Di peered into the miniature display more closely, averting her eyes away from where the dead doll lay next to the open door of the gas oven. She wasn't sure what exactly she should be looking for. She'd agreed to the wager readily enough because it sounded fun, like solving a puzzle. But this wasn't the kind of puzzle or riddle she was any good at solving. I'm no detective, she thought somewhat ruefully.
She glanced over at Honey, who was staring intently at the scene, and then over at Mart, who seemed to have already solved the whole thing. With a sigh, she turned back to the diorama before her. Robin Barnes, housewife, deceased April 11, 1944.
Di studied the walls, which were covered with an awful pattern. She couldn't seem to help noticing what a bizarre arrangement of animals, houses, and flowers were stenciled above pine needles across the cream background. It wouldn't have been so bad if the design had stuck with a forest theme, but some seem more suited to a farm, and one of the stencils looked rather like a sailboat. Hmmph, maybe Robin killed herself because she couldn't take another day stuck in that kitchen with that ugly wallpaper. She shook the thought out of her head and willed herself to focus.
The rest of the kitchen décor was rather cute. A white work table and chair with a cheery red motif were in the middle of the room while the matching white bench seats and eating table in the nook had a similar brightly colored pattern etched into the legs. Even the white hutch had bright designs on its bottom doors below the shelves. Cute white curtains with red polka dots and red trim complemented the wood pieces. Both the furnishings and the curtains clashed with the pinks and other pastel colors in the wallpaper, though.
Some oddly shaped item was sitting in a pan on the oven door. She couldn't tell if it was a roast, a cake, a pie, or maybe a cherry-covered giant donut. Whatever it was, poor Mrs. Barnes wasn't going to enjoy it, and neither would Mr. Barnes. She looked over at the placards next to the display. According to those notes, there was mention of a finished pie. But who leaves a finished pie sitting on the oven door? Shouldn't that be placed somewhere away from the oven, cooling down?
Di flipped to a fresh page in her small lavender-colored notebook and made a note about the pie still being in the oven, if that's what that item was supposed to be. She also noted the pot of potatoes by the sink and what looked like a pile of potato peels.
She continued to survey the scene, jotting down the things she saw, sometimes drawing quick sketches of things she noticed. Then, she read the statement given by the deceased's husband, Fred Barnes. She might not be much of a detective, but she did know the husband was always a suspect. He claimed to have gone downtown to run an errand for his wife, but what was the errand? Hopefully, it was to buy new wallpaper, she thought rather uncharitably, but she refrained from making that comment in her spiral notebook. As she copied down his statement, she wondered if he had an alibi, some store clerk who could vouch for his whereabouts and the timing. But could it be that simple?
The placards mentioned a glass by the table where Robin Barnes had been rolling out dough. Di's first thought was the glass being used to cut out circles in the dough, but when she went back to study the glass on the work table, she saw none—only a miniature can of some sort. Beer, perhaps? Maybe she had a visitor while her husband was out. He could've come home and caught the two of them, killing his wife in a jealous rage.
But as she continued to go over her notes and study the scene, a different idea entered her mind.
"So, the way I see it," Di announced to the group, standing in front of Mr. Carver, Miss Bates, her parents, and the Bob-Whites, "is like this." She closed her eyes and mentally went through her notes, reassuring herself of the facts she had gathered. Then, she looked around the kitchen at Rosewood Hall, which wasn't really anything like the kitchen in the diorama, but it would have to do. Her "stage" had been set, complete with a round pie tin stuffed with a brown towel resting on the open oven door.
She went over to the sink and mimed the action of peeling the potatoes. "I think Fred and Robin were together in the kitchen. Robin was preparing dinner, and Fred came in—" Di paused here and went over to the door. "Fred immediately went to the fridge and pulled out the ice tray and a can of beer or soda." Di stomped over to the refrigerator, opened the freezer compartment and pulled out the ice tray. Then, she grabbed a can of orange soda out of the fridge. She set the ice tray and the can on the counter, grabbed a glass from the nearby cupboard, and filled it with ice, purposefully dropping one cube on the floor. She took her glass of ice and the soda can and sat down at the kitchen table, leaving the ice tray on the counter.
The small crowd—her audience—watched from the doorway. Di glanced at them and then announced, "The two of them started to argue." She continued in a louder voice, shouting at an imaginary person at the sink. "Robin! Not potatoes again! You know I hate your bland boiled potatoes."
A couple of the Bob-Whites chuckled.
Di flounced out of her kitchen chair and went over to the sink. She turned to face the now-imaginary Mr. Barnes. "Fred, I thought you said you were going to get me new wallpaper. This kitchen needs to be redone."
"Wait—what?" Trixie scratched her head. "What about the wallpaper?"
