Alexander and the Impossible Murder

Alexander cursed his decision to get rid of the curtains. The sun was a harsh alarm clock for a man with a pounding head. He crawled under the covers, but it was to no avail. He was awake. He took out a jar of pickles and poured some of the brine into a glass of water, chugging it down.

After a quick shower, he threw his coat on, might as well see if there are any new cases for him to work on. Luckily it had started to rain. Though he didn’t have a working umbrella, being wet was still a preferred alternative to the sun’s harsh glare.

Walking into his office, he took off his soaking hat and coat.

“I lent you an umbrella last month,” Gabrielle, his assistant, said.

“Yeah, well, I broke it soon after.”

She rolled her eyes with a  slight smile. “Coffee extra strong?”

“You know it, and cancel any appointments for the next few hours, I’m going to go nap on the couch.” She always knew to calibrate the strength of his coffee to the hangover it would be fighting. Lately, every day had been an extra strong day.

She set the water to boil. “Actually, there is already someone waiting in your office, but thought you might want your coffee first.”

Alexander cradled his aching head rubbing his eyes with his palms. “Just tell them if they suspect that their partner is cheating, then they are and send them on their way.”

“It is inspector Harms.”

“Jesus, what does that warhorse want with me now? He got evidence I jaywalked or something?”

“He said he’d tell you after you had your coffee.”

Alexander let out a slow groan. “How long has he been waiting?”

“Only an hour or so.”

Alexander liked the idea of showing up on time, it was the reality of it where things got tricky. “The rain freshened me up a bit, bring the coffee to my office, he is probably crotchety as is.”

Walking in, he saw the inspector looking unusually haggard, the files of a case spread out over the coffee table. Usually, this would be when Harms would make a joke at Alexander’s expense. Something must be serious, indeed.

Alexander plopped down in his chair. “Inspector Harms, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

Harms’s face was ashen as if he had been only recently been formed from clay, “Emily, my daughter.”

“What happened?”

Harms slowly shook his head. “She wouldn’t have killed herself, I know she wouldn’t, he killed her I know he did, but the smug bastard just smirked during the whole interview. You might not be able to either, but please, try, I can’t sleep until I see him behind bars.”

Not usually the way detective work goes, starting out with a conclusion and then trying to prove it is an excellent way of getting the wrong man. But this was Harms’s own daughter, not really the time to point something like that out.

Gabrielle came in and handed him his coffee. He was going to need it.

“I’ll do my best,” Alexander said, “Tell me what you have so far.”

“We sent some men out to investigate a possible gunshot at the 10 p.m Elmont Hotel three days ago but found nothing. The next morning housekeeping wasn’t able to open the door. The door had been barricaded , and it took us quite some time to get in, she had a gunshot wound to the head and a gun lying next to her on the floor. Her hand tested positive for gunshot residue. The coroner said the time of death was indeed around 10, she was on the top floor, and her sliding window had a block of wood to prevent it from opening more than an inch or so. The main suspect, her ex, was seen by several eyewitnesses at a dinner party around the time.”

Alexander took a sip of his coffee, “I see.”

I know how this sounds. They want me to rule it a suicide, but I just know it was him. I don’t like you much, and you don’t like me. I wouldn’t be here if I had anyone else, but please,  just help.”

“I’ll do my best, though I’ll need access to her and the crime scene.” He looked into the broken man’s eyes with as much empathy as he could muster, “I agree that it looks suspiciously impossible.”

“Don’t tell anyone but I already made you a copy of the files. As for the crime scene and the morgue, I’ll have to escort you. I took the day off.” Alexander did his best work when he was alone and had time to think. Still, when it came to working with the police, it was procedure procedure procedure.

Finishing his coffee, Alexander said, “Let’s get going then, morgue first, I’ll review the case file on the way.”

The case file was pretty thick, but that wasn’t a surprise giving it was an inspector’s daughter. Any other time, the police would have ruled it an obvious suicide and taken an early lunch. The hotel was one of the nicer ones in the city. Everything plush and velvet, her bed had apparently still been made. Unless she made it  right before shooting herself. Her right hand had tested positive for gunshot residue. The bullet was found lodged in the bottom of the wall directly to her left. The ballistics matched, and there were no obvious signs of struggle in the coroner’s report. The only sign of injury other than the obvious was a small red burn on her right arm. The room was rented under an alias, and none of the clerks remembered her checking in. The couple in the room below her had heard loud noises coming from her room around noon. This was presumably when she had rearranged the armoire to its place braced against the front of the door. The picture of her didn’t look quite as bloody as he would have expected from a gunshot victim several hours post mortum, but then again, deaths were a lot like snowflakes in that way. The detective working the case came up with the apparent conclusion that she was a troubled girl who decided to go out in style, but if it was as simple as that, then why would she barricade the door? Why not enjoy that big bed? A few possible theories ran through Alexander’s head. Still, until there was more evidence, there was little point in devoting too much energy to them.

