chapter eleven – the burning

As they walked back toward the pier, starling asked, "Tell me the rest, about the others from the band. You said you met them in prison."

Pete laughed. "Well, that makes it sound more impressive than it was. It was really only the Precinct 3 lock-up, like a holding cell where they decide if it's worth booking you or not. Carl was in for being drunk and disorderly, which I guess you can imagine. They might have let him go except that he tried to kiss one of the cops who arrested him."

"What about Henshaw?"

"That was a little more serious," he replied. "I don't know the whole story even now. He's not really who he seems to be. He's got a wife and three kids somewhere, and he had a good job, doing some kind of engineering. I still don't know why he came here, what he was after. Maybe he was just looking for a little thrill. Anyway, he was much too well-dressed, an obvious tourist, and a couple of guys decided to stick him up.

"Well, you've seen what he can be like. They had knives, but he didn't care, he just went after them with his bare hands. It surprised the hell out of them, I'm sure. One of them freaked out and ran, and Henshaw got the knife away from the other one. He threw it away and started beating the guy with his fists until the cops came."

He lit a cigarette. "Here's the wild part. The two punks had already robbed another guy that night, a guy named Philip Henshaw. The guy Henshaw beat up still had the wallet, and when the cops found it Henshaw claimed it was his, that he was Philip Henshaw. He'd lost his own wallet during the fight, or he'd thrown it away. I have no idea what his real name is.

"Henshaw and Carl had already been in the cell for a while when I was brought in. They'd hit it off right away." starling took a cigarette from the pack in Pete's pocket and he lit it for her. "Carl was still drunk and Henshaw was all worked up from the fight. I still remember how he looked, his fists all bloody and bruised and his clothes dirty and torn. His eyes were glowing like he'd just won the Super Bowl.

"Anyway, Carl was in kind of a casual thing with Tom Drenkenson, halfheartedly trying to put a band together. They were looking for a second guitarist, preferably one who could sing, and a bass player. They were pretty off-hand about it, but once Henshaw got involved that was the end of any fooling around. He's not interested in anything that's just for fun, he's only happy if he's trying to be really big time.

"I wasn't much of a bass player, but when they heard that I played at all they both seemed to think that it was hand of God that had put me in the cell with them. I guess that was the end of any possibility Henshaw would ever go back to his wife and kids."

"So, when Tom came to bail Carl out, Carl got him to spring for the rest of us as well, convincing him that we were the rest of the band they were trying to put together." He shrugged. "If Tom had known how things were going to go, I'm sure he'd have left all of us in the clink."

"What about Jenny?"

"She was Tom's girlfriend at that time, but that was doomed as well. Henshaw had such contempt for Tom as time went on that he didn't even bother to hide how he felt about her. He seemed to think that it was just inevitable he and Jenny would end up together, and she found this idea very attractive. She was always trying to believe that things were all fixed in advance, that you can postpone your fate but you can't ever change it."

starling slowed and stopped, looking up at a broken streetlight, then she looked at the street signs on the corner.

"What tortures me about the whole thing," Pete continued, "is that I don't think that way. I don't think anything is fated at all. It wasn't fate that Jenny and I would sleep together, we just did it, completely of our own free will. Nine times. We could have stopped at any point, but we didn't." He waited a minute, then he touched her shoulder. "We should be getting back."

As Pete and starling turned the final corner to the funeral, they stopped.

"We weren't gone that long, were we?" starling asked. The dock looked nearly deserted, most of the people and motorcycles gone, most of the torches out.

"Pete," a voice called as they came closer.

"Marshall," Pete said, turning. "You're leaving, too?"

"I'm beat. Christy's giving me a ride back to the apartment." Christy roared the engine of her motorcycle, grinning.

"Where's Vicki?" Pete asked.

Marshall turned and pointed out onto the pier. "She's still out there. She's got more stamina than I do, that's for sure." They heard Henshaw's hearty bellow of "Petronius!" as Marshall climbed onto the motorcycle behind Christy. She gave Pete a wicked, leering wink as Marshall put his arms around her stomach, then they roared off down the street.

Henshaw waved as he limped up to them. "We thought you fell into the river. Come on, we were about to start without you." His voice was surprisingly robust considering how frail he looked.

"Start what?" Pete asked as they followed him between the rows of motorcycles onto the pier. Pete was suddenly afraid that some sort of music was being planned after all. Henshaw grinned over his shoulder and Pete knew he wasn't going to tell them anything.

Everybody was over on the south side of the pier. Pete estimated that there were about forty or fifty people left, most of them Jinx. He guessed the speeches had driven everybody else away. Maybe this had even been deliberate, he thought with a chuckle. Some people were standing, some had brought chairs over, and some were sitting on the edge of the pier with their feet dangling. Frances and Donna were still there, and he saw Tom Drenkenson and Emma. Nobody was saying very much, they were just looking at the next dock, at what he'd thought was a pile of sand or salt. It was uncovered now, and suddenly he knew what it was.

Pete and starling found a clear area and sat on the edge of the pier. They sat in silence for a few moments, then starling leaned over and whispered, "What's going on?"

"I don't know for sure," he whispered back, "but I think that's a funeral pyre over there. Jenny and Carl's bodies are in there, and they're going to be burned."

"Oh," she said. Then, as if Pete's words had somehow been the cue, four Jinx appeared on the other pier, each holding a burning torch. Two stood on either side of the pyre, which was taller than they were.

Dr. Lee was a little behind Pete, and he glanced up at her as if by instinct. She gave a slight nod and the four torches were thrust into the pile of wood. It caught very quickly, and Pete wondered how they had managed that, but he didn't really feel like starting to ask questions. He felt a nudge, and he and starling moved apart a little to make room for Daphne. She lay down between them on her stomach with a big, wheezing sigh. He rubbed her back and they watched in silence for a while.

Marshall was starting to think differently about Christy.

He rode behind her on the motorcycle, holding on to her for dear life. His face was buried in her hair, which smelled like cinnamon. He suddenly understood why Pete had given him a funny look when he'd said Christy was going to give him a ride back to the apartment.

But the whole idea was starting to seem less funny.

However, this posed a couple of problems. One was that he had a lot of trouble talking to Christy. It frustrated him that he'd been so glib and (he thought) witty when talking with Emma, but always had to struggle to form a complete sentence when he was with Christy.

Much more importantly, if he really did have designs on Christy the last place he wanted to take her was T.C.'s apartment. Even apart from Jan Sleet's reaction, there was no place on earth with less privacy than T.C.'s.

He hadn't decided what to do about any of this, or even if he was definitely committing himself to the whole idea, when they zoomed around a corner and pulled up in front of the apartment building. There were four women sitting on the front steps, and one of them was Jan Sleet. She had a wineglass in one hand and a pipe in the other, and he could see her raise an amused eyebrow as they rode up.

Pete turned and looked at starling's face. Her eyes were fixed on the fire, her nostrils flared slightly and her thin lips pressed together. She sensed his gaze and turned for a second. It would have taken somebody far more articulate than she was to express what she wanted to say, but he knew what was going on in her head. He didn't need to hear the words.

Pete was feeling a little numb. Too many things happening, too much in a short time. He was glad that Henshaw was still not recovered, because if he'd been healthy he would have wanted to get started with auditions the next day, and Pete wasn't ready for that. By the time Henshaw was 100% again, Pete thought he would probably be ready. He started to think that sometime later in the fall it might be nice to have a night of music at the Quarter dedicated to Carl. He filed that thought away for the moment.

The problem was that he didn't know how he actually felt about continuing the band at all, though he didn't see how he could quit at that point. It wouldn't be the same, though, without Carl. But he had a pretty good idea that nothing was going to be the same anyway.

Daphne sighed again and starling stroked her head. Pete never did find out what they had treated the wood with, to make it catch fire so quickly, but it smelled wonderful.

