A man is dead and the clues lead to an astonishing solution to this mystery.
|It was a clear and balmy night. A light breeze whispered through trees that waved leafy arms across the courtyard. The room, however, was stuffy and warm. Homicide Detective Rafael Farnham noted that the two large windows would have allowed the room's resident to take advantage of the refreshing air, but they were tightly shut and locked. His eyes darted to the source of movement on a branch, to discover it was just a cat in the tree, its black form hidden in the shadows of the early morning but its eyes flashing reflected moonlight. The room was dim, lit only by a single bare bulb in a ceiling fixture. It wasn't unusual for rented rooms to be without charm, but this room seemed supremely sanitary. The walls were white, bare and without decoration save the horseshoe that hung above the door. A bed, a desk, a microwave, a bureau and a shaving mirror were the only items that signaled the possibility of human habitation. Only those and the shattered plate of spaghetti that lay on the floor, the red sauce dotted in a circle, the strands of pasta that were strewn with one end in the tomato sauce and the other end in the blood that pooled around the head of Mortimer Peebles, gave evidence that the room had been occupied.
"Not a very attractive place to live, is it Sir?" asked Sergeant Bing.
"Perhaps that's why the unfortunate man chose to die instead.” Farnham replied drily. "The question is, did someone assist him with that decision?"
Police Sgt. Henry Bing had been hastily scribbling notes of his observations, and was pleased to now read them off to Detective Farnham. It was a stroke of luck that he had been assigned to Farnham's team and he hoped to make a good impression. Vice had not been the most rewarding department and Bing's wife had objected to his assignments in the seedier areas of town. Moving to Homicide was a promotion, and Farnham was the most respected Homicide detective on the force. Bing tried to sound professional and efficient as he rattled off the information he'd gathered, but felt dismayed that Farnham seemed to be barely listening. Instead he was gazing into space, absent-mindedly fingering the mouse at the victim's computer desk.
"The young lady who lives in the apartment below, ummm….,” Bing flipped the pages on his palm-sized spiral notebook. “Miss Constance Vickers.
She reports that shortly after midnight of the 13th, she heard what she described as a "terrified scream" followed by a crashing sound and then a loud thud. She stated Mr. Peebles was normally a very quiet tenant and she'd never so much as heard his footsteps above her before. There’s been a rash of break-ins and robberies in the neighborhood recently which made her concerned for Peebles' safety. She came upstairs and knocked on the door, called out for Peebles, but got no answer. The tenant across the hall, a Mr. Richard Swan, heard her in the hallway and he summoned the building super who arrived about ten minutes later. During those ten minutes, they neither heard nor saw anything or anyone unusual in the building. Upon arrival, the superintendent used his key to open the door. They found Peebles lying on the floor, dead. The super, Max Nordling, called the police immediately. The call was placed to the precinct at 12:41 am. The time of death is assumed to be between 12:05 and 12:10 am, the time at which Miss Vickers reported hearing the disturbance. The medical examiner has been called to determine the cause of death."
"Did anyone else in the building hear anything, Bing?" Farnham asked.
"Two rooms on the first floor are currently vacant. The tenant at the end of the hall on this floor, a Miss Chloe Lang, states she had a date who had accompanied her back to her room. They were listening to music and didn't hear anything until Miss Vickers began pounding on Mr. Peebles' door. Her date left very shortly afterwards." Bing turned over a few pages in his notebook and added "She was unable to give me his full name but stated that she believes his first name was John." Bing thought once again that he was glad he was no longer working Vice.
"And what do you think, Bing?" inquired Farnham. "Are we investigating a homicide?"
"It appears that way from what I can see, though I wouldn't state it as fact until we have the ME's report." Bing answered cautiously. He wanted to make a good impression but he didn't want to stick his neck out far enough to get it caught in any erroneous theories.
"It may be that our victim had a row with another party, Sir." Bing began. "It came to blows, the victim's dinner being knocked to the floor and the chair there", Bing pointed to the desk chair which lay on the floor behind the body, "being turned over in the scuffle. The perpetrator obviously hit Peebles on the head with something heavy, causing the bleeding wound on the left temple and possibly his death."
"If I remember correctly, Bing, your notes indicated that Miss Vickers stated that Peebles didn't have any friends that she knew of and never entertained company."
"Perhaps he surprised a burglar", offered Bing. "Peebles had been very nervous about the burglaries in the neighborhood. He was a pretty skittish guy all around according to Vickers and Nordling. He rarely went out, he was on a disability pension which Nordling thinks was because of a nervous breakdown. Nordling stated that the only social outlet that Peebles had was his computer. If he had found a burglar in his room, it would explain the sudden scream that Miss Vickers heard."
