stevie one

by Anthony Lee Collins
 


part one: stephanie

Stephanie stood by the side of the highway. This was not going well. She'd been running away from home for over seven hours now, and she'd only made it from her family's house to the highway.

She'd been hitchhiking, trying not to be spotted by anybody who knew her. It had taken a few hours, walking and stopping and walking some more, but finally she'd been picked up by a fat truck driver whose cab had been filled with pot smoke and whose glove compartment had been filled with snack cakes. She'd been just as glad when she'd learned he was taking the highway in the opposite direction from her.

But now – much later, much colder, the sky getting dark, still standing where the fat man had dropped her off – she was thinking that a few hours of sickly-sweet smoke and snacks might not have been so bad after all. She'd never smoked pot and never wanted to, though some of her friends had, but a cupcake would have been pretty good right then. Or pretty much any kind of food, really.

Then a car, an old green sedan, actually stopped for her. She ran a few paces ahead to where the car had pulled off the side of the road, and the driver looked at her. He was alone in the car, and he seemed to be about her father's age. His lean face was framed by dark hair, a goatee, and sideburns.

"Need a ride?" he asked.

"I sure do. If you–"

"Get in."

This was a little abrupt, but she wasn't about to be picky.

She pulled open the door and climbed in. She fastened her seat belt immediately, by force of habit, and then she noticed that the man didn't have his on. She decided not to say anything.

"Where are you going, kid?" he asked as he pulled back onto the road.

"U-town."

"Me, too. You want a ride all the way?"

"Uh..." she began, thinking of how many hours it would be, and should she offer to drive, and what if–

He interrupted her mental paralysis. "I'll tell you the plan. I'm going as far as Centerville tonight. I'll stay over there, and then start driving again in the morning. I figure we'll make U-town around midnight tomorrow. That work for you?"

"Uh, sure."

She was beginning to be alarmed that he didn't have his headlights on, but then she was even more alarmed when he tried to turn them on and it quickly became obvious that he had no idea where the control was. Was this not his car? Then he found the switch and turned on his high-beams by accident, not realizing it until a couple of cars in the oncoming lanes flashed their lights at him.

He barked a laugh as he turned down the high-beams, then he lit a cigarette. He'd apparently had the car long enough to figure out how to work the dashboard lighter at least. And he obviously didn't care that she'd figured out this wasn't his car. It could have been borrowed, of course, but she had a hunch it wasn't. And she didn't think rental cars were this old and dirty.

They were silent for a while, and Stephanie had nearly dozed off when the man barked, "Shit!" He slammed on the brakes, cut across a lane of traffic, and got them onto the off-ramp for Centerville by going over a small divider.

"Okay," he said. "Anyway, I'm renting a room in a motel for tonight." He glanced at her. "I'm not making a pass. You can sleep in the car if you want. Or I can circle back and drop you at the highway and you can see what else comes along. Up to you."

It was late and there had been very few cars on the road, so that was not an attractive option. But she wasn't stupid, and sharing a motel room with a strange man was not a good idea either. She would sleep in the car.

He turned abruptly and pulled into the parking lot of a pancake house. It was closed and dark. Stephanie sighed, suddenly imagining how good pancakes with butter and syrup would taste. Dinner was clearly not part of tonight's plan, and she didn't want to rock the boat.

He pulled up by the front door. She was going to ask what was going on, but then she saw the two pay phones next to the entrance. He started to go through his pockets and for a second she thought he was going to ask to borrow a dime, but then he found one in the little tray between the seats.

"I'll be right back," he said, turning off the lights and the ignition. He got out of the car, taking the keys with him, and went to the first pay phone.

The call was very short. He lit a cigarette as he got back into the car, and they were off again.


After the man registered and went to the room, Stephanie wandered all the way around the motel building. The place, which was set back a few hundred feet from the road and surrounded by trees, appeared to be nearly empty. There were only four cars in the parking lot, including theirs, and the place had sixteen rooms. She took her time walking around. They had agreed that he would take his shower first, then she'd shower before she went to sleep in the car. She was looking for a candy machine, but apparently the only one was in the lobby.

She didn't want to go in there. The guy behind the counter was around her age, and she had the idea he'd be the sort who'd make a comment about her being with a much older man. She didn't want a candy bar that badly, and she didn't want anybody to see her until she'd made some adjustments to her appearance.

She was carrying her bag. She hadn't been able to bring a suitcase – her parents might have seen her leaving the house with it – so she just had her school knapsack. She had filled it with extra underwear, socks, and a couple of T-shirts, plus her journal and a pen.

She knocked on the door of the room. "It's me," she called.

There was a creak of bedsprings, and then she heard the lock being turned and he opened the door. "Come on in," he said over his shoulder as he walked back to the bed and lay down again. His attention was on the television. The room was a little steamy from his shower. He was wearing boxer shorts, smoking a cigarette, and watching some sort of sports program. There was a flat silver flask on the bedside table, along with a glass with a couple of ice cubes.

He waved his hand in the direction of the bathroom. "Shower's yours," he said. She noticed that he was very muscular and hairy. There were a couple of large scars on his side where the hair hadn't grown back. She turned quickly, glad he hadn't glanced over to see her looking at his body.

She shut the bathroom door and flipped the little lock, reflecting that if he did want to break in he looked like he'd be able to yank the door right off its hinges.

She stripped off her clothes and wrapped a towel around herself. She ran the shower for a minute and stuck her head in, just enough to wet her hair. Then she reached into the outer pocket of her bag and brought out her comb and scissors.

Stephanie had never cut her own hair before, except for an ill-advised experiment with bangs the year before, but this had always been part of the plan. It was too bad, but her long blonde hair had to go. By tomorrow morning photographs of her would be circulated as a runaway, and she needed to look different.

The haircutting proved to be even more difficult than she'd anticipated, but at a certain point she decided she was done and she regarded the results in the mirror. Well, it did look different.

She dropped her towel and took a shower. At least shampooing her hair took a lot less time now.

When she was done, she stepped out of the shower and turned off the water. As she dried herself she heard noise coming from the room outside. It didn't sound like a sports show anymore. It sounded like...

Oh, no.

Had he brought a woman in? From where?

No, it was the television. Some sort of late-night motel porno channel. Oh, great.

Well, she certainly wasn't going to sashay out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel under these circumstances. She put her clothes back on, winding a towel around the remains of her hair.

She slowly opened the door. He was lying on his back, in his boxer shorts, asleep, the remote control in his hand. The television was blaring something that Stephanie was really trying not to look at, and the room was freezing. She tiptoed to the television and found the button to turn it off. The room seemed suddenly silent, even with the sound of the air conditioner. The man didn't react. Still asleep, and snoring.

She had decided she wasn't going to sleep in the car. She really didn't think this guy was going to attack her. But she was not going to sleep in this room with this awful air conditioning. It was a cool night – they could just turn off the AC and open a window.

She went across the room. He had pulled the drapes closed, and she reached between them to turn the crank that would open one of the windows.

There was a thump behind her and a hand grabbed her wrist. "I really–" he began.

She twisted free of his grip, batted his hand aside, and kicked something out of his other hand. The object thudded against the wall next to the TV, and she stepped back, crouching, ready for his next move. He just stood and regarded her, obviously amused, and then the end of her towel slowly untucked itself from above her forehead and fell across the bridge of her nose, blocking her vision.

"Don't laugh," she said, remaining motionless.

"I'll try not to," he said.

She reached up and tucked the end of the towel back in again. He grinned and went to pick up the gun she had kicked out of his hand. "I was going to say that I never sleep with the window open. Ever."

She straightened up as he went back to his bed. "Were you watching me? I thought you were asleep."

"I was. I'm a very light sleeper."

He put the gun on the table between the beds and pulled back the covers. "Turn down the AC if you want. Make sure the drapes stay closed. See you in the morning."


"Time to get up, kid. Come on."

She rolled over and blinked, and the man laughed, and then she laughed, too. He was looking at her short hair, which he hadn't seen the night before because of the towel. She was looking at his face, which was now clean-shaven. No more goatee, and no more sideburns. His hair was greased up differently now, too.

"So, kid," he said, "I guess you're on the run from the cops, huh?" He sipped coffee from a paper cup. "You probably tunneled out of the exercise yard in the middle of the night. I should have known you were a desperate criminal by the way you beat me up last night. Come on, drink your coffee. We've got to hit the road." He turned away, then he turned back, shifted his coffee cup to his left hand, and held out his right. "I'm Larry, by the way."

She climbed out of bed and stood up to shake his hand. "Stevie." He noticed that she had slept in her clothes, but he didn't comment. She sat down on the edge of the bed and drank some of the coffee he'd left on the bedside table for her. It was really foul and she didn't like coffee anyway, but she drank it because she hadn't slept well.

Larry had snored off and on all night, but even when he'd been silent she'd slept only fitfully. Other than a few family get-togethers (which had usually turned into all-night slumber parties anyway) she'd never slept in a room with another person. Every creak of his bedsprings had made her jump.

"I'm pretty hungry," she said. She would have been too nervous to say this before, but now they had been revealed to be fellow fugitives.

"Me, too," he said. "Don't worry, we're going to meet somebody for breakfast at a diner near here. He and I need to talk, so you'll have to sit at the counter until we're done. I'll pick up the tab for your meal."

She considered asking why he was being so nice to her, but she didn't. In any case, he wasn't really being "nice." He obviously didn't care what she thought, about him or anything else, but he wanted her along for reasons of his own, and she could tell the whole situation amused him.


The word "diner" had made Stephanie think of a small place, with one counter and a few tables, but this was the biggest restaurant she'd ever seen. It was a huge, square building, covered in chrome and neon, in the center of an even bigger parking lot.

Larry pulled into the lot, driving slowly. She couldn't tell if he was looking for friends or checking for trouble, but of course it could have been both.

He parked the car and they got out. She zipped up her jacket as he made sure the car was locked. It was colder than it had been the day before, and she was glad she wasn't hitchhiking today.

Larry lit a cigarette as they walked to the entrance. The parking lot was more than half full and she hoped they wouldn't have to wait.

They went into the large entrance area of the restaurant. There was a man standing by the row of pay phones, obviously keeping out of the way of the groups of people going in and out.

"Any trouble?" he asked as they approached.

Larry grinned. "Only her," he said, jerking a thumb at Stephanie. "Her name is Stevie. Stevie, this is Tom."

They shook hands. Tom was as big as Larry, but he had short, fair hair and a close-cropped beard, with dark blue eyes. He was wearing a tan windbreaker and jeans. Larry was wearing the same ugly plaid sportcoat he'd been wearing the day before. Stephanie had thought she was traveling light, but he seemed to have no luggage at all.

Larry tilted his head at the inner door of the restaurant. She nodded and went in. The tables were mostly full, but there were seats at the long counter.


Stephanie hadn't eaten since lunch the day before, and this was the type of place that served a big breakfast. A plump omelet, a pile of potatoes on a separate plate, and a stack of toast with butter and jelly. She had wanted a soda, but coffee or tea came with the meal and soda cost extra, so she had tea.

She put down her fork and yawned. She was going to have to take a breather before she ate her toast, even as hungry as she had been.

She thought about her journal. She hadn't written in it the night before because she hadn't wanted to do anything that girly in front of Larry. He probably wouldn't have said anything, but he'd have got a laugh out of it. But she thought she should keep track of what was going on.

Or maybe she'd write it as a story. After all, she was on an adventure, a quest, with unknown dangers ahead and other dangers (very well known) behind her. She had fallen in with bad companions, as far as she could tell, but she wasn't afraid of them. They seemed to like her, or at least one did, and in any case nothing could frighten her, not compared to what she was running from.

She reached for her bag, but then an arm like a steel band clamped around her waist and she was carried as easily as if she was a teddy bear.

"Hey!" she protested.

"We're leaving," Larry said as he carried her down a narrow corridor and through the kitchen.

"I can tell that! What about–"

"I've got your bag," Tom said as they went out the screen door and down the shaky wooden steps to the small parking area in the rear of the restaurant. There was a delivery truck there, the driver smoking as he leaned against the bumper.

"Where's your car?" Larry asked Tom as he placed Stephanie on her feet. She made a face as she wriggled around, trying to get her clothing straightened out.

She took her bag as Tom said, "Next parking lot." He gestured. "Other side of the appliance store."

And so they were off, through the underbrush between the parking areas and then along a ditch, crouching low as they ran so they'd be out of sight until they were behind the appliance store.

They came along the back of the big store (which looked more like a warehouse to Stephanie – it was the biggest building she'd ever seen) and turned the corner, and she saw only one car parked in that area, which was obviously not used very much. Grass was breaking through the pavement in a few places. The car was a beige sedan, even older and more dented than Larry's car had been.

A teenage boy was standing next to the car, a wire hanger in his hand. He was poking the end of it into the car window as he tried to unlock the door. He looked up and saw them. Stephanie remembered her father saying that some cars weren't worth stealing, but some people would steal anything because that's the type of people they were.

She grinned and started forward. "I got this," she said, but then Larry's hand clamped on her upper arm.

"I appreciate the effort," he said, pulling his gun, "but let's not injure the poor boy." Tom took a gun from his jacket pocket, too.

The teenager saw that both of the men were moving forward quickly, guns in hand, and he turned and ran, leaving his coat hanger stuck in the door. The men put their guns away and Tom unlocked the car door, throwing out the hanger. They got into the car, with Tom driving, Larry in the passenger seat, and Stephanie in the back. She considered complaining that Larry hadn't called shotgun, but she decided not to.

Tom glanced over his shoulder as he started the car. "Larry tells me you've had some training. Should I ask where you got it?"

She smiled. "Would you answer my questions? Like what we're running from?"

Larry barked a laugh. "She's got you there. Come on, let's get out of here." Tom drove the car around the edge of the parking lot and pulled out onto the road, turning left.

"This is the wrong way," Stephanie pointed out.

"It wouldn't be smart to drive right past the restaurant we just ran away from," Larry explained. "I'm sure the cops are still there."

"Okay, that makes sense," she said, a tightness in her chest at the thought that the police may have been looking for her. "But what–"

"Never mind that," Tom said. "How do we get to the highway from here?"

"Especially since we're going the wrong way," Stephanie added, forcing herself to be calm. If she let them see that she was upset, they'd just make fun of her.

Tom shrugged. "Well, we can turn around, as long as we do it on another street."

They were stopped at a red light, at an intersection with fast food restaurants at all four corners, each with a big parking lot.

Stephanie looked up. "Or we could look at the signs," she said, pointing. "Route 45 is the state name for the highway."

The light turned and Tom turned right, following the sign. Stephanie sat back, smiling. "So," she said, "why didn't you want me to beat up that guy who was trying to steal the car?"

Tom nodded. "Good question. If you beat him up, then he's all bruised and bleeding, which he has to explain to people. He'll try not to admit that he was beaten up by a girl, but maybe there's a slip and he describes us, and maybe the car, and maybe he even remembers the license plate. Which would be bad. But as it is, he was scared off by two big bad men with big bad guns, and he'll keep quiet about that because he was trying to boost the car, and he was scared off, and he doesn't have any bruises he has to explain. Make sense?"

She nodded, frowning. "Yes, it does."

Larry laughed and lit a cigarette. "Don't sound so surprised."


"So, child, what is your name?"

Stephanie jerked her head up and went Eeep!, much to the amusement of the two men in the front seat.

There was a fourth person in the car with them now, a woman, sitting in the back seat next to Stephanie. She was tall and slender, with long silver hair, dressed in a white pantsuit.

She was regarding Stephanie with amusement.

"Stevie," she said. "My name is Stevie."

"Your real name," the woman said quietly.

"Stephanie Ann Monroe. Ma'am."

"And why are you going to U-town?"

"To get an abortion." Why had she said that? "I've heard you can get them there." She had a cover story all prepared – why had she blurted out the truth? "Where I live, my parents would have to sign a form, and if I told them my father would have thrown me out. If I survived the beating." Stephanie didn't seem to be in control of what she was saying, but she wasn't as alarmed about this as she would have expected.

"Ah," the woman said. "And how old are you?"

"Just eighteen."

