All three of the other male Bob-Whites were congregated in the room Jim and Brian were sharing. It was noisy—mostly because Mart was being dramatic and loud, as usual.
They were all ribbing each other about their theories and bragging about choosing rights for the restaurant. Usually, the boisterous back and forth was one of Jim’s favorite things about his group of bird friends.
But not today. Not after tossing and turning all night long, trying to decide if no sleep or nightmares was better.
That damned diorama murder scene just had to be a kitchen, didn’t it?
Jim ran a hand down the back of his neck, feeling it shake slightly as he reached the collar of his shirt. He stood a little apart from the other boys, trying to look casual as he leaned up against the expensive cherry wood dresser.
"How many pages long is your theory anyway?" Dan demanded of Mart, who held an admittedly large stack of paper, covered in his forceful black scrawl.
"He probably has an entire scenario involving time travel, aliens, and Dr. Who," Brian teased, making a playful grab for the notes, which Mart yanked out of his reach.
"Yuk it up, you two," Mart said with a scowl. "Careful planning, timing and notes are important when you’re trying to solve a murder."
He thinks he’s so clever.
Jim could hear the old bastard’s voice—scornful, mocking, and reverberating in his head—as he stared unseeingly at the three other boys. It happened that way sometimes. He could be in the best of moods, having fun, laughing, and enjoying the teasing, when that voice would break in and send him into a tailspin.
Mart is clever, you stupid asshole.
His therapist had given him the task of actively fighting the voice in his head, as if the man were really there in front of him, rather than locked up in a high security prison. To stand up for himself, as it were, rather than being stuck as the defenseless boy who had no choice but to take the abuse.
Jim wasn’t sure that the therapy was all that effective, to be honest, but it amused some dark place inside him to be able to say things in his head that he would never say in front of the others.
But the voice always had a retort to whatever he came up with.
Cleverer than you, anyway, Mama’s boy.
Always a taunt back. Jonesy was never cowed into silence.
Jim attempted to keep the scowl off of his freckled face. Dan had already given him a glance or two, and if he didn’t stop the spiral, he’d tip Brian off that something was wrong, too. And if you sent one Belden down that track…
He clamped down on the thoughts in his head that were growing progressively darker despite his efforts. He had no comeback for Jonesy this time, because Jim knew, without a doubt, that Mart was cleverer than he was. Oh, Jim knew he was good at outdoor things and athletics, and he was smart, sure, but Mart had a way of seeing the world that was very quick and perceptive. He absorbed information like a sponge and made all these fascinating connections with data that Jim himself would never even have thought of.
You never knew what was going to come out of Mart’s mouth, but it was never boring, and most of the time, it was about ten times more intelligent than anything any normal person would have come up with.
Mart’s theory about what happened in the little kitchen would be vastly entertaining, extremely well thought-out, and probably correct.
Jim shoved his hands into his pockets, which were as empty as his ideas. He had no such notes. The only theory in his head wasn’t fun or interesting; it wasn’t clever; and it hit uncomfortably too close to home.
Robin Barnes had had enough of the abuse from her husband, turned on the gas, and killed herself.
That’s what he’d seen when he looked at the little room.
But if he said that, he’d make everyone uncomfortable, and he’d probably make Honey and Di cry, thinking about what Jonesy had done to him. And then Trixie and Mart would kick themselves about the fact that they’d made him think about what happened again, as if it were something they had any actual control over.
Jim frankly thought he’d rather go through the abuse again than make any of them feel bad for him, especially Trixie. Especially on her birthday.
If only you could solve it properly. If only you were clever.
The voice was dripping with sarcasm, and he could see the malevolent gleam in the bastard’s eye, staring at him from across the kitchen, sitting in one of those white painted chairs, the ashes from his lit cigarette falling in careless abandon onto Robin Barnes’ clean cutting board.
Jim closed his eyes, his eyelids covering the sudden angry, determined gleam in his emerald gaze. He shut out the noise and distraction around him and mentally planted himself into Robin Barnes’ kitchen.
Nice mind palace you’ve got here, pansy boy. Jonesy took another long drag on his cigarette. He then waved his hand around. This is what you’ve got in your head? Beat-up old kitchens with dead women in them? His dark eyes narrowed as he stared coldly at Jim from his seat in the middle of the room. A lot more kinky than I’d ever have given you credit for, boy.
Jim ignored him, adjusting his shoulders slightly—the only acknowledgment he gave of even having heard his stepfather’s words.
