Waiting for the police to arrive, I took advantage of the time to move our luggage into the front hall.
The police car pulled up and stopped in front of the house, the siren dying down. The blonde woman who stepped out looked very much like my idea of a small-town sheriff. She wore mirror sunglasses, a khaki blouse with short sleeves, brown trousers with a stripe down the sides, and large, carefully-polished boots. She wore a badge, of course, and the sidearm in her holster was a pearl-handled revolver — an old-fashioned six shooter.
She looked up and down the street and then strolled toward me. When she stepped up on the porch, I assumed she was looking at me, but the sunglasses made it impossible to be sure.
“Are you the gentleman who called in the report?” she asked.
I nodded. “I am.”
“Let’s see some identification.”
I handed over my driver’s license. She examined it and handed it back. “Okay. Please show me the body.”
I led her through the house and out into the garage. My employer was standing up, looking out one of the small windows that showed the rather scruffy back yard.
“Sheriff,” she said, turning, “I think you’ll find… Rhonda?” She glanced at the badge pinned to the woman’s shirt. “You’re the sheriff now? What happened–”
“Hello, Janice,” she said, removing her sunglasses. “Sheriff Baxter retired last year, and I won the election to replace him.” She allowed herself a smile. “I guess you didn’t keep up with your subscription to the town newspaper.”
My employer glanced at me. “They were in the post office box,” I reassured her. “Fifteen or twenty issues. They’re in the blue suitcase.”
That got another brief smile from Sheriff Rhonda. Then she squatted and looked at the body. I got the impression that she was reluctant to actually touch the corpse.
“Two of my deputies are on the way, and the coroner. Let’s go inside and I’ll get your story.”
We went back toward the front of the house as another police car pulled up. Sheriff Rhonda gestured that we should go and sit down in the living room as she walked with her deputies back to the garage.
We sat on the sofa together and I leaned over to whisper, “I guess you had Sheriff Baxter nicely broken in, and now you have to start all over again with a new sheriff.”
Sheriff Rhonda came back in and sat down facing us.
“So,” she said, “let’s get caught up. Of course, I’m not saying that you’re suspects…”
“But obviously we’re not not suspects,” my employer said.
“Exactly. I find you with a dead body, in a house which is locked up while the owners are away skiing, and I have to ask some questions.”
“Of course, you found us with a dead body after I called your office to notify you about the existence of that dead body,” I pointed out.
“That’s true.” She leaned back. “Please tell me how you came to be here, in an empty house, with a dead body.”
My employer took out her cigarette case and I stood up. There were no ashtrays in the room, so while she said, “To begin, when I left college…” I ducked into the kitchen, found an appropriately shaped serving dish, and brought it back in. I could tell that the sheriff was wondering about our exact relationship. This was not unusual.
“But it is relevant, Rhonda — thank you, Marshall — because it’s why we’re here in town. There are several cartons of my books in the garage, which Vinnie left there when he moved away. Until then, they had been in his basement.” She nodded at me and I took the letter from my pocket and handed it to the sheriff.
She read it carefully and said, “So, that’s why you came back to town?”
She shrugged. “It was really somewhere between a reason and an excuse to come back and visit. And, although it was polite, the letter did have a certain… tone.”
I nodded. “It seemed to be secret code for ‘When are you going to come and get your damn boxes out of my garage?'”
The sheriff smiled. “That’s pretty much how I’m reading it. And you didn’t think it would be better to come visit at a time when the family would actually be home?”
“I didn’t write in advance, I’m afraid. We just came, rather on impulse. After all, if we got here and they were away, we could spend some time here in town, which would be enjoyable. And I didn’t remember them traveling much.”
“Mr. Arkright retired at the end of last year. Since then, they’ve been doing a lot more traveling.”
My employer smiled. “I’ve heard of that. Perhaps when I retire I’ll stop traveling, just for a change of pace.”
The sheriff wasn’t distracted. “So, arriving here and finding no one home, you let yourself in so that you could get to the garage and your books?”
“No. We knocked on the door, and we received no response. So, we strolled down the hill and had a very pleasant lunch at the Wagon Wheel. When we came back and knocked again, a woman answered the door and admitted us, once we’d explained our mission here.”
