the town hall mystery (part twelve)

This story started here.

Mrs. Jessup, our landlady, seemed to be happy to have us as guests, mostly because I had said that we were planning to stay indefinitely. She had told me that she usually closed the inn during the winter months, but since we were enthusiastic about staying on, even without the free continental breakfast (I had negotiated a reduced rate for the off-season, of course), she was happy to have the steady income to look forward to.

One thing she had made clear, however, was that she was not a telephone answering service. The telephone in the foyer was for the use of all the guests (long distance charges were added to your bill) and she answered it when she happened to be nearby. But if she took a message she just wrote it on a slip of paper and placed it next to the phone, with all the messages for the other guests. So, it was a system devoid of privacy (and reliability).

So, I guess it was lucky that I happened to be in the downstairs hall, pouring coffee for my employer and myself, when the phone rang.

I answered it, “Good morning, Ocean View Inn, Marshall speaking.”

I heard a snort of laughter.

“Marshall,” she said.

“Sheriff White. What can I do for you?” I was keeping my voice pleasant and friendly, but noncommittal.

“I was wondering if you and Miss Sleet would like to join me for dinner tonight. At my home.”

“I can ask. May I call you back in a little while?”

“Certainly. I’m at my desk — you know my direct number.”

I finished pouring our coffee, placing a napkin under each mug so it wouldn’t slip as I carried the tray up the stairs to our room.

It had been two days — almost exactly 48 hours — since the big stunt at the News Store. During that time, we had heard nothing from the sheriff. In fact, the minute Millie had broken down Rhonda seemed to forget about us completely. Her deputies took Millie off to the police station for questioning, with Mickey following, leaving Mark to run the store again. Rhonda had then looked around the store, and followed the others out.

My employer turned to me and smiled impishly. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so invisible. Let’s go home.” She caught my expression. “Yes, you’re right — perhaps we should have some lunch first.” She circled her arm through mine as we strolled down Main Street toward the Wagon Wheel.

Over the next 48 hours, whenever my employer perceived, or guessed, my impatience, she just smiled and said, “Don’t worry. It will all come to us, eventually.”

Other than the case, we were both in a good mood. Without telling me, she had reached out to a major magazine, and apparently they were very interested in publishing a story about the murder of famous socialite Marvel Phillips, written by the amateur detective who had cracked the case. So, the amateur detective in question had stopped writing her book and was happily banging away on her portable typewriter at all hours, with the goal of sending out the article on Monday morning. (“Possibly the first in a series!” she had suddenly announced the night before, at around three in the morning, in a booming voice, waking me up.)

“Was that Sheriff Rhonda on the phone?” she asked as I nudged our door open with my toe.

I laughed while I put the tray down on my bedside table and took her coffee to her.

“I know,” she said, smiling. “I get no credit for a fancy deduction this time. You left the door ajar because you knew you’d be coming up the stairs with a tray, so I was able to hear the phone ring. I couldn’t make out your words, but your tone of voice told me it might be Rhonda.”

“And, of course, ‘It will all come to us, eventually.'”

“Exactly. Does she want to come here and talk to us?”

“No. She has invited us to her house, for dinner, this evening.”

That surprised her. “Really. I… That’s most interesting.” She frowned, then she laughed. “I confess that not only do I have no idea where she lives — until this moment it hadn’t really occurred to me that she lived anywhere.”

I laughed and nodded. “I’m glad I’m not the only one. Do I accept?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Of course. Find out where and when, and ask if we should bring anything.”

My employer looked around with interest as Rhonda drove along a narrow road between hills and inlets, frequently so overhung with trees that the sky was barely visible. “I’ve never been down this road. Vinnie and I mostly didn’t have a car, so we had our favorite walks, but we seldom got this far out of town. Are we still in Claremont, technically?”

Rhonda smiled. “Near the border, but definitely within the town limits. I have to live in the town — that’s one of the conditions of being sheriff. There’s a story about that, but it will make more sense once you see the house.”

She turned onto a narrow, unpaved road and went up a steep incline and then more slowly down the other side, and we saw a house among the trees. It was not visible from the road.

It seemed to be a pleasant house: one story, peaked roof with maybe an attic by the look of it, and a small porch with plants and flowers in pots and two rocking chairs. There was a station wagon parked in front, and we pulled in next to it.

