the town hall mystery (conclusion)

This story started here.

“Any predictions?” my employer asked the sheriff as we zipped along the dark, shrouded road back to town. I felt that Rhonda might be driving a little too fast, but she obviously knew the road very well, and oncoming headlights would have been visible some distance away. We had the road to ourselves.

“Predictions?” the sheriff said slowly. “Just between us, Patricia probably won’t go to trial, but it will be up to her kids when they get here. They are now — or will be very soon — the biggest landowners in this town. Plus, they’re Devanes, which would carry weight around here no matter what. There was a clear plan to commit a crime, but no legal steps were taken… We’ll see.

“Emily will be tried. I make no predictions about how that will go. Fingerprints establish that she was on the roof, but exactly what happened up there…”

“Unfortunately,” my employer said from the back seat, “admittedly for obvious reasons, all of the potential witnesses on the street below just happened to be looking the other way, at the fire.”

I could feel my employer’s disapproving look on the nape of my neck. “Including me, of course,” I admitted. “Speaking of which, what about the fire?”

“Accidental, as far as anybody can tell,” Rhonda replied. “It was an old, wooden building, filled with paper and books, a careless cigarette tossed into a wastebasket in the rest room.” She shrugged. “No evidence of anything other than that, from what they tell me.”

“I do have one more question,” my employer said as we turned onto Ocean Drive.

“Okay…” Rhonda said, obviously knowing that my employer wasn’t just suddenly remembering something she’d forgotten earlier.

“Your house. You said there was a story about it.”

She nodded. “At one point… We started to investigate what it would cost to complete the house. The cost wasn’t unreasonable, but it turned out that there was a never-resolved disagreement about exactly where the town border is, so it was possible that the other half of the house might turn out to be in Dover.”

“And then you would only be half eligible to be our sheriff.”

She pulled up in front of our home. “Exactly.”

“I do have to thank you,” my employer said quietly as she took off her tie and hung it up on the rack.

“For what, specifically?” I asked, untying my shoes.

“For stopping me after I deduced Phyllis’s current career. Otherwise, I might have gone on to mention her criminal history. That could have been awkward.”

That was all except the tail. As the saying goes, every mystery, like a kite, has a tail. The tail to this one had three sections, the first two public and the last one private and unspoken.

Section one was Emily Armstrong. She was tried and acquitted on all charges in connection with the death of her lover, Tom McQueen. I venture no opinion on her guilt or innocence, and I might be equally baffled if I had been looking toward the News Store when he fell, rather than at the fire across the street.

I tried to keep my testimony as straightforward and accurate as possible — I’ve been very thoroughly trained in how to report observed phenomena without bringing in opinions and speculation.

Millie testified, too, of course, as did many other people, but only the defendant had been there and only she knew what had happened, and she gave powerful, emotional testimony that caused my employer to comment later that it was surprising that Miss Armstrong hadn’t had more success in her chosen profession.

The biggest factor in her exoneration, however, was her attorney, a lawyer from out of town named Tamara Nelson. She clearly outclassed Mr. Barris, the county attorney, at every stage of the trial. We had more dealings with Miss Nelson later.

The tail’s second section was Patricia Devane. She was not tried, and, after her children arrived to claim their inheritance, she left as soon as she could, to return to California. I have no idea what happened behind the scenes, of course, but I’m fine with that.

The tail’s third section was private.

Why had my employer tried her stunt at the News Store? She had said that there were “dangers in letting things remain status quo” — but what were the dangers she’d been seeing?

There didn’t seem to be any immediate danger of another death.

The Devane money might have been in danger of going to a bunch of impostors, of course, but I couldn’t imagine her being worried about that. And that didn’t make it urgent — money that goes to the wrong person can be shifted back where it belongs later. It’s not permanent — not like death.

But she had seen that Millie and I were becoming friends, and she had deduced that Millie was involved in what was going on. She didn’t know the details, and so, fearing further progress in the friendship, she had tried a stunt to expose the truth.

As I say, this has never been mentioned.

The End

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the town hall mystery (part fifteen)

This story started here.

My employer looked at Rhonda and shrugged, clearly asking, “How did I do?”

