Chapter Fifteen

The Solution

So, we sat around Perry's comfortable living room, drinking coffee and tea against the chill. After a few quiet minutes, Jan Sleet took her cane and levered herself to her feet.

"Sam," she said, "what did Terry do before she became a teacher?"

He shrugged. "I don't know exactly. She had some sort of office job." He turned to Tammy, but Jan Sleet interrupted him.

"Perry," she asked, "what did she do? What kind of office job?"

Perry looked at her thoughtfully for a moment. "She was an administrative assistant, at a law firm."

"The same law firm where Tammy is now a partner?"

He nodded. "She quit when Tammy was hired. As you know, she felt conflicted about–"

Tammy interrupted him. "She didn't want to work next to me every day. It was–"

"No," Jan Sleet said simply. For some reason, at that moment I was sure she really had something. "Or, really, yes and no," she went on. "She helped Tammy get hired, though. She used her position to control and create information, to create the fiction that her sister is a qualified attorney licensed to practice law. She isn't. I've checked, and Tammy Nelson never graduated law school, she never took or passed a bar exam in any state."

Tammy smiled and motioned for her to continue.

Jan Sleet nodded. "You can object later, of course. Tammy, you got your current job the same way you keep it, by your incredible ability to convince people of things. With some behind-the-scenes help from your sister, you convinced the partners that you're an attorney. They know you're not good at technicalities, at nuts and bolts, but you're the best person they have in front of a judge or a jury. I doubt if any of them have ever suspected that you're a complete fraud."

Tammy raised a hand. "Objection, miss."

Jan Sleet nodded.

"Apart from your aspersions on my professional qualifications, which I may ask you to prove at some point, there's a big hole in your 'theory,' or at least the part of it we've heard already.

"Terry, as we all know, feels resentful and conflicted about my success, and Perry's. Why in the world would she help me get a job at the firm where she worked, whether or not she helped me forge professional qualifications? Why would she help create a situation that, almost immediately, became so intolerable that she quit her job?"

Jan Sleet nodded. "At least one person in this room knows the answer to that already, in addition to you and me. Probably two. Perry?"

She looked at him, but the young novelist just smiled blandly.

Jan Sleet went on. "Sam? You know, too, don't you?"

Sam just sat, stone-faced.

Jan Sleet nodded again. "Very loyal. That would be morally questionable, of course, if a murder had in fact taken place. But you both know there's been no crime, or at least no capital crime, so loyalty might be appropriate.

"But a lot of hurt has been done to some people, and I think everybody here in this room deserves to know what you and I know. As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't need to go any further than that, but it needs to go that far. Sam, your own sister has thought, at least from time to time, that you did some violence to your lover. And she definitely thinks it's disgraceful how you and Tammy have been carrying on."

For at least a minute, nobody moved or spoke.

"This is not how it was supposed to end up," Tammy said quietly. "When I got this job, Terry was going to cease to exist. Being Tammy was a much better deal, all the way around."

"That's the one thing I couldn't figure out," Jan Sleet admitted. "I couldn't see why you continued to be Terry as well as Tammy."

"There are two possible answers, and I don't know which one is true. Either I really am crazy, or it was because, at the last minute, when the plan was already in motion, Terry met Sam."

Jan Sleet just stood and looked at her, raising one eyebrow.

"I met Sam, I should say. Suddenly, when I was ready to stop being Terry forever, I had a reason to keep on being her." She smiled. "It was quite annoying."

Sam and Perry looked fairly relaxed, even relieved. But Nicky and Sarah looked quite tense, though Sarah appeared confused and Nicky did not.

"Wait a minute," Sarah said. "You mean there never was a Terry?"

Tammy shook her head. "No, there never was a Tammy."

"I only have one sister," Perry said. "Half-sister. I didn't see that it would help to 'out' her, as it were. I tried to help her find her way to work it out, which was made more difficult by the fact that Terry, the one I really had to reach, hated my guts." He rubbed his eyes. "Also, I did think that there was a chance that if I did reveal what was going on, she might do something violent."

"Which she did, I guess," Sarah said, "or where did all that blood come from?"

There was a long silence, or at least it seemed fairly long, then Tammy grabbed her cane and stood up. "I'll be right back," she said, and she strode in the direction of the bathroom.

After a moment, we heard running water. Sam stood up suddenly, but Perry shook his head. "She's not going to hurt herself."

