the marvel murder case (part four)

This story started here.

Waiting for the police to arrive, I took advantage of the time to move our luggage into the front hall.

The police car pulled up and stopped in front of the house, the siren dying down. The blonde woman who stepped out looked very much like my idea of a small-town sheriff. She wore mirror sunglasses, a khaki blouse with short sleeves, brown trousers with a stripe down the sides, and large, carefully-polished boots. She wore a badge, of course, and the sidearm in her holster was a pearl-handled revolver — an old-fashioned six shooter.

She looked up and down the street and then strolled toward me. When she stepped up on the porch, I assumed she was looking at me, but the sunglasses made it impossible to be sure.

“Are you the gentleman who called in the report?” she asked.

I nodded. “I am.”

“Let’s see some identification.”

I handed over my driver’s license. She examined it and handed it back. “Okay. Please show me the body.”

I led her through the house and out into the garage. My employer was standing up, looking out one of the small windows that showed the rather scruffy back yard.

“Sheriff,” she said, turning, “I think you’ll find… Rhonda?” She glanced at the badge pinned to the woman’s shirt. “You’re the sheriff now? What happened–”

“Hello, Janice,” she said, removing her sunglasses. “Sheriff Baxter retired last year, and I won the election to replace him.” She allowed herself a smile. “I guess you didn’t keep up with your subscription to the town newspaper.”

My employer glanced at me. “They were in the post office box,” I reassured her. “Fifteen or twenty issues. They’re in the blue suitcase.”

That got another brief smile from Sheriff Rhonda. Then she squatted and looked at the body. I got the impression that she was reluctant to actually touch the corpse.

“Two of my deputies are on the way, and the coroner. Let’s go inside and I’ll get your story.”

We went back toward the front of the house as another police car pulled up. Sheriff Rhonda gestured that we should go and sit down in the living room as she walked with her deputies back to the garage.

We sat on the sofa together and I leaned over to whisper, “I guess you had Sheriff Baxter nicely broken in, and now you have to start all over again with a new sheriff.”

Sheriff Rhonda came back in and sat down facing us.

“So,” she said, “let’s get caught up. Of course, I’m not saying that you’re suspects…”

“But obviously we’re not not suspects,” my employer said.

“Exactly. I find you with a dead body, in a house which is locked up while the owners are away skiing, and I have to ask some questions.”

“Of course, you found us with a dead body after I called your office to notify you about the existence of that dead body,” I pointed out.

“That’s true.” She leaned back. “Please tell me how you came to be here, in an empty house, with a dead body.”

My employer took out her cigarette case and I stood up. There were no ashtrays in the room, so while she said, “To begin, when I left college…” I ducked into the kitchen, found an appropriately shaped serving dish, and brought it back in. I could tell that the sheriff was wondering about our exact relationship. This was not unusual.

“But it is relevant, Rhonda — thank you, Marshall — because it’s why we’re here in town. There are several cartons of my books in the garage, which Vinnie left there when he moved away. Until then, they had been in his basement.” She nodded at me and I took the letter from my pocket and handed it to the sheriff.

She read it carefully and said, “So, that’s why you came back to town?”

She shrugged. “It was really somewhere between a reason and an excuse to come back and visit. And, although it was polite, the letter did have a certain… tone.”

I nodded. “It seemed to be secret code for ‘When are you going to come and get your damn boxes out of my garage?'”

The sheriff smiled. “That’s pretty much how I’m reading it. And you didn’t think it would be better to come visit at a time when the family would actually be home?”

“I didn’t write in advance, I’m afraid. We just came, rather on impulse. After all, if we got here and they were away, we could spend some time here in town, which would be enjoyable. And I didn’t remember them traveling much.”

“Mr. Arkright retired at the end of last year. Since then, they’ve been doing a lot more traveling.”

My employer smiled. “I’ve heard of that. Perhaps when I retire I’ll stop traveling, just for a change of pace.”

The sheriff wasn’t distracted. “So, arriving here and finding no one home, you let yourself in so that you could get to the garage and your books?”

“No. We knocked on the door, and we received no response. So, we strolled down the hill and had a very pleasant lunch at the Wagon Wheel. When we came back and knocked again, a woman answered the door and admitted us, once we’d explained our mission here.”

The sheriff pursed her lips. “Describe her.”

“Thirty-five to forty, maybe a little older. Slender and maybe five feet, nine or ten inches. Dark brown hair, about the same color as mine, but thicker, hanging straight to around the bottom of her shoulder blades, wire-rimmed glasses.”

