I woke up with Jan Sleet shaking me. She looked very excited, and I half-expected her to say, "Come, Marshall, the game's afoot!"
However, all she said was, "Get dressed. We have to go."
She turned and quickly limped out of my bedroom as I got up and started to get dressed. I looked at the bedside clock and it said it was 4:12am. I wondered what we were on the trail of now.
We had a large suite in a shabby hotel, two bedrooms and a living room. As I came into the living room, she was tapping her cane impatiently on the carpet. "Hurry," she said, "Perry Nelson was attacked, he's in the hospital. I have a cab downstairs."
There wasn't a cab downstairs, and I didn't ask how she had made the arrangements, I just hailed one and we got into it. She didn't even wince as she hauled her lame leg into the cab, and I knew that she was riding on pure adrenaline.
The city streets were nearly deserted at that hour, and we made good time. Jan Sleet leaned forward in the seat, as if silently urging the cab to go more quickly. I didn't ask any details about where we were going, I didn't want to break her train of thought, and I knew she would probably get all coy and mysterious on me. She usually did when she was this excited.
At the hospital, we went to the Emergency Room Entrance, and I noticed her start to exaggerate her limp as we entered.
There were about six people in the waiting room, they all looked like they hadn't moved in hours. Jan Sleet limped over to the desk and spoke to the bored-looking receptionist there. The woman jotted down some information on a clipboard, and then handed it to Jan Sleet, who carried it across the room to an empty seat next to a very upset-looking blonde girl. As she passed me, she indicated with a slight tilt of her head where I was supposed to sit.
She sat down next to the girl, across from where I was sitting, and started to fill in the form on the clipboard. There was a pencil attached to it by a dirty piece of string.
After a moment, she asked the girl a question. The girl looked up, startled, and replied with a word or two. Then, as my employer went back to the form, the girl continued to study her with surprisingly intense interest, lowering her gaze to the floor only when Jan Sleet turned to ask her another question.
In a way, I wasn't surprised at the curious gaze, Jan Sleet was a rather unusual-looking specimen. She was six feet tall, extremely thin, with a narrow face and lank, brown hair down to her shoulders. She was dressed as usual, in a man's three-piece suit, carefully tailored. This one was blue with white pinstripes, and she wore a pale blue shirt and a dark blue tie. She had large, horn-rimmed glasses and carried a thin black cane.
Somehow, though, the intensity of the girl's scrutiny was beyond what was justified by my employer's unusual appearance.
As Jan Sleet finished filling out the form, she absently took out her cigarette case and her lighter. As she opened the case, the girl pointed out the "No Smoking" signs which were all over the room. As she gestured, I saw a couple of band-aids on her hand.
Jan Sleet nodded and asked if the girl would go out with her for a smoke, feigning surprise that the girl was a smoker as well (I had see her sniff the air as she first approached her, checking for evidence of cigarette smoke).
They went out together, dropping the clipboard off at the desk as they went, and I knew that by the time they returned they would be fast friends. Jan Sleet was a reporter, and one of her great talents was her ability to use her non-threatening (if unusual) appearance and her seeming guilelessness (largely sincere) to get people to trust her.
While they were outside, the woman at the desk picked up a microphone and said, "Nelson? Anybody here from the Nelson family?" which amused me, because all of the people in the room could easily have heard her without the amplification.
I stood up and said, "They went outside. Hang on a minute."
I went outside and found them standing a little way from the entrance, talking. Jan Sleet looked up as I came out, and I went over to them.
"They just announced something about the Nelson family, and nobody reacted," I explained. I looked at the girl. "Is that you?"
She turned and ran inside, and we followed more slowly. Jan Sleet was not exaggerating her limp any longer.
"Her name is Nicky Porter," she explained as we approached the door. "She came in with Perry Nelson and the others, but she's not related to him. It's sort of complex."
Inside, Nicky was at the desk, demanding information about somebody named Sarah. The receptionist motioned her through the double doors and we followed, indicating by gestures that we were all together. It was obvious she didn't care.
Inside the Emergency Room itself, there was a row of beds separated by curtains. Most of them were empty. A rather nondescript Black man came over to Nicky. He had one arm in a sling and a bandage over his left eyebrow.
