art, art rock, and…

(Okay, I couldn’t think of a third thing beginning with “a” for the title.)

1) Toward the end of my mother’s life, when she was still living at home (she lived in her apartment until she was 96 years old), it was a regular routine for me to visit her on a Friday or Saturday night. We’d order out food, and then watch a movie on DVD, or listen to audio drama.

Even now, when I’m watching a movie or listening to a story, I run it through the filter of figuring out whether she’d enjoy it. It’s just part of how my brain is trained to work now.

After she moved into the nursing home, we didn’t do movies anymore, but I did bring her clippings I thought she’d find interesting. I still do that, too — think about what stories would tickle her, and this was definitely one.

2) I’ve never worried much about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (even having a hall of fame is pretty un-rock-and-roll, let alone how this one works).

Just for the hell of it, though, I went to the website to vote for Roxy Music, who were my favorite band from pretty much the moment they started (or at least when I first heard them) to when New Wave happened. There were a bunch of us in the early 1970s — checking the calendar and wondering what was taking New Wave so long to arrive.

The fan voting has no effect on the Hall of Fame, of course, but what the hell.

3) One thing about writing mysteries, as I’ve talked about before, is that you need a lot of names. Each story has to have victims (at least one), suspects, bystanders, and so on. For one mystery I wrote, I took all the names (or almost all) from Dark Shadows. For another one, it was Resident Evil movies.

For this one, it’s a bit of this and a bit of that.

Marvel Phillips (the victim) is named after a character from a Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar radio mystery. The character there was Marvel Terrence, and she was also a very rich orphan. I’ve had “Marvel Terrence” in my notebook for quite a while. (How I got from “Terrence” to “Phillips” will be clear to South Park fans).

Sheriff Rhonda is named after Sheriff Rhonda Tate from the excellent Big Finish Dark Shadows serial “Bloodlust.”

Oh, and Madeleine Pontmercy? That’s a reference, or, really, two references to Les Miserables (but you probably knew that).

Dr. Wright, the coroner, is an indirect reference to Doctor Doremus, the original grumpy medical examiner. He was in the Philo Vance books, which were written by S. S. van Dine (which was the pen name of Willard Huntington Wright).

Oh, and Doctor Doremus created the “I’m a doctor, not a _____” thing, much later re-popularized by Doctor McCoy on Star Trek.

My favorite was in The Dragon Murder Case, where Doremus arrives to examine a corpse, only to discover that there isn’t one. The DA explains that he and Vance had had a theory that the corpse would be at the bottom of a pool — a theory which turned out to be false when the pool was drained.

Dr. Doremus protests, “I can’t perform an autopsy on a theory! I’m a coroner, not a philosopher!”

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the marvel murder case (part eight)

This story started here.

“I was surprised that you ceded the town to Sheriff Rhonda, even if it was in exchange for the campus.”

My employer sipped her coffee and raised an eyebrow, waiting to see what I’d say next.

“The body was here, in town; the mystery woman was here, in town; your books are — or perhaps in some cases were — here, in town.”

She nodded. “Well, first of all, that’s what was offered. It would not be polite to accept something which wasn’t offered.”

This time I waited for more from her. She took out and lit a cigarette (she did sometimes light them herself).

“Two things,” she said. “One is that I really want to know more about Marvel Phillips. So many tabloid articles, so many cliches and stereotypes… It looks like she wanted more…”

“Madeleine Pontmercy.”

She smiled. “Yes. Exactly.”

“You think there may be a book in this…”

“It’s a possibility, but, as you know, it’s a grave error to theorize in advance of the facts.”

I waited, then I said, “And the other thing? You did say that there were two.”

“There’s a slight possibility, based on something I read in those newspapers last night, that the solution to the murder doesn’t have anything to do with the campus or the Arkright house.”

She made a gesture I’d seen before, closing that subject, at least for now. She stood up and stubbed out her cigarette. “The jitney’s coming,” she said, and I quickly got to my feet and paid the bill as she limped outside.

The arrangement had not been explicitly stated, of course. There had been a period in the conversation with Sheriff Rhonda when everything had suddenly seemed to be in code (and I was reminded that my employer and the new sheriff were not meeting for the first time).

I did wonder if anybody inside the building could hear us, or if the sheriff was worried that they could.

