Rebecca’s given up on hoping for quiet days in this line of work. It seems that even when they get to stay at the Warehouse – and that’s rare enough as it is – something acts up and keeps everyone from having a restful day.
But they’ve been off field rotation for three days with relatively little incident, and Jack’s starting to get restless. She’s almost grateful when Charlie stomps into the office and tosses a case file on her desk.
“Washington,” he says. “Sudden spike in incoming mail. It’s overwhelming the regular deliveries.”
Rebecca frowns. “It isn’t meant for Congress, is it?”
“Not for any part of the government. You and Jack find out what’s behind it.” He heads for his desk before she can ask anything else, so she sighs and starts gathering her things.
The desk girls are doing everything they can to track down a possible source for this problem, Rebecca’s sure, but a post office suddenly drowning in mail is awfully vague; by the time she and Jack get to Washington, they have yet to turn up anything that might be useful. But at least they have a symptom to start with, and a supervisor at the afflicted post office is more than happy to talk to them.
“If you can put a stop to this madness, I’ll be glad for it,” he says. “We’re getting these letters by the bagful – Max has flat-out refused to take them to the dorm anymore, but no one’s come down to pick them up yet.”
Jack raises an eyebrow. “What dorm would that be?”
“See for yourselves.” The supervisor fishes one of the letters out of a burlap sack and hands it over. Jack barely glances at it before handing it to Rebecca; it turns out the mail’s addressed to a student at Howard University. She pulls a notebook out of her pocket and makes a note of the name before returning the letter to the supervisor, who stuffs it back into the sack.
“Well, Becks,” Jack says, “looks like we’re going to college.”
“Indeed it does. Thank you for your help, Mr. Rushman. If we need anything further, we’ll let you know.”
“I don’t suppose you want to take a sack up there with you?” the supervisor says, but it’s clear from his face that he’s joking.
“Let me guess,” Jack says as he pulls the car into a parking space near the university’s administrative building. “This is going to be one of those cases where you think Charlie should have sent Gus, isn’t it?”
“Well, he didn’t know we’d end up in a black community, so it’s not as bad as sending us to Alabama. But – well, yes. Gus, Josephine, Marcus, someone other than us.”
“Oh, come on, Becks. It wasn’t that bad in Alabama and it’s not going to be that bad here.”
Rebecca sighs. “It has nothing to do with that, Jack. It’s...” She takes a few moments to try to figure out how best to explain a concept even she doesn’t always understand. “There are doors open to you that are closed to me. There are doors open to me that are closed to Gus. There are doors open to Gus that are closed to Josephine. And no matter how well this goes, we’re still dealing with people who have no reason to expect anything good from white government agents taking an interest in their daily affairs. I really don’t like treading on people’s toes like this.”
“We’re always treading on someone’s toes, though. ‘Hey, by the way, your prized family heirloom is making your neighbors lose their minds, we need to confiscate it, sorry.’ I really don’t think this is going to be different from any other case. We go in, we talk to the student who’s getting all the mail, we take the Artifact home. Easy as pie.”
And it is, right up until they ask the secretary to help them. She raises an eyebrow at the name and turns to her record book, muttering something about how people will name their kids anything these days.
“I’m sorry,” she finally says, “there’s no one here by that name, student or faculty. Though from what you’ve said, it was meant for one of the dorms and not a professor’s office.”
Jack shoots Rebecca an uneasy glance, thanks the secretary, and at least has the good grace to wait until they’re outside again to say, “Okay, now what do we do?”
“Now,” Rebecca says, “we call the Warehouse and see if they’ve found anything useful yet.” She fishes the Farnsworth out of her purse and dials; it’s not long before Josephine answers.
“Hi, guys,” she says. “How’s the case coming along?”
“We hit a dead end,” Jack says, “so Becks figured it was time we compared notes. The mail’s going to Howard University, if that helps at all.”
“And we took the name on it to the administrative office,” Rebecca adds. “Beatrice Fairfax. But the secretary we spoke to said there’s no one here by that name.”
“Beatrice Fairfax?” Josephine actually looks like she’s trying not to laugh. “You haven’t kept up with the women’s pages in a while, have you, Rebecca?”
“No, why do you...” And then in hits her, and Rebecca groans. “Oh God, my mother read that column like there was no tomorrow! How did I forget that?”
Jack frowns. “What’s so funny?”
“Beatrice Fairfax is a fiction,” Josephine says. “It’s the pen name for an advice column – a very popular one, to boot. If you happen to know the address those letters were going to, I think you’ll find your Artifact.”
“I think I remember it,” Rebecca says. “Worse comes to worst, we’ll go back to the post office and double-check. Thank you, Josephine.”
“It’s no trouble.”
As Rebecca closes the Farnsworth and puts it away, Jack sighs. “An advice column. We’re stuck on a wild goose chase over a damn advice column?”
“Is it really any stranger than a wild goose chase over a snowman?”
“Well, not when you put it like that. But – really, how much mail can those stupid things get?”
