the marvel murder case (part nine)

This story started here.

I was interested to discover that taking the jitney did not, as far as I could tell, require an ID. There was a sign over the windshield saying that all students and faculty needed to show proper identification, but nobody seemed to, and Mr. Brooke didn’t ask me (though of course he may have remembered me from my earlier trip with my employer, the distinguished alumna).

Walking up the hill between the bus stop and the center of town, I saw two police vehicles by the Arkright house, a town police car in front and a state police van in the church parking lot next door.

I slowed, wanting to see what I could see before I entered the scene of the crime. Nobody was visible on the sidewalk (apart from an elderly couple walking in my direction across the street who didn’t seem to be connected to the murder house).

The front door of the Arkright house opened and Sheriff Rhonda stepped out, followed by two officers wearing what appeared to be state police uniforms.

They talked for a moment, then Rhonda saw me and waved as the officers went back into the house. She motioned for me to join her on the porch.

“Any news from the house?” I asked as we sat down.

She shrugged. “They’re finding things. It’s hard to tell what’s important at this point. How’s the college so far?”

I laughed. “My employer is investigating, I assume. I’m here to fetch our luggage from the inn where we stayed last night.”

“The excitement never ends for a detective’s assistant, I guess?”

“It hasn’t so far. Has the coroner’s report come in?”

She nodded. “I was surprised that your employer didn’t ask about that this morning.”

“She affects, at times, a disdain for conventional methods like that.”

“I know. I’ve seen that before. Sheriff Baxter used to tease her about that…” She shrugged. “Until she started producing results.”

“Were there any surprises? In the report?”

She shook her head. “Death by strangulation, no scratches or abrasions on the neck, no evidence of recent sexual activity…”

She looked at me pointedly.

“A significant discovery,” I admitted, “since it seems likely that somebody put that bikini on her body, either before or after death.”

“It didn’t quite fit her, yes, and it’s unlikely that anybody with her resources would have worn anything that was too small for her.”

“Also, it’s unlikely she would have come to town wearing or even carrying a bathing suit, too small or not, on a day when it was raining.”

She smiled. “You noticed that, too? You’re not giving up your boss’s secrets, are you?”

I shook my head. “Never. Those are all things I’ve noticed. I have no idea what she’s thinking about all this.”

She got to her feet. “It’s time that I got going,” she said. “There’s a lot that I still need to do today.”

I nodded. “I think I’m going to take a walk,” I said, “before I pick up the luggage.”

She nodded. “You look like maybe you’re going to do some thinking, too,” she said. “I’d suggest the pier. I always find that’s a very good place to think.” She smiled. “Of course, pretty much any place is better for thinking than my office.”

“I never made it to the pier yesterday,” I said as we walked down the path from the house to the street. “I was headed in that direction when I found the inn. Then I rushed back to tell my employer the good news, that we wouldn’t need to sleep in the woods somewhere. Oh, and one question, for when the family returns.”

I gestured at the house and stepped closer to her, lowering my voice. “Do they know, or will they know, who the victim really was?”

She shook her head. “Not as far as I know. I’m keeping that as quiet as possible, for as long as I can.”

The letter was impressive. I read it over again while I sat on a piling on the pier. Actually, I was reading the carbon copy – my employer had kept the original.

I wondered how long the letter had taken to write. It had clearly been prepared in advance of our meeting that morning in the back yard of the police station. As we’d prepared to depart, Sheriff Rhonda had ducked into her office and produced it.

The letter began, “To whom it may concern,” and the first paragraph said that Miss Janice Stiglianese (DBA Jan Sleet) was assisting the Claremont Police Department with the investigation of the death of Claremont College student Madeleine Pontmercy.

The second, and much longer, paragraph covered things that Miss Sleet was not allowed to do, including arresting people, carrying a weapon, physically intimidating or overpowering anybody, investigating in any area that the college did not want to admit her to, detaining anybody, and commandeering materials, assistance, or vehicles. That’s only a partial list, but it gives a flavor of the whole.

