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

"Tell me I didn't just hear that," Irene whispered.

"I didn't hear it either," I whispered back. I switched off the flashlight.

Another jingle of keys and the squeak of a door opening.

We might or might not have stared at each other for a millisecond—it was too dark to tell—before we scrambled behind the display case and curled up on the floor in two tight little balls. I could feel Irene pressed against me. She was shaking slightly. I was shaking too. I'd had a feeling the night might end like this. Not hiding behind a counter, but cowering in a jail cell. It was inevitable now. The lights would come on, and Sunshine would see us and call the police to haul us away. We'd have to post bail, and we'd probably wind up on the news.

Lots of luck explaining that to Dr. Watson.

I still had the incense stick in my left hand and the flashlight in my right. But I didn't have to see to know it had to be Sunshine Moonbeam. So she wasn't a heavy sleeper after all. She could have at least had the decency to be afraid of the dark. Or allergic to night air. Anything to keep her from traipsing around the city in the middle of the night.

Was it still the middle of the night when you paid no attention to time? That random thought seemed a little too the chicken or the egg at the moment, so I pushed it aside and focused on Sunshine. I could hear her footsteps on the other side of the studio, but she hadn't turned on the lights yet. Maybe she paid no attention to electricity either. That would be fine with me. That would give us a chance to sneak out while her back was turned, maybe avoid that jail cell. All we had to do was wait for her to go into her office and stay there long enough for us to crawl out from behind the counter, feel our way across the entire length of the studio without running into the mine field of yoga blocks or mats or ottomans or each other, get the door open without making any noise, and put this train wreck of an idea behind us.

No problem.

Very dim strains of New Age–type music floated across the studio to us.

Irene lifted her head. She was pinching her nose shut with two fingers to stifle another sneeze. Her voice was a nasal whisper. "What's she doing?"

I listened for a moment. The music wasn't bad if you were into granola and tie-dye. Since the only thing I was into was escaping without a criminal record, it was the last thing I wanted to hear. Well, after You have the right to remain silent.

"I don't know," I whispered back. "Meditating?"

"Take a look," she urged.

"I'm not taking a look. You take a look."

"This was your idea. You should look."

"You knocked half the studio apart," I whispered. "It'll be your fault if she finds us."

I was quite the team player.

Irene sighed. "Okay, we should both look."

I gave a slight nod of assent, which she probably didn't see, so I whispered, "Okay."

She counted to three, and we raised our heads just far enough to peek through the display case.

No Sunshine. A dim light flickered and danced from inside her office.

"Is that candlelight?" Irene asked. "Why's she burning a candle when she could flip a light switch?"

Why question serendipity? If she flipped a light switch, she'd see the mess we'd left in her studio. I was pretty sure that even Sunshine wouldn't believe in the spontaneous animation of yoga blocks.

"Who cares?" I said. "Maybe she's got a hot date, and she's setting the mood."

"For what? A nap? I'm getting sleepy already." I felt her shudder. "Come on. Let's get out of here. I don't want to be around to see whatever she's got planned." She unpinched her nose and stood, staying low.

I started to get up and hesitated. "Maybe we should wait until she leaves."

"For all we know, she might sleep here," Irene said. "I know I could. We have to go now, while she's in there and my eyes are still open."

I couldn't imagine why anyone would give up a perfectly good bed to sleep in a yoga studio, but this was Sunshine Moonbeam we were talking about. Common sense wasn't part of the equation.

I got to my feet and followed Irene around the end of the display case. So far, so good. Even the smell of eucalyptus seemed to have lifted, probably because we'd grown so accustomed to it. I followed on her heels, still clutching the incense and the flashlight. It was like trying to navigate an obstacle course in the dark. A few times I brushed against an ottoman, or my foot hit the edge of a yoga block. I was so focused on Sunshine's office that I barely noticed.

Irene had a better avoidance technique than I did. She was feeling her way along, doing a weird kind of hunched-over ape walk across the floor. Another day and time, that would have been funny, maybe even YouTube worthy.