“You knew the Arkright family?”

“Not all of them, but I looked at the family photos on the mantle over there, and she’s not in any of them.”

“Did this woman introduce herself, when she let you in?”

“No, she did not give us her name.”

“Did you think of asking her who she was?”

She laughed. “Of course I thought of it. But if I’d asked I would have missed out on the fun of seeing how far she was going to go with it. And I was fairly sure she’d have given me a phony name anyway, if I’d pressed her. I decided to let the situation play itself out.”

The sheriff paused, then she nodded.

“From you, I suppose that seems plausible.”

“Thank you.”

An older man, dressed in civilian clothes, stepped into the room. He was about to speak, but then he saw my employer. “So, it’s you,” he said with a studied weariness. “Where have you been? And why don’t we ever get any murders around here except when you’re in town, hmm? Makes me wonder…”

My employer smiled. “I have to say, dear Doctor Wright, that this is one reason, of many, that you’re the doctor, rather than being the detective.”

He sighed and turned to Rhonda. “Sheriff, the dead body in the garage is, in fact, dead. It is dead from strangulation, said strangulation having been achieved with, perhaps, some sort of soft cloth. There are no finger marks on the throat, or abrasions from rough rope or twine. The body has apparently been dead for at least twenty-four hours. I’ve called for the ambulance, and I’ll let you know more after the autopsy, which I’m assuming you’re about to ask me for.” He turned and left.

The sheriff nodded slowly. “So, to recap, somebody murdered the blonde woman over twenty four hours ago. And someone was in this house today, pretending that she lived here. Had she brought the body here today, for some reason, and your arrival interrupted her? Interrupted her… doing something in the empty house?”

My employer shook her head. “Unlikely. For one thing, I’ve looked out the garage windows. Every side of this house is clearly visible from at least one other building. To carry in a dead body during daylight seems very risky.”

“Particularly risky for someone who was, apparently, a stranger here herself,” I added. “But here’s the other point. This woman was shocked when we discovered the body. She ran into the kitchen, apparently to be sick. Now, maybe she’s a good enough actress to feign that level of surprise and distress, but she did actually vomit in the sink.”

“Maybe she was just putting on a very thorough act.”

My employer shook her head. “To get away from us, knowing the police would appear soon and reveal that she had no business here? Why stop and induce her distress into the sink? Why not simply act sick, rush from the room, and continue on out the front door and away?”

The sheriff nodded slowly.

“So, we have an unidentified victim, and unidentified murderer, and an unidentified impostor and break-in artist…”

My employer extended a bony finger. “And, remember” she said, “an unidentified book thief.” She paused. “May I ask a question?”

Rhonda leaned back in her chair, the first time she’d seemed to relax, at least somewhat. “Go ahead.”

“How involved do you want me to be, or can I be, in the investigation?”

“In other words, am I going to let you run wild, like Sheriff Baxter did during that surfer case?”

Her smile gave a certain context to her words.

My employer smiled, too. “I wouldn’t have put it in exactly those terms.”

“I’m sure.”

“But, yes–”

“The surfer case, which you solved, where Sheriff Baxter got most of the credit in the press, even though everybody in town knew the real story, at least in a general way.

“I’ll be honest. This is the first murder in town since I took over this job. My predecessor, with your help, had a very good track record in that area. That’s what people expect from me… That’s the standard that’s been set, for me to live up to.

“So, on one hand, I want to solve this, and you can probably help.” She shrugged. “On the other hand, you’re here in town, and if I look like I’m rejecting your help, I’m going to look like an idiot.”

She leaned forward. “However, I need to make one point.

“This house is a crime scene. It’s going to be locked up, at least until the forensics boys from the state police get here and get done. And that, if you care, includes the cartons with your books.”

My employer nodded. “Very reasonable. Marshall and I aren’t going anywhere until this is solved, and we can certainly wait until then to go over my books.”

What this told me was that she’d already looked through at least the open box, enough to find out what she wanted to know.

To be continued…

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the marvel murder case (part three)

This story started here.

Walking back up the hill to the house — the family was named Arkright, my employer had told me during lunch — I was hoping that somebody would be home. It was important, it seemed to me, to settle the question of where we would be staying. Not only so that I could divest myself of our luggage — though that was a consideration — but because it was August, and Claremont was obviously something of a summer resort town. I was a bit concerned that everything would be booked and we’d end up sleeping on the beach or somewhere like that.

