the heron island mystery (part eight)

This story started here.

There was a large bowl with fresh fruit in the kitchen of Heron House. I took an apple and a banana and brought them out to the deck, where my employer was sitting and smoking. I felt virtuous because I had not taken the peach. It had smelled wonderful — perfectly ripe and ready to eat — but it had been the only one.

I had offered to get something for my employer, but she had declined. She would have accepted a cup of coffee, I knew, but I wasn’t comfortable making myself at home to the extent of brewing a pot of coffee. I wondered how long it was going to be before we (or at least I) got a real meal.

“Where is everybody?” she asked, looking out at the water.

“Interviews are happening on the second floor,” I told her. “On the far side of the house.”

One of us was about to comment that this was undoubtedly to try to keep the snoopy lady detective on the deck from eavesdropping, but then the door to the living room opened and a red-headed woman joined us. She’d greeted Rhonda and me when we’d arrived, but I hadn’t learned her name.

She grinned. “The sheriff had better be willing to interrogate me at ground level.” She wheeled herself over to us. “Do you think all of this will take a while?” She gestured at the second floor windows.

My employer held out her hand, smiling. “My name is Jan Sleet. I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“I’m Elsa,” she said, leaning forward to shake her hand. “Welcome to Heron House — I guess that’s what I’m supposed to say.”

My employer gestured at me. “This is Marshall, my assistant. And I have no idea how long the questioning will go on. Mary has requested that we stay and be present when the sheriff gets to her.” She smiled. “I get the sense that the word ‘interrogate’ might be a bit strong, but I could be wrong about that. We’ll find out.”

I had stood when Elsa had joined us, of course, but now I sat again, feeling rather awkward. My employer noted this, and it clearly amused her, but she didn’t comment.

“So, Mary’s your client?” Elsa asked, smiling. She seemed to be enjoying herself.

My employer shook her head as she stubbed out her cigarette. “Oh, no. I’m not a private investigator — I couldn’t take on a client even if I wanted one. No, we’re just… concerned citizens.” She suppressed a grin. “A nosy reporter and a concerned citizen, I suppose. As a nosy reporter, may I ask you some questions?”

Elsa shrugged. “Sure. I didn’t know the dead guy very well, but if I can help I will.”

“How well did you know him?”

“Not at all, really. He came to parties here sometimes, and I could tell he was checking out all the female flesh, but I obviously wasn’t his type.” She tapped the arm of her wheelchair. “I was invisible to him, apparently.” She laughed. “Which was absolutely fine with me, I can tell you.”

“As far as you could see, was there something — anything more happening with any of your roommates, or any other regular guests at the parties?”

“I guess you mean… No. I…” She made a face. “I don’t think so.”

To be continued…

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phones, ‘phones, and telephones

I enjoyed this article in the New Yorker: “An Elegy for the Landline in Literature.”

I’ve dealt with cell phones in my writing by never writing about them. Poof — they don’t exist. Likewise for computers and the web and so on. It’s not fun, so I’m not doing it.

Sue Grafton, who wrote the Kinsey Millhone mysteries, did the same thing, Every book in the series covered a few months in the detective’s life, and every book took a year to write, so Kinsey — moving into the future much more slowly then the rest of us from her beginning in 1982 — never did make it into the PC era (okay, maybe she did near the end — I confess I never read the last few books).

When my stories were taking place in U-town, it was easy because there were no telephones there at all. What a pleasure for a writer. (Not that I mind cell phones and computers in the real world — quite the opposite — but they’re tedious to write and read about.) 

In the stories I’m writing now, there are telephones (still no computers, though — we’re in a more “civilized” part of the world but even earlier in time), and recently I was doing edits and deciding whether “phone” or “telephone” was more appropriate in a specific sentence. This reminded me of the Philo Vance mysteries, written a century ago, when it was proper to write “phone” with an apostrophe (‘phone) — to acknowledge the elision. And then, much later, “phone” meant telephone, and “cell phone” meant cell phone. And now “phone” means cell phone, and we have to use “landline” for a telephone (or ‘phone).

