“I’ll start by saying that my overall focus was on three events, and two main questions.
“The events were:
1. The fire at the Town Hall,
2. The death at the News Store, and
3. The death of Baxter Devane the following day.
“The questions were:
1. Were any of these events actually crimes, or all of them, or none of them?
2. Were they all related, or any two of them, or none of them?
“So, starting from that, I decided to put the fire to the side. I know nothing about fires, I had no way to get in on the investigation, and I didn’t find it all that interesting. So, the two deaths.”
She caught Rhonda’s expression as Phyllis heard the whistle from the kitchen and went to make coffee. “You can ask questions,” she said, leaning back and tenting her fingers in front of her.
Rhonda sighed. “I’m sure you’re going to get to it, but I am impatient to learn why, when I’m driving to the Devane house, when the owner of the house had died just minutes before, your assistant was strolling up the hill ahead of me.”
My employer smiled. “We’ll get there. Quite soon, in fact. Anyway, Marshall was at the News Store when the young man died, and I arrived soon after, as you know. I happened to be able to do a quick search of the body — as I’m sure you realized — and I saw that he had a Rabson key in his pocket. Rabson locks are quite unusual, so…” She gestured at me, and I described the search for the Rabson lock, and how I’d ended up at the Devane house when I did.
In the middle of that story, Phyllis brought in a tray with coffee and placed it on the table, and as I talked I got up and fixed cups for my employer and myself.
“But you told me that she was sure the cases were connected,” Rhonda said, addressing me and referring to my employer. “Rabson locks may be rare, but they’re not that rare…” She made a face and her shoulders slumped. “Damn it. Okay, go ahead. I get it.”
“I am, of course, admitting nothing and implicating nobody,” my employer continued as she took a sip. “This is very good coffee, by the way.” It was typical of her, given her priorities, that she had apparently barely noticed the dinner, which had been excellent, but she’d taken a long moment to savor and appreciate the coffee.
“So,” she continued, “that’s where I was, and I was stuck there, without any useful levers that I could see, other than my theory about what the young man had been looking for in the News Store. So, I staged the stunt, with your help, and apparently confirmed that he’d been in the store looking for Millie.”
Rhonda looked up, surprised. “That’s it?”
“Oh, no.” She smiled. “Those are the facts. Now we come to the investigation and the suppositions.
“I figured that 1) Baxter Devane was rich and living alone, dying of cancer, and he would have has to hire help — both medical and domestic. And, 2) Patricia Devane and the others, arriving to stay, at least temporarily, in a house which had basically been a large single-occupant sick room for some time, they would have required cleaning and other services as well — before and after their arrival.
“So, I went and used our friend Professor Lebrun’s telephone for an afternoon, making calls. A lot of calls. Some were productive and some were not, but that’s always true. I identified myself in all the calls, and most of the people I spoke to knew my name and my reputation. In most cases I mentioned an article I was planning on writing — I certainly did not imply, or at least explicitly state, that I was assisting with the official investigation.” She paused, but Rhonda didn’t bother to respond to this. “I spoke to a lot of people, but I’ll boil it down.
“Baxter Devane was dying, and he wanted to die at home, in the house where he’d grown up. He owned the house and the land (and a lot of other land in this area), and he had substantial investments and cash resources. He was not close to his sister, but he kept in touch with her and let her know his condition. When she said she would come to see him, when he thought he was near death, he urged her to bring her children as well, but she came alone. It was discussed, and overheard, though of course not confirmed, that her children — they are adult children now, of course — were his heirs, because he had no children of his own.
“And then, when he began to slip away, when he was barely responsive, the children arrived. They came on the bus, the two daughters and the illegitimate son, who was somewhat younger.”
She drank some more coffee, and then she put down her cup.
“They came on the bus,” she repeated. “The local bus. They were reportedly coming from California, so this demanded further investigation. I did some.
“I discovered that they had been staying in a motel in Dover, just down the highway from here. They had apparently come from California, and instead of coming to the house with their mother they had stayed just a town away, until their uncle was very near death.”
“After the three children did arrive at the house, Deirdre and her brother shared a bedroom. They made a pretense of her having a separate room, but it’s very difficult to hide something like that from the person who cleans your house every day.
“She — the cleaner — was horrified at the idea of incest, a word she couldn’t even bring herself to utter, but I saw something else.
“Why have the heirs stay in Dover until their uncle was too far gone to recognize them, or, since it seems that he might never have met them, ask questions they might not have been able to answer? My thought, for which I have no evidence, is that Patricia did not tell her children, if they exist, about their impending inheritance. She brought three impostors, hoping to use them to get the money that her brother was not going to give her directly, and which, with her company in bankruptcy, she might really have needed.”
“This was borne out by Marshall’s description of what he saw in the Devane house. A family not even acting like they were in mourning, accompanied by their lawyer — a man whose reputation I well remember — a ‘painter’ with pristine hands and no smell of turpentine but ostentatiously dressed in a paint-spattered smock, another daughter who stormed out of the room immediately after his arrival, suddenly upset… Or was she perhaps scared that he might recognize her from her visit, in disguise, to the roof of the News Store the day before, when a man had died?”
She glanced at me. “Marshall asked me if the dead young man was the illegitimate son of Patricia Devane.” She had turned her face away from me, but I could tell she was trying to suppress a grin. “I said no. What I did not say was that he was almost certainly pretending to be that man.” The grin made an appearance at last, accompanied by a rather unladylike snort of laughter.