My employer looked up from her morning newspaper and regarded me. "Do you believe in coincidence?" she asked after a moment's thought (or it could have been a dramatic pause).
When she asked a question like this, it was almost always a minefield, particularly when she was peering at me over the rims of her glasses. She put down her coffee cup and took a drag on her cigarette, waiting for my response.
"Two things which are apparently related in some way, happen at the same time, or nearly the same time, giving the impression of–"
She nodded. "Giving the impression." She drank some more coffee.
Something was nagging at her, I knew. This was more than her usual sporadic attempts at morning chit-chat. And I knew she would get to the point when she was ready, and not before.
We were in New York City, waiting (hoping, really) for a meeting with her publisher. Well, they weren't "her" publisher – they'd just expressed interest in publishing a book of hers. Interest which now seemed to be waning, based on the number of meetings which had been postponed, or canceled.
That afternoon, in Central Park, we were demonstrating, at least to ourselves, that we were not so eager to get published that we were going to stay in the hotel room all the time, tethered to the telephone. Instead, we sat on a bench and watched people go by.
She was smoking a cigarette. I was eating a hot dog.
"I've been thinking about my books," she said, looking at a skyscraper in the distance.
"Books?" I asked.
She saw two girls – teenagers, one wearing a college sweatshirt from a distant college, the other wearing a colorful T-shirt advertising a band that I'd heard of but never heard – and she winked at me.
The girls recognized her. They were looking and trying not to look, giggling while trying to make it clear that they were too old to giggle because they were seeing a celebrity.
This had happened a few times before, but it was still rare enough that my employer got a kick out of it. She kept a mental list of the times that it happened, and I could tell when those occasions came back to her.
Jan Sleet, my employer, was well known already, at least in certain circles, circles often located among college students. Magazine writers and reporters are not often celebrities, but it does help when they report on topical events, in a striking way, and when they develop a distinctive persona.
She was six feet tall, thin to the point of emaciation, and she always (always meaning always – even when cowering in a bombed out hotel in a war zone in a foreign land) wore a man's three piece suit, shirt and tie, with a display handkerchief carefully folded in her breast pocket. Her rather narrow face was framed by her shoulder-length brown hair and dominated by her large, horn-rimmed glasses. Her left leg was lame, and she used a cane to walk.
Turning back from her two admirers, who were apparently not going to approach us to ask her for an autograph, she repeated herself, which she hated to do.
"My books," she said. She frowned the frown she always made when she was dissatisfied that my brain didn't work as fast as hers. "'A bookish girl' – that's how I've described myself growing up. You can't be a bookish girl without books."
I nodded, catching up. "So, where are these books? Where have they been since..."
"Since I left college and hired you. Exactly. When I left college, I packed them all away, carefully sorted and cataloged, of course. But now that we're back in the United States, maybe..."
"Maybe we're settling down, a little. If the book gets published."
She nodded and took out another cigarette. I lit it for her, and, in that moment, we knew that the book was not going to be published. We were not going to be settling down after all.
We could stay in the hotel for as long as we wanted to, or for as long as we could afford it, but there was never going to be an actual meeting with the publisher.
"However," she continued, "back when I thought we were going to be settling down, relatively speaking, I was thinking of going home and collecting my books, or just having them sent to us."
"Where are they?"
"At home, where I grew up. My father stayed in town after I left, for a while, but then he left also. When he was still there, the boxes were in his basement. When he left, he had them moved into a neighbor's garage." She pulled an envelope from her pocket and handed it to me. "Where one of the boxes has now been opened, and, perhaps, something removed from it."
"A burglary? A book theft? Is that really..." Once again I was lagging behind her, but this was different. She was holding something back. And she was not going to let me know what it was until she was good and ready.
Being that we were, once again, not going to be published in book form, we were once again, as usual, needing to watch our expenses, so I bought us two bus tickets, from New York City to Claremont, Massachusetts, where my employer had gone to college.
The house was next to a Presbyterian church, with the church parking lot in between. It seemed fairly typical: two stories, painted white, peaked roof, set back from the street with a nice lawn in front of it.
Beyond the house, on the far side from the church, was a smaller house, with a corny sign in front of it. Even here, near the center of the town of Claremont, there was a comfortable amount of space between the buildings. The houses and stores were almost all painted white (was there a town rule?), and most of them could have been a hundred years old. If so, they were well maintained (maybe there was a rule about that also).
"Is there a rule, do you think?" my employer asked as we walked up the hill toward the house. "That all the buildings need to be painted white? I always wondered about that."
I shrugged. Given the number of suitcases I was carrying, even that was an effort.
She stopped and breathed in. "It smells even better than I remember," she said as she pulled out her cigarette case.
I put down the suitcases and took out my lighter in order to light her cigarette.
She looked around as I picked up the suitcases again.
"It sure has changed," she said thoughtfully, probably attempting to convey the idea that she'd lived and matured quite a lot since she'd left college and moved away, all of three or four years before.
As we got into motion again, a couple of people across the street noticed us. My employer glanced at them, and then at me. I shook my head and she shrugged.
She'd had an idea that she was being recognized as a famous and intrepid gal reporter and amateur sleuth, but the truth, as far as I could tell, was that she was attracting attention simply for being, in the context of Claremont, Massachusetts, a very odd looking woman.
We climbed up on the front porch and she knocked on the door. There was no response.
She pursed her lips, disgruntled. She knocked again. "I had hoped," she said quietly, tapping her cane very lightly on the wooden floor of the porch, "that they might still rent rooms, and that they might have a room available for us. It would be so much easier to stay and visit here for a few days and go through the books here... Oh, well, no matter. Let's go and get some lunch, and then we can come back."
"We should leave a note," I said.
She nodded. "Excellent idea."
I had already put down the suitcases, of course, so it was easy for me to open her attaché case and hand over a pad and her fountain pen.
I sat down on the porch swing, knowing that this might take a few minutes, and she leaned against the wall of the house, looking thoughtful.
Walking down the hill to the center of town, there was a clear sky and a pleasant breeze, but I wasn't really enjoying it, since I was getting a bit tired and sore, what with all the suitcases.
"The Wagon Wheel!" she said happily, as if it was a tremendous surprise that her favorite restaurant was still there after all the many months she'd been away.
She sailed happily into the small, rustic restaurant, remembering at the last minute to hold the door open for me.
It was the middle of the afternoon, so the place was mostly empty. A waitress came over slowly, regarding us. I thought her hesitation might have been about to lead into a "Janice!", but instead she just said, "May I help you?"
"We'd like a table, please. Somewhere where my assistant here can put our luggage so that it won't get in your way?"
There was a little side porch on the building, with five tables, all of them empty. I piled our luggage around the rearmost one and we sat at the next one. The porch, which seemed to have been added some time after the building was built, had screens rather than windows, so it was clearly for summer use only.
The waitress had taken our orders and we were waiting for our food when I asked, "Do you really think that going through the boxes will take several days, or is that time to solve the mystery? Or is it just because we don't really have anyplace else we need to be?"
She frowned. "I have two questions that I want to answer while we're here. One is what happened with my books, or to my books (and why and by whom and so forth – that's all one question). The other – the more important one, I must add – is whether there are other options for getting the book published. I don't intend to give up on that until I'm sure I've exhausted all of the possibilities."
She caught my expression, and the words I was about to speak. "Not that there are any options here in town – well, there might be one – but it's going to take some thinking to figure out the best way to proceed, and we can almost certainly live here more cheaply than we can if we're staying in a hotel room in New York City."
She looked at me with what I'm sure she thought was a stern expression. "And you're not going to distract me from that, even with a mystery about my missing book, or books."
Having learned at least a thing or two over the course of my employment, I did not bother to protest my innocence of this vile calumny.
Walking back up the hill to the house – the family was named Arkright, my employer had told me during lunch – I was hoping that somebody would be home. It was important, it seemed to me, to settle the question of where we would be staying. Not only so that I could divest myself of our luggage – although that was a consideration – but because it was August, and Claremont was obviously something of a summer resort town. I was a bit concerned that everything would be booked and we'd end up sleeping on the beach or somewhere like that.
My employer glanced at me and raised an eyebrow as we stepped onto the front porch. She wanted to make sure that I'd noticed that the note she'd left earlier was still there, wedged between the screen door and the frame.
She knocked on the door anyway, and I started to put down the suitcases. "We do have to remember..." she began, but she was interrupted by a woman's voice calling cheerfully from inside the house, asking us to come on in.
My employer's hand flicked up, grabbed her note, and quickly slipped it into her jacket pocket.
She opened the screen door and stepped inside. As I lifted the final suitcase again, she said, "Oh, you can just leave them out there for now."
It did seem unwise to leave all of our luggage, all of our possessions, on the front porch, but, as she'd been about to remind me a minute earlier, we weren't in New York any longer.
Inside the house, squinting in the sudden darkness, my employer was regarding a woman. She was fairly tall and slender (though not as tall and slender as my employer), with long dark hair and wire-rimmed glasses.
My employer introduced herself, using her birth name, which she didn't generally use unless she had to. She didn't introduce me.
The woman frowned. "I am sorry, but I don't recognize the name..."
My employer smiled pleasantly. "I lived here, in town, when I went to college. My father and I lived down the hill, in the little house next to the Historical Society."
"The little white one? Oh, and would you like to sit down?"
She gestured through a doorway at the pleasant living room, and we followed her in.
"I haven't been gone that long," my employer said as she used her cane to lower herself into a straight-backed chair, "but apparently it was long enough for the owner to paint our little house white. When we lived there, my father and myself, it was painted a red brick color."
I sat on a sofa where I could see out one of the front windows and keep an eye on our suitcases. My employer noted my position and clearly understood my reasons, but she didn't comment.
The woman nodded. "Oh, I think I remember that, when they painted it." She frowned at my employer. "You do look familiar, though your name... You're Jan Sleet, aren't you? I've seen your photograph, with your articles."
My employer looked pleased, as she always did when she was recognized, but also wary. I could tell by the careful way she was pressing the tips of her long fingers onto her thighs, adjusting the pressure slightly from moment to moment.
"So, you've read my work? That's always good to hear."
"I didn't realize you were back in this country. Will you be going back to Bellona?"
"Probably not right away. I'm... sort of deciding where I want to go next."
"I always thought that your columns on Bellona... They would make a very good book. The sort of thing that could even be used in schools, studying current events and Latin American history."
My employer shrugged. "That is a possibility." She smiled. "I can't say more about it right now."
The woman nodded. "Of course. So, Miss Sleet, may I ask why you're here?"
"Of course. My father, Vinnie, before he left town, left several cartons of my books in your garage."
The woman stood up. "Oh? Of course. Please come with me."
She stood and led us toward the rear of the house. She opened the door from the kitchen into the garage and then stepped aside to allow us to go first.
But then we all stopped in the doorway, and my employer said, "Oh."
Even though she was apparently as surprised as our hostess and myself, my employer was still the first one to move forward to examine the body. She grabbed a windowsill with her long fingers and lowered herself to a squatting position.
"Dead," she said after a moment, not looking around. "Probably since yesterday. Strangled, apparently. Wearing a bikini bathing suit and flip flops, so there's no identification on her. Do you recognize her?"
The last was for our hostess, who moved forward hesitantly, looked at the swollen and discolored face, and scurried away and out the door in order to be sick in the kitchen (based on the sounds).
My employer turned around to face me. I knew from experience that she was far from done examining the body, so I didn't move forward to help her to her feet.
"Please call Sheriff Baxter. Give him my regards and let him know that there's been a murder here." She told me the phone number and turned back to continue her examination. I hesitated, and she spoke over her shoulder. "The 'lady of the house' won't mind your using her phone. I have no idea who that woman was, but she doesn't live here and I imagine she's long gone by now. Go make the call."
Waiting for the police to arrive, I took advantage of the time to move our luggage into the front hall.
A police car pulled up and stopped in front of the house, the siren dying down. The blonde woman who stepped out looked very much like my idea of a small-town sheriff. She wore mirror sunglasses, a khaki blouse with short sleeves, brown trousers with a stripe down the sides, and large, carefully-polished boots. She wore a badge, of course, and the sidearm in her holster was a pearl-handled revolver – an old-fashioned six shooter.
She looked up and down the street and then strolled toward me. When she stepped up on the porch, I assumed she was looking at me, but the sunglasses made it impossible to be sure.
"Are you the gentleman who called in the report?" she asked. "Marshall O'Connor?"
I nodded. "I am."
"Let's see some identification."
I handed over my driver's license. She examined it and handed it back. "Okay. Please show me the body."
I led her through the house and out into the garage. My employer was standing up, looking out one of the small windows that showed the rather scruffy back yard.
"Sheriff," she said, turning, "I think you'll find... Rhonda?" She glanced at the badge pinned to the woman's shirt. "You're the sheriff now? What happened–"
"Hello, Janice," she said, removing her sunglasses. "Sheriff Baxter retired last year, and I won the election to replace him." She allowed herself a smile. "I guess you didn't keep up with your subscription to the Crier."
