My employer, Jan Sleet, usually attracted some amount of attention when she walked down the street in Claremont. This was partly because she was becoming (she would have said “was”) a local celebrity — the town’s resident amateur sleuth. She had initially gained this reputation by her exploits while in college, and it had been cemented by her solution of the murder of Marvel Phillips a few weeks before.
There was also, of course, her appearance, which was unusual almost anywhere, but strikingly so in a seaside college town like Claremont. She had lank brown hair and a tall and spindly body, and she wore large horn-rimmed glasses and elegant three-piece suits. She used a cane for her limp, which was especially pronounced when she was moving quickly, as she was at the moment, steaming down the block toward me. She never even looked at the burning Town Hall across the street, and she brushed by the sheriff without acknowledging her.
A more sentimental employee than I am, seeing her intensity, might have concluded that she was concerned about my safety — what with the fire raging across the street and a body falling to the sidewalk and all, but I had a pretty good idea that it was irritation that I knew a lot of things about recent events that she did not know, at least not yet.
She managed to slow her forward momentum enough to (barely) avoid crashing into me. She didn’t have to ask — I gave her a very brief update on what had happened, enough to make it clear that if this had been an accident it had been a very odd one. Then she bent over to look at the corpse.
When I had first seen the body, I had moved quickly to check for signs of life. When it became obvious that I wasn’t finding any, most of the onlookers had turned their attention back to the fire across the street. The few who were now watching the (moderately) famous detective were distracted by a crash from across the street as the second floor of the Town Hall fell in, smoke and sparks and debris going in all directions. One of the two trees on the lawn in front of the burning building was on fire now, too.
I had expected the noise and had been prepared, but my employer’s attention had been on the corpse, so she jumped. Unexpected loud noises had that effect on both of us, because of our experiences overseas.
I took her elbow and steadied her, steering her gently toward a small alley between the news store and the thrift shop. She tolerated the contact, and I released her before she could decide to pull back.
She met my eyes and nodded. “Tell me all,” she murmured.
Things got chaotic around us for a while, but we stood in our alcove, her hand on my shoulder, and I told her the whole story, very quietly.
As I told the story, I saw the sheriff look in our direction. She met my eyes, but she was obviously willing to wait until I got my employer up to speed. Meanwhile, she continued to direct her deputies in controlling the crowd and evacuating the buildings closest to the Town Hall. There was almost no breeze, and the smoke in the air was starting to sting my eyes.
When I was done, my employer straightened up, the corner of her mouth quirking. Her first words were, “So, it was the man who fell and died, rather than the woman?”
I nodded. I might have known that she’d figure that out. You can only get so far with fudging pronouns.
She squatted and started to examine the body in detail. After a few moments, she gestured behind her with a forefinger, and I moved about a foot to my right. If the sheriff turned around again, it would be better if she didn’t see my employer quickly and methodically going through the victim’s pockets.
Then, as I helped my employer to her feet again, the sheriff did come over and look down at the corpse. She looked at me, then she wiped her sweaty forehead with her sleeve. “I know she just got here,” she said, meaning my employer, “but did you see any of it?”
“At ground level, I saw everything. I have no idea what happened on the roof.”
She called over her shoulder to one of her deputies, “Brian, I’ll be in the Wheel.”
“Do you know what I think?” Sheriff Rhonda White asked.
“No, please tell us.” My employer managed to hold back most of her sarcasm, since she already knew what the sheriff was going to say next. It was so obvious that I’d figured it out too.
We were sitting at a front table in the Wagon Wheel, so the sheriff could keep an eye on the situation outside. The waitress, Dot, came over and Rhonda waved her off, but not before my employer said she would like a cappuccino.
Rhonda leaned back in her chair, deciding not to be annoyed. She almost tented her fingers in front of her but then she stopped herself.
“Please tell me what you saw,” she said to me.
I obliged — we certainly had no reason to hold anything back. I told it to her exactly as I had told it to my employer, except that I didn’t bother to play at pronouns. I made it clear that the first person, now deceased, had been male, and the second one, now missing, had been female.
By the end of my story, when my employer was about halfway through her cappuccino, Rhonda had decided that being annoyed was entirely reasonable.
“So, Marshall,” she said, “a man shoved past you and into the store, looked around, climbed up to the roof, and then, a few moments later, another person, a woman this time, in the same clothes, with the same hair, did the exact same thing, and then the man fell or was pushed or jumped off the roof, cracking his skull on the pavement?”
I nodded, simply to keep this process moving forward.
“Other people saw him, especially the people in the store, and they all said it looked like the same person. And if there were two people, male or female, the one who didn’t die has vanished.”
My employer nodded slowly. “So, if this one person pushed in, ascended, returned to street level, pushed in again, and then fell, jumped, or was pushed–“
“Jumped is my guess. Determined to commit suicide — for whatever reason — started, chickened out, climbed down to the street, got his gumption back up, and then carried it out.”
My employer wanted a cigarette. She could have pointed out that the story didn’t make a lot of sense, or that suicidal jumpers seldom jump from the roofs of one-story buildings, or that it would have been a very odd lie for me to have told in the first place. What benefit could there have been for me to have invented a woman who didn’t exist in this situation?
If we had challenged the sheriff on that, she could have pointed out that, in her firm opinion, we had invented a woman before, in the Marvel Phillips case, so why wouldn’t we have done it again?
As my employer said later, she mentally played through every possible conversation that this could have led to, and not one of them could have been useful. She glanced over at me before bidding the sheriff goodbye, and instead she said, “Marshall has a question.”
“The Town Hall,” I said. “Did everybody make it out safely?”
Sheriff Rhonda nodded. “As far as we know, based on the reports so far. The staff are definitely all okay. We… the ruins will have to be gone through. It sounds like the fire started upstairs, in the library rest room, but we don’t even know that for a fact. The staff apparently moved quickly and efficiently to clear the whole building. The building itself is a total loss, of course, except for the safe… “
Her eyes narrowed as she stood up. “Keep in touch,” she said, not looking at us as she made for the door. My employer looked out the window and winked at me as she finished her cappuccino. I turned to see a reporter from the Claremont Crier, the local paper, talking to one of Rhonda’s deputies. I was sure that Rhonda would step in to speak with the reporter herself.
My employer took her cane and got to her feet. She looked down at the Sunday Times, which I had placed on the extra chair at our table.
“All the sections are there,” I assured her as I took out my wallet.