the town hall mystery (part five)

This story started here.

 
“You’ve been doing me a disservice, you know.”

“Excuse me?”

Had I woken up because she’d spoken, or for some other reason? It was still dark outside, so it was not time to get up.

You think that I came to Main Street yesterday to detect things and to find out what you knew about the dead body and so on,” she continued. “I had no idea there was a dead body to investigate — how would I have known that? I came because there was a fire, and I knew you were probably in the immediate vicinity, and I was afraid you’d do something to put yourself in danger. That’s why I came.” She huffed. “Good night.”

I could hear the bedsprings creak as she turned over.

 
In the morning, I was at first unsure as to whether this had actually happened. Then, as she took care of her morning ablutions, I noticed that I was sharing my pillow with a pack of her cigarettes, which she had apparently thrown at my head to get me to wake up (they came in a metal case). I got up and replaced it in the carton under her bed.

 
We usually had our free continental breakfast on the rear deck of the inn where we were living. We had decided on the deck as the best option for breakfast because 1) the living room was where the other guests ate, and they would often try to chat with us about our day’s vacation-related plans — which was awkward because we were living there, definitely not on vacation — and 2) eating in our room seemed unnecessarily antisocial.

Well, the more important reason was probably that smoking was not allowed in the living room, and my employer considered the essential components of any good breakfast to be a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Tiny muffins and pastries, and small pieces of fresh fruit, were pleasant side dishes, but they were not the main course.

My employer’s presence in the living room during breakfast hours also led to entirely too many conversations about how 1) she wasn’t dressed for vacation activities (her spindly six-foot frame being clad, always, in elegant three-piece suits), 2) “Oh, my. Aren’t you Jan Sleet, that lady detective? I’ve read about you!”

Not that my employer, the intrepid gal reporter and amateur sleuth, minded being recognized — quite the opposite — but she was resolutely not a morning person, and she preferred to delay any non-essential conversations until after she’d had her breakfast.

We ate our breakfast on the deck today, although the sky gave every indication of imminent rain. We did not mention her early-morning diatribe on my misreading of her motives.

“Today,” she said thoughtfully, tapping her cigarette ash into her empty coffee mug, “I need to get some writing done. I need to plan for the inconvenient loss of the town library. The college library is actually better, in some ways, and of course I am an alumna, but it’s more time consuming to get there, so advance planning will be important.” She pursed her lips as she met my eyes. “Ah, yes,” she said, “the mystery. Today…” Her eyes widened. “You should go see Doctor Wright. That’s always fun.”

“The coroner,” I said, to show that I was paying attention.

“Exactly, We need to know more about our corpse. Tell him I said hello.”

So, obviously it was being delegated to me to figure out how we (as represented by me) were going to get the town’s coroner — who didn’t know me and and who didn’t seem to like my employer — to give us access to official information about a death.

 
Dr. Wright leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands across his middle. “So, Mr. O’Connor, what can I do for you?”

“We were wondering if there was anything significant about the dead body.”

He shrugged. “Your reason for asking?”

I gave him a shrug in return. “My employer is asking. I don’t know exactly why.”

“Presumably she’s preparing to sweep in, reveal the truth of the case, and leave local law enforcement baffled and embarrassed. She enjoys that.” He straightened up slightly. “Your ’employer’? You work for her?”

“I do. I’m her assistant.”

“You’re her Watson?”

I laughed. “Watson was a friend and roommate — he didn’t work for Holmes. I draw a salary.”

“What do you put on your tax return?”

“‘Writer’s assistant.’ She uses ‘intrepid gal reporter and amateur sleuth.'”

That got a smile out of him. “That’s a lot to fit into that tiny box on the form.”

“I can write small when I have to.”

He looked like he could have said more but he apparently decided not to. He leaned back again and tapped his finger on a piece of paper on his desk.

“The body,” he said, “is dead, and, as yet, unidentified. The skull was fractured when struck, it seems, by the pavement.” He met my eyes. “Your employer had a tendency, at times like this, to interrupt to say something like, ‘How can you tell it was the impact of the pavement? How do you know he wasn’t struck on the back of the head by a baseball bat while he was in midair?'”

