the heron island mystery (part thirteen)

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Elsa let us in. She looked rather shell shocked, understandably.

Rhonda greeted her by name, speaking more softly than usual, and told her we’d start by examining the body. The other women were in the living room, and they barely reacted as we walked through to the deck.

The deputy stayed behind in the living room as we went outside.

There were floodlights on the back of the house, illuminating the deck, so it was easy to see Mary’s body, crumpled up next to the table, with a knife sticking out of her back.

Rhonda kneeled to check the body for signs of life, but it was obvious that she didn’t expect to find any.

My employer looked at the body, too, but I had the impression that she was more interested in talking to the women in the living room, particularly since she’d been excluded from Rhonda’s earlier conversations with them.

I barely looked at the body. I was fairly inured to corpses by this point, but my attention was more drawn to the woods on either side of the deck. The trees closest to the house were brightly illuminated by the floodlights, but everything beyond that was in deep shadow, and I couldn’t help but be aware that we were completely visible to anybody who might be in those woods, watching us.

Of course, there was no reason to think that anybody was hiding in those dark woods, in the middle of the night, and the two murders had been committed with knives, not rifles, but part of my job was to assess those sorts of possible threats.

And I did remember that, during an earlier case in Claremont, in a well-lighted living room, Rhonda had been shot by a rifle from the darkness across the street. And another woman had been killed then, and that bullet had been intended for my employer.

So, even in quiet, pleasant Claremont — college and resort town — things could happen.

Rhonda stood up. “As Dr. Wright would say, this dead body is dead. I’m sorry.”

My employer inclined her head slightly, as if she was aware that this was a socially appropriate response to what Rhonda had just said, but her thoughts were clearly elsewhere.

“Shall we go in?” she asked after a moment, trying to appear casual.

Rhonda turned to go inside, and my employer made a face at me behind her back, but it wasn’t until later that I figured out what was bothering her.

 
To be continued…

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Diana Rigg (1938–2020)

I’ve read several obituaries of Diana Rigg over the last few days. Most of the comments have talked about Emma Peel and The Avengers. I was a huge fan of the show when it was on, all those years ago, but she continued to do excellent work in movies, on television, and on the stage for the rest of her long life.

The New York Times obituary showed this picture of Ms. Rigg as Lady Olenna Tyrell on Game of Thrones.

As I’ve reported here before, I’ve been catching up (backwards, slowly) on Game of Thrones, and Ms. Rigg was wonderful in that show.

The picture is from a GoT scene which I have watched many times, and it shows a very specific moment in that scene. Lady Olenna has an empty wine glass in front of her, along with a very small bottle and a very small stopper. That says that she has just drunk poison — knowingly and, under the circumstances, willingly — but she’s not going to go quietly.

(Featuring Dame Diana Rigg as Lady Olenna Tyrell and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Ser Jamie Lannister. Background: All those guys marching at the beginning of the clip are the Lannister army. They have just conquered Highgarden, the seat of the Tyrell family, on behalf of Queen Cersei Lannister, who is Jaime’s sister and lover.)

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the heron island mystery (part twelve)

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Rhonda drove toward the pier at her usual breakneck speed, with her high beams on. There were no other cars on the street and the windows of all the houses were dark. She wasn’t running her siren.

“What do you know?” I asked her.

“The phones are working again. Someone from the house called it in about a half hour ago.”

“Accident? Murder? Suicide?” my employer asked from the back seat.

“Knifed. Dead. That’s all I know.”

“Where?”

“On the deck, or at least that’s where the body was found.”

She drove onto the pier and pulled up next to a ramp where a deputy stood waiting. “Come on” Rhonda said and we followed her down the ramp to the floating platform where the boat was tied up. There were gaps between the rough planks where the water was visible.

A man stood at the controls (if that’s the right term — I don’t know anything about boats). I walked slowly down the ramp, with my employer behind me. She was walking carefully, holding onto the rope railing, but the uneven surface and the tilt and the motion from the water made it difficult for her to keep her footing.

