We knocked on the front door, and of course it reminded me of the first time we'd been admitted to that house. But this time it was evening, and the windows were lit, and we could hear voices from inside.
The door opened and a young man greeted us. He looked to be somewhere in his mid-twenties, with short, dark hair and a muscular build. He wore a sweatshirt and jeans, with white deck shoes.
"Sheriff Rhonda," he said, stepping aside to let us in. "And are these two new deputies? And out of uniform, too. I--"
"That's Sheriff White to you," Rhonda said as I closed the door behind us. "This is Miss Jan Sleet and her assistant, Marshall."
"Ah," he said, reaching for my employer's hand, "the famous lady detective. I--"
My employer was not making her hand available for shaking purposes, so I took his hand myself (it was rather limp and sweaty) and shook it quickly, releasing it before he thought of testing my grip. He looked like the type who would try.
"Nate, is that the sheriff?" a woman's voice called impatiently from the living room. "I--"
Nate sort of gestured us into the living room and we saw the rest of the family for the first time.
Introductions were somewhat awkward.
Mr. Arkright -- tall, straight, with short white hair and pale blue eyes -- stood and introduced himself (his first name was Thomas, and he gave the impression that it had been a very long time since anybody had called him "Tommy," or even "Tom") and his wife, Maureen. Then he sat down again, in an armchair that was obviously placed to be at the center of attention. (The furniture had been rearranged since we'd last seen the room, and a couple of additional chairs brought in.)
This left the two members of the next generation, Barbara and Nate, to introduce themselves. Nate was still trying to give the impression that he was witty, and Barbara gave every indication that she didn't want to be there at all and might leave at any moment.
Sheriff Rhonda introduced herself and then my employer and me. As she finished, there was another knock at the door, and Nate went to admit a plump, middle-aged man with very little hair and horn-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, and he turned out to be, as I would have guessed, the family attorney. His name was Mr. Krause. Mr. Arkright greeted him in a perfunctory way, and nobody else reacted to his presence at all.
When we were all seated, Mrs. Arkright appeared to be about to speak, but her husband cut her off.
"I wish to make several things clear," he said slowly, in a deep and sonorous voice. "First of all, to be blunt, we don't care in the least about the dead woman or who killed her. We didn't know her. So, from that point of view, solve it or not, that's up to you. But my son has let me know that she was someone of some notoriety, though I'd never heard of her, so I gather that whenever her identity becomes publicly known, we -- this family and this house -- will be at the center of an enormous public spectacle."
He sighed. "I realize that this is inevitable. The story will come out. So, there are two possibilities: It will come out with the murder solved and all questions answered, or it will come out with the murder not solved. The murder which happened in our home, for whatever reason, will--"
"If I may interrupt," Sheriff Rhonda said, "to be accurate, we have no idea whether the murder was committed here in this house. We don't know where it was committed. We just know that the body ended up here, over twenty four hours after death. Not to be flippant, but the murder could have taken place in Boston."
Mr. Arkright looked ready to resume being slow and sonorous, but Rhonda kept going.
"I think we all want this solved as soon as possible, for a variety of reasons, so I have some questions. Were you all together in Austria?"
Mr. Arkright smiled indulgently. "Yes, we were. None of us committed the crime, unless you think--"
"What about Robbie? He wasn't there, was he?"
"He was not," Mrs. Arkright said. "He lives in California, with his family. He hasn't been here for a visit in some time."
"So, if you were all gone, and since there was no trace of forced entry, the question is who, other than the four of you, has keys to this house?"
They had apparently not been expecting this question. Mr. and Mrs. Arkright looked at each other, Nate frowned and looked at his hands, and Barbara looked out the window. Mr. Krause was impassive.
"Dad," Barbara said slowly, raising her head, "what's--"
She may have said one more word after that. I really don't know.
My employer has always claimed that I threw her to the floor before the first bullet smashed through the window, but I doubt that's true. Either way, though, the next thing I knew, I was lying on the rough carpet, covering as much of my employer as I could with my body. There was a second shot, also from outside somewhere, and my employer snapped, "Lights!"
The little table next to Mr. Arkright's chair held a lamp, and I was close enough to kick it over. Then, keeping low, I made it to the wall switch and turned off the overhead light. That left just enough light from the hall for me to see my employer dragging herself to Sheriff Rhonda's side. She pulled out Rhonda's radio and said, in a loud, clear voice, "Emergency. This is Jan Sleet. There has been a shooting at Thomas Arkright's house, 349 Main Street. The shooter is outside somewhere. Sheriff White is down. We need an ambulance, and every available unit to this address, 349 Main Street. Emergency."
Whoever was at the other end was apparently not ready for this kind of message, and while my employer made sure that the necessary things were going to happen, and immediately, I allowed myself to take stock of what else was going on around me.
Mrs. Arkright was screaming. She'd been screaming for a while, I realized. Barbara was lying on the floor, in front of the sofa where she'd been sitting, and she was obviously dead.
I quickly checked Sheriff Rhonda, who was the other person on the floor. She was alive, unconscious, and bleeding from her shoulder. Her head was bleeding also, I realized as I tried to revive her, apparently from hitting the coffee table on her way to the floor. I decided to leave that to the medical professionals (I could hear sirens approaching).
I thought of taking her pistol, but it seemed possible that the officers who were about to arrive would be young and inexperienced, and I didn't want to be the one person in the room holding a gun when they came in.
As I applied pressure on Rhonda's arm, to slow the bleeding, her eyes flickered open. She squinted, as if trying to get her eyes to work together again, or maybe she was trying to remember who I was.
She reached up, using her undamaged arm, and gripped my shoulder. "What the fuck?" she demanded.