Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Brash Blonde - Chapter Fifteen

I called in sick to work before showering and changing into reek-free jeans and a T-shirt. There was no way I'd be able to concentrate on cappuccinos and muffins while Sunshine Moonbeam was walking around free after possibly dognapping Toby. And I planned to confront her about it just as fast as I could get there.

Which turned out to be fast enough to keep me from reconsidering and letting the police handle it. The police weren't going to handle it. Lestrade had shown less than no interest in Toby. In truth, he hadn't shown much interest in anything about Kate's murder. If it wasn't for Sherlock Holmes, Irene and I would be on our own. Sherlock might have been the strong, silent type, but he got things done.

By the time I got to the studio, I was in no mood for more obstructionism from anyone, especially Sunshine Moonbeam. I had to park a block and a half away, and the slog back uphill didn't do much to work off my anger. It did, however, remind me how long it had been since my last workout.

When I pushed through the door into the studio, Sunshine was teaching an advanced class. I could tell because every one of the half dozen students was standing on his or her head, legs folded lotus style up in the air. We hadn't tried anything remotely like that during the class in the park. Twelve eyes rolled toward my feet in unison, but no one broke form or lost the vague smile that seemed to accompany an earnest asana practice.

Sunshine was moving among them, making her usual tiny adjustments. Her hair was braided again. Her tie-dyed shirt hung over a pair of yoga pants. She was barefoot. And she wasn't happy to see me. Her own smile wobbled a little when she spotted me.

I sat on one of the ottomans to wait for class to finish. Then I waited while the students filtered out, shooting curious glances my way. Finally, when I had Sunshine to myself, I got up and followed her into the office that Irene and I hadn't bothered to check out.

We should have bothered. If we had, we'd have seen the framed photograph of a white and tan basset hound on her desk. In the photo, the dog was curled up on a love seat, looking into the camera with limpid brown eyes. He was plump and well groomed, even wearing a little blue sweater and a rhinestone collar. A dog like that just had to be named Toby.

I paused in the doorway. "You have a dog."

Sunshine beamed at the photo. "The soul of a living thing belongs not to you or I."

I narrowed my eyes at her. "How long has this soul been living with you?" I pressed.

She turned her back to me, talking to the wall behind her. "Not long. But I adore him. He's very smart. He's learning how to do yoga with Mommy."

Sure he was.

"What's his name?" I asked.

"Labels are the trappings of a society that attempt to define us."

I felt my teeth grinding together. What would it take to get a straight answer out of her?

"So what do you call him when it's chow time?"

She picked up some papers and rifled through them. "Henry. I named him after my father. Henry Lawrence."

Henry Lawrence Moonbeam?

"That's funny." I picked up the picture. "Because Henry looks just like my great-aunt Kate's dog, Toby. She lived on Baker Street, near the park where you hold your classes. Maybe you saw her walking him there."

Her eyes widened. "Kate was your great-aunt?"

Well, wasn't that interesting. So Sunshine had known Kate. I'd been curious about that since I'd first seen Sunshine in the park. She'd never given me a straight answer then. Given what I'd learned about my great-aunt, the two women couldn't have been more different, and unlikely to be friends. If Kate had had friends.

"You knew her?" I asked immediately.

She hesitated very slightly. "We're all connected in this life, however large or small that common thread may be."

"Where did you find Toby?" I asked. "I've been looking for him. He went missing after Kate died."

"I don't know a Toby."

No reaction at all to my mention of Kate's death. If she'd known her, they hadn't been that close. I wondered if Kate had lodged complaints against Sunshine too. Maybe for dognapping.

"I think you're lying," I told her.

She blinked at me before her eyes hit the floor. "Only our soul can know the depths of our truths that we carry with us to another plane of existence—"

"Oh, cut the New Age crap!"

Sunshine's eyes shot up, shocked.

I had to admit, I was a little shocked myself. I hadn't meant to snap at her, but honestly, she was starting to drive me nuts.

"I'm sorry, Sunshine," I said as gently as I could. "But I think you knew Kate, and I think this is Toby."

I didn't want to provoke a killer, but this wasn't Heckle or Jeckle. I was pretty sure I could take a 75-year-old woman if it came to that. If I couldn't, I had no business pretending to be a detective.