Not that I was gliding along with sure-footed grace and elegance either.

On the platform, there was a wooden box with three steps, to get us up onto the deck of the boat. There was no railing to hold onto, and my employer looked at me, giving me silent permission to help her. I got up to the top step, and then I turned and held out my hand. She gripped it firmly and climbed one careful step at a time.

As she reached the top step, I moved backward onto the deck of the boat, and then I helped her over the gunwale (I had to look that word up) so she was beside me.

She gave my hand a quick squeeze before releasing it.

Rhonda and the deputy cast off the lines and we were off. The boat was compact, with a small cabin in the front, surrounded by windows, where the pilot was. There was a narrow door beside him which probably led to a tiny indoor sleeping area.

In the rear (aft? stern?) there was a high seat, facing the back of the boat, which looked like it was intended for serious fishing activities. It had a seat belt and shoulder straps.

The sea was a little choppy, and we were moving fast. A big light on the bow illuminated the water in front of us, but otherwise it was dark, and the wind would have made conversation difficult, so we didn’t bother.

My employer was sitting on a small bench, holding onto the boat with one hand and her cane with the other. Her hair whipped around her narrow face, and a couple of times she had to wipe salt spray from her glasses with her sleeve. Her expression was neutral.

If you wanted to travel by car (or jitney) from the town center to the college campus, and then from there to Heron Island, you had to go the long way around, by the highway, because there was an inlet between the two land masses which ran right up to the highway.

By the water, though, it was only a few minutes from the town pier to Heron Island.

During that brief trip, I was torn between two topics I could have been fretting about, knowing I probably wouldn’t have enough time to thoroughly worry about both of them.

Should I use my limited time to wonder why Rhonda had come to get us in the first place? Or should I wonder where we’d be landing, and would I be able to get my employer out of the boat and onto dry land with at least some of her dignity intact? (And would we have to tackle those stairs from the beach up to Heron House?)

I hadn’t made any real progress on either question when I heard the motors slow and we pulled up to a small pier. The land around it seemed deserted — I didn’t see any buildings or lights.

The pier stuck out into the water only about twelve or fifteen feet, just one series of unsteady-looking planks and a couple of big vertical pilings. There were no other boats.

We pulled up alongside the pier and the deputy tied us up.

Rhonda got up onto the little pier somewhat more awkwardly than the deputy had. We were bobbing up and down in the water, and I knew that my employer was not likely to make it to the little dock by herself without ending up in the sea.

The deputy was up on the beach already, talking on the radio, facing away from us, so I motioned for Rhonda to turn around. Then, when no eyes were on us, I scooped my employer up in my arms and got her safely onto the pier. She weighed next to nothing, so this was quick and easy.

Rhonda led us through the trees (she and the deputy had brought flashlights, fortunately) and onto a familiar-looking “road” that took us up a hill and around a bend to Heron House. All the lights in the house seemed to be on — they were the only lights I could see anywhere.

 
To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part eleven)

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We got off the jitney at the Main Street stop, and, after a brief discussion of the options available to us, we had a light supper at the Wagon Wheel.

Then, after coffee, we strolled in the direction of home. The weather was pleasant — dry and cool, with a nice breeze

“I think Rhonda is wrong,” she said suddenly as we turned the corner onto Ocean Drive.

“In general, or about something in particular?”

She stopped for a moment and allowed herself a small snort. “About the case,” she said, tapping the side of my shoe with her cane. She looked in both directions, then she led me across the street and down a little path to the water’s edge.

“She thinks the body came by sea,” she said, looking out over the water. “She thinks Heron House is irrelevant, except perhaps as a target — that someone came ashore in a boat, during the storm, dumped the body there on the beach, and then left the same way.”

“A ‘target’?” I asked.

She took out her cigarette case and I put my hand in my jacket pocket, where I carried my lighter, but she didn’t immediately take out a cigarette.

