling our information, we still had some big gaps. We came up with the forlorn hope that, somewhere in his will, Mr. Bostwick might have left some detailed instructions that we could follow.

Ron left pretty quickly after dinner, and I was aware of the next question, which was whether Sharon would sleep with me that night, or with her brother. I was trying to figure out some suave way of bringing this up when Will said, "I'll do the dishes. Why don't you two go up to bed?"

As we climbed the stairs, holding hands, Sharon suddenly turned and looked at me, frowning. I gestured with my head toward our room. When we were inside, she said, "You've learned something. When you were in the city..."

I nodded. "It's not the answer about who killed them, but... well, I don't want to blow it up into more than it is, so I want to see what Miss Sleet thinks about it."

She hugged me and rested her head on my shoulder, and I stroked her hair. Either she was saying she trusted my judgement, or she was reading my mind to find out the answer. I've never asked which it was.

Hours later, I half woke and realized that there were more limbs wrapped around me than usual, and one extra body was pressed against mine. I found I was fine with this, and went back to sleep.

part ten: the solution

I woke up, sandwiched between Will and Sharon on a very narrow bed, the morning sun streaming in the window, with someone knocking on the bedroom door.

Before I could figure out what I was supposed to do, I heard the door open, and Jan Sleet's voice said, "Oh, gracious."

"I thought I locked the front door last night," I said as I squirmed around to face the detective, feeling Sharon and Will wake up on either side of me.

Next to Miss Sleet was a teenage girl, with a crew cut and several tattoos. She shrugged. "You should really get a better lock," she said. "I barely had to slow down to walk through that one."

"We can talk about that later," the detective said. "We're here to open that door across the hall."

"Miss Sleet?" I put in.

"Yes?" she asked as Will got out from under the covers and padded toward the door. As his naked form was revealed, the detective's hand whipped up to cover the eyes of her young associate.

"I discovered something yesterday..."

"Hey!" protested the tattooed girl as Will left the room.

"I don't know how significant it is--"

"But you're thinking, or at least hoping, that it is significant indeed. Should we hear it before my young friend here opens that door across the hall? Do you know what we'll find in there?"

I shrugged. "Maybe. That's the part I'm less sure about. But I do know--"

The detective held up a hand. "Let's reconvene in the living room, when everybody is properly dressed, so we can hear your story. Then we'll deal with the locked room."

She and the tattooed girl left the room. As Miss Sleet reached behind her to close the door, I heard the girl say, "She's cute."

Apparently this was in reference to me, because Miss Sleet responded, "He's spoken for."

I glanced at Sharon, who was smiling as I hadn't seen in the last twenty-four hours. "'Spoken for,'" she said slowly. "I never heard that before." I was about to say something educational, but she hugged me. "I know what it is," she whispered.

"Now," Miss Sleet said as she stood in the center of the living room. Will, Sharon, and I were on the sofa, and the tattooed girl sat cross-legged in one of the armchairs. "Since you are not a professional, Michael, you don't get to do a big, dramatic revelation. You have to take me through it step by step, from the beginning, so I have a chance to see where, or if, you're making a mistake."

She seemed stern, but I could tell, or I thought I could tell, that she was enjoying this.

"Okay," I said. "Well, it started the night before last, when I was lying in bed. Sharon had fallen asleep, but I was having trouble relaxing for some reason. I was looking at the painting at the foot of the bed. It was obviously by the same painter who did the ones in here."

I gestured at them, and Miss Sleet looked around. "I can understand your distress," she said, shaking her head.

The tattooed girl looked at the paintings with what looked like approval, but she didn't speak.

"I had only met Mr. Bostwick once, but Sharon has told me about him since I met her, and... he didn't seem like the sort of person who would like art which was so disturbing. Not to have it in every room of his house."

Jan Sleet nodded. "So far, so good. I've known Mr. Bostwick for several years, and that agrees with my assessment of him."

"So, I thought maybe they were something the Golden enjoyed. That seemed to make sense, and I fell asleep. But then, yesterday, when you were here, and you suggested Will and Sharon take a nap." She nodded. "I sat here for a minute before I went out to make the phone call, to Mr. Bostwick's daughter. I looked at the paintings again, and something came to me." I turned to Sharon. "Do you remember when we looked at the textbook about art?"

She looked up at me sharply.

"No.. Not... when we looked -- actually looked -- at the book, not when we..."

I knew I was blushing, and I didn't turn to see Will's expression, but Miss Sleet and the tattooed girl were certainly amused.

"When we looked... at the book," I persisted, "at the textbook about the psychology of art, what did we discover?"

Sharon shrugged, not sure where I was going with this. "I couldn't see a lot of the illustrations, not really. Our eyes -- mine and..." She gestured at Will. "We don't see colors that well, not on flat surfaces. Black text on a white page, that we can see fine, but one color and another..." She shrugged. "These paintings in here mostly look like blank rectangles to us."

"So, who did want these paintings in here?" I asked. "I decided to find out more about them. A couple of them are signed -- 'Postera' -- so when I went to the city today to call Mr. Bostwick's daughter, I also talked to my art professor. It took a couple of calls, but I found him, and I asked him about Postera."

