Jan Sleet has had a bad night.
She didn't get off the subway at the correct stop to meet her assistant, Marshall, and instead ended up very much on the wrong side of town. She has been knocked down, shot at and exposed to very loud music. She has met a good many people who didn't care if she lived or died, and in the middle of it all she was seized by the police.
Even for an intrepid gal reporter (as she thought of herself), it was a bad night, and she's afraid it may not be over.
Jan Sleet lay on her back, her eyes closed. She moved her hands slightly, aware of the texture of the bed clothes. The sheets were smooth, obviously high quality. Nevertheless, she was sure that if she opened her eyes it would turn out she was lying in a gutter somewhere, or still sitting in the police station.
"I know exactly how you feel, my dear," came Marshall's very casual comment. "The morning after always does look rather grim, especially if you happen to be wearing last night's clothes."
"What's the weather like out?" she asked.
"Snowing, of course. It's been snowing all night." He paused, and she could feel him regarding her with suspicion. "You're going to keep your eyes closed, aren't you? No matter what I say?"
She nodded. She could hear the wind rattling the windows. "As long as we don't run out of tea I'm okay," she said quietly.
Jan Sleet woke up, the news on the clock radio in her ear as usual. She was a little chilly, and tugged at the covers, to wrap them more tightly around her.
They didn't budge, and she became aware of someone pressed against her back to back. Then, to avoid thinking about who this might be, she started to listen to the news.
"Novelist Perry Nelson, recently in the news because of his announced intention of going to war-torn Bellona, seems to have disappeared–"
"Son of a bitch!" she yelled, waking herself up for real. Marshall, who had slipped way down in his chair as he dozed, woke up with a start, sliding down onto the floor with an inelegant thud.
Jan Sleet, meanwhile, was a tornado of energy. She threw off the bed-clothes, and jumped out of bed, pulling off her nightgown. As Marshall lay dazed on the floor, trying to remember if he'd ever heard his employer swear before, she crashed naked to the floor beside him, having put her weight on her bad leg.
They were nose to nose, each upside down to the other.
"Have you lost your mind?" he asked.
"No, I've found something!" she said with an uncharacteristic and (he thought) unnecessary giggle. "Or, to be more accurate, someone."
She poked him on the bridge of his nose.
"I think I liked you better when you were comatose," he said as he sat up, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Not comatose," she said happily. "I was having visions."
"God, not that again. You were having visions of missing persons? Is there a story in it this time? Something someone will want to publish?"
She giggled again. "Never you mind what I was having visions of. And stop worrying so much about our bank balance. Just help me get up so I can get dressed. Where are my glasses?"
"They're on the–"
"Oh, by the way, how did I get back here? Or did I dream the whole thing?"
"No, the police dropped you off a few hours ago, as you'd know if you'd been willing to open your eyes. You were a mess." He stood up, brushing off his sweater. "Imagine the embarrassment. We may have to move to another hotel. What were you doing, anyway?"
He nodded, wincing. "I'm sure."
"Cash day!" T.C. hollered, banging on the kitchen table. Her coffee mug bounced towards the edge, but The Amazing Frankie caught it in time and placed it back in the center of the worn Formica.
T.C. looked at The Amazing One as if noticing her for the first time. "You got any money?"
"I don't live here," Frankie pointed out. She looked at the closed door to the other room of the small apartment. "I think they're all still asleep. No point in yelling."
T.C. lit another cigarette. "When I make a big stink about paying the rent, someone always tells me not to worry, that we've never been evicted yet, but they don't stop to consider–"
The apartment door opened and a slight man with thinning hair came in, newspapers in his hand.
"Howdy, Finch," Frankie said.
T.C. put down her cigarette and got off the stool. She moved her bulk between Finch and Frankie to the bedroom door.
"Want ads!" she bellowed. "Come and get your want ads!" She squeezed between the others again and reached for the coffee machine.
"You want some joe, Finch?"
"Just a half . . ." he began as she handed him a full cup. She refilled her own mug and climbed back onto her stool, which creaked in protest.
Frankie got up, draining her coffee, and said, "I'm gonna get back upstairs."
"I have," Marshall said again, "the gravest misgivings about this."
Jan Sleet pushed her straight brown hair behind her ear and grinned at him over one bony shoulder as she pulled up her khaki pants.