A while later, Pete realized that Henshaw had moved a folding chair over and was sitting next to him. Henshaw looked across the water at the flames which were consuming the bodies of his friend and his lover. His chin was resting on his hands, which were crossed on top of his cane. He caught Pete's eye, and Pete searched his mind for something appropriate to say.

"The apartment seems very empty without him," he said finally, "even when there are people there."

That seemed to satisfy Henhaw. "We'll find another drummer," he said, "but we'll never find another Carl." Then, rather unexpectedly, he grinned. "Pete," he said softly, "I think there's only one way to end a night like this. I've already spoken with Neil, Rex, Rafe, Frances and Chester." Pete smiled then, knowing what was coming next. "The most sacred sacrament of all," Henshaw proclaimed. His voice dropped reverently. "The holy game of poker."

"Absolutely perfect," Pete declared. He turned to starling, but she shook her head.

"You go ahead," she said. "I want to talk to Dr. Lee anyway."

"Okay," Pete said as they stood up, then he moved closer to her. "Do you remember where the apartment is?" he murmured. She thought for a moment, then nodded.

"Good," he said, "I'll meet you there later, okay?"


She moved off down the pier as Tom came up. He said, "So nice of the little woman to let you go off and play cards with your buddies."

Pete just laughed. "Carl used to call her my sweetie. Until she nearly stabbed him through the hand with a hunting knife." A little voice way back in his head said, "until she blew his fucking brains out," but he didn't say that out loud.

starling settled the weight of her gunbelt across her hips and looked out over the pier. There were very few people left, mostly standing around in little groups trying to pretend the party wasn't almost over.

She didn't have anything to say to anybody there, certainly not Dr. Lee, but she'd had a strong urge to get away from Pete and his friends at that moment.

A lot had happened that night, and she had mostly felt herself to be in control, but she just needed to think. She sat on the edge of the pier again and watched the embers of the fire.

After a while, she slowly became aware that there was a conversation going on somewhere close to her. She looked around.

"Hey, Marsh," Nasty called, waving as the motorcycle pulled up to the curb and stopped. The Amazing Frankie waved as well. Jan Sleet raised her wineglass in a kind of a salute as Christy and Marshall dismounted. She puffed on her pipe, her eyes twinkling. Frankie stood up. "Marshall, I'd like you to meet my roommate, Beth." Marshall held out a hand and they shook. For some reason he had imagined Beth to be on the small and delicate side, but she was quite large. Not fat, but definitely hefty. With her stocky frame and short hair she reminded him of T.C.

Marshall turned, about to introduce Christy, but she moved forward and held out her hand. "I'm Christy," she said, shaking Frankie's hand and then Beth's. Apparently she knew Nasty already.

Jan Sleet produced two more glasses and a fresh bottle of wine and Marshall poured for himself and Christy. Then Christy managed to seat them both on the steps so that Marshall was one step below her. She draped her free arm across his shoulders. "So, how was the funeral?" Jan Sleet asked.

Marshall shrugged. "It's winding down now, but it was very interesting. They had a lot of speeches at the end, though, and that drove the people away." He smiled. "Until the speeches started I thought the whole thing might go on for days."

There was only one torch still burning.

Chet sat on a folding chair, smoking a cigarette. Randi sat on the ground between his legs, leaning back as if he was a plush armchair. She was now wearing a black sweater, jeans and a beret, and she shimmered in the moonlight, her arms draped casually across Chet's thighs.

Emma sat opposite them, and Paris stood near her. Vicki sat cross-legged nearby, a tiny figure all in black and nearly invisible in the dark, listening. There were a few other people around, mostly Jinx, but the night was obviously nearly over.

"We have a right to defend ourselves," Emma said quietly.

"Nobody's arguing with that–" Dr. Lee began, but Chet cut her off.

"Nobody's arguing, but is that really what you do? It's one thing to defend yourself, or even someone else, it's another thing to then chase an attacker ten blocks and beat him until he's dead."

"The alternative is that we leave them free to attack someone else the next week, or the next night."

"If someone attacks you, you should kill them," starling said, coming into the circle of light. "That way they won't attack you again." She shrugged, indicating that this was fairly basic stuff.

"So, you endorse this? This going on patrol to protect people?" Randi asked.

starling shook her head. "No. I don't see the point in defending other people. Let them defend themselves. If they're weak, they can get stronger."

"People do have to look out for each other," Dr. Lee said. "We can't all be starling."

"Does that mean you're going to join us on patrol?" Emma asked sarcastically.

"No," said Dr. Lee calmly. "We look out for our own. That keeps us busy."

"We look after our own," Emma said.

"There's a difference, though," Neil said. "Our people have to follow some pretty specific rules, including some about staying out of stupid situations."

"People should have the right to go wherever they want," Emma said. "No matter who they are or who they're with."

"Yes," said Randi quietly, "people should have that right. Women should have the right to life without being in danger from their own husbands, too. But the world is what it is, so people have to look out for each other."

"Why can't we all be starling?" starling asked suddenly.

"I'm not buying it," CJ said moving forward.

"Buying what?" Chet asked.

CJ looked at starling. "I'm not buying this 'I stick my neck out for nobody' business. Just last Friday morning, there were four armed men trying to steal some musical equipment from a basement rehearsal room. Despite the fact that you were unarmed and pretty much undressed, you jumped one of them and tore his throat out with your teeth. And why did you do that? Because he had pointed his gun at Pete."

"Oh, yeah," starling said slowly.

"'Oh, yeah,'" CJ echoed.

"The point is," Neil said firmly, "that it's one thing to defend your own family, or any group that's like a family–"

"That's the point," Chet said, leaning forward. "You want to defend your people, that's one thing. But you've extended that to include anybody who's gay, or who is even mistaken for being gay. How do you know those people deserve to be defended? Is being gay an automatic blank check with you?"

Emma shook her head. "Honey, I've met more absolute shits in the life than you can imagine. I'm a leading authority on how many screwed-up queers there are in the world. But we're not defending individuals, we're defending a community. Any drunken redneck who goes out and kicks the shit out of some queers this Saturday night may very well do the same thing next Saturday night as well, if he's not stopped. One time the split skull might belong to my worst enemy. The next time it could be mine."

"I still don't think violence is the answer," Randi said. "It just seems to escalate and escalate, without getting at the root of the problem."

"With all due respect," Emma said dryly, "I don't think you can understand how it feels. To be running down a block, chased by six drunken louts with baseball bats, hearing them get closer and closer. It's not just theoretical–"

"Simon!" Randi snapped, her eyes flashing. "Don't you presume to tell me what I know and what I don't know." She stood up, her eyes locked on Emma, who stood up slowly as well. Chet attempted to put his hand on Randi's shoulder, but his hand went right through her.

Then Emma's head jerked back, breaking the contact with Randi's eyes. "Oh, my God!" she said, sitting down again. "I'm so sorry," she said, waving aside Paris' question. "I had no idea."

"The point is not to one-up you," Randi said gently, "but just to show you that I know what I'm talking about."

Emma took a deep breath and then her eyes welled up. "Damn," she said, "there goes my mascara."

"Oh, we'll fix it," Randi said. "Anyway, don't cry. I obviously survived, and I can even still carry a tune." She whistled a little melody until Emma smiled.

Marshall turned to Beth. "Nasty told me what happened," he said. "How are you feeling now?"

She shrugged. "A little bit better." She shook her head. "No, that's not true. I'm not really better. Just not quite as bad, I guess."

"This is the first time we've got her out of the apartment," Nasty said.

Beth nodded. "That's why we're all sitting out here in the cold. I just felt like going outside and these guys decided to make an event out of it." She finished her wine. "I do wish somebody would catch that guy. I still imagine him down in the basement."

"I say we find him and flatten him," Nasty said, pounding her fist into her hand. Beth sighed.

