the heron island mystery (part twenty-five)

This story started here.

After we finished our soup, Elsa said, “I’ll do the dishes.” She smiled. “I’ll find you later on.”

She put the board across the arms of her wheelchair again and we piled the dirty dishes on it. After she’d left for the kitchen, I strolled into the living room. Li and Kim were gone, and Becky was there, standing by the front door.

“Is somebody out there?” I asked, going up beside her and peering out through the glass.

She shrugged. “It’s too dark to tell.” She turned to face me. “What do you think about all this? Are we all going to get through the night tonight… without anybody dying?” She shrugged. “I asked the sheriff today if she was assigning people — deputies or whoever — to watch us. To watch the house. She–” She almost laughed. “I had the idea that her real answer was ‘You’re all suspects — why would I tell you anything?'”

I raised an eyebrow.

The laugh finally came out. “Yes — that is a good answer. What do you think of her? She’s still really new at this — at being sheriff. My father is a doctor, and he knew Sheriff Baxter very well. Dad used to have confidence in him.”

My experiences with Sheriff Baxter had been somewhat different, but I decided not to go into that right now.

“First of all,” I said, “you do have to admit that if Sheriff White had said that — that you are all suspects… Well, she would have had a point.”

Becky nodded. “Obviously. But, since I know I haven’t murdered anybody, I can’t help but think of the threat… well, the possible threat, to me.”

I shrugged.. “Me, too, actually. The threat to me, I mean — and to all of you.”

“So, are there cops or something on the island tonight, or are we all cut off as usual?”

“Honestly, I have no idea. The sheriff doesn’t share her plans with amateur detectives or their assistants — no more than she does with suspects.”

She was silent, so I went on, lowering my voice a bit. “I’m sure it was difficult, checking Mary’s body. I’m sorry you had to do that.”

She nodded. “Me, too,” she said after a while.

“Would you like some coffee?” I asked.

She shook her head.

Feeling that I had exhausted my welcome in the living room, I went out onto the deck and sat at the glass table. The air was cool, but I was wearing a sweater.

In order to make this look plausible, I had brought a cup of coffee and an ashtray with me. I don’t smoke, but I always carry a pack and a lighter in case my employer runs out. I assumed that nobody at the house had spent enough time with me to be completely sure I wasn’t a smoker.

(Since we’d moved to Claremont, more than one person had commented that they could smell my employer’s cigarettes on me.)

As far as I could see through the windows, the living room was empty. Li was in the kitchen, doing something I couldn’t see. She was not looking at me. I could hear Elsa doing the dishes. Kim’s windows were dark, but Jo’s lights were on and I could hear the faint sounds of her typewriter.

Patience was my watchword, of course, but a couple of times, when the typewriter fell silent for a moment, I made sure to produce a bit of casual noise (glass-topped tables are good for that).

Eventually, the typewriting stopped and a small, round face popped up in the window and looked down at me through large horn-rimmed glasses.

If it had been Elsa, for example, I’d have waved, and maybe even winked, but Jo was no Elsa. She’d been circling around me since my arrival, but I could tell that she was easily spooked and very, very serious. I needed to let her come to me without letting on that I was aware of her desire to talk to me.

Then, very soon after that, I saw her in the living room, clearly seeing me now, as if for the first time, and then I decided a wave was appropriate. Just a casual acknowledgement that I saw her — nothing more than that.

She stepped out onto the deck, and l smiled.

“Do you have a minute?” she asked, as if I might be very busy, appearances to the contrary.

“Absolutely,” I said cheerfully. I gestured at one of the other chairs. “Join me?”

She hesitated, and then she came over and sat down. I offered her a cigarette, but she declined, and I put the pack on the table.

I expected to have to make some small talk to get things started, but she leaned forward. “Is it okay if I ask you some questions?”

I half expected her to whip out a notepad and rest it on her thigh, as Rhonda had, and I was suddenly afraid that Jo, the aspiring novelist, was going to ask Marshall, the journalist’s assistant, how she could get her novel published. Fortunately, she had other things on her mind.

“Did you examine Manfred’s body?” she asked.

I shook my head. “No, the sheriff did that. In fact, I was explicitly told to keep my distance while she did it.” I thought of elaborating on our relationship with Sheriff Rhonda, but I didn’t.

“What about Mary?”

“I watched while the body was being examined, but I didn’t participate. Sheriff White and Miss Sleet are much more experienced than I am — there’s not much chance that I’d see something they both missed.”

“But you’ve seen dead bodies before.”

I nodded.

“So, are you inured to dead bodies at this point? Do you get used to them?”

If this was what she had been eager to talk to me about, I was beginning to be sorry I had made the effort to get her to come and sit with me. I had the urge to refer her to Becky, the medical student, to find about how she had felt about checking the body of her friend for signs of life.

To be continued…

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