The Town Hall Mystery, by Anthony Lee Collins

Part one

 
On Main Street in the town of Claremont, Massachusetts, there is a general store, called the News Store. It's across the street from the Town Hall and down the block from the Wagon Wheel, the restaurant where my employer and I ate quite often. Directly next to the general store on one side was the thrift store and, on the other side, there was the town's pharmacy.

Before we'd moved to Claremont, we'd stayed in a hotel in New York City for a few weeks. During that time, my employer had decided that the Sunday edition of the New York Times was an essential part of any weekend. So, every Saturday evening I had to go to the News Store and make sure we were on the list to receive a copy of the Sunday Times, and then I'd return on Sunday morning to pick it up.

The man who ran the store was named Mickey. He gave the impression that he'd been behind that counter forever, but of course that could have been an act, for the tourists.

And there were still tourists now, although it was well after Labor Day and getting steadily cooler, especially in the evenings. The tourists tended to be older now, mostly retired, probably attracted by the cheaper rentals and the early bird specials in the restaurants.

Mickey was always there on Saturday evening when I went to confirm our Sunday New York Times reservation, and to collect the weekly shipment of my employer's preferred brand of imported cigarettes.

He was never there on Sunday morning, though. The task of assembling and selling the Sunday papers was left to his children, Mark and Millie, who appeared to be in their early twenties. Mark handled most of the actual assembly, while Millie worked at the counter.

Mark always gave me the impression that this was not his preferred way of spending every single Sunday morning. Millie, on the other hand, though she might have shared her brother's apparent disdain for this family responsibility, was always pleasant, even with all the customers who thought it was very amusing to call her "Minnie."

One evening, after a good dinner at the Wagon Wheel, my employer and I walked past the News Store on our way home. Millie was out front, pumping up the rear tire of her bicycle. She saw us and greeted me, and we chatted for a moment before we strolled off and Millie resumed her pumping.

As we turned the corner, my employer gave me a sidelong glance, conveying, "You know, she is much too young for you." She enjoyed my frustration because, of course, since her comment had not been spoken out loud, I was stymied in my desire to protest.

 
On this particular Sunday morning, I was waiting on line, holding my Times, when we heard the noon siren – only it wasn't noon, and that meant there was a fire.

Millie yanked off her apron (I had never been exactly clear why she wore an apron, but I guess the big pockets were convenient), tossed it at her brother, and zipped out the door, yelling, "Take over, Marky!"

He made a face about being called Marky, and he ignored the apron as he stepped behind the counter. I hadn't known that Millie was a member of the town's force of volunteer firefighters, but there she was, pedaling off down the block at high speed toward the firehouse.

I paid for my newspaper and moved toward the door, to allow the woman behind me to step to the counter and pay for her purchases (a local paper, a pack of cigarettes, and a small tube of toothpaste). I needed to make sure before I left the store that my paper had all the vital sections. (Actually, my employer considered almost all of the sections of the Sunday Times to be vital, but I might have been forgiven if I'd arrived home without the sports section or the classifieds.)

Then I heard the sirens approaching. I looked up to see, and smell, the smoke. The Town Hall, directly across the street, was on fire.

I stepped out onto the front step of the store and watched as two fire trucks pulled up, on opposite sides of the Town Hall. Three firemen quickly unfurled hoses to start spraying water on the two-story structure. Three other firefighters charged into the building through the front door, carrying all sorts of equipment.

There was a lawn in front of the building, leading down to the sidewalk, and pavement on the other three sides (a parking lot to the left and behind, and a driveway to the right), so at least the fire was relatively contained. There was not a lot of wind, at least on ground level. So far, the fire seemed to be concentrated on the second floor – smoke was pouring out of the windows and I could see some flames, too.

Then I remembered that the second floor was the town library, and that was a shame. I'd mourn the town's books much more than the town's paperwork.

There was a cluster of people on the lawn in front, moving slowly down towards the sidewalk, and I recognized one town clerk and two librarians, so maybe all the people in the building had made it out safely.

I watched for a few minutes, still glancing down to check the newspaper sections. A crowd was gathering on the sidewalk in front of the store, of course, but I was on the raised front step and could easily see over their heads.

Another fire truck pulled up, and I saw Millie among the new arrivals, rushing toward the fire in a uniform that seem to be too large for her. Were women a new addition to the force? I looked around. Was she the only woman?

My woolgathering was interrupted when a young man pushed through the crowd in front of me. He shoved past me and hurried into the News Store.

I managed to hold onto most of my Times, but several sections slid down to the sidewalk as I regained my balance. I picked them all up, made sure they were undamaged, and folded them back together.

Then I stepped back into the store, considering the various possible ramifications of punching the rude young man in the nose. However, I didn't see him. Was he cowering somewhere in the rear of the store, hoping to avoid my righteous wrath? That seemed unlikely.

Then I saw his feet, vanishing as he ascended the metal ladder that led to a trap door to the roof.

Mark looked at the guy's feet as they vanished, then he finished ringing up the next customer. He couldn't deal with the fire across the street, or a strange man on the roof, but nobody was getting out of the store that day without paying what they owed.

I turned back to watch the fire again. I had the urge to pitch in and do something, but there didn't seem to be much that a writer's assistant could add to the proceedings, other than possibly getting in the way. I hoped Millie was going to be okay.

Then a familiar figure emerged from the crowd and shoved past me into the store. Same cap, rough brown jacket, wavy dark hair and jeans as before, and the same lack of manners.

I turned, this time managing to keep control of my Times, trying to remember how deja vu works, as the new arrival looked around the room, then ran to the ladder and started for the roof.

Mark watched this, as did the remaining customers, and then he sighed and made the universal face that said, with a visible sigh, tourists!

Okay, this demanded a response from me. The fire was being handled, though it appeared that the Town Hall might not survive. Traffic was obviously blocked at both ends of the street. The sheriff and her deputies were controlling the crowds. And I was going to be open to severe criticism at home if I didn't investigate the situation on the roof.

Then there was an odd, loud, disturbing noise from the sidewalk in front of the store, accompanied by screaming. I looked out and saw a limp figure on the sidewalk, wearing a rough brown jacket and jeans, cap on the sidewalk, brown hair spread out, eyes open, motionless.

Part two

 
My employer, Jan Sleet, usually attracted some amount of attention when she walked down the street in Claremont. This was partly because she was becoming (she would have said "was") a local celebrity – the town's resident amateur sleuth. She had initially gained this reputation by her exploits while in college, and it had been cemented by her solution of the murder of Marvel Phillips a few weeks before.

There was also, of course, her appearance, which was unusual almost anywhere, but strikingly so in a seaside college town like Claremont. She had lank brown hair and a tall and spindly body, and she wore large horn-rimmed glasses and elegant three-piece suits. She used a cane for her limp, which was especially pronounced when she was moving quickly, as she was at the moment, steaming down the block toward me. She never even looked at the burning Town Hall across the street, and she brushed by the sheriff without acknowledging her.

A more sentimental employee than I am, seeing her intensity, might have concluded that she was concerned about my safety – what with the fire raging across the street and a body falling to the sidewalk and all, but I had a pretty good idea that it was irritation that I knew a lot of things about recent events that she did not know, at least not yet.

