the marvel murder case (part sixteen)

This story started here.

Barbara Arkright was dead. She’d apparently died instantly, shot in the head by one of the two rifle bullets.

The rest of us were at the hospital.

Barbara’s mother, Maureen Arkright, had been sedated and was asleep in a room. Barbara’s brother, Nathaniel, was sitting in the waiting room with his father. They were not saying much.

Sheriff Rhonda White was in a room also, unconscious. She had a bad concussion, at least, and there was talk about further tests she might need in the morning.

The state police had come to the house, again, and were investigating the surrounding area for any clues as to the identity of the murderer.

I had lost track of the lawyer, Mr. Krause. Maybe he was still at the house. We had been interviewed — if you want to call it that — by a young deputy who didn’t seem to know what questions he should be asking, but who wrote down, very carefully, every word we said to him in reply.

The waiting room had a machine that produced really terrible coffee. If you preferred tea, it would also produce hot water, which tasted only faintly like coffee. My employer and I drank the coffee.

There were only the four people in the waiting room — my employer and I, and the two Arkright men — and it was unclear what we were thinking we’d accomplish by being there.

Of course, Mr. Arkright and his son didn’t have a lot of other options. Their house was a crime scene, again, and there were no rooms to rent in town.

Mr. Arkright (the elder) got up and came over to us. “Miss Sleet,” he said slowly, “may I speak to you?”

“Of course,” she said. “Please sit down.” We had already offered our condolences on the death of his daughter.

He sat next to my employer and sighed. He looked much older than he had six hours earlier, which was certainly not surprising. I guess he was technically a suspect, but I did feel sorry for him. Now that he had our attention, he didn’t seem to know what he wanted to say.

“I don’t know for sure,” my employer said finally, “but I would imagine that the state police won’t take too long in your house. Their most thorough searching will be outside, of course — that’s where the murderer was.”

This seemed to help him get himself together. Sometimes people were put off by my employer’s rather cerebral approach to violent crime, but some seemed helped by it.

“My concern…” he began. “Miss Sleet, do you know who did this?”

She shook her head. “If I did, I’d be acting on it.” He seemed to accept this, but I had the sudden impression that it was a lie.

“Do you think… the shooting tonight, that it was connected to the woman who was killed in our house, while we were away?”

“I don’t know. The method was certainly very different.”

He shivered. “My wife… she’d say this was foolish, but the police I’ve seen tonight, the town police…”

“You were not impressed, I gather.”

“I… No. And it sounds like Sheriff White may be laid up for a while… Can I hire you, to look into this?”

“Mr. Arkright, you couldn’t have any more of my attention on this than you already have, and I’m not a licensed private detective. I couldn’t accept payment. No, I think…” Her mouth quirked as she looked out the big window at the parking lot, where a car was pulling in.

A few moments later, the big glass door opened and a gaunt man came in. His hair was going gray, and he used a cane, but he seemed spry.

“Sheriff!” Mr. Arkright said as we got to our feet.

The man smiled, coming over and holding out his hand. “Just ‘Phil’ these days, Tom.” They shook hands as Nate came over. “How’s Mo?”

“She’s been sedated. She…” He waved a hand.

Mr. Baxter took Mr. Arkright’s hand again. “I was so sorry to hear about Barbara.”

Mr. Arkright nodded. “Thank you, Phil.” Mr. Baxter shook Nate’s hand also, before turning to my employer.

“Miss Sleet.”

“Sir.” They shook hands.

“I’m offering my services, if there’s any way I can help.”

She nodded. “I can fill you in on what I know.”

He went up to the nurse at the desk and she said, “Hi, Sheriff.”

He smiled but didn’t correct her. “Hello, Molly. I’m wondering if there’s somewhere we can talk privately?” He gestured at the rest of us, to clarify who he meant by “we.”

“Of course, Sheriff.” She stood up. “Follow me.”

The older men — the victim’s father and the former sheriff — were rather solicitous of my employer as we settled ourselves in the small examination room. This may have been because she was the only woman among us — but it could also have reflected how urgently they wanted her to solve this.

