Vinnie Stiglianese got out of the cab at the base of the large, unmarked bridge. It was a pleasant evening and the city sidewalks were crowded with people. He took his suitcase out of the trunk and then the cab edged into the traffic and moved away.
His flight had been delayed and he was about three hours later than he'd planned. He smiled. Being late was purely theoretical, of course, since this visit was going to be a surprise anyway. Well, he wanted it to be a surprise, but the person he was going to visit was extremely difficult to deceive. He couldn't see how she would have found out, but...
He was suddenly aware that he was hungry, but he decided to wait to eat until he was across the bridge. It was a cliché that food on the U-town side of the river was almost always both better and cheaper than what you could find in the city, but, as he occasionally reminded his students, clichés become clichés for a reason.
The light turned green, and he picked up his suitcase and made his way across the street. Quite a few people crossed when he did, and some of them were also taking the bridge into U-town.
The bridge had no signs, but everybody knew where it went. It was blocked for vehicles at the U-town end, so there were no cars or trucks going over.
There was a stiff breeze coming off the water as he walked up the incline. He thought of stopping and getting a scarf out of his suitcase, but then he remembered that he hadn't packed one. He tried to travel light when he went to U-town, because he knew he'd be carrying his suitcase a lot.
He stopped at the highest point of the bridge and turned around to look back at the city. It was a dark night, so the city lights were at their most impressive.
This was Vinnie's third trip to U-town.
The first trip had been just a few days after the Founding. He'd traveled with almost no luggage then, having rushed to the airport and booked a seat on the first available flight from Italy as soon as he'd heard the news.
This was half because history was being made, as he told his students later to explain his sudden absence, and half because it was his daughter who was making it. (Of course, yes, she was just one of many, but people do make allowances for a proud father.)
That time it had been odd crossing the bridge, because there had been no electricity in U-town. It had been like walking down a hill into a huge, bottomless pit.
He picked up his suitcase and quickly moved to the side as he heard a motor behind him. The other people on the roadway moved aside without even looking around.
When the taxi was past him, he picked up his suitcase and started to walk down the incline toward U-town.
His second visit had been special, because that had been so that he could attend, and participate in, his daughter's wedding.
He still remembered the letter she had written to him.
Dear Professor Stiglianese,
It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write this letter. It is my sad duty to inform you that your daughter, Jan Sleet (the famous amateur detective and intrepid gal reporter), has abandoned her life of chaste and selfless devotion to her vocation and is now quite openly living in sin with an older (though quite attractive) man.
The shame is bad enough, of course, but what's even worse is that the man is an employee (Marshall, her loyal assistant). So, not only is this situation an affront to the laws of the Almighty, there may also be trouble with the Labor Board.
Many of the fine, upstanding citizens of U-town have urged her to get married, of course, but she won't hear of it until her dear, sweet, sainted father is here to give her away.
Please come at your earliest convenience to rescue your daughter from a life of sin.
A shotgun is not required, but formal attire is. There will be photographers.
From a friend.
About a half hour later, Vinnie stopped and looked around. He'd been looking for a seafood restaurant that he remembered from his last visit, but somehow he'd got turned around and now he was lost.
There was almost nobody on the street. The buildings in this area were all warehouses and factories, apparently deserted at night. He wished he'd asked somebody for directions.
Too much wool-gathering and not enough attention to his surroundings. U-town wasn't that large, but it was still possible to get lost in it. Particularly if you weren't a native, and it was night, and you were lost in your thoughts.
"Drop the bag," said a soft voice behind him. "Tourist."
Vinnie held his breath, then he let it out slowly as he lowered his suitcase to the sidewalk.
He stood motionless. He was ready to reach for the switchblade in his trouser pocket, but his hand wasn't going to move until he knew more about who was behind him, how many there were, and how they were armed.
He'd had the switchblade since high school. It had been years since he'd pulled it out, now that he was a respectable college professor rather than a small-town tough guy, but it was sharp, oiled, and ready.
"Wallet," the same soft voice said as he heard the suitcase slide away from him.
The voice had sounded closer, which indicated that it might be one man, who had to get closer in order to take the suitcase.
Vinnie didn't care about the suitcase, but he was reluctant to give up his wallet. Maybe if he stepped forward, turned, and pulled the blade quickly enough–
He heard a loud blow, a sharp exhalation of breath, and a piercing whistle all at the same moment, and he quickly executed his plan. A step forward, a quick turn, and the blade was in his hand and open.
There was a man, young and well dressed, lying on the sidewalk. He was gasping and holding his right arm. His right hand was limp, and there was a knife a few inches from it. The girl kicked the knife away and holstered the stick she'd been holding.
Vinnie had been told about Stevie One, or he would have been even more surprised to have been rescued by a teenage girl, dressed entirely in black, armed with two small billy clubs.
She turned to face him, and her right hand fell to one of her sticks. The holsters were low on her thighs, the ideal position for her to pull her weapons out quickly.
"The knife is not necessary now, sir," she said firmly. "Please put it away."
He closed the knife and returned it to his pocket. "I didn't know the cavalry was about to arrive. Thanks, Stevie."
Her mask covered her entire head, so he couldn't tell if she was reacting to being addressed by name. She held out her hand and he shook it. "You appear to be a visitor, sir," she said. "Are you lost?"
He laughed. "Is it that obvious?"
Before she could answer, two young security volunteers appeared at the corner and ran over to them.
Stevie turned to face them. "What took you so long?" she asked. Her tone wasn't sarcastic, but it was clear she was going to get an answer.
"We were helping a guy who'd fallen off his bicycle. He–"
"You should probably have split up when you heard the whistle. This gentleman was about to have to defend himself when I got here." She gestured at the robber, still lying motionless and clutching his arm. He looked like he could have got to his feet and tried to escape, but what would have been the point? "Get him up and take him to the hospital."
She turned back to Vinnie. "Where are you trying to go, sir?" she asked.
"To the hotel. My daughter lives there." He had the idea that the masked girl was smiling, but it was impossible to be sure.
"You're pretty far off course."
"Oh, I knew that. I was looking for a seafood restaurant that I remembered from my last visit."
"Do you remember the name?"
He sighed. "I think right now I'll settle for the hotel. I can eat there. Can you point me in the right direction, please?"
It was fairly late in the evening by the time Vinnie arrived at the hotel, so the selection in the dining room was limited, but he was very hungry by then so he didn't care.
The hotel dining room had always seemed to him to be a microcosm of U-town. The food was prepared by volunteers, of varying skill, but it was nutritious and, technically, free. Well, people were asked to pay, and people like him who were obviously tourists were encouraged more strongly, but nobody was sent away hungry. Even the hotel itself wasn't a real hotel, though it had been one in the past. Now it was just a place where people stayed, including the administrators who ran U-town.
Vinnie paid for his food willingly, of course, though the macaroni & cheese and succotash he was eating was a few steps down from the seafood dinner he'd been anticipating.
He ate quickly, both because he was hungry and because it was getting late to appear unexpectedly at his daughter's door.
When she'd been a teenager, her sleep patterns had been, to say the least, unpredictable. He remembered more than once awakening in the middle of the night to hear her slipping in from some midnight excursion. When he asked where she'd been, she'd only say "investigating."
When he talked to other parents in their small town, their teenagers were always getting caught having sex under the docks, or drinking on top of the dunes. He was reasonably sure that his gawky, bookish daughter wasn't engaged in those sorts of pursuits. Or, if she was, she was smart enough not to get caught.
But now she had responsibilities in the U-town government, so she had apparently adopted sleeping hours which were at least somewhat closer to normal. Except when there was a mystery to solve, of course.
As he ate, he took out the most recent letter he had received from his daughter.
Please come visit us at your earliest convenience, to meet your granddaughter. She is twelve years old, foulmouthed, ill-tempered, occasionally violent, and absolutely wonderful.
I can't imagine that you would, but when you do meet her, please do not attempt any sort of embrace. She will resist, probably forcefully and profanely, and it will start things off on the wrong foot. I speak from experience, since I was unable to conceal my fondness for her early on, and now she always regards me with suspicion, as if in trepidation that I might, without warning, pull her to me and hug her.
Marshall, of course, struck exactly the right note from the first, so she is devoted to him. Once, during a crisis, she even got into his lap so he could hold her. I saw this with my own eyes, and I'm still not sure I believe it.
Come as soon as you can, but only when it's convenient. She's not going anywhere.
This was extraordinary.
That his daughter had become an internationally famous amateur detective was to have been expected, since she had set her mind on that goal when she was around fourteen. That she had helped found a small country was not all that surprising. That she had got married had been somewhat unexpected, but Vinnie had never really believed her protests that her commitments to journalism and detective work precluded romance.
But that she had adopted a child was amazing. He smiled as he picked up his tray to bring his dirty dishes back to the kitchen. After all, Janice (as he still thought of her) had come from parents who hadn't wanted children either.
In the third floor hallway, after a ride in the rather rickety elevator, he approached the door and wondered again whether this would be a surprise.
He knocked briskly. A stentorian voice from inside demanded, "What the fuck?"
It hadn't occurred to Vinnie that they might have company. Maybe he was interrupting some sort of important meeting. Well, it was too late to back out now.
There was a quick, muffled conversation, then Marshall opened the door.
Seeing Vinnie, Marshall held the door halfway open and said, "I'm afraid it is really rather late for this. I'm sure these reports are important, but I doubt she's going to read them tonight." Vinnie heard a chair creak as Marshall winked. "In the morning she has..."
Long, slender fingers appeared and pulled the door all the way open. "It is late," the great detective said, "and I think you'll find... Padre!"
Her cane fell to the carpet, and she fell into his arms.
After a few moments, during which she made various sounds which, under other circumstances, she herself would have condemned as childish, Vinnie stuck out his right hand.
"Marshall," he said. "It's good to see you."
Marshall nodded and shook his hand. "It's good to see you, too, Vinnie." He turned to the girl who was watching this with a very suspicious eye from the other side of the small room. "Ron, please come over here. There's someone you should meet."
She stood up and came over slowly. She was small, with unruly hair, a pug nose, and freckles. Her expression said that Vinnie might be a lot bigger than she was, but she'd take him on in a minute if he was hurting her mother.
Marshall put his arm around her narrow shoulders and said, "Ron, this is your grandfather."
"Fuck!" she blurted out, and he was surprised that the booming voice he'd heard through the door had been hers. She froze, as if having trouble processing this unexpected information. Then she carefully wiped her hand on her jeans and stuck it out. "Sir," she said, looking very serious.
As Vinnie shook her hand, there was another knock at the door.
Jan straightened up and quickly adjusted her tie as Marshall moved to open the door. This time it was a young man, maybe a year or two older than Ron and nearly as scruffy.
"Message from Stevie One," he said. "There's been a murder."
"Ah," the detective said, leaning forward. "Tell me."
"It's a guy who runs a pet store, the one down by the school. He was stabbed, in his store."
"Who found the body?"
"Stevie did. She was on patrol and she wondered why the light was on in the back room of the store, since it closed hours ago."
"Ah, good work, Stevie." She turned to her father, who had moved away from the door to lean against one of the two desks. "Padre, I'm off to investigate. Would you like to come along? I'll introduce you to our local superhero."
He laughed. "It's an attractive offer, cara, but I am... Well, first I would like to know where I'm going to sleep tonight."
She waved a hand. "Oh, Marshall will arrange something while we're gone."
"I could come," Ron said.
Marshall shook his head. "You have a test tomorrow, and you have been putting off studying until the last possible minute. Which happens to be right now. Young–"
"Okay," she said quickly, going back to the chair where she'd been sitting before.
The great detective smiled as she adjusted her tie and quickly ran her fingers through her hair. "You see, padre: I need an assistant, and Ron needs her stern taskmaster. I'd say it was fate except, of course, I don't believe in that sort of thing."
Jan lit a cigarette as she strode through the lobby. She was moving fast, and as they reached the street Vinnie quickly realized that, in his role as Marshall's replacement, he was going to be expected to keep up.
He had been half aware of a thunderstorm outside while he'd been eating his dinner, but he hadn't thought much about it since he hadn't imagined he'd be going out again until morning. The weather had cleared by now, but the sidewalks were still damp, and the air was humid and close.
Walking with his daughter was a completely different experience than walking through U-town alone, because U-town's most well known citizen was also one of its most distinctive looking. There weren't as many people on the street as there had been before, but most noticed the great detective and some said hello or waved.
Jan Sleet was six feet tall, very thin (though not quite as emaciated as she'd been in high school), with straight brown hair to her shoulders and large, horn-rimmed glasses. She wore a three-piece suit (today's was charcoal gray, with a white shirt and a dark blue tie) which had obviously been tailored to fit her.
She had a slight limp and walked with a cane, but she moved quickly and a couple of times she got a step or two ahead of him and had to slow down. His legs were as long as hers, but he was, he told himself, older, more tired, and definitely somewhat less enthusiastic.
Not that he minded accompanying her, but he wouldn't have minded a good night's sleep either.
"I am so glad you came, padre," she said after they had walked a couple of blocks. She dropped her cigarette and stubbed it out carefully with her toe, then she looped her free arm through his.
"How could I miss a chance to meet my granddaughter?"
She smiled and squeezed his arm. "She's had a difficult life. She was living on her own when we adopted her. Her parents – her birth parents – abandoned her."
"But you didn't adopt her because she needed help. You'd get her the help she needed, but that would be that."
She nodded sheepishly. "True. I got her out of a jam – she was accused of a murder – and she started calling us Mom and Dad. It could have been a joke, but I could tell Marshall was..." She gave him a sidelong glance. "He's not like us. He's always sort of wanted kids. Well, when he and I got together he assumed that kids weren't going to be part of our lives. But then he and Ron... they clicked, like two pieces of a plastic toy that were meant to snap together in a certain way. And then I... Well, there's the pet store."
The store was small (at least it appeared small from the street), dark, and not well labeled. Vinnie had noticed on his previous visit that you could usually tell the businesses that catered to tourists, which always had big signs, from the ones that were mostly for locals, which were often labeled cryptically or not at all.
Two people stood outside the door. One was a woman in her thirties or so, wearing a poncho. Her jeans and sneakers were drenched.
The other woman was younger, and dressed entirely in black, and also soaking wet. No part of her was visible under a mask, vest, turtleneck, jeans, gloves, and boots.
Vinnie decided not to mention that he had already met Stevie One.
"You could have waited inside," Jan told the two women.
Stevie shrugged. "We didn't want to interfere with the crime scene, ma'am."
The detective held out her hand to the security volunteer. "Jan Sleet," she said, and the woman smiled, since the introduction was almost certainly unnecessary.
"Pola. Do you need me for anything else? The runner who got the word to you was also supposed to go to the hospital, to let them know that there's a body here."
Jan shook her head. "That would seem to be everything, thank you. Go home and dry off."
Pola laughed. "How did you know that's what I wanted to do?"
"One of those incredible feats of deduction that I'm so well known for." The woman trotted off, and Jan turned back to Stevie. "Before we go inside, Stevie, I'd like to introduce this distinguished gentleman–"
This time Vinnie could tell Stevie was smiling under her mask as she held out her hand. "It's good to see you again, sir," she said as he shook her hand. "I hope you found the hotel without any problems?"
Jan raised an eyebrow, so Vinnie gave her a quick recap of his earlier adventure. Under other circumstances, she might have chided him for going off on his own and getting lost, but right now her attention was elsewhere. She pointed at the door. "Let's go inside."
Stevie cocked her head. "So, I don't get to go home and dry off?"
"You wouldn't go home anyway. You're too dedicated, and it's early yet. As soon as you show me the body, I'm sure you'll go back out on patrol."
She nodded." You're probably right."
The store was dark, and the front room had a small counter with a cash register, a few couches and comfortable chairs, some small padded pens where animals could play, and rows of cages along two walls. A single light was burning near the display window, but it was darker in the back of the store and most of the animals seemed to be asleep.
Jan looked around. "Who's going to take care of the animals?" she asked. "Did he have family in the area?"
"I don't know about his family," Stevie said quickly, "but there's a girl who works here. She'll come in the morning, I guess, and she can take care of the animals, until somebody can work out something else." She gestured at a half-open door. "That's the office," she said.
Jan peered down at the body, lying on the floor of the shabby little office, near the very messy desk. "Stabbed to death, from the front, one wound," she said. "His nose was broken, it looks like, some time before death." She looked up slowly, her expression blank. "Why did you break his nose, Stevie?" she asked.
Stevie froze in place, then she made a gurgling sound and laughed. She reached for her mask, then she hesitated.
Jan smiled. "Professor Stiglianese is my father, and is therefore completely reliable and discreet."
Stevie laughed and pulled off her mask to reveal a teenage girl with short blonde hair (currently dripping wet). "How did you know?" she asked as she leaned back against the file cabinet.
"It was a guess, I admit." She held up a bony forefinger. "I tell you that as a fellow professional; it's not a word I like to use with civilians.
"As you know, I know who you are, your 'secret identity.' As you didn't know, I was aware that you have a job here, in this store. U-town looks like a city, but in many ways it's a small town, and in any case I'm very nosy.
"Your awkwardness in answering the question about the animals confirmed that you are the girl who will come here in the morning to take care of the feeding and so on."
Stevie grinned. "Okay, I get that part. How did you know I broke his nose?"
"As I say, that was a guess. There had been a complaint before about him making inappropriate suggestions to a young female employee. Nothing we were able to prove. But then I found out that you were working here, and I had a pretty good idea how you'd react if he tried anything like that with you. So, I see him with a broken nose, and I start to wonder."
Stevie nodded. "That was it. When I came in to work this morning, he told me to come in here, to his office, and he said I was doing very well, and he was thinking about giving me a raise." She made a face. "That made me feel good, since I have been working really hard. Then he started to talk about how I could come to him if I ever needed help, or someone to talk to, and I couldn't figure out what he was talking about–"
"He thought you were in an abusive relationship."
Stevie's eyes widened. "I... Yeah. How did you know?"
