What was I thinking? Brian Belden flipped open the notebook on the desk in front of him, a frown causing two lines to furrow between his dark brows. Mysteries were nothing new to the Bob-Whites of the Glen—his sister Trixie saw to that— but usually, he was confined to offering sage words of caution, providing factual information, performing minor medical procedures, or participating, heroically, in the occasional rescue. Now, somehow, thanks to Trixie’s exuberance and powers of relentless persuasion, he was a full-blooded detective as Honey might say. His mission, if that was the right word, to solve a murder. Talk about pressure.
Okay, so it wasn’t an actual murder. It was a mini-murder—a carefully staged diorama and part of an exhibition that Trixie had requested they attend as part of her fifteenth birthday celebrations. Personally, he’d been looking forward to seeing the newly restored Rosewood Hall, taking in a few of the local sights they’d missed hunting for emeralds the last time he was in Virginia, and spending time with his friends. He was all too conscious of the fact that the next few months would fly by, and he and Jim would be heading off to college, meaning BWG trips would be few and far between. But as they were here for his sister’s birthday, he guessed it was only fair that she choose their activity: a murder-solving competition.
A glance at his watch told him he should stop thinking about what he was supposed to be doing and actually do it. Fortunately, he’d been able to purchase copies of ‘crime scene’ photos from their chosen room at the exhibition. He slid these out of the notebook and laid them on the desk of the room he was currently sharing with Jim. Luckily, his best friend had been more than happy to do his own crime solving outdoors, meaning they could both stick to Trixie’s strict ‘no conferring’ rule. He smiled at that, wondering exactly how she and Honey would cope working on their own. They were definitely a team, and a pretty impressive one, too.
So, how exactly was he going to compete with two girl detectives, or his brother who read voraciously and was already claiming the win, or Di, whose artistic abilities made her more visually aware and imaginative than the rest of them? As for Jim and Dan, they both had first-hand experience with trouble and deprivation, and from the look of these photographs, the victim hadn’t exactly been living the high life.
"Concentrate, Belden," he said aloud, returning his attention to the photographs. "Use that brain you’re known for." He picked up each card in turn, examining the images and words with his customary care. Suicide was the obvious solution and was certainly a reasonable interpretation of the evidence presented. And suicide was murder—of one’s self—surely?
The locked door, the open oven, the position of the body, the very method itself, statistically, was a common enough choice—especially for a woman.
He could just accept that and waffle a lot about medical terms, which his friends were unlikely to challenge and be done with it, but something made him look again. Something other than the notion that such a simple solution would disappoint at least some of the others, including a certain hazel-eyed young woman. Recalling the look on her face when she tossed her dark gold hair and told him he was going down, he smiled and returned his attention to the cards.
It was weird, Brian thought as the group gathered in the living room to present their findings. Unsurprisingly, Miss Bates had taken her role a judge seriously. She had procured a table, and she and Mr. Carver, along with the Lynches, were all seated at it. Miss Bates had donned a fluffy wool shawl and had some sort of garment in progress on large knitting needles. There was no mistaking her similarity to a certain lady sleuth. He caught Honey’s eye, and they both did their best to supress smiles.
"Don’t dilly dally," that lady said. "Come on in, the lot of you."
The Bob-Whites duly filed into the room.
"Take your seats, quickly now," Miss Bates said.
"Give them a moment, Carolyn," Mr. Carver said with a chuckle. He had undergone his first operation, several months earlier, and although his complete recovery was some time away, he was making great strides.
"In the interest of giving each of you the same opportunity, I believe we, the judges, should save any questions until after all of you have spoken. Now, I suggest we keep it simple. Oldest to youngest. Present your theories. That means you first, young man." Miss Bates waved her hand imperiously.
It was weird, Brian thought. He was used to public speaking, and, as the oldest in a talkative family, he could hold his own in both conversation and argument, but he felt a flutter of nerves as he took his place and prepared for his first case as Brian Belden M.D. aka the County Coroner—solver of crimes.
"I ask you to consider the following," Brian, said, crossing to the white board.
- The dead woman and her position and appearance
- The locked door
- The open oven and gas jets
- The open refrigerator and ice on the floor
- The exits
- The unfinished cake and potato peels
- How long her husband was absent and his actions upon his return
"We’re going to be here a long time if everyone goes through the elements we already know are significant," Mart put in with a sly grin. "Why don’t you cut to the chase, big brother? Though, I think my crystal ball might just have given me an inkling as to your solution."
"Oh, put a sock in it." Trixie snorted.
