the heron island mystery (part thirty)

This story started here.

“Is she deranged?” Rhonda demanded.

Ordinarily, my employer would have pretended that she had no idea who the sheriff was referring to, but Rhonda had slid an ashtray across her desk as we’d had seated ourselves, so she was grateful for that. This was the first time Rhonda had relaxed her rule about smoking in her office, so it was no time to be pedantic (or at least not that pedantic).

“I don’t know,” my employer said. “That’s not my area of expertise.” She waved a hand. “I’m not convinced that she killed Mary, either, although everybody’s stories certainly don’t rule her out. But proclaiming that you’re guilty of a crime which you did not actually commit does not necessarily indicate mental imbalance. It can be a very sane and clever move, under certain circumstances.”

“Mr. Barris is hoping that I — we — can give him more information so he can decide how to charge Kim Daniels.” Elsa looked up. “I know she tried to attack you, Miss Peabody — and threatened to kill you — but it’s complicated by her confession that she killed Mary Sanders, which as far was I know we can’t prove. And she said she killed Mary in revenge for a murder that I can’t see how Mary could have committed.”

“Since I’m here,” Elsa said, “can I say what I’m wondering?”

Rhonda nodded. “Please do.”

“Sitting where I’m sitting — figure of speech — I’m worried about what’s going to happen next, much more than who’s going to prosecute who for what.” She paused before continuing. “There was a murder near my house on Monday night, there was a murder in my house on Tuesday night, and one of my friends tried to kill me last night. To be honest, I’m scared about being at home tonight. And I’m scared for my roommates. The ones who are left.”

Rhonda leaned back in her chair. “I can understand that. I had deputies on the island last night, and I am considering having someone inside the house tonight.” She tapped the papers on her desk. “I have your statement about last night, Miss Peabody, and I will be in touch later today. But first I want to talk to Miss Sleet and Marshall, to pool our information.”

Elsa put her hands on the arms of her wheelchair. “I understand. Please let me know what the plans are for tonight.”

She started to turn, but my employer said, “Elsa, here’s one fact that might be helpful. What you seem worried about sounds like a serial killer. Serial killers are quite common in movies, for obvious reasons, but they are very rare in real life. This is, apparently, a series of murders, but I very much doubt that someone is methodically and systematically murdering, or attempting to murder, the inhabitants of Heron House.”

Elsa nodded. “Thanks. That is helpful, actually.” She turned and wheeled toward the door, which I held open for her. She winked, visible only to me, as she left. I closed the door and resumed my seat.

My employer took out her cigarette case and I made sure I had my lighter ready. “What I said to Elsa is true,” she began, “but I am also worried about possible future violence, so, to anticipate your question, I am willing to share things that I know. The ones which you may not know, which may or may not be relevant. I have, needless to say, some ideas as well, but they don’t lead anywhere conclusive and I’m going to hold them for the moment.”

Rhonda nodded. “Okay, let’s put Mr. Barris and his job to the side. He’s been county attorney for a long time — he can figure out his own problems. I was elected to prevent the things that have been happening at Heron House… God, I sound like I’m campaigning, don’t I?”

“I know what you mean, and you’re right. Nobody elected me to do anything, but I’ve been in that position, looking down on a corpse that I could perhaps have prevented if I’d done something differently, and I don’t want to be there again.” She held up a finger. “But I do have some questions myself, five in number, which I’m hoping you will answer for me, if you can.”

“Can you list them for me?” Rhonda asked.

My employer smiled and took out a cigarette, which I lit for her. “Of course. Some of them have more than one part.”

Counting them off on her fingers, she said:

“One: Why was Manfred on the island on Monday night, during the storm? Assuming he wasn’t wandering around in the rain all night, where was he staying?

“Two: Where did Mary spend that night, the night of Manfred’s murder?

“Three: Where did Kim spend that night, the night of Manfred’s murder? Was she with her professor lover, and does her professor lover really exist?

