I was awakened by the phone. I fumbled the receiver from its cradle and dropped it on the floor. I hauled it back up by the cord and got it to my ear, just in time to hear Sam Little say, "–up and around. I think we'll be in all afternoon, I don't want to miss a phone call. I–" There was a click. "Oh, hang on," he said and clicked off.
"Marshall?" Jan Sleet said suspiciously, as though I was eavesdropping on her phone conversation.
"Just woke up," I said.
"Get dressed," she said. "We're going over there."
That was about as clear as she could be without saying, "Hang up!" so I cradled the receiver and started to get dressed. I was sorry I hadn't taken a shower before I'd gone back to bed, because I obviously wasn't going to get one now.
A few moments later, she rapped on my door and I called, "hang on!" I finished tying my shoes and stood up. "Come on in," I said. She opened the door and poked her head in. She was impeccably dressed, as usual, but I could tell that she hadn't slept well.
"We're going over there," she said. "Tammy Nelson is coming down from Boston, and I want to meet her. She's Perry and Terry's sister."
"If she makes it in one piece," I said. "Maybe she'll vanish from the plane while it's in mid-air."
Her eyes widened as I followed her out into the living room. She grinned. "Boy, that would be something, wouldn't it?"
"What does Tammy do for a living?" I asked, trying to bring her back down to earth.
"She's a lawyer. A good one, apparently."
"Magical disappearances never happen to lawyers. Come on."
When we got to the apartment, Sam opened the door to our ring.
"Come on in," he said. "I've got coffee started, and I think there are some leftover danish. They're okay if you warm them up a little. Tammy just called from the airport, she's on her way."
"Has she heard from Perry or Terry?" Jan Sleet asked.
He shook his head. A weight seemed to settle over him. We came into the living room. "Nicky's at the hospital with Sarah," he said. "I'd be there, too, except for the fact that Tammy is coming. And I'm still hoping there might be a phone call. How do you take your coffee?"
"Black," I said, though I would have preferred tea. My stomach felt very empty, and the stale reheated danish didn't sound appealing.
"Light and sweet," Jan Sleet said. She put her free hand on the arm of a chair and lowered herself into it.
"I'll give you a hand," I said, and I followed Sam into the kitchen.
"So, how long have you two been together?" he asked as he poured the coffee.
"I've worked for her for almost three years," I replied, spooning sugar into her mug. "I've seen her solve some pretty tricky mysteries. I'll bet she solves this one, too."
He nodded. "I have a feeling she may. I sure hope so, and soon."
We carried the coffee back into the living room.
As Tammy Nelson came in, I finally understood quite a few things.
Tall, very thin, lame in her right leg, well-dressed, thin-faced, my employer and the successful attorney looked alarmingly similar. So, this was why everybody in the case had done a double-take at the first sight of Jan Sleet, and why Sam had been so eager to stay in touch with us. I doubted if he had any kind of theory, but he must have thought that Jan Sleet was the key to the answer. And obviously, in some way, she was.
There were differences between the two women, of course. Tammy's hair was full and strawberry blonde, she didn't wear glasses, she had a bit of a tan, and she exuded health and self-confidence. My employer's hair was lank and dull brown, she wore horn-rimmed glasses, her skin was pale, and she was somewhat awkward. Tammy was clearly older. But they had to be related by blood, there was no other explanation. And even that didn't explain the lame right legs.
Looking back, I wished I'd focused more on Tammy's reaction. After all, Sam already knew how similar the two women looked, he had met Tammy before. And Jan Sleet didn't react except to step forward and introduce herself, but that could have been because she knew about the resemblance already, or it could have meant she hadn't noticed it.
But Tammy's face might have told me something. Had she expected to meet someone who looked this much like her? If she knew such a person existed, did she know that person was going to be in Sam's apartment? But by the time I really looked at her, she was smiling, shaking Jan Sleet's hand, asking my name, not giving anything away. Just what one would have expected from a successful attorney.
Then, before anybody could say anything more, the phone rang. Sam answered it, and he indicated that it was Nicky. The rest of us all stood silent, until Jan Sleet and Tammy Nelson turned in one motion, limped to the sofa and sat down.
Sam palmed the receiver. "I'm afraid I have to go. They're going to release Sarah soon, and Nicky doesn't have enough money for a cab."
"Oh, Marshall can go," Jan Sleet said airily. "Tammy's just arrived, you don't want to leave now. Marshall can take a cab over there and bring them home."