I looked at Jan Sleet. She was standing still, eyes bright behind her glasses, her hands resting on the top of her cane. She was obviously impatient to continue. This was her big moment, and I could already tell that, perhaps even more than usual, this was going to be a disappointment to her. I didn't think anybody was going to thank her for solving this mystery, and nobody was going to praise her intellect, or her detective skills, or her keen insights into human nature.

"How did she hold two jobs?" Sam asked after a moment.

"She didn't," Perry said. "She was never a school teacher. She just made that up."

Sam shook his head. "She sure told some convincing stories about it."

Sarah turned to Sam, then she hesitated. "I do need to ask one thing," she said. "When did you figure this out?" He started to speak. "Before you slept with Tammy, or after?"

He smiled sheepishly. "In the process, I'm afraid. So, did I intend to cheat on Terry? With her own sister? Yes, I'm afraid I did."

Terry Nelson came in, wearing a bathrobe, her blonde hair mostly covered by a towel, all her makeup washed off. She looked so different that it took a minute for me to be sure that this was the same woman. There was an long, ugly scar down the side of her right leg. It was obviously healing, but it was discolored and the entire length of it looked bruised.

She stood blinking for a moment as she looked around, then she walked slowly toward Sam. I remembered what he had said about how much she needed her glasses.

She sat down next to Sam, and pulled the bathrobe closed around her, mostly concealing the scar. "I did it to myself," she said to Sarah. "I can't describe my state of mind, not so you'd understand it, but it was my hand which held the knife."

"Doesn't it hurt?" Sarah asked. "How come you don't limp?"

"Tammy limps. I don't." She turned to Sam. "You wouldn't happen to have my glasses, would you?"

Nicky snorted at this idea, but Sam reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled them out. He handed them to her and she put them on.

"So," Jan Sleet said proudly, "that's it. The case is solved." She waited for the applause.

"That's it?" Nicky demanded. "What about the rest of it?"

"The rest of it?" the great detective asked, looking somewhat perplexed. "I'm not sure I understand."

Nicky paused, looking from Terry Nelson to my employer, then threw up her hands, momentarily speechless.

"Well," Terry said, "for one thing, who is she?" She pointed at Nicky.

"That's Nicky," Jan Sleet said solicitously. "Don't you recognize her?"

"I mean, who is she really? Why did she drop into our laps, what was she after, and what is her real name? That's what I mean by–"

"So?" Nicky demanded, leaning forward on the sofa. "What's your real name, and why do you pretend to be Perry's sister when it's obvious you're old enough to be his mother?"

There was a moment of silence after that. Everybody looked startled at Nicky's outburst, but nobody more so than Jan Sleet, who had apparently never thought about these questions at all.

"My name is Alexandra Ross," Terry said. "I'm not related to Perry. He befriended me a few years ago when I was in a pretty bad way, and I thought a change would do me good, so I changed my name to Terry Nelson and started saying I was his sister. He went along with it, and helped me get the job at the law firm. Thereby earning my resentment ever since, I guess." She turned to Nicky. "Okay, your turn."

But Sarah put her small hand over Nicky's mouth before she could speak. "Not necessary," she said simply.

Terry nodded slowly, relaxing a little. "Fair enough," she said. She stood up. "Sam–"

"Perry," Sam said, "you're going to write a book about this, aren't you? About Terry? That's why you've gone along with all this for so long."

Perry nodded. "I had planned to. I have a lot of notes. I even have a title. But I was worried about revealing–"

"Don't," Sam said. Perry looked a question. "Terry's going to write it. She's going to write a book, and I think it will be better than the one you would write."

Perry chuckled, almost laughing. "I'll bet it will be. Very well, that's fine."

As we got ready to leave, Terry stood up and smiled at Jan Sleet. She held out her hand. "That was very good work, Ms. Sleet. I'm impressed."

Jan Sleet smiled and shook her hand. "Thank you. I was pretty pleased."

In our rental car, as we drove back down the windy dirt road, she was silent for a few minutes. Terry, Sam, Nicky and Sarah were going to drive back to the city later, in the other car.

"It was like a movie," she said. "Everybody ended up in pairs at the end." We pulled up to the highway and I waited for a break in the traffic.

"Except Perry," I pointed out.

"True. And except for us, of course."

I pulled into traffic and accelerated. "Of course. Let's go home."