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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songwriting done right

I used to write songs, quite a few decades ago. I don’t think much about the process anymore, but I still have an idea of how difficult it is to do really well.

As you may have heard, Taylor Swift released a surprise album back in July called “folklore.” Then there was a documentary, including live performances of all the songs, and then, another surprise album called “evermore“.

I’m enjoying both albums, and the soundtrack of the documentary (which is basically folklore with less production), but this is the standout for me (and for a lot of other people — I’ve already seen it hailed as either the best song Swift has ever written, or #2 behind “All Too Well”):

the last great american dynasty

I’ve listened to it many times, and at the end of the bridge, when it shifts from being a song about Rebekah Harkness to being a song about Taylor Swift, I confess I always laugh out loud.

They say she was seen on occasion
Pacing the rocks staring out at the midnight sea
And in a feud with her neighbor
She stole his dog and dyed it key lime green
Fifty years is a long time
Holiday House sat quietly on that beach
Free of women with madness
Their men and bad habits, and then it was bought by me

The confluence of old money, new money, New England, and mad, loud women. I think my mother, who knew a lot about all of those things, would have liked it.

(With story songs like this, it’s not uncommon to hold back the chorus until after the second verse, so you’ve already made the case for whatever the chorus is saying about the story as a whole before you deliver the chorus, but Swift doesn’t do that here. She asserts “the maddest woman this town has ever seen; She had a marvelous time ruining everything” before actually showing all the “madness” and “ruining” that was going on. That goes very nicely with the overall attitude of the song.)

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the heron island mystery (part twenty)

This story started here.

Rhonda looked around the living room, and then she glanced at the windows. The sky was starting to get light. She stood up as Elsa wheeled herself back into the kitchen.

“I need to make some calls,” the sheriff said. She gestured at the phone on the small table by the front door. “Is there an extension, more private than this?”

“There’s a wall phone upstairs,” Jo said. “Next to my room.”

Li leaned forward. “Don’t you want to–“

“No,” Rhonda said, moving toward the stairs. “We’re going to continue this at headquarters, with stenographers and signed statements. Everybody should get dressed and be ready to go as soon as the cars get here.” She looked at the deputy. “Nobody goes outside or onto the deck.” The deputy nodded.

Li tried again.

“Later,” the sheriff told her, climbing the stairs. “And nobody makes any phone calls, to anybody,” she called over her shoulder. As her feet vanished, she called, “O’Connor–“

“I’ll bring you some coffee,” I called back.

“Bless you.”

My employer caught my eye and nodded, and then she inclined her head toward the kitchen. I interpreted this as expressing admiration for Rhonda reasserting control over the investigation, and also suggesting that Elsa might appreciate some help with the coffee.

Elsa looked up as I came into the kitchen. She was filling up a large tray with fresh mugs of coffee, plus milk and sugar. Each mug seemed to be completely unlike the others in size and shape and color.

She smiled as I came in. “Thanks,” she said simply as I quickly rinsed out the mugs I was carrying and picked up the tray to carry it into the living room. She followed me with a fresh bottle of soda for herself.

The living room was deserted except for the deputy, who yawned. I held out the tray for her, and she studied the variety of mugs available and selected the largest one. I put the tray on the coffee table, which rested on gaily painted cinder blocks, and looked around for my employer.

She was in the dining room, sitting at the big table and smoking. I took her a mug and then went up the stairs to the hall, where Rhonda was leaning against the wall and talking on a phone with a very long cord. I handed her a mug and she nodded.

The only other person in the hall was Jo, sitting on a chair with a towel over her shoulder, obviously waiting for the bathroom to be available. I wondered if there was going to be enough hot water for everybody to manage a shower before it ran out.

I went back downstairs and I saw that Elsa was now in the dining room with my employer. I took a mug of coffee for myself and went to join them.

“Will you be at police headquarters, for the questioning?” Elsa was asking her.

My employer sipped her coffee and shook her head. “I’m not a suspect, and I have certainly not been invited to assist, so no. And I have some other avenues to pursue. I do have a question for you, though. This is, obviously, a house of college-age women. Presumably — to put it delicately — there may have been situations where eligible young men…”

“Do we ever have boys over?” Elsa said, grinning. “Is that the question?”

“Well, I was sort of assuming the answer to that question was yes. My real question is about the protocol. Do young gentlemen stay over whenever invited, or are some of them considered more acceptable than others to the residents of the house? Is there some sort of voting process to determine whether particular swains are allowed particular privileges here?”

Elsa laughed. “There are no formal rules. In general, we… it works out better if we stay over with the boys — for those who enjoy the company of boys — rather than have them stay over here, just because the island is cut off from the mainland for half of every day. But sometimes… we adapt. Frankly, the main problem is the limited number of bathrooms, for those girls who aren’t me or Kim. Why do you ask?”

“Because I’d like to find out what would be involved in having Marshall” — she gestured in my direction, as if Elsa might not be sure who she was talking about — “stay over here tonight.” Elsa looked me up and down with a critical eye, as if seeing me for the first time.