“Well,” she said, “if her theory is true — and it’s certainly not impossible — then it would have been quite a coincidence that the mysterious murderous mariner just happened to select a stretch of beach right below a house where the victim was so well known.”

She took out a cigarette and I lit it for her.

“But it wasn’t intended to be a frame, I would think,” I said.

She nodded. “Of one of the girls? I agree. Far too lackadaisical…” She shrugged. “Unless there’s something yet to come, of course — to narrow down the focus, to point us in the direction of a specific who, and why. That’s possible.” She turned to look at me. “I noticed at supper that you’ve adapted.”

“To what?”

“The Town Hall site. It used to bother you — the scorched ground and that blackened safe where the building used to be — but now you don’t even think about it.”

I shrugged and nodded. She was right.

“I had a thought about it, though,” she said. “I saw a flyer on the bulletin board at the Wagon Wheel. There’s going to be a used book sale next Saturday, to raise money for the new library. I’m going to donate my books.”

“All of them?” I asked, keeping my voice as neutral as I could.

She sighed. “That’s going to be your assignment. Please insist, as we go over the books, that I donate every single one. I’m sure for each one I will be able to find some excuse why I could never part with this particular book — its contents or its history or both.” She sighed. “Be firm with me. I haven’t looked at any of those books since I left college, and…”

“And this is a good cause. A worthy cause. Also, books should be read and used and cherished, not left in boxes to get moldy.”

She nodded and stubbed out her cigarette with her toe. “That was good, though the ‘moldy’ part may have been a bit much.”

We turned to go home. This time we had to wait for a couple of cars to pass before we could cross the street.

“If Rhonda is right,” I said, “she’ll have a heck of a time investigating this one. Boats don’t leave footprints and the beach was swept clean by the storm.”

She nodded. “It will depend on investigating Manfred. Who knew him, where he was staying, who had a grudge against him… all that sort of thing.”

 
My gun is always carefully locked up (I’m not telling you where), except when I know I’m going to need it, but I do keep a baseball bat under my bed. When the pounding on our door started at three in the morning, the bat was in my hand before I was even aware of where I was or why I was on my feet.

I moved to the door as the pounding stopped and Rhonda bellowed, “O’Connor! Sleet! We’ve got an emergency!”

I glanced at my employer, who was putting on her glasses. She squinted at the clock and said, “Well, poo.”

I opened the door, and regarded the sheriff. She was in full uniform, and Mrs. Jessup was behind her, in a robe, nightgown, and slippers, her gray hair in considerable disarray.

“Mrs. Jessup,” I said, leaning the bat against the foot of my employer’s bed, “please accept my apologies, on behalf of all three of us. I’m sure we can handle things from here.”

She shuffled off without a word. I turned my attention to Rhonda. “If she kicks us out, we’re moving into your house.”

She shook her head. “I’m not any happier about being awake at this hour than you are. Mary Sanders is dead, at Heron House. The island is cut off, of course, but I’m going out by boat. Do you want to come?”

“Yes,” my employer said, grabbing her cane and getting to her feet. “We’ll be downstairs in three and a half minutes.” She started to pull off her nightgown.

I got Rhonda out the door and we dressed quickly. I left the bat behind, but I brought the gun.

 
To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part ten)

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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?”

“Of course.”

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…

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the heron island mystery (part nine)

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“Can you tell me about your roommates?”

Elsa laughed. “I’m not going to tell you any of their secrets. Or mine.”

My employer nodded. “That’s fine. I’m just looking for a general overview of who lives here. Can you list them for me? With no secrets, of course.”

She leaned back. “Well, you’ve met Mary. She brought you into this, right?”

“She came to see us last night. Apparently the… ‘mysterious’ events around here had been getting worse?”

“More threatening, not more mysterious.” She made a face. “Somebody has been coming into our house, at night, and leaving weird footprints and threatening messages and stuff like that. The mystery is who it is, and why. It’s not anything… occult or anything like that.”