And so, it was decided, indirectly, that the sheriff would run the investigation in the town, including with the Arkright family, and the visiting amateur detective, along with her assistant, of course, would take primary, unofficial responsibility for the campus and the victim’s life there.

My employer apparently considered this to be a fair resolution, because she made a point of saying, as we left the police station, “I am glad to help, Rhonda. I know that you’re operating under a handicap, compared to Sheriff Baxter, since he had an excellent deputy to rely on. You don’t have her, because she’s now the sheriff.”

When she passed out compliments like that, which was not often, there was usually a reason.

A small bus pulled up in front of the thrift store next to the Wagon Wheel and I followed my employer as she climbed on board.

The driver regarded her sourly. “Dressing pretty fancy these days, I’d say,” he said as he pulled the lever that closed the door.

“Thank you, Mr. Brooke,” she called cheerfully as we sat down. There were a few other people on the bus — they all looked like students and they paid no attention to us.

The jitney drove past the murder house, down the hill, past the bus stop where we’d disembarked, and out onto the highway. It occurred to me that I was still seeing very little of the town. I felt a strong urge to get a map and take a long walk around.

My employer made a grumpy sound. “We’ve done all this work, and it has basically just got us to the starting line.”

She saw my dubious expression, misinterpreted it, and started to defend her position.

“Usually, when you’re trying to find somebody like this, you start out by knowing who you’re looking for. Then you try to figure out how they got where they are. This time, we didn’t even know who we were looking for, until now.”

We’d learned fairly early on that it was a good idea to avoid words like “murder” and “corpse” in situations where we might be overheard. It was never possible to predict the exact reaction we’d get, of course, but it usually wasn’t good.

The misunderstanding had been that I had known what she’d meant by getting to “the starting line.” What I’d questioned, silently, was the idea that we’d done “all this work” to get to where we were now.

We’d had a pleasant afternoon and evening traipsing around the very pleasant town where she’d gone to college. Nobody had shot at us, no bombs had gone off, and we’d had regular meals and slept in comfortable (well, reasonably comfortable) beds. Nobody we’d known, let alone cared about, had died. It hadn’t even rained.

But I also knew, from experience, that trying to straighten out the misunderstanding at this point would have been futile. My function in these conferences was to keep things moving forward, or at least moving in some direction, since I frequently didn’t know which direction “forward” was.

She looked out the window as we turned off the highway and through the gates of the campus.

The bus stopped in front of a large brick building. I couldn’t see the whole campus, which was hilly and covered with trees, but this building was the largest one that was visible, three stories tall and quite wide.

It had been the manor house when this was a private estate, she explained.

A couple of students walked by, dressed rather more modestly than the others we’d seen so far. The young man wore a shirt and tie. He called, “God loves you!” as they passed.

“Unrequitedly, I’m afraid!” my employer called back over her shoulder as we entered the building.

To be continued…

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the marvel murder case (part seven)

This story started here.

Sheriff Rhonda’s secretary led us into her office. She was sitting behind her desk, and she stood up as we came in.

“I’m suggesting we talk outside,” she said to my employer. “Unlike Sheriff Baxter, I’m not going to allow you to smoke in my office, and it’s going to distract us if we waste time on that. We have a murder to solve. Let’s go.”

There was a picnic table in the back yard of the police station, which looked as if it had been a private house at some point. My employer looked at the picnic table and then at me. I went to the back porch and brought over a lawn chair, placing it so that she could sit at the head of the table.

Not that she needed to sit at the head of the table — though she didn’t mind — but the table was the kind with the attached benches, and getting her lame leg under that — and then back out again later — would have been awkward and possibly painful (and almost certainly undignified).

“So,” she said, when we were all seated, “our corpse is Marvel Phillips? The girl from the tabloids?”

Sheriff Rhonda nodded. “Yes. Doctor Wright noticed that she’d had some pretty extensive, and expensive, dental repair work done, fairly recently, so he called around to the local dentists. He found the one who remembered working on her. Under the name Madeleine Pontmercy.”

“Presumably she had items with her initials on them,” my employer murmured.

The secretary brought us a tray with three cups of coffee, cream and sugar, and an ashtray.

