COOL DEATH

 

By Bruce Harris

 

 

Roberta Stone, part-time reporter for the Eliot Courier, turned off the Rambler’s car radio in disgust. A lifelong Boston Red Sox fan, she just heard the announcer call Mickey Mantle’s second homerun of the game. Roger Maris hit one in the first inning. Her beloved Red Sox weren’t coming back in this game, trailing by six runs in the seventh inning, with Whitey Ford on the mound for the Yankees.

A baking sun bathed yellow police tape. Stretched across a paved parking lot, yards of the plastic ribbon restricted access to the Oasis Hotel. Roberta Stone showed her credentials, made her way to room number 12. Inside, despite the central air conditioning’s maximum setting, hotel manager Matthew Prolly mopped sweat beads off an expansive forehead with a damp handkerchief.

“What’s that yellow stuff outside?” asked Roberta Stone, pointing to the cordoned off areas.

Prolly ignored her. “This is terrible. Awful. This kind of thing has never happened here. Horrible. And now of all times! The middle of the summer, when everyone and their brothers and sisters vacation in York and my hotel is shut down. This is going to kill my business.”

The cop on the scene looked up from his notepad. “Good pun, but you’re wrong about that. Probably increase customers. As for the yellow tape, ma’am, I know it looks like we’ve strewn a load of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit wrappers around, but it’s the newest thing in keeping crowds away. First time ever we got to try it out. What’ll they think of next?” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a stick of Blackjack gum, unwrapped it and jammed it into his mouth.

“Just my luck,” chirped Prolly. “Yellow tape that screams, dead man at my hotel!”

 Prolly turned toward the policeman. “And what do you mean, business will increase? This horrible death will bring in more customers?”

“Sure. People get off on others’ misery. You’d be surprised how much interest and new customers this’ll bring. Morbid curiosity. People can’t stay away. I guarantee it. Before long, you’ll be thanking this stiff.”

Roberta Stone gave the young patrolman a stern look. It silenced the officer. Stone, two short days away from retirement, showed concern. First, she didn’t like the patrolman’s cavalier demeanor. Imagine wisecracking in the presence of a dead body back in the day. Second, she didn’t like the looks of the corpse. Not that she could have identified the face, scattered worse than a half-eaten helping of Waffle House hash browns. The room’s bloody interior reminded Stone of the Bates Motel’s shower in Psycho. She recognized the victim from his left ring finger, or more accurately, lack thereof. Ernie McDaniel, epitome of tragedy, sat slumped over a desk in room number 12 of a lousy two-story hotel in downtown York, Maine wearing death like a pair of custom-made L.L. Bean boots.

Once, McDaniel had a promising career on the small but proud Biddeford police force. A rising star, his promotion from patrol cop to detective was meteoric. Roberta Stone, an infrequent reporter covering business and the local crime scene, knew McDaniel well. She also knew about McDaniel’s darker side, one that kept his elbow greased and exercised. One too many for the road, that’s what had set in motion McDaniel’s current state. No doubt about McDaniel’s identity. He lost his ring finger as a young man slicing off more than salami at a deli counter. McDaniel often joked that no woman would marry him because he lacked the finger on which to place a wedding band. That occurred a long time ago. More recently, McDaniel had served a 15-year manslaughter sentence for the drunk driving vehicular homicide of his then partner Sheldon Jackson. The two were off duty, shooting pool and drinking in a small New Hampshire tavern. McDaniel assured everyone he was fit to drive, but he lied. He drove his DeSoto into a tree. McDaniel suffered only minor injuries, but his passenger and partner, Sheldon Jackson wasn’t as fortunate. Unrestrained, Jackson careened head first through the windshield. The glass split his scalp. The tree trunk yielded not an inch, shattering Jackson’s skull. Sheldon Jackson left behind his wife, Elyse and a young son, Will. McDaniel, contrite and psychologically damaged, listened as a judge sentenced him to the maximum 15 years for drunk driving vehicular manslaughter. McDaniel was released with little fanfare from incarceration less than a week ago. Now, just as dead as the man he had killed, Ernie McDaniel’s obituary would be Roberta Stone’s final typewritten story.

Eddie Weber, the young patrolman, broke the silence. “Open and shut case. Suicide. It don’t take no Sergeant Joe Friday to figure that fact out.”

“It doesn’t take a Sergeant Joe Friday,” she corrected him. “You’re sure?” questioned Stone.

Both Weber and the hotel manager Prolly stared at the reporter. Weber grinned. “You’re joking, right?”

“There’s a dead man in this room. You think I’d joke at a time like this? I asked you a question. You’re sure it was suicide?” Thirty-plus years reporting for local newspapers had thickened her skin.