She managed to slow her forward momentum enough to (barely) avoid crashing into me. She didn't have to ask – I gave her a very brief update on what had happened, enough to make it clear that if this had been an accident it had been a very odd one. Then she bent over to look at the corpse.

When I had first seen the body, I had moved quickly to check for signs of life. When it became obvious that I wasn't finding any, most of the onlookers had turned their attention back to the fire across the street. The few who were now watching the (moderately) famous detective were distracted by a crash from across the street as the second floor of the Town Hall fell in, smoke and sparks and debris going in all directions. One of the two trees on the lawn in front of the burning building was on fire now, too.

I had expected the noise and had been prepared, but my employer's attention had been on the corpse, so she jumped. Unexpected loud noises had that effect on both of us, because of our experiences overseas.

I took her elbow and steadied her, steering her gently toward a small alley between the news store and the thrift shop. She tolerated the contact, and I released her before she could decide to pull back.

She met my eyes and nodded. "Tell me all," she murmured.

Things got chaotic around us for a while, but we stood in our alcove, her hand on my shoulder, and I told her the whole story, very quietly.

As I told the story, I saw the sheriff look in our direction. She met my eyes, but she was obviously willing to wait until I got my employer up to speed. Meanwhile, she continued to direct her deputies in controlling the crowd and evacuating the buildings closest to the Town Hall. There was almost no breeze, and the smoke in the air was starting to sting my eyes.

When I was done, my employer straightened up, the corner of her mouth quirking. Her first words were, "So, it was the man who fell and died, rather than the woman?"

I nodded. I might have known that she'd figure that out. You can only get so far with fudging pronouns.

She squatted and started to examine the body in detail. After a few moments, she gestured behind her with a forefinger, and I moved about a foot to my right. If the sheriff turned around again, it would be better if she didn't see my employer quickly and methodically going through the victim's pockets.

Then, as I helped my employer to her feet again, the sheriff did come over and look down at the corpse. She looked at me, then she wiped her sweaty forehead with her sleeve. "I know she just got here," she said, meaning my employer, "but did you see any of it?"

"At ground level, I saw everything. I have no idea what happened on the roof."

She called over her shoulder to one of her deputies, "Brian, I'll be in the Wheel."

 
"Do you know what I think?" Sheriff Rhonda White asked.

"No, please tell us." My employer managed to hold back most of her sarcasm, since she already knew what the sheriff was going to say next. It was so obvious that I'd figured it out too.

We were sitting at a front table in the Wagon Wheel, so the sheriff could keep an eye on the situation outside. The waitress, Dot, came over and Rhonda waved her off, but not before my employer said she would like a cappuccino.

Rhonda leaned back in her chair, deciding not to be annoyed. She almost tented her fingers in front of her but then she stopped herself.

"Please tell me what you saw," she said to me.

I obliged – we certainly had no reason to hold anything back. I told it to her exactly as I had told it to my employer, except that I didn't bother to play at pronouns. I made it clear that the first person, now deceased, had been male, and the second one, now missing, had been female.

By the end of my story, when my employer was about halfway through her cappuccino, Rhonda had decided that being annoyed was entirely reasonable.

"So, Marshall," she said, "a man shoved past you and into the store, looked around, climbed up to the roof, and then, a few moments later, another person, a woman this time, in the same clothes, with the same hair, did the exact same thing, and then the man fell or was pushed or jumped off the roof, cracking his skull on the pavement?"

I nodded, simply to keep this process moving forward.

"Other people saw him, especially the people in the store, and they all said it looked like the same person. And if there were two people, male or female, the one who didn't die has vanished."

My employer nodded slowly. "So, if this one person pushed in, ascended, returned to street level, pushed in again, and then fell, jumped, or was pushed–"

"Jumped is my guess. Determined to commit suicide – for whatever reason – started, chickened out, climbed down to the street, got his gumption back up, and then carried it out."

My employer wanted a cigarette. She could have pointed out that the story didn't make a lot of sense, or that suicidal jumpers seldom jump from the roofs of one-story buildings, or that it would have been a very odd lie for me to have told in the first place. What benefit could there have been for me to have invented a woman who didn't exist in this situation?

If we had challenged the sheriff on that, she could have pointed out that, in her firm opinion, we had invented a woman before, in the Marvel Phillips case, so why wouldn't we have done it again?

As my employer said later, she mentally played through every possible conversation that this could have led to, and not one of them could have been useful. She glanced over at me before bidding the sheriff goodbye, and instead she said, "Marshall has a question."

"The Town Hall," I said. "Did everybody make it out safely?"

Sheriff Rhonda nodded. "As far as we know, based on the reports so far. The staff are definitely all okay. We... the ruins will have to be gone through. It sounds like the fire started upstairs, in the library rest room, but we don't even know that for a fact. The staff apparently moved quickly and efficiently to clear the whole building. The building itself is a total loss, of course, except for the safe..."

Her eyes narrowed as she stood up. "Keep in touch," she said, not looking at us as she made for the door. My employer looked out the window and winked at me as she finished her cappuccino. I turned to see a reporter from the Claremont Crier, the local paper, talking to one of Rhonda's deputies. I was sure that Rhonda would step in to speak with the reporter herself.

My employer took her cane and got to her feet. She looked down at the Sunday Times, which I had placed on the extra chair at our table.

"All the sections are there," I assured her as I took out my wallet.

Part three

 
My employer smoked a cigarette as she looked out over the water. I had voted for getting some lunch (it would have been a late lunch, by then), but she was never hungry when there was heavy thinking to do.

Sheriff Rhonda had once recommended the pier as a good place to think, so I suggested that we go there. I planned to get a couple of hot dogs to sustain myself while the heavy-duty cogitation was going on.

If she thought for long enough, I was going to have some soft ice cream as well.

We were sitting on a bench, and I occupied myself, after finishing my hot dogs, with trying to figure out what my employer was focusing on. It was definitely not the sea and the sky – she'd removed her glasses and slipped them into her jacket pocket.

Her brown hair moved in the breeze, and she occasionally pushed it away from her face. She was leaning back, her long, thin legs stretched out in front of her.

Was she working her brain on the dead man? That seemed the most likely possibility. It was difficult to imagine that she could be thinking that hard about the fire.

Or she could have been thinking about the book she was writing. That did occupy most of her time and attention these days. Maybe she was planning how she could best continue her research, now that the town no longer had a library.

She started to speak without looking at me.

"The most unfortunate aspect of Rhonda's intransigent insistence that we invented a woman once before is that the rude woman who nearly jostled my Sunday Times out of your grasp is out there somewhere, and nobody is looking for her. However, the advantage we have is that, even with the sheriff's inaccurate reconstruction of the crime, if it was a crime, she needs to know who the dead man was, and we need that information as well."

"And the man, or his identity, will lead us to the woman?"

"Obviously." She stubbed out her cigarette and tossed the butt off the edge of the pier and into the water. She turned and poked me in the shoulder. "You have errands to run – you just don't know it yet."

I stood up. I didn't mind leaving – the soft ice cream stand was closed for the season anyway.

"I'll walk back home with you first," I said as she took out her glasses and put them on. "You can tell me about it as we walk."

She smiled as she got to her feet. "That will be pleasant."

