the heron island mystery (part thirty-six)

This story started here.

I pulled out drawers and opened cabinets (all of which were mostly empty), including looking under shelf paper and under drawers. I was just looking, not looking for something specific, so I had to be as thorough as possible.

There was a small cabinet in one corner which was locked with a padlock. It was obviously for things that the owner didn’t want to share with the tenants, but none of the items inside struck me as interesting or relevant.

I stood in the center of the room and looked around. The peaked roof was just boards — no attic or crawl spaces. I looked through the glass doors at the beach and the ocean.

I knew I needed to look around the deck, but I decided it was time for a sandwich and one serving of coffee. I got the thermos and a sandwich from my knapsack and sat at the rickety table.

Rhonda had been impatient with my employer’s theorizing. She wanted to find clues, preferably clues that pointed in a specific direction, and then she could arrest somebody. And, of course, she had deputies who she could dispatch in various directions in search of those clues, in addition to whatever State Police resources she had access to.

And now that the case was becoming a public sensation, I’m sure she felt that pressure, too.

I wouldn’t have minded sitting for another few minutes, looking out at the ocean, thinking about the case, but I wanted to finish examining the other cabin before it started to get dark.

I stood up, stuffed my sandwich wrappings into the outside pocket of my knapsack, and put my thermos away. Obviously I didn’t want to leave any trash behind me (and, yes, I’d been wearing gloves throughout).

Lifting my knapsack, I looked at the braided rug under it — which looked so much like the one in the living room of Heron House.

Then, as I perhaps should have done before, I lifted the rug and saw the trapdoor under it.

I moved the rug to one side and examined the floor more carefully. The “trap door” was a rectangular area where the boards didn’t match the rest of the floor. There was no handle or anything to use to pull it up, though. I tried to get my fingers under the edge, in the tiny gap, but there was nothing to grab hold of.

I had seen tools in the locked cabinet, but I didn’t want to break into whatever was below the floor without knowing more about it.

I went out the front door and looked at the sides of the house. The house was at ground level in the front, but the sand sloped off toward the beach at the rear, so I was able to circle around and look under the deck and see below the floorboards. There were some sort of handmade baffles there, hanging down from the floor of the house. I crawled under and looked behind them, and there was nothing there.

So, evidently there had been something there at some point. Probably, based on my knowledge of area cottages, it had been a floor furnace to heat the cabin. They were gas-fired, and had a tendency to have their pilot lights blown out in high wind, hence the improvised baffles. Evidently, when the furnace had been removed, for whatever reason, the floor had been awkwardly patched, and then the rug used to hide the patchwork.

Well, before I searched the other cabin, I decided to find out if it had the same kind of below-floor structure.

And it did, and here there was a wooden box resting on the sand, hidden by the wind baffles.

It is, I guess, a measure of how I’ve been trained that, even after I saw the what the wooden box contained, I still searched the second cabin, just as carefully as I’d searched the first one, before I did anything else.

  To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part thirty-five)

This story started here.

I drove across the marsh and onto Heron Island. Where the main road split into three, I took the one to the right. It went through thick trees, over bumps and gullies and thick roots, and finally into a small clearing by the shore. There were two little cabins, side-by-side, and the beach was visible beyond.

The place seemed deserted. The air was chilly in the early afternoon under a slate gray sky. I saw a rusted sign saying that only vehicles with Heron Island parking stickers were allowed to park in the lot, but there was nobody there to enforce the rule, and in any case Millie wasn’t staying.

I left the motor running as I got out and held the door for her. She got behind the wheel, announced that she was keeping the sailor’s hat, and drove off.

This was my employer’s plan: These were the only two unoccupied buildings on the island, the only ones we could search, so we (meaning I) was going to search them.

I zipped up my jacket, which, despite being categorized as a windbreaker, didn’t seem to be much use against the chilly breeze coming off the water.