“Can you give us a little background on Marvel Phillips?” my employer asked as I poured milk into her coffee. “I’ve seen a few headlines, but we’ve been out of the country for a while and just got back quite recently.”

“She was incredibly rich. Her parents died when she was fifteen. She went to boarding schools, with bankers controlling her fortune until she turned eighteen. At that point, she came into her money, and…”

“Went a little wild, based on newspaper reports,” I said.

She nodded. “That’s about it. Drinking, carousing, parties, yachts, and so on.”

My employer, looking more than usually prim, added, “Performing a variety of activities in public view while dispensing with one or more items of attire that most people would consider essential.”

“Well, she got into a fist fight with a guy… I don’t remember the details, but it went badly for her. That’s when she needed the dental repair work. Apparently she had to spend a little time in the hospital, too, and she seems to have taken stock and decided to make some changes.

“She applied to college here at Claremont. Under her assumed name of Madeleine Pontmercy — I didn’t know about this until today.”

My employer frowned. “Is that usual? Do colleges allow that sort of thing?”

Rhonda shrugged. “Apparently she said that if she graduated without the press finding out, the college would get a new building out of it. Papers were signed.”

“Ah, I can see how that could make a difference. How long has she been enrolled?”

“Since spring semester. She decided to stay for the summer to study… something. Anyway, I’ve been making calls, but I haven’t found out anything from the college yet. The last time she was in class was Tuesday. Apparently the day before she was killed.”

“Did she live on campus? Did she have a roommate?”

“She did live on campus, in a single. It doesn’t seem that anybody remembers if they saw her Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.”

“Did she have classes scheduled on Wednesday?”

“In the afternoon. She missed that class — she was almost certainly dead by then.”

My employer looked thoughtful and lit a cigarette.

“Well,” I said, “two questions occur to me. One: Did she have any connections to the Arkright family? And two: Who inherits her fortune?”

My employer added, “And just to cover all the bases, how exactly did her parents die?”

Rhonda sighed. “We’re looking into the question of her possible connection to the Arkright family. In terms of the inheritance, the story in the tabloids was always that she had no living relatives, but I have no idea if that’s true. The county attorney is dealing with that. And as for her parents — I have no idea. That was a few years ago — does it matter?”

“Probably not, but…” She spread her hands wide and gave an elaborate shrug. “There’s a lot of money changing hands here.”

“That’s for sure.”

“Any word on the Arkright family?” I asked.

“Yes, in fact. They had given Reverend Deacon a brochure for the resort they were going to, so we’re trying to get a call through now.”

“‘Reverend Deacon’?” my employer asked. She glanced at me for clarification.

She was an ardent atheist, and affected to know even less about religion than she did, so she often looked to me to fill in the gaps in her information.

“I would guess that ‘Deacon’ might be his surname, rather than–”

“Ah, quite so. Of course, if they do come rushing back, they won’t have any place to stay.”

Sheriff Rhonda smiled. “Even if they ‘rush back’ it will be some time before they actually get here. I’m sure we’ll be done with the house by then. And, yes, I’ll let you know the minute the state boys get finished, so you can go in there and poke around yourself.”

“Did Marvel have a car?”

“I’m not sure. I haven’t heard anything about one, but I’ll try to find out. Probably she just took the jitney bus.”

The sheriff paused, trying to read my employer’s expression (which, in reality, had simply been a momentary wince — “jitney bus” was redundant).

Then Rhonda nodded. “I see. She lived on campus. Her body was found in town. If she didn’t have a car, she may have used the jitney bus, and someone may remember her.” She nodded. “So, what are your plans for today?”

To be continued…

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the marvel murder case (part six)

This story started here.

We ordered dinner, and as we waited I told my employer about the room I’d secured for that night.

I shrugged. “I guess tomorrow we’ll have to find another place — in addition to everything else I’m sure we’ll be doing tomorrow.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said, waving a hand. “It’s all taken care of. I made a call.”

The cases were bubbling around in my employer’s mind for the rest of the evening, so I mostly just let her think, not talking unless she started a conversation.

I made a point of thinking of them as “cases,” by the way. I did not want to assume that everything — the book theft, the dead woman, the mysterious live woman — would all magically tie together into a single case at the end.