Despite Stone’s tone, the uniformed cop still had a hard time taking this woman seriously. He looked at Prolly. The man shrugged his broad shoulders as if to say, “Don’t ask me.” Weber took a step closer to the deceased. “First off, there’s the suicide note.” Weber pointed a tanned finger, careful not to touch the paper. He bent closer and read the short note.

My irresponsible actions those many years ago can never be forgiven. It is not right for me to live while my partner, Sheldon Jackson perished. I am solely responsible for his death. This is long overdue.

<Signed> Ernest McDaniel

 

Weber straightened up and looked at Stone but got no response. He continued. “I’m no handwriting expert, but I’ll bet donuts, make that chocolate glazed donuts to dollars,” he hesitated, hoping for a reaction from either Stone or Prolly. When none came, he continued. “This note was written by a left-handed person. You can tell by the backhand slant of the letters.” He stopped.

“Go on,” commanded Stone.

Weber cleared his throat. “Obviously, the deceased man here is, I should say was, left-handed. “I’m no medical examiner,” again Weber paused, waiting for a reaction that never materialized. After an awkward moment, “But if I was a doc, I’d say the bullet entered the left side of the dead man’s head. Self-inflicted wound. The gun is still inches from his left hand.”

Prolly lost patience. The death scene had taken its toll. “Why are you playing games, Roberta? It has to be suicide. There’s no other explanation.” Prolly and Roberta Stone became friends decades prior after Stone wrote a feature story about the then new Oasis Hotel, its harbor view, fine pool, color television in the office, modern amenities and of course the rarest of birds for New England motels and hotels, central air conditioning.

Roberta Stone walked over to the door, bent down and picked up a hacksaw. “This is the saw you used to cut the door chain?” The chain, two separate pieces, dangled from the wall and the slot on the inside door. “Tell us how you came upon the body, Matthew. Please, make it quick, before the rest of the police officers come in.” Garbled voices coming from police radios and much closer, louder, and clearer voices were heard outside the hotel room’s door.

Matthew Prolly licked dry lips. He wanted a glass of water or something sweet, like a bottle of Coke from the outside vending machine, but was afraid to move about and possibly alter the room in any way. “As I told the officer before, Mr. McDaniel checked into this room on Monday. He said at the time he planned to stay one night. By Wednesday, neither the maid nor I had seen him. The ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign hung on the outside doorknob. Wednesday afternoon I knocked on the door. Nothing. I have a key to all the rooms. I figured he took off, but when I tried to open the door, I discovered the inside door chain had been engaged. Locked by the chain, the door jerked open an inch, but no more. I called out to Mr. McDaniel, but got no answer. That’s when I decided that maybe he’d become sick or incapacitated in some way. I ran back to the office, got the hacksaw and cut the chain. That’s when I saw the body and called the police.”

Eddie Weber engaged his inner Perry Mason. As if he miraculously procured a Harvard law degree, he pontificated. “So, Mr. Prolly, you are saying that the deceased man here,” he pointed toward the prostrate body, “Was found dead in this very room with a single gunshot wound to his head. A gun that had been fired lay near his hand. A suicide note written by what appears to be a left-handed individual, with the windows locked, and the door not only locked, but also chained shut from the inside?”

The hotel manager wiped the area underneath his Jello-like chin. “Yes.”

The cop stared at Prolly’s face. “In your opinion, would you say this man committed suicide?”

Again the one-word response, “Yes.”

Weber turned and faced Stone. “Open and shut case, ma’am. I’m no Jimmy Olson, but…”

“Knock it off, Officer Weber. Show some respect.”

The young policeman ignored the reporter. “I’m no Jimmy Olson, but if I were writing this story, I’d begin with…”

Roberta Stone forced retirement thoughts out of her brain and again stopped the obnoxious Weber in mid-word. “You’re not writing anything. This case is open and shut. I agree one hundred percent. However, this man was murdered.”

Prolly’s dropped jaw caused exaggerated ripples cascading down his soft double chin. “What?” questioned Prolly. “I know you’ve frequently been able to see things the rest of us mortals don’t, kind of like you look through lenses freshly cleaned by an optometrist.”

Stone adjusted her eyeglass frames. “Maybe it’s because I was born on February 29? I guess I have the vision of a 15-year old.”

Patrolman Weber lost his professionalism, blurted out, “Do you have some screws loose?” He gathered himself, trying to recover. “I mean, how can you say this is murder? It appears as though suicide is the only answer.”

“Appearances deceive,” said a stoic Stone.