I shrugged. “Was he?”

He laughed. “I’m only the doctor — how would I know?”

“Was he healthy when he died?”

“Compared to now? Absolutely.” He straightened up and leaned forward. “As far as I can tell, he was healthy. I believe the sheriff is considering this to be either suicide or an accident, probably the former, so I don’t imagine there will be an autopsy.” He shrugged. “At least not unless a family member should come forward and request one.”

“May I see the body?”

He shrugged again and got to his feet. “I don’t have a problem with it.”

 
Dr. Wright presented the corpse to me as if waiting for me to react badly. Doctors sometimes think they’re the only ones who have ever seen dead bodies.

I pulled down the sheet and looked, less because I had any idea what I was looking for and more to be able to answer questions later.

“Tattoos.” I observed after a few moments. “Is that a caduceus?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t think so — it would be upside down if it is.”

“Good point.”

There were two tattoos: one the (possible) caduceus (two snakes twined around a staff) on the right bicep, and the other a small heart on the right ankle.

When I was done, or at least when I’d devoted enough time to the process, I covered the body again. He grinned, gesturing at a plastic tray on a nearby shelf. “She searched the pockets didn’t she?” He chuckled and waved a finger at me. “You should have asked about the contents of the pockets earlier.”

 
To be continued…

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the town hall mystery (part four)

This story started here.

 
I stepped up on the front step of the News Store and then I turned to look again at the burned plot of land across the street, and the massive safe, remembering the events of the morning.

“The big question,” Mickey said over my shoulder, bringing me back to the here and now, “is taxes.” I turned. “Some people have the hope–” He shrugged his disdain for this opinion. “–that all the town’s tax records were burned up and nobody will have to pay any taxes this year.”

I nodded, indicating my tacit agreement that this was not how the world worked.

Mickey ushered me into the store and asked, “Missing any sections from your paper?”

I laughed. “All sections were checked and approved, thanks. No, I’m here to look at the roof, if that’s okay.”

My employer couldn’t have made it to the roof of the store — at least not with her dignity intact — but since the roof might be a crime scene, I thought I should look it over.

He shrugged. “Detective stuff? Go ahead.” He gestured at the metal ladder.

“Has Sheriff Rhonda been?” I asked, pointing up.

He shook his head. “One of the deputies — the short one — asked Mark some questions, but that was it. I guess the fire is a bigger deal.” He waved a hand at the scene across the street, as if I might have been confused about which fire he was referring to.

I nodded and climbed the ladder. The trapdoor was still open. Stepping out onto the roof, I looked around in all directions.

The roof was generally flat, if a bit lower at the rear of the store, and covered with tarpaper. There was a small chimney in one corner. The land under the store sloped off sharply, so that the rear of the roof was about twice as far from the ground as the front was from the sidewalk. The ground in the back was unkempt — trees and bushes and brambles.

There was, as I said before, a small alley on the right hand side of the store, between the store and the thrift shop. This was the alley where my employer and I had stood while I’d filled her in on the events of the morning. There was a metal ladder attached to the outside of the building, allowing descent to the alley. So, this might have been how the mystery woman had got off the roof. It would have been daring, with so many potential witnesses on the street, but of course all the witnesses had been facing the other way, watching the Town Hall burn.

If she had got off the roof this way, though, it must have been before the man had fallen to the sidewalk. The alley had definitely not been unobserved after that — I could assert that from personal experience.

I went to the other side of the roof and saw that it would have been easy to step to the roof of the pharmacy, and then to the grocery store that was on the other side of the pharmacy. All three buildings were single story, of approximately the same height, with no alleys between them.

A head poked up through the open trap door. “Hi, Marshall!” Millie said, climbing up to join me.

I laughed. “Hi. What are you doing up here?”

She shrugged, looking around. “I’m just curious about what you’re doing up here.”

“Investigating, of course. Or pretending to.”

“Finding anything?”

