the deacon mystery (part four)

This story started here.

My employer sat at her desk and brought the meeting to order.

“First item on the agenda,” she said, slowly filling her pipe. “We need to address the coffee situation.”

I nodded. She really wanted a cup of coffee (as did I, I confess) and we had no easy way to get any. I could have gone out and got coffee for us, and on other nights I had done just that, but we needed to figure out what kind of danger we might face if either of us went outside at that moment.

We needed to buy a coffee machine. We agreed on that.

I had pulled down the window shade as soon as we’d entered the room, of course, but I found myself glancing at it from time to time, wondering what, if anything, might be going on outside. I didn’t hear any sounds, but of course one feature of the evening so far had been a very quiet car.

“Moving on,” she said. “I cede the floor to you.” She glanced at the window shade as she fired up her lighter.

“Three things,” I said. “One: The incident on Pine Street. We need to assess that as fully as we can. Two: The incident on the porch. The woman who was sitting there, whoever she was and whatever she was doing there, and whoever threw a knife at her.”

“Unless she staged that herself.”

“Unless she staged that herself, yes. And, three, to be blunt–“

She nodded impatiently. “Yes, I had a… disagreement at the book sale, when you were chatting with Jo and Phyllis and so on. When I… Anyway, and you think that I may have annoyed somebody to the point that he decided to seek, or at least threaten, retribution?”

She shrugged and drew slowly on her pipe. “My knee-jerk reaction is to say no, but we need to thrash it out and figure out if I’m right about that.”

I nodded. “I listed it third, but I think we should start with that, since it came first.”

“Cause — possible cause — before possible effect. That makes sense. As you did observe, I had a spirited epistemological debate with Dr. Deacon, which was quite enjoyable, and then he introduced me to his younger brother, Fred.

“Dr. Deacon moved away at that point, and Fred Deacon immediately… buttonholed me I believe is the term.” She considered and discarded the idea of pausing to speculate on the origin and history of the verb “to buttonhole.”

“His daughter, he said, had vanished, very suddenly, at the same time that a large sum of cash went missing. He wanted to hire me.”

“To find the daughter, or the money?”

She shook her head — almost a shiver. “I have no idea, nor do I want to know. He offered to pay me, I started to decline his offer, he interrupted me in order to suggest that he might offer me even more money. He actually seemed to be about to pull out his wallet right then and there, so I turned my back on him and walked away.”

She puffed thoughtfully on her pipe.

“First of all,” she said firmly, “I want to put aside, at least for the moment, the idea that Fred Deacon, rejected by me, perhaps somewhat rudely, decided to threaten or injure me. He is, I gather, quite well off, and prosperous people, the law-abiding ones anyway, when their initial offer of money is rejected, almost always react to this by offering more. They may move to some sort of Plan B later on, but their first instinct is to view rejection as a bargaining tactic.”

I nodded. “That’s a generalization, of course, but it’s a good one. At least for the moment, as you say.”

“Shall we start with the knife, the woman, or the knife thrower?”

“The knife is the most solid of the three — let’s start with that.”

I took it from my jacket pocket and unfolded the handkerchief I’d used to pull it from the door jamb. She held out her hand and I let her take them.

She was careful not to handle the knife directly, of course. She sometimes acted disdainful about physical clues like fingerprints, but she didn’t want her prints on a weapon unless she knew exactly where it had come from and who it had belonged to.

She studied the knife, but I knew she had seen the word on the haft right away.

“The interesting thing — or at least one interesting thing — is that it was etched into the wood some time ago. That’s easy to see. So, the knife was not modified just to deliver this message.”

“If it was a message, do you think it was a message to you, or to the woman on the porch?”

“How close would it have passed to the woman’s body?”

I squinted, trying to remember the exact details of a scene I’d been looking at, at a moment when my focus — the focus of my mind and my ears, at least — had been on the tap of my employer’s cane on the sidewalk behind me.