Rhonda nodded. “Patricia Devane is really Patricia Devane, and the rest of them are frauds, as you figured. We’re still finding out things from the West Coast, but apparently she got involved with some rather shady characters when she was trying to raise money to keep her company going. Two of them, the couple, were actors, though they weren’t very successful at it.

“Emily Armstrong, who had been impersonating Felicia Devane, is under arrest for the murder of Thomas McQueen, who had been impersonating Barnabas Devane. The charge is that she threw him from the roof of the News Store to his death. The trial is scheduled to start next week.”

“She has to find a lawyer, of course,” Phyllis put in. “Rance Palmer has said that he is not going to represent her. Knowing Rance, this may possibly be related to the fact that suddenly nobody in the whole business has any money.”

My employer nodded. “Or any immediate prospects of any. What about Patricia Devane?”

Rhonda shrugged. “Palmer is still representing her, at least for the moment. There have been no charges filed yet. She says she had no idea the murder was going to happen — which is probably true — and she denies any attempt at fraud. She may get away with it, since she hasn’t actually taken any legal steps to claim that the impostors were her real children. The will hasn’t even been read yet.”

“Do her real children exist?”

“Oh, yes. All three of them. They’re on their way, and nothing will happen on the legal front until they are here and have local representation.”

My employer glanced at me and I went to pour her some more coffee.

“What was the connection to Millie?” I asked over my shoulder.

“Thomas, the dead impersonator, met her at a party in Dover one night. They apparently… um… hit it off…”

“We get your drift,” my employer said.

“It turned out to be more than a one-night stand, though. They stayed in touch. There were some long phone calls between the pay phone by Sunshine Housewares and Mickey’s home phone, usually at times when Mark and Mickey would have been at the store.”

“What did Millie say?”

“She liked him. He’d given her a fake name, and told her that he was living with a girlfriend, so he couldn’t give her his phone number. She didn’t know anything about the con, or so she says, but she could tell he was into something bad.”

“Beyond just infidelity,” my employer put in.

“Exactly. Something he didn’t want to tell her about, though she urged him to share it with her. According to her.

“Anyway, she says she has no idea why he was trying to see her in the store that day, but perhaps he’d decided to tell her everything.”

My employer nodded. “And his girlfriend was after him, either because she’d found out that he was cheating on her, or because she was afraid that he would reveal the plot they were partners in.”

“Or both,” I said.

“Right. We’ll have to see what comes out at the trial.”

“But why did she have a wig that so resembled her boyfriend’s hair?” I asked.

Phyllis laughed. “That was my question. And wait until you hear the answer.”

Rhonda shook her head. “Well, we don’t have a definite answer on that yet…” My employer raised one eyebrow, something she saved for special occasions, and Rhonda continued, speaking slowly and apparently struggling to continue to be serious and professional.

“As I say, we don’t know for sure, yet, but here are the facts. They were struggling actors, and at some point it was noticed that their facial features and manner of speaking were similar. They were even close to the same build. Perhaps because of this, it seems that, recently, they took a job acting in a… in an adult movie, playing a brother and sister…”

“Whose sibling affections went somewhat beyond the norm,” Phyllis finished. “Repeatedly.”

“The local police in LA have obtained a copy of the film in question. They have apparently been studying it carefully, but they need to watch it a few more times to be sure of its exact relevance.”

“Ah,” I said after a moment.

My employer nodded. “So,” she said, “where is everybody now?”

“Patricia Devane is still at the house, at least for the moment. She’ll be arrested if she tries to leave town, and the house is, for now, technically between owners. Emily is in jail, held in connection with the death of her boyfriend. Nancy Williamson, the fake Deirdre, has apparently skipped town. We have bulletins out on her, but…” She shrugged. “We’re not really focused on her. Patricia’s real children are on their way, as I said. We’ll see what happens when they get here.”

My employer pulled out her pocket watch. “This has been very enjoyable, and dinner was excellent, but we shouldn’t tax your hospitality any longer. We can call a taxi–“

Rhonda wouldn’t hear of that, so she drove us home after we said good night to Phyllis.

To be continued…

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the town hall mystery (part fourteen)

This story started here.

“I’ll start by saying that my overall focus was on three events, and two main questions.

