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Professor Lebrun stood up. “Miss Stapleton, would you like some soup, and perhaps a sandwich? It would be no trouble at all.”
She hesitated, and then nodded. “Thank you, Professor.”
He bowed and headed to the kitchen, taking his wine glass with him.
“Ms. Stapleton was Marvel Phillips’ attorney,” my employer explained to me.
“Her personal attorney — I had nothing to do with her businesses. Miss Sleet, I heard a rather confusing report on the radio last night about Marvel’s death. Your letter had given this phone number, so I called and got no answer. My next step was to call the sheriff’s office. I spoke to someone there and learned that the sheriff is in the hospital and the former sheriff is under arrest…”
“So you decided to come here yourself. Quite reasonable.”
“Do you know why Marvel was killed?”
“Yes, or at least I know who did it, and I have a very solid idea of why. The suspect has admitted nothing, at least so far.”
“Can you please fill me in?” She reached into her attache case and pulled out a legal pad. “I hope you don’t mind if I take notes.”
“Of course not. I’d recommend it. Perhaps we should adjourn to the kitchen where there’s a table, and probably some nice sandwiches coming, and, I hope, some coffee!”
The last few words had been pitched to be audible in the kitchen (and quite possibly down to the highway).
The professor brandished a full, and very welcome, coffee pot as we entered his small kitchen.
With a mug of coffee on the kitchen table in front of her, my employer settled back in her chair. “The murder of Marvel Phillips had nothing to do with Marvel herself,” she began, “or the college here, or the family in whose house her dead body was left. It was all about the former sheriff and the current sheriff.”
She sipped her coffee. “Being a detective, if I may pontificate for a moment, is mostly not skulking around alleys and peeking through transoms. There is some of that, of course, but a lot of it is research. The first thing I did when Marshall and I got here was to read all the issues I’d missed of the Claremont Crier, the town newspaper.
“The one thing that struck a wrong note in everything I read was that Phil Baxter, who had been the sheriff here for a long time, and who, in my experience with him, very much enjoyed the job, had retired. That was a discordant note — he wasn’t that old, and there was no mention of a reason.” She shrugged. “But that didn’t immediately suggest a motive for murder, so I filed it away, and turned to the question of figuring out who might have had a motive.
“One way to do this is by using the old adage ‘follow the money,’ but that didn’t seem to apply. Marvel had enormous wealth, but she died intestate and without living relatives…”
Ms. Stapleton correctly interpreted my employer’s pause at this point. “Both of those statements are, to the best of my knowledge, true.” She had dated the sheet of paper in front of her, but so far she had taken no notes.
My employer continued. “I understand that the county attorney, Mr. Barris, has been checking with lawyers in this area to see if Marvel had a will drawn up while she was here. But, in the absence of that, and in the absence of a previously unknown relative, I decided to look beyond simple financial benefit.
“That didn’t produce any immediate results either. Marvel apparently wasn’t that close to anybody around here — to inspire a more visceral reason for someone to take her life — and, in theory, nobody from her earlier life knew she was here.
“I searched her dorm room, and I interviewed some of the other students who knew her. I got no hints there either.
“And, no matter what the motive, why would anybody set such a bizarre scene?” She described how the body had been found. “He, the murderer, might have taken the clothes because they contained some kind of clue, and the wallet might have been taken to make it harder to identify the body, but why then go to all the trouble of squeezing her into that bikini that didn’t even fit her properly? Why not just leave the body naked? And, if the murderer had known who she really was, he must have realized that her identity would come out no matter what, and probably soon.
“And that’s when it started to fall together in my mind.
She was aching to define “Cui bono” (Latin for “who benefits?”), but, since her audience was a college professor and an attorney, she managed to restrain herself.
“I began to see that Phil Baxter stood to benefit, at least potentially.