My employer sat in the padded examination chair and the others took straight-backed chairs. She immediately took out a cigarette and I lit it for her. Nobody mentioned hospital regulations about smoking.

Nate was hanging back, saying almost nothing and standing by the door. He declined my offer to go out and find a chair for him.

We described what had happened that night for the benefit of Phil Baxter.

“How much do you know about the earlier murder?” my employer asked the retired sheriff.

“Rhonda has called me for advice a couple of times — I know the general story, and I know who the victim really was.”

She nodded.”That will make it easier.”

To be continued…

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the marvel murder case (part fifteen)

This story started here.

We knocked on the front door, and of course it reminded me of the first time we'd been admitted to that house. But this time it was evening, and the windows were lit, and we could hear voices from inside.

The door opened and a young man greeted us. He looked to be somewhere in his mid-twenties, with short, dark hair and a muscular build. He wore a sweatshirt and jeans, with white deck shoes.

"Sheriff Rhonda," he said, stepping aside to let us in. "And are these two new deputies? And out of uniform, too. I--"

"That's Sheriff White to you," Rhonda said as I closed the door behind us. "This is Miss Jan Sleet and her assistant, Marshall."

"Ah," he said, reaching for my employer's hand, "the famous lady detective. I--"

My employer was not making her hand available for shaking purposes, so I took his hand myself (it was rather limp and sweaty) and shook it quickly, releasing it before he thought of testing my grip. He looked like the type who would try.

"Nate, is that the sheriff?" a woman's voice called impatiently from the living room. "I--"

Nate sort of gestured us into the living room and we saw the rest of the family for the first time.

Introductions were somewhat awkward.

Mr. Arkright -- tall, straight, with short white hair and pale blue eyes -- stood and introduced himself (his first name was Thomas, and he gave the impression that it had been a very long time since anybody had called him "Tommy," or even "Tom") and his wife, Maureen. Then he sat down again, in an armchair that was obviously placed to be at the center of attention. (The furniture had been rearranged since we'd last seen the room, and a couple of additional chairs brought in.)

This left the two members of the next generation, Barbara and Nate, to introduce themselves. Nate was still trying to give the impression that he was witty, and Barbara gave every indication that she didn't want to be there at all and might leave at any moment.

Sheriff Rhonda introduced herself and then my employer and me. As she finished, there was another knock at the door, and Nate went to admit a plump, middle-aged man with very little hair and horn-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, and he turned out to be, as I would have guessed, the family attorney. His name was Mr. Krause. Mr. Arkright greeted him in a perfunctory way, and nobody else reacted to his presence at all.

When we were all seated, Mrs. Arkright appeared to be about to speak, but her husband cut her off.

"I wish to make several things clear," he said slowly, in a deep and sonorous voice. "First of all, to be blunt, we don't care in the least about the dead woman or who killed her. We didn't know her. So, from that point of view, solve it or not, that's up to you. But my son has let me know that she was someone of some notoriety, though I'd never heard of her, so I gather that whenever her identity becomes publicly known, we -- this family and this house -- will be at the center of an enormous public spectacle."

He sighed. "I realize that this is inevitable. The story will come out. So, there are two possibilities: It will come out with the murder solved and all questions answered, or it will come out with the murder not solved. The murder which happened in our home, for whatever reason, will--"

"If I may interrupt," Sheriff Rhonda said, "to be accurate, we have no idea whether the murder was committed here in this house. We don't know where it was committed. We just know that the body ended up here, over twenty four hours after death. Not to be flippant, but the murder could have taken place in Boston."

Mr. Arkright looked ready to resume being slow and sonorous, but Rhonda kept going.

"I think we all want this solved as soon as possible, for a variety of reasons, so I have some questions. Were you all together in Austria?"

Mr. Arkright smiled indulgently. "Yes, we were. None of us committed the crime, unless you think--"

"What about Robbie? He wasn't there, was he?"

"He was not," Mrs. Arkright said. "He lives in California, with his family. He hasn't been here for a visit in some time."

"So, if you were all gone, and since there was no trace of forced entry, the question is who, other than the four of you, has keys to this house?"