My employer glanced at me and raised an eyebrow as we stepped onto the front porch. She wanted to make sure that I’d noticed that the note she’d left earlier was still there, wedged between the screen door and the frame.

She knocked on the door anyway, and I started to put down the suitcases. “We do have to remember…” she began, but she was interrupted by a woman’s voice calling cheerfully from inside the house, asking us to come on in.

My employer’s hand flicked up, grabbed her note, and quickly slipped it into her jacket pocket.

She opened the screen door and stepped in. As I lifted the final suitcase again, she said, “Oh, you can just leave them out here for now.”

It did seem unwise to leave all of our luggage, all of our possessions, on the front porch, but, as she’d been about to remind me a minute earlier, we weren’t in New York any longer.

Inside the house, squinting in the sudden darkness, my employer was regarding a woman. She was fairly tall and slender (though not as tall and slender as my employer), with long dark hair and wire-rimmed glasses.

My employer introduced herself, using her birth name, which she didn’t generally use unless she had to. She didn’t introduce me, as usual.

The woman frowned. “I am sorry, but I don’t recognize the name…”

My employer smiled pleasantly. “I lived here, in town, when I went to college. My father and I lived down the hill, in the little house next to the Historical Society.”

“The little white one? Oh, and would you like to sit down?”

A few moments later, we were all sitting in the pleasant living room. I had placed myself on a sofa where I could see out one of the front windows and keep an eye on our suitcases.

“I haven’t been gone that long,” my employer said as she used her cane to lower herself into a straight backed chair, “but apparently it was long enough for the owner to paint our little house white. When we lived there, my father and myself, it was painted a red brick color.”

The woman nodded. “Oh, I think I remember that, when they painted it.” She frowned at my employer. “You do look familiar, though your name… You’re Jan Sleet, aren’t you? I’ve seen your photograph, with your articles.”

My employer looked pleased, as she always did when she was recognized, but also wary. I could tell by the careful way she was pressing the tips of her long fingers onto her thighs, adjusting the pressure slightly from moment to moment.

“So, you’ve read my work? That’s always good to hear.”

“I didn’t realize you were back in this country. Will you be going back to Bellona?”

“Probably not right away. I’m… sort of deciding where I want to go next.”

“I always thought that your columns on Bellona… They would make a very good book. The sort of thing that could even be used in schools, studying current events and Latin American history.”

My employer shrugged. “That is a possibility.” She smiled. “I can’t say more about it right now.”

The woman nodded. “Of course. So, Miss Sleet, may I ask why you’re here?”

“Of course. My father, Vinnie, before he left town, left several cartons of my books in your garage…”

The woman stood up. “Oh? Of course. Please come with me.”

She stood and led us toward the rear of the house. She opened the door from the kitchen into the garage and then stepped aside to allow us to go first.

But then we all stopped in the doorway, and my employer said, “Oh.”

Even though she was apparently as surprised as our hostess and myself, my employer was still the first one to move forward to examine the body. She grabbed a windowsill with her long fingers and lowered herself to a squatting position.

“Dead,” she said after a moment, not looking around. “Probably since yesterday. Strangled, apparently. Wearing a bikini bathing suit and flip flops, so there’s no identification on her. Do you recognize her?”

The last was for our hostess, who moved forward hesitantly, looked at the swollen and discolored face, and scurried away and out the door in order to be sick in the kitchen (based on the sounds).

My employer turned around to face me. I knew from experience that she was far from done examining the body, so I didn’t move forward to help her to her feet.

“Please call Sheriff Baxter. Give him my regards and let him know that there’s been a murder here.” She told me the phone number and turned back to continue her examination. I hesitated, and she spoke over her shoulder. “The ‘lady of the house’ won’t mind your using her phone. I have no idea who that woman was, but she doesn’t live here and I imagine she’s long gone by now. Go make the call.”

To be continued…

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the marvel murder case (part two)

This story started here.

The house was next to a Presbyterian church, with the church parking lot in between. It seemed fairly typical: two stories, painted white, peaked roof, set back from the street with a nice lawn in front of it.

Beyond the house, on the far side from the church, was a smaller house, with a corny sign in front of it. Even here, near the center of the town of Claremont, there was a comfortable amount of space between the buildings. The houses and stores were mostly painted white (was there a town rule?), and most of them could have been a hundred years old. If so, they were well maintained (maybe there was a rule about that also).