“But, no one could have gotten in, murdered McDaniel, locked and chained the door from the inside and gotten out. Remember, the air conditioning was also running and the windows were closed and locked. Houdini couldn’t have done it. It’s impossible.”

The hotel manager regained his composure. “I have to agree with the officer. Suicide is the obvious and only solution. It’s horrible. My hotel. My reputation. This is just awful. No one will want to come here. This place will be as busy as Fenway Park for a meaningless game on a cold night in late September. Heck, no one will want to come to York. I can’t believe…”

Roberta Stone interrupted. “I know what it looks like, but this is murder. Ernie McDaniel and I go way back. He made a mistake, a bad one. But, anyone who knows, or knew him is aware that he is not left-handed.”

“But the note,” interjected Weber. “I’m certain it was written by a lefty. And the gun? He shot himself in the left temple with his left hand. How do you explain that?”

“Simple. The note was written with his left hand. I agree. My guess is he was forced to write the false suicide note. Ernie McDaniel was right-handed, although he wrote with his left hand. It’s more common than you think.”

“But how do you explain the gunshot wound to his left temple? And, the locked room?” asked Officer Weber.

After a few seconds silence, Stone answered, “McDaniel didn’t fire the gun. The murderer did and made the fatal mistake of assuming, because McDaniel wrote with his left hand, that he was left-hand dominant. As for the locked room, I haven’t an answer yet.”

“You’ve got some screwy ideas,” blurted Matthew Prolly. “No disrespect intended Roberta, but I don’t think you are on the right track. The room was locked from the inside! Remember? The door chain was fastened. I had to cut it to gain entrance into the room. It’s not possible that…”

“Thank you, Mr. Prolly!” Roberta Stone rubbed her hands together. “Thanks to you and Weber here, I now know how the murderer did it and got away.”

“Me? And him?”

“Yes. It’s clear now. I have my suspicions as to Mr. McDaniel’s killer, but I need evidence. And, with your help Matthew, I expect to obtain that proof.”

The hotel manager cleared his throat. “Of course, I will do anything in my power to help. I really need to get the hotel open for business again. I just don’t see how…”

Three days later, Matthew Prolly sat in his office in good spirits. A Viceroy smoldered in a chipped orange colored kidney-shaped ashtray. The police tape had been removed from the Oasis Hotel. He stood and greeted Roberta Stone. The two shook hands. “Business is coming back. So, are you ready to write the story, Roberta?”

Stone didn’t bother correcting Prolly. The Eliot Courier no longer employed her. Officially retired, her reporting days were over. “You can help me, Matthew.” Stone handed Prolly a slip of paper. “That’s my phone number. The minute someone asks to book room 12, call me. Don’t wait. Call me.”

Prolly looked puzzled. “Call you and give him or her the room? I’m not sure what you are asking me to do.”

Again, Stone didn’t mention the fact that she was now retired and no longer affiliated with any newspaper. “I’m asking you to contact me right away if someone asks for that room. Do not, under any circumstances, give the person access to room 12. Is that clear?”

“Yes, but…”

“Just tell them the room is occupied, or reserved. Anything, just don’t give the room without notifying me first.”

A serious expression crossed Prolly’s fleshy face. “Yes. I’ll contact you first.”

“Good,” said Stone. “Don’t forget, it’s very important.”

Less than a week later, Roberta Stone’s phone rang. She recognized Matthew Prolly’s voice. “Roberta,” he whispered, “There’s a man here says he wants to stay in room 12. I remember you telling me that…”

“Excellent, Matthew. You did right to call me. Tell the man in no uncertain terms that the room is occupied, but that you have other, better rooms available. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” came the obedient response.

“Good. I’m certain this man will decline your offer and wait for room 12 to become available. Okay?”

“Yes. Go on,” said an eager Prolly.

“Tell him the room will be available the following day after the current guest checks out and that you will reserve it for him. Got it?”

Matthew Prolly repeated Stone’s instructions into the phone.

The following morning, retired part-time newspaper reporter Roberta Stone sat in the cold air-conditioned air on a soft, musty-smelling red faux velvet chair facing the front door of room 12. She expected the murderer to insert a room key into the doorknob and she was correct. The man who entered flicked on the light out of habit rather than necessity and shut the door. He was thin and short in stature.

“Hi Will. I’ve expected you.”

Will Jackson froze. “What? Who’s that? What are you doing here?”

The years had taken a toll on the younger Jackson. Growing up without a father is tough, and it appeared as though Will had not adjusted well. The lizard-like skin, creased with years of unasked for and undeserved burden belied his time on earth. “Guess you’re screwed,” laughed Stone. She couldn’t help herself. Jackson didn’t see the humor and remained silent. “Truth is Will, this is your lucky day.”