"Please, can’t we make some sort of a rule that we at least let the detective have their say, without constantly interrupting?" Honey put in.
"I’m just trying to keep us on schedule," Mart explained, with an airy wave of his hand. "Continue."
"Fine," Brian replied coolly. "I’m guessing my erstwhile sibling is suggesting that being boring Brian, I would make a case for the obvious solution—Suicide, and there is evidence to support that theory. But let’s look at what we have. There was only one unfinished task? Why? Why complete the rest of the tasks if she was planning on killing herself? That’s in the notes, but could be argued with. Suicides can present in a variety of ways, but in this situation, I would expect very little to be done— a hopeless, resigned ‘why bother’? approach, or everything to be completed perfectly— a tidying of one’s life before departing.
"The scene itself is contradictory." Here, Brian produced one of the blown-up images of the cards he’d purchased—thanking Mr. Lynch for the well-equipped den, with its office style photocopier and portable whiteboard. "The locked door, the newspaper—both suggest suicide. But why is the tablecloth askew? The position of the body doesn’t suggest that the woman sat at the table and then fell to the floor, dragging the cloth with her. It looks more as if she stood, went to the icebox, stumbled and then fell to the floor." Brian had taped the images to the board, and he spun it around, pointing as he spoke.
"What kind of errand was her husband running that took so long? One of the first things our esteemed girl detectives taught me was—witnesses lie. We only have the husband’s word that events unfolded as he described. Yes," he added quickly, holding up his hand to forestall Dan’s interruption, "the police would be able to confirm at least some of his alibi, but how relevant is that?"
"Alibis are usually relevant," Trixie quipped, though her blue eyes twinkled.
"And you know, Trix, that a smart murderer, would try to ensure they had one. And speaking of the husband, why didn’t he break into the place himself? If I came home and saw Honey lying on the floor, or any one of you," Brian added hastily when Mart’s lips twitched and Jim’s eyes narrowed. "I wouldn’t wait for the police. I’d break the damn door or window. To me, that’s the most suspicious thing of all. It’s as if he needed both to be locked."
"That’s a very good point," Honey said approvingly.
"There are glasses on the table, suggesting she had a drink with someone. Why not her husband? And this could explain the tablecloth, too. Who would be in a better position than Mr. Barnes to slip a little something in his wife’s drink? Something that might make her groggy and cause her to stumble as she rises to get on with the meal or respond to some request of his. And she does so, unaware that her fate has already been sealed." Out of the corner of his eye, Brian saw another look of approval on Honey’s face. His friends expected him to respond in a purely cut and dried factual way, and a little verbal embellishment was not necessarily expected. "All he had to do then was set the scene for a tragic suicide."
"I hate to incur the wrath of my fellow Bob-White, but I feel the need to point out that if the husband is the murderer, why didn’t he get rid of the things that suggest a possible intruder/guest? The glass, the tablecloth. Why not set the scene more thoroughly?" Dan leaned back in his chair, his expression more curious than challenging.
"That’s a good point, too," Di said plaintively. "Detective work is confusing. You have a set of ideas, and they make perfect sense, and then someone else points out something, and the sense factor isn’t so sensey any more."
"This is where the risk comes in. My guess is that he waited until she either passed out or became so groggy that she didn’t really know what was happening. He watches her as she tries to keep on with the meal preparation, but she’s becoming more disoriented. He asks for ice with his drink, knowing that standing and moving will be difficult for her, and she catches the tablecloth when she tries to stand. She’s confused, out of balance, bending down to the icebox does the trick. She falls, very close to where he wants her. Why would the fridge be open if she committed suicide? It makes no sense. And, if she were killing herself, why not lay down closer to the stove?"
"If he’s a killer, wouldn’t he have thought of that?" Dan asked.
Brian shrugged. "Maybe you could argue that if he planned this, he would have closed the refrigerator or moved her closer himself. But I’m guessing he was reluctant to move her, not knowing whether it might leave evidence behind. And I doubt he’s a seasoned murderer. He’s running on adrenalin. It’s important he gets out of there right away. What if someone walks by? He pushes the paper in around the door jam and, I’m guessing, locks the door."
"And then he contacted the Enterprise, and Scotty beamed him out?" Mart grinned at his brother.
"Natch," Brian returned. "Or, there might be an alternative explanation. Before opening the oven door, he opens the kitchen window as wide as possible to allow the maximum air into the room. Then, he crawls through the window and lowers the sash. We’ve all seen burglars on TV open sash windows with a thin blade or piece of metal. You could just as easily lock one too. I know. I tried it."
