As nice as bragging rights could be, and of course, getting to choose the restaurant meant he could indulge himself with a nice, juicy rib eye, the real reason Dan wanted to win this contest was simple.
It meant that maybe, just maybe, his goal of being a cop wasn’t far-fetched.
His fellow BWGs were nothing but encouraging about his goals, of course. And it wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate their loyalty and friendship.
But if he, Dan Mangan, could solve this, he could feel like their encouragement was really and truly earned, and not just a manifestation of the closeness that had developed between he and his fellow club members.
This was supposed to be fun. On some level, Dan knew this. But it meant something if he could approach this like a law enforcement professional.
What was that old saying? Believe it until you can achieve it? Or was it fake it until you make it?
He’d cover all his bases. He’d believe he could fake it, and that should take care of the problem.
Dan felt a small grin tug at the corner of his mouth and let himself appreciate the fact that since falling in with these very good friends, he’d let some of his former anger and bitterness fall away.
He’d lost his dad at a young age, and then to make matters worse, his mom became ill and died on him, too. Dan had fallen in with a bad crowd who called themselves the Cowhands as his mother got weaker and sicker—not only did it distract him from his anguish and fear, but he also felt that he had some control, for once—that he wasn’t helpless.
As his mother drifted further and further away, the Cowhands became his family.
Or so he thought.
His mother passed away, and in the end, he realized that while she truly was family, the gang of toughs were not. They were only using him. When he refused to go along with their latest plans, not only did they turn their backs on him, but they left him to face some of their consequences, as well.
He’d never felt so alone, or so frightened, in his life. His mother was gone. His so-called friends were gone. He had nothing.
Luckily, although it sure didn’t feel like that at the time, his mother’s brother, who she had lost touch with before Dan was born, stepped in and took him away from the city and the life he had always known.
It wasn’t an easy journey. He refused to believe that his Uncle Bill had really wanted to help him, or that the kids Bill introduced him to, who called themselves the Bob-Whites of the Glen, had any real interest in getting to know him.
It had been so long since he’d had any real kindness that he couldn’t believe they weren’t just being polite because they were told to "be nice to the poor new kid whose mom had just died."
But as he got to know them, and they him in return, his suspicions slowly faded, and he found himself with a true family again. And even though he still sometimes felt like an outsider, in spite of everything, he was still a long way from the sullen, angry person he’d been when he first arrived in Sleepyside.
Dan came back to the present and forced himself to focus on the pictures of the diorama, unconsciously tapping his pen on his small notepad as he took in the scene. It was time to get to work.
He’d read enough books on the subject to know that first, he must methodically scan the room, starting at one point and then moving in a clockwise direction. He needed to note every detail.
The outside world fell away as he began to write.
Dan faced the group and suddenly felt itchy all over. These are all your friends. This is all in good fun, he reminded himself.
"Now we shall hear from Master Daniel," Miss Bates said, adjusting her large hat covered with bright pink, purple, and yellow flowers.
It was possibly the most hideous hat he had ever seen, and Dan inexplicably felt better just looking at it. He’d been regaled with stories of the BWGs’ initial trip to Virginia, and hearing about Miss Bates had reminded him of an old neighbor who had frequently looked in on him and his mother. She’d show up with plenty of food and good cheer, and her visits had smoothed over plenty of rough patches when money was scarce and hope even harder to find.
He bowed slightly. "Yes, Madam Judge," he said, flipping open his notebook... "And mister judge," he remembered to add, with a nod to Mr. Carver.
"No sucking up to the judges, Dan," Trixie said, with a mock toss of her sandy curls.
Dan made a face. "Yes, Madam Shamus," he retorted.
He glanced down at his notes and cleared his throat, ignoring the rather inelegant snort he heard coming from Mart Belden.
"At first glance, it would seem to be a classic ‘goodbye, cruel world—I’m going to turn on all of the gas jets and end it all’ kind of deal. But with a much closer look at everything in the room, there are several inconsistencies that would indicate that this is not the case."
Dan paused and was gratified to see that both Miss Bates and Mr. Carver were slowly nodding their heads and appeared genuinely interested in what he was going to say next.
"All the gas jets on the stove are wide open," Jim reminded him.
Dan nodded. "True. But the body wasn’t found in front of the stove. The victim is down on the floor, next to the refrigerator. The fridge door is still open, and there is an ice cube tray on the floor next to her. It makes no sense that in the middle of her suicide, she suddenly decides she’s thirsty. This could indicate the presence of a second person. The coroner should examine her head for any evidence of blunt trauma."
Brian, the future doctor of the group nodded thoughtfully. "It would be a different injury than if she’d merely lost consciousness from the gas and hit her head, that’s for sure."