The detective smiled. "You're a superhero, but you're not superhuman. Your nightly heroics have been known to end you up in the Emergency Room. He sees his young employee coming in with a black eye here, a bruise there, and so on, what else would he think? That's what I would think, if I didn't know better."
Stevie clenched up her shoulders and shook her head. "One moment it was like he was being fatherly, then the next minute he's trying to sit down with me in his lap. That's when I popped him."
"Then what happened? Did you quit and storm out?"
She shrugged. To Vinnie she looked like his students did when they were preparing to express an opinion that they knew was contrary to his.
"I told him I liked the job, which I do. And it took me a while to find it, so I'd rather not have to start again to find a new one. My father, back when we were speaking to each other, raised me to be his deputy, so I don't know much about being a waitress or anything like that. And I like the animals. So, I told him that I'd forget the whole thing, but if it happened again I'd report him. He got quiet after that. I didn't know he'd been reported before, but I guess he did."
"We made sure he knew," Jan said.
"I was going to offer to check his nose for him, but then I decided that was a bad idea. So, I left."
Jan frowned. "What's that?" she asked, pointing at something in between the desk and the filing cabinet.
It was black, about four feet high, maybe a foot and a half deep, and three or four inches thick, the exact width of the space between the desk and the cabinet.
"It's a case for an electric guitar or a bass or something," Stevie said, "or at least some kind of musical instrument."
"A guitar, I'd say," Vinnie said. He slid it out and laid it on the floor. The case had "Kingdom Come" stenciled on both sides.
"Open it up," the detective said, leaning over to watch.
He opened the two catches and lifted the lid. "Strat," he said, running his finger along a couple of places where the varnish was worn.
"I didn't realize you kept up with such things, padre, now that you're all respectable."
He laughed. "I don't, but this is somewhat of a classic." He looked up. "It's definitely older than either of you." He closed the case and said, "This would be worth some money. So, I guess we can rule out robbery?"
The minute he said it, he knew he should have kept his mouth shut. Fortunately, his daughter believed in showing respect toward one's parents, most of the time, or at least she didn't like to show disrespect in front of strangers, so she turned to Stevie and said, "I suppose we should eliminate that possibility – that there was a robber who just didn't happen to know the value of vintage musical instruments. Was anything stolen?"
Stevie frowned and looked around the office. "There's nothing... What would anybody steal?" After a moment's thought, she pulled out the top drawer of the filing cabinet and reached into the back, taking out a small manila envelope. She opened it and showed them the money – about ten or twelve bills. "That's the petty cash. There isn't anything else. The cash register wasn't touched – I checked that when I came in before." She returned the money and closed the drawer. "Do you need me for anything else?"
The great detective shook her head. "Not right now. I will want to question you more, I'm sure, but I want to examine the physical evidence first." She pulled out her cigarette case and slipped a cigarette between her lips. As she closed the case, Stevie suddenly leaned forward and tapped it with her forefinger.
"You know," she said quickly, "those are really bad for you."
She leaned back, as if expecting to be yelled at for this impertinent behavior.
Jan smiled gently. "My one vice. And there are reputable scientists who assert that it improves brain activity." Her smile grew impish. "I have been offered exorbitant amounts of money to advertise one or another brand of cigarettes – though never the brand that I actually smoke – and I have always declined. I am, I know, thought highly of by some young women, and I'm not comfortable that tobacco companies would use that regard to sell more cigarettes."
She shrugged. "That is perhaps not an entirely logical distinction, but it's one that fits with my idea of myself as a person."
Stevie looked relieved that she hadn't been yelled at, but Vinnie was sure that she'd realize eventually that the detective hadn't really replied to her comment.
"Thanks, Stevie," Jan said as the young superhero pulled her mask back on. "Good work in spotting that the light was on."
"All in a night's work, ma'am." She turned to Vinnie. "Good to meet you again, sir. Take care."
The professor and the detective strolled back to the hotel. Vinnie wondered how late it was. He'd taken a nap on one of the sofas while Jan had searched the office, and then he'd realized that he'd forgotten to set his wristwatch to local time. He tried to do the math in his head, but he was too tired. At least the sky was still dark.
He looked up. "Yes, cara?"
"The last time you were here, you used to enjoy going to the hospital to do volunteer work with Marshall, didn't you?"
"Well, I went that one time–"
"Exactly. He's going tomorrow morning – this morning, his regular Monday shift – and you can go with him. You'll enjoy that."
She gave him a dazzling smile and squeezed his arm. He didn't bother to ask any questions.
Daphne the dog woke up and looked around. It was still dark out, and she was cold. She had a little scrap of quilt over her but that was all, and of course there was no heat in the apartment. She was tempted to yank the covers away from Dan (she was almost certain that was his name), but then he'd undoubtedly wake up and that was the last thing she wanted.
She heard a noise from the other room and she got up and padded to the door, inching it open. The bare wood floor was cold, even colder than the air. There was a little light in the other room, which was much larger and served as kitchen, dining room, living room, and bedroom for her two roommates.
Daphne saw that Katherine was sleeping under the window. She usually slept there when she was feeling tense and needed to get away from Pete. He was sitting on the edge of his mattress, on the far side of the room, and scratching his chest. He didn't seem to see Daphne, but she knew he couldn't see much without his glasses.
Pete opened his eyes and squinted up at the window. It was still dark. His glasses were on the windowsill where he always left them, but he didn't put them on.
He felt around behind him on the mattress but he was alone. He didn't take it personally when Katherine moved to the other side of the room to sleep. He knew it was for his protection. However, he thought, smiling, sometimes you have to stick your neck out.
He got to his feet, wrapped in the sleeping bag he used as a blanket, and shuffled quickly across the cold, wooden floor to the small mat Katherine was using as a bed.
He lay down behind her and put his arm around her. His hand ended up under the covers, pressed against her bare stomach, and her hand came around and covered his. He could tell from the way she held his hand that the two messages were: "It's nice to have you here," and "Let's keep that hand where it is -- I'm not in the mood for it to start wandering around."
Which was okay with Pete.
Some time later, he became aware that someone else was crowded onto the narrow mat behind him.
Daphne closed the door and quickly pulled on underwear and a T-shirt. Then, padding along on all fours, she moved quietly into the larger room (pulling the bedroom door closed behind her) and went across to where Pete was now snuggled up behind Katherine. Squeezing herself onto the mat, too, with some difficulty, she put her arm around Pete and barked quietly.
"Hey, can I get in on this?"
Daphne had been nearly asleep when she heard Dan's leering voice. She opened one eye and saw him standing in the bedroom door, grinning as he looked at the three people squeezed onto the small bed. She felt her shoulders slump. She'd been hoping he'd just magically vanish somehow, but she reminded herself that it was pretty obvious there was nothing magical about this guy.
Katherine raised her head and frowned over her shoulder at Dan. Then she stood up slowly, naked, her revolver in her hand, asking, "Get in on what?"
Dan's eyes widened, first at the revolver and then at the woman holding it as he recognized her. Katherine lay down again as the apartment door slammed shut behind him.
"It's a little cold out there for him to be running around just wrapped in a sheet," Pete said thoughtfully. "Should we throw his clothes out the window for him or something?"
Daphne barked her most emphatically negative bark.
Marshall regarded his father-in-law. "Vinnie, if you don't mind my saying so, you look like you'd rather have stayed in bed."
Vinnie yawned. They had reached a corner and he stopped to look both ways before he stepped off the curb, but of course there weren't any cars.
"I was reminded last night – a few hours ago, really, and in no uncertain terms – how much I enjoy doing volunteer work at the hospital with you."
"Ah, so my employer has an ulterior motive."
Vinnie was used to how Marshall referred to his wife, the great detective, as his employer. Vinnie knew that some people took this as a joke, or interpreted it as a complaint, but Vinnie had always just taken it as a simple statement of fact.
"I wonder if this is related to the home care I'm doing these days," Marshall said as they crossed the street.
"Home care?" Vinnie asked. "I thought you usually worked in the hospital."
"Usually. But there's a patient who's recovering from a beating, and she can't be admitted to the hospital. And none of the other volunteers want to go to her place."
Vinnie shook his head. "You're hinting around, but I imagine that eventually you'll break down and tell me why this patient is so..." He waved his hand and yawned again.
"It's starling. And you really don't have to go if you don't want to."
starling had limited her murder sprees to the United States, as far as Vinnie knew, but she was known around the world. He had a variety of mixed feelings about this encounter, but all he said was, "She got into a fight with somebody? Who would dare pick a fight with her?"
"A couple of guys. Long story, but it helped Jan solve a mystery, so we felt somewhat obligated."
"I assume she's less homicidal these days, or you wouldn't let her walk around loose."
Marshall chuckled. "People laugh sometimes when I tell them this, and I do understand why, but the fact is that she's in therapy."
"And I gather it's working."
"It seems so. We don't broadcast that she's here, and she lives very quietly."
Vinnie and Marshall climbed the two flights of narrow stairs in the ancient tenement, and Marshall knocked on the apartment door. They had stopped by the hospital on the way so Marshall could pick up the supplies he needed.
There was a pause, during which Vinnie was tempted to ask why someone had spray painted "Living in desperate circumstances" on the door, but then he heard a loud bark from inside.
He wondered what kind of dog a notorious mass murderer would have. Something fierce and formidable, probably. The bark had definitely sounded like a dog of some size.
After another moment, they heard the little peephole in the door click open as somebody checked them out. There was another bark, and then the door opened.
The man facing them was small, maybe five-seven, and thin. He had longish light brown hair and wore glasses, along with tattered jeans and a faded T-shirt.
"Marshall," he said. "Come on in."
Vinnie heard Marshall introducing him to the man, who was named Pete, as they stepped into the apartment, but he was distracted by the woman at Pete's side. She had short blonde hair, and she wore a black sweatshirt and black jeans. And a leather collar. She was on all fours, and she was regarding him thoughtfully, her head cocked to one side.
She barked, and Pete, who clearly understood the reason for Vinnie's discombobulation, said, "Daphne, this is Vinnie, Marshall's father. Vinnie, hold out your hand."
Well, it would have been rude not to, so he held out his hand for Daphne. She leaned forward, sniffing it suspiciously, as he tried to think through all the reasons that his daughter might have wanted to set this up to happen in this way.
Then Daphne licked his hand and padded around to sit by his side, resting her head against his hip.
"Father-in-law," he clarified belatedly. He stopped himself from reaching down to pat her head.
Marshall moved to the kitchen table, presumably to get ready for starling's examination, and they heard a toilet flush. A small door opened in the kitchen area and starling came out.
Vinnie had been a little uneasy about meeting such a notorious person, but he was distracted by the fact that she was naked except for a ripped and faded T-shirt, and the sling that supported her injured arm.
She was older than Pete, probably in her early forties, with dirty blonde hair that looked like she hacked off a chunk whenever it got in her way, and a lean body that bore quite a few scars, some obviously not recent.
Vinnie had never seen an adult so entirely unconcerned about being almost naked in front of a stranger. There were a few people who walked around U-town in the nude, but they were apparently making a statement of some sort, and this wasn't that.
Pete gestured. "Katherine, this is Vinnie. He came with Marshall."
She was carrying a mug in her good hand, but she transferred it to her other hand so she could greet Vinnie. Then, as she looked up at him, her eyes got wide and she dropped the mug, coffee splashing on the floor.
"Vinnie?" she demanded as the others looked at her in surprise.
Vinnie hadn't known how he'd handle this, if it should happen.
He had always wondered if the lunatic woman he read about in the newspapers was really the same "Starling" he had known when they were teenagers. The photographs, usually grainy images from security cameras or blurry amateur snapshots, had never been clear enough for him to be sure.
They were both a little awkward about this reunion – they hadn't known each other for very long, all those years ago, and they had not been close – but then Vinnie threw his arms wide and she stepped forward to hug him, nearly slipping in the spilled coffee.
In that very brief moment, for it was just a quick hug, Vinnie knew many things. It felt as though, just for an instant, he was the great detective instead of his daughter.
He knew that Jan had remembered his stories about the time he'd been with her mother, and that there had been a woman who called herself "Starling," and Jan had sent Vinnie here to see her.
He knew Pete was regarding this unexpected reunion with a grin, as if his lover (and Vinnie suddenly knew that this was their relationship) didn't often have these moments of unexpected pleasure.
He knew that starling's T-shirt, which he hadn't really noticed before (and certainly not because his attention had been focused on the shape of her breasts under it), was so washed and worn that the band logo on it was nearly faded away, but it was still possible to tell that it said "Kingdom Come." As did the bass guitar case leaning in the corner. As had the guitar case he'd seen in the pet store the night before, the one which had belonged to the murdered man.
He knew that this was why he was here, and that his reunion with the reformed lunatic killer who he had known over twenty years ago was just a bonus.
And, as he and starling released each other and she stepped back, smiling and brushing her hair back from her eyes, he knew that Daphne was still leaning against his hip, and now she'd snaked her hand up the leg of his slacks and was softly stroking his bare calf.
Vinnie gently freed his leg as Marshall moved toward the large kitchen table. "Katherine, we should make sure not to forget to do your exam," he said. "Mona would never let me live it down."
She nodded and went across the room to a pile of clothes on a trunk. "Let me just put on some pants."
Marshall did not comment on the fact that she'd never been so modest when it had just been him.
He'd moved the subject of discussion to the medical exam (and unintentionally to pants) to give himself a moment to think. If starling ("Katherine," he reminded himself) had known Vinnie that long ago, he had a sudden hunch that she might have also known Jan's mother. He didn't know how sore a subject that might be with Vinnie these days, but even a moment's reprieve didn't give him a way to keep it from coming up.
Pete gestured at the stove. "Would anybody like coffee?"
Daphne barked, and Vinnie said, "Yes, desperately." He smiled. "If it's not too much trouble."
Pete laughed and went to the stove. "No trouble at all."
"I just got in last night, and I'm still pretty jet-lagged."
Vinnie sat down on one of the mismatched kitchen chairs, which creaked but didn't seem about to collapse. Katherine came back to the table, wearing underwear and a less revealing T-shirt. She sat down to pull her pants on.
Marshall had noted that Vinnie had mentioned his jet lag but not that he had been up most of the night on a murder investigation. He thought about this as he took the bandage off Katherine's arm.
It was nearly healed, and her other injuries were better, so he thought this had to be the end of the home care visits.
His employer had viewed this process as a great way for her to satisfy her curiosity about the home life of the lunatic murderer, her musician boyfriend, and their "dog," and she had been frustrated so far because all Marshall had been able to report was that they were, as he put it, quite odd but surprisingly wholesome.
Ah, he thought. Pete was a musician. Jan had mentioned that the murdered pet-store owner had been a musician. Was there a connection...
Pete poured coffee into four mugs and brought them to the table. Daphne sat next to Vinnie's chair and barked. Pete pointed to the food and water bowls on the floor by the sink. "Your coffee is right there, where it always is." She barked again.
Pete chuckled and brought the bowl over to Vinnie's chair. She lapped up some coffee, then she leaned against Vinnie's leg.
"She likes you," Pete said.
Vinnie looked down. Daphne was resting her chin on his thigh, gazing up at him with large brown eyes. The quirk of her lips conveyed a very human message. She was going to keep at this until he played along, and she was enjoying watching him resist.
Well, just because you are a tourist doesn't mean you have to act like one. When not in Rome...
Vinnie stroked Daphne's hair, saying to Pete, "She's a fine looking animal. Did you raise her from a puppy?"
Marshall, as the assistant of an internationally renowned amateur detective, could keep a straight face under almost any circumstances, but Vinnie noticed that this was apparently putting a strain on even his abilities.
Pete shook his head. "Oh, no. A former roommate found her, as a stray, and brought her home. He's gone, but she stayed on."
Having won her victory, Daphne padded over to Pete. He scratched her head, and she curled up at his feet.
Katherine sipped her coffee. "So, Vinnie, should I ask if you're in touch with Alex?"
He smiled and shrugged. "It's fine to ask, but the answer is no. We're not in touch. She... Well, you remember how she was. Motherhood didn't... It wasn't for her."
Katherine frowned. "You guys had a kid?"
He laughed. "Somehow, for some reason, I expected you to know that."
Pete laughed as he lit a cigarette. "Just because his daughter is a great detective doesn't mean he is."
Katherine started to say something, but then she stopped. "Wait a minute," she said. "I was so surprised to see you that I didn't make the connection. Father-in-law. Jan Sleet is your daughter? You and Alex?"
"Yes. Raised by me."
"Damn." Her shoulders slumped a little. "Do you know what this means?"
He shook his head. "No, I'm afraid not."
"It means I'm old."
"Oh, no, wait until you hear why I'm here for this visit. I'm here to meet my... granddaughter." He said it with a spooky voice, as if the whole idea was frightening. "So, you're not the only one who's old. I reassure myself with two thoughts. One: Alex and I were ridiculously young when Jan was born, and two: she's adopted. My granddaughter, I mean."
"Ron," Pete said.
Katherine nodded. "We've met her."
There was a knock on the door, and Pete went to answer it. As before, he looked out the peephole, turning to nod to Katherine before opening the door.
It was Fifteen, who Vinnie had met before. He looked about as he always did – shaved head, ratty T-shirt, and cutoff jeans – but he seemed unusually subdued.
He was about to address Pete and Katherine, but then he saw Vinnie.
"Vincenzo," he said seriously, "io sono qui con cattive notizie, ma è bello vederti." He turned to Pete. "I'm afraid I have bad news. Tom was killed last night."
Marshall, out of habit, watched their faces as they absorbed this news, but as usual he didn't learn anything useful. He'd never seen a case solved by springing a surprise fact on a group of people and watching their faces, but you always think that this will be the time when it works.
one night at the quarter (part one)
The club was called the Quarter, and Katherine had her own seat there (by custom if not by law, as Pete always said).