The interesting — and somewhat disturbing — thing was that my employer was bothered by something in this situation, and it wasn’t the dead body. This was early in the years that I worked for her, but I’d already seen her with more than a few dead bodies — both murder victims and casualties of war.

They sometimes affected her more than she let on, but this was something different. And it had been bothering her since we’d arrived in town, if not longer.

So, maybe it really was her (possibly) stolen books? Even for someone as “bookish” as she was, this seemed unlikely.

Our room at the inn had at least one disadvantage. My employer liked to end her days with a long soak in the bathtub, but the room only had a shower. And there was a television, which she asked me to turn to face the wall (I declined — insisting that our will power would be sufficient, which it was).

Coming out of the bathroom, surrounded by clouds of steam, wearing her floor length flannel nightgown and a bathrobe, she sat on her bed and lit a cigarette.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get to search the rest of the house,” she said, looking at the dark window. “Maybe Sheriff Rhonda will let me do it tomorrow.”

She looked up, waiting for me to express my opinion about how likely I thought this was.

“How well did you know the family, when you lived here?” I asked.

“Not well. I knew that the wife was having an affair with Mr. Beasley who runs the library, but that was from observation and deduction.”

“So, there’s a couple, of retirement age? Any children?”

“Several. Let me think…” She drew deeply on her cigarette.

“A daughter and a son, in college. Well, the daughter might have graduated by now.” She caught my expression. “Mrs. Arkright–“

“The one with the well-used library card.”

She snorted a laugh. “Yes, exactly. She is Mr. Arkright’s second wife. Much younger than her husband. He had… a son, I believe, with his first wife. We’ll have to check on that. He’d be… maybe in his forties by now.”

“We’ll have to get the details from Sheriff Rhonda tomorrow.”

She nodded. “There are a lot of details that we need. Starting with the identity of the corpse.” She drew herself up and said, “I’m thinking categorically now. If the body had been a townie, it’s likely that the sheriff, or the doctor, or somebody, would have recognized it by now.” She held up a hand, overruling my unspoken objection. “Not inevitable, but, as I said, likely. A lot of the people you’re seeing around now are summer people — the people who live here year-round, and who aren’t students or faculty, that’s a much smaller number.”

“How many?” I asked.

She squinched up her nose at me. “How should I know? I’m a detective, as you well know, not a census taker.”

I waved a hand, indicating that she should proceed.

“Okay, so if our corpse wasn’t a townie, then she was either connected with the college, or she was a summer visitor, or something else. That would make it likely…” She emphasized the word and gave me a stern look. “Likely that she was not intimately connected with the Arkright family. They didn’t have anything to do with the college–“

“Who did they rent rooms to?”

“Okay, objection sustained. They rented rooms, when I lived here, to students, once Nate and Barbara went to college. But not in the summer, because the ‘kids’ (if we can call them that) were home then.”

“So, as soon as Nate and Barbara went away to college, their parents rented out their rooms, during the school year.”

“Exactly. And the word around the campus was that it was not a great place to live. They — the Arkrights — liked tenants who were quiet, well-behaved, and willing and able to pay rent that was higher than market rate. Mostly nobody stayed there longer than a single semester.”

She anticipated my next question. “Why did they rent out the rooms? The story was that they needed the money.” She looked at me. “What’s on your mind?”

I shrugged. “Just idly wondering how the family is fixed. Probably not relevant.”

She nodded slowly. “Probably not. Could be worth knowing about, though. As you say, we need to know a lot more than we do now.” She looked around. “Please get me the newspapers, from the blue suitcase. I’m sure everything isn’t in there, in the newspapers, but a lot probably is, and I do have questions…”

I woke up and blinked — the room was so full of smoke that some people, people who haven’t lived with my employer, might have jumped to the conclusion that the building was on fire. I knew better, and quickly got up to open a window a little.

I turned and regarded the limp form of the great detective. Still dressed in her nightgown and robe, still wearing her glasses, she was stretched out across the bed, lying on top of the covers, surrounded by the back issues of the Claremont Crier that we’d brought with us, and the new issue she’d bought the day before.

Looking at her, I thought about what I was learning on this case.

I had always assumed that she’d been exaggerating, at least a little, when she’d told me about her exploits as a small-town amateur detective, but it was looking like she’d been telling me the literal truth.

Then, turning to reach for the light switch, I saw that there was an envelope stuck under our door. I picked it up and opened it.

