The Tuna Mystery

By James P. Hanley

The sun coming through the blinds covered my closed eyes and I woke with a jolt. My head was spinning and I squinted to see, my contacts not in place. I had no idea why I'd slept on the couch instead of my bed. As I lifted my hand, something metallic fell to the wooden floor. Groggily, I stumbled to my feet and noticed a bulk on the floor on the other end of the room; whoever or whatever was not moving and the unclothed body looked bluish and slimy. Moving forward, I stepped on the object that had fallen out of my hand: it was a serrated knife tinted with a moist coating — blood, I thought. Approaching the still form, I was stunned when I realized that the unmoving intruder was a dead fish — tuna to be exact. I felt a sudden chill, compounded by the fact that I was in sheer underwear and a thin robe. I screamed, and after my lungs had emptied, I grabbed the phone and called the police. Then I realized the challenges I would face in explaining events.

"Hello, I think I killed a tuna," I said hysterically to the officer on the other end of the phone.

After a pause, he said, "My wife massacres a fish one night a week and beef the other days, but it's not a crime, lady."

"Should I call the ASPA?" I asked.

"A tuna is not an animal, so I don't think there is anything you can do."

I hung up, stared at the dead fish and vowed to get to the bottom of the killing.

Showering quickly, I began to recall events of the prior night. I'd been dating somewhat indiscriminately as of a late and realized that I'd planned to have dinner with Chuck, a lawyer I'd met at a bar a few nights ago. With my senses re-forming, I smelled the odor seeping under the bathroom door from the living room — a distinctive stench of decaying fish. I ran to the hall and put on the air conditioning even though it was winter and looked down at the deceased tuna. Was this intended as a message about my personality, or gulp, about my sexuality? After dressing, I called Chuck.

"Is this your idea of a joke?" I said accusingly. There was silence on the other end, guilt or shock, I thought; I wasn't sure which.

Finally, my question was answered. "What are you talking about?"

"Did you leave a dead tuna in my living room and put the murder weapon in my hand?"

His laugh was so loud I had to hold the phone away from my ear. When he regained control, he answered, "Don't you remember? I came over to take you to dinner and you told me you weren't feeling well, so I left. And by the way, I didn't believe you."

"Why not?" I protested.

"Because you were in your bathrobe, and the tie slipped to reveal lace panties, hardly what you wear in a sick bed."

"What should I —"

He cut me off as the jokes formed in his addled brain. "Was his name Charlie? Did you kill an icon? I have a great recipe: cut the tuna into small strips —"

I slammed the phone down.

In a panic, I called the building superintendent. "I have a tuna in my living room," I shouted.

After a pause, he came back weakly, "We don't allow pets."

"He's not a pet," I insisted, "and he's dead."

After a very long pause, he came back, "How do you know it's a he. Does the fish have, you know — ?"

"I don't know its gender and also don't know what to do with it."

"Well," he answered cheerfully, "it could be worse. It could be alive. This reminds me of a joke; did you hear it: a tuna and a shark walk into a bar —"

I hung up on him too.

I was perplexed; what do I do next? How do I get rid of the increasingly smelly fish in my living room? How do I find out who sent me the tuna? Realizing I needed help, my friend Marjorie came to mind. She's an avid fan of mysteries, always guesses the killer before the TV detectives solve the murder, and she has a van. So I called her.

"Marjorie, I need your van to help get rid of a tuna."

"I would have guessed guitar or maybe violin," she answered in a confused tone.

"What are you talking about?"

"You said you need my van to transport a tuba."

"No, I said a tuna — with an n."

She laughed. "Like a fish, tuna. Swims in the ocean kind?"

"Yes," I said impatiently, "and we have to find out who put it in my living room and why, as well as get rid of it, and you have a big enough vehicle."

"Wait, what kind is it: an albacore, a Yellowfin? Depending, it can weigh between one hundred and several hundred pounds."

"How do you know so much about tuna? Never mind. It's the smaller. Come to my apartment and you can help me get it out and into the back of your van."

Marjorie must have exceeded speed limits all the way from her house to my apartment because she knocked on my door just as I finished showering. When I opened the door, she looked at me with an odd expression on her face, noticing I was dripping onto the floor and my towel barely covered me.

"This is not some kinky sex thing, is it?"

I pulled her inside and said, while pointing to the tuna, "you watch Herman while I get dressed."

"Oh," she said sarcastically, "he has a name. Well, take your time, this big boy's not going anyway. By the way did fish-face bring you flowers?"

I turned and saw she was pointing to petals on the floor. "I have no idea," I said.