The place was run-down and decrepit, a long, thin room with a bar along one wall and small round tables, with a small stage in the back. The floor was uneven – some areas were a few inches higher than others. One way to tell the regulars from the tourists (and Pete and his friends were always devising new ways to do that) was that the tourists were always tripping over the floor, even when they were sober.
When Katherine came here with Pete they sat at a table, but when his band was playing she sat in a corner, on a little shelf that was part of the wooden frame that supported one of the PA speakers. The shelf was part of the frame – it wasn't intended as a seat, but it served the purpose. Especially when the club was packed, as it was tonight, she didn't want to sit at a table, because then it would be all too obvious that nobody wanted to sit with her.
Frances was the manager, and she occasionally popped over to give Katherine another beer. Free, of course, since Katherine was officially, although not actually, Pete's girlfriend. Frances liked her because Frances had an idea that they both hated Jenny Owens. Frances actually did hate her, because Henshaw had dumped Frances when he'd decided to go after Jenny.
Katherine didn't hate Jenny, but she didn't like her much either.
"She and Henshaw went out through the back a while ago," Frances said, "for a walk or something. Probably they'll have another fist fight."
"She," Katherine thought. Frances didn't want to even say Jenny's name. It was like being back in high school.
Angel Valentine sat at her kitchen table and sipped her tea. It was late, but she wasn't tired. The small, shabby kitchen was chilly, but she was wearing a heavy robe over her sheer nightgown.
People often commented that she didn't look like she belonged here, but this house was hers, the first house she had ever owned, and she felt very comfortable here.
When her lover, Larry, was away, she would sometimes wait up for Stephanie to come in from her nightly patrols. Not that she thought that one night the young superhero might not come home (she didn't allow herself to think that), but it was interesting to hear about her various adventures, including the many nights when she had nothing more to do than give tourists directions.
Angel sipped her tea and looked at the newspaper. The U-town paper was, she thought, the world's most ambitious small-town newspaper.
It had a miniscule budget, no photographs, and writers and editors with widely divergent amounts of talent and skill.
But they tried to cover the world. With indifferent success, to be sure, but the ambition itself made it enjoyable to read.
She heard the back door open. Stephanie always went in and out that way when she was in costume, to preserve her secret identity. She poked her head into the kitchen, pulling off her mask.
"Hi," she said.
"Welcome home. Was it awful out? I heard the rain and thought about you."
"Pretty bad. I'm soaked through."
"Come and have some tea. It will warm you up."
"I'd love to, but I have got to get out of this costume and take a bath. I feel all itchy from being wet for so long."
Angel smiled. "Go on up and get ready for your bath. I'll make some hot chocolate and bring it to you."
Stephanie smiled. "That will be great, thanks. And I do have some stories to tell you."
Angel made the hot chocolate and carried it upstairs. She had been taking her time, because she knew that Stephanie was very modest. This way, she could get safely into the tub before Angel appeared.
She knocked on the half-open door to the bathroom. "Okay to come in?"
Stephanie laughed. "Am I as bad as all that? Come on in." Angel nudged the door open with her toe and went in. The room was steamy, but it was pleasantly warm compared to the rest of the house.
Stephanie was in the bathtub, and she'd pulled the shower curtain around for modesty. Angel put one mug on the edge of the tub and she sat on the toilet, placing the other mug on the laundry hamper. "So," she said, "you had an exciting evening?"
Stephanie sighed. "Yes. I was feeling pretty good about it, but now that I have the chance to think... There was a murder, and I was working with Jan Sleet." She glanced over for a reaction, but Angel was impassive, sipping her hot chocolate. "She was really excited, looking for clues and all, and it was interesting, but as I walked home I started thinking..."
She was quite low in the tub, and all Angel could see was the top of her head and her hand that held the mug. But her brow was definitely furrowed.
"Miss Sleet is a noted amateur detective," Angel observed after a moment. "To be blunt, if there aren't any mysteries for her to solve, then she's not that. You were brought up to be a sheriff in a small town someday. Your identity doesn't depend on there being crime – and in fact you're judged a success if there isn't any."
Stephanie laughed. "You've thought this through a lot more than I have."
"One of the advantages of being older and wiser, child."
Stephanie snorted, spilling a little hot chocolate into the bathwater. "Gee, thanks," she said. "So, let me tell you about the case."
She raised herself up a little bit in the water hoping it wasn't too obvious that she was watching Angel's reactions.
Which were, as usual, almost impossible to read.
The older woman was tall and slender, with pale skin and long, silver hair. Stephanie had never seen her wear any item of clothing that wasn't white. As far as Stephanie could tell, she never wore makeup, and she never wore jewelry. And her face, which was beautiful, never gave very much away.
By the time Stephanie was done with her story, they had both finished their hot chocolate, the bathwater was lukewarm, and Angel was looking thoughtful.
"So," she said slowly, "do they have any suspects? Other than you, I mean?"
Stephanie sighed. "I've been telling myself that I'm not really a suspect, but of course I am." She was trying to figure out how to ask Angel to leave so she could get out of the tub without making a spectacle of herself, but then Angel stood up and picked up the empty mugs.
"I know what Larry would say," she said. She shifted into a faultless imitation of her lover's laconic growl. "'The kid sucks with knives. She'd never kill anybody with a knife."
Stephanie laughed as Angel left the room. She got out of the tub, suddenly very cold, and quickly wrapped herself up in a towel. She'd made a joke out of it, but she was really worried about being accused of murdering her boss. She'd had nightmares as a young girl about being accused of things that she hadn't done.
She zipped across the hall, turned off her bedroom light, and dived under the covers.
What really scared her, which she would never have admitted to Angel (and certainly not to Larry), was the idea of having to give up being Stevie One. In comic books, sometimes the superheroes were not friendly with the cops, or people even thought they were criminals, but she didn't want to work that way. But she couldn't go on being U-town's protector if she was accused of murder.
Well, she supposed she would continue that way, if she had to, but she knew there was no way she'd be able to escape Jan Sleet. She had been in awe of the detective before, but even so she had been shocked that it had taken her less than a minute to figure out that Stephanie had broken Mr. Drenkenson's nose.
Jan Sleet approached Angel Valentine's small, shabby brownstone. She had been there before, and she told herself that it was silly to be nervous about this. Marshall had sensed that she wanted to do this by herself and had begged off, saying that he had a meeting he had to go to.
She climbed the three stone steps to the front stoop and rang the bell. After a moment, the door opened and Angel looked at her. The foyer was one step up from the outside landing, so Angel was looking down on the detective, though the two women were almost exactly the same height.
Angel was wearing a white blouse with a wide collar, with a white leather vest over it, and white slacks. The detective was wearing a dark charcoal pinstripe suit.
"Miss Sleet," Angel said. "If you're looking for Mr. Gerard or Stephanie, they're both out."
"No, Miss Valentine, I'm here to see you. May I come in?" Angel moved aside and the detective used her cane to get up onto the high step. "Stephanie is at the pet store, of course," Jan said, "taking care of things in the absence of the owner, who was murdered last night. Larry Gerard is, from what I understand, out of town."
Angel smiled as she led the detective down the narrow hallway to the kitchen. "I am sorry, Miss Sleet, if I sounded brusque. I gather from what Stephanie told me last night that she is a suspect in this murder, and I confess I feel protective about her."
"Understandable. And, I confess, when there's been a murder, people don't always view my arrival with unalloyed pleasure."
They entered the small kitchen. "Would you like some coffee?" Angel asked.
The detective nodded. She used her cane to lower herself into one of the chairs. "I would love some. Thank you."
As Angel poured the coffee, she asked, "Would it appear suspicious if I asked why you're here?"
Jan shook her head, smiling. "It would be more likely to appear suspicious if you didn't. Thank you," she added as Angel placed a mug and an ashtray in front of her. Angel took her own mug to the other side of the table and sat down.
Jan sipped her coffee and brought out her cigarette case. "I am here to ask about Larry Gerard."
"Who is, as you said, out of town. Why are you asking about him?"
"To be blunt, he is not unfamiliar with the tools of violence, and it seems that he regards our young friend in a (shall we say) fatherly way–"
Angel frowned. "I do hope you are not implying–"
Jan looked almost apologetic. "I am actually trying quite carefully to avoid implying anything. But it is curiously difficult to talk about a relationship – even an entirely appropriate relationship – between an older man and a teenage girl without it sounding like something sordid is being suggested."
Angel laughed suddenly. "It is, isn't it? What do you want to know?"
"I'd most like to get some verifiable idea of where Mr. Gerard is. Or where he was yesterday."
"I don't know. He said he would be gone for a few days. I'm not a wife; I don't pry."
"I..." the detective began, but then she stopped. She smiled. "Well done. As a wife, I was about to protest what you just said, but of course I am also someone who pries. Which I was doing long before I even thought of getting married. Anyway, do you know when he is scheduled to return?"
"Today or tomorrow, I believe. However, I am wondering why you're asking these questions. Do you really think Larry murdered Stephanie's boss, a man who, as far as I know, he never even met?"
"It is unlikely, but in the early stages of an investigation I don't like to rule anything out. It is possible that Mr. Gerard, enraged by Mr. Drenkenson's treatment of Stephanie, decided to act."
Angel smiled, sipping her coffee. "You seem to be thinking of a Larry Gerard who is substantially more chivalrous than the one who lives here."
"Wouldn't he step in to defend Stephanie if she needed it?"
"If she was in immediate danger of losing her life? Yes, I think he probably would, but that is not the scenario you're describing." She looked up, with a direct glance which gave the idea that she had made a decision to talk about something that she wasn't sure should be revealed.
"He's been training her, since she arrived here in U-town. As you say... he has some expertise with weapons and hand-to-hand combat. His idea of helping Stephanie is to train her and make her stronger, not to protect her himself. That isn't... It's not how he deals with things."
"Would he take up weapons to protect you?"
Her expression was blank, but Jan had the idea she was suppressing a smile. "I imagine he might, but it's difficult to imagine a situation where he would have to."
one night at the quarter (part two)
Katherine was glad Daphne wasn't there. She never came to see the band, in rehearsal or at gigs – dogs have sensitive hearing and tend not to like loud music.
Katherine sipped her beer and lit a cigarette. She kept thinking that somewhere, in one of her textbooks, she'd encounter an explanation for Daphne, but so far she hadn't. But, of course, Daphne wasn't actually crazy.
Katherine hadn't been sure, at first, but now she was. Not that she understood Daphne, but she knew that she didn't really think she was a dog. And neither did Pete. And they definitely weren't sleeping together. In fact, there were times when it seemed like Pete was the only person Daphne wasn't sleeping with.
It had taken a while, though, for Katherine to really believe that Pete and Daphne were not, and never had been, lovers. They were both straight (well, Daphne clearly went both ways), but they had settled into a weird sort of nonsexual intimacy that Katherine was pretty sure wouldn't show up in any of her textbooks.
It was a common sight in the evenings for Pete to be reading, or drawing his comics, or practicing his bass, with Daphne curled up at his feet, sometimes reading a book of her own. Sometimes she sat up and leaned against his leg, and he patted or stroked her head, apparently not even aware that he was doing it.
A couple of times, when she'd been upset, she'd even climbed into his lap to be comforted, and Katherine had to work to keep a straight face, since Daphne was larger than Pete and looked like she might crush him.
Of course, Katherine and Pete were also good friends, and they certainly had no sexual tension, but they were somewhat more proper with each other.
One time, when Katherine had been tense, Pete had offered to give her a back rub. Remembering high school, she'd wondered if this was going to be a pass, but he'd been so unsatisfactory at massage that Daphne had come over and head-butted him away so that she could climb up on Katherine's back and walk around on all fours, which had been one of the most relaxing and pleasurable physical experiences of Katherine's life.
"So, Daphne seemed to really enjoy your company," Marshall said with a grin.
Vinnie yawned. "I'll appreciate it tremendously if you don't share that observation with your employer, my daughter. But I imagine you probably will."
"Being a detective's assistant is a sacred trust."
"That makes me feel so much better. Why are we walking so fast?"
"I want to get back to the hotel. It's nearly time to walk Ron to school."
"You walk her to school? Isn't she a little old for that?"
Marshall laughed. "Don't tell her. No, it started because I wanted to make sure she was actually going. We made her go to school after we adopted her – after some time of her not attending school at all. Then she sort of let me know that she enjoyed it, so we kept on with it. Do you want to come along?"
Vinnie sighed. "I'd love to. That is why I'm here, after all, but I'm going to take a nap. Perhaps we can have a nice family dinner tonight or something." He frowned. "You're walking Ron to school now? Is it a half day or something?"
"No. She delivers the mail in the mornings." He looked ahead and spotted Ron sitting on the steps of the hotel. She had her arms folded and was looking disgruntled.
"Apparently I'm late," Marshall said. "I'll see you tonight." He trotted up the stairs toward his daughter.
Vinnie made his way to the room he'd been assigned, and he barely had time to wonder why Ron delivered the mail before he fell asleep.
"Padre? Are you decent?"
Vinnie opened his eyes. It took him a moment to remember where he was. He looked around the room. Apparently he'd fallen into bed and into sleep without turning off the lights or removing his shoes.
"Well, are you decent?"
He saw his daughter peering owlishly into the room.
"Why don't you ask if I'm awake?" he demanded.
She smiled, stepping into the room. "I'm perfectly willing to wake you up, but I wouldn't want to burst in on you if you were en deshabille."
Marshall came in after her and closed the door.
Jan smiled brightly. "Or, of course, if you were playing 'fetch,' so to speak, with Daphne the dog."
Vinnie regarded Marshall unhappily.
"So, padre," the great detective continued, "we wanted to bring you up to date on the case. Marshall has told me all about your home care excursion this morning. I gather you didn't see any flickers of guilt when they found out about the murder."
"No, though Marshall told me afterward that nobody ever gets caught that way. How about you?"
"Ah," she said, looking pleased with herself. "I went to where Stephanie lives."
"You think she did it?" Vinnie asked. "U-town's 'superhero'?"
She smiled. "No, not really, though nobody is innocent until somebody is proven guilty. And stop making quotation marks with your fingers. She is our superhero, and we're very lucky to have her.
"No, I went because there's a man who she lives with who is... shall we say, no stranger to violence. Since Mr. Drenkenson made an unwanted and inappropriate pass at her, it's possible this Larry Gerard retaliated."
"Is he her boyfriend?"
"Oh, no. He's in a relationship with the woman who owns the house where they live. Her name is Angel Valentine."
Vinnie shook his head. "That name is rather improbable, even for U-town."
Marshall laughed. "This from the man who spent the morning visiting starling, and fending off the amorous advances of Daphne the dog."
There was a knock at the door before Jan could comment on this, at least verbally. She said, "I'll get it. I'm expecting..."
She opened the door, and she stood there for a moment, looking perplexed. Vinnie and Marshall heard a woman's voice say, "Woof."
"Padre," Jan said slowly, "I think this might be for you."
He got to his feet, went to the door, and saw Daphne. She was standing upright (on her hind legs, as he thought of it), smiling and holding a very small bouquet of flowers. She held them out. "For you," she said. He took them, wishing there weren't any witnesses to this. At least Ron wasn't there.
"They're very nice," he said, trying to remember the last time anybody had given him flowers.
She smiled again. "I understand you're a visitor here in U-town, professor, and I thought you might like to see some of the sights this evening."
She was still wearing her black sweatshirt and jeans, but she'd added a bright yellow scarf which partly covered her dog collar. Her hair was brushed, and she seemed to be wearing a little makeup. Standing up, she was taller than he would have expected, certainly taller than Pete or Katherine.
"Well," he said, suddenly afraid that he'd been looking at her body in a way that she might resent. "Last night, when I got here, I had my heart set on seafood, at a place I remembered from my last visit, and I never made it–"
"Down by the docks, no name, long tables, three items on the menu?"
He laughed and nodded as Jan took the flowers from his hand. "I'll put these in water," she murmured. "We won't wait up."
"How long are you visiting us?" Daphne asked as they walked through the hotel lobby.
"I haven't decided. I wanted to..." His voice trailed off as she preceded him through the revolving door. He found himself noticing her tight black jeans (tighter, he thought, than the ones she'd been wearing that morning), and the fact that a dog leash was hanging out of her back pocket. He had a momentary image of himself walking her like a dog, but when they were on the sidewalk she remained upright and circled her arm through his.
"So," she said, "how long are you visiting us, professor?"
"That's not entirely worked out. A couple of weeks at least."
She squeezed his arm and barked. He thought to himself that this was going to be an interesting evening.
"So," Daphne said after they had ordered and each had a bottle of beer. "Shall I comment on how I'm surprised you're drinking beer rather than wine, being Italian and all, or should I tell you what I'm not going to talk about?"
Vinnie frowned as he sipped his beer. "I'm afraid you've lost me." He smiled. "And I'm not Italian, I mean, I'm a citizen now, but I was born here. In the United States, I mean."
She smiled. "I'll explain what I meant. There's been a murder – a member of Pete's band was killed, right? And, as your daughter the detective will soon find out, if she hasn't already, there was some bad blood between various members of the band. And, of course, Pete lives with Katherine, who has killed a lot of people."
"And you're not going to talk about this... but you are talking about it. As I said, I'm confused."
A waiter came and put two cups of chowder on the table in front of them, each with a little plastic packet of fish-shaped crackers.
"The chowder is, in many ways, the best thing," she said reverently.
He nodded. "I remember. And the rest was pretty great, too." He blew on a spoonful of the thick soup. "But you were explaining something to me."
"It will occur to the great detective, at some point, that Katherine may have done this. So, I should probably be pumping you for information, trying to learn what I can to protect my family. But I'm not going to."
And, Vinnie thought to himself, I'm not going to ask you why you live your life as a dog. I'm sure that's the first thing every young man asks you on a date, So I'm not going to even mention it.
* * * *
"You haven't asked about me being a dog," Daphne observed. She licked his face.
He held her close. "No, I haven't."
She nuzzled even closer and sniffed all around his face. "Hmph," she said. "As a dog, I should be offended."