"That sounds fine," The Amazing Frankie said, "but how are you going to find him? Do think criminals always return to the scene of their crimes? I don't think so."

"And, besides, say you do find him and flatten him, what then?" Christy said. She had just been filled in on the details of the attack on Beth and was obviously upset. "It won't help, not really. He'll recover, sooner or later, and then he'll probably be even more full of rage than he is now."

"It sounds like you're suggesting killing him," Jan Sleet said quietly.

Christy shook her head. "No, I'm not. I'm just saying that revenge probably isn't the answer."

"Hey, what if she was Jinx?" Frankie demanded, leaning forward. "Would that be your answer then? What about when that guy raped Denise last year?"

"That's different," Christy said, her mouth tightening. "We did what we did to that guy because if you hit one of us we all get a bruise, and we all strike back." She looked like she was about to say more, but then she clamped her mouth shut. Marshall was looking up at her, but she didn't meet his eyes.

Marshall was indeed starting to think differently about Christy.

There was a muffled explosion in the still night air. It was a big hollow sound, and they couldn't tell which direction it came from. Neil stood up, about to start issuing orders, but Dr. Lee put a hand on his arm. "Wait," she said, pointing out toward the street.

A teenage boy on a bicycle came onto the pier and headed toward them, pedaling for all he was worth. He was wearing jeans and a spray-painted T-shirt, with one side of his head shaved. A couple of Jinx tensed up, but Emma said, "It's okay, he's one of ours." Randi threw her arm over Chet's shoulders and they both became transparent and were gone.

The boy got to them, skidding to a stop and tripping in his eagerness to get off the bike, nearly falling on Vicki. She caught him and put him on his feet.

"The Quarter," he gasped, wiping sweat-drenched hair out of his eyes. "The cops . . ." he panted, "broke down the door. They're . . . doing something inside–"

"Son of a bitch!" Neil snapped. "That's what the explosion was."

"Explosion?" the kid asked, leaning over with his hands on his knees.

"Let's get over there," Dr. Lee said quietly.

Marshall smiled gently at Beth. "You know, I have an idea about all this, something that might help. I was hoping to meet you tomorrow and talk about it then. Is it okay if I come by in the middle of the day, maybe lunch-time?"

Beth nodded. "Sure, but I don't understand–"

He held up a hand. "We can talk about it tomorrow. I think–"

Marshall felt Christy stiffen and he glanced up at her. She was looking off in the direction they'd come from, and then he heard it, too. It was that strange wail he remembered very clearly from the previous Saturday when he'd gone riding with the Jinx. Christy stood up, putting her untouched wineglass on the top step. "Something's happened," she said. She looked worried. "I've gotta go." She started to move toward the curb.

"Be careful," Marshall said.

She turned and trotted back, leaning over to kiss him on the cheek. "See you soon, pup," she said. She was delayed for another moment by Marshall's arm, which had somehow found its way around her waist as he stood up, and their second kiss was somewhat more extensive. Then she got on her motorcycle and was gone.

Frankie said "Yo!" approvingly and Nasty punched him in the shoulder.

"Way to go, Marsh," she said.

Marshall glanced at Jan Sleet, but she didn't say anything. He was hoping she would be merciful and tease him about that "pup" right away, but no such luck. She was obviously going to make him wait.

The Jinx scrambled for their motorcycles, the others getting rides where they could. Emma sat behind Dr. Lee, Paris and starling shared other bikes. Vicki tried getting on behind Neil, but she couldn't even reach her arms around his large frame, so she climbed on in front of him, almost sitting in his lap. The kid who had brought them the news, still panting from his exertions, stumbled for his bicycle, but CJ scooped him up under one arm and plopped him on her motorcycle, getting on behind him. Neil held up a hand as one by one they started their engines. "No matter what's happened," he said in a loud voice, "nobody goes crazy. Nobody breaks formation, or does anything stupid. The more serious the situation, the more important it is that we have to function as one. Everything on my signal. Okay, let's go."

He motioned, and he and Dr. Lee started off, the others following in threes. The wail of the Jinx filled the empty streets ahead of them.

They smelled the smoke when they were still several blocks away.

Pete was a little numb and, he had to admit, a little scared as he watched the Quarter burn. It was starting to feel like all the things that were happening were directed at him, as if somebody was going around killing people and destroying places simply because they meant something to P. David Peterson.

But, looking at it objectively (and he was trying to do that), this idea didn't seem to hold water. For one thing, from what starling had said, she had killed Carl on an impulse. As conspiracy theories swirled around in Pete's skull, it was actually reassuring to know how pointless and random Carl's death had been.

Jenny's death was a mystery, as far as he knew, so he put it aside. And, while he had liked the Quarter a lot, there was nothing specifically associating the place with him. A lot of people had hung out there, and some had spent much more time there than he ever had.

"It this was an accident I'll eat your socks," Henshaw said. They were standing on the corner a block from the Quarter, watching the flames. Frances was sobbing, holding onto Henshaw, and he had an arm around her, absently rubbing her back from time to time. Drenkenson and Donna stood a few feet away, their hands in their pockets. A few other small groups of people watched in silence. There was a crack of thunder, and then a second later they heard the howl of the Jinx.

"It should have started raining hours ago," Pete said, lighting a cigarette. "Randi was holding it back because of the funeral."

Henshaw nodded. "Well, we can certainly use it now."

There were a few Jinx around, the ones who had been at the poker game, and Pete saw them come to alertness as they heard the sound of their approaching fellows.

The first motorcycles appeared around a corner a couple of blocks away, and Pete found himself straining to see if starling was with them. Christy appeared as well, coming from the opposite direction.

Dr. Lee and Neil pulled up to the curb and Henshaw limped over to them, pulling the weeping Frances along with him the way a parent absently carries a crying child.

Pete was about to go join them when he saw starling climb off somebody's motorcycle further down the block and walk quickly toward him. She was trying not to run, but he could tell that she was so focused on him that she had barely looked at the fire burning at the other end of the block.

"Are you okay?" she asked as she came up to him.

It took him a second to follow her train of thought.

"Oh, sure," he said. "We weren't in there. We were playing poker in the apartment when we heard the explosion."

"Oh," she said, visibly relieved. She made a little gesture and he had the idea that she would have taken his hand if there hadn't been so many people around. There was a huge clap of thunder as they walked over to Henshaw, Dr. Lee and Neil.

Pete looked up as starling took a cigarette from his shirt pocket. "The rain's going to come hard when it comes," he said. And then it came, a sudden deluge. They stepped under an awning as the others all scrambled for shelter, running for doorways or getting into abandoned cars. There was more thunder and lightning, and the wind whipped the rain down the block in sheets.

After a minute, Neil said, "We should send our people home. There's nothing more to do tonight." He raised his voice. "Everybody–"

"Wait," said Dr. Lee quietly, and Neil raised a hand, signaling for everybody to be alert. Some of the Jinx had already started to run toward their motorcycles, but they all stopped and moved back to shelter. Frances looked up for the first time.

"This isn't over," Dr. Lee said. She shook her head. "Not like this. We still have a lot of work to do tonight." She looked around. "I think there's a place down the block here where we can go and talk."

Pete was to remark to starling later that the setting up of the Storefront Summit Meeting (as he called it) was an interesting lesson in u-town etiquette and protocol.

Dr. Lee took charge, of course. She led them quickly down the block to an abandoned and looted grocery store. The door was still shut tight, but the display window was long gone except for a few splinters of glass in the corners.

Dr. Lee turned and held out an almost courtly hand to Emma, who was wearing Paris' denim jacket across her shoulders. She held a tiny purse over her head, unsuccessfully trying to keep dry. "Step in out of the rain, dear," Dr. Lee said. Emma took the small woman's hand and stepped gingerly through the broken window. Dr. Lee indicated with a nod that Paris should follow her.