"I'll have that put on our tombstones," she said cheerily. She turned back to her closet, running her finger along the row of shirts and blouses, all in various shades of tan and brown, until she found the one she wanted.
"You look like you're going on safari," he said dubiously.
"Believe me, we are," she shot back. She unbuttoned the two top buttons of her shirt, then pursed her lips thoughtfully and buttoned one of them again. "Is the car ready?"
He nodded, holding a bandanna in one hand. She turned, having seen this in the mirror. "Don't put that on!" she said. "You'll look like you're in the chorus of West Side Story."
He took it off and she sighed. "You'd think after spending the last six months in a war zone we'd at least know how to dress."
"I've got the mail–" Finch began, pulling it from his bathrobe pocket as he went to the refrigerator.
"Put the bills on the shelf, I'm still trying to get the rent paid," T.C. said. "Did the morning paper come yet?"
"Did you hear about the woman upstairs?" Frankie asked as she moved towards the door.
"I think somebody's been stealing it," Finch said between sips of the scalding hot coffee, trying to make enough room in the mug for some milk.
"Is she off again?" T.C. asked. "I met her in the hall last week, and–"
She glanced at the envelopes Finch had handed her. "Looks like money!" she yelled, startling Finch so that he pulled open the refrigerator door too abruptly and had to stick up a hand to keep the small black and white TV from falling on his head. He turned to see what she was shouting about.
"Hey, that's not your–" he began, but T.C. was ripping open the envelope.
"Finally we got Nasty's tax money back," she said. "I thought the government was gonna hold it forever, in case the war went into extra innings."
"How much is it?" Finch asked.
"One hundred and fifteen dollars," she said reverently. She looked around. "What happened to Franklin?"
"She probably didn't want to see you pawing someone else's money like that." He peered into the refrigerator. "Remember when we had milk?" he asked wistfully.
T.C. snorted. "She's got a roommate with a job. She can afford scruples."
Jan Sleet looked around as she halfheartedly brushed her hair. "Where's my briefcase? I need my note book."
"Briefcase?" Marshall asked innocently.
She turned slowly. "Briefcase," she repeated with more emphasis.
He made a face, as if some dental work was about to be performed. "I haven't seen it."
"You mean, I didn't have it with me when I–" He shook his head. "Oh," she said. "I must have lost it . . ." She closed her eyes for a second. "I had it when I was on the train, and when I got off.. I remember–" She opened her eyes. "I must have left it at Duffy's, that bar where all the shooting . . ." She regarded him critically. "How long were you going to wait before you mentioned it?"
"I don't know what you mean," he said stiffly.
"You knew that briefcase didn't come back with me last night, you'd never miss something like that. So, when were you going to get around to telling me?"
He sighed, with feeling. "I knew you were probably going to go back anyway. But, as long as you didn't realize you'd lost the briefcase, there was a chance I could talk you out of it."
"Awww, you were trying to protect me."
"Well, among other people."
"I wonder what Frankie was going to say about the woman upstairs," T.C. said, carefully placing the envelope with the tax refund on the small shelf over the table.
"Well, I heard she–" Finch began.
The door to the other room slammed open and a young woman, in cupid underwear, announced, "Got my goddamn period, and Himself is gonna kill me!" She went into the tiny bathroom and slammed the door.
"Didn't realize David was such an enemy of biology," Finch said quietly. "Why would he be mad that she got her period?"
T.C. smiled. "He's out working. Nasty slept in his bed instead of hers, since it's more comfortable."
T.C. leaned over towards the bathroom door and said sweetly, "We got your tax money!"
There was silence, until the phone rang. Finch reached over and answered it.
He listened silently for a moment. "We've had some difficulties this month, Mr. Field," he said carefully. But it should go out," T.C. pointed at a day on the wall calendar, "by the end of the week."
After a little more of the same, he said thank you and good-bye and hung up.
"What would we do without you to suck up?" T.C. asked. "I can't see any of the rest of us doing it."
"We don't seem to be getting out of the car."
They sat in the car, parked in front of Duffy's. It had taken two hours, several false trails and extensive use of both a street map (which seemed to be long out of date) and a subway map, but they had finally found the sagging, dilapidated building. In the afternoon light it looked as if it had been abandoned for many years. In addition, the doors and windows were wrapped in enough yellow tape (marked "POLICE - STAY OUT!" in black) to cover a bus.