He frowned at her, though he could barely see her in the dark bedroom. "Offended?"
She was obviously barely able to contain her laughter. She leaned in close and whispered, "Your face smells entirely of pussy."
Vinnie laughed and rubbed his face on hers.
Vinnie woke up, and again he wondered where he was. He was lying on a mattress on the floor, naked, and something was tugging on his wrist and growling. The bedclothes were scattered around the floor of the small, nearly empty room.
He lifted his head and saw Daphne, on all fours, dressed in a black T-shirt and skimpy black underwear. She had his wrist between her teeth, but when she saw that he was awake she stopped growling and sat quietly, allowing him to hear the voices from the next room.
He recognized the flutey and mannered voice of his daughter. From her tone, it sounded like this wasn't a social call.
Okay, this was awkward. Vinnie had gone out to dinner with a woman he'd just met, a woman who lived her life as a dog. Now he'd spent the night with her, and her roommates were apparently involved in a murder that his daughter was investigating.
Well, there was no point in trying to hide his presence from the great detective, but he really didn't want to put yesterday's clothes on again without taking a shower first. "Do you have a robe I can wear?" he asked.
She scampered across to a pile of clothes and grabbed the corner of a shabby robe in her teeth, dragging it over to where he was sitting. He stood up, suddenly painfully aware of exactly how badly they both needed a shower. He slipped on the robe and opened the door to the other room.
Jan Sleet, having offered her condolences on the loss of Pete's friend and band mate, and having accepted the offer of a cup of coffee, sat down at the big, round table and lit a cigarette. Pete and Katherine lit up also.
She looked at the table and then at the door to the hall, and then back at the table. "I do have to ask how you ever got this table in here." She ducked her head to look at the underside. "I can't see how it would come apart easily, and it's far too big to fit up the stairs or through the door."
"It was here when I moved in," Pete said. "As far as we can figure, it must have been built here in the apartment. But I doubt if you came here this morning to investigate our table."
The bedroom door opened and Vinnie and Daphne came out.
"Good morning, padre," Jan said. "I've been stalling, waiting for you to appear. Under the circumstances, you should probably hear this." Daphne barked. "And good morning to you, Daphne."
Pete had already poured a mug of coffee for Vinnie (which told Vinnie that he and Daphne had been all too audible the night before), and Daphne trotted over to her bowl as Vinnie sat down, wishing the robe he was wearing was a bit longer. He picked up the mug and said "Thank you" before he sipped.
"As you all know, Tom Drenkenson was knifed to death in his store on Sunday night," Jan began, and Vinnie, who had witnessed scenes like this before, suddenly wondered if she had solved the case already. He didn't think so – Marshall would have been there, and maybe some form of security...
He almost lost the thread of what she was saying, distracted first by his own thoughts and then by the sight of Daphne, who had lapped up some of her coffee and was now regarding him, her head cocked to the side. She was behind Jan, so the detective couldn't see her, and she seemed to be wondering about whether it would be appropriate to come over to Vinnie, with his daughter there and a murder investigation apparently on the agenda. Vinnie tilted his head, indicating the patch of floor next to him, and Daphne padded over and sat there, leaning against his leg.
Then his attention snapped back to his daughter's words.
"One of the runners came forward last night, in answer to our question, and he said that he had seen somebody near the pet store at around the time Mr. Drenkenson was stabbed. He said it was starling."
There was a moment of silence. Katherine did not react visibly, in fact she did not move or change expression, but Vinnie felt his chest get tight and the atmosphere in the room became very different.
Because Katherine, this lean woman with the level stare and the scars, was starling, who had killed a lot of people in her life. She was apparently not armed at the moment (she was dressed in a T-shirt and underwear), but he was sure there were weapons in the room somewhere and he knew she had killed people with her bare hands, too.
Why had Jan not brought Marshall today? Was it because she was so cocky that she thought she could handle this by herself, or was it because she wanted to protect him?
Vinnie suddenly realized that his hand was on Daphne's shoulder and he was holding her to him. Which was probably not appropriate, but nobody was looking at them anyway.
"I wasn't there," Katherine said quietly. "I was here. All evening."
Daphne got to her feet and said, "Pete was out, but I was here all night. We made dinner and listened to the radio. We didn't go out."
Jan looked as if she was debating asking whether Daphne would tell a lie for Katherine, but Katherine spoke first.
"Miss Sleet, where is this pet store? Where the murder took place."
"Down by the school. One block north of the big vegetable market."
"I'd like to meet you there, in front of the store, in a half hour. There's something I want to show you there."
Jan frowned, obviously wondering what this meant. She nodded slowly. "That would be fine." She took her cane and got to her feet. "I'll see you then. Thank you for the coffee."
She left, and Katherine stood up also. "Vinnie, I'm sorry to be rude, but I'm afraid you need to leave, too."
"After you get dressed, obviously," Pete added.
This was pretty definite, so Vinnie turned to go to Daphne's room, but then he turned back. "I think I'll go catch up with Jan. Can you tell me how to get to the pet store from here? I was there before, but–"
"I'll draw you a map," Pete said, but Daphne scrambled into her room and trotted back with her leash in her mouth.
"Or, of course, Daphne could show you," Pete said, smiling.
one night at the quarter (part three)
Katherine didn't always come to see Pete's gigs. He didn't expect her to (she wasn't really his girlfriend, after all), so she went or not, depending on how she felt.
But this was not a typical gig. For one thing, she thought that it was probably going to be the last one. Already Tom had quit the band once and then come back. She was sure he'd be gone for good, soon, and she even wondered if he might not show up tonight.
She wanted to be there for Pete, if he needed moral support (she was still feeling her way around this idea of friendship – it had been a very long time – but she knew moral support was part of it).
More importantly, she also thought there might be violence. It was just a hunch, nothing specific, but there was a lot of tension, and if Pete's affair with Jenny should be discovered...
So, she was also here to protect Pete, should that become necessary. She'd been prepared to kill Henshaw for a while, if he'd ever found out about Jenny and Pete. She didn't anticipate much trouble – Henshaw had obviously seen a lot of movies, and he'd be the type who'd want to make a speech before doing anything else. They were always easy to kill.
Tom came in and brushed past her, heading toward the tiny dressing room behind the stage. He was carrying his guitar case. He looked gloomy, but that was normal for him. Well, at least he'd showed up.
the pet store
Jan Sleet pulled out her pocket watch and looked at it again. "It's been over forty-five minutes." She sighed. "Daphne, I would ask you if you thought she was really coming, but you wouldn't tell me, would you?"
"I didn't think so."
They were standing on the sidewalk in front of the pet store, and at this point the door opened and Stephanie poked her head out. "Hey, you guys," she said. "What's going on? Do you want to come in and visit?"
"Perhaps in a few minutes," Jan said. "We're waiting for somebody."
"Okay. I can make a cup of tea, if you have a few minutes. I'd like to find out how things are going with the case." She smiled suddenly. "And if you're interested in some really cute kittens..."
Daphne's bark was emphatically negative. Stephanie laughed and went back inside the store as Vinnie said, "There she is."
This was starling in full regalia, as she was always depicted in posters. She was wearing a stained and worn fatigue jacket over a T-shirt and jeans, plus dark sunglasses. There was a gun belt across her hips, and she walked toward them slowly, with no expression and no indication that she even saw them.
Vinnie wondered if she was simply going to wipe them out. It seemed like a crazy thought, but of course she was known to be crazy.
"Pretty impressive, no?" came a raspy voice from behind them, and Vinnie and Jan jumped. They turned and saw Katherine, calmly lighting a cigarette. They turned back to the woman approaching them, who removed her sunglasses and smiled, revealing herself to be Pete.
Vinnie had half noticed that they looked a lot alike the day before – same height, both lean, similar hair color – but Pete had nailed her slow, ominous walk, and he'd obviously hacked off his long hair to look like hers.
Jan glanced back at Katherine and again at Pete as he put his glasses back on. He was about to speak, but Jan nodded. "Well known, iconic, easy to recognize, and therefore easy to imitate. I get the point."
Pete unbuckled the gun belt and handed it to Katherine. "Having made the point," he said, "I think we'll go home. Professor?"
Vinnie handed over Daphne's leash, but she didn't seem to want to move from his side.
"Daphne!" Katherine said sharply, snapping her fingers.
Vinnie squatted and rubbed Daphne's head, then he leaned forward and whispered, "I'll come by tonight. Probably after dinner. If I'm invited of course."
She licked his cheek and trotted off with Pete and Katherine.
Jan regarded her father. She sighed. "Words fail me," she said. "Which, as you know, doesn't happen very often." Vinnie shrugged. "Well, since you have become... attached to one of my suspects, I suppose I should bring you up to date on the case." She held up a finger. "With the understanding--"
"That whatever I learn goes no further. Of course."
A small bell rang when the door to the pet store opened, and Stephanie stepped out of the back room. "Hi," she said. "Give me a minute – I need to wash my hands."
They heard running water, and then she came back in. "It's really hard being behind the counter and doing everything else, too." She was wearing jeans and a tank top, and when she went behind the counter she pulled on a blue sweater. "This is the nicest top I own," she said, "and I'm trying to keep it clean so I'll look nice for the customers." She laughed. "Well, when they come in. I think I've taken it off and put it back on at least ten times so far today."
She ran her fingers through her short blonde hair, then she grimaced and quickly patted it back into place.
"Do you have a few minutes?" she asked. "Would you like some tea? I want to hear about the case, and I have a couple of questions, too."
Jan nodded. "We'd love some tea, thank you."
They went into the small office where Tom Drenkenson's body had been found. Stephanie put up water on the hot plate on top of the filing cabinet, and Jan took the desk chair. Stephanie leaned against the desk and Vinnie sat on a rather flimsy-looking folding chair.
"So," Jan said, "what are your questions? Let's start there."
"Well, I was wondering who's going to take over the store. I mean, I'm glad to handle things for now, but what's going to happen?"
"We don't know yet. As far as we've been able to learn, Mr. Drenkenson has no family in this area. We've written to his sister – she's the only close relative we've been able to locate – but she lives in Oklahoma and I would imagine she might not want to come here to run this store. So, you should be thinking about whether you'd like to take over."
Jan laughed. "Yes, you. Who else? You might need to pay some money to his family over time, something like that. Anyway, we don't know yet, but you should be thinking about whether you'd want it."
Stephanie leaned back, almost losing her balance. "Wow," she said. She looked around at the shabby little office. "I was not expecting this."
"Apparently. What was the other question?"
"Huh? Oh." She smiled. "I do have to ask what that scene was out on the street with starling. I saw some of it through the window."
"As you know, I put out a call to all the runners to find out if any of them saw anybody suspicious in the vicinity of the store at around the time of the murder. Well, somebody did come forward, and he said he saw starling."
Stephanie's eyes got wide – they could see her start to invent scenarios where starling had killed her boss.
"I went to see starling," Jan continued. "She lives with Pete, who was in the same band as Mr. Drenkenson." Stephanie's eyes got even wider. Her brain was obviously steaming forward at full speed now. "The little vignette outside on the street was their demonstration that starling would have been easy to imitate."
The teapot whistled and Stephanie moved to make the tea. There were only two mugs – Mr. Drenkenson's and the one she had brought in for herself – so she decided she wouldn't have any. She didn't like tea that much anyway, but it was cheaper than buying soda every day.
Over her shoulder, she asked, "And what's with that girl who walks around like a dog? I've seen her a few times, when I'm out on patrol, but why did she go off with starling?"
There was a pause as she turned with the two steaming mugs.
"She lives with them, with Pete and Katherine," Jan said. "'Katherine' is starling's real name."
Stephanie gave them their tea and they thanked her. "I hope you don't want milk," she said. "We don't have a refrigerator." They assured her that this was fine, and declined her offer of sugar.
Stephanie leaned against the desk again. "I have another question, but first I have to say that the dog girl gives me the willies. I mean, when I'm on patrol I see all sorts, and I try not to judge. My father used to say that our job was to stop crime, not to judge how people live their lives." She smiled a rueful smile. "I think that's right, and, unlike him, I actually try to do that."
Vinnie laughed. "You must get a lot of practice here."
She smiled. "Oh, I do. It's been an experience for a small-town girl, I can tell you."
Jan laughed. "Well, as the professor here can tell you, I was a small-town girl once myself. Have you met the Golden?"
"I don't think so."
"Three of them, around fourteen years old, gold skin, gray eyes, blonde hair, they all look exactly alike?"
"Oh, sure, I've seen them on the street. Yeah, they're pretty odd. Are they brothers?"
"Two brothers and a sister, actually."
"Really? They all look the same."
"Once, by accident, I saw them... well, let's say that I saw enough to know for sure that one is a girl and the other two are boys." Stephanie started to blush. "Trust me, however odd they look on the street, they're much more peculiar to talk to."
"They look like they're aliens or something," Stephanie said.
"They may well be. I was investigating them once, and when I got a little too nosy one of them said, 'Mrs. O'Connor, 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.'
"I had to admit that they were right, of course. And, in that spirit, and in the spirit of your father's words, we should probably talk about the case."
Which was, Vinnie thought, an elegant way of stopping Stephanie from getting back to her queasiness about Daphne. He appreciated that, though probably not as much as Jan thought he would. She might think it was icky to have her father involved with a suspect, and a suspect who lived her life as a dog at that, but he didn't see anything wrong with it.
"Stephanie," the detective began, "did Mr. Drenkenson usually lock the door when the store closed? Did he lock the door that day? Was the door locked when you came in to check why the light was on when it was well past closing time?"
"He usually locked the door when it was time to close the store, but on Sunday I locked it when I left. He said he was going to stay for a few minutes – he was at his desk here – and he asked me to lock the door and turn out the lights out front when I left, so no customers would try to come in."
"Was this normal behavior? Did he often stay late?"
"Not often, but sometimes. When he had paperwork to do, and I know sometimes he had business reports which were due on Monday. So, it could have been that. Oh, and no, the door was... Hey wait. This means I'll need to do the reports–"
"We'll get to that later. Under the circumstances, I'm sure the delay won't be a problem. Was the door locked when you came back to investigate?"
"No, it wasn't."
The great detective smiled. "That's too bad. I was wondering if I'd have to figure out a fiendishly clever method for how the door got locked, since Mr. Drenkenson had his keys in his pocket." She leaned back in her chair. "This store has, as you know, only one door – the front door to the street. The windows in this room are high and small, so no one entered that way. That's also true in the storage room on the other side of that wall. The windows to the street are show windows, which don't open. So, it appears that whoever killed Mr. Drenkenson came in through the street door.
"As Vinnie can tell you, Stephanie, when I was growing up I often read mystery novels where a crafty killer would have lurked outside that window, waited for the ideal moment, thrown a knife with deadly accuracy, a skill perhaps learned during his circus days, and killed without ever entering the room.
"Well, I went out last night and examined the ground. It got very muddy in that sudden and intense rain last night, so it's impossible to tell if there were tracks from before that, but I have never, unfortunately, encountered a murder like the one I just described, and it would take some hard evidence to convince me that this is the one."
Stephanie looked about to speak, but the detective continued, "To anticipate your next comment, you are correct. The knife was not found in the room, so... I'll spare you a reconstruction of a fiendishly clever way that could have been accomplished if you'll both agree, at least tentatively, that Mr. Drenkenson admitted his killer to the store."
"To continue, there's no evidence that the lock was forced, and no sign of a struggle, so it doesn't seem that he was attacked out in the front of the store and then brought back here. So, if he let his murderer in and they came back here, after the store was closed, it would seem that they knew each other."
"Maybe the murderer threatened him, to get him to unlock the door," Stephanie suggested.
"Possible, but then we're looking for somebody with a gun. You can't force somebody to unlock a door and let you in by threatening him with a knife."
"starling has guns," Stephanie said.
"And she carries a knife, too, as I happen to know. Are you favoring starling as our murderer?"
Stephanie shrugged as Jan brought out her cigarette case and her lighter.
"I have no idea who did it, but I do have to point out that I could make a case against you that's at least as good as the one I could make against starling. For one thing, you had a motive. You don't carry a gun but I know you are experienced with them, and in any case you wouldn't need a gun to get into the store since you have a key." She smiled at Stephanie's expression as she lit a cigarette. "I'm not accusing you, but I'm cautioning you to avoid deciding who you want to be the killer. Let the evidence lead you, not the other way around. I say this with all due respect, but I imagine you don't approve of starling."
Stephanie made a face. "She's a murderer!"
Jan nodded. "She is indeed. Many times over. But we are a nation of laws, as the phrase goes, and she has not murdered anybody here. She has killed, but only in self-defense, or in defense of Pete, her boyfriend."
Vinnie was watching the two women with great interest. It had been a long time since he'd seen his daughter conducting an investigation, and he was struck by how confident she was. He would tell she was completely aware of every spoken and unspoken nuance in the room, and he was pretty sure she had started to light a cigarette at the exact moment that she had Stephanie on the defensive, suggesting that Stephanie might be the killer, in order to make it awkward for Stephanie to object to her smoking. This was, of course, Stephanie's office now, but he knew the girl wasn't yet thinking of it that way.
From the dynamics of the conversation, it felt like Jan Sleet was much older than the young superhero, but Stephanie seemed to be around eighteen, so the real age gap was more like seven years. Of course Jan's imperious demeanor and her three-piece suit added to the feeling of disparity (plus the fact that she towered over the younger woman), but part of it was also that Stephanie had apparently been raised to be respectful to authority. Vinnie had raised his daughter to be suspicious of authority, and never to respect anybody simply because they had a title.
"As far as motive goes," he put in, "my sources tell me that there was some bad blood in the band that Pete and Mr. Drenkenson belonged to. That could have provided a motive for Katherine."
"Have your sources told you the details of this bad blood?"
"Well, I've spoken to Fifteen, who, in addition to being our aide, is friends with Pete and starling, and he was a roadie for Kingdom Come when it was a going concern. So, I know a little more about the bad blood.