“No, not yet.”

She turned around in a circle, as I had, to look in all directions. “It’s a nice view,” she said. “I’ve never been up here before.” She pointed across the street. “Nice view except for that, of course.”

I found myself wondering — not for the first time, but more seriously now — whether the fire had been an accident, and, if it had been deliberate, if it had been connected in any way to the death of the young man.

“Have you heard anything about the fire?” I asked her. “Did everybody get out alive?”

She shrugged. “As far as we know. The state police will go over the site — our job is over when the fire is put out. I think they’re supposed to start tomorrow.” She looked up at me with a sly, conspiratorial glance. “Is your boss investigating the fire? Or the death? Or both?”

I shrugged. “That’s the sort of high-level strategic planning that hasn’t been shared with the staff, at least not yet. As far as I know, she’s mostly focused on writing her book.”

“Which might be about Marvel Phillips.”

I nodded. “Which might be about Marvel Phillips.”

She had teased me about this before — trying to get me to admit what everybody in town seemed to have figured out — the subject of the book my employer was writing.

Millie and I chatted a bit more, then her father called up and she descended the ladder to go back to work.

I looked around one last time, and checked my watch. It was nearly six, and I was having trouble convincing myself that I needed to go all the way to Sunshine Housewares today. Much as I enjoyed walking, I was feeling that I’d reached my quota of steps for the day.

As I considered going downstairs and out to the nearest pay phone, to see if my employer had a different idea of my priorities, I heard a telephone ringing in the store below me. It was answered, there was some muffled conversation, and then Millie’s head popped up through the trapdoor again.

“A message from my illustrious employer?” I guessed.

She grinned. “Dinner time!” she said. “That’s the message.”

I nodded. “I’d better get going then,” I said. I followed her down the ladder, waved to Mickey, and left.

When I needed to travel quickly from Main Street down to Ocean Drive, where we lived, I used a narrow path I’d discovered. It started between the Methodist Church and the Wagon Wheel. I’d first spotted it when I was using the pay phone next to the church. When I’d tried it one afternoon, I’d half expected it to peter out halfway down the hill, but it went all the way to Ocean Drive, at a fairly steep grade. I’d made a mental note not to use it during or immediately after a rainstorm — I would have ended up sliding downhill in a sluice of mud.

Reaching the bottom of the slope today, passing between a fish store and a small cottage, moving quietly because I was pretty sure I was walking on somebody’s private property, I found my employer standing on the sidewalk, right where the path ended, immaculately dressed as always, looking at her pocket watch and tapping her cane impatiently on the pavement.

By the time she looked up and saw me, put her watch away, and sighed to convey, “What took you so long?” I had managed to get my grin under control.

 
To be continued…

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no end game

Well, I saw Avengers Endgame. It went against my rule not to see movies which are sequels to movies that I didn’t like, but it was about to leave theaters, and it was three hours of air conditioning (it was 98 degrees out that day).

I’m glad I saw it. It was definitely better than Infinity War, which I didn’t care for at all. It’s full of fan service, but I’m not immune to that. And it’s a very good ending, which surprised me (big action movies don’t really do endings these days — there’s always another moving coming soon that needs plugging).

Now, I know that there are bazillions of Marvel movies and TV shows yet to come, but this was a nice wrap-up of all the ones which have come so far, and I’m thinking I may bail at this point.

I realized, while watching Infinity War, that I don’t care about these characters — not as much as I’m clearly supposed to. I do like the Guardians of the Galaxy, because they’re funny. Not just heroic and somewhat quippy — they’re crooked and rather dysfunctional, and some of them are, more or less, morons. This is apparently right in my wheelhouse for entertainment purposes.

So, I do think I’ll probably see the third Guardians movie, which is coming out a very long time from now.

A lot of the characters who died in Infinity War came back in this movie, as everybody expected. Some of the characters who are still “dead” have movies or TV shows coming up. I think that’s one reason I’m losing interest — there’s no reason to care about what happens to characters if even death is temporary.