So, we walked back to the inn, maintaining the fiction that this stroll was for companionship, rather than the more prosaic reason, which was that I wanted to drop off the (increasingly heavy) Sunday Times so I wouldn't have to lug it all over town with me.

(Well, my employer certainly wasn't going to carry it anywhere.)

As we walked, at a comfortable pace for my employer, she said, "I did not have enough time to perform a thorough search of the body, as you know, but I was able to go through the pockets. They were empty except for two things – a few dollar bills, held together with a paper clip, and a single key." She gave me a sidelong glance. "The key was somewhat notable, though. It was shiny, apparently new, and it was a Rabson."

I nodded." Hardware stores, then?"

She nodded. "Exactly." Rabsons are very expensive (and difficult to pick – not that I would know that from personal experience, of course), so maybe a customer who needed a key for a Rabson lock would stick in somebody's mind.

At the inn, I placed the Times on my employer's bed, bade her farewell, and went down to the front hall to check the Yellow Pages, which were kept under the small table that held the telephone.

I headed out, walking back toward the pier, and then, in sight of the pier, I took a right turn onto Pine Street.

There were two hardware stores in Claremont that I could reach on foot – a small store on Pine Street and a large housewares store located out on the highway. The other stores which I'd jotted down would have required me to get a cab, or rent a car. Since we had no income and needed to watch our expenses, I decided to try the two local stores before I made plans to tackle the rest.

Of course, even if the key was as new as it looked, it could have been made in Boston, or much farther away than that. But it was the only lead we had, so I went to check on it.

Walking the several blocks up the hill, I enjoyed the sunshine and the breeze coming off the water. It was good walking weather – just the right temperature.

At the top of the hill, I passed the Catholic church, remembering when my employer – an ardent atheist – had teased me for lighting a candle for Marvel Phillips after her death. I had no desire to light a candle for the young man who had died earlier that day, even apart from the fact that I knew nothing about him, not even his name.

I was glad to start at Howell's Hardware on Pine Street – it was much more the sort of place where customers might be remembered. My only experience at Sunshine Housewares, buying a few necessary items for our room, had been that it was very impersonal – very "un-Claremont." (I was already becoming somewhat protective of our new adopted hometown.)

Past the church, the ground sloped off again, and gradually the smell of smoke came back to me as I approached Main Street. There was no breeze here, and the air was somewhat acrid and very still.

 
The hardware store was about a half a block from Main Street, and a small bell rang as I opened the door. Unlike when we'd been investigating the death of Marvel Phillips, we had no piece of paper giving us any authority to ask questions, so I decided that my best approach would be to be convivial, and a potential customer, rather than trying to be intimidating and official.

The place was somewhat dark, but I saw a key-making stand in a gloomy corner, with various metal signs posted around it. I didn't see a sign for Rabson. They are specialty keys and many stores aren't equipped with the machine needed to cut them, so stores which are so equipped usually advertise the fact.

I'd had various plans in mind to get the information I needed, but now I could use the easiest one. I asked if they copied Rabson keys, and the man behind the counter apologized and said that they didn't, adding that very few people in Claremont even locked their doors, so there wasn't really any demand for fancy locks. He gave me a look indicating that I must not be a local. I bade him goodbye and left.

As I strolled up toward the corner, the smell of smoke became stronger. The absence of wind which had helped to save the buildings closest to the fire was now allowing the pall to hang over the center of town.

I turned right on Main Street, walking past some shops, the Methodist Church, and the Wagon Wheel, and then I saw where the Town Hall had been.

It was strange, in the middle of that pleasant seaside town, to see one large rectangle of charred, debris-filled land that reminded me of bombed-out buildings I'd seen in a war zone. It was a very odd, and, I admit, rather disturbing juxtaposition, as if somebody had folded a map to put Main Street in Claremont directly next to Rua Serra Verde in Bellona.

When the sheriff had said that "the safe" had survived, my mental image had been inadequate. The charred, dull gray metal box perched directly in the center of the Town Hall footprint was massive. It was, I suddenly realized, comparable in size to the (comfortable, but decidedly cozy) room where my employer and I lived.

As I walked forward, more slowly now, I found myself resisting looking at the site. I felt bad about this – I wasn't usually so timid, particularly about a place where, as far as I knew, nobody had died.

Then I saw a family walking on the other side of the street. The parents were looking at the site as they walked past it, apparently discussing what had happened. Their son (presumably – he looked like he was around eight years old) was looking fixedly at the News Store – avoiding any risk of seeing the site of the fire.

I didn't feel so bad as I approached the News Store.

Part four

 
I stepped up on the front step of the News Store and then I turned to look again at the burned plot of land across the street, and the massive safe, remembering the events of the morning.

"The big question," Mickey said over my shoulder, bringing me back to the here and now, "is taxes." I turned. "Some people have the hope–" He shrugged his disdain for this opinion. "–that all the town's tax records were burned up and nobody will have to pay any taxes this year."

I shrugged, too, indicating my tacit agreement that this was not how the world worked.

Mickey ushered me into the store and asked, "Missing any sections from your paper?"

I laughed. "All sections were checked and approved, thanks. No, I'm here to look at the roof, if that's okay."

My employer couldn't have made it to the roof of the store – at least not with her dignity intact – but since the roof might be a crime scene, I thought I should look it over.

He shrugged. "Detective stuff? Go ahead." He gestured at the metal ladder.

"Has Sheriff Rhonda been?" I asked, pointing up.

He shook his head. "One of the deputies – the short one – asked Mark some questions, but that was it. I guess the fire is a bigger deal." He waved a hand at the scene across the street, as if I might have been confused about which fire he was referring to.

I nodded and climbed the ladder. The trapdoor was still open. Stepping out onto the roof, I looked around in all directions.

The roof was generally flat, if a bit lower at the rear of the store, and covered with tarpaper. There was a small chimney in one corner. The land under the store sloped off sharply, so that the rear of the roof was about twice as far from the ground as the front was from the sidewalk. The ground in the back was unkempt – trees and bushes and brambles.

There was, as I said before, a small alley on the right hand side of the store, between the store and the thrift shop. This was the alley where my employer and I had stood while I'd filled her in on the events of the morning. There was a metal ladder attached to the outside of the building, allowing descent to the alley. So, this might have been how the mystery woman had got off the roof. It would have been daring, with so many potential witnesses on the street, but of course all the witnesses had been facing the other way, watching the Town Hall burn.

If she had got off the roof this way, though, it must have been before the man had fallen to the sidewalk. The alley had definitely not been unobserved after that – I could assert that from personal experience.

I went to the other side of the roof and saw that it would have been easy to step to the roof of the pharmacy, and then to the grocery store that was on the other side of the pharmacy. All three buildings were single story, of approximately the same height, with no alleys between them. I could see that there was a ladder down to the street on the far side of the pharmacy.

A head poked up through the open trap door. "Hi, Marshall!" Millie said, climbing up to join me.

I laughed. "Hi. What are you doing up here?"

She shrugged, looking around. "I'm just curious about what you're doing up here."

"Investigating, of course. Or pretending to."

"Finding anything?"

"No, not yet."

She turned around in a circle, as I had, to look in all directions. "It's a nice view," she said. "I've never been up here before." She pointed across the street. "Nice view except for that, of course."