“Huh,” my employer said as I helped her out of the car. She pointed and I looked, and I saw what had caught her attention. The house had appeared to be conventional as we’d approached it from the side, but it was now revealed to be half a house. The peaked roof went up on the left hand side, and then it stopped. She limped in that direction and Rhonda smiled as she caught my eye.

My employer gestured at the empty space where the other half of the house would have been. “I read a mystery story once where a house vanished overnight, foundations and all. It was a good story…”

Rhonda laughed. “There is a story here, but it’s not a mystery. Half of our house did not mysteriously vanish overnight. Please come inside and we’ll tell you all about it.”

To be continued…

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the town hall mystery (part eleven)

This story started here.

My employer stood in the center of the News Store and looked around. She was dressed in one of her best suits, and her hair was brushed.

Mickey had agreed to the reenactment. He had declined to have it on the same day of the week (too much chance of annoying his regular Sunday morning customers), but he had been fine with doing it at exactly the same time of day (my employer had said this was very important — which I thought might have been nonsense). The sheriff had gone through the notebook where Mickey tracked who reserved the Sunday Times every week and when they picked it up, and she’d tracked down most of the customers who had been in the store on Sunday morning.

“We’re going to reenact the crime, when the young man died,” my employer began, “because I believe it was a crime — not an accident or a suicide — and I think we can establish what really happened last Sunday morning. Everybody here was present at the time of the death, except myself, of course, and Mickey, Millie, and Sheriff White, who will stand off to the side there.

“If the rest of you can stand more or less where you were when the young man shoved his way into the store…”

Mark went behind the counter, and the others formed themselves into a rough line at the cash register. I stood right inside the door — not exactly where I’d been standing, since I’d actually been outside, but I knew I needed to keep an eye on things.

“Let me set the scene,” my employer continued once we were all in position. “The store is moderately crowded, being as it’s a Sunday morning. Mickey is not here, as is usual on Sunday mornings, and Millie has just left to rush to the fire house, in order to suit up and help to fight the fire, which happens to be right across the street. So, Mark is holding the fort in their absence. Marshall is standing on the front step when a young man rudely shoves past him and enters the store.”

Martha, one of Rhonda’s deputies, wearing her civilian clothes, pushed past me and entered the store. She went over to the roof ladder and put one foot on it, then she turned to face us.

“That’s not right,” Mr. Bainbridge said. He was a regular Sunday morning customer, but I’d never spoken to him. “He came in, the guy, and I didn’t see him at first — I was getting out my money to pay for my paper — and then I saw him. He was looking around, like when you’re in a store where you’ve never been before, and you’re trying to figure out where the candy is.”

Miss Phillips nodded. (She’d been behind me in line on the day of the murder.) “Exactly. I noticed him right away.” I got the impression that she’d found him cute. “He was looking for something, but he didn’t want to ask where it was.”

My employer nodded. “Some men are reluctant to ask for directions. Was he… impatient? Did he seem to be under any sort of pressure, as far as you could tell?”

She shook her head. “Not at all. I had a feeling that he was going to ask Mark a question, once the customers had all paid.”

“Until he saw the fire,” Bainbridge put in.

My employer turned to face him. “Please explain.”

“He turned at one point and looked toward the door, and then he looked freaked out, and he made for the ladder.”

My employer shrugged. “I would not be at all surprised to find out that he had that reaction to something he saw outside — but it can’t have been the fire.”

I nodded. “The fire was already burning when he shoved past me and came into the store. He can’t have missed seeing — and smelling — it. The firefighters had already started to arrive.”

My employer nodded. “So, he saw something, or more likely someone, on the street, and then he made for the ladder and the roof. But let’s step back for a moment. What was he looking for in the first place?”

Her voice became quieter and she spoke slowly and carefully.

“What might he reasonably have expected to find in this store, on a Sunday morning, mid-morning… What, or who, should have been here, would usually have been here, but was absent, unexpectedly…”

Her gaze, which had been traveling lightly around the room, landed on Millie, just as a figure with wavy dark hair, wearing a cap, a rough jacket, and jeans, shouldered past me and into the store, heading for the ladder.

Millie, who had been frozen in place, screamed and burst into tears.


To be continued…

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the town hall mystery (part ten)

This story started here.

“The key, from the dead man’s pocket, fits the lock of the Devane house.”

“Tell me,” my employer purred, leaning forward. We were having our morning coffee on the deck.

