“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…”
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…