My employer glanced at me. "They were in the post office box," I reassured her. "Fifteen or twenty issues. They're in the blue suitcase."
That got another brief smile from Sheriff Rhonda. Then she squatted and looked at the body. I got the impression that she was reluctant to actually touch the corpse.
"Two of my deputies are on the way, and the coroner. Let's go inside and I'll get your story."
We went back toward the front of the house as another police car pulled up. Sheriff Rhonda gestured that we should go and sit down in the living room as she walked with her deputies back to the garage.
We sat on the sofa together and I leaned over to whisper, "I guess you had Sheriff Baxter nicely broken in, and now you have to start all over again with a new sheriff."
Sheriff Rhonda came back in and sat down facing us.
"So," she said, "let's get caught up. Of course, I'm not saying that you're suspects..."
"But obviously we're not not suspects," my employer said.
"Exactly. I find you with a dead body, in a house which is locked up while the owners are away skiing, and I have to ask some questions."
"Of course, you found us with a dead body after I called your office to notify you about the existence of that dead body," I pointed out.
"That's true." She leaned back. "Please tell me how you came to be here, in an empty house, with a dead body."
My employer took out her cigarette case and I stood up. There were no ashtrays in the room, so while she said, "To begin, when I left college..." I ducked into the kitchen, found an appropriately shaped serving dish, and brought it back in. I could tell that the sheriff was wondering about our exact relationship. This was not unusual.
"But it is relevant, Rhonda – thank you, Marshall – because it's why we're here in town. There are several cartons of my books in the garage, which Vinnie left there when he moved away. Until then, they had been in his basement." She nodded at me and I took the letter from my pocket and handed it to the sheriff.
She read it carefully and said, "So, that's why you came back to town?"
She shrugged. "It was really somewhere between a reason and an excuse to come back and visit. And, although it was polite, the letter did have a certain... tone."
I nodded. "It seemed to be secret code for 'When are you going to come and get your damn boxes out of my garage?'"
The sheriff smiled. "That's pretty much how I'm reading it. And you didn't think it would be better to come visit at a time when the family would actually be home?"
"I didn't write in advance, I'm afraid. We just came, rather on impulse. After all, if we got here and they were away, we could spend some time here in town, which would be enjoyable. And I didn't remember them traveling much."
"Mr. Arkright retired at the end of last year. Since then, they've been doing more traveling."
My employer smiled. "I've heard of that. Perhaps when I retire I'll stop traveling, just for a change of pace."
The sheriff wasn't distracted. "So, arriving here and finding no one home, you let yourself in so that you could get to the garage and your books?"
"No. We knocked on the door, and we received no response. So, we strolled down the hill and had a very pleasant lunch at the Wagon Wheel. When we came back and knocked again, a woman answered the door and admitted us, once we'd explained our mission here."
The sheriff pursed her lips. "Describe her."
"Thirty-five to forty, perhaps a little older. Slender and five feet, nine or ten inches tall. Dark brown hair, about the same color as mine, but thicker and longer, hanging straight to around the bottom of her shoulder blades, wire-rimmed glasses."
"You knew the Arkright family?"
"Not all of them, but I looked at the family photos on the mantle over there, and she's not in any of them."
"Did this woman introduce herself, when she let you in?"
"No, she did not give us her name."
"Did you think of asking her who she was?"
She laughed. "Of course I thought of it. But if I'd asked I would have missed out on the fun of seeing how far she was going to go with it. And I was fairly sure she'd have given me a phony name anyway, if I'd pressed her. I decided to let the situation play itself out."
The sheriff paused, then she nodded. "From you, I suppose that seems plausible."
An older man, dressed in civilian clothes, stepped into the room. He was about to speak, but then he saw my employer. "So, it's you," he said with a studied weariness. "Where have you been? And why don't we ever get any murders around here except when you're in town, hmm? Makes me wonder..."
My employer smiled. "I have to say, my dear Doctor Wright, that this is one reason, of many, that you're the doctor, rather than being the detective."
He sighed and turned to Rhonda. "Sheriff, the dead body in the garage is, in fact, dead. It is dead from strangulation, said strangulation having been achieved with, perhaps, some sort of soft cloth. There are no finger marks on the throat, or abrasions from rough rope or twine. The body has apparently been dead for at least twenty-four hours. I've called for the ambulance, and I'll let you know more after the autopsy, which I'm assuming you're about to ask me for." He turned and left.
The sheriff nodded slowly. "So, to recap, somebody murdered the blonde woman over twenty four hours ago. And someone was in this house today, pretending that she lived here. Had she brought the body here today, for some reason, and your arrival interrupted her? Interrupted her... doing something in the empty house?"
My employer shook her head. "Unlikely. For one thing, I've looked out the garage windows. Every side of this house is clearly visible from at least one other building. To carry in a dead body during daylight seems very risky."
"Particularly risky for someone who was, apparently, a stranger here herself," I added. "But here's the other point. This woman was shocked when we discovered the body. She ran into the kitchen, apparently to be sick. Now, maybe she's a good enough actress to feign that level of surprise and distress, but she did actually vomit in the sink."
"Maybe she was just putting on a very thorough act."
My employer shook her head. "To get away from us, knowing the police would appear soon and reveal that she had no business here? Why stop and induce her distress into the sink? Why not simply act sick, rush from the room, and continue on out the front door and away?"
The sheriff nodded slowly.
"So, we have an unidentified victim, and unidentified murderer, and an unidentified impostor and break-in artist..."
My employer extended a bony finger. "And, remember" she said, "an unidentified book thief." She paused. "May I ask a question?"
Rhonda leaned back in her chair, the first time she'd seemed to relax, at least somewhat. "Go ahead."
"How involved do you want me to be, or can I be, in the investigation?"
"In other words, am I going to let you run wild, like Sheriff Baxter did during that surfer case?"
Her smile gave a certain context to her words.
My employer smiled, too. "I wouldn't have put it in exactly those terms."
"The surfer case, which you solved, where Sheriff Baxter got most of the credit in the press, even though everybody in town knew the real story, at least in a general way.
"I'll be honest. This is the first murder in town since I took over this job. My predecessor, with your help, had a very good track record in that area. That's what people are going to expect from me... That's the standard that's been set, for me to live up to.
"So, on one hand, I want to solve this, and you can probably help." She shrugged. "On the other hand, you're here in town, and if I look like I'm rejecting your help, I'm going to look like an idiot."
She leaned forward. "However, I need to make one point.
"This house is a crime scene. It's going to be locked up, at least until the forensics boys from the state police get here and get done. And that, if you care, includes the cartons with your books."
My employer nodded. "Very reasonable. Marshall and I aren't going anywhere until this is solved, and we can certainly wait until then to go over my books."
What this told me was that she'd already looked through at least the open box, enough to find out what she wanted to know.
The deputies and the corpse were gone, and the house was sealed. We were standing on the front porch with the sheriff.
"Do you have any way of reaching the Arkright family?" my employer asked.
Sheriff Rhonda shook her head. "I'll try to find out, but I don't think so. People don't usually inform us when they go on vacation, or for how long they're going, or how to get in touch with them. I'm going to ask the neighbors, to see if they know when the family is coming home."
My employer nodded. "And you'll let us know when you get an ID on the corpse?"
Sheriff Rhonda shrugged. "Where can I reach you? Where are you going to be staying?"
My employer looked at me, raising one eyebrow.
"That's not entirely worked out," I said. As she well knew, of course.
Sheriff Rhonda nodded. "Well, good luck." She reached into her pocket and handed me a card. "Call me when you're settled. Somewhere."
My employer turned to me as the sheriff walked toward her car. "Let's go back to the Wagon Wheel, and I'll think about all this while you make our arrangements."
The good side of this, of course, was that I could leave the luggage with her while I attempted to "make our arrangements."
Walking down the hill to the restaurant, I realized that it was now late afternoon. The sun was very low in the sky, and there was a cool breeze, which was pleasant. I'd lost track of time in the murder house. There were more people on the streets than there had been earlier – quite a few looking as if they had spent the day at the beach and were now ready for drinks or dinner, or a movie, if the town had a movie theater.
"Can I ask you the most obvious question?" I asked as we approached the Wagon Wheel.
She looked at me in some surprise. "No," was her answer, though her expression said, "Are you kidding? Of course not."
I tried another tack. "I did notice that you left the body in a slightly different position than you found it."
She nodded. "Yes, I did." She smiled. "Speaking of the corpse," she continued, "I have a question for you. With your experience of women, which covers three continents that I'm aware of, would you describe the corpse as... voluptuous?
"If you were describing it to somebody other than me, of course?"
"Well, 'curvaceous,' perhaps."
"I'll accept that. 'Curvaceous.'" She nodded and smiled, trying, with only partial success, not to look smug. "That will prove to be important later."
We stepped aside to let a large family leave the restaurant, and she gave me a stern look over the rims of her glasses. "In response to your earlier comment, by the way, about my having to 'break in' a new sheriff, I do have to point out that the situation is quite different, and in some ways it may turn out to be more favorable. With Sheriff Baxter, I cultivated him because I needed him, certainly more than he needed me, at least at first. With Sheriff Rhonda, we'll see..." She turned to enter the restaurant.
With my employer safely ensconced in the Wagon Wheel, sitting on the deck again, drinking a cup of coffee and smoking, I set out to find us accommodations.
I suppose I could have got a local phone book and made calls from the pay phone next to the Methodist church, but I had the urge to stretch my legs, and to see more of the town than I'd managed to see so far.
There seemed to be two main thoroughfares: Main Street, where the Arkright house and the Wagon Wheel were, along with the town hall, the general store, and so on; and Ocean Drive, which ran parallel to Main Street, down by the water.
I went to a couple of places that the waitress at the Wagon Wheel had suggested, but they were full up.
My employer and I had often shared rooms in our travels, to save money. I was used to assessing which types of places would hesitate to rent to an unmarried couple. In those places I would present us as husband and wife, which allowed the owners to relax, at least until they observed the age difference and my "wife's" rather masculine attire – and by that time they usually shrugged and accepted us as peculiar, perhaps, but at least respectable.
I was heading down Ocean Drive toward the docks when I saw a small sign in front of a large house, saying they had rooms to rent. The little sign hanging below said they had no vacancies, but I decided to try anyway.
I had no reason to think that the sign was wrong – no elaborate clues that would have impressed my employer, the great detective. But I strode up to the front door and knocked.
The scent of baking (something with cinnamon, maybe muffins...) had reached me down on the sidewalk, and it was stronger on the front porch. I was prepared to count it as a successful effort if it produced a fresh muffin, even if there really were no rooms available.
A pleasant looking, gray-haired woman came and opened the screen door, smiling.
I introduced myself. "I realize that this may be a bit of a long shot, but do you have any rooms to rent?"
She smiled. "For how long, sir?"
"Frankly, whatever you have. We're pretty desperate at this point."
"Well, we do have one room available for tonight – just for tonight. A couple was planning to stay the week, through tomorrow, but they decided to leave last night, because the weather's been so bad this week. This is the first nice day since last Saturday." She shrugged. "You're welcome to the room for the one night, if you want. It's booked again Friday night through the weekend."
She looked up at the sky. "I did tell them that it would be nice today and tomorrow, but they probably thought I was just trying to keep the booking."
I stepped inside and she showed me the room (which was basically a formality, given the lack of other options in town). It was small, but pleasant and clean, with a private bath.
Walking back toward the Wagon Wheel, eating a very good muffin, I stopped at the pay phone beside the church and called the sheriff. It took a few moments for her to come to the phone, and I began to try to remember which suitcase held my jackets. The weather was still pleasant, but it was getting cooler, and the sky was dark now.
"Hello, Marshall," the sheriff said. "Is it solved yet?"
I laughed. "Not that I'm aware, but I haven't seen my employer for over an hour. So, maybe. Any ID on our corpse?"
"Not yet. I've checked with the State Police about missing persons. I've called the college, though she looks like she was rather old for a student and very young for a professor. I thought maybe the office staff there, that sort of thing, or maybe the cleaners, but there's... The cleaners are mostly not..."
"Attractive young blondes?"
"Yes, exactly. There doesn't seem to be anybody missing among the office staff. So, this may take a while – if she's single. Sometimes single people can vanish for a few days before somebody notices. Especially heading into the weekend." She paused. "Do you two have a place to stay? Is something 'worked out'?"
"I found a room for tonight. That's it so far." I gave her the address.
"And you don't have a car?"
"No, we came by bus."
"Well, it is August, and the tourists are as thick as flies these days. Not that we should complain about that. I'd offer to put you up at my place, but if you start being an embarrassment that could make me look bad."
"An embarrassment?" I protested. "Us?"
"Your... employer, is she? (I think I won't ask about that.) She was pretty well known here in town when she lived here. Vinnie was well liked, and that helped, and she solved some tricky crimes. But she was pretty determined to get into everybody's business.
