the town hall mystery (part seven)

This story started here.

 
In the living room of the large, dark house, three people seemed to be standing as far away from each other as they could.

On the window end of the room, where I could see that the sun was now beginning to come out, there was a woman with short hair, wearing jeans, a motorcycle jacket, and a T-shirt. She had apparently been looking out the window, perhaps pointedly demonstrating her indifference to whatever was going on in the room, but she turned to check out the new arrivals (Kate the reporter, Brian the deputy, and me). Once she’d looked us over, she turned back to the window.

An older woman sat against the far wall, in a comfortable armchair. There was a cigarette in an ashtray on a small table beside her, and she was looking at the floor as she listened to a man in a suit. He was standing next to her, leaning over so he could speak to her quietly.

She was dressed in summer wear: solid color T-shirt and baggy shorts, plus flip-flops, but she didn’t look like she was in a vacation mood. Her posture and expression said she was thinking about doing something very serious, like disinheriting a disappointing family member or initiating a small holy war.

On the near wall (to my right, as I stepped into the room, trying to be inconspicuous) was a slender woman with wild red hair — lots of it. She wore a denim skirt, a paint-spattered smock, and bare feet (well, I guess you don’t “wear” bare feet). If the older woman was indeed about to disinherit somebody, this one looked like a likely candidate — though I couldn’t have said why that idea popped into my head.

I focused on the redhead’s hands. They were clean and pale, and, the smock aside, she had evidently not just come from her easel. (I would have bet cash money that the most recent painting she’d done, no matter how long ago, had been artistic rather than household.)

Kate Lane stepped forward and addressed Rhonda.

“Sheriff, I’d like to ask you a few questions–”

The short-haired woman by the window snapped, “At a time like this? Really?”

She stormed out of the room, going through a door by the older woman’s chair, and the older woman shrugged as the door slammed, as if this was not unexpected, and perhaps not unusual, and definitely not unwelcome.

Ignoring the reporter, the sheriff stepped forward and addressed the older woman. “Miss Devane, I’d like to ask–“

Miss Devane was ignoring her, speaking to the man beside her. “Mr. Palmer,” she said, raising her voice slightly, “now that the body of my late brother has been removed, are we under any further obligations to the sheriff and her staff?”

The man, who I now recognized as Rance Potter, a local attorney, straightened up and faced the sheriff. “Sheriff White,” he said, “this family has suffered an unexpected and devastating loss. Since there’s no evidence that Mr. Devane died of anything other than natural causes, we would ask that you leave the family in peace at this time to mourn their loss.”

Sheriff Rhonda nodded, doing a fairly good job of concealing her frustration. “Of course.” She looked around the room. “Please accept my condolences.”

I saw Miss Lane look around the room as the sheriff and her deputy left. Nobody in the room looked like they were about to be doing any mourning, but it also seemed unlikely that they would answer — or even tolerate — questions from a reporter. So, she turned to go also, perhaps deciding that her best bet under the circumstances would be to try again to interview the sheriff.

However, when we got outside, Rhonda already had her car turned around and she was apparently ready to leave. I could hear the other police car going down the hill toward the highway. But the passenger door of Rhonda’s cruiser was open…

Hoping I was reading the situation correctly, I hopped in and closed the door. “Thanks for the ride,” I said cheerfully.

Without looking at me, and without changing her expression, she said, “Seat belt.”

I buckled myself in and we were off.

Usually Rhonda used a brief burble on her siren to cut across the highway, but now she paused, watching the cars speed by, and made a face.

“Okay,” she said finally, and with evident reluctance. “What do you think?”

She saw a break in the traffic and pulled out, turning to the right rather than trying to go clear across to the town center.

 
My employer wrote sitting at a very small table in our rented room. The table was barely large enough for her trusty portable typewriter. She wrote looking out the window at the small inlet across the street, which was full or empty of water, depending on the tide.

I came in and she looked around. She had her fingers still resting on the typewriter keys, but then, as she assessed my expression, she lifted them and turned to face me more fully.

“Is this going to take some time?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Quite possibly.”

She took her cane and got to her feet. “Then let’s talk on the deck.”

We had the deck to ourselves (people seldom used it in the late afternoon). I told her everything that had happened, in detail. She smoked cigarettes, looking out over the small pond behind the inn.

When I was done, she smiled. “You’re clearly trying to distract me from my writing. First the Town Hall fire, and then the dead man who fell, or was pushed, from the roof of the News Store, and now this. Okay, I’m distracted. However, please don’t have anything else happen, at least for the next few hours.”

She didn’t bother to give me time to reply. “I am intrigued by how Rhonda reacted to all of this,” she continued. “Her proposed solution of the death of the unidentified man was, to say the least, predictable. But why did the scene at the Devane house bother her so much?”

