Murder He Thought – a short story
“Have you touched anything?”
“No, sir, everything’s same as me, and my partner found it, swinging like that. Gives me the creeps, him being dressed like that an all.”
“Did you check for a pulse?”
“Look at ’em. There’s no point seeing as his throat was cut ear to ear and all the blood. Looks like someone triced him up with that rope, then did the knife work.”
Hiding from our flashlights in this high peaked attic, the sharp-edged shadows reminded me of the dark alley where my partner died last week. Lots of places do that now, reminded me, those, and every glimpse of anything red.
“How was he found? I mean, did someone come up here and find him?”
“No, sir. It was the blood. Running down the wall just below here, on the third floor.”
“Yeah, I saw that. Seems like a lot of blood for just one body.”
The patrolman pulled out his notebook, read a passage. “A party guest, a Miss Vanderwal, came up to use the restroom, saw it. Really freaked her out. She’s still kinda shook up. Anyway, the homeowner, you mighta heard of him, Jameson Garrety, big mover, and shaker, old money. Anyway, he and another man came up here, found the body. Called 911. Coroner’s on the way.”
The victim was wearing a short, red-lined evening cape and tux, topped with one of those glittery New Year’s paper party hats.
“Looks old,” I said, nodding at the corpse.
“I dunno. Looks to me like he was in his forties.”
“No, I mean the suit.”
“Yeah, like something from the 1920s.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Saw those kind in a movie, one about bootleggers. You know, the one with that actor from… shit, I can’t remember his name. He was a G-Man.”
“I know the one. Costner was in it.”
“Yeah, that’s the guy.”
Gloves and paper booties — I slipped them on so the forensics boys wouldn’t blow a gasket. This guy’s gonna be swinging here for a while. I edged closer.
“Watch your step, detective. Some floorboards are loose.”
I stopped. “Where?”
“To your left.”
A board was pried up, overlapping another. I knelt, lifted it by one edge. “Looks like we got the murder weapon.” Beneath the plank was a long, bloody butcher’s knife—wooden handle. I wondered if it matched a set from the kitchen. My foot nudged the board back in place. Strange, there was no blood on the floorboards or anywhere near it, just on the body, a sticky flood that stopped at his knees. At scenes like this, the close-in knife fight kind, you expect to see some bloody footprints, signs of a struggle. None here, none on the stairs. I put evidence marker tape on the board with my initials, date, and time, took a few pictures with my cell phone. Someone else’s problem now.
The dangling dead meat was my focus. The suit was black, but the shoes were well-polished brown wingtips, not the sort you would wear with a tux. One beaded spot of blood on the left, I lifted it. The sole was clean, not a scratch or wear mark on it, looked like it was fresh out of the box. The body’s hands weren’t tied, at least not now. I lifted the suit cuff. No ligature marks. I made a note, then went downstairs, leaving the patrolman with orders to guard the stairs to the attic.
In the third floor hallway, I stopped to examine the wall of blood still fresh, running down from cornice to baseboard. The grey carpet was soaked. I knelt, sniffed. No copper smell in the air. There should be a smell.
On my way to the attic, all the doors on the third floor had been closed. One was open now, dark inside. After a second try, I snapped on the light switch near the door. It was installed upside down, or perhaps it was a three-way. The bright ceiling light exposed a bedroom anyone would call frilly, everything a stark white, the hangings, furniture, carpet, and walls. It looked like an ice cavern, not one speck of color. Some people have strange tastes, especially the rich. I was startled by a woman standing in front of a mirror, blended with her surroundings. “Excuse me, Miss, I didn’t mean to intrude.” She didn’t move, kept her back to me. Louder, “Miss?” For her protection, she needs to be downstairs with the other guests. Stepping closer, I realized the woman was a full-length manikin in a long white dress and wig. On the bed, a single white rose rested inside a deep open suitcase — fresh, perfect, three leaves on the stem, no thorns. A red ruby ring lay on the dressing table in front of the manikin. I left the white plaster woman to her solitude, stepped out to go downstairs.