At that moment, wishing I’d brought my hooded sweatshirt, aware that my clever plan to get onto the island had not included an equally clever plan to get back off the island when I was done, I was reasonably sure that the only reason I was here was because my employer did not want to get into a conversation about how Elsa and I (mostly Elsa) had modified the plan for the previous evening.

But, here I was, and at least I had some sandwiches and a large thermos of hot coffee to look forward to.

I looked around. Elsa had described the two structures as summer cottages, but they were really just shacks. They were about twenty feet apart, almost identical, and there was no sign that anybody was there. I got the idea that nobody had used them recently.

I tried the one on the right first. The door was locked, but it wasn’t a fancy lock and I got in pretty easily.

The interior was basically one large room, rectangular, with small kitchen area on one side, and a built-in double bed on the other. The floor was painted boards, with the paint partially worn off. There was a large sliding glass door on the ocean side, leading to a very small deck with a small table and a couple of chairs.

I tried the light switch by the door, but nothing happened. I tried a table lamp also, with the same result. Apparently the electricity had been shut off for the winter. I was hoping to be done before it got dark out, but in any case I had a flashlight.

I looked around the room. To my inexpert eye, it looked like the glass doors and the deck had been added much later than the rest of the structure. My guess was that the buildings had originally been bath houses, for people to change to swim clothes before spending time at the beach.

I thought it was likely that building any new structures on Heron Island was impossible (that was true in a lot of the local area), but if somebody had ended up owning this little plot of land the local zoning rules might have had enough leeway for the small decks to be added and for the shacks to be rented out during the summers, to couples with modest resources.

Certainly nobody would have rented them at this time of year — the walls were a single thickness of plywood and they were only slightly better insulation against the brisk ocean breeze than my “windbreaker.”

I put my knapsack in the center of the floor, in the center of the braided throw rug that reminded me of the living room in Heron House, and I went to work.

  To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part thirty-four)

This story started here.

Sometimes when my employer sends me off to investigate something, it’s because she actually wants the information that I might unearth.

Sometimes it’s because she has writing to do and is finding my presence in our room to be distracting.

And sometimes it’s because she doesn’t want to say something to me — something specific — and so she needs me to be elsewhere for a while.

I had a pretty good idea which category this fell into, but I didn’t say so. I just nodded, bade her a cheerful good day, and set out on my assigned task.

(Of course, it could have been two or even three of those explanations. Or something else entirely.)

The first part — traveling to Heron Island without being seen by the residents of Heron House — was easier than it might have been. My friend Millie had recently found herself in need of a new job, and she had become a cab driver.

I called her and she picked me up about forty-five minutes later. I outlined the plan as she drove toward the highway.

Her cab was an old Checker, with jump seats and a sizable tonneau, and I figured there was plenty of room for me to get down on the floor and be invisible to pedestrians and other drivers without being especially uncomfortable.

“Heron Island, huh?” she said. “Your boss is hunting ghosts now?”

This caught me by surprise, and she tossed a newspaper into the back seat with me. It was the Claremont Crier, and the lurid headline and the beginning of the article told me that our quiet, isolated murder mystery had become, or was in the process of becoming, a local sensation.

“Ah,” I said. “Well, we think — or at least I’m pretty sure we think — that it’s not supernatural.”

“Did you read the end of the article?” she asked as she pulled out onto the highway. “Nobody’s being allowed on the island who doesn’t live there. If they’re checking, I’m pretty sure they’ll see you down on the floor there. You want me to stop so you can go hide in the trunk?”

Checker cabs have a large trunk, but this was not an appealing idea, so we stopped at the house of my friend Professor Lebrun and borrowed a couple of things.

When we approached the police car which was blocking the road to the island, I was behind the wheel, peaked cap on my head and cigarette in the corner of my mouth. Millie was in the back seat, wearing a pair of dark glasses (hers) and a sailor’s hat which she’d found in Lebrun’s closet.