Is it really so simple? That she killed herself?
He didn’t want to look at the dead woman. He’d seen another dead woman on a kitchen floor. And that was imprinted in his mind like a brand.
It was hard to see anything else.
Panic swirled up as he cautiously walked over toward the woman on the floor. His fingers shook a little as he knelt down on the linoleum to peer into Robin Barnes’ face.
Be objective. The voice wasn’t taunting. It had a hard edge to it, but that was because of the Brooklyn accent. Jim could almost see his friend leaning over the open refrigerator door, one booted foot kicking back and forth underneath it. She isn’t your ma. Don’t let your mind go there. Look at the pieces right now, not the big picture. What do you see?
With a bit of reluctance, Jim turned his focus to the woman.
See the red in her cheeks here? Brian’s calm, soothing doctor voice broke through his anxiety. She looks like she’s still alive and healthy with her skin all red and flushed like that. That’s the carbon monoxide grabbing the hemoglobin in the blood before the oxygen can.
Brian was squatting next to the body, pointing to the woman’s head. And that doesn’t matter anyway. We all know she died from the gas in the oven. But did she turn it on herself? Or did someone else knock her out and do it for her?
Jim peered at the woman’s dark brown hair. If she had been hit, he couldn’t see evidence of it.
Just because she was hit over the head doesn’t mean there’ll be blood. Brian advised him. How many times did you get a nasty thump on the head without bleeding all over the place?
Jim’s face darkened as he remembered a particularly vicious beating in the barn. He’d had a migraine so bad the next day that he’d seen stars if he even tried to sit up straight.
Dan’s sharp comment in his ears dragged him back to the little kitchen.
You really think you’re going to find anything out from that dumb broad? Jonesy’s scoff broke into his concentration. She’s dead. And you’re not a doctor. Isn’t the point to find the killer? Not sob over her dead body.
Like he knows anything. Mart’s scoff was even more scornful than Jonesy’s, and that took some doing. Does he never read? How many murders have been solved by clues left on the body? His blond-haired friend leaned against the ugly wallpaper, gesticulating in a way that was uniquely him, which Jim found inexplicably comforting. And it’s not always the method of death itself that provides vital clues. What about where the body is? What was she doing when she died?
Despite himself, Jim found that his friends’ words were piquing his interest. He’d done this, at first, as just a way to shut Jonesy up. To prove that he was clever.
But suddenly, the scene itself became something interesting. Like a diamond. So many facets to it. Hidden answers winking out from their hiding places within the small little room.
Everything is screaming at me that it’s suicide. Jim looked thoughtfully at the woman. And maybe after I investigate, I’ll still be there. But let’s look at the evidence first.
What was she doing when she died?
Jim glanced at the ice tray on the floor. Well, they want me to think she picked up a tray of ice. The cloth on her hand might mean she’s protecting her hand from the cold.
He inspected the ice tray. The cubes were still in the tray.
Jim poked at the tray experimentally. The ice looked relatively solid. And there was no puddle of water on the floor.
The ice tray was also right side up.
If she were hit with something heavy and was carrying the ice tray at the time, at least one or two ice cubes would have been knocked out of the tray if she had dropped it, wouldn’t they?
I mean, that’s how you normally get ice cubes out of the tray. By jarring them.
Weird angle for the body, too, don’t you think? His sister’s voice was thoughtful. She leaned down, her golden-brown hair swinging slightly as she checked out the body.
Jim looked up at her words, examining the scene in front of him.
Robin Barnes was lying on her back on the floor. Ramrod straight. Not crumpled.
Now, granted, it was a replica. And the creator of the little room had to use a straight porcelain doll to represent the victim.
But the artist had been so meticulous and careful about everything else. The position of the body had to be something that had occurred to her.
Jim carefully inched himself to the floor to lie next to Robin there. Then, he stood up to see where he would be positioned, once he got up.
He was standing almost uncomfortably close to the old cast-iron stove.
She fell backward. She turned the knobs and then laid down on the floor.
But that didn’t seem right.
Why would she have bothered with an ice tray? Why was the refrigerator door standing wide open?
She would be near the stove if she’d turned on the gas herself.
That would be the killer’s thought.
Back to suicide again? Jonesy’s laugh barked out into the quiet. You never could let an idea go once it got into your thick skull.
But Jim wasn’t listening to him any longer. The killer wasn’t trying to make it look as if she killed herself. If he had, he’d never have left the refrigerator door open that way.