Finally Jan Sleet opened the door of the car and swung her legs out. She placed her cane on the curb and levered herself to her feet. After a long pause, Marshall opened the driver's door and got out as well. He made sure the car was locked as she limped to the corner of the building and looked down a dark alley.
"This is a pretty big building," she said, gesturing with her cane. "There must be a huge kitchen or something in back. Come on."
They picked their way gingerly down the alley, which was strewn with garbage, until they got to the back of the building. Jan Sleet looked back towards the street. She gestured back along the side of the building. "The actual bar part can't be more than a third of this. The rest must be something else." She tapped on the wall with her cane.
She peered around the corner, then quickly reached for the tarpaper wall as she started to lose her balance. Marshall grabbed her upper arm and pulled her back to her feet. "There's a door in the back," she said. She led him around the back of the building. The area around them was wider than the alley, but even more garbage-strewn and foul-smelling.
The door looked like it was boarded up, but she knocked on it anyway.
"Go away!" said a raspy voice.
"See," Marshall said helpfully, "there's nobody here. Let's go home."
Ignoring this, she knocked again.
"I'm busy!" the voice said, and a panel in the middle of the door swung out suddenly, nearly hitting Marshall in the face.
A thin, old man with a old-looking revolver glared out. "Oh, it's you," he said, his voice only slightly less of a bark. "Well, I don't have time for your foolish questions. Here!" He handed her a piece of paper and reached out for the hinged board. Marshall ducked as the old man swung it shut with a loud bang.
Then he immediately opened it again and handed her a soiled and tattered envelope, held together by string. "Read this later," he said, slamming the little door shut again.
"You know," Jan Sleet said as she looked thoughtfully at the door, "I've seen him someplace before." She put the envelope into her jacket pocket.
"You didn't mention him when you told me about last night," Marshall said, doggedly determined to apply logic to the situation.
She looked up. "Hmmm? Oh, I didn't meet him last night. I have no idea who he is."
"He seemed to know you."
She nodded, and reached out to knock again, but Marshall shook his head.
"Remember the gun," he reminded her quietly. She nodded and dropped her hand.
After a minute, he asked, "Well, are you going to look at that piece of paper or not?"
Oh, yes." She unfolded it and looked at it. "It's the address of a coffee and tea store. Where's that map?"
"It's in the car."
In front of Duffy's, glad to be out of the rank alley, Marshall looked slowly up and down the street.
"Oh, fine," Jan Sleet said.
"It is too bad," he agreed. "I was getting rather fond of that car."
Before Finch could reply, the bathroom door opened and Nasty came out, looking a little less angry.
"What's this about my money?" she asked.
T.C. held up the check. "Sign it over, Power Girl, and we'll be able to quiet the landlord for another month. This will just put us over the top."
Nasty sighed. "Why don't I ever get more than a little taste of my own money?" She dropped the check, unsigned, on the kitchen table and went back into the bedroom.
There was the sound of a key in the lock and a young Black man came in, looking tired.
"Hello, David," Finch said. Before David could reply, Nasty came out of the bedroom, wearing only a pair of jeans, and whacked him over the head with a rolled up newspaper.
"The best defense is indeed a good offense," T.C observed sagely to Finch as Nasty returned to the bedroom and slammed the door.
"Did they make you take a lunch?" T.C. asked David.
"No," he said wearily, rubbing his head. "I'll get the full eight hours."
She smiled. "Good."
The bell rang as the door opened, and Pete's head jerked up.
Jan Sleet was standing in the doorway. "Hey," she said. She turned to Marshall, poking him in the shoulder, "It's Pete!"
Pete got to his feet. "Well, I didn't expect to see you again. At least not this soon. Come on in."
Jan Sleet seemed so excited to see Pete that Marshall was afraid she would run amuck and rush over to kiss him.
Pete pulled out a stool for her to sit on, then asked, "You want a cup of tea?"
Marshall looked around at the containers of various sizes that lined all the walls. "Oh, you have tea?"
"We'd love some," Jan Sleet said. "Whatever you recommend."
"So," Pete asked as he busied himself behind the counter, "what brings you back to this side of the river?"
"Two things. One, I managed to lose my briefcase in all the excitement last night."
Pete looked thoughtful. "You didn't have it when I saw you."
"Oh, no, I think I left it at Duffy's, but the whole place's been sealed by the police."
