the heron island mystery (part seven)

This story started here.

At that moment, Mrs. Jessup came in with a tray with four big mugs of hot chocolate. She distributed them, and Mary and I took a sip as Mrs. Jessup sat down on the sofa.

My employer noted that our landlady had joined us, but she didn’t comment as she returned to her chair. After all, it was Mrs. Jessup’s house, and she had opened her parlor for our use outside of the regularly scheduled hours.

“Did the Loomis family stay at the house during last summer?” my employer asked. She sipped her hot chocolate, to be polite (she didn’t like hot chocolate), and put the mug on the table.

Mary frowned. “I don’t think so. I applied over the summer, and they were very relaxed about when I could move in.”

“So, you’re new in the house?”

“Yes. I didn’t like the dorms last year, and now I’m a sophomore and I can live off-campus, so it looked like a good deal. My parents… they were okay with it when I told them it was all girls. The other girls–“

My employer held up a hand. “Before we get too far into the details, we should make sure that this is actually going to be worth my time and attention. Why are you here?”

Now she hesitated, “We’re afraid the house is haunted.”

“And you’re hoping I’ll come in and lay the ghost?” She shrugged. “The idea of being a ghost hunter sounds amusing — mildly amusing — but I have actual, serious work to do. I have an article I’m writing, and a book that I need to get back to.”

“We already have a ghost hunter, actually, a guy named Manfred, and I don’t trust him.”

That got my employer’s attention, though she tried to conceal her reaction.

“Manfred?” she said slowly. “I’ve heard of him. He was… something of a sensation when I was a student. He had written a book — which I confess I never read — about spirits and hauntings and whatnot, and he made some specific claims about some of the buildings at the college. Which were never proved, as far as I can remember. The oldest buildings were part of the family estate, before it was a college — those may have been the ones he was investigating.”

She made a face.

“Is he still hanging around — Manfred? He was not a student, or a professor (though I got the idea that he wanted to be some sort of teacher or something like that — but he lacked qualifications, to say the least), so I rather assumed that he would move on at some point, when he’d exhausted the supply of ready suckers in this area.

“He was still around when I left college, but people were starting to get sick of him — or maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part. So, why is he… what purpose is he serving now?”

“He’s hunting ghosts. And it looks like we have them, on the island.”

“Evidence? Is there actual evidence?”

She shrugged. It was hard to tell if she was about to defend a theory that she knew my employer wouldn’t take seriously, or a theory that she didn’t believe herself. I had the impression that she believed it more than she would be willing to admit in front of this particular audience.

“There are things that we can’t explain. Not a lot, but regular, on a regular basis. Things vanish, in the house, and we search all over, decide somebody walked off with them, and later they show up, in unexpected places. Creepy writing appears on the blackboard in the kitchen, where we make shopping lists, but then it vanishes right away.”

My employer made a face, as if she was disappointed that this “evidence” was so paltry.

“There have also been odd noises at night, from time to time, and then we find icky, slimy footprints in the morning. And one girl who lived there last semester saw a ghost, or said she did.”

My employer’s mood seemed to perk up.

To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part six)

This story started here.

Mrs. Jessup came to the rescue. Apparently deciding that her duty to a guest outweighed her annoyance at being bullied into opening her parlor, she said, “What’s your name, dear? And would you like some hot chocolate? It’s a nasty night out there.”

“I’m Mary,” our visitor said hesitantly, as if she was afraid of being contradicted (though my employer had already addressed her by name). “From the college. Claremont College. And we really should go right away…” She gestured at the door, but she obviously knew this suggestion wasn’t going to work out.

“I’ll make the hot chocolate,” Mrs. Jessup said as we all went into the parlor. She continued through to the kitchen as I took Mary’s raincoat and scarf and hung them up in the hall. She sat carefully on one of the wooden dining room chairs.

We sat with her at the small breakfast table, and my employer sighed as she realized that our right to use the parlor would be rescinded, immediately, if she lit a cigarette.