“Four: On the night Mary was killed, was there any physical evidence on or around the deck to support the idea that somebody in Manfred’s clothes — Manfred or not — had been on the deck?

“Five: Your deputies, the ones who were on the island last night, where were they?”

To be continued…

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thursday three

These days I mostly wake up with a Taylor Swift song in my head.

It’s pretty random which one, as far as I can tell, between her last two albums, folklore and evermore (I only know a few songs from her earlier albums). It’s usually not my most favorite songs, or my least favorite — it’s almost always one of the others (which is most of them). Some days it takes me a minute to even figure out which song I’m listening to — I have to wait to get to the chorus to know.

You have to remember that I’m only half awake when this is going on.

One day it was “Love Story,” her very first hit single (the “Taylor’s version” re-recording — google it for the details as to why it exists), sliding into the song “happiness” from evermore. That was a bit of a shock — it’s a rough jump from Romeo and Juliet getting a happy ending (“I talked to your dad, go pick out a white dress. It’s a love story, baby, just say yes.”) to: “I pulled your body into mine every goddamn night now I get fake niceties.”

It woke me up, though, so there’s that.

(Today’s was “Champagne Problems,” by the way.)

I liked this interview with Noomi Rapace where she discussed a scene she refused to play in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Apparently the screenwriter had a scene where Lisbeth Salander (Rapace’s character) details to Mikael Blomkvist (the other main character) her long history of rape and other sexual abuse.

The novel, as I’ve written about before, has its flaws (in fact, it basically screams “I’ve never written a novel before!”), but it doesn’t have any scene like that, nor should it have. Rapace’s idea was that her performance would make all the important points (and she’s right — she’s magnificent in the movie), and also audiences don’t need or want to know everything anyway.

In addition, in this specific story, you have to take into account that people who had been systematically abused do not, to the best of my understanding, start detailing it all to someone they have only recently met, or to anybody.

That’s (as my father used to say) phony baloney. Stieg Larsson (the writer of the book) had a lot of clumsy “info dump” chapters, but he knew enough not to do one about Salander, let alone with her doing the telling herself.

At the TV Tropes website, I found this useful article: “Continuity Lock-Out.”

“Continuity Lock-out” is defined as “The writers have let the mythos they’ve generated get so thick and convoluted that a newcomer has very little chance of understanding the significance of anything. They are ‘locked out’ of understanding the story by all the continuity.”

It usually applies to TV series, or series of novels, or movies (especially in the modern world of millions of Avengers and X-men movies).

The media where it exists most extremely, however, are comic books and soap operas, which can go on for decades. I read X-men comics for a long time, since the very first issue in the early 1960s. Then I stopped for a few years (maybe in the 1980s), and then, on impulse, I picked up an issue, and I couldn’t follow the story at all. I couldn’t even figure out what was happening.

So, that’s an important question with any sort of serial fiction: How much of a priority that is to build in ways for new readers to jump on midway through the story?

I remember the Lord of the Rings movies, for example. The first started with a big “This is how we got here” narration, but the second movie, The Two Towers, starts completely in medias res. So, after the success of the first movie, they obviously decided they could assume that the entire audience for the second movie, or almost all of it, had seen the first movie.

These days, I stay away from stories, in any medium, which have that sort of complicated continuity (well, except for Dark Shadows). Even with Legends of Tomorrow — it’s part of the “Arrowverse,” the universe of TV shows centered around the show Arrow, but I just watch Legends and ignore the others, because I know none of the other shows are as deliriously goofy as Legends. In fact, some of them look like they might be a bit grim.

This applies to my own writing, too, since the stories which take place in U-town depend on at least some knowledge of what U-town is, and to really understand that you need to read U-town, the novel, which is somewhere around 272,000 words long. One of the chapters is almost novel-length by itself, plus it’s written in hypertext. I’ve tried, in the more recent mystery stories, to give as much background information as is necessary, but it can become awkward.