Emboldened by the older boy’s backup, Dan continued, fter a glance at his notes. "Plus, she’d just finished baking a pie, and the sink is filled with potatoes, some of them peeled. I find it hard to believe that somebody in the middle of all that would just decide to off herself."
"Oh, I don’t know…peeling potatoes is a real pain in the…"
"Trixie, we’re supposed to let each person present their case without interruption, remember?" Honey pointed out, but she was smiling.
"Moving on through the scene, you can see the bowl, flour, and rolling pin on the butcher block from the pie making, but also, there’s a glass sitting on the butcher block that looks out of place. Along with the ice cubes, again, this could indicate that she was making a cold drink for a second person. If the coroner can prove that she was struck on the head before she died, that rolling pin should definitely be checked for evidence."
"Vocalized and communicated like an authentic member of law enforcement, Master Mangan," Mart piped up, ignoring the withering glance that Honey sent his way.
Dan’s previous nervousness vanished, and he found that he was having a lot of fun, as well as a certain sense of accomplishment. Win or lose, he felt like he had studied the evidence at hand and given it a lot of thought. "Thanks. I think, " he said, causing the room at large to chuckle.
He flipped his notebook to a new page. "The pin in the window is out, plus, the tablecloth is crooked. Did somebody stand on the table, open the window, and leave that way? After all, both doors to the room are locked from the inside. And note the nearby iron—another potential weapon. Along with the rolling pin, it needs to be checked out."
"I always think of a kitchen as such a…I don’t know… friendly place. The heart of the home. I never thought about it being full of weapons!" Di said, crossing her arms in front of her with a dramatic shiver.
Trixie snorted. "See? I knew not even having a kitchen in your house was a good idea."
"Shhhh!" several voices chimed in.
Dan chuckled. "Maybe that’s why Mr. Maypenny does a lot of his cooking outside." He gave a final look at his notebook. "Anyway, my final observations included a stack of paper with a knife. Since the gaps around both doors are stuffed with paper, it seems clear that is what those items were used for."
Dan snapped his book closed. "The gas jets are turned on, the doors are locked, the windows are closed, and the gaps around the door are filled. We are meant to think it’s suicide. But there are just too many inconsistent details, such as the dinner-in-progress, the position of the body, and the glass, just to recap a few. I call this a clear case of homicide. And the likeliest subject is the husband. He killed her, and I’d say it was probably in a fit of rage or he would have planned this a whole lot better." He took a small bow. "The end."
Everyone in the room clapped appreciatively. "Nice observations, son. You obviously put a lot of thought into this and you’ve given us a lot to think about," Mr. Carver said.
"You sure have. My!" Miss Bates added.
"Not to nitpick, but why couldn’t it have been somebody else, like an intruder or something like that?" Jim asked.
"I suppose that’s always a possibility. But I’ve read enough case studies to know that the truth in these situations is usually a lot more straightforward. The sad fact is that you're more likely to be killed by someone you know than by a stranger, and you'll probably be at home when it happens." The smile on Dan’s face faded as Jim’s expression registered a sudden understanding. "I guess domestic violence has been around for a long, long time," he said. "I’m sorry to bring it up, Jim."
"Don’t be sorry. You’re right; it has. And pretending that it hasn’t will never solve anything." Jim smiled at his friend. "I’m glad you want to be a cop. I’ll feel good knowing that you’re on my side."
Dan felt the last vestiges of doubt fade away. He would become a cop, and a damn good one, too. "You know it," he said.
Mr. Carver clapped his hands and the good-natured ribbing in the room died down as all eyes faced front. "Miss Bates and I had a heck of a time deciding, because you all presented such terrific and well-thought-out cases and theories. But in the end, one of you considered every piece of evidence like any good officer of the law should and seems to know a lot about unfortunate human behavior. I think you have a bright future ahead of you…Dan."
Dan felt a warm glow fill him as everybody in the room clapped and cheered.
"I’m impressed with all of you, even the boys!" Miss Bates added, taking off her thick glasses and polishing them with a dainty handkerchief. She put them back on and let her gaze rest on Dan. "I must say, you seem to have a good head on your shoulders, young man."
Mart clapped an arm around his friend’s shoulders. "Sure…for growing hair on!" he quipped, ducking Dan’s mock swing.
"You know…I’ve been thinking that a vegetarian lifestyle is a lot better for the environment," Dan said, with a sidewise glance at Trixie. "What do you think, Trix?"
Trixie grinned. "It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it, gang?"
Mart paled. "Now, Dan, let’s not be hasty here…"
Dan smiled as the room grew more and more boisterous. He really wasn’t sure what his future would bring, but he knew one thing for sure.
He would never be alone again.
Writer's Notes: Thank you to Susan and Vivian for providing a much-needed edit. Me and my commas! And a special thanks to Susan for putting this project together in the first place, to Dana for her awesome graphics, and to my fellow writers for being the awesome people that they are. I am honored to be in your company!