“I obtained this information,” I began, “or at least the key itself, by, I confess, doing something I’m not proud of.”

“Are you likely to be arrested?”

“Not for that, no — at least there’s very little chance. It was morally, not legally, dubious.”

She waved her slender fingers. “I’m more than sufficiently intrigued. Lay it out for me.”

“Step one was to go see Dr. Wright again. I had sensed in him a certain disapproval of Sheriff Rhonda, and I thought I knew the source — or at least one source — of his feeling.”

She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “He disapproved of how Rhonda had undercut Sheriff Baxter in order to replace him?”

“That was my assumption. So, we had a chat — he and I — and I explained Rhonda’s lack of interest in the dead man (the first dead man). He seemed to disagree with her interpretation. He wondered about your thinking about the case, but he believed me when I said I had no idea.”

She nodded. “He knows my methods.”

“I hinted that we might share his unspoken belief that Rhonda is not up to the job, and that you might be able to show her up…”

Her shoulders slumped. “You played up to his male chauvinism, with which I am very familiar.”

“I’m not proud.”

“Yes, you are, because you got the key, for which I felicitate you.” She sighed. “Well, at some point in the future you will probably have to disabuse him of the notion that you and he are brother Neanderthals. So, he gave you the key?”

“He lent it to me. Then, late last night, or, really, very early this morning, I went quietly out to the Devane house to test it, and then, on my way back, I put it into an envelope and dropped it off at his house, after wiping it carefully, of course.”

“Were you seen? At any point?”

“Walking? Probably. I made sure I didn’t look furtive.”

“Crossing the highway?”

“I didn’t cross the highway, not the way you’re thinking. I walked across Longwood Bridge, and then I approached the house through the trees. All the visible lights in the house were out, and I walked carefully on the deck, to keep the wooden boards from creaking.”

“Did you enter the house?”

“Of course not — I just tried the door enough to make sure that the key would unlock it. I’d bought powdered graphite to lubricate the lock.”

“So, trespass, but not unlawful entry.” She made a face. “The problem is that the two cases are now undeniably connected, but we have no lever to get into the Devane house or to talk to the family. To get them to talk to us, I should say.” She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to try a stunt.”

I’d been afraid she was going to say that, but I didn’t bother to protest.

“To get the Devane family to talk to us?”

“No. We’re going to reenact the crime.”

“The… The first death? On Main Street?”

“Exactly. That is the crime — Baxter Devane’s death may well have been natural.”

She caught my expression.

“I know,” she said, holding up a hand, apparently conceding, for once, that her previous stunts had not always worked out exactly as she’d planned. “But this is, unfortunately, necessary. There are dangers in letting things remain status quo.”

”Do you think there will be another murder?” I asked, since she seemed to be in a communicative mood.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Despite your admirable work in establishing a link between Main Street and the Devane house, that does not establish that any crime was committed at the house or by the family .”

“Do you think the dead man was the rumored illegitimate son?”

She shook her head. “I do not. It’s possible, but I think it’s very unlikely.”

“Do you know who he was?”

“I have an idea — if my overall theory is correct — but it’s just an idea.”

She waved a dismissive hand, blocking my next question. “There are pressing reasons not to wait,” she said firmly. She glared at me over the rims of her glasses. “Certainly not just because I enjoy staging stunts.”

“Even when they actually go as you want them to.”

“Well, you get to sell Sheriff Rhonda on the idea — I think she likes you slightly better than she does me.”

“And when she asks me about things that you don’t want her to know, it will be easier for me to decline to answer because I really don’t know.”


And so it was that I faced Sheriff Rhonda across her desk some two hours later. I had taken my time walking up to Main Street to think through my approach.

“So, any news on Baxter Devane?”

She shrugged. “He’s dead.”

I laughed, briefly. “You’re starting to sound like Dr. Wright.”

That got a real laugh out of her. “God forbid. The autopsy results came in a while ago. Natural causes — cancer. Not at all unexpected. He was being treated at the hospital here… It seemed like he was ready to die and wanted to die here, in the house where he was born and so on. At one point it was recommended that he move to Boston so he could be treated at Mass General, but he declined.”

“So, no crime.”

She made a face.

“But something is nagging at you about it…”

“Miss Devane has called the mayor, who then called me, to inform me that the case should damn well be closed and the family should be allowed to…”

She flapped her hand in the air.