"I just saw Sarah," he said. "They're taking her for some tests. I asked, and you can't see her yet." He said this quickly and in a low voice, glancing at us a couple of times to try to figure out who we were.
Jan Sleet immediately stuck out her hand. She introduced herself (neglecting to mention me, as usual), and the man said his name was Sam Little.
He began looking at Jan Sleet more intently, but before he could say anything else, a nurse came in. "Has Mister Nelson been here?" she asked.
Sam shook his head. "I haven't seen him. I didn't think he was up and around."
"He's not. That is, he's not supposed to be. But he's not in his room. I thought he might be down here. He–"
Another nurse poked her head in. "We can't find him anywhere," she said.
They scurried out, and Sam shook his head. "What happened to Perry?" he whispered.
"I know as little as you do" Nicky replied. "After what happened to Terry, I couldn't even guess. I wonder if there was blood, or ripped-up sheets."
"And would they tell us if there was?" Sam asked quietly, looking at the half-open hall door.
Nicky left, announcing that she was damn well going to be allowed to see Sarah, whoever that was. This left us with Sam, who had started to look at Jan Sleet at least as intently as Nicky had. Had my employer been anybody else, she would have started to check if she had a smudge on her face, or if her tie was crooked, but of course she took no notice at all.
The swinging doors opened again and another Black man came through. He looked like a thinner and somewhat younger version of Sam. Sam said, "David," and stood up quickly. They embraced, David avoiding Sam's injured arm.
"How's Sarah?" David asked as they sat down.
Sam shrugged. "She took a nasty crack on the head, so they're giving her all sorts of tests. They're doing some right now. She's got some bruises and stuff, too, we all do. Nicky's trying to see her, but I don't know if they'll let her."
"What happened?" David asked. He looked at Jan Sleet with the same perpexed and intent stare that everybody was giving her.
"We went out for coffee and dessert. Nothing more than that. Nicky and Sarah and Perry and me. We–"
"What about Terry? I thought you went up to Boston over the weekend just to bring her back."
Sam sighed and gave a half grin, his swollen eye making it look like a wink. "That's another story. I'll tell you that one, too, but which one do you want first?"
"We went out for coffee and dessert. To some place that Nicky and Sarah knew." David raised one eyebrow. "Yeah, kind of like that. And, when we came out, when we were about a block away from the place, four guys jumped us." He took in a deep breath. "With baseball bats."
Sam nodded. "Yeah. And mostly about eight feet tall. Calling us faggots and dykes and all that." His voice had fallen to a whisper.
"How are Nicky and Perry?"
"Nicky's okay, she just got a few bruises. She was trying to get away, and Sarah was trying to fight back, so Sarah got hurt a lot worse."
"Pretty bad, but that's not the worst of it. Now he's vanished. They're running all over the hospital looking for him, but–"
Nicky came around the corner, hands stuffed deep into her jacket pockets. She sat down next to Sam, barely acknowledging David.
"I can't get in to see her," she said. "They won't let me in because I'm not her 'family.'" She closed her eyes, then opened them and look down at her pale, freckled hands. "I'd tell them I'm her sister if anybody'd buy it."
"Nicky–" David started, but the double doors at the end of the corridor swung open and a nurse came through pushing a wheelchair which contained a young Black girl.
Nicky launched herself down the corridor and David found himself talking to thin air.
After a brief consultation among the nursing staff, it was apparently decided that it was okay to transport Ms. Little with Ms. Porter on her lap, since Ms. Porter was not very heavy, and, in any case, there was probably no way to remove her short of surgery.
When they were gone, Sam introduced David (who was, as I'd assumed, his brother) to Jan Sleet, giving me a chance to mention my name as well.
"Okay," David said, "I know about last night. I know about Perry vanishing. But I still don't know about Terry. Didn't she come down from Boston after all?"
"Oh, she came down alright. And then Perry showed up, he was going to be on the Today Show. The last person she wanted to see, of course. We all went out Sunday night . . . no, it was Monday. Perry took us all out to dinner. Terry was in one of her moods. Perry brings out the worst in her."
David nodded. "I still remember that big party last spring. She really changed the minute he came into the room. And she got worse when she found out Tammy wasn't going to show. I gathered that she would have been a lot happier if Tammy had been here and Perry had stayed home."