“Was the gun registered to her? It didn’t say.”

“Actually… I bought her that gun for self-protection.”

“Also, I don’t see a toxicology report.”

“Should be in when we get there.”

Harms stood outside the door to the morgue. It had been a while since Alexander had examined a dead body. It was the sort of thing he never got quite used to, especially a pretty young girl with part of her face missing. His stomach churned. He put a little menthol under his nose and began the inspection. There is no doubt about it, the bullet wound happened at the time of death, dead flesh reacts differently to trauma. A powder burn was present on the right side of her face, though it was a little lighter than he would have expected. However, this could, of course, be the result of post mortem decomp. It would have been better if he could have seen the body when it was still fresh. The bullet had followed a downward trajectory through the skull. The burn on her arm looked too smooth, and the hair was intact. She had a tiny bump on the skin of her wrist, further investigation showed that the area of her forearm had slightly less hair. Taking a closer look at the entry wound in the skull, Alexander noticed something in her ear, gently fishing it out with a pair of tweezers. He discovered what it was, part of a small white feather the coroner must have missed.

The toxicology report showed she had enough depressants in her system to sedate a tiger. Not uncommon in those who kill themselves by gunshot, but also consistent with other ideas. After seeing the body, he could really go for a drink or three himself.

“Alright,” Alexander said, “I am done here, can you take me to see her possessions?”

“There wasn’t much aside from her clothes. Though we brought in her journal.”

“I would like to see them if I could”

Her dress had been missing the top button. It might have come off during the struggle to barricade the door, but it was not recovered by the police when they combed the scene. As the picture had shown, there was something a little off about the blood pattern. He flipped through her spiral bound notebook, it appears that she only wrote on the backside of the pages. Much of the contents were banal, though there were several entries where she voiced fear of Bon her ex-boyfriend. The last entry concerned meeting him in the morning because he had contacted her to tell her he would stop by her house to return her cat. She was afraid but had called her dad to let him know, and she had told Bon that her dad would come right over if she hadn’t called to say he was gone by nine.

“When did the cat thing happen?”

“The morning of the day she died. Why would she risk coming over to get her cat the same night she planned to abandon it? But she called me right after he left and locked all her doors, she was so happy, she loved that cat, thought maybe giving the cat back meant he had finally given up on her.”

Alexander lowered his eyebrows. “And the scene at home?”

“She kept a pretty clean house, her cat was meowing something crazy when we came in. It’s staying with me now.”

“So, there was nothing unusual, aside from the fact she had abandoned her cat?”

Harms’s face blushed as his eyes darted to the corner. “Well, there was a bottle of wine about half drunk. And her wine glass was still out.”

“Just one glass was out? Was day drinking a common occurrence for her? By any chance?”

Harms’s looked over with an equal mix of anger and exhaustion. “Like you are one to talk about drinking. I  make sure they tested the wine and the glass, both came up clean, so I asked them to leave out that little detail, didn’t seem relevant. Some people, they would take it the wrong way.

“Was your daughter left-handed?”

“Yes, why do you ask?”

“I could tell from her journal. I think I have seen enough to agree that this was in fact a murder. Tell me what sort of business was her ex in?”

“You do?” Harms said, his eyes lighting up. “He’s a butcher, got a gourmet shop on Lanstings street. Why do you ask?”

“I need to see more before I know the exact how, please take me to the scene of the crime.”

Harms nodded.

Alexander winced rubbing his head. “But first, I’ll help myself to some of that revolting police station coffee.” He was still far from his best, but if there was a problem that caffeine couldn’t fix, he didn’t want to meet it.

The hotel room was relatively large, with only one entrance. He put on his gloves and started to move around. The blood had now dried into the carpet. There appeared to be some inconsistencies in the pattern as if some of the blood was fresher than others. The bullet had been removed from the wall, but the hole still made the trajectory clear. The armoire was solid, heavy, it was hard to imagine those little arms pushing it. Fear could give people strength they normally didn’t possess. The bed looked freshly made, pulling the duvet he squeezed the pillows, there were three down pillows and two stuffed on a king sized bed. Walking over to the window, he saw the coarse wooden dowel rod blocking the window from sliding open. If the window had been open the one inch it could be, it would have been impossible to make that shot, not to mention the powder burns meant it had to have been at close range.

“Are these standard? This window has a lock why not just use that?”

“No, perhaps she just trusted it more than the lock. Bon was apparently was a skilled hand at that sort of thing. Used to be a locksmith.”

“The carpet around here, some of it looked slightly brighter, was that noticed?”

“Yeah, but no residue, probably the result of some mess that cleaned up a while ago. We asked the janitorial staff, they didn’t remember anything.”

