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?"
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."
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–
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
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