the town hall mystery (part seven)

This story started here.

In the living room of the large, dark house, three people seemed to be standing as far away from each other as they could.

On the window end of the room, where I could see that the sun was now beginning to come out, there was a woman with short hair, wearing jeans, a motorcycle jacket, and a T-shirt. She had apparently been looking out the window, perhaps pointedly demonstrating her indifference to whatever was going on in the room, but she turned to check out the new arrivals (Kate the reporter, Brian the deputy, and me). Once she’d looked us over, she immediately turned back to the window.

An older woman sat against the far wall, in a comfortable armchair. There was a lit cigarette in an ashtray on a small table beside her, and she was looking at the floor as she listened to a man in a suit. He was standing next to her, leaning over so he could speak to her quietly.

She was dressed in summer wear: solid color T-shirt and baggy shorts, plus flip-flops, but she didn’t look like she was in a vacation mood. Her posture and expression said she was thinking about doing something very serious, like disinheriting a disappointing family member or initiating a small holy war.

On the near wall (to my right, as I stepped into the room, trying to be inconspicuous) was a slender woman with wild red hair — lots of it. She wore a denim skirt, a paint-spattered smock, and bare feet (well, I guess you don’t “wear” bare feet). If the older woman was indeed about to disinherit somebody, this one looked like a likely candidate — though I couldn’t have said why that idea popped into my head.

I focused on the redhead’s hands. They were clean and pale, and, the smock aside, she had evidently not just come from her easel. (I would have bet cash money that the most recent painting she’d done, no matter how long ago, had been artistic rather than household.) Her jeans and sneakers were completely clean.

Kate Lane stepped forward and addressed Rhonda.

“Sheriff, I’d like to ask you a few questions–”

The short-haired woman by the window turned around and snapped, “At a time like this? Really?”

She stormed out of the room, going through a door by the older woman’s chair, and the older woman shrugged as the door slammed, as if this was not unexpected, and perhaps not unusual, and definitely not unwelcome.

Ignoring the reporter, the sheriff stepped forward and addressed the older woman. “Miss Devane, I’d like to ask–“

Miss Devane was ignoring her, speaking to the man beside her. “Mr. Palmer,” she said, raising her voice slightly, “now that the body of my late brother has been removed, are we under any further obligations to the sheriff and her staff?”

The man, who I now recognized as Rance Palmer, a local attorney, straightened up and faced the sheriff. “Sheriff White,” he said, “this family has suffered an unexpected and devastating loss. Since there’s no evidence that Mr. Devane died of anything other than natural causes, we would ask that you leave the family in peace at this time to mourn their loss.”

Sheriff Rhonda nodded, doing a fairly good job of concealing her frustration. “Of course. Please accept my condolences.”

I saw Miss Lane look around the room as the sheriff and her deputy left. Nobody in the room looked like they were about to be doing any mourning, but it also seemed unlikely that they would answer — or even tolerate — questions from a reporter. So, she turned to go also, perhaps deciding that her best bet under the circumstances would be to try again to interview the sheriff.

However, when we got outside, Rhonda already had her car turned around and she was apparently ready to leave. I could hear another car going down the hill toward the highway. But the passenger door of Rhonda’s cruiser was open…

Hoping I was reading the situation correctly, I hopped in and closed the door. “Thanks for the ride,” I said cheerfully.

Without looking at me, and without changing her expression, she said, “Seat belt.”

I buckled myself in and we were off.

Usually Rhonda used a brief burble on her siren to cut across the highway, but now she paused, watching the cars speed by. She made a face.

“Okay,” she said finally, and with evident reluctance. “What do you think?”

She saw a break in the traffic and pulled out, turning to the right rather than trying to go straight across to the town center.

My employer wrote sitting at a very small table in our rented room. The table was barely large enough for her trusty portable typewriter. She wrote looking out the window at the small inlet across the street, which was full or empty of water, depending on the tide.

I came in and she looked around. She had her fingers still resting on the typewriter keys, but then, as she assessed my expression, she lifted them and turned to face me more fully.

“Is this going to take some time?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Quite possibly.”

She took her cane and got to her feet. “Then let’s talk on the deck.”

We had the deck to ourselves (people seldom used it in the late afternoon). I told her everything that had happened, in detail. She smoked cigarettes as I talked, looking out over the small pond behind the inn.

When I was done, she smiled. “You’re clearly trying to distract me from my writing. First the Town Hall fire, and then the dead man who fell, or was pushed, from the roof of the News Store, and now this. Okay, I’m distracted. However, please don’t have anything else happen, at least for the next few hours.”

She didn’t bother to give me time to respond to this. “I am intrigued by Rhonda’s reaction to all of this,” she continued. “Her proposed explanation of the death of the unidentified man was, to say the least, predictable. But why did the scene at the Devane house bother her so much?”

“It felt like the family was important — by which I mean rich, powerful, and influential — too important for her to try to take charge of the situation without having some solid facts on her side. Something about what she saw clearly bothered her — but apparently there wasn’t anything she could put a finger on, or at least nothing tangible enough for her to feel confident in acting on.”

She nodded. “And it may be a factor that they are an old and established family in this town, but she’s still a very new sheriff.”

“And they did have their lawyer there with them, and he’s pretty established in this area.”

“I wonder if he was called because of the death, after it was discovered, or was he there already, for some other purpose… Rhonda gave no more indication of what she wanted from you?” She held up a hand. “Not that I’m doubting your reporting — of course — but that’s the part which bugs me Well, one part which bugs me. Was she nudging you in the hope that I’d get involved?”

“I don’t think so. In her visualization of the universe, you’re always trying to get involved, and it’s her role to discourage or block you — unless it seems like you might be useful to her in a specific situation. I don’t think the idea of her having to entice you into an investigation would ever occur to her.”

“I expect you’re right about that.” She carefully stubbed out her cigarette in an ashtray and stretched out her long legs in front of her. “So, you have no idea what she’s thinking about all of this?”

I could have pointed out that I’d already made this clear in my report, but she was repeating herself due to frustration — frustration which I shared — so I just reiterated that Rhonda had dropped her questioning when it had become clear that I knew nothing about the Devane family, and that I was not about to tell her why I had arrived at the family’s house.

After a moment’s silence, I asked, “Do you remember anything about the family, from when you lived here before?”

“Not enough. They haven’t — or at least most of them haven’t — lived here in town for a long time. That house has been pretty famously empty for years (though, of course, that could have been less than accurate). Anyway, my main reason for bringing that up is because, if they weren’t actually here in the area, it means that going to the office of the Crier and looking through the back issue files might be of limited use.” She shook her head. “I wonder if the staff of our distinguished local university, my alma mater, includes anyone who is an expert on the local area.”

And so it was that our friend Professor Ernst Lebrun drove in from nearby Claremont College so that we could take him out to dinner.

To be continued…

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