And there was no reason for a suicide victim to get ice out of the freezer.
So, the door was a distraction. Something to make it look like she’d been struck while she was getting ice out of the refrigerator.
Jim’s mind started to race, grabbing observations from the room like sifting gold from the detritus around it while panning a river.
Dinner’s set. Di waved her hand at the oven. She’d just pulled out a pie for supper. She was going to cook the potatoes next. Busy housewife. So many things going on at once. Di pointed a lavender-tipped finger toward the bowl on the table. She’d made the crust for the pie before putting it into the oven. And then she was working on the laundry, too. His raven-haired friend walked quickly across the room, pulling away the simple cotton curtain from the window. There’re clothes hanging on the line. Then she gestured toward the laundry basket and the ironing. She’s not doing anything that would use ice. Why would she even need ice cubes?
Jonesy then reached over next to the mixing bowl and grabbed the glass that was there. Get me a cold drink, boy, before I give you something to cry about.
The husband made comments like that all the time, he’d bet. His mind’s eye conjured up a picture of a big brute of a man. Muscles heavy from farm work.
Attractive in a kind of bad boy sort of way.
Robin Barnes had been taken with him at one point—the apple-cheeked farm girl finding his strength something positive, something protective at one time.
But then, after they’d been married a while, and she’d had a baby or two and lost some of her girlish figure, the comments started coming.
"Stop eating so much dessert. We’ve had to buy dresses twice now because you’re getting so fat."
"What kind of slop did you make for dinner tonight?"
"Get me a drink before I give you something to cry about."
Robin Barnes had become a shell of herself. Meek, subservient, and weak. Her life was wrapped up with the consuming worry of "how do I keep him from hurting me or the children?"
Jim looked at Jonesy then, almost with a sense of dispassion. His emerald eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
He always blamed you, didn’t he? Trixie stood next to the table, glaring at Jonesy, her curls practically quivering with anger. Whatever spiked his temper that day—it was always your fault. Gaslighting you into thinking that you wouldn’t have gotten beat up that day, if only you’d been clever enough to behave yourself.
Jim stilled, his mind whirring.
Sitting at the table.
Asking for a drink.
She doesn’t listen for once.
Jim walked slowly around the room. She’s had enough. She’s taken all she can take. Whatever she does he never approves of. No matter how hard she tries to please him, she’ll never succeed.
So, she takes one little step of defiance. One little step.
And that’s what he uses to justify it to himself. Her fault. She asked for it.
Jonesy gave him a smirk and slammed the glass down on the table. Now, bitch.
And almost as if he were in a dream, Jim spun around from the little table, seeing Robin’s flushed face, teary eyes, and determined grim line of her mouth.
Two steps. Away from him. Away from the table.
Jim closed his eyes more tightly, picturing the room.
He reached forward to pick up the iron with the cloth on top of it.
Behind him, he could hear Jonesy get to his feet. The rolling pin scraped across the table as the older man grabbed it. I said, now!
The rolling pin thrust out from Fred Barnes’ hand in an arc, connecting solidly to the back of his wife’s head. She let out a started exhale. Nothing loud, just a gasp of surprise, before she crumpled to the ground, knocking over the ironing board and the iron.
She had bled. Just a little. Enough to make a smear on the floor when he’d dragged her across it.
Jim bent down and saw the two small smears of blood on the linoleum floor. Blood that her husband had missed because it had blended in so well with the other colors in the floor.
Fred Barnes had been gone from the house at four o’clock. If he’d had an alibi of running an errand for his wife, he must have made sure someone had seen him.
He hadn’t cared whether anyone would notice the skewed tablecloth, because he wanted to have someone think there’d been a killer coming in to murder his wife.
He’d turned up the gas jets to let gas in the room after sealing the doors, and then he had hurried out the window.
But he hadn’t had time to do a lot. His wife could have woken up at any point. To make certain she died, he’d have to have her out cold with the gas on.
Yes. An angry, frantic Fred was a sloppy Fred.
Just like Jonesy had made such stupid mistakes when he’d tried to kill Juliana.
A smile curved Jim’s lips.
Sloppy criminal. Just like Jonesy.
"Fred concentrated on stuffing the doors and hightailing it out of the house," Jim said later that evening, standing in the living room in front of the others.
As he’d expected, Honey and Di looked a little teary-eyed. But at least, for once, they were thinking of poor Robin Barnes, not poor Jim Frayne.
