the heron island mystery (part three)

This story started here.

The large deck across the back of Heron House looked like a stage set for some reason — like that moment when the curtain goes up and the actors are just about to start doing things.

There were railings on the three open sides, with one small staircase in the left corner. That led to a narrow path which went beside the house to the parking area in front.

Near the staircase, leaning back in a wicker chair with her long legs extended in front of her as if she didn’t have a care in the world, was my employer. There was a mug of coffee on the small glass table next to her, and a tiny muffin on a large plate. She was not eating the muffin, but it was in the exact center of the plate. I had the idea that she had placed it there as part of setting this scene.

Mary, who had brought the case to us the night before, was standing by the edge of the deck, near the center of the long side that overlooked the beach. Two other women, Jo and the taller woman who had been with her on the road, were standing on the far side of the deck from my employer. It appeared that they’d been talking intently, but now they were frozen in silence, apparently because of the sudden arrival of the sheriff.

“Greetings, Rhonda,” my employer said with a smile. “The body is down on the beach.” She gestured with her cigarette, and then she looked at me. “The staircase is rather steep and appears to be precarious, so I’ll be interested to see…”

Her voice trailed off as Rhonda elbowed me in the ribs and jerked her head toward the front of the house. I followed her out.

“I’ve been here before,” she said. “When I was a deputy. The staircase down to the beach is a horror show. I think they keep it just to freak people out, especially the drunks. But there are other ways to get down there. We’ll have to cut through the neighbor’s property, but she won’t complain.”

We walked along a narrow path that seemed to be mostly theoretical, tightly hemmed in by pine trees, and she said quietly, “Is she making progress, do you think? Progress she’s not ready to share with you, or me?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

She smiled. “Of course you don’t.”

We came out of the woods into the yard of a smaller cottage with a well-trimmed and pleasant lawn. A woman in a sweatshirt, baggy shorts, and beach sandals looked up from some flower beds and stood, apparently startled. “Sheriff–“

Rhonda, not slowing, looking very serious and sheriff-y, breezed past her and led me behind the house.

This house was on a lower bluff than Heron House, so we were closer to the beach, and the path was made of stones, with a rope to hold onto as we made our way down.

On the beach, we walked back toward Heron House. The beach was wide and smooth with the tide out, about twenty feet down to the edge of the water.

We could see the body as soon as we stepped toward the water. It was a black mound in the almost trackless sand.

Not that the sand was pristine — the high tide and the storm had swept in bracken and dead crabs and some other things that I couldn’t identify. This detritus went up to the edge of the rise that led up to the houses, indicating, to my inexpert eye, that the high tide the night before had covered the whole beach in this area.

As we got closer to the body, Rhonda gestured at a specific point on the beach, clearly telling me that I was to get that close and no closer. I complied. I knew Rhonda well enough by this point to be able to tell when she was open to jokes and teasing, and when she wasn’t.

From that vantage point, I was able to see the impressions of footprints between the body and the “staircase” that led up to Heron House. They were the only footprints that I could see.

It was interesting to watch Rhonda examine the body. It was the first time I’d really had the opportunity to watch her in that process, and she seemed to know what she was doing. She could be pretty breezy when talking about death, at least with me (“So, you’ve got a body?”), but she was very serious about her actual work. There were no jokes now.

What I noticed first about the dead man, from my distance, was that he was almost certainly not a college student, and he didn’t look like a local. He was probably in his late thirties or early forties, wearing a black suit and a pale blue shirt. He had a small beard and mustache — very well trimmed.

He might have been a college professor, and I reflected that he was probably the only person on Heron Island in a suit and tie — other than my employer, of course.

His outfit wasn’t up to her standards, though. His black suit jacket had silver threads throughout, but it looked cheap and tacky, even apart from the damage it had taken from being on the beach during a rainstorm. It was the sort of jacket that looked more impressive on a stage than it did in real life.

I had a sudden tightness in my throat. I’d had the same sensation almost exactly a year before, in another country, and it had led me to shove my employer into a ditch, saving her life from a sniper’s bullet.

I looked up, and I saw someone on the Heron House deck, leaning over the railing and watching us with binoculars.

To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part two)

This story started here.

I was not going to start knocking on people’s doors and asking to use their phones. Not when they would hear what I was saying and then probably ask questions that I would not be able to answer — and then possibly start calling their friends and family to spread rumors.

Also, I knew that driving just a few minutes more would get me to the campus of Claremont College, where there were pay phones.

(My employer had said that she was going to take charge of the crime scene until the police arrived, but I knew that she was not going to be impatient for them to actually get there.)