“The knife thrower was probably on the far side of the laundromat — that’s why we didn’t see him, or her. So, the knife…” I shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ll look at the scene tomorrow morning, in the daylight, and see if there’s anything I can figure out. And, you know, look for footprints and so on.” I took the plunge. “And maybe try to figure out who the woman was, the woman who was waiting on our porch, presumably for us.”

Then we both waited for a moment, to see what I would say next. I decided to remain silent about the fact that I thought I had recognized the woman, and I was fairly certain that I hadn’t been the only one.

 
To be continued…

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the deacon mystery (part three)

This story started here.

Having finished our supper, we strolled back across Main Street and started down Pine Street, which would eventually take us home, or, depending on which fork we took at the Catholic Church, to the town pier.

Cars went by from time to time, but we didn’t see anybody else walking. The houses had their front doors closed (it was much too brisk out for just screen doors), but most of the living rooms were illuminated by warm, cozy-looking light.

In the early evening quiet, I heard a car approaching from a distance behind us. It was moving fast — much too fast for that road in semi-darkness — but the motor barely purred. Definitely not a hot-rodder.

We were passing a narrow side road which went down a steep slope. We’d always wondered what was down there in the thick trees, but we hadn’t yet explored.

I suddenly put my arm around my employer’s narrow waist and pivoted, moving us quickly down the hill and then pulling her behind a large tree. She was absolutely silent, and she rested her hand on my arm as she steadied herself.

We heard the car slow as it passed the road, but I was not going to poke my head out to try to see anything. After a moment we heard another car pass, and then the original car moved on also.

 
She was sitting on the porch of the inn as we arrived home, and she was hard to see in her dark clothes. The porch light was off. I could make out the shape of her pale face, but I did not immediately recognize her.

I was especially alert because of what had happened twenty minutes earlier, so the moment we reached the corner I slowed and stopped. My employer, her arm looped through mine, stopped also, and she waited.

There was a streetlight behind us, and it happened to come on at exactly that moment. Well, any attempt at a complicated maneuver would probably have failed anyway, so I moved forward, releasing my employer’s arm. She fell into place directly behind me as I walked across the street and toward the inn.

Then, as I saw the woman’s head turn slowly toward us — although I was sure she had been aware of us ever since we’d stopped at the corner — there was a thunk.

I had a hunch about what that thunk had been, but if I’d hit the ground — my most immediate and primitive instinct — it would have exposed my employer, so I continued to move forward, aware of the steady tap of my employer’s cane on the sidewalk behind me.

On the porch of the inn, the rocking chair was still moving slightly, but it was empty. No one was in sight in any direction. A car appeared and passed by the inn and headed toward the pier. It definitely wasn’t the smoothly purring car from earlier.

The knife was around nine inches long, and it was sticking out of the door jamb. I was glad it hadn’t landed a few inches to the right because then it would have shattered the frosted glass of the door itself, and that would have attracted the attention of our landlady, Mrs. Jessup.

My employer looked at the knife, at the chair, and then all around. She used a fingertip to stop the chair’s motion, then she looked at me.

“Where are my books?”

“I dropped them back at the corner, when the streetlight came on. To increase my tactical flexibility and freedom of motion.”

“Hmm. Well, perhaps you should go back and get them now.”

“After you’re inside the house.”

She nodded. “That makes sense.” Our eyes met for a second. “I’ll stay right in the front hall until you come back.”

 
To be continued…

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the deacon mystery (part two)

This story started here.

After we left the book sale, my employer and I walked slowly down the hill toward the center of town. We walked in silence, but for once it was not a comfortable silence.

My employer seldom got actually angry, although she was becoming skilled at performing imperious anger when she thought it might be useful, or fun. However, she did get annoyed from time to time, and she was annoyed now, and I had no idea why.

Actually, I did have a hunch. If I’d been forced to guess, I would have said that somebody had tried to pay her to investigate something. Trying to buy her interest with money was doomed to failure. As she had said in the past, in similar situations, she was not a public convenience, and she earned her living by writing, not by investigating.

