the town hall mystery (conclusion)

This story started here.

“Any predictions?” my employer asked the sheriff as we zipped along the dark, shrouded road back to town. I felt that Rhonda might be driving a little too fast, but she obviously knew the road very well, and oncoming headlights would have been visible some distance away. We had the road to ourselves.

“Predictions?” the sheriff said slowly. “Just between us, Patricia probably won’t go to trial, but it will be up to her kids when they get here. They are now — or will be very soon — the biggest landowners in this town. Plus, they’re Devanes, which would carry weight around here no matter what. There was a clear plan to commit a crime, but no legal steps were taken… We’ll see.

“Emily will be tried. I make no predictions about how that will go. Fingerprints establish that she was on the roof, but exactly what happened up there…”

“Unfortunately,” my employer said from the back seat, “admittedly for obvious reasons, all of the potential witnesses on the street below just happened to be looking the other way, at the fire.”

I could feel my employer’s disapproving look on the nape of my neck. “Including me, of course,” I admitted. “Speaking of which, what about the fire?”

“Accidental, as far as anybody can tell,” Rhonda replied. “It was an old, wooden building, filled with paper and books, a careless cigarette tossed into a wastebasket in the rest room.” She shrugged. “No evidence of anything other than that, from what they tell me.”

“I do have one more question,” my employer said as we turned onto Ocean Drive.

“Okay…” Rhonda said, obviously knowing that my employer wasn’t just suddenly remembering something she’d forgotten earlier.

“Your house. You said there was a story about it.”

She nodded. “At one point… We started to investigate what it would cost to complete the house. The cost wasn’t unreasonable, but it turned out that there was a never-resolved disagreement about exactly where the town border is, so it was possible that the other half of the house might turn out to be in Dover.”

“And then you would only be half eligible to be our sheriff.”

She pulled up in front of our home. “Exactly.”

“I do have to thank you,” my employer said quietly as she took off her tie and hung it up on the rack.

“For what, specifically?” I asked, untying my shoes.

“For stopping me after I deduced Phyllis’s current career. Otherwise, I might have gone on to mention her criminal history. That could have been awkward.”

That was all except the tail. As the saying goes, every mystery, like a kite, has a tail. The tail to this one had three sections, the first two public and the last one private and unspoken.

Section one was Emily Armstrong. She was tried and acquitted on all charges in connection with the death of her lover, Tom McQueen. I venture no opinion on her guilt or innocence, and I might be equally baffled if I had been looking toward the News Store when he fell, rather than at the fire across the street.

I tried to keep my testimony as straightforward and accurate as possible — I’ve been very thoroughly trained in how to report observed phenomena without bringing in opinions and speculation.

Millie testified, too, of course, as did many other people, but only the defendant had been there and only she knew what had happened, and she gave powerful, emotional testimony that caused my employer to comment later that it was surprising that Miss Armstrong hadn’t had more success in her chosen profession.

The biggest factor in her exoneration, however, was her attorney, a lawyer from out of town named Tamara Nelson. She clearly outclassed Mr. Barris, the county attorney, at every stage of the trial. We had more dealings with Miss Nelson later.

The tail’s second section was Patricia Devane. She was not tried, and, after her children arrived to claim their inheritance, she left as soon as she could, to return to California. I have no idea what happened behind the scenes, of course, but I’m fine with that.

The tail’s third section was private.

Why had my employer tried her stunt at the News Store? She had said that there were “dangers in letting things remain status quo” — but what were the dangers she’d been seeing?

There didn’t seem to be any immediate danger of another death.

The Devane money might have been in danger of going to a bunch of impostors, of course, but I couldn’t imagine her being worried about that. And that didn’t make it urgent — money that goes to the wrong person can be shifted back where it belongs later. It’s not permanent — not like death.

But she had seen that Millie and I were becoming friends, and she had deduced that Millie was involved in what was going on. She didn’t know the details, and so, fearing further progress in the friendship, she had tried a stunt to expose the truth.

As I say, this has never been mentioned.

The End

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