When had this woman got in the car? Had they stopped? Well, they must have, but had Stephanie actually slept through it? What else had she missed? She remembered Tom driving for a couple of hours, and then they'd got burgers and sodas from a drive-through and Larry had taken over. She must have dozed off after that. Now it appeared to be late afternoon. She hoped she hadn't drooled or snored while she was sleeping.

The woman held out her hand. "I'm pleased to meet you," she said. "If you have trouble obtaining what you need at the U-town hospital, come see me. Barclay Street, the last building before the river." Stephanie started to check her pockets for something to write on. "You'll remember," the woman said, and Stephanie knew she would.

It was only later that Stephanie realized the woman hadn't mentioned her name.

Larry laughed as Tom tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Ten bucks you owe me."

"You were betting?" Stephanie demanded. "On me?"

Larry shrugged. "You were running away from home, you cut your hair short, and you called yourself a boy's name. You were going to U-town, which is queer central. I had ten bucks on you being a dyke."

Stephanie laughed. "I guess I'd be better off if I was." Then she realized that it might not have been as late in the afternoon as she'd thought, because it started to rain.


"I'll get the rooms," Tom said. He got out of the car and ran through the rain to the motel office. Stephanie assumed they'd be divided by sex – girls in one room and boys in the other – but when Tom came back he handed one key to Larry and put the other in his pocket. She could smell the Chinese food they had picked up a few minutes before.

"Stevie and I are in number four," Tom said. "You lovebirds are in number twelve."

"So, somebody has to get wet?" the woman asked, smiling. "Couldn't you get two adjacent rooms?" Tom turned, a grin starting to form, but she held up her hand. "Never mind. Don't be vulgar. Dearest, park by our room. These other two can get rained on." Larry pulled up to the door of #12. "Is there perhaps an umbrella?" she asked.

"I think there's one in the trunk," Tom said, as Stephanie looked at how close they were to the overhang over the door to the room.

The woman smiled at Larry, who took the keys and got out, going back to open the trunk. A moment later he came up to the passenger door, holding a large umbrella. He opened the door and the woman stepped out. She walked to the door of the room with her arm through his.

The night was dark, but Stephanie saw something that surprised her. She had been sure that the tall woman had been wearing loose-fitting white trousers in the car, but now it looked like she was wearing a long, white dress with a slit up one side to her waist. There was a gust of wind which blew the skirt around, revealing her long, slender legs, and even, for a moment, her bare buttocks.

Then Tom was out of the car and over to the door as Larry opened it. Tom took the umbrella and brought it back to the car.

"Unless you'd rather sleep in the car..." he said, smiling as he opened her door.

"Nah," she said, picking up her bag. "I think I can handle you if I have to."

He got the plastic bag of Chinese food from the front seat and then came around for Stephanie. She opened the door and he handed her the bag as she got out. He held the umbrella as they walked quickly across the parking lot to their room. Even in that short walk, her sneakers and socks got wet. She hoped the sneakers would dry out by tomorrow morning.

Tom put the bag down on the floor by the desk as Stephanie sat on the bed and pulled off her sneakers and socks. She wiggled her toes, wishing she'd been able to bring a second pair of sneakers. Tom started to clear off the desk and take the containers out of the bag. She looked around, trying to figure if this room was even more seedy than the one from the night before. Her assessment was that it looked better but smelled worse.

"We're going to eat all that?" she asked as she walked over to the table, the rough carpet itchy on her bare feet. "What about the others?"

He smiled as he started to open the containers. "They'll be busy for a while. They can come over and get some later if they want." He gestured at the little square refrigerator in the corner. "If not, it's better in there than in the car."

He had taken the only chair, the straight-backed one that went with the desk, so she pulled over the little stand that was supposed to be for suitcases. She sat on it, miffed that it only emphasized how much shorter she was than Tom.

She picked up a container of fried rice and a plastic fork and started to eat.

"Have you ever been to U-town?" he asked. He grinned. "If I ask a question you don't want to answer, just say so."

She shrugged. "You already know my biggest secret. No, I've never been to U-town. I've never been anywhere, really. Well, we went to Indianapolis once, for a wedding. And we go camping every year, for vacation."

"With your parents?"

"And my sisters. I'm the oldest of three."

"And you read about U-town? In a magazine or something?"

She shook her head. "No, I... Hey!" There were two egg rolls, and Tom, having eaten one, had just picked up the second one. "I like egg rolls, too!"

He laughed and put it back.

"We studied U-town in school. When it started, my history teacher made a project out of it. We followed the news stories, and then she set up a debate in class. Pro versus con. 'Proposition: it is impossible for one neighborhood in one city to secede from the United States.' I was on the 'against' team. I wasn't a debater, but I did a lot of research. That's how I found out that they allow..."

He nodded. "Indeed they do. But I need to tell you something. Not to discourage you, but abortions are only provided for residents."

She shrugged. "I'll figure it out when I get there."

He looked like he was going to say something else, but instead he ate more lo mein.

"Who won the debate?" he asked finally.

"Oh they didn't have it. The principal called it off. He said it was too controversial."

After dinner they watched some television, getting into periodic arguments about which channel to watch that reminded her of the arguments Tom and Larry had had in the car over what type of music to listen to on the radio. At one point Stephanie took the umbrella and went out to get them candy bars and sodas from the machines.


"Come on," Tom said. "Time to get up."

Stephanie opened one eye. "I just went to bed ten minutes ago. And school doesn't..."

Tom smiled. She glanced the the small window over the television. Still dark.

"We've got to get there early," he explained. "Come on. Get up, or we'll have to leave you."

She sighed and stretched. "Okay. I get dressed fast." She gestured. "Turn around. Come on. My butt isn't this morning's entertainment."

He laughed, stood up and stepped aside, facing away, so she could grab her bag and scoot into the bathroom. She quickly added jeans, socks, and sneakers (still damp) to the T-shirt and underwear she'd slept in.

She threw open the door. "Taa-daa!" she said, but the room was empty. Hearing an engine start outside, she bolted across the parking lot to the car. Tom was behind the wheel. He grinned as she piled in next to him.

"That was pretty fast," he admitted.

"Would you have left without me?"

"No, because I can't leave without Larry and Angel."

"What..." she started to ask, but then there was a prolonged howl of either pain or pleasure from Room #12.

"That's why I had us at the other end of the place," he explained when it was over. "Angel is a screamer."

"I'll say," Stephanie said, her eyes wide. Her own experiences in this area, which were very limited, had all been conducted in near silence, afraid that parents might hear.

A moment later, more quickly than Stephanie would have thought possible, the door opened and Angel came out, her white clothes impeccable, her silver hair perfectly arranged. She said something over her shoulder, then she came to the car. She was smiling as she got in behind Stephanie, who reached down to slide her seat forward.

"Good morning, all," Angel said.

"Good morning," Stephanie said.

"Did everybody sleep well?" Angel asked.

"Not long enough," Stephanie said, looking out at the sky, which was still dark.

Angel smiled. "More than I did, I'm sure."

Stephanie wasn't sure what to say to that. The door to the room opened again and Larry came out, looking bedraggled and tired. He had scratches on the side of his face and on one hand. He hadn't shaved, and his hair was a mess. What had this woman done to him?

Not that he looked unhappy. Quite the opposite, in fact.

He lit a cigarette and came around to the driver's side. "We've got to switch around," he said. "Now our friend Stevie gets to use her driver's license. Angel should ride shotgun, with us in the back. Come on."

So, they all moved around, with Larry making a joke about a "Chinese Fire Drill," and then they were off. As Stephanie drove she heard Angel shifting around in her seat. At the next stoplight she glanced over to see that the tall woman had adjusted her shirt and snug white leather vest to emphasize the pale upper slopes of her breasts. She smiled at Stephanie.

"When performing sleight-of-hand, a little misdirection is always helpful."

"Can I ask what we're distracting people from?" Stephanie asked.

"No," said Angel.


Larry pulled the car up to the curb. "Good luck, kid," he said. Tom smiled, and Angel gave a small wave.

Stephanie got out of the car and closed the door. They drove off, and she waited for the light to change at the busy intersection before crossing the street to the bridge.

She smiled, thinking that at least she had finally learned why Larry had picked her up in the first place. They had passed through three toll plazas on the way to the city, and since Stephanie was driving the toll takers mostly got to see her – and Angel's cleavage, which had definitely impressed the skinny toll taker at the last place – and nobody had paid much attention to Larry and Tom in the back seat.

She looked around for signs as she crossed the street, but she didn't see any. There were rusted girders above her which had apparently once held signs, but the signs were gone. The bridge roadway was blocked by wooden barricades, but one of them had been pushed aside and people were walking through in both directions. She wanted to ask somebody if this was really the bridge to U-town, but she was nervous about talking to a total stranger.

She started walking across the bridge. Apparently no cars were going over, just pedestrians, and they all looked like they knew where they were going.

The first part of her adventure was over. She had made it to U-town. Now she just had to walk over the bridge, find out where the hospital was, and that would be that.

But then what? Go home again? Would they take her back? And, more to the point, did she want to go back? And, if she did go back, what would she tell them about why she'd run away and where she'd gone?

She heard a motor behind her and she turned. A mail truck was coming up the bridge, apparently from a different on-ramp, followed by two other trucks. She stepped aside and they went past her. The other people crossing were apparently used to this and they moved to the side without even looking around.

And what about the address Angel had given her? Did she want to go there? Did she want to see them again (and would they want to see her)? If she did stay, they'd be the only people she knew in U-town.

But what if Tom was right? What if she couldn't get an abortion at the hospital? As she thought about it, her stomach getting tight, it made sense.

She told her stomach to calm down. She'd figure this out.

She heard motors coming in both directions and she stepped to the edge of the road as the mail truck came back toward the city, and a truck full of corn, zucchini and other vegetables went in the other direction. It was cold on the bridge, with chilly wind coming off the river, and she zipped up her jacket and put her hands in her pockets. She wished she had a hat. With her hair short, her head got cold easily.

She remembered what Angel had said, and she did remember the address Angel had given her. Okay, so that would be Plan B.

But if she stayed, what would she do? Get a job? Doing what?


She came down to the end of the bridge. There were several trucks parked around, each surrounded by people with carts of various kinds, obviously buying produce and other supplies. The barricade was there, as she'd seen it in photographs, but it was more impressive in color. It was a huge piling that had been placed across the bridge road on the day U-town had been founded (and how had they moved it into position? that had never been explained). It was now painted a variety of bright colors.

There was a girl sitting on the barricade, facing away from the bridge. The big canvas bag next to her had "U.S. Mail" stenciled on the side. She was a few years younger than Stephanie and she was swinging her legs back and forth, apparently waiting for something or somebody.

"Excuse me?" Stephanie said as she stepped up onto the barricade and jumped down on the other side. She was really in U-town now. It was very different from the city. The people were younger and mostly sloppily dressed, there were no cars, and things were very quiet, except for the enthusiastic bargaining going on behind her.

The girl turned to look at her suspiciously.

"I was wondering if you could tell me where the hospital is," Stephanie said.

The girl's face was freckled and pug-nosed, and far from clean, but it was thoughtful as she slowly looked Stephanie over. Then she nodded and pointed down a street. "That way. Three blocks," she said in a surprisingly deep voice.

Stephanie thanked her and started off. She was sure that the girl had sized her up and had known exactly why she wanted to go to the hospital.

 


part two: erika

It was an old house, a four-story brownstone. It had been built in the previous century, when the neighborhood had been full of prosperous and respectable families. But then the neighborhood had gone downhill – gradually and then suddenly, as people said at the time – until it was known as "Undertown," a reference to its nearness to sea level and to the supposed low quality (and the undeniable poverty) of the new residents.

But this house remained as it always had been, still owned by the Forrester family. It was one in a row of brownstones, but somewhat larger and more elaborate than its neighbors, most of which had long ago been sold and divided into apartments, or abandoned. The Forresters had been one of the most prominent families in the area, and one building of the local hospital still bore their name. Now, however, they spent less and less time there, preferring to live at their country house. The exception was their younger daughter, Claudia, who still spent most of her time in the city.

And then, with the increasingly desperate state of the people who lived in Undertown, and the financial collapse of the city itself, a series of protests culminated in a demand for secession, and a complex combination of factors – local, national, and international – resulted in this demand being met. So, the Forrester house was suddenly in the middle of a new (and very small) country called U-town.


On this particular cool, pleasant evening, two women were walking through U-town to the Forrester house. One was Claudia Forrester. She was nearly forty years old, tall, with dark hair to her shoulders and dark brown eyes. The other woman was smaller and younger, with short blonde hair, blue eyes, and pale skin. She was named Erika, and she had been traveling with Claudia. They had just spent a week with Claudia's parents at the family's country house, and now they were going home.

They walked up the stone steps to the front door, and Erika unlocked it and then locked it again when they were inside. The front hall was dark, but the light from the doorway ahead showed the high ceilings, the worn rugs, and the old portraits on the walls.

Claudia sighed and smiled as she put her suitcase down. "I miss servants already."

Erika smiled. "Would you like some coffee, or a bite to eat?"

Claudia sighed again. "No, thank you. Would you have a glass of wine with me? I need some fortification before I attempt to get that suitcase up those stairs."

Erika was about to say something, but their eyes met and she didn't pursue it. Of course she would have been willing to carry Claudia's suitcase up to Claudia's room, and of course Claudia's regret at not being able to afford servants had not been a request for Erika to fulfill all those roles herself, and of course Claudia was not about to say, "Erika, you're not a servant," because she was, more or less.

Erika smiled and said, "I'll get the wine, if they've left us any." Claudia rolled her eyes and nodded, going into the living room.

Erika quickly carried the two suitcases to the base of the main staircase, then she went into the kitchen and turned on the light.

It was a mess, of course, at least by her standards. She'd expected it to be, with two men in residence and both women away for a week. And, yes, the wine was all gone. Which was also no surprise. She reached into the neck of her blouse and pulled out the slender gold chain Claudia had given her, which held her whistle and also the key to the liquor cabinet.

Which was still locked, but she frowned. Claudia wanted wine, not whiskey. Then she remembered the bottle of sherry that had been a gift from Claudia's uncle. She took it out, poured for them both, and locked it up again.

"Any sign of our gentleman lodgers?" Claudia asked as Erika came back in with the two glasses on a small tray. Claudia took one glass, and Erika put the tray down and took the other. Claudia had taken off her shoes, which she almost never did in the living room, and she leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes.

"No sound or sign," Erika said, sitting opposite her. She noticed a half-smoked cigarette in the ashtray.

Claudia sat up and sipped the sherry, savoring the flavor. "I gather they took care of the wine."

"It's gone," Erika said with a smile, "and I think we can safely assume where it went. I see they left us some cigarettes."

"Yes, but they've gone stale." She gestured at the wooden box on the coffee table.

"I'll buy some when I shop tomorrow."

"Thank you." Claudia said as she leaned back again and closed her eyes. "I'm glad they're not around," she said after a moment. "Tomorrow is soon enough."

Erika knew what she meant. It was exactly what they had been avoiding talking about all week.


Upstairs in Claudia's bedroom, Erika put the suitcase down and Claudia said, "I'll unpack tomorrow." Erika nodded and went over to the window. Neither of them ever got tired of this view, and Claudia had been looking at it for her whole life.

Erika looked out, remembering the night they had met, and after a moment she felt the soft pressure of Claudia's breasts on her back. Claudia's hand came around to rest softly on her stomach, and Erika knew that Claudia had silently removed her dress and her shoes.

Erika knew this because this was what had happened that first night. Erika had just arrived in U-town. She'd met Claudia and the older woman had treated her to dinner and then she'd invited her home. Erika had managed to miss all the signs of Claudia's intentions, so she'd been surprised, looking out this same window at this same nighttime sight ("the best view in the city") to feel Claudia touching her lightly, and then to feel herself responding.


Erika always woke up at six.

During the week at Claudia's parents' house she had still got up at six, even though of course she wasn't allowed to cook anything. Instead, she got up, left Claudia's bed, and went back to the small room the family had given her, where she showered and got dressed.

When she and Claudia had arrived, Claudia's mother had clearly been unsure of their relationship, but there had never been a question of them sharing a room. Claudia had moved into her regular room, and Erika had been given a smaller room on the other side of the house. Of course, everybody must have figured out pretty quickly that she was sleeping with Claudia every night, but nothing was ever said. Claudia's mother even asked them both if they'd met any nice, respectable men in U-town, and so on. And Claudia didn't correct her.

