My partner, Pistol, and I came up on the body laid out on the dewy grass of the town’s seedy cemetery, just feet from Black Jesus, a life-sized sculpture of our Lord that had ominously darkened just days after it was set upon its pedestal. The body was clad in shadows and mist, but, even from several yards away, I could see that something was screwy.
“Where’s his head?” I asked the murder of black-suited flatfoots hunkered like hungry crows under the nearby cedars.
“Beats us,” they said and shrugged, turning away.
“Bring those lanterns over here,” I said.
Whoever it was, he was tall, almost six feet even without his head. He wore a trench coat over a nice suit and his shoes were clean and unscuffed. His fedora lay neatly, crown up, in the spot where his head should have been. On the grass, there was not a single drop of blood.
“He must have been killed somewhere else and dumped here,” Pistol said.
“No shit, Sherlock,” I said.
Using a stick, I flipped open the stiff’s coat and Pistol and I went through his pockets. A leather wallet with an ID and a couple of crisp sawbucks inside. The stiff’s name was John D. Boddy.
“Boddy? Are you serious?” said Pistol, grinning.
“What?” I said.
“Mister Body, get it?” Pistol said. “Mr. Dead Body?”
“Clam up,” I said. “I’m working here.”
Mr. Boddy’s body also gave up a blood-speckled calling card belonging to one Mr. Green, a local politician, a paper napkin with a lip print in firehouse red, a scrap of paper with a phone number scribbled on it, and a brand new typewriter ribbon still in the box.
“What do you make of this?” I said.
“Elementary, my dear Splendor. He’s a reporter with a sexy dame on the side and one on the hook,” Pistol said.
“Gee, I wonder what happened to his head,” I said.
“He lost it, obviously,” Pistol said. “Oh! Rim shot!”
Soon the meat wagon came for Mr. Boddy’s body, and Pistol and I stuffed the evidence in our coat pockets and hoofed it over to the Stardust Room for a drink before closing time.
“What’ll it be, Detective Splendor?” said Veronica, or was it Lucy?
“The usual,” I said, and the barkeep brought a Cape Cod for me and a bourbon on the rocks for my partner.
“Look, there’s Green,” Pistol said. “Mr. Green from the stiff’s coat pocket.”
The young and dapper Mr. Green was holding court at a corner table with a tight group of local gadflies: Mrs. White, Miss Peacock, Professor Plum, Col. Mustard-Lighthouse, and that leggy bombshell blonde, Miss Scarlett.
Pistol reeled in Green, who came with his margarita. But Green’s glib, politician’s smile fled when he saw his bloody calling card between Pistol’s beefy fingers.
“Where’d you get that?” Green said.
“On a stiff,” Pistol said, “by the name of John D. Boddy. Ring any bells?”
Green seemed sincerely baffled. “No,” he said. “What did he look like?”
“No clue. His head was missing.”
Green cringed but turned to his gaggle and called them over excitedly. “A headless corpse had my card in his pocket. Is that edgy or what?”
They shuddered with the deliciousness of this news. “Who was he?” asked Miss Peacock, but the name, John D. Boddy, didn’t seem to mean anything to her or her friends.
“What was he wearing?” asked Miss Scarlett in a soft, musky voice, and I described the dead man’s attire. Blue suit, red tie, black trench coat, black felt fedora.
“Black fedora?” she said. “With a little red feather in the brim?”
“Yes,” Pistol said.
“No head, did you say?” Plum said, wincing.
“Sawed off at the neck,” I said.
“Hat lying as neatly as you please in the grass,” Pistol said, watching them all closely.
Miss Peacock shrieked. Miss Scarlett fell into Professor Plum’s arms in an anguished embrace.
“You know this man?” I said.
“We know him by another name,” said Mrs. White, quickly producing a lacy handkerchief to dab her moist eyes.
“Fractal Bob,” said the equally mournful Col. Mustard-Lighthouse.
“Who?” we said.
“An anonymous political writer,” said Mrs. White. “You might have seen his tracts. They were all over town. Right before every election.”
Pistol took out his notebook and pencil. “Frackall? How do you spell that?”
“It’s F-R-A-C-T-A-L,” said Plum. “A fractal is a mathematical set of self-repeating patterns that are the same size at every scale.” He studied Pistol’s cow-like gaze with a frown. “In a few simple words, it’s a picture of chaos.”
