the deacon mystery (part one)

“Of course, Dr. Deacon, that is not what the phrase ‘the exception that proves the rule’ actually means.”

I heard this and I quietly reversed course, moving away from the two people who were standing by the staircase. I had intended to find out if I could be useful to my employer, but since it seemed that she was in full pontificating mode I decided to look for some books to buy instead.

The Town Hall of Claremont, Massachusetts, had burned to the ground a few weeks before. The fire had apparently been accidental, but, accidental or not, it had also destroyed the town library, which had been on the second floor of the building.

The citizens of the town were obviously not about to rally around to donate money to building a new town hall, but the library was another matter. Many people from the town, including my employer, had donated used books to a sale to raise money, and the local Presbyterian church had made their basement available on a Saturday afternoon.

Dr. Deacon was the priest, a tall, elderly, and benevolent-looking man who had apparently unwittingly ended up being lectured by Jan Sleet, the journalist and “lady detective” (as it said on her business cards).

The priest was dressed casually but neatly, in chinos and a polo shirt. He was tall and slender, and his back was somewhat stooped. His hair, gray and thinning, had probably started out carefully combed over his bald spot, but now it was somewhat disarranged because he was running his fingers through it periodically, perhaps as a way of controlling his frustration at my employer’s… Well, I will admit that I don’t know exactly what she was going on about — as soon as I heard the sentence quoted above I’d moved back out of earshot as quickly as possible.

My employer was dressed in a casual weekend ensemble: a royal blue pinstripe three-piece suit, with a midnight blue necktie and a gray pocket square.

I felt a light tap on my sleeve. “Mr. Marshall,” a small voice said, and I looked down. A very serious face, wearing very serious horn-rimmed glasses, looked up at me, seriously.

I smiled. “Hello, Jo,” I said. “How are you?”

She ignored the question. She had been involved in a murder case which had ended a few days before, and she was very interested in learning more about the upcoming trials.

Jo was an aspiring novelist, and I’d been questioned by her before. I knew my lack of information wouldn’t discourage her, so, after a few minutes of interrogation, wanting to change the subject, I tapped the book which she was clutching to her chest. “You know, that used to belong to my employer.”

She looked down at it, frowning. “You mean, it was stolen from her?”

I chuckled. “No, not at all. She donated many books to the sale, including that one. She’s a great believer in libraries.”

Jo nodded, apparently relieved that her prize was not about to be snatched away from her. “Libraries are good, but I do…” She saw somebody behind me and her eyes widened.

“I’ll talk to you later, Mr. Marshall,” she said, edging away. “Thank you.”

Wondering what she was thanking me for, I turned and saw Phyllis, who I had met in connection with an earlier case.

“Why did Jo call you ‘Mr. Marshall’?” she asked, smiling.

I shrugged. “That’s kind of an inside joke. How do you know her?”

“She was one of my students, some years ago. Apparently I still make her nervous.”

I thought of commenting that quite a few things seemed to make Jo nervous, but that seemed disloyal. I was rather fond of Jo, and since I had met her when she was in the middle of a murder investigation, I probably hadn’t seen her at her best.

I smiled. “I must confess that I don’t find you to be that frightening, but it’s been quite a while since I was a student.”

“So, how are you, and your employer?”

“We’re fine. I guess we’re lucky that the Heron House case ended a few days ago — at least our part of it. We do enjoy a good book sale, but cases always come first.”

“I know what that’s like,” she said. She didn’t have to explain further, since I knew she lived with the sheriff, and I was sure that their lives, and their free time, or lack of it, was largely determined, often on short notice, by Sheriff Rhonda’s official responsibilities.

I was afraid for a moment that Phyllis, like Jo, would pepper me with questions about the case which had recently been concluded, but instead she looked around the huge room and nodded. “Good turnout today. They should make some money.”

I nodded. “We donated a lot of books — my employer’s books. They’d been stored here in town since she left college. She hadn’t looked at them in years, and it’s not like we can start building shelves where we live.”

Phyllis gave me a sidelong look. “I’ve been wondering about that. Are you two planning on staying here in town for a while? Buying a nice house, white picket fence, that sort of thing?”

I laughed. “When you put it like that, it does sound unlikely. But writers, even writers like her, sometimes need peace and quiet to write.”

“I thought the book about the civil war in Bellona was written already, and she was just trying to get it published?” She leaned forward.

“She’s working on a different book now.”

I thought she might ask about the new book, but she changed the subject.

“Speaking of books, how many did your employer donate to the sale?”

I stretched, somewhat ostentatiously. “Boxes. Many, many boxes.”

She chuckled. “I gather you carried them here yourself, heavy volume by heavy volume, over a long distance…”

I laughed. “Well, it wasn’t as bad as all that. They were in cartons, I borrowed a good hand truck, and they were stored very near to here.”

“Okay, I withdraw some of my sympathy.” She nodded. “Oh, I see. At the Arkright house.” She gestured in that direction. “That came out in the Marvel Phillips case — the books that Jan stored here in town after she graduated college. How many of them did she donate?”

“All of them.”

She raised an eyebrow.

I leaned forward. “When we first heard about the sale, she declared, perhaps impulsively, that she’d donate them all. And then, later on, she found that there wasn’t a clear path for her to stage a tactical retreat from her original position.”

“Stubbornness.” She smiled. “I’m somewhat familiar with that.”

 
To be continued…

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