Di explained her reasoning. "Well, Robin was complaining about the wallpaper again—because, really? Who would want to spend all day in a kitchen that was otherwise cute except that ugly print?"
Di moved back to the table, made a grunting noise, and then deepened her voice. "Maybe if you learned to cook, I'd be willing to fix up this kitchen."
"Wait—" This time it was Mart interrupting. "Why in the world would you think Mrs. Barnes couldn't cook?"
"What was that thing resting on the oven door?" Di returned, pointing to her stage prop. "If it was supposed to be the alleged pie, it sure looked a mess. And if it wasn't the pie, well, then, whatever it was certainly didn't look appealing."
Dan snickered. "You know they aren't exact replicas of the items but were probably just meant to represent them."
"Please." Di let out a small snort as she put her hands on her hips, facing her audience. "I've seen much better fake food items for dollhouses of that size. If it was supposed to be a pie, it would've looked like a pie. The whole point of Mrs. Lee's dioramas was to make replicas that could be studied for forensic science. She would've gotten them as accurate as possible." Di felt she'd made her point when a couple of her friends nodded in agreement. She relaxed her stance and continued presenting her case. "Anyway, so they were arguing, probably something they did often. I imagine he complained about her cooking frequently, and she in turn nagged him for nicer things around the house. On the night in question, he was refusing to eat that thing that came out of the oven."
She resumed her Fred Barnes persona. "And what is that thing you tried to bake? I can't even tell if it's a pie or a cake! And you expect me to eat that?"
Di got up, went back to the sink, and became Robin once again. "You'll eat whatever I cook for you! It's not like you're gonna cook your own meals, and your ma ain't here to do it for you."
She took a few steps to the table, sat down, and then stood up again, resting her palms down on the table and leaning her weight on them. She purposefully tilted the tablecloth as she did so. "You leave my ma out of this!" she mock yelled.
Then she moved again, back to Mrs. Barnes' position. She turned and stared at the ice on the counter. "Fred Barnes! If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times! You need to put the ice back in the icebox!" She stomped from the sink over to the counter where the ice tray lay, picked it up, opened the refrigerator door, and then she stepped on the melting ice cube on the floor. Here she resumed her normal voice as she staged a fall. "Robin slipped on the ice, and hit her head on the floor, hard." Di lay prone, with one eye closed and the other watching the crowd.
"Is this what a one-person play is like?" Brian asked rhetorically, his eyes having followed Di around the room at each step.
"I don't think there was anything in the diorama that pointed to a slippery floor," Honey protested.
"Shh," Jim reprimanded. "No interrupting, remember?"
"Exactly. I, for one, am very interested in learning what may or may not have happened henceforth." Mart beamed at Di. "Please, continue."
Di sighed. "The floor had to be slippery at some point, what with the melted ice—whether that was before or after Mrs. Barnes' death is hard to say, but I think it was before." She stood up and addressed the group by the doorway. "Fred Barnes panicked. Here's his wife, out cold on the floor." She kneeled over where she had been lying down and shook the imaginary body. "Robin! Robin!"
"Passed out isn't dead," Trixie pointed out.
"No, certainly not," Dan agreed.
Di stood up again. "I'm not finished. Passed out isn't dead, as you say. But Fred's kind of—well, let's just say he's not intelligent. He thought he'd accidentally killed her because she wouldn't wake up right away. He knew the neighbors would all testify that the two of them often bickered, even in public, and he didn't want to be blamed for her death. He started plotting how he could get out of a possible murder rap."
"Oh!" Honey exclaimed. "I never thought of that possibility."
Di smiled and then resumed acting as Fred. She peered around the kitchen and grabbed the stack of newspapers she had brought in as a prop earlier. She stuffed a few under the door as she continued her explanation in her narrative voice. "He staged the room to look like a suicide. He locked the doors and stuffed the cracks with paper and such." She went over to the oven and fiddled with the knobs. "He left the gas oven on, and then made his own way out the window." Di opened the kitchen window and hoisted herself half-way out before dropping back into the kitchen and shutting the window again. "Meanwhile, Robin Barnes wasn't actually dead at the time, so she did die of asph—asphycksi—"
"Asphyxiation," Brian supplied helpfully.
"Right. She was passed out but still breathing, only because Fred Barnes had left the oven jets open, the only thing to breathe in was the gas, so in the end, she did die from that." Di looked over at the two judges. "So, Robin was murdered, and Fred Barnes is the guilty party."
"Interesting theory." Mr. Carver was writing down some notes of his own.
Miss Bates clapped. "I like it! I think it's brilliant."