If it hadn't been happening during the commission of a crime.

Finally, we made it to the door without sneezing or rearranging the furniture again. I took a sideways glance into Sunshine's office. She was standing on the far side of the small office, her back turned to the doorway, preoccupied with something I couldn't see in front of her. And it wasn't a candle throwing off the flickering light. It was a lava lamp. Which seemed about right for Sunshine.

Irene had worked the door open with only a tiny squeak, and she jerked her thumb toward the sidewalk. She didn't have to tell me twice. I rushed out behind her into the night. Or morning. Depending on your perception of time, if you had one.

But I froze as soon as we hit the cool, night air.

Irene grabbed me by the arm, tugging. "Come on."

"Look!" I pointed toward the curb. At this time of night, the street was filled with parked cars. And right in front of the studio was an old VW Bug that hadn't been there when we'd entered.

Irene shrugged. "So?"

I gingerly put my hand on the hood. It was still warm. No doubt about it, it was Sunshine's car.

"Come on," Irene repeated. "Let's get out of here."

I agreed, letting her lead me down the street as I told her about the car Lucy Chu had seen parked across from Kate's house on the night she'd died.

"You think it was Sunshine's?" Irene asked as we turned the corner.

I shrugged, looking down at the incense in my hand. "I think I need to get this to Dr. Watson as soon as possible."

* * *

An hour later, I was lying in Kate's guest bed in Kate's house, listening to the wind shiver the eaves and rattle the windows, wishing I'd gone back to my apartment. No one had ever tried to break in to my apartment. Even thieves had better things to do with their time than that. But my personal foray into crime had left me exhausted, and it had seemed easier to crash at the house a few blocks from the studio than to drive all the way home.

Even though if I'd gone home, I'd probably be sound asleep instead of wondering if that scratching at the window was from a branch or an intruder trying to jimmy it open. Or if that creak on the first floor was from an old house settling or someone making their slow, deliberate way toward the stairs.

I rolled onto my side and forced myself to close my eyes. Which didn't stop me from hearing the house carrying on its internal monologue around me or thinking some more about the reason for the break-in. Had anything been taken? It was frustrating to not know, and I almost wished that something had. I'd never miss what I didn't know I had. Plus then there'd be no reason for another try, and I could fall asleep in peace, just me and my raging paranoia. As it stood, it seemed like only a matter of time before whoever came back whenever looking for whatever.

Finally, around three thirty, I dropped off the fuzzy edge of consciousness into a fitful sleep in which shadowy figures peered at me around corners and capered past my peripheral vision.

I came awake again about three hours later, suddenly, as if something had jolted me from sleep. I sat bolt upright, certain that I'd heard footsteps on the stairs, and I clutched the blanket to my chest, listening hard.

I heard it again a moment later. Knocking on the front door.

Knocking on the front door? I looked at the clock. At six thirty in the morning?

A flash of irritation sizzled through me. It seemed that in Kate's house, sound sleep was the impossible dream. What was it with the early morning visits anyway?

Maybe it was Watson again.

I pushed aside the blanket, ran my hands through my hair, did a quick check that the black outfit I'd slept in had made it through my self-indulgent three hours of sleep without too much damage, grabbed the ginger lily incense stick, and went downstairs to let him in.

It wasn't Watson. It was Louis Chu, smiling and pink cheeked, his eyes bright and curious when I opened the door.

Very casually, I put my hands on my lower back to stretch and slipped the stick of incense into my back pocket.

His smile faltered a little. "I'm sorry. Did I wake you?"

"Of course not," I said. "See, I'm dressed and everything."

He didn't seem impressed, probably because I was untucked and semi-wrinkled, while he looked as tidy as a Christmas gift.

"I wake up at five a.m., on the dot, every day," he told me. "Force of habit, I suppose. Coffee at five thirty, shower at six, out the door for a walk at six fifteen."

I fought the urge to yawn despite my fascination with Louis Chu's morning rituals.

