the town hall mystery (part three)

This story started here.

My employer smoked a cigarette as she looked out over the water. I had voted for getting some lunch (it would have been a late lunch, by then), but she was never hungry when there was heavy thinking to do.

Sheriff Rhonda had once recommended the pier as a good place to think, so I suggested that we go there. I planned to get a couple of hot dogs to sustain myself while the heavy-duty cogitation was going on.

If she thought for long enough, I was going to have some soft ice cream as well.

We were sitting on a bench, and I occupied myself, after finishing my hot dogs, with trying to figure out what my employer was focusing on. It was definitely not the sea and the sky — she’d removed her glasses and slipped them into her jacket pocket.

Her brown hair moved in the breeze, and she occasionally pushed it away from her face. She was leaning back, her long, thin legs stretched out in front of her.

Was she working her brain on the dead man? That seemed the most likely possibility. It was difficult to imagine that she could be thinking that hard about the fire.

Or she could have been thinking about the book she was writing. That did occupy most of her time and attention these days. Maybe she was planning how she could best continue her research, now that the town no longer had a library.

She started to speak without looking at me.

“The most unfortunate aspect of Rhonda’s intransigent insistence that we invented a woman once before is that the rude woman who nearly jostled my Sunday Times out of your grasp is out there somewhere, and nobody is looking for her. However, the advantage we have is that, even with the sheriff’s inaccurate reconstruction of the crime, if it was a crime, she needs to know who the dead man was, and we need that information as well.”

“And the man, or his identity, will lead us to the woman?”

“Obviously.” She stubbed out her cigarette and tossed the butt off the edge of the pier and into the water. She turned and poked me in the shoulder. “You have errands to run — you just don’t know it yet.”

I stood up. I didn’t mind leaving — the soft ice cream stand was closed for the season anyway.

“I’ll walk back home with you first,” I said as she took out her glasses and put them back on. “You can tell me about it as we walk.”

She smiled as she got to her feet. “That will be pleasant.”

So, we walked back to the inn, maintaining the fiction that this stroll was for companionship, rather than the more prosaic reason, which was that I wanted to drop off the (increasingly heavy) Sunday Times so I wouldn’t have to lug it all over town with me.

(Well, my employer certainly wasn’t going to carry it anywhere.)

As we walked, at a comfortable pace for my employer, she said, “I did not have enough time to perform a thorough search of the body, as you know, but I was able to go through the pockets. They were empty except for two things — a few dollar bills, held together with a paper clip, and a single key.” She gave me a sidelong glance. “The key was somewhat notable, though. It was shiny, apparently new, and it was a Rabson.”

I nodded.” Hardware stores, then?”

She nodded. “Exactly.” Rabsons are very expensive (and difficult to pick — not that I would know that from personal experience, of course), so maybe a customer who needed a key for a Rabson lock would stick in somebody’s mind.

At the inn, I placed the Times on my employer’s bed, bade her farewell, and went down to the front hall to check the Yellow Pages, which were kept under the small table that held the telephone.

I headed out, walking back toward the pier, and then, in sight of the pier, I took a right turn onto Pine Street.

There were two hardware stores in Claremont that I could reach on foot — a small store on Pine Street and a large housewares store located out on the highway. The other stores which I’d jotted down would have required me to get a cab, or rent a car. Since we had no income and needed to watch our expenses, I decided to try the two local stores before I made plans to tackle the rest.

Of course, even if the key was as new as it looked, it could have been made in Boston, or much farther away than that. But it was the only lead we had, so I went to check on it.

Walking the several blocks up the hill, I enjoyed the sunshine and the breeze coming off the water. It was good walking weather — just the right temperature.

At the top of the hill, I passed the Catholic church, remembering when my employer — an ardent atheist — had teased me for lighting a candle for Marvel Phillips after her death. I had no desire to light a candle for the young man who had died earlier that day, even apart from the fact that I knew nothing about him, not even his name.

I was glad to start at Howell’s Hardware on Pine Street — it was much more the sort of place where customers might be remembered. My only experience at Sunshine Housewares, buying a few necessary items for our room, had been that it was very impersonal — very “un-Claremont.” (I was already becoming somewhat protective of our new adopted hometown.)

Past the church, the ground sloped off again, and gradually the smell of smoke came back to me as I approached Main Street. There was no breeze here, and the air was somewhat acrid and very still.

The hardware store was about a half a block from Main Street, and a small bell rang as I opened the door. Unlike when we’d been investigating the death of Marvel Phillips, we had no piece of paper giving us any authority to ask questions, so I decided that my best approach would be to be convivial, and a potential customer, rather than trying to be intimidating and official.

The place was somewhat dark, but I saw a key-making stand in a gloomy corner, with various metal signs posted around it. I didn’t see a sign for Rabson. They are specialty keys and many stores aren’t equipped with the machine needed to cut them, so stores which are so equipped usually advertise the fact.

I’d had various plans in mind to get the information I needed, but now I could use the easiest one. I asked if they copied Rabson keys, and the man behind the counter apologized and said that they didn’t, adding that very few people in Claremont even locked their doors, so there wasn’t really any demand for fancy locks. He gave me a look indicating that I must not be a local. I bade him goodbye and left.

As I strolled up toward the corner, the smell of smoke became stronger. The absence of wind which had helped to save the buildings closest to the fire was now allowing the pall to hang over the center of town.

I turned right on Main Street, walking past some shops, the Methodist Church, and the Wagon Wheel, and then I saw where the Town Hall had been.

It was strange, in the middle of that pleasant seaside town, to see one large rectangle of charred, debris-filled land that reminded me of bombed-out buildings I’d seen in a war zone. It was a very odd, and, I admit, rather disturbing juxtaposition, as if somebody had folded a map to put Main Street in Claremont directly next to Rua Serra Verde in Bellona.

When the sheriff had said that “the safe” had survived, my mental image had been inadequate. The charred, dull gray metal box perched directly in the center of the Town Hall footprint was massive. It was, I suddenly realized, comparable in size to the (comfortable, but decidedly cozy) room where my employer and I lived.

As I walked forward, more slowly now, I found myself resisting looking at the site. I felt bad about this — I wasn’t usually so timid, particularly about a place where, as far as I knew, nobody had died.

Then I saw a family walking on the other side of the street. The parents were looking at the site as they walked past it, apparently discussing what had happened. Their son (presumably — he looked like he was around eight years old) was looking fixedly at the News Store — avoiding any risk of seeing the site of the fire.

I didn’t feel so bad as I approached the News Store.

To be continued…

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