"The locals were okay with that, up to a point, but the fundamental rule around here is that we don't upset the tourists in the summertime. And a couple of her investigations–"
"Excuse me," I said, "my employer is trying to get my attention."
The great detective was leaning out of the door of the restaurant. "We should have dinner!" she called.
"Your mistress calls," Sheriff Rhonda said. "I understand. Talk to me tomorrow."
We ordered dinner, and as we waited I told my employer about the room I'd secured for that night.
I shrugged. "I guess tomorrow we'll have to find another place – in addition to everything else I'm sure we'll be doing tomorrow."
"Oh, don't worry about that," she said, waving a hand. "It's all taken care of. I made a call."
The cases were bubbling around in my employer's mind for the rest of the evening, so I mostly just let her think, not talking unless she started a conversation.
I made a point of thinking of them as "cases," by the way. I did not want to assume that everything – the book theft, the dead woman, the mysterious live woman – would all magically tie together into a single case at the end.
The interesting – and somewhat disturbing – thing was that my employer was bothered by something in this situation, and it wasn't the dead body.
This was early in the years that I worked for her, but I'd already seen her with more than a few dead bodies – both murder victims and casualties of war. They sometimes affected her more than she let on, but this was something different. And it had been bothering her since we'd arrived in town, if not longer.
So, maybe it really was her (possibly) stolen books? Even for someone as "bookish" as she was, this seemed unlikely.
Our room at the inn had at least one disadvantage. My employer liked to end her days with a long soak in the bathtub, but the room only had a shower. And there was a television, which she asked me to turn to face the wall (I declined – insisting that our will power would be sufficient, which it was).
Coming out of the bathroom, surrounded by clouds of steam, wearing her floor length flannel nightgown and a bathrobe, she sat on her bed and lit a cigarette.
"I'm sorry I didn't get to search the rest of the house," she said, looking at the dark window. "Maybe Sheriff Rhonda will let me do it tomorrow."
She looked up, waiting for me to express my opinion about how likely I thought that was.
"How well did you know the family, when you lived here?" I asked.
"Not well. I knew that the wife was having an affair with Mr. Beasley who runs the library, but that was from observation and deduction."
"So, there's a couple, of retirement age? Any children?"
"Several. Let me think..." She drew deeply on her cigarette. "A daughter and a son, in college. Well, the daughter might have graduated by now." She caught my expression. "Mrs. Arkright–"
"The one with the well-used library card."
She snorted a laugh. "Yes, exactly. She is Mr. Arkright's second wife. Much younger than her husband. He had... a son, I believe, with his first wife. We'll have to check on that. He'd be... maybe in his forties by now. If I remember correctly, the first Mrs. Arkright died, leaving Mr. Arkright a widower."
"Was her death suspicious?"
She looked up, about to accuse me of flippancy, but then she frowned. "Was that question reflexive, or are you thinking of something specific?"
"Reflexive, I confess. We'll have to get the details from Sheriff Rhonda tomorrow."
She nodded. "There are a lot of details that we need. Starting with the identity of the corpse." She drew herself up and said, "I'm thinking categorically now. If the body had been a townie, it's likely that the sheriff, or the doctor, or somebody, would have recognized it by now." She held up a hand, overruling my unspoken objection. "Not inevitable, but, as I said, likely. A lot of the people you're seeing around now are summer people – the people who live here year-round, and who aren't college students or faculty, that's a much smaller number."
"How many?" I asked.
She squinched up her nose at me. "How should I know? I'm a detective, as you well know, not a census taker."
I waved a hand, indicating that she should proceed.
"Okay, so if our corpse wasn't a townie, then she was either connected with the college, or she was a summer visitor, or something else. That would make it likely–" She emphasized the word and gave me a stern look. "Likely that she was not intimately connected with the Arkright family. They didn't have anything to do with the college–"
"Who did they rent rooms to?"
"Okay, objection sustained. They rented rooms, when I lived here, to students, once Nate and Barbara went away to college. But not in the summer, because the 'kids' (if we can call them that) were home then."
"So, as soon as Nate and Barbara went away to college, their parents rented out their rooms, during the school year."
"Exactly. And the word around the campus was that it was not a great place to live. They – the Arkrights – liked tenants who were quiet, well-behaved, and willing and able to pay rent that was higher than market rate. Mostly nobody stayed there longer than a single semester."
She anticipated my next question. "Why did they rent out the rooms? The story was that they needed the money." She looked at me. "What's on your mind?"
I shrugged. "Just idly wondering how the family is fixed. Probably not relevant."
She nodded slowly. "Probably not. Could be worth knowing about, though. As you say, we need to know a lot more than we do now." She looked around. "Please get me the newspapers, from the blue suitcase. I'm sure everything isn't in there, in the newspapers, but a lot probably is, and I do have questions..."
I woke up and blinked – the room was so full of smoke that some people, people who haven't lived with my employer, might have jumped to the conclusion that the building was on fire. I knew better, and quickly got up to open a window a little.
I turned and regarded the limp form of the great detective. Still dressed in her nightgown and robe, still wearing her glasses, she was stretched out across the bed, lying on top of the covers, surrounded by the back issues of the Claremont Crier that we'd brought with us, and the new issue she'd bought the day before.
Looking at her, I thought about what I was learning on this case.
I had always assumed that she'd been exaggerating, at least somewhat, when she'd told me about her exploits as a small-town amateur detective, but it seemed that she'd been telling me the literal truth.
Then, turning to reach for the light switch, I saw that there was an envelope stuck under our door. I picked it up and opened it.
Inside, there was a clipping from a supermarket tabloid, about a young, wild debutante named Marvel Phillips. She had been a feature in the more sensational press for some time.
There was a small note clipped to it, on notepaper which said "Sheriff's Department" at the top, and the note, signed "Rhonda," said: "The coroner found out who our corpse is. Please come see me in the morning."
Sheriff Rhonda's secretary led us into her office. She was sitting behind her desk, and she stood up as we came in.
"I'm suggesting we talk outside," she said to my employer. "Unlike Sheriff Baxter, I'm not going to allow you to smoke in my office, and it's going to distract us if we waste time on that. We have a murder to solve. Let's go."
There was a picnic table in the back yard of the police station, which looked as if it had been a private house at some point. My employer looked at the picnic table and then at me. I went to the back porch and brought over a lawn chair, placing it so that she could sit at the head of the table.
Not that she needed to sit at the head of the table – though she didn't mind – but the table was the kind with the attached benches. Getting her lame leg under that – and then back out again later – would have been awkward and possibly painful (and almost certainly undignified).
"So," my employer said when we were all seated, "our corpse is Marvel Phillips? The girl from the tabloids?"
Sheriff Rhonda nodded. "Yes. Doctor Wright noticed that she'd had some pretty extensive, and expensive, dental repair work done, fairly recently, so he called around to the local dentists. He found the one who remembered working on her. Under the name Madeleine Pontmercy."
"Presumably she had items with her initials on them," my employer murmured.
The secretary brought us a tray with three cups of coffee, cream and sugar, and an ashtray.
"Can you give us a little background on Marvel Phillips?" my employer asked as I poured milk into her coffee. "I've seen a few headlines, but we've been out of the country for some time and we just got back quite recently."
"She was incredibly rich. Her parents died when she was fifteen. She went to boarding schools, with bankers controlling her fortune until she turned eighteen. At that point, she came into her money, and..."
"Went a little wild, based on newspaper reports," I said.
She nodded. "That's about it. Drinking, carousing, parties, yachts, and so on."
My employer, looking more than usually prim, added, "Performing a variety of activities in public view while dispensing with one or more items of attire which most people would consider essential."
"Well, she got into a fist fight with a guy... I don't remember the details, but it went badly for her. That's when she needed the dental repair work. Apparently she had to spend a little time in the hospital, too, and she seems to have taken stock and decided to make some changes.
"She applied to college here at Claremont. Under her assumed name of Madeleine Pontmercy – I didn't know about this until today."
My employer frowned. "Is that usual? Do colleges allow that sort of thing?"
Rhonda shrugged. "Apparently she said that if she graduated without the press finding out, the college would get a new building out of it. Papers were signed."
"Ah, I can see how that could make a difference. How long has she been enrolled?"
"Since spring semester. She decided to stay for the summer to study... something." She shrugged. "Anyway, I've been making calls, and I've found out a few things from the college. The last time she was in class was Tuesday. Apparently the day before she was killed."
"Did she live on campus? Did she have a roommate?"
"She did live on campus, in a single. It doesn't seem that anybody remembers if they saw her Tuesday night or Wednesday morning."
"Did she have classes scheduled on Wednesday?"
"In the afternoon. She missed that class – she was almost certainly dead by then."
My employer looked thoughtful and lit a cigarette.
"Well," I said, "two questions occur to me. One: Did she have any connection to the Arkright family? And two: Who inherits her fortune?"
My employer added, "And just to cover all the bases, how exactly did her parents die?"
Rhonda sighed. "We're looking into the question of any possible connections she might have had to the Arkright family. In terms of the inheritance, the story in the tabloids was always that she had no living relatives, but I have no idea if that's true. The county attorney is dealing with that. And as for her parents – I have no idea. That was a few years ago – does it matter?"
"Probably not, but..." She spread her hands wide and gave an elaborate shrug. "There's a lot of money changing hands here."
"That's for sure."
"Any word on the Arkright family?" I asked.
"Yes, in fact. They had given Reverend Deacon a brochure for the resort they were going to in Austria, so we're trying to get a call through now."
"'Reverend Deacon'?" my employer asked. She glanced at me for clarification.
She was an ardent atheist, and affected to know even less about religion than she did, so she often looked to me to fill in the gaps in her information.
"I would guess that 'Deacon' might be his surname, rather than–"
"Ah, quite so. Of course, if they do come rushing back, they won't have any place to stay."
Sheriff Rhonda smiled. "Even if they 'rush back' it will be some time before they actually get here. I'm sure we'll be done with the house by then. And, yes, I'll let you know the minute the state boys get finished, so you can go in there and poke around yourself."
"Did Marvel have a car?"
"I'm not sure. I haven't heard anything about one, but I'll try to find out. Probably she just took the jitney bus."
The sheriff paused, trying to read my employer's expression (which, in reality, had simply been a momentary wince – "jitney bus" was redundant).
Then Rhonda nodded. "I see. She lived on campus. Her body was found in town. If she didn't have a car, she may have used the jitney bus, and someone may remember her." She nodded. "So, what are your plans for today?"
"I was surprised that you ceded the town to Sheriff Rhonda, even if it was in exchange for the campus."
My employer sipped her coffee and raised an eyebrow, waiting to see what I'd say next.
"The body was here, in town; the mystery woman was here, in town; your books are – or perhaps in some cases were – here, in town."
She nodded. "Well, first of all, that's what was offered. It would not be polite to accept something which wasn't offered."
This time I waited for more from her. She took out a cigarette and lit it.
"Two things," she said. "One is that I really want to know more about Marvel Phillips. So many tabloid articles, so many cliches and stereotypes... It looks like she wanted more..."
She smiled. "Yes. Exactly."
"You think there may be a book in this..."
"It's a possibility, but, as you know, it's a grave error to theorize in advance of the facts."
I waited, then I said, "And the other thing? You did say that there were two."
"There's a slight possibility, based on something I read in those newspapers last night, that the solution to the murder doesn't have anything to do with the campus or the Arkright house."
She made a gesture I'd seen before, closing that subject, at least for now. She stood up and stubbed out her cigarette. "The jitney's coming," she said, and I quickly got to my feet and paid the bill as she limped outside.
The arrangement had not been explicitly stated, of course. There had been a period in the conversation with Sheriff Rhonda when everything had suddenly seemed to be in code (and I was reminded that my employer and the new sheriff were not meeting for the first time).
I did wonder if anybody inside the building could hear us, or if the sheriff was worried that they could.
And so, it was decided, indirectly, that the sheriff would run the investigation in the town, including with the Arkright family, and the visiting amateur detective, along with her assistant, of course, would take primary, unofficial responsibility for the campus and the victim's life there.
My employer apparently considered this to be a fair resolution, because she made a point of saying, as we left the police station, "I am only too glad to help, Rhonda. I'm aware, of course, that you're operating under a handicap, compared to Sheriff Baxter, since he had an excellent deputy to rely on. You don't have her, because she's now the sheriff."
When she passed out compliments like that, which was not often, there was usually a reason.
A small bus pulled up in front of the thrift store next to the Wagon Wheel and I followed my employer as she climbed on board.
The driver regarded her sourly. "Dressing pretty fancy these days, I'd say," he said as he pulled the lever that closed the door.
"Thank you, Mr. Brooke," she called cheerfully as we sat down. There were a few other people on the bus – they all looked like students and they paid no attention to us.
The jitney drove past the murder house, down the hill, past the bus stop where we'd disembarked, and out onto the highway. It occurred to me that I was still seeing very little of the town. I felt a strong desire to get a map and take a long walk around.