Erika slipped out of bed and onto the cold floor, quickly putting on a nightgown, robe and slippers. Claudia murmured something and Erika leaned over to kiss her on the cheek. There was enough light from the window for her to see Claudia smile, her eyes still closed, and Erika smiled, too.

It was nice to be home, but time was wasting and breakfast wasn't going to make itself. And she needed a shower. She certainly wasn't going to appear at breakfast smelling the way she smelled now.

She closed Claudia's bedroom door behind her and tiptoed down the narrow corridor to the stairs. People knew she sometimes spent the night with Claudia, but Claudia thought it was important to be discreet.

It was going to be nice to cook again. She'd missed it during the last week, especially after Claudia had mentioned (in private, of course) how much better the food was at home. She just hoped there was something in the refrigerator. The two tenants (the "gentleman lodgers," as Claudia called them) had had the run of the place for a week, and it would have been a miracle if the food hadn't all gone the way of the wine. The only reason the cigarettes had survived was that neither man smoked.

She picked up her suitcase as she passed the main floor and went down to her room in the basement. A quick shower, clean clothes, and she went back up to the main floor to examine the situation in more detail than she had the night before.

The kitchen needed a good cleaning, but there was some food. Some bread, a few eggs... and beer.

There was beer in the refrigerator. That had to be Ryan's doing. There were two tenants, Ryan and Jason, but Jason knew that Claudia didn't like beer and he would have respected her wishes in her own house.

But Ryan and Claudia had become lovers a few weeks before, and it was typical of Ryan to assume that this now made him the "man of the house." How could he understand so little about Claudia?

Erika sighed as she started the coffee. Of course, she knew she wasn't unprejudiced. Ryan was tall and good-looking, and Claudia liked having an attractive man to accompany her to the various openings and events that she went to, but the relationship had already started to sour, and Erika thought the sudden trip to Claudia's parents' house had been to postpone the inevitable confrontation. She thought this would probably involve kicking Ryan out of the house, and she knew how Claudia hated making any kind of a scene.

This was how Erika had ended up in her peculiar position: living in the basement, doing the cooking and other chores, not paying rent, and also occasionally sharing Claudia's bed. There had never been any discussion of any of this, but Erika had made it easy for things to end up this way, because she could cook, which she enjoyed, and live rent-free, which was about all she could afford. And spend time with Claudia.

"Need any help?" Jason said, poking his head in through the swinging door.

She smiled. "No, I'm fine, thanks."

He came in. "Welcome back, by the way."

"It's good to be back, I can tell you that."

"Have a good trip?" he asked.

She sighed. "It was okay." She smiled and clicked her heels together three times.

He laughed. "No place like home, huh?"

"Exactly."


At precisely nine o'clock the eggs were in the warmer tray, the toast was on a plate, the coffee pot was full, and the four place settings were ready.

Claudia came into the dining room, followed by Jason a moment later. Claudia's makeup and jewelry were unobtrusive. She wore a dark knit dress which emphasized her curves, subtly. Claudia was never obvious.

Jason was slender, with thinning hair and glasses. He wore corduroy pants, a white shirt, and a sweater vest.

Claudia looked at the table and smiled. She took her seat and asked them, "Did you both sleep well last night?"

"Very well," Erika said. "Thank you."

"I slept well also," Jason said. He waited until the women were seated, then he took his chair. "I think we might as well not wait for Ryan. He's been sleeping late recently."

Claudia nodded and sipped her coffee.

"How was the trip?" he asked.

Claudia smiled and shook her head, putting salt and pepper on her eggs. "I was really looking forward to getting there, until we got there, and then I immediately started looking forward to coming home."

He smiled. "Bad weather?"

"No, the weather was wonderful. Whenever we were outside the house, everything was very pleasant. I even got Erika on a horse for the first time in her life."

Erika laughed. "And I even managed to stay on, though I wasn't exactly graceful about it."

"Well, as my father used to say, any landing you walk away from is a good one. No, the problems, I'm afraid, were indoors."

"Parental disapproval of your bohemian lifestyle?"

She laughed. "Indirectly. Not to be indelicate, but I'm sure you've noticed, while you've been living here, that I am somewhat older than your students."

Jason coughed delicately. "A few years older, perhaps."

"Well, to my mother, my college career might have been yesterday. Every good grade, every academic honor, every triumph, she remembers them all, far better than I do, and she recounts them as she leads up to her usual question about when I'm going to do something with my life."

He frowned as Erika brought in more toast. "But your degree is in theater, isn't it?"

"Theater and drama, yes."

"And you work with a couple of companies in the area, and you–"

"Ah," Erika said, "but that's not the real question."

"I'm confused."

Claudia nodded. "So were we, until we figured it out. She talks about my education and so on, because she doesn't want to ask her actual question. Which is why I'm not married and having babies."

Jason nodded. "Ah. I see."

"But, of course, my mother is not the sort of mother who pesters her daughters in that way. So, we talk about my education and my prospects instead."

"That sounds like it could have been pretty tedious for a whole week."

"Well," Erika said, "there was a swimming pool, and the horses, and long walks. She didn't want us to smoke in the house, so we'd step out for a cigarette, and a walk, and we'd end up being gone for hours."

"I feel like we walked for miles," Claudia said. "If we'd kept going in a straight line we'd have been home by Friday."

Jason laughed again. "Well, the Pyramid people certainly noticed your absence. I'm sure they would say your activities in the theater are significant."

Erika sighed. She had noticed the pile of mail on the table when they'd come in the night before. Claudia had been helping with fund-raising and promotion for a new play, and now the opening night was only five days away. She was sure the producers hadn't been too pleased at Claudia's sudden week-long absence.

Claudia nodded. "I know. I'm sure I will spend the morning reading mail and then the afternoon writing apologies."


Sunday dinner was the main meal of the day. Supper in the evening was usually very casual. But this meant that Erika had a lot to do before dinner, which was always at one-thirty in the afternoon.

She went back to the kitchen, stacked the breakfast dishes, and made her list. Fish seemed like the best idea. The fish at the Forrester house had been nearly inedible, and it would cook quickly. After she did the shopping, there wouldn't be enough time to cook a roast or anything like that. So, she made her list, took her cart, and set off.

One thing about U-town was that there weren't any supermarkets. Food was sold in a lot of small shops and carts, each fairly specialized. So, she would have to go to a few different places, at least, to get what she needed. And you always had to have a backup plan, because your first choices might not be available. She was hoping for asparagus, for example, but not relying on it.

Jason had gone out after breakfast, saying he wouldn't be back until late afternoon. Erika had got the impression that he was expecting a blowup between Claudia and Ryan and preferred to be absent. Erika thought it must have been nice to have that option.

At one-thirty, the table was set for three and the soup was ready to be served.

Ryan came in first and sat down, though at least he made a vague gesture of rising when Claudia came in. "Welcome back, beautiful," he said. He didn't acknowledge Erika.

Claudia smiled, her grimmest smile, and said, "It's good to be back. How have you been?"

Erika started to serve the soup. Dinner had courses which required serving, so she only gave herself very small portions. That was all she'd have time to eat, but she'd finish her meal in the kitchen later.

"Did you have a good trip?" Ryan asked as he started on his soup.

"Very pleasant," Claudia replied. Erika went to the kitchen to finish getting the fish ready. Conversation was obviously going to be strained, so the courses had better be coming along promptly.

When she came back, carrying the platter with the fish, Claudia smiled. "It smells wonderful," she said. The vegetables, including the asparagus, were already in the warmer, so Erika collected the soup bowls and put them on the sideboard.

As she served the fish, Ryan said, "Not that I was reading your mail, of course, but I noticed that our tickets for the premiere came. I guess they're good seats, with all the work you've put in."

Erika wanted to snap, "They're Claudia's tickets, not yours unless and until she invites you to go with her!" But of course she didn't. She could tell that Claudia had been displeased by the presumption, too, but only Erika could have seen the signs.

Erika sat to eat some of the fish. The salad was ready and the coffee could be started easily, so she could relax for a moment.

Claudia looked up. "One thing that was surprising in the mail – which you may not have noticed because it was so small, Ryan – was a visiting card. Apparently Jan Sleet wants to pay a call on us."

Ryan raised his head slowly. "I didn't know you knew her."

"I don't. I've seen her a few times on the street, of course, but we've never been introduced."

"Did she say why she wants to visit us?" he asked. He had been eating with enthusiasm, but now he held his knife and fork motionless.

She shrugged. "I have no idea. Perhaps she thinks I've committed a murder or something." She smiled. "I'll send her my card after lunch and let her know I'll be at home tomorrow. It will be interesting to meet the great detective."


Erika was starting to wash the dishes when Ryan came into the kitchen. He looked at her, but he didn't speak. Then he took a can of beer from the refrigerator, popped the top and drank as he went back to the dining room.

A few minutes later, Erika started to hear something over the sound of the running water. Suddenly afraid for Claudia, she turned off the water and hurried into the dining room, drying her hands.

Claudia and Ryan were in the living room, with the door closed (which it almost never was), and she could hear enough to tell that this was the blowup.

She went back to the kitchen, letting the swinging door close behind her. With the water running again, she could barely hear the voices.

Sunday supper was very informal. Erika usually made some soup, most often something filling like chowder or tomato soup, plus leftovers. But of course there weren't any leftovers, because she hadn't been there for a week, so she had to go out to get a few things.

As she passed the living room she looked in. Claudia was at the small desk in the corner, apparently writing letters. There was a cigarette in the ashtray next to her, and no sign of Ryan.

"Claudia, I'm going out to shop for supper. Can I get anything for you?"

Claudia turned. "No thank you." She tapped the wooden box she had moved over to the desk from the coffee table. "Thank you for buying the cigarettes this morning, by the way."

"No problem. I'll see you later."

Her stomach ached as she went out. She wanted to know what had happened; she wanted to ask how Claudia was feeling; she wanted to do and say a lot of things that she knew were out of bounds.

When she returned she came in through the rear door. It was easier when she was carrying a lot of bags. She put the food away, and the clean dishes, and then she went down to her room to unpack her suitcase, and then she read for a while.


She was preparing the meal when she suddenly remembered that there was still no wine. She cursed under her breath. Why hadn't she remembered that before? She knew Claudia would want wine with supper, so she quickly put things back in the refrigerator, grabbed her coat and left the house. If she walked quickly, and cut through the alleys, she should be able to make the whole trip in around ten minutes. There was a better store about ten blocks away, but she'd get a couple of bottles at the closer store and then make the longer trip the next day.

Meals were very important at the house, to Claudia and to all of them. They all enjoyed good food and drink – it was one of the few things they all had in common. And meals had always been pleasant, until this business with Ryan. Claudia should never have–

"Stop right there, girl," said a raspy voice, and a hand clamped onto her shoulder from behind. She was in an alley, and the wine store was visible at the far end. She'd been so wrapped up in her thoughts that she hadn't been paying attention, and it was very dark at five-thirty at this time of year.

The hand yanked her shoulder and pulled her around, then the man's other hand smashed into her jaw, knocking her down.

Erika's legs scraped against something, her stockings ripping, and she landed in a puddle of water. She felt something under her hand, maybe a piece of wood, and she threw it at the man, trying to get to her feet. The man cursed and kicked her feet out from under her again.

Panicking, wishing Claudia was there, glad Claudia was safe at home, she kicked out blindly as she fumbled in the neck of her blouse, pulling out the whistle and blowing it with all her strength.

The man gripped her blouse and pulled her to her feet, slapping her back and forth. She tried to get free, her blouse ripping, but there was no hope. He punched her in the stomach, but then she heard somebody running. Someone had heard the whistle! She–

*CRACK*

She felt the man's grip loosen – *CRACK* – and she fell to the ground again.

A small, muscular figure faced the man. Both appeared to be masked, or at least Erika couldn't distinguish any facial features or hair in the dark alley. The smaller figure held two sticks, like small baseball bats, and she (Erika thought it was a girl) brandished them at the man. He stepped toward her, but then he turned and ran as they heard the sound of more whistles from the street.

The masked girl turned, as if she was about to chase after the man, but then she holstered her sticks and came over to Erika. "Can you walk?" she asked. She kneeled and held out her hand. Erika wiped the tears from her eyes and saw that the girl's face and head were completely covered. In fact, other than her eyes, every part of her was covered in black, like a snug-fitting costume of some sort.

"I think..." Erika said, and the girl helped her stand and lean on a big dumpster. Erika held on and tried to catch her breath as the masked girl picked up her purse and found her keys and wallet.

A couple of security volunteers ran down the alley and the masked girl pointed after the man. "Big man, masked, dark clothes, beat this woman, ran that way. Bruised on left shoulder and right temple where I hit him."

"Thanks, Stevie!" they said and they ran off in that direction.

"Where do you live?" the girl asked Erika.

Erika almost protested that she still had to buy wine for supper, but she really wanted to go home.

"Down that way," she said. "A couple of blocks past the armory."

"Was he trying to rob you?"

"I don't think so. It just... I think he wanted to beat me up. Or kill me."


They walked in silence for a couple of blocks, Erika looked at her companion with some curiosity, but she didn't ask any questions.

Stevie was about Erika's size, and she was dressed completely in black. Her sneakers appeared to have been spray-painted. Her snug pants had extra pockets, like military pants, and two of those pockets, low on her thighs, had been modified to carry her sticks, which looked like a policeman's nightsticks. She wore a top that looked like a black turtleneck, with a black vest over it.

There were two short blasts on a whistle, a block or two away. Stevie turned her head. "They may have caught that guy. Do you–"

"Go ahead. I'll be alright. I live in the next block."

"I'll check on you later and make sure you're okay. What's your address?"

Erika took out one of Claudia's visiting cards and handed it to the girl. "That's the woman I live with."

Stevie nodded and slipped the card into one of the pockets on her vest. She stuck out her gloved hand. "I'm Stevie One, by the way."

Erika shook her hand. "Erika. And thank you very much."

Stevie's mask shifted as if she was grinning. "No problem. Any time."

Erika climbed the stone steps and unlocked the door. Her head ached more and more, her sweater was buttoned all the way up to hide her ruined blouse, and she knew her stockings were torn and her legs were bloody. Her left wrist was sore, and she wasn't even sure when it had gotten hurt. She closed and locked the door, then she collapsed onto the chair which was kept in the hall for people to remove their boots and galoshes.

After a moment, Claudia's head poked out of the living room.

"Erika?" she called, peering into the gloomy hallway. "Is that you? I thought I heard... Oh, my God!" She came and kneeled next to Erika, taking her right hand. "What happened?"

Jason came out of the living room also, standing a few steps away, his eyes wide.

Erika started to tell the story, but Claudia interrupted her. "Do you need to go to the hospital?"

"I don't know. I–"

"Well, we're certainly not going to figure this out here in the hall." She stood up, leaned over, and scooped Erika up into her arms.

"My legs are all bloody. I don't want–"

"We're going to get you cleaned up. Jason, will you please open the basement door for me?"

Jason went ahead of them and opened the door so that Claudia could carry Erika down the narrow stairs to her room.

"I'm going to run you a warm bath," Claudia said, laying Erika carefully on her bed. "And then we'll see about the hospital."

"I'll be alright. I don't think anything is broken."

Claudia went into the small bathroom and started the bath water, waiting a moment to make sure it was coming in at the right temperature.

Erika closed her eyes. She'd kicked off her shoes, but that was about all she had the strength to do. After a moment, she looked up to see Claudia looking at her with an expression she'd never seen before. "I'll be okay," she said. "I–"

"Let's get these clothes off," Claudia said softly. "I'll be as careful as I can."

Claudia removed Erika's clothing, working slowly. When she was about halfway through, she went into the bathroom to shut off the water.

She was careful, both because of Erika's bruises and because the blood from her wounds had started to dry. She kept the same sad expression, except when she reminded herself to look cheerful, but that didn't last.

"I can walk to the bathroom," Erika said when her clothes were off, but Claudia picked her up and carried her in, lowering her gently into the warm water. Then she removed her own dress and started to bathe Erika, washing the blood off the scratches and abrasions as Erika told her the story in more detail.