(This didn’t really happen with email, by the way, much to the disappointment of some. In the early days of the internet, among the cognoscenti, “mail” meant “email” and that other mail was “snail mail.” But people still say “email” for email, and now email itself has become unhip, with all the more modern technology that is coming along.)

I still like writing (and reading) face-to-face conversations. And, as the child of librarians, I like writing about research being done in libraries, with the assistance of librarians, rather than with Google and Wikipedia.

Of course, for a lot of people these days, if you talk about living without all these modern “conveniences,” their response is something along the lines of “How can you people live this way?

From the New Yorker article: “The landline is a source of suspense, of great and small action; it is the noise of the world entering almost supernaturally into a room. In fiction, it is a cherished and endangered device, one full of possibility. It could, after all, be anyone calling.”

And the caller could be trying to reach anyone who lives in that household. I remember once, decades ago, calling my girlfriend and her mother picking up the phone. They had very similar voices, so I chatted along, thinking I was talking to my girlfriend, and her mother chatted along (she had mistaken me for an acquaintance of hers) and I don’t remember exactly how we got out of the conversation once we realized the mistakes we were making, but we managed — somewhat awkwardly, as I recall, but without permanent damage.

In somewhat-unrelated news, I’m slowly catching up with Game of Thrones (backwards, which I’ll write about at some point). It is refreshingly free of telephones (of all kinds). To make my earlier point about face-to-face conversations, I particularly enjoyed this scene, where Jon Snow and Sansa Stark, hoping to get military assistance in retaking their home, meet with the irresistible force and immovable object that is Lady Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island.

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the heron island mystery (part seven)

This story started here.

At that moment, Mrs. Jessup came in with a tray with four big mugs of hot chocolate. She distributed them, and Mary and I took a sip as Mrs. Jessup sat down on the sofa.

My employer noted that our landlady had joined us, but she didn’t comment. After all, it was Mrs. Jessup’s house, and she had opened her parlor for our use outside of the regularly scheduled hours.

“Did the Loomis family stay at the house during last summer?” my employer asked. She sipped her hot chocolate, to be polite (she didn’t like hot chocolate), and then she put the mug on the table.

Mary frowned. “I don’t think so. I applied over the summer, and they were very relaxed about when I could move in.”

“So, you’re new in the house?”

“Yes. I didn’t like the dorms last year, and now I’m a sophomore and I can live off-campus, so it looked like a good deal. My parents… they were okay with it when I told them it was all girls. The other girls–“

My employer held up a hand. “Before we get too far into the details, we should make sure that this is actually going to be worth my time and attention. Why are you here?”

Now she hesitated, “We’re afraid the house is haunted.”

“And you’re hoping I’ll come in and lay the ghost?” She shrugged. “The idea of being a ghost hunter sounds amusing — mildly amusing — but I have actual, serious work to do. I have an article I’m writing, and a book that I need to get back to.”

“We already have a ghost hunter, actually, a guy named Manfred, and I don’t trust him.”

That got my employer’s attention, though she tried to conceal her reaction.

“Manfred?” she said slowly. “I’ve heard of him. He was… something of a sensation when I was a student. He had written a book — which I confess I never read — about spirits and hauntings and whatnot, and he made some specific claims about some of the buildings at the college. Which were never proved, as far as I can remember. The oldest buildings were part of a family estate, before it was a college — those may have been the ones he was investigating.”

She made a face.

“Is he still hanging around — Manfred? He was not a student, or a professor (though I got the idea that he wanted to be some sort of teacher or something like that — but he lacked qualifications, to say the least), so I rather assumed that he would move on at some point, when he’d exhausted the supply of ready suckers in this area.

“He was still around when I left college, but people were starting to get sick of him — or maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part. So, why is he… what purpose is he serving now?”

“He’s hunting ghosts. And it looks like we have them, on the island.”

“Evidence? Is there actual evidence?”

She shrugged. It was hard to tell if she was about to defend a theory that she knew my employer wouldn’t take seriously, or a theory that she didn’t believe herself. I had the impression that she believed it more than she would be willing to admit in front of this particular audience.