“Is there a rule, do you think?” my employer asked as we walked up the hill toward the house. “That all the buildings need to be painted white? I always wondered about that.”

I shrugged. Given the number of suitcases I was carrying, even that was an effort.

She stopped and breathed in. “It smells even better than I remember,” she said as she pulled out her cigarette case.

I put down the suitcases and took out my lighter in order to light her cigarette.

She looked around as I picked up the suitcases again.

“It sure has changed,” she said thoughtfully, probably attempting to convey the idea that she’d lived and matured quite a lot since she’d left college and moved away, all of three or four years before.

As we got into motion again, a couple of people across the street noticed us. My employer glanced at them, and then at me. I shook my head and she shrugged.

She’d had an idea that she was being recognized as a famous and intrepid gal reporter and amateur sleuth, but the truth, as far as I could tell, was that she was attracting attention simply for being, in the context of Claremont, Massachusetts, a very odd looking woman.

We climbed up on the front porch and she knocked on the door. There was no response.

She pursed her lips, disgruntled. She knocked again. “I had hoped,” she said quietly, tapping her cane very lightly on the wooden floor of the porch, “that they might still rent rooms, and that they might have a room available for us. It would be so much easier to stay and visit here for a few days and go through the books here… Oh, well, no matter. Let’s go and get some lunch, and then we can come back.”

“We should leave a note,” I said.

She nodded. “Excellent idea.”

I had already put down the suitcases, of course, so it was easy for me to open her attaché case and hand over a pad and a pen.

I sat down on the porch swing, knowing that this might take a few minutes, and she leaned against the wall of the house, looking thoughtful.

Walking down the hill to the center of town, there was a clear sky and a pleasant breeze, but I wasn’t really enjoying it, since I was getting a bit tired and sore, what with all the suitcases.

“The Wagon Wheel!” she said happily, as if it was a tremendous surprise that her favorite restaurant was still there after all the many months she’d been away.

She sailed happily into the small, rustic restaurant, remembering at the last minute to hold the door open for me.

It was the middle of the afternoon, so the place was pretty empty. A waitress came over slowly, regarding us. I thought her hesitation might have been about to lead into a “Janice!”, but instead she just said, “May I help you?”

“We’d like a table, please, somewhere where my assistant here can put our luggage so that it won’t get in your way?”

There was a little side porch on the building, with about five tables, all of them empty. I piled our luggage around the rear most one and we sat at the next one. The porch, which seemed to have been added some time after the building was built, had screens rather than windows, so it was clearly for summer use only.

The waitress had taken our orders, and we were waiting for our food when I asked, “Do you really think that going through the boxes will take several days, or is that time to solve the mystery? Or is it just because we don’t really have anyplace else we need to be?”

She frowned. “I have two questions that I want to answer while we’re here. One is what happened with my books, or to my books (and why and by whom and so forth — that’s all one question). The other – the more important one, I must add — is whether there are other options for getting the book published. I don’t intend to give up on that until I’m sure I’ve exhausted all of the options.”

She caught my expression, and the words I was about to speak. “Not that there are any options here in town — well, there might be one — but it’s going to take some thinking to figure out the best way to proceed, and we can almost certainly live here more cheaply than we can staying in a hotel room in New York City.”

She looked at me with what I’m sure she thought was a stern expression. “And you’re not going to distract me from that, even with a mystery about my missing book, or books.”

Having learned at least a thing or two over the course of my employment, I did not bother to protest my innocence of this vile calumny.

To be continued…

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the marvel murder case (part one)

My employer looked up from her morning newspaper and regarded me. “Do you believe in coincidence?” she asked after a moment’s thought (or it could have been a dramatic pause).

When she asked a question like this, it was always a minefield. She put down her coffee cup and took a drag on her cigarette, waiting for my response.

“Two things which are apparently related in some way, happen at the same time, or nearly the same time, giving the impression of–“

She nodded. “Giving the impression.” She pursed her lips and drank some more coffee.

Something was nagging at her, I knew. This was more than her usual sporadic attempts at morning chit-chat. And I knew she would get to the point when she was ready, and not before.

We were in New York City, waiting (hoping, really) for a meeting with her publisher. Well, they weren’t “her” publisher — they’d just expressed interest in publishing a book of hers. Interest which now seemed to be waning, based on the number of meetings which had been postponed, or canceled.

