Gadzooks: Strong language.
“Ah, Holmes…” my trusty sidekick murmured.
“So you’re Holmes, now?” Det. Curtis Mead mused. “I’M the sidekick? You want to oversee the evidence collection, maybe question the suspects? Wouldn’t mind you wanted to do the paperwork after this shit’s done. And swear to God, if you call me Lestrade…”
“Didn’t know you were a Doyle fan.”
“And just why not?” I was skating near the polar bear end of the ice. “Must be like a million Sherlock Holmes books out there — most done-to-death dude ever. Even Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s writing Holmes novels now. Waiting for Tom Brady to start churning out Hardy Boys books.”
“Well, Holmes is a proven brand, Holmes actually went into the public domain in January. Which is why Brett chose to go this way. The theater doesn’t have to worry about IP liability. Not that I suspect the Millington Young Filmmakers Festival is a rich litigatory vein. I mean, they had a bake sale to help raise money. Well, an artisan bake sale. There wasn’t a Rice Krispie Treat in sight, but there were enough scones to kill everybody in a three-county area.”
Curtis nodded. “And just where do you fit into all this?”
It’s all about tone and emphasis, and I frowned. “Graphics. Brett’s folks live down the block, and they liked the work I did on the neighborhood sale flyer last summer. Plus, I sold off some Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell at our garage sale, and Brett and I talked mysteries. I recommended some old classics.”
“Doing your part for teen abstinence. Good man.”
“Sooo, anyway, Brett’s mom asked would I come up with a poster and maybe do some video editing. Brett’s Mom does her hair, and Sarah said yes. Sherlock Holmes and The Case of Identities. There was a Holmes story called ‘A Case of Identity,’ so I thought maybe that’s what Brett was adapting. But none of the characters coincide…”
Curtis nodded toward the flagstone courtyard. “Why don’t you tell me where he fits into all this?”
I peered out the leaded glass window. The body already had been carted off, a condition of my returning to the courtyard.
“I got no idea,” I admitted, staring up at the turret from which he’d fallen.
At one point, there were five castles in Millington. One was white, and if you liked minced onion, dispensed great sliders until the Applebee’s stormed the corner of Crispin and Fell and established a dominion of casual dining and pricier burgers. Two were erected at Brady’s Pizza and Fun and the now-defunct Putt N Paddle on the not-far-enough east side, for the pleasure of juvenile golfers. Schermer’s Chateau was still operating as a drafty destination hotel, atmospheric wedding venue, and cheap-ass conference center plugged into the Beltway between Best Buy and the new and defunct SoCal Fitness next to the KFC. The KFC was still doing land-office business. Know your audience.
Innes Castle originally had been the mindstorm of Millington candy manufacturer and sometimes civic leader Joseph Innes, who famously groused about Lincoln, placed entirely too much emphasis on horehound and sassafras at a time when America was beginning to lose its taste for tree-root confections. Innes rung in an architect from London to devise a palace of sorts for his new and eventually repatriated war bride Elsbeth. With more of a Midwest footprint, of course – what’s now Innes Boulevard (we like our candy) was entirely corn and hogs in 1919. Stop by some day, check out the sepia portraits in the spacious foyer, and you may understand why Wonkabe hoped a castle might do the trick.
And it did for a while, to the tune of two sons and a daughter who failed to weather the sugar and chocolate rationing crisis of the ‘40s and had no juice to supply our fighting boys abroad. A Chicago chocolatier with a pipeline to Marshall Fields bought out the Innes Candy plant on the west side, while the estate lay idle until it won historical designation in 1984 and became first a despised stop on junior high field trips and by the ‘90s, the place for executive weddings, off-grounds corporate Christmas parties, and the annual Taste of Shakespeare Festival in the amphitheater where the orchard and presumably the swooning coach once were.
I’d driven past the place a million times, mainly on a path to the mall, but I’d seldom seen the castle since Sue and I started snowbirding, the mall had become a senior walking track with an Old Navy and pretzels, and Amazon. The height of summer, the maples lining the estate’s wrought-iron fence lowered street visibility to, well, the wrought-iron fence.