I can accept people who can master the mystic arts, or get huge or tiny with “Pym particles,” or have romantic relationships with androids, but if death doesn’t matter…

Maybe that’s why I like mysteries. It’s different if somebody dies in a mystery. They’re either actually dead (which can be a mystery to solve), or they’re not actually dead (ditto). This was articulated in Inherent Vice, when Doc Sportello has seen a sax player walking around who everybody thinks is dead and he reports this to his cop friend Bigfoot:

“Another case of apparent resurrection,” Bigfoot shrugged, “not, at first glance, a matter for Homicide.”

“So . . . who around here would handle resurrections, man?”

“Bunco Squad, usually.”

“Does that mean LAPD officially believes that every return from the dead is some kind of a con?”

“Not always. Could be a mistaken or false ID type of problem.”

“But not—”

“You’re dead, you’re dead. Are we talking philosophy?”

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the town hall mystery (part three)

This story started here.

 
My employer smoked a cigarette as she looked out over the water. I had voted for getting some lunch (it would have been a late lunch, by then), but she was never hungry when there was heavy thinking to do.

Sheriff Rhonda had once recommended the pier as a good place to think, so I suggested that we go there. I planned to get a couple of hot dogs to sustain myself while the heavy-duty cogitation was going on.

If she thought for long enough, I planned to get myself some soft ice cream as well.

We were sitting on a bench, and I occupied myself, after finishing my hot dogs, with trying to figure out what my employer was focusing on. It was definitely not the sea and the sky — she’d removed her glasses and slipped them into her jacket pocket.

Her brown hair moved in the breeze, and she occasionally pushed it away from her face. She was leaning back, her long, thin legs stretched out in front of her.

Was she working her brain on the dead man? That seemed the most likely possibility. It was difficult to imagine that she could be thinking that hard about the fire.

Or she could have been thinking about the book she was writing. That did occupy most of her time and attention these days. Maybe she was planning how she could best continue her research, now that the town no longer had a library.

She started to speak without looking at me.

“The most unfortunate aspect of Rhonda’s intransigent insistence that we invented a woman once before is that the rude woman who nearly jostled my Sunday Times out of your grasp is out there somewhere, and nobody is looking for her. However, the advantage we have is that, even with the sheriff’s inaccurate reconstruction of the crime, if it was a crime, she needs to know who the dead man was, and we need that information as well.”

“And the man, or his identity, will lead us to the woman?”

“Obviously.” She stubbed out her cigarette and tossed the butt off the edge of the pier and into the water. She turned and poked me in the shoulder. “You have errands to run — you just don’t know it yet.”

I stood up. I didn’t mind leaving — the soft ice cream stand was closed for the season anyway.

“I’ll walk back home with you first,” I said as she took out her glasses and put them back on. “You can tell me about it as we walk.”

She smiled as she got to her feet. “That will be pleasant.”

So, we walked back to the inn, maintaining the fiction that this stroll was for companionship, rather than the more prosaic reason, which was that I wanted to drop off the (increasingly heavy) Sunday Times so I wouldn’t have to lug it all over town with me.

(Well, my employer certainly wasn’t going to carry it anywhere.)

As we walked, at a comfortable pace for my employer, she said, “I did not have enough time to perform a thorough search of the body, as you know, but I was able to go through the pockets. They were empty except for two things — a few dollar bills, held together with a paper clip, and a single key.” She gave me a sidelong glance. “The key was somewhat notable, though. It was shiny, apparently new, and it was a Rabson.”

I nodded.” Hardware stores, then?”

She nodded. “Exactly.” Rabsons are very expensive (and difficult to pick — not that I would know that from personal experience, of course), so maybe a customer who needed a key for a Rabson lock would stick in somebody’s mind.

At the inn, I placed the Times on my employer’s bed, bade her farewell, and went down to the front hall to check the Yellow Pages, which were kept under the small table that held the telephone.

I headed out, walking back toward the pier, and then, in sight of the pier, I took a right turn onto Pine Street.

