Vinnie Stiglianese got out of the cab at the base of the large, unmarked bridge. It was a pleasant evening and the city sidewalks were crowded with people. He took his suitcase out of the trunk and then the cab edged into the traffic and moved away. He stood for a moment, keeping his foot pressed against the side of the suitcase so he’d be aware of it.
The flight had been delayed and he was about three hours later than he’d planned. He smiled. Being late was purely theoretical, of course, since this visit was going to be a surprise anyway. Well, he wanted it to be a surprise, but the person he was going to visit was extremely difficult to deceive. He couldn’t see how she would have found out, but…
He was suddenly aware that he was hungry, but he decided to wait to eat until he was across the river. It was a cliche that food on the U-town side of the river was almost always both better and cheaper than what you could find in the city, but, as he occasionally reminded his students, cliches become cliches for a reason.
The light turned green, and he picked up his suitcase and made his way across the street. Quite a few people crossed when he did, and some of them were also taking the bridge into U-town.
The bridge had no signs, but everybody knew where it went. It was blocked for vehicles at the U-town end, so there were no cars or trucks going over.
There was a stiff breeze coming off the water as he walked up the incline. He thought of stopping and getting a scarf out of his suitcase, but then he remember that he hadn’t packed one. He tried to travel light when he went to U-town, because he knew he’d be carrying his suitcase a lot.
He stopped at the highest point of the bridge and turned around to look back at the city. It was a dark night, so the city lights were at their most impressive.
This was Vinnie’s third trip to U-town.
The first trip had been just a few days after the Founding. He’d traveled with almost no luggage then, having rushed to the airport and booked a seat on the first available flight from Italy as soon as he’d heard the news.
This was half because history was being made, as he told his students later to explain his sudden absence, and half because it was his daughter who was making it. (Of course, yes, she was just one of many, but people do make allowances for a proud father.)
That time it had been odd crossing the bridge, because there had been no electricity in U-town. It had been like walking down a hill into a huge, bottomless pit, with all the city lights behind him.
He picked up his suitcase and quickly moved to the side as he heard a motor behind him. The other people on the roadway moved aside without even looking around.
When the taxi was past him, he picked up his suitcase and started to walk down the incline toward U-town.
His second visit had been special, because that had been so that he could attend, and participate in, his daughter’s wedding.
He still remembered the letter she had written to him.
Dear Professor Stiglianese,
It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write this letter. It is my sad duty to inform you that your daughter, Jan Sleet (the famous amateur detective and intrepid gal reporter), has abandoned her life of chaste and selfless devotion to her vocation and is now quite openly living in sin with an older (though quite good looking) man.
The shame is bad enough, of course, but what’s even worse is that the man is an employee (Marshall, her assistant). So, not only is this situation an affront to the laws of the Almighty, there may also be trouble with the Labor Board.
Many of the fine, upstanding citizens of U-town have urged her to get married, of course, but she won’t hear of it until her dear, sweet, sainted father is here to give her away.
Please come at your earliest convenience to rescue your daughter from a life of sin.
A shotgun is not required, but formal attire is. There will be photographers.
From a friend.
About a half hour later, Vinnie stopped and looked around. He’d been looking for a seafood restaurant that he remembered from his last visit, but somehow he’d got turned around and now he was lost.
There was almost nobody on the street. The buildings were all warehouses, apparently deserted at night. He wished he’d asked somebody for directions.
Too much wool-gathering and not enough attention to his surroundings. U-town wasn’t that large, but it was still possible to get lost in it. Particularly if you weren’t a native, and it was night, and you were lost in your thoughts.
“Drop the bag, “said a soft voice behind him. “Tourist.”
Vinnie held his breath, then he let it out slowly as he lowered his suitcase to the sidewalk.
He stood motionless. He was ready to reach for the switchblade in his trouser pocket, but his hand wasn’t going to move until he knew more about who was behind him, how many there were, and how they were armed.
He’d had the switchblade since high school. It had been years since he’d pulled it out, now that he was a respectable college professor rather than a small-town tough guy, but it was sharp, oiled, and ready.
“Wallet,” the same soft voice said as he heard the suitcase slide away from him.
The voice had sounded closer, which indicated that it might be one man, who had to get closer in order to take the suitcase.
Vinnie didn’t care about the suitcase, but he was reluctant to give up his wallet. Maybe if he stepped forward, turned, and pulled the blade quickly enough–
He heard a loud blow, a sharp exhalation of breath, and a piercing whistle all at the same moment, and he quickly executed his plan. A step forward, a quick turn, and the blade was in his hand and open.
There was a man, young and well dressed, lying on the sidewalk. He was gasping and holding his right arm. His right hand was limp, and there was a knife a few inches from it. The girl kicked the knife away and holstered the stick she’d been holding.
Vinnie had been told about Stevie One, or he would have been even more surprised to have been rescued by a teenage girl, dressed entirely in black, armed with two small billy clubs.
She turned to face him, and her right hand fell to one of her sticks. The holsters were low on her thighs, the ideal position for her to pull her weapons out quickly.
“The knife is not necessary now, sir,” she said firmly. “Please put it away.”
He closed the knife and returned it to his pocket. “I didn’t know the cavalry was about to arrive. Thanks, Stevie.”
Her mask covered her entire head, so he couldn’t tell if she was reacting to being addressed by name. She held out her hand and he shook it. “You appear to be a visitor, sir,” she said. “Are you lost?”
He laughed. “Is it that obvious?”
Before she could answer, two young security volunteers appeared at the corner and rushed over to them.
Stevie turned to face them. “What took you so long?” she asked. Her tone wasn’t sarcastic, but it was clear she was going to get an answer.
“We were helping a guy who’d fallen off his bicycle. He–”
“You should probably have split up. This gentleman was about to have to defend himself when I got here.” She gestured at the robber, still lying motionless and clutching his arm. He looked like he could have got to his feet and tried to escape, but what would have been the point? “Get him up and take him to the hospital.”
She turned back to Vinnie. “Where are you trying to go, sir?” she asked.
“To the hotel. My daughter lives there.” He had the idea that she was smiling, but it was impossible to be sure.
“You’re pretty far off course.”
“Oh, I knew that. I was looking for a seafood restaurant that I remembered from my last visit.”
“Do you remember the name?”
He sighed. “I think right now I’ll settle for the hotel. I can eat there. Can you point me in the right direction, please?”