* * *

After I dressed, we lifted the tuna and lugged it down the hall to the elevator and out the building. Marjorie felt the need to respond to every curious stare as we walked past tenants. "He jumped out of the tank," or "he drank too much."

We carried the tuna, with Marjorie holding the head while I lifted the tail and back fin. In truth, I'd also called Marjorie because she was, stating diplomatically, bulky, not surprising for a high school gym teacher. We hoisted the fish into the back of the van. As we closed the back doors and climbed into the front seat, the stench was filling the vehicle. Realizing her husband would ask about the odor, she said in her Ricky Ricardo imitation. "you got some splainin' to do." I doubted that there would be a reaction, especially in the form of an argument. Her husband, Buster — a name he carried from childhood, not realizing it was a facetious moniker — was a small man who was as comfortable in a dressing gown as his wife was in sweats.

Jokingly, I asked why Buster didn't come to help.

She answered in dead seriousness, "He says when he lifts heavy things his scrotum contracts."

"What do we do first?" I asked as we drove.

"Tell me what you remember?"

"Well, I was getting ready for my date, and I did put on frilly underwear after showering, anticipating we would come back to my place after dinner. While cleaning the apartment, I opened a bottle of wine and had a few glasses before putting on a dress. I shouldn't have drunk so much on an empty stomach and I remember lying down. Next thing I recall is the front door bell and as I awoke, I felt sick to my stomach. I think I did tell Chuck I wasn't feeling well. Anyway, I went back to the couch and when I finally woke up, the tuna was in my living room."

"There's some clue here. What comes to mind when you think about tuna?"

I shrugged my shoulders, but as I thought further, I shouted, "Brian Morgan!"

"Who?" Marjorie asked.

"Brian Morgan is a science teacher and I had a bit of a crush on him. Not long ago, I suggested a picnic in the park across the street from school. The next day was forecasted as warm and sunny and I said I would make sandwiches since we have a short lunch break. It was a disaster. He got sick later that afternoon and blamed me; said I poisoned him."

"Let me guess," Marjorie said, "you made tuna sandwiches."

"Yes," I said, more convinced, "but how will we get him to confess?"

Marjorie thought more and suddenly declared, "I have an idea. You took a personal day, right?"

I nodded, and she continued, "We'll drive to school and you go see him and tell him you were there to pick up something, taking a friend's van. You got a flat in a rear tire, and need his help to change it. When he comes out, I fling the van doors open and he'll see the tuna, and I can tell by his expression if he was responsible."

"What do you mean you can tell by his expression if he was responsible?"

"I'll read his mind. I'm a trained psychic."

"Did you go to a school for psychics?"

"Well," she began sheepishly, "I tried to find one, but I'm self-taught."

"No wonder the words psychic and psycho come from the same root word."

Pulling up in the school parking lot, I got out and before going inside, asked Marjorie, "Won't he see the full tire?"

"Don't worry, I'll take the air out."

I found Brian in the faculty lounge. He turned his handsome face toward me and my heart skipped a bit, until he opened his mouth.

"It's Lucrezia Borgia. What's for lunch today, fried mushrooms?"

"I said I was sorry," I answered, "but I need your help." I repeated the rehearsed script and he followed me out. We walked around the back of the van and just as he leaned forward to inspect the tire, Marjorie flung the door open and the edge hit him in the chest, knocking him off balance. I saw him look up dazed, and spying the fish, turned toward me, his face crimson with rage.

"What the hell is this all about?" he shouted.

"Did you plant this in my living room?" I asked, pointing to the tuna.

"You're nuts. I'm going to see the Principal."

As he stormed away, I looked at Marjorie who was still squatting in the back of the van.

"Well, psychic one?"

"He's cute! Such blue eyes and that hair —"

"Did he do it?"

"Oh, I wasn't paying attention."

"So much for that. Let's go."

Marjorie looked at me with an embarrassed grin. "We can't; we have a flat."

* * *

After calling AAA, we left the parking lot and headed toward the fish market. "I know one of the fish sellers and maybe he can tell me who bought the tuna," I said.

Bernie Teller was a tall, gruff man who wore a stained apron over his well-worn jeans. I knew that beneath that brusque exterior, he was a soft-hearted guy.

"Bernie, this is a mess." I explained everything to him and he listened patiently while at the same time chopping off fish heads. "Did anyone buy a whole tuna here? I'm sure that's not common."

"One was stolen from the huge refrigerators in the back. From a guy named Huber."

"That name sounds —" I didn't finish the sentence and moved on. "Can you tell if the one in the van is the missing fish?"