Once, when she’d been offered a very large sum of money — at a time when we’d really needed it — to do something both uninteresting and morally questionable, she’d glanced at me to see if I would protest and remind her about our impecunious situation, but I’d remained silent. She took that, correctly, as my vote about what kind of firm I wanted to be part of.

Of course, based on her expression, this was not the time to ask her if my guess was correct.

I was using the borrowed hand truck to transport the stack of books my employer had purchased at the sale. There were eight substantial hardcover volumes, plus one small — and apparently rather racy — paperback, which we had tacitly agreed not to discuss.

My plan had been as follows: to return the hand truck to my friend Mickey at the News Store, to get a sturdy paper bag there which I could use to carry the books down the block to the Wagon Wheel, to have a pleasant supper at the Wagon Wheel, and then to call a taxi to get us, and the books, home.

But a meal at the Wagon Wheel would have been arduous, if not excruciating, with my employer in her current mood.

However, even when she was annoyed, my employer was usually aware of how she was behaving and the effect it might have on the people around her. So, as we passed the Wagon Wheel, she gave me a rather apologetic sidelong glance, apparently aware that her disgruntlement had forced me to adjust my plans for our supper.

“I know,” she said cheerfully, “let’s try that new sandwich shop!” She pointed, probably wishing there was some universally understood hand gesture that conveyed not only direction but also: “It’s not very far from here!”

I shifted the paper bag of books I was carrying, to make sure I had a firm hold on it, and followed her down the sidewalk toward the end of Main Street.

The sandwich shop was on a side street, on a narrow strip of land between the pavement and a small, swampy inlet. The building itself was tiny, basically a kitchen with one window where you placed your order, and another where you picked up your food when it was ready.

It seemed to be mostly a lunch establishment, but it was open, and it was what we needed. We ordered our sandwiches and then we sat at one of the picnic tables and drank coffee while we waited. We were the only customers.

“I saw Jo at the sale. How is she?”

This was clearly just making conversation, since we’d both seen Jo only a few days earlier, but I appreciated the effort.

“About the same,” I replied. “She bought one of your old books, by the way. Behind Enemy Lines.”

I didn’t know anything about the book myself, except that I had the impression that it had been the subject of some sort of controversy while we’d been out of the country.

My employer winced. “I was glad to be rid of that one. Bad books are a fact of life, but when they’re signed by the author, with an overly effusive…”

She made an abrupt chopping motion, closing that subject.

 
To be continued…

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on more rereading

I’ve had this blog for a while now.

(In fact, I just checked and I’ve made 965 published posts, dating back to 1999. Damn. That’s actually even more than I expected.)

One result of this longevity (and loquacity) is that I often run into earlier posts which I have no memory of writing (although, at least so far, I’ve never found any which I thought were completely wrong). Also, sometimes I remember writing on a specific topic, but then I can’t find the actual post.

I was thinking about this when I just searched for an earlier post about the benefits, and pleasures, of rereading things, but the post was, fortunately, easy to find: “On Rereading.” I thought of this in relation to the articles from the beginning of the pandemic about people yearning for more and more “content” to binge, as I talked about here.

I think I started watching The Witcher around the beginning of this year, and I’ve watched all eight episodes from the second season, but I’m still focused on it. I’ve watched multiple reaction videos to all the episodes, learning a lot from what other people see and don’t see in each one.

I think my next project will be to go back and watch the first season, which I’ve never seen.

I do not plan to read any of the Witcher books. If I like something enough, even an adaptation, I don’t need or want more information, or, possibly, contradictory information. One example is the movie Let the Right One In, which I like a lot. It’s based on a novel, which is apparently good, but the movie is nearly perfect, and any good story depends on what was left out. Why would I want to undo the (apparently correct) decisions which were made in creating the movie?

(Demonstrating my lack of interest in foolish consistency, however, there is a deleted scene in the movie Gosford Park which is definitely part of my headcanon version of the film. It was removed because it referred to the subplot of the murdered man’s will, but it does show a very nice reconciliation between two of the characters, and I like that.)