The next question was who to call. It was still early — did Sheriff Rhonda get to her desk this early? Would it be better to call her direct number, which she had given me, or the main number of the police station?

I was definitely not going to call the sheriff at home, because she’d never given me that number. I knew it, although it was unlisted, because we’d been to her house and I’d seen her telephone, but it would have been rude to call it.

The main building at the college was not yet open, but the pay phone in front wasn’t being used, so I parked there, in front of a No Parking sign, and called Claremont Police headquarters. I identified myself, named my employer, and said that we’d heard a report of a murder on Heron Island.

I was put on hold for a few moments, then Rhonda picked up.

“Marshall,” she said.


“You’ve got a dead body? I thought the phones on the island were out — we’ve been getting calls for the last ten minutes.”

I thought of commenting that the officer who’d answered my call should have made more careful notes.

“The phones are out, from what I’ve heard, and I definitely do not have a dead body, nor have I seen one. I–”

“Where are you now?”

“Pay phone, in front of the Shepherd Building, Claremont College–”

“I’m coming. Wait there.”

I calculated how long it would take for her to arrive, factoring in how fast she could drive, and quickly trotted across the road to the cafeteria. I bought a cup of coffee and a danish and carried them back to the car as I heard a siren approaching. I got into the car and started it up.

Rhonda frowned as she pulled up next to me. I rolled down my window.

“Your car?” she asked. She glanced at the No Parking sign.

“Nope,” I replied. “One of the women who lives in the house where the reported murder reportedly took place.”

She made a face. “Park it somewhere. Somewhere legal, if possible. You’re coming with me.”

I’d noticed that Mary’s car had a student parking sticker, so I drove it across the road to the lot in front of one of the dorms. I parked it, locked it, and transferred my coffee and danish to Rhonda’s cruiser.

“Seat belt,” she said, and when I was buckled in she pulled out on the road toward Heron Island.

“So,” she said, “tell me what you know.” She glanced at me. “About the murder.” She was not driving fast, and the siren was off.

“A young woman, a college student named Mary Sanders, came to see us last night.”

“In the middle of the storm.”

“Yes. She wanted us to accompany her back to the house where she lives, on Heron Island, right away — before the tide came in to cover the road.”

“She lives in Heron House?”

“Why, Rhonda, however did you know?”

She rolled her eyes. “It’s been relatively quiet recently, but in years past, when there were more male students living there, we had to visit on a pretty regular basis. Loud parties, bands playing, excessive drinking, drugs, women mistreated — that sort of thing.” She shrugged. “Like the dorms, only even worse.

“The people who live on the island — the other people who live on the island — they really don’t like that sort of thing. Anyway, your boss didn’t go?”

I shook my head, pretty emphatically. “Stormy night, insufficient inducement, we’d just got settled in for a comfortable evening at home, with good coffee and books to read–“

“And there were no dead bodies.”

“Not as far as we knew then, anyway.”

I wondered, and not for the last time, what would have happened if we had gone to the island with Mary the night before, in the storm, before the island was cut off from the mainland for the night by the rising tide.

When we reached the road — the part which was under water at high tide — there was a car pulling out onto the far end, about to cross the marsh toward us. Rhonda flashed her lights and ran her siren for a moment, and the car backed up to let us cross first.

On the island side, the unpaved road split into three even more primitive roads — basically just pairs of ruts that went into the thick woods in three directions. I knew which one she should take (I’d found out earlier), but she obviously knew also, so I didn’t mention it.

“So,” I said as Rhonda drove slowly through the woods, “Just you? Seems like a minimal response to a murder.”

“If you say What do I pay taxes for? I’m going to sock you.”

I hunched my shoulders and looked appropriately cowed.

“Seriously, we’re swamped this morning. The nursing home lost power during the storm, there was a pretty bad accident on the highway, and some other things. Nobody from last night’s shift has gone home.”

We hadn’t seen any houses yet, just a couple of turnoffs marked by mailboxes on posts. Now the road ended, with one trail going off to the right and one to the left through the thick woods. One mailbox said “Heron House,” and Rhonda turned in that direction.

The house was at the top of a bluff. The parking area contained Jo’s blue sedan and a small van with the special controls on the steering wheel which are used by people who have limited or no use of their legs.

We stepped out of the car, and there was no sign that our arrival had been noticed, though I was sure that it must have been. The morning was completely still except for a slight breeze, and a few rather tentative sounding birds.

Rhonda stepped up on the porch and knocked on the door. I followed, taking a moment to appreciate the pleasant smells of the trees and the ocean.