We stopped as the deputies approached, and Millie rolled down her window in order to hand them a note that I’d written, explaining who I was, and who I worked for, and my desire not to be seen, as myself, making the crossing to the island, as part of assisting the sheriff with her investigation.

My employer hadn’t mentioned keeping my visit a secret from the police, after all.

I had met one of the deputies before, and he shrugged and motioned for us to proceed. It seemed like maybe we’d over-prepared, but that’s not a bad thing.

  To be continued…

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(First of all, this is about Ernest Hemingway, not my father, who was definitely never “Papa.”)

I avoid television as much as possible, but occasionally there’s something I can’t resist watching, and this is probably going to be one of them.

I may not watch the whole thing — I’ll see how it goes. I’ve read a few Hemingway biographies, and if I see too many inaccuracies or hear too much hokum (hokum — both pro and con — is always likely when people talk about Hemingway) I’ll bail. But I am curious (though I think it’s likely that my curiosity won’t be enough to get me through six whole hours).

By the way, I am always suspicious when people call Hemingway a “womanizer.” Merriam-Webster defines “womanize” as:
1. to make effeminate [which is a wonderful idea with regards to Hemingway, as I’ll discuss below, but that’s not what they mean here].
2. to pursue casual sexual relationships with multiple women.

Did Hemingway take on a lover when married, then marry the new lover as soon as he’d divorced the previous wife? Yes, at least twice (I think he was divorced from Martha Gellhorn before he started his relationship with Mary Welsh). Four is an unusual number of wives, yes, but that doesn’t make one a “womanizer” (let alone that he didn’t seem to have been “casual” about much of anything in his life). But that’s one of those journalistic clichés, like the rule that any headline about someone having cancer has to include the word “battling.”

I don’t know if I’ve been influenced by Hemingway’s writing, but I started reading him when somebody observed that I wrote like him. So, I think I was influenced by a lot of the 20th century American detective fiction which was influenced by him — so an indirect influence more than a direct one. And, as I commented recently, I’ve been moving away from that influence in recent years.

One thing that’s always stuck with me is an article in the New York Times Magazine called “A Farewell to Machismo.” One thing it talks about is The Garden of Eden, a novel which Hemingway never finished. From Wikipedia: “The Garden of Eden indicates Hemingway’s exploration of male-female relationships, shows an interest in androgynous characters, and ‘the reversal of gender roles.'” I’d be interested in reading that. (A truncated version of the book, with two-thirds of the story removed and many apparently questionable edits made, was published after his death. I’ve never read it. I’ve also never seen the movie which was made from the published book.)

So, if they meant “womanizer” in that sense that would be an interesting and provocative thought. But they mean it the other way.

By the way, looking through “A Farewell to Machismo” as I wrote this post, I noticed this paragraph:

Gregory Hemingway, who grew up to be a doctor, wrote in his book, ‘Papa’: “His liver had been in poor shape for years. Even in the male, the adrenal glands produce estrogen, or female hormones, which are normally broken down by the liver. But if the liver is badly damaged, there can be a high concentration of estrogen in the bloodstream. . . .” Perhaps Papa came to feel that he contained both Catherine and David [the main characters from “The Garden of Eden”] inside himself.

“A Farewell to Machismo” was written in 1977, and more is known now about Gregory Hemingway, the youngest of the three Hemingway children.

Anyway, I will check out the show, and I’ll report back here if there’s anything worth commenting on.

Also, slightly off topic, I do have to mention that Ernest Hemingway may have been an avid skier, but he never sang “One Day More” from Les Misérables while skiing with Lindsey Vonn.

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the heron island mystery (part thirty-three)

This story started here.

My employer and I were walking down the hill toward Main Street. The sheriff had made it quite clear that her patience for theorizing about this case was running short, and we’d declined her offer of a ride home from police headquarters.