"But you’d think he would have tried to clean things up," Trixie said, doubt tinging her voice. Jim could tell that she was torn—because she wanted to be sympathetic to poor Robin and to support him in his theory, but at the same time, mysteries were her domain. She wanted to win.
"Oh, but he did." Jim pointed to the picture in several places. "He put the ironing board back up and the iron back on the board. In the wrong place, of course." He tapped the picture with a long finger. "That’s the side of the ironing board without support. Why would any sane person do that? You run the risk of the board toppling over and having a hot iron land on you. No 1940s housewife would do that."
"Oh. Oh!" Trixie said, light dawning in her expressive blue eyes.
He had to stop for a minute just to admire her. Because Trixie coming to conclusions was one of the prettiest sights alive.
He ignored Dan’s eyeroll, basking in the feeling for a few sweet moments, until Brian’s very pointed clearing of the throat brought him back to the present.
"Because he’s the dominating, abusive husband who let the little wife do the cleaning, he has no idea where any of the cleaning stuff is." He pointed to the small red smears at the front of the picture. "He tried to clean up all the traces as best he could, but he can’t really use any of their linens. Everything’s too light-colored. The blood would show. And how was he going to explain a bloody towel or handkerchief stuck in his pocket while he was out running the errand to establish his alibi?" Jim shook his head. "So, he didn’t get it all. He was careless. And he was more concerned with moving her body and putting the room to rights than getting all the little bits of blood off the floor."
He then gestured at the refrigerator and the ice tray. "This is all a red herring." He pointed in particular to the ice tray. "The ice cubes are still frozen. She had been cooking, so the stove is probably sending out a huge amount of heat. So there’s no way the ice cubes stay cold for that long. He was out on his errand, and the murder’s going round and round in his head. Is she dead yet? What was he going to say to the police? What story could he tell when he got home?" Jim tapped his forehead. "He’s crafty. Not necessarily smart, but crafty. He decided he’d better come up with an alternate solution. Make a bogeyman killer. Make the time of death closer to when he comes home to ‘find’ her." Jim continued with his explanation. "These old ovens—their gas is different than the type we have now. It wouldn’t take more than a few minutes to kill her. So, by the time he comes back to the house, she’s getting into rigor mortis. She’s been dead for almost an hour and a half."
He then pointed to the window. "He yanks a towel off the line to cover his face. Then, he comes back in through the window. He walks over and opens the refrigerator door and puts an ice tray on the floor. Too carefully, I might add, because there’s no way that Robin dropped this tray. Ice would have fallen everywhere, and the tray would be tipped over. But he doesn’t have much time. He doesn’t want to end up a second victim of the gas." He pointed then to her hand. "He slips a mitt onto her hand—like she’s protecting herself from the ice—and then he tosses the towel on the back of the chair and exits back out the window."
"But why do that?" Honey asked. Her brow creased, and she gave him a puzzled look.
"To make it look as if the killer escaped through the window."
"Well, it’s technically the truth, then, if he did that." Brian gave the others a wry look. "He is the killer, after all."
Jim nodded. "Exactly." He then turned his attention back to the photograph. "Then he goes around and tries the doors and makes a big scene, calling out her name." He shook his head and scoffed. "He can’t get in? A guy like that? Without a door key? Dependent on his little wife to let him in? Not a chance.
"He goes to the corner phone booth to call the police. And they come pretty quickly. And here is where we come in."
"So, the husband did it," Mart said slowly, staring at the photograph for a moment or two. "But it’s almost the perfect murder." He shook his head. "How do the police prove it was him?"
A small image popped into Jim’s head at that moment. A gleeful, satisfying image of a big, burly Sergeant Molinson clapping handcuffs onto Jonesy’s wrists. His lit cigarette fell to the floor, getting crushed under the solid firmness of Molinson’s worn police-issue boot.
The string of filthy invective sputtering from Jonesy’s mouth rolled off of Jim as he enjoyed the image of the man he hated being led out in chains.
He gloried in it for a moment before he turned his attention back to Mart and the others, who looked at him expectantly. "Oh, they got him."
"How?" demanded Miss Bates, who was leaning forward so far, her interest so great, that Edgar Carver had to gently pull her back a bit when she looked in danger of falling off of her chair.
"What’s the one item in that kitchen that he would have no reason to touch?" Jim asked.
"The iron?" was Mart’s immediate reply.
"The ice tray!" Trixie called out.
