the town hall mystery (part eleven)

This story started here.

 
My employer stood in the center of the News Store and looked around. She was dressed in one of her best suits, and her hair was brushed.

Mickey had agreed to the reenactment. He had declined to have it on the same day of the week (too much chance of annoying his regular Sunday morning customers), but he had been fine with doing it at exactly the same time of day (my employer had said this was very important — which I thought might have been nonsense). The sheriff had gone through the notebook where he tracked who reserved the Sunday Times every week and when they picked it up, and she’d tracked down most of the customers who had been in the store on Sunday morning.

“We’re going to reenact the crime, when the young man died,” my employer began, “because I believe it was a crime — not an accident or a suicide — and I think we can establish what really happened last Sunday morning. Everybody here was present at the time of the death, except myself, of course, and Mickey, Millie, and Sheriff White, who will stand off to the side there.

“If the rest of you can stand more or less where you were when the young man shoved his way into the store…”

Mark went behind the counter, and the others formed themselves into a rough line at the cash register. l stood right inside the door — not exactly where I’d been standing, since I’d actually been outside, but I knew I needed to keep an eye on things.

“Let me set the scene,” my employer continued once we were all in position. “The store is moderately crowded, being a Sunday morning. Mickey is not here, as is usual on Sunday mornings, and Millie has just left to rush to the fire house, in order to suit up and help to fight the fire, which happens to be right across the street. So, Mark is holding the fort in their absence. Marshall is standing on the front step when a young man rudely shoves past him and enters the store.”

Martha, one of Rhonda’s deputies, wearing her civilian clothes, pushed past me and entered the store. She went over to the roof ladder and put one foot on it, then she turned to face us.

“That’s not right,” Mr. Bainbridge said. He was a regular Sunday morning customer, but I’d never spoken to him. “He came in, the guy, and I didn’t see him at first — I was getting out my money to pay for my paper — and then I saw him. He was looking around, like when you’re in a store where you’ve never been before, and you’re trying to figure out where the candy is.”

Miss Phillips nodded. (She’d been behind me in line on the day of the murder.) “Exactly. I noticed him right away.” I got the impression that she’d found him cute. “He was looking for something, but he didn’t want to ask where it was.”

My employer nodded. “Some men are reluctant to ask for directions. Was he… impatient? Did he seem to be under any sort of pressure, as far as you could tell?”

She shook her head. “Not at all. I had a feeling that he was going to ask Mark a question, once the customers had all paid.”

“Until he saw the fire,” Bainbridge put in.

My employer turned to face him. “Please explain.”

“He turned at one point and looked toward the door, and then he looked freaked out, and he made for the ladder.”

My employer shrugged. “I would not be at all surprised to find out that he had that reaction to something he saw outside — but it can’t have been the fire.”

I nodded. “The fire was already burning when he shoved past me and came into the store. He can’t have missed seeing — and smelling — it. The firefighters had already started to arrive.”

My employer nodded. “So, he saw something, or more likely someone, on the street, and then he made for the ladder and the roof. But let’s step back for a moment. What was he looking for in the first place?”

Her voice became quieter and she spoke slowly and carefully.

“What might he reasonably have expected to find in this store, on a Sunday morning, mid-morning… What, or who, should have been here, would usually have been here, but was absent, unexpectedly…”

Her gaze, which had been traveling lightly around the room, landed on Millie, just as a figure with wavy dark hair, wearing a cap, a rough jacket, and jeans, shouldered past me and into the store, heading for the ladder.

Millie, who had been frozen in place, screamed and burst into tears.

 
To be continued…

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