"A burglar who waited in hiding until Peebles had warmed up his dinner and sat down at his computer before emerging to cosh him on the head and make an escape?,” Farnham asked. "And just how did the murderer leave?" Farnham looked amused but Bing was feeling frustrated. These were the most likely scenarios but Farnham behaved as if Bing was overlooking something quite obvious. It made him feel stupid and he didn't like it. He knew Farnham would be going to his regular Friday morning briefing with the Commissioner after they finished here, and he had hoped Farnham would give him a good report. That was beginning to look very unlikely.
"He would have left by the door, I suppose", Bing said.
"The door was locked, remember?" countered Farnham.
"Maybe he locked it as he left, to keep anyone from discovering the murder right away", Bing offered hopefully.
"He might have", Farnham said slowly. "Except that the door can't be closed if the lock is engaged and so the only way to lock it after leaving is with a key from the outside. But..."
Farnham paused and plucked something out of a shamrock-shaped glass candy dish on the bureau by the door. He held up a set of keys dangling from a rabbit's foot keychain.
"But," he continued. "How could he have locked the door if the keys are still here?"
"Maybe he went out the window, grabbed one of those tree limbs and climbed down from there". Bing realized the impossibility of his suggestion as the words left his mouth, but not in time to stop them. He expected the next objection.
"The windows are locked as well".
"Yes of course" continued Bing. "Yes, they were locked. So, our victim warms up his dinner and sits down at his desk to read his email. Then witnesses hear a scream, crashing sounds and a loud thud. The doors and windows are locked but somehow someone manages to kill Peebles without entering or leaving, and without being seen. It looks impossible, Sir."
"And yet, the answer is right in front of us,” said Farnham, turning his steely eyes upon Bing's astonished face. The corners of Farnham's mouth turned up slightly in what was more a look of complete satisfaction than a smile. "There was no murderer and yet, Mr. Peebles was most certainly killed by the act of another person."
"How is that possible, Sir?"
“It’s all a matter of timing,” Farnham replied. "Had Peebles eaten dinner before midnight, he would still be alive. The answer is in the open window.”
"But sir, we just agreed the windows are locked tight shut", Bing protested.
"Those windows are closed and locked, Bing. But there's another window in the room that you've overlooked. In fact, although you've learned some useful things in your interviews, Bing, you've completely missed the important clues."
Farnham strode to the middle of the room. The light played unflattering shadows across his craggy face. His eyes disappeared into dark caverns beneath a prominent brow ridge. The effects added to the drama of his presentation, making it nearly theatrical as he leaned towards his baffled companion and asked, "Shall I tell you what they are?" Then, without waiting for an answer, Farnham launched into his narrative.
"We've been told that Mr. Peebles was a very nervous man. We can see that he was also a very superstitious man. "See there," Farnham pointed around the room. "The horseshoe over the door for luck, the shamrock-shaped candy dish, the rabbit's foot on his keychain - Peebles surrounded himself with talismans, to ward off whatever evil it was he feared."
"Imagine now, this jittery and superstitious fellow, looking out of his window and noticing the black cat climbing along the branches. That would certainly be disconcerting."
"Then, having settled down at his computer with his dinner, he looks in the open window." Farnham moved over to the desk and wiggled the mouse which made the dark screen flicker to life, revealing an open email.
Farnham read from the screen: "This chain that comes from Venezuela was written by St. Antoine de Sedi missionary from South America. Since this chain must make a tour of the world, you must forward it to ten of your friends, parents or acquaintances and after a few days you will get a surprise. Forward it before midnight on the day you receive it or you will receive a curse"
"Constantine Diso received the chain. He followed the instructions and sent it to ten friends. A few days later, he won the lottery of 2 million dollars in his country. Cinderella, an orphan, received the chain. She forgot it and lost it. A few days after, she lost her, shoe leaving a dance and became a servant in her own house. She found the chain, sent it out to 10 people, and nine days later, the Prince came to her house, returned her shoe and asked her to marry him. Her stepsister Griselda received the chain, not believing in it she deleted it. Nine days later she died."
"A fairly typical chain letter", said Bing.
"Yes, it is," said Farnham. “Notice the time-stamp, however. This letter arrived in Peeble's inbox at 9:23pm on the 12th. But he didn't read it until after midnight. And much to his horror, he suddenly realized that it was already too late. He had a cursed chain unanswered, after midnight, and if that wasn't enough bad luck, the fact that it had just gone midnight of Friday the thirteenth was more than he could take."
"This sudden realization caused Peebles to emit that terrified scream Miss Vickers heard. He jumped up in fright, knocking over the plate and the chair and most likely fainted. He fell, causing him to strike his head on the corner of the desk. The head injury is most likely the cause of death, although his frail constitution might have contributed."
"So you see, Bing. If Peebles had sat down with his dinner before midnight, he would still be alive."
Farnham leaned over the desk once more and read the final line of the email. "For no reason whatsoever should this chain be broken." He pushed the power button on the monitor and the screen went dark. "Peebles wore many chains - chains of fear and superstition. They kept him prisoner and then they killed him.”