"Frances," Dr. Lee continued, "I think you should be in on this. Will you join us?"

Frances was no longer crying, but she was still holding onto Henshaw, who looked as if having to prop her up wasn't helping his leg any. She hunched her shoulders, not looking up, and Henshaw impatiently put his arm around her and tried to carry her into the store. Vicki came up to help, and Dr. Lee nodded for her to enter as well. As the tiny girl stepped in, starling moved to follow her. She'd made no attempt to cover herself and she was totally soaked.

Dr. Lee and Neil exchanged glances as starling walked past them, and Pete could tell that she hadn't been in their plans. However, they obviously remembered the unsuccessful attempt to keep her out of the funeral and decided not to force the issue.

Pete wasn't sure when Drenkenson and Donna had left, but he didn't see them anywhere. There were quite a few Jinx scattered around the area, all staying out of the rain as best they could. "Pete, will you join us?" Dr. Lee asked over her shoulder as she and Neil stepped over the windowsill.

"Huh?" he said, surprised. He hadn't expected to be included, and apparently he didn't react fast enough because CJ grabbed his shoulders from behind and lifted him inside the store. It was very dark, he could barely see the broken shelves and smashed display cases.

"Thanks," Dr. Lee said to CJ. "Please make sure we're not disturbed."

Since he felt that he was there without portfolio, Pete decided to make himself useful. All the food in the store was long gone, of course. In fact, now that he was inside, he thought he remembered scavenging this particular store himself at one point. But, as usual, a lot of the housewares and cleaning products were still scattered around. He found a box of birthday candles and a small fish bowl (cracked, but still serviceable), and fashioned a makeshift lamp. He placed it on the front counter in a clear space that had obviously once held the cash register.

As he did this, he watched Dr. Lee and Neil talk in whispers for a minute. Then Neil went to the window and called Christy over. She leaned in and he said something to her, then she ran off down the block. A few moments later she rode past the store on her motorcycle, followed by another Jinx.

"I don't want to see tonight end like this," Dr. Lee said, looking around the room. She was sitting up on the counter next to Pete's fish bowl lamp. "I think it was a rotten thing, torching the Quarter while everybody was at the funeral."

"Do we have much choice?" Paris asked. "What can we do tonight?"

"Well, people need a place to hang out. the Quarter is obviously done. Well, it's not quite the same thing, but I say we re-open Duffy's. Tonight. Now."

Emma looked up from her hand mirror. A smile played around her freshly repainted lips. "Do you think we can?"

Dr. Lee turned to Neil. "Are there any guards?"

He shrugged. "There haven't been until now, but they may have anticipated this idea."

Dr. Lee laughed dryly. "I know, I'd much prefer it if they were always stupid, but that's frequently not the case."

"Shit!" Frances said suddenly and she kicked at an empty display case.

"It is a shame–" Dr. Lee said, but Frances interrupted her, yelling something inarticulate and punching the doorframe. Henshaw grabbed her in a bear hug, holding her as she squirmed, her face flushed red.

"Frances–" Dr. Lee began, but it was Henshaw who interrupted her this time.

"This isn't just about the Quarter, is it?" he demanded as she sagged in his arms. "Nobody was that fond of the old dump. Fran, what is it?"

She breathed deeply and stood up a little straighter. Henshaw let her go and she looked around at all of them. She glanced at the window, the only exit, but Neil was there, and CJ's huge back was visible outside.

"I think we'd like an explanation before we go any further," Dr. Lee said softly.

"And I guess you deserve one," Frances said, her eyes dropping to the floor.

"I'm a fool," she said. The rain and her tears had washed off most of the white paint from her face, though a few patches remained. "A few months ago, Novak came to see me. He said . . ." her voice faltered.

Neil's jaw clenched. "Oh, my God," he said. Dr. Lee closed her eyes.

"He said he was going to close the Quarter down. Permanently. Unless . . ."

"Unless what?" Neil demanded. "If you did it you can fucking well talk about it."

She nodded. "Okay. Novak said there was too much illegal activity going on at the Quarter, and he was going to have to close the place down. But he gave me one chance. He said if I kept my eyes and ears open, and passed certain information along to him, he'd leave the club alone."

"Exactly what information did he want?" Dr. Lee asked.

"Oh, mostly about Mason and the Combine. Real criminal stuff." She hesitated.

"What else?" Neil asked.

"Well, occasionally, not that often, he'd ask about someone else. He wanted to know about that whole business last Friday when KC were playing." She glanced at Pete. "I had to tell him she was in town, too," she said, indicating starling. "If I hadn't, he would have wondered why I didn't mention it."

starling didn't react to this, and Pete just shrugged. "It's not exactly a secret," he said.

"What about all the raids Monday night?" Paris asked. "Why did he raid the Quarter?"

Neil waved this aside impatiently. "He had to. What would we have thought if he'd raided every club in the city except the Quarter?"

Pete stepped back into the shadows and started to write in a small notebook. Dr. Lee noticed this, but she didn't react. She was happy, though, since this was one of the two reasons she had made sure that Pete was present.

"So, I figured nobody'd get hurt except some crooks, and the rest of us could still have the Quarter."

"To them, we're all crooks," Pete said. "Read the newspapers or listen to the radio. They don't differentiate."

"Look, I'm sorry," Frances said, turning to Henshaw, but he moved away from her. She turned to Dr. Lee. "I never told him anything about the Jinx."

"You've never known anything worth telling," Neil said.

"Wait a minute!" Dr. Lee said, and it was clear that nobody was going to interrupt her this time. "We are not going to get completely sidetracked here. I say we decide how to deal with this situation once we're in more comfortable surroundings. Like Duffy's, for example. How does that sound?"

Emma stood up. "I think that if we end this here, they've proven they can blow us up or buy us off, and they'll win either way. I wouldn't be happy with that."

Henshaw nodded. "I'll tell you one thing. I know what Carl would say if he were here. He'd say, 'Son, it's easy to tell that people were intended to move forward in this life rather than backwards. For one thing, at least seventy-five percent of people look better from the front than they do from the rear. And also–'"

"I remember the rest of it," Dr. Lee said. She sighed, but she couldn't keep from smiling. She turned to Neil and pointed at Frances. "Search her," she said. "Make sure she hasn't got some kind of microphone or something on her."

Neil called CJ in and the Jinx woman held Frances' arms behind her as Neil did a very thorough body search.

"God damn it!" Pete said suddenly, and they all looked at him, startled. "Our equipment!" he said. "Our guitars and everything. They were all in the fucking basement!"

Henshaw's face got ugly. "Shit," he said. "I didn't even think about that."

starling walked calmly over to Frances, pulling her revolver. She cocked it, aimed it at Frances' head, and looked at Pete. "Up to you," she said.

Pete looked down at the floor, as if he didn't trust himself to speak, but Henshaw said, "You do it or I will. She's made fools of all of us."

"If we've been fools, we shouldn't blame her," Dr. Lee said. "Put that gun away."

starling ignored all this, still looking at Pete. And this was, of course, the main reason Dr. Lee had made sure that Pete would be there.

Pete met starling's eyes, and she holstered her gun. As she walked toward him, he stepped back so they were both in the shadow of a big rack which had once held snack cakes. He put his arms around her and rested his head on her shoulder. She put her arms around him and he whispered to her, "You know what puzzles me?"

"No, what?" she whispered back, her breath hot on his cheek.

"If Novak was getting all this valuable information out of Frances, if the Quarter was so useful to him, why would he have the place burned down? Something doesn't add up here."

starling nodded slowly.

Henshaw, his hands balled into fists, stepped toward Frances, but Vicki jumped up on the windowsill and yelled "ENOUGH!" The remaining pieces of the big picture window crashed to the street and a couple of bottles of dish detergent fell off one of the shelves. Everybody fell silent.