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the deacon mystery (part one)

“Of course, Dr. Deacon, that is not what the phrase ‘the exception that proves the rule’ actually means.”

I heard this and I quietly reversed course, moving away from the two people who were standing by the staircase. I had intended to find out if I could be useful to my employer, but since it seemed that she was in full pontificating mode I decided to look for some books to buy instead.

The Town Hall of Claremont, Massachusetts, had burned to the ground a few weeks before. The fire had apparently been accidental, but, accidental or not, it had also destroyed the town library, which had been on the second floor of the building.

The citizens of the town were obviously not about to rally around to donate money to building a new town hall, but the library was another matter. Many people from the town, including my employer, had donated used books to a sale to raise money, and the local Presbyterian church had made their basement available on a Saturday afternoon.

Dr. Deacon was the priest, a tall, elderly, and benevolent-looking man who had apparently unwittingly ended up being lectured by Jan Sleet, the journalist and “lady detective” (as it said on her business cards).

The priest was dressed casually but neatly, in chinos and a polo shirt. He was tall and slender, and his back was somewhat stooped. His hair, gray and thinning, had probably started out carefully combed over his bald spot, but now it was somewhat disarranged because he was running his fingers through it periodically, perhaps as a way of controlling his frustration at my employer’s… Well, I will admit that I don’t know exactly what she was going on about — as soon as I heard the sentence quoted above I’d moved back out of earshot as quickly as possible.

My employer was dressed in a casual weekend ensemble: a royal blue pinstripe three-piece suit, with a midnight blue necktie and a gray pocket square.

I felt a light tap on my sleeve. “Mr. Marshall,” a small voice said, and I looked down. A very serious face, wearing very serious horn-rimmed glasses, looked up at me, seriously.

I smiled. “Hello, Jo,” I said. “How are you?”

She ignored the question. She had been involved in a murder case which had ended a few days before, and she was very interested in learning more about the upcoming trials.

Jo was an aspiring novelist, and I’d been questioned by her before. I knew my lack of information wouldn’t discourage her, so, after a few minutes of interrogation, wanting to change the subject, I tapped the book which she was clutching to her chest. “You know, that used to belong to my employer.”

She looked down at it, frowning. “You mean, it was stolen from her?”

I chuckled. “No, not at all. She donated many books to the sale, including that one. She’s a great believer in libraries.”

Jo nodded, apparently relieved that her prize was not about to be snatched away from her. “Libraries are good, but I do…” She saw somebody behind me and her eyes widened.

“I’ll talk to you later, Mr. Marshall,” she said, edging away. “Thank you.”

Wondering what she was thanking me for, I turned and saw Phyllis, who I had met in connection with an earlier case.

“Why did Jo call you ‘Mr. Marshall’?” she asked, smiling.

I shrugged. “That’s kind of an inside joke. How do you know her?”

“She was one of my students, some years ago. Apparently I still make her nervous.”

I thought of commenting that quite a few things seemed to make Jo nervous, but that seemed disloyal. I was rather fond of Jo, and since I had met her when she was in the middle of a murder investigation, I probably hadn’t seen her at her best.

I smiled. “I must confess that I don’t find you to be that frightening, but it’s been quite a while since I was a student.”

“So, how are you, and your employer?”

“We’re fine. I guess we’re lucky that the Heron House case ended a few days ago — at least our part of it. We do enjoy a good book sale, but cases always come first.”

“I know what that’s like,” she said. She didn’t have to explain further, since I knew she lived with the sheriff, and I was sure that their lives, and their free time, or lack of it, was largely determined, often on short notice, by Sheriff Rhonda’s official responsibilities.

I was afraid for a moment that Phyllis, like Jo, would pepper me with questions about the case which had recently been concluded, but instead she looked around the huge room and nodded. “Good turnout today. They should make some money.”

I nodded. “We donated a lot of books — my employer’s books. They’d been stored here in town since she left college. She hadn’t looked at them in years, and it’s not like we can start building shelves where we live.”

