the town hall mystery (part four)

This story started here.

I stepped up on the front step of the News Store and then I turned to look again at the burned plot of land across the street, and the massive safe, remembering the events of the morning.

“The big question,” Mickey said over my shoulder, bringing me back to the here and now, “is taxes.” I turned. “Some people have the hope–” He shrugged his disdain for this opinion. “–that all the town’s tax records were burned up and nobody will have to pay any taxes this year.”

I shrugged, too, indicating my tacit agreement that this was not how the world worked.

Mickey ushered me into the store and asked, “Missing any sections from your paper?”

I laughed. “All sections were checked and approved, thanks. No, I’m here to look at the roof, if that’s okay.”

My employer couldn’t have made it to the roof of the store — at least not with her dignity intact — but since the roof might be a crime scene, I thought I should look it over.

He shrugged. “Detective stuff? Go ahead.” He gestured at the metal ladder.

“Has Sheriff Rhonda been?” I asked, pointing up.

He shook his head. “One of the deputies — the short one — asked Mark some questions, but that was it. I guess the fire is a bigger deal.” He waved a hand at the scene across the street, as if I might have been confused about which fire he was referring to.

I nodded and climbed the ladder. The trapdoor was still open. Stepping out onto the roof, I looked around in all directions.

The roof was generally flat, if a bit lower at the rear of the store, and covered with tarpaper. There was a small chimney in one corner. The land under the store sloped off sharply, so that the rear of the roof was about twice as far from the ground as the front was from the sidewalk. The ground in the back was unkempt — trees and bushes and brambles.

There was, as I said before, a small alley on the right hand side of the store, between the store and the thrift shop. This was the alley where my employer and I had stood while I’d filled her in on the events of the morning. There was a metal ladder attached to the outside of the building, allowing descent to the alley. So, this might have been how the mystery woman had got off the roof. It would have been daring, with so many potential witnesses on the street, but of course all the witnesses had been facing the other way, watching the Town Hall burn.

If she had got off the roof this way, though, it must have been before the man had fallen to the sidewalk. The alley had definitely not been unobserved after that — I could assert that from personal experience.

I went to the other side of the roof and saw that it would have been easy to step to the roof of the pharmacy, and then to the grocery store that was on the other side of the pharmacy. All three buildings were single story, of approximately the same height, with no alleys between them. I could see that there was a ladder down to the street on the far side of the pharmacy.

A head poked up through the open trap door. “Hi, Marshall!” Millie said, climbing up to join me.

I laughed. “Hi. What are you doing up here?”

She shrugged, looking around. “I’m just curious about what you’re doing up here.”

“Investigating, of course. Or pretending to.”

“Finding anything?”

“No, not yet.”

She turned around in a circle, as I had, to look in all directions. “It’s a nice view,” she said. “I’ve never been up here before.” She pointed across the street. “Nice view except for that, of course.”

I found myself wondering — not for the first time, but more seriously now — whether the fire had been an accident, and, if it had been deliberate, if it had been connected in any way to the death of the young man.

“Have you heard anything about the fire?” I asked her. “Did everybody get out alive?”

She shrugged. “As far as we know. The state police will go over the site — our job is over when the fire is put out. I think they’re supposed to start tomorrow.” She looked up at me with a sly, conspiratorial glance. “Is your boss investigating the fire? Or the death? Or both?”

I shrugged. “That’s the sort of high-level strategic planning that hasn’t been shared with the staff, at least not yet. As far as I know, she’s mostly focused on writing her book.”

“Which might be about Marvel Phillips.”

I nodded. “Which might be about Marvel Phillips.”

She had teased me about this before — trying to get me to admit what everybody in town seemed to have figured out — the subject of the book my employer was writing.

Millie and I chatted a bit more, then her father called up and she climbed down the ladder to go back to work.

I looked around one last time, and checked my watch. It was nearly six, and I was having trouble convincing myself that I needed to go all the way to Sunshine Housewares today. As much as I enjoyed walking, I was feeling that I’d reached my quota of steps for the day.

I considered going downstairs and out to the nearest pay phone, to see if my employer had a different idea of my priorities. But then I heard a telephone ringing in the store below me. It was answered, there was some muffled conversation, and then Millie’s head popped up through the trapdoor again.

“A message from my illustrious employer?” I guessed.

She grinned. “Dinner time!” she said. “That’s the message.”

I nodded. “I’d better get going then,” I said. I followed her down the ladder, waved to Mickey, and left.

When I needed to travel quickly from Main Street down to Ocean Drive, where we lived, I used a narrow path I’d discovered. It started between the Methodist church and the Wagon Wheel. I’d first spotted it when I was using the pay phone next to the church. When I’d tried it one afternoon, I’d half expected it to peter out halfway down the hill, but it went all the way to Ocean Drive, at a fairly steep grade. I’d made a mental note not to use it during or immediately after a rainstorm — I would have ended up sliding downhill in a sluice of mud.

Reaching the bottom of the slope today, passing between a fish store and a small cottage, moving quietly because I was pretty sure I was walking on somebody’s private property, I found my employer standing on the sidewalk, right where the path ended, immaculately dressed as always, looking at her pocket watch and tapping her cane impatiently on the pavement.

By the time she looked up and saw me, put her watch away, and sighed to convey, “What took you so long?” I had managed to get my grin under control.

To be continued…

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