So, that’s one reason that I started to write the current series of mystery stories (“The Marvel Murder Case,” “The Town Hall Mystery,” “The Heron Island Mystery“) outside of and before U-town. I can concentrate on the detective and her assistant and the mystery itself, without having to explain a very small teenage head of state who happens to have superhuman strength, or a mass murderer who lives a quiet life with her musician boyfriend and their talking dog.

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the heron island mystery (part twenty-nine)

This story started here.

I didn’t want to get involved in a conversation with Li and Becky at that moment, so I followed Elsa to the front door.

“Come on in,” I said to the deputies. “I’m the one who called the sheriff. My name is Marshall O’Connor.”

I had never met these deputies before, and they didn’t seem particularly interested in meeting me now. They had a perp to pick up, and they wanted to get it done.

I led them back to Elsa’s bedroom. I could hear Elsa talking to Li and Becky behind us, but I couldn’t make out the words. That was fine with me.

Kim was still sitting on Elsa’s bed, her legs folded under her, and she didn’t look up as we came in. Her expression was somewhere between stoic and fierce.

One deputy, who seemed to be in charge of this two-man operation, asked for Kim’s name and she gave it. He handcuffed her, and then stood aside for me to remove my handcuffs, which had been keeping her attached to the bed.

They took her out, one walking in front of her and one behind. Li and Becky were sitting on a sofa, talking to Elsa, but Li jumped up and ran over as soon as Kim came into view. She tried to talk to Kim, but her friend was still as blank-faced as before and kept walking forward, her eyes on the back of the deputy in front of her. I was starting to wonder if her defense for her actions was going to depend on a claim that she was insane. (Which is not to say that I had some kind of worked-out proof that she wasn’t insane.)

In desperation, Li grabbed a pen from a small shelf by the door, yanked up Kim’s shirt sleeve, and wrote something on her arm. The deputies paused to allow this, and then they left with their captive.

I started to wonder where exactly the deputies were taking Kim, since the road to the mainland was going to be under water until morning, but I caught Elsa’s expression and I knew there were more important things to deal with now.

Li plopped herself back onto the sofa, looking upset but determined. Her thin face was sharp and angular in the light from the table lamp next to her. Becky was looking up at the ceiling, tears welling in her eyes, and Elsa was giving me a look that was somewhere between a demand and a plea that I come and help her out.

I pulled a chair over next to Elsa’s wheelchair.

“I wanted to help her,” Li said defensively. “I gave her my lawyer’s number.”

“But she tried to kill Elsa,” Becky said. Tears were dripping down her cheeks, which were creased with sleep wrinkles, and she still wasn’t looking at Li. Other than me and Elsa, nobody seemed to be making eye contact with anybody.

“She was probably confused,” Li protested. “She thought that Elsa killed Mary–“

“No,” Elsa said patiently, “She said she — Kim — had killed Mary because she thought Mary had killed Manfred.”

“But–” Kim began, but Becky turned to me.

“Mr. Marshall, do you know what’s going on?” She squinted at me and wiped her face with her sleeve. “Can you explain all this?”

As I started to explain, at least the parts I was willing to explain, I interrupted myself. “What about Jo?” I asked.

“She’s probably got her ear plugs in,” Becky said. “With those, she can sleep through anything.”

I hesitated. “Can you run up and check? It’s up to you whether you want to wake her up, but the way things have been going, I want to make sure she’s okay.”

Becky nodded and made for the stairs, ascending into the darkness. Our little corner of the dark living room was illuminated by two small table lamps — it felt almost like were were huddled around a camp fire together.

Li brought her legs up her chin and wrapped her arms around them. “You think Jo is dead, too?” she asked in a tiny voice.

“No,” I reassured her. “That is, I have no reason to think so, but this is not the part where everything gets explained. I don’t want to take anything for granted.”

Becky padded back down from the second floor and rejoined us in our little circle of light. “Fast asleep and snoring,” she reported as she sat next to Li again. I noted that she was wearing glasses now. “She has the covers pulled up over her head.”