A woman opened the door for us. She was not one of the women who had been in the car earlier — she had long, bushy, red hair and freckles.

“Sheriff. I’m glad you’re here.”

She rolled her wheelchair back to allow us to come in.

I kept my face as blank as I could, but my first thought was that the place was a bit of a dump.

To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part one)

It was around six-fifteen in the morning. The trees, the ground, the grass, and the windows of the car were still dripping wet from the thunderstorm which had ended around four-thirty.

There were three of us in the car, and we were waiting for a road to appear so we could proceed.

The driver — the owner of the rusty white station wagon — was named Mary Sanders. She was a college student, and she was the reason for our being there. She was slim and blonde, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans.

I was in the passenger seat, and, in the back seat, frowning, with her arms folded, was my employer, Jan Sleet.

There were several reasons for my employer’s rather dark mood:

  1. She’d had to get up early.
  2. She’d had to get up unnecessarily early (there was no reason for us to have arrived here before the moment that the road was scheduled to appear, after all).
  3. Mary, our hostess — so to speak — had made it clear that she did not want anybody to smoke in her car. (I could tell that my employer was getting some small satisfaction from her mental countdown to the moment when she was going to light a cigarette anyway.)
  4. There was apparently going to be a case for her to investigate, but it was not (based on what we knew so far) going to be her preferred kind of case.
  5. Nobody had laughed at her joke about Tír-na Nog’th.
  6. She’d had to get up early.

My employer suddenly leaned forward and pointed. “It looks like some people are as eager to get off the island as we are to visit it.”

“That’s not surprising,” Mary said. “With the storm, and the power and the phones out all night…” She leaned forward also, her voice trailing off, then she reached across to the glove compartment, popped it open, and took out a pair of binoculars.

I heard my employer grunt at the convenience of binoculars suddenly appearing when needed, but I found out later that one of Mary’s housemates was enthusiastic about “birding” at a nearby wildlife sanctuary.

“I see Jo,” Mary said. “Waiting to get off the island.” She put the binoculars away. “We’ll have to let the other cars come this way first, before we go across. That’s the rule — it’s only a one-lane road.” She started the car and backed up out of the way.

Then, when the water was down to just an inch or so, revealing the narrow dirt road through the marsh to the island, the first car started to cross toward us. It was the blue sedan that Mary had identified as belonging to one of her housemates. Mary got out of the car and waved, making sure that Jo saw her and didn’t just drive past us.

Jo’s car pulled into a space on the far side of the road and two women got out. They looked very upset and one nearly bolted across the road to our side, even though cars were passing (very slowly) between us.

My employer looked across at the other car and motioned to me. I quickly got out, opened her door, and helped her to her feet. She was so impatient that she almost slipped on the muddy ground, but I steadied her and we moved to the side of the road, next to Mary.

I could tell that my employer was thinking about barging into the middle of the road, relying on an imperious gesture to stop the traffic, but she glanced at me and I shook my head. Whatever had happened, she could wait another forty-five seconds to find out what it was.

Then the last car passed and the two women rushed across to us.

“He’s dead! Stabbed!” the taller one blurted out to Mary. “Knifed! And we– The phones are out–”

“Please,” my employer said, stepping forward, “I am Jan Sleet–”

“You’re Jan Sleet!” the shorter woman said. She’d been driving, so I assumed she was Jo.

“The sleuth, yes. First, the person who was stabbed — is he alive or dead?”

“Dead, ma’am,” the taller woman said. “Some time last night. Becky checked him — she’s pre-med — and she said he was stabbed hours ago…” She looked like she was about to cry.

‘So, you were not leaving the island in order to obtain medical assistance?”

“We were going to call the police — if we could find a working phone–”

“The phones are out — all over the island — and the power–”

My employer held up her hand, and I knew what was coming. And, I had to admit, it did make sense.

“The police do have to be called, obviously,” she said, “but you don’t have to call them. This is Marshall, my assistant, and he will go and make a preliminary report from the first available phone.

“Meanwhile, the rest of us will go to the house and I will start to ask questions. To help the police, of course. And I’ll take charge of the crime scene and the evidence.”

She glanced at me, and we both smiled. I had no counter-argument, and she knew it.

She turned to Mary. “We can go back with your friends. Please give Marshall your car keys.”

Mary looked somewhat stunned. She nodded and reached into her pocket, pulling out a ring that held several keys, a whistle, a very small plastic teddy bear, and a tag with her name and phone number on it.