Our eyes met and held until she finally looked away. Her lower lip actually began to tremble. "You're not going to call the police, are you?" she asked.

"Of course not," I said without hesitation. Which only went to show I was getting better at fibbing every day. Of course I was going to call the police. Who did this loon think she was? She'd stolen a dead woman's dog. Or worse, she'd killed the woman and then stolen her dog. And then she named him Henry Lawrence Moonbeam. She was practically crying out for someone to call the police.

Sunshine pulled in a shaky breath. "I guess I should be honest with you. You deserve that much, since you're not going to have me arrested."

Yeah. Hold that thought.

"I knew Kate but not from the park. We used to work together." She glanced at me. "You seem surprised."

That was one word for it. Shocked was another. I'd yet to run across anything relating to a job when it came to my aunt. And I certainly didn't see her as a yogi.

"You might as well sit down." She sighed. "It's a long story."

I sat down.

She perched on the edge of her desk, so lightly she was practically levitating. Or planning to bolt for the door. I scooched my chair over a little to block her path.

"It was back in the '70s," she began. "I was a very different person then." Her mouth twisted. "In every way. And so was Kate."

I nodded, unwilling to admit I'd never known my great-aunt. And I'd heard a little something about the '70s. It seemed like everyone had been a different person then. Unfortunately, the vestiges of the decade still seemed to cling to Sunshine.

"I wasn't always Sunshine Moonbeam." Her face colored. "In the '70s, I was Valerie Abbott." She hesitated, gauging my reaction.

I had none. The name meant nothing to me. I wasn't sure if I saw relief or irritation in her expression. A second later, I knew.

She studied her nails. "Valerie Abbott was the Heidi Fleiss of the 1970s," she said quietly.

That name meant something to me.

I stared at her. "What are you saying?"

"I think you know what I'm saying."

A knot had formed in my belly. "Maybe you'd better keep talking," I said. I needed some time to process what I was hearing before I trusted myself to react.

"I'm not saying I'm proud of myself," she said. "Neither was Kate. But we were young and trying to find our way in the world. That was a hard thing to do back then. You're much too young to remember the struggle." Her voice broke a little. She took a moment to compose herself. "I thought it was a victimless crime. And I thought I could offer better working conditions than most women experienced in the industry. Kate thought so too."

I couldn't hold back. "Are you telling me my aunt was a call girl?"

"We were beautiful then," she said softly. "But it was a man's world. Without a college education, women were doomed to rely on a man for support or live on minimum wage forever. You have to understand. It wasn't like it is for women today." She gave a wan smile. "The idea of a woman running for president was unheard of."

"Running for president is a far cry from prostitution," I snapped.

She drew back, stung. "I suppose it's easy to judge, but we make our own choices. I'm not proud of mine, but I've learned to live with them. Kate and I didn't want men taking care of us. That wasn't the life for either of us. So that was our choice."

"Being exploited by men."

"We didn't see it like that," she said. "Not then."

I didn't say anything.

"It paid well, and we weren't hurting anyone, and it was a good time," she said. "Until it wasn't. Until something caused Kate to turn her back on the life she'd chosen. I'm afraid our parting wasn't ideal. We argued, and she walked out, and that was the last time I saw her until a couple months ago, in the park. I recognized her right away, of course." She bit her lip. "And she recognized me. Katie could always remember a face." Her smile was small.

"Did you two argue?"

She shook her head. "We didn't even talk. I was afraid to approach her after all those years. Can you imagine that? I saw her talking to that skinny man who plays chess with his friends every day. You know who I mean."

Albert Fong. So Sunshine had been telling the truth when she'd said she'd seen them talking.

"Why would she be talking to him?" I asked her. "Did they know each other?"

She shrugged. "I can't tell you that, but I can tell you what she said because I think she purposely said it loud enough for me to hear her. She wasn't going to stand for criminals in the neighborhood any longer." She pulled her braid over her shoulder and hung on to it like it was a security blanket. "I was afraid she was going to go to the authorities and out me as the Valerie Abbott. It had taken so much to get out of that life. Even though it's been decades, it still manages to haunt me. It still has that power."

I realized I was holding my breath, waiting for the confession that had to be next. I wasn't sure I wanted to hear it.

