1 comment

Mystery

“You killed him. My God, you did it! An autopsy. A funeral, my God, an open casket funeral. And a monument. You put a monument over his grave!”

I held the phone an inch from my ear as my editor, Charles Emil, bawled his heart out. I waited for him to finish with his outpourings of grief, despair and utter conviction that I’d made the biggest mistake of my career.

“You couldn’t have thrown him off a cliff, into a waterfall, or blown up by a bomb, or lost in a jungle? I mean one could come back from that,” he whined.

“I’m sick of that sad drunk of a detective. You have to understand that there will be no comebacks, no miraculous escapes, no impossible reappearance, nothing. There will be no ‘Return of Hadrian Foxe, P.I.’ It’s time for my next act. The sooner you get on board with the idea, the better for all concerned,” I tried to sound curt and decisive. It’s a new look on me and I haven’t had much practice.

“Look Max, I know you think you’re getting too good for trite gumshoe romances, but that’s your bread and butter. Mine too. When I agreed to killing off Foxe I thought it’d be a good publicity stunt. I thought we’d leave a backdoor open and…”

“We? We?” I found my spine and held on to my outrage. “What do you mean ‘we’? We aren’t leaving any door open. I’ve shut it. Quite firmly. Listen, I’m being assertive. Just call me when you’ve put the thing to bed.”

He sighed, the drama queen. “It’s done. I’m going to go put my house and car on the market. Now will you tell me who your new hero is going to be?”

“You remember that cat burglar? The one the press calls ‘the Creeping Tom’?”

“You are joking. I have it on good authority that Creeping Tom is the suspect in a murder. He’s in hiding. My God if you had told me before...”

I rang off. If I spoke, I might start apologizing. It’s standard operating procedure with me and I blame Foxe. Maybe I put all my decisiveness into that preening excuse of a character. He says all the clever things, does all the heroic stuff and lives the wonderful, dangerous life. He’s larger than life. He’s so big that he left no room for me. I was sick of him. He had to die.

I sat staring at a blank screen wondering if all that was true. I was having second thoughts and regrets. I was moments from screaming in panic when the doorbell rang. The ringing was replaced with a familiar rhythmic knock. Impossible.

He stood there dressed in black. Black tie, black shirt, black slacks, black leather belt, shiny black shoes and a heavy black overcoat that must be stifling on this pleasant afternoon. As if in agreement with my thoughts, the man fidgeted and I saw a flash of the only bit of color on his ensemble—electric blue socks. A wide-brimmed black hat shaded his eyes, which would be steel gray. I knew this without even seeing the face. I had created that face. I had written every line, every scar, every gray hair that I couldn’t see under that stupid hat. It was impossible.

“I’m here to meet my maker,” Hadrian Foxe said in the gravelly voice I had given him. Strange, I’d never really heard a gravelly voice before, but this was exactly how I’d expect gravel to sound. I looked down at the outstretched hand and wondered if I’d be mad to reach out to shake it.

The next hour was a blur. He came in. I don’t remember inviting him to do so. And started complaining. He had been dissatisfied with many things. Apparently, he hadn’t liked being a depressed alcoholic insomniac. He showed me scars and berated me for the torture scene in ‘Out-Foxed.’ He said he hated black. And that he didn’t like guns. In fact, he said, he found he disliked guns intensely. Maybe even loathed them. He asked me why I had put him in so many shootouts and had him shot so often. Finally he stopped speaking.

He took a chair, sighed and rubbed his face like he was tired. He looked uncertain and lost. Two attributes I’d never given him. Foxe had changed since he died. He had escaped my narrative constraints and found his own.

“All right you’ve met me. Now what?”

“Is there an afterlife? Heaven?”

“I wrote you an atheist.”

He made some colorful suggestions to the universe ensuring that if there was a heaven, he was not getting in.

“I think I shall be Buddhist,” he said when he’d calmed down. “What happens to them?”

I shrugged. I asked the question that had been bothering me, “When my wife comes home, is she going to see me talking to thin air, or to a man a silly hat?” I don’t know if this is true for all authors, but I secretly worry that I might be mad. I’m terrified of being found out and packed into a padded cell with all my insane plots, weird thoughts and strange dreams.

He shrugged, and I must say he took great pleasure in not having the answer.

“You don’t seem to be going away,” I pointed out.

“Unfinished business? Perhaps, I have a purpose. The only thing I can do is solve crimes. Maybe I’m here to solve a mystery?”

“The only mystery, apart from your presence in my house, is who I am going base my next series on, now that the Creeping Tom is a murderer,” I replied, returning to my computer.

“Aha! You said ‘murder.’ That’s a crime I can solve and perhaps go on to my afterlife.”

“You can’t solve real crimes,” I said, “You solve them in books because I plan the murders and know all the answers. The real job is planting all the red herrings, alibis and multiple motives.”