The young man showed teeth. “What do you want?”

“A confession.”

“Confession? For what? I don’t know why I’m even talking to you.”

Stone stood. “Murder. Ernie McDaniel’s murder.”

“You’re craz…”

“Save it, Will. I know you killed him. And do you know how I know?” The now retired reporter didn’t wait for an answer. “Because you have four screws in your pocket.”

Unconsciously, Will grabbed his front pants pocket. Stone continued, “And a screwdriver. Am I right?”

Through slit eyes and tight lips Will said, “What do you know?”

“Everything now. You want to tell me, or do you want me to tell you what took place in this room a little over a week ago?”

Will Jackson displayed defiance. “You’re so smart. You tell me.”

Roberta Stone moved toward the room’s air conditioning vent. “This,” she pointed, “Is how you did it.” Jackson stood stone-like. “You never got over the fact that Ernie McDaniel’s reckless and careless behavior those many years ago caused the death of your father. Frankly, I can’t blame you. I’m not sure how I would have reacted myself had I been placed in your tragic situation. I’m not excusing your behavior. I just said that I understand it. You probably read somewhere about McDaniel’s prison release. He checked into this room and you entered it. How you gained entrance is irrelevant. I’m sure you knocked on the door and said ‘room service’ or something as clever. How am I doing so far?”

“Go on,” answered Jackson.

“Once inside, you pulled a gun on McDaniel and forced him to write that fake suicide note. The problem for you, Will, is that McDaniel complied. He wrote and signed the note with his left hand. That undid you.” A blank look consumed Jackson. “You see,” continued Stone, “Ernie McDaniel wrote with his left hand, but he was right-handed for everything else. Had he shot himself, he would have used his right hand to hold the gun and pull the trigger.”

“Damn!”

“After he wrote the note you shot him, unfortunately for you in his left temple. You then locked and chained the door. You came prepared. With a screwdriver, no doubt the same one you have now, you unscrewed the air conditioning duct vent, removed it, and crawled through the ductwork and onto the roof to safety. Two stories up, you jumped to freedom. Prior to snaking your way up to the roof, you secured the vent from the inside with some sort of glue.”

By Jackson’s expression, Stone knew she was correct. “It was just a matter of time, sooner rather than later I figured that you would come back into this room and reattach the vent with the screws. I asked Mr. Prolly, the hotel manager, to alert me as soon as someone requested this room.”

Jackson looked surprised. “But, how’d you know?”

“I didn’t at first. Let me put it this way. I suspected murder from the start. I knew McDaniel; familiar enough to know he was right-handed. I couldn’t figure out how you exited the room with the door chain fastened and the windows locked shut.”

“Right,” said Jackson. “How’d you figure that out?”

“Luck. First, the responding police officer suggested that I had a few screws loose for suggesting McDaniel’s death was murder rather than suicide. Second, the hotel manager, Mr. Prolly concurred. He told me I had some screwy ideas. That’s when I noticed the air conditioning vent. It was fastened to the wall, but the screws were missing. I have a good eye for detail.”

“I suppose I’m under arrest?” a resigned Will Jackson asked, emptying his pockets of four large screws and a screwdriver.

Roberta Stone waited and then spoke. “First of all, I’m not a cop. You came to finish a job, I suggest you complete it and move forward with your life. I plan to enjoy my retirement.”

On her way to the parking lot, Roberta Stone stopped at the hotel’s now shabby office. The color television hadn’t been used in years. It was hidden behind stacks of cardboard boxes containing old Life, Look, Reader’s Digest, and the Saturday Evening Post magazines.

“Why don’t you clean this place?” Stone asked.

Prolly looked up from a newspaper, looked around. “Why? What’s not clean? So tell me, how’d it go with that fellow just now?”

“I hope that’s a copy of the Eliot Courier you’re reading.” Prolly looked down and grinned. Stone continued, “Not good. I can see tomorrow’s headline, MURDER AT THE OASIS HOTEL GOES UNSOLVED. IS THE KILLER STILL LURKING AMONG THE HOTEL’S GUESTS?”

Prolly looked sick. “What? You wouldn’t. Roberta, you…”





Bruce Harris is the author of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: ABout Type.

Several of his short stories have appeared in omdb! including “Room With A View” (September, 2018), “Murder Aboard the Number Eight Bus” (June, 2018),  50,000 Witnesses to Murder (October, 2015),  “Where’s Olive?” (March, 2015), “Time to Think” (October, 2014),  “Heads or Tails?” (July, 2014), and Written Out (June, 2012).

His story “Carried Away” won the 2017 September/October Mysterious Photograph contest in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

Copyright 2020 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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