the town hall mystery (part ten)

This story started here.

 
“The key, from the dead man’s pocket, fits the lock of the Devane house.”

“Tell me,” my employer purred, leaning forward. We were having our morning coffee on the deck.

“I obtained this information,” I began, “or at least the key itself, by, I confess, doing something I’m not proud of.”

“Are you likely to be arrested?”

“Not for that, no — at least there’s very little chance. It was morally, not legally, dubious.”

She waved her slender fingers. “I’m more than sufficiently intrigued. Lay it out for me.”

“Step one was to go see Dr. Wright again. I had sensed in him a certain disapproval of Sheriff Rhonda, and I thought I knew the source — or at least one source — of his feeling.”

She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “He disapproved of how Rhonda had undercut Sheriff Baxter in order to replace him?”

“That was my assumption. So, we had a chat — he and I — and I explained Rhonda’s lack of interest in the dead man (the first dead man). He seemed to disagree with her interpretation. He wondered about your thinking about the case, but he believed me when I said I had no idea.”

She nodded. “He knows my methods.”

“I hinted that we might share his unspoken belief that Rhonda is not up to the job, and that you might be able to show her up…”

Her shoulders slumped. “You played up to his male chauvinism, with which I am very familiar.”

“I’m not proud.”

“Yes, you are, because you got the key, for which I felicitate you.” She sighed. “Well, at some point in the future you will probably have to disabuse him of the notion that you and he are brother Neanderthals. So, he gave you the key?”

“He lent it to me. Then, late last night, or, really, very early this morning, I went quietly out to the Devane house to test it, and then, on my way back, I put it into an envelope and dropped it off at his house, after wiping it carefully, of course.”

“Were you seen? At any point?”

“Walking? Probably. I made sure I didn’t look furtive.”

“Crossing the highway?”

“I didn’t cross the highway, not the way you’re thinking. I walked across Longwood Bridge, and then I approached the house through the trees. All the visible lights in the house were out, and I walked carefully on the deck, to keep the wooden boards from creaking.”

“Did you enter the house?”

“Of course not — I just tried the door enough to make sure that the key would unlock it. I’d bought powdered graphite to lubricate the lock.”

“So, trespass, but not unlawful entry.” She made a face. “The problem is that the two cases are now undeniably connected, but we have no lever to get into the Devane house or to talk to the family. To get them to talk to us, I should say.” She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to try a stunt.”

I’d been afraid she was going to say that, but I didn’t bother to protest.

“To get the Devane family to talk to us?”

“No. We’re going to reenact the crime.”

“The… The first death? On Main Street?”

“Exactly. That is the crime — Baxter Devane’s death may well have been natural.”

She caught my expression.

“I know,” she said, holding up a hand, apparently conceding, for once, that her previous stunts had not always worked out exactly as she’d planned. “But this is, unfortunately, necessary. There are dangers in letting things remain status quo.”

”Do you think there will be another murder?” I asked, since she seemed to be in a communicative mood.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Despite your admirable work in establishing a link between Main Street and the Devane house, that does not establish that any crime was committed at the house or by the family .”

“Do you think the dead man was the rumored illegitimate son?”

She shook her head. “I do not. It’s possible, but I think it’s very unlikely.”

“Do you know who he was?”

“I have an idea — if my overall theory is correct — but it’s just an idea.”

She waved a dismissive hand, blocking my next question. “There are pressing reasons not to wait,” she said firmly. She glared at me over the rims of her glasses. “Certainly not just because I enjoy staging stunts.”

“Even when they actually go as you want them to.”

“Well, you get to sell Sheriff Rhonda on the idea — I think she likes you slightly better than she does me.”

“And when she asks me about things that you don’t want her to know, it will be easier for me to decline to answer because I really don’t know.”

“Exactly.”

 
And so it was that I faced Sheriff Rhonda across her desk some two hours later. I had taken my time walking up to Main Street to think through my approach.

“So, any news on Baxter Devane?”

She shrugged. “He’s dead.”

I laughed, briefly. “You’re starting to sound like Dr. Wright.”

That got a real laugh out of her. “God forbid. The autopsy results came in a while ago. Natural causes — cancer. Not at all unexpected. He was being treated at the hospital here… It seemed like he was ready to die and wanted to die here, in the house where he was born and so on. At one point it was recommended that he move to Boston so he could be treated at Mass General, but he declined.”

“So, no crime.”

She made a face.

“But something is nagging at you about it…”

“Miss Devane has called the mayor, who then called me, to inform me that the case should damn well be closed and the family should be allowed to…”

She flapped her hand in the air.

I nodded, sympathetically. “Putting the facts aside — just for the moment — I will admit that I’ve seen quite a few grieving families — grieving because of deaths in war and grieving because of deaths by personal violence — and the Devanes appeared to be about the least grieving of them all. On the surface, anyway.”

“The case is closed,” she said sitting up straighter. “Time to move on. Why are you here?”

Controlling my face, because she was practically handing this to me, I said, “Two things. My employer has deduced — not evidence, but deduction — that the Main Street victim was connected in some way to the Devane family (I don’t know how), and she wants to recreate the circumstances of the man’s death, at the News Store, with all the same people present, in order to discover, we hope, how he was murdered.”

“She’s been reading too many mystery stories.”

“Possibly. She instructed me, if you said that, to remind you about the biker case.”

She uttered a word which I would prefer not to record here (though not in an unfriendly way), stood up, and said, “Let’s go talk to Mickey.”

 
To be continued…

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