"There was a woman named Jennifer Owens, who was Mr. Drenkenson's girlfriend when the band was formed. She was newly arrived in U-town at that time. And there was a man named Philip Henshaw, who was also in the band. He sang and wrote the songs and played guitar." She frowned at Vinnie. "Does that happen – two guitarists in the same band?"
"It's very common. One plays more chords and the other melodies. Rhythm and lead."
"Ah, thank you. Anyway, Miss Owens quickly changed her allegiance to Mr. Henshaw, who is apparently quite a bit more charismatic than Mr. Drenkenson was. This caused some of the bad blood, as you can imagine. Also, Fifteen told me, and he made me promise that I wouldn't spread this around, that Miss Owens spent some time with Pete as well, before his relationship with starling became romantic. The theory is that neither Mr. Drenkenson nor Mr. Henshaw knew of this."
"How long ago was all this?" Vinnie asked. "Pete and Katherine give the impression that they've been a couple for a long time."
"They have been close friends and roommates for a year at least; I gather their romantic liaison has been more recent." She smiled. "I'm sure you've heard of that: a close friendship that unexpectedly becomes something else."
Vinnie turned to Stephanie, who looked a little lost. "To bring you up to date," he said, "my daughter is smiling because she is thinking of her mother and I, who were good friends until we... became her parents. Or she could be thinking of her loyal assistant, who followed her around the world helping her write articles and solve mysteries until they rather unexpectedly got married and then adopted a child."
Stephanie nodded. "I've had that happen, too, though it didn't... Anyway, I get it. But I'm not seeing a motive for anybody to kill Mr. Drenkenson."
Jan nodded. "Exactly. Drenkenson could have wanted to kill Henshaw, or possibly Pete, his rivals for Miss Owens, but I can't see a reason for either of them to kill him. starling could have wanted to kill Miss Owens (or any of them could have, really), but as far as anybody knows she left town after stabbing Mr. Henshaw."
"Wait a minute," Stephanie said. "He's dead – the charismatic one?"
"Oh, no. It was a drunken altercation, in a club called The Quarter, during what turned out to be the last performance by the band Kingdom Come. She stabbed him on stage with a broken beer bottle. Apparently she left town later that night."
Stephanie frowned. "I'm still not seeing how this helps."
"I don't think it does, except in a negative way. I can find motives in there against Henshaw, against Pete, against Jenny Owens, but I'm not seeing why any of this would lead any of these people to want to kill Mr. Drenkenson. But there may be something we don't know yet, or something we're not seeing."
She turned to Stephanie. "I have to let you know that I'm also looking at Larry Gerard." Stephanie started to protest. "I spoke to Angel Valentine this morning, and she explained how out of character it would have been for Mr. Gerard, and the fact that he's out of town, but it does have to be considered."
one night at the quarter (part four)
There was a murmur by the area of the door, and Katherine turned to look.
Several members of the Jinx, a local motorcycle gang, had just come in. Katherine knew that the small, dark-haired woman in the lead was Dr. Lee, the head of the gang. The Jinx were known to be fans of Kingdom Come, or at least Dr. Lee was, but they didn't usually show up en masse. Maybe they were also thinking that tonight could be the last gig for the band, or maybe they were expecting trouble, too.
Katherine really didn't like it that Neil still called her "Kat," but she didn't know how to stop it. If she told him to stop, he'd make a big show out of stopping, which would be unpleasant. And she couldn't threaten him – he was Jinx, after all, and he was Dr. Lee's bodyguard besides. He couldn't be intimidated.
She took a sip of her beer, looked around slowly, and said, "Hi."
Then, as she waited to see if he had anything else to say for himself, he noticed that Dr. Lee was going back toward the dressing room, and he hustled after her.
Katherine smiled. Duty trumped conversation. She was glad about that.
"Dad?" Ron said as they walked to school.
"I thought Grandpa was coming here to U-town to spend time with me."
Marshall laughed. "That was the idea. I'm sure he'll get around to it, but you know how things get when your mother has a case."
"He's helping her?"
"Yes, I think he's doing some investigation. You know, related to the murder."
After he dropped Ron off, as he was walking back to the hotel, Marshall was hailed from across the street.
He turned, and it took him a second to recognize Larry Gerard.
"Hold up a minute, Watson," Larry said as he trotted across the street. He stuck out his hand and they shook. "So, how's the little woman?"
Marshall laughed. "She doesn't often get called that."
Larry clapped him on the shoulder. "Come on, Watson. I'll buy you a beer."
Ron went to her regular classroom for her literature class, but there was a note on the door that the teacher was sick and the class was cancelled.
Ron frowned, not because she was especially upset about missing literature, but because there was a boy in the class who wanted to be friends with her. She knew that if he showed up and found out that they both had a free period, he'd want to hang out with her.
She quickly looked both ways and made for the staircase. She raced up to the next floor and went into the room where her next class was scheduled to be. It was empty, and she closed the door and went to her usual seat.
Well, she was here so she guessed she might as well finish the reading that was due today.
Larry led Marshall a couple of blocks away to a ratty and unlabeled bar. They were greeted as soon as they came in, so Larry was clearly a regular. He gestured Marshall to a booth near the back and called to the bartender, "This is Marshall. He's investigating me for something, for his boss, but he doesn't want me to know that. I'm going to get him drunk and find out what's going on."
When they were sitting, Larry grinned. He looked about as Marshall remembered him, big and muscular, handsome with slicked-back dark hair, sideburns, and a mustache.
"So, Watson," he said as the mugs of beer arrived and the bartender made a gesture as if he was wiping the rough wooden table. "I understand there's been a murder, at the pet store where Stephanie works. Has your boss figured it out yet?"
"Not yet, as far as I know."
"How'd he die?"
"Stabbed, in the store, after it was closed for the night."
"The door locked?"
Marshall was starting to get an idea about what the other man was getting at, but he didn't react visibly except to shrug. "I don't know," he said.
The door opened and Ron's head jerked up, but it was a grownup, someone she didn't know. She turned back to her book, but the woman said, "Excuse me, what class is scheduled in this room next?"
The woman smiled. "Because I'm your new teacher."
Ron frowned. "Since when?"
She came and sat next to Ron. "Since today. My name is Miss Nelson. I'm afraid your regular teacher had to go out of town suddenly – some sort of family illness." She paused, but Ron didn't react. "I was hoping someone would be here a little early, so I could find out where you are in the curriculum. Have you been a student here long?"
Ron shrugged. "Yeah, a while. My parents make me go." She made a face. "It's okay. I'm only here in the afternoons anyway."
"Only in the afternoon? Why is that?"
"I deliver the mail in the morning. I pick it up at the bridge and then I bring it to the hotel, for Vicki and my mother and father and the others. The important mail."
"You deliver the mail? Isn't there a post office or something? Why do they make you do it?"
Definitely a teacher. She didn't understand anything.
"Nobody makes me do it. It's what I do."
"And what do you study? I've read about the school here and it sounds quite innovative, if you're a fan of unstructured learning environments. This is my first day of actually teaching here, though, so I want to learn all I can before the class starts."
"Well, they change the classes around all the time. I used to take history. We were learning about slavery. Then they changed the schedule, so now I'm taking civics instead. History is in the morning now. Civics is like history, but it's the history of U-town.
"I only went to one class so far for civics. One girl said that my dad wasn't as important in the government as the others, as my mother and Vicki and them. So I busted her in the nose and she had to go to the nurse." Miss Nelson frowned disapprovingly and Ron shrugged. "She only said it to bother me, to see what I'd say. Well, she found out."
"Let me ask you a question, Watson. I've seen you around town with that kid of yours. She looks like a tough little brat. She get into a lot of fights?"
Marshall shrugged. "Some."
"When she does get into a fight, do you jump in and help her?"
"No, of course not."
Larry leaned forward. "Why not?"
"Because she can probably handle it by herself."
"And if she can't? And if she gets a black eye or a bloody nose?"
"Well, there's probably a lesson in there for her to learn."
"And when would you step in? If there was a chance she'd get seriously hurt, right?"
"So, let me ask you this. Do you think there was any chance that skinny bastard at the pet store could have really hurt Stevie One?"
"Well," Miss Nelson said judiciously, "not to take anything away from your father, but your mother is a fairly extraordinary woman. She–"
The door opened and Molly, the regular civics teacher, came in. Miss Nelson stood up and said, "Excuse me, Ron. I'll see you again soon."
She slipped by Molly and left the room.
"Who was that?" Molly asked as she moved to her desk.
"Fuck if I know," Ron said, turning back to her book.
"And if she had done it, she wouldn't have used a knife," Larry said, leaning forward and tapping the table with his finger. "Remember, her old man was training her to be a cop. Cops don't fight with knives – they don't learn how. They learn how to defend themselves against knives, but not how to use them."
He shook his head as the bartender brought two more beers.
"I tried to get her to carry something besides those sticks of hers, but she won't do it."
Marshall shrugged. "She seems to do pretty well with them."
"So far, yeah."
"So," Jan said as they walked back to the hotel, "padre, is tonight the night you're going to spend some time with your family?"
Vinnie laughed. "That's my plan, cara."
She smiled. "I hope Ron is there."
"You don't eat together? As a family?"
"Oh, padre, you're so traditional." She caught his expression. "Well, whatever your expectations about parents and children, I'm sure we don't fit. For a long time we didn't even know where she slept."
"I notice she's got a mouth on her."
"She does indeed."
"I can't remember the last time I ever heard you curse, or Marshall. You don't try to..."
"No, never. And we've had some complaints from her teachers – and the U-town school is not exactly strict – but we've told them that we're fine with it."
She pulled out her cigarette case and got a cigarette out, between her lips, and lit, all one-handed (since her other hand was busy with her cane). Vinnie was impressed with the dexterity of her long fingers, notwithstanding the fact that he knew this was the sort of thing that she practiced in front of the mirror.
"There are two reasons," she said, exhaling a cloud of smoke. "One is that it was clear she was expecting it. She sees how we are, how we talk, how we dress, and she was waiting for us to pressure her to be more like us. Which we never do. She doesn't need to be like us – that is not a condition of her being our daughter or of our loving her, and we want to make that clear."
She smiled. "We are quite strict in some ways, but about things that really matter. She has to go to school, she has to study, and she has to work at it. She has to tell us the truth. We're trying to curb her tendency to get into fights, but without ever telling her that all fights are wrong. She knows her parents covered a war, and it was a war that we thought was completely justified."
Vinnie gestured at the side street they were passing, where there was a large crater in the middle of the pavement.
She laughed. "Yes, that, too. We've left some of those unfilled, to remind everybody. We had to fight to get here, and we will probably need to fight again, sooner or later."
"And there's no point in shielding her from that fact."
"Her or anybody, but especially her." She drew deeply on her cigarette and threw it away. He knew how rare it was for her to get so passionate.
What he wanted to say, as always, was: "You remind me of your mother," but what he actually said was: "What's the other reason?"
Passionate or not, of course she remembered exactly where they'd been in the conversation. "We feel we've adopted somebody from a different culture, a different world, and we want to honor her native tongue and her native customs. She shouldn't have to give them up just because she's with us now."
Larry was sitting at the kitchen table, enjoying a beer. It seemed that Stephanie was in the clear for the killing, but he planned to keep an eye on things as they developed. Marshall was obviously pretty canny – he'd have to be sharp to work for Jan Sleet – so he may have been holding something back.
He snorted a laugh as he lit a cigarette and looked at the newspaper he'd picked up in the city. To the best of his knowledge he'd never fathered any kids, so it struck him funny that he'd ended up acting like a father to a girl who liked to dress up in a costume and stop crimes.
He'd stayed in a cheap motel on his trip, and he'd watched television to kill time (he missed TV when he was home, but Angel wouldn't have one in the house).
He'd fallen asleep with the TV on, and he'd dreamed that they were characters in a sitcom, the three of them. The gruff dad who didn't seem to have a definite job, the gorgeous mother who always had impeccable hair and spotless clothing, even when she was doing housework, and the tomboy daughter who got into various kinds of scrapes while pursuing her very ambitious dreams.
He heard the front door open, and he thought for a moment that it might be Angel, but the footsteps were wrong. Shit.
The most common adjective used to describe Tammy Nelson was "striking." She was tall and slender, dressed, as usual, in a three-piece suit. Larry would have said the suit was yellow, but he was sure that the tailor had come up with some fancier name for the color. And he was sure a tailor had been involved – the suit fit her very well. Whatever the color was called, it did seem that it had been chosen to go with her long, wavy hair, which was strawberry blonde (he'd made the mistake of saying she was a redhead once, and she'd quickly corrected him).
"Mr. Gerard, good afternoon," she began, putting down her briefcase. "I understand–"
He extended his leg under the table and nudged the chair opposite him with his toe. "Have a seat, doll."
"I..." She hesitated, then she pulled out the chair and sat down, moving her briefcase until it was beside her.
"Cup of joe?" he asked gesturing at the stove, where there was obviously no coffee brewing.
Larry found Tammy annoying, just the fact of her existence more than anything she did, and he dealt with this by always acting differently than she seemed to want. If she was professional and formal, he got friendly and relaxed. If she acted like they were friends, which they weren't, then he became severe.
"No coffee," she said. "Thank you. No, I am here because I understand you may require legal representation–"
"That's bull," he said. He sighed as he stubbed out his cigarette. "I appreciate the offer, doll, but I'm not... Nobody thinks I did it. And I didn't, if you're wondering."
He hesitated, and she stood up. "Give me a penny," she said as she went to the refrigerator.
He went through his pockets and came up with a nickel, which he slid across the table to her. She popped the top of her beer can and sat down again, reversing the chair and straddling the back.
Larry made a mental note that he was going to have to figure out a new tactic for dealing with her.
She picked up the nickel and he said, "So, now I'm paying you to drink my beer?"
She made a face at the can in her hand. "You really should. This stuff is hideous. No, you're hiring me with that nickel, so this conversation is now privileged communication." She tossed the nickel into the air, grabbed it, and then opened her hand to show him that the coin had vanished. "What's on your mind?"
Larry reflected that, whatever he thought about Tammy Nelson personally, he'd heard it from more than one source that she was a very good lawyer – "frighteningly good," one person had said.
He finished his beer and went to the refrigerator for another one.
"It's not me that I'm worried about," he began.
"So," Jan said to Ron, "how was school today?"
Ron shrugged. "It was okay."
Marshall scooped up some mashed potatoes and swirled them in his gravy. He was glad Vinnie hadn't offered his opinion of this food, given how many really first class restaurants there were in U-town. Ron liked to eat in the hotel dining room, though, where there were never any surprises.
"Did you have your civics class again?" Jan asked.
"Hopefully without violence this time," Marshall added.
Jan laughed. "Please don't misuse the word 'hopefully' in front of you-know-who. We need to set a good example."
They all laughed, except for Ron – Vinnie wasn't sure she ever laughed.
"Literature was canceled," she said after the grownup hilarity had died down. "What's-her-name was sick." She looked up from her baked beans. "Something weird happened after that. I was in the room for the civics class, before everybody else, and this woman came in." She ate another spoonful. "She was dressed real nice, and she said she was a teacher. She said she was the substitute, that Molly was out, and then she asked me a bunch of questions. You know, not weird, but just about school and stuff." She shrugged. "But then, Molly came in and Miss Nelson jumped up and split. I have no fucking idea..." Her voice trailed off as she recognized the looks that were going back and forth between her parents. "Fuck, what?" she demanded.
"What did Miss Nelson look like?" Marshall asked.
"Let me guess," Vinnie said. "She murdered Thomas Drenkenson? Maybe she..."
They were ignoring him, so he stopped.
"Kind of tall," Ron said slowly. "Her hair was..." She gestured at the level of her shoulder. "To there. Kind of light colored, but not blonde-blonde. She wore a sweater thing, like tan color, and pants. Not jeans, but real pants. Brown... light brown boots, like leather but soft-looking. She had the boots inside her pants, so I don't know how high they went." She gestured at her calf. "She was wearing glasses."
Jan nodded. "That's very good, Ron. Did you know she was suspicious, is that why you were studying her?"
Ron shrugged and ate another mouthful of baked beans. Vinnie guessed this was what happened when you were being raised by a detective and her assistant. Then she looked up. "She called me 'Ron' when she left, but I didn't tell her my name."
"Ron," Marshall said slowly, "if you see her again, please let us know right away." The glances between Marshall and Jan were going hot and heavy by this point, and Vinnie had to restrain himself from smiling. The eye contact was almost comical, but it was obvious that the situation was serious. He had the idea they were silently debating whether to warn Ron that this woman was dangerous.
Marshall nodded finally. "Just let us know."
Ron nodded and picked up one of her hot dogs with her fingers, biting off about half of it. She caught her father's expression.
"Hot dog," she explained, her mouth still full.
"A hot dog with a bun is one thing," Marshall said. He looked like he was wondering whether this was worth pursuing when there was a murmur from the area of the door.
The hotel dining room was pretty big, with probably around fifty tables and booths, and at the moment it was about half full. A man was limping in, and he was attracting quite a bit of attention. He was tall and gaunt, with long, dark, curly hair and a hawk-like face. He wore all black, with a long black coat.
"Miss Sleet," he said, his expression stern, "we need to talk."
"Mister Henshaw," she said, wiping her mouth, "I am having dinner with my family, and I do have regular office hours. You may come tomorrow–"
"I demand to know what you're doing about the murder of my friend Tom Drenkenson!"
She turned to face him. "I am investigating it, and, when I have solved it, the appropriate people will be informed. Since you are a suspect yourself–"
"Don't threaten me," he said. He gestured with the head of his cane, rather closer to her face than Vinnie liked, but she slammed her fist on the table.
"No," she said firmly, "I appreciate your possible grief, but that does not entitle you to–"
He poked her shoulder. "I demand–"
Ron looked ready to climb over the table and attack this guy, but Vinnie could tell that Marshall was holding her arm under the table to keep her under control. Marshall wouldn't interfere without a signal from his boss, who liked it when suspects got upset and might possibly reveal something useful.