They had apparently not been expecting this question. Mr. and Mrs. Arkright looked at each other, Nate frowned and looked at his hands, and Barbara looked out the window. Mr. Krause was impassive.

"Dad," Barbara said slowly, raising her head, "what's--"

She may have said one more word after that. I really don't know.

My employer has always claimed that I threw her to the floor before the first bullet smashed through the window, but I doubt that's true. Either way, though, the next thing I knew, I was lying on the rough carpet, covering as much of my employer as I could with my body. There was a second shot, also from outside somewhere, and my employer snapped, "Lights!"

The little table next to Mr. Arkright's chair held a lamp, and I was close enough to kick it over. Then, keeping low, I made it to the wall switch and turned off the overhead light. That left just enough light from the hall for me to see my employer dragging herself to Sheriff Rhonda's side. She pulled out Rhonda's radio and said, in a loud, clear voice, "Emergency. This is Jan Sleet. There has been a shooting at Thomas Arkright's house, 349 Main Street. The shooter is outside somewhere. Sheriff White is down. We need an ambulance, and every available unit to this address, 349 Main Street. Emergency."

Whoever was at the other end was apparently not ready for this kind of message, and while my employer made sure that the necessary things were going to happen, and immediately, I allowed myself to take stock of what else was going on around me.

Mrs. Arkright was screaming. She'd been screaming for a while, I realized. Barbara was lying on the floor, in front of the sofa where she'd been sitting, and she was obviously dead.

I quickly checked Sheriff Rhonda, who was the other person on the floor. She was alive, unconscious, and bleeding from her shoulder. Her head was bleeding also, I realized as I tried to revive her, apparently from hitting the coffee table on her way to the floor. I decided to leave that to the medical professionals (I could hear sirens approaching).

I thought of taking her pistol, but it seemed possible that the officers who were about to arrive would be young and inexperienced, and I didn't want to be the one person in the room holding a gun when they came in.

As I applied pressure on Rhonda's arm, to slow the bleeding, her eyes flickered open. She squinted, as if trying to get her eyes to work together again, or maybe she was trying to remember who I was.

She reached up, using her undamaged arm, and gripped my shoulder. "What the fuck?" she demanded.

To be continued...

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the marvel murder case (part fourteen)

This story started here.

My employer hung up the phone. “We’re gathering the suspects,” she said. She looked like she was going to start vibrating from excitement.

“Hang on,” I said. “What–“

She made a moue. “Okay, Mr. Literal. They’re not all suspects, and we — you and I — are certainly not the ones doing the gathering. Satisfied?”

Professor Lebrun put down his newspaper. “This gathering — suspects or not — isn’t going to be here, is it?” He looked around the room. “It has been some time since I dusted.”

She smiled. “No, Professor, you don’t need to worry. Various people, including some suspects–” She glanced at me out of the corner of her eye, looking stern. “–are being gathered at the Arkright house, apparently at the request of the family, who are now back in town. Sheriff Rhonda is cooperating with this, presumably for reasons of her own, and she’s sending a car to pick us up.”

The professor leaned back, relieved, and picked up his drink. “I suppose I’m not invited,” he said with a shrug.

She smiled. “You suppose correctly. After all, why would a person like you, who knows nothing about the case beyond what he’s read in the newspapers, who certainly hasn’t heard a word about it from either of us…” Her voice trailed off as the professor picked up his newspaper (not the Claremont Crier) and resumed his reading.

I had begun to think that Monday might have ended up a wasted day, but apparently not.

A few minutes later, much to my relief (since my employer’s impatience was… increasing), there was a brief honk of a car horn outside and we hurried out. The sun was down, and I suddenly wished I’d eaten a more substantial lunch — dinner might be a ways off.

To my surprise (mostly, I confess, because I hadn’t thought it through), the driver was Sheriff Rhonda, and there was nobody else in the car. It made sense that she’d want to talk to us alone before the big confab — whatever it was to be. As I say, I just hadn’t thought it through.

I held the door for my employer, of course, and then I got into the back seat. Rhonda pulled out of the driveway and headed down the narrow road back to the highway.