I found myself wondering – not for the first time, but more seriously now – whether the fire had been an accident, and, if it had been deliberate, if it had been connected in any way to the death of the young man.

"Have you heard anything about the fire?" I asked her. "Did everybody get out alive?"

She shrugged. "As far as we know. The state police will go over the site – our job is over when the fire is put out. I think they're supposed to start tomorrow." She looked up at me with a sly, conspiratorial glance. "Is your boss investigating the fire? Or the death? Or both?"

I shrugged. "That's the sort of high-level strategic planning that hasn't been shared with the staff, at least not yet. As far as I know, she's mostly focused on writing her book."

"Which might be about Marvel Phillips."

I nodded. "Which might be about Marvel Phillips."

She had teased me about this before – trying to get me to admit what everybody in town seemed to have figured out – the subject of the book my employer was writing.

Millie and I chatted a bit more, then her father called up and she climbed down the ladder to go back to work.

I looked around one last time, and checked my watch. It was nearly six, and I was having trouble convincing myself that I needed to go all the way to Sunshine Housewares today. As much as I enjoyed walking, I was feeling that I was reaching my quota of steps for the day.

I considered going downstairs and out to the nearest pay phone, to see if my employer had a different idea of my priorities. But then I heard a telephone ringing in the store below me. It was answered, there was some muffled conversation, and then Millie's head popped up through the trapdoor again.

"A message from my illustrious employer?" I guessed.

She grinned. "Dinner time!" she said. "That's the message."

I nodded. "I'd better get going then," I said. I followed her down the ladder, waved to Mickey, and left.

When I needed to travel quickly from Main Street down to Ocean Drive, where we lived, I used a narrow path I'd discovered. It started between the Methodist church and the Wagon Wheel. I'd first spotted it when I was using the pay phone next to the church. When I'd tried it one afternoon, I'd half expected it to peter out halfway down the hill, but it went all the way to Ocean Drive, at a fairly steep grade. I'd made a mental note not to use it during or immediately after a rainstorm – I would have ended up sliding downhill in a sluice of mud.

Reaching the bottom of the slope today, passing between a fish store and a small cottage, moving quietly because I was pretty sure I was walking on somebody's private property, I found my employer standing on the sidewalk, right where the path ended, immaculately dressed as always, looking at her pocket watch and tapping her cane impatiently on the pavement.

By the time she looked up and saw me, put her watch away, and sighed to convey, "What took you so long?" I had managed to get my grin under control.

Part five

 
"You've been doing me a disservice, you know."

"Excuse me?"

Had I woken up because she'd spoken, or for some other reason? It was still dark outside, so it was not time to get up.

"You think that I came to Main Street yesterday to detect things and to find out what you knew about the dead body and so on," she continued. "I had no idea there was a dead body to investigate – how would I have known that? I came because there was a fire, and I knew you were probably in the immediate vicinity, and I was afraid you'd do something to put yourself in danger. That's why I came." She huffed. "Good night."

I could hear her bed springs creak as she turned over.

 
In the morning, I was at first unsure as to whether this had actually happened. Then, as she took care of her morning ablutions, I noticed that I was sharing my pillow with a pack of her cigarettes, which she had apparently thrown at my head to get me to wake up (they came in a metal case). I got up and replaced it in the carton under her bed.

 
We usually had our free continental breakfast on the rear deck of the inn where we were living. We had decided on the deck as the best option for breakfast because 1) the living room was where the other guests ate, and they would often try to chat with us about our day's vacation-related plans – which was awkward because we were living there, definitely not on vacation – and 2) eating in our room seemed unnecessarily antisocial.

Well, the more important reason was probably that smoking was not allowed in the living room, and my employer considered the essential components of any good breakfast to be a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Tiny muffins and pastries, and small pieces of fresh fruit, were pleasant side dishes, but they were not the main course.

My employer's presence in the living room during breakfast hours also led to entirely too many conversations about how 1) she wasn't dressed for vacation activities (her spindly six-foot frame being clad, always, in elegant three-piece suits), 2) "Oh, my. Aren't you Jan Sleet, that lady detective? I've read about you!"

Not that my employer, the intrepid gal reporter and amateur sleuth, minded being recognized – quite the opposite – but she was resolutely not a morning person, and she preferred to delay any non-essential conversations until after she'd had her breakfast.

We ate our breakfast on the deck today, although the sky gave every indication of imminent rain. We did not mention her early-morning diatribe on my misreading of her motives.

"Today," she said thoughtfully, tapping her cigarette ash into her empty coffee mug, "I need to get some writing done. I need to plan for the inconvenient loss of the town library. The college library is actually better, in some ways, and of course I am an alumna, but it's more time-consuming to get there, so advance planning will be important." She pursed her lips as she met my eyes. "Ah, yes," she said, "the mystery. Today..." Her eyes widened. "You should go see Doctor Wright. That's always fun."

"The coroner," I said, to show that I was paying attention.

"Exactly, We need to know more about our corpse. Tell him I said hello."

So, obviously it was being delegated to me to figure out how we (as represented by me) were going to get the town's coroner – who didn't know me and and who didn't seem to like my employer – to give us access to official information about a death.

 
Dr. Wright leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands across his middle. "So, Mr. O'Connor, what can I do for you?"

"We were wondering if there was anything significant about the dead body."

He shrugged. "Your reason for asking?"

I gave him a shrug and a smile in return. "My employer is asking. I don't know exactly why."

"Presumably she's preparing to sweep in, reveal the truth of the case, and leave local law enforcement baffled and embarrassed. She enjoys that." He straightened up slightly. "Your 'employer'? You work for her?"

"I do. I'm her assistant."

"You're her Watson?"

I laughed. "Watson was a friend and roommate – he didn't work for Holmes. I draw a salary."

"What do you put on your tax return?"

"'Writer's assistant.' She uses 'intrepid gal reporter and amateur sleuth.'"

That got a smile out of him. "That's a lot to fit into that tiny box on the form."

"I can write small when I have to."

He looked like he could have said more but he apparently decided not to. He leaned back again and tapped his finger on a piece of paper on his desk.

"The dead body," he said, "is dead, and, as yet, unidentified. The skull was fractured when struck, it seems, by the pavement." He met my eyes. "Your employer had a tendency, at times like this, to interrupt to say something like, 'How can you tell it was the impact of the pavement? How do you know he wasn't struck on the back of the head by a baseball bat while he was in midair?'"

I shrugged. "Was he?"

He laughed. "I'm only the coroner – how would I know?"

"Was he healthy when he died?"

"Compared to now? Absolutely." He straightened up and leaned forward. "As far as I can tell, he was healthy. I believe the sheriff is considering this to be either suicide or an accident, probably the former, so I don't imagine there will be an autopsy." He shrugged. "At least not unless a family member should come forward and request one."

"May I see the body?"

He shrugged again and got to his feet. "I don't have a problem with it."

 
Dr. Wright presented the corpse to me as if waiting for me to react badly. Doctors sometimes think they're the only people who have ever seen dead bodies.

I pulled down the sheet and looked, less because I had any idea what I was looking for and more to be able to answer questions later.

"Tattoos." I observed after a few moments. "Is that a caduceus?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. I don't think so – it would be upside down if it is."