“It felt like the family was important — by which I mean rich, powerful, influential — too important for her to try to take charge of the situation without having some solid facts on her side. Something about what she saw clearly bothered her — but apparently there wasn’t anything she could put a finger on, or at least nothing tangible enough for her to feel confident in acting on.”

She nodded. “And it may be a factor that they are an old and established family in this town, but she’s still a very new sheriff.”

“And they did have their lawyer there with them, and he’s pretty established in this area.”

“I wonder if he was called because of the death, after it was discovered, or was he there already, for some other purpose… Rhonda gave no more indication of what she wanted from you?” She held up a hand. “Not that I’m doubting your reporting — of course — but that’s the part which bugs me Well, one part which bugs me. Was she nudging you in the hope that I’d get involved?”

“I don’t think so. In her visualization of the universe, you’re always trying to get involved, and it’s her role to discourage or block you — unless it seems like you might be useful to her in a specific situation. I don’t think the idea of her having to entice you into an investigation would ever occur to her.”

“I expect you’re right about that.” She carefully stubbed out her cigarette in an ashtray and stretched out her long legs in front of her. “So, you have no idea what she’s thinking about all of this?”

I could have pointed out that I’d already made this clear in my report, but she was repeating herself due to frustration — a frustration which I certainly shared, so I just reiterated that Rhonda had dropped her questioning when it had become clear that I knew nothing about the Devane family, and that I was not about to tell her why I had arrived at the family’s house.

After a moment’s silence, I asked, “Do you remember anything about the family, from when you lived here before?”

“Not enough. They haven’t — or at least most of them haven’t — lived here in town for a long time. That house has been pretty famously empty for years (though, of course, that could have been less than accurate). Anyway, my main reason for bringing that up is because, if they weren’t actually here in the area, it means that going to the office of the Claremont Crier and looking through the back issue files might be of limited use.” She shook her head. “I wonder if the staff of our distinguished local university, my alma mater, includes anyone who is an expert on the local area.”

And so it was that our friend Professor Ernst Lebrun drove in from nearby Claremont College so that we could take him out to dinner.

 
To be continued…

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there is a point (and it’s labeled)

This blog post does have a point, but it may take me a little while to get there, so if you get impatient, you can go down to the bold heading that says “The Point.”

In a recent article in The New Yorker, David Letterman is credited with the aphorism “Buy the premise and you’ll enjoy the bit.”

First of all, a correction (I really should email them about this): Johnny Carson was saying “Buy the premise, buy the bit” long before David Letterman ever had a TV show.

However, the more interesting issue here is that I’ve recently become even more aware of how true this is, at least for me, with characters.

I talked recently about my lack of connection with most of the Marvel movie characters.

As I said, the movie (Endgame) offers much fan service. The middle third of the movie has most of the major characters traveling back in time to various different eras, thereby popping up in the middle of scenes from earlier movies in the series. I was only mildly engaged by this, and, based on what I’ve read online, I missed a lot of the references anyway.

But it occurred to me more recently that Endgame was not the first story I’ve enjoyed recently which used time travel in this way. Earlier this year, Big Finish released a new Dark Shadows audio serial called Bloodline. It starts in the present, with a huge cast (around forty actors playing around seventy-five characters), and in the middle section various characters are sent (involuntarily) back into the past — into earlier episodes in the series.

I enjoyed this tremendously, and in almost all of the cases I knew who the characters were and remembered at least some of their history and relationships. And some of the characters were never introduced by name — you had to recognize the voices.

Fan service can be much more rewarding when you’re actually a fan, and when there’s a good story.

Speaking of voices, the Big Finish website doesn’t list the actors for this story, because many are intended to be a surprise, but some are more surprising than others:

Barnabas Collins and his long-time friend Dr. Julia Hoffman are now living their lives in different bodies (original actors Jonathan Frid and Grayson Hall being dead), but at the end of this story they magically get their original bodies back, and their final scene is pasted together, and quite well, from scraps of dialogue from the TV show (there were over a thousand episodes of the show, so a lot of raw material was available).

That was very moving, and definitely wouldn’t have been the same if I’d been expecting it.

There were a couple of amusing father-and-son things in Bloodline, by the way (we’re now getting to the point where you may want to skip ahead to The Point — if you want).

1) David Selby played Quentin Collins on Dark Shadows back on TV, and still does on the audios, and Quentin was very fond of his nephew Jamison Collins, so much so that Selby named his own son Jamison. Jamison Selby has been on the Dark Shadows audios for a while, playing Ed Griffin, who runs the Blue Whale bar (and who hates Quentin Collins), but in the most recent story, in one of the past eras, he also played Jamison Collins. I’ll bet that doesn’t happen very often — that an actor plays the fictional character he was named after.