However, as Vinnie reflected, there were advantages to not being on the payroll.
He stood up. "Mr. Henshaw," he said firmly.
Henshaw turned, "Look, this doesn't–"
Vinnie drew back and punched him in the stomach, as hard as he could. Henshaw dropped his cane and stumbled backwards, falling on his rear end. As he looked up, startled, a small figure zipped around Vinnie and dumped a plate of salad on his head.
Vinnie had his knife out by then. "Come on, pegleg," he said softly. "In here or outside, whichever you want."
Henshaw got to his feet, angrily wiping the salad off his head. He addressed the detective. "This is outrageous!" he said. "Are you going–"
"I agree," she said. "Completely outrageous. Please come to my office in the morning. I'll have the paperwork ready for you to file a complaint. Good evening."
The great detective had not finished her salad, but she wiped her mouth and dropped her napkin on her plate as Henshaw stalked out.
"Padre, I..." She sighed. "We'll talk later. And Ron, I'm sure your father will have some improving things to say to you at some point about the importance of resolving conflicts without resorting to fisticuffs." She turned to Marshall. "You and I need to talk." He came around and pulled back her chair.
As they left, Ron ate the remainder of her hot dog and blotted up the rest of her baked beans with a piece of bread.
"Where did you get the knife?" she asked.
"No knives for you," he said. "That's what your father would say, if he was here, though he'd use more words." She started to speak, but he shook his head. "No. No knives."
She looked miffed, but not too seriously.
"Actually," he said thoughtfully, eating some of his corn, "dumping that salad on his head was the smartest thing you could have done. He looked to me like a guy who thought he was tough but didn't get into a lot of fights. For a guy like that, to get knocked down and to get back up and fight could be a badge of honor. But the salad made him look silly, and he wasn't going to come back from that." He looked up and caught her expression. "Plus, of course, it got you out of having to eat it."
Her reaction wasn't a smile, exactly, but it was in that general neighborhood.
one night at the quarter (part five)
Katherine saw Henshaw come back in, and Frances' half-joke had been right. His face was bruised, and he was limping, although, knowing him, he was probably exaggerating that part. He was very aware of the effect of his gaunt figure, his long coats and black clothes, and his hawk-like face. A limp was a plus, really. Very dramatic.
This was another thing that annoyed Katherine about Jenny (living with Pete was definitely having an effect on her – she was actually thinking of sitting down and writing a list of "annoying things about Jenny Owens"). Her theoretical helplessness was even more ridiculous than it might have been, given that she could have beaten the crap out of Henshaw if she'd wanted to. He was bigger and stronger, but he'd had no training at all.
Then, very quickly, the house lights went down, the jukebox was turned off, and Kingdom Come took the stage.
It was interesting to Katherine how a band with this much personal disunity could still play so well together on stage. Loud, fast, aggressive – the two guitar parts fitting together so tightly that at first it seemed odd, given that the two musicians despised each other. But maybe this was carrying out their personal arguments by other means. Maybe, for the moment at least, it was helping.
vinnie and watson
Walking up the stairs to Pete and Katherine's apartment, Vinnie suddenly realized that this might be socially awkward. Henshaw and Pete had been in a band together, and he had just decked Henshaw. Well, maybe Pete and Katherine would be asleep, as they had been the night before when he and Daphne had got home.
He knocked at the door, lightly, hoping only Daphne would hear. There was a bark from inside (he was surprised to find himself smiling at the sound), but it was Katherine who opened the door. It was cooler that night, so she was dressed in more than underwear.
She smiled as he came in, nearly colliding with Daphne as she lunged forward to greet him. He squatted and rubbed her head, kissing her forehead, and she pressed her head against his.
"Vinnie," Katherine said as she moved to the big kitchen table. "Good to see you." She gestured at the stove. "There's coffee."
Vinnie went to the stove and poured himself a mug. He saw that Daphne's bowl was half full, so he topped it off and carried it over next to his chair. He sat, and Daphne lapped up some coffee and rested her chin on his thigh.
"Where's Pete?" he asked. Since the apartment, other than Daphne's room, had no walls, it was easy to tell Pete wasn't there. Then Vinnie noticed that the bass guitar case was missing also. "He got a gig?"
"No," Katherine said. "He's got an audition." She shook her head. "I think he thought that his old band, Kingdom Come, might put itself back together at some point. Tom's death, of course, ended that."
"I was under the impression that it had ended some time before that."
Daphne rolled her eyes, and Vinnie squeezed her head.
Katherine nodded. "It did. I gather Daphne told you about Jenny Owens and all that she brought with her." She finished her coffee. "Pete thinks he's not a good bass player, so he thinks getting into KC was a fluke and he'll never get into that good a band again." She gave Vinnie a sidelong glance. "I'm not telling you anything I haven't said to him."
Daphne barked quietly.
"Then this is probably a good time to let you know that I had an altercation with Mr. Henshaw earlier this evening. I hope that isn't going to be an issue." He told the story, and he could tell from their expressions that this was fine with both of them.
Katherine laughed when he was done. "Serves him right. I never did like him. He's a good musician, I guess, but he's always trying to prove he's a tough guy. One time he stole a gun of mine while he was here. I got it back, but..." She made a face. "I thought of killing him, but Pete would have been upset.
"It is typical of him to make himself the hero of the story by talking about his 'friend' Tom when they couldn't stand each other. But I am happy you hit him, like that time with Lauren."
Vinnie laughed. "It was kind of similar at that." He looked down at Daphne. "That was in a bar, in the town where I lived, many, many years ago. This woman made a joke about starling..." His voice trailed off.
Katherine smiled. "You can call me that, it's okay."
"Lauren made a nasty joke about starling and Alex, who were friends, and starling tripped her so she went flying, and I poured a beer on her head. So, similar, except that this time I did the knocking down and then Ron dumped a plate of salad."
Katherine laughed. "I knew I liked her."
Daphne barked a question.
"Alex was my friend," Vinnie said. "She was Jan's mother, a little later."
* * * *
Vinnie looked up at the ceiling. It was barely visible in the light from a streetlight. He had a thought, and he was having a tough time getting rid of it.
Daphne was asleep, pressed against his side with her arm across his stomach. She was snoring quietly, and drooling into his armpit, but that wasn't what was making it difficult for him to get back to sleep.
Well, if he was right, his daughter would react in a specific way, and probably soon. If not, then it wouldn't. That was simple. So, why was he still awake?
"What is it?" Daphne murmured. "Getting restless already?"
"No, nothing like that." He squeezed her. "A thought came to me, and it's not a really happy one, but I have a possible idea about who killed Tom Drenkenson."
She opened her eyes and raised her head to look at him in the gloom. "Really?" she whispered. "I didn't realize there were two detectives in the family."
"That's just it. If I've figured this out, then she will, too, if she hasn't already, and then she'll react in a very particular way. If she doesn't, then I'm wrong."
She rested her chin on his chest, still looking at him. "Want to talk about it?"
"Are you sure you want to hear it?"
She shrugged. "If it's enough to get you all wound up like this, then yes."
When he was done, she let out a deep sigh. "That's cutting pretty close to home," she breathed.
He nodded. "Exactly."
She sighed. "So, how are you going to test this theory of yours?"
"Well, I think we should go..." He smiled. "I mean I should go–"
"No," she said. "We can go. I can be Doctor Watson." He frowned, about to protest, but she continued, "I'll show you. Watson had many good doggy qualities, you know. Loyal, fearless, helpful–"
"I'm sure you'll make a fine Watson. I'm more dubious about my ability to hold up my end."
"Well," she murmured, putting her head down and closing her eyes, "you lead and I'll follow. There are advantages..." Her voice trailed off and she barked quietly as she snuggled up against him.
Vinnie was already regretting the idea of trying to solve this mystery himself. Even if his idea was correct (no, especially if it was correct), he couldn't imagine the process was going to be pleasant.
Vinnie sighed as they walked slowly down the hotel steps. Marshall had told him pretty much what he had expected to hear, but Vinnie had hoped, until the last minute, that he would turn out to be wrong.
He slowed and stood motionless at the bottom of the steps. Daphne leaned against his leg. He looked down and saw that her expression was sad. He leaned over and rubbed her head. "I can go home," she whispered, "if you don't... if I'm not going to be helpful."
He squatted and took her hand (which rested limply in his, like a dog's paw). "I am very happy you're here," he said. "But I do... there are two things I need. Besides my Watson, of course."
She looked quizzical.
"A private place to talk. Where I'm absolutely sure nobody can overhear. And... there's someone whose advice I want to get. Stephanie, the girl who works at the pet store Drenkenson owned."
Daphne was obviously puzzled by this, but she shrugged and turned to face the street that would take them to the pet store. When Vinnie didn't start walking immediately, she raised one hand and pointed in that direction.
"Thanks," he said. "Let's go."
As they approached the pet store, Vinnie slowed. "I need to talk to Stephanie alone for a minute. Wait here."
He dropped her leash and stepped toward the door, but she moved with him.
"Daphne, stay!" he said. She looked up, expressionless, but again she stepped forward when he did.
He looked at her for a moment, then he picked up her leash and looped it around a fire hydrant.
She reached up and took it off again.
Vinnie burst out laughing and squatted, bringing her to him and holding her. She licked his cheek and whispered, "So, go on in already. What are you waiting for?"
He laughed again and kissed her. "I'll be right back."
A few minutes later, Vinnie, Daphne, and Stephanie sat together in the small office. Stephanie sat at the desk, and Vinnie sat in the other chair. Daphne curled up on the floor. She was enjoying watching Stephanie pretend not to look at her.
"I need to explain this," Vinnie said, "and it may take a while."
Stephanie shrugged. "There's a bell that will ring if a customer comes in. Other than that, I'm all yours."
"The thing that occurred to me last night," Vinnie began, "was that Pete and Katherine's little demonstration in the street yesterday meant something, but it left one big question unanswered. Yes, starling is easy to impersonate, and Daphne here has given her an alibi for that night, which I believe. And, as far as we can figure out, Katherine didn't have any motive.
"But starling was seen in this area, which means that either she was here or somebody was impersonating her. Daphne tells me that it's very unlikely that anybody was just walking around dressed as her. People put on starling costumes sometimes for parades or parties, but not just to walk around. Too much chance you'd get shot. She has a lot of enemies.
"So, who was it? Pete was able to pull it off, but a big man like Henshaw? Ridiculous. Larry Gerard? Marshall has described him and that's even more ridiculous. Jenny Owens, if she's still around somewhere? That's possible, but then I had another thought.
"Alex – Jan's mother – she and Katherine were friends, very briefly and very intensely, and they were known for dressing up like each other. Jan tries not to talk to me about Alex, but from what she doesn't say I've always had the idea that Alex is here somewhere in U-town. I couldn't get this idea out of my head, so I decided to test it. If I'd thought of this, Jan would, too, and how would she react? She wouldn't be able to deal with suspecting her own mother, and she'd drop the investigation, or at least put it on the far back burner."
He sighed. "So, first thing this morning we went to see her. We ran into Marshall, and he said that she was in meetings all day. When we saw him, she was in a meeting about sanitation." He shook his head. "The lengths to which she will go, under normal circumstances, to avoid meetings about sanitation are a running joke with people who know her. But today? Apparently not."
"Hang on," Stephanie said. "I'm okay with..." She shook her head. "Isn't it pretty far-fetched to assume that your ex-wife knew..." Her voice trailed off and she suddenly looked upset. "How did you know?" she asked.
There was an awkward moment of silence, then Vinnie said, "I'm not clever enough to fake you out. I have no idea what you're talking about."
Stephanie looked at him for a moment, then she said, "Well, to continue my question–"
"Wait a minute," Vinnie protested. "You can't just–"
"Ignore what I just said? Actually, I can."
Vinnie made a rueful and inarticulate noise.
She shrugged. "You can't force me, you shouldn't threaten me, and you can't run to Miss Sleet to figure it out because, according to your theory, she's dropped the case. And besides, she already knows."
He sighed. "Okay, what's your question?"
"You're basing a lot on two people who liked to dress up like each other twenty years ago. So, let's assume that Miss Sleet has dropped the case, and because it was hitting too close to home. Who would she do that for?"
"Well, me, I suppose, but I couldn't impersonate starling."
Stephanie shook her head. "starling is a murderer. She says she wasn't there, but I don't believe anything she says – not without a witness."
Daphne raised her head and barked, looking angry.
"A reliable and unbiased witness," Stephanie said, continuing to look at Vinnie.
Daphne stuck out her tongue and put her head down again.
"But I don't suspect you," Stephanie said. She shrugged. "No motive. Which also goes for Marshall and Ron. And I don't think starling did it, because Miss Sleet wouldn't want to protect her."
"So, you're sort of back to Alex." Vinnie frowned. "I wonder if Jan would lie to protect you. She thinks very highly of you."
"If she thinks highly of me, it's because... I'm not the sort of person who's going to go around murdering people."
Daphne looked up and barked a question. Vinnie reached down and squeezed her shoulder.
"That makes sense," he admitted.
"Well," Vinnie said as they walked along, "at least my daughter will be happy."
"She'd have been upset if we'd been able to solve it without her. Not that..."
His voice trailed off as they turned a corner and Daphne suddenly started to pull against her leash, straining toward the stone arch across the street which led to a park.
Vinnie allowed himself to be pulled across the street and into the park, which was small -- two small city blocks, with several paved paths lined with benches, trees, and grass, and a small playground at the far end.
He felt another tug, and he turned to see Daphne standing up and unclipping the leash from her collar. He handed his end of the leash to her, which seemed to be the appropriate thing to do, and she rolled it up and stuck it into her back pocket.
She took his hand. "I hope you like ice cream," she said, leading him toward the playground.
A few minutes later, sitting on a bench, back at the far end of the park from the playground, they licked their cones. Daphne had persuaded him to try the papaya/mango/coconut flavor, which was surprisingly tasty.
She sat with one arm around his shoulders, smiling. "It was funny that Stephanie jumped to the conclusion that Alex was your ex-wife, just because you guys had a kid together."
He nodded, licking up a bit of melting ice cream before it could fall on his hand.
"Alex and I were friends, and we were parents, but we weren't married, and I never even thought of us as lovers. We just..." He caught her eye and grinned. "I don't know if you're aware of this, but sex can be much more enjoyable than a lot of other activities."
She nodded seriously. "That's a very good observation, professor."
"And we were friends, and we were young and horny, and we weren't having a lot of luck with any other prospects in our small town."
"And she got pregnant."
"Yes, and I was prepared to do my part."
"But you ended up doing both parts."
He shrugged. "That was okay. It was... It was easier than if she'd been there, to be honest, and she left so quickly that Janice had no memories of her. She'd have left eventually, so..." He shrugged again and ate some more ice cream.
"So," he continued after a moment, "just in case you were wondering, my curiosity about Alex was simply to find out whether she's involved in this case. No other reason."
Daphne nodded slowly, finishing chewing and swallowing her cone. She pursed her lips thoughtfully, and Vinnie wondered if this was the time that she would start talking about herself, at least a little.
But then he realized that her eyes were closed, and those pursed lips were moving inexorably in the direction of his face.
It had been quite a while since he'd necked on a park bench. And, as they kissed, he reflected that, although he was pretty sure he wouldn't get anywhere asking nosy questions, he really did want to figure out this odd woman.
After a few minutes, he considered pointing out that she was really too big to be a lap dog, but he decided against it.
one night at the quarter (part six)
Katherine saw Jenny Owens, standing by the side of the stage, leaning forward intently as the band careened from one song into the next. She held a beer bottle loosely in her hand. Her entire attention was apparently focused on Henshaw. Katherine thought that she might attack him in some way, but she didn't care what happened to him.
If Jenny moved toward Pete, Katherine planned to shoot her in the head. With the rest of the audience sitting down, it would be a nice clear shot. Nobody ever stood up to dance at the Quarter – they just bounced around in their seats ("chair-dancing," as Pete always called it).
Then, with no warning, Jenny smashed her beer bottle against the edge of the stage and lunged for Henshaw. Katherine stood, her revolver in her hand, but Pete didn't seem to be in any danger.
Katherine holstered her gun, but she remained standing. Pete had put his bass down and gone to Henshaw's side, helping to support him. Henshaw had been holding onto the microphone stand, but both he and it were about to fall to the stage. Katherine could see the blood starting to run down his pant leg.
Drenkenson was watching all of this with no expression, his arms folded.
Stephanie sighed as Vinnie and Daphne left. She considered closing the store early, but she really wanted to think everything through before she acted. And she needed to make some sales, too. That morning she'd received the weekly shipment of pet food, which she'd paid for in cash, so she was pretty broke.
It had been the first time she'd gone to the bridge in the early morning to get the deliveries alone. Standing around with all the other people from area shops and restaurants, she suddenly felt one step closer to owning the store.
She had to think about whether she should try to get some part-time help. How was she even supposed to figure out whether she could afford to hire somebody? But that was not the main area where she wished she had help.
She wished she had somebody to review cases with. When she was young, she'd seen her father talking things through with his deputies when he had questions. And, as she grew up, more and more often she had been included in those discussions as well.
Ordinarily, if she was really stuck she could go talk to Miss Sleet, but that wouldn't be possible now.
And sometimes she ran through things with Angel, who was polite enough to listen and comment even when she obviously didn't care all that much.
But Stephanie definitely couldn't talk to Angel about this, because the thing that Stephanie knew, the thing that Vinnie had wanted to know but hadn't been able to figure out how to force her to reveal, was that Angel Valentine was actually Jan Sleet's mother.
So, if the case was too close to home for the great detective, well, it was pretty close to home for Stephanie, too.
But Stevie One was not going to risk letting a murderer go free just because it might be somebody she cared about. That was not how she had been raised and trained, and she had a responsibility as U-town's protector.