I waited for Jo to get the sedan turned around, then she backed up off the road again to let another mainland-bound car pass by, then she pulled out to return to Heron Island.

To be continued…

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some things make me laugh (out loud, sometimes repeatedly)

(Your mileage may vary, as the saying goes.)

1) There will always be a CMOS:

In the Chicago Manual of Style Q&A, someone posed this question (more of a challenge, really) about capitalization:

Q. Elsewhere in the Q&A you wrote, “The day I was introduced to the The was the day I learned that irony was finished.” This is just wrong and makes no sense whatsoever. To call The The “the The” is absolutely wrong. Further, The Who should be “The Who.” It’s a proper name, and “the Who” is just wrong. Fix this.

The response, as you can see, was two paragraphs explaining the CMOS rules for capitalizing “the,” followed by one paragraph admitting that, in this specific case, writing “the The” or “the Who” or “the Band” is pretty silly, and, yes, “Our rules are not laws. They are meant to be adjusted for the unusual case or to suit a particular context. And that’s The Truth.”

2) From the New York Times: “I’m working remotely. Can I keep hiding my secret baby?

Not so much for the question, but for the answer, which still makes me smile.

3) I stumbled on this great advice from Gomez Addams (I was a huge fan of the Addams Family TV show when I was somewhat younger):

“Never go to bed angry or on fire.”

Words to live by.

I also remember a wonderful moment on the show when the family was facing some sort of crisis, and Gomez drew himself up and said, “This is the moment of truth!”

Morticia, his loving wife, simply asked, “What do you mean by that?”

Gomez, somewhat abashed, admitted, “I didn’t think you’d ask.”


Also, for things that don’t make me laugh, here’s a little followup to an earlier post called “It’s Totally Awesome Les Miz Singing Day!

I just found a rehearsal video of the Les Misérables performance at the Academy Awards. I like the way all the non-superstar performers are busy taking selfies with each other and filming the thing (until the moment comes that they need to sing). And at the end they get the “very good” from Cameron Mackintosh, the producer who first had the idea that a French-language concept album of Les Misérables (by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, who are also present here, along with Tom Hooper, the movie’s director) might work on the stage.

Of course that’s a very compressed and medley-ized version of “One Day More.” Here’s the whole thing.

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knives out (again)

I just watched this movie again, and it’s still pretty terrific. It sags somewhat in the middle, partly because of how excellent the beginning and the end are, and partly because of how quickly it becomes clear who the guilty party is (long before you can be exactly sure of “what” or “how,” “who” becomes way too obvious). But the movie still has many, many virtues, including that all of the detective’s “processes,” and his blatherings about his processes, are complete hooey. Which includes this wonderful exchange:

Benoit Blanc: Harlan’s detectives, they dig, they rifle and root. Truffle pigs. I anticipate the terminus of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Marta Cabrera: Gravity’s Rainbow.

Benoit Blanc: It’s a novel.

Marta Cabrera: Yeah, I know. I haven’t read it though.

Benoit Blanc: Neither have I. Nobody has. But I like the title. It describes the path of a projectile determined by natural law. Et voila, my method. I observe the facts without biases of the head or heart. I determine the arc’s path, stroll leisurely to its terminus and the truth falls at my feet.

And that’s positively profound compared to his repeated nonsense about doughnuts and doughnut holes. But that’s the point — he’s playing the part of an eccentric gentleman detective, and mostly the other characters accept this, even if they don’t like his conclusions, because this is what movies and television have taught them to expect from detectives.

In fact, at one point someone wonders why he was even intrigued enough to show up to investigate this (possible) crime in the first place, and he has to remind them that he received a stack of cash in the mail (he holds his fingers apart to illustrate how big a stack of cash). Because of how he’s been performing for them, they’d lost track of the fact that this is how he earns his living.

The best thing, though, is that any weaknesses in the mystery itself (and even I know that some of the legal points are wrong) are more than compensated for by how funny the movie is. And the ending, completely plausible or not, is magnificent.

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you are not shakespeare

I admit I laughed out loud today. Several times. In a way that might have sounded, to an objective observer (listener, I guess) somewhat unhinged.

From the New Yorker interview with Fran Lebowitz:

Q: One thing that’s been going around is this idea that Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” while he was under quarantine for the bubonic plague, as a way of inspiring people to use their time productively. Have you felt any of that pressure?

A: Other people have tried to put that pressure on me. For instance, I’ve already read and heard this thing about Shakespeare fifty times. I’ve heard it from writers, and I’ve had to point out to them, “You are not Shakespeare.”

Well, that settles that. 🙂

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