“The events were:

1. The fire at the Town Hall,
2. The death at the News Store, and
3. The death of Baxter Devane the following day.

“The questions were:

1. Were any of these events actually crimes, or all of them, or none of them?
2. Were they all related, or any two of them, or none of them?

“So, starting from that, I decided to put the fire to the side. I know nothing about fires, I had no way to get in on the investigation, and I didn’t find it all that interesting. So, the two deaths.”

She caught Rhonda’s expression as Phyllis heard the whistle from the kitchen and went to make coffee. “You can ask questions,” she said, leaning back and tenting her fingers in front of her.

Rhonda sighed. “I’m sure you’re going to get to it, but I am impatient to learn why, when I’m driving to the Devane house, when the owner of the house had died just minutes before, your assistant was strolling up the hill ahead of me.”

My employer smiled. “We’ll get there. Quite soon, in fact. Anyway, Marshall was at the News Store when the young man died, and I arrived soon after, as you know. I happened to be able to do a quick search of the body — as I’m sure you realized — and I saw that he had a Rabson key in his pocket. Rabson locks are quite unusual, so…” She gestured at me, and I described the search for the Rabson lock, and how I’d ended up at the Devane house when I did.

In the middle of that story, Phyllis brought in a tray with coffee and placed it on the table, and as I talked I got up and fixed cups for my employer and myself.

“But you told me that she was sure the cases were connected,” Rhonda said, addressing me and referring to my employer. “Rabson locks may be rare, but they’re not that rare…” She made a face and her shoulders slumped. “Damn it. Okay, go ahead. I get it.”

“I am, of course, admitting nothing and implicating nobody,” my employer continued as she took a sip. “This is very good coffee, by the way.” It was typical of her, given her priorities, that she had apparently barely noticed the dinner, which had been excellent, but she’d taken a long moment to savor and appreciate the coffee.

“So,” she continued, “that’s where I was, and I was stuck there, without any useful levers that I could see, other than my theory about what the young man had been looking for in the News Store. So, I staged the stunt, with your help, and apparently confirmed that he’d been in the store looking for Millie.”

Rhonda looked up, surprised. “That’s it?”

“Oh, no.” She smiled. “Those are the facts. Now we come to the investigation and the suppositions.

“I figured that 1) Baxter Devane was rich and living alone, dying of cancer, and he would have has to hire help — both medical and domestic. And, 2) Patricia Devane and the others, arriving to stay, at least temporarily, in a house which had basically been a large single-occupant sick room for some time, they would have required cleaning and other services as well — before and after their arrival.

“So, I went and used our friend Professor Lebrun’s telephone for an afternoon, making calls. A lot of calls. Some were productive and some were not, but that’s always true. I identified myself in all the calls, and most of the people I spoke to knew my name and my reputation. In most cases I mentioned an article I was planning on writing — I certainly did not imply, or at least explicitly state, that I was assisting with the official investigation.” She paused, but Rhonda didn’t bother to respond to this. “I spoke to a lot of people, but I’ll boil it down.

“Baxter Devane was dying, and he wanted to die at home, in the house where he’d grown up. He owned the house and the land (and a lot of other land in this area), and he had substantial investments and cash resources. He was not close to his sister, but he kept in touch with her and let her know his condition. When she said she would come to see him, when he thought he was near death, he urged her to bring her children as well, but she came alone. It was discussed, and overheard, though of course not confirmed, that her children — they are adult children now, of course — were his heirs, because he had no children of his own.

“And then, when he began to slip away, when he was barely responsive, the children arrived. They came on the bus, the two daughters and the illegitimate son, who was somewhat younger.”

She drank some more coffee, and then she put down her cup.

“They came on the bus,” she repeated. “The local bus. They were reportedly coming from California, so this demanded further investigation. I did some.

“I discovered that they had been staying in a motel in Dover, just down the highway from here. They had apparently come from California, and instead of coming to the house with their mother they had stayed just a town away, until their uncle was very near death.”

“After the three children did arrive at the house, Deirdre and her brother shared a bedroom. They made a pretense of her having a separate room, but it’s very difficult to hide something like that from the person who cleans your house every day.

“She — the cleaner — was horrified at the idea of incest, a word she couldn’t even bring herself to utter, but I saw something else.