I mention that Brett’s dad chairs the Taste of Shakespeare steering committee? So for five days between the Bard’s last bow and the forthcoming Latis-Hennissart nuptials, the writer-director, cast, and crew (also the writer-director) of Sherlock Holmes and The Case of Identities were given the run of the castle, except of course the turret tower, which had missed the last major renovation cycle in 2009. Of course, with teenagers on the premise, somebody or bodies breached the tower and a dude took a dive, or was given one. And suffice it to say production was halted. If Brett wanted period detail, his next best bet was probably the men’s room at the Justice Center.
That the victim was not a teenage dude was at the crux of this sordid affair. Late 30s, from what could be divined at this point. Before I began gagging, I noted a few both old and relatively fresh burn scars on the back of the poor soul’s forearms, wrists and hands. His fingers were dry and calloused and his cuticles ragged and torn, but his nails were neatly trimmed. While he’d face-planted on the stones, I could fleetingly spot a shallow but pronounced ridge across his buzzcut roughly mid-skull.
“Obviously, the deceased engages in manual labor,” I surmised as Curtis sidestepped the taped-off pool of victim blood and the uniform monitoring it until the techs now up in the tower could take a peek. “If I had to guess, I’d say a mechanic of some sort. Those burn marks on his forearm might be the result of tinkering with and reaching into the bowels of hot engine blocks. Though his fingers are clean, his cuticles show hard he scrubs to get rid of residual grease. Yet, his nails are immaculate because cutting them almost to the quick’s really the only way to get rid of the crud underneath them.
“I myself have a permanent depression in the skin near the base of my skull similar to that on the back of the victim’s. Mine’s from a C-PAP strap; his, I venture to say, is from wearing a strapped pair of safety glasses for eight to 10 hours a day.”
“Do venture on, Holmes,” Curtis murmured.
“The victim had no apparent tan lines on his wrists or where his goggle strap covered his scalp, so he likely works in an auto shop rather than say a truck stop or fleet terminal.”
“Maybe a transmission and brake shop,” Det. Mead extrapolated. “Maybe even the Roadboy’s on North Beltway.”
I paused as he smiled modestly. “You got the wallet, don’t you?”
“With his last check stub and his name badge. Bobby Delacroix. But you did it with more words. C’mon, Mrs. Hudson.”
In the Lutheran parking lot across the street, Brett was conversing glumly with Cody, Jared, Wil, Sharonne, Mandi, Kurt, Lee, Kai, and Amaira -- respectively, Avram, Byron, Quentin, Taylor, Lavinia, Graham, the soon-to-be-late Neville-Beresford, Watson, and Inspector Lestrade. AKA, six suspects, the victim, Holmes’ sidekick, and the rather dull police foil. Brett was pulling a Burt Reynolds/Woody Allen hat trick and assaying the role of The Great Detective. To keep them from contaminating the crime scene or doing a Tik-Tok on an active scene, Curtis quarantined the youths in the church lot with a reminder that he, if not the Screen Actors Guild, knew where to find them.
“Sir?” Brett addressed Curtis almost inaudibly. “So, I don’t want to sound like a dick or anything, but you got any idea when we can start filming again?”
Curtis regarded him with a neutral expression. “I were you, I would plan to shoot all your externals over at least the next three days.”
“We’re two days in,” the director whined.
“Oh, and I hope you weren’t planning any location work, at least outside the corporate municipal limits.” The group in toto stared flatly at Curtis. He sighed. “You do any filming say up in the turret?”
The blinking started. “It’s, um, it’s off-limits, I thought,” Brett managed to keep a poker face without soiling himself.
“’Cept the door to the tower was open, and there’s at least two, maybe three sets of shoeprints in the dust on the staircase up. That’s not to mention what our guys might find at the top. What do you think they might find?” Curtis was putting just the slightest Samuel L. Jackson stank into his words. I even turned anxiously to glance at the tower, where I could see a couple of MPD techs milling. When I turned back, the blinking had stopped. Wil, I think, was holding up an iPhone, the new yellow one, which from the marketing was its defining technological advance. For a second, I thought we were all going to be on Instagram or maybe the 10 o’clock news.