"Then my advice is to forget it. By the way, last I heard you were under arrest. What happened?"
"Marshall, my assistant," she waved a vague hand in his direction.
"Who doesn't seem to have very many lines in this installment," Marshall put in.
"Whom I never introduce to people," she went on, "called the police and they circulated my description. I don't know what he told them–"
"That you were a danger to anybody you came into contact with."
"Don't end sentences with prepositions," she chided. She turned back to Pete. "They picked me up, rather roughly, and eventually brought me back to my hotel. It must have been a shock to Vicki, though."
"I ran into her after that, and she was pretty worried."
Nasty pointed at the television.
"Isn't that Perry Nelson?" she asked.
T.C. turned to look up at the screen. "Yes," she said, turning back to the newspaper. "He used to visit quite regularly. He was very fond of my veal scallopini."
David came in as they listened to Perry Nelson.
"The situation in this so-called 'U-town' cannot be compared to Bellona," he was saying. "There is a particular combination of factors in the world today which has made this 'secession' possible, but that doesn't invest it with any legitimacy or authenticity. The grievances expressed, at least that I'm aware of, are not even in the same class as those of the citizens of Bellona.
"Now, I don't support bombing or other unnecessary violence, but the government does need to step in and re-establish order, and the sooner the better. We feel–"
T.C. slammed her fist down on the table. "Son of a bitch!" she said. "I'm sorry I ever served him any food at all. If he had his way, I'd have to start paying taxes again." She shook her head. "He should live the rest of his life eating tofu and bean sprouts," she said solemnly.
"How did your concert go last night?"
Pete shook his head. "Frankly, it couldn't have been worse. Philip Henshaw, the guy who ran the band, was stabbed by his girlfriend Jenny while we were playing."
"While you were on stage?" she asked, startled.
Pete nodded. "Right in the middle of a song. With a broken beer bottle." He poured the tea. "He's in the hospital, and I think she may be suicidal. Then, later on," he stopped serving the tea and rubbed his forehead. "our drummer was killed in an alley. He–" He looked up. "Why are you here? Why did you come back? Is it just the briefcase?"
She smiled. "No, I didn't even realize I'd lost it until we were leaving the hotel." She looked coy. "I'm working on a case," she whispered, putting a finger to her lips.
Pete shook his head. "Jan, I'm going to be blunt. You'll never make it. You were very lucky last night, but things are very dangerous around here if you don't know who's who and what's what."
She smiled again. "It's okay, we have a gun." She turned to Marshall. "You brought the gun, didn't you?"
He looked injured. "Of course I brought the gun." She turned back to Pete, looking pleased with herself. "It was in the glove compartment of the car," Marshall added quietly.
Jan Sleet sighed. "Okay, maybe we–" she grinned suddenly. "I know. We'll get Vicki. She'll help us. She loves this kind of stuff."
"She does?" Pete asked.
"If you think–" Marshall began.
"Do you know where she's staying?" she asked Pete.
He nodded. "I gave her the address of somebody I know who puts people up. I bet you can find her there."
"So, you're looking for a place to live?" T.C. asked, lighting another cigarette.
"I need a place to stay. I stayed at a friend's place last night, but I need something more permanent. His name is Pete, and he gave me your address."
"What's your name?"
"Your full name, young lady."
"Vicki Wasserman," she replied.
"I'm Toni Carbonieri. Everybody calls me T.C. Do you smoke?"
Vicki shook her head. "No."
T.C. looked thoughtful. "That's too bad, I must say."
"Most of my family smokes," Vicki said quickly. "My mother, both of my sisters, and my sister's boyfriend. I'm really used to it."
T.C. puffed for a minute. "How old are you?" she asked finally.
"You go to school? Who's going to pay the rent?"
"I've got a job. I'm the new bouncer at the Quarter."
T.C. whooped with laughter. "Oh, girl, you're a funny one. You're not even big enough to see over the bar."
Vicki climbed down off her stool and walked around behind T.C. "Hey," T.C. said, "don't go away mad. I just–"
She stopped as she felt herself being lifted into the air, stool and all. Grabbing the edge of the table to keep her balance, she craned around and saw Vicki holding two of the legs of the stool. She had her legs spread a little to keep her balance, but she didn't seem to be exerting herself at all.