"Good point."

There were two tattoos: one the (possible) caduceus (two snakes twined around a staff) on the right bicep, and the other a small heart on the right ankle.

When I was done, or at least when I'd devoted enough time to the process, I covered the body again. He grinned, gesturing at a blue plastic tray on a nearby shelf. "She searched the pockets didn't she?" He chuckled and waved a finger at me. "You should have asked about the contents of the pockets earlier."

Part six

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

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

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

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

 
"I have a question, about Rabson keys..."

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

I nodded as if I hadn't noticed this. "Thanks," I said, and I turned to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She ignored me and went into the house.

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

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

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

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

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

Part seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate Lane stepped forward and addressed Rhonda.

"Sheriff, I'd like to ask you a few questions..."

The short-haired woman by the window turned around and snapped, "At a time like this? Really?"

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

Ignoring the reporter, the sheriff stepped forward and addressed the older woman. "Miss Devane, I'd like to ask..."

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

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

Sheriff Rhonda nodded, doing a fairly good job of concealing her frustration. "Of course. Please accept my condolences."

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

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

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

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

I buckled myself in and we were off.

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

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

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

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

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

"Is this going to take some time?" she asked.

I shrugged. "Quite possibly."

She took her cane and got to her feet. "Then let's talk on the deck."

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

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

She didn't bother to give me time to respond to this. "I am intrigued by Rhonda's reaction to all of this," she continued. "Her proposed explanation of the death of the unidentified man was, to say the least, predictable. But why did the scene at the Devane house bother her so much?"

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

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

"And they did have their lawyer there with them, and he's pretty established in this area."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part eight

 
After we were seated, we started with drinks (at least Professor Lebrun and I did – my employer seldom drank).

When the drinks arrived, the professor sipped his Tom Collins, nodded, took another sip, and then put it down. He smiled. "Please don't keep me in suspense. Dinner with you two is always enjoyable, but when the call comes at the last minute, with such an undertone of urgency..."

My employer nodded. "Your deduction is correct. What have you heard about recent events in town?"

He shrugged (his shrugs were always slow, expressive, and somehow undeniably European). "The Town Hall burned down – I know that. One of my students was there – something to do with her driver's license – and she told me all about it in an attempt to explain why she'd been late for class."

"A successful attempt, I assume," I put in.

He smiled and sipped his drink. "Yes, of course. So, you're investigating the fire? That seems a bit... out of your usual routine."

"It would be. No, there are other recent incidents which have, rather forcibly, claimed my attention..." She glanced at me, to make sure that I was aware that, whatever happened, it was all going to be my fault for dragging her into this and distracting her from her true vocation: writing her book. "...a death, apparently not natural, across the street from the fire, and another death, apparently natural, as far as we know so far, at the Devane house."

The professor had some more of his drink. "I had thought that the Devane house was closed up, unoccupied."

"That's where we need your help, because that's what I thought, too." She gave a very bare-bones account of what we knew about the two deaths, leaving out some things she wanted to keep to herself. There were people at most of the neighboring tables, and when you're a locally famous amateur detective people do tend to try to listen in when you're having a conversation in a public place.

 
By the time she finished, the professor and I were done with our soup and she hadn't touched hers.

The professor leaned back in his chair as the waitress collected our soup bowls (my employer waved away her full bowl). "I can direct you to somebody who knows about the Devane family," he said. "They gave a building to the college some years ago, so I'm sure the college history office has information about them – but, frankly, who cares?" He smiled impishly. "The thing that intrigues me is the young man who died while the Town Hall was burning."

My employer nodded. "Me, too, I confess. A family being prominent, wealthy, and so on – that doesn't make them interesting. Not as interesting as that young man, and the woman..."

Our entrees arrived. My employer gestured with a long, bony finger at the outside deck that ran around two sides of the restaurant. The professor frowned, not understanding, but I indicated that all would become clear later.

So, we ate in near silence – the food was very good – punctuated by small talk.

My employer had the idea that the Claremont College press might publish her Bellona book. A possibly controversial book, based on a series of popular (and sometimes controversial) articles, written from the middle of a civil war that the United States had several fingers in, written by a distinguished alumna of the college...

The professor, his attention clearly focused on his broiled scallops, said that he would put her in touch with the editorial staff of the press.

Then his mouth quirked under his mustache. "You know," he said, "you sent me to my dictionaries. Websters, for example, does say that 'alumna' refers to a woman who graduated from, or attended, a college or university. (Emphasis mine, of course.) But some other dictionaries do require graduation as a prerequisite for the use of the term."

"Websters is, of course..."

"Oh, of course."

As I said, small talk.

 
After we'd finished our main course, my employer indicated to the waitress that we'd have our coffee outside on the deck, as was our usual practice.

We – my employer and I – often had our coffee on the deck when we ate at this restaurant, which was called Captain Hisgens. This was primarily so that she could smoke, but it was also convenient to be able to relax and speak privately.

When we were at our usual outside table with Professor Lebrun, along with a pot of coffee, three mugs, cream and sugar, and an ashtray, my companions got their pipes going and I poured coffee all around.

The evening was cool, and we were the only people on the deck. None of the other tables had place settings, so it seemed that the restaurant hadn't thought it would be a night when people would want to eat outside.

We didn't mind the temperature, though. I'd brought a sweatshirt, and the professor and my employer were wearing suits. (His jacket was tweed, with elbow patches, in the standard academic style. My employer's was dark blue pinstripe – her extensive collection of clothing didn't include even one tweed suit.)

The professor added cream and sugar to his coffee as my employer said, "What I did not want to mention inside is the connection – the possible connection – between the dead man on Main Street and the Devane house."

She explained about my search for Rabson keys. The professor nodded as he listened, then he said, "That's hardly conclusive."

Her smile suggested that things which were conclusive were not very much fun at all.

Then, as she turned to me, still smiling, I could feel my stomach start to clench up. I'd been expecting this.

"There are two things we most need to know," she said slowly, drawing out her words. "We need to know who the dead man was, obviously, and we need to know if his key fits the lock at the Devane house. Is it just a Rabson lock, or is it the same Rabson lock?"

Professor Lebrun smiled. "If it turns out to be a different lock, then you can forget about the boring Devane family and concentrate on the (much more interesting) News Store death."

My employer kept her eyes on me. "Where is that key now?"

I sighed. "In a blue plastic tray, probably in some cabinet at the morgue." She winked at me, with her head turned so that the professor couldn't see. As I'd expected, it was only a matter of time before she dispatched me to obtain – by some means yet to be devised – the key.

"It's not evidence?" the professor asked, pouring us all some more coffee. "Not at police headquarters, being examined by our sheriff and her highly competent staff?"

I shrugged. "Maybe it is by now, but I'd bet not. Remember, Rhonda's position is that this was a suicide, and that the man was alone on the roof when he died. If there was no crime, then it's not evidence."

My employer nodded. "From what you've said, Rhonda is very focused on the death at the Devane house, and, as far as we can tell, indifferent to the death on Main Street."

"That appears to be the case."

The professor shook his head. "She has apparently decided that the one death was a suicide, despite a reliable witness bringing forward credible testimony which would contradict that, or at least make it open to question, and she's also decided, it would appear, that a different death, apparently – it seems – a result of natural causes, was actually suspicious." He shrugged. "The question had to be asked: Does she know something you don't?"

