I was not going to start knocking on people’s doors and asking to use their phones. Not when they would hear what I was saying and then probably ask questions that I would not be able to answer — and then possibly start calling their friends and family to spread rumors.
Also, I knew that driving just a few minutes more would get me to the campus of Claremont College, where there were pay phones.
(My employer had said that she was going to take charge of the crime scene until the police arrived, but I knew that she was not going to be impatient for them to actually get there.)
The next question was who to call. It was still early — did Sheriff Rhonda get to her desk this early? Would it be better to call her direct number, which she had given me, or the main number of the police station?
I was definitely not going to call the sheriff at home, because she’d never given me that number. I knew it, although it was unlisted, because we’d been to her house and I’d seen her telephone, but it would have been rude to call it.
The main building at the college was not yet open, but the pay phone in front wasn’t being used, so I parked there, in front of a No Parking sign, and called Claremont Police headquarters. I identified myself, named my employer, and said that we’d heard a report of a murder on Heron Island.
I was put on hold for a few moments, then Rhonda picked up.
“Marshall,” she said.
“You’ve got a dead body? I thought the phones on the island were out — we’ve been getting calls for the last ten minutes.”
I thought of commenting that the officer who’d answered my call should have made more careful notes.
“The phones are out, from what I’ve heard, and I definitely do not have a dead body, nor have I seen one. I–”
“Where are you now?”
“Pay phone, in front of the Shepherd Building, Claremont College–”
“I’m coming. Wait there.”
I calculated how long it would take for her to arrive, factoring in how fast she could drive, and quickly trotted across the road to the cafeteria. I bought a cup of coffee and a danish and carried them back to the car as I heard a siren approaching. I got into the car and started it up.
Rhonda frowned as she pulled up next to me. I rolled down my window.
“Your car?” she asked. She glanced at the No Parking sign.
“Nope,” I replied. “One of the women who lives in the house where the reported murder reportedly took place.”
She made a face. “Park it somewhere. Somewhere legal, if possible. You’re coming with me.”
I’d noticed that Mary’s car had a student parking sticker, so I drove it across the road to the lot in front of one of the dorms. I parked it, locked it, and transferred my coffee and danish to Rhonda’s cruiser.
“Seat belt,” she said, and when I was buckled in she pulled out on the road toward Heron Island.
“So,” she said, “tell me what you know.” She glanced at me. “About the murder.” She was not driving fast, and the siren was off.
“A young woman, a college student named Mary Sanders, came to see us last night.”
“In the middle of the storm.”
“Yes. She wanted us to accompany her back to the house where she lives, on Heron Island, right away — before the tide came in to cover the road.”
“She lives in Heron House?”
“Why, Rhonda, however did you know?”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s been relatively quiet recently, but in years past, when there were more male students living there, we had to visit on a pretty regular basis. Loud parties, bands playing, excessive drinking, drugs, women mistreated — that sort of thing.” She shrugged. “Like the dorms, only even worse.
“The people who live on the island — the other people who live on the island — they really don’t like that sort of thing. Anyway, your boss didn’t go?”
I shook my head, pretty emphatically. “Stormy night, insufficient inducement, we’d just got settled in for a comfortable evening at home, with good coffee and books to read–“
“And there were no dead bodies.”
“Not as far as we knew then, anyway.”
I wondered, and not for the last time, what would have happened if we had gone to the island with Mary the night before, in the storm, before the island was cut off from the mainland for the night by the rising tide.
When we reached the road — the part which was under water at high tide — there was a car pulling out onto the far end, about to cross the marsh toward us. Rhonda flashed her lights and ran her siren for a moment, and the car backed up to let us cross first.
On the island side, the unpaved road split into three even more primitive roads — basically just pairs of ruts that went into the thick woods in three directions. I knew which one she should take (I’d found out earlier), but she obviously knew also, so I didn’t mention it.
“So,” I said as Rhonda drove slowly through the woods, “Just you? Seems like a minimal response to a murder.”
“If you say What do I pay taxes for? I’m going to sock you.”
I hunched my shoulders and looked appropriately cowed.
“Seriously, we’re swamped this morning. The nursing home lost power during the storm, there was a pretty bad accident on the highway, and some other things. Nobody from last night’s shift has gone home.”
We hadn’t seen any houses yet, just a couple of turnoffs marked by mailboxes on posts. Now the road ended, with one trail going off to the right and one to the left through the thick woods. One mailbox said “Heron House,” and Rhonda turned in that direction.
The house was at the top of a bluff. The parking area contained Jo’s blue sedan and a small van with the special controls on the steering wheel which are used by people who have limited or no use of their legs.
We stepped out of the car, and there was no sign that our arrival had been noticed, though I was sure that it must have been. The morning was completely still except for a slight breeze, and a few rather tentative sounding birds.
Rhonda stepped up on the porch and knocked on the door. I followed, taking a moment to appreciate the pleasant smells of the trees and the ocean.
A woman opened the door for us. She was not one of the women who had been in the car earlier — she had long, bushy, red hair and freckles.
“Sheriff. I’m glad you’re here.”
She rolled her wheelchair back to allow us to come in.
I kept my face as blank as I could, but my first thought was that the place was a bit of a dump.