“They’re not stupid when they’re the only way for a woman to find out the way her husband treats her isn’t normal,” Rebecca says. “In any case, we need to find out if I’m remembering the right room number before we can go forward.”
She is, as it turns out; the better news is that the room is single occupancy, so provided the student’s in, they’ll only have one person to question. And it’s not too far to Howard Hall from the administrative building, either; Rebecca’s almost beginning to hope this’ll be a quick case after all.
When they reach the dorm room at hand, she motions for Jack to hang back, hands him the Farnsworth and knocks on the door. “Catherine Tubman?”
A few moments go by, and just as Rebecca’s revising her hopes for a quick solution, the door opens, revealing a girl of about twenty and quite a bit of paper scattered across what Rebecca can see of the floor. “May I help you?”
Rebecca pulls out her badge with what she hopes is a reassuring smile. “Secret Service. We understand you’ve been getting an... unusually high volume of mail lately.”
“Well, I had been, but it’s stopped the last few days. Is this going to take very long? Dr. King’s coming to campus in two weeks and I need to make sure I’m ready for the school paper’s interview.”
“The mail hasn’t stopped, actually. The mailman’s just refused to bring it here.”
Catherine hesitates, then sighs and steps back, opening her door the rest of the way. “I think you’d better come in.”
As Rebecca does so, she sees that the paper situation is actually rather dire; it seems to be a mix of typewritten pages, handwritten notes, and envelopes addressed to Beatrice Fairfax. Not many of them appear to have been opened, but Rebecca really can’t blame the poor girl for that.
“How long has this been going on?”
“Three weeks,” Catherine says. “Ever since I got that dratted hat.”
Rebecca raises an eyebrow. “What hat would that be?”
Catherine gestures to a coat rack in the corner of the room, and Rebecca picks out the hat right away; it’s a bit out of fashion, but attractive enough, as hats go. “I found it in a pawn shop and liked the look of it. Since then – well, I’ve had very good luck with the school paper, but then the letters started coming. It’s like the more interviews I land, the more mail I get. I’ve been half dreading Dr. King getting here, honestly.”
“If I told you that I could make the mail stop if I took it with me when I leave town, what would you say?”
“I wouldn’t mind the mail stopping,” Catherine says slowly, “but... what about my interview? Would it affect that?”
Rebecca smiles. “I think, now that you’ve got it, you’ll still have it. You’d likely be on your own from here on out, though.”
“That’s fair. I have to say, though, I liked getting the chance to prove I can handle it. The paper’s a bit of a boys’ club – then again, if you’re in the Secret Service, I probably don’t have to tell you about that.”
“No, I know the feeling.” Rebecca will grant that the Warehouse isn’t as bad as some places – it’s such a specialty job that it can’t afford to be – but it’s not without its moments.
Catherine picks her way across the room, pulls the hat off of the coat rack, and hands it to Rebecca. “In that case, thank you. This has really been getting ridiculous.”
“You’re welcome. And good luck with your interview.”
Rebecca steps back into the hallway, to the sight of Jack closing the Farnsworth. “Good thing you handed it off before you went in there, Becks,” he says. “Phyllis called, they’ve worked out whose the Artifact is but not what – oh, good, you got it. That was easy.”
“Well, I’d imagine if I had an entire advice column’s worth of mail coming my way, I’d want to be rid of it too. Whose is it?”
“Woman by the name of Marie Manning. Her first editor set her to getting a quote from Grover Cleveland about a story, and she did.”
“And then they relegated her to an advice column?” Rebecca shakes her head. “What a waste.”
Jack shrugs. “We can’t all be so lucky as to get into this line of work. Now let’s get that thing into the neutralizer before the phantom mail starts following you around.”
By the time they get back to the Warehouse, Josephine’s waiting to take the hat to its new home. Rebecca goes with her, the better to get some time away from Jack after spending two days cooped up in a car with him.
As they head down the aisles, she says, “I really can’t say you struck me as the sort to read advice columns.”
“Not usually, no.” Josephine’s tone is light, but the good cheer doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “But when you’re lucky to get one newspaper a week, you read every bit of it you can get your hands on.”
“Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it was a – Manzanar thing.”
“It’s all right. Not like I go out of my way to talk about it. In any case, I’m glad the information came in handy.”
“It did,” Rebecca says. “I really should have caught it sooner myself, but that was the last thing I was expecting. And – well, I suppose I got bogged down in the awkwardness of horning into the inner workings of a black college. One of those cases where I felt like you or Gus should be running point.”
“The thing you’re forgetting is that we couldn’t even get in the door on some of those. I like going out in the field every now and then, but... really, can you picture any government office in the South taking me seriously?”
That stops Rebecca in her tracks. “You have a very good point there. I hadn’t considered it from that angle.”
“That’s what we have Mrs. Frederic for. Let’s get this thing shelved – we’ve got some interesting stuff off the Lovelace you might want to have a look at.”
Josephine picks up her pace, headed toward the part of Dublin sector that has most of the Warehouse’s hats; after a moment, Rebecca shakes her head and follows.