There were two hardware stores in Claremont that I could get to on foot — a small store on Pine Street and a large housewares store located out on the highway. The other stores which I’d jotted down would have required me to get a cab, or rent a car. Since we had no income and needed to watch our expenses, I decided to try the two local stores before I made plans to tackle the rest.

Of course, even if the key was as new as it looked, it could have been made in Boston, or much farther away than that. But it was the only lead we had, so I went to check on it.

Walking the several blocks up the hill, I enjoyed the sunshine and the breeze coming off the water. It was good walking weather — just the right temperature.

At the top of the hill, I passed the Catholic church, remembering when my employer — an ardent atheist — had teased me for lighting a candle for Marvel Phillips after her death. I had no desire to light a candle for the young man who had died earlier that day, even apart from the fact that I knew nothing about him, not even his name.

I was glad to start at Howell’s Hardware on Pine Street — it was much more the sort of place where customers might be remembered. My only experience at Sunshine Housewares, buying a few necessary items for our room, had been that it was very impersonal — very “un-Claremont.” (I was already becoming somewhat protective of our new adopted hometown.)

Past the church, the ground sloped off again, and gradually the smell of smoke came back to me as I approached Main Street. There was no breeze here, and the air was somewhat acrid and very still.

 
The hardware store was about a half a block from Main Street, and a small bell rang as I opened the door. Unlike when we’d been investigating the death of Marvel Phillips, we had no piece of paper giving us any authority to ask questions, so I decided that my best approach would be to be convivial, and a potential customer, rather than trying to be intimidating and official.

The place was somewhat dark, but I saw a key-making stand in a gloomy corner, with various metal signs posted around it. I didn’t see a sign for Rabson. They are specialty keys and many stores aren’t equipped with the machine needed to cut them, so stores which are so equipped usually advertise the fact.

I’d had various plans in mind to get the information I needed, but now I could use the easiest one. I asked if they copied Rabson keys, and the man behind the counter apologized and said that they didn’t, adding that very few people in Claremont even locked their doors, so there wasn’t really any demand for fancy locks. He gave me a look indicating that I must not be a local. I bade him goodbye and left.

As I strolled up to the corner, the smell of smoke became stronger. The absence of wind which had helped to save the buildings closest to the fire was now allowing the pall to hang over the center of town.

I turned right on Main Street, walking past some shops, and the Methodist Church, the Wagon Wheel, and then I saw where the Town Hall had been.

It was strange, in the middle of that pleasant seaside town, to see one large rectangle of charred, debris-filled land that reminded me of bombed-out buildings I’d seen in a war zone. It was a very odd, and, I admit, rather disturbing juxtaposition, as if somebody had folded a map to put Main Street in Claremont directly next to Rua Serra Verde in Bellona.

When the sheriff had said that “the safe” had survived, my mental image had been inadequate. The charred, dull gray metal box perched directly in the center of the Town Hall footprint was massive. It was, I suddenly realized, comparable in size to the (comfortable, but decidedly cozy) room where my employer and I lived.

As I walked forward, more slowly now, I found myself resisting looking at the site. I felt bad about this — I wasn’t usually so timid, particularly about a place where, as far as I knew, nobody had died.

Then I saw a family walking on the other side of the street. The parents were looking at the site as they walked past it, apparently discussing what had happened. Their son (presumably — apparently around eight years old) was looking fixedly at the News Store — avoiding any risk of seeing the site of the fire.

I didn’t feel so bad as I approached the News Store.

 
To be continued…

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the town hall mystery (part two)

This story started here.

 
My employer, Jan Sleet, usually attracted some amount of attention when she walked down the street in Claremont. This was partly because she was becoming (she would have said “was”) a local celebrity — the town’s resident amateur sleuth. She had initially gained this reputation by her exploits while in college, and it had been cemented by her solution of the murder of Marvel Phillips a few weeks before.