“Why have the heirs stay in Dover until their uncle was too far gone to recognize them, or, since it seems that he might never have met them, ask questions they might not have been able to answer? My thought, for which I have no evidence, is that Patricia did not tell her children, if they exist, about their impending inheritance. She brought three impostors, hoping to use them to get the money that her brother was not going to give her directly, and which, with her company in bankruptcy, she might really have needed.”

“This was borne out by Marshall’s description of what he saw in the Devane house. A family not even acting like they were in mourning, accompanied by their lawyer — a man whose reputation I well remember — a ‘painter’ with pristine hands and no smell of turpentine but ostentatiously dressed in a paint-spattered smock, another daughter who stormed out of the room immediately after his arrival, suddenly upset… Or was she perhaps scared that he might recognize her from her visit, in disguise, to the roof of the News Store the day before, when a man had died?”

She glanced at me. “Marshall asked me if the dead young man was the illegitimate son of Patricia Devane.” She had turned her face away from me, but I could tell she was trying to suppress a grin. “I said no. What I did not say was that he was almost certainly pretending to be that man.” The grin made an appearance at last, accompanied by a rather unladylike snort of laughter.

To be continued…

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the town hall mystery (part thirteen)

This story started here.

We stepped up on the small porch and Rhonda opened the door for us, moving aside so we could enter as she called ahead, “We’re here!”

She followed us in and closed the door as I looked around the living room. It was warm and pleasant, and I heard a woman’s voice call, “Be out in a minute!” from the rear of the house. I smelled food, and I tried to remember how long it had been since we’d had a home-cooked meal.

Rhonda gestured for us to sit. The cozy room held two armchairs, a low coffee table, and a small sofa, plus a dinner table that was tucked away against one wall and not large enough for four. Two walls were covered in bookcases, and I saw my employer’s eyes flick around, taking what inventory she could. In addition to whatever other information she was filing away, I was sure she noticed that there were two ashtrays in the room, both with cigarette butts in them.

It was a small room, but that wasn’t surprising since of course it was only half a house.

My employer did manage to conceal her distress that the two armchairs were plush and old and very low to the floor. Chairs like that were difficult for her to get into, at least elegantly, and then even more difficult for her to get herself out of. She was fine with accepting my help when we were alone, but the rest of the time she wanted to handle these things on her own.

She used her cane and a hand on the chair arm to get herself seated with only a mild thump. She frowned at me, as if this had somehow been my fault, and leaned her cane against a small end table.

A woman, somewhat smaller and apparently somewhat older than Rhonda, came in, drying her hands on a dish towel. She swung the towel over her shoulder as Rhonda performed introductions. Her name was Phyllis.

“Would either of you like a drink?” she asked. “Dinner will be ready in about a half hour. We don’t have any hard liquor, but we have beer and white wine.”

My employer declined, as usual, and I said I would like a glass of white wine. Rhonda said, “I’ll get it,” and the two women went into the kitchen.

Rhonda returned a moment later. She handed me a glass of wine and drank some of her beer, then she placed her bottle on a small table as she sat on the sofa.

“Phyllis has asked that we save our ‘shop talk’ until after we eat.” She smiled. “That way she can escape back to the kitchen when we start to get too tedious and technical.”

“That’s not exactly what I said,” Phyllis called cheerfully from the kitchen.

My employer nodded. “Perfectly proper.”

Phyllis returned and sat next to Rhonda, “I’ll set the table in about ten minutes. We’re almost ready, but I feel like sitting and visiting for a minute.”

My employer smiled. “By the way, Phyllis, how long have you been teaching children with special needs? That must be very rewarding.”

There was a moment of awkward silence, during which various glances were exchanged, Before my employer could explain — having been prompted to do so by a frown from me — Phyllis asked, “Have you been… investigating me?”

“Oh, no,” my employer protested. “I didn’t know you existed until around fifteen minutes ago. I’m so sorry. I just… You have a ‘Faculty’ parking sticker on the windshield of your car, you have an unusual number of books on education, child psychology and related subjects, and your living room, while certainly ‘lived in’ — in the best possible sense — gives every indication that you have no children of your own.” She shrugged, still looking rather sheepish.

