the heron island mystery (part twenty-four)

This story started here.

Elsa and I went into the house. I held the door and bowed her in, which made her smile.

The living room was warmer than the cool evening air outside. Becky, Li, and Kim were sitting together on the largest sofa. I had the idea that they had just been talking, but now they were silent, looking at us. I wouldn’t say that their expressions were cold — they were being as noncommittal as they could — but the room didn’t seem as inviting as it had a moment before.

Well, as I knew from experience, the arrival of a detective, or her assistant, is often not an occasion for rejoicing. And that doesn’t indicate guilt — only the fact that almost everybody has some secrets they would prefer not to reveal.

Elsa winked at me. “Why don’t you go into the dining room, Marshall, and I’ll warm up my delicious soup for us.” I started to say something, but she added, “I’ll call you when it’s ready and you can come and give me a hand.”

I went into the empty dining room and sat at the table. There were twelve seats, and I assumed that this had been the table where the Loomis family had eaten their meals. I wondered how large the family had been. I wondered how large it was now. I wondered if these would be important facts to know. In general, I felt like I had very little idea — maybe even less than usual — about what might prove to be important in this case.

My employer had said that she had to read Manfred’s book about hauntings in this area, but what was she thinking she’d find there? (And had she actually been serious about that in the first place?)

I couldn’t see anybody in the living room from where I sat, but it sounded like Li and Kim were still there. Becky was either gone or silent. I couldn’t make out any words.

After a minute, Jo walked past the dining room door, catching my eye and then quickly looking away again.

It occurred to me that I should make myself useful. I went to the sideboard and got place mats, silverware, and napkins, setting two places at the table. When I was done with that, I heard Elsa’s wheelchair coming across the living room (wooden floor, braided area rug, wooden floor again, and then into view).

I didn’t rise as she entered. I had already figured out that this particular gesture of politeness didn’t work when the lady in question always entered seated — how would you know when to sit down again?

She had a board across the arms of her wheelchair, with a large serving bowl of steaming soup right in the middle. I quickly rose and transferred it to the table, between our two place settings (I put it on a trivet, of course).

She smiled. “The coffee is in the kitchen,” she said, and I went to get it, realizing belatedly that I should have removed the chair at one of the two place settings.

When I returned with a mug of coffee for me, and a bottle of soda for her (hoping this would prove to be the correct choice), and two glasses of water, she had moved the superfluous chair herself and was sitting at the table. Both of our bowls were full of soup, and it smelled wonderful — a thick fish chowder.

I sat down and placed my napkin in my lap.

She grinned. “Are we saying grace?”

I laughed. “I haven’t in years. Comes from working for an ardent atheist, I suppose. My Catholic parents would be shocked, but probably not surprised.”

I took a spoonful of soup and blew on it.

“What about her Catholic parents?” She shrugged. “She’s Italian, right?”

“Her father is a paisan, though I don’t think he’s all that religious. I’ve never met him. I have no idea about her mother.” She seemed about to ask another question in that area. “I’m sorry, but that subject is classified. Completely off limits.”

She sipped some soup, glancing at me to see if I was going to say any more about my employer’s mother. I didn’t.

“Fair enough.” She smiled her impish smile. “So, you’ve never met her father. Have you introduced her to your parents?”

I shook my head. “Not yet. They know what I do for a living, but I haven’t been back there in years. I’ve been too busy, traveling around. I send them a post card occasionally. And birthday cards, of course.”

“Because you’ve been out detecting.”

“I’ve been assisting with the detecting, assisting with the writing, and making sure we have food, shelter, and clothing, and enough money to pay the bills. Sometimes I take steps to make sure we continue to be alive and healthy.”

She sipped her soup, then she gave a deep sigh. “I still feel we’re — I’m — having too good a time,” she said very quietly. I almost had to read her lips. “Not that I’m having a lot of fun right now or anything…”

I nodded. I leaned forward, my hand on her shoulder, and whispered something. She nodded.

