“‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?’” Jane Sassacre-Crocker, thirteen years of age, made a face at the book in her hand. “What a load of hooey!”
Her brother Jake looked up from the canvas rucksack he was packing. He glanced at the cover of her book, then shook his head and laughed.
“Confound it, Jane! I told you already, I’m Jake Harley now!”
Jane ignored him. “--what in the world do you think is so funny? I’m on to you, brother--I’ve read the unabridged Colonel Sassacre’s, same as you. Don’t lie to me--you’ve set up some farewell prank and are just waiting to see me fall into it.”
“Jane,” Jake said, taking her hands and holding them in his own. “Believe me, I wasn’t laughing over your farewell prank.”
Jane peered into his green eyes, searching them for falsehood. Finally, she nodded. “You were still laughing.”
Jake shrugged. “Just at hearing you call the words of the Great Detective ‘hooey.’ Sure as fucking heck couldn’t have seen that coming. Isn’t he one of your idols?”
“That’s neither here nor there,” said Jane hurriedly. “The point is, sometimes you can’t eliminate the impossible. Sometimes the answer is the impossible.”
“Wouldn’t that just make it improbable?” Jake winced under his sister’s glare. “Right. Nevermind. Is this about our stepmother again?”
Jane sighed heavily. “When is it not?”
Jake let go of her hands. “You know,” he said, reaching into the jumbled pile of clothes and books on the bed. “You could come with me and Halley.”
“I can’t,” said Jane helplessly. “I know it sounds crazy, but I know somehow I need to stay here. There’s someone I have to meet.” She rubbed her eye. “Besides. You know the old witch doesn’t hate me nearly as much as she does you.”
This was quite true. While their stepmother didn’t like either of them very much--or, really, at all--as far as Jane could tell, it was only Jake that Betty Crocker truly detested beyond all comprehension. Platonically detested, as their stepmother was only too quick to qualify. She didn’t make any pains about hiding it, either.
“Still,” said Jake.
“I’ll be fine,” said Jane, placing her hand on his chest. “Promise.”
“I’ll write to you,” Jake said. “All the time.”
“She’ll probably burn your letters,” Jane murmured.
“I don’t care,” said Jake. “I won’t stop writing. I love you.”
She kissed his cheek. “I love you too.”
The rest of his packing was done in silence. Jane took her book up and tried to read further, but she found herself peering over the top of the book at her brother quite frequently. At thirteen he was still shorter than she, but you could see a hint of the man he would become in the boy he was. Jane, especially, could see it.
It was one reason she would not go with him. She liked what she saw and he was her brother.
It really was for their best that she’d be staying home. She’d find her way out of the old witch’s claws--and they really were claws--somehow. Perhaps she’d be able to persuade the old witch to send her to college or finishing school or something. Perhaps she’d meet a young man--perhaps a private detective?--who was kind and funny and heroic and not her twin brother, with a dashing moustache and a wink in his eye.
Finally, however, Jake was ready to leave. He shouldered his bag and made a half-bow to Jane. “You’ll see me out to the lawn, won’t you?”
“Of course,” said Jane. “I’m right behind you.”
“Bully,” said Jake, and he reached to open the door.
A bucket fell on his head. Jane hooted in laughter. “Did you really think I’d send you off without one last jape?”
“You,” Jake said fondly, “are a very twisted sister. Help me get this off before the old witch sees it.”
“My stepmother,” Jane explained as she removed the pineapple upside-down cake from the picnic basket, “is an inhuman monster.”
“I see,” said Captain Egbert. From his pocket he produced a bottle-opener. “Pass me the lemonade, my dear.”
“No, Jack, you really don’t,” said Jane. “I don’t mean it as a figure of speech. Betty Crocker--my stepmother--is not human. I spent years gathering the evidence--for the longest time I worried I was mad and maybe I would have gone mad, if it hadn’t been for Jake.”
Captain Egbert nodded. “Your brother.”
“My twin,” Jane confirmed. “Or--I thought he was. It turns out that we weren’t related at all. Just adopted at the same time. I’d confronted my stepmother about the lost letters--as you encouraged me to--and she told me... I don’t know where to start.”
She sighed softly and leaned back against the tree. Jane Sassacre-Crocker was thirty-five years of age and had resigned herself to being an old maid long ago. She’d worked in at the local bakery and as secretary and receptionist to the town’s only private detective and, for these last few years, as a WAC in the Aircraft Warning Service. That was how she’d met Captain John Egbert. He wasn’t a detective or an adventurer--just a soldier (ex-soldier now that the War was over) who was planning to return to Washington State where he’d grown up and teach mathematics at his old high school.
She loved him more than she’d ever thought she could love someone who wasn’t Jake.
She thought, maybe, she loved him more than Jake. She didn’t know. It had been so long since she’d had any contact with her brother.
He’d asked her to marry him earlier that afternoon. She’d said yes. Of course she’d said yes. He was sweet and kind and brave--he had the most charming laugh and an even more charming moustache. She thought she could be happy with him.
“I saw her once,” Jane said. “When I was very small. The way that she really looks like. I told Jake, but I don’t know if he believed me.”
Captain Egbert nodded slowly and handed her the opened bottle of lemonade. Jade took a long sip from it.
“It was because the way she really looks is so different than how she appears to look,” Jane explained. “It was like... it was almost like magic. I didn’t know how to explain it. The horns were too long. She was too tall. The grey skin, sure, she could hide with cosmetics, but the gills... It was impossible. Me dreaming it up... it wouldn’t even have been improbable. But I knew I hadn’t dreamt it.”
Captain Egbert reached over and squeezed her hand. She looked up at him.
“You think I’m mad,” she said, softly.
“Well,” she said. “Anyone else would. I suppose that’s why I’m marrying you, then--you’re the only one who wouldn’t. And it wasn’t magic. It was just science so advanced that it looked like magic. She was the last of her race, you know. She told me that too.”
Her stepmother had told Jane that she hated her and then kissed Jane harder than she’d ever been kissed before. Her stepmother. The woman who’d raised her--except she hadn’t, really. She’d left the raising of Jane and Jake to Halley, with the assistance of a maidservant to do what the dog could not. Colonel Sassacre had been more parent to Jane, even though she’d never known him in life. But his body was stuffed and mounted in the parlor and his spirit was in his book of japes.
Jake had killed him. Perhaps it had been by accident, but it had happened all the same. Jake had killed him and the old witch had stuffed him and then hated and scorned his children like the evil stepmother in a fairy tale. Like the wicked queen.
Like the witch.
“When we get to Washington,” Jane said, “I was thinking that I might open up a joke shop. Call it The Prankster’s Gambit. Maybe not right away. First, I’d like to try for children. A child at least. John Egbert Junior.”
The witch had said that Jane was supposed to have children with Jake, but she was wrong about that.
Maybe Betty was wrong about more than that.
“We’ll get a house in the suburbs,” said Captain Egbert.
Jane leaned against him. “That would be nice.” She closed her eyes. “Jack... if you knew the world was going to end on a specific day and there was nothing that might change it, what would you do?”
“I think,” Captain Egbert said after a long moment. “That I’d just try to live my life as happily as I could. And that when the end came, to try to face it as bravely as I could.”
Jane nodded. “I will too.”
And besides, even if the old witch was right, she’d be an old woman of ninety-nine when the world would end. Plenty of time for her to make a life.
All the time she really needed.