“My dad wants to talk to you,” Wil said steadily, false bravado in all but his eyes. “He’s a lawyer.”
Curtis practically snatched the phone from the teen. “’Course he is.” He stalked off a dozen yards.
“Just how far did you get?” I asked Brett, trying to diffuse the intergenerational tension. I'd done a career talk at the junior high once, and all I could relate it to was Sigourney Weaver strolling through the xenomorph hatchery.
"Not very," he said sullenly. "Just the scene where I -- Holmes -- gets all the suspects together to you know, explain things. I wanted to start at the end, so I'd remember what was supposed to happen."
Not sure Martin Scorsese started that way, but us boomers can be so linear. "You know, I'd love to read the script, if you could email it to me..."
The gang looked up, and Mandi exchanged a wary eye-bulge at the young director.
"Uh, I'm trying to keep things under wraps, you know, so everybody acts like they're surprised when...shit happens."
I didn't remind him he'd already shot the climactic gathering of the suspects, which pretty much threw cold water on any key plot twists.
"By the way, the poster's awesome -- I like the way you did the title font thing." Master of subterfuge, this one. "I just had a couple things I'd like you to maybe change."
Now I was getting notes. Curtis returned, tersely dismissed the kids, and stalked back to the castle. The group disbursed, three of the suspects piling into a Jeep, Brett's victim (aside from prospective filmgoers) catching a ride with the contractor-dad we'd had out to get rid of our overly soft backyard maple, and Lestrade, Watson, and two would-be faux murderers trudged off toward the nearby ghost mall for distressed casuals, jumbo pretzels, or seniors to taunt with disdainful stares.
I gave Brett a ride home, and we took a mobile meeting to dismantle my poster.
"So, Delacroix was well-liked at Roadboys," Curtis related the next noon as he took the end off his Maxwell Street polish and a crinkle fry from my now-translucent paper plate. Loopy Dawgs was off the old courthouse square downtown, which guaranteed a safe space for confidential police intelligence. I had vanquished my Chicago dog (minus day-glo relish) with the relish of a man lectured daily on fats and sodium. I pulled my plate closer. "Wife, a supervisor at Cental Illinois Power. Looks half his age. No kids."
"This Delacroix, he doesn't sound like a history buff," I said. "What was he doing at, much less in, the Innes Castle? By the way, you don't..."
"Think one of your junior cineastes tossed him off the Tower of Innes? I mean, your boy Wil lawyered up like the guy in the first 15 minutes of Law and Order. And the rest of them were giving off a Pretty Little Liars vibe. Looks of them, I don't think any combination of your little Breakfast Club coulda lifted him over the, the..."
"Yeah, that." He stole another fry, authoritarian bastard.
"You're not thinking suicide?"
"Well, I gotta say, wife looks like Mrs. Delacroix, there's a definite potential for heartbreak. But day he dropped, Mr. Delacroix ordered tickets for the Blake Shelton hootenanny next week in Peoria."
"Oh, well then."
"But," Curtis began, then shoved his sangwich into his jaws.
"Well, there was a note up there. Not a suicide note. Piece of blank computer paper with the words "Cherry pi" on it. Blew up against the turret wall, or we'd never found it. Rained two days ago, but the paper was clean and the ink clear. Gonna compare the writing with Delacroix'."
I browsed while Curtis finished his sausage and Dr. Pepper. "Ok," I finally muttered. "Cherry Pi is some kind of single-board computer, whatever that is. Looks more like a spare part of a computer, a, you know, like a motherboard. There's a paraplegic model and Paralympian named Cherri Pi. Maybe Delacroix simply had a sweet tooth."
Curtis squinted at the menu board above the seemingly narcoleptic counter guy. "Speaking of which..."
On the way home for the weekly mow, I looped around to the scene of the crime. The gates were closed and festively strung with police tape, and as I cruised past, I craned up toward the turret and tried to imagine why the unfortunate Roadboy might have scaled the palace.