He then leaned over and cupped his hand to whisper, quite audibly, into my employer's ear: "We're relying quite heavily on your assistant's ability to tell the difference between men and women. Has he generally demonstrated competence in this area?"

Part nine

 
At the end of the following day, sitting in our room (it was drizzling outside), my employer and I compared notes. We had spent the day apart – she investigating the Devane family, me in pursuit of the Rabson key.

She went first: "I learned that the dead man – the second dead man – was Baxter Devane. He was the younger brother of Miss Patricia Devane, who you met at the house."

"It is definitely not correct to say that I met her. I was allowed to be in her presence, mostly by accident, for a few brief, fleeting moments."

She shrugged. "I'll accept that. Miss Devane, who was married, briefly, to a man named Potter, is generally thought to be a widow, and she was the sole owner of Devane Industries, which recently went bankrupt."

"She took back her maiden name after... Was it a divorce?" I asked. "You said she is 'generally thought' to be a widow."

"She took back her maiden name after a divorce – after which (quite soon after, in fact) Mr. Potter died. She is often referred to as a widow, but it's not technically true." She shrugged. "For a family that values respectability, to be a widow can be more acceptable than to be a divorcee, even in these relatively enlightened times."

She smiled. "Also, Miss Devane's Christian name is Patricia, so it is possible that she took back her maiden name, immediately, because of the risk that somebody would call her 'Patty Potter.'"

I nodded. "Very reasonable, I'd say."

She shuddered delicately. "I agree. In any case, it turns out that her brother, Baxter, had been living here, in the house, for some years, but very quietly. He did move away after college – he tried a few careers, none of which were very successful, and his health was apparently in decline, so he moved back to 'take care of the house,' whatever that might consist of. And, by all accounts, to horde his money, which is reported to be substantial."

"No one else from the family was living here in town? Where was his sister?"

"California. She moved out there after college, apparently with Mr. Potter, and stayed there after his death. In her youth, she was reportedly pretty adamant that Claremont was not up to her standards. Very tedious, apparently, especially in the winters. It didn't surprise anybody that she stayed away for so long."

"We'll find out about the winters ourselves in two or three months."

"Of course," she said firmly, "quiet and routine can be very beneficial, if you happen to be someone who has a book she wants to write."

I ignored this. "And the next generation?" I asked pleasantly.

"There were two daughters – Deirdre (often called, to her dismay, 'DeeDee') and Felicia."

"Not, I hope, called 'FeeFee.'"

She pulled her glasses down to the tip of her nose and frowned at me over the rims – now I was clearly being too frivolous.

"In any case," she continued, still looking rather severe, "rumors suggest that there was also a son, somewhat younger, conceived after the untimely death of Mr. Potter. But, of course, this son, if he exists, may still be in line for an inheritance. Legitimacy may not be a requirement in the will."

"No money to Miss Devane?"

"So the story goes. They weren't close, and she had always frustrated his efforts to get involved in the family business, of which, as I said, she was the sole owner. But he did want to keep the money within the family, hence the legacy to her progeny."

She smiled and lit a cigarette. "And how was your day, dear?"

"Incomplete," I admitted. "I hope to have a comprehensive report for you in the morning."

"But you have a plan." It was half a question.

"I do indeed. And the more difficult part is done." I had been going to decline to tell her anything until the following morning, but I couldn't resist reaching into my jacket pocket and showing her the Rabson key.

She froze for an instant, then she leaned forward and extended her hand. I shook it and she leaned back again.

She really wanted to ask me questions, but she was a connoisseur of dramatic revelations, and she was willing to allow me my own moments, at least occasionally.

She took her cane and got to her feet. "I want to get some work done. If you're here, I'll be tempted to try and get you to spoil your big moment in the morning. So, get gone, until at least eleven. Go."

This was all delivered with a smile.

 
I went outside, wearing my poncho over my jacket, and I realized that I had no definite idea of where I should go. Ordinarily, when banished to the outside world, I tended to take refuge in the town library, but the town library was gone. The rain was very light now, but it was enough to discourage me from going to sit on the pier or anywhere else outdoors.

With no specific plan, I started to climb the hill that would take me past the Catholic church, and eventually to Main Street.

As always when passing a Catholic church, anywhere in the world, I felt as if I had a tiny priest on one shoulder, gently reminding me to cross myself, and my employer, the atheist, sitting on my other shoulder, grinning as she blew smoke from a tiny cigarette into my ear.

Coming down the hill from the church to the center of town, I sniffed the air and I didn't smell any smoke. Apparently the recent rain had cleared the air. As I reached Main Street, however, I realized (or, really, remembered) what's worse than smoke in the air: the smell of wet ashes.

Well, since I'd found my previous view of the Town Hall site rather disturbing, I felt that I should go and look at it again, simply because of how much I didn't want to.

I decided to grab a bite to eat at the Wagon Wheel. By the time that was done, I figured, the mild drizzle might have resolved itself one way or the other – and if it decided to stop I could take a walk around town. There were a couple of questions of geography I wanted to settle, if possible, while it was still somewhat light out.

I sat at a window table, so I could look out and persuade myself that the sight of the massive scorched safe on the other side of the street didn't bother me at all.

After I'd ordered a sandwich and a cup of coffee, I looked out the window. After a few moments, wishing I'd brought something to read (I was missing the town library already), I saw Millie coming up the block from the News Store. She didn't see me, so I tapped on the glass.

She smiled. After a failed attempt at sign language communication, she came in and I gestured at the empty chair across from me. "Would you like to join me?" I asked. There was a bit of awkward back-and-forth (each of us being careful – perhaps too careful – to avoid imposing on the other), and then she sat down.

After a mutual laugh at how difficult we were making this by being so polite, she called over the waitress and ordered some chowder.

She sighed and seemed to relax. "I'll just ask," she said. "The case? The man who died – do you know anything more?"

I shrugged. "Not a lot," I said slowly.

"And you can't talk about it anyway," she finished.

I nodded.

We moved on, discussing the Town Hall fire (it had been confirmed that nobody had died, and taxes would still be due), the weather, the fact that the town's movie theater was about to close for the season, which restaurants stayed open all year and which didn't, and various other matters. It was very enjoyable.

Part ten

 
"The key, from the dead man's pocket, fits the lock of the Devane house."

"Tell me," my employer purred, leaning forward. We were having our morning coffee on the deck.

"I obtained this information," I began, "or at least the key itself, by, I confess, doing something I'm not proud of."

"Are you likely to be arrested?"

"Not for that, no – at least there's very little chance. It was morally, not legally, dubious."

She waved her slender fingers. "I'm more than sufficiently intrigued. Lay it out for me."

"Step one was to go see Dr. Wright again. I had sensed in him a certain disapproval of Sheriff Rhonda, and I thought I knew the source – or at least one source – of his feeling."

She pursed her lips thoughtfully. "He disapproved of how Rhonda had undercut Sheriff Baxter in order to replace him?"

"That was my assumption. So, we had a chat – he and I – and I explained Rhonda's lack of interest in the dead man (the first dead man). He seemed to disagree with her interpretation. He asked about your thinking about the case, but he believed me when I said I had no idea."