2) The previous story, Bloodlust (not to be confused with Bloodline) introduced a lot of new characters, including Cody Hill and his father Dr. Richard Hill. They didn’t have any scenes together (as far as I can remember) and they were played by the same actor, which works fine in audio. Probably made it more difficult in the newer story, though, since they did have scenes together.

3) Speaking of Cody Hill, here’s an inside joke that made me laugh:

Cody’s friend Jackie has decided that his nickname is “Eagle,” but nobody calls him that except her.

In the Bloodlust story, his last name is never mentioned, but we can assume it’s “Hill” because that’s his father’s name.

Which would make him “Eagle Hill,” according to Jackie.

“Eagle Hill” is the name of the town’s cemetery.

This joke is never explained. You have to figure it out.

Okay, now it’s time for the point.

 
The Point

I wrote before about being less than engaged by the fact that various characters died in Infinity War, since I knew they would come back. And they did, mostly. And then I got all snooty in the vein of: “I write mystery stories, which are better because when people die they stay dead” and so on.

But people die in Dark Shadows and come back. And, yes, you could make an argument that resurrection is more forgivable in a supernatural-based universe (Angelique, on Dark Shadows, has been alive and dead and alive again quite a few times over the last few centuries, and I wouldn’t have it any other way).

But, science vs. magic aside, the real difference is that I bought the premise — and the characters — of Dark Shadows back around 1969, so I’m on for the ride (and apparently there are enough of us that Big Finish can keep on pulling together all those tons of actors from time to time to make it all happen again).

It’s always a mistake to try to generate overall theories based mostly on your own personal preferences. My premise in the earlier post: “there’s no reason to care about what happens to characters if even death is temporary”?

Nah.

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journals, with a bullet

I was somewhat interested when I read this:

Can Bullet Journaling Save You?

I remembered that Maggie, over at Maggie Madly Writing wrote about bullet journals a while back.

So, I read the New Yorker article in that casual way you read about other people’s obsessions, the ones that you’re pretty sure you’ll never share. You know, like collecting porcelain figurines, or visiting every state capital, or tidying.

And that was pretty much the case. Bullet journaling seems to be focused around having only one journal and To Do list, with everything neatly organized and cross-referenced.

My two main objections, on a visceral level, would be 1) what if I get confused and mark something the wrong way, or write something in cursive that I should have written in block letters (even apart from whether I even remember how to write in cursive), and 2) (this is the big one) what if I get everything all perfectly organized into one book, one supremely curated Book of Me, and then I lose it, or it’s stolen, or… AARRGH! (as Charlie Brown used to say).

So, no.

But the New Yorker piece did have this.

“I just love crossing things off a list,” Barlettano said. “I used to put things on my to-do list after I’ve done them, just so that I can cross them out.”

I always get (very mildly) alarmed when I read about somebody doing this, since it makes it seem like it might be unusual in some way. I mean, everybody does that, right?

Later: Writing in multiple notebooks always reminds me of Agatha Christie, who started a new notebook for every story, and then she left them around the house. Wherever she was sitting on a particular day, she picked up the notebook that was nearest to her and worked on that story.

Seems sensible to me.

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anniversaries

I always miss my blog anniversary these days. It was August 21st — and on that day this blog was 14 years old. During that time, I have written 857 blog posts (!) and a few pages. Plus some posts and pages over here: utownwriting.com and here: utownwriting.com/stevie1.

Here’s the first blog post: “A New Blog

But we’re also getting closer to another anniversary — next year it will be 30 years since I started my first novel (A Sane Woman), and 15 since I finished it. (I was about 45 when I decided that reaching 50 years old with two (2) unfinished novels no (zero) finished ones was just intolerable.)

I’d been writing for 15 years before I started A Sane Woman, but there was nothing that I wanted to finish. But what really changed was that I came up with the idea of publishing A Sane Woman myself, in little monthly chapbooks.

But they cost more to produce than I could charge for them, so the more people who bought them the more money I lost.

But then I heard about BBSs. I could join BBSs and upload my stories, and people might read them. And it didn’t cost anything. But A Sane Woman didn’t work in that format — the pacing was wrong. So, I started another novel that would (which is why, all those years later, I had two unfinished and no (zero) finished novels — but that was solved by finishing them).

And since then I’ve pushed to finish everything I’ve started, and my track record has been pretty good — not 100%, but I’ve only abandoned one (though now I see how I could go with it…) and put one away after finishing it because the story went in the wrong direction.

There are times, with some stories, that I say, paraphrasing Nero Wolfe, “I was a witling to start this story. All I can do is flounder around in the slush.” But posting the first half of a story online is a great motivation to push ahead finish the darn thing.

Persistence: a theme of this blog since the beginning and before: “Keep a-goin’

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the town hall mystery (part six)

This story started here.