Jan Sleet had sat down in the other armchair and she was leaning forward, her hands crossed on top of her cane. "And?" she asked.

I pulled a piece of paper from my pocket. "'Postera' was the signature of an experimental artist named Norman Post. He was somewhat successful during his life -- he had a few shows in small, avant-garde galleries -- but since his death almost twenty years ago he has become quite... collectable, as my professor put it. I think he -- my professor -- was trying to convey that the paintings were valuable but that he didn't like them."

"Interesting," the detective said, leaning back in her chair, "but you've brought us back to two questions that we are still unable to answer." She held up a long, bony finger. "If Mr. Bostwick knew the value of the paintings, then why didn't he sell them so that all three of you could afford to go to college, and-- " a second finger "--why did he have the paintings on his walls if we are correct that they were not to his taste?

"Mr. Post was Mr. Bostwick's... friend." Will said.

Sharon nodded. "He always used to say it that way, with the pause before the word 'friend.'"

"We thought that probably meant something."
"But we weren't sure."
"And it seemed as though he--"
"--didn't want to talk about it."
"So we didn't ask."

part eleven: finale

I'm writing this on the day after Thanksgiving.

I made an excuse to my parents for not visiting. They sounded relieved, but they wanted, and got, reassurance that I would come see them over winter break.

Their relief was because it turned out that my father's sister was coming for the long weekend, along with her husband and her brood of annoying kids. Aunt Flo is very religious, and I think my parents were just as glad not to have to deal with four whole days of Flo's opinions about their unfortunate daughter who went away to college in order to be a boy.

I'll have to tell my parents about my apartment over winter break, too, though with all the other news I'm not sure they'll care.

After the murders, I ended up staying at the house with Sharon and Will every night, and only going to my apartment when I needed to get more clothes.

It quickly became obvious to me that Will and Sharon were going broke. With the loss of Craig's income, plus the funeral expenses and so on, they were in trouble. They never complained, but as soon as I realized the situation I offered that I could move in with them and help out.

I didn't mention that this would involve deceiving my parents, who were continuing to send me money for the rent on my apartment. Sharon and Will are scrupulously honest, and they would have rejected any plan that involved lying.

It was easy to sublet my apartment. There are always people who discover that they don't like the dorms and decide they want to live off campus instead.

Living this way, walking back and forth between U-town and the campus every day, was much more exercise than I was used to, and I thought at first that this was why I was losing weight. That may have been part of it, but I quickly realized that I was mostly losing the weight in some very specific places.

It was last weekend that Sharon pointed out that I didn't need to bind my chest anymore. I did anyway, for the next couple of days, and then I stopped.

I think with everything else, and the change in my skin color -- which is already pretty noticeable and will be more so by Christmas -- the question of my apartment rent will be pretty minor.

If not, well, we can pay them back, and more, once the paintings are sold.

The locked room had been Mr. Post's studio, apparently sealed after his death by Mr. Bostwick, and there were several more completed paintings in there, along with many sketches and one unfinished canvas. Miss Sleet is arranging for the sale, in exchange for a percentage of the profits, to go to the U-town treasury. She says we should have the money by some time next year.

The murders were committed by Mr. Bostwick's son-in-law, the husband of his daughter Barbara. He's denied everything, so far, and there's a complex legal proceeding underway because of course the crime was committed in U-town and there's no official extradition agreement between U-town and the United States.

Jan Sleet's reconstruction is that he wanted his wife to inherit the paintings, or at least some of them, and thought that if one of the Golden was convicted of the murder, the estate might revert to Mr. Bostwick's blood relatives. He knew enough to know that he'd have trouble selling the paintings if he simply stole them.

But then, still according to Jan Sleet's reconstruction, he'd either panicked or belatedly realized that the whole plan wasn't going to work, and that had been that.

Sharon and Will don't really care, it turns out. Their feeling is that Craig and Mr. Bostwick will still be dead no matter what happens. I find I'm starting to feel that way, too. I don't really follow the case -- there are too many other things going on. And in any case there may never be a trial.

I did ask Miss Sleet if she thought we -- Sharon and Will and I -- were in any danger, and she said no. Mr. Bostwick's son-in-law is not about to come to U-town to hurt us, since he would be subject to arrest and trial for murder as soon as he came over the bridge. If he attacks us in the city, then he'd be subject to arrest in both placees -- and of course he'd be the obvious suspect if anything happened to any of us.

We had a funeral for Craig. Mr. Bostwick's family wanted to have their own funeral for him, so arrangements were made for the body to be shipped to them. So, Craig's funeral became an informal memorial for Mr. Bostwick, too, which was nice. A lot of people came.

Sharon told me a joke in journalism class on Monday, while the professor was speaking. Then she looked very guilty, though of course nobody had heard it but me. I think I'm having a bad effect on her.

Will didn't think it was funny, but we'll win him over.

The End

© Copyright 2016 Anthony Lee Collins. All rights reserved.