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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