This story started here.
My employer and I were walking toward Main Street. The sheriff had made it pretty clear that her patience for theorizing about this case was running short, and we’d declined her offer of a ride home from police headquarters.
“Rhonda is too impatient,” my employer said as we strolled down the hill. “Some cases can be solved by finding a stray fingerprint or a lucky witness or a scribbled note, but this is not going to be one of those (or at least I’m fairly sure it isn’t). This one will require thinking, and looking at the events from every possible point of view.
“For example, we talked about whether Kim was telling the truth about her idea that Manfred was going to make her rich. Did she really think that? That’s one question. But another question is whether it was actually true.”
We turned onto Main Street. It was a pleasant fall day, and there were quite a few other people on the sidewalk.
“If Manfred did tell her that,” I said, “–that he was going to come into significant cash — that would also be two questions. At least two questions. Was he really expecting to come into money, somehow, and, if so, was he really going to share any of it with her?”
She smiled as I held the door for her to enter the Wagon Wheel. I knew that she hadn’t been thinking about food, but I had, and the restaurant was there, and it would have been rude of her to decline to enter it when I was holding the door so politely (and they did have good coffee).
So, there we were, at one of our favorite tables, on the screened-in deck, with menus in front of us, and coffee on its way, and she nodded in acknowledgement of how artfully I had steered us here.
Then she leaned forward and said quietly, “I believe the answer to your first question is no — the money was not real — which renders the second question moot. In general, I wouldn’t believe anything that man said, especially about doing anything for anybody other than himself, and, in specific, I think I know what he was telling her, and I believe he was stringing her along to get her to assist him.
“He was very good at figuring out people’s weaknesses. He never tried the ghost-hunting thing on me, because that wasn’t — and isn’t — my weakness. And I doubt if it’s Kim’s either. Hers is apparently money. Li, on the other hand, seems to be from a fairly prosperous background, and her weakness does seem to be the supernatural. If there was a specific target at the house — someone who they were planning to rook with the ghost-hunting scam — I’m guessing it was probably Li.”
Our coffee arrived, and she sipped hers carefully. I was impatient, I confess, so I used my spoon to scoop up an ice cube from my water glass and drop it gently into my mug. My employer made sure that I saw her look of disapproval as I stirred.
I was tempted to complain that everything in this case seemed to happen in the middle of the night, but if I’d mentioned being tired — beyond rushing through my first cup of coffee — my employer would probably have made a comment which referred, at least obliquely, to my age.
And, if we’d been at home, she might even have made a comment about certain energetic activities which Elsa and I had pretended to engage in the night before. But that was not a conversation she was going to start in the Wagon Wheel.
She regarded me thoughtfully. “Do you know what I’m thinking about?” She didn’t give me a chance to respond. “A lot of things, obviously, but I keep coming back to Kim’s scream, when she theoretically saw Manfred near Mary’s body on the deck, and the delay before she went outside and yelled for Becky.
“The sheriff, understandably, will want to discredit Jo’s report that she also saw someone on the deck, because then everything is simple. Kim’s a murderer, so we don’t have to believe anything she says, unless it helps to convict her. Simple.
“But there’s… What about this: Kim kills Mary, unobserved and in silence, and returns to her room. After a suitable interval, she pretends to hear something, goes downstairs, turns on the deck lights, and sees someone — more or less resembling Manfred, a dead man — in the middle of her crime scene, hovering over the corpse she had just produced. That would have produced a scream from almost anybody, and that would have explained her hesitation about running out onto the deck. ‘Manfred’ immediately hies it over the precipice, and finally she gets up her nerve to go outside.
“Then, as reported, she goes out, calls for Becky, and so on. And then, still shaken, she tells Li what she saw, but then later, under interrogation, she doesn’t tell that part of the story, but Li blows the gaff, and Jo corroborates it, at least somewhat, perhaps to Kim’s surprise.”
“If Kim killed Mary because she blamed her for Manfred’s death,” I said. “Do you know where this theoretical windfall was going to come from — this money she thought she was going to get?” I asked. “Do you know how he told her he was going to get rich? He must have had some kind of story.”
She looked pleased with herself (more than usual, I mean). “I think I do. There are hints in his book that he might have a connection to the Loomis family. Certainly not a legitimate one, but… Anyway, there’s no truth in it — no way that he could have turned it into any actual cash — but apparently it was enough to get Kim’s interest.”
She looked around, rather ostentatiously, as if making sure we were alone on the deck.
“According to Mary’s research,” she began, and then her voice trailed off.
Our chowder arrived, and she didn’t even react, which was unusual for her. I thanked the waitress, and my employer looked at the street outside for a moment. She took off her glasses and polished them with her handkerchief.
“I have an idea,” she said slowly, still looking outside. “I think I know why Mary came to see us as she did, during the storm. At least a possibility…” She shook her head and put her glasses back on. “I’m not telling you. If I’m wrong, you’ll think badly of me.”
“I can do that anyway,” I said as I blew on my soup. She scrunched up her face and stuck out her tongue at me (just a little — we were in public, after all).
“So,” I said, “Are there questions which you would be willing to answer?”
She frowned at her soup as if wondering when it had arrived, then she looked up. “This is why I’m a journalist and you’re not. That’s a terrible question.”
“Do you know what I’m thinking about?”
“That question is even worse.”
“It’s rhetorical. Obviously.”
“Well, you’re probably thinking about a certain buxom redhead. Or possibly about whether you’re going to get a good night’s sleep tonight. Beyond a certain age, I know, the desire for sleep can start to outweigh–“
“Ahem. I’m wondering about Manfred. Everybody at Heron House who described him emphasized how randy he was, but the only actions we’ve talked about have been in search of money. May I be blunt?”
She looked around again, to make sure we were still alone, then she grinned. “Of course.”
“Who was he fucking?”
She considered this.
“Kim?” she proposed. She looked like she was thoroughly enjoying herself — even more than usual.
“Possibly.” I told her Elsa’s story about Manfred’s attempt to molest her during the party, and Kim’s angry reaction. “That could have been a variety of things, but one component might have been jealousy.”
“True.” She scrutinized my face. “You’re not buying it, though. You’re doing that thing with your forehead.”
I nodded. “People who live together learn a lot about each other, but this theory would require Kim to have had two older lovers, one of whom her roommates knew about, at least in general terms (her professor), and another who her roommates didn’t know about (Manfred). And Manfred often came to Heron House as a guest. As you say, I’m not buying it. I think if Manfred, a frequent visitor to Heron House, had been sleeping with any of the roommates, at least some of the others would have figured it out, particularly since at least some of them didn’t like him very much, and, if they had figured it out, I think we’d have got some indication by now, from somebody.”
“Your point is well taken. Not exactly concisely stated, obviously, but cogent.” She smiled. “Here’s a question for you. Your assignment for today involves a trip to Heron Island. Can you get yourself there without anybody from Heron House seeing you? Including your flame-tressed and curvaceous paramour?”
I nodded. “I think so. Yes.” I knew there was no future in protesting about her characterization of Elsa.
“Good. There are a couple of things I’d like you to investigate on the island.”
To be continued…