the town hall mystery (part twelve)

This story started here.

Mrs. Jessup, our landlady, seemed to be happy to have us as guests, mostly because I had said that we were planning to stay indefinitely. She had told me that she usually closed the inn during the winter months, but since we were enthusiastic about staying on, even without the free continental breakfast (I had negotiated a reduced rate for the off-season, of course), she was happy to have the steady income to look forward to.

One thing she had made clear, however, was that she was not a telephone answering service. The telephone in the foyer was for the use of all the guests (long distance charges were added to your bill) and she answered it when she happened to be nearby. But if she took a message she just wrote it on a slip of paper and placed it next to the phone, with all the messages for the other guests. So, it was a system devoid of privacy (and reliability).

So, I guess it was lucky that I happened to be in the downstairs hall, pouring coffee for my employer and myself, when the phone rang.

I answered it, “Good morning. Ocean View Inn, Marshall speaking.”

I heard a snort of laughter.

“Marshall,” she said.

“Sheriff White. What can I do for you?” I was keeping my voice pleasant and friendly, but noncommittal.

“I was wondering if you and Miss Sleet would like to join me for dinner tonight. At my home.”

“I can ask. May I call you back in a little while?”

“Certainly. I’m at my desk — you know my direct number.”

I finished pouring our coffee, placing a napkin under each mug so it wouldn’t slip as I carried the tray up the stairs to our room.

It had been two days — almost exactly 48 hours — since the stunt at the News Store. During that time, we had heard nothing from the sheriff. In fact, the minute Millie had started crying Rhonda seemed to forget about us completely. Her deputies took Millie off to the police station for questioning, with Mickey following, leaving Mark to run the store again. Rhonda had then looked around the store, and followed the others out.

My employer turned to me and smiled impishly. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so invisible. Let’s go home.” She caught my expression. “Yes, you’re right — we should have some lunch first.” She circled her arm through mine as we strolled down Main Street toward the Wagon Wheel.

Over the next 48 hours, whenever my employer perceived, or guessed, my impatience, she just smiled and said, “Don’t worry. It will all come to us, eventually.”

Other than the case, we were both in a good mood. Without telling me, she had reached out to a major magazine, and apparently they were very interested in publishing a story about the murder of famous socialite Marvel Phillips, written by the amateur detective who had cracked the case. So, the amateur detective in question had stopped writing her book and was happily banging away on her portable typewriter at all hours, with the goal of sending out the article on Monday morning. (“Possibly the first in a series!” she had suddenly announced the night before, at around three in the morning, in a booming voice, waking me up.)

“Was that Sheriff Rhonda on the phone?” she asked as I nudged our door open with my toe.

I laughed while I put the tray down on my bedside table and took her coffee to her.

“I know,” she said, smiling. “I get no credit for a fancy deduction this time. You left the door ajar because you knew you’d be coming up the stairs with a tray, so I was able to hear the phone ring. I couldn’t make out your words, but your tone of voice told me it might be Rhonda.”

“And, of course, ‘It will all come to us, eventually.'”

“Exactly. Does she want to come here and talk to us?”

“No. She has invited us to her house, for dinner, this evening.”

That surprised her. “Really. I… That’s most interesting.” She frowned, then she laughed. “I confess that not only do I have no idea where she lives — until this moment it hadn’t really occurred to me that she lived anywhere.”

I laughed and nodded. “I’m glad I’m not the only one. Do I accept?”

“Of course. Find out where and when, and ask if we should bring anything.”

Rhonda sounded pleased when I called her back, and she said that we didn’t need to bring anything (which was a relief, since I didn’t know much about wine and my employer knew even less). She said she would pick us up, since she did not live in the town center, and we agreed on a time. I said we would wait for her on the front porch of the inn, and she chuckled and said to watch out for “a battered brown Rambler.”

When the sheriff pulled up in front of the inn, exactly on time, she was indeed driving the vehicle she’d described, which had substantial rust. She got out of the car and waved as we made our way down to the street, and I noted a quiet huff of amusement and surprise from my employer.

Sheriff Rhonda White, driving a car that was definitely not a police cruiser, and wearing jeans, deck shoes, and a sweatshirt. My employer and I glanced at each other as I helped her into the car. “Will wonders never cease?” she mouthed silently.

My employer looked around with interest as Rhonda drove along a narrow road between hills and inlets, so overhung with trees that the sky was barely visible. “I’ve never been down this road. Vinnie and I mostly didn’t have a car, so we had our favorite walks, but we seldom got this far out of town. Are we still in Claremont, technically?”

Rhonda smiled. “Near the border, but definitely within the town limits. I have to live in the town — that’s one of the conditions of being sheriff. There’s a story about that, but it will make more sense once you’ve seen the house.”

She turned onto a narrow, unpaved road that went up a steep incline and then more slowly down the other side, and we saw a house among the trees. It was not visible from the road.

It seemed to be a pleasant house: one story, peaked roof with maybe an attic by the look of it, and a small porch with plants and flowers in pots and two rocking chairs. There was a station wagon parked in front, and we pulled in next to it.

“Huh,” my employer said as I helped her out of the car. She pointed and I looked, and I saw what had caught her attention. The house had appeared to be conventional as we’d approached it from the side, but it was now revealed to be half a house. The peaked roof went up on the left hand side, and then it stopped. She limped in that direction and Rhonda smiled as she caught my eye.

My employer gestured at the empty space where the other half of the house would have been. “I read a mystery story once where a house vanished overnight, foundations and all. It was a good story…”

Rhonda laughed. “There is a story here, but it’s not a mystery. Half of our house did not mysteriously vanish overnight. Please come inside and we’ll tell you all about it.”

To be continued…

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