“He had been the sheriff here for four terms, and, as I say, he’d liked being the sheriff. He’d had to deal with a few rather difficult crimes, but he solved them, in some cases with my help. To be blunt: I made him look good while I was attending college here.
“But then he was diagnosed with heart trouble — specifically a bad valve, and some related problems. He needed surgery, and the timing happened to coincide with the next election. He didn’t want to postpone the surgery — he was having increasing trouble getting around, and there was always the possibility that he would simply keel over and die. Plus, knowing him, I imagine he didn’t want to appear weak. I’ve read his medical files — that’s how I learned all this.
“Besides, he’d been elected for four straight terms, the last one running unopposed. He probably assumed that the election would be pretty much a formality.
“But he had a deputy, Rhonda White, and she had not only competence but ambition — more than he’d realized.
“I don’t know if he confided in her, or if she deduced what was going on with him (I suspect it was the latter — they weren’t close), but she started positioning herself, appearing in his place at public events, sometimes when he couldn’t attend because of tests or other procedures. She let people know — without ever saying so explicitly, of course — that he was starting to slow down.
“And suddenly editorials started appearing in the Crier, saying that maybe the baton should be passed to the younger generation, new blood needed, that sort of thing.”
“To anticipate your question: What does this have to do with Marvel? After the election, and his surgery, Phil Baxter was no longer sheriff, and he was not happy. He was recovering, slowly getting his strength back, and increasingly angry about having been outflanked in his moment of weakness, as it were. But what could he do? How could he get back to where he’d been? Back to the place where he was, from his point of view, entitled to be.
“Then, based on what I found — what we found — he had his idea. He had, as I’ve said, quite a good reputation for solving difficult crimes… so, he would present his successor with a crime that she would not be able to solve. He would kill Marvel Phillips, a huge celebrity, in a way that made no sense, and let the international press descend on our town and highlight for the whole world how baffled Rhonda was. Better even than defeating her in an election — he would show her up.”
“Excuse me,” Professor Lebrun said, serving the canned soup he’d warmed up. “How did he know that Madeleine was Marvel?”
“Phil Baxter is very good friends with the dentist who did the work on Marvel’s teeth.” A look passed between my employer and Ms. Stapleton, and it was obvious that the lawyer knew about her late client’s recent dental work, and why she’d needed it. “She had paid his fee with a check — probably trusting to his professional ethics.” My employer shrugged. “It doesn’t seem surprising that Dr. Gregg would share a piece of information like that with his trusted friend, the retired sheriff.
“But then, something happened that threatened Phil Baxter’s plans. Completely by coincidence, I came back to town, and I, of all people, discovered Marvel’s body. I… I’m going to have to risk being immodest here — I would not be surprised if he’d been afraid that I’d solve it right then. But I didn’t — murders like this, with these apparently random elements, they’re common in fiction, but not in reality. I’ve never seen a murder in a real locked room, for example.
“So, I had a theory, but no evidence.”
Then she described the return of the Arkright family, and the shooting.
“The first bullet was intended for me, obviously, but it hit and killed Barbara Arkright instead. Marshall had thrown me to the floor and covered my body with his, so I was protected. Did he — Mr. Baxter — then shoot Sheriff Rhonda out of frustration, realizing that his plan of defeating her politically was probably not going to be possible? Was he afraid that she’d spotted him in the dark across the street? I don’t know, but she was drawing her sidearm when she was shot.”
Ms. Stapleton frowned. “The sheriff — the current sheriff — is she alive?”
“Yes. I believe she will recover.”
She looked out the window at the dark sky, apparently composing her thoughts. “So, this was all… I’m sorry, it just seems so pointless. She — Marvel…”
She nodded. “I really felt that her life — her adult life — was just beginning.”
I could see my employer weighing whether this was the time to bring up the book she was hoping to write, but she didn’t mention it. Ms. Stapleton was apparently feeling rather strongly about Marvel’s death, and the worst thing would have been to risk appearing opportunistic at that moment.
To be continued…