When Erika was clean and dry and lying on a couple of towels on her bed, Claudia put on a robe and went upstairs to get the first aid kit. She volunteered at the hospital every week, like everybody else in U-town, so she knew how to care for wounds.

"How do you feel?" Claudia asked as she worked.

Erika shook her head. "My head aches. My wrist isn't too bad, as long as I don't move it."

"I've got something that will help with the pain. Are you hungry at all?"

"Actually I am, a little. But I need to say something. It's important."

Claudia sat on the edge of her bed and took her hand. "Go ahead," she said.

Her heart pounding, Erika said, "We have to face the fact–"

"That the man who attacked you was Ryan, I know." Claudia looked like she might be about to cry. "I know. I think it's likely." She smoothed Erika's hair and helped her to get under the covers.

"Let's figure it out tomorrow," Erika said.

Claudia nodded and stood up. "I'll be back," she said, turning to go, but then she came back and leaned over to kiss Erika very lightly on the lips.

Even with her headache and various other aches and pains, Erika had nearly fallen asleep when Claudia returned with a tray. She pulled up the only chair, put the tray on it, and sat on the edge of the bed. She also had a paper cup with two pills in it, and a glass of water.

Erika smiled. "I feel like I'm in the hospital already."

"More comfortable, I hope."

She lifted her head and looked at the tray. "Better food, too." It looked very appealing to her, though it was just the same meat and cheese and bread that she had purchased a few hours before. She was surprised to find out that she was hungry.

"Jason said that girl stopped by, the one who rescued you," Claudia said as they ate.

"She said she would."

"He told her that you were recovering, but that you weren't able to see anybody tonight."

Erika nodded. "I'd say I'm not really dressed for receiving callers. I hope she comes back at some point, though. I thanked her, but it wasn't really adequate."

"Did she explain why she was wearing a mask?"

"I didn't ask. Mostly I just wanted to get home. But I think she's... some sort of superhero, like in a comic book." She shrugged.

"Jason said he's heard about her, while we were away. I guess she goes around helping people, but nobody knows very much about her."

"I suppose she has a secret identity."

Claudia frowned. "A what?"

Erika laughed. "I guess your extensive literary education has some gaps. When a superhero takes off his – or her – mask, he becomes an ordinary person, working in some kind of regular job. Nobody knows that this ordinary citizen is really the superhero."

Claudia laughed. "I'll have to rely on you to fill in these gaps in my knowledge." She stood up. "I should let you get some sleep. Don't worry about breakfast – Jason and I will manage something."

She leaned over to pick up the tray, but Erika's hand reached out toward hers. Claudia looked at her. "It's a very narrow bed, and you're all sore. You're not going to be comfortable..."

She smiled as she took Erika's hand and squeezed it. Then she moved the chair away from the bed and started to get undressed.

 


part three: stevie one

Stephanie yawned and stretched. The bed was narrow but comfortable, and she had started to think of this small room as home.

Which was just as well, of course.

She was lying on her back, naked between clean sheets. She still couldn't believe she was comfortable sleeping naked.

There was a knock on the door. "Who is it?" she called, stretching again and wiggling her toes.

Angel purred her name as she opened the door and came in. She was wearing a white robe that swept the floor as she walked. It was belted loosely, and she was apparently not wearing anything under it. Stephanie was used to that. It was Angel's house, after all.

Angel sat in the one straight-backed chair, and Stephanie saw she had a mug in her hand. "There's tea," she said.

Stephanie nodded. She was getting used to tea – the supply of soda in U-town was not really reliable. "I'll get some in a minute," she said. She could smell the spices. Angel's tea was very different from the supermarket tea Stephanie had grown up with.

Angel nodded slowly. "We... I was concerned, last night. You went out to make your phone call–"

"And then I rushed back in, put on my costume, and went right out on patrol."

Angel shrugged. "Of course–"

"Let me tell you about last night." Stephanie said. She rolled over on her side to face the other woman. "First I helped a guy who'd twisted his ankle. I helped him get home and then I wrapped his ankle for him." She smiled at Angel's expression. "But then, as I was walking back, I heard a whistle." She grinned and propped herself up on one elbow, tugging the covers to make sure she stayed decently covered. "It was a big guy, dressed all in black, like me, and he was beating this woman. And I stopped him!"

Angel was leaning forward, holding her mug between her hands. She'd been about to be gently sarcastic, but now she was completely involved. "Did you beat him up?"

Stephanie laughed. "I ran up behind him, when he was hitting her, and I whacked him twice, hard. He turned around, and we were about to go at it when he heard some other whistles and ran away."

"Did you chase him?"

"Well, I almost did, but I couldn't just leave that woman lying in the alley, so I helped her to get home."

"Very heroic. Who was she?"

"Her name was Erika. She lives with a woman named Claudia... something. I forget her last name. She gave me her card. I'll go by there tonight and make sure she's okay."

"Did she give you money?"

"I am not going to take money for helping people. And I promise I will go out again today to look for a job–"

Angel held up a hand. "I'm teasing you. I'm sure you'll find a job soon."

Stephanie nodded. "I saw a couple of ads on a bulletin board last night. I'm going to check them out today."

Angel sipped her tea. "Your first real heroic exploit," she said. "Very impressive." Stephanie frowned. "I'm not making fun," Angel insisted. "I think it's wonderful." She sighed. "So, do you want to tell me the rest?"

Stephanie nodded and her shoulders slumped. "Yeah, I would like to. Don't tell anybody else, okay?"

"Of course not. Would you like me to get you some tea?"

Stephanie said, "Yes, thank you," and Angel left the room. Stephanie knew this was just to give her a chance to put on some clothes. As soon as the door closed, she hopped out of bed and went across the room to get underwear and a T-shirt from the cardboard box where she kept her clothes. She pulled them on and sat cross-legged on the bed, pulling the covers around to cover her bare legs, partly out of modesty and partly for warmth.


"I called my friend Pris back home," Stephanie began. "I wanted to find out if the cops were after me or anything like that. Her father is one of my dad's deputies, so she'd know. But I wanted to talk to her, not to her dad, so I called at noon on Sunday. I knew he'd be at church, him and her stepmother."

"Pris doesn't go to church?"

"No, she stopped going. Her dad was pissed off, but they're barely speaking anyway since he remarried."

Angel sipped her tea. "Did you get her?"

"Yeah, I got her. She was real glad to talk to me. I think she may try to come here herself, at least for a visit."

Angel nodded, waiting.

"She said nobody's looking for me. Nobody's ever been looking for me. My dad found out at the drug store that I bought the pregnancy test, and he told Chip – that's Pris's dad – that he doesn't want me to come back. I'm eighteen, I can make my own choices, and he doesn't want me to influence my sisters, not any more than I already have."

She'd been looking down at the mug of tea she was holding between her hands as she spoke, and as she finished she looked up, her mouth set. "I'm not going to cry. If he can... I'm sure he didn't cry. I'm not going to either."

"I know. What about your mother?"

"Pris says she cries. But she goes along with it. It's what's best for my sisters, after all."

Stephanie was surprised to see that Angel looked upset, too. She saw Stephanie's expression and smiled. "I'm sorry. It would be very presumptuous for me to cry when you're not going to. I was just thinking about your mother. I have daughters of my own, and... we're not close."

"I was always 'daddy's girl' anyway. I wanted to be his deputy someday. I would have been the first female deputy in our county. That's why he taught me how to fight, and how to shoot and everything. I was never interested in dolls and stuff." She smiled. "You could probably tell that."

Angel nodded. "Yes, I did have that impression."


Stephanie got home later than she'd planned. She'd gone to two places looking for a job. One of the people she'd seen had recommended a third place, and in that store she'd seen a card on a bulletin board about a job in a pet store. That one had turned out to be a possibility – she'd been told to come back before noon the next day to speak to the boss.

So, it was already starting to get dark when she arrived home. Larry called to her from the kitchen as she went by.

"What's up?" she asked.

He stubbed out a cigarette. "Angel told me about your adventure last night."

She grinned and squared her shoulders. "All in a night's work, sir."

He barked a laugh. "Sure. But I had a question. Who was the woman you helped?"

He was smiling as he poured himself more coffee, but she knew him well enough to know that he was serious. "Erika. I didn't get her last name."

"And the other woman? The one she lives with?"

"I forget. I have her card in the pocket of my costume. Do you want me to check?"

He shrugged. "I'm curious."

She knew he wouldn't say why, so she didn't ask. "Give me a few minutes. I have to change anyway."

"Sure. No hurry."


Stephanie came back downstairs wearing her costume and carrying her mask. She stuck her head into the kitchen and said, "Claudia Forrester."

Larry nodded. "Thanks."

"No problem." She waited a moment, in case there was more. There wasn't, so she said goodbye.

He waved absently. "Bye."

She walked down the hall toward the rear of the house, pulling on her mask. She always left through the back door and the alley when she was in costume, for security reasons.

She looked up at the sky as she walked to the street. It was the time of day when it seems to get dark all of a sudden. When she'd got home the sky had still been quite light. Now it was dark, nearly as dark as it had been the night before when she'd rescued Erika.

People glanced as they passed her on the street, but nobody stared at this masked girl dressed all in black. She wanted to think that it was because people were already getting used to seeing their protector in their midst, but she knew it was really because people who lived in U-town were quite blasé about unusual fashion choices. She still blushed when she thought about the couple she'd seen two days before, walking hand in hand, completely naked.

"Stevie One," came a woman's voice from behind her. She blushed again, under her mask, as if the next comment might be, "Why are you thinking about that man's private parts?"

When she turned, she thought it was possible that question might really be asked. Jan Sleet was a well-known amateur detective, and she was supposed to be very nearly able to read people's minds.

And she was holding out her hand. "I'm pleased to meet you," she said. "I'm Jan Sleet."

Stevie managed to get her arm into motion before the delay became embarrassing.

"Very pleased to meet you, too, ma'am," she said, shaking the detective's hand.

"Are you on patrol?"

"Yes, ma'am."

The detective smiled. "Please stop calling me 'ma'am,'" she said. "I am married, yes, and I even have a daughter, but I'm not that much older than you probably are. Do you follow some preset route for your patrols, or would you like to walk with me?"

"Right now I'm on my way to check on a woman I helped last night. She was being beaten by a guy in an alley, but I rescued her and helped her get home." Stevie did her best to convey that this sort of thing happened to her pretty much every night, but she felt she was not entirely successful. "I wanted to go by tonight and make sure she's okay."

Jan nodded. "Which direction?"

Stevie gestured. "Down that way. About five blocks."

"I'll walk with you, if you don't mind. I'm going that way, too."

"I'd be honored," Stevie said, then she mentally kicked herself for saying something so stupid.

Stevie told Jan the story of her rescue of Erika. After the first block, the detective took a black cigarette case from her jacket pocket. She took out a cigarette, put it in her mouth, and lit it, all one-handed since her other hand was busy with her cane. Stevie was so absorbed in watching the dexterity of the other woman's long, slender fingers that she nearly lost track of the story she was telling.

Now people were noticing them, much more obviously than before. It was hard to tell if they were getting more attention because Jan Sleet was more famous than Stevie One (at least so far), or because she was even more unusual looking.

The detective was at least six feet tall, very thin, wearing a blue pinstripe three-piece suit. Her brown hair framed her thin face, which was dominated by large horn-rimmed glasses. She limped, but she still made pretty good progress because of her long legs.

"I read the report from the security volunteers," she said when Stevie was finished. "They didn't find the man, by the way."

"I know. I talked to them after I walked Erika home."


As they turned the corner, Jan said, "Incidentally, I should let you know that we're going to the same place." Stevie looked up at her, but of course the mask concealed her expression. "I haven't been playing games; I didn't know until you started to tell me your story. I'm going to visit Claudia Forrester to ask about a theater that her family owns. The report from last night mentioned you and a woman named Erika, but it was your story that told me Erika and Claudia live together."

Stevie nodded as they climbed the stairs to the front door. She pressed the doorbell button as Jan limped up behind her. They heard the bell ring and after a few moments the door opened.

Erika was dressed much as she had been the night before – sweater, blouse, and skirt – but her legs were bare (and bandaged in several places), and she was wearing puffy pink slippers. Her left arm was in a sling and she had a black eye.

"Stevie," she said happily, then she belatedly realized who the other woman was.

The detective held out her hand. "Erika, I believe. My name is Jan Sleet."

Erika held out her hand. "I'm pleased to meet you. Won't you both come in?"

She held the door open and they stepped inside as another woman came from the back of the house into the gloomy hallway, drying her hands on a dish towel. "I would have got the door," she said to Erika. "You didn't have to–"

"Miss Forrester?" Jan asked, stepping forward.

Claudia put down the towel and shook the detective's hand. "Miss Sleet," she said, "I..." Her face fell. "Oh, my. I completely forgot you were coming today. I am so sorry."

"That's no problem at all. Stevie One told me what happened last night, and I'm sure..." her voice trailed off as Claudia went past her to the masked girl. "Are you... did you save Erika last night?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am. I came to find out how she's doing."

Claudia took Stevie's gloved hand in both of hers. "I cannot express how grateful we are. How grateful I am." She squeezed Stevie's hand. "Thank you very much."

Stevie bobbed her head. "It's no problem, ma'am. It's what I do."

Claudia squeezed her hand again, and then she turned. "Let's go into the living room. Miss Sleet, I'm curious about why you're here. I know it's not about last night, since you sent your visiting card before Erika was attacked."

"I should get going," Stevie said, stepping toward the door. "I just wanted to make sure–"

"Stevie, please stay, at least for a while," Jan said. "I may need your help."

The detective limped into the living room, ignoring the perplexed looks which followed this remark.


Stevie had never been in a room like this before. She had the impression that everything in it was older than anything in her parents' house, including her parents. There was a large sofa and four big armchairs, grouped around a large, heavy coffee table. The paintings on the walls were mostly portraits, formally dressed and stiffly posed, plus a couple of landscapes. One painting showed a huge mansion with a horse and carriage in front of it. In the corner was a small desk with a straight-backed chair. There were two large bookcases, filled with neat rows of old hardcover books. A paperback book would have looked as out of place in this room as a... well, as a television set.

Jan Sleet lowered herself into one of the chairs and took out her cigarette case. "Oh, please," Erika said, stepping forward, "have one of ours."

She took a wooden box from the coffee table and held it out. Jan lit a cigarette, drew the smoke deep into her lungs and nodded. "Very good. Imported?"

"I have them blended specially," Claudia said. "One of my few remaining indulgences." Erika held out the box to Stevie, who declined politely, then she and Claudia lit cigarettes as well.

When all four women were seated, Erika on the couch and the others in chairs, Jan said, "Miss Forrester, I do want to tell you why I came here, at least briefly, but first I need to ask you one question. Is there anybody else in the house besides the four of us?"

Claudia frowned. "I don't understand."

"I intend to deal with the attack on Erika, but first I want to talk about this other matter, which is also important. If we are alone in the house."

"Well, I suppose I should rely on your reputation for knowing what you're doing."

"I wish you would. It will all make sense, I assure you."

"Very well. We are alone in the house. My two tenants are out for the evening."

Stevie was working to control herself as Jan Sleet started to talk about a rundown theater that Claudia's family owned, that the U-town government wanted to use for some sort of play, and who would do the repairs and so on. Stevie wasn't paying much attention because she had figured out two things.

One was that Jan Sleet thought it possible that the attacker was in the house. The other was that this was why Jan Sleet had asked her to stay. She was there to protect them, if the attacker was really in the house with them. She smiled, knowing nobody would be able to see, and reviewed the lessons she had learned about restraining suspects.

What she didn't understand was how Erika was related to Claudia.

Claudia clearly belonged here. This was her house. She had referred to the two missing people as her "two tenants," not her "other tenants," which seemed to make it clear that Erika wasn't a tenant. Was she a servant? Did people still have servants, or was that just in old movies? And if she was a servant, would she be sitting in the living room with guests? Stevie didn't think so. Was she Claudia's daughter? They didn't look anything like each other. Her adopted daughter? That was possible.

She smiled. Maybe she'd mention this to Jan Sleet later, to show there might be two detectives here.


"Miss Forrester," Jan Sleet said, lighting another cigarette, "now I want to talk about the attack on Erika last night. Who was the man who attacked her?"

Claudia frowned. "Are you about to identify him? I admit that would be impressive."