"Everybody has got to stop treating her like she did this!" Vicki said. "She didn't set that bomb, she didn't have any idea this was going to happen. She just made a mistake. She was stupid, that's all." She folded her arms. "Anybody wants to go for her, they can try to go through me."

Of course, not too long before, a statement like this one from a teenage girl only three and a half feet tall would have got some laughs. But news travels fast, and nobody laughed.

Paris nodded and went to stand beside her. "I know one thing," he said. "If Novak could see us now, he'd be laughing his ass off."

Jan Sleet, Marshall and the others had stayed outside for a few minutes after Christy had left, but then it had suddenly started to rain very hard and they had gone inside.

For once, nobody was around in the kitchen of T.C.'s apartment. Marshall closed the door of their room and Jan Sleet sat carefully down on her bed. She looked up at him.

"Why did your young lady have to leave so suddenly?" she asked.

He shrugged. "I have no idea. Duty called, I guess." He knew that if he protested that Christy wasn't his "young lady," his employer would deploy the word "pup" in some way, so he didn't bother.

"What's on the agenda for tomorrow?" he asked as he unbuttoned his shirt.

She shook her head. She was just sitting on her bed, not even starting to get undressed. "I don't really know. I'm in a bit of a quandry right now."

"Nothing I can help with, I suppose?"

She smiled a wry smile. "No, it's nothing you can help with. Sorry, pup."

He fell back on his bed. "You win," he said. "I won't pry any more."

She slipped off her shoes and put the shoe trees into them. "Would it be prying of me to ask what your idea is for Beth's situation?" she asked.

Marshall sat up and smiled. "Not at all. Vicki was wanting to do something positive with her strength, not to hurt people. I thought she could hang around down in the basement by the rec room, maybe draw the guy out. She could subdue him, no matter who he is."

She shrugged. "No argument there. But what then, beat him up?"

"Humiliate him. I was thinking of mounting him on a wall somewhere, naked, with his name and address in huge letters, along with what he did. Seems to me that after a few days of that Beth wouldn't find him so scary. And he'd probably want to leave town."

"Crude," she said thoughtfully. "It needs refining, but I think you're onto something. Beth would have to agree, though. It wouldn't mean much without her name on it."

"Agreed. But Vicki would have to agree, too. I'm going to ask her tomorrow, and if she likes the idea, she and I can talk to Beth."

Jan Sleet started to try to stand up, and Marshall quickly moved to her side to steady her as she took her trousers off. She sat down again as he folded them over the back of a chair. He kicked off his shoes, then turned back to see a surprising sight.

Jan Sleet was sitting cross-legged on her bed, filling her pipe. This was very unusual when it was nearly time for sleep, but apparently something was up. She looked as though she had figured something out, though the pipe indicated that there were a lot more questions she needed to answer before she went to sleep.

He was not looking forward to sleeping in the same room as one of her all-night smoking sessions, but she looked up at him as she zipped her tobacco pouch and took out her lighter.

"No sleep for either of us right now," she said, firing her pipe into life. "I was wrong, I do need your help."

He sat on the edge of his bed.

"I need you to tell me everything," she said. "Everything that you've seen here that I haven't seen, every person you've met here that I haven't met. Including all of the things and people you've decided I'm better off not knowing about."

Marshall started to speak.

"Every thing, and every person," she repeated firmly.

They were standing on Franklin Street, under the elevated subway tracks. At the bottom of the hill was the corner of White Street, and Duffy's was around the corner at the far end of the block.

The sky was getting lighter, and the rain had stopped. It was warmer than it had been in the middle of the night, and still somewhat humid. There was no wind.

They hadn't seen any evidence of police, but Neil still moved very quietly as he ran down to the corner. He peeked around, then came back quickly. "Two cops on guard duty," he reported. "They look kind of bored."

"Not for long," said CJ.

"They're just standing there," he continued, "but, as soon as we start something, you can bet they'll radio for reinforcements."

Dr. Lee crooked a finger and Neil leaned over to listen to her. "I don't want to say this," she whispered, "but I do hope this turns out better than the last time we did this sort of thing."

He nodded. "Well, this business isn't anywhere near as urgent as that was. I say if this starts to go bad on us, we should bail. It's not . . . Oh, my God, what the hell is she doing?"

starling was at the corner, peeking around, pulling her revolver. Neil trotted toward her, calling quietly, "Wait! Hang on!" with Dr. Lee right behind him. starling turned and they pulled her back a few steps from the corner.

"What are you doing?" Dr. Lee demanded in a low voice.

starling looked surprised. "I was going to shoot them," she explained.

"You can hit them from this distance? In the dark?" Dr. Lee asked.

starling looked at her gun, and then at Dr. Lee. "I don't know," she said thoughtfully.

Dr. Lee held up her hands. "Maybe," she said, "just maybe, this isn't the best plan."

starling hesitated, but it was Pete she glanced at. He and Vicki were coming cautiously down the hill from the far corner. The others were hiding a block further away.

"Everybody wait," starling said. "I need to talk to Pete."

"I think–" Neil began.

"Wait," starling said, moving over to Pete. "You don't want me to kill them, do you?" she asked quietly.

"Well," he replied slowly, "if I had a choice, I guess I'd say that I'd prefer it if nobody had to die for this to happen." He shrugged. "Nobody died at the Quarter."

As starling thought this over, Neil whispered to Dr. Lee, "This is just like old times, isn't it? I thought we were through with having to try to figure out how to manage her."

starling looked up smiling. "It's okay," she announced. "I have a plan."

"Oh, no," Dr. Lee said.

starling turned to Pete. "Help me take my clothes off."

starling unbuckled her gunbelt and handed it to Pete. He quickly re-buckled it and slung it over one shoulder. Her coat came next and then she slipped off her shoulder holster.

"What kind of plan is this, exactly?" Dr. Lee asked.

"You'll see," starling said as she sat on the front stoop of a nearby building and started to untie her left boot. Pete draped her coat over the railing and knelt to untie her other boot. When they had her boots off, he pulled off her socks as she unbuttoned her khaki shirt. Pete stuffed the two pairs of socks into the boots as starling tossed the shirt on top of her coat and pulled off her T-shirt.

"Pete, do you know what's going on?"

He shook his head. "No idea. But, as the song goes, 'if the ship of sanity is sinking fast, don't be the sad soul stuck tied to the mast.'" starling handed him her bra and he put it into one of the pockets of her coat.

Dr. Lee sighed, closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. She looked at Neil, but he was starting to smile.

starling stood up and undid her belt. Vicki tapped CJ's hand and the tall woman leaned way over.

"Do you know what's going on?" Vicki asked.

CJ shook her head. "I have no idea. And I don't think anybody else does either." She glanced at Neil. "But from the way he's smiling I think he's figuring it out. Either that or this is the first time he's seen a naked woman." She grinned. "And I have a pretty good idea that it's not."

starling stepped out of her pants and Pete took them and folded them carefully.

"If Emma was here, she'd be covering my eyes around now," Vicki said.

CJ looked surprised. "What?"

"Never mind."

Pete regarded the naked starling critically.

"Anybody have a comb?" he asked.

Neil pulled one out and handed it over. A nearby dumpster with a battered top held a puddle of rain water, and Pete motioned for starling to lean over it. He scooped up some of the water and poured it on her head, then stepped behind her and combed her hair straight back. He combed it a few times until it lay down flat.

"Could I ask why this sudden interest in personal grooming?" Dr. Lee asked.

"Pete knows what he's doing," starling said.

She stepped to the corner, then turned and came back to where Pete was.

"One more thing," she said.

"What's that?"

"I think it's butterscotch."

"Oh," he said slowly, running his tongue around the inside of his mouth and swallowing, trying to recall the flavor of the coffee they'd had earlier. He smiled. "I think you're right."