Mr. Carver shook his head. "Just one question from me. Why do you think Mr. Barnes is the guilty party and not that she committed suicide because she was tired of their fighting?"
"Well, because he lied to the police," Di pointed out. "In Mr. Barnes' statement, he said the window was locked. But when you read through the room description, it states that the pin was out of the window, so it clearly wasn't locked. He probably left for a while, the hour he said he was gone, running some errands downtown to establish an alibi. When he came back, he called the police." Di frowned. "He probably didn't care much for his wife to begin with and took advantage of the opportunity that came up, but I don't think it was really premeditated. At least, I don't picture it that way."
"But I still don't understand why you think they were fighting," Trixie lamented. "I mean, how did you come to that conclusion?"
"It's what I saw in my head when I studied the scene. I was trying to picture why certain things were set up the way they were. The chair being untucked at an angle from the table, the refrigerator door open, all of it reminded me of how stage props might be set up for an act in a play." Di shrugged her slim shoulders. "Or, rather, how they would look at the end of a scene. I started to think what the actors might do, how they might move across the stage, to have the props end up in those particular positions."
"I see," Miss Bates acknowledged, moving into the room and pointing out how the kitchen set up had changed after Di's performance. "The ice tray is on the floor, the tablecloth is askew, the can on the table—all these things were neat when you started, but you showed how they came to be."
"Another excellent presentation and resolution to the case. All of you are making the judging process very difficult." Mr. Carver smiled at the group and then motioned to the other adults to follow him. "Shall we confer?"
"Meanwhile, could someone please close the refrigerator door before all that delicious food spoils?" Mart asked with a wink.
After the judges deliberated on the different theories that had been presented, they called the Bob-Whites back into the living room where they had been comparing notes.
"It was a close call," Mr. Carver explained, looking into each of their eager faces. "All of you had very plausible theories. But we finally agreed on who should win this challenge." He paused dramatically and then turned to Miss Bates. "Carolyn, would you care to do the honors?"
Miss Bates cleared her throat and took the small white envelope Mr. Carver handed her. "It would be my pleasure, Edgar."
"Oh, how exciting! It's just like the academy awards or something." Honey grinned at her fellow Bob-Whites.
"Drat, I haven't prepared a speech." Jim shrugged a shoulder.
"I'd like to thank all the little people—but I can't remember any of their names," Di joked.
Dan rejoined with his own small speech. "I'd like to thank all the little people—but I don't associate with them anymore."
Mart punched Dan lightly in the arm. "I'd like to just get this over with so I know where we're going to be dining to celebrate the anniversary of my birth."
Brian cleared his throat. "Please, continue, Miss Bates."
"Yes, please do!" Trixie agreed. "We're all eager to hear the news."
"Very well." Miss Bates opened the envelope and pulled out the small card. "And the winner of the Mini-Scene Murder Mystery Challenge is ...."
Mr. Carver interrupted with a small drum roll, tapping his fingers against the coffee table.
"Drat, it's one of the girls!" Mart crossed his fingers. "Please not Trixie."
Trixie responded by punching him in the arm, quite a bit harder than he'd punched Dan.
"Now, now—no fighting." Brian stuck his own arm between the two almost-twins.
"Oh, do go on and read it already!" Honey encouraged.
"Miss Diana Lynch!" Miss Bates finally announced.
"Congratulations, Diana!" Mr. Carver added. "Your presentation and theory explained many of the small details that were found at the scene."
"Oh, wow!" Diana couldn't stop grinning. "I can't believe I won. Thank you!"
"Phew!" Mart gave the violet-eyed beauty a smoldering look—or at least what he hoped passed for one. "I'm sure Diana will choose someplace for my dinner that we will both enjoy."
"We'll see," Diana replied enigmatically. "We shall see."
Thank you so much to Susan for coming up with this project and inviting me to participate. And thank you to Dana for doing all the work to get the pages up and looking so beautiful!
I'd like to thank all the little people ... but there are no little people on this project. Thanks to this whole team—Dana, Deanna, Julia, Mary, Mary C, and Susan—for all the back-and-forth emails offering encouragement, sparking ideas, and just working together on this project. Thanks to my wonderful editors, Deanna, Julia, and Susan. Special thanks to Deanna and Mary C for the in-person writing time which helped me get my piece started.
When Susan first brought up the idea, I worried about being able to commit since I hadn't written much in the last year and had just come off a very stressful work project. I almost declined, but then I couldn't resist the chance to work with this lovely group of writers and friends.
I chose Di because I thought she could have some artistic license regarding the scene and because I knew she liked puzzles, just not danger. But there's nothing dangerous about a long-unsolved fake murder scene. After I finally got her to stop harping on the wallpaper, she surprised me with how her acting experience helped her think through this particular mystery.