Sheriff Rhonda leaned way over to one side as I came into her office, apparently trying to look behind me. “No, my employer is not here,” I said with a laugh. “And I don’t smoke.”
She laughed, and I got the idea, again, that the sheriff and the amateur detective were cooperating more out of necessity than from any deeper connection.
Given that, I decided it was politic to let her ask the first question. I had taken the jitney into town that morning — having had the hunch that Sheriff Rhonda might be more forthcoming in person than over the phone. My employer, off for a breakfast with “the girls” before resuming her search of the victim’s room, hadn’t seemed to care one way or the other.
“So,” Rhonda asked after I was seated, and after I had politely declined her offer of coffee, “any progress on the campus front?”
I gave her a brief summary of what I knew. She nodded, as if this lack of progress didn’t surprise her (or at least didn’t disappoint her).
“Any word from the family?” I asked. She frowned. “The Arkright family?” I clarified.
“Oh, yes. They’re coming home. At their own speed and in no particular hurry, thank you very much.”
“Anything interesting from the search of the house?”
“Not really.” She was apparently in more of a mood to receive information than to give it.
After a moment’s silence, I said, “Here’s one thing that caught my interest: The family is at least somewhat strapped for cash — based on the fact that they boarded students, perhaps at least somewhat unenthusiastically — but they were able to go on a fairly long skiing trip to Austria…”
She smiled. “You noticed that, huh? Yes, Mrs. Arkright came into some money when her father died, and apparently she decided that they all needed to go on a skiing trip, though as far as anybody can remember she’s the only avid skier in the family.”
“I’m surprised that the younger generation went. They’re not kids…”
She shrugged. “Go to Austria for a couple of months, all expenses paid, or spend another summer here in town with nothing to do? I know which one I’d pick, and I’ve never skied or had any desire to.”
“And what about the Marvel side of things? Her lawyers and so on. Have any unexpected relatives started appearing out of nowhere?”
“If that does happen, I imagine it won’t be until her death is publicly announced. The county attorney is in touch with her lawyers. We’ve convinced them to keep her death a secret, at least for now.”
“More time for them to make their plans.”
“And maybe figure out how to peel off some of her cash.”
“It’s not her cash now, and she’s not going to be needing it for anything. If a person was, potentially, being ripped off, that would be one thing–“
“You’ve made your point.” She leaned back in her chair. “Do you know what I wonder?” I shook my head. “We don’t know about a will. Her lawyers don’t know about a will…”
I nodded slowly. “Doesn’t mean there isn’t one.”
“Exactly. The county attorney is calling around to local lawyers.” She shrugged. “She had her dental work done in the area — maybe she had some legal work done, too.”
I waited for her to say more.
“Marvel, two years ago, wild, rich party girl? Not having a will — that fits for her. But Madeleine? Girl trying to change her life around? Serious about her studies, serious, from what you say your boss found, about her businesses… She’d have a will. Now, it’s possible that she just hadn’t got around to it yet, but maybe she had.”
“I’d say it’s a slim chance, but if it’s true this is suddenly a whole different case.” She smiled. “Sheriff Baxter taught me that. It’s not just how likely or unlikely something is — it’s how big the explosion could be if you’re wrong.”
I snorted, unexpectedly, and I’m not sure what my expression revealed, but she frowned. “What?”
“That just brought back a memory — my employer and I, we were having that exact discussion one time, lying in a ditch, about an unexploded artillery shell. It was about as far from us as that window. We… Anyway, back to the business at hand.”
She nodded slowly. “You know,” she said quietly, “I formed an opinion of Miss Sleet when she was here before, and it’s possible that now… Well, as you say… Do you ever see Vinnie?”
“Her father? I’ve never met him. He lives in Italy now.”
“Really? Family there?”
“I don’t know. She doesn’t talk much about her family — not to me.”
“Ah. Well, if you do meet him, please give him my regards. Now, as you say, back to work.”
I nodded. “Miss Sleet was wondering when she’d be able to search the house.”
“I thought we agreed that the campus–“
“We’re sharing our information, you are and we are. But she has a particular interest in the house — her missing books.”
“And that mystery woman who let you in. Okay, how’s this? The state boys are done. The family won’t be back until Monday night at the earliest. She’s got the house for tomorrow. With the agreement, on the honor system, that she won’t remove anything. Does that work?”
I nodded. “I’d say definitely.”
“And she’ll let me know whatever she finds out?”
“Well, I can’t speak–“
“Tell her that those are my terms.” She picked up a key which had been lying on her desk and held it up, meeting my eyes, and I nodded as I reached for it.
“Agreed,” I said.
Late that afternoon, when I got back to the campus, my employer was sitting on Professor Lebrun’s porch, reading a newspaper.
She nodded and folded the paper as I sat down.
“No muffins today?”
I laughed. “I couldn’t think of a reason to go by there.”
“Shame. So, what did you get?”
I filled her in on the relevant details from my visit with Sheriff Rhonda, including my impression that Rhonda had decided that the mystery woman we’d met at the Arkright house had been our invention, to justify our entering the house in the absence of the family.
“If I’m right, I can see why she would want this to be true — because it would simplify her case. She could focus on the murder — the actual crime. However, putting myself in her place, putting herself in our place, it seems like an unnecessarily complex lie for her to think we would have made up to justify our being inside the house.”
“Cogent,” she said thoughtfully. She shrugged. “The girls want me to go to a crafts show with them tomorrow, but I guess this takes priority.” She picked up her cane and got to her feet. “Let’s go out to dinner. We can’t expect the professor to feed us all the time, and he’s not going to be home tonight anyway. There’s a good seafood place by the pier…”
She regarded me as I stood up.
“You did something else while you were in town, didn’t you?”
Damn, but it was hard to keep a secret from her.
She smiled. “You went to the Catholic church, on top of the hill, overlooking the water, and you said a prayer for Marvel.” She leaned forward and gave me a quick peck on the cheek — a rare gesture indeed. “You sentimental Irishman.”
I had indeed gone to the church and said a prayer, and lit a candle, and I was glad that it had been this unannounced errand that she had deduced, rather than the other one.
Maybe that was the trick to keeping a secret from her: try to keep two secrets, figuring she’d deduce the first one and maybe — just maybe — she’d be satisfied with that and not look further.