She looked up calmly at T.C., obviously ready to hold her up for a while. T.C. laughed again. "Okay, put me down. You're the new bouncer at the Quarter."
As Vicki climbed up on her stool again, T.C. looked at the side of her head more carefully than she had before. "Jeepers, creepers, kid, where did you get those ears?" Vicki shrugged. "You're not one of those Trekkie people, are you?"
Nasty came in, her Ping-Pong paddle in her hand. "Who's this?" she asked.
"Our new roommate, maybe," T.C. said.
Nasty's eyes widened and she whooped with delight, throwing her arms around the tiny girl. "Wow, that's great!" she said, and lifted Vicki up into the air.
"Hey!" Vicki protested.
"All right!" Nasty said enthusiastically. "This is great! I'm going down to practice."
"That's Nancy," T.C. said as the door slammed. "We all call her Nasty." She smiled encouragingly. "I think she likes you."
"By the way," Pete asked, "how did you know where to find me?"
"I went by Duffy's, and a very hostile man in the rear of the place gave me this."
Pete took the small piece of paper and looked at it.
"Who was he?" he asked, clearly puzzled. Jan Sleet shrugged.
"He had a pistol," Marshall put in, "so we didn't ask a lot of questions."
Pete leaned back on his stool. "This is weird," he said. He made a face. "I've got to find out about this."
The bell rang and the door swung open. A woman with a wide, pale face started to walk in, then she caught sight of Jan Sleet and Marshall and stopped suddenly in the doorway. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "I'll come back later."
Pete said, "Jenny–" but she was already gone.
After a minute he said, "That was–"
"Your guitar player's girlfriend. How long have you been sleeping with her?"
Pete's head snapped up. "What? How did you know?" Even Marshall looked impressed.
Jan Sleet smiled, pulling her pipe from her jacket pocket. "A hunch, really. You were so clearly upset when you talked about your drummer being killed, but when you talked about the stabbing you were much more controlled. And, despite the fact that she stabbed your friend, you were worried about her state of mind, concerned she might be suicidal. And she came to see you now, and obviously wanted to talk with you in private. She came in without hesitation when she thought you were alone, so she's no stranger here." She smiled as she fired up her pipe.
Pete laughed. "Hey, you're so smart, you tell me who that crazy old man in Duffy's is." She puffed a minute. "I bet I will, too. I've definitely seen him before."
"This place is a mess," Finch observed, looking around. "Doesn't anybody ever vacuum?"
"You know, that's the funny thing about divorce," T.C. said thoughtfully. "When you're getting married–combining two households into one, so you've got two of a lot of things anyway–people fall all over each other to give you stuff."
"My mother–" Vicki began.
"Then, when you get divorced," T.C. went on, "when you have to make two households out of one, divide everything into two piles, nobody gives you shit. You know, I haven't had a decent vacuum cleaner since I got divorced. Sometimes I wonder–"
"Well, I didn't end up with a vacuum cleaner," Finch said peevishly.
"Not you," she said. "Justice."
"Oh. You know, I always did wonder what you saw in him–"
"My father says–" Vicki put in.
"What we need," T.C. continued, "is someone to move in here who's independently wealthy."
There was a knock at the door.
There was a knock at the door.
"See if they look wealthy," T.C. said as Finch went over and looked through the peephole.
"Well-dressed, but they look like they've had a hard day," he told her.
He opened the door on its chain and peered out through the crack. "Yes?"
"We're looking for Vicki Wasserman," a woman said.
"Having guests already?" T.C. asked Vicki.
She shrugged, then looked startled. "Oh, God! It may be my family. Don't open the door!" she said to Finch as she ran across the room. She looked out through the crack.
"Oh, it's okay," she said, and she stepped back as he opened the door.
Jan Sleet and Marshall came in, Jan Sleet not paying any attention to anybody but Vicki. "I'm back," she said. "Did you miss me?"
Vicki shrugged. "It's been, what, twelve hours or something. Who's this?" she indicated Marshall, who was trying to get his employer's attention to point out that she knew the other people in the room already. Finally, he looked at T.C. and shrugged. She grinned at him..
"This is Marshall, my assistant," Jan Sleet said, still not noticing T.C. or Finch.. "I told you about him. Marshall, this is my friend Vicki. She's going to help us."
Marshall looked at the tiny girl. "What do we do, inflate her in the event of an emergency?"