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