Sam started to protest, but under the circumstances all I could say was, "Oh, it's no problem."
I was starting to worry about how many cabs we were paying for, and I wondered if there would ever be a story to cover all these expenses.
Nicky looked up as I came over to her in the hospital corridor. She smiled. "How did you get selected for this?" she asked.
I sat down next to her. "I'm not sure. I don't mind, though. Where is Sarah?"
She pointed down the corridor. "They're examining her one last time, then she has to get dressed. So, your boss assigned you to come?"
She smiled. "What kind of name is 'Sleet,' anyway?"
"A pen name," I replied with a laugh. "Her real name is long and hard to pronounce. She hates to hear people say it wrong, so she changed it."
"And she thought 'Sleet' was a nice normal name?"
"Well, apparently. It is easy to pronounce, you have to admit that."
"True. I was sort of wondering if her real name might be Nelson." She gave me a sidelong glance.
I shook my head. "Not so far as I know."
"You've met Tammy?"
I nodded. "Just before you called."
She said, "Hmmm," and then turned to face me a little more. "What happened to her leg? Your boss, I mean."
"They don't know. It came on about nine months ago, very suddenly, and the doctors don't know what caused it. They gave her some exercises, but she doesn't do them."
This was the first lie I'd told her. Jan Sleet's leg had started to become lame nine months ago, that was true, but she had never seen a doctor about it, though I had tried to convince her that she should. She just bought a cane and used that to get around.
Nicky and I helped Sarah out of the cab and up the three steps to the front door of the apartment building. The doorman stood at his podium, and he inclined his head in greeting, but he didn't move to open the inside door or signal for the elevator. I was glad that I'd come along.
In the elevator, I wondered where Jan Sleet was, and why she'd wanted me out of the way.
Upstairs, Nicky unlocked the apartment door and we went in. There didn't seem to be anybody home.
"Hey, where's the brass band?" Nicky called.
"And the dancing girls!" Sarah added.
Nicky started to help her toward the living room as we heard a yell of "Shit!" from Sam's room, followed by another voice and a heavy thud. The door was ajar and I moved quickly to push it open.
Two very alarming thoughts had come to me right away. One was that Sam might be doing some violence to somebody, the other was that he might have seduced my employer.
Neither turned out to be true, and I forced myself to relax in the doorway. Sarah and Nicky came up beside me.
Sam had fallen out of bed. He scrambled to his feet, naked, holding a corner of a sheet over his crotch. The woman in the bed, also naked, wasn't Jan Sleet, thank goodness, it was Tammy Nelson. Her face was flushed and her hair was wild.
We all stood motionless for a moment, then Tammy stood up with her cane, gathering a sheet around her waist like a long skirt. She limped to the door and closed it in our faces.
We went into the living room and sat down in silence. Nicky and Sarah were holding hands as they sat on the sofa.
My first thought was that, no matter what, this was a pretty shabby thing for Sam to do (and for Tammy, too, of course). My second thought was to wonder if one or both of them had killed Terry. That didn't seem to make much sense, but matbe there was some scenario I wasn't seeing.
"So, I guess that was Tammy, huh?" Nicky said.
Sarah nodded. "And Sam must really think Terry is dead," she said quietly.
"Even if he does," Nicky said, "what the hell was the hurry?"
After a few minutes, Tammy and Sam came in as if they had rehearsed it. Sam went to his usual easy chair and sat down. Tammy stood in the center of the room, facing Nicky and Sarah.
"The old cliche is, don't speak ill of the dead," she began. "I'm not going to speak ill of my sister, and I don't believe she's dead. But everybody here knows what a difficult person she can be. Both of you had encouraged Sam to break up with her. He didn't, and he hasn't yet. But he is a decent, patient and good-hearted man, and I have been very fond of him for some time. I wouldn't say that he has made Terry happy, but he has helped her to be happier than she has ever been with anybody else, or by herself. And that means a lot to me.
"But tonight, while we were alone here together, I started to think, 'what if I'm next?' Terry and Perry are gone, how much longer am I going to be around? So, I decided to let Sam know how much I admire and cherish him. It ended up going somewhere I hadn't anticipated, but I'm not sorry. What happens next? I don't know. But this made me happy, and I think it made him happy, too, and who knows if we'll get another chance. If I'm about to die, I'll have a lot of regrets, but this won't be one of them."
We were all silent for a moment. Nobody looked at Sarah, but we all knew it was up to her. Finally, she got to her feet, with Nicky's help, and walked over to Tammy. She embraced the tall, thin woman, then said, "whatever happens, come visit more often, okay? Even if Terry doesn't like it."