My employer made a grumpy sound. "We've done all this work, and it has basically just got us to the starting line."
She saw my dubious expression, misinterpreted it, and started to defend her position.
"Usually, when you're trying to find somebody like this, you start out by knowing who you're looking for. Then you try to figure out how they got where they are. This time, we didn't even know who we were looking for, until now."
We'd learned fairly early on that it was a good idea to avoid words like "murder" and "corpse" in situations where we might be overheard. It was never possible to predict the exact reaction we'd get, of course, but it probably wouldn't be good.
The misunderstanding had been that I had known what she'd meant by getting to "the starting line." What I'd questioned, silently, was the idea that we'd done "all this work" to get to where we were now.
We'd had a pleasant afternoon and evening traipsing around the very pleasant town where she'd gone to college. Nobody had shot at us, no bombs had gone off, and we'd had regular meals and slept in comfortable (well, reasonably comfortable) beds. Nobody we'd known, let alone cared about, had died. It hadn't even rained.
But I also knew, from experience, that trying to straighten out the misunderstanding at this point would have been futile. My function in these conferences was to keep things moving forward (or at least moving in some direction, since I frequently didn't know which direction "forward" was).
She looked out the window as we turned off the highway and through the gates of the campus.
The bus stopped in front of a large brick building. I couldn't see the whole campus, which was hilly and covered with trees, but this building was the largest one that was visible, three stories tall and quite wide.
It had been the manor house when this had been a private estate, she explained.
A couple of students walked by, dressed rather more modestly than the others we'd seen so far. The young man wore a shirt and tie. He called, "God loves you!" as they passed.
"Unrequitedly, I'm afraid!" my employer called back over her shoulder as we entered the building.
I was interested to discover that taking the jitney did not, as far as I could tell, require any sort of ID. There was a sign over the windshield saying that all students and faculty needed to show proper identification, but nobody seemed to be complying, and Mr. Brooke didn't ask me (though of course he may have remembered me from my earlier trip with my employer, the distinguished alumna).
Walking up the hill between the bus stop and the center of town, I saw two police vehicles by the Arkright house, a town police car in front and a state police van in the church parking lot next door.
I slowed, wanting to see what I could see before I entered the scene of the crime. Nobody was visible on the sidewalk (apart from an elderly couple walking in my direction across the street who didn't seem to be connected to the murder house).
The front door of the Arkright house opened and Sheriff Rhonda stepped out, followed by two officers wearing what appeared to be state police uniforms.
They talked for a moment, then Rhonda saw me and waved as the officers went back into the house. She motioned for me to join her on the porch.
"Any news from the house?" I asked as we sat down.
She shrugged. "They're finding things. It's hard to tell what's important at this point. How's the college so far?"
I laughed. "My employer is investigating, I assume. I'm here to fetch our luggage from the inn where we stayed last night."
"The excitement never ends for a detective's assistant, I guess."
"It hasn't so far. Has the coroner's report come in?"
She nodded. "I was surprised that your employer didn't ask about that this morning."
"She affects, at times, a disdain for conventional methods like that."
"I know. I've seen that before. Sheriff Baxter used to tease her about that..." She shrugged. "Until she started producing results."
"Were there any surprises? In the report?"
She shook her head. "Death by strangulation, no scratches or abrasions on the neck, no evidence of recent sexual activity..."
She looked at me pointedly.
"A significant discovery," I admitted, "since it seems likely that somebody put that bikini on her body, either before or after death."
"It didn't quite fit her, yes, and it's unlikely that anybody with her resources would have worn anything that was too small for her."
"Also, it's unlikely she would have come to town wearing or even carrying a bathing suit, too small or not, on a day when it was raining."
She smiled. "You noticed that, too? You're not giving away your boss's secrets, are you?"
I shook my head. "Never. Those are all things I've noticed. I have no idea what she's thinking about all this."
She got to her feet. "It's time I got going," she said. "There's a lot of things I still need to do today."
I nodded. "I think I'm going to take a walk," I said, "before I pick up the luggage."
She nodded. "You look like maybe you're going to do some thinking, too," she said. "I'd suggest the pier. I always find that's a very good place to think." She smiled. "Of course, pretty much any place is better for thinking than my office."
"I never made it to the pier yesterday," I said as we walked down the path from the house to the street. "I was headed in that direction when I found the inn. Then I rushed back to tell my employer the good news, that we wouldn't need to sleep in the woods somewhere. Oh, and one question, for when the family returns."
I gestured at the house and stepped closer to her, lowering my voice. "Do they know, or will they know, who the victim really was?"
She shook her head. "I'm keeping that as quiet as possible, for as long as I can."
The letter was impressive. I read it over again while I sat on a piling on the pier. Actually, I was reading the carbon copy – my employer had kept the original.
I wondered how long the letter had taken to write. It had clearly been prepared in advance of our meeting that morning in the back yard of the police station. As we'd prepared to depart, Sheriff Rhonda had ducked into her office and produced it.
The letter began, "To whom it may concern," and the first paragraph said that Miss Janice Stiglianese (DBA Jan Sleet) was assisting the Claremont Police Department with the investigation of the death of Claremont College student Madeleine Pontmercy.
The second, and much longer, paragraph covered things that Miss Sleet was not to be allowed to do, including arresting people, carrying a weapon, physically intimidating or overpowering anybody, investigating in any area that the college did not want to admit her to, detaining anybody, and commandeering materials, assistance, or vehicles. That's only a partial list, but it gives a flavor of the whole.
I thought about this letter as I looked out over the water. I was somewhat surprised that it hadn't explicitly prohibited her from declaring herself the queen of Claremont College (unlikely, perhaps, but not as unlikely but as her physically overpowering any human being other than an infant or an invalid).
With most of the mysteries we solved, there were two mysteries, the second one being my employer herself. In this case, very specifically, it was the "most obvious question," which she had made clear she was not going to listen to, let alone answer.
If she had been telling the truth, about knowing immediately that the woman who had invited us into the Arkright house had not been a member of the family, or anybody else with a legitimate right to be there, and I was sure that she had, then, when the body had been discovered, why had my employer allowed her to escape, rather than having me stop her?
I had no idea.
It had not been because she'd been surprised at coming upon the body and hadn't thought of it in time. She had moved forward first, examined the body, declared it dead, then asked the mystery woman to step forward and possibly identify it.
That was more than enough time for my employer's excellent brain to have calculated all the angles in the situation.
So, that was a question. And the pier, pleasant as it was, didn't seem to be helping me come up with any answers.
Why had I not moved to restrain the woman? Because I was not told to. In those moments of split-second decision, I had been trained to do exactly what I was told, no more and no less. I had made a mistake in this area early on, and she had made it very clear that this rule was not optional. The only exception was when I needed to move quickly to protect her life, or my own.
So, moving on to other questions:
Where had Marvel Phillips' clothes and ID and money gone? Had she been robbed and her body dumped in the Arkright house simply because it was empty? Had she been killed by someone who knew her as Madeleine, or as Marvel, or both, or had it been a random killing where the murderer hadn't known her at all? Who would inherit her money? Did she have a will? Were all the members of the Arkright family really out of town? Had any of the other students at the college, or the professors, known who she really was?
Having learned that we were going to be able to live rent-free for at least two weeks, I decided to take a cab back to the campus once I had collected our luggage. Feeling quite luxurious, I made the call from the inn. As I hung up the phone, Mrs. Jessup, the owner, brought me a small paper bag, containing two muffins. I considered who would enjoy the second one more, me (after eating the first one, of course), or my employer, who was really quite indifferent to food.
On reflection, however, regretfully, I decided to offer it to Professor Lebrun, since he was going to be our host.
Professor Lebrun lived in a small cottage near the back of the college grounds. When my cab pulled up in front of his house, he was sitting on his front porch, talking with a student. He saw me and waved, standing up and putting his glasses on.
The student stood up also, brushing off her skirt. "Hi, Mr. Marshall!" she called. "Let me help you with those suitcases."
She trotted over as the professor sat down again. He was putting us up, in his spare bedroom, rent free, but obviously he wasn't planning on doing any heavy lifting himself.
Which was fine with me.
"I'm Suzy," the student said as I put the last suitcase on the ground and paid the driver. "Let me help you with these. Prof has told me all about you."
She grabbed one of the largest suitcases and headed toward the house. I didn't point out that "Prof," in telling her all about me, had apparently misinformed her about my name. "Marshall" is my first name, not my last name.
When all the suitcases were in the small bedroom my employer and I were to share, Suzy said she had a class and left.
Professor Lebrun was sitting at his desk when I came back into the living room after doing my best to unpack some things and put the suitcases where they would be at least somewhat out of the way. He stood up and we shook hands. He motioned for me to sit down, which I did, and he swiveled his desk chair around so he was facing me.
He was apparently in his sixties, more or less, with a slight accent that I couldn't place. His hair was short and iron gray, and he had a well-trimmed beard.
"If there's anything you need while you're staying here, by the way, please do let me know," he said. I nodded. "Do you smoke?" I shook my head. "Do you mind if I do?"
I smiled. "Of course not. If I minded smoking, I'd have to find a different employer."
He laughed as he picked up a pipe from the rack on his desk and started to fill it with tobacco.
"Very good point. How long have you and Janice been together?"
"I've been working for her since about a month after she left school here." (I have been asked that question many times, and I have learned to emphasize, without being explicit, that the relationship is professional. If I try to make that assertion too forcefully, people tend to assume I'm being evasive.)
He nodded. "Do you protect her?" This was not a common question.
"When needed. I've saved her life more than once. Vice versa, too."
"That's good. She can, at times, as I'm sure you've observed, step over the line between 'brave' and 'reckless.'"
"I have seen this. Sometimes it's more of a leap than a step. How do you know her, Professor? Was she a student of yours?"
He leaned back, his pipe finally going to his satisfaction. "Oh, no. I teach English literature, which was certainly not an interest of hers. No, she... There was an accusation against me, a fairly serious one, and she stepped in and did an investigation, proving that I was innocent."
He spread his hands wide. "After that, letting her use my spare bedroom for a couple of weeks is little enough for her to ask. You'd be welcome to it for longer, but it's rented out for the fall semester, to a student, but she's not arriving for two weeks now."
He gestured at the doorway. "There are two twin beds, as you saw, but I have double sheets, and people usually push the beds together..."
He gestured, bringing the palms of his hands together slowly.
I made the opposite gesture, moving my hands forcefully and slowly apart, palms out. "Apart, definitely. We'll need twin bed sheets, if you have them. If not, we will improvise."
He laughed. "I hope you're not trying to spare my sensibilities. I–"
I repeated the gesture, with even more emphasis, smiling, and he laughed again.
"By the way, she's told me a little about that case, the one you were involved with," I said, not mentioning that, as with most of her stories, I'd assumed until now that it was at least somewhat exaggerated. "She told me that that's when she knew she'd be good at solving mysteries."
"I could tell," he said slowly. "Something clicked into place for her at that time. I've been watching her career, casually and at a distance, ever since. I gather that she's on the trail of a murderer now, but that's not why you're here in town?"
I shook my head, aware that, as usual, I wasn't sure what my employer had revealed or what information I should withhold. So, I started out slowly, trying to assess as I went exactly how much information he really wanted.
"My employer's books were left in storage when she moved away after college. Now that we're back in this country, she decided to come and get them, or at least to go through them."
I shrugged, indicating that, as usual, the finer details of my employer's plans had not been shared with the staff. The professor nodded, accepting this.
"When I say 'in storage,' of course, I mean in the Arkright family garage. And, in that garage, along with her books, we found a corpse."
He nodded. "Madeleine Pontmercy. I've heard." He shrugged. "I don't know – didn't know her. Suzy was just telling me that she and Madeleine had French class together and she was pretty sure that Madeleine knew 'all sorts of French' (as Suzy put it), but that she was hiding it in order to get the easy credit." He smiled. "Which would not have been out of character for a girl as widely traveled as Marvel Phillips."
He watched me as he said it, and I didn't bother to suppress my laugh.
"I've been sworn to secrecy, of course," he said.
It was starting to get dark outside, so he went into the kitchen and made us a light supper of sandwiches and soup. He apologized for his limited culinary capabilities, but I assured him that the meal was fine and very satisfying (which was true – particularly since I'd had no lunch).
"I knew Vinnie, you know," he said after a minute or two. "Better than I knew Janice, at least until she rode to my rescue. Well, she's probably told you about that." He took a bite of his sandwich and regarded me. "Or, perhaps not."
He put his sandwich down. "When Janice was young, Vinnie worked hard to support them. They were living in some family's basement – I think rather on charity – and he worked a lot, sometimes at two jobs. She ended up fairly... self-sufficient, I guess you could say.
"When she started to go to college, Vinnie had a better job and didn't have to work so many hours, and he decided to take some courses himself. I know they studied Italian at the same time and they tried to speak it around the house.
"I don't think he'd got past high school before that, but sometimes the adult students here are the best.