"No, I don't know who it was. But – and please forgive me for being blunt – I have good reason to believe that you do." She went ahead, leaning forward, not giving Claudia time to respond. "As you know, I am one of the administrators of U-town. Many things cross my desk at different times, and I have a very good memory. I've seen written complaints from you about your neighbors making too much noise at night, about other neighbors not putting their trash out properly, and at least one more." She held up a hand. "All legitimate complaints and all properly filed. But now – over twenty-four hours after the attack on your friend – you haven't filed a complaint, you haven't taken her to the hospital, and you haven't made any attempt to deal with the fact that there is a dangerous man out there, specifically a dangerous man who, based on Stevie One's description of the attack, was deliberately attempting to injure or kill Erika.

"That man is still out there. He is a danger to Erika, he is possibly a danger to you, and he may be a danger to others. Whatever loyalty you have to him which causes you to shield him, he must be stopped."

Claudia's shoulders had slumped a bit, and she nodded. "You're right, of course. And I don't owe him anything. My... reticence was to protect me, not him, because the situation is, I'm afraid, rather sordid."

"Whatever you tell me won't go any further. Stevie?"

She nodded. "Definitely."

"We think that it was Ryan, one of my tenants. We don't know for sure – he may not be involved at all – but Erika and I talked when she got home last night, and it seems likely." She lit another cigarette. "He's been a tenant here for around six months. A month ago, more or less, he and I... became intimate. I called it off yesterday, and I told him he would have to move out. I... it had been a mistake from the first, and he had begun to make a lot of assumptions, not one of which was true. I'm afraid I had to be fairly blunt to convince him that I was serious. He didn't take it well."

"But this would indicate rancor toward you, not toward Erika."

"Erika and I just got back from a week at my parents' house. The trip was largely to give me a chance to figure out how to handle the situation with Ryan, but he made certain comments before he stormed out, about how Erika and I had just had a romantic week together. He had the idea that Erika had now replaced him in my affections."

Claudia and Erika exchanged a long glance as Stevie chortled to herself about this clueless arrogant guy, But then Claudia put out her cigarette, crossed to the sofa, sat next to Erika, and took the younger woman's hand. "He couldn't believe that anything could happen in my life which didn't involve or relate to him in some way."

Stevie's stomach tightened. These women were lesbians? They didn't look like lesbians. Had she actually laughed out loud? Crap. Well, nobody was looking at her, so maybe nobody had noticed. She sat very still, her face burning under her mask.

Jan nodded. "I understand. I assume that, as your tenant, Ryan had a key to the house?"

Claudia nodded, and then both women frowned.

"And you didn't take his key when you told him he had to leave?"

"No, he still had to move his things out."

"Exactly. So, he may well be here in the house at this moment."

"He wouldn't..." Claudia's voice trailed off. "Erika," she said, turning to the other woman, "I want to invest you with a very important responsibility, one which you can carry out even with your injuries."

"I'll do my best."

"I want you to make sure I never start sounding like my mother."

Erika laughed in surprise. "I don't think you need to worry about that."

"I thank you for saying that, but when I thought about Ryan using his key, I was about to say, 'He wouldn't dare.' Which is ludicrous, of course." She turned to Jan. "I assume this is why you wanted Stevie One to stay."

"Exactly. I want to do two things right now. One is that I'm going to search Ryan's bedroom. We don't know that he was the attacker, but there is enough reason to do a search of his room, especially since he has not appeared in the last 24 hours.

"So, I would like us all to go to his room. Then, assuming he's not there, I'll search the room while you and Stevie go through the rest of the house to make sure he's not hiding somewhere. Erika can wait with me. None of us should be alone until we're sure he's not in the house."

"What about locking the front door so he can't get in?" Stevie asked. "Is there some way to secure it, and are there other doors?"

"The only other door is the kitchen door," Erika said, "and only Claudia and I have keys. It's always kept locked. There's a sliding bolt on the front door." She gestured, illustrating how the bolt worked. "We can lock that."

Stevie stood up. "I'll go do that now." She went into the hall as the other women got to their feet and put out their cigarettes.

 


part four: jan sleet

Jan Sleet stood in the middle of Ryan's bedroom and looked around. Erika sat in the only chair, having declined the suggestion that she lie down on Ryan's bed.

"Can I ask you a question?"

Jan smiled. "Absolutely. I intend to ask you quite a few."

They were alone; Claudia and Stevie One were going through the rest of the house. The detective looked around again. "It's an odd room," she said slowly. "Messy, of course, but not really lived in. No photographs, no books, clothes just piled around when there's a perfectly good bureau. It doesn't look like he's ever even used the sitting room. But if he only needed a bedroom, I'm sure there are cheaper places..."

"Maybe he stayed because he liked my cooking," Erika said with a dubious smile.

"Maybe. I... You do the cooking? For everybody?"

Erika nodded. "Yes, I enjoy it."

"I never have learned to cook. I do like good food, though I sometimes forget... I'm sorry. You had a question."

She limped to the bureau and started to go through the clothes which were piled there. Erika reached out and ran her finger along the elaborate, carved wood footboard of the bed. She wiped the dust from her finger, but didn't comment.

"Are you really sure Stevie One is tough enough to handle Ryan if he's in the house?" she asked. "She's just a kid."

Jan turned, looking distracted. "I... That's a good question. I've read a couple of reports about her; she's had some kind of training. Also, to be honest, I think it's fairly unlikely that he's in the house. Why would he be? I thought it was possible that he might come here – to his room, to get some of his things – but why would he lurk around in other parts of the house?" She went back to searching as she talked. "From the mask he wore, it seems clear that his plan was to make it appear that his attack on you was just random street crime. He was probably planning to come home afterwards and act just as shocked and dismayed as everybody else."

"Then why didn't he do that?"

"Stevie One hit him hard with her sticks, including on one temple. He's almost certainly got a bruise, which he couldn't have convincingly explained. He can't come home until that's healed. But to attack either or both of you in the house would immediately make it clear that he was the assailant." She glanced over her shoulder as she pulled out the empty bureau drawers. "I don't know if it matters, but your relationship with Claudia didn't start during the week at her parents' house, did it?"

"No, it – whatever it is – started before Ryan had even moved in."

"Would he have known about it, when he moved in?"

"Probably not right away. Claudia has always wanted to be as discreet as possible."

"So, probably his target is you, not Claudia, since you are his rival for her affections – from his point of view."

The detective pulled a pile of papers from the bottom drawer. She put them on top of the bureau and started to go through them.

After a couple of minutes, she said, "Have you ever heard the names Larry Gerard or Angel Valentine?"

"I don't think so, no. I'd remember a name like Angel Valentine."

Jan nodded absently. "I imagine you would."


"The house is secured," Stevie One said from the doorway as Claudia came into the room, looking tired. There was only the one chair, so Claudia remained standing. Erika moved to get up, but Claudia shook her head.

"I want to check the neighborhood," Stevie continued, "in case he's hanging around somewhere."

Jan nodded. "That sounds like a good idea. Do you have your whistle?"

"Of course."

"Two short, two long, one short, if we need you. The same if you need us."

Stevie nodded. "Got it." She turned to go, but then she turned back. "Someone will have to lock me out."

"Use the kitchen door," Erika said. "It locks automatically."

"Got it."

"Claudia," Jan said after Stevie was gone, "I have two questions. One: have you ever heard of Larry Gerard or Angel Valentine?"

"I've heard of Angel Valentine. She bought a house from my parents, a decrepit little tenement down by the docks. That was... over a year ago. I've never had any contact with her. I'm fairly sure I've never heard of the man. Why? Who is he?"

"His name and address were on a scrap of paper here. I know that the address is Angel Valentine's house. Alright, here's the other question. Would Ryan have had any reasonable expectation that you'd marry him?"

Claudia snorted a laugh, then she looked sheepish, covering her mouth for a second. "Sorry," she said. "Absolutely not. Neither of us ever mentioned it, and if he had proposed I'm afraid my response would have been less than polite."

"Interesting, because if I'm reading his handwritten notes here correctly, he's fairly deeply in debt, and he may have been counting on your fortune to bail him out."

"Fortune? If I had a fortune, of my own, I certainly wouldn't take in lodgers." She looked around, then she stepped forward when Jan took out her cigarette case. "Thank you," she said as Jan lit the cigarette for her. "You read my mind."

The detective looked around the room again. "I'm going to go," she said. "I think you both need some form of protection until this is resolved. I'll talk to Stevie One as I leave, and then I'll arrange for something for the times she's not available. I'll check back with you tomorrow. Will you be home?"

"I intend to stay inside the house until this is figured out," Claudia said.

"I will have to go grocery shopping," Erika said.

Claudia shook her head. "With one arm? With that horrible man trying to kill you? Absolutely not. Maybe I can pay a runner, or we can ask Jason–"

"I'm sorry to interrupt," Jan said, "but do you have enough food to get you through lunch tomorrow?"

"Oh, yes."

"I'll come by before noon. I'll bring my assistant, and maybe we can send him to the store." She smiled. "I'll remind him tomorrow morning how much he enjoys grocery shopping."

They all laughed and then Claudia said, "Oh, and Friday evening we do have to go out. I've been working with the Pyramid Theater Company, and the opening of their new play is Friday night. Erika and I will have to attend."

Jan nodded. "If this isn't resolved by then, we'll work something out. Good night."

They wished her good night and she limped down the hall to the stairs.

As she made her way down to the main floor, she reviewed her mental picture of the house. There were four stories, plus a basement. The top floor was Claudia's bedroom and sitting room, and a locked bedroom that included access to a small attic. The third floor was two locked suites which were not used. The second floor had Ryan's apartment and Jason's. The main floor had the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen.

As she reached the dark front hall, still thinking about the basement, she heard the first gunshot.


Jan Sleet seldom worked as a journalist these days, but she had spent some months reporting from a war zone and she was glad to find out that she still had her reflexes. Before she was even conscious of hearing the shot, she was flat on the floor.

She listened as she felt around for her cane, but all she could hear was some sort of scuffling sound from outside, then she heard a window break in the living room to her left. She squinted, trying to hear if there were any more sounds from the living room.

Was someone actually in the living room, or had the window been broken from outside?

Then there was another gunshot. She couldn't tell where the noise had come from, but then she heard more scuffling from the street.

She managed to get to her feet, holding onto the chair that was near the front door. She stepped forward and tried to slide the bolt to unlock the door, but it didn't budge. She made a mental note to figure out some reason it was her assistant's fault that he wasn't here to help her. There was a whistle from outside – two short, two long, one short. At least Stevie was alright.

She braced herself and finally managed to get the bolt open. When she opened the door, she saw two people in black at the foot of the stairs. One was Stevie, who was standing by the railing, holding on with one hand, her whistle in the other. There was a body at the bottom of the stairs, apparently a man, dressed all in black. He was lying on his back.

Jan made her way down to the street, holding onto the banister, and she kneeled to take the man's pulse.

"Miss Sleet?" called Claudia from the doorway. "What's happened?"

Jan reached up, leaning on the man's chest, and pulled off his mask. "Claudia," she said, "is this Ryan?"

Claudia came forward to the edge of the top step and looked down. "Yes, it is," she said.

"Thank you. Please go inside and wait for me. Keep Erika inside as well."

Claudia went inside and closed the door. "Well, there's the bruise," Jan said, pointing at Ryan's temple, "from your blow, as you described it. I guess we can assume..." She turned to look at the masked girl and said, "Stevie!" sharply. She took the girl's hand and steered her to sit on the steps. "Breathe deeply," she said. "Uncover your mouth if you're going to be sick. Give me a minute."

She got to her feet, pulled out her whistle, and blew a long whistle, followed by two short ones. Then she shouted, "Runner!" She saw a couple of people stepping out of buildings across the street. "Please get inside!" she yelled. "This man has been shot!"

They went inside and closed their doors. A girl on a bicycle came down the block toward them and pulled to a stop. She appeared to be around fifteen, and her eyes widened as she took in the scene.

"Pad," said Jan sharply.

The girl nodded and took out a small notepad.

"Three things, in order of priority. Ready?" The girl nodded. "Top priority: I'll whistle again, but SVs need to block the sidewalks on this block. There may be a sniper in one of these buildings."

"Shouldn't you be inside?" the girl asked as she wrote.

"The first rule, as I'm sure Stevie One here can tell you, is to protect civilians. Neither Stevie nor I is a civilian, and for the moment you're not one either. Understood?"

"Yes. Next?"

Jan smiled. "Second priority: Go to the hotel and find Marshall, my assistant. I need him. If he happens to be with Christy from the Jinx I'd like her too, but he's the most important one. Got it?" The girl nodded, scribbling on her pad with a stubby pencil. "Third priority is that we need a medic and a cart. That's ASAP but not an emergency, since this gentleman is dead. Okay?"

The girl nodded. "Is that it?"

"Definitely. Thanks."

The girl put her pad away and got back on her bike as two security volunteers ran up. Jan directed the young volunteers to go to the ends of the block and stop pedestrians until she was sure that the block was safe. They ran off in opposite directions as the runner pedaled off around the corner, and then Jan lowered herself so she was sitting in the step next to Stevie One.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

Stevie nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

"Did you shoot him?"

Stevie's head jerked up. "What?"

"I doubt if it was you, but it's possible. Did you?"

"No. I don't carry a gun."

"I see that automatic over there, by the fence. Was that his?"

"Yes, and I didn't touch it. I didn't shoot him."

"Alright, tell me what happened." She took out a cigarette and lit it. She didn't mention that of course the young hero wore gloves, so she wouldn't have left fingerprints on the gun even if she had touched it.

Stevie took a deep breath. "I went out through the kitchen door. I went around the block, but I didn't see anything suspicious. But when I came out of the alley over there, I saw him in front of the house. I challenged him and he pulled that gun. I had my sticks out, and I hit his wrist before he fired, so the shot went wild. He grabbed the stick and threw it away. That's what broke the window. Then he knocked me down and went to pick up the gun. I banged my head on the sidewalk and I was groggy for a moment, but then I heard the shot. I looked up and saw him lying where he is."

"Was he lying on his back?"

"No, on his stomach. I rolled him over to try to administer first aid. But I didn't get a pulse, and then I felt woozy again, so I whistled for help, as you said to do."

"Does your head hurt?"

"Yeah, kind of."

"Let me look."

"I'm not taking my mask off."

"I'll look at it when we go inside. Nobody else will see."

"I–"

"Stevie, if I did decide to find out who you really are, how long do you think it would take me?"

She sighed. "Okay."

Jan gestured at the body. "He was shot in the back. Which way was he facing?"

"I was lying right here, by the steps. He was going to get his gun, so I guess he was going that way, toward the alley."

"So, he may have been shot from across the street, maybe from one of those buildings." She gestured at the three buildings on the opposite side of the street, at the far end of the block.

"Should we really be sitting here?" Stevie asked, looking at the buildings Jan had pointed at.

"We have to watch the body. And, if there was a sniper, I would imagine he's long gone. If he was going to shoot either or both of us, I think we'd be dead already."

"So, we're not going to search those houses?"

Jan smiled. "They'll be searched, although I hope not by us. There may be evidence, even if the shooter is long gone. A more likely scenario is that he departed quickly, immediately after the shooting, and maybe he left something behind."

"You said 'he.' Do you think it was a man?"

"Oh, no. I'm old-fashioned. I still use the generic masculine pronoun to refer to a person of indeterminate gender."

"What?"

Jan pointed at the end of the block, and Stevie saw a bicycle rider approaching. He was challenged by the security volunteer, but then he was allowed to proceed.

He pedaled up to them and dismounted. His backpack had a red cross on it.

"Is there a cart coming?" Jan asked, getting to her feet.

"Of course." He squatted to examine the body.

Stevie One stood up and brushed off her costume. "I should probably go in and get my stick," she said.

"Good idea. Fill Claudia and Erika in, and tell them I'll talk to them in a few minutes." She also brushed off her trousers and straightened her vest and tie as Stevie went inside. She twisted around, still holding the railing, to brush off the seat of her trousers, and then she noticed the kneeling medic glancing up at her rear end. She was about to say something, but he caught her expression and turned quickly back to his work.