I nodded, sympathetically. “Putting the facts aside — just for the moment — I will admit that I’ve seen quite a few grieving families — grieving because of deaths in war and grieving because of deaths by personal violence — and the Devanes appeared to be about the least grieving of them all. On the surface, anyway.”

“The case is closed,” she said sitting up straighter. “Time to move on. Why are you here?”

Controlling my face, because she was practically handing this to me, I said, “Two things. My employer has deduced — not evidence, but deduction — that the Main Street victim was connected in some way to the Devane family (I don’t know how), and she wants to recreate the circumstances of the man’s death, at the News Store, with all the same people present, in order to discover, we hope, how he was murdered.”

“She’s been reading too many mystery stories.”

“Possibly. She instructed me, if you said that, to remind you about the biker case.”

She uttered a word which I would prefer not to record here (though not in an unfriendly way), stood up, and said, “Let’s go talk to Mickey.”

To be continued…

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the town hall mystery (part nine)

This story started here.

At the end of the following day, sitting in our room (it was drizzling outside), my employer and I compared notes. We had spent the day apart — she investigating the Devane family, me in pursuit of the Rabson key.

Of course, she went first: “I learned that the dead man — the second dead man — was Baxter Devane. He was the younger brother of Miss Patricia Devane, who you met at the house.”

“It is definitely not correct to say that I met her. I was allowed to be in her presence, mostly by accident, for a few brief, fleeting moments.”

She shrugged. “I’ll accept that. Miss Devane, who was married, briefly, to a man named Potter, is generally thought to be a widow, and she was the sole owner of Devane Industries, which recently went bankrupt.”

“She took back her maiden name after… Was it a divorce?” I asked. “You said she is ‘generally thought’ to be a widow.”

“She took back her maiden name after a divorce — after which (quite soon after, in fact) Mr. Potter died. She is often referred to as a widow, but it’s not technically true.” She shrugged. “For a family that values respectability, to be a widow can be more acceptable than to be a divorcee, even in these relatively enlightened times.”

She smiled. “Also, Miss Devane’s Christian name is Patricia, so it is possible that she took back her maiden name, immediately, because of the risk that somebody would call her ‘Patty Potter.'”

I nodded. “Very reasonable, I’d say.”

She shuddered delicately. “I agree. In any case, it turns out that her brother, Baxter, had been living here, in the house, for some years, but very quietly. He did move away after college — he tried a few careers, none of which were very successful, and his health was apparently in decline, so he moved back to ‘take care of the house,’ whatever that might consist of. And, by all accounts, to horde his money, which is reported to be substantial.”

“No one else from the family was living here in town? Where was his sister?”

“California. She moved out there after college, apparently with Mr. Potter, and stayed there after his death. In her youth, she was reportedly pretty adamant that Claremont was not up to her standards. Very tedious, apparently, especially in the winters. It didn’t surprise anybody that she stayed away for so long.”

“We’ll find out about the winters ourselves in two or three months.”

“Of course,” she said firmly, “quiet and routine can be very beneficial, if you happen to be someone who has a book she wants to write.

I ignored this. “And the next generation?” I asked pleasantly.

“There were two daughters — Deirdre (often called, to her dismay, ‘DeeDee’) and Felicia.”

“Not, I hope, called ‘FeeFee.'”

She pulled her glasses down to the tip of her nose and frowned at me over the rims — now I was clearly being too frivolous.

“In any case,” she continued, still looking rather severe, “rumors suggest that there was also a son, somewhat younger, conceived after the untimely death of Mr. Potter. But, of course, this son, if he exists, may still be in line for an inheritance, since Mr. Devane’s will reportedly stipulates that the estate — cash and land and the house and so on — be divided equally among the children of his sister. Legitimacy may not be a requirement.”

“No money to Miss Devane?”

“So the story goes. They weren’t close, and she had always frustrated his efforts to get involved in the family business, of which, as I said, she was the sole owner. But he did want to keep the money within the family, hence the legacy to her descendants.”

She smiled and lit a cigarette. “And how was your day, dear?”

“Incomplete,” I admitted. “I hope to have a comprehensive report for you in the morning.”

“But you have a plan.” It was half a question.

“I do indeed. And the more difficult part is done.” I had been going to decline to tell her anything until the following morning, but I couldn’t resist reaching into my jacket pocket and showing her the Rabson key.