"I couldn't stand the thought of that," she went on, almost talking to herself. "I've built a good life for myself. I own a business. I own a home. Valerie Abbott existed in another lifetime."

Sure. You could practically pin a Good Citizen medal on her chest.

"So you went to see Kate," I said. "In your VW Bug."

She blinked at me, clearly not expecting me to know that. "Y-yes. I did. It was raining that night." She paused, licking her lips. "I thought about the whole thing for a few hours, and I decided I hated the distance between us. Katie had been my friend. I owed it to her to talk things out. So that night I went to her house."

"And you argued? Things got out of hand?"

Sunshine's eyes shot up. "No! No, I never got to talk to her. When I got there, I found her—" She swallowed. "—dead."

I stiffened. "You found her dead?"

She nodded. "In the living room on the sofa."

That cleared the master bedroom of cooties, though the living room at 221 suddenly seemed more creepy.

"Naturally I was horrified," she went on. "The poor dog was sitting beside her, scared and whining. I couldn't leave him there all alone. So I brought him here to the studio."

"Why didn't you call the police?"

She looked away. "I couldn't do that. I couldn't have the police questioning me. My past can't stand that kind of scrutiny. Don't you understand? The media feeds off sensationalism. It could cost me everything."

"The woman was killed," I said sharply.

Sunshine sucked in a quick breath. "Killed? I thought she'd just died of heart attack or something."

That seemed to be the popular theory.

"And you were worried about your reputation?" I pressed again.

"You don't understand."

"You're right," I said. "I don't. Where's Toby?"

She made a move as if to reach out to me before hesitating and drawing her arm back. "Please don't take him from me. He's got a good life. Look at his picture. You can see he's healthy. And he's spoiled rotten. He comes to work with me a few times a week so I don't have to leave him alone. In fact, when I remembered I'd left his favorite toy here at the studio a few nights ago, I came back after midnight to pick it up for him. I'd do anything for him."

It was my turn to flush. That was the night Sunshine had nearly caught Irene and me breaking the law in the service of what we'd thought was a worthy cause.

She hung her head. "Please. He's all I've got left of Katie."

That did it. I was angry, but I wasn't heartless. It did seem like Toby was being well taken care of by someone who clearly adored him. He looked healthy, fashion choices notwithstanding. There was no harm in letting him stay where he was.

But it was going to take me a while to work through Sunshine's revelations about her former life and more importantly, Kate's former life. As sincere as she'd seemed in the telling, I didn't want to believe that my great-aunt had been a call girl. Plus, I wasn't sure that Sunshine's teary trip down memory lane was proof she hadn't killed my aunt. I'd taken enough criminal psychology classes to realize that confessing to dognapping Toby could be Sunshine's way of deferring her guilt for killing Kate.

"Alright," I said finally. "You can keep him. But I reserve the right to ask you some more questions after I sort through all of this."

"I'll answer whatever I can," she agreed. "But please keep my identity in confidence. I've worked very hard to leave Valerie behind." This time she did touch my arm. I clenched my jaw to keep from twisting away. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me," I said. "I'm not making any promises."

I got up and walked out.

When I left the studio, the early evening bore no resemblance to the morning and early afternoon. The sky had cleared, the sun was still warm, and the breeze was gentle and mild. It was a gorgeous evening to walk and think, and that's what I decided to do, taking a circuitous route back to the Victorian, rehashing in my mind everything Sunshine had said along the way. Some of it would be easy to fact-check. I was sure that by night's end I could dig up some old news stories about Valerie Abbott and her past enterprise. I wondered if Kate had used her real name. Didn't most women in that profession assume fake names to protect their privacy? Probably I should search for an arrest record or some such thing. Not that I cared if Valerie had been arrested, and I didn't really want to know if Kate had. What good could that serve at this point? The more I learned, the less I thought of her. I didn't want to think less of her. Flawed or not, she was still my family.

I looked up and found myself at the Victorian's front gate. Which was good timing, because I'd run out of different ways to look at the situation. Maybe Irene could offer a useful new perspective in the morning.

I let myself into the cool, silent house, intent on ordering in a pizza and getting a good night's sleep. I'd done enough thinking. I needed to give it a rest.

I turned to lock the door behind me, when I heard a noise. I spun around.

Too late.

Something crashed into the back of my head, and the house dissolved into darkness.

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