We ordered dinner, and as we waited I told my employer about the room I’d secured for that night.
I shrugged. “I guess tomorrow we’ll have to find another place — in addition to everything else I’m sure we’ll be doing tomorrow.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said, waving a hand. “It’s all taken care of. I made a call.”
The cases were bubbling around in my employer’s mind for the rest of the evening, so I mostly just let her think, not talking unless she started a conversation.
I made a point of thinking of them as “cases,” by the way. I did not want to assume that everything — the book theft, the dead woman, the mysterious live woman — would all magically tie together into a single case at the end.
The interesting — and somewhat disturbing — thing was that my employer was bothered by something in this situation, and it wasn’t the dead body.
This was early in the years that I worked for her, but I’d already seen her with more than a few dead bodies — both murder victims and casualties of war. They sometimes affected her more than she let on, but this was something different. And it had been bothering her since we’d arrived in town, if not longer.
So, maybe it really was her (possibly) stolen books? Even for someone as “bookish” as she was, this seemed unlikely.
Our room at the inn had at least one disadvantage. My employer liked to end her days with a long soak in the bathtub, but the room only had a shower. And there was a television, which she asked me to turn to face the wall (I declined — insisting that our will power would be sufficient, which it was).
Coming out of the bathroom, surrounded by clouds of steam, wearing her floor length flannel nightgown and a bathrobe, she sat on her bed and lit a cigarette.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get to search the rest of the house,” she said, looking at the dark window. “Maybe Sheriff Rhonda will let me do it tomorrow.”
She looked up, waiting for me to express my opinion about how likely I thought this was.
“How well did you know the family, when you lived here?” I asked.
“Not well. I knew that the wife was having an affair with Mr. Beasley who runs the library, but that was from observation and deduction.”
“So, there’s a couple, of retirement age? Any children?”
“Several. Let me think…” She drew deeply on her cigarette. “A daughter and a son, in college. Well, the daughter might have graduated by now.” She caught my expression. “Mrs. Arkright–“
“The one with the well-used library card.”
She snorted a laugh. “Yes, exactly. She is Mr. Arkright’s second wife. Much younger than her husband. He had… a son, I believe, with his first wife. We’ll have to check on that. He’d be… maybe in his forties by now. If I remember correctly, the first Mrs. Arkright died, leaving Mr. Arkright a widower.”
“Was her death suspicious?”
She looked up, about to accuse me of flippancy, but then she frowned. “Was that question reflexive, or are you thinking of something specific?”
“Reflexive, I confess.”
She stubbed out her cigarette.
“We’ll have to get the details from Sheriff Rhonda tomorrow.”
She nodded. “There are a lot of details that we need. Starting with the identity of the corpse.” She drew herself up and said, “I’m thinking categorically now. If the body had been a townie, it’s likely that the sheriff, or the doctor, or somebody, would have recognized it by now.” She held up a hand, overruling my unspoken objection. “Not inevitable, but, as I said, likely. A lot of the people you’re seeing around now are summer people — the people who live here year-round, and who aren’t students or faculty, that’s a much smaller number.”
“How many?” I asked.
She squinched up her nose at me. “How should I know? I’m a detective, as you well know, not a census taker.”
I waved a hand, indicating that she should proceed.
“Okay, so if our corpse wasn’t a townie, then she was either connected with the college, or she was a summer visitor, or something else. That would make it likely…” She emphasized the word and gave me a stern look. “Likely that she was not intimately connected with the Arkright family. They didn’t have anything to do with the college–“
“Who did they rent rooms to?”
“Okay, objection sustained. They rented rooms, when I lived here, to students, once Nate and Barbara went to college. But not in the summer, because the ‘kids’ (if we can call them that) were home then.”
“So, as soon as Nate and Barbara went away to college, their parents rented out their rooms, during the school year.”
“Exactly. And the word around the campus was that it was not a great place to live. They — the Arkrights — liked tenants who were quiet, well-behaved, and willing and able to pay rent that was higher than market rate. Mostly nobody stayed there longer than a single semester.”
She anticipated my next question. “Why did they rent out the rooms? The story was that they needed the money.” She looked at me. “What’s on your mind?”
I shrugged. “Just idly wondering how the family is fixed. Probably not relevant.”
She nodded slowly. “Probably not. Could be worth knowing about, though. As you say, we need to know a lot more than we do now.” She looked around. “Please get me the newspapers, from the blue suitcase. I’m sure everything isn’t in there, in the newspapers, but a lot probably is, and I do have questions…”
I woke up and blinked — the room was so full of smoke that some people, people who haven’t lived with my employer, might have jumped to the conclusion that the building was on fire. I knew better, and quickly got up to open a window a little.
I turned and regarded the limp form of the great detective. Still dressed in her nightgown and robe, still wearing her glasses, she was stretched out across the bed, lying on top of the covers, surrounded by the back issues of the Claremont Crier that we’d brought with us, and the new issue she’d bought the day before.
Looking at her, I thought about what I was learning on this case.
I had always assumed that she’d been exaggerating, at least a little, when she’d told me about her exploits as a small-town amateur detective, but it was looking like she’d been telling me the literal truth.
Then, turning to reach for the light switch, I saw that there was an envelope stuck under our door. I picked it up and opened it.
Inside, there was a clipping from a supermarket tabloid, about a young, wild debutante named Marvel Phillips. She had been a feature in the more sensational press for some time.
There was a small note clipped to it, on notepaper which said “Sheriff’s Department” at the top, and the note, signed “Rhonda,” said: “The coroner found out who our corpse is. Please come see me in the morning.”