I thought about this letter as I looked out over the water. I was somewhat surprised that it hadn’t explicitly prohibited her from declaring herself the queen of Claremont College (unlikely, perhaps, but not as unlikely but as her physically overpowering any human being other than an infant or an invalid).

With most of the mysteries we solved, there were two mysteries, the second one being my employer herself. In this case, very specifically, it was the “most obvious question,” which she had made clear she was not going to listen to, let alone answer.

If she had been telling the truth, about knowing immediately that the woman who had invited us into the Arkright house had not been a member of the family, or anybody else with a legitimate right to be there, and I was sure that she had, then, when the body had been discovered, why had my employer allowed her to escape, rather than having me stop her?

I had no idea.

It had not been because she’d been surprised at coming upon the body and hadn’t thought of it in time. She had moved forward first, examined the body, declared it dead, then asked the mystery woman to step forward and possibly identify it.

That was more than enough time for my employer’s excellent brain to have calculated all the angles in the situation.

So, that was a mystery. And the pier, pleasant as it was, didn’t seem to be helping me come up with any great revelations

Why had I not moved to restrain the woman? Because I was not told to. In those moments of split-second decision, I had been trained to do exactly what I was told, no more, and no less. I had made a mistake in this early on, and she had made it very clear that this was not optional. The only exception was when I needed to move quickly to protect her life, or my own.

So, moving on to other questions:

Where had Marvel Phillips’ clothes and ID and money gone? Had she been robbed and her body dumped in the Arkright house simply because it was empty? Had she been killed by someone who knew her as Madeleine, or as Marvel, or as both, or had it been a random killing where the murderer hadn’t known her at all? Who would inherit her money? Did she have a will? Were all the members of the Arkright family really out of town? Had any of the other students at the college, or the professors, known who she really was?

Having learned that we were going to be able to live rent-free for two weeks, at least, I decided to take a cab back to the campus once I had collected our luggage. Feeling quite luxurious, I made the call from the inn. As I hung up the phone, Mrs. Jessup, the owner, brought me a small paper bag, containing two muffins. I considered who would enjoy the second one more, me (after eating the first one, of course), or my employer, who was really quite indifferent to food.

On reflection, however, regretfully, I decided to offer it to Professor Lebrun, since he was going to be our host.

To be continued…

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i’ve been waiting for forty-three years to say this

I just saw The Other Side of the Wind.

I will review it eventually, I’m sure, to add to my Orson Welles movie reviews. Not yet — definitely not yet. It’s a lot to process all at once, partly because of the 43-year wait, and all the Welles stuff that moves through it (the parallels to his own life, the actors who were in other of his films, the role that was clearly supposed to be played by his friend Marlene Dietrich), and partly because, even apart from all that, it’s a very complex film, with a lot of characters and a lot of different types of film (8mm, 16mm, 35mm, color and black & white) and a lot of cuts (I read somewhere that the average time between cuts is seven seconds).

Since I saw it, I’ve read a lot of reviews. None of them really nailed it — but I think that may just be because it’s un-nailable. At least not this soon — this is going to take a while to absorb, not just for me.

I was going to end with a few random comments, but no. That will come later, too.

Here’s the trailer again.

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in which i write my way(s)

It’s always surprising to me that some writers (most writers, maybe nearly all writers) have one preferred method of writing that they stick to for years.

Me, once I decide “this is how I write now,” I pretty much immediately do something else. So, having announced that I now write on my phone, I immediately wrote several pages of my current story in a notebook. With a pen.

Which was fun, but then I remembered the big problem with pen-and-paper writing, which is that then you have to type it into the computer. Which is tedious.

So, I decided to try a dictation app for my phone. I tried Speechnotes, which actually worked pretty well. The text required some cleanup, of course, and it couldn’t handle proper names, but much easier than typing everything in (which usually requires some cleanup as well 🙂 ).

I wonder what method I’ll switch to next?

I’m definitely not writing with artificial intelligence, though. That’s just crazy, right?

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art, art rock, and…

(Okay, I couldn’t think of a third thing beginning with “a” for the title.)