The sheriff pursed her lips. “Describe her.”
“Thirty-five to forty, maybe a little older. Slender and maybe five feet, nine or ten inches. Dark brown hair, about the same color as mine, but thicker, hanging straight to around the bottom of her shoulder blades, wire-rimmed glasses.”
“You knew the Arkright family?”
“Not all of them, but I looked at the family photos on the mantle over there, and she’s not in any of them.”
“Did this woman introduce herself, when she let you in?”
“No, she did not give us her name.”
“Did you think of asking her who she was?”
She laughed. “Of course I thought of it. But if I’d asked I would have missed out on the fun of seeing how far she was going to go with it. And I was fairly sure she’d have given me a phony name anyway, if I’d pressed her. I decided to let the situation play itself out.”
The sheriff paused, then she nodded.
“From you, I suppose that seems plausible.”
An older man, dressed in civilian clothes, stepped into the room. He was about to speak, but then he saw my employer. “So, it’s you,” he said with a studied weariness. “Where have you been? And why don’t we ever get any murders around here except when you’re in town, hmm? Makes me wonder…”
My employer smiled. “I have to say, dear Doctor Wright, that this is one reason, of many, that you’re the doctor, rather than being the detective.”
He sighed and turned to Rhonda. “Sheriff, the dead body in the garage is, in fact, dead. It is dead from strangulation, said strangulation having been achieved with, perhaps, some sort of soft cloth. There are no finger marks on the throat, or abrasions from rough rope or twine. The body has apparently been dead for at least twenty-four hours. I’ve called for the ambulance, and I’ll let you know more after the autopsy, which I’m assuming you’re about to ask me for.” He turned and left.
The sheriff nodded slowly. “So, to recap, somebody murdered the blonde woman over twenty four hours ago. And someone was in this house today, pretending that she lived here. Had she brought the body here today, for some reason, and your arrival interrupted her? Interrupted her… doing something in the empty house?”
My employer shook her head. “Unlikely. For one thing, I’ve looked out the garage windows. Every side of this house is clearly visible from at least one other building. To carry in a dead body during daylight seems very risky.”
“Particularly risky for someone who was, apparently, a stranger here herself,” I added. “But here’s the other point. This woman was shocked when we discovered the body. She ran into the kitchen, apparently to be sick. Now, maybe she’s a good enough actress to feign that level of surprise and distress, but she did actually vomit in the sink.”
“Maybe she was just putting on a very thorough act.”
My employer shook her head. “To get away from us, knowing the police would appear soon and reveal that she had no business here? Why stop and induce her distress into the sink? Why not simply act sick, rush from the room, and continue on out the front door and away?”
The sheriff nodded slowly.
“So, we have an unidentified victim, and unidentified murderer, and an unidentified impostor and break-in artist…”
My employer extended a bony finger. “And, remember” she said, “an unidentified book thief.” She paused. “May I ask a question?”
Rhonda leaned back in her chair, the first time she’d seemed to relax, at least somewhat. “Go ahead.”
“How involved do you want me to be, or can I be, in the investigation?”
“In other words, am I going to let you run wild, like Sheriff Baxter did during that surfer case?”
Her smile gave a certain context to her words.
My employer smiled, too. “I wouldn’t have put it in exactly those terms.”
“The surfer case, which you solved, where Sheriff Baxter got most of the credit in the press, even though everybody in town knew the real story, at least in a general way.
“I’ll be honest. This is the first murder in town since I took over this job. My predecessor, with your help, had a very good track record in that area. That’s what people expect from me… That’s the standard that’s been set, for me to live up to.
“So, on one hand, I want to solve this, and you can probably help.” She shrugged. “On the other hand, you’re here in town, and if I look like I’m rejecting your help, I’m going to look like an idiot.”
She leaned forward. “However, I need to make one point.
“This house is a crime scene. It’s going to be locked up, at least until the forensics boys from the state police get here and get done. And that, if you care, includes the cartons with your books.”
My employer nodded. “Very reasonable. Marshall and I aren’t going anywhere until this is solved, and we can certainly wait until then to go over my books.”
What this told me was that she’d already looked through at least the open box, enough to find out what she wanted to know.