"Anyway, he was in a couple of my classes, and we talked sometimes. I think he was the one who got Janice to help me out when I needed it.
"That was around the time that they rented the little white house, right down the street from the Arkright house, where the murder happened. It was really just a little summer cottage, and I guess it got cold during the winter, but I gather it beat living in a basement."
I laughed. "An Irishman's proudest boast–"
He laughed also. "–I paid my way." He nodded. "Vinnie's like that."
As we were finishing up, the front door opened and my employer stepped in. She and I regarded each other for a moment, until she said, "If you must know, I did have a small glass of white wine, with the girls, in the course of today's investigation."
Professor Lebrun stood and started to clear away our dishes, keeping his face averted so she couldn't see his expression.
"Perhaps you'd like a sandwich? Or some soup?" I prompted.
She looked thoughtful as I steered her to a chair. "I'm wondering why you're posing that as an either-or construct..."
"I'll handle the food," the professor called from the kitchen. "You can handle the debriefing."
My employer's eyes widened and she leaned forward to whisper. "'Debriefing.' That sounds racy!"
"So," I said in a firm and businesslike tone. "What have you found out?"
"Ah," she said, and she winked at me.
My employer, restored to herself (more or less) by a nourishing meal and a cup of strong coffee, lit her pipe and began to tell us what she'd found out.
* * * * *
My first step was to search Marvel's room. I got a key from the housing office and let myself in. I left the door open, to see what attention I might attract.
(I know, I know, I've always said that one principle of detection is to talk to the people before searching the premises, since the conversations may give an idea of what to search for. The problem, in this instance, was that I didn't have any people to interrogate, so I needed to get some, to draw some to me.
(By the way, as far as I could tell, the room had not been searched by anyone before me, though we do have to assume that the killer – or somebody else – has Marvel's keys.) )
So, I went to the housing office and displayed my letter (I'll explain that later, Professor) and they gave me a key. They knew all about Madeleine's death – by which I mean that they knew she was dead – so they were glad to help, as far as I could tell.
And so, I started to search.
The room was... somewhat generic, if you see what I mean. She was playing a part, and, it seemed, trying to live like somebody who had not had servants for her whole life. The room was clean and quite well organized, but impersonal. Clothes in the closet or in the dresser – not all over the floor – school books and notebooks, information from research she'd been doing for her classes, and so on. No diary or personal letters or anything like that. Her clothes were all fairly new, by the way – not fancy and not expensive.
She was here for the spring semester, as we know, taking Economics 101, Beginning French, Intro to Philosophy, and Beginning Anthro (excuse me – of course I mean anthropology).
(This shows that she was not living entirely on the straight and narrow, by the way, since she was already fluent in French.)
For the summer she was studying James Joyce. It wouldn't surprise me if she was taking the summer class just so she could continue to live here on campus – this was her life now, and I'm sure she didn't want to shuttle back and forth between Madeleine and Marvel.
Anyway, there was a briefcase, locked – one of those expensive aluminum ones. It contained legal and financial papers, addresses and phone numbers, and so on – everything she needed to function as Marvel when she had to, to be in touch with her bankers and lawyers and so on. She had a typewriter, and she kept carbons of every letter she sent – or so it seems. No personal correspondence there either.
There was no evidence that she was in touch with anybody from her social life as Marvel – unless she was making phone calls, and there wasn't a phone in the room. The dorms, as I well remember, only have pay phones, one at each end of each hall.
Anyway, not to get distracted (yes please, Marshall – I would like some more coffee).
I didn't get a chance to go through all the papers in the briefcase because that's when I got my first – very much desired – interruption. A girl was passing by the door, and as she passed she looked in and stopped.
I'll spare you all the back-and-forth – she questioned my right to be there, I told her who I was, she had apparently heard my name but couldn't recall from where, I showed her my letter and explained my mission, she looked doubtful but then another girl, from across the hall, came out to see what all the palaver was about, and she knew who I was, so she vouched for me... Well, modesty forbids, but let's just say that she was not unfamiliar with me and my work. Meanwhile, I locked the briefcase again and asked if they would be willing to help me with my investigation by answering some questions.
They were very willing, but they didn't want to come inside the room (for the whole conversation, they had stayed in the hall – which I thought was a little extreme, since it's not like it was even a murder room or anything like that (you still make very good coffee, by the way, Professor) ), but the last thing I wanted to do was to make them uncomfortable, so Penny (the girl from across the hall – the other girl was Linda) said we should go to the lounge, because she didn't want to talk in her room since her roommate was there and it sounded like they didn't get along... I'm not sure about that, actually. Not that it matters.
So, anyway, I locked the room and we went to the lounge area to talk. I was afraid that we might be overheard, but there didn't seem to be anybody else around. Certainly very different than when I was a student here, during the regular academic year.
Neither of them knew Madeleine well, based on what they said, but they had lived on the same hall – except for one girl, Betty, who hadn't been there during the spring semester (I forgot to mention that she joined us – they invited her as we passed her room, I think mostly because she had some wine).
The general opinion seemed to be that Madeleine had been friendly, and definitely willing to help in different areas – both academic and domestic – but not... familiar, so to speak. They generally wrote this off to her being somewhat older than they were – when you're that age, a couple of years can seem quite significant.
As far as any of them knew, she hadn't made any close friends while she was there, and they knew of no romances, or even any casual flings. They were somewhat puzzled by the latter.
Betty, who had apparently been into the wine somewhat earlier than the rest of us, leaned forward conspiratorially at one point and whispered that she'd figured out that Maddy was, for sure, a "dyke." Then, belatedly, she thought about how I dress and started apologizing, having made the assumption that people seem to make from time to time, just because I carry myself with a certain undeniable authority while wearing very elegant bespoke suits... Where was I?
Oh, yes. Based on my reading, Marvel had been pursued, and not always unsuccessfully, by a wide variety of representatives of the international jet set, including young men from three different royal houses. I'm not surprised that the seduction techniques of the Claremont social elite – fraternity boys and so on – barely attracted her attention, let alone her interest.
Over breakfast, we should consider how to best spend our time tomorrow. It's a little hard to tell, but I don't think I got that much from the girls – if I can call them that. I'll have to go through the room again tomorrow. Then we'll see what I can find. And I'll find out if any of her professors are on campus for the summer.
* * * * *
My employer fixed me with a somewhat bleary eye.
"When can I get into the house – the Arkright house?"
"I would imagine–"
"This is, I think," she said slowly, "not going to be an easy case..."
I took the pipe from her hand before it fell to the carpet, knocked out the dottle into a convenient ashtray, lifted her unconscious form in my arms, and carried her off into our bedroom.
(If that last sentence sends your mind in an inappropriate direction, you should probably be ashamed of yourself. And, based on the sidelong wink Professor Lebrun gave me as I left the living room, carrying the limp body of my employer, who, despite her height, was, as always, very easy to carry, he should have been ashamed of himself also.)
Sheriff Rhonda leaned way over to one side as I came into her office, apparently trying to look behind me. "No, my employer is not here," I said with a chuckle. "And I don't smoke."
She laughed, and I got the idea, again, that the sheriff and the amateur detective were cooperating more out of necessity than from any deeper connection.
Given that, I decided it was politic to let her ask the first question. I had taken the jitney into town that morning – having had the hunch that Sheriff Rhonda might be more forthcoming in person than over the phone. My employer, off for a breakfast with "the girls" before resuming her search of the victim's room, hadn't seemed to care one way or the other.
"So," Rhonda asked after I was seated, and after I had politely declined her offer of coffee, "any progress on the campus front?"
I gave her a brief summary of what I knew. She nodded, as if this lack of progress didn't surprise her (or at least didn't disappoint her).
"Any word from the family?" I asked. She frowned. "The Arkright family?" I clarified.
"Oh, yes. They're coming home. At their own speed and in no particular hurry, thank you very much."
"Anything interesting from the search of the house?"
"Not really." She was apparently in more of a mood to receive information than to give it.
After a moment's silence, I said, "Here's one thing that caught my interest: The family is apparently somewhat strapped for cash – based on the fact that they boarded students whenever they had an available room – but they were able to go on a fairly long skiing trip to Austria..."
She smiled. "You noticed that, huh? Yes, Mrs. Arkright came into some money when her father died, and apparently she decided that they all needed to go on a skiing trip, though as far as anybody can remember she's the only avid skier in the family."
"I'm surprised that the younger generation went. They're not kids..."
She shrugged. "Go to Austria for a couple of months, all expenses paid, or spend another summer here in town with nothing to do? I know which one I'd pick, and I've never skied or had any desire to."
"And what about the Marvel side of things? Her lawyers and so on. Have any unexpected relatives started appearing out of nowhere?"
"If that does happen, I imagine it won't be until her death is publicly announced. The county attorney is in touch with her lawyers. We've convinced them to keep her death a secret, at least for now."
"More time for them to make their plans."
"And maybe figure out how to peel off some of her cash."
"It's not her cash now, and she's not going to be needing it for anything. If a person was, potentially, being ripped off, that would be one thing–"
"You've made your point." She leaned back in her chair. "Do you know what I wonder?" I shook my head. "We don't know about a will. Her lawyers don't know about a will..."
I nodded slowly. "Doesn't mean there isn't one."
"Exactly. The county attorney is calling around to local lawyers." She shrugged. "She had her dental work done in the area – maybe she had some legal work done, too."
I waited for her to say more.
"Marvel, two years ago, wild, rich party girl? Not having a will – that fits for her. But Madeleine? Girl trying to change her life around? Serious about her studies, serious, from what you say your boss found, about her businesses... She'd have a will. Now, it's possible that she just hadn't got around to it yet, but maybe she had."
"I'd say it's a slim chance, but if it's true this is suddenly a whole different case." She smiled. "Sheriff Baxter taught me that. It's not just how likely or unlikely something is – it's how big the explosion could be if you're wrong."
I snorted, unexpectedly, and I'm not sure what my expression revealed, but she frowned. "What?"
"That just brought back a memory – my employer and I, we were having that exact discussion one time, lying in a ditch, about an unexploded artillery shell. It was about as far from us as that window. We... Anyway, back to the business at hand."
She nodded slowly. "You know," she said quietly, "I formed an opinion of Miss Sleet when she was here before, and it's possible that now... Well, as you say... Do you ever see Vinnie?"
"Her father? I've never met him. He lives in Italy now."
"Really? Family there?"
"I don't know. She doesn't talk much about her family – not to me."
"Ah. Well, if you do meet him, please give him my regards. Now, as you say, back to work."
I nodded. "Miss Sleet was wondering when she'd be able to search the house."
"I thought we agreed that the campus–"
"We're sharing our information, you are and we are. But she has a particular interest in the house – her missing books."
"And that mystery woman who you say let you in. Okay, how's this? The state boys are done. The family won't be back until Monday night at the earliest. She's got the house for tomorrow. With the agreement, on the honor system, that she won't remove anything. Does that work?"
I nodded. "I'd say definitely."
"And she'll let me know whatever she finds out?"
"Well, I can't speak–"
"Tell her that those are my terms." She picked up a key which had been lying on her desk and held it up, meeting my eyes, and I nodded as I reached for it.
"Agreed," I said.
Late that afternoon, when I got back to the campus, my employer was sitting on Professor Lebrun's porch, reading a newspaper.
She nodded and folded the paper as I sat down.
"No muffins today?"
I laughed. "I couldn't think of a reason to go by there."
"Shame. So, what have you accomplished?"
I filled her in on the relevant details from my visit with Sheriff Rhonda, including my impression that Rhonda had decided that the mystery woman we'd met at the Arkright house had been our invention, to justify our entering the house in the absence of the family.
"If I'm right," I added, "I can see why she would want this to be true – because it would simplify her case. She could focus on the murder – the actual crime. However, putting myself in her place, putting herself in our place, it seems like an unnecessarily complex lie for her to think we would have made up to justify our being inside the house."
"Cogent," she said thoughtfully. She shrugged. "The girls want me to go to a crafts show with them tomorrow, but I guess this takes priority." She picked up her cane and got to her feet. "Let's go out to dinner. We can't expect the professor to feed us all the time, and he's not going to be home tonight anyway. There's a good seafood place by the pier..."
She regarded me as I stood up.
"You did something else while you were in town, didn't you?"
Damn, but it was hard to keep a secret from her.
She smiled. "You went to the Catholic church, on top of the hill, overlooking the water, and you said a prayer for Marvel." She leaned forward and gave me a quick peck on the cheek – a rare gesture indeed. "You sentimental Irishman."
I had indeed gone to the church and said a prayer, and lit a candle, and I was glad that it had been this unannounced errand that she had deduced, rather than the other one.
Maybe that was the trick to keeping a secret from her: try to keep two secrets, figuring she'd deduce the first one and maybe – just maybe – she'd be satisfied with that and not look further.
I waited in the kitchen as my employer searched the Arkright house. I sat at the counter, sipping a coffee and reading a newspaper. I had purchased the coffee and the newspaper at the little convenience store by the bus stop.