“This is all at the request of the Arkright family,” she said as she waited for a break in the highway traffic, “by which, of course, I mean Mrs. Arkright. They want to have a clear idea of what’s being done, and what’s already been done.” She pulled out onto the highway, and I could see my employer and the sheriff exchange a glance.

“You may be thinking that Sheriff Baxter didn’t set up meetings like this at the request of the victims of a… Well, I guess technically they’re not the actual victims.”

“They’re not dead, and, as far as we know they never knew the victim — the actual victim.” My employer shook her head. “They’re just the hosts.”

Rhonda seemed to be suppressing a laugh as she ran the siren for a second so she could cut across oncoming traffic and enter the town center.

“So…” my employer prompted.

“They know who the victim was — I have no idea how. It seems that if they’re not satisfied that we’re close to wrapping this up, they may release her identity to the press.”

“And you’re thinking that it will help us in solving this if that fact is not generally known?”

She shrugged, pulling into the church parking lot. There were two other cars there near the Arkright house, at the far end from the church itself, and apparently it was accepted by Reverend Deacon that this corner of the lot was for the family.

“I have the idea that it may help if not everybody knows who she was, but my biggest concern is the press. Once it gets out that the famous hellraiser Marvel Phillips was murdered, mysteriously, in an empty house, while attending college here under an assumed name, we’ll have so many reporters here that they’ll outnumber the rest of us. Television, radio, newspapers, magazines…”

My employer smiled as I got out of the car and opened her door for her. “Rhonda,” she said, “I do understand your point, and I think you’re probably right, but please do remember how I earn my living and pay the salary of my excellent assistant here.” She leaned on my arm as I helped her to her feet. “Once this is solved,” she said cheerfully, “you can bet that I’ll be writing all about it. Je suis la presse. Let’s go in.”

She certainly did enjoy the idea of a good gathering of suspects.

To be continued…

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movies, commas, and dreams

1) Klaus over at Ming Movie Reviews has reviewed The Other Side of the Wind, and also They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (a documentary about the making of The Other Side of the Wind). Very interesting to get insights and impressions from somebody who isn’t a Welles obsessive.

[Update: Klaus posted a much more extensive review of The Other Side of the Wind.]

2) Does it annoy you when a cashier at a drugstore or grocery store refers to you as a “guest” (rather than a customer), or when a train announcer refers to you as a “customer” (rather than a passenger)? Well, the Comma Queen is here for you, as always: “Comma Queen: A Grammarian’s Xmas Gripes

3) In case you were wondering, my enthusiasm for Tangerine Dream continues unabated. Here’s the current lineup, in studio, performing “Identity Proven Matrix”:

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the marvel murder case (part thirteen)

This story started here.

I waited in the kitchen as my employer searched the Arkright house. I sat at the counter, sipping a coffee and reading a newspaper. I had purchased the coffee and the newspaper at the little convenience store by the bus stop.

Mostly my employer worked by herself, but occasionally I was summoned to provide assistance, usually by lifting or moving something. She had a coffee also, which she carried with her from room to room as she worked, always careful to place a napkin under the cup wherever she set it down.

Beyond the coffee and the newspaper, and the physical labor, I occupied myself by trying to make deductions about my employer.

What I could tell, watching her work her way through the house, was that her heart wasn’t in it. She was being thorough, as always, but there was no glee and also no frustration — just, as she would have put it, amateur professionalism.

I didn’t know how she was currently reconstructing the crime, but apparently this house was not at the center of it. Which made it possible that she’d taken the sheriff’s offer of the campus because she thought the solution to the murder was there.

Or it was possible (quite possible, actually) that she’d shifted her focus primarily to collecting material for a book about Marvel herself, figuring there would be a market for such a book (and, if she wrote and published that book, and it sold, then she’d have leverage to help get her book about the civil war in Bellona published).

I had a feeling that at some point I’d have to intercede to get her back on track to identifying the murderer, but that would have to be carefully timed and cleverly done. I was thinking of something along the lines of “Who would read a book about a famous murder victim, by a famous amateur detective, that doesn’t include the solution to the murder?”