Inside, there was a clipping from a supermarket tabloid, about a young, wild debutante named Marvel Phillips. She had been a feature in the more sensational press for some time.

There was a small note clipped to it, on notepaper which said “Sheriff’s Department” at the top, and the note, signed, “Rhonda,” said: “The coroner found out who our corpse is. Please come see me in the morning.”

To be continued…

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phones and me and notebooks

Two observations about phones (by which, I maybe need to clarify, I mean smartphones).

1) Yesterday I took a bus trip. I last took this trip two years ago (and the year before that, and so on). What was striking this time was that apparently a memo went out (which I didn’t get) and now nobody uses paper tickets anymore.

Except me.

Everybody else had some thing on their phones that the bus driver scanned with another thing that looked like a phone (but may not have been). And there I was, with my multi-part perforated ticket, that I bought at the bus station, just like always, and the bus driver didn’t even rip off the first section and take it, as in days of old. She just scanned it.

2) On the other hand, now, for me, writing is a thing that happens on my phone. I used to be really into good notebooks and good (Lamy) pens and so on, but even though I bought a new notebook for this trip, it’s sitting in my bag, unused, and I’ve written a lot the next installment of my current story in the last few days, all on my phone.

I’m writing this on my phone, sitting in a comfortable lawn chair, looking out over the harbor, sipping iced tea, and I’ll probably post it before I stand up.

I’d even include a photo, except that that’s one of the things my phone does that I don’t know how to do. Like buying bus tickets.

But I know how to write mystery stories on it, and that beats photography, at least for me.

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the marvel murder case (part five)

This story started here.

The deputies and the corpse were gone, and the house was sealed. We were standing on the front porch with the sheriff.

“Do you have any way of reaching the Arkright family?” my employer asked.

Sheriff Rhonda shook her head. “I’ll try to find out, but I don’t think so. People don’t usually inform us when they go on vacation, or for how long they’re going, or how to get in touch with them. I’m going to ask the neighbors, to see if they know when the family is coming home.”

My employer nodded. “And you’ll let us know when you get an ID on the corpse?”

Sheriff Rhonda shrugged. “Where can I reach you? Where are you going to be staying?”

My employer looked at me, raising one eyebrow.

“That’s not entirely worked out,” I said. As she well knew, of course.

Sheriff Rhonda nodded. “Well, good luck.” She reached into her pocket and handed me a card. “Call me when you’re settled. Somewhere.”

My employer turned to me as the sheriff walked toward her car. “Let’s go back to the Wagon Wheel, and I’ll think about all this while you make our arrangements.”

The good side of this, of course, was that I could leave the luggage with her while I attempted to “make our arrangements.”

Walking down the hill to the restaurant, I realized that it was now late afternoon. The sun was very low in the sky, and there was a cool breeze, which was pleasant. I’d lost track of time in the murder house. There were more people on the streets than there had been earlier — quite a few looking as if they had spent the day at the beach and were now ready for drinks or dinner, or a movie, if the town had a movie theater.

“Can I ask you the most obvious question?” I asked as we approached the Wagon Wheel.

She looked at me in some surprise. “No,” was her answer, though her expression said, “Are you kidding? Of course not.”

I tried another tack. “I did notice that you left the body in a slightly different position than you found it.”

She nodded. “Yes, I did.” She smiled. “Speaking of the corpse,” she continued, “I have a question for you. With your experience of women, which covers three continents, that I’m aware of, would you describe the corpse as… voluptuous?


“If you were describing it to somebody other than me, of course?”

“Well, ‘curvaceous,’ perhaps.”

“I’ll accept that. ‘Curvaceous.'” She nodded and smiled, trying, with only partial success, not to look smug. “That will prove to be important later.”

We stepped aside to let a large family leave the restaurant, and she gave me a stern look over the rims of her glasses. “In response to your earlier comment, by the way, about my having to ‘break in’ a new sheriff, I do have to point out that the situation is quite different, and in some ways it may turn out to be more favorable. With Sheriff Baxter, I cultivated him because I needed him, certainly more than he needed me, at least at first. With Sheriff Rhonda, we’ll see…” She turned to enter the restaurant.