Mostly my employer worked by herself, but occasionally I was summoned to provide assistance, usually by lifting or moving something. She had a coffee also, which she carried with her from room to room as she worked, always careful to place a napkin under the cup wherever she set it down.
Beyond the coffee and the newspaper, and the physical labor, I occupied myself by trying to make deductions about my employer.
One thing I could tell, watching her work her way through the house, was that her heart wasn't in it. She was being thorough, as always, but there was no glee and also no frustration – just, as she would have put it, amateur professionalism.
I didn't know how she was currently reconstructing the crime, but apparently this house was not at the center of it. Which made it possible that she'd taken the sheriff's offer of the campus because she thought the solution to the murder was there.
Or it was possible (quite possible, actually) that she'd shifted her focus primarily to collecting material for a book about Marvel Phillips. There would obviously be a market for such a book, and, if my employer wrote and published that book, and it sold well, then she'd have leverage to help get her book about the civil war in Bellona published.
I had a feeling that at some point I might have to intercede to get her back on track to identifying the murderer, but that would have to be carefully timed and cleverly done. I was thinking of something along the lines of "Who would read a book about a famous murder victim, by a famous amateur detective, that doesn't include the solution to the murder?"
Another question, of course, was how she would handle the subject of the garage and the cartons of her books. She'd been pretending that she hadn't investigated them on the day we'd found the corpse, but I was pretty sure she had. Would she keep up the pretense?
She came in and sat next to me at the little kitchen counter. "How would you feel about going out and getting us some sandwiches?" she asked after a moment.
So, either she wanted me out of the way for some reason, or, possibly, she wanted a sandwich. Or maybe both. Or she was teasing me because she knew I was thinking too much about her possible schemes and motivations.
Also, of course, how I felt about the idea of going out to get sandwiches had no bearing on whether I was about to go out and get some.
"Any preferences?" I asked.
Later, as we ate our (lobster salad) sandwiches on the front porch, with more coffee, I asked, "So, what are the top ten most interesting things you've discovered so far?"
She made a gesture of punching me in the upper arm, but our chairs were a couple of inches too far apart. "There are times, I confess, very occasionally, when I remember why I hired you. Okay, I'll give you five."
She stuck up one bony finger for each point.
"One: I know where the bathing suit – the bikini that was placed on Marvel's body – came from. It's been in this house, probably for some time.
"Two: It does not belong to either Mrs. Arkright or Miss Barbara Arkright.
"By the way, I am avoiding the obvious – things that I'm sure the police would have discovered, like the fact that the story of Mrs. Arkright's recent inheritance appears to be true, and the fact that Marvel's clothes and ID are apparently not in this house (although I have not yet searched the basement or whatever small attic or crawl space may be above the second floor bedrooms).
"Three: Robert Arkright, known to the family as 'Robbie,' Mr. Arkright's son by his first wife, sent a birthday card to his father four days ago, giving at least some evidence that he was in California, where he lives, at that time. As opposed to being, for instance, here in Claremont, killing Marvel Phillips.
"Four: Mrs. Arkright's affair with Mr. Beasley appears to still be going strong. Six months ago she had a pregnancy scare, but she was not actually pregnant. (I'm counting this as part of number four since her main worry was that Beasley might have been the father, and the baby might exhibit his red hair and freckles.)
"Five: There's no evidence tying either of the 'children' – Nate and Barbara – to Claremont College. They both go to schools out of state. Neither of them even applied to Claremont.
"I'll give you one more; that was a good sandwich. Six: None of my books are missing. Only one box was opened, and every book on the inventory list is there."
She carefully folded her sandwich paper and placed it on the arm of her chair so that she would remember to throw it in the trash when we went inside again.
She looked around as I leaned forward to light the cigarette she was about to take from her case. "If I ever have a house – which seems unlikely at the moment, I know – I will make sure there's a small wastebasket on the porch. Thank you, Marshall."
She leaned back in her chair again.
"Infidelity," she said slowly. "I wonder if Mr. Arkright knows... about his wife. I wonder if their children know, or suspect." She made a fluttering gesture with her long fingers. "Not relevant, really. Nothing to do with the murder – but I do wonder why it's so often such a big deal.
"Remember the Amado case?" She paused, politely, in case I wanted to make a defense of my memory, which, while not as good as hers, was certainly capable of remembering a case from earlier in that same year.
"All that..." She tapped her forefinger on her paper coffee cup. "All because of one extramarital event – not even a pattern. Certainly not like Mrs. A. and her amour des livres, which has been going on for years now."
She glanced over at me, her mouth quirking. "How would I feel, I wonder, if I found out that you were sneaking off to light somebody else's cigarettes and make somebody else's travel arrangements behind my back?"
After a moment, she laughed and grabbed her cane, using it to get to her feet. It was more difficult than usual, since the chair was quite low, but I held her arm to steady her.
"Well," she said, "at least I know your weakness now. If a young and comely wench should offer you a tasty muffin tomorrow..." She shrugged. "Come on, you. I'm going to search the basement while you handle the attic. The ladder looks rather rickety, so it will be interesting to learn if it will hold your weight."
My employer hung up the phone. "We're gathering the suspects," she said. She looked like she was going to start vibrating from excitement.
"Hang on," I said. "What–"
She made a moue. "Okay, Mr. Literal. They're not all suspects, and we – you and I – are certainly not the ones doing the gathering. Satisfied?"
Professor Lebrun put down his newspaper. "This gathering – suspects or not – isn't going to be here, is it?" He looked around the room. "It has been some time since I dusted."
She smiled. "No, Professor, you don't need to worry. Various people, including some suspects–" She glanced at me out of the corner of her eye, looking stern. "–are being gathered at the Arkright house, apparently at the request of the family, who are now back in town. Sheriff Rhonda is cooperating with this, presumably for reasons of her own, and she's sending a car to pick us up."
The professor leaned back, relieved, and picked up his drink. "I suppose I'm not invited," he said with a shrug.
She smiled. "You suppose correctly. After all, why would a person like you, who knows nothing about the case beyond what he's read in the newspapers, who certainly hasn't heard a word about it from either of us..." Her voice trailed off as the professor picked up his newspaper (not the Claremont Crier) and resumed his reading.
I had begun to think that Monday might have ended up a wasted day, but apparently not.
A few minutes later, much to my relief (since my employer's impatience was... increasing), we heard the brief honk of a car horn and we hurried outside. The sun was down, and I suddenly wished I'd eaten a more substantial lunch – dinner might be a ways off.
To my surprise (mostly, I confess, because I hadn't thought it through), the driver was Sheriff Rhonda, and there was nobody else in the car. It made sense that she'd want to talk to us alone before the big confab – whatever it was to be. As I say, I just hadn't thought it through.
I held the door for my employer, of course, and then I got into the back seat. Rhonda pulled out of the driveway and headed down the narrow road back to the highway.
"This is all at the request of the Arkright family," she said as she waited for a break in the highway traffic, "by which, of course, I mean Mrs. Arkright. They want to have a clear idea of what's being done, and what's already been done." She pulled out onto the highway, and I could see my employer and the sheriff exchange a glance.
"You may be thinking that Sheriff Baxter didn't set up meetings like this at the request of the victims of a... Well, I guess technically they're not the actual victims."
"They're not dead, and, as far as we know they never knew the victim – the actual victim." My employer shook her head. "They're just the hosts."
Rhonda seemed to be suppressing a laugh as she ran the siren for a second so she could cut across oncoming traffic and enter the town center.
"So..." my employer prompted.
"They know who the victim was – I have no idea how. It seems that if they're not satisfied that we're close to wrapping this up, they may release her identity to the press."
"And you're thinking that it will help us in solving this if that fact is not generally known?"
She shrugged, pulling into the church parking lot. There were two other cars there near the Arkright house, at the far end from the church itself, and apparently it was accepted by Reverend Deacon that this corner of the lot was for the family.
"I have the idea that it may help if not everybody knows who she was, but my biggest concern is the press. Once it gets out that the famous hellraiser Marvel Phillips was murdered, mysteriously, in an empty house, while attending college here under an assumed name, we'll have so many reporters here that they'll outnumber the rest of us. Television, radio, newspapers, magazines..."
My employer smiled as I got out of the car and opened her door for her. "Rhonda," she said, "I do understand your point, and I think you're probably right, but please do remember how I earn my living and pay the salary of my excellent assistant here." She leaned on my arm as I helped her to her feet. "Once this is solved," she said cheerfully, "you can bet that I'll be writing all about it. Je suis la presse. Let's go in."
She certainly did enjoy the idea of a good gathering of suspects.
We knocked on the front door, and of course it reminded me of the first time we'd been admitted to that house. But this time it was evening, and the windows were lit, and we could hear voices from inside.
The door opened and a young man greeted us. He looked to be somewhere in his mid-twenties, with short, dark hair and a muscular build. He wore a sweatshirt and jeans, with white deck shoes.
"Sheriff Rhonda," he said, stepping aside to let us in. "And are these two new deputies? And out of uniform, too. I–"
"That's Sheriff White to you," Rhonda said as I closed the door behind us. "This is Miss Jan Sleet and her assistant, Marshall."
"Ah," he said, reaching for my employer's hand, "the famous lady detective. I–"
My employer was not making her hand available for shaking purposes, so I took his hand myself (it was rather limp and sweaty) and shook it quickly, releasing it before he thought of testing my grip. He looked like the type who would try.
"Nate, is that the sheriff?" a woman's voice called impatiently from the living room. "I–"
Nate gestured us into the living room and we saw the rest of the family for the first time.
Introductions were somewhat awkward.
Mr. Arkright – tall, straight, with short white hair and pale blue eyes – stood and introduced himself (his first name was Thomas, and he gave the impression that it had been a very long time since anybody had called him "Tommy," or even "Tom") and his wife, Maureen. Then he sat down again, in an armchair that was obviously placed to be at the center of attention. (The furniture had been rearranged since we'd last seen the room, and a couple of additional chairs brought in.)
This left the two members of the next generation, Barbara and Nate, to introduce themselves. Nate was still trying to give the impression that he was witty, and Barbara gave every indication that she didn't want to be there at all and might leave at any moment.
Sheriff Rhonda introduced herself and then my employer and me. As she finished, there was another knock at the door, and Nate went to admit a plump, middle-aged man with very little hair and horn-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, and he turned out to be, as I would have guessed, the family attorney. His name was Mr. Krause. Mr. Arkright greeted him in a perfunctory way, and nobody else reacted to his presence at all.
When we were all seated, Mrs. Arkright appeared to be about to speak, but her husband cut her off.
"I wish to make several things clear," he said slowly, in a deep and sonorous voice. "First of all, to be blunt, we don't care in the least about the dead woman or who killed her. We didn't know her. So, from that point of view, solve it or not, that's up to you. But my son has let me know that she was someone of some notoriety (although I'd never heard of her), so I gather that whenever her identity becomes publicly known, we – this family and this house – will be at the center of an enormous public spectacle."
He sighed. "I realize that this is inevitable. The story will come out. So, there are two possibilities: It will come out with the murder solved and all questions answered, or it will come out with the murder not solved. The murder which happened in our home, for whatever reason, will–"
"If I may interrupt," Sheriff Rhonda said, "to be accurate, we have no idea whether the murder was committed here in this house. We don't know where it was committed. We just know that the body ended up here, over twenty-four hours after death. Not to be flippant, but the murder could have taken place in Boston."
Mr. Arkright looked ready to resume being slow and sonorous, but Rhonda kept going.
"I think we all want this solved as soon as possible, sir, for a variety of reasons, so I have some questions. Were you all together in Austria?"
Mr. Arkright smiled indulgently. "Yes, we were. None of us committed the crime, unless you think–"
"What about Robbie? He wasn't there, was he?"
"He was not," Mrs. Arkright said. "He lives in California, with his family. He hasn't been here for a visit in some time."
"So, if you were all gone, and since there was no evidence of forced entry, the question is who, other than the four of you, has keys to this house?"
They had apparently not been expecting this question. Mr. and Mrs. Arkright looked at each other, Nate frowned and looked at his hands, and Barbara looked out the window. Mr. Krause was impassive.
"Dad," Barbara said slowly, raising her head, "what's–"
She may have said one more word after that. I really don't know.
My employer has always claimed that I threw her to the floor before the first bullet smashed through the window, but I doubt that's true. Either way, though, the next thing I knew, I was lying on the rough carpet, covering as much of my employer as I could with my body. There was a second shot, also from outside somewhere, and my employer snapped, "Lights!"
The little table next to Mr. Arkright's chair held a lamp, and I was close enough to kick it over. Then, keeping low, I made it to the wall switch and turned off the overhead light. That left just enough light from the hall for me to see my employer dragging herself to Sheriff Rhonda's side. She pulled out Rhonda's radio and said, in a loud, clear voice, "Emergency. This is Jan Sleet. There has been a shooting at Thomas Arkright's house, 349 Main Street. The shooter is outside somewhere. Sheriff White is down. We need an ambulance, and every available unit to this address: 349 Main Street. Emergency."