She nodded and stepped to the corner again.

Dr. Lee was obviously about to ask another question, but Pete said, "starling knows what she's doing."

Dr. Lee shook her head. "Oh, no, not you, too."

Pete smiled and held his hands out wide. "She was right about the butterscotch."

Officers Prescott and Falcone stood in front of the barred and sealed door of Duffy's. Prescott smoked a cigarette and Falcone sipped from an oversized container of coffee.

"God, this stuff is great," he said. "You shouldn't have drunk yours so fast."

Prescott shrugged and puffed. "I've been up for about twenty-four hours. I need all the help I can get."

"Well, God bless Boze and Dooley for bringing it to us," he said feelingly.

"God bless them, hell!" Prescott snapped back. "I thought they were coming to fucking relieve us. They're probably home snoring right now."

"Or banging their wives," Falcone said with a chuckle.

"Or banging yours, so shut up."

Falcone laughed at this. He finished his coffee and tossed the container into the gutter. "Are we ever getting relieved?" he asked.

Prescott shrugged. "Novak was on the warpath when he gave me the orders. I wasn't about to ask a lot of questions." He tossed his cigarette away and put his hands in his pockets. "Between you and me? I don't think that business at the Quarter was his idea."

"The whole thing is stupid, if you ask me–"

"Which he won't."

"Yeah, well, I think it's crazy. We blow up one shit-hole dive, then we rush over here to guard another one? Jesus, what the hell makes sense about that?"

Prescott shrugged again. They were silent for a minute, then Prescott jerked a thumb at the sealed door behind them. "You hear about what happened in there last Friday? Why they closed it down?"

Falcone rolled his eyes. "Just a lot of weird B.S. The Boze-man said it was the wrath of God," he said scornfully.

"Well, I don't know about that, but I read the autopsy report on Davis and it looked like he took a pile driver in the stomach. And they never did find Fineberg's body, just a few pieces of his uniform, and the buckles and other metal stuff. It was all charred, like it had been in a fire."

"Well, what the hell do you think it was?"

"I don't know," Prescott said, taking out another cigarette.

"You know what they were doing there, don't you?" Falcone asked. "They were chasing Doc Morse, that's what I heard."

"Oh, sure. They wouldn't know Doc Morse if she was standing in the middle of Main Street with Amelia Earhart and the Lindbergh baby."


Prescott sighed. "Never mind."

Falcone grabbed Prescott's arm and pointed down the block. Prescott shaded his eyes from the early morning sun.

"It's a fucking angel sent to deliver us," Falcone said with a laugh.

"Yeah, right. A fucking skanky teenage hophead angel. Christ, look at her. Naked as a baby, with no idea where she is."

She walked slowly down the center of the street, apparently oblivious to everything around her. Suddenly, she heard something behind her and turned, still moving in slow motion. "She heard the power go on in the subway tracks," Prescott said. "She's all drugged up and jumpy, that's for sure."

She turned and started walking toward them again.

"Think we should call this in?" Falcone said, tapping the walkie-talkie on his belt. "They said to call the minute something happened."

Prescott gave him a withering glance. "Oh, sure," he said. "Look, you may want to be known as the guy who requested backup to handle a naked girl, but I don't want to have that hanging on my neck for the rest of my life. Christ, we'd never live it down." He patted the younger man on the shoulder. "Look, everybody already knows you're an asshole, Coney, but I think I'm still fooling them. Let's keep it that way."

She was about halfway along the block by then. "Hey, buzz off," Falcone yelled. "I'm a married man, and my partner here, he likes them with a little more meat." She ignored them, still walking slowly forward.

Falcone turned to Prescott. "You don't think it's possible this is some kind of set-up?" he asked.

"What do you think, she's got a gun taped to her back or something? She's gonna pull it on us when she gets real close, and we're all mesmerized by how fucking gorgeous she is? Christ, you blind bastard, we saw her back when she turned around. There's only one place she could be carrying a gun, and that would make her walk funny."

Falcone laughed and looked around. "Where's my coffee?"

"You finished it. Jesus, you see a pair of tits and you lose your mind."

"Hell, you'd do her in a minute if I weren't here."

"Yeah, right. A skank like that? I wouldn't fuck her with your dick."

By then she was about six feet from them and Falcone swung up his rifle. "Okay, toots, get lost. Come on, we've seen it all, and it ain't that great."

She continued walking toward them and Prescott raised his rifle as well.

starling walked right between the barrels of the rifles as if they were welcoming arms. She stood between the two men for a moment, then flowed against Falcone. It was as if she'd reached down inside herself and flipped the switch marked "Sex" to the ON position. Her hips, stomach and chest pressed against him as she closed her eyes, tilting her head back, her lips parted.

He was obviously startled, unnerved as her soft arm slipped around the back of his head. She ran her fingernail down the nape of his neck and down his spine and he stiffened, his shoulders hunching and his breath drawing in. Then she punched him in his throat as hard as she could.

As his partner fell choking to his hands and knees on the sidewalk, Prescott swung his rifle into line, but she kicked it and sent it flying out of his hands. He stepped quickly away from her, drawing his pistol. She froze in position, crouched as if to leap, and he reached for his radio.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Vicki asked pleasantly, "is this yours?" She was leaning against the boarded-up door of Duffy's, holding a walkie-talkie.

"Now–" he began, but starling swatted at his gun, knocking his arm aside.

Vicki was there by then, and she pulled the gun out of his hand. She tossed it to starling, saying, "Just point it at him, don't shoot anybody." Grabbing his wrists, she pulled him backward toward the curb.

There was a lamp post there, and she slammed his back against it, pulling his arms behind him. "Take the handcuffs," she said to starling. Prescott struggled, but his wrists were held immovably in her tiny hands. He looked at Falcone, who was lying on his side, and said, "He can't breathe! Get a doctor, or let me help him!"

starling took the handcuffs from Prescott's belt and Vicki said, "Cuff his wrists." starling, lacking belt or pockets, couldn't figure out what to do with the gun, so she tucked it under her arm so she could put the handcuffs on Prescott.

By then the first wave of Jinx motorcycles was arriving, with a black van in the middle.

"Do something for him!" Prescott yelled, jerking his head in the direction of his partner. Falcone was lying on the sidewalk, his hands at his throat, his face turning red. Prescott strained forward, trying to get to him, but his arms were locked around the lamp post behind him by the handcuffs.

"Don't worry, we've got him," Neil said over his shoulder as he dismounted at the curb. He waved and two Jinx jumped out of the van and ran to Falcone's side. One of them was carrying a medical bag. "Do what you can for this guy," Neil instructed them, "then get him to the hospital."

Pete trotted up, his arms full of starling's clothes. He was grinning and she found herself grinning back.

She gestured at the two cops. "They're not dead," she said happily. "And I didn't kill them."

Pete nodded. "Indeed you didn't." He awkwardly shifted the pile of clothes so he could stick one hand out, being careful not to drop anything. He took her hand and squeezed it. "That was great," he said.

"I've got to sit down somewhere and wipe my feet off," she said. "I hate it when I get grit and stuff inside my socks."

"You can sit down when we get inside," Pete said. "They'll have it open in a minute."

Prescott looked at the clothing and weapons Pete was holding, then he looked at starling again. Then his shoulders sagged and he nodded to himself.

Vicki came over, her hands busy compressing the walkie-talkie into a sphere about the size of a tennis ball. "Nothing wrong with a little teamwork," she said. She was smiling, but Pete knew her well enough to realize that something was bothering her. "How did you get that?" starling asked, pointing at the walkie-talkie.

"I snuck up behind them while they were watching you. And I'm very fast." She heaved the walkie-talkie down the street and it sailed easily over the elevated train tracks a block away.

"Maybe you should have done the whole thing," Pete said with a laugh.