“He’s quite tidy,” my employer assured her. “He’s unobtrusive and well-mannered, and he makes a good omelet if requested. I’ll make sure he shaves before he arrives.” She held up a hand. “He will sleep on the sofa, of course.”

Elsa was controlling herself, barely. “Oh, that’s good,” she said, not meeting my eyes. “My bed is quite narrow.”

My employer lit a cigarette and looked at me. She leaned over to whisper to Elsa, not exactly sotto voce, “It’s been at least a year since I’ve seen him turn that particular color.”

To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part nineteen)

This story started here.

Kim was frozen in place. She’d been managing to appear casual and helpful, but now she was stuck. She didn’t speak or move, apparently trying to figure out a way out of this. And I’m sure that she was aware that even if she thought of the magic words which would get her off the spot, it was already too late for those words to work.

It seemed unlikely that she’d bolt, in the middle of the night, barefoot, probably with no money, wearing just a T-shirt and boxers, on an island that was currently cut off from the mainland, but I checked her position relative to the various exits, and I watched her body language.

“There was somebody else on the deck with the body,” Li continued, still looking at Kim, speaking slowly and deliberately. “that’s why Kim screamed. He turned and looked at her and then he went to the stairs and down to the beach. After he was gone, it took a minute for her to get up her nerve to go outside. Then she checked the body and yelled for Becky.”

Then, looking triumphant, Li turned her gaze to the sheriff. “It was Manfred. And you’re never going to solve this if you don’t know that — if you don’t know what kind of case this really is.”

There was a pause and then several people started to speak, but Rhonda said, “Quiet! I’m asking the questions, and everybody should shut up until I ask the next one.”

Well, this answered the question I’d been asking myself a few minutes earlier. I was pretty sure knew now why the residents had relaxed, en masse, when Becky had started answering questions instead of Li.

I did wonder about what Elsa had told us before — that Kim had been the main believer in ghosts, back when Manfred had been merely a ghost hunter, not (perhaps) a ghost himself.

Jo raised her hand, as if she was in school. Rhonda gestured at her, and she said, “I saw him also, or at least I saw somebody. I was writing, as I said, and I saw the deck lights go on. I got out of bed as Kim screamed, and I went to the window. I saw somebody — it looked like a man, in dark clothes, including a jacket with silvery bits, like that one Manfred always used to wear — going to the staircase and down to the beach.”

“You didn’t see his face?”

“No. His back was to me. After he was gone, I saw Kim go out onto the deck and then turn and yell for Becky. I pulled on some clothes and ran into Becks and Li in the hall.”

Elsa had started the coffee, based on the smell, but now she was in the doorway to the kitchen, listening and watching.

I looked around the room. Jo was leaning forward, frowning. She’d taken off her glasses and she was polishing the lenses with the bottom edge of her pajama top. Becky looked bored. She ran her fingers through her frizzy hair, and I got the idea that if it had just been the residents there she would have rolled her eyes and laughed out loud at the nonsense of a dead man prowling the deck of their house. 

My employer was at her most impassive. I wondered if she had expected this, but I’d learned not to waste my time asking that particular question. Elsa was hard to read, too. 

Rhonda had insisted on her right to be the one asking the questions, but I got the idea that she’d never — in her still comparatively brief career as the sheriff — encountered a situation quite like this one. 

“Did anybody else see anything that would corroborate this?” she asked after a pause.

Nobody responded. From the stories the others had told, it was pretty plain that they wouldn’t have had a chance to see the mystery figure on the deck — if that figure had existed in the first place.

To be continued…

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three things

1) There are two movies I’m enjoying very much these days, and they are, in some ways, quite similar.

Both are about two children, twelve years old, a boy and a girl. The boy is very lonely, bullied and ostracized by his peers, with parents mostly or entirely absent. He meets the girl, who is also quite alone, though in a different way, and they quickly become a couple, although with only a hazy idea of what being a couple, in grownup terms, might really mean.

At a certain point in each story, the boy and the girl run away together.

Both movies have a scene where the girl suddenly becomes very violent in defense of the boy. We see the bloody aftermath, but not the violence itself.

In spite of the similarities, the movies are quite different, though both are wonderful. Check out the trailers:

2) I read a couple of interesting things in this Washington Post obituary for Herbert Kretzmer, the lyricist of the stage version of Les Misérables. I thought about writing a blog post about it, but since I recently did blog posts about Christo and Diana Rigg, I thought a blog post called “Herbert Kretzmer (1925-2020)” would make it seem that this is now basically a blog about dead people.

(Particularly since there are also a lot of mystery stories here, which, for some reason, also seem to feature a lot of dead people.)

But I did notice this part specifically, referring to Kretzmer’s work as both a journalist and a lyricist:

“In rhyming and journalism, you work under constant stricture,” he once told the London Daily Telegraph. “You are held loosely behind bars. There is something about being constrained that appeals to me: the freedom inside the cage.”

This is very true, as I talked about here.

32) “Five Movies About Royals to Compete with ‘The Crown’

I’ve never seen The Crown, but I have to like any list which tells people to see both Orlando and Chimes at Midnight.

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