She nodded. "He knows my methods."

"I hinted that we might share his unspoken belief that Rhonda is not up to the job, and that you might be able to show her up..."

Her shoulders slumped. "You played up to his male chauvinism, with which I am very familiar."

"I'm not proud."

"Yes, you are, because you got the key, for which I felicitate you." She sighed. "Well, at some point in the future you will probably have to disabuse him of the notion that you and he are brother Neanderthals. So, he gave you the key?"

"He lent it to me. Then, late last night, or, really, very early this morning, I went quietly out to the Devane house to test it, and then, on my way back, I put it into an envelope and dropped it off at his house, after wiping it carefully, of course."

"Were you seen? At any point?"

"Walking? Probably. I made sure I didn't look furtive."

"Crossing the highway?"

"I didn't cross the highway, not the way you're thinking. I walked across Longwood Bridge, and then I approached the house through the trees. All the visible lights in the house were out, and I walked carefully on the deck, to keep the wooden boards from creaking."

"Did you enter the house?"

"Of course not – I just tried the door enough to make sure that the key would unlock it. I'd bought powdered graphite to lubricate the lock."

"So, trespass, but not unlawful entry." She made a face. "The problem is that the two cases are now undeniably connected, but we have no lever to get into the Devane house or to talk to the family. To get them to talk to us, I should say." She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm afraid we're going to have to try a stunt."

I'd been pretty sure she was going to say that, but I didn't bother to protest.

"To get the Devane family to talk to us?"

"No. We're going to reenact the crime."

"The... The first death? On Main Street?"

"Exactly. That is the crime – Baxter Devane's death may well have been from natural causes."

She caught my expression.

"I know," she said, holding up a hand, apparently conceding, for once, that her previous stunts had not always worked out exactly as she'd planned. "But this is, unfortunately, necessary. There are dangers in letting things remain status quo."

"Do you think there will be another murder?" I asked, since she seemed to be in a communicative mood.

She shrugged. "I don't know. Despite your admirable work in establishing a link between Main Street and the Devane house, that does not establish that any crime was committed at the house or by the family."

"Do you think the dead man was the rumored illegitimate son?"

She shook her head. "I do not. It's possible, I suppose, but I think it's very unlikely."

"Do you know who he was?"

"I have an idea – if my overall theory is correct – but it's just an idea."

She waved a dismissive hand, blocking my next question. "There are pressing reasons not to wait," she said firmly. She glared at me over the rims of her glasses. "Certainly not just because I enjoy staging stunts."

"Even when they actually go the way you want them to."

"Well, you get to sell Sheriff Rhonda on the idea. I think she likes you slightly better than she does me."

"And when she asks me about things that you don't want her to know, it will be easier for me to decline to answer because I really don't know."

"Exactly."

 
And so it was that I faced Sheriff Rhonda across her desk some two hours later. I had taken my time walking up to Main Street to think through my approach.

"So, any news on Baxter Devane?"

She shrugged. "He's dead."

I laughed, briefly. "You're starting to sound like Dr. Wright."

That got a real laugh out of her. "God forbid. The autopsy results came in a while ago. Natural causes – cancer. Not at all unexpected. He was being treated at the hospital here. Every indication is that he was ready to die and wanted to die here, in the house where he was born and so on. At one point it was recommended that he move to Boston so he could be treated at Mass General, but he declined."

"So, no crime."

She made a face.

"But something is nagging at you about it..."

She nodded, still frowning. "Miss Devane has called the mayor, who then called me, to inform me that the case should damn well be closed and the family should be allowed to..."

She flapped her hand in the air.

I nodded, sympathetically. "Putting the facts aside – just for the moment – I will admit that I've seen quite a few grieving families – grieving because of deaths in war and grieving because of deaths by personal violence – and the Devanes appeared to be about the least grieving of them all. On the surface, anyway."

"The case is closed," she said sitting up straighter. "It's time to move on. Why are you here?"

Controlling my face, because she was practically handing this to me, I said, "Two things. My employer has deduced – not evidence, but deduction – that the Main Street victim was connected in some way to the Devane family (I don't know how), and she wants to recreate the circumstances of the man's death, at the News Store, with all the same people present, in order to discover, we hope, how he was murdered."

"She's been reading too many mystery stories."

"Possibly. She instructed me, if you said that, to remind you about the biker case."

She uttered a word which I would prefer not to record here (though not in an unfriendly way), stood up, and said, "Let's go talk to Mickey."

Part eleven

 
My employer stood in the center of the News Store and looked around. She was dressed in one of her best suits, and her hair was brushed.

Mickey had agreed to the reenactment. He had declined to have it on the same day of the week (too much chance of annoying his regular Sunday morning customers), but he had been fine with doing it at exactly the same time of day (my employer had said this was very important – which I thought might have been misdirection).

The sheriff had gone through the notebook where Mickey tracked who reserved the Sunday Times every week and when they picked it up, and she'd located most of the customers who had been in the store on Sunday morning.

"We're going to reenact the crime, when the young man died," my employer began, "because I believe it was a crime – not an accident or a suicide – and I think we can establish what really happened last Sunday morning. Everybody here was present at the time of the death, except myself, of course, and Mickey, Millie, and Sheriff White, who will stand off to the side there.

"If the rest of you can stand more or less where you were when the young man shoved his way into the store..."

Mark went behind the counter, and the others formed themselves into a rough line at the cash register. I stood right inside the door – not exactly where I'd been standing, since I'd actually been outside, but I knew I needed to keep an eye on things.

"Let me set the scene," my employer continued once we were all in position. "The store is moderately crowded, being as it's a Sunday morning. Mickey is not here, as is usual on Sunday mornings, and Millie has just left to rush to the fire house, in order to suit up and help to fight the fire, which happens to be right across the street. So, Mark is holding the fort in their absence. Marshall is standing on the front step, checking over his recently purchased newspaper, when a young man rudely shoves past him and enters the store."

Martha, one of Rhonda's deputies, wearing her civilian clothes, pushed past me and entered the store. She went over to the roof ladder and put one foot on it, then she turned to face us.

"That's not right," Mr. Bainbridge said. He was a regular Sunday morning customer, but I'd never spoken to him. "He came in, the guy, and I didn't see him at first – I was getting out my money to pay for my paper – and then I saw him. He was looking around, like when you're in a store where you've never been before, and you're trying to figure out where the candy is."

Miss Phillips nodded. (She'd been behind me in line on the day of the murder.) "Exactly. I noticed him right away." I got the impression that she'd found him cute. "He was looking for something, but he didn't want to ask where it was."

My employer nodded. "Some men are reluctant to ask for directions. Was he... impatient? Did he seem to be under any sort of pressure, as far as you could tell?"

She shook her head. "Not at all. I had a feeling that he was going to ask Mark a question, once the customers had all paid."

"Until he saw the fire," Bainbridge put in.

My employer turned to face him. "Please explain."

"He turned at one point and looked toward the door, and then he got freaked out, and he made for the ladder."

My employer shrugged. "I would not be at all surprised to find out that he had that reaction to something he saw outside – but it can't have been the fire."

