Sheriff Rhonda’s secretary led us into her office. She was sitting behind her desk, and she stood up as we came in.
“I’m suggesting we talk outside,” she said to my employer. “Unlike Sheriff Baxter, I’m not going to allow you to smoke in my office, and it’s going to distract us if we waste time on that. We have a murder to solve. Let’s go.”
There was a picnic table in the back yard of the police station, which looked as if it had been a private house at some point. My employer looked at the picnic table and then at me. I went to the back porch and brought over a lawn chair, placing it so that she could sit at the head of the table.
Not that she needed to sit at the head of the table — though she didn’t mind — but the table was the kind with the attached benches, and getting her lame leg under that — and then back out again later — would have been awkward and possibly painful (and almost certainly undignified).
“So,” she said, when we were all seated, “our corpse is Marvel Phillips? The girl from the tabloids?”
Sheriff Rhonda nodded. “Yes. Doctor Wright noticed that she’d had some pretty extensive, and expensive, dental repair work done, fairly recently, so he called around to the local dentists. He found the one who remembered working on her. Under the name Madeleine Pontmercy.”
“Presumably she had items with her initials on them,” my employer murmured.
The secretary brought us a tray with three cups of coffee, cream and sugar, and an ashtray.
“Can you give us a little background on Marvel Phillips?” my employer asked as I poured milk into her coffee. “I’ve seen a few headlines, but we’ve been out of the country for a while and just got back quite recently.”
“She was incredibly rich. Her parents died when she was fifteen. She went to boarding schools, with bankers controlling her fortune until she turned eighteen. At that point, she came into her money, and…”
“Went a little wild, based on newspaper reports,” I said.
She nodded. “That’s about it. Drinking, carousing, parties, yachts, and so on.”
My employer, looking more than usually prim, added, “Performing a variety of activities in public view while dispensing with one or more items of attire that most people would consider essential.”
“Well, she got into a fist fight with a guy… I don’t remember the details, but it went badly for her. That’s when she needed the dental repair work. Apparently she had to spend a little time in the hospital, too, and she seems to have taken stock and decided to make some changes.
“She applied to college here at Claremont. Under her assumed name of Madeleine Pontmercy — I didn’t know about this until today.”
My employer frowned. “Is that usual? Do colleges allow that sort of thing?”
Rhonda shrugged. “Apparently she said that if she graduated without the press finding out, the college would get a new building out of it. Papers were signed.”
“Ah, I can see how that could make a difference. How long has she been enrolled?”
“Since spring semester. She decided to stay for the summer to study… something. Anyway, I’ve been making calls, but I haven’t found out anything from the college yet. The last time she was in class was Tuesday. Apparently the day before she was killed.”
“Did she live on campus? Did she have a roommate?”
“She did live on campus, in a single. It doesn’t seem that anybody remembers if they saw her Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.”
“Did she have classes scheduled on Wednesday?”
“In the afternoon. She missed that class — she was almost certainly dead by then.”
My employer looked thoughtful and lit a cigarette.
“Well,” I said, “two questions occur to me. One: Did she have any connection to the Arkright family? And two: Who inherits her fortune?”
My employer added, “And just to cover all the bases, how exactly did her parents die?”
Rhonda sighed. “We’re looking into the question of any possible connections she might have had to the Arkright family. In terms of the inheritance, the story in the tabloids was always that she had no living relatives, but I have no idea if that’s true. The county attorney is dealing with that. And as for her parents — I have no idea. That was a few years ago — does it matter?”
“Probably not, but…” She spread her hands wide and gave an elaborate shrug. “There’s a lot of money changing hands here.”
“That’s for sure.”
“Any word on the Arkright family?” I asked.
“Yes, in fact. They had given Reverend Deacon a brochure for the resort they were going to, so we’re trying to get a call through now.”
“‘Reverend Deacon’?” my employer asked. She glanced at me for clarification.
She was an ardent atheist, and affected to know even less about religion than she did, so she often looked to me to fill in the gaps in her information.
“I would guess that ‘Deacon’ might be his surname, rather than–”
“Ah, quite so. Of course, if they do come rushing back, they won’t have any place to stay.”
Sheriff Rhonda smiled. “Even if they ‘rush back’ it will be some time before they actually get here. I’m sure we’ll be done with the house by then. And, yes, I’ll let you know the minute the state boys get finished, so you can go in there and poke around yourself.”
“Did Marvel have a car?”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t heard anything about one, but I’ll try to find out. Probably she just took the jitney bus.”
The sheriff paused, trying to read my employer’s expression (which, in reality, had simply been a momentary wince — “jitney bus” was redundant).
Then Rhonda nodded. “I see. She lived on campus. Her body was found in town. If she didn’t have a car, she may have used the jitney bus, and someone may remember her.” She nodded. “So, what are your plans for today?”