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Rhonda shook her head and leaned back in her chair. “So, you don’t know who killed Manfred or Mary?” she asked.
My employer shook her head. “If I did, I’d say so. The point of identifying murderers is to stop them, after all. But let’s simplify things. How about this: Let’s assume, for the purpose of this conversation, that Kim is on the level. She killed Mary, and she killed Mary in revenge for Mary killing Manfred, because she thought, for some reason, that Manfred’s death meant she’d lost out on a chance to become rich.
“Now, I’m not saying Kim was correct about any of those statements, but let’s assume she was sincere — that she really believes them, whether or not they are objectively true. Where does that take us?”
“If that’s true,” I said, “then Kim was apparently Manfred’s accomplice in the house. The Latin dictionary is actually a legitimate clue — it wasn’t planted in her room to implicate her.”
“But then why try to spook the girls at Heron House?” Rhonda asked. “Why not their neighbors, some of whom are actually wealthy? Manfred could have soaked them for a lot more than he could get from any of the girls at Heron House.”
“According to Mary’s notes, Manfred had worked the same scam with one family recently — the Palmers — but they were the only other house without an alarm system. He put on quite a show for them, apparently, driving out their supposed ghosts.”
“But does that end up with Kim thinking she could use Manfred to become wealthy? Can you really become wealthy fleecing people — even rich people — by pretending to get rid of their ghosts?”
My employer shook her head. “No, you cannot. Manfred, as far as Mary had been able to tell, was basically broke, living scheme to scheme. There must have been some other prospective source of income — something we don’t know about yet.”
The sheriff sighed. She seemed to be getting impatient. “I really feel like we need to solve Manfred’s murder. Everything else seems to flow from that — like we can’t definitely explain anything else until we can prove who killed him.”
My employer nodded. “I think that’s true. And I have an idea about why Kim blamed Mary for that. If I may lay it out for you?”
“This appears sort of circular, so I’ll start with the fact that Mary was not on the island, according to all the evidence, when Manfred was murdered. I believe that this is why — bear with me — Kim was sure that she killed him. Let’s look at what Mary did.
“She came to our house, in the middle of a storm, with a very puny reason for urgency, apparently expecting me to rush out into the weather with her to lay a ghost, or to expose a ghost hunter. If I’d hesitated even for a few minutes, as any reasonable person would have, it would have been too late, as indeed it was. The island would have been cut off until the morning.
“Her plan was apparently designed — almost guaranteed — to fail to get me to act. But it also established that she was off the island for the night. And then she was waiting with us in her car when the road became passable again in the morning.”
“She gave herself an alibi for the murder.”
“Exactly. She did everything necessary to give herself an alibi. And Kim, seeing how carefully and deliberately Mary had worked to give herself an alibi, apparently assumed this meant she was guilty of Manfred’s murder, and, a fortune having — she thought — just slipped through her fingers, she decided to act.”
“Okay,” the sheriff said slowly. “But was Kim right? Did Mary kill Manfred?”
“I don’t know for sure, but I… I was going to say that I doubt it, but I can’t back that up.
“Here are the two questions. One — the simple one — is motive. I have read all of Mary’s notes and article drafts, and I found no hint of a motive. There may well have been one, but I have no idea what it might be. She wanted to expose Manfred as a con man — that’s not a motive for murder. He hadn’t conned her, at least as far as we know.
“Two — and this is the rough one — concocting and carrying out an elaborate plan to give yourself an alibi for a crime, or appearing to, does not constitute evidence that you committed that crime. If you’re going to hang this on Mary, posthumously, you’ll have to get her onto the island after the road was cut off but before the murder, and then back off the island before the road was passable again. You’ll have to figure out where Manfred was — presumably he wasn’t wandering around on the island all night in the storm, and it seems pretty obvious that he wasn’t at Heron House. Was he staying at another house on the island? I have no idea.”
“It’s a good thing you have Kim on attempted murder for the attempt on Elsa,” I put in. “Trying her for Mary’s murder, in revenge for a murder where you don’t even have any suspects and where Mary has a convincing alibi — and where’s there’s no real evidence that Kim is deranged — that’s going to be hard.”
Rhonda shook her head. “I’m glad I’m not a lawyer.”
My employer nodded. “And I’m not a psychiatrist — needless to say — but everybody here seems to be rational. Not always smart, goodness knows, and often gullible, but everybody involved had a reasonable goal, as far as we can tell.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “Kim wanted money, and she was being manipulated by an expert. Manfred, the expert manipulator in question. also wanted money. Mary wanted a good story, to get a good grade.“