She shook her head. "Nothing in the world could get me to walk around naked in front of all these people," she said. She folded her arms and shivered as she walked over to the crowd gathering around the front door of Duffy's.

"What did she mean by that?" starling asked, scratching her stomach.

"I have no idea," Pete said with a grin. "Come on."

Vicki reached up and pulled off the beams that had been nailed across the door. She turned to Dr. Lee, but then a motorcycle roared up the block to them, a plump man riding behind Christy. "We're opening the place up again, Archie," Dr. Lee called to him as he got awkwardly off the motorcycle. "We thought you'd rather use the key than have us break down the door."

At that moment they heard a sound from inside.

"There's supposed to be a crazy old man with a gun in the back room," Vicki said. "Jan and Marshall saw him Saturday afternoon."

"What back room?" Archie asked as he pulled a ring of keys from his pocket.

Neil had his ear to the door. He turned, his face impassive. "It sounds like polka music," he said.

"Polka music?" Dr. Lee said, motioning for Archie to unlock the door.

The lights were on in Duffy's, the jukebox was playing an energetic polka, and Chet was behind the counter, making martinis. Randi was sitting at the counter, wearing a very small party hat.

The scene in Duffy's was fairly wild. For one thing, the place was not very large, and it got packed very quickly. Jinx kept pouring in, more members of the Wild Fruits arrived, Fifteen showed up with a couple more runners, plus Henshaw, Drenkenson and Donna. Frances was there, with a Jinx named Denise always at her elbow. Archie was dispensing beers as fast as he could move from two big coolers the Jinx had brought in. Pete figured this must be the leftovers from the funeral. After a few more polka numbers, Randi had finally started allowing other people to select songs from the jukebox.

He looked around the room at one point and decided to make a note of everybody who seemed not to be having a great time.

Frances, of course. She sat at the counter, Denise hovering around, and he wondered if she wanted to be there, maybe to make some sort of point, or if she was being held.

Drenkenson looked unhappy as he listened to Henshaw hold forth on a variety of topics.

Christy seemed distracted, and Pete could imagine why. He smiled, but couldn't really think of anything to say to her. Knowing her, she'd be mortified if she knew that he was thinking about how badly timed the explosion at the Quarter had probably been for her.

starling sat at the counter, staring into space, and he thought she looked a little shaky. She'd put all her clothes back on, very slowly and carefully, oblivious to the celebration all around her. And then she'd just gone to sit at the counter. Archie had given her a beer, but she hadn't touched it.

He moved to her side and put his arm around her narrow shoulders. She looked up and he leaned forward to be heard in the noisy room.

"Are you okay?" he asked quietly.

She looked thoughtful, as if this was the first time she'd ever been asked this question. "I think I don't feel too good," she admitted.

"You see what all that not eating did for you?" he asked gently. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of wax paper. "I brought along a sandwich for you. I thought you'd probably be hungry at some point." He handed it to her. She unfolded the paper, revealing a rather mashed-up peanut butter and jelly sandwich. "Don't eat it too fast now," he cautioned, squeezing her shoulder.

She started to eat, chewing each bite very thoroughly. He sat down next to her. "Do you want to leave?" he asked.

She nodded, chewing and swallowing. "I'd like to go home," she said quietly. "I'm tired."

He stood up. "Sure, just let me say goodbye to a couple of people."

Pete didn't see Vicki anywhere, and so he went outside. He squinted at the bright morning sun. It was weird to come out of Duffy's and not have it be the middle of the night.

Prescott was sitting on the pavement, still locked to the lamp post. Falcone and the Jinx van were gone. "Hey, you see that little girl in the leather jacket?" Pete called. He stuck his forefingers skyward next to his temples, indicating Vicki's high, pointed ears.

Prescott jerked his head for Pete to come over. Pete walked to the curb and followed Prescott's glance. He smiled and held out the bottle he carried. "You want some beer?" he asked.

"You know it," he said, and Pete held the bottle out.

Prescott tilted his head back and drank. Then he sighed. "She went down there," he said, indicating the garbage-strewn alley next to Duffy's.

Pete picked his way carefully down the alley and looked behind the building. Vicki sat up on a dumpster, a beer in her hand. "Hey," Pete said, looking around. "What are you doing back here?"

She pointed at the back of the building. "I remembered that story Jan told me about the old man in the back room, the one who gave her your address." She gestured around. "What back room? It's a one-room building."

He nodded. This was definitely true. He heard a sniff and looked over at her. She was biting her lip, obviously about to cry. "What's the matter?" he asked in alarm, stepping up to her.

"Pete, I don't have a job! What am I going to do without a job? Where will I live? You know T.C., I'll be out on the street in a minute when she finds out about this."

He shrugged. "You know, you could come back and stay with me," he said quietly. "I don't charge any rent. I don't pay any rent. You could share Daphne's room."

"Yes, I know," she said quietly. She pulled a huge bandanna from her jacket pocket and blew her nose. "I know I could, but I . . . I really don't think that would be a good idea. I do appreciate the offer, but . . . I don't know. Let me think about it, okay?"

He nodded. "Sure. Well, maybe something else will come along. There's got to be some kind of jobs for somebody who can do the things you can do." He smiled. "You just have to find one that's at least somewhat ethical."

She smiled sadly. "I know what you mean. So, why are you back here?"

"Oh, I was looking for you. I wanted to say goodbye. starling is tired, and we're going to split." He waved and turned, then turned back. "Look, come see me tomorrow. I can't imagine I'll be able to make it to work, but try the apartment. Maybe I'll be able to think of something once I've had some sleep."

Pete turned to leave, but Vicki said, "Hey." He turned back. "I got a laugh out of Randi a few minutes ago."

Pete chuckled. "What did you say?"

"I told her I'd figured her out."

"Really? And how did she react to that?"

She smiled. "She sort of smiled and asked what I meant. I told her that she could have got us into Duffy's any time she wanted to, no sweat."

Pete laughed, leaning against the dumpster. "That's pretty sharp. What did she say?" He tossed away his empty beer bottle and it smashed against the back wall of Duffy's.

"She just looked all modest and said, 'Me? I could have done that?' I said, 'Sure. Poof and here we are. But what made it good was that we decided to reopen Duffy's, and we made it happen ourselves. We didn't just get it handed to us by you.'"

Pete nodded. "I'll bet she got a kick out of that." He glanced toward the street. "I've really got to go, but I'll tell you one quick story about Randi." He took out a cigarette and lit it. "She and I were sitting around my apartment, drinking coffee. This was a while ago, and I didn't know her very well yet. We were talking about somebody, I don't remember who, and I asked her what the person was after, what they wanted. She just chuckled and said, 'I don't read minds, you know.' I'd been sort of frustrated, but that made me laugh. I said, 'Gosh, I thought you could do anything.' I'd already figured out that she likes people to play with her a little.

"'Oh, I didn't say I couldn't read minds,' she said. 'I just said I don't.' I asked if it was a question of ethics. She said, 'No. If you'd ever read one, you wouldn't ask.'"

Vicki laughed and he put his hands into his jacket pockets. "Come see me tomorrow," he said. He looked up at the morning sky. "I mean later today. I'll bet if we put our heads together we can come up with something about a job."

He waved and started toward the street.

Pete remembered very clearly who he and Randi had been discussing when she'd told him she preferred not to read minds. It had been Jennifer Owens.

A few minutes later, as Vicki started to make her way back through the alley toward the street, she found Pete weeping against the side wall of Duffy's. His back was shaking, his head pressed against the tar paper. One hand was clutching his stomach, the other was pressed against the wall.

She moved to touch him, then stopped. She walked slowly past him, moving as quietly as possible, though she needn't have bothered. He wouldn't have noticed her if she'd driven by him in a truck.

She stepped into Duffy's and went quickly to starling, who was sitting at the counter. She'd looked up as the door opened, but then looked away when she'd seen it was Vicki.