“There are things that we can’t explain. Not a lot, but regular, on a regular basis. Things vanish, in the house, and we search all over, decide somebody walked off with them, and later they show up, in unexpected places. Creepy writing appears on the blackboard in the kitchen, where we make shopping lists, but then it vanishes right away.”

My employer made a face, as if she was disappointed that this “evidence” was so paltry.

“There have also been odd noises at night, from time to time, and then we find icky, slimy footprints in the morning. And one girl who lived there last semester saw a ghost, or said she did.”

My employer’s mood seemed to perk up.

To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part six)

This story started here.

Mrs. Jessup came to the rescue. Apparently deciding that her duty to a guest outweighed her annoyance at being bullied into opening her parlor, she said, “What’s your name, dear? And would you like some hot chocolate? It’s a nasty night out there.”

“I’m Mary,” our visitor said hesitantly, as if she was afraid of being contradicted (although my employer had already addressed her by name). “From the college. Claremont College. And we really should go right away…” She gestured at the door, but she obviously knew that her suggestion wasn’t going to be accepted.

“I’ll make the hot chocolate,” Mrs. Jessup said as we all went into the parlor. She continued through to the kitchen as I took Mary’s raincoat and scarf and hung them up in the hall.

We sat with her at the small breakfast table, and my employer sighed as she realized that our right to use the parlor would be rescinded, immediately, if she lit a cigarette.

“So, Mary,” I said, “what brings you out on this very unpleasant evening? I’m Marshall, by the way.”

“I…” she began. She made a face, and I remember thinking, perhaps unkindly, that, after all this buildup, this had better turn out to be interesting.

“I was Diana’s roommate, as you said, but I don’t live in the dorm anymore. It’s…” She shrugged.

“The dorms are not ideal,” my employer said. “I know that from experience. Where are you living now?”

“It’s an island, near the college. There’s a road, but it’s underwater at high tide, and sometimes during storms–”

“Heron Island. I’m familiar with it. So, your urgency a few moments ago was because it’s nearing the cutoff time, when access to the island will no longer be possible until tomorrow morning?”

Mary nodded. “And the phone lines are down, and the electricity is out. Because of the storm.”

My employer got to her feet and limped to the tide table which was posted on the wall, as if she doubted our visitor’s assessment of the situation.

“Is the house haunted?” my employer asked over her shoulder. “That’s what I’ve heard.”

Mary seemed surprised by the question — I guessed she’d been ready to bring this up herself and fight for the possibility against opposition from the notoriously atheistic detective.

My employer came back to the table and continued as if Mary had actually responded.

“Why do people think that it’s haunted, and why is the situation suddenly so urgent that you have come out on this brutal evening to seek my assistance?”

“The house is supposed to be haunted–”

My employer shook her head. “If you want me to investigate a haunting–“

“No, but I need to explain the situation at the house.”

My employer waved a hand.

“Heron House — that’s the name of the house — was the first house built on the island. It’s very old. Back then, when the entire island was owned by the Loomis family, there wasn’t a road — the only way on or off the island was by boat. The family owned a fishing fleet, and the house overlooks the harbor, so they could see their ships coming and going. Then, during the Depression (I think this is the history — I haven’t really researched it, so it’s mostly just what people have told me) the family lost all their money and they had to sell most of the land on the island, other than their house and the property right around it. That’s when the town built the road, so the island would be at least somewhat accessible by car.

“Then, some time after that, the surviving son of the family died suddenly, and some distant relatives inherited the property. They live on the West Coast, or somewhere, and they decided that it would make a nice summer place for them, but they wanted to make some money from it, too, so they hired a local realtor to rent out rooms to college students during the fall and spring semesters, and then they’d use it themselves in the summer.”

“From what I’ve heard, this was not popular with the other residents of the island,” my employer put in.

Mary laughed, which surprised me, since she’d looked alternately worried and morose every minute since her arrival. “I’ll say. They’re a very snooty bunch, as far as I can tell. (Of course, they never actually talk to any of us unless they have to.)”

“But if looks could kill..”

“Yeah. Now the house is all girls, which may be a compromise or something–“

“Is that an official policy?”