Another question, of course, was how she would handle the subject of the garage and the cartons of her books. She’d been pretending that she hadn’t investigated them on the day we’d found the corpse, but I was pretty sure she had. Would she keep up the pretense?

She came in and sat next to me at the little kitchen counter. “How would you feel about going out and getting us some sandwiches?” she asked after a moment.

So, either she wanted me out of the way for some reason, or, possibly, she wanted a sandwich. Or maybe both. Or she was teasing me because she knew I was thinking too much about her possible schemes and motivations.

Also, of course, how I felt about the idea of going out to get sandwiches had no bearing on whether I was about to go out and get some.

She smiled.

“Any preferences?” I asked.

Later, as we ate our (lobster salad) sandwiches on the front porch, with more coffee, I asked, “So, what are the top ten most interesting things you’ve discovered so far?”

She made a gesture of punching me in the shoulder, but our chairs were a couple of inches too far apart. “There are times, I confess, very occasionally, when I remember why I hired you. Okay, I’ll give you five.”

She stuck up one bony finger for each point.

“One: I know where the bathing suit — the bikini that was placed on Marvel’s body — came from. It’s been in this house, probably for some time.

“Two: It does not belong to either Mrs. Arkright or Miss Barbara Arkright.

“By the way, I am avoiding the obvious — things that I’m sure the police would have discovered, like the fact that the story of Mrs. Arkright’s inheritance appears to be true, and the fact that Marvel’s clothes and ID are apparently not in this house (although I have not yet searched the basement or whatever small attic or crawl space may be above the second floor bedrooms).

“Three: Robert Arkright, known to the family as ‘Robbie,’ Mr. Arkright’s son by his first wife, sent a birthday card to his father four days ago, giving at least some evidence that he was in California, where he lives, at that time. As opposed to being, for instance, here in Claremont, killing Marvel Phillips.

“Four: Mrs. Arkright’s affair with Mr. Beasley appears to still be going strong. Six months ago she had a pregnancy scare, but she was not actually pregnant. (I’m counting this as part of number four since her main worry was that Beasley might have been the father, and the baby might exhibit his red hair and freckles.)

“Five: There’s no evidence tying either of the “children” — Nate and Barbara — to Claremont College. They both go to schools out of state. Neither of them even applied to Claremont.

“I’ll give you one more; that was a good sandwich. Six: None of my books are missing. Only one box was opened, and every book on the inventory list is there.”

She carefully folded her sandwich paper and placed it on the arm of her chair so that she would remember to throw it in the trash when we went inside again.

She looked around as I leaned forward to light the cigarette she was about to take from her case. “If I ever have a house — which seems unlikely at the moment, I know — I will make sure there’s a small wastebasket on the porch. Thank you, Marshall.”

She leaned back in her chair again.

“Infidelity,” she said slowly. “I wonder if Mr. Arkright knows, about his wife. I wonder if their children know, or suspect.” She made a fluttering gesture with her long fingers. “Not relevant, really. Nothing to do with the murder — but I do wonder why it’s so often such a big deal.

“Remember the Amado case?” She paused, politely, in case I wanted to make a defense of my memory, which, while not as good as hers, was certainly capable of remembering a case from earlier in that same year.

“All that…” She tapped her forefinger on her paper coffee cup. “All because of one extramarital event — not even a pattern. Certainly not like Mrs. A. and her amour des livres, which has been going on for years now.”

She glanced over at me, her mouth quirking. “How would I feel, I wonder, if I found out that you were sneaking off to light somebody else’s cigarettes and make somebody else’s travel arrangements behind my back?”

After a moment, she laughed and grabbed her cane, using it to get to her feet. It was more difficult than usual, since the chair was quite low, but I held her arm to steady her.

“Well,” she said, “I know your weakness now: muffins. If a young and comely wench should offer you a muffin tomorrow…” She shrugged. “Come on, you. I’m going to search the basement while you handle the attic. The ladder looks rather rickety, so it will be interesting to learn if it will hold your weight.”

To be continued…

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