I nodded. "The fire was already burning when he shoved past me and came into the store. He can't have missed seeing – and smelling – it. The firefighters had already started to arrive."

My employer nodded. "So, he saw something, or more likely someone, on the street, and then he made for the ladder and the roof. But let's step back for a moment. What was he looking for in the first place?"

Her voice became quieter and she spoke slowly and carefully.

"What might he reasonably have expected to find in this store, on a Sunday morning, mid-morning... What, or who, should have been here, would usually have been here, but was absent, unexpectedly..."

Her gaze, which had been traveling lightly around the room, landed on Millie, just as a figure with wavy dark hair, wearing a cap, a rough jacket, and jeans, shouldered past me and into the store, heading for the ladder.

Millie, who had been frozen in place, screamed and burst into tears.

Part twelve

 
Mrs. Jessup, our landlady, seemed to be happy to have us as guests, mostly because I had said that we were planning to stay indefinitely. She had told me that she usually closed the inn during the winter months, but since we were enthusiastic about staying on, even without the free continental breakfast (I had negotiated a reduced rate for the off-season, of course), she was happy to have the steady income to look forward to.

One thing she had made clear, however, was that she was not a telephone answering service. The telephone in the foyer was for the use of all the guests (long distance charges were added to your bill) and she answered it when she happened to be nearby. But if she took a message she just wrote it on a slip of paper and placed it next to the phone, with all the messages for the other guests. So, it was a system devoid of privacy (and reliability).

So, I guess it was lucky that I happened to be in the downstairs hall, pouring coffee for my employer and myself, when the phone rang.

I answered it, "Good morning. Ocean View Inn, Marshall speaking."

I heard a snort of laughter.

"Marshall," she said.

"Sheriff White. What can I do for you?" I was keeping my voice pleasant and friendly, but noncommittal.

"I was wondering if you and Miss Sleet would like to join me for dinner tonight. At my home."

"I can ask. May I call you back in a little while?"

"Certainly. I'm at my desk – you know my direct number."

I finished pouring our coffee, placing a napkin under each mug so it wouldn't slip as I carried the tray up the stairs to our room.

It had been two days – almost exactly 48 hours – since the stunt at the News Store. During that time, we had heard nothing from the sheriff. In fact, the minute Millie had started crying Rhonda seemed to forget about us completely. Her deputies took Millie off to the police station for questioning, with Mickey following, leaving Mark to run the store again. Rhonda had then looked around the store, and followed the others out.

My employer turned to me and smiled impishly. "I don't think I've ever felt quite so invisible. Let's go home." She caught my expression. "Yes, you're right – we should have some lunch first." She circled her arm through mine as we strolled down Main Street toward the Wagon Wheel.

Over the next 48 hours, whenever my employer perceived, or guessed, my impatience, she just smiled and said, "Don't worry. It will all come to us, eventually."

 
Other than the case, we were both in a good mood. Without telling me, she had reached out to a major magazine, and apparently they were very interested in publishing a story about the murder of famous socialite Marvel Phillips, written by the amateur detective who had cracked the case. So, the amateur detective in question had stopped writing her book and was happily banging away on her portable typewriter at all hours, with the goal of sending out the article on Monday morning. ("Possibly the first in a series!" she had suddenly announced the night before, at around three in the morning, in a booming voice, waking me up.)

"Was that Sheriff Rhonda on the phone?" she asked as I nudged our door open with my toe.

I laughed while I put the tray down on my bedside table and took her coffee to her.

"I know," she said, smiling. "I get no credit for a fancy deduction this time. You left the door ajar because you knew you'd be coming up the stairs carrying a tray, so I was able to hear the phone ring. I couldn't make out your words, but your tone of voice told me it might be Rhonda."

"And, of course, 'It will all come to us, eventually.'"

"Exactly. Does she want to come here and talk to us?"

"No. She has invited us to her house, for dinner, this evening."

That surprised her. "Really. I... That's most interesting." She frowned, then she laughed. "I confess that not only do I have no idea where she lives – until this moment it hadn't occurred to me that she lived anywhere."

I laughed and nodded. "I'm glad I'm not the only one. Do I accept?"

"Of course. Find out where and when, and ask if we should bring anything."

Rhonda sounded pleased when I called her back, and she said that we didn't need to bring anything (which was a relief, since I didn't know much about wine and my employer knew even less). She said she would pick us up, since she did not live in the town center, and we agreed on a time. I said we would wait for her on the front porch of the inn, and she chuckled and said to watch out for "a battered brown Rambler."

When the sheriff pulled up in front of the inn, exactly on time, she was indeed driving the vehicle she'd described, which had substantial rust. She got out of the car and waved as we made our way down to the street, and I noted a quiet huff of amusement and surprise from my employer.

Sheriff Rhonda White, driving a car that was definitely not a police cruiser, and wearing jeans, deck shoes, and a sweatshirt. My employer and I glanced at each other as I helped her into the car. "Will wonders never cease?" she mouthed silently.

 
My employer looked around with interest as Rhonda drove along a narrow road between hills and inlets, so overhung with trees that the sky was barely visible. "I've never been down this road. Vinnie and I mostly didn't have a car, so we had our favorite walks, but we seldom got this far out of town. Are we still in Claremont, technically?"

Rhonda smiled. "Near the border, but definitely within the town limits. I have to live in the town – that's one of the conditions of being sheriff. There's a story about that, but it will make more sense once you've seen the house."

She turned onto a narrow, unpaved road that went up a steep incline and then more slowly down the other side, and we saw a house among the trees. It was not visible from the road.

It seemed to be a pleasant house: one story, peaked roof with maybe an attic by the look of it, and a small porch with plants and flowers in pots and two rocking chairs. There was a station wagon parked in front, and we pulled in next to it.

"Huh," my employer said as I helped her out of the car. She pointed and I looked, and I saw what had caught her attention. The house had appeared to be conventional as we'd approached it from the side, but it was now revealed to be half a house. The peaked roof went up on the left hand side, and then it stopped. She limped in that direction and Rhonda smiled as she caught my eye.

My employer gestured at the empty space where the other half of the house would have been. "I read a mystery story once where a house vanished overnight, foundations and all. It was a good story..."

Rhonda laughed. "There is a story here, but it's not a mystery. Half of our house did not mysteriously vanish overnight. Please come inside and we'll tell you all about it."

Part thirteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That's not exactly what I said," Phyllis called cheerfully from the kitchen.

My employer nodded. "Perfectly proper."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Topics discussed at dinner included:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part fourteen

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

"The events were:

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

"The questions were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhonda looked up, surprised. "That's it?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part fifteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do her real children exist?"

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

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

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

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

"We get your drift," my employer said.

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

"What did Millie say?"

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

"Beyond just infidelity," my employer put in.

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

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

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

"Or both," I said.

"Right. We'll have to see what comes out at the trial."

"But why did she have a wig that so resembled her boyfriend's hair?" I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

"Ah," I said after a moment.

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Okay..." Rhonda said, obviously knowing that my employer wasn't just suddenly remembering something she'd forgotten earlier.

"Your house. You said there was a story about it."

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

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

She pulled up in front of our home. "Exactly."

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

"For what, specifically?" I asked, untying my shoes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tail's third section was private.

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

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

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

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

As I say, this has never been mentioned.

 

The End


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