the town hall mystery (part six)

This story started here.

Leaving the hospital, I decided to walk along the side of the highway to Sunshine Housewares. It was about a quarter of a mile, taking me back toward the town center. Walking would save me another cab fare, of course, but I quickly realized that the highway wasn’t designed for pedestrians.

Not only was there no sidewalk, but mostly I was walking in a slight trough, apparently designed to help rain water drain from the highway surface. It was full of rocks, some of them large, and there were times when I found it difficult to move along, but next to the trough was a row of spiny hedges.

As I made my way toward the store, I started calculating again whether we could afford to buy a car.

Arriving finally, with some relief, at the parking lot of the store, I stopped and looked up at the sky. It was getting darker, and I could feel the air change. I started toward the front door, quickly accelerating to a sprint so I could get inside before the heavens opened.

“I have a question, about Rabson keys–“

“I can make the keys,” the clerk said slowly, gesturing at the machine, “but there’s not much call for them — not around here. Other than the–” He looked like he’d been about to jerk a thumb back over his shoulder, but then he’d thought better of it.

I nodded as if I hadn’t noticed this. “Thanks,” I said, and I turned to go.

It was still pouring rain, but the ferocity of the downpour suggested that it might not last long, so I bought a bottle of soda and stood outside, under the overhang, waiting for it to stop.

In this position, I couldn’t see what was behind the store, but I knew the area well from my trips to and from nearby Claremont College on the jitney.

There was a substantial hill behind the store, so abrupt that I guessed it had been man-made, perhaps as part of leveling the land for the highway.

The house on the top of the hill had apparently stood there on the bluff, overlooking the highway, for a long time. I wondered whether it had been there before there had even been a highway. It was, I knew, a familiar landmark, often invoked when giving directions to the town center. If you passed the Devane house on your right, that meant you’d just overshot the turnoff on your left.

I’d always heard it called the Devane house, probably after the original owners, but I had no idea who owned it now. Apparently I should have been asking more questions.

As I walked up the steep hill along the narrow road, the smell of the recent rain was all around me. It was quite pleasant, though the air was somewhat more humid now. But then I heard a car behind me, moving slowly up the hill, accompanied by the impatient burble of a siren.

I jumped into the bushes at the side of the road, and Sheriff Rhonda White slowed to look at me as she passed. I got the impression that the sight of me wasn’t filling her heart with joy.

I followed the car, of course, but I didn’t rush.

As I reached the driveway of the house, a narrow lane between the pine trees, another police car came up behind me, and there was another immediately behind that, coming from the opposite direction, from the beach road. I stepped aside to let them pass. There was an ambulance parked in the small lot already.

I had taken my time walking up the hill, hoping that Rhonda would go inside the house before I appeared, but she was standing on the porch when I got there, talking to a paramedic.

The house was dark, even though the sun was out, at least for the moment. It had long eaves which shaded the porch that wrapped around the big, square building on the three sides that I could see.

Rhonda saw me and gestured, making it clear that I should stay where I was.

After a few moments, she came over to me. “I’m going to hate myself for asking this,” she said, “but is your boss here?”

“No.” I shrugged. “At least not to my knowledge. She is a wily and unpredictable character, after all.”

She didn’t bother to roll her eyes at this. She turned and motioned to one of her deputies.

“Brian! You see O’Connor here? Make sure he stays here.” She pointed at a specific spot on the ground, then she turned and went back up the stairs to the porch.

“Do I get to make a phone call?” I called after her.

She ignored me and went into the house.

After a few minutes, two paramedics came out, transporting a gurney with a body on it. It was apparently male, based on the shape under the sheet. Everything about what they were doing and how they were doing it said that this was a corpse, so I didn’t bother asking.

They loaded the gurney into the ambulance and drove off. I heard a couple of horn honks from down the hill, out of my sight, indicating that a car was trying to come up the one-lane road while the ambulance was driving down to the highway.

I gestured at the steps, asking Brian if I could sit down. He shrugged, so I did, but then a car I recognized came up and I stood again.

I had met Kate Lane before — she was a reporter for the Claremont Crier newspaper. She parked her car in the space that the ambulance had just vacated (the parking area in front of the house was pretty crowded at this point). She got out and trotted toward the house, pad and pen in hand. “Hey,” she said as she zipped by us, not slowing as Brian made a halfhearted gesture, obviously trying to decide whether he should try to stop her or not.

A moment later, Sheriff Rhonda called “Brian!” from inside the house, so he went in, and I followed him, as quietly as I could, noting on my way that the lock on the front door was indeed a Rabson.

To be continued…

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