“Yes, but you don’t tell me those answers, do you? I do the hard work of crime-solving in spite of all the trouble you make for me—the hangovers, getting kidnapped, flirting with blondes, shooting, getting shot at…”

“Have at it then,” I interrupted. It is one thing to have critics call your work formulaic and cheesy, but it is quite another to have your protagonist stand in front of you and heap abuse.

We spent the next couple of hours reading about the crime. I went on the dark web and left a message for the Creeping Tom.

Foxe leaned back on the chair and assumed a self-important air. Once he was satisfied with his pose, he began talking, “The facts of the case, my dear Watson, are this: The multi-millionaire industrialist Mr James Costello III and his ex-lingerie model and current socialite third wife Jennifer Costello came home to their palatial Westchester address from a social engagement late on Friday night. Mrs Costello handed over her necklace, a million-dollar Burmese ruby affair, to her husband to return to the wall safe in the study.

“She heard a noise and followed her husband into the room. She found him screaming for the police and fighting off a burglar who then proceeded to shut him up with a bop on the head with a marble ornament. At which time, the old man fell and the burglar exited via the open window.

“Mrs Costello went to her fallen husband and the rest of the household, including a son and his wife, a daughter and her husband, and three members of the domestic staff, roused by the commotion, entered the room in a veritable procession. The scene they found was this: the head of the household lay dead on the floor, bleeding copiously from a severe head wound; a marble bust of Napoleon lay next to the floor covered in said blood and, what was later found by the medical examiner to be, brain matter; the young wife was sobbing and cradling the dead man’s mangled head. Are we agreed?”

I shook my head. “You don’t sound like that. I wrote you a hard-boiled sardonic gumshoe, not a loquacious Sherlock Holmes.”

“I think I should be a cerebral erudite kind of detective, not a car-chasing, gun-fighting and rolling-around-with-blondes kind of lunatic,” he interrupted.

“Why? Do you prefer brunettes?” I sneered.

“Why not? And must it always be women? Why not a bi-curious detective?” he snarked back.

“This is new. Banter. From the famously fusty and morose Mr Hadrian Foxe,” I shook my head.

“I don’t like me, as you wrote me,” Foxe grumbled.

“Well, feel free to rediscover yourself. I don’t control you anymore. Go ahead, live your best life. Be your best you,” I shouted.

“I shall,” he shouted back, “What’s more, I shall solve this case as an intellectual Buddhist detective with some control over his libido.”

“Go on then and leave me in peace.”

He left the room. Then came back. “It appears I’m slightly tied to you. Don’t seem to be material enough to grab the doorknob.”

“You rang the doorbell, you knocked,” I accused.

“Narrative coherence is your problem, not mine.”

The computer pinged, interrupting my string of swear words. It was a message from the Creeping Tom. “Never killed nobody. Never met a Burmese ruby necklace. Prove my innocence and my life story is yours to play with.”

“Do we trust her?” Foxe asked, looking at the screen over my shoulder.

“Her?”

“I think it’s time for a good strong female lead, don’t you? Makes a nice change of pace from chauvinists like Foxe.”

I wasn’t going to defend my Foxe to this Foxe. Besides my wife would be home soon. It wouldn’t take her ten minutes to become convinced that I’d gone completely mad.

I called Emil and was surprised at the clout the man had. Before dusk fell we were at the crime scene—Emil and I followed a helpful policeman to the dead man’s study. It was a comfortable room on the second floor of the house. It had all the accoutrements of a rich man’s idea of a study—enormous mahogany desk, check; equally enormous leather-backed chair, check; bookshelves filled with heavy leather-bound volumes, check; ornate fireplace, check; heavy shag carpet, check; giant avant-garde portrait of the dead man staring down at me, check with a shudder. I avoided the large crimson stain on the carpet and concentrated on what I’d come to see. The wall safe stood open, empty and bereft.

Foxe was peering into the gloom of its innards and the policeman and Emil were watching me. I was grateful that no one else seemed to see Foxe, because how was I to explain him? And yet it worried me, because here was a real symptom of madness—hallucinations. I pushed my glasses up my nose and asked, “The safe.. Is that how you found it?”

“No. The thief had done his usual thing—closed it behind him and changed the combination so the owners were locked out of their own safe. We broke it open, drilled through,” said the inspector.

“Why does he do it, do you think?” I asked.

The inspector shrugged, “Weird peccadillo, but helps us narrow down all his jobs.”

“You have Mrs Costello statement?”

The inspector referred to his notes. “Came in to find victim in a tussle with suspect clad in ski mask, gloves and dark clothing. Victim was trying to hold on to a ruby necklace and suspect went for the bust,” here he pointed with his pen to an empty space on the mantelpiece, “hit him on the head, grabbed the jewelry and was out the window.” His pen jerked to the French window leading to the balcony.

I tried to look thoughtful while Foxe wandered out onto the balcony. Foxe said aloud, “Yes that’s the way she went, but since we know Creeping Tomasina didn’t do nothing, let’s look at the other suspects. Cui bono?”