To be continued…

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five years

A few days ago, I use the phrase “five years” in a blog post, and, for no really solid reason, I linked those words to David Bowie’s song “Five Years.”

And, by coincidence, it is five years, today, since David Bowie’s death.

It still hits me pretty hard, more than the deaths of some artists whose work I admire more, and I have no idea why. His relative youth, his determination to continue to do his work (at a very high level) until the last possible minute, his insistence on not making his imminent death a public spectacle on social media? I really don’t know.

There’s going to be a big TV show tonight (or some sort of broadcast thing — maybe on the internet or something) of various famous people singing Bowie songs. I’m not going to search it out — I’m more likely to spend the day listening to his songs (my favorites anyway) as sung by the man himself.

(Of course, if any of the covers are really good, I’ll probably hear some buzz and be able to see them on YouTube later anyway.)

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the heron island mystery (part twenty-three)

This story started here.

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 one time she’d nearly had an accident on the highway, 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 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 and a scarf covering her hair – didn’t acknowledge us.

“Sometimes I hang out the window and wave enthusiastically and yell Hello!,” 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 closed up now, for the winter. It would seem that the initial 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 more information on that question, 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, 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 left.”

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 had 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.

To be continued…

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new year’s day

1) It’s New Year’s Day! Yay! Seemed like 2020 went on for about five years.

2) I’ve had this blog since August 21, 2005. I’ve published 910 blog posts, plus some pages (which are different than posts), plus everything over here and here. Damn.

3) Well, I’ve always admired persistence.

4) How to get revved up for the new year? Tangerine Dream, of course.

5) If that doesn’t get you revved up, there’s always “Cherub Rock” (definitely not Tangerine Dream).

6) I had a whole theory worked out as to why Taylor Swift’s “no body, no crime” (from her second 2020 album, evermore) wasn’t that good a song. So, why does it keep running through my head?

Well, it’s a murder mystery, which is kind of my thing, and, the more I study it, it’s a very well-constructed one. Very good use of pronouns. Also, there’s the fun of the nameless narrator starting with “Este’s a friend of mine” and then the later appearance of Este’s sister providing an important alibi (“She was with me, dude”), with background vocals provided by Swift’s friend Este (Haim) and her sister Danielle, from the band Haim.

7) Last year, the shows I watched the most were Game of Thrones and Legends of Tomorrow. I think the contrast appeals to me because Game of Thrones is (was — I’m way behind the curve on this one, or whatever the modern cliche is) very well made and complex and depressing and cynical. Most of the characters are bad, or worse, or really a lot worse, or dead. Near the end, most of them, better or worse, are dead. Many of the conflicts, if not most, are between people who are both bad, but maybe in slightly different ways, or someone who is already established to be bad and someone whose badness hasn’t fully come out yet.

And, as is pointed out occasionally in the show, in passing, most of the main characters are people of some power and influence, and, because of how terrible most of them are, the common people are generally living miserable lives (or just dying). Other than the occasional mention, though, the common people don’t get much screen time or attention.

Plus, as has been generally reported, the entire show went off the rails at the end anyway. But it’s got some good writing, some great acting, some huge big-budget battle scenes, and a lot of good characters (not morally good, in most cases, but you know what I mean).

On the other hand, Legends is about a group of misfit superheroes who have been entrusted (mostly by themselves) with protecting the timeline from both temporal accidents and malicious time travelers. They are hampered by their inconsistent understanding of the effects of time travel, their tendency to make stupid mistakes, their waffling between fixing time by trying to put it back the way it was and trying to make it better (which never works), and their giddy overconfidence (sometimes it seems that every episode features a scene where Sara, their leader, assures somebody “Relax, we’ve got this!” while her team is about to screw everything up even worse than it was already).

Even the fact that the team is called the “Legends” is pretty much a joke, but everybody calls them that anyway, because the name has stuck.

Unlike GoT, it’s optimistic, funny, and often goofy. In one episode, they scare George Lucas away from a film career and then they need to get him back to directing so they get their superpowers back, and in another their time ship stops working because they accidentally stopped Hedy Lamarr from inventing frequency-hopping spread spectrum, the technology which is part of how WiFi, Bluetooth, cell phones, and, apparently, time ships work.

