WRITTEN OUT


By Bruce Harris



Ralph I. DeCamp first adjusted his wire rim glasses to fit more comfortably on his nose, and then with a touch to his chest, made certain the microphone was still in place. He stood behind a lectern. Ralph glanced around the room, pleased with the crowd. Every seat in the 50-row auditorium was taken.

"I have a question," shouted a baldish man in his mid thirties seated in the second row to Ralph's right.

Ralph stared him down. "Please, save your questions. We are on a tight schedule." The man's hand went down and he adjusted himself in his seat.

"In the event of an emergency," Ralph began, "we will all exit the building through either the doors from which you entered, behind you, or the front door to my immediate left. Restrooms are located through the rear doors. Make a left at the end of the hallway." Ralph glanced over to his right, toward the man who had interrupted him. The baldish man smiled and nodded, as if to say, 'Thank you, you answered my question.' DeCamp moved out from behind the lectern. "Let me once again say welcome to the world's first murder mystery betting parlor. Tonight is the first of two nights. We will begin the story tonight at 8:00pm sharp and conclude the reading tomorrow night. Tomorrow's session also begins the same time, 8:00pm. Each reading session will last approximately two hours. We will have two-fifteen minute breaks in each of the two sessions." Ralph pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his lips. He glanced at his watch. "We will begin in thirty minutes. To make certain everyone is on the same page," Ralph waited for the chuckling to subside, "thank you, please draw your attention to the wall behind me." The man of the hour stepped to the side. The audience saw:

COLLEGE IS MURDER

WHO MURDERED DR. HAROLD HASTINGS?

Dr. Harold Hastings — Tenure track professor of psychology at Chandler University. Well-published and popular with his students, his body was found on the 6th floor of the Winston Building. Cause of death was a stab wound to the throat, stabbed with an antique letter opener.

The players (and their odds of having murdered Dr. Hastings):

Helen Starinsky — Graduate student and one of the most attractive females on campus. She had brains and she had beauty. A week prior to her Ph.D. defense, Dr. Hastings called her into his office and informed her that he was breaking off their illicit 6-month affair. 20-1

Ken Murray — Undergraduate senior with a perfect 4.0 grade average. Captain of Chandler University's football team, he was applying to and considered a shoo-in to graduate school at an Ivy League University. Dr. Hastings recently refused to write him a letter of recommendation. 15-1

Wally Parker — Head of security at Chandler University. He has aspirations to leave the university's security department and become a member of New City's Finest. 80-1

Dr. James Pope, III — Tenure track psychology professor at Chandler University. Dr. Pope's research grants have paralleled those of Dr. Hastings. With Dr. Hastings out of the way, Dr. Pope has the inside track for the psychology department's coveted tenure position. 3-1

Seth Beebe — Sophomore psychology student with a reputation for being a hothead and for flying off the handle. Dr. Hastings publically accused him of cheating on an exam. In front of a crowded auditorium of over 100 undergraduate students, Beebe stood up, flipped the bird to Dr. Hastings and shouted, "That's bullshit!" before throwing his books and storming out of the room. 7-1

Professor Juan Guzman — Professor Emeritus of psychology. While doing a literature search, he was very dismayed by the findings of an earlier published article by Dr. Hastings. In a face-to-face meeting in Dr. Hastings's office, Professor Guzman accused Hastings of plagiarism. 40-1

Elizabeth Hastings — Wife of Dr. Hastings for fifteen years. She has been quite agitated in recent weeks, as rumors of her husband's infidelity increased. She told no one, but she had confronted her husband about the allegations. 5-2

Scott Kaufmann — Long-time boyfriend of Helen Starinsky. A New City Police Officer, he is a long time personal friend of Wally Parker. He's heard the rumors about Starinsky and Dr. Hastings. He has a tendency to drink too much. 2-1

Jay Cooke — Janitor at Chandler University. While cleaning the psychology department offices, he discovered the body of Dr. Harold Hastings. 99-1

Taking his place once again behind the podium, DeCamp began. "There are still a few minutes remaining to place your bets. Once the reading begins tonight, the betting windows here in the auditorium will be closed. Remember, betting will reopen following tonight's session but the suspects' odds may change drastically. Is everyone clear on that?" Ralph looked around the room. Heads nodded.

"Okay, let's begin tonight's story, COLLEGE IS MURDER." Ralph opened a soft cover notebook exposing yellow-lined paper and began reading aloud:

"Dr. Harold Hastings had just lit his pipe, a personal reward for having completed the arduous task of grading 28 exams when a fist pounded on his office door. 'Come in,' he shouted between puffs..."

The auditorium was again packed to capacity on day two of the event. Now midway through COLLEGE IS MURDER, the odds on the characters had changed, and apparently so had the betting, which was very brisk, nearly doubling the amount wagered the previous evening. When he first began reading the previous night, the bets were pretty much equally spread across all suspects and that suited Ralph perfectly. However, a distinct buzz in the auditorium rose in anticipation of the conclusion of COLLEGE IS MURDER. Unbeknownst to Ralph, within a 24-hour period, over 65 percent of the monies wagered had been bet on Ken Murray, the killer in COLLEGE IS MURDER. At exactly 8:00pm, Ralph took the podium and began reading the second half and conclusion of his story. At exactly 10:02pm, Ralph read the last page, finally identifying Ken Murray as the murderer of Dr. Harold Hastings. The auditorium erupted. Screams of, "Yes!" permeated throughout. There were cheers and high fives and fist bumping throughout the aisles. The bettors rushed from their seats, overwhelming the betting windows. The eager winners were ready to cash in their winning tickets. Apparently, hearing the first half of the story the previous night provided more than half the gamblers with enough information to accurately guess the murderer's identity.