She could be blunt and even ruthless when investigating, but we were guests here, and she always took that relationship very seriously. And of course there was the fact that she wanted Rhonda to fill us in about what was going on with the case.

Rhonda and Phyllis exchanged a glance, and the older woman’s shrug seemed to convey, “Well, you did warn me.”

After a few minutes of innocuous conversation, Rhonda and I got up and pulled the narrow table away from the wall and she opened the extension that would make it suitable for four people. Then she and I set the table.

Topics discussed at dinner included:

1. My employer’s book about the civil war in Bellona (which was still in search of a publisher). Phyllis was apparently much more familiar with the situation in Bellona than Rhonda was, and she asked some very pertinent questions, including one very specific one, about the battle of the Vale da Serenidade, which my employer evaded, as she always did.

2. My employer’s book on the murder of Marvel Phillips. Rhonda controlled her expression as she learned about the magazine article my employer was writing about the investigation. I imagined she might be wondering how she was going to be portrayed in the article.

3. Rhonda’s recovery from the gunshot wound she’d received during that case. Rhonda insisted that she was fully recovered, but then, after a frown from Phyllis, she admitted that she still had headaches which were thought to be related to the concussion she’d suffered when she’d been shot.

4. The house itself, which had been built some eighty years before, by a father for his daughter. The expectation had been that her future husband would finish the house. The daughter had never married, however, and she had lived in the house, as it was, for the rest of her life.

This story obviously pleased my employer, who was familiar with this local custom. “Most of the half houses did get finished, of course,” she said, “but they were always designed and built so that they didn’t need the other half in order to stand for a long time.”

Dinner passed without incident, and then Phyllis suggested that we adjourn to the living room (which was the other half of the same room, of course) and “talk shop” while she made coffee. She attempted to discourage me from helping her to clear the table, but she was not entirely successful.

Once the table was cleared, my employer and I sat in the two armchairs and Rhonda sat on one end of the sofa, with Phyllis perched on the arm next to her. There was an ashtray on the small table next to my employer’s chair, so she pulled it closer to her with one finger and then lit a cigarette. Phyllis lit one also.

Rhonda said, “Jan, I’m hoping we can start by you telling me what you know, and what you suspected, and then I’ll tell you about the last two days.”

My employer nodded, suppressing a grin. “That’s fair, of course.” She leaned back in her chair, drawing deeply on her cigarette.

To be continued…

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writers, and writing “rules”

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post, so I thought I should write one.

First of all, I used to follow a lot of writing blogs, so I’ve read a lot of advice about writing, some of it in the form of rules. None of this was useful (mostly due to lack of interest on my part), but this (not from a blog) made me laugh immoderately:

“Always write in the third person. The third person is Cain, the firstborn son of Adam and Eve. Every novel must be from his perspective.”

I can’t read that without laughing, which may be something I shouldn’t admit in public.

I was going to write something about Martin Scorsese’s recent dismissal of Marvel movies as “not cinema” (I probably have a draft around somewhere), but it veered too close to “What is art?” (I always avoid those conversations), plus I had to deal with my lack of interest in both sides (as I’ve indicated before, I’m sick of Marvel movies, and I’m not a huge Scorsese fan — other than Hugo).

Speaking of writers blogs, most of the writers (or, as some of them thought of themselves, aspiring writers) have drifted away. Some perhaps to social media, some, apparently, to parenthood, others to who knows where.

But one who persisted, in the writing if not in the blogging is Tiyana Marie White. For as long as I’ve known her (years – I don’t know how many) she’s been working on a book called The Elementalist: Rise of Hara (well, that may not always have been the title, but it was always the same book).

And now, it’s done and published! So many people start out to write a novel, and so few ever finish one.

I’m not reviewing the book (I haven’t finished it, and I would have to recuse myself from reviewing it in any case since I was a beta reader), but I am definitely celebrating the accomplishment.

My first blog post, written before I even had a blog was about persistence.

That was written nineteen years ago, so I guess I’m pretty persistent with this blog thing.

So, I’ll quote my father here: “There’s only one rule in writing. Write well.”

I’d also vote for “Finish what you start.”

Work on my current story is going well (according to me, anyway). The whole thing seems to make sense, which is not something you can take for granted when you’re writing a mystery story based on a dream. There’s probably a writing rule against that.

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