She shook her head. “Not as far as I know. Guys do apply, but they’re always turned down — last semester and this. Everybody kind of knows at this point.”

My employer smiled. “Girls being more ladylike and demure, of course, and much less inclined toward riotous misbehavior. My friends at the school have told me about the house. As I’m sure you know, it’s a pretty regular routine at this point: Girls get sick of the dorms, move to the house when there’s an open room, which there often is, then they get scared by all the goings-on, or they discover that they don’t actually want to live in such a… libidinous environment after all, and then they move quickly back to the dorms, leaving an open room for the next girl to move in.”

To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part five)

This story started here.

My employer and I had been comfortably ensconced in our warm, cozy room for the evening. We each had a cup of coffee, and she was smoking her pipe.

Things were usually pretty informal in Claremont, Massachusetts, where we were living, but I knew that Jan Sleet, the amateur detective and “intrepid gal reporter” (as it said on her business cards), was not about to adjust her personal style toward being even slightly less formal. After all, the last two places we’d traveled together had been New York City and Bellona — the latter a South American country in the middle of a civil war — and she’d always dressed in elegant three-piece suits in both locations. So, I knew that living in a beach town was not going to change her habits in the slightest.

This was not only when in public, either. Even when we were alone in our room of an evening, with no plans to go out and no visitors expected, her vest remained buttoned, her tie remained in its proper position, and her shoes (or, really, her custom-made, ankle-high boots) remained on. So, if we did happen to get an unexpected visitor, even on a dark and stormy night like this one, she was ready.

“We do need to do something about my books,” she said suddenly, looking up from her newspaper.

My first reaction was to glance at the window, as another bolt of lightning split the darkened sky, and wind and rain continued to shake the glass in its frame.

She smiled and reached out to tap my forearm. “Not now!” she said playfully, as if she’d been about to order me out into the storm to deal with the cartons of her books which were still in the Arkright family’s garage.

Of course, I hadn’t thought any such thing — well, at least not after I’d considered it for a few seconds.

There was a knock on our door as I turned my attention back to my book. My employer considered calling out, “What is it, Mrs. Jessup?” (which would not have counted as a great deduction since nobody else was in the building and there was a storm outside), but then she stuck out her tongue at me as I went and opened the door.

It was indeed our landlady. I had an urge to say, “Why, Sheriff Rhonda, what a pleasant surprise!” — since my employer couldn’t see the hall from where she was sitting — but I resisted.

“I’m sorry to bother you both,” Mrs. Jessup said as I gestured her into the room, “but there’s a young lady downstairs and she says it’s very important that she see you.”

My employer grabbed her cane and got to her feet. “Absolutely,” she said, limping toward the door. As Mrs. Jessup turned to step back into the hall and out of the way, my employer asked, “Is it possible that we could use the parlor?”

Mrs. Jessup was clearly somewhat surprised by this sudden eagerness for company (as was I, I freely admit) and she’d barely managed to say, “Yes, of course,” before my employer was halfway down the stairs.

I shrugged and followed her down. Mrs. Jessup trailed behind and unlocked the door to the parlor as we greeted the visitor in the hallway.

“Jan Sleet,” my employer said as she shook our visitor’s hand. “We’ve never met, obviously, but your roommate, Diana, is a good friend of mine. Did she send you here to talk to me, Mary? Or was it Professor Lebrun? I believe you’re in one of his classes.” She gestured at the open door of the parlor.

Both our visitor and our landlady looked somewhat overwhelmed, but, of the two, our visitor looked less likely to recover quickly. She was young, slender (as far as I could tell under her raincoat), blonde, and drenched.

“It would be easier if we talked on the way,” she said, gesturing outside. “I have my car–”

My employer held up her hand, her expression growing stern. She stepped forward, looking down on our visitor, and said, “You have caught my attention, on a slow evening when I have no pressing responsibilities, but you are a stranger. My welcome extends to listening to your problem, but no further, at least so far.”

There was an awkward moment as our visitor tried to pull herself together, and I started to get the idea that some of the water on her face might have been tears.

