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 Methodist 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.
There seemed to be 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.”
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 toward 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 a place 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.”