1) Toward the end of my mother’s life, when she was still living at home (she lived in her apartment until she was 96 years old), it was a regular routine for me to visit her on a Friday or Saturday night. We’d order out food, and then watch a movie on DVD, or listen to audio drama.

Even now, when I’m watching a movie or listening to a story, I run it through the filter of figuring out whether she’d enjoy it. It’s just part of how my brain is trained to work now.

After she moved into the nursing home, we didn’t do movies anymore, but I did bring her clippings I thought she’d find interesting. I still do that, too — think about what stories would tickle her, and this was definitely one.

2) I’ve never worried much about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (even having a hall of fame is pretty un-rock-and-roll, let alone how this one works).

Just for the hell of it, though, I went to the website to vote for Roxy Music, who were my favorite band from pretty much the moment they started (or at least when I first heard them) to when New Wave happened. There were a bunch of us in the early 1970s — checking the calendar and wondering what was taking New Wave so long to arrive.

The fan voting has no effect on the Hall of Fame, of course, but what the hell.

3) One thing about writing mysteries, as I’ve talked about before, is that you need a lot of names. Each story has to have victims (at least one), suspects, bystanders, and so on. For one mystery I wrote, I took all the names (or almost all) from Dark Shadows. For another one, it was Resident Evil movies.

For this one, it’s a bit of this and a bit of that.

Marvel Phillips (the victim) is named after a character from a Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar radio mystery. The character there was Marvel Terrence, and she was also a very rich orphan. I’ve had “Marvel Terrence” in my notebook for quite a while. (How I got from “Terrence” to “Phillips” will be clear to South Park fans).

Sheriff Rhonda is named after Sheriff Rhonda Tate from the excellent Big Finish Dark Shadows serial “Bloodlust.”

Oh, and Madeleine Pontmercy? That’s a reference, or, really, two references to Les Miserables (but you probably knew that).

Dr. Wright, the coroner, is an indirect reference to Doctor Doremus, the original grumpy medical examiner. He was in the Philo Vance books, which were written by S. S. van Dine (which was the pen name of Willard Huntington Wright).

Oh, and Doctor Doremus created the “I’m a doctor, not a _____” thing, much later re-popularized by Doctor McCoy on Star Trek.

My favorite was in The Dragon Murder Case, where Doremus arrives to examine a corpse, only to discover that there isn’t one. The DA explains that he and Vance had had a theory that the corpse would be at the bottom of a pool — a theory which turned out to be false when the pool was drained.

Dr. Doremus protests, “I can’t perform an autopsy on a theory! I’m a coroner, not a philosopher!”

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the marvel murder case (part eight)

This story started here.

“I was surprised that you ceded the town to Sheriff Rhonda, even if it was in exchange for the campus.”

My employer sipped her coffee and raised an eyebrow, waiting to see what I’d say next.

“The body was here, in town; the mystery woman was here, in town; your books are — or perhaps in some cases were — here, in town.”

She nodded. “Well, first of all, that’s what was offered. It would not be polite to accept something which wasn’t offered.”

This time I waited for more from her. She took out and lit a cigarette (she did sometimes light them herself).

“Two things,” she said. “One is that I really want to know more about Marvel Phillips. So many tabloid articles, so many cliches and stereotypes… It looks like she wanted more…”

“Madeleine Pontmercy.”

She smiled. “Yes. Exactly.”

“You think there may be a book in this…”

“It’s a possibility, but, as you know, it’s a grave error to theorize in advance of the facts.”

I waited, then I said, “And the other thing? You did say that there were two.”

“There’s a slight possibility, based on something I read in those newspapers last night, that the solution to the murder doesn’t have anything to do with the campus or the Arkright house.”

She made a gesture I’d seen before, closing that subject, at least for now. She stood up and stubbed out her cigarette. “The jitney’s coming,” she said, and I quickly got to my feet and paid the bill as she limped outside.