Vicki reached up and touched her arm. "Come on," she said. "It's Pete. He needs you." starling turned toward the door, her hand falling to the butt of her revolver. Vicki touched her wrist and shook her head. "It's not that kind of problem," she said.

starling looked at Pete from the end of the alley and said, "Ohhh, I don't know . . ." She sounded very nervous.

"I think–" Vicki began, but she stopped because she was talking to thin air. starling was barging down the alley toward Pete. He looked up as she reached him and she hesitated, then threw her arms wide. It was a gesture of helplessness more than anything else, and her eyes welled up with tears.

Her coat was unzipped and he felt like he was getting inside it as he embraced her. She seemed so thin and frail inside the big, heavy coat. She put her arms around him and they stood motionless.

Vicki watched Pete and starling for a moment, then she turned when she heard an engine behind her. The black Jinx van pulled up to the curb and three Jinx jumped out. Prescott struggled to his feet and called, "Hey, how's Falcone?"

They ignored him and went into Duffy's. He saw Vicki and called, "Hey, little girl, come over here."

She walked over to him. "My name is Vicki," she said.

"Okay, Vicki," he said. "Listen, they're the ones who took my partner to the hospital. Do you know how he is?"

She shook her head. "No." She smiled. "But I can find out." She poked him in the stomach. "Don't go away now."

Vicki returned a few minutes later. "He's fine. They did one of those operations where they cut open your throat . . ." She gestured across her windpipe. "They put in a little tube–"

"A tracheotomy. But he's going to be okay?"

"They think he'll be fine."

He leaned back against the lamp post. "Thank God," he said. Then he looked at her again. "Listen, is somebody going to let me go here? My arms are getting numb. Do you have the keys?"

She shook her head. "I don't know who has them. Listen, if I let you go, what will you do?"

"I'll go the hospital and check on my partner. Then I'll call the station from there and report all this." She shook her head. "But wait, Vicki," he went on, "they already know about it. Look, Falcone is a police officer, he's brought into a hospital injured, in uniform. The hospital called the station as soon as they admitted him."

Vicki thought about this. "Okay," she said. She reached behind him with one hand and snapped the chain which held the handcuffs together.

Prescott brought his arms forward and started to stretch. "Thanks," he said. He stretched his arms over his head and yawned. "God, I'm sore. Hey, you aren't going to get in trouble for this, are you?"

She smiled and shook her head. "I'm not Jinx, I just wear a leather jacket. Hey, I hope your partner's okay."

"Me, too, so I can start riding him for being so stupid." He was working his arms up and down, back and forth. "I do have to ask, was that really starling?"

Vicki nodded. "The real thing."

He shook his head. "I didn't recognize her with her hair all slicked back like that." He laughed. "And buck naked."

"You know," Vicki said with a grin, "she's right down that alley there, if you want to arrest her."

Prescott laughed. "Sure, I saw you bring her around there. I can just see myself marching down there and asking her to give herself up. And she's got my gun now as well as hers? I'm not going anywhere near her."

He finished stretching and held out his hand. "Thanks," he said. She shook his hand. "Listen, tell her not to kill anybody with my gun, okay?"

She shrugged. "I'll see what I can do."

He waved and started to walk away. "Well, thanks again."

She waved and started to go the other way.

A few minutes later, Pete and starling also headed for home.

After they'd walked a couple of blocks, she asked, "what happened to the dog?" She looked around, as if she might find Daphne following behind them.

"I don't know," Pete said. "So much was going on, I didn't really think about her."

"She wasn't in Duffy's?"

Pete shook my head. "The place was so packed, I really couldn't say, but I didn't see her. And she would have come up to us if she'd seen us outside. I'll bet she went back to the apartment."

They walked another block.

"Hell of a night," he said. "I guess we found out why Frances always knows everything."

"Was she there?"

"Yes, I saw her sitting at the bar. She looked pretty unhappy, and I saw Denise was hovering around her. I wondered if she was a prisoner, but I didn't feel like asking Dr. Lee."

starling shook her head. "I don't think so. Probably they're just going to ask her some questions later on." She looked at him. "Did you know about her?"

"I had no idea. No idea at all." He shook his head. "As you said earlier this evening, people are very confusing. Any time you think you have someone all figured out, watch out."

She was silent for a minute, then she asked, "Are you going to have another band?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. Henshaw's all gung-ho to start auditions, but . . . I just don't know. And that was how I felt before all our equipment was blown up."

"That's what I was thinking about," she said. She patted the outside pocket of her pants. "You know, I have money, and I can get more. You can have as much as you need."

He was so surprised he almost stopped in his tracks. "Well, I really do appreciate that. That's . . . that's about the nicest thing anybody's ever said to me. And I may take you up on it, but let's wait and see. As I said, I've got to take a few days and really think about what I want to do."

She nodded. "Okay."

starling sat at the kitchen table and leaned over to untie her boots. Then she paused and looked at him. "Pete," she said, "I've been meaning to ask you something."

He pulled off his T-shirt and tossed it into a corner. He rubbed his upper arms. "God, it's cold in here. What did you want to ask me?"

She put her boots side by side next to her sleeping bag and stood up, slipping off her shoulder holster. She hesitated, putting the shoulder holster on the table beside her gunbelt. "I was wondering what you would have said about Jenny, at the funeral. If you could have made one of those speeches."

He stopped in the middle of taking off his jeans. She looked up. "I shouldn't have asked?"

"Oh, no," he said quickly. "It's fine. I guess I hadn't thought about it." He stepped out of his jeans and pushed them aside with his foot, some change falling out of the pockets. He went to the table and sat down.

She took her revolver from its holster and spun the cylinder. She put it into her sleeping bag and then she said, "It is cold in here." She pulled off her T-shirt.

"There's no heat," He said absently. He looked around. "We'll really have to do something about that tomorrow. We need to seal up those windows, and we'll probably have to start using the stove to heat the place." He shrugged. "It's dangerous, but so's freezing to death."

He got up and went to a pile of clothes in a corner and rooted through it until he found a couple of sweatshirts. They were dusty and spotted with paint. He held one out to starling. "Here, this will help keep you warm." She took it and pulled it on, but he could tell that she was still waiting for an answer to her question.

He sat down at the table again as she took off her pants and folded them carefully, then she got into her sleeping bag. She didn't lie down, though, but sat with her arms wrapped around her knees, her eyes fixed on Pete.

"If I could have said anything I wanted to about Jenny?" he said slowly. "I would have said that she was always unhappy, and I think I fooled myself into thinking I could make her less unhappy, but I know I only made it worse. I think, or at least I like to think, that at the beginning I was motivated by some combination of friendship and sympathy. But it soon became obvious that I was making everything worse. But I didn't stop. I had all kinds of reasons, but mostly it was the sex."

Pete always had the feeling that if he talked for too long at a stretch, anything more than a few sentences, that starling's attention would probably start to wander, but she was listening intently, her chin resting on her knee. He wished he had something better to say, to reward that steady gaze.

"Her relationship with Henshaw may not have been that great, but it wasn't going to be helped by her betraying it. That just ensured that it would never have any hope of getting better, and she was certainly not going to leave Henshaw for me." He looked at starling, wondering how much of this she really understood. He was finding it difficult to talk about this with her because he had no idea what her frame of reference was. With most people, of his generation or younger, there was a certain basic understanding of relationships, dating, living together, and so on. He hadn't realized how much he relied on this until he was put in a situation where he wasn't sure it was there. So he couldn't tell if she knew he was probably lying about sex being his main reason for continuing the affair with Jenny.

He got to his feet and walked over to his bed and collapsed on it. "I'm too tired," he said, his eyes already closed. "I'll add it to the list of things we can talk about tomorrow."

"You have a list?"

"Figure of speech."

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