“So, Mary,” I said, “what brings you out on this very unpleasant evening? I’m Marshall, by the way.”

“I…” she began. She made a face, and I remember thinking, perhaps unkindly, that, after all this buildup, this had better turn out to be interesting.

“I was Diana’s roommate, as you said, but I don’t live in the dorm anymore. It’s…” She shrugged.

“The dorms are not ideal,” my employer said. “I know that from experience. Where are you living now?”

“It’s an island, near the college. There’s a road, but it’s underwater at high tide, and sometimes during storms–”

“Heron Island. I’m familiar with it. So, your urgency a few moments ago was because it’s nearing the cutoff time, when access to the island may no longer be possible until tomorrow morning?”

Mary nodded. “And the phone lines are down, and the electricity is out. Because of the storm.”

My employer got to her feet and limped to the tide table which was posted on the wall, as if she doubted our visitor’s assessment of the situation.

“Is the house haunted?” my employer asked over her shoulder. “That’s what I’ve heard.”

Mary seemed surprised by the question — I guessed she’d been ready to bring this up herself and fight for the possibility against opposition from the notoriously atheistic detective.

My employer came back to the table and continued as if Mary had actually responded.

“Why do people think that, and why is the situation suddenly so urgent that you have come out on this brutal evening to seek my help?”

“The house is supposed to be haunted–”

My employer held up a hand. “If you want me to investigate a haunting–“

“No, but I need to explain the situation at the house.”

My employer waved a hand,

“Heron House — that’s the name of the house — was the first house built on the island. It’s very old. Back then, when the entire island was owned by the Loomis family, there wasn’t a road — the only way on or off the island was by boat. The family owned a fishing fleet, and the house overlooked the harbor, so they could see their ships coming and going. Then, during the Depression (I think this is the history — I haven’t really researched it, so it’s mostly just what people have told me) the family lost all their money and they had to sell most of the land on the island, other than their house and the property right around it. That’s when the town built the road, so the island would be at least somewhat accessible by car.

“Then, some time after that, the surviving son of the family died suddenly, and some distant relatives inherited the property. They live on the West Coast, or somewhere, and they decided that it would make a nice summer place for them, but they wanted to make some money from it, too, so they hired a local realtor to rent out rooms to college students during the fall and spring semesters, and then they’d use it themselves in the summer.”

“From what I’ve heard, this was not popular with the other residents of the island,” my employer put in.

Mary laughed, which surprised me, since she’d looked alternately worried and morose every minute since her arrival. “I’ll say. They’re a very snooty bunch, as far as I can tell. (Of course, they never actually talk to any of us unless they have to.)”

“But if looks could kill..”

“Yeah. Now the house is all girls, which may be a compromise or something–“

“Is that an official policy?”

She shook her head. “Not as far as I know. Guys do apply, but they’re always turned down — last semester and this. Everybody kind of knows at this point.”

My employer smiled. “Girls being more ladylike and demure, of course, and much less inclined toward riotous misbehavior. My friends at the school have told me about the house. As I’m sure you know, it’s a pretty regular routine at this point: Girls get sick of the dorms, move to the house when there’s an open room, which there often is, then they get scared by all the goings-on, or they discover that they don’t actually want to live in such a… libidinous environment after all, and then they move quickly back to the dorms, leaving an open room for the next girl to move in.”

To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part five)

This story started here.

My employer and I had been comfortably ensconced in our warm, cozy room for the evening. We each had a cup of coffee, and she was smoking her pipe.

Things were usually pretty informal in Claremont, Massachusetts, where we were living, but I knew that Jan Sleet, the amateur detective and “intrepid gal reporter” (as it said on her business cards), was not about to adjust her personal style toward being even slightly less formal. After all, the last two places we’d traveled together had been New York City and Bellona — the latter a South American country in the middle of a civil war — and she’d always dressed in elegant three-piece suits in both locations. So, I knew that living in a beach town was not going to change her habits in the slightest.