There was also, of course, her appearance, which was unusual almost anywhere, but strikingly so in a seaside college town like Claremont. She had lank brown hair and a tall and spindly body, and she wore large horn-rimmed glasses and elegant three-piece suits. She used a cane for her limp, which was especially pronounced when she was moving quickly, as she was at the moment, steaming down the block toward me. She never even looked at the burning Town Hall across the street, and she brushed by the sheriff without acknowledging her.

A more sentimental employee than I am, seeing her intensity, might have concluded that she was concerned about my safety — what with the fire raging across the street and a body falling to the sidewalk and all, but I had a pretty good idea that it was irritation that I knew a lot of things about recent events that she did not know, at least not yet.

She managed to slow her forward momentum enough to (barely) avoid crashing into me. She didn’t have to ask — I gave her a very brief update on what had happened, enough to make it clear that if this had been an accident it had been a very odd one. Then she bent over to look at the corpse.

When I had first seen the body, I had moved quickly to check for signs of life. When it became obvious that I wasn’t finding any, most of the onlookers had turned their attention back to the fire across the street. The few who were now watching the (moderately) famous detective were distracted by a crash from across the street as the second floor of the Town Hall fell in, smoke and sparks and debris going in all directions. One of the two trees on the lawn in front of the burning building was on fire now, too.

I had expected the noise and had been prepared, but my employer’s attention had been on the corpse, so she jumped. Unexpected explosions had that effect on both of us from time to time, because of our experiences overseas.

I took her elbow and steadied her, steering her gently toward a small alley between the news store and the thrift shop. She tolerated the contact, and I released her before she could decide to pull back.

She met my eyes and nodded. “Tell me all,” she murmured.

Things got chaotic around us for a while, but we stood in our alcove, her hand on my shoulder, and I told her the whole story, very quietly.

As I told the story, I saw the sheriff look in our direction. She met my eyes, but she was obviously willing to wait until I got my employer up to speed. Meanwhile, she continued to direct her deputies in controlling the crowd and evacuating the buildings closest to the Town Hall. There was almost no breeze, and the smoke in the air was starting to sting my eyes.

When I was done, my employer straightened up and took out her cigarette case. Her first words were, “So, it was the man who fell, rather than the woman?”

I nodded. I might have known that she’d figure that out. You can only get so far with fudging pronouns.

She squatted and started to examine the body in detail. After a few moments, she gestured behind her with a forefinger, and I moved about a foot to my right. If the sheriff turned around again, it would be better if she didn’t see my employer quickly and methodically going through the victim’s pockets.

Then, as I helped my employer to her feet again, the sheriff did come over and look down at the corpse. She looked at me, then she wiped her sweaty forehead with her sleeve. “I know she just got here,” she said, meaning my employer, “but did you see any of it?”

“At ground level, I saw it all. I have no idea what happened on the roof.”

She called over her shoulder to one of her deputies, “Brian, I’ll be in the Wheel.”

 
“Do you know what I think?” Sheriff Rhonda White asked.

“No, please tell us.” My employer managed to hold back most of her sarcasm, since she already knew what the sheriff was going to say next. It was so obvious that I’d figured it out too.

We were sitting at a front table in the Wagon Wheel, so the sheriff could keep an eye on the situation outside. The waitress, Dot, came over and Rhonda waved her off, but not before my employer said she would like a cappuccino.

Rhonda leaned back in her chair, deciding not to be annoyed. She almost tented her fingers in front of her but then she stopped herself.

“Please tell me what you saw,” she said to me.

I obliged — we certainly had no reason to hold anything back. I told it to her exactly as I had told it to my employer, except that I didn’t bother to play at pronouns. I made it clear that the first person, presumably now deceased, had been male, and the second one, now missing, had been female.

By the end of my story, when my employer was about halfway through her cappuccino, Rhonda had decided that being annoyed was entirely reasonable.

“So, Marshall,” she said, “a man shoved past you and into the store, looked around, ran up on the roof, and then a few moments later, another person, a woman this time, in the same clothes, with the same hair, did the exact same thing, and then the man fell or was pushed or jumped off the roof, cracking his skull on the pavement?”

I nodded, simply to keep this process moving forward.