8) “Dave Barry’s Year in Review 2020” has some good jokes, including one very long, almost Joycean sentence (904 words) about the early days of COVID-19.

Oh, and this made me laugh:

A much bigger international story concerns Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, who announce via Instagram that they are sick and tired of being part of the British royal family and want to just be regular normal everyday hard-working folks making millions of dollars solely because one of them was born into, and the other one married into, the British royal family. This plunges Great Britain into a crisis the likes of which it has not been plunged into since “Brexit.” The crisis finally ends when, after a royal summit with Queen Elizabeth II described by participants as “frank and heartfelt,” Harry and Meghan are beheaded.

9) Okay, this is pretty special: “exile

Happy New Year, all.

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the heron island mystery (part twenty-two)

This story started here.

My employer stood with me as I waited for the jitney. “So, why am I staying over at Heron House tonight?” I asked, wondering if I’d get an answer. “Do you expect further violence?”

She shrugged. “I don’t believe so. No, you have another assignment.” She leaned over and whispered something in my ear, though there was nobody near enough to us to overhear.

Then, with her head still quite close to mine, she murmured, “You’re looking a little scruffy.” She tugged the hair over my ear. “I’ll give you a quick trim when I get home. You’ll want to make a good impression on the gaggle of nubile coeds you’ll be spending the night with.”

We were at the Claremont College campus, and I was being sent home to sleep. From what she had just told me, I was going to have a long night ahead of me at Heron House.

Rhonda had dropped us off at the college on her way back to town. The Heron House residents had been taken directly to police headquarters in a van, and state police investigators were swarming over the murder scene. The body had been removed, of course.

“So, I’m getting a real, actual nap today,” I said. “What will you be up to?”

“I — I’m afraid — will have to make the supreme sacrifice.”

“Lie back, close your eyes, and think of England.”

She snorted a laugh. “No, worse. I’m going to have to read Manfred’s book.”

So, in the late afternoon, with my hair trimmed (by my employer) and my face shaved (by me, though she supervised), I took a cab to Heron House, making sure that I would get there well before the moment when the island would be cut off from the mainland for the night.

I had packed a small suitcase to bring with me. It was more than I needed for just overnight (assuming this visit was only going to be for one night — and I suddenly wondered why I was making that assumption), but it was constructed with a small secret compartment where I’d packed my gun.

I did wonder what kind of reception I would get at Heron House. I had the idea that this might depend less on my personal charm and more on what kind of day the residents had had at police headquarters.

Jo answered my knock as the taxi turned around and went back down the hill. She regarded me for a moment, then she said, “Can I help you?”

“I’m to stay here for tonight, for protection. I hope that’s acceptable to everybody?”

“What if we say no?” Elsa called from somewhere I couldn’t see. I thought her voice sounded playful, though that may have been wishful thinking.

“Then I’ll have to stay outside,” I said, “lurking in the bushes, getting cold and damp, and yet constantly vigilant, on guard and alert to any possible–“

Jo opened the door all the way and motioned me in.

I came in and put down my suitcase. Jo closed the door and said, “Just you? Not any cops, or your friend the lady detective?”

I hadn’t realized before how small Jo was. The night before, she’d been dressed in pajamas and a huge robe and I hadn’t noticed her standing up, but now she was in a T-shirt and pajama pants, wearing, apparently, several pairs of socks of different sizes and colors, and large horn-rimmed glasses that dominated her face. The glasses were similar to my employer’s, but the effect was different because Jo’s face was small and round, while my employer’s was narrow and framed by her lank, brown hair. Jo’s hair was dark and pulled back into a loose ponytail.

Elsa was watching me without comment as I told Jo, “I have no idea what the police are doing. We’re not privy to their plans. And the lady detective, who is my employer, is, as far as I know, at home.”

“You’ll be here all night?” Jo asked.

“That’s the plan.”