"Single bullet hole, as far as I can find," he said. "Entered from the rear, probably punctured the heart. No exit wound. Bad bruise on his temple, but that's not from tonight. Will you want an autopsy?"

"Yes, as soon as possible. Anything you can find. Bruises, wounds, evidence of drug use, anything. I'm particularly interested in the direction of the bullet wound. Was it straight on, or from above or below? That may be vital. I want to know as much as possible by tomorrow morning, even if it's incomplete."

He nodded and stood up. "I'll wait for the cart, if you want to leave."

The door opened again and Stevie came out, carrying Jan's cane. "Ah," the detective said, taking it from her, "Thank you." Stevie's two sticks were in their holsters. "We can go in now, the medic will wait for..."

They turned as they heard one of the security volunteers running from the end of the block. He came up to them and said, "There's some Black guy down at the corner. He claims he lives here. What should I–"

"That's Jason," Stevie said, squinting as she looked down to the corner. "He's a college professor, and he does live here. Let him come." The volunteer ran off, and Stevie shrugged. "Sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to take over."

Jan laughed. "No problem. I think we can probably..."

Her voice trailed off again as there was a strange noise from around the other end of the block. It was the roar of an engine, unusual enough in U-town where nobody used cars, accompanied by an eerie howl. Jason, who was approaching from the opposite direction, slowed and stopped.

Stevie's hands fell to her sticks. "The Jinx," she said, naming the mysterious motorcycle gang whose arrival was always signaled by that strange sound.

Jan put a hand on the younger woman's arm. "One Jinx, if I'm right. Don't worry, she's on our side. Her name is Christy, and she helps me sometimes. Right now she's helping by bringing my assistant, Marshall."

 


part five: angel, and tammy

"You know what's best about when you do a job?" Angel asked.

"The money?"

"Hmmm," she purred. "No, money is nice, but some things are better than money."

"Mmm-hmm."

"Such as the fact that you shave, to disguise yourself, and it's so much nicer when your cheeks aren't all scratchy... Ah. You never complain when I shave... Oh!"

Larry's strong hands gripped her thighs more firmly and he did some other things, and Angel Valentine blissfully lost her train of thought.

There was a knock at the door. "Larry? Angel?"

"This is not a good time, you darling child," Angel called.

"It's important," Stevie replied through the door.

"Is the fucking house burning down?" Larry demanded.

"No, but–"

"See you in the morning, kid."

"Jan Sleet is asking questions about you – both of you – in connection with a murder."

Larry's shoulders slumped and he and Angel looked at each other. "We need to find out about this," she said.

He nodded. "Yeah. God damn it." He stood up and stretched.

"You should put something on, dear," she said. "We don't want our young friend to faint dead away before she can tell us her news."

He kicked through the clothes scattered around the bed until he found a pair of boxer shorts. He pulled them on and called for Stevie to come in. Angel reflected that he was nearly as obscene with the underwear on as he had been without it. She didn't mention it, though, because Stevie, still in her costume but without her mask, opened the door and stopped, her eyes wide.

I'm sorry," she said hesitantly.

"As am I," Angel replied. She closed her legs and rolled onto her side. "But let's work together to overcome it and move on." She reached down and picked up a towel from the floor. "Here, wipe your face, dearest," she said, tossing it to Larry.

Larry wiped his face and threw the towel into a corner as he picked up a pack of cigarettes from the dresser. "So," he said, lighting a cigarette and sitting on the bed, "Miss Hot Shit Detective thinks I iced somebody? Who?" He made a face and turned to Angel. "I'll bet anything this has to do with that asshole I was telling you about."

Angel nodded. "Quite possibly, but why don't we listen and find out?" She turned to Stevie, who was still standing in the doorway. "Sit down, dear, and fill us in."

There were no chairs in the small room, so Stevie went and sat on the steamer trunk that was under the one window. She started to tell the story of Ryan's murder.


As Stevie neared the end of the story, Larry was lying back on the bed, periodically rolling his eyes at the ceiling, and Angel was smoking a cigarette.

"So, then her assistant came up on a motorcycle. He was with this tough-looking redhead in a leather jacket. I mean, it was her motorcycle–"

"Please, God, are we getting near the end?" Larry asked.

"Not even close," Stevie said, winking at Angel. "Miss Sleet had her assistant organize some people to search the houses across the street, then she whispered some other things to him. She and the redhead were going to go inside. I said I'd split, and just as I was about to go she said, 'Oh, by the way, have you ever heard the names Larry Gerard or Angel Valentine?'"

"And what did you say?" Angel asked.

"I said no, of course. I asked who those people were. She said she'd found Larry's name and this address on a piece of paper in Ryan's room, and she knew this was your house, Angel."

Larry raised his head, and he and Angel regarded each other. "When is she coming here?" he asked, still looking at Angel.

"Tomorrow after lunch," Stevie replied. "She was going to come in the morning, but I said I wanted to be part of it, and I'm interviewing for that job at the pet store in the morning. Of course, I didn't tell her about that – I just said I was busy."

Larry turned to look at Stevie. "Why did we take you in anyway?"

"Hey, I need the job. And this isn't my fault, you know. If it wasn't for me, you'd be getting a visit from Jan Sleet tomorrow with no warning at all. Plus, if not for me, Erika would be dead and Jan Sleet would be investigating her death, not Ryan's. And she'd still be coming here."

"So, does she think I iced this guy?" Larry asked, reaching down to the floor for the cigarette pack.

"I have no idea what she thinks."

"And you're absolutely sure this whole thing isn't your fault?"

She nodded, standing up. "Positive." She crossed the room, but as she reached the door she hesitated and then she turned to face her friends.

"You're going to be here tomorrow, right?" Larry said.

She nodded.

"You'll hear about it then. I'm not going to tell it twice. Good night."

As the door closed, Larry stretched and was about to say something when he saw Angel's expression. He frowned. "What?"

"Miss Sleet is pretty sharp, from what I've heard. You'll need legal representation."

"Fuck no. No! I can handle her."

"There is a lot at stake, you know."

"But I didn't even kill him. I'm sorry I didn't – he was even more of an asshole than I thought – but..." His voice trailed off. "I don't get a vote, do I?"

"No, I'm afraid not." She took his hand and tugged until he was sitting on the bed, then she moved smoothly onto his lap.

"Let's make good use of our time until then," she murmured into his ear.

He drew in a deep breath and shrugged, sliding his hand lightly across her stomach.


Tammy Nelson stepped into the shabby kitchen and paused, waiting for some acknowledgment from the man who was sitting at the table. He was attractive, in a cruel way, and she knew he didn't like her.

Finally he glanced up. "There's coffee," he said, gesturing at the stove as he turned his attention back to his newspaper.

The coffee smelled like it had been boiling since the previous night, so she said, "No, thank you," and turned off the burner. She waited for a moment, then she went and sat at the kitchen table across from the man.

It annoyed her that he avoided even looking at her. She had dressed well today, in a dark blue pantsuit. Her long, strawberry blonde hair was brushed out, and she had worn a little makeup. This was not to attract his interest – she couldn't get it and didn't want it – but she was here in her professional capacity and she had dressed appropriately. Some appreciation for the effort wouldn't have been unwelcome, especially since she certainly wasn't going to get paid.

The silence between them had not yet become really uncomfortable when there was a knock at the door.

Larry looked up, apparently realizing that Tammy wasn't going to move to answer it. He got to his feet and left the room. He returned a moment later, followed by three people. This made the small kitchen quite crowded. Larry gestured at Tammy as he sat down again and picked up his coffee. "My lawyer," he said.

Tammy was on her feet, holding out her hand. "Miss Sleet, I'm Tamara Nelson."

The detective appeared rather off-balance, her eyes wide behind her glasses, but she managed to stick out her hand. Tammy gave her a firm handshake.

"Miss Nelson," Jan said after a moment. "We have met already."

Tammy nodded. "I remember, but I wasn't sure you would. I imagine you meet a lot of people."

"Oh, yes, but I... Do you remember Marshall?" she gestured at the man next to her. "He's my husband, and my assistant."

Tammy smiled as she and Marshall shook hands. "Of course," she said. "It's good to see you again, Marshall."

"It's good to see you, Tammy."

"And you may be familiar with Stevie One," the detective said. "She's helping me with this investigation." Tammy shook hands with the masked girl as well.

Jan looked around. "Is there a more comfortable–"

Larry shook his head. "You mentioned an investigation, so this isn't a social call. Let's get to it. Have a seat and tell me what this is all about."

It ended up with Larry, Jan, and Tammy sitting at the small kitchen table. Marshall and Stevie One stood. Jan took a cigarette from her case, then she looked around. "I'm sorry," she said. "Is it alright if I smoke?" Larry shrugged and held up his cigarette.

Jan started to tell a shorter and more focused version of the story Angel and Larry had heard the night before. Tammy frowned and nodded occasionally, to make it appear as if she was listening, but she was thinking about other things. This was a skill she'd learned in court. Larry wasn't making the same effort to look interested, but that just made it seem like he didn't think that this concerned him.

Marshall looked about the same as he had the last time Tammy had seen him. He was too old for Jan, of course, but he was handsome, and attentive to his wife.

Stevie One was probably perplexed by Tammy's presence, but she wasn't revealing anything. She was probably also trying to make sure she acted like a stranger in a house where she happened to live. Her face was covered, but Tammy was an expert at reading body language. As was Jan Sleet, of course, so Tammy was glad that Stevie wasn't revealing anything. It was going to be a complication if Jan discovered that Stevie lived there.

And then Tammy suddenly realized that the detective had almost certainly figured this out already.


Tammy became aware after a few minutes that Jan was now describing things that Stevie hadn't know the night before, so she started to pay attention.

"I got a preliminary autopsy report this morning. Ryan was killed by a single bullet, shot from the back. The bullet penetrated the heart and did not leave the body. The angle was slightly downward, about a thirty degree angle if he was standing straight. So, perhaps from a building across the street, maybe from a second-story window. There is a vacant building across the street, the second from the corner. It's been searched, but there's no definite evidence inside, nothing to say for sure whether the shot had come from there or not.

"I thought of the possibility he was shot from a second story window in the front of Claudia Forrester's house, but the angle would have been much more extreme. It would have been something like shooting him from directly above, unless he was already lying face down on the sidewalk before he was shot, which would seem to be unlikely.

"It was possible he was shot from the Forrester living room, through the broken window. The first floor in the house is a few steps up from the street, so the angle would have been just about right, but I was in the hall when the shot was fired, and I didn't hear anything from the living room. I suppose it's possible that somebody was in the living room, for whatever reason, shot Ryan through the broken window, and then left the living room between the time I went outside to the street and the time Claudia and Erika came downstairs, presumably leaving the house through the kitchen. This seems unlikely, because of the timing, and because of the likelihood that this mystery shooter would have run into Claudia and Erika as they came down the stairs. Also, because of the direction Ryan was walking, he would not have been shot in the back if that's where the gunman had been."

"And we'd just searched the house," Stevie put in.

"Very good point. Yes, we had just searched the entire house, to make sure Ryan wasn't there, and both doors were locked. So, how would this person have got in?"

Jan stopped speaking, and Larry said, "That's what you have? My name and address on this piece of paper? And the possibility that I might have been in a building across the street?"

"Oh, I have a few other things. I know there's a warrant out for your arrest, across the bridge, and I know that Angel Valentine, with whom you live, occasionally helps young women get abortions when the hospital turns them down." She shrugged. "I have a few questions–"

"My client–" Tammy began, but Larry interrupted her.

"I don't know about your questions, but let me tell you a few things." Tammy didn't try to protest; she knew he wouldn't listen.

"I had lunch with this Ryan guy a couple of weeks ago. His idea – I'd never met him or heard of him before. He had some idea he was going to hire me to kill somebody–" Tammy opened her mouth, but Larry kept going. "–not that I'm saying anything about anything other than that conversation, but I told him no, and that I didn't want to see him again, and I didn't."

Jan nodded and leaned forward. "May I ask a question?"

"Sure."

"What did he say specifically? Did he tell you who he wanted killed?"

Larry snorted a laugh. "He sure did, which was stupid. But he was a stupid guy, so that's what you get. In fact, let me tell you the stupid things he said." He ticked them off on his fingers. "One: He told me all sorts of things before he asked me whether I was interested. Which I wasn't. Two: He didn't have any money. He wanted me to kill the Erika girl, then he was going to marry Forrester – he thought – and then he'd have money to pay me." He shook his head. "Three: He wanted me to do it here..." He frowned.

"If I may," Jan said, "I will mention that we – the U-town government – are aware that some people reside within our borders who are wanted for crimes elsewhere. As long as they don't break our laws, or use U-town as a home base for further criminal activity elsewhere, we sometimes tolerate this."

He grinned. "Like, oh, for example, starling."

"Exactly. She's killed a lot of people. She's in treatment, she lives here quietly, and she is generally aware that she'll be shot on sight if she ever crosses the bridge into the city. But, as I said, if she did start to go over the bridge to kill people we would take action and very quickly. That doesn't apply in her case – she's a lunatic, not a professional killer – but it might apply to other people, people who would be understandably reluctant to foul the safe haven they have found here."

"I understand," he said. "But here's the thing. I didn't take his stupid job, the Erika girl is fine, and I think there's a ball game on the radio." He went to the refrigerator, took out a beer can, popped the top, and held it up as a salute as he left the room.

"My client has no motive," Tammy said, standing up. "You can't place him at the scene, and you don't have a weapon, or certainly not one you can trace to him. You don't have motive, means, or opportunity. So, not to be inhospitable, perhaps there are other innocent people you could go out and harass instead."

Jan nodded. "I think you've made an adequate summation, counselor, although I really don't think you can refer to your client as 'innocent.'" Tammy pursed her lips, controlling her urge to smile. "But in these kinds of investigations we hit a lot of dead ends. I'm used to it. I would like to speak to Angel Valentine, however, if she's available. Just on the off chance that she knows something about this. Her address was on that piece of paper, after all."

"I think she's around," Tammy said. "I'll try to find her."


As Angel approached the kitchen door, she heard Stevie say, "I know I'm not the only person thinking this, so I want to say it." There was a pause, then she said, "I gave myself away, didn't I?"

Jan replied, "I don't think I've ever shown up to interview a suspect and found that the person's lawyer just happened to be present, unless the suspect knew I was coming. Who told Larry I was coming this afternoon? Claudia, Erika, or you. You were certainly the most likely of the three." There was another pause, then Jan continued, "Stevie, have you thought that you're putting yourself in an awkward position, as the hero you're trying to be, by associating with–"

"Miss Sleet," Angel said, stepping into the room, "it strikes me that young Stevie is just following the example which you and the U-town government have set."

Jan turned to face her. She frowned. "Indeed?"

"If Stevie maintains a degree of willful ignorance about the possible history and activities of her friend, I have to ask how much you know about the Jinx – who they are and where their money comes from. Given your skills, you could find out everything. If you wanted to. But you would rather remain ignorant, because the Jinx are useful to you, both to the U-town government and to you personally."

"There are many things I'm ignorant about," the detective replied. "But if I am ignorant about the private affairs of the Jinx – and that is a big if – it is because, in my official capacity, the only crimes I'm concerned with are those which take place in U-town. The Jinx do not break any of our laws, I can assure you of that." She smiled and continued. "Which is, of course, the exact standard Stevie One is applying." She used her cane to get to her feet. "I am sorry, Stevie. Now that I have a child, I am occasionally subject to these rather regrettable maternal impulses. They're a form of involuntary spasm and they pass quickly, but they can be embarrassing. Please accept my apologies."

They shook hands, and then Jan turned to Angel. "I assume your name is Angel Valentine?"

She smiled, belting her bathrobe more tightly around her. "That's what I call myself." She smiled as Jan appeared to be about to ask another question. "My real name? Is her name really Stevie One? Is your name really Jan Sleet, Miss Stiglianese? This is U-town – get used to it. In this whole situation, the only name I'm sure is real is Claudia Forrester's. And I never met or had any communication with this Ryan fellow."

Jan laughed. "Fair enough." She held out her hand. "I'm glad to have met you." She turned to Stevie. "Stop by the hotel tomorrow morning," she said. "We'll talk about the case then."

Stevie nodded. "Okay."

Jan and Marshall left, and Stevie sat at the kitchen table, pulling off her mask.