“At this moment,” my employer continued, “you have three options. None of them involve me leaving this house now. The options are–” She held up a bony finger, not allowing our visitor to speak.

“One: If someone is in immediate danger, or some other disaster is imminent, then you should call the police immediately.” She tapped the telephone next to her.

“Two: Let’s step into the parlor.” She gestured in that direction. “We can sit down and talk. You can explain why you’re here, and I can ask questions.

“Three: Not to be rude, but your third option is to go home.”

She raised an eyebrow, waiting.

Her relentless approach had originally made our visitor more tense as she tried to interrupt, but then she started to calm down.

I had seen this before, and I’d never been sure if my employer’s tendency to browbeat people in these situations (when she thought she could get away with it) was actually intended to achieve this result — calming the person down and asserting that the great detective could solve whatever crisis was at hand — or whether she didn’t care one way or the other.

Our visitor seemed to be frozen, and I had the idea that she was stuck between option two (staying) and option three (leaving). Her expression as she’d glanced at the telephone had told me that calling the police was not something she was considering.

To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part four)

This story started here.

Once she’d finished her surveillance of the situation on the beach below, my employer had put down the binoculars, resumed her seat, finished her coffee, and, as far as I could tell, eaten her tiny muffin. At least, by the time I made it back up to Heron House the muffin was gone, and she was alone on the deck. If she had eaten the muffin herself, then something must have been going in a direction that pleased her.

(I’d again traveled by way of the neighbor’s yard — the stairs had looked even worse from the beach than they had from the deck.)

The next few hours were pretty standard. Rhonda had made a radio call to headquarters and an ambulance had arrived quickly, followed by deputies and a photographer.

My employer relocated to the front room and watched all of the activity with interest. She was basically motionless, looking out through the window, except for occasional forays back to the deck to reacquaint herself with the situation down on the beach. But then, when the dead man’s body was on the front lawn, covered with a tarpaulin, she quickly got to her feet, limped outside, and kneeled to examine the body.

The deputy who was apparently in charge protested, and she stood and told him to check with his boss, the sheriff, if he had any doubts about her authority in this matter. She did not say, explicitly, that she had permission to make an examination of the body, but she strongly implied it. He seemed unsure, and she gestured impatiently, looking stern. He must have been impressed by all this, because he scurried off, rather than using the radio on his belt.

By the time Rhonda came up to see what was going on, the body had been loaded onto the ambulance, which was gone. My employer was leaning against a tree, smoking a pipe, looking once again as if she was having a very pleasant morning, thanks so much for asking.

The sheriff looked around. “Where is everybody?”

“Inside, probably in the kitchen,” my employer said. “Something was mentioned about breakfast.”

Rhonda nodded. “We’re going to start interviewing the residents now. I want to talk to you, also — to find out why you’re here — but that will be after the others. If you don’t want to stick around — if you’d like to go and get some breakfast — I could stop by your place later…”

Her voice trailed off because my employer was still smiling.

“We have been asked to stay, by Miss Mary Sanders, the young lady who invited us here in the first place.” She gestured with her cane. “We’ll wait on the deck. Whenever you’re ready for us.” She smiled again. Rhonda’s expression was noncommittal, which was probably the best she could manage at that moment.

I followed my employer down the narrow path that ran beside the house. She walked slowly and carefully — the ground was quite muddy. After we climbed the three wooden steps to the deck, she looked down at the state of her boots and frowned, but she didn’t say anything.

When we were seated, I waited a moment, then I said, “You seem pretty sanguine about how things are going so far.”

She shook her head, and her expression told me that she had just made a joke about the multiple meanings of the word “sanguine” three days before and she wasn’t about to make another one this soon.

Given a choice at that moment between information and breakfast, I would have chosen breakfast. However, since no food was being offered, information was better than nothing.

I tried another tack. “Were you expecting Manfred to be dead? Is that why we’re here?”

She looked at me with some surprise. “No, not at all. I had no idea he was even on the island (though the fact that he was here is interesting), but it did seem possible — perhaps even likely — that some crime was being planned for last night.”

To be continued…

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