"Which brings me to your door bright and early," he went on.

So early it could still be perceived as late.

"I understand you're still looking for the lost dog," he said.

That shook off my cobwebs. "How did you know that?"

"Jackie told me," he said.

I frowned.

He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. "From the park. I hope you don't mind. She was only trying to help. She didn't know you'd already asked me about it."

"Have you seen him?" I asked.

He didn't answer. "He belonged to the lady of the house. Kate, wasn't it? Such a shame what happened to her."

A curious little chill glimmered up my spine. "What do you mean?"

His expression was guileless. "My wife told me she had passed away. She wasn't really clear about how."

That wasn't a conversation I wanted to have. I drew the door closed an inch or two. "Is that important?"

He seemed surprised by the question. "You must understand we've lived next door to Kate for many years. It's only natural for neighbors to be curious."

Not the same thing as concerned.

"I was under the impression you weren't very close with her," I said. "In fact, your wife implied she was something of a recluse."

He brushed some nonexistent lint off of his immaculate slacks. "I don't know why she would say that."

I suddenly wondered if Louis and Lucy Chu had been the subject of some of Kate's complaint letters. Kate had shown an impressive level of commitment when she'd had an axe to grind. That would be a good why, especially if that particular axe had cost the Chus money, or reputation, or worse.

It might be a good idea to look through the letters again.

I took a hard look at Louis. He was short and a bit overweight but stocky, which might have made him stronger than he looked. But was he more malicious than his jolly Uncle Louie looks made him seem? That was the question.

Then it occurred to me. "You never told me if you've seen Toby."

He looked at me blankly.

That was what I'd thought.

"The basset hound," I said. "You came over about the dog, right? Have you heard something about him?"

"I'm afraid not," he said. "But I've put out some feelers. I know quite a few people in the neighborhood, and they promised me they'll all be on the lookout." He hesitated. "By the way, if you need a recommendation for a real estate agent, don't hesitate to ask. I'd be happy to help."

"Why would I need a real estate agent?"

His eyebrows lifted. "I just assumed you'd be putting this place on the market. After you've sorted through it, of course. Am I mistaken?"

On many levels. The first being that he'd knocked on my door at six thirty in the morning, under the guise of asking about Toby, when he'd asked about everything but. From what I'd been able to glean, the Chus and Kate hadn't exactly been fast friends. So why all this neighborly concern?

The answer came to me in a rush, and it was so obvious that I was almost ashamed that I hadn't realized it sooner. Louis Chu didn't want the information. Albert Fong did. Albert had recruited his chess buddy to do his dirty work. He probably thought Louis's cheerfulness would disarm me. And maybe if he'd shown up three hours later, it might have. I wondered if he even realized he was being used as a pawn.

Well, I wasn't going to indulge his phony curiosity or Albert Fong's clumsy inquisition.

"I haven't decided yet," I told him. "Be sure to let me know if you find Toby." I shut the door and turned the lock.

Still angry, I stomped upstairs and threw myself back into bed. The quiet darkness of the room did nothing to relax me. In fact, it provided a backdrop in which I could too easily picture Albert Fong's sullen face and imagine him issuing orders to Heckle and Jeckle and recruiting Louis Chu to intimidate or interrogate me, respectively.

And another thing. Had Albert also directed the break-in?

The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. Fong had a lot of nerve, playing puppet master from a distance while his minions did the dirty work. Had he really expected me to play along? I'd sooner go out on a date with 2B or eat Mr. Bitterman's cooking. And that wasn't going to happen anytime soon either.

I huffed out a breath and settled back into drowsiness.

The phone rang.

My eyes flew open. Honestly, what did this place have against sleeping? I grabbed it before the end of the first ring. "What?"

There was a moment of silence. Then, "Miss Hudson?"

"Dr. Watson." Was the man ever going to catch me in a positive moment? I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the bed. "Sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to sound so…" I trailed off, pretty sure I didn't want to admit just how I'd sounded.

