This story started here.
“I was surprised that you called me,” she said.
I sipped my beer. “Really?”
She smiled. “At the last minute like that — that’s what I mean. I barely made it off the island before the water drowned the road. I always picture you as planning everything well in advance.” She shrugged. “Of course, I guess you’re always reacting to your employer’s schedule.”
“‘Schedule,'” I repeated, using finger quotes.
She laughed. “Oh, is she secretly wild and unpredictable? She doesn’t dress like somebody who’s wild and unpredictable.”
When I didn’t respond immediately, she leaned forward and regarded me, stroking her nonexistent beard.
“Ah, I get it now,” she said slowly. “You’re not here to talk about her. You’re here to not talk about her.” She smiled. “So, please tell me all about your day, dear.”
“There is a new case–” I began.
“A new case?” she demanded. Her face crumpling. “So soon?” She sniffed. “So, you’ve forgotten about us already, just moved right along to something else?” Her shoulders sagged. “I just can’t…”
“Mr. Fred Deacon,” I patiently explained as she squared her shoulders and winked at me, “the younger brother of the local Presbyterian priest, has vanished. Perhaps kidnapped. My esteemed employer is, officially, not investigating. Or she is investigating, depending on who you talk to.”
“Well, I’m talking to you, dear, her assistant, who probably knows the actual facts.” She finished her beer. “Or not.”
“As far as I can determine, I’m investigating the case.”
“Ah. While she’s off on a bender? Or having a fling?”
“Well, as far as I know, she’s not doing either of those things.”
She leaned forward and spoke conspiratorially. I could barely hear her in the noisy college bar. “By the way,” she murmured, “if she ever does feel like having a fling in the local area here, I have several classmates who obviously find her to be… interesting. Male and female, depending on her preference.” I sipped my beer. “When people found out I’d met her, there was quite a buzz.”
She studied her empty beer bottle carefully, and then she turned and made her way to the bar. I quickly finished the bottle I had in front of me.
The bar was called the Rat (short for “Rathskeller,” of course). We had chosen it for our get-together for several reasons, including the fact that, contrary to its name, it was not in a basement.
When she returned to the table, expertly piloting her wheelchair across the uneven floor of the bar while carrying two open beer bottles, I decided to be responsible. “It’s getting dark outside,” I said. I sipped the nice, cold beer she had just handed me. “We should start thinking about having some dinner.”
She nodded. “That seems responsible. They have chili here, and burgers.”
“Which is the better option?”
“The burgers are inconsistent,” she said judiciously. She drank some more beer. “The popular theory is that on the weekends there’s a different cook.” She tilted her head. “No, I haven’t done any investigation of this.” I didn’t attempt to hide my smile. “I’m happy with the one fact that I do know, which is that the chili is a better bet. More reliable.”
She gestured that it was my turn to talk.
“We saw Mr. Deacon’s daughter this morning,” I said. “She told us what had happened, her father not coming home, the phone call about the ransom, and so forth, and then I was dispatched to do research, at the palatial offices of the Claremont Crier.”
“Real research, or get-Marshall-out-of-the-way research?”
“Did you find out anything interesting?” She caught my expression. “Between us, of course.”
“Well, I’ve done a fair amount of research in my life, but the archives at the Crier were organized according to a system which I have never encountered before.” Her eyelids started to droop. “It was apparently devised by the editor’s wife, who is a rather imposing personage in her own right, and it utilizes file cards in a variety of sizes and colors…”
By this time her chin was resting on her chest and she was snoring.
“Also: money!” I announced.
She perked up immediately.
“I think money is the key,” I explained. “Mr. Deacon talks like he has money, but everything about his personal circumstances says otherwise. Now someone claims to be holding him and demands money from his daughter, who doesn’t have any either.”
“Who does have money?”
“His older brother, the priest. Their family money all went to him.”
“Exactly. And, as far as I could determine from my research, Dr. Deacon is not overly blessed with the virtue of charity, at least as far as his family goes. Also, it seems that the older sister’s boyfriend has some money.”
She was giving me a strange look, so I stopped.
“Are you drunk?” she asked.
I did a quick self-assessment. “Not beyond reason, under the circumstances.”
“Then I must be really fascinating, because the bartender is calling your name and you’re not reacting appropriately.”
I turned in that direction, and the bartender waggled a telephone receiver at me. He didn’t look happy.