The rest of the afternoon was pretty busy as several of her steady customers came in for their pet food orders and other supplies. They knew what day the shipments came in, and she'd pre-packed the orders for her regulars and lined them up neatly on the counter. As Mr. Drenkenson had always told her, it was great when somebody bought a kitten or a puppy, but the backbone of the business was the regular customers for supplies like pet food.
But then it was time to close, and as she turned off the lights and locked the store she realized how hungry she was. She knew she should get going on the case, but she still had no idea what to do, so a meal seemed like a good idea. If she went home and Larry and Angel were eating they would invite her to join them, but she needed to think things through before she saw them.
She had some cash, but she didn't want to spend any more than she had to until she had a firmer handle on the accounts for the store, so she planned to go to her usual Chinese takeout place. It was tiny, in a small basement storefront, and Angel had said it was the most unhealthy-looking place she'd ever seen. But the food was edible, at least by Stephanie's standards, and very cheap.
Stephanie turned and stood motionless, the key still in her hand, surprised and amazed as her friend Priscilla ran up and hugged her.
After a moment, she hugged back.
"When... Why didn't..."
"When did I get here? This afternoon. Why didn't I call?"
"Because we don't have any phones."
"How did I find you? I asked around when I got over the bridge. People told me to go to the hotel, and there was this weird kid there who told me to come here."
Priscilla shook her head. "I have a question for you. When can we eat, and when can I sit down? I've been walking for hours." She arched an eyebrow. "Unless you have plans for tonight? Like a date..."
Stephanie hugged her again. "You'd be a priority over any date I could have. Which I don't have anyway."
Priscilla grinned and whispered, "I don't imagine you have much time for dating, being a superhero and all." She pulled back and said, "So, where are we going to eat?"
Stephanie stood stock still, telling her suddenly-aching stomach that she trusted Pris completely, including about secrets even more important than this one.
"Uh," she said.
Priscilla waited (it would not be completely accurate to say that she waited "patiently").
Stephanie stood up straighter. "Okay," she said. "Dinner. I have a little cash, and I know a really nice place." She picked up Priscilla's suitcase. "I'm taking you to dinner."
Priscilla looked around. "I don't suppose there's a bus, or a cab, or something."
Stephanie shook her head. "That's not how we do things here. Come on – I can give you a pan to soak your feet later." She smiled. "And I can tell you how much I walk in an average night, when I'm doing that thing that we're not going to talk about at dinner."
Priscilla made a face. "You don't mean that you're not going to tell me–"
"At dinner. We are not going to talk about that in public. I'll tell you all about it later, when we're alone." She put down the suitcase and looked Priscilla in the eye. "That thing, that thing that you know – somehow – that has to remain a secret. You need to promise that, Pris."
Looking resigned, Priscilla extended her pinky. "Okay." Stephanie hooked her pinky around Priscilla's. "Pinky swear," Priscilla said.
Stephanie nodded and picked up the suitcase again. "The restaurant is this way. They have the best seafood."
Stephanie knew the very limited food options Priscilla had grown up with, and she thought it was better not to start her off with any of U-town's more exotic offerings. At least seafood would be something she'd heard of.
After they'd walked about half a block (Priscilla always got quiet for a few minutes when you forced her to get serious about anything), they turned to each other and said, "So, why did you cut your hair?"
"I'm the guest," Priscilla said, "So I should go first, but mine is sort of depressing, so you can go first."
"Well, mine is sort of depressing, too. When I ran away from home, I thought they'd be coming after me, looking for me, so I thought I'd better change my appearance." She sighed. "I was so scared they'd catch me and bring me home and force me to have the baby. But then I found out that nobody was even looking for me..."
"Anyway, I kind of like it shorter. Easier to wash. What about you?"
Priscilla stopped, planted her hands on her hips, and said in her whiniest voice, "Are we there yet?"
"Don't you give me trouble now, young lady. We'll get there when we get there. What about your hair?"
"My stepmother... She decided I was a slut. Her word. It got pretty bad." Stephanie suddenly felt very guilty for not staying in better touch since she'd left home. "It got so bad that I told her that, yes, I do sleep with boys, but that's a lot better than sleeping with a married man."
Stephanie winced, both because of what had happened and because she could imagine her father's reaction if she'd ever said anything like that, to anybody.
Then she looked around and realized that they'd nearly walked past the restaurant, which didn't have a sign. "Hey, your poor aching feet can rest a while. Here we are."
Stephanie explained that the restaurant had several long tables, and people sat wherever they could. The ceiling had bare beams, with lanterns hanging here and there. The tables, the chairs, and the floor were made of rough-hewn, dark wood, thickly coated with varnish.
It was still fairly early in the evening, so there were some empty seats. In a couple of hours there would be a line out the door. Stephanie had been raised that dinner was always at 6:30pm sharp, so she was amazed at how late some people had dinner in U-town.
They started to move to a table which had some empty chairs at one end, but then they heard a loud bark from the other side of the room.
Eager to see Priscilla's reaction to Daphne, Stephanie said, "Oh, there are two friends of mine. Let's go sit with them."
She led Priscilla across the room to the table where Vinnie and Daphne sat. They were side by side, with two open seats opposite them.
"Professor," Stephanie said, "this is Priscilla. She's visiting from my home town. Pris, this is Professor..." She laughed. "You'd better just call him Vinnie. I can't pronounce his last name." Daphne barked, and Stephanie added, "And this is Daphne."
Vinnie half rose in his seat and held out his hand, so Priscilla shook it. Daphne barked again, and Vinnie said, "Let her smell your hand."
Priscilla looked like she wasn't sure whether this was a joke, but she leaned forward and held out her hand.
Stephanie made a mental note to mention to Priscilla later that both Vinnie and Daphne were obviously appreciating the view down the neck of Priscilla's sweater as she leaned toward them.
Stephanie and Priscilla were about the same height, but they were different in pretty much every way. Stephanie was blonde, with thin hair and blue eyes. Priscilla had full, dark hair (with red highlights – but Stephanie knew that was from henna) and brown eyes. Stephanie's body was lean and athletic, and Priscilla... well, as Stephanie's cousin Betty had said once, girls liked to say that Priscilla was fat, but boys didn't care. Boys, middle-aged college professors, and dogs, apparently.
Daphne sniffed Priscilla's hand and licked it.
"May we join you?" Priscilla asked, straightening up and smiling.
Vinnie gestured. "Please do."
They sat down, and Priscilla said, "So, where do you teach, professor? I'm here to look at colleges – and to visit Stephanie, of course."
Vinnie laughed. "I'm here on a visit, too, though my goal is the opposite of yours. I'm here to get away from college."
"He teaches in Italy," Stephanie explained, and Priscilla laughed.
"Well, I am trying to get away from home," she said, "but maybe not that far away."
A waiter came over and asked, "What'll you have?"
Priscilla looked confused, but Stephanie pointed at the chalkboard next to the door.
"That's it," she said. She turned to the waiter. "We'll both have cups of chowder, and I'll have the scallops."
Daphne barked, and Vinnie said, "She had the scallops, and I gather they were first rate."
Priscilla, who couldn't quite read the chalkboard without her glasses, said, "I'll have the scallops, too."
The waiter went away, and she said to Vinnie, "You've eaten already?"
He nodded. "We have." He seemed to stress the "we," and Priscilla took that as a hint that she should have addressed the question to Daphne as well. "We were just having another glass of wine before we go."
Priscilla looked around. "Can we get wine, too?"
Vinnie held up a hand. "It's our bottle, and it's good wine. Please have some."
He caught the waiter's eye and pointed two fingers at the table in front of the girls.
"Oh, thank you," Priscilla said as two wine glasses appeared.
Vinnie held up the bottle, but Stephanie put her hand over her glass. "None for me, thanks, professor. I have some things to do later." She saw that Priscilla might be about to say something clever, so she added, "I really need to get a handle on the finances of the store, and I think it's probably not a good idea to do bookkeeping when you're drunk."
Vinnie nodded as he filled Priscilla's glass. "I imagine that's true." He split the remainder between his own glass and the small bowl in front of Daphne.
"So," he said, "It sounds like you're taking over the store. Will that be permanent?"
"Taking over the store?" Priscilla asked. She looked from Vinnie to Stephanie. "I don't understand."
"I'm sorry," Vinnie said, leaning forward, "did I bring up the wrong thing?"
Stephanie shook her head. "No, it's not like it's a secret. I was just enjoying a few minutes of not thinking about it." She turned to Priscilla and said, "My boss, Mr. Drenkenson, he was knifed to death in the store, night before last."
Priscilla's eyes were wide. "Oh, my God. Do they know who did it?"
Stephanie shook her head. "Not yet."
Priscilla drank some of her wine as the bowls of chowder arrived.
Stephanie dove right in, ignoring her friend's distraction. Vinnie smiled, sipping his wine.
Priscilla swallowed the wine, looked down, frowned at her chowder, cleared her throat, and picked up her spoon.
"It tastes even better if you actually eat it," Stephanie said after a moment.
Priscilla nodded slowly, dipping her spoon into the soup.
"Don't feel bad about Drenkenson," Daphne said. "He was a creep. He tried to force himself on Stephanie."
Priscilla's expression flickered between surprise that Daphne had spoken, shock at what she'd just learned, and sudden appreciation for the soup she had just put in her mouth.
Daphne smiled, looking pleased with herself, as she leaned forward to lap up some wine from her bowl.
"So, where do you live? And, most important, is it close?"
"I'm carrying the bag, what do you care?"
"You just do not care about my poor, aching feet."
"True, but you knew that already. Are you going to ask me about Daphne?"
"Probably, at some point, but there are a lot of other things that I'm more curious about."
"Like where you're going to sleep."
"And other things. Should I ask about Stevie One first, or about your boss getting murdered?"
"Well, let's take the bad one first. He was killed one night, in the store, long after closing. Jan Sleet has investigated–"
"Jan Sleet? Oh, my God. You've met her?"
"Uh, well, I've worked with her on a couple of cases, actually."
"Okay, now I'm impressed. I guess you've worked with her as Stevie One, right?"
"Does she know who you are?"
"Of course. I couldn't keep a secret from her. But how do you know?"
"I'm hoping to go to college over in the city, so I sent for information from all the ones that seemed good... and, you know, that I had a prayer of getting into."
"Because you're getting away from–"
"One thing at a time. One of the colleges – Schermerhorn – they included a copy of their school newspaper in the packet they sent me. I guess they have interns at your newspaper here, and one of them wrote a thing about you, about Stevie One. Including when she – you – first appeared, which wasn't that long after you left home. I knew you came here, and I just knew it was you."
"You... how did you know? Just from that?"
She laughed. "Who else would it possibly be?"
Stephanie laughed, too. "We're nearly there–" she began.
"Praise the Lord!"
"Shush. I need to tell you about Angel and Larry."
"The people I live with. I hope they're going to be okay with you staying for a few days... How long are you staying?"
"Uhhh... Well, so what about these Angel and Larry people?"
"Larry picked me up on the highway, hitchhiking, when I was coming here. We kind of hit it off–"
"Oh, my God–"
"No. Nothing like that. He's a grown man, an adult, and he's with Angel. He's training me. Weapons, unarmed fighting, everything."
"And how does he know so much–"
"Officially, I don't know."
"Unofficially? Wait a minute, you're living with a crook?"
"No. Let's not get into that. And Angel, I don't know that much about her."
"And what you do know, you're not going to tell me. Why did you even bring this up if you weren't going to tell me anything?"
"Here we are."
Priscilla stopped and looked at the shabby little building. "This is it?"
"It is. Home. Come on."
They went up the stairs and Stephanie let them in. "I don't know if they're home," she said as they went down the dark hallway. "We usually hang out in the kitchen. It's the warmest room in the..." Her voice trailed off as they turned the corner, saw that the kitchen was empty, and heard a guttural howl from upstairs.
"Ah," Stephanie said. "They're here." She caught Priscilla's look. "Angel is not quiet when they get going."
There was another bellow from upstairs. "I'll say," Priscilla said, looking up at the ceiling, her eyes wide.
"Come on," Stephanie said, motioning for Priscilla to follow her up the narrow stairs. They tiptoed up, though Stephanie knew that there was no chance they could possibly be heard over the rhythmic thumping and related noises from Angel's bedroom.
Stephanie pointed at the door to her bedroom and they went in. Priscilla looked around, frowning at Stephanie's meager furnishings. She pointed at Stephanie's bed and whispered, "I am not sharing that tiny bed with you. No wonder you can't get any dates."
Stephanie laughed. "You don't need to worry. You can have the bed. I'll bring up a couple of exercise mats from downstairs later. I can sleep on those."
Priscilla sat on the bed and kicked off her sneakers. "I really need a shower, but I'm too tired. I'll have one in the morning." She lifted her suitcase up on the bed, opened it, and took out a toothbrush and toothpaste. "Where's the bathroom?"
Stephanie pointed. "Right across the hall."
Priscilla shuffled off in that direction as Stephanie started to remove her clothes. She noticed that there was a lull in the noise from the other bedroom.
She had the bottom half of her costume on and was smelling the armpits of her three tops, trying to figure out which was the cleanest (and making a mental note that she had to do laundry that night or in the morning) when Priscilla came back in with a dazed look on her face.
Stephanie frowned. "What's up?" she asked. She tossed two of the tops into a corner and pulled the other one on.
Priscilla grabbed her wrist and pulled her over so they were sitting next to each other on the bed.
"The weirdest thing just happened," she whispered, her mouth so close to Stephanie that the smell of toothpaste was almost overwhelming. "I was brushing my teeth, and looking around to see if there was any mouthwash, when the bathroom door opened and this woman came in. She just kind of drifted in, like she didn't even see me. She was completely naked, with white skin and white hair. Everywhere. She sort of glided over to the... toilet and sat down, then she noticed me and smiled.
"'Oh, hello dear,' she said. She held out her hand and said, 'I'm Angel.'
"I shook her hand, and then I had to spit before I could tell her who I was, but she just smiled and waited. I told her my name and I'm not even sure she heard the part about me being your friend. She just finished up and smiled, and as she left she squeezed my shoulder and said, 'So nice to have you here.'"
Stephanie chuckled. "At least she didn't throw you out."
"Is she on drugs?"
"Oh, no, I don't think so. She was probably just... you know. Relaxed."
"Yeah. At least for the moment." She caught Priscilla's expression. "And don't even start about me." She stood up and pulled on her mask. "I'm going out to help some people, and maybe kick some ass. Don't wait up."
one night at the quarter (part seven)
Jenny, recovering from her apparent shock at what she had done, reached for Henshaw, but she was grabbed from behind. CJ, a Jinx who was the largest woman Katherine had ever met, picked her up by her collar and held her like a puppy as Neil barked orders.
The crowd was somewhat disorganized, not helped by the fact that some of them were plastered. Some were moving toward the exit, including a few who seemed to be trying to seize the opportunity to sneak out without paying. Some had stood up and were backing away, but obviously they hadn't decided yet whether to stay or go. Some were remaining in place, either pretending that nothing had happened or watching events with rapt attention. After all, Katherine reflected, Kingdom Come were local celebrities. This story would be all over town by the morning. And some of the people sitting closest to her had moved away quickly when she'd stood up with her gun in her hand.
The Jinx had gone into motion with military efficiency, as usual. They'd taken Henshaw out quickly, someone already binding his leg as others carried him. CJ had tossed Jenny away as they moved toward the door, and she'd sat on the edge of the stage, looking stunned.
Pete had trailed out after the Jinx, but then he'd frowned and glanced at Katherine. She'd nodded and he'd gone out, following the others.
Katherine moved to the stage and climbed up. Even in the emergency Pete had taken care of his bass, carefully leaning it where it wouldn't fall. She pulled the case out from behind the amplifier, opened it up, and placed the bass in it. She carefully coiled the cord and put that in the little compartment where it belonged. Then she noticed Jenny getting to her feet.
priscilla learns some things
"Do you think that it's true, as people say, that most men fall asleep right after coitus and most women don't?"
Priscilla's eyes opened and she looked around, confused. Angel was standing beside the bed, holding a tall candle in a very fancy looking holder. The bedroom was dark except for the candlelight. There was no sign of Stephanie.
"It is certainly true of Mr. Gerard and myself," Angel continued. Her voice was still somewhat dreamy. "He fell asleep a little while ago, and I lay there and started thinking. It occurred to me that I had perhaps been a little too casual about finding you in my bathroom." She looked at Priscilla for the first time. "May I sit down?"
Priscilla looked around for a chair, but Angel put the candlestick on the windowsill and sat on the narrow bed next to her. Priscilla had noticed that Angel's nightgown and robe were equally filmy, and she was seeing almost as much of the other woman's body as she had in the bathroom. Was this a pass? It didn't feel like one, but Priscilla was glad she was wearing particularly unattractive pajamas.
"First of all, do you know why Stephanie went out after she brought you here?"
"Yes," Priscilla said. "I mean–"
"So do I, so we don't need to be evasive about that. Are you and she a couple?"
"No!" Priscilla said. "Just because we–"
Angel turned, her eyes meeting Priscilla's, and suddenly Priscilla found that she couldn't speak.
"I am sorry," Angel said softly. "I intended no disrespect. Why did that question get you upset?"
"My stepmother," Priscilla started. "She... we don't get along. She thought I was a... that I was boy crazy. Then I cut my hair, just on an impulse, and she said, 'Oh my God, I knew it, you're a dyke!'" Priscilla felt her heart pounding. Why was she telling this woman all this? "That's when I knew I had to get out of there. I mean..."
Angel nodded and touched her forehead. "Relax," she whispered, and Priscilla did, sinking back on the bed. "I'm sorry," Angel said. "That's when you knew that she would be against you, no matter what you did."
"So, what did you do?"
"I decided to come to try to go to college here – in the city – and maybe I could live with Steph. And never go back home."
Angel smiled. "So, you're hoping to take up residence here. In my house."
"Well, I didn't know where she lived when..."