Elsa caught my eye, her puckish grin starting to come back. “We must have been keeping her awake, poor thing.”

Becky looked a question.

“Mr. Marshall and I were in my room together earlier, loudly pretending to have sex. When Jo has a guest over, I can sure hear everything that’s going on up in her room. I guess it works the other way, too.”

I could tell that calling me “Mr. Marshall” was amusing Elsa, and it seemed to be helping to lift her mood, so I didn’t complain.

Li grimaced. “Forget all that, please,” she said, waving her hands. ‘Why did those cops take Kimmy away? What did she do? How can we help her?”

Calmly and matter-of-factly, I laid out what was known:

1) Manfred had been murdered, by person or persons unknown, his body dumped on the beach below Heron House during the storm on Monday night. The weapon had been a knife, which had been left in the body.

Mary was not on the island on Monday night, and Kim claimed that she hadn’t been there either.

2) Mary had been murdered, by person or persons unknown, on Tuesday night, her body left on the deck of Heron House. The weapon had been a knife, which had been left in the body.

3) Tonight, Wednesday night, Kim had threatened to kill Elsa, with a knife, claiming that she (Kim) had killed Mary the night before. Kim had apparently believed that Elsa knew this and was a threat to her. Kim said that she had killed Mary because Mary had killed Manfred.

I shrugged. “Did Kim really kill Mary last night? I have no idea. I’m no detective, but I’m not aware of anything that rules her out. If she did kill Mary, was it for the reason she said? I have no idea. If she did think Mary killed Manfred, why did she care enough to seek vengeance? That I’d rather not say — I have no direct evidence.” I didn’t glance meaningfully at Elsa, but I was pretty sure she was paying attention to what I was, and was not, saying. Whether she was going to follow my lead or not was another question, of course. “And here’s the real stumper. If Kim does think that Mary killed Manfred, how is she getting around the fact that Mary was not, as far as anybody can tell, on the island at the time of the murder?”

To be continued…

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even good memories can be exhausting

I don’t usually read the “Personal History” pieces in the The New Yorker. I mostly read the articles (I never read the fiction), based on whether a) the articles are about things that seem interesting, including (a New Yorker specialty) things that seem interesting but which I’ve never thought about in my life before, or b) the writer is someone whose work I’ve found interesting and/or particularly well written in the past. (As I’ve said here before, I read every piece by Joan Acocella, even though they’re mostly about dance and I have no interest in dance.)

And I read the humor pieces and the cartoons. Usually first, of course.

But I did read this: “Living in New York’s Unloved Neighborhood” by Rivka Galchen. It begins: “For ten years, I have lived in a neighborhood defined by the Port Authority Bus Station to the north, Penn Station to the south, the Lincoln Tunnel to the west, and, to the east, a thirty-one-foot stainless-steel sculpture of a needle threaded through a fourteen-foot button.”

(By the way, if you’re looking at the print edition, where I read it, the headline was “Better Than a Balloon,” which is a stupid title. I can see why they changed it.)

Okay, I felt drawn into that beginning, because I know that area (though not from living there). Every block described is a block I know reasonably well, though I haven’t been in that area for almost a year, for obvious reasons.

But the reason I wanted to write about the piece here is that last paragraph contains this:

I used to wonder about people who were born in New York and who still lived here. Did it not annoy them that any block they walked down, any business they passed, was liable to bring up a ghoulish or irritating memory? Even good memories can be exhausting. Maybe especially good memories…

“Even good memories can be exhausting.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen this put so well. This is why, when I go to Cape Cod for vacation (as I did not do last year but hope to do this year, depending on… well, you know) I don’t go to Wellfleet, the town where I spent all my summers as a youth (with a few visits later on).

Wellfleet still exists in my mind (it is basically the map for the town where my detective Jan Sleet is currently solving murders, though I’ve added a nearby college and made a few other changes — even Heron Island, where the murders are currently taking place, exists, though not under that name and it’s not as close to the town center), but I have no desire to see the town and to think about all the (mostly good) memories and all the places and what’s changed and what hasn’t and so on.