I paused on the open stairway to the first floor. A slight mustiness I hadn’t noticed before, a feeling of oldness, cold, austere. The sounds of soft chatter and clinking glasses ghosted from the gathering in the living room. A woman laughed. “Has anyone left?” I asked the officer standing guard at the double doorway.
“No, sir, all accounted for.”
“Anyone leave before you got here? Did you ask the host?”
“Well, they could have. We didn’t ask. The homeowner is over there, standing to the left of the mantle, in the smoking jacket and red ascot.”
Fifteen people stood or lounged, looking bored as if this was a trivial matter, an everyday occurrence for them. “Mr. Garrety? I’m detective Carson, homicide. Are all the people who came to your party still here?”
Garrety shifted, tapped a finger against the pipe held in his right hand. He hadn’t been smoking; no aroma in the room. “Yes, I believe so. We have a guest list if you care to see it. We always make a list.”
“Was the deceased on your list? Did you know the man?”
Puffing up like a colonial colonel, he said, “Certainly not. I don’t make it a practice to acquaint myself with dead people.”
“How did you know he was dead? Did you check the body?”
“Really, my dear man, it was obvious the man was no longer among the living. When will you people remove that corpse? We have other festivities scheduled. It’s almost midnight.”
“Couple of hours, I suspect. Did you recognize the man? Perhaps know him in passing?”
Garrety sniffed, raised his chin. “If I had, I would have notified the officers.”
In normal circumstances, those around the room would watch us, listen to our conversation. Not these people. Everyone looked like they were waiting for a train. “I’d like to speak to Miss Vanderwall, the woman who found the blood on the wall. Could you point her out to me?”
Using his pipe stem, Garrety directed me. “She’s over there, Inspector. In the red blouse, though, she’s quite in her cups. Bunny, my wife, gave her a bit too much champagne, just to settle her nerves, you know.”
“Detective, not inspector,” I corrected. Miss Red Blouse, why did it have to be red, lay on a fainting couch, eyes closed, head pillow-propped, one arm hanging over the open side, nobody in attendance, nobody seemed to care.
“To save you some time, inspector, before you begin questioning my guests, everyone will insist on having their lawyer present.” He scrutinized my cheap suit, five o’clock shadow, and well-worn shoes. “It’s what our attorneys instruct in the event authorities wish to interview us. You understand I’m sure.”
I surveyed the room, looking for anyone who seemed nervous, anyone who met my eyes or quickly looked away. Nothing. Turning back to Mr. Garrety, I noticed a framed photograph on the mantel among the glass bric-à-brac — a sepia-toned image of a man and woman posed in formal attire, standing rigid. I reached for the frame. “Do you mind?” I asked.
As bored as his guests, Garrety permitted. “Whatever your pleasure, inspector.”
“I’m a detective. Who’s the man in the photo?”
“My great-grandfather’s majordomo. Saved his life, actually. A dreadful time it was. We keep the photograph to remember the event, and the times servants knew their place.”
“And the young woman?” The manikin upstairs was wearing a double for the dress in the frame.
“A maid, I believe. Some attachment between them, as I recall, but perhaps not. Very long ago.”
“Do you see the resemblance?” I asked.
“To the man swinging from the rafters of your attic. He’s a dead ringer for the man in the photo.”
“Can’t say as I do. I only saw him for a brief instance. The light up there is quite deficient.”
“There’s a bedroom on the third floor, all in white. Whose room is that.”
“Third floor? Those are the old servant quarters. Haven’t been occupied for two generations. Empty, now, I’m sure. We have a servant’s wing off the kitchen. Grandfather added that to keep the help from tromping around above the bedrooms on the second floor.”
The man in the photo was a perfect likeness of the recently deceased, down to his tux. I wish it had been in color. I bet the shoes were brown oxfords. I glanced at Miss Vanderwall’s face, then back to the photo, wondered if she had a pulse.
Five red things - infer what you will.
Some endings are best left to the reader’s imagination.