She leaned toward me, and I lowered my head so she could speak softly. “I may have some questions for you later. If that’s okay.”

Then, without waiting for a reply, looking as if she might be afraid that she’d said too much, she turned and padded off and up the stairs to the second floor.

Elsa wheeled herself toward me. Once Jo had vanished, she said quietly, “The last couple of days have made me realize that I’m not in favor of dying any time soon.”

I sat down on a sofa, so we’d be closer to eye level.

“Most people feel that way in the abstract,” I agreed, “but it is different when death becomes a more immediate possibility.”

“I read some of Jan’s articles about Bellona, for a class that I took last semester. Were you with her when she was there?”

I nodded. “The whole time.”

Her mouth quirked. “I was trying to figure out your relationship with her, when you were here last night. I think it was a way of distracting myself from everything else. Or trying to.”

“It’s not mysterious, really. I can show you several years of pay stubs and tax returns.”

She gestured toward the kitchen. “I just made some soup. Would you like some?”

I nodded. “That sounds good, but first I need to ask you for a favor.”

To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part twenty-one)

This story started here.

Elsa frowned. “I… I guess you’re an expert at this sort of situation, but it just… It seems like we shouldn’t be making jokes right now.”

My employer nodded. “I’m not an expert on the subject of grief. I’ve seen quite a bit, and I’ve experienced it myself, of course, but I haven’t studied it. It’s not… My best advice is to allow yourself to go in any direction that seems necessary or useful at the moment. I would say that it’s important not to act out, or to feel that you should act out, any emotions that you’re not actually feeling.” She grimaced. “In my — rather atypical, I know — experience, some of the most powerful and emotive expressions of grief I’ve ever seen have been performed by people who turned out later to be murderers. People who are hiding a guilty secret seldom allow themselves to joke around after a death.” She frowned. “I guess that’s excluding psychopaths, but psychopaths, like serial killers, are much more common in fiction than in real life.”

“So, you think I’m innocent? I guess that’s something.”

“To be frank, I have no idea — not yet. It… I can imagine how you might have murdered Manfred, with the body ending up down on the beach, but it would take a lot to sell me on the idea that it really happened. As for Mary, anybody could have done it. Nobody is excluded at this stage.”

“Also,” I put in, “I think one of the difficult things about your situation right now is that the natural tendency would be for Mary’s friends to pull together, but of course it’s complicated by the fact that one or more of you may well have killed her.”

She nodded. “It’s funny. We all had dinner together last night, which doesn’t happen that often during the week. Nobody said why, but I think we all knew why we wanted to.”

“Will you feel like doing that tonight?” I asked. “I imagine that’s become a more complicated question now.”

She nodded. “That makes sense. Is that why you’re going to be staying over tonight — to check out how we’re reacting? Maybe provide some counseling, therapy… that sort of thing?”

I laughed. “What makes you think that I have any idea why I’ll be here?”

She laughed also, and my employer stubbed out her cigarette and sipped her coffee, looking pleased with herself.

Elsa drank some more of her soda and yawned. “Police headquarters. Questioning. Signed statements. I don’t suppose they have regularly scheduled nap times?”

“Unlikely,” my employer said. “Oh, by the way, I do want to ask about those malignant manifestations — the footprints and writing and so forth. When did those last appear?”

Elsa frowned. “Let me think. Not last night. Not the night before — the night Manfred died… Oh, that’s terrible. I’m starting to remember which day is which based on who was murdered that night. Okay, today–” She gestured at the window. “It’s daytime, so it’s Wednesday. There was nothing last night — Tuesday night. There was nothing the night before, Monday night, when Manfred was murdered. But Sunday night…”

“Mary told us about the Latin message –‘Change will come tomorrow.’ But she wasn’t here Monday night, the night she came to get us at our home. Was that Sunday night?”

Elsa nodded. “That’s right. We found it Monday morning. I remember because I overslept and missed my first class — more or less by accident.” She looked out of the front window, stifling another yawn. The sky was much lighter now, and the woods around the house were clearly visible.

To be continued…

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