I’m tired just thinking of it.

Going there now, as opposed to elsewhere on the Cape, would really go against my mantra when I’m there: “Less doing, more being.”

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the heron island mystery (part twenty-eight)

This story started here.

I called my employer first, of course.

I reported to her in detail, although I confess that I withheld the fact that Elsa and I had made a few minor — very minor — adjustments to the original plan for the evening. That fact would come out eventually, I knew, but I decided that this information was not essential at the moment.

I was using the living room phone, and fortunately I was alone, except for Elsa.

My employer listened, asked a couple of questions, drew thoughtfully on her pipe, and then said, ”Call Rhonda. If she’s going to travel to the island tonight, I wouldn’t mind going also. Otherwise, I’ll see you in the morning. Comporto-se.” She hung up.

I called police headquarters next. I was patched through to Rhonda, who seemed to be at home.

“Good evening, sheriff,” I said. “I thought you would want to know that there have been some developments in the Heron Island case.”

There was a pause, then she said, “Please tell me about them.”

“I’m at Heron House. Kimberly Daniels attacked Elsa Peabody with a knife, threatening to kill her. Elsa is fine. During the attack, Kim said that she — Kim — had killed Mary Sanders, and she thought Elsa knew something incriminating about it. Elsa and I both heard the confession. Kim said that she killed Mary in revenge for Manfred’s murder, which she blamed on Mary.”

Rhonda digested this. Elsa ran her fingers through her mass of red hair, looking in the direction of the kitchen. Now that the danger was over, she seemed to be trying to find a way to think about what had happened.

I’d seen that look before.

Before and during the confrontation with Kim, Elsa and I had been very much on the same page. Now, there was somewhat more distance between us, since she was inside the events and I was outside, both because the people involved were her friends and not mine, and because I had been through this before, more than once, and she hadn’t.

“I know you’re at Heron House,” Rhonda said. “The house is under observation. Where is Miss Daniels now?”

“Handcuffed to the bed frame in Elsa’s room. She’s not talking.”

“Is anybody injured?”


“Hang on.” She put me on hold for a moment. “Deputies will be there in a couple of minutes. Please turn Miss Daniels over to them.” She sighed. “Please come to headquarters in the morning, to make a statement. I…”

“I can ask Miss Peabody to drive me there,” I said. “Once the road is open.”

There was a knock at the front door and Elsa went to open it.

“I’ll need her statement, too, obviously,” Rhonda said.

As Elsa opened the door, Li poked her head down the stairs and asked sleepily, “What’s going on down there?” I could see Becky behind her.

To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part twenty-seven)

This story started here.

Based on what we know now, the murderer was watching, and listening, as Elsa and I talked on the deck. The following morning, footprints revealed that she stood for some time on the muddy path that led from the deck to the parking area in front of the house.

Then, after we’d moved into Elsa’s bedroom, the murderer heard the sounds of prolonged and enthusiastic lovemaking, and then (maybe) the quiet, happy, and affectionate conversation that followed, until I dressed, moved into the kitchen, took a beer from the refrigerator, and went out the front door of the house to smoke a cigarette in the parking area.

The murderer then moved silently across the deck and through the kitchen to Elsa’s small bedroom, where she put a knife to her throat.

“What did you see last night? What lies did you tell Marshall? Did you lie to him to get him to fuck you?”

The bed springs creaked as Elsa sat up.

“Do you think I’m going to be as easy to kill as Mary was? I could break you in half.”

“Not before I cut your throat. Mary had legs, and I killed her.”

“How many people are you going to kill because of that creep Manfred?”

“He was not a creep — he was going to be rich, and… that fucking bitch Mary killed him.”

I thought that Elsa could probably have overpowered Kim without my assistance, but I’m cautious by nature, so I stepped out of Elsa’s tiny bathroom and took Kim’s knife away from her.

To be continued…

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