“Understandable given how many messes they likely clean up. Is there roof access?”

“Yes, down the hall, but only a few staff members have the keys, and it was still locked.”

“Let’s head there.”

“Already searched once, nothing to see.”

Alexander looked at him intensly. The inspector began to lead the way.

“Doesn’t even have a deadbolt, could be opened with just a bit of plastic.”

“Considered that, but nothing there.”

Reaching into his coat, Alexander took out his toolkit, in less than thirty seconds the door was open.

Harms looked down the empty stairs. “Shouldn’t we get official permission?”

“You’re off duty, and I’m a PI. This way is easier.”

The roof had a railing at the end. It was mostly empty besides some discarded cigarette butts, probably left by maintenance crews. There was a board laying on the floor, turning it over was a mostly burned candle; some hard wax was stuck to the cement. There were various shards of broken bottles around. Walking around the scene, he found shards of particularly thick brown glass.

Harms had his arms folded impatiently, “Nothing like I said.”

“Perhaps, but perhaps not. I want you to go to the front desk and call the station, ask them if there have been any other reports of gunshots, especially near the butcher shop or his home.”

“We get false gunshot reports all the time.”

“Still, just ask if any area had repeated false calls.”

“Couldn’t hurt, but why?”

“I’ll make a quick visit to the hotel restaurant.”

Harms furrowed his brow. “Thinking about food at a time like this?”

“Actually, I could use a drink.” Alexander was pretty sure he had this case figured out. Though this was important, he didn’t want to give any kind of false hope.

The restaurant was mostly empty at this time of day. Someone dying in the hotel also tended to have a dampening effect on clientele. It was stately but possessed a minimalist art deco style that helped prevent it from seeming too gaudy. The bartender was cleaning his glasses when Alexander sat down.

“What’ll you have?”

A drink would be nice, but after the case, not during. “How are the steaks here?”

“Excellent, I highly recommend the porterhouse with mushrooms.”

“Is the meat fresh? How often do you get it delivered?”

“Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning, sir, best butcher in the city.”

“Happen to be a place on Lanstings street?”

“Why yes, how did you know?”

“Lucky guess, I suppose,” One drink wouldn’t hurt, but then again, how often was it just one. He still had a few loose ends to tie up before he could deliver the case, all tied up with a nice little bow to the inspector.

Heading over to Harms, he learned that there were a couple of locations mostly on the outskirts that had several false reports of gunshots.

“Let’s go to Lanstings street. I’ve got a few questions for our butcher.”

“Had him in the tank for the full twenty-four hours already, didn’t crack, spent the whole time smiling.”

“That’s good. I can use that. You stay in the car for the first five minutes. Send for backup, and whatever I say, play along.”

“What are you planning to do?”

“I’ll tell you if I manage to pull it off.”

Lanstings street was a prosperous area, filled with department stores and lined with fancy cars. Bon must be quite the butcher indeed. Walking in, there was a wide variety of meats on display. Under normal circumstances, it would make him hungry for a nice bloody steak. He still hadn’t eaten yet.

“Can I help you?”

“I had the best porterhouse of my life over at the Elmont four days ago. They said they had just gotten it that morning from a butcher shop on this street, is that you?” Alexander said, elevating his accent slightly.

“Yes, sir! So you’d like to buy some to take home then?”

“Yes, I would love to, but I have a house in the country, pretty far from here. I’m afraid it wouldn’t make it on the train ride, but I simply have to have more. Do you happen to do delivery?”

“Of course, sir, and we accept orders over the phone.”

“I’ve had some before where the meat arrives warm and soggy from the melted ice. It is rather far away. Can I ask, have you had any complaints in the past?”

“No, sir, we pack everything with dry ice, keeps it cool, and never soggy. Money back if you are not satisfied.”

“I would expect nothing less from such a fine establishment.” Smiling at the man made him a feel sick, but it would all be over soon.

Harms and Peterson walked in the door right on time.

Bon, the butcher, smiled at Alexander. “Sorry, sir, this will be just a moment.” Then, turning to the two officers, he smiled even harder “Is there anything else I can help you with? I have already told you everything I know.”

“Actually,” Alexander said, “Our business is all one and the same. Why don’t I just go over a little story and see if it sounds familiar.”

“Of course,” Bon said, smiling with one side of his mouth, his eyes shining with supreme confidence.

“There once was a man, a petty jealous and possessive one. He thought himself capable of committing the perfect crime. He spent months perhaps perfecting it, not realizing that the more impossible things seem, the fewer possibilities there were to explore. This man had someone else register the room for him, a nice enough person. They were very cooperative with the investigation once they found out the real reason for the covert registration.”

“She loved me still,” Bon said. “Maybe at some point, I did inquire about renting a suite so we could rekindle. I don’t think that is a crime, is it officers? If later on, she went mad and killed herself in that same room, well, that just makes me a victim, don’t you think?” Good, that one was a guess—pride cometh before the fall.

