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Rhonda came out onto the deck looking unconvinced. Not about anything in particular, I thought, just unconvinced in general. I had the impression that she hadn’t been convinced by anything she’d heard since her arrival, and she obviously wasn’t expecting her conversation with us to break that streak.
Also, as we found out later, she had a strong feeling that Heron House and its residents hadn’t been involved in the murder at all, so all the “information” she was collecting here, in addition to being of dubious accuracy, might well turn out to be irrelevant, too.
Mary had joined us a minute earlier, but she hadn’t said anything other than “The sheriff is coming.” She’d looked tired, and I found myself wondering where she’d slept the night before. Well, she was a college student — so maybe the proper question was whether she’d slept at all.
The glass table held the remains of the food Elsa had provided for us, which had been excellent. I’d asked Mary if she wanted something, but she’d just shaken her head and yawned.
When Rhonda sat down, however, she immediately helped herself.
After a while, she sighed, in between bites. “To sum up,” she said, “nobody knew the victim was here on the island last night, nobody will admit to liking him or wanting him around, nobody will admit to believing in ghosts or ghost hunters, and can I have some coffee?”
I hurried inside, found a clean mug, and brought it out. I filled it from the carafe and handed it to her. (I made a small bow, mostly because I knew she’d make a face.)
“Obviously,” she began again, “you three weren’t on the island at the time of the murder. But I do have one question for you: Why are you here?” When she said “you” she was looking directly at my employer.
So, my employer and Mary proceeded to recount for her the story of Mary’s visit to our home the night before, during the storm, and everything they said was factual, technically, but at every point they emphasized my employer’s enthusiasm for the idea of disproving the existence of ghosts, and debunking the whole idea of “ghost hunters.”
I could tell that Rhonda wasn’t completely buying it, but there wasn’t anything for her to grab onto so she could challenge the story that was being presented to her. But I knew her well enough to see that the whole situation was bugging her, as I admit it would have bugged me.
Once again, after all, there was a murder in her town, and once again we were on the scene before she’d even heard about the murder, and the explanation she was being given was not entirely convincing.
“So,” Rhonda said to Mary when the story was done, “what made things so urgent last night that you tried to get help in the middle of a bad storm?”
Mary frowned. “The notes on the refrigerator had been getting more threatening for a while. Saying that we don’t belong here, and that we’re degenerates…” She shrugged. “And it does… somebody is coming into our house at night, even when we lock the doors — and nobody around here locks their doors. It’s not… either it’s supernatural or natural, but either way it’s creepy.”
Rhonda nodded. “Creepy, and illegal. Did it occur to you to call the police?”
“Well, yes. It did occur to me, of course. but… there was… people disagreed. Some people disagreed. The ones who thought it might really be supernatural.”
“What was the most recent message?” my employer asked Mary.
She pulled a piece of paper from her pocket. “‘Cras est dies omnia mutantur.’ I may not be pronouncing that correctly.” She handed it to Rhonda. “I wrote it down, because they — the messages — they usually vanish pretty quickly.”
“Latin?” Rhonda asked.
She nodded. “Becky thinks it means ‘Tomorrow everything gets weird.’ Which, considering how weird things have been already, made it seem kind of urgent…”
My employer started to get to her feet, but Rhonda handed the paper to her.
“It’s not actually ominous,” she said slowly. “It simply means that everything will change tomorrow. The change could be good or bad.” She shrugged. “And it turned out to be true, I guess, though maybe this current situation wasn’t what the mysterious note writer was referring to.”
She gave the piece of paper back to Rhonda.
“Did Manfred visit here a lot?” Rhonda asked Mary. “Or only when there were ghosts to hunt?”
Mary made a face. “People talk like he was here all the time. ” She shook her head. “He was mostly only here when we had parties — so they always saw him, at the parties, because that’s the only time they were here, too.”
“Did he stay over?”
“No. Never! No matter how you mean that. He was just a friend — sort of… He wasn’t in any sort of relationship with any of the girls in the house.”
“Did you see him last night?”
“No. I hadn’t seen him for a week or two. He…” She shrugged. “There was a storm last night. As you know. Nobody visits here when there’s a storm. They might get stuck on the island for a day or two. No phones, the road gets washed out sometimes… We always stock up on food and candles, and kerosene for the lanterns, and ride it out. It can be kind of fun. We have books and board games and Becks has her guitar, and we have an excuse for missing our classes.”
When Rhonda was done, Mary said, “Can I ask a question?”
Mary looked at me. “What did you do with my car? I looked outside and it’s not there.”
“Ah,” I said. I glanced at Rhonda, since it was really her fault that Mary’s car was back at the college, and my employer gave me a stern look over her glasses, as if I might have misplaced the car through carelessness.
There was a series of negotiations then, since Rhonda clearly wanted to end up driving Mary to the college campus alone, so she could ask her more questions without company, but she didn’t want to admit this, since Mary had already said that she wanted my employer present for any questioning, so it was difficult for Rhonda to justify leaving us at Heron House, with no car, and with the tide waters rising.
So, having surrendered to the inevitable, Rhonda drove the three of us to the campus, in near silence. Mary got her car, and my employer and I took the jitney back to town.
Mary had apologized for not driving us home, vaguely implying that she wanted to make it back to the island before the road was under water. I did the calculations in my head, and she would have had plenty of time, but I didn’t say anything.
On the jitney, I found myself wondering again where Mary had slept the night before, however much she might have slept…
“Probably with my friend Diana,” my employer said softly, looking pleased with herself. She noted my expression. “Well, not necessarily with her, in that sense, but in her dorm room.” She grinned, briefly. “That’s how I knew who she was last night. That scarf she was wearing is quite distinctive and apparently knitted by hand. I’ve seen it in Diana’s room several times, and it’s certainly not anything Diana would ever wear.
“When I was investigating the Marvel Philips case I saw the list of students who were living in that dorm, so I knew that Mary was Diana’s roommate at that time, though I never met her there when I was visiting Diana. Diana didn’t get a new roommate assigned to her, so I assume that Mary uses the room as a pied-à-terre, for when Heron Island is cut off from the mainland.”
To be continued…