 
Leaving the hospital, I decided to walk along the side of the highway to Sunshine Housewares. It was about a quarter of a mile, taking me back toward the town center. Walking would save me another cab fare, of course, but I quickly realized that the highway wasn’t designed for pedestrians.

Not only was there no sidewalk, but mostly I was walking in a slight trough, apparently designed to help rain water drain from the highway surface. It was full of rocks, some of them large, and there were times when I found it difficult to move along, but next to the trough was a row of spiny hedges.

As I made my way along, I started calculating again whether we could afford to buy a car.

Arriving finally, with some relief, at the parking lot of the store, I stopped and looked up at the sky. It was getting darker, and I could feel the air change. I started toward the front door, quickly accelerating to a sprint so I could get inside before the heavens opened.

 
“I have a question, about Rabson keys–“

“I can make the keys,” the clerk said slowly, gesturing at the machine, “but there’s not much call for them — not around here. Other than the–” He looked like he’d been about to jerk a thumb back over his shoulder, but then he’d thought better of it.

I nodded as if I hadn’t noticed this. “Thanks,” I said, and I turned to go.

It was still pouring rain, but the ferocity of the downpour suggested that it might not last long, so I bought a bottle of soda and stood outside, under the overhang, waiting for it to stop.

In this position, I couldn’t see what was behind the store, but I knew the area well from my trips to and from nearby Claremont College on the jitney.

There was a substantial hill behind the store, so abrupt that I guessed it had been man-made, perhaps as part of leveling the land for the highway.

The house on the top of the hill had apparently stood there on the bluff, overlooking the highway, for a long time. I suddenly wondered whether it had been there before there had even been a highway. It was, I knew, a familiar landmark, often invoked when giving directions to the town center. If you passed the house on your right, that meant you’d just overshot the turnoff on your left.

I’d always heard it called the Devane house, probably after the original owners, but I had no idea who owned it now. Apparently I should have been asking more questions.

 
As I walked up the steep hill along the narrow road, the smell of the recent rain was all around me. It was quite pleasant, though the air was somewhat more humid now. But then I heard a car behind me, moving slowly up the hill, accompanied by the impatient burble of a siren.

I jumped into the bushes at the side of the road, and Sheriff Rhonda White slowed to look at me as she passed. I got the impression that the sight of me wasn’t filling her heart with joy.

I followed the car, of course, but I didn’t rush.

As I reached the driveway of the house, a narrow lane between thick trees, another police car came up behind me, and there was another immediately behind that, coming from the opposite direction, from the beach road. I stepped aside to let them pass. There was an ambulance parked in the small lot already.

Whatever had happened in or around the house, it was obviously of some importance, but so far I had no idea what it might have been. So, it was time to poke around a bit.

I had taken my time walking up the hill, hoping that Rhonda would go inside the house before I appeared, but she was standing on the porch when I got there, talking to a paramedic.

The house was dark, even though the sun was out, at least for the moment. It had long eaves which shaded the porch that wrapped around the big, square building on the three sides that I could see.

Rhonda saw me and gestured, making it clear that I should stay where I was.

After a few moments, she came over to me. “I’m going to hate myself for asking this,” she said, “but is your boss here?”

“No.” I shrugged. “At least not to my knowledge. She is a wily and unpredictable character, after all.”

She didn’t bother to roll her eyes at this. She turned and motioned to one of her deputies.

“Brian! You see O’Connor here? Make sure he stays here.” She pointed at a specific spot on the ground, then she turned and went back up the stairs to the porch.

“Do I get to make a phone call?” I called after her.

She ignored me and went into the house.

After a few minutes, two paramedics came out, transporting a gurney with a body on it, It was apparently male, based on the shape under the sheet. Everything about what they were doing and how they were doing it said that this was a corpse, so I didn’t bother asking.

They loaded the gurney into the ambulance and drove off. I heard a couple of horn honks from down the hill, out of my sight, indicating that a car was trying to come up the one-lane road while the ambulance was driving down to the highway.

I gestured at the steps, asking Brian if I could sit down. He shrugged, so I did, but then a car I recognized came up and I stood again.

I had met Kate Lane before — she was a reporter for the Claremont Crier newspaper. She parked her car in the space that the ambulance had just vacated (the parking area in front of the house was pretty crowded at this point). She got out and trotted toward the house, pad and pen in hand. “Hey,” she said as she zipped by us, not slowing as Brian made a halfhearted gesture, obviously trying to decide whether he should stop her or not.

A moment later, Sheriff Rhonda called “Brian!” from inside the house, so he went in, and I followed him, as quietly as I could, noting on my way that the lock on the front door was indeed a Rabson.

 
To be continued…

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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 coroner — 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 blue 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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