The arrangement had not been explicitly stated, of course. There had been a period in the conversation with Sheriff Rhonda when everything had suddenly seemed to be in code (and I was reminded that my employer and the new sheriff were not meeting for the first time).

I did wonder if anybody inside the building could hear us, or if the sheriff was worried that they could.

And so, it was decided, indirectly, that the sheriff would run the investigation in the town, including with the Arkright family, and the visiting amateur detective, along with her assistant, of course, would take primary, unofficial responsibility for the campus and the victim’s life there.

My employer apparently considered this to be a fair resolution, because she made a point of saying, as we left the police station, “I am only too glad to help, Rhonda. I’m aware, of course, that you’re operating under a handicap, compared to Sheriff Baxter, since he had an excellent deputy to rely on. You don’t have her, because she’s now the sheriff.”

When she passed out compliments like that, which was not often, there was usually a reason.

A small bus pulled up in front of the thrift store next to the Wagon Wheel and I followed my employer as she climbed on board.

The driver regarded her sourly. “Dressing pretty fancy these days, I’d say,” he said as he pulled the lever that closed the door.

“Thank you, Mr. Brooke,” she called cheerfully as we sat down. There were a few other people on the bus — they all looked like students and they paid no attention to us.

The jitney drove past the murder house, down the hill, past the bus stop where we’d disembarked, and out onto the highway. It occurred to me that I was still seeing very little of the town. I felt a strong urge to get a map and take a long walk around.

My employer made a grumpy sound. “We’ve done all this work, and it has basically just got us to the starting line.”

She saw my dubious expression, misinterpreted it, and started to defend her position.

“Usually, when you’re trying to find somebody like this, you start out by knowing who you’re looking for. Then you try to figure out how they got where they are. This time, we didn’t even know who we were looking for, until now.”

We’d learned fairly early on that it was a good idea to avoid words like “murder” and “corpse” in situations where we might be overheard. It was never possible to predict the exact reaction we’d get, of course, but it usually wasn’t good.

The misunderstanding had been that I had known what she’d meant by getting to “the starting line.” What I’d questioned, silently, was the idea that we’d done “all this work” to get to where we were now.

We’d had a pleasant afternoon and evening traipsing around the very pleasant town where she’d gone to college. Nobody had shot at us, no bombs had gone off, and we’d had regular meals and slept in comfortable (well, reasonably comfortable) beds. Nobody we’d known, let alone cared about, had died. It hadn’t even rained.

But I also knew, from experience, that trying to straighten out the misunderstanding at this point would have been futile. My function in these conferences was to keep things moving forward, or at least moving in some direction, since I frequently didn’t know which direction “forward” was.

She looked out the window as we turned off the highway and through the gates of the campus.

The bus stopped in front of a large brick building. I couldn’t see the whole campus, which was hilly and covered with trees, but this building was the largest one that was visible, three stories tall and quite wide.

It had been the manor house when this was a private estate, she explained.

A couple of students walked by, dressed rather more modestly than the others we’d seen so far. The young man wore a shirt and tie. He called, “God loves you!” as they passed.

“Unrequitedly, I’m afraid!” my employer called back over her shoulder as we entered the building.

To be continued…

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the marvel murder case (part seven)

This story started here.

Sheriff Rhonda’s secretary led us into her office. She was sitting behind her desk, and she stood up as we came in.

“I’m suggesting we talk outside,” she said to my employer. “Unlike Sheriff Baxter, I’m not going to allow you to smoke in my office, and it’s going to distract us if we waste time on that. We have a murder to solve. Let’s go.”

There was a picnic table in the back yard of the police station, which looked as if it had been a private house at some point. My employer looked at the picnic table and then at me. I went to the back porch and brought over a lawn chair, placing it so that she could sit at the head of the table.

Not that she needed to sit at the head of the table — though she didn’t mind — but the table was the kind with the attached benches, and getting her lame leg under that — and then back out again later — would have been awkward and possibly painful (and almost certainly undignified).

“So,” she said, when we were all seated, “our corpse is Marvel Phillips? The girl from the tabloids?”