“Other people saw him, especially the people in the store, and they all said it looked like the same person. And if there were two people, male or female, the one who didn’t die has vanished.”

My employer nodded slowly. “So, if this one person pushed in, ascended, returned to street level, pushed in again, and then fell, jumped, or was pushed–“

“Jumped is my guess. Determined to commit suicide — for whatever reason — started, chickened out, climbed down to the street, got his gumption back up, and then carried it out.”

My employer wanted a cigarette. She could have pointed out that the story didn’t make a lot of sense, or that suicidal jumpers seldom jump from the roofs of one-story buildings, or that it would have been a very odd lie for me to have told in the first place. (What benefit could there have been for me to have invented a woman who didn’t exist in this situation?)

If we had challenged the sheriff on that, she could have pointed out that, in her firm opinion, we had invented a woman before, in the Marvel Phillips case, so why wouldn’t we have done it again?

As my employer said later, she mentally played through every possible conversation that this could have led to, and not one of them could have been useful. She glanced over at me before bidding the sheriff goodbye, and instead she said, “Marshall has a question.”

“The Town Hall,” I said. “Did everybody make it out safely?”

Sheriff Rhonda nodded. “As far as we know, based on the reports so far. The staff are definitely all okay. We… the ruins will have to be gone through. It sounds like it started upstairs, in the library rest room, but we don’t even know that for a fact. The staff apparently moved quickly and efficiently to clear the whole building. The building itself is a total loss, of course, except for the safe… “

Her eyes narrowed as she stood up. “Keep in touch,” she said, not looking at us as she made for the door. My employer finished her cappuccino, looked out the window, and winked at me. I turned to see a reporter from the Claremont Crier, the local paper, talking to one of Rhonda’s deputies. I was sure that Rhonda would step in to speak with the reporter herself.

My employer took her cane and got to her feet. She looked down at the Sunday Times, which I had placed on the extra chair at our table.

“All the sections are there,” I assured her as I put some money on the table.

 
To be continued…

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the town hall mystery (part one)

On Main Street in the town of Claremont, Massachusetts, there is a general store, called the News Store. It’s across the street from the Town Hall, and down the block from the Wagon Wheel, the restaurant where my employer and I ate quite often. Directly next to the general store on one side was the thrift store and, on the other side, there was the town’s pharmacy.

Before we’d moved to Claremont, we’d stayed in a hotel in New York City for a few weeks. During that time, my employer had decided that the Sunday edition of the New York Times was an essential part of any weekend. So, every Saturday evening I had to go to the News Store and make sure we were on the list to receive a copy of the Sunday Times, and then I’d return on Sunday morning to pick it up.

The man who ran the store was named Mickey. He gave the impression that he’d been behind that counter forever, but of course that could have been an act, for the tourists.

And there were still tourists now, although it was well after Labor Day and getting steadily cooler, especially in the evenings. The tourists tended to be older now, mostly retired, probably attracted by the lower prices and the early bird specials in the restaurants.

Mickey was always there on Saturday evening when I went to confirm our Sunday New York Times reservation, and to collect the weekly shipment of my employer’s preferred brand of imported cigarettes.

He was never there on Sunday morning, though. The task of assembling and selling the Sunday papers was left to his children, Mark and Millie, who were apparently in their twenties. Mark handled most of the actual assembly, while Millie worked at the counter.

Mark always gave me the impression that this was not his preferred way of spending every single Sunday morning. Millie, on the other hand, though she might have shared her brother’s apparent disdain for this family responsibility, was always pleasant, even with all the customers who thought it was very amusing to call her “Minnie.”

One evening, after a good dinner at the Wagon Wheel, my employer and I walked past the News Store on our way home. Millie was out front, pumping up the rear tire of her bicycle. She saw us and greeted me, and we chatted for a moment before we strolled off and Millie resumed her pumping.

As we turned the corner, my employer gave me a sidelong glance, conveying, “You know, she is much too young for you.” She enjoyed my frustration because, of course, since her comment had not been spoken out loud, I was stymied in my desire to protest.