Alexander smiled back and continued. “The man knew it would be hard to gain access to her, so he kept a trump card, a little cat. He knew it would be the only thing to tempt her to interact with him again. He brought a nice bottle of wine, it was probably a little hard to convince her to have one last drink with you, but then again, she did feel safe knowing that if she didn’t make a call, her father would come.”

“This is pointless,” Bon smiled. Like I told the fine officers before, I was at a dinner party when she was shot, right, Dad?” Bon looked at Harms, who was growing red in the face. “Besides, I’m a butcher. If I killed her, wouldn’t I just use the tools at my disposal?”

“I?” Alexander said, “Oh, so you think this story is about you then, I suppose I can accommodate that. You drugged her glass when she was focused on her cat. You then left to let her call her father, waiting for her to fall into a drug-induced sleep. After she was asleep, you bound her with duct tape. Even if she was awake, the sedatives would make it almost impossible to put any real struggle against her bindings. In the kitchen, you left your glass out and then thoroughly cleaned out hers so there wouldn’t be any residue. It was around that time where your meat delivery to the hotel was scheduled. You loaded her into your truck, and after delivering the meat, took your cart and filled it with what you would need to take with you to the room.”

“Interesting ideas all,” Bon said, “But unprovable, and I have twelve people who can vouch for my presence.”

“Ahh yes, the alibi.” Alexander clapped his hands together. “If there is one thing a butcher should know about, it is how the cold affects decomposition. A cold body will decay much slower, making the time of death seem more recent. But ice is messy. Dry ice, on the other hand, evaporates into undetectable CO2. She was only semi-conscious when you shot her around 1 p.m using a pillow from the bed to muffle the sound and her own finger on the trigger. You then surrounded the area with as much dry ice as you could have fit in your cart. Some of it must have touched her arm a bit too long and burned her skin. You pushed the mostly empty cart outside the room. You then barricaded yourself in the room using the armoire, a suspiciously heavy one at that. This was around noon.”

“Then how could I get out?” Bon yelled, arm flung to his side, “Can’t exactly fly, and it wouldn’t have been possible to open the window. There was a wooden rod preventing it.”

“The information about the window wasn’t released to the public,” Harms said.

“You probably told me about it during our date in the interrogation room,” Bon said, smirking. “We talked a long time. It is easy to forget things.”

“Quite simple,” Alexander said, “You had already been up to the roof, tying a rope to the railing. You placed the wooden rod vertically, so when it closed, the window couldn’t be opened again.”

“But what about the gunshot then? That was heard around ten,” Officer Peterson asked.

“Exactly,” Bon said, regaining some composure.

“Do you ever make your own beer, Bon?” Alexander asked.

“Yes, what does that have to do with anything?”

“Well,” Alexander said, “Another interesting thing about dry ice is that it can be used to make rather loud explosions. The sort easily mistaken for a gun firing. You can get large thick brown bottles from a brewer’s shop. We found such glass on the roof and at a location where several gunshots were reported. It took you a while to find the right concentration so that the bottle wouldn’t explode until it fell. But you strike me a patient man, and there is little that is impossible with trial and error. You thought you were clever, doing it away from home, but that only makes it more suspicious when people spot you. Once up, you created your little dry ice bomb, making sure to use the exact right amount. You stuck it in on a board sitting on a ledge with a candle on the other side and lit it. As the candle burned down, it eventually became light enough for the board to fall off, breaking the pressurized bottle and giving you your alibi. The barricade both served to reduce suspicion on yourself as well as prevent anyone from checking immediately to see what had happened. After doing all this, you grabbed your cart from the hallway and loaded it back on your truck. Going your merry little way confident in your crime and incapable of remorse. In a way, it is brilliant. People don’t normally notice or question service people. Still, you would be surprised at how many people remember things when you bring them up. Oh, and for the record, people almost always use their dominant hand when shooting themselves. She was left-handed. Also, the bullets go up, not down.”  It was his turn to smile.

Bon was no longer cocky but furious. “So what? She got what she deserved.” He stood up straight and puffed out his chest, looking Alexander directly in the eyes. “You’re not so smart,  just got lucky finding a few witnesses is all.”

Peterson began cuffing Bon, “You’re under arrest,” leading him out of his own shop.

Harms looked over at Alexander. “What witnesses were you talking about? I was with you almost the whole time.”

“Oh, I’m sure they will show up, now that you know what to look for. Anyway, I wouldn’t worry too much. That sort of guy, now that he is sure he’s caught, will probably brag up a storm.”

“Thank you,” Harms said, looking down. “Emily, thanks to you too. Owe you a drink sometime.”

“Gonna have to make that at least three, inspector.”

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