She froze for an instant, then she leaned forward and extended her hand. I shook it and she leaned back again.

She really wanted to ask me questions, but she was a connoisseur of dramatic revelations, and she was willing to allow me my own moments, at least occasionally.

She took her cane and got to her feet. “I want to get some work done. If you’re here, I’ll be tempted to try and get you to spoil your big moment in the morning. So, get gone, until at least eleven. Go.”

This was all delivered with a smile.

I went outside, wearing my poncho over my jacket, and I realized that I had no definite idea of where I should go. Ordinarily, when banished to the outside world, I tended to take refuge in the town library, but the town library was gone. The rain was very light now, but it was enough to discourage me from going to sit on the pier or anywhere else outdoors.

With no specific plan, I started to climb the hill that would take me past the Catholic church, and eventually to Main Street.

As always when passing a Catholic church, anywhere in the world, I felt as if I had a tiny priest on one shoulder, gently reminding me to cross myself, and my employer, the atheist, sitting on my other shoulder, grinning as she blew smoke from a tiny cigarette into my ear.

Coming down the hill from the church to the center of town, I sniffed the air and I didn’t smell any smoke. Apparently the recent rain had cleared the air. As I reached Main Street, however, I realized (or, really, remembered) what’s worse than smoke in the air: the smell of wet ashes.

Well, since I’d found my previous view of the Town Hall site rather disturbing, I decided I should go and look at it again, simply because of how much I didn’t want to.

I decided to grab a bite to eat at the Wagon Wheel. By the time that was done, I figured, the drizzle might have resolved itself one way or the other — and if it decided to stop I could take a walk around town. There were a couple of geographic questions I wanted to settle, if possible, while it was still somewhat light out.

I sat at a window table, so I could look out and persuade myself that the sight of the massive scorched safe on the other side of the street didn’t bother me at all.

After I’d ordered a sandwich and a cup of coffee, I looked out the window. After a few moments, wishing I’d brought something to read (I was missing the town library already), I saw Millie coming up the block from the News Store. She didn’t see me, so I tapped on the glass.

She smiled. After a failed attempt at sign language communication, she came in and I gestured at the empty chair across from me. “Would you like to join me?” I asked. There was a bit of awkward back-and-forth (each of us being careful — perhaps too careful — to avoid imposing on the other), and then she sat down.

After a mutual laugh at how difficult we were making this by being so polite, she called over the waitress and ordered some chowder.

She sighed and seemed to relax. “I’ll just ask,” she said. “The case? The man who died — do you know anything more?”

I shrugged. “Not a lot,” I said slowly.

“And you can’t talk about it anyway,” she finished.

I nodded.

We moved on, discussing the Town Hall fire (it had been confirmed that nobody had died, and taxes would still be due), the weather, the fact that the town’s movie theater was about to close for the season, which restaurants stayed open all year and which didn’t, and various other matters. It was very enjoyable.

To be continued…

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thomas carnacki

Well, to start, who is Thomas Carnacki?

Thomas Carnacki was a supernatural detective, in stories written by William Hope Hodgson in the early 20th century. Carnacki himself was not supernatural (or, as he would have said “ab-natural”) — he just investigated “hauntings” (or things which appeared to be hauntings), using very scientific tools (for 1910).

Six of the nine Thomas Carnacki stories were published in a volume called Carnacki, the Ghost Finder, which I have. Also, those six stories were adapted by Big Finish productions in a series of audio adaptations.

But what about the other three stories, which were written (or at least published) later? I think I found a book online once that appeared to have all nine of the stories, but it was somewhere around $40, and I’m not that enthusiastic.

But then I was checking out the TV Tropes* website and I found that it has a Thomas Carnacki page, and that page has this link.

An ebook, free, with all nine stories!

And so, with great excitement, I read the first of the three new (to me) stories, and it was really lousy! Definitely weaker than any of first six. So, I worried that in the time since “The Thing Invisible” Hodgson had lost the thread of the character.

But the last two were very much up to standard, and, in an especially nice touch, the final story was a straight detective story, with no supernatural elements at all. (The other Carnacki stories all involve apparent “hauntings,” though in some cases the causes turn out to be partially, or entirely, human.)

But then I had another Carnacki discovery — one of the stories, and one of the really good ones at that, was adapted for British TV as part of a series called “The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.” With Donald Pleasance as Thomas Carnacki. Plus, the series also adapted one of the Lady Molly of Scotland Yard stories.