 
On this particular Sunday morning, I was waiting on line, holding my Times, when we heard the noon siren — only it wasn’t noon, and that meant there was a fire.

Millie yanked off her apron (I had never been exactly clear why she wore an apron, but I guess the big pockets were convenient), tossed it at her brother, and zipped out the door, yelling, “Take over, Marky!”

He made a face about being called Marky, and he ignored the apron as he stepped behind the counter. I hadn’t known that Millie was a member of the town’s force of volunteer firefighters, but there she was, pedaling off down the block at high speed toward the firehouse.

I paid for my newspaper and moved toward the door, to allow the woman behind me to step to the counter and pay for her purchases (a local paper, a pack of cigarettes, and a small tube of toothpaste). I needed to make sure before I left the store that my paper had all the vital sections. (Actually, my employer considered almost all of the sections to be vital, but I might have been forgiven if I’d arrived home without the sports section or the classifieds.)

Then I heard the sirens approaching. I looked up to see, and smell, the smoke. The Town Hall, directly across the street, was on fire.

I stepped out onto the front step of the store and watched as two fire trucks pulled up, on opposite sides of the Town Hall. Three firemen quickly unfurled hoses to start spraying water on the two-story structure. Three other firefighters charged into the building through the front door, carrying all sorts of equipment.

There was a lawn in front of the building, leading down to the sidewalk, and pavement on the other three sides (a parking lot to the left and behind, and a driveway to the right), so at least the fire was relatively contained. There was not a lot of wind, at least on ground level. So far, the fire seemed to be concentrated on the second floor — smoke was pouring out of the windows and I could see some flames, too.

Then I remembered that the second floor was the town library, and that was a shame. I’d mourn the loss of the town’s books much more than the town’s paperwork. There was a cluster of people on the lawn in front, moving slowly down towards the sidewalk, and I recognized one town clerk and two librarians, so maybe all the people had made it out safely.

I watched for a few minutes, still glancing down to check the newspaper sections. A crowd was gathering on the sidewalk in front of the store, of course, but I was on the raised step and could easily see over their heads.

Another fire truck pulled up, and I saw Millie among the new arrivals, rushing toward the fire in a uniform that seem to be too large for her. Were women a new addition to the force? I looked around. Was she the only woman?

My woolgathering was interrupted when a young man pushed through the crowd in front of me. He shoved past me and hurried into the News Store.

I corralled my Sunday Times, which I’d almost dropped, and turned, with a momentary atavistic impulse to go back into the store and pop the guy in the nose, but I didn’t see him for a moment. Then I saw his feet, vanishing as he ascended the steep metal ladder that led to a trap door to the roof.

Mark looked at the guy’s feet as they vanished, then he finished ringing up the next customer. He couldn’t deal with a strange man on the roof, or the fire across the street, but nobody was getting out of the store that day without paying what they owed.

I turned back to watch the fire again. I had the urge to pitch in and do something, but there didn’t seem to be much that a writer’s assistant could add to the proceedings, other than possibly getting in the way. I hoped Millie was going to be okay.

Then a familiar figure emerged from the crowd and shoved past me into the store. Same cap, rough brown jacket, wavy dark hair and jeans as before, and the same lack of manners.

I turned, again struggling to regain control of my Sunday Times, trying to remember how deja vu works, as the new arrival looked frantically around the room, then ran to the ladder and started for the roof.

Mark watched this, as did the remaining customers, and then he sighed and made the universal face that said, with a visible sigh, tourists!

Okay, this demanded a response from me. The fire was being handled, though it appeared that the Town Hall might not survive. Traffic was obviously blocked at both ends of the street. The sheriff and her deputies were controlling the crowds. And I was going to be open to severe criticism at home if I didn’t investigate the situation on the roof.

Then there was an odd, loud, disturbing noise from the sidewalk in front of the store, accompanied by screaming. I looked out and saw a limp figure on the sidewalk, wearing a rough brown jacket and jeans, cap on the sidewalk, brown hair spread out, eyes open, motionless.

 
To be continued…

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