Angel sat opposite her. "So," she said, "how did it go?"

Stevie frowned. "How did what go?"

"The pet store! Did you get the job?"

Stevie laughed. "God, it seems like days ago. Yes, I got it. I start tomorrow."

Angel smiled. "So, a good day."

"Well, except for the fact that I messed up."

"No, you didn't. We did. We should have thought it through and figured out how it would look, having Tammy here."

She looked around. "Did she leave?"

Angel nodded, then she smiled. "Lawyers bill by the hour, you know."

Stevie laughed. "No, I didn't know. Anyway, I don't think she helped much. But it sure surprised Jan that she was here. Do they know each other?"

Angel shrugged. "You'd have to ask one of them. But the main thing is that they don't have a case against Larry."

 


part six: on patrol

Stevie went upstairs, took off her costume, and started to do her exercises.

This was the main time she thought about her father. He had set up her original exercise plan, and then they'd developed and added to it together. She still remembered how he'd worked with her, how he'd kept her from rushing or getting sloppy, and even now it was like having his voice in her head. She didn't mind, though, because this was one of the good memories. She hoped she could find a good sparring partner here in U-town, but she had no idea how to look for one.

She was wondering if there was going to be any dinner. If Larry and Angel were eating at home and she was around, they invited her to join them. But if they went out, she was on her own. Which was fair, of course. She'd been very careful with the money she'd brought with her, and she'd found a Chinese food takeout place nearby which was nearly as cheap as it was unsanitary.

She had occasionally regretted that she'd never learned to cook, but cooking had been for her sisters. Thinking back, it had become clear to her that she'd been raised as the son in the family, prepared to follow in her father's footsteps.

When she got paid for the first time, she was going to take Larry and Angel out to dinner.

Now that she had a job, of course, she was going to have to figure out how late she could stay out on patrol in the evenings and still make it to work on time. Or, if it turned out that Stevie One was needed more late at night, she'd take a nap before starting on patrol. And she had to figure out the best time to do her exercises, too. Well, the pet store didn't open until eleven, so she would have time in the mornings if she got up at a good time.

When Stephanie was done with her exercises she sat down cross-legged on her bed and took out her journal.

She never wrote about being Stevie One in her journal. She couldn't do that unless she had a good place to lock it up. But today she wrote about her new job and her hope that she could make a good first impression there.

When she was done, she took a shower, got dressed, and walked downstairs to try to scope out the dinner situation. But when she was halfway down the stairs she heard voices. It was Larry and another man... Tom by the sound of it. She stopped, hearing the tension in their voices. Her feet were bare, so she hadn't made enough noise for them to hear her. She stood motionless and listened.

Tom was saying, "–it's a good situation. What's the problem?"

"Look, let me think about it," Larry said. She could tell from his voice that he was getting annoyed.

"Well, I kind of promised your–"

"What? Who died and made you the boss? I said I'll think about it. If that isn't good enough, then I'll tell you no right now."

There was a pause, then Tom made some quiet comment about who was really the boss, but Larry told him to get out and he went. Stephanie scampered quickly up the stairs before Tom came out of the kitchen, but he didn't look in her direction anyway. She was frozen in position, trying to decide what to do next, when Larry came out and stalked off toward the back of the house, not even looking at her. She heard the back door slam.

Stephanie decided to go down and see what was happening. She found Angel sitting alone in the kitchen. The older woman looked unusually serious.

"Everything okay?" Stephanie asked. Then she shrugged. "That's a dumb question, I know."

Angel nodded. "I guess it is. Please sit down." Stephanie took a chair. "Did you hear that?"

"Just the end."

"That was enough, I'm sure." She smiled. "I was about to say that you wouldn't understand, but I think you would. Sometimes things happen that force us to make changes that we really want to make anyway, but it takes something immediate and urgent to force us to act. Like when you got pregnant, that forced you to leave home. I don't notice you pining to go back."

"I do, sometimes," Stephanie said. "Mostly for my sisters. I had a dream a few days ago that I was going to go back as Stevie One and rescue them." She shrugged. "I'm pretty sure they wouldn't think of it as a 'rescue.' But you're right. If I hadn't got knocked up, I wouldn't be able to be Stevie One." She hesitated, then she said, "You're Tammy, aren't you?"

"Yes."

"I didn't recognize you at first, when you were her."

"There's a lot that goes into recognizing someone. Facial expressions, gestures, body language." She smiled. "Are you aware that you have a completely different walk when you're in your costume?"

"No, I don't think so."

"It was Larry who pointed it out. He said, 'Most of the time she bounces around here like a puppy, but when she puts that getup on, she starts walking like the Duke.'"

She raised an eyebrow, and Stephanie laughed. "I was raised on John Wayne movies. I guess they had an effect."


It was just getting dark when Stevie One went out on her nightly patrol.

Things were quiet for a while, at least as far as crime went. The streets were certainly busy. A lot of couples and groups were going out to dinner; people were bringing home groceries; some were walking their dogs. She even saw a man walking a woman on a leash.

Well, U-town was always full of surprises. The man didn't look at her as they passed her, but the woman glanced up and barked. Stevie smiled, but then she remembered that nobody could see her face anyway.

She didn't see anybody who needed help, so she walked up and down the streets, trying to learn more about the geography of U-town. Where the streets crossed, where they ended, where the alleys went through to the next street and where they were a dead end.

People noticed her as she walked around. Some waved, and some called, "Hi, Stevie!" It was a good feeling. Of course, some acted like they didn't see her, but that was okay. They were like the cool kids back in her high school, the ones who never got excited about anything.

Guys tried to hit on her from time to time, but she just made a joke out of it. One guy yelled, "Show us your tits!" She was tempted to run across the street and punch him in the face, but that wasn't what Stevie One should be doing.


It was starting to get late. Some of the restaurants were closing (the ones that didn't stay open all night), the theaters had let out, and there were fewer people walking. She had been listening for whistles, but she hadn't heard one all evening.

She was near the river, wondering whether she should end her patrol for the night, when she glanced into an alley and then turned back to the street. Then she looked into the alley again. It was nearly pitch black, but there was a bit of light from a street light in the next block, and something had moved.

The air was still, so it seemed unlikely there would be a breeze in the narrow alley. She pulled one of her sticks and turned on her flashlight. She thought for a moment that a couple had ducked into the alley for a quickie. There was a young woman in a dress, with dark skin and long dark hair, and a man wearing jeans and a leather jacket was leaning over her. But the girl's dress was ripped, and Stevie could see blood.

"Hold, citizens!" she called. "If this is a–"

"Help!" the girl called in a shaky voice.

Stevie pointed her stick at the man, "Sir, step away from the girl."

She wasn't sure how she could fight in the dark alley, since she would barely be able to see without the flashlight, but that problem was solved, sort of, when the man picked up a baseball bat and charged at her. She threw the flashlight at him and pulled her other stick.

The man tried to swing as he reached her, but she ducked aside and swung for his legs. She missed, too, so she turned quickly and faced him. At least he was in the light now, and she was probably in shadow, especially with her all-black costume.

Someone grabbed her forearms from behind. Shit.

The man behind Stevie tried to pull her back. She wasn't strong enough to pull against him, so she kicked back with her heel as hard as she could. He cursed and loosened his grip on her right arm enough for her to ram the end of her stick back over her shoulder with all of her strength.

The stick must have caught him good, because he screamed and let go of her. But it was at that moment that the other man hit her right shoulder with his baseball bat. She dropped that stick and grunted in pain, her eyes tearing up. The bat swung again and she fell to the ground. She was hoping that the one man would hit the other, but it didn't work out that way.

Then she heard something and looked up to see the man behind her twist around as a pair of dark hands grabbed him from behind. A dark face appeared over his shoulder and sank its teeth into his ear.

The man in front of Stevie tried to move forward to help his friend, but Stevie swung her remaining stick at his legs with all the strength in her left arm. She felt the stick connect with his leg, hard, and he yelled. He fell to his knees and dropped the bat. She scrambled to her feet, kicked the bat away, and forced her aching right arm to bend enough for her to get her whistle to her lips and blow it.

The man who'd had the bat was lying on the sidewalk, holding his leg, grimacing in pain. But the other man, his face bloody from Stevie's stick and from the girl's teeth, was moving toward the bat.

Stevie pointed her remaining stick at him and said, as authoritatively as she could, "Stand down!"

He turned and looked at her, his bloody face vicious, and then he ran for her. She braced herself, aware of her useless right arm, hoping against hope that the dark-skinned girl might help out a bit more, and then she crouched suddenly as the man reached her. His body thudded into hers and they both fell to the sidewalk.

He was clearly enraged beyond thought. Stevie knew that, in theory, this gave her an advantage, though she didn't feel like she had any advantages at the moment. She scrambled to her feet, saw that the man was having more trouble getting up, and swung her stick at the side of his head.

That did it. He was down, apparently unconscious. She realized, belatedly, that she had had one advantage – she was suddenly aware of the smell of liquor. It was like her senses were starting to work again. The sour smell of the drunken men mingled with the odor of the garbage cans in the alley. She could feel the cool night air on her sweat-drenched skin in the places where her costume had ripped. And she could hear an approaching whistle and running feet.

She pulled out her spare flash and turned it on, looking in the alley for the dark-skinned girl. Had she run away? No, Stevie caught a glimpse of her.

"It's okay," she called. "Help is coming..."

Her voice trailed off as she saw the girl more clearly in the light of the flash. Her body was lean and dark, and her clothing was so wrecked that she was nearly naked. She crouched behind a trash can as Stevie turned off the flash.

Stevie blinked in the sudden darkness, wiping her eyes. She'd caught a brief glimpse of the girl's body, and that glimpse had been enough to suggest that the girl was actually male. Deciding that it didn't really matter, or that she was just as happy not knowing for sure, Stevie turned as three security volunteers ran up.

"These two men attacked a girl," she told them. "I'll take care of her. Please restrain these men and make sure they get medical attention."

"Got it, Stevie," one of the volunteers said. "You'll go down to the hotel and fill out a form later, right?"

"Sure, as soon as I make sure the girl is okay."

She moved slowly back into the alley, not turning on her flash. Her arm ached more and more.

"Who are you?" the girl asked in a shaky voice. "Why are you dressed like that?"

"I'm–"

"Oh, and I... thank you. I should have said that first. Thank you so much." Her hand extended cautiously out of the gloom and Stevie squeezed it briefly with her left hand.

The girl gestured toward Stevie's right shoulder. "Is it... is it broken? Is there anything I can do?"

Stevie shook her head. "It hurts, a lot, but I can move it, so I don't think it's broken. I have braces – hard plastic braces, like you'd wear if your wrist was messed up – I have them sewn into my costume, to protect me from blows like that. They distribute the impact."

"Who are you?"

"I'm Stevie One. I protect people. Who are you? And why didn't you blow your whistle?"

"Whistle? I don't have a whistle. I–"

"Excuse me," Stevie said. "I'll be right back."

"I'm not going anywhere. I'm practically naked here."

"I know. That's what I'm going to try to fix."

She had seen someone peering out a window near the corner, at the opposite end from where the fight had taken place. Stevie walked in that direction.

It was an elderly man, looking out a first floor window. "I heard the whistle," he said. "Is everything okay?"

"Pretty much, sir, except for one thing. Two men attacked a young lady – a visitor, I think – and they destroyed most of her clothing. She is hiding in the alley here, but she can't come out because she doesn't have anything to wear. I want to take her to the hospital, to make sure she's okay, but I don't want to subject her to..."

The man's hand came out holding a big fuzzy bathrobe. "She can use this," he said. "It's clean. Return it when you can."

"I certainly will, sir. And thank you for your assistance."

"No problem, Stevie."

Stevie trotted back to the girl and held out the robe, looking in the other direction until her body was safely covered.

"Are you okay?" Stevie asked, not exactly sure what she was asking, and not wanting to hear any details about what had been happening. Then she realized that the girl had taken her left hand.

"Thank you again," the girl said, squeezing Stevie's hand.

"No problem," Stevie replied, hoping she'd get her hand back soon. She didn't want to pull it away, in case the girl might think it was because she was Black.

"So, what is your name?" Stevie asked as the girl released her hand.

"Oh, I'm Nora." She smiled, though it was somewhat lopsided because one side of her mouth was swollen. She looked odd in the huge bathrobe. Her fingers barely poked out of the long sleeves and it was so long that the bottom nearly touched the ground.

"And you're not from around here? That's why you don't have a whistle?"

"Exactly. I'll have to get one, though."

"We should get you to the hospital, to make sure you're okay. Come on."

Nora gestured at Stevie's right arm. "You, too." She went and picked up Stevie's other stick and slid it into its holster.

The two girls set out across the city. As they walked, Stevie explained more about herself and her mission, and Nora talked about her evening in the city. Apparently it was the first time she'd come across the bridge (and, if she was a guy, the first time she had dressed as a girl – Stevie wasn't familiar with a couple of the terms she used and didn't want to ask for clarification). Nora had come across the bridge and walked around, then she'd gone into a bar to get a drink, but she'd been too shy to talk to anybody. Then she'd got lost on the way back to the bridge to go home.

Stevie felt that they were probably conspicuous, even for U-town, though the few people they saw didn't react. Two teenage girls – one dressed in a black costume that covered all of her, even her head, and a Black girl with long hair, dressed in a big puffy bathrobe (which under the streetlights was revealed to be pale pink), both girls limping and obviously in pain – that was not something you saw every day.

They went to the Emergency Room, and Stevie insisted that Nora be examined first. Meanwhile, an aide sat with Stevie in the waiting room and asked her questions, filling out a form on a clipboard.

"I assume you'll want to keep your mask on," the woman said.

"Yes, ma'am. I..." She hesitated.

"Yes?"

"I will have to take my top off, for somebody to examine my arm. I would really prefer a female nurse, if that's possible."

"Of course." She looked around the nearly empty waiting room. "Come on. You're next anyway."

"Okay. Thanks." Stevie followed her into one of the examining rooms and closed the door.

Getting her top off was painful and awkward, but they managed it. Stevie had made it snug so as not to allow anything for an opponent to grab onto during a fight. It turned out that her arm was badly bruised, already getting discolored and ugly, but nothing was broken. The brace had worked as she'd hoped it would. The aide gave her some pills to help with the pain, and then they managed to get her top back on.

The nurse tried to get her to wear a sling, but she refused, saying she'd wear one tomorrow. Stevie One had to appear strong.

"I will sit in the waiting room for a few minutes, though, before I go."

"Fine. If you need anything, let me know."

Stevie went and sat on the uncomfortable plastic chair. The pill seemed to be helping with the pain.

There were things to think about. She probably wouldn't be able to go on patrol for a few days. She had to be at the pet store in the morning, for her first day's work. With her arm in a sling. She hoped they'd be okay with that. She'd just have to work that much harder to make a good first impression.

But she had saved Nora's life, as far as she could tell. That felt good.

And she knew more and more surely that there was something she had to do, and right away.

"Hey," came a tentative voice from next to her, and Stevie turned in surprise to see Nora. She was wearing an enormous pair of sweat pants and a sweat shirt, and she was holding the robe in her arms. She smiled cautiously.

"Are you okay?" Stevie asked.

She nodded as she sat down next to Stevie. "A few scrapes and things. Not bad, everything considered. They even found these clothes for me. How about you?"

"A really bad bruise. I'll be sore for a few days, but nothing is broken." She smiled and gestured at the bottom half of her costume, which was ripped in a couple of places. "I've got to make some repairs anyway."

Nora smiled. "You should have a spare costume, for emergencies."

"Good thinking. I'll work on that." She moved to get up, putting the little bottle of pain pills into one of the pouches on her belt. "I've got to go..."

"I'll come back here, for another visit, maybe next week. When my face has healed..."

"Maybe I'll see you. I'm always around in the evenings."

"Okay. Thanks again," Nora said as Stevie stepped away.

"No problem. I was glad to help."

She left the hospital and walked slowly down the empty street toward the hotel. It was the headquarters of U-town's government, and she knew Jan Sleet lived there.

It hadn't occurred to her that anybody would see her rescuing them as the beginning of a friendship. Erika hadn't. She and Claudia had thanked Stevie, and that had been that. Nora seemed nice, but she made Stevie uneasy. For one thing, was she a boy or a girl? And, either way, was she looking to become Stevie's friend, or had she been about to ask Stevie out on a date? That was what it had felt like. And in any case, Stevie One certainly couldn't date. That was for sure.