"And she's not all that damn crazy about Tammy sometimes, either. It just really gets to her that both of them are so successful, have such good jobs, and she thinks of herself as such a failure." He sighed. "The girls want to have another party, but I've been putting it off. I mean, just a simple dinner with Perry and she blows her top."
"So, what did happen?"
"She got more and more sullen, just making nasty cracks from time to time. And Sarah was getting fed up with her, so that made it worse. And Perry just looked more and more upset. He knew it was because of him, but what could he do?"
David laughed. "I'd never treat anybody like that, at least not if they were picking up the tab."
"Then, when we got home, she surprised the hell out of me. I was expecting the Ice Queen routine in bed. You know, no kissing or hugging, just lying there like a statue and saying, 'Oh, no, nothing's wrong.' Let alone screwing. But she grabbed me the minute the girls' door closed. I could barely stand up anyway, and I just sort of swung her into my room before we fell onto the floor. She was all over me like a spin dryer."
It was very embarrassing for us to hear this, but of course Jan Sleet wasn't aware of that. She just listened, taking it all in and filing it all away. I hoped she was making more sense of it all than I was.
Sam tapped his fingers on the bench under him. "That's all I remember, just looking at her riding me, with the light from the hall behind her." He shook his head. "Her hair was all wild, and all I could think about was how broad her shoulders were." He drew in a deep breath. "Are, I guess I should say. Anyway, when I woke up I was in bed, the sheets were all bloody and ripped up."
"Sounds like she got even wilder after you checked out," David said with a grin. "It's a shame–"
"She was gone," Sam said quietly. "And we haven't heard from her since. Neither has Tammy. Dammit! Terry vanished without a trace. Perry vanishes without a trace. What the hell is going on here?"
"Maybe he just went home," Jan Sleet put in. "He's supposed to be pretty publicity-shy, he may have just left before reporters like me showed up."
Sam shook his head. "But what about Terry? What about both of them vanishing? That doesn't make sense."
After a few moments, the doors opened again and Nicky came in pushing Sarah's wheelchair.
"Possible concussion," Nicky announced as they passed us. "She's staying here overnight. I'm taking her to her room. Come on." We fell in step behind them. Apparently Jan Sleet and I had been accepted into the family, at least for the moment.
We took a cab to the apartment (Jan Sleet casually mentioning that I carried the money, so I paid) and went up in the small elevator.
I was surprised that Sam and Nicky had left the hospital, given that Sarah's condition was not completely clear, but Sam explained that he really didn't want to miss a possible phone call from Terry. I wasn't sure what Nicky was thinking of, she was keeping quiet and she looked very unhappy.
The apartment itself was pleasant, with a bit too much furniture (from Sam and Sarah's parents, now deceased, I found out later), and not really all that clean, but certainly not slovenly. I noted approvingly that the living room was laid out for conversation as much as for watching television.
It could have been awkward, our being there, but for some reason Sam went out of his way to make us feel comfortable. It was well into the morning, and he and Nicky had been up all night, but he bustled off to make coffee. Perhaps he felt too wired to sleep, but he looked dead on his feet, and so did Nicky. She looked unhappily at the blood on her shirt and went off into another room and closed the door.
Sam came back with some coffee on a tray and started to pour. "I'd call Perry's house, to see if he did just go home, but I don't know where he lives. Terry never wanted us to get chummy, I guess. And he is a pretty private person."
Jan Sleet nodded, taking a mug of coffee from him. "I've read that," she said.
Nicky came back in, wearing a bathrobe, still in the process of belting it closed, and I caught Sam's furtive look, after which he quickly focused his entire attention on the coffee. I wondered how he felt about being alone in the apartment with his sister's blonde and nubile lover. Maybe that's why we were there, though that seemed unlikely.
So," Sam said as he sat down with his coffee, "how did you find out about Perry so quickly? Are you planning on writing something about this?" He smiled. "How careful should I be about what I say to you?"
I had to control my expression, since it was a little late to be asking that question.
Jan Sleet leaned back, sipping her coffee. "I don't know yet what I'm going to write, if anything. I'm not going to reveal Perry's secrets just to reveal them, I hate that sort of 'journalism.' I'd like to figure out what happened to both of them, to Perry and Terry, and then take it from there."