"Sure, we can check the fin prints. Look at these," he said pointing to the many rows of similar-looking fish. "Unless you gave birth to that thing, there is no way to distinguish."

I asked tearfully, "We need to get rid of it; the smell is getting worse. Do you know where we can dump it?"

"The town has a separate landfill area for our byproducts. You can image the amount of fish waste we produce," he said as he moved his arm in a circle to illustrate the size of the market. "I'll tell Huber. Believe me, he won't want it back."

* * *

After depositing the tuna in a foul dumpsite, we went to Marjorie's house. As we got out of the car, it seemed as if every cat in the neighbor was lined up on her steps waiting for us. We sat in Marjorie's living room, drinking wine, and I said, "We need to think this through rather than running around."

We had a few glasses sitting quietly, contemplating.

"I got an idea," Marjorie said. Suddenly, she ran out of the room, and I thought maybe she was sick from the wine. Instead she came back, wearing a deerstalker — a hat with front and back brims and two soft side flaps, best known as part of Sherlock Holmes apparel. "My thinking cap," she said.

After I stopped laughing, I turned my head so I wouldn't be distracted. That was short-lived as she suddenly said loudly, "What if the person didn't know it was a tuna, and only thought of it as a fish?"

"What's the difference?"

"It could be symbolic, a metaphor or something. You can do a lot more with fish than tuna."

"That will make it even harder," I said.

Suddenly as if reciting a mantra, she started spelling repeatedly, "F-I-S-H."

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"The word will give us a clue. F-I-S-H," she continued.

"Stop it," I said as she began the spelling again. Then in the momentary pause, I asked, "what did you just say?"

Marjorie looked puzzled, but started again, "F-"

"F," I repeated, "a grade. What if that's a link."

"So it could be someone you failed?" Marjorie asked.

Suddenly, the face of one of my students came to mind. "Edward Huber," I exclaimed. As I thought further, I was interrupted by Marjorie.

"It worked; I told you so. Now, why the fish?"

"He failed my course, did poorly on the final," I answered, and slowly the image of exam day formed. "Edward was fidgeting as he answered questions. His movements were distracting the other students, and I said to him, (my voice elevated with realization), you're flopping around like a fresh-caught fish on a dock. That's it! He was getting back at me. He was using symbolism — actually impressive, when you think about it."

"Wasn't Huber the name your fish-friend Teller mentioned?

"Yes," I shouted.

"I solved it!" Marjorie declared.

"You did not," I protested. "I'll call you tomorrow after I meet with Edward Huber."

The boy confessed without much prompting. I asked, "Where did you get the tuna from and how did you get in my apartment?"

"I went to your apartment to plead with you to pass me. I even bought flowers. When I arrived, I knocked, and there was no answer. I turned the knob and the door was unlocked; I went in simply to leave the flowers and a note pleading for a grade change. When I saw you sleeping on the couch, your robe open and your — well I felt you were resting peacefully that night while I was fretting over my report card and my parents' reaction. They were going to buy me a car, but that would be shot down when my grades were mailed. I got angry and came up with the plan. I went with my buddies Gerry and Aidan to the fish market refrigerator — my father works there. Aidan's dad works at a moving company so we borrowed a small moving truck, took the fish, packed it in a box and brought it to your place. The three of us carried the fish to your apartment."

"And the knife in my hand?" I asked.

Huber chuckled, "That was Gerry's idea; he got a knife from your kitchen."

The next day, I called Marjorie and told her all that happened. "Did you report them?" she asked.

"No, the moving van stank and the boys smelled suspiciously of stolen tuna. So the parents pieced together the whole plot and the boys are grounded until retirement age."

"Did you change Edward's grade?"

"No, of course not. I'm glad this is all over. The worst part is that it seems everyone saw me in my underwear: Chuck, my almost date, Edward Huber, his friends."

Marjorie, who was on her computer as we spoke, said, "Maybe more people than that."

"What do you mean?"

"It means you probably should have passed him. Look up the video, Sleeping with the fish."

I opened my laptop, keeping Marjorie on the phone, and did as she instructed. I shrieked at the images on the screen. I was lying on the couch, my robe open, and next to my head was the tuna's, held up by faintly visible arms.

I shouted, "That little —"

James P. Hanley has had articles published in professional journals but has concentrated more on fiction in recent years. His stories have been accepted by mystery magazines such as Crimespree, Futures, Detective Mystery Stories, Savage Kick and others, as well as in mainstream/literary periodicals: MacGuffin, South Dakota Review, Concho River Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Center, Fresh Boiled Peanuts, and recently in Westerns: Western Online.

Copyright 2012 James P. Hanley. 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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