“Rhonda is too impatient,” my employer said as we strolled down the hill. “Some cases can be solved by finding a stray fingerprint or a lucky witness or a scribbled note, but this is not going to be one of those (or at least I’m fairly sure it isn’t). This one will require thinking, and looking at the events from every possible point of view.

“For example, we talked about whether Kim was telling the truth about her idea that Manfred was going to make her rich. Did she really think that? That’s one question. But another question is whether it was actually true.”

We turned onto Main Street. It was a pleasant fall day, and there were quite a few other people on the sidewalk.

“If Manfred did tell her that,” I said, “–that he was going to come into significant cash — that would also be two questions. At least two questions. Was he really expecting to come into money, somehow, and, if so, was he really planning to share any of it with her?”

She smiled as I held the door for her to enter the Wagon Wheel. I knew that she hadn’t been thinking about food, but I had, and the restaurant was there, and it would have been rude of her to decline to enter it when I was holding the door so politely (and they did have good coffee).

So, there we were, at one of our favorite tables, on the screened-in deck, with menus in front of us, and coffee on its way, and she nodded in acknowledgement of how artfully I had steered us here.

Then she leaned forward and said quietly, “I believe the answer to your first question is no — the money was not real — which renders the second question moot. In general, I wouldn’t believe anything that man said, especially about doing anything for anybody other than himself, and, in specific, I think I know what he was telling her, and I believe he was stringing her along to get her to assist him.

“He was very good at figuring out people’s weaknesses. He never tried the ghost-hunting scam on me, because that wasn’t — and isn’t — my weakness. And I doubt if it’s Kim’s either. Hers is apparently money. Li, on the other hand, seems to be from a fairly prosperous background, and her weakness does seem to be the supernatural. If there was a specific target at the house — someone who they were planning to rook with the ghost-hunting scam — I’m guessing it was probably Li.”

Our coffee arrived, and she sipped hers carefully. I was impatient, I confess, so I used my spoon to scoop up an ice cube from my water glass and drop it gently into my mug. My employer made sure that I saw her look of disapproval as I stirred.

I was tempted to complain that everything in this case seemed to happen in the middle of the night, but if I’d mentioned being tired — beyond rushing through my first cup of coffee — my employer would probably have made a comment which referred, at least obliquely, to my age.

And, if we’d been at home, she might even have made a comment about certain energetic activities which Elsa and I had pretended to engage in the night before. But that was not a conversation she was going to start in the Wagon Wheel.

She regarded me thoughtfully. “Do you know what I’m thinking about?” She didn’t give me a chance to respond. “A lot of things, obviously, but I keep coming back to Kim’s scream, night before last, when she theoretically saw Manfred near Mary’s body on the deck, and then the delay before she went outside and yelled for Becky.

“The sheriff, understandably, will want to discredit Jo’s report that she also saw someone on the deck, because then everything is simple. Kim’s a murderer, so we don’t have to believe anything she says, unless it helps to convict her. Simple.

“But there’s… What about this: Kim kills Mary, unobserved and in silence, and returns to her room. After a suitable interval, she pretends to hear something, goes downstairs, turns on the deck lights, and sees someone — more or less resembling Manfred, a dead man — in the middle of her crime scene, hovering over the corpse she had just produced. That would have caused almost anybody to scream, and it also would have explained her hesitation about running out onto the deck. ‘Manfred’ heard her scream and immediately hied it over the precipice, and finally she gets up her nerve to go outside.

“Then, as reported, she calls for Becky, and so on. And then, still shaken, she tells Li what she saw, but then later, under interrogation, she doesn’t tell that part of the story, but Li blows the gaff, and Jo corroborates it, at least somewhat, quite possibly to Kim’s surprise, if she’d thought she might have imagined it.”

“If Kim killed Mary because she blamed her for Manfred’s death,” I said. “Do you know where this theoretical windfall was going to come from — this money she thought she was going to get?” I asked. “Do you know how he told her he was going to get rich? He must have had some kind of story.”