There were several gasps at this juncture.
"You are decidedly more cunning than I realized," Mart allowed.
"It’s not a bad theory," Trixie conceded. "Statistically, the husband is the most likely."
"There’s a dirty mark on the side of the table, that could indicate someone climbed onto it. And, there was washing on the line outside of the kitchen window, which probably gave him some extra cover during his escape." Again, Brian flipped a page in the notebook, pointing as he spoke.
"It’s risky though," Jim said sceptically. "If he were seen crawling out of the window, even his own, it would be noticed."
"That’s where theory B comes in," Brian looked from one of his friends to the next.
"You can’t have two theories, can he?" Trixie said.
"Not of the who," Brian said swiftly. "My case stands, but I do have an alternate explanation for his escape."
"Which is?" Honey prompted.
"Look here at the photo of the door. Yes, there’s paper jammed around it, but there’s also crumpled pieces on the floor. Pieces that may have fallen out, if the door had been pulled closed after it had been had wrapped around its edges. Think about it. Using the knife gets the paper right into the actual jam, laying it on the floor under the door would work relatively well, as would wrapping it over the top. Then just hold several pieces in place as you slip through the door. Most will stay, a few will come out, but the overall effect…."
"You might lose your responsible crown, buddy," Dan observed with a grin. "Your leanings are definitely criminal."
"But the police had to break the door down or force it or something," Di said.
"Of course they did. He locked it as he left. All he needed was a pair of tweezers to turn the key in the lock from the outside."
"Who are you and what have you done with my brother?" Trixie demanded.
Brian shrugged. "My understanding is that when looking at a crime, you consider motive, means and opportunity. Barnes is good for all of those. We may not know his exact motive, but it could be any number of things. Husbands have lots of reasons for wanting to get rid of their wives."
Honey leaned over and slapped him at this.
"Not good, decent reasons," he added, rubbing his arm. "And, obviously, I’m talking about bad husbands—evil ones."
Mrs. Lynch laughed at this, and even Miss Bates’ lips twitched.
"It’s an interesting enough theory." Jim rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
"A little obvious, but not without merit," Mart said with a grin.
"It makes sense to me, and I believe it’s supported by both the evidence and psychology of the scene and the crime. But I’m an open-minded fellow." Brian allowed his gaze to travel from friend to friend. He smiled. "I’m perfectly willing to entertain other theories. Bring ‘em on."
And they did. Brian had to admit that each of his friends gave persuasive presentations. Each person playing to their strengths as they employed insight, instincts, street-smarts, vision, logic and imagination. Di’s choice of presenting in the kitchen had given her theory extra impact. Frankly, though he still had a fair amount of confidence in his own assessment, he had no idea whose solution Miss Bates and Mr. Carver would go for.
"We’re ready for you." Mrs. Lynch opened the door of the den, where the group had been waiting. Diana’s mother smiled as one by one the Bob-Whites filed past her and headed back to the living room.
"It must be said that each of you presented us with credible solutions to this terrible crime," Mr. Carver said, his twinkling eyes belying the serious nature of his words. "But perhaps one of them just seemed slightly more persuasive."
"Precisely." Miss Bates allowed her piercing gaze to sweep the group of teenagers. "Logical, analytical, and really quite insightful. Seems as if you’re not just a pretty face, Mr. Belden."
Brian started as he realized that gaze was now fixed on him.
"Well done, Brian." Mr. Carver put his hands together and clapped, the other adults joining immediately.
After a moment, first Honey, then the other Bob-Whites started clapping, too.
"You were all very good, though," Mrs. Lynch assured them. "And some of the solutions were quite close to others."
"I, myself, feel we all acquitted ourselves quite admirably," Mart observed.
"Though Brian’s criminal tendencies were a bit of a surprise." Jim grinned at his best friend.
"Yeah," Trixie agreed. "It’s almost worth losing, knowing I can go home and let Moms know just how her paragon son’s mind works."
Brian shrugged. They might be right, but a win was a win, and he was going to enjoy it. His eyes locked briefly with Honey’s. Mart was going to have to reconcile himself to her favourite foods, instead of his own.
Notes: A huge thank you to Susan and Vivian, who willingly waded through my comma challenged entry. That's what happens when you stop writing regularly.
Kudos to Susan, our ringmistress extraordinaire, for conceiving the project and love and hugs to all my fellow writers. It meant a lot to me to meet you all for real when I visited in 2016, and I am honoured that even though I live far, far way, I can still be a part of this wonderful group.