The police were called to the auditorium at 10:36pm after the cashiers declared they were out of money. It took the officers nearly two hours to restore order. Ralph grabbed the manuscript and escaped through the front door, badly shaken, trying to figure out where he had gone wrong. How had so many people correctly guessed the killer's identity? What was it about the first half of the story that had given away the ending? He racked his brains, but couldn't think of anything...unless, no, that couldn't be it, he thought to himself. I definitely removed that sentence. I know I did. Ralph raced into his study and shook the wireless mouse, springing his computer to life. Lois called out to him, but he ignored her. His unpublished mystery novel, COLLEGE IS MURDER appeared on the screen. Ralph carefully scrolled through the first 75 pages. Just to be certain, he read another 50 pages or so. He was right. The passage was gone. He had deleted it. How then did everyone know about Ken Murray?

Lois DeCamp walked into Ralph's study. "This is where you are hiding? Why didn't you answer me when I called?" She threw the manuscript she was holding onto the desk. "Here," she said sarcastically, "you left your bestseller on the kitchen counter. Next time, I toss it in the garbage where it belongs," and she walked away. As luck would have it, the manuscript, part one of COLLEGE IS MURDER, landed awkwardly against the computer's monitor, exposing pages 72 and 73, the same pages that Ralph had read to his gambling audience the previous night. Ralph grabbed the pages, but before closing the book, noticed the following:

...Ken Murray dipped his fountain pen into the silver inkwell. This letter to his father, a retired Ivy League English Professor, was going to be something special. Murray paused, admired the vintage stationery and writing accoutrements that adorned his early Victorian pedestal desk...

Ralph did a double take. He had read from this earlier version of the manuscript, prior to the deletion of this paragraph! It was a colossal mistake.

* * *

Ralph and Lois DeCamp sat in the 12th floor office of Lois' brother, attorney Jack Neidermeyer, with the intention of declaring Ralph's murder mystery betting parlor business bankrupt. Ralph nervously looked around the office, finally focusing on one of Neidermeyer's bookshelves. The tomes appeared to be fakes, as if they had been painted onto the wall. "When I discovered that the bettors overwhelming chose Ken Murray, I knew I was ruined. Why on earth had I permitted additional betting so deep into the story?" DeCamp fidgeted with a sheaf of papers on Neidermeyer's mahogany desk. "I realized too late that my business model was badly flawed." He couldn't look Neidermeyer in the eyes. He couldn't afford to pay everyone off, not even close.

"Are you certain you want to dissolve this little enterprise of yours?" asked Neidermeyer, head bent down, looking over reading glasses.

"What choice do we have?"

Neidermeyer removed his glasses and waited a few seconds before speaking. "Ralphie Boy, I think you're on to something here. First off, I don't think your business model is flawed, quite the contrary, in fact. You made a careless mistake, a bad one, but that's all. Frankly, I like your idea!"

Ralph nearly jumped off his seat. "Did you hear that, Lois?"

"Let me give this a bit more thought, but let me throw something out there right now. What would you say if I covered your losses on this venture, and then I, I mean we, tried another reading. It's not like I've never bailed you out of a financial mess. Yes, the more I think about it, the better I like it. Heck, why stop with local audiences? This is the technology age, man! Why go after chump change when there is a fortune at stake?"

"You're talking crazy, Jack," Lois said and then turned away.

"Am I? I don't think so. There's nothing stopping this little venture from being simulcast on the web, all over the world! Imagine online betting based on murder mystery stories? It's brilliant! This could make me, I mean to say, us very rich!"

"What?" Lois shouted, "Are you both out of your minds?"

Neidermeyer got up from behind his desk and walked toward the window. He stared out and then turned toward the DeCamps. "I'm very serious. I think this can work."

"I'm not listening to any more of this ridiculousness. Ever!" With that, Lois stormed out.

"Keep talking," said Ralph eagerly.

Neidermeyer grabbed a chair and dragged it, creating a darkened comet-like tail across the plush carpet. He swung it around his desk and straddled the chair, sat backwards, so that he was face-to-face to with Ralph. With his hands on the chair's back, Neidermeyer lowered his voice and said, "Okay, here's my idea for a story. This guy's body shows up in an alleyway between a couple of high-rise office buildings, an ugly bullet hole between his eyes." Neidermeyer pressed an index finger with a polished nail on the bridge of Ralph's nose. Ralph's Adam's apple jerked upward and downward. "The victim was involved in some crazy gambling scheme gone wrong. He owes a lot of people a lot of money and he can't pay off. Every one of them has a good reason to kill him. Plus, his fed-up wife is a major suspect, and then there's his attorney who has bailed him out of one financial mess after another..."


Bruce Harris is the author of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: ABout Type (www.batteredbox.com).


Copyright 2012 Bruce Harris. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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