Angel smiled. "Go back to sleep," she said as she stood up, and the next thing Priscilla knew it was morning.
Priscilla came back into the bedroom wrapped in a towel and drying her hair. "No wonder you wanted to shower first," she said. "The hot water..."
She stopped as Stephanie held up her hand, pointing at the open door to the hall with her other hand. They heard the knock at the front door again, and then, a moment later, they heard the door open and Angel said, "Miss Sleet. This is becoming a regular occurrence. Is there a chance that this is a social call for a change?"
They couldn't hear Jan Sleet's reply, but a moment later they heard the front door close, and then footsteps going into the kitchen.
"Is this about Mr. Gerard again?" Angel asked, her voice cold. "I don't think I am in a mood to answer any more questions about him. Or anything else."
"I'm not here to ask questions," the detective said, and they heard a chair scrape on the floor. "I am here to say something, about my daughter."
There was a pause, then Angel said, "That grubby little urchin you've adopted? What does she have to do with me?"
"She had a visit in school yesterday, from a woman named Terry Nelson. She was pretending to be Ron's new teacher, but that was a lie. This is very alarming, and it must not happen again."
There was a longer pause, and then Angel said in a quieter voice, "Why is this alarming, and, as I asked before, what does it have to do with me?"
The girls, who had tiptoed to the top of the stairs by then, heard another chair move, as if Angel had sat down also.
"This woman, Terry Nelson, has been known to... She is unstable, and–"
They heard a third woman's voice, deeper and more commanding than Angel's. "My sister is not dangerous. The only violence she has ever done was to herself, as you know. And, as you also know, she really is a teacher."
"Tammy," Jan said, her voice resigned.
Priscilla looked a question to Stephanie, who shook her head.
"The point," Jan said slowly, "is this. If Terry wants to see my daughter..." There was a long pause. "...her granddaughter, she would be more than welcome to come and have dinner with us. We would enjoy that. And if she wants to become a teacher... to really teach at our school, there's a process for that, as well."
"Okay, what was that all about? Who is this Tammy woman?" She saw Stephanie's expression. "Stop making faces. I will add this to the growing list of secrets that I will carry to my grave. I..."
"This isn't a joke, Pris. If people learn who I am and where I live, I could be killed. I... I'm under a lot of pressure here, with running the store, and Mr. Drenkenson, and..."
The tears came, and Priscilla hugged her.
"I'm sorry," Priscilla said finally. "Here I'm hoping to come live with you, and all I can do is piss you off."
Stephanie looked up, wiping her tears with her sleeve. "What?"
"Never mind. Tell me about Tammy. I promise not to tell anybody."
"She is Angel. They're the same person. And I guess there's a Terry, too."
"So, she's crazy?" Priscilla whispered.
"I don't know." She smiled ruefully, wiping her eyes again. "Damn it, Pris, I'm a superhero, not a doctor."
Priscilla rolled her eyes. "Idiot."
"But she is apparently several different people, at least. And she is Jan Sleet's mother."
Priscilla digested this. "I guess they're not close."
"I think she's close with her father. He's here to visit her. Oh, I didn't tell you that. Professor Vinnie, who we ate with last night? He's her father. Jan Sleet's father."
"The guy with the dog?" She grinned suddenly. "Did he get Daphne at your store?"
Stephanie laughed. "No, we don't sell that breed."
"Is everybody weird here? And don't tell me you're not." She gestured at the hooks along the wall where the parts of Stephanie's superhero costume were hanging up and drying.
"Yeah. Every one of us. You'll fit in fine. Come on, we should get going. I want to show you how to work the cash register before we open."
Stephanie unlocked the door of the pet store, and three dogs ran up from the back of the store and surrounded her, barking and jumping up and down. Several puppies in cages started barking also.
She laughed as she squatted and petted the dogs. "Time for their walk, I'd say," she said. "You get to do that while I do the other cleaning up."
"I'm thinking of starting a union."
"Oh, come on. Would you rather be on poo patrol?"
"I don't know what that is, but I'm saying no."
Stephanie took a leash from a hook on the wall. It had one end for the person to hold, and several clips at the other end, which she started to attach to the dogs' collars.
"Do I get benefits at this job?"
Stephanie gestured at the paper bag on the counter, which contained two cups of coffee and two muffins.
"Breakfast is a benefit," she said.
"Well, it's not really..." She pointed at one of the animals Stephanie was attaching to the leash. "That's a cat."
"Oh, good. You'll work out well here."
Priscilla made a face. "You're walking a cat?"
Stephanie shrugged as she handed the end of the leash to her friend. "No, you're walking her. She likes it."
"So," Stephanie said as they had their coffee and muffins, "what is the plan? Why do you get all evasive when I ask how long you're planning to be visiting?"
Stephanie sighed. "I always get nervous when you get weird. So, you want to go to college in the city, live with me, and work here. Right?"
"Um. Well, kind of." Stephanie just waited. "Okay, yes, pretty much that. I promise I won't reveal any of your secrets, or how weird your roommates are, or... anything like that. And I promise not to pester you about coming along with you when you go out superheroing."
"Don't worry. I don't think you're sidekick material. Well, I guess I should show you around the store. Come on."
Priscilla got up on her tiptoes and looked out the window of the office. "What's out there?"
Stephanie shrugged. "The back yard, obviously."
"Who does that belong to?"
"I'm not sure it 'belongs' to anybody." She looked out also. "Doesn't look like anybody is using it for anything." She sniffed. "Except garbage."
"How do you get back there?"
"Why would you want to? It's a mess, and it smells even worse."
"Well, I thought maybe we could..." She caught her friend's sudden frown. "What?"
Stephanie closed the window. "Come on."
She led Priscilla out the front door of the store, around to the side and down a garbage-strewn alley, and into the rear yard.
Priscilla's eyes widened and she held her hand over her nose and mouth. "That's–"
Stephanie pulled a bandanna out of her pocket. "Run inside and soak this at the sink. Then hand it to me out the window."
"Hurry up. I know what that smell is." She pointed at the low metal doors. "And it's coming from the basement. It may be a dead rat, but I doubt it. Hurry up. And get me the ring of keys that's hanging by the door to the bathroom."
one night at the quarter (part eight)
Katherine put a hand on Jenny's shoulder. "If you go to the hospital, the Jinx will beat you senseless."
Jenny shook off her hand. "Fuck you! I–"
Katherine slammed her down on the stage, her legs hanging down over the edge, and cocked her revolver. "No cursing," she said quietly. "I think you and I should have a drink together. Sit down at that table."
Jenny did, and Katherine climbed down to sit with her. She looked around, but Frances' stony expression said that she wasn't about to serve them.
"Donna," Katherine called, and Donna the waitress came over.
"And what would you ladies like?" she asked, cocking her head and raising one eyebrow.
"Two beers," Katherine said. She tilted her head and Donna leaned closer.
"And don't let Frances do anything unpleasant in them, either," Katherine whispered.
Donna winked. "Nobody pees in the drinks I serve except me, and that's only for lousy tippers. Keep that in mind and you'll be fine."
She turned as somebody managed to get the jukebox going again, so she was able to walk away with a rhythm that highlighted how very short and tight her skirt was.
Katherine turned to Jenny. "We should talk."
on the roof
"No, thank you."
It was breezy on the roof where they sat, so Katherine had to cup her hand around the match in order to get her cigarette lit.
"I'm surprised it's not Jan Sleet accusing me," she said after a moment.
"She dropped the case. She was wrong about who did it... Anyway, it's a long story."
"How did you know?"
"You were seen, after all. Everybody tried to find other explanations, because you didn't seem to have a motive, and because you could have disguised yourself." Stevie One shook her head, though of course her expression was difficult to read under her mask. "I'm not as smart as Jan Sleet. I'm not a genius detective. I'm a cop, basically, and if I learn that a known murderer was seen in the vicinity of a murder, the murder of somebody she knew, I try to figure out if maybe she did it."
"And now you think you've come up with a motive for me?"
"Jennifer Owens' body was found in the basement of Mr. Drenkenson's pet store. It was in a trunk, wrapped very carefully in plastic, but the smell had started to become noticeable."
Katherine nodded slowly. "I can't say I'm sorry. But you think Jenny's death gives me a motive? I couldn't stand her."
"No, but you love Pete, and you would want to protect him."
"I would kill to protect him, yes, and I've done that in the past. But what possible threat did she pose to him?"
The young superhero shook her head. "I'm not accusing you of her murder. I'm accusing you of Tom Drenkenson's murder."
"You have lost me completely."
"Tom Drenkenson killed Jennifer Owens, because she had left him for Philip Henshaw. Mister Henshaw had a motive also, but he was in the hospital that night – the night Miss Owens apparently left town – stabbed in the leg by Miss Owens. Mr. Drenkenson probably hid the body in the basement of the store, planning to dispose of it elsewhere at some point, and then either he couldn't figure out how to do that or his own death came too quickly for him to carry out his plan."
"And I killed Tom in revenge for his murder of a woman I didn't like?"
"The danger was that, if you didn't kill Mr. Drenkenson, Pete would do it himself. The murder would be discovered and solved sooner or later, after all, and Pete cared about Jenny. That's why you made sure you were seen, and why you did it at a time when Pete had an alibi – to protect him."
"Is this where I point out that you don't have any evidence?"
The young superhero shrugged. "I don't need evidence. All I have to do is get Jan Sleet back on the case, by telling her that she's wrong in her current thinking."
Katherine nodded. "That would probably do it. But I do have to point out that you're putting yourself in a vulnerable position..."
Her voice trailed off as Stevie pulled a small gun from under her vest.
"Ah," Katherine said. "I didn't know you carried a gun."
"I don't advertise it, for a variety of reasons. I–"
Katherine reached out, grabbed Stevie's wrist, twisted it, and took the gun out of her hand, all without dropping her cigarette.
She placed the gun on the tar paper on the other side of her. "I guess that's today's lesson," she said. "Never pull a gun that you're not prepared to use. Not on somebody like me."
The door to the stairs opened and Angel stepped out onto the roof. In the dusk, dressed all in white, she almost glowed. "Hello, Katherine," she said.
Katherine frowned. "I don't think I know you."
Angel approached them. Stevie hadn't spoken, and Angel reached down to cup the back of her head. Before the young superhero could figure out how to react to this, Angel said, "Sleep," and she lowered Stevie's unconscious form gently to the tar paper.
Katherine took a moment to look again at the woman in front of her. She was still tall and slender, but now she had short, salt-and-pepper hair and a lined face, wearing black jeans and a black trench coat.
"Alex," Katherine said after a moment.
Alex smiled. "It's good to see you. It's been a while. May I sit?"
Katherine shifted to the right, so there was space between her and the unconscious form of Stevie One. Alex lowered herself to the tar paper and said, "You're surprised to see me, I imagine."
Katherine nodded. "I am." She gestured at Stevie One. "Is she okay?"
"Oh, yes. She's just asleep."
Katherine had been in therapy for a while, and she took it very seriously. She had read several books on the subject of psychology, and she was in the middle of two more at the moment. Pete joked sometimes that she had read more books about psychology than he'd ever seen her read about anything else, but she knew this was just his unease about the subject in general (Pete was obsessive-compulsive, in her estimation).
He thoroughly supported her interest, though, as long as he didn't have to participate himself, which was fair.
In her reading, she'd learned quite a bit about people with multiple personalities. Finding herself sitting next to one, she had several questions, but this did not seem to be the right time to ask them. She was having trouble thinking of something else to talk about, though.
There was a moment of silence, then Katherine said, "Vinnie is here, if you don't know."
"Here? In U-town?"
"No, downstairs in my apartment. Having sex with my dog, rather noisily."
Alex frowned. "Is this another one of those jokes that everybody gets except me?"
Katherine shook her head. "No – let's just say he's having sex with my roommate."
"Why is he here? In U-town, I mean."
"To visit his daughter, mostly. Jan Sleet."
Alex nodded. "That makes sense."
They were silent for another moment.
"Do you want to see him?"
Alex shrugged. "Not particularly."
There was another moment of silence, and Katherine stubbed out her cigarette. "What's she going to do?" she asked, gesturing at Stevie One. "When she wakes up."
Alex shook her head. "I have no idea." She met Katherine's eyes. "You will not harm her."
There was another pause, then Katherine was aware of a sidelong questioning glance from Alex, who raised an eyebrow and smiled. "Something you said to me," she said, "a long time ago. I wonder if you even remember."
Katherine shrugged. "Quite possibly not. My memory of those days is erratic."
"Mine, too. But this was a very specific conversation, and I remember it very clearly. Imagination and will, that's what you said it takes, to become somebody different, somebody new."
Katherine snorted a laugh and then covered her mouth. "I said that to you? All those years ago?" She pulled out her cigarettes and lit one. "God, I..." Alex caught her eye. "You smoke?"
Alex shrugged and smiled. "Maybe. Who remembers?"
Katherine laughed and lit one for her, too. Then she drew smoke deeply into her lungs and slowly let it out. "I was remembering my last conversation with Jenny Owens. I was telling her the same thing. She was just so... nothing that happened to her was... she didn't deserve any of it, but she put herself in some bad situations and then pretended that she had no choice." She shook her head. "I suggested she could change if she wanted to, with imagination and will, but she said no. She wasn't going anywhere, even though she'd just stabbed Henshaw."
She rolled her eyes. "He certainly deserved it. She was adamant, though, that she was going to stick, to 'ride it out,' as she put it. Then she was going to talk to Drenkenson. That's how I knew she hadn't left town, and what had probably happened to her."
"I thought you couldn't stand her."
"I didn't like her, but she was a fact of life. I was living with Pete, and she was spending a few nights in his bed – or at least a few afternoons. God, there was a special bench for us, in the band's rehearsal room – the 'girlfriend seat.' We had to sort of get along with each other. And she wasn't afraid of me, so that's always nice."
"It is good to see you," Katherine said after another moment's silence. "You should come over for dinner some time. We can bore Pete and Daphne with our stories about the old days." Alex looked dubious. "If you're worried about Vinnie, I'm sure he's going back to Italy at some point. He's supposed to be here to see Ron, I think, but he seems to spend most of his time with Daphne."
"Ron," Alex said slowly.
"Have you met her?"
"No." She stubbed out her cigarette and threw the butt off the roof. "Granddaughter," she said, looking out over the rooftops.
"I went through all that with Vinnie. You should meet her. She's cool." She grinned suddenly. "He's still handsome, by the way, but I'm pretty sure he dyes his hair."
"I hope you're not trying to fix me up with him."
"Oh, no. Daphne wouldn't like that. You know, he was just telling her about that night with Lauren–"
"Oh, God, her. I'd managed to forget about her."
"The night she made that crack about us, and you tripped her–"
"Okay, that I remember. I do remember that." She shook her head. "Vinnie, such a gentleman, defending us against the terrible slander of being called dykes."
"It seems funny now. I was glad he didn't tell Daphne the specifics, because she... well, she entertains ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages, as Pete always says."
"She's been pretty steady with Vinnie. Every night. That's unusual for her."
Alex smiled and said, "Okay, explain your comment about Vinnie and your dog. Well, as long as it isn't obscene."
"You want to know my theory?"
"Are you still at that?" Daphne asked. "I thought you said you can't solve it."
"No, not that," Vinnie said. "This is something else." He squeezed her and kissed her shoulder. "I want to tell you a story."
"I don't know for sure how it started," he said, speaking very quietly, "why Daphne started being a dog, but however it started, here she was, living with a man and a woman, a couple. They are heterosexual and monogamous, and in any case she does not find either of them attractive.
"But how can she be part of this household? Just as a roommate? No, she feels more attached to them than that, and they to her. But she is young and attractive, and much closer to the man in age than either is to the man's lover. And the lover is heavily armed and has a history of violence – you wouldn't want to get her jealous.
"And of course being a dog lets her tease people and see how they'll react. She enjoys that..."
He raised his head to look at Daphne's face. She was asleep, snoring as she always did when she slept on her back. She was far from the loudest he'd ever heard, though he knew the volume would probably increase as she got older.
Oh, well. He smiled. Holding her close, he reflected on the general advice about sleeping dogs.
His head was resting on the curve between her shoulder and her breast, with his arm across her belly. They had tacitly agreed not to mention the fact that her pregnancy was pretty obvious when she was naked.
There were several other things that they didn't talk about, like his future plans and intentions, but he was thinking that tomorrow he should start to bring those things up. Or maybe tonight. Their early-evening romp aside, he still wanted dinner.
"So," Alex said. "there's a litter of puppies coming?"
Katherine laughed. "Pete's not very observant, so I'll have to break it to him at some point."
"Are they Vinnie's?"
"Oh, no. He just got here a few days ago."
Alex noticed Katherine glance at Stevie One again.
"I really don't know what her decision will be," Alex said, "but it's going to be complicated by a couple of things. One is that she resents your freedom here. She thinks you should be locked up, because of what you've done in the past. So, if she decides to arrest you, for a crime committed here against a murderer, she will wonder if she's being influenced by the other things you've done, elsewhere. Which shouldn't matter in this, but she'll second-guess herself.
"Also, she had her own grudge against Tom Drenkenson, and she will know that shouldn't matter either, but she will wonder if... "
She frowned and pointed at Katherine's forehead. "Forget that last part. Anyway, there is only one way to find out what she's going to do, you know, and that's to wake her up. Which I will have to do sooner or later."
Katherine nodded, and Alex got to her feet. By the time she was standing, she was Angel again.
She leaned over, but then she straightened up again and reached into a pocket of her dazzlingly white jacket. She pulled out a business card, which she handed to Katherine.
"My attorney," she said. "If you do end up needing a lawyer, Tammy Nelson is the best." She hesitated, then she said, "Miss Nelson is very sharp, and she won't buy Stevie's explanation for why you killed Mr. Drenkenson, and, for the record, I don't buy it either."
She looked down at Stevie One.
"Wake up now, dear," she said quietly.
© Copyright 2016 Anthony Lee Collins. All rights reserved.