the town hall mystery (part one)

On Main Street in the town of Claremont, Massachusetts, there is a general store, called the News Store. It’s across the street from the Town Hall, and down the block from the Wagon Wheel, where my employer and I ate quite often. Directly next to the general store on one side was the thrift store and, on the other side, there was the town’s pharmacy.

Before we’d moved to Claremont, we’d stayed in a hotel in New York City for few weeks. During that time, my employer had decided that the Sunday edition of the New York Times was an essential part of any weekend. So, every Saturday evening I had to go to the News Store and make sure we were on the list to receive a copy of the Sunday Times, and then I’d return on Sunday morning to pick it up.

The man who ran the store was named Mickey. He gave the impression that he’d been behind that counter forever, but of course that could have been an act, for the tourists.

And there were still tourists now, although it was well after Labor Day and getting steadily cooler, especially in the evenings. The tourists tended to be older now, mostly retired, probably attracted by the lower prices and the early bird specials in the restaurants.

Mickey was always there on Saturday evening when I went to confirm our Sunday New York Times reservation, and to collect the weekly shipment of my employer’s preferred brand of imported cigarettes.

He was never there on Sunday morning, though. The task of assembling and selling the Sunday papers was left to his children, Mark and Millie, who were apparently in their twenties. Mark handled most of the actual assembly, while Millie worked at the counter.

Mark always gave me the impression that this was not his preferred way of spending every single Sunday morning. Millie, on the other hand, though she might have shared her brother’s apparent disdain for this family responsibility, was always pleasant, even with all the customers who thought it was very amusing to call her “Minnie.”

One evening, after a good dinner at the Wagon Wheel, my employer and I walked past the News Store on our way home. Millie was out front, pumping up the rear tire of her bicycle. She saw us and greeted me, and we chatted for a moment before we strolled off and Millie resumed her pumping.

As we turned the corner, my employer gave me a sidelong glance, conveying, “You know, she is much too young for you.” She enjoyed my frustration because, of course, since her comment had not been spoken out loud, I was stymied in my desire to protest.

 
On this particular Sunday morning, I was waiting on line, holding my Times, when we heard the noon siren — only it wasn’t noon, and that meant there was a fire.

Millie yanked off her apron (I had never been exactly clear why she wore an apron, but I guess the big pockets were convenient), tossed it at her brother, and zipped out the door, yelling, “Take over, Marky!”

He made a face about being called Marky, and he ignored the apron as he stepped behind the counter. I hadn’t known that Millie was a member of the town’s force of volunteer firefighters, but there she was, pedaling off down the block at high speed toward the firehouse.

I paid for my newspaper and moved toward the door, to allow the woman behind me to step to the counter and pay for her purchases (a local paper, a pack of cigarettes, and a small tube of toothpaste). I needed to make sure before I left the store that my paper had all the vital sections. (Actually, my employer considered almost all of the sections to be vital, but I might have been forgiven if I’d arrived home without the sports section or the classifieds.)

Then I heard the sirens approaching. I looked up to see, and smell, the smoke. The Town Hall, directly across the street, was on fire.

I stepped out onto the front step of the store and watched as two fire trucks pulled up, on opposite sides of the Town Hall. Three firemen quickly unfurled hoses to start spraying water on the two-story structure. Three other firefighters charged into the building through the front door, carrying all sorts of equipment.

There was a lawn in front of the building, leading down to the sidewalk, and pavement on the other three sides (a parking lot to the left and behind, and a driveway to the right), so at least the fire was relatively contained. There did not seem to be a lot of wind. So far, the fire seemed to be concentrated on the second floor — smoke was pouring out of the windows and I could see some flames, too.

Then I remembered that the second floor was the town library, and that was a shame. I’d mourn the loss of the town’s books much more than the town’s paperwork. There was a cluster of people on the lawn in front, moving slowly down towards the sidewalk, and I recognized one town clerk and two librarians, so maybe all the people had made it out safely.

I watched for a few minutes, still glancing down to check the newspaper sections. A crowd was gathering on the sidewalk in front of the store, of course, but I was on the raised step and could easily see over their heads.

Another fire truck pulled up, and I saw Millie among the new arrivals, rushing toward the fire in a uniform that seem to be too large for her. Were women a new addition to the force? I looked around. Was she the only woman?

My woolgathering was interrupted when a young man pushed through the crowd in front of me. He shoved past me and hurried into the News Store.

I corralled my Sunday Times, which I’d almost dropped, and turned, with a momentary atavistic impulse to go back into the store and pop the guy in the nose, but I didn’t see him for a moment. Then I saw his feet, vanishing as he ascended the steep metal ladder that led to a trap door to the roof.

Mark looked at the guy’s feet as they vanished, then he finished ringing up the next customer. He couldn’t deal with a strange man on the roof, or the fire across the street, but nobody was getting out of the store that day without paying what they owed.

I turned back to watch the fire again. It didn’t seem to be going well. I had the urge to pitch in and do something, but there didn’t seem to be much that a writer’s assistant could add to the proceedings, other than possibly getting in the way. I hoped Millie was going to be okay.

Then a familiar figure emerged from the crowd and shoved past me into the store. Same cap, rough brown jacket, wavy dark hair and jeans as before, and the same lack of manners.

I turned, again struggling to regain control of my Sunday Times, trying to remember how deja vu works, as the new arrival looked frantically around the room, then ran to the ladder and started for the roof.

Mark watched this, as did the remaining customers, and then he sighed and made the universal face that said, with a visible sigh, tourists!

Okay, this demanded a response from me. The fire was being handled, though it appeared that the Town Hall might not survive. Traffic was obviously blocked. The sheriff and her deputies were controlling the crowds. And I was going to be open to severe criticism at home if I didn’t find out what was going on up on the roof.

Then there was an odd, loud, disturbing noise from the sidewalk in front of the store, accompanied by screaming. I looked out and saw a limp figure on the sidewalk, wearing a rough brown jacket and jeans, cap on the sidewalk, brown hair spread out, eyes open, motionless.

 
To be continued…

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