Sheriff Rhonda nodded. “Yes. Doctor Wright noticed that she’d had some pretty extensive, and expensive, dental repair work done, fairly recently, so he called around to the local dentists. He found the one who remembered working on her. Under the name Madeleine Pontmercy.”

“Presumably she had items with her initials on them,” my employer murmured.

The secretary brought us a tray with three cups of coffee, cream and sugar, and an ashtray.

“Can you give us a little background on Marvel Phillips?” my employer asked as I poured milk into her coffee. “I’ve seen a few headlines, but we’ve been out of the country for a while and just got back quite recently.”

“She was incredibly rich. Her parents died when she was fifteen. She went to boarding schools, with bankers controlling her fortune until she turned eighteen. At that point, she came into her money, and…”

“Went a little wild, based on newspaper reports,” I said.

She nodded. “That’s about it. Drinking, carousing, parties, yachts, and so on.”

My employer, looking more than usually prim, added, “Performing a variety of activities in public view while dispensing with one or more items of attire that most people would consider essential.”

“Well, she got into a fist fight with a guy… I don’t remember the details, but it went badly for her. That’s when she needed the dental repair work. Apparently she had to spend a little time in the hospital, too, and she seems to have taken stock and decided to make some changes.

“She applied to college here at Claremont. Under her assumed name of Madeleine Pontmercy — I didn’t know about this until today.”

My employer frowned. “Is that usual? Do colleges allow that sort of thing?”

Rhonda shrugged. “Apparently she said that if she graduated without the press finding out, the college would get a new building out of it. Papers were signed.”

“Ah, I can see how that could make a difference. How long has she been enrolled?”

“Since spring semester. She decided to stay for the summer to study… something. Anyway, I’ve been making calls, but I haven’t found out anything from the college yet. The last time she was in class was Tuesday. Apparently the day before she was killed.”

“Did she live on campus? Did she have a roommate?”

“She did live on campus, in a single. It doesn’t seem that anybody remembers if they saw her Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.”

“Did she have classes scheduled on Wednesday?”

“In the afternoon. She missed that class — she was almost certainly dead by then.”

My employer looked thoughtful and lit a cigarette.

“Well,” I said, “two questions occur to me. One: Did she have any connection to the Arkright family? And two: Who inherits her fortune?”

My employer added, “And just to cover all the bases, how exactly did her parents die?”

Rhonda sighed. “We’re looking into the question of any possible connections she might have had to the Arkright family. In terms of the inheritance, the story in the tabloids was always that she had no living relatives, but I have no idea if that’s true. The county attorney is dealing with that. And as for her parents — I have no idea. That was a few years ago — does it matter?”

“Probably not, but…” She spread her hands wide and gave an elaborate shrug. “There’s a lot of money changing hands here.”

“That’s for sure.”

“Any word on the Arkright family?” I asked.

“Yes, in fact. They had given Reverend Deacon a brochure for the resort they were going to, so we’re trying to get a call through now.”

“‘Reverend Deacon’?” my employer asked. She glanced at me for clarification.

She was an ardent atheist, and affected to know even less about religion than she did, so she often looked to me to fill in the gaps in her information.

“I would guess that ‘Deacon’ might be his surname, rather than–”

“Ah, quite so. Of course, if they do come rushing back, they won’t have any place to stay.”

Sheriff Rhonda smiled. “Even if they ‘rush back’ it will be some time before they actually get here. I’m sure we’ll be done with the house by then. And, yes, I’ll let you know the minute the state boys get finished, so you can go in there and poke around yourself.”

“Did Marvel have a car?”

“I’m not sure. I haven’t heard anything about one, but I’ll try to find out. Probably she just took the jitney bus.”

The sheriff paused, trying to read my employer’s expression (which, in reality, had simply been a momentary wince — “jitney bus” was redundant).

Then Rhonda nodded. “I see. She lived on campus. Her body was found in town. If she didn’t have a car, she may have used the jitney bus, and someone may remember her.” She nodded. “So, what are your plans for today?”

To be continued…

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