the town hall mystery (part nine)

This story started here.

 
At the end of the following day, sitting in our room (it was drizzling outside), my employer and I compared notes. We had spent the day apart — she investigating the Devane family, me in pursuit of the Rabson key.

Of course, she went first. “I learned that the dead man — the second dead man — was Baxter Devane. He was the younger brother of Miss Patricia Devane, who you met at the house.”

“It is definitely not correct to say that I met her. I was allowed to be in her presence, mostly by accident, for a few brief, fleeting moments.”

She shrugged. “I’ll accept that. Miss Devane, who was married, briefly, to a man named Potter, is generally thought to be a widow, and she was the sole owner of Devane Industries, which recently went bankrupt.”

“She took back her maiden name after… Was it a divorce?” I asked. “You said she is ‘generally thought’ to be a widow.”

“She took back her maiden name after a divorce — after which (quite soon after, in fact) Mr. Potter died. She is referred to as a widow, but it’s not technically true.” She shrugged. “For a family that values respectability, to be a widow can be more acceptable than to be a divorcee, even in these relatively enlightened times.”

She smiled. “Miss Devane’s Christian name is Patricia, so perhaps she took back her maiden name, immediately, because of the risk that somebody would call her ‘Patty Potter.'”

I nodded. “Very reasonable, I’d say.”

She shuddered delicately. “I agree. In any case, it turns out that her brother, Baxter, had been living here, in the house, for some years, but very quietly. He did move away after college — he tried a few careers, none of which were very successful, and his health was apparently in decline, so he moved back to ‘take care of the house,’ whatever that might consist of. And, by all accounts, to horde his money, which was reported to be substantial.”

“No one else from the family was living here in town? Where was his sister?”

“California. She moved out there after college, apparently with Mr. Potter, and stayed there after his death. In her youth, she was reportedly pretty adamant that Claremont was not up to her standards. Very tedious, apparently, especially in the winters. It didn’t surprise anybody that she stayed away for so long.”

“We’ll find out about the winters ourselves in two or three months.”

“Of course,” she said firmly, “quiet and routine can be very beneficial, if you happen to be someone who has a book she wants to write.”

I ignored this. “And the next generation?” I asked pleasantly.

“There were two daughters — Deirdre (often called, to her dismay, ‘DeeDee’) and Felicia.”

“Not, I hope, called ‘FiFi.'”

She pulled her glasses down to the tip of her nose and frowned at me over the rims — now I was clearly being too frivolous.

“In any case,” she continued, still looking rather severe, “rumors suggest that there was also a son, somewhat younger, conceived after the untimely death of Mr. Potter. But, the rumors suggest, still in line for an inheritance, since Mr. Devane’s will reportedly stipulates that the estate — cash and land and the house and so on — be divided equally among the children of his sister. It seems there’s no mention of legitimacy as a requirement.”

“No money to Miss Devane?”

“So the story goes. They weren’t close, and she had always frustrated his efforts to get involved in the family business, of which, as I said, she was the sole owner. But he did want to keep the money within the family, hence the legacy to her descendants.”

She smiled and lit a cigarette. “And how was your day, dear?”

“Incomplete,” I admitted. “I hope to have a comprehensive report for you in the morning.”

“But you have a plan.” It was half a question.

“I do indeed. And the more difficult part is done.” I had been going to decline to tell her anything until the following morning, but I couldn’t resist reaching into my jacket pocket and showing her the Rabson key.

She froze for an instant, then she leaned forward and extended her hand. I shook it and she leaned back again.

She really wanted to ask me questions, but she was a connoisseur of dramatic revelations, and she was willing to allow me my own moments, at least occasionally.

She took her cane and got to her feet. “I want to get some work done. If you’re here, I’ll be tempted to try and get you to spoil your big moment in the morning. So, get gone, until at least eleven. Go.”

This was all delivered with a smile.

 
I went outside, wearing my poncho over my jacket, and I realized that I had no definite idea of where I should go. Ordinarily, when banished to the outside world, I tended to take refuge in the town library, but the town library was gone. The rain was very light now, but it was enough to discourage me from going to sit on the pier or anywhere else outdoors.

With no specific plan, I started to climb the hill that would take me past the Catholic church, and eventually to Main Street.

As always when passing a Catholic church, anywhere in the world, I felt as if I had a tiny priest on one shoulder, gently reminding me to cross myself, and my employer sitting on my other shoulder, grinning as she blew smoke from a tiny cigarette into my ear.

Coming down the hill from the church to the center of town, I sniffed the air and I didn’t smell any smoke. Apparently the recent rain had cleared the air. As I reached Main Street, however, I realized (or, really, remembered) what’s worse than smoke in the air: the smell of wet ashes.

Well, since I’d found my previous view of the Town Hall site rather disturbing, I decided I should go and look at it again, simply because of how much I didn’t really want to.

I decided to grab a bite to eat at the Wagon Wheel. By the time that was done, I figured, the drizzle might have resolved itself one way or the other — and if it decided to stop I could take a walk around town. There were a couple of geographic questions I wanted to settle, if possible, while it was still somewhat light out.

I sat at a window table, so I could look out and persuade myself that the sight of the massive scorched safe on the other side of the street didn’t bother me at all.

After I’d ordered a sandwich and a cup of coffee, I looked out the window. After a few moments, wishing I’d brought something to read (I was missing the town library already), I saw Millie coming up the block from the News Store. She didn’t see me, so I tapped on the glass.

She smiled. After a failed attempt at sign language communication, she came in and I gestured at the empty chair across from me. “Would you like to join me?” I asked. There was a bit of awkward back-and-forth (each of us being careful — perhaps too careful — to avoid imposing on the other), she sat down.

After a mutual laugh at how difficult we were making this by being so polite, she called over the waitress and ordered some chowder.

She sighed and seemed to relax. “I’ll just ask,” she said. “The case? The man who died — do you know anything more?”

I shrugged. “Not a lot,” I said slowly.

“And you can’t talk about it anyway,” she finished.

I nodded.

We moved on, discussing the Town Hall fire (it had been confirmed that nobody had died, and taxes would still be due), the weather, the fact that the town’s movie theater was about to close for the season, which restaurants stayed opened all year and which didn’t, and various other matters. It was very enjoyable.

 
To be continued…

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