About four blocks up, by the Baskin-Robbins, I had a thought that had nothing to do with Pecan Praline. I pulled in, called Curtis, and ordered a pecan praline. I can multi-task. Then, I located the number Brett gave me and requested a gathering of the suspects.
“I’ve driven by the Castle dozens of times, and most of the year, it’s almost impossible to see the turret through the trees. But the other day, when I looked across the street from the church, I could. Because the trees were trimmed to clear the utility lines in front of the castle.
“What’re you saying?” Brett asked. “You think somebody saw who threw the dude off the tower?”
“Oh, somebody saw the killer, probably saw the murder itself. They were on the roof, alone, and when they saw the body dropped, they were afraid of being drawn in. It might seem suspicious that the one person on the scene comes up with what sounds like a pretty incredible story to absolve themselves. But their conscience kicked in, and they started to leave a message for the police. Then the others spotted the body, and they got the hell out of there before the cops got there.”
“That makes no sense, dude,” Cody snorted. “If one of us was up there when the dude got killed, why didn’t the killer like, you know, kill him? Or her? And why don’t you just quit fucking around and tell us who the fuck you’re talking about?”
Dude was destroying the whole Holmes vibe. “I did. I already said. And Brett knows it. And probably a few or maybe all of you. And I can see from the look on their face, they do too. I may be an old dude, but I’m onto Brett’s name game. It’s a pretty clever gimmick, if not horribly subtle.
“The film festival guidelines call for entries that are socially relevant. Now, what’s relevant about a Victorian Era Sherlock Holmes story? Then it hit me that The Case of the Identities wasn’t an adaptation of A Case of Identity, the original Holmes story, I realized Brett going after something more – a drama exploring identity and identification. Lavinia, Graham, Byron, Taylor, Quentin, Avram…LGBTQA.”
“LGBTQIA,” Graham sighed, as if he were explaining the Instagram to his grandpa. “It’s LGBTQIA.”
“Yeah. I know. Clever touch, using Lestrade, the inspector, for your ‘I,’ Brett.”
“That message they found on the roof had nothing to do with you guys, and one of you knows that. They weren’t identifying the murderer or the motive. They didn’t even know the killer. But they knew how he did it.
“Cody, somewhere in your scatological soliloquy – Wiki it up – you asked a good question. If the killer was killing our Mr. Delacroix, why didn’t he kill our witness? Because neither the murderer nor the victim were ever on the turret. ‘Cherry pi’ didn’t have anything to do with cherry pie or computers or differently-abled models or mathematic formulae or anything else. The killer was working outside the castle gates that day, in fact trimming trees using a scissor lift. A cherry picker. Actually, Det. Mead worked that one out when he discovered the killer was getting all heteronormative with Delacroix’ wife. The murderer and Delacroix’ wife both worked for Central Illinois Power, and at some point, sparks began to fly. Ah, now there’s that adolescent group eyeroll I was waiting for. Delacroix finally confronted our tree trimmer on the job, and one thing led to another, and boom, murder.
“So our guy’s got a problem – a dead body on a public street that was going to get pretty busy around 4 or 5. He can’t very well load him in his CIP truck and dump him in a cornfield, or drag him behind the shrubs on the estate. But then, he spies an opportunity a tree-trimming, spouse-, uh, spouse-chasing Average Joe seldom spies. The castle tower lies before him, and the place seems deserted. So he loads Delacroix into the cherrypicker basket, directs the basket arm over the courtyard, and dumps Delacroix, knowing the cops would assume he fell or was thrown from the turret. I got that right, Lee?"
The thespian best known for their role as the deceased Neville-Beresford seemed to melt temporarily into themself. "I thought your buddy would think I made things up. And I was afraid maybe the electrical guy saw me."
I nodded sympathetically. "See, Cody -- I wasn't being clever or coy. Everybody else in Brett's film except Holmes and Watson had a name that fit Brett's identification code. Took me a while to realize that Neville-Beresford was part of the name game, too. N.B. -- non-binary. And if the one scene Brett shot was the gathering of the suspects, who's the only character who could sneak away to explore the castle? The victim. Elementary.”