Whoever was at the other end was apparently not ready for this kind of message, and while my employer made sure that the necessary things were going to happen, and immediately, I allowed myself to take stock of what else was going on around me.
Mrs. Arkright was screaming. She'd been screaming for a while, I realized. Barbara was lying on the floor, in front of the sofa where she'd been sitting, and she was obviously dead.
I quickly checked Sheriff Rhonda, who was the other person on the floor. She was alive, unconscious, and bleeding from her shoulder. Her head was bleeding also, I realized as I tried to revive her, apparently from hitting the coffee table on her way to the floor. I decided to leave that to the medical professionals – I could hear sirens approaching.
I thought of taking her pistol, but it seemed possible that the officers who were about to arrive would be young and inexperienced, and I didn't want to be the one person in the room holding a gun when they came in.
As I applied pressure on Rhonda's arm, to slow the bleeding, her eyes flickered open. She squinted, as if trying to get her eyes to work together again, or maybe she was trying to remember who I was.
She reached up, using her undamaged arm, and gripped my shoulder. "What the fuck?" she demanded.
Barbara Arkright was dead. She'd apparently died instantly, shot in the head by one of the two rifle bullets.
The rest of us were at the hospital.
Barbara's mother, Maureen Arkright, had been sedated and was asleep in a room. Barbara's brother, Nathaniel, was sitting in the waiting room with his father. They were not saying much.
Sheriff Rhonda White was in a room also, unconscious. She had a bad concussion, at least, and there was talk about further tests she might need in the morning.
The state police had come to the house, again, and were investigating the surrounding area for any clues as to the identity of the murderer.
I had lost track of the lawyer, Mr. Krause. Maybe he was still at the house. We had been interviewed – if you want to call it that – by a young deputy who didn't seem to know what questions he should be asking, but who wrote down, very carefully, every word we said to him in reply.
The waiting room had a machine that produced really terrible coffee. If you preferred tea, it would also produce hot water, which tasted only faintly like coffee. My employer and I drank the coffee. I also had a candy bar and a small bag of peanuts, which I guess qualified as my dinner.
There were only the four people in the waiting room – my employer and I, and the two Arkright men – and it was unclear what we were thinking we'd accomplish by being there.
Of course, Mr. Arkright and his son didn't have a lot of other options. Their house was a crime scene, again, and there were no rooms to rent in town.
Mr. Arkright (the elder) got up and came over to us. "Miss Sleet," he said slowly, "may I speak to you?"
"Of course," she said. "Please sit down." We had already offered our condolences on the death of his daughter.
He sat next to my employer and sighed. He looked much older than he had six hours earlier, which was certainly not surprising. I guess he was technically a suspect, but I did feel sorry for him. Now that he had our attention, he didn't seem to know what he wanted to say.
"I don't know for sure," my employer said finally, "but I would imagine that the state police won't take too long in your house. Their most thorough searching will be outside, of course – that's where the murderer was."
This seemed to help him get himself together. Sometimes people were put off by my employer's rather cerebral approach to violent crime, but some seemed helped by it.
"My concern..." he began. "Miss Sleet, do you know who did this?"
She shook her head. "If I did, I'd be acting on it." He seemed to accept this, but I had the sudden impression that it was a lie.
"Do you think... the shooting tonight, that it was connected to the woman who was killed in our house, while we were away?"
"I don't know. The method was certainly very different."
He shivered. "My wife... she'd say this was foolish, but the police I've seen tonight, the town police..."
"You were not impressed, I gather."
"I... No. And it sounds like Sheriff White may be laid up for a while... Can I hire you, to look into this?"
"Mr. Arkright, you couldn't have any more of my attention on this than you already have, and I'm not a licensed private investigator. I couldn't accept payment. No, I think..." Her mouth quirked as she looked out the big window at the parking lot, where a car was pulling in.
A few moments later, the big glass door opened and a gaunt man came in. His hair was going gray, and he used a cane, but he seemed spry.
"Sheriff!" Mr. Arkright said as we got to our feet.
The man smiled, coming over and holding out his hand. "Just 'Phil' these days, Tom." They shook hands as Nate came over. "How's Mo?"
"She's been sedated. She..." He waved a hand.
Mr. Baxter took Mr. Arkright's hand again. "I was so sorry to hear about Barbara."
Mr. Arkright nodded. "Thank you, Phil." Mr. Baxter shook Nate's hand also, before turning to my employer.
"Sir." They shook hands.
"I'm offering my services, if there's any way I can help."
She nodded. "I can fill you in on what I know."
He went up to the nurse at the desk and she said, "Hi, Sheriff."
He smiled but didn't correct her. "Hello, Molly. I'm wondering if there's somewhere we can talk privately?" He gestured at the rest of us, to clarify who he meant by "we."
"Of course, Sheriff." She stood up. "Follow me."
The older men – the victim's father and the former sheriff – were rather solicitous of my employer as we settled ourselves in the small examination room. This may have been because she was the only woman among us – but it could also have reflected how urgently they wanted her to solve this.
My employer sat in the padded examination chair and the others took straight-backed chairs. She immediately took out a cigarette and I lit it for her. Nobody mentioned hospital regulations about smoking.
Nate was hanging back, saying almost nothing and standing by the door. I offered to go out and find a chair for him, but he declined.
We described what had happened that night for the benefit of Phil Baxter.
"How much do you know about the earlier murder?" my employer asked the retired sheriff when she was done.
"Rhonda has called me for advice a couple of times – I know the general story, and I know who the victim really was."
She nodded."That will make it easier."
My employer and I described the "gathering of the suspects" (though not using that phrase, of course), and the aftermath.
She did not emphasize that I had possibly saved her life – her crediting me with clairvoyance came in later tellings, in more social settings. This was business.
"How is Rhonda?" the former sheriff asked when we were done.
I shrugged. "They'll know more in the morning. They may decide to transfer her to Mass General."
He nodded slowly.
"Phil," Mr. Arkright said, "I asked Miss Sleet to work on this, and I'm hoping you can help also. Those deputies I met today..."
Phil Baxter shrugged. "I'll do what I can, of course." He turned to my employer. "I'm sure he didn't have to work too hard to convince you."
"No, of course not. It's been slow going so far, though." She shrugged. "And I don't know what Rhonda may have found out, or figured out, that she'd decided not to share with me."
He sighed. "And probably nobody else does either. Do you think that's why she was shot? Because she knows something?"
My employer stubbed out her cigarette in a small basin that I'm sure wasn't intended to be an ashtray. "That's quite possible. I'm more puzzled by Barbara's death. The Arkright family was together in Austria when Marvel was killed, and they had just returned home a few hours before the shooting – so it seems unlikely that Barbara would have been a threat to anybody. And even if she was a threat, how would the killer have found out about that threat?"
Mr. Arkright looked up. "Do you think this was some sort of... random violence? Some lunatic or something? After all, we didn't know the murdered girl, and..." His energy seemed to fizzle. "Maybe it's all just a coincidence."
My employer nodded. "That's quite possible. Someone had some reason to want Marvel dead, killed her somewhere and dumped the body in your house – maybe the only unoccupied house in town." She leaned forward. "But then where are her clothes, and..." She turned to Nate. "One thing I do need to clarify. As I said, Marvel was found wearing a bikini that was evidently not hers. Bright green. You know where that came from, don't you?"
Nate looked like he didn't care one way or the other. "It was on my closet door, hanging from some... What do you call them? "
"Yes. I... Last summer, I met this girl at the beach. We... Well, we got along, and there was a sudden thunderstorm as we were walking to Arturo's – I was going to buy her lunch. She... to get out of the rain, we went to the house..."
He was not looking at his father, who was hanging his head, apparently barely listening.
"Later, when she left, she wore some of my clothes – her bikini was still wet. She said she'd come back for it, but she never did."
My employer lit another cigarette. "So, you kept it, hung it up as something of a souvenir, or a trophy."
She gestured. "This illustrates the... apparent lunacy of Marvel's murder. Even if we buy the idea that Marvel's clothes and ID were taken in order to conceal her identity – which seems very unlikely, given her fame – why put a bathing suit on her? Why not just leave her body naked?"
Phil Baxter frowned." Do you think it was some sort of sex crime?"
She shrugged. "Her body was thoroughly checked – there was no evidence of recent sexual activity, consensual or forced."
"Of course," I put in, "whoever killed her may not have known her as Marvel at all – maybe only as Madeleine, or maybe just as a pretty woman on the street."
My employer nodded. "Very true. And that would make it even harder to solve."
"I blew it," my employer said as we sat on Professor Lebrun's front porch and watched the sun come up. "I should have been able to stop Barbara and Rhonda getting shot."
"Do you know who shot them?"
She nodded, with none of the coyness which questions like that usually generated. "Yes. And I know who killed Marvel, and why." She caught my expression. "I have no evidence – that's been the problem. And now, in order to get some, we're going to have to do something illegal."
"If I had to guess, I think I'm about to be breaking into someplace I'm not supposed to break into."
She smiled, a little. "No, both of us, this time. Maybe they'll let us share a cell."
"Wouldn't be the first time."
She shrugged. "First time in this country, for whatever that's worth. And no, we're not going to get any sleep first. We need to move quickly now, before there's another attempt."
"On Rhonda? I saw you talking to the deputy–"
"Yes, Rhonda is being guarded, but consider this... Close your eyes and remember the shooting. Barbara raised her head as she turned to look out the window, and she was shot pretty much square in her forehead. If she hadn't raised her head at that moment – putting herself, unintentionally, into the line of fire – who would that bullet have hit?"
I turned and regarded her.
"That's where I blew it," she said quietly. "I had figured it all out, and I thought I had a little time to come up with a plan for finding evidence. But I hadn't calculated... You think my ego is too big, I know, but this time it wasn't big enough. I didn't see that my being here, in town, on this case... that changed the whole equation. So, yes, now we need to move, and quickly, as soon as I get my Irregulars together."
"You have Irregulars?" I asked, wide-eyed. I knew that would help to cheer her up.
At seven forty-five that morning, someone broke into Madeleine Pontmercy's dorm room and stole two bikini bathing suits and a locked aluminum briefcase. One of the women in her dorm called the police when she noticed that the door to Madeleine's room had been left open and the bedding all pulled off the bed.
At eight o'clock, Professor Ernst Lebrun also called the police, to report that he'd heard a noise behind his house and that, upon investigation, he'd discovered an aluminum briefcase on the ground, open and empty.
Sheriff Rhonda White was still in the hospital, heavily sedated (and guarded), so Phil Baxter, the retired former sheriff, agreed to help out. He went from the town to the college campus in one of the police cars.
Several hours later, when Phil Baxter returned to his house, we were waiting in his kitchen.
We'd found three guns in the house – two handguns and a rifle. They were lined up on the kitchen table, with the ammunition beside them. He was a pro, after all, and I wanted him to know, immediately, that there were no loaded weapons in the house.
Other than mine, which was in my hand.
Also on the kitchen table was Marvel's wallet, and, on one of the chairs, the clothes she'd been wearing when she'd taken the jitney from the college to the town, six days earlier, the day of her murder. The clothes and the wallet had been hidden in the basement.
As I say, he was a professional – he didn't waste time with irate questions or futile protests. He admitted nothing.
We were in town for most of the day.
We were never actually under arrest, and when we were threatened with arrest there was some confusion about what we might be charged with. As my employer pointed out, we were not burglars, since we had not used force to gain access to the former sheriff's house, and we had not entered the premises to commit a felony (rather the opposite).
I had been armed, of course, but for no purpose beyond possible self-defense (and I am licensed to carry).
The answer, of course, was unlawful entry, but we weren't about to volunteer that information.
The deputies were hampered both by the absence of their boss, the sheriff (who was still in the hospital), and also by the absence of the county attorney, Mr. Barris, who recused himself, with evident relief, because he was a long-time friend and associate of the accused. And, of course, for most of the deputies, the accused was their former boss as well.
I had called Professor Lebrun when we'd arrived at the police station, just to let him know why we hadn't been at the house when he'd got up, and to let him know that there had been, to say the least, developments.
That afternoon, when all of the paperwork had been dealt with, at least for the moment, we had a late lunch at the Wagon Wheel. We ate mostly in silence – we'd been awake since the previous morning and we were both about ready to collapse.
In addition to the exhaustion, there was also the letdown of having the mystery solved, and the feeling of adrenaline seeping away. I had been pretty keyed up in the house of the former sheriff, waiting for him to come home. In those types of confrontations, it's never possible to be entirely sure how things are going to go, no matter how carefully you prepare.
After our meal, we took the jitney back to the campus. Professor Lebrun wasn't home, so we decided to get some sleep.
One thing my employer did do before bed, though, was to leave a note for the professor. I peeked at it when she was done. It said:
The case is solved. A woman will come to see me this evening. If I'm not up yet, please entertain her while I get some much-needed sleep.