With my employer safely ensconced in the Wagon Wheel, sitting on the deck again, drinking a cup of coffee and smoking, I set out to find us accommodations.

I suppose I could have got a local phone book and made calls from the pay phone next to the Catholic church, but I had the urge to stretch my legs, and to see more of the town than I’d managed to see so far.

The town seemed to have two main thoroughfares, Main Street, where the Arkright house and the Wagon Wheel were, along with the town hall, the general store, and so on, and Ocean Drive, which ran parallel to Main Street, down by the water.

I went to a couple of places that the waitress at the Wagon Wheel had suggested, but they were full up.

My employer and I had often shared rooms in our travels, to save money. I was used to assessing which types of places would hesitate to rent to an unmarried couple. In those places I would present us as husband and wife, which allowed the owners to relax, at least until they observed the age difference and my “wife’s” rather masculine attire — and by that time they usually shrugged and accepted us as peculiar, perhaps, but at least respectable.

I was heading down Ocean Drive toward the docks, when I saw a small sign in front of a large house, saying they had rooms to rent. The little sign hanging below said they had no vacancies, but I decided to try anyway.

I had no reason to think that the sign was wrong — no elaborate clues that would have impressed my employer, the great detective. But I strode up to the front door and knocked.

The scent of baking (something with cinnamon, maybe muffins…) had reached me down on the sidewalk, and it was stronger on the front porch. I was prepared to count it as a successful effort if it produced a muffin, even if there really were no rooms available.

A pleasant looking, gray-haired woman came and opened the screen door, smiling.

I introduced myself. “I realize that this may be a bit of a long shot, but do you have any rooms to rent?”

She smiled. “For how long, sir?”

“Frankly, whatever you have. We’re pretty desperate at this point.”

“Well, we do have one room available for tonight – just for tonight. A couple was planning to stay the week, through tomorrow, but they decided to leave last night, because the weather’s been so bad this week. This is the first nice day since last Saturday.” She shrugged. “You’re welcome to the room for the one night, if you want. It’s booked again Friday night through the weekend.”

“I’ll be–”

She looked up at the sky. “I did tell them that it would be nice today and tomorrow, but they probably thought I was just trying to keep the booking.”

I stepped inside and she showed me the room (which was basically a formality, given the lack of other options in town). It was small, but pleasant and clean, with a private bath.

Walking back to the Wagon Wheel, eating a very good muffin, I stopped at the pay phone beside the church and called the sheriff. It took a few moments for her to come to the phone, and I began to try to remember which suitcase held my jackets. The weather was still pleasant, but it was getting cooler, and the sky was dark now.

“Hello, Marshall,” the sheriff said. “Is it solved yet?”

I laughed. “Not that I’m aware, but I haven’t seen my employer for over an hour. So, maybe. Any ID on our corpse?”

“Not yet. I’ve checked with the State Police about missing persons. I’ve called the college, though she looks like she was rather old for a student and very young for a professor. I thought maybe the office staff there, that sort of thing, or maybe the cleaners, but there’s… The cleaners are mostly not…”

“Attractive young blondes?”

“Yes, exactly. There doesn’t seem to be anybody missing among the office staff. So, this may take a while — if she’s single. Sometimes single people can vanish for a few days before somebody notices. Especially heading into the weekend.”

She paused. “Do you two have someplace to stay? Is something ‘worked out’?”

“I found a room for tonight. That’s it so far.” I gave her the address.

“And you don’t have a car?”

“No, we came by bus.”

“Well, it is August, and the tourists are as thick as flies these days. Not that we should complain about that. I’d offer to put you up at my place, but if you start being an embarrassment that could make me look bad.”

“An embarrassment?” I protested. “Us?”

“Your… employer, is she? (I think I won’t ask about that.) She was pretty well known here in town when she lived here. Vinnie was well liked, and that helped, and she solved some tricky crimes. But she was pretty determined to get into everybody’s business.

“The locals were okay with that, up to a point, but the fundamental rule around here is that we don’t upset the tourists in the summertime. And a couple of her investigations–”

“Excuse me,” I said, “my employer is trying to get my attention.”

The great detective was leaning out of the door of the restaurant. “We should have dinner!” she called.

“Your mistress calls,” Sheriff Rhonda said. “I understand. Talk to me tomorrow.”

To be continued…

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