“So, I gather you’re not one of the people who advocated bringing in a ghost hunter?”

Elsa rolled her eyes. “I don’t believe in ghosts, and I don’t believe we have a ghost, and, even if I did believe we had a ghost, I wouldn’t believe Manfred would be qualified to hunt down anything other than a free drink or a gullible female.”

“Who was in favor of calling someone in — who did believe that you have ghosts?”

“It was mostly Kim, at first. I thought she was kidding, but then the weirder things got, the more insistent she became, and the more the others started to go along with her — at least to think it was a possibility. She did a bunch of research about the history of the house, but I don’t remember the details.”

“Kim. I don’t believe we’ve met her.”

“She wasn’t home last night. She spent the night with her…” She made an awkward face.

“Her amoureuse.”

“Yeah.”

“On the island?”

“Oh, no — at the college.”

“Okay. So, there’s you, and Mary, and Kim. And we’ve met Jo, and the woman who was with her, the taller woman.”

“Li. Li-Min.”

“And Becky, who’s pre-med. Who did the examination of the body.”

“Becks. She’s around somewhere.”

“So, that’s six in all. And four of you were here last night, in the storm.”

“Yes.”

“And how long have you lived here?” my employer asked, lighting another cigarette.

“I’ve been here the longest, of the girls who live here now. I’m a junior, and I’ve always lived here, in the house. I… My parents both went to Claremont, and I knew the area, and as a legacy I got a good deal on tuition, but the dorms…”

My employer nodded slowly. “They are not designed for wheelchairs.” She frowned. “Thinking about it now, there are steps and curbs and…”

“It’s an obstacle course. One of my classes is in a building where I have to have a classmate come and open the back door for me — it’s the only way I can get into the building. And one of my classes was moved… Anyway, you get the idea. But this place is a dream. The previous owner broke his leg once and he had ramps put in everywhere. They even took out all the thresholds.” She gestured at the three steps down from the deck to the muddy path beside the house. “On the ground floor, those are the only steps anywhere.”

My employer looked up at the second floor. “How many bedrooms are upstairs?”

“Five — three across in the front and two in the back. Or so I’m told.”

“The ones in the front are smaller?”

“Yes — they were for the children, I think. The back on the right, up there, is the ‘master bedroom’ — or whatever it’s called when there’s no master in the house — and the other one is around the same size as the ones in the front. The ‘master bedroom” is the only one with its own bathroom.”

“It must get pretty chaotic up there with four girls sharing the one bathroom.”

Elsa laughed. “Not my problem. I have the littlest bedroom, off the kitchen, but it has a little bathroom of its own. Sometimes one of the other girls comes down to see if they can use it.” She shrugged. “Sometimes I let them, and sometimes I don’t — depends on my mood.”  She grinned.

Elsa looked at the table in the middle of the deck, which currently contained one apple and one banana. She looked at my employer, and then at me. “Have you eaten?” she asked. “Why didn’t we invite you to join us when we were having breakfast?”

My employer smiled. “I really couldn’t answer your second question.” She shrugged. “We are, after all, interlopers, not guests.”

“Well, you were invited, right? Mary invited you — that makes you guests.” She looked at me. I attempted to appear stalwart and well-fed.

She gestured in the direction of the kitchen. “Would you like something to eat? Or maybe some coffee?”

I gestured at my employer, and she smiled. “Some coffee would be very welcome. We were up rather early this morning. And something to snack on would be pleasant, if that’s possible.” She gestured at the fruit on the table. “In addition to the fruit that someone liberated earlier.”

Elsa headed off toward the kitchen. I thought of offering to help, but it was her home and I didn’t want to imply that she couldn’t manage.

I moved my chair around to face my employer, and she looked up at the sky. “Please keep track of the time today, by the way,” she said, “and make sure you know exactly when the island will be cut off from the mainland. I do intend to sleep in my own bed tonight.”

 
To be continued…

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