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.

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Part Four: Jan Sleet

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