That afternoon, in Central Park, we were demonstrating, at least to ourselves, that we were not so eager to get published that we were going to stay in the hotel room all the time, tethered to the telephone. Instead, we sat on a bench and watched people go by.

She was smoking a cigarette. I was eating a hot dog.

“I’ve been thinking about my books,” she said, looking at a skyscraper in the distance.

“Books?” I asked.

She saw two girls — teenagers, one wearing a college sweatshirt from a distant college, the other wearing a colorful T-shirt advertising a band that I’d heard of but never heard — and she winked at me.

The girls recognized her. They were looking and trying not to look, giggling while trying to make it clear that they were too old to giggle because they were seeing a celebrity.

This had happened a few times before, but it was still rare enough that my employer got a kick out of it. She kept a mental list of the times that it happened, and I could tell when those occasions came back to her.

Jan Sleet, my employer, was well known already, at least in certain circles, circles often located among college students. Magazine writers and reporters are not often celebrities, but it does help when they report on topical events, in a striking way, and when they develop a distinctive persona.

She was six feet tall, thin to the point of emaciation, and she always (always meaning always — even when cowering in a bombed out hotel in a war zone in a foreign land) wore a man’s three piece suit, shirt and tie, with a display handkerchief carefully folded in her pocket. Her rather narrow face was dominated by her large, horn-rimmed glasses. Her left leg was lame, and she used a cane to walk.

Turning back from her two admirers, who were apparently not going to approach us to ask her for an autograph, she repeated herself, which she hated to do.

“My books,” she said. She frowned the frown she always made when she was dissatisfied that my brain didn’t work as fast as hers. “‘A bookish girl’ — that’s how I’ve described myself growing up. You can’t be a bookish girl without books.”

I nodded, catching up. “So, where are these books? Where have they been since…”

“Since I left college and hired you. Exactly. When I left college, I packed them all away, carefully sorted and cataloged, of course. But now that we’re back in the United States, maybe…”

“Maybe we’re settling down, a little. If the book gets published.”

She nodded and took out another cigarette. I lit it for her, and, in that moment, we knew that the book was not going to be published. We were not going to be settling down after all.

We could stay in the hotel for as long as we wanted to, or for as long as we could afford it, but there was never going to be an actual meeting.

“However,” she continued, “while I thought we were going to be settling down, relatively speaking, I was thinking of going home, and collecting my books, or just having them sent to us…”

“Where are they?”

“At home, where I grew up — well, where I went to college. My father stayed in town after I left, for a while, but then he left also. When he was still there, the boxes were in his basement. When he left, he had them moved into a neighbor’s garage.” She pulled an envelope from her pocket and handed it to me. “Where one of the boxes has now been opened, and, perhaps, something removed from it.”

“A burglary? A book theft? Is that really…” Once again I was lagging behind her, but this was different. She was holding something back. And she was not going to let me know what it was until she was good and ready.

Being that we were, once again, not going to be published in book form, we were once again, as usual, needing to watch our expenses, so I bought us two bus tickets, from New York City to Claremont, Massachusetts, where my employer had gone to college.

To be continued…

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starting tomorrow: the marvel murder case

As I’ve written recently, this story is set somewhere back in the earlier days of Jan Sleet’s career as an intrepid gal reporter and amateur sleuth. Less baggage (at least metaphorically) and less history to explain. Which makes it easier to focus on the mystery itself, and the relationship between the great detective and her soon-to-be-long-suffering assistant.

A side note: When I wrote the first Jan Sleet mystery, I called it “The Apartment Murder Case.” This was a reference to the Philo Vance mystery novels, which were always “The [ABCDEF] Murder Case” (where the second word was always six letters — I decided not to try to be that restricted).

When I ended up writing more stories, though, this became a problem, since some of them were mysteries which did not involve murder. And, of course, if I used a different naming system for those stories, readers would know in advance whether or not to expect a murder.

So, I retroactively renamed them all to be Mysteries, rather than Murder Cases.

With this story, though, I decided to just admit up front that there will be at least one murder.

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attention great novel shoppers

Someone mentioned this:

Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany, one of the great novels of the 20th century, is available as a Kindle book for $1.99.

My advice? Rush out and buy it (well, you don’t have to literally “rush out,” of course — it’s a Kindle book).

I immediately went to buy it, but Amazon reminded me that I own it already.

I have at least two hard copy versions as well, including the rather battered paperback which I bought way back in 1975.

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