With an odd sense of relief, she put those questions aside to go back to what she'd been thinking about before. Which was far more important, but also quite a bit less complicated.


The hotel lobby was shabby, to put it mildly, and there wasn't anybody around who looked official, but Stevie knew she had to do this now. There were a few people sitting on the worn and sagging sofas. Some of them appeared to be asleep. She looked around for something to tell her which room the detective lived in, but she didn't see anything.

"Stevie One?" came a voice from behind her, and she turned to see a short teenage boy with a shaved head. He smiled. "I'm very pleased to meet you," he said. He noted how awkwardly she was holding her right arm and held out his left hand, which she shook. "Can I help you with something? And may I ask about your arm?"

"I stopped an attack in an alley, down by the waterfront. Two man attacking a girl."

"Is she okay?"

"I think so. I left her at the hospital. The SVs took the men. I think I'm supposed to file a report, but it will be a few days before I'll be able to write."

"That's fine. The SVs will file a report when they come in. You can come by in the next couple of days and read it. If it's correct, you can initial it. But is that why you came here at this late hour? You should probably get some rest."

She shook her head. "I need to see Jan Sleet." She shrugged. "I know it's late, but it's important. I–"

"No problem, miss. She was hoping you'd come by tonight. She said to send you up at any hour."

"She's expecting me in the morning, not tonight."

"She's expecting you in the morning, but she said she was hoping you'd come by tonight, and to send you up, no matter the time." He could apparently see her frown through her mask. "If you work with Miss Sleet, you'll get used to this sort of thing. She'd be a terrific poker player if she'd ever bother to learn the rules. Room 218. Go on up."


The hall on the second floor was deserted, so Stevie pulled off her mask before she knocked on the door. There was no response, so she knocked again.

"Fuck off!" came a raspy bellow from inside.

Stevie looked up at the numbers on the door, suddenly afraid that she had the wrong room, but then the door opened and Jan Sleet smiled. She was wearing pajamas, slippers, and a robe, looking nearly as formal as she did during the day.

"Stevie," she said. "This is a pleasant surprise."

"Miss Sleet, I know it's really late, but it's important. May I come in?"

Jan held the door open and said, "Of course."

Stevie looked around the room, suddenly so nervous that she felt nauseous. Jan's husband Marshall sat on the edge of the bed, running his hands through his hair. He smiled at her and yawned. A young girl was in a sleeping bag at the foot of the bed, glaring at Stevie.

"Who the fuck are you?" she demanded.

"This is part of an investigation, Ron," Jan said. "It's important."

The girl made a face and burrowed back into her sleeping bag so that she was completely invisible. "My daughter," Jan said. Then she gestured across the room to the two desks against the opposite wall. "Please sit down," she said.

They crossed to the desks and Jan sat in one desk chair, so Stevie took the other one. Jan lit a cigarette and Stevie felt light-headed again. She had to do this, but she was afraid. Well, Stevie One should never act out of fear.

"Miss Sleet," she said, "I have to make a confession."

Jan nodded. "I was hoping you would." She smiled at Stevie's expression. "I've known the details of Ryan's death since about ten minutes after I got Claudia's front door open."

"Then why didn't you say something? And why did you go talk to Larry–"

"I wanted to interview Larry because it was a good way to let him know some other things. And I didn't say who had committed the murder because I really wanted you to come to me of your own free will." She leaned back in her chair. "Please tell me all about it."

 


part seven: the solution

Claudia set the table for breakfast, then she went into the kitchen to help Erika bring in the food and coffee. Erika's wrist was still sore, and Claudia was trying to have her rest it as much as possible. Jason had an early class, so he was already gone.

The doorbell rang as Claudia poured the coffee. Erika started to stand, but Claudia said, "I'll get it."

A few days before she would have simply opened the door, but now she was more cautious. "Who is it?" she called.

"It's Jan Sleet, Miss Forrester. I'm sorry to call so early and without warning..."

Claudia had the door open by then, and she stepped aside to let the detective enter. "We're just having breakfast," she said. "Will you join us?"

"I'll have some coffee, thank you," Jan said as she followed Claudia to the dining room. "I'm sorry to have come at an inconvenient time. Good morning, Erika."

"Good morning, Miss Sleet."

The detective smiled as she lowered herself into a chair and leaned her cane against the table. "Please call me Jan."

Claudia poured a third cup of coffee and then sat down.

"Do you know anything more about the murder?" Erika asked after a moment.

Jan nodded and sipped her coffee. "Stevie One came to my room last night, late. She had a confession to make, one that couldn't wait until morning."

The two women nodded slowly.

"When did you know?" Claudia asked.

"I knew everything about ten minutes after I managed to get that bolt on your front door open."

"Could you be more specific?"

"The key was that Ryan was apparently standing in front of your house, wearing his mask. That made no sense. If he was waiting there to harm one or both of you, or to watch your comings and goings, he wouldn't have been standing right in front of your front door." She took out her cigarette case and lit a cigarette. "If he had been intending to come up to the door and pretend that everything was alright and that he hadn't been involved with what had happened, then he wouldn't have been wearing the mask.

"So, my immediate guess was that the body had been moved. I quickly confirmed that by examining the pavement and the heels of Ryan's shoes. He had been dragged, very quickly, while I was lying on the floor of the hall and then struggling with that bolt.

"So, not only was the body moved, but Stevie had lied to me about what had happened. She lied to me, and she was clearly the one who had moved the body, and this told me two things, or really three.

"One: Stevie tried to deceive me about the murder – both by what she said and by her moving the body. Why? Probably to protect somebody.

"Two: To protect herself? Did she kill him? I can't imagine why she would have lied, in that case, since it would clearly have been self-defense. And moving the body didn't shield her from suspicion anyway.

"Three: Who would she have been protecting – impulsively protecting, since it must have been a quick, almost instinctive, decision – other than you, Claudia?"

Erika was about to speak, but Jan said, "It must have been Claudia. It was a clean shot, right through his heart, and you're left-handed." She glanced at Erika's sling. "There are people who could have made that shot with their off hand, but I can't imagine that you're one of them. Claudia, I'm guessing you got the gun from your room, when you and Stevie searched the house."

Claudia nodded. "My father gave it to me, when I insisted on continuing to live here."

"And you practice at the shooting range at least once a week, I know. Of course, you were on the second floor, and I've already said that the angle was wrong if Ryan had been in front of the house and if he had been shot from a second floor window. But if he had been in the alley, as evidence and logic suggest, then it would have been quite possible – and even probable – that the shooter was on the second floor fire escape, which happens to be outside Ryan's window, in the alley, near the rear of the house, and you were both in Ryan's room."

"Why didn't you say this before?" Claudia asked.

"Two reasons, but one of them I will keep to myself. I thought I had the freedom to wait because it was very unlikely that you would go out and shoot anybody else. You're not a murderer. In fact, you shot Ryan to protect Stevie, didn't you? To save her life?"

"Yes. He had knocked her down, and he'd drawn his gun."

Jan nodded. "From the angle of the bullet, it seemed likely that he had been leaning forward when he was shot, and for you to have made the decision to shoot him, which again must have been a very quick decision, it must have been because of some immediate threat. Not to protect yourself or Erika – you weren't in any immediate danger, and I think you knew I was prepared to mobilize any necessary resources to protect your lives.

"But you would have done it to protect Stevie, who had already risked her life to save Erika's.

"The main reason I held back was Stevie One. I really wanted her to come to me and admit that she'd tried to lie to me. And, as you can imagine, I read her the riot act last night. Trying to alter evidence, lying to an official of the government – that is not acceptable, obviously." She smiled. "I also made it clear that she hadn't fooled me for a minute, just to reinforce the lesson."

"I have to ask, " Erika said, "shouldn't you try to stop her from doing this? This crazy idea of being a superhero? She'll get killed."

Jan smiled and sipped her coffee. "If not for her 'crazy idea,' you'd be dead, and probably so would a girl she rescued last night. No, this is why I wanted to have her come to me. I think it's amazing that she wants to do this, and that she's determined to keep on doing it even though she ended up in the Emergency Room last night. She doesn't need to be discouraged; she's a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. She needs help – and training, which I can help her to get – but first she needs to know that she has to do this the right way.

"I think she learned that lesson the night before last, because that was the other thing I saw after Ryan was killed. Stevie had moved the body, which meant she then had to lie, but she realized almost immediately that it had been a mistake. She was nearly unresponsive for the first few minutes, obviously upset, and she admitted last night that she had been mad at herself for acting on an impulse without thinking it through. I was trying to keep her from seeing that I was examining the sidewalk and Ryan's shoes, but I didn't have to work very hard at it; her attention was elsewhere.

"So, I let her think she had got away with it, in hopes that it would gnaw at her until she realized that 'I got away with it' was not something she could live with. And, fortunately, that's what happened."

"But you have those security volunteer people," Erika said. "Why do you need her, too?"

"Because, just between us, the SVs are not all they should be. If they're aware of trouble they help, but they don't seek out problems. They like having the patch to wear, but they don't – in general – take it seriously enough.

"Stevie One challenges that, just by being who she is. We're already seeing that some SVs are raising their game, so to speak, and some are falling back and will probably have to be replaced. And both of these are positive developments."

Claudia sighed and pushed her plate away from her. Jan held out her cigarette case and both women took cigarettes.

"So," Claudia said, exhaling a cloud of smoke. "What happens now?"

"Well, you did shoot a man," Jan said.

"To save the life of your once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon," Erika put in.

"To save a life, yes," Jan said, nodding. "But I'm not a judge. There will need to be a trial, or at least a judge will have to rule on whether there should be one."

"Miss Sleet–" Claudia began.

"Please, call me Jan."

"Alright, Jan," she said. She sighed. "I have no problem with a trial. I did what I did, and I would cheerfully do it again, both for what that man did to Erika and to protect Stevie One. I would have confessed that night except for the position that would have put Stevie in. But my problem is that the circumstances..." Her voice trailed off and she looked at Jan, but the detective only raised an eyebrow.

"The circumstances," Claudia continued slowly, "are somewhat... sordid. Ryan and I were intimate. He had a grudge against Erika... You see the sensationalistic aspects, I'm sure. It will be in the press, and it will be very tawdry."

"Miss Sleet," Erika said. "As you said, Claudia is no murderer, and I have heard that you occasionally let people go, in circumstances like these. I think the term is 'justifiable homicide.' Maybe we should just leave town, go live with Claudia's parents or something." She shrugged. "Then we'd be outside your jurisdiction."

"Do you want to go?" Jan asked, specifically addressing Erika.

She shook her head. "No, I want to stay. This is where I've always wanted to be."

"Erika was not comfortable with my family," Claudia said. "I wouldn't subject her to that again. But we could go somewhere else."

Jan smiled. "But it's better for U-town if you stay. You are, or could be, a great asset to our project."

"I work with a couple of theater companies. I can't think that's irreplaceable."

"No, but I've asked around about you. You are apparently very well educated."

Claudia shrugged. "For everything I've ever done with it."

Jan smiled and said, "Si je m'habille parfois un peu trop, d'avoir parfait un surcroît d'éducation le fait oublier aux yeux du monde."

Claudia shook her head. "I'm reasonably certain that there are already French translations of Oscar Wilde. I don't–"

"I'm not suggesting that. I think you should be a teacher."

"I hate to disappoint you, but I don't really care for children."

She shrugged. "Neither do I. Except for my own, of course. But 'education' doesn't necessarily mean children. We have adult education, and we need a lot more."

"Don't you need some sort of certification or a specialized degree or something like that?"

"Not for our school."

Claudia looked thoughtful, and Erika leaned over and took her hand. "You should do this," she said quietly. "We should do this. We should stay here, live here, in our home. That's what we should do."

Claudia looked both surprised and pleased at this sudden vehemence from Erika. Erika's smile was broad, and Claudia's lips moved as she tried to control her own expression. She turned to Jan, still holding Erika's hand. "Apparently I don't have much choice," she said. Then she frowned thoughtfully. "Also," she said slowly, "I do think a better translation would be: 'S'il m'arrive de porter des vêtements d'une excessive élégance, c'est que mon éducation l'est tout autant.'"

Jan inclined her head in agreement.

Erika's shoulders slumped. "But then there will have to be a trial."

"Do you know about private trials?" Jan asked.

Erika frowned. "I've never heard of them."

"Exactly. We don't publicize them. They're an option for situations like this."

"Miss Sleet," Claudia said slowly. "Am I to understand that this is a definite offer, for a trial without any chance of publicity?"

The detective nodded. "I'd say so. Yes."

"So, what would be the next step? Would I come with you now?"

"Oh, no. That would be the same as announcing that you're under suspicion, at least. People notice what I do, especially when there's been a murder. It's no problem for me to come here – this is the scene of the crime – but we shouldn't leave together." She pulled a card from her pocket and laid it on the table. "Here is an address, and a date and a time. Erika can come with you, of course."

Claudia looked at the card, without touching it, and then she nodded. "Alright."

The detective took her cane and got to her feet. Claudia looked up. "Miss Sleet?"

She smiled. "Call me Jan."

"And please call me Claudia. I have two questions."

"And I have one," Erika added.

Jan turned and stood, regarding them, her hands folded on top of her cane. "I can guess yours, Erika, and one of yours, Claudia," she said. "But for the other one I have no idea."

Claudia held out her hand, palm up, indicating that the detective should continue.

"Claudia, I guessed you would recognize that quote because I've looked at your books, both in your living room and your bedroom. And you had two French-language magazines next to your bed. So, even if you didn't recall where the quote was from, you would have known what it meant. And Erika, what it meant was, 'If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated.'"

Erika smiled. "Appropriate to the conversation, but of course not to Claudia, who is never over-dressed."

Jan laughed. "I'm sure I am no judge of that," she said, gesturing at her impeccable three-piece suit, her perfectly-tied necktie, and her precisely-folded display handkerchief.

The other women laughed as well, then Claudia said, "Miss Sleet. Jan. Here is my other question. Do you think this will last? U-town?"

The detective smiled. "I have no idea. Quite possibly not. But I'm going to bend every effort to see that it does, and a lot of other people have made the same commitment. I guess we'll all find out."

 

Stevie One was lying face down on her bed, in her costume. Her shoes, gloves, and mask were on the floor.

Angel came in. "What's wrong?"

"Leave me alone."

Angel touched her shoulder. "Please look at me."

Stevie rolled over and faced her. She'd obviously been crying.

"They're gonna shut me down!" she said. "I fucked up and they won't let me be Stevie One anymore."

"Have they said so?"

"No, but they will."

Angel shook her head. "I don't think they will and I don't think they should. If they do, I'll go talk to Jan Sleet."

"What good will that do?"

"Well, she is my daughter."

Stephanie sat up. "Really?"

"Yes, really."

"Is she the daughter you talked about, that you're not close to?"

"One of them. One of two."

"And you don't talk to her?"

"Not about the fact that I'm her mother, no."

"Does she know?"

Angel smiled. "Of course she knows. She investigated and she found out, as she always does. But we don't talk about it."

"Why not?"

"That's a long story. I could talk to her about this, though, but I don't think I'll have to."

Stevie One sat up, smiling. Angel sighed and leaned back in her chair. She knew her young friend well enough to know that she herself had just become another project for U-town's protector. She stood up. "It seems to me you're in danger of being late–"

"My job!" Stevie stood up and grimaced from the pain from her arm.

Angel frowned. "What's wrong?"

"My arm got banged up last night. It's no big deal." She made a face. "Can you help me get my top off? It's hard, with my arm. I'll tell you all about it tonight."

Angel was alarmed at the large and unpleasant bruise on her young friend's arm, but at that moment their main attention was focused on making sure she got to work on time.


Stephanie was ready in a few minutes. She was wearing her best shirt, her cleanest jeans, and a sling made out of a piece of sky blue silk which Angel had provided. Her short, blonde hair was brushed, and her face was scrubbed clean. "Thanks!" she said as she went out the door, walking fast, and Angel thought she would make it to the store by eleven.

And she knew that this would not be the last time U-town's young protector would come home somewhat the worse for wear.

 

The End


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