She looked pleased with herself (more than usual, I mean). “I think I do. There are hints in his book that he might have had a connection to the Loomis family. Certainly not a legitimate one, but… Anyway, there’s no truth in it — no way that he could have turned it into any actual cash — but apparently it was enough to get Kim’s interest.”

She looked around, rather ostentatiously, as if making sure we were alone on the deck.

“According to Mary’s research,” she began, and then her voice trailed off.

Our chowder arrived, and she didn’t even react, which was unusual for her. I thanked the waitress, and my employer looked at the street outside for a moment. She took off her glasses and polished them with her handkerchief.

“I have an idea,” she said slowly, still looking outside. “I think I know why Mary came to see us as she did, during the storm. At least a possibility…” She shook her head and put her glasses back on. “I’m not telling you. If I’m wrong, you’ll think badly of me.”

“I can do that anyway,” I said as I blew on my soup. She scrunched up her face and stuck out her tongue at me (just a little — we were in public, after all).

“So,” I said, “Are there questions which you would be willing to answer?”

She frowned at her soup as if wondering when it had arrived, then she looked up. “This is why I’m a journalist and you’re not. That’s a terrible question.”

“Do you know what I’m thinking about?”

“That question is even worse.”

“It’s rhetorical. Obviously.”

“Well, you’re probably thinking about a certain buxom redhead. Or possibly about whether you’re going to get a good night’s sleep tonight. Beyond a certain age, I know, the desire for sleep can start to outweigh–“

“Ahem. I’m wondering about Manfred. Everybody at Heron House who described him emphasized how randy he was, but the only actions we’ve talked about have been in search of money. May I be blunt?”

She looked around again, to make sure we were still alone, then she grinned. “Of course.”

“Who was he fucking?”

She considered this.

“Kim?” she proposed. She looked like she was thoroughly enjoying herself — even more than usual.

“Possibly.” I told her Elsa’s story about Manfred’s attempt to molest her during the party, and Kim’s angry reaction. “That could have been a variety of things, but one component might have been jealousy.”

“True.” She scrutinized my face. “You’re not buying it, though. You’re doing that thing with your forehead.”

I nodded. “People who live together learn a lot about each other, even if they don’t talk about it, but this theory would require Kim to have had two older lovers, one of whom her roommates knew about, at least in general terms (her professor), and another who her roommates didn’t know about (Manfred). And Manfred often came to Heron House as a guest. As you say, I’m not buying it. I think if Manfred, a frequent visitor to Heron House, had been sleeping with any of the roommates, at least some of the others would have figured it out, particularly since at least some of them didn’t like him very much, and, if they had figured it out, I think we’d have got some indication by now, from somebody.”

“Your point is well taken. Not exactly concisely stated, obviously, but cogent.” She smiled. “Here’s a question for you. Your assignment for today involves a trip to Heron Island. Can you get yourself there without anybody from Heron House seeing you? Including your flame-tressed and curvaceous paramour?”

I nodded. “I think so. Yes.” I knew there was no future in protesting about her classification of Elsa.

“Good. There are a couple of things I’d like you to investigate on the island.”

To be continued…

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in which i read some blog posts from 2015

One thing about having had this blog for so long is that I sometimes find old blog posts and I only barely remember writing them. It seems I was on a pretty good roll back in late spring of 2015.

First I searched for what I had written about Coherence, an excellent low budget (almost no-budget) science fiction movie. It struck me that it was rather appropriate to the pandemic and quarantining. I wrote about it here (along with “performative statements,” which are cool).

I started to poke around right before and after that blog post, and I found these:

1) “Blew up the Internet”? In your dreams (in which I talk about artists and related subjects).

2) Ten-Sentence Flash Fiction (in which I write a really short story, much to my surprise)

3) Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), which then led back to this one from 2014:

4) Neil and Ornette and me.

I think my mother’s thoughts about artists from #1 and mine from #4 (taken from Ornette Coleman and Neil Gaiman) go together pretty nicely.

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