This was not only when in public, either. Even when we were alone in our room of an evening, with no plans to go out and no visitors expected, her vest remained buttoned, her tie remained in its proper position, and her shoes (or, really, her custom-made, ankle-high boots) remained on. So, if we did happen to get an unexpected visitor, even on a dark and stormy night like this one, she was ready.

“We do need to do something about my books,” she said suddenly, looking up from her newspaper.

My first reaction was to glance at the window, as another bolt of lightning split the darkened sky, and wind and rain continued to shake the glass in its frame.

She smiled and reached out to tap my forearm. “Not now!” she said playfully, as if she’d been about to order me out into the storm to deal with the cartons of her books which were still in the Arkright family’s garage.

Of course, I hadn’t thought any such thing — well, at least not after I’d considered it for a few seconds.

There was a knock on our door as I turned my attention back to my book. My employer considered calling out, “What is it, Mrs. Jessup?” (which would not have counted as a great deduction since nobody else was in the building and there was a storm outside), but then she stuck out her tongue at me as I went and opened the door.

It was indeed our landlady. I had an urge to say, “Why, Sheriff Rhonda, what a pleasant surprise!” — since my employer couldn’t see the hall from where she was sitting — but I resisted.

“I’m sorry to bother you both,” she said as I gestured her into the room, “but there’s a young lady downstairs and she says it’s very important that she see you.”

My employer grabbed her cane and got to her feet. “Absolutely,” she said, limping toward the door. As Mrs. Jessup turned to step back into the hall and out of the way, my employer asked, “Is it possible that we could use the parlor?”

Mrs. Jessup was clearly somewhat surprised by this sudden eagerness for company (as was I, I freely admit) and she’d barely managed to say, “Yes, of course,” before my employer was halfway down the stairs.

I shrugged and followed her down. Mrs. Jessup trailed behind and unlocked the door to the parlor as we greeted the visitor in the hallway.

“Jan Sleet,” my employer said as she shook our visitor’s hand. “We’ve never met, obviously, but your roommate, Diana, is a good friend of mine. Did she send you here to talk to me, Mary? Or was it Professor Lebrun? I believe you’re in one of his classes.” She gestured at the open door of the parlor.

Both our visitor and our landlady looked somewhat overwhelmed, but, of the two, our visitor looked less likely to recover quickly. She was young, slender (as far as I could tell under her raincoat), blonde, and drenched.

“It would be easier if we talked on the way,” she said, gesturing outside. “I have my car–”

My employer held up her hand, her expression growing stern. She stepped forward, looking down on our visitor, and said, “You have caught my attention, on a slow evening when I have no pressing responsibilities, but you are a stranger. My welcome extends to listening to your problem, but no further, at least so far.”

There was an awkward moment as our visitor tried to pull herself together, and I started to get the idea that some of the water on her face might have been tears.

“At this moment,” my employer continued, “you have three options. None of them involve me leaving this house now. The options are–” She held up a bony finger, not allowing our visitor to speak.

“One: If someone is in immediate danger, or some other disaster is imminent, then you should call the police immediately.” She tapped the telephone next to her.

“Two: Let’s step into the parlor.” She gestured in that direction. “We can sit down and talk. You can explain why you’re here, and I can ask questions.

“Three: Not to be rude, but your third option is to go home.”

She raised an eyebrow, waiting.

Her relentless approach had originally made our visitor more tense as she tried to interrupt, but then she started to calm down.

I had seen this before, and I’d never been sure if my employer’s tendency to browbeat people in these situations (when she thought she could get away with it) was actually intended to achieve this result — calming the person down and asserting that the great detective could solve whatever crisis was at hand — or whether she didn’t care one way or the other.

Our visitor seemed to be frozen, and I had the idea that she was stuck between option two (staying) and option three (leaving). Her expression as she’d glanced at the telephone had told me that calling the police was not something she was considering.