"Did I wake you?"

I glanced at the clock. Six forty-five. "No, I've been awake for…" I swallowed. "…minutes."

He chuckled. "I wanted to catch you before I went to the office. I saw something on the news this morning about a prowler in your neighborhood, and I wanted to make sure you were okay."

My mouth went dry. "Prowler?" Maybe the person who'd broken into the house, back to try again? Maybe those noises I'd heard hadn't been settling floorboards and groaning old pipes at all.

Good thing I was sitting down, because that thought would have knocked me off my feet. Had someone been roaming around the house while I'd been upstairs asleep? Had they stood in the doorway, watching me? Had they already been there, hiding, when Irene had dropped me off?

Suddenly I felt like the woman in jeopardy from a Lifetime movie. Next came the part where my flashlight batteries went dead as I was heading to the basement to investigate some strange sound.

"Something happened at a yoga studio," Watson said. "Last night. Two blocks from your house, in fact."

Wait. Yoga studio? Last night?

That prowler had been me.

"You did get your locks changed, didn't you?" he asked.

Right. New locks. They'd sort of fallen off of my to-do list and landed on my can't-afford-a-locksmith list. I couldn't admit to Watson that I'd been the prowler. There was no way to pull the private detective curtain around breaking and entering. Especially when he'd been concerned enough for my safety to call. I was touched by his level of concern. And absurdly pleased. And petrified that Irene and I could have been caught on some security camera we hadn't noticed. You saw that all the time on the news—a camera from an adjacent business capturing grainy images of criminals on the street with the chyron Do you recognize this person? I didn't want to be that image. We'd gotten lucky this time.

"Miss Hudson?"

"No," I said. I'd almost been splashed all over the early news. What had I been thinking? And what exactly had I gotten for all the trouble of being a Crimestoppers highlight reel?

A stick of ginger lily incense.

I pulled it out of my pocket and stared at it. This was the thing that Watson had found underneath Kate's fingernails, the reason I'd played cat burglar at the yoga studio, and I couldn't say a word about it to him now. It'd be as good as a confession.

"I guess I forgot to have the locks changed," I told him, almost cheerfully.

"You should really take care of that," he said. "Especially if you're going to stay at the house by yourself."

"I'll call someone today," I promised. "Thanks for letting me know about the prowler."

"This world," he said in that weary way that people do after watching the nightly news.

"And all the people in it," I agreed.

After we'd hung up, I had no hope of getting back to sleep and no desire to try. I also didn't want to stay in the house alone, assuming I was alone, which I chose to assume. I stepped into my shoes and went downstairs to Kate's rolltop desk, where I stuffed every one of the complaint letters I could find into my bag. I'd go through them later, at my apartment, or at Irene's. Anywhere but here, where every gust of wind seized the windows and rattled them as if demanding to come inside. Now that daylight had broken, I could see it wasn't going to break very far. There was a thick cloud cover, and the fog hung low and dense. It was the sort of atmosphere that made the house seem like a living entity, contracting under the harsh hand of the wind and complaining in sporadic creaks and groans. Not that I was letting my imagination run wild or anything. Still, one more reason to leave as quickly as possible.

Admittedly I might have been getting a little paranoid, but my skin was crawling at the thought that Albert Fong might be sitting down the street in the park, watching and waiting for me to leave. Or worse, that he'd dispatched Heckle and Jeckle to do it. My shift wasn't scheduled to begin for hours, and I wasn't about to go back to the park to talk to Rabid or Jackie and the moms or anyone else on my own. The intrepid detective in me was shaking like a little girl at the prospect of going it alone.

There was only one cure I could think of for the way I felt.

Forty minutes later, I was sitting in a cubicle in the Stanford library. Albert Fong wasn't the only one who could collect information. I had a stack of books beside me, borrowed from the true-crime section. If I could learn a bit about the Asian mafia's presence in the Bay Area, maybe I could start to figure out the Rubik's cube that was Albert Fong. And what my aunt might have had on him.

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