"That very unappetizing looking pie!" Mr. Lynch interjected, prompting chuckles from everyone around him.
"The rolling pin." Edgar Carver’s voice was quiet but somehow still broke through the cacophony around him.
Jim nodded and pointed at him, acknowledging his answer. "No 1940s man would have touched a rolling pin. Especially not one like him."
"But what if he wiped off the fingerprints?" Trixie demanded.
"There was one left on the end when he set it back down on the table," Jim said with a grin. "Artistic license."
"Hmph," Trixie said, but her blue eyes twinkled at him anyway.
The others gave him a round of applause for his theory, and he gave them a flourishing bow before he retook his seat.
Each Bob-White had their turn, and when the votes were finally tallied, Jim was surprised to find that he was the winner of the contest.
"Thank God!" Mart called out. He slapped Jim on the back and said, "Please pick something edible. My future sixteen-year-old self thanks you in advance."
"If you keep eating the way you do," Trixie said dourly, "you won’t live to see seventeen!"
"Children," Brian chided. "Let James enjoy his win for once without spoiling it by bickering, won’t you?"
There was more good-natured ribbing, and despite Brian’s concern, Jim enjoyed every moment of it. No whispering voice. No sneers in his head. Just good, clean Bob-White fun.
When they all gathered later, grabbing their jackets to go out for dinner, Dan stopped him in the hallway and said cheerfully, "Good theory, Frayne."
Jim responded with a quick smile. "Thanks."
"How’d you come up with all of that?" Dan demanded. "You didn’t even have any notes! Mart was so sure his notes were going to win it all."
Jim’s face softened just a little, as he clapped Dan on the back. "A little birdie told me."
Dan laughed and shook his head. "With a theory as complex as that, it must have been a lot more than one birdie!"
Dan didn’t wait for a reply but instead called out a sarcastic comment to Mart, who whirled around with his index finger in the air, caught in mid-Trixie scold, ready as always to turn his attention to Dan.
Brian was rolling his eyes; Di and Honey had their heads together, giggling; and Trixie looked over at him with her usual eager impatience to be off.
Jim zipped up his red BWG jacket and lengthened his stride, so he could quickly join the others, a smile on his face and a grateful appreciation for them in his heart.
Yes. More than one birdie.
Six, in fact.
Couldn’t have done it without them.
A huge, huge thank you to my peeps--Dana, Mary, Deanna, Mary C, Vivian and Julia—for indulging me on my crazy idea and taking time out of their way-too-busy lives to write for this story. It was such a fun writing exercise for me, and it was so really interesting to see how we could all look at the same exact scene and come up with such different ideas for what happened to poor Robin Barnes. Everyone seemed to catch something unique that no one else caught, and they did a marvelous job of getting into their respective Bob-Whites’ heads.
It’s always a pleasure to work with such good, talented writers. Honored to be in such fabulous company for this little project of ours!
A thank you to Vivian, Holly and Dana, who all offered some editing help, and to Holly and Deanna for keeping Mart on the straight and narrow. *grin*
Another huge thank you to the always-awesome Dana, who made the incredible graphics for the story. Yours is the talent that never stops giving, sweetie. I mutual you!
A nod and a tip of the hat to Julie-macjest, who first posted about the Nutshell Studies at Jix. See what you spawned? LOL! I’ve been fascinated ever since you posted!
Dana put up credits about the Nutshell studies and the woman who created them, so I won’t repeat them here. You can definitely go down a rabbit trail for a long time reading about them, though! I recommend it if you’re interested in mystery solving and forensics!
All the references to Rosewood Hall, Edgar Carver, et al, are from The Mystery of the Emeralds, as I’m sure you all know. ;)
At the last, there is a correct solution to each of the nutshell studies, but I think they are closely guarded secrets, since the police still use these rooms for training purposes and don’t want their officers going into it with pre-conceived ideas. So, the solution to Robin Barnes’ death could be any one of the Bob-Whites’ solutions or something else all together. The fun is in the investigation!
Finally, a very happy birthday to my favorite sleuth. We could think of no better way to celebrate than a mystery. Thank you for providing me with so many hours of enjoyment, and giving me the best friends a girl could ever ask for. Grateful doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Lucky, blessed and forever in the debt of a fourteen-year-old detective is a lot more like it.
And one last extra note…
James, you are, now and always, my favorite. Thanks for putting up with all my torture of you. It’s rough in the middle, but you will always triumph over your suffering and get the girl in the end. I promise.