I was interested to discover that taking the jitney did not, as far as I could tell, require an ID. There was a sign over the windshield saying that all students and faculty needed to show proper identification, but nobody seemed to, and Mr. Brooke didn’t ask me (though of course he may have remembered me from my earlier trip with my employer, the distinguished alumna).
Walking up the hill between the bus stop and the center of town, I saw two police vehicles by the Arkright house, a town police car in front and a state police van in the church parking lot next door.
I slowed, wanting to see what I could see before I entered the scene of the crime. Nobody was visible on the sidewalk (apart from an elderly couple walking in my direction across the street who didn’t seem to be connected to the murder house).
The front door of the Arkright house opened and Sheriff Rhonda stepped out, followed by two officers wearing what appeared to be state police uniforms.
They talked for a moment, then Rhonda saw me and waved as the officers went back into the house. She motioned for me to join her on the porch.
“Any news from the house?” I asked as we sat down.
She shrugged. “They’re finding things. It’s hard to tell what’s important at this point. How’s the college so far?”
I laughed. “My employer is investigating, I assume. I’m here to fetch our luggage from the inn where we stayed last night.”
“The excitement never ends for a detective’s assistant, I guess?”
“It hasn’t so far. Has the coroner’s report come in?”
She nodded. “I was surprised that your employer didn’t ask about that this morning.”
“She affects, at times, a disdain for conventional methods like that.”
“I know. I’ve seen that before. Sheriff Baxter used to tease her about that…” She shrugged. “Until she started producing results.”
“Were there any surprises? In the report?”
She shook her head. “Death by strangulation, no scratches or abrasions on the neck, no evidence of recent sexual activity…”
She looked at me pointedly.
“A significant discovery,” I admitted, “since it seems likely that somebody put that bikini on her body, either before or after death.”
“It didn’t quite fit her, yes, and it’s unlikely that anybody with her resources would have worn anything that was too small for her.”
“Also, it’s unlikely she would have come to town wearing or even carrying a bathing suit, too small or not, on a day when it was raining.”
She smiled. “You noticed that, too? You’re not giving up your boss’s secrets, are you?”
I shook my head. “Never. Those are all things I’ve noticed. I have no idea what she’s thinking about all this.”
She got to her feet. “It’s time that I got going,” she said. “There’s a lot that I still need to do today.”
I nodded. “I think I’m going to take a walk,” I said, “before I pick up the luggage.”
She nodded. “You look like maybe you’re going to do some thinking, too,” she said. “I’d suggest the pier. I always find that’s a very good place to think.” She smiled. “Of course, pretty much any place is better for thinking than my office.”
“I never made it to the pier yesterday,” I said as we walked down the path from the house to the street. “I was headed in that direction when I found the inn. Then I rushed back to tell my employer the good news, that we wouldn’t need to sleep in the woods somewhere. Oh, and one question, for when the family returns.”
I gestured at the house and stepped closer to her, lowering my voice. “Do they know, or will they know, who the victim really was?”
She shook her head. “Not as far as I know. I’m keeping that as quiet as possible, for as long as I can.”
The letter was impressive. I read it over again while I sat on a piling on the pier. Actually, I was reading the carbon copy – my employer had kept the original.
I wondered how long the letter had taken to write. It had clearly been prepared in advance of our meeting that morning in the back yard of the police station. As we’d prepared to depart, Sheriff Rhonda had ducked into her office and produced it.
The letter began, “To whom it may concern,” and the first paragraph said that Miss Janice Stiglianese (DBA Jan Sleet) was assisting the Claremont Police Department with the investigation of the death of Claremont College student Madeleine Pontmercy.
The second, and much longer, paragraph covered things that Miss Sleet was not allowed to do, including arresting people, carrying a weapon, physically intimidating or overpowering anybody, investigating in any area that the college did not want to admit her to, detaining anybody, and commandeering materials, assistance, or vehicles. That’s only a partial list, but it gives a flavor of the whole.
I thought about this letter as I looked out over the water. I was somewhat surprised that it hadn’t explicitly prohibited her from declaring himself the queen of Claremont College (unlikely, perhaps, but not as unlikely but as her physically overpowering any human being other than an infant or an invalid).
With most of the mysteries we solved, there were two mysteries, the second one being my employer herself. In this case, very specifically, it was the “most obvious question,” which she had made clear she was not going to listen to, let alone answer.
If she had been telling the truth, about knowing immediately that the woman who had invited us into the Arkright house had not been a member of the family, or anybody else with a legitimate right to be there, and I was sure that she had, then, when the body had been discovered, why had my employer allowed her to escape, rather than having me stop her?
I had no idea.
It had not been because she’d been surprised at coming upon the body and hadn’t thought of it in time. She had moved forward first, examined the body, declared it dead, then asked the mystery woman to step forward and possibly identify it.
That was more than enough time for my employer’s excellent brain to have calculated all the angles in the situation.
So, that was a mystery. And the pier, pleasant as it was, didn’t seem to be helping me come up with any great revelations
Why had I not moved to restrain the woman? Because I was not told to. In those moments of split-second decision, I had been trained to do exactly what I was told, no more, and no less. I had made a mistake in this early on, and she had made it very clear that this was not optional. The only exception was when I needed to move quickly to protect her life, or my own.
So, moving on to other questions:
Where had Marvel Phillips’ clothes and ID and money gone? Had she been robbed and her body dumped in the Arkright house simply because it was empty? Had she been killed by someone who knew her as Madeleine, or as Marvel, or as both, or had it been a random killing where the murderer hadn’t known her at all? Who would inherit her money? Did she have a will? Were all the members of the Arkright family really out of town? Had any of the other students at the college, or the professors, known who she really was?
Having learned that we were going to be able to live rent-free for two weeks, at least, I decided to take a cab back to the campus once I had collected our luggage. Feeling quite luxurious, I made the call from the inn. As I hung up the phone, Mrs. Jessup, the owner, brought me a small paper bag, containing two muffins. I considered who would enjoy the second one more, me (after eating the first one, of course), or my employer, who was really quite indifferent to food.
On reflection, however, regretfully, I decided to offer it to Professor Lebrun, since he was going to be our host.
To be continued…