To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part four)

This story started here.

Once she’d finished her surveillance of the situation on the beach below, my employer had put down the binoculars, resumed her seat, finished her coffee, and, as far as I could tell, eaten her tiny muffin. At least, by the time I made it back up to Heron House the muffin was gone, and she was alone on the deck. If she had eaten the muffin herself, then something must have been going in a direction that pleased her.

(I’d again traveled by way of the neighbor’s yard — the stairs had looked even worse from the beach than they had from the deck.)

The next few hours were pretty standard. Rhonda had made a radio call to headquarters and an ambulance had arrived quickly, followed by deputies and a photographer.

My employer relocated to the front room and watched all of the activity with interest. She was basically motionless, except for occasional forays back to the deck to reacquaint herself with the situation down on the beach. But then, when the dead man’s body was on the front lawn, covered with a tarpaulin, she quickly got to her feet, limped outside, and kneeled to examine the body.

The deputy who was apparently in charge protested, and she stood and told him to check with his boss, the sheriff, if he had any doubts about her authority in this matter. She did not say, explicitly, that she had permission to make an examination of the body, but she strongly implied it. He seemed unsure, and she gestured impatiently, looking stern. He must have been impressed by all this, because he scurried off, rather than using the radio on his belt.

By the time Rhonda came up to see what was going on, the body had been loaded onto the ambulance, which was gone. My employer was leaning against a tree, smoking a pipe, looking once again as if she was having a very pleasant morning, thanks so much for asking.

The sheriff looked around. “Where is everybody?”

“Inside, probably in the kitchen,” my employer said. “Something was mentioned about breakfast.”

Rhonda nodded. “We’re going to start interviewing the residents now. I want to talk to you, also — to find out why you’re here — but that will be after the others. If you don’t want to stick around — if you want to go and get some breakfast — I could stop by your place later…”

Her voice trailed off because my employer was still smiling.

“We have been asked to stay, by Miss Mary Sanders, the young lady who invited us here in the first place.” She gestured with her cane. “We’ll wait on the deck. Whenever you’re ready for us.” She smiled again. Rhonda’s expression was noncommittal, which was probably the best she could manage at that moment.

I followed my employer down the narrow path that ran beside the house. She walked slowly and carefully — the ground was quite muddy. After we climbed the three wooden steps to the deck, she looked down at the state of her boots and frowned, but she didn’t say anything.

When we were seated, I waited a moment, then I said, “You seem pretty sanguine about how things are going so far.”

She shook her head, and her expression told me that she had just made a joke about the multiple meanings of the word “sanguine” three days before and she wasn’t about to make another one this soon.

Given a choice at that moment between information and breakfast, I would have chosen breakfast. However, since no food was being offered, information was better than nothing.

I tried another tack. “Were you expecting Manfred to be dead? Is that why we’re here?”

She looked at me with some surprise. “No, not at all. I had no idea he was even on the island (though the fact that he was here is interesting), but it did seem possible — perhaps even likely — that some crime was being planned for last night.”

To be continued…

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Christo (1935-2020)

I wrote this, back when “The Gates” was up in New York City: “They Draw Your Eyes Up

(It amuses me to read that blog post now, just because the “everybody looks down all the time” thing is now much worse, because of cell phones — but it’s been true in New York for a long time.)

My mother admired Christo. I was going to say she was a fan of his work, but she admired both his art and his life and methods. She followed all of his projects with great interest, and I know that she went to see “The Gates” many times, wanting to experience it in different weather and at different times of the day.

“An artist is somebody who gives people something they don’t need,
but which he thinks for some reason they should have.”
— Andy Warhol

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the heron island mystery (part three)

This story started here.

The large deck across the back of Heron House looked like a stage set for some reason — like that moment when the curtain goes up and the actors are just about to start doing things.