Phyllis gave me a sidelong look. “I’ve been wondering about that. Are you two planning on staying here in town for a while? Buying a nice house, white picket fence, that sort of thing?”

I laughed. “When you put it like that, it does sound unlikely. But writers, even writers like her, sometimes need peace and quiet to write.”

“I thought the book about the civil war in Bellona was written already, and she was just trying to get it published?” She leaned forward.

“She’s working on a different book now.”

I thought she might ask about the new book, but she changed the subject.

“Speaking of books, how many did your employer donate to the sale?”

I stretched, somewhat ostentatiously. “Boxes. Many, many boxes.”

She chuckled. “I gather you carried them here yourself, heavy volume by heavy volume, over a long distance…”

I laughed. “Well, it wasn’t as bad as all that. They were in cartons, I borrowed a good hand truck, and they were stored very near to here.”

“Okay, I withdraw some of my sympathy.” She nodded. “Oh, I see. At the Arkright house.” She gestured in that direction. “That came out in the Marvel Phillips case — the books that Jan stored here in town after she graduated college. How many of them did she donate?”

“All of them.”

She raised an eyebrow.

I leaned forward. “When we first heard about the sale, she declared, perhaps impulsively, that she’d donate them all. And then, later on, she found that there wasn’t a clear path for her to stage a tactical retreat from her original position.”

“Stubbornness.” She smiled. “I’m somewhat familiar with that.”

 
To be continued…

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it’s nice to have one television show to follow (part two)

Well, I’ve watched all of the second season of The Witcher, and it was very good. In fact, there were some lessons to learn in comparison to The Wheel of Time, which is the show I watched right before The Witcher.

So, I guess this is part of my “Storytelling Lessons” series.

 
Storytelling Lessons from The Witcher

1) Be aware of which are your best characters.

I think I wrote about this before somewhere. If your reader wants to know more about A and you’re consistently giving more information about B instead, that’s a problem.

As I said about The Wheel of Time: “The show is a ‘chosen one’ story (definitely my least favorite fantasy trope), and now, of the five possible chosen ones, the least interesting character (by a wide margin) appears to be It.” That was true through to the last episode of Wheel of Time, where my favorite part was a scene between two very secondary characters.

With The Witcher, the core trio of characters, Geralt of Rivia, Yennefer of Vengerberg, and Princess Cirilla of Cintra, are the most interesting, both individually and in various combinations, and they are all played by top-notch actors. There are a lot of good supporting characters around them, but the supporting characters do exactly that: support, rather than outshine.

 
2) Heroes are okay, but you need at least one good villain (I think of this as the “Hitchcock Rule”), and your villains should be at least as complex as your heroes.

This is one of my main complaints about a lot of comic book movies these days (and, for that matter, The Wheel of Time): villains who, for undefined or uncompelling reasons want to conquer, or remake, or destroy the world. Yawn. Also, it’s an interesting contrast with murder mysteries (this just occurred to me): Good mystery stories require a good motive for the murderer(s). You can go with plain old lunacy as a motivation, but it’s difficult to carry off. Ellery Queen managed it several times, but the lunacy in his books was always highly structured — killers who killed according to specific patterns. And lunatic killers can work better in movies, because: acting!

In general, though, understandable motivations are the best. (Orson Welles, however, had a different opinion, which I talked about here in relation to Iago.)

Everybody in The Witcher has motivations, though often hidden ones, including the monsters. Geralt spends some time defending Ciri against various monsters, until she realizes — and then convinces him — that the monsters are indeed trying to get to her, but they actually never try to harm her. (Geralt, of course, expressed his opinion of this idea with a grunt — his most common reaction to anything — but it was clearly an interested grunt.) The last episode of the season was, among other things, a series of revelations of motivations, and hints of some motivations which won’t be revealed until later seasons.

* * * * *

In other news, I’m very close to starting to post a new story. The first part is basically ready to post (well, I’ll probably read it over just one more time…), and I have three more parts more or less ready to go.

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