So, as you probably guessed, I ordered that DVD set.

Later: Well, the DVDs arrived, and the Carnacki episode (“The Horse of the Invisible”) is really good. A couple of aspects don’t really work (it was written to work on the page, where the suspension of disbelief works differently), but the acting is good and Pleasance is wonderful. He adds a lot of personality to Carnacki (who is very dry and reserved in the stories, except when he’s in a panic), but I’m not someone who freaks out when the characters on the screen aren’t identical to the originals. (Hey, I like the Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law Sherlock Holmes movies.)

The Lady Molly of Scotland Yard episode is good, too. I liked the little detail that Lady Molly’s office at the Yard was obviously recently a storeroom (there’s a small, handwritten “Female Department” sign on the door, half-covering a sign that says “Stores”). Her superiors need her, but they’re not enthusiastic about it.

* “Tropes,” in this sense, means standard elements used repeatedly in particular types of stories. For example, in a sitcom, “wacky next door neighbor” would be a trope. Or, in mysteries, the “least likely suspect,” or, for that matter, Dr. John Watson himself (the friend, assistant, and biographer).

Two of my favorite tropes are “the noodle incident,” and “lampshading.”

“The Noodle Incident is something from the past that is sometimes referred to but never explained, with the implication that it’s just too ludicrous for words—or perhaps too offensive for depiction—and the reality that any explanation would fall short of audience expectations.”

One example of this is Watson’s (Conan Doyle’s) habit of referring to other, untold, Sherlock Holmes adventures at the beginning of various Holmes stories, such as the case of “the Giant Rat of Sumatra, for which the world is not yet prepared.” Carnacki has some of those also.

I use this also (for example, we know that, when Jan Sleet was in college, she solved several mysteries, which are not reported, at least so far, except as “the surfer case” and “the biker case”).

The Marvel movies have these, too (the mission that Natasha and Clint were on in Budapest, for example).

“Lampshade Hanging (or, more informally, ‘Lampshading’) is the writers’ trick of dealing with any element of the story that threatens the audience’s Willing Suspension of Disbelief, whether a very implausible plot development, or a particularly blatant use of a trope, by calling attention to it and simply moving on.”

There’s a lot of that in the Marvel movies, too. Like when Spider-Man complains (correctly) that Captain America’s shield doesn’t obey the laws of physics, or this scene (one of two good scenes in an otherwise lousy movie), specifically when Clint points out that the movie doesn’t make a lot of sense at that moment.

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the town hall mystery (part eight)

This story started here.

After we were seated, we started with drinks (at least Professor Lebrun and I did — my employer seldom drank).

When the drinks arrived, the professor sipped his Tom Collins, nodded, took another sip, and then put it down. He smiled. “Please don’t keep me in suspense. Dinner with you two is always enjoyable, but when the call comes at the last minute, with such an undertone of urgency…”

My employer nodded. “Your deduction is correct. What have you heard about recent events in town?”

He shrugged (his shrugs were always slow, expressive, and somehow undeniably European). “The Town Hall burned down — I know that. One of my students was there — something to do with her driver’s license — and she told me all about it in an attempt to explain why she’d been late for class.”

“A successful attempt, I assume,” I put in.

He smiled and sipped his drink. “Yes, of course. So, you’re investigating the fire? That seems a bit… out of your usual routine.”

“It would be. No, there are other recent incidents which have, rather forcibly, claimed my attention–” She glanced at me, to make sure that I was aware that, whatever happened, it was all going to be my fault for dragging her into this and distracting her from her true vocation — writing her book. “–a death, apparently not natural, across the street from the fire, and another death, apparently natural, as far as we know so far, at the Devane house.”

The professor finished his drink. “I had thought that the Devane house was closed up, unoccupied.”

“That’s where we need your help, because that’s what I thought, too.” She gave a very bare-bones account of what we knew about the two deaths, leaving out some things she wanted to keep to herself. There were people at most of the neighboring tables, and when you’re a locally famous amateur detective people do tend to try to listen in when you’re having a conversation in a public place.

By the time she finished, the professor and I were done with our soup and she hadn’t touched hers.

