Elsa opened the door of her van and hoisted herself up into the driver’s seat. Then she reached down, lifted and folded her wheelchair, and slid it smoothly into position behind her seat. I confess I enjoyed watching this process, and when I was seated beside her she grinned as she started the motor and we fastened our seat belts.
“Want to arm wrestle?” she offered.
I shook my head. “I think I’ll pass. Thank you for the offer, though.”
“So, what do you want to see?” She took a hair tie from her jacket pocket and tied back her mass of bushy red hair. She told me later that she’d nearly had an accident on the highway during the summer, driving with her window open, “when my hair suddenly decided to see how much of my face it could cover all at the same time.”
“I just want to get a sense of the island and who lives here and where their houses are,” I said. “Whenever we’ve come here, we’ve just driven from the mainland to Heron House and then back off the island again later. Particularly with Manfred’s murder, it must have been committed by somebody who was on the island while it was cut off from the mainland, but there’s no reason to think it had anything to do with your house or your roommates. And Mary’s murder may have been committed by someone you don’t even know, someone who dumped the body on the deck of your house to implicate one or more of you.”
She nodded very slowly. “That’s… It’s pretty to think so, as the saying goes, but…” She shrugged. “Anyway, we do have a map inside, if that would help.”
“I saw it — on the kitchen wall. It’s a tourist map — nicely illustrated but probably not 100% geographically accurate. And maps don’t tell everything.”
She shrugged and started the motor.
“So,” I said, “there’s only one more house that way?” I gestured farther along the dirt road.
She nodded. “Mrs. Bannister.”
“That’s where the path is — down to the beach…”
She was impassive. “So I’ve heard.”
She gave me a wry smile. “No problem.”
“I’ve been there, to Mrs. Bannister’s. And I don’t remember any houses back along this road the other way — between us and where the road splits in three — am I right about that?”
“Are you right that you don’t remember?” she said, trying to control her grin. “I would assume so. You’d know better than I would.”
I laughed. “Okay, how about this – can you give me a quick overview on the houses on Heron Island, and then we can take a drive around?”
She released the parking brake. “Let’s do both at once.” We drove slowly down the hill.
As we drove, at an appropriate speed for a road where we might, at any moment, encounter a car coming toward us through the trees, she said, “As you noticed, there is one road onto the island, from the mainland. It has a name, but I don’t remember what is. Every dinky little dirt road on this island has a name.”
I did remember the name of the road, but I didn’t say anything.
“Anyway,” she continued as we reached the intersection where our road met the other two, “this road just goes to our house, and Mrs. Billingsley. I think her house was originally for the servants – the Loomis servants – to live, at least most of them, so they wouldn’t be cluttering up the main house. Except whoever slept in my little room – that’s clearly a servant’s room. Maybe for a nanny or something.”
We heard a car approaching, and she waited until she saw it to back up onto the Heron House road.
“Do you know all the cars on the island?” I asked as the approaching car, a bright red sports car, turned on the road to our right. The driver — a woman with dark glasses, wearing a scarf covering her hair — didn’t acknowledge us.
“Sometimes I hang out the window and yell Hello! while waving enthusiastically,” she said. “The result is about the same.”
Then she laughed. “In answer to your question, you spend too much time with a detective. No, I know Mrs. Billingsley’s car. That’s the only other one which would be going onto our road. I have not memorized every single car on the island.
“Most of the houses on the island are along that road — where the sports car just went. We never go that way — there’s a story that one drunken student last semester, coming home from a party on the mainland, went down that road by mistake and… Well, it’s not exactly clear what he did, but the police were called, and it started yet another round of efforts to get us thrown off the island.”
She looked to see if I was going to ask a question, and then she gestured at the third road. “That one goes to the beach, and there are a couple of summer cottages there, but they’re probably closed up now, for the winter. I think the idea may have been that the Loomis family, and perhaps their servants, got one road to themselves, and everybody else on the island got a different road — when the family had to start selling their land.”
She turned to face me. “So, where do you live?”
“In town. At the Ocean View Inn.” She’d obviously never heard of it. “On Ocean Drive.”
“How is it?”
“It’s very pleasant. The owner, Mrs. Jessup, is quite nice. It’s usually closed in the winters, but we made a special arrangement.”
I was deliberately not including any language to clarify that my employer and I shared a room. I had the idea that Elsa wouldn’t have minded having some information on that topic, as long as she could get it without having to ask for it.
As my employer sometimes said, information seldom falls into your lap — you have to dig for it. (The second half of that aphorism, which didn’t apply here, was that information which does fall into your lap always has to be viewed with suspicion. I had been able to see her approval last night when Li had repeatedly tried to tell Sheriff Rhonda something, and Rhonda had shut her down. Not that this would always have been the right approach, but when the information involved seeing a dead man walking around, it seemed to make sense.)
Later, when we were back at the house and Elsa had parked the van and turned off the motor, I expected her to start the process of lifting her wheelchair back down to ground level, but she didn’t move. Then, after a moment, not looking at me, she said, “I lied to you before.”
I let her continue.
“When I said that Manfred… that I was invisible to him. One time, at a party here, I was in the kitchen, and I went into my room to get something, and he followed me in. He… he grabbed me and nearly knocked me over, and he tried to reach into my top and grab my boobs. I… I hit him as hard as I could.” She met my eyes, “I get myself in and out of this chair, I wheel myself around, I work out every day — I’m not weak. He hit the floor, hard, and his head ended up… he was half in my room and half in the kitchen, and Kim was there. She saw what had happened, and she told him to leave. She was pretty fierce, and he split.”
I nodded. I didn’t point out that she had just given herself a motive (a weak one, admittedly) for killing Manfred, and that my employer had said that she could possibly have done it, even in her wheelchair. I was sure she’d factored that into her decision to tell me.
I decided not to view this information, which had just fallen into my lap, with suspicion, at least for the moment.