I awoke, and not for the first time, to the feeling of my employer's long, bony forefinger poking at my shoulder.
When I got my eyes open, wondering what time it was (and guessing that it was not – unfortunately – going-back-to-sleep time), she held her finger up over her lips and gestured at the living room with her eyes.
Through the wall, I heard the professor, his voice rather closer to a purr than usual, and a woman, who was chuckling warmly.
It seemed that this might be the sort of evening where our sudden appearance in the living room could be unwelcome, but there was no other way out of our bedroom except for the window.
My employer gripped my arm and leaned over to whisper, "Don't worry. I'm very popular."
She dressed with even more care than usual, and when she was done she raised an eyebrow and asked, "How do I look?"
I scrutinized her. "Immaculate," I admitted.
She smiled and gestured with her cane that I should open the door so she could sweep (well, sweep with a pronounced limp) into the living room.
I wondered who she was planning to impress, and why.
The visitor was probably in her forties, wearing wire-frame glasses. She wore a dark brown pantsuit, no vest, and the collar of her cream-colored shirt was open. My experience working for my employer told me that her clothing was very expensive indeed.
"Miss Stapleton," my employer said, extending her hand as she limped forward, "I've been hoping to meet you. I gather you've met Professor Lebrun, who is our host, and this is my assistant, Marshall. I'm sorry I wasn't available to greet you upon your arrival. I hope your flight wasn't too taxing?"
A brief round of handshaking ensued (Professor Lebrun's eyes twinkled as he toyed with the idea of shaking my hand), and then we all sat down. The professor and his visitor had glasses of wine, but he didn't offer us any.
Ms. Stapleton (she had indicated, during the handshaking, that she preferred this honorific) smiled at my employer. "I'm somewhat impressed that you know my name. Are you also going to deduce what I had for dinner?"
My employer smiled also. "That is, of course, a trick question, since you've had no dinner." She turned to me as Professor Lebrun got to his feet, apparently stricken that he hadn't offered any food to his guest.
Professor Lebrun stood up. "Miss Stapleton, would you like some soup, and perhaps a sandwich? It would be no trouble at all."
She hesitated, and then nodded. "Thank you, Professor."
He bowed and headed to the kitchen, taking his wine glass with him.
"Ms. Stapleton was Marvel Phillips' attorney," my employer explained to me.
"Her personal attorney – I had nothing to do with her businesses. Miss Sleet, I heard a rather confusing report on the radio last night about Marvel's death. Your letter had given this phone number, so I called and got no answer. My next step was to call the sheriff's office. I spoke to someone there and learned that the sheriff is in the hospital and the former sheriff is under arrest..."
"So you decided to come here yourself. Quite reasonable."
"Do you know why Marvel was killed?"
"Yes, or at least I know who did it, and I have a very solid idea of why. The suspect has admitted nothing, at least so far."
"Can you please fill me in?" She reached into her attache case and pulled out a legal pad. "I hope you don't mind if I take notes."
"Of course not. I'd recommend it. Perhaps we should adjourn to the kitchen where there's a table, and probably some nice sandwiches coming, and, I hope, some coffee!"
The last few words had been pitched to be audible in the kitchen (and quite possibly down to the highway).
The professor brandished a full, and very welcome, coffee pot as we entered his small kitchen.
With a mug of coffee on the kitchen table in front of her, my employer settled back in her chair. "The murder of Marvel Phillips had nothing to do with Marvel herself," she began, "or the college here, or the family in whose house her dead body was left. It was all about the former sheriff and the current sheriff."
She sipped her coffee. "Being a detective, if I may pontificate for a moment, is mostly not skulking around alleys and peeking through transoms. There is some of that, of course, but a lot of it is research. The first thing I did when Marshall and I got here was to read all the issues I'd missed of the Claremont Crier, the town newspaper.
"The one thing that struck a wrong note in everything I read was that Phil Baxter, who had been the sheriff here for a long time, and who, in my experience with him, very much enjoyed the job, had retired. That was a discordant note – he wasn't that old, and there was no mention of a reason." She shrugged. "But that didn't immediately suggest a motive for murder, so I filed it away, and turned to the question of figuring out who might have had a motive.
"One way to do this is by using the old adage 'follow the money,' but that didn't seem to apply. Marvel had enormous wealth, but she died intestate and without living relatives..."
Ms. Stapleton correctly interpreted my employer's pause at this point. "Both of those statements are, to the best of my knowledge, true." She had dated the sheet of paper in front of her, but so far she had taken no notes.
My employer continued. "I understand that the county attorney, Mr. Barris, has been checking with lawyers in this area to see if Marvel had a will drawn up while she was here. But, in the absence of that, and in the absence of a previously unknown relative, I decided to look beyond simple financial benefit.
"That didn't produce any immediate results either. Marvel apparently wasn't that close to anybody around here – to inspire a more visceral reason for someone to want to take her life – and, in theory, nobody from her earlier life knew she was here.
"I searched her dorm room, and I interviewed some of the other students who knew her. I got no hints there either.
"And, no matter what the motive, why would anybody set such a bizarre scene?" She described how the body had been found. "He, the murderer, might have taken the clothes because they contained some kind of clue, and the wallet might have been taken to make it harder to identify the body, but why then go to all the trouble of squeezing her into that bikini that didn't even fit her properly? Why not just leave the body naked? And, if the murderer had known who she really was, he must have realized that her identity would come out no matter what, and probably soon.
"And that's when it started to fall together in my mind.
She was aching to define "Cui bono" (Latin for "who benefits?"), but, since her audience was a college professor and an attorney, she managed to restrain herself.
"I began to see that Phil Baxter stood to benefit, at least potentially.
"He had been the sheriff here for four terms, and, as I say, he'd liked being the sheriff. He'd had to deal with a few rather difficult crimes, but he'd solved them, in some cases with my help.
"But then he was diagnosed with heart trouble – specifically a bad valve, and some related problems. He needed surgery, and the timing happened to coincide with the next election. He didn't want to postpone the surgery – he was having increasing trouble getting around, and there was always the possibility that he would simply keel over and die. Plus, knowing him, I imagine he didn't want to risk appearing weak. I've read his medical files – that's how I learned all this.
"Besides, he'd been elected for four straight terms, the last one running unopposed. He probably assumed that the election would be pretty much a formality.
"But he had a deputy, Rhonda White, and she had not only competence but ambition – more than he'd realized.
"I don't know if he confided in her, or if she deduced what was going on with him (I suspect it was the latter – they weren't close), but she started appearing in his place at public events, sometimes when he couldn't attend because of tests or other procedures. She let people know – without ever saying so explicitly, of course – that he was starting to slow down.
"And suddenly editorials started appearing in the Crier, saying that maybe the baton should be passed to the younger generation, new blood needed, that sort of thing."
"To anticipate your question: What does this have to do with Marvel? After the election, and his surgery, Phil Baxter was no longer sheriff, and he was not happy. He was recovering, slowly getting his strength back, and increasingly angry about having been outflanked in his moment of weakness, as it were. But what could he do? How could he get back to where he'd been? Back to the place where he was, from his point of view, entitled to be.
"Then, based on what I found – what we found – he had his idea. He had, as I've said, quite a good reputation for solving difficult crimes... so, he would present his successor with a crime that she would not be able to solve. He would kill Marvel Phillips, a huge celebrity, in a way that made no sense, and let the international press descend on our town and highlight for the whole world how baffled Rhonda was. Better even than defeating her in an election – he would show her up."
"Excuse me," Professor Lebrun said, serving the canned soup he'd warmed up. "How did he know that Madeleine was Marvel?"
"Phil Baxter is very good friends with the dentist who did the work on Marvel's teeth." A look passed between my employer and Ms. Stapleton, and it was obvious that the lawyer knew about her late client's recent dental work, and why she'd needed it. "She had paid his fee with a check – probably trusting to his professional ethics." My employer shrugged. "It doesn't seem surprising that Dr. Gregg would share a piece of information like that with his trusted friend, the retired sheriff.
"But then, something happened that threatened Phil Baxter's plans. Completely by coincidence, I came back to town, and I, of all people, discovered Marvel's body. I... I'm going to have to risk sounding immodest here – I would not be surprised if he'd been afraid that I'd solve it right then. But I didn't – murders like this, with these apparently random elements, they're common in fiction, but not in reality. I've never seen a murder in a real locked room, for example.
"So, I had a theory, but no evidence."
Then she described the return of the Arkright family, and the shooting.
"The first bullet was intended for me, obviously, but it hit and killed Barbara Arkright instead. Marshall had thrown me to the floor and covered my body with his, so I was protected. Did he – Mr. Baxter – then shoot Sheriff Rhonda out of frustration, realizing that his plan of defeating her politically was probably not going to be possible? Was he afraid that she'd spotted him in the dark across the street? I don't know, but she was drawing her sidearm when she was shot."
Ms. Stapleton frowned. "The sheriff – the current sheriff – is she alive?"
"Yes. I believe she will recover."
Ms. Stapleton looked out the window at the dark sky, apparently composing her thoughts. "So, this was all... I'm sorry, it just seems so pointless. She – Marvel..."
She nodded. "I really felt that her life – her adult life – was just beginning."
I could see my employer weighing whether this was the time to bring up the book she was hoping to write, but she didn't mention it. Ms. Stapleton was apparently feeling rather strongly about Marvel's death, and the worst thing would have been to risk appearing opportunistic at that moment.
Somewhat later, after Ms. Stapleton had departed, we were sitting on the front porch of Professor Lebrun's house. It was probably mostly inertia that kept us – at least those of us who had not slept the night before – from going back to bed.
Professor Lebrun gestured with the stem of his pipe. "May I make a comment, and ask a question?"
My employer smiled. "Of course, Professor. I may not answer the question, obviously."
"Understood. I did want to mention that I enjoyed how you told Miss Stapleton the story out of order, blurring cause and effect..."
"In order to avoid saying, to an officer of the court, that Marshall and I had deliberately committed a crime by entering Mr. Baxter's home without his permission. Yes, that seemed prudent."
He waited for more. She sat, very still, waiting also. He and I exchanged a couple of glances (my employer delicately averting her eyes), and then, with a very small shrug, he changed his mind.
I had been afraid that he would blow the gaff, but he held firm and moved on to a less controversial question instead.
"So," he said, "I gather you're planning on staying in the area here, at least for a while?"
"We're witnesses in a murder trial, or we will be. It seems that we won't be prosecuted for entering Mr. Baxter's house without permission, but it was made clear to us that we are expected to be available when we're needed."
Professor Lebrun coughed delicately. "As you may remember..."
"Your new tenant is about to arrive. Next week, I believe?"
She turned to me. I waved a hand. "That's taken care of. I made a call."
"Ah," she said thoughtfully. She smiled. "Your friend, the muffin lady?"
I nodded. "I got a good price when I told her we'd be living here in town for a while."
So, she had shifted the narrative, eliding the possible book theft and especially the mystery woman who had admitted us to the Arkright house.
I hadn't mentioned any of this because my employer hadn't wanted me to. And because I already knew the answer, or at least part of it.
On Friday, the day I'd gone into town to fetch our luggage, the day I'd gone to the Catholic church to light a candle for Marvel, I'd also done something else, something my employer hadn't deduced (or, if she had, she'd kept it to herself – which was always a possibility with her).
I'd gained access to the Arkright house and checked the open carton of my employer's books in the garage. The books had all been there, according to the inventory, but one book was not lined up neatly with the rest. It was shoved down in the side of the box.
It was not a published book. It was a journal, about half full, written many years ago by someone named Alex (for Alexandra) Ross – apparently a teenage girl at that time.
I had skimmed through the contents. There were some fairly conventional journal entries, some poems (well, they seemed to be poems), and a fair amount of gibberish.
It had ended, abruptly, a couple of months before my employer's birth date. The last few entries had been rather apocalyptic (though with no explicit mention of pregnancy). There had been some hints about Alexandra's fear of some sort of pursuit, but it hadn't been clear, at least to me, the extent to which this had been metaphorical, or literal.
The reporters – regional, national, international – who were probably already en route wouldn't know, or care, about the unidentified woman who had been in the Arkright house when we'd arrived, and who had pretended to belong there. Sheriff Rhonda had apparently already decided that the woman had been a fiction. Professor Lebrun was obviously not planning to mention her. Thinking back, I didn't think that the Arkright family had ever even heard that part of the story.
So, as always, my employer solved mysteries, and provided new ones. We were, apparently, staying in town for the foreseeable future. How much of that decision had been based on:
1) A desire to comply with the law and avoid any possibility of getting into trouble,
2) A desire to ensure that justice was done,
3) A possible desire to make sure that Sheriff Rhonda, once she recovered, kept her tendency toward political ambition under control or,
4) A desire, for whatever reason, to locate the mystery woman again.
© Copyright 2020 Anthony Lee Collins. All rights reserved.