The professor leaned back in his chair as the waitress collected our soup bowls (my employer waved away her full bowl). “I can direct you to somebody who knows about the Devane family,” he said. “They gave a building to the college some years ago, so I’m sure the college history office has information about them — but, frankly, who cares?” He smiled impishly. “The thing that intrigues me is the young man who died while the Town Hall was burning.”

My employer nodded. “Me, too, I confess. A family being prominent, wealthy, and so on — that doesn’t make them interesting. Not as interesting as that young man, and the woman…”

Our entrees arrived. My employer gestured with a long, bony finger at the outside deck that ran around two sides of the restaurant. The professor frowned, not understanding, but I indicated that all would become clear later.

So, we ate in near silence — the food was very good — punctuated by small talk.

My employer had the idea that the Claremont College press might publish her Bellona book. A possibly controversial book, based on a series of popular (and sometimes controversial) articles, written from the middle of a civil war that the United States had several fingers in, written by a distinguished alumna of the college…

The professor, his attention clearly focused on his broiled scallops, said that he would put her in touch with the editorial staff of the press.

Then his mouth quirked under his mustache. “You know,” he said, “you sent me to my dictionaries. Websters, for example, does say that ‘alumna’ refers to a woman who graduated from, or attended, a college or university. (Emphasis mine, of course.) But some other dictionaries do require graduation as a prerequisite for the use of the term. “

“Websters is, of course–“

“Oh, of course.”

As I said, small talk.

After we’d finished our main course, my employer indicated to the waitress that we’d have our coffee outside on the deck, as was our usual practice.

We — my employer and I — often had our coffee on the deck when we ate at this restaurant, which was called Captain Hisgens. This was primarily so that she could smoke, but it was also convenient to be able to relax and speak privately.

When we were at our usual outside table with Professor Lebrun, along with a pot of coffee, three mugs, cream, and sugar, and an ashtray, my companions got their pipes going and I poured coffee all around.

The evening was cool, and we were the only people on the deck. None of the other tables had place settings, so it seemed that the restaurant hadn’t thought it would be a night when people would want to eat outside.

We didn’t mind the temperature, though. I’d brought a sweatshirt, and the professor and my employer were wearing suits. (His was tweed, with elbow patches, in the standard academic style. My employer’s was dark blue pinstripe — her extensive collection of clothing didn’t include even one tweed suit.)

The professor added cream and sugar to his coffee as my employer said, “What I did not want to mention inside is the connection — the possible connection — between the dead man on Main Street and the Devane house.”

She explained about my search for Rabson keys. The professor nodded as he listened, then he said, “That’s hardly conclusive.”

Her smile suggested that things which were conclusive were not very much fun at all.

Then, as she turned to me, still smiling, I could feel my stomach start to clench up. I’d been expecting this.

“There are two things we most need to know,” she said slowly, drawing out her words. “We need to know who the dead man was, obviously, and we need to know if his key fits the lock at the Devane house. Is it just a Rabson lock, or is it the same Rabson lock?”

Professor Lebrun smiled. “If it turns out to be a different lock, then you can forget about the boring Devane family and concentrate on the (much more interesting) News Store death.”

My employer kept her eyes on me. “Where is that key now?”

I sighed. “In a blue plastic tray, probably in some cabinet at the morgue.” She winked at me, with her head turned so that the professor couldn’t see. As I’d expected, it was only a matter of time before she dispatched me to obtain — by some means yet to be devised — the key.

“It’s not evidence?” the professor asked, pouring us all some more coffee. “Not at police headquarters, being examined by our sheriff and her highly competent staff?”

I shrugged. “Maybe it is by now, but I’d bet not. Remember, Rhonda’s position is that this was a suicide, and that the man was alone on the roof when he died. If there was no crime, then it’s not evidence.”

My employer nodded. “From what you’ve said, Rhonda is very focused on the death at the Devane house, and, apparently, indifferent to the death on Main Street.”

“That appears to be the case.”

The professor shook his head. “She has apparently decided that the death was a suicide, despite a reliable witness bringing forward credible testimony which would contradict that, or at least make it open to question, and she’s also decided, it would appear, that a different death, apparently — it seems — a result of natural causes, was actually suspicious.” He shrugged. “Does she know something you don’t?”

He then leaned over and cupped his hand to whisper, quite audibly, into my employer’s ear: “We’re relying quite heavily on your assistant’s ability to tell the difference between men and women. Has he generally demonstrated competence in this area?”

To be continued…

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