Barbara Arkright was dead. She’d apparently died instantly, shot in the head by one of the two rifle bullets.
The rest of us were at the hospital.
Barbara’s mother, Maureen Arkright, had been sedated and was asleep in a room. Barbara’s brother, Nathaniel, was sitting in the waiting room with his father. They were not saying much.
Sheriff Rhonda White was in a room also, unconscious. She had a bad concussion, at least, and there was talk about further tests she might need in the morning.
The state police had come to the house, again, and were investigating the surrounding area for any clues as to the identity of the murderer.
I had lost track of the lawyer, Mr. Krause. Maybe he was still at the house. We had been interviewed — if you want to call it that — by a young deputy who didn’t seem to know what questions he should be asking, but who wrote down, very carefully, every word we said to him in reply.
The waiting room had a machine that produced really terrible coffee. If you preferred tea, it would also produce hot water, which tasted only faintly like coffee. My employer and I drank the coffee.
There were only the four people in the waiting room — my employer and I, and the two Arkright men — and it was unclear what we were thinking we’d accomplish by being there.
Of course, Mr. Arkright and his son didn’t have a lot of other options. Their house was a crime scene, again, and there were no rooms to rent in town.
Mr. Arkright (the elder) got up and came over to us. “Miss Sleet,” he said slowly, “may I speak to you?”
“Of course,” she said. “Please sit down.” We had already offered our condolences on the death of his daughter.
He sat next to my employer and sighed. He looked much older than he had six hours earlier, which was certainly not surprising. I guess he was technically a suspect, but I did feel sorry for him. Now that he had our attention, he didn’t seem to know what he wanted to say.
“I don’t know for sure,” my employer said finally, “but I would imagine that the state police won’t take too long in your house. Their most thorough searching will be outside, of course — that’s where the murderer was.”
This seemed to help him get himself together. Sometimes people were put off by my employer’s rather cerebral approach to violent crime, but some seemed helped by it.
“My concern…” he began. “Miss Sleet, do you know who did this?”
She shook her head. “If I did, I’d be acting on it.” He seemed to accept this, but I had the sudden impression that it was a lie.
“Do you think… the shooting tonight, that it was connected to the woman who was killed in our house, while we were away?”
“I don’t know. The method was certainly very different.”
He shivered. “My wife… she’d say this was foolish, but the police I’ve seen tonight, the town police…”
“You were not impressed, I gather.”
“I… No. And it sounds like Sheriff White may be laid up for a while… Can I hire you, to look into this?”
“Mr. Arkright, you couldn’t have any more of my attention on this than you already have, and I’m not a licensed private investigator. I couldn’t accept payment. No, I think…” Her mouth quirked as she looked out the big window at the parking lot, where a car was pulling in.
A few moments later, the big glass door opened and a gaunt man came in. His hair was going gray, and he used a cane, but he seemed spry.
“Sheriff!” Mr. Arkright said as we got to our feet.
The man smiled, coming over and holding out his hand. “Just ‘Phil’ these days, Tom.” They shook hands as Nate came over. “How’s Mo?”
“She’s been sedated. She…” He waved a hand.
Mr. Baxter took Mr. Arkright’s hand again. “I was so sorry to hear about Barbara.”
Mr. Arkright nodded. “Thank you, Phil.” Mr. Baxter shook Nate’s hand also, before turning to my employer.
“Sir.” They shook hands.
“I’m offering my services, if there’s any way I can help.”
She nodded. “I can fill you in on what I know.”
He went up to the nurse at the desk and she said, “Hi, Sheriff.”
He smiled but didn’t correct her. “Hello, Molly. I’m wondering if there’s somewhere we can talk privately?” He gestured at the rest of us, to clarify who he meant by “we.”
“Of course, Sheriff.” She stood up. “Follow me.”
The older men — the victim’s father and the former sheriff — were rather solicitous of my employer as we settled ourselves in the small examination room. This may have been because she was the only woman among us — but it could also have reflected how urgently they wanted her to solve this.
My employer sat in the padded examination chair and the others took straight-backed chairs. She immediately took out a cigarette and I lit it for her. Nobody mentioned hospital regulations about smoking.
Nate was hanging back, saying almost nothing and standing by the door. He declined my offer to go out and find a chair for him.
We described what had happened that night for the benefit of Phil Baxter.
“How much do you know about the earlier murder?” my employer asked the retired sheriff.
“Rhonda has called me for advice a couple of times — I know the general story, and I know who the victim really was.”
She nodded.”That will make it easier.”