Tammy held Sarah with her free hand. "And she won't, you know that," she replied, and Nicky helped Sarah off to their bedroom.
Tammy went to sit down on the sofa. Sam suddenly got up and moved to the girls' bedroom, probably realizing that he'd never even asked how his sister was feeling since her discharge from the hospital.
Tammy Nelson and I regarded each other. It had been an impressive performance, and there was some truth in it, but she and I both knew it had been self-serving as well. I wondered if she had been unnerved to come face to face with Jan Sleet. So unnerved that she'd seduced Sam, either because she needed emotional support, or because she needed him on her side for some more practical reason.
She smiled. "Terry kept me away from Sam and Sarah, even more than she did with Perry. She feels conflicted about Perry, because of his success, but she really doesn't like me. I've hardly even met them, though I've heard all about them." She sighed. "If this all works out, I'm not going to let her get away with that anymore, though it won't be easy."
"I don't get the impression that much is easy with Terry," I said.
"You're right about that," she said. She looked around. "I was only here once before. They pestered Terry until she invited me down for a weekend. I got here a little earlier than they expected, or maybe they were just disorganized, but Sam and Sarah were still out at the store when I got here. Terry was being really pissy and passive-aggressive. I thought she was going to ruin the weekend and I told her so.
"She got mad at me and left before they got home. She went home and didn't speak to me for a month." She smiled. "I did have a nice dinner with Sam and Sarah, though."
"Do you happen to know where my employer has wandered off to?" I asked.
She shook her head. "She said she was going to do some investigating. That's all she said."
That could have meant anything. I tried to play the mental game "If I were Jan Sleet, where would I be?" but, as usual, it didn't get me anywhere.
"She was quite the busy little bee before she went out," Tammy commented after a moment. "I expected her to take out a magnifying glass and put on a Sherlock Holmes hat while she wandered around here."
I found this somewhat alarming, and I was not happy that I had no idea what she was doing or where she was now.
"Sam said you're very protective of her," Tammy remarked.
I forced a casual laugh. "She takes some protecting sometimes. She still thinks a press pass means you can turn into Superman in an emergency. So, how long are you here?"
"Only until tomorrow morning, at the latest. I have to be in court the day after that, and I need to prepare."
Nicky looked at me with a level gaze. Sarah was resting, and she and I were alone in the living room. "You know what's weirder than the fact that your employer and the lawyer look so much alike?" She lit a cigarette. "The fact that nobody says anything about it."
"Well, you've had the same opportunity to comment as everybody else. So, if it's so weird, why are you keeping quiet, too?"
"That's what I'm trying to figure out. Maybe that's why it bugs me, because I'm doing something and I don't know why. Why don't you say something about it?"
I laughed. "That's easy. When in doubt, I take my cue from my boss, especially when we're on a case. She hasn't mentioned it, so I don't. Being an employee can make some situations easier."
"'On a case,'" she quoted. "I thought she was a reporter. You're sounding like a cop now."
"Bad experiences with cops?"
"None of your business. Answer the question."
"She's a reporter. You remember the Jacob Everett murder a year or so ago?" She shook her head. "Famous writer, not so hip now, died about a year ago while kayaking down a particularly tricky river. Everybody said he was an old fool, trying to prove he was still as tough as he'd been as a young man. She proved it was a murder, by his fourth wife, and she wrote a big article about it for The New Yorker.
"She likes mysteries, she likes to figure them out, and then write about it. So, it's a 'story,' but it's a 'case,' too."
"And the story here is Perry Nelson, assuming she finds him? The rest of us are nobodies."
I shrugged, since I wasn't sure of the answer to that one myself. "If something sufficiently unusual happens, it's news, even if it happens to a 'nobody.'"
But, even as I said this, I knew it didn't satisfy either of us.
We were silent for a minute, and she looked down at her hands. She pointed at the scratches. "You know what's embarrassing about this? I ran away. Sarah tried to fight back. She was like a whirlwind, and she got hurt pretty bad. Me, I chickened out and ran, and I didn't get hurt at all. That seems wrong, like I got rewarded to being a louse, and she got punished for doing the right thing."
I thought about this. "How do you feel about what she did?" I asked.
Nicky's eyes started to tear up. "She did it for me, even though she's short and small and not very strong. She was trying to protect me." She shrugged, looking at the floor. "How do you think I feel?"
"Well, maybe that's her reward."