I looked at my companions. They’d heard nothing. I cleared my throat and voiced the question, “Apart from the robber, who benefits?”

The inspector raised his eyebrows, but didn’t refer to his notebook. “All of ‘em. Son gets most of the company, daughter gets the rest. Mrs Costello was a rich wife. She is a richer widow.”

“The widow. She’s the one with the motive, means and opportunity. She did it. Now, how to prove it?” muttered Foxe.

“May I speak with the family?” I asked the inspector.

“Snooty bunch. Won’t talk. Not to you. Maybe the daughter-in-law. Only normal person in this house,” he replied, snapping his notebook shut.

The inspector turned out to be right. All of Emil’s charms and my celebrity would not put Mr James Costello IV or his sister Mrs Abbott in a chatty mood. Mrs Leah Costello agreed to an interview.

“I don’t like your books, Mr Max Hacker,” she said.

“I like her! Beautiful and intelligent. What does she think of her mom-in-law?” Foxe cheered.

“Thank you, Mrs Costello. That means you’ve read at least one,” I smiled at the blonde woman.

“I’ve read them all,” she smiled back.

“Could you describe the scene, your personal feelings and impressions?” I asked.

She didn’t have much more to add to the police reports. But she did say something that made Foxe’s eyes light up. “I always thought Jenny indifferent to Dad, but the way she sat there, sobbing and holding him… She was covered with blood, but she took no notice. Goes to show, you never really know, about people I mean.”

“Mrs Costello was acting out of character, eh? Well that is one way to explain bloodstains on oneself,” hooted Foxe. I repeated his comments aloud. Emil stared at me as if I had grown horns. Mrs Costello gaped. I avoided the inspector’s eyes. Foxe began pacing the room, then he stopped suddenly.

“The necklace is still in the room! That is our proof!” he yelled. Then began muttering again, “If I were a pricey ruby necklace where would I be?”

“Has this room been searched?” I asked.

“For what?” the inspector wanted to know.

Whatever their reservations about talking to me the family couldn’t contain their curiosity. They began trickling in as I followed Foxe around, helpfully opening things he couldn’t. First came the younger Mr Costello, then his sister and brother-in-law. They all began protesting the violation of their privacy, memory of their father and other things. I shut out their voices and concentrated.

Foxe looked like he had an idea. He smiled at a big vase full of cut flowers and I ran up to it pulled out the flowers and upturned the thing. Cold water splashed down my leg into my left shoe and the necklace hit my toes with the weight of a cudgel. I yelped and picked up Exhibit A in the murder trial of Mrs Jennifer Costello. The room fell silent. I had their attention. I cleared my throat and began.

“There was a robbery and a murder in this house on Friday night. If the Creeping Tom was still in the house when the Costellos arrived, presumably he wasn’t finished robbing the place. In the scene Mrs Costello described, he definitely did not stop to lock and reset the safe. But that had been done, so why was he still there? For this necklace? But he has not taken it. The error was to assume that the robber was also the murderer,” I said.

“Nonsense. You can’t believe that on the night there was a thief in the house, a murderer also happened to drop by,” scoffed Costello Jr.

“No, it was not a coincidence. Let’s imagine Mr and Mrs Costello come home and decide to return the necklace to the safe before calling it a night. But when Costello is unable to open it, he immediately realizes he has been robbed by the Creeping Tom who plays this silly prank on his victims. He starts yelling for the police and throwing a tantrum. Mrs Costello meanwhile has a different realization. If Mr Costello was murdered, the blame would fall on the obvious culprit—the Creeping Tom. She lifts the heavy bust and brings down the unfortunate husband. But the commotion has roused the household. The police will wonder why the Creeping Tom attacked Mr Costello. For the precious necklace, of course. She had to hide it before the family arrived. She stuffed it into the vase. Then cradled the body to obscure the blood splatter on her own clothes. All she had to do was retrieve the necklace as soon as the crime scene was cleared by the police.”

The widow entered in time to see me hold up the necklace and make the last pronouncement. She came at me with a shriek. But the inspector was too quick for her. Pandemonium broke out. Someone began shrieking. Someone else was laughing. Everybody was shouting.

Emil stood in a corner, thoughtfully tapping his chin. I went to stand next to him. We watched the chaos scrub away the gilded veneer from the shiny rich people, revealing the instinct to claw and bite at men with handcuffs. “I think you left it too late, Max. You should’ve killed him sooner. Now you are possessed by Foxe.”

I looked across the room to where Hadrian Foxe, PI, was beginning to melt into the shadows. His eyes looked more green than gray now. His trousers were navy blue and his shirt had turned charcoal gray. He was less solid than the world around him and yet, more real. He tipped his jaunty maroon hat. I winked my thanks.

January 17, 2020 23:20

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

1 comment

Anjana Rajeev
00:26 Jan 23, 2020

A witty take on a tense topic! Very well written.

Reply

Show 0 replies