There were railings on the three open sides, with one small staircase in the left corner. That led to a narrow path which went beside the house to the parking area in front.

Near the staircase, leaning back in a wicker chair with her long legs extended in front of her as if she didn’t have a care in the world, was my employer. There was a mug of coffee on the small glass table next to her, and a tiny muffin on a large plate. She was not eating the muffin, but it was in the exact center of the plate. I had the idea that she had placed it there as part of setting this scene.

Mary, who had brought the case to us the night before, was standing by the edge of the deck, near the center of the long side that overlooked the beach. Two other women, Jo and the taller woman who had been with her on the road, were standing on the far side of the deck from my employer. It appeared that they’d been talking intently, but now they were frozen in silence, apparently because of the sudden arrival of the sheriff.

“Greetings, Rhonda,” my employer said with a smile. “The body is down on the beach.” She gestured with her cigarette, and then she looked at me. “The staircase is rather steep and appears to be precarious, so I’ll be interested to see…”

Her voice trailed off as Rhonda elbowed me in the ribs and jerked her head toward the front of the house. I followed her out.

“I’ve been here before,” she said. “When I was a deputy. The staircase down to the beach is a horror show. I think they keep it just to freak people out, especially the drunks. But there are other ways to get down there. We’ll have to cut through the neighbor’s property, but she won’t complain.”

We walked along a narrow path that seemed to be mostly theoretical, tightly hemmed in by pine trees, and she said quietly, “Is she making progress, do you think? Progress she’s not ready to share with you, or me?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

She smiled. “Of course you don’t.”

We came out of the woods into the yard of a smaller cottage with a well-trimmed and pleasant lawn. A woman in a sweatshirt, baggy shorts, and beach sandals looked up from some flower beds and stood, apparently startled. “Sheriff–“

Rhonda, not slowing, looking very serious and sheriff-y, breezed past her and led me behind the house.

This house was on a lower bluff than Heron House, so we were closer to the beach, and the path was made of stones, with a rope to hold onto as we made our way down.

On the beach, we walked back toward Heron House. The beach was wide and smooth with the tide out, about twenty feet down to the edge of the water.

We could see the body as soon as we stepped toward the water. It was a black mound in the almost trackless sand.

Not that the sand was pristine — the high tide and the storm had swept in bracken and crabs and some other things that I couldn’t identify. This detritus went up to the edge of the rise that led up to the houses, indicating, to my inexpert eye, that the high tide the night before had covered the whole beach in this area.

As we got closer to the body, Rhonda gestured at a specific point on the beach, clearly telling me that I was to get that close and no closer. I complied. I knew Rhonda well enough by this point to be able to tell when she was open to jokes and teasing, and when she wasn’t.

From that vantage point, I was able to see the impressions of footprints between the body and the “staircase” that led up to Heron House. They were the only footprints that I could see.

It was interesting to watch Rhonda examine the body. It was the first time I’d really had the opportunity to watch her in that process, and she seemed to know what she was doing. She could be pretty breezy when talking about death, at least with me (“So, you’ve got a body?”), but she was very serious about her actual work. There were no jokes now.

What I noticed first about the dead man, from my distance, was that he was almost certainly not a college student, and he didn’t look like a local. He was probably in his late thirties or early forties, wearing a black suit and a pale blue shirt. He had a small beard and mustache — very well trimmed.

He might have been a college professor, and I reflected that he was probably the only person on Heron Island in a suit and tie — other than my employer, of course. His outfit wasn’t up to her standards, though. His black suit jacket had silver threads throughout, but it looked cheap and tacky, even apart from the damage it had taken from being on the beach during a rainstorm. It was the sort of jacket that looked more impressive on a stage than it did in real life.

I had a sudden tightness in my throat. I’d had the same sensation almost exactly a year before, in another country, and it had led me to shove my employer into a ditch, saving her life from a sniper’s bullet.

I looked up, and I saw someone on the Heron House deck, watching us with binoculars.

To be continued…

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