"But how did you find out about Perry?" Nicky asked. Her robe was tightly closed now, and tucked in snugly around her legs, and I wondered if she'd noticed Sam's interest. I was willing to bet that she had, she looked like a pretty canny young woman.
"Oh," Jan Sleet simpered, "I have my sources." I have told her how ridiculous she looks when she acts coy, but of course she never pays any attention.
I was wondering about this myself, since she had been out all evening until she'd come into my room and awakened me. I would have liked to know what she had been up to, but I wasn't about to ask. The coyness and simpering were even more unbearable when they were directed at me.
I did want to find out, though. Usually when she didn't want me to know something, it was because she knew I'd think it was a really bad idea. And those were the things I most wanted and needed to know about.
"Could I see the sheets?" Jan Sleet asked. "I don't mean to be morbid, but there might be a clue I could find."
Sam nodded. "Fine. You can help me make the bed. I haven't touched it since yesterday morning, and I'm going to need to go to sleep pretty soon."
Nicky stood up and drifted off in the direction of her own bedroom. I followed Sam also, thinking I could help with the more practical aspects of bed making.
In the small bedroom, Sam went right to the dresser and started to take out clean sheets. Jan Sleet pulled one of the sheets from the bed with her free hand, and I took the other corner so we could hold it up.
The rips and the blood were mostly in the middle. There was no pattern I could see to the way it had been cut, but the result was a big jagged bloody hole in the middle of the sheet. Through the hole, we could see Sam pick up the clean sheets and turn toward us. We pulled the sheet completely off the bed, and something fell on the floor.
I leaned over to pick it up, half expecting it to be a knife, but it was a pair of glasses. I held them up.
Sam put the sheets down and took them. "They're Terry's," he said slowly. "She's nearly blind without them."
In the cab back to the hotel, Jan Sleet leaned back in the seat, looking exhausted. She closed her eyes.
We had left after the bed had been made. She had searched the bedroom, but hadn't found anything else. Sam had insisted on getting the name and phone number of the hotel where we were staying, and promised to call us as soon as he and Nicky woke up. He really seemed to think that we, or at least Jan Sleet, were going to figure this all out. Or maybe he was just worried that we were going to be the next to vanish.
When we got back to the hotel room, I expected Jan Sleet to have something else for me to do, but she looked drained and tired. "I'm going to sleep now," she said. "There's nothing else we can do at the moment. Wake me if anybody calls. Anybody at all."
She went into her bedroom and closed the door. She had told the desk clerk to hold all our calls. I knew there was very little chance he would remember to do it, but just in case I called down and told him not to.
I took off my shoes and sat down on the sofa, half-expecting her to poke her head out of her bedroom and complain that I was in my stocking feet, and that said stocking feet were on the coffee table.
I was eager to get back to bed, and I could have used a shower, but I wanted to take a minute alone and think about what had happened.
There was something bothering me. How had Jan Sleet known we had to go to that hospital at that time? If I asked her, I knew she'd claim either that she had a network of informants, or some type of psychic power, and I knew she didn't possess either.
And what were we after? There was certainly a mystery, but so far I couldn't see where the story was. I knew she'd been telling the truth when she said she didn't want to expose Perry Nelson's secrets. But where was the story in this? She liked solving mysteries for the pleasure of it, that was true, but there was usually a way to get a good story out of it.
I was starting to come to a conclusion. She'd been out all evening, and she hadn't told me where. I hadn't heard her return to our suite, but I would have heard the phone if somebody had called her.
I was starting to think that she had seen what had happened, the attack on Perry Nelson and the others. Maybe she'd just happened to see it and had recognized him, or maybe she'd been at the cafe and had seen them here.
If so, she must have come back to the hotel to get me, as opposed to just phoning, because she didn't want me to know she'd been out, because then I could have guessed that she'd seen it all first hand.
If she'd been at the cafe, why had she been there? Following Perry Nelson? If so, why?
I rejected the idea that she'd been at a lesbian bar for the usual reasons. Her few crushes since I'd met her had all been on men, and none of them had come to anything. I had actively discouraged a couple of them because they were obviously a bad idea, and the others had fizzled out on their own.
I stretched and stood up. Either I was too tired to go any further in my thinking, or there was no way to go further with the information I had. I turned off the living room light and went to bed.