Pistol looked at me. “What the hell kind of screwball stiff do we have here?”
Peacock eyed the collection of stuff we’d pulled from Fractal Bob’s pockets. “Hey, that’s my phone number!”
Scarlett picked up the paper napkin carefully by a corner. “That’s my shade of lipstick.”
“Oh, dear. I loaned a fresh typewriter ribbon to a young man just yesterday,” said Plum.
“Pay your tabs, folks. You’re all coming downtown with us to answer some questions,” Pistol said.
“You can’t mean it! We’re all suspects?” said the oh-so-proper Mrs. White.
“You got it, lady,” Pistol said.
“Awesome!” said Miss Peacock, clasping her hands to her ample bosom in glee.
Pistol and I kept our suspects on ice while the coroner got a first look at the body of John D. Boddy, a.k.a. Fractal Bob, and Pistol did a quick search of the suspects’ homes. He came back to the office with a rucksack and dumped the contents on my desk: a candlestick, a rope, a monkey wrench, a lead pipe, a dagger, and an Allan & Thurber pepper box revolver.
I picked up the antique revolver by the butt and whistled. “I haven’t seen one of these since the Great War. My grandpappy had one.”
Pistol was blushing with shame. “I got bad news for you, Splendor. I sent some rookies off on the house searches and they mixed all these things up. I have no idea what weapon belongs to which suspect.”
“You ass hat,” I said. “And where the hell were you?”
“Went back to the ‘Dust for one more belt,” Pistol said. “This case is giving me the willies.”
“You mean the DTs,” I said.
“Look, here’s the sawbones,” Pistol said, and I looked up to see the coroner in the doorway.
The coroner studied the lethal pile of could-be murder weapons on my desk. “These are all useless—without the head, anyway. I can’t determine the cause of death without it. Whatever killed your victim happened to his skull. The body was fine, a perfectly healthy specimen of a well-nourished American male. Minus his balls.”
“What?” Pistol said, shifting uncomfortably.
The coroner picked up the dagger by its hilt. “This might have done it, sliced them off, I mean, but I doubt it. Mr. Boddy lost his balls a long time ago.”
“What about the head? Could this dagger have been used to cut it off?” I said.
“Not likely,” the coroner said. “It was taken off by someone at their leisure with a small hand saw, the kind one might use to prune a plum tree.”
“Plum, did you say?” said Pistol, arching an eyebrow.
“Well, any small fruit tree, really,” the coroner said. Then he turned to me. “What’s say you call it a night, Darlene, and you let the doctor pour you a drink and tuck you in? This stiff will still be stiff in the morning.”
“Shove off, sawbones,” Pistol said as I was weighing the doctor’s offer. “We’ve got work to do.”
Just then there was a loud ruckus in the hallway. Pistol and I rushed out to find our suspects in a bit of a brawl. A couple of beat cops had a grip on Mr. Green, who was bleeding from the mouth. It was easy to see who’d taken the swing at him. Miss Scarlett was nursing a hand with a row of raw knuckles.
“Arrest her!” Green shrieked, trying to wrestle free of the burly cops.
“You deserved it,” Miss Scarlett said. “You did it! You killed my Bobby Baby!”
Green had one arm free now and he jabbed a finger at Miss Peacock. “She did it! She’s the one who killed Fractal Bob.”
“Me?! It was her!” shrieked Peacock, pointing at Scarlett.
“She,” corrected Mrs. White.
Scarlett balled her bruised hand into a fist. “Why, I oughta—” she said through clenched teeth. But Col. Mustard-Lighthouse thrust out his arm to keep her from charging the hapless Miss Peacock. “Let’s all just calm down here.”
“Yes, stop this,” said Mrs. White, arms akimbo. “Or you’ll all end up in the pokey!”
And Professor Plum said nothing, eyeing them all with a smidge of an ironic smile.
“That’s where she belongs!” Green snarled at Peacock, which prompted a fresh scuffle, so Pistol and I corralled them each into separate rooms.
We started with Miss Peacock.
“Who killed Fractal Bob?” I said. “You?”
“Are you kidding?” she said. “We didn’t kill him. We love Fractal Bob. He’s ours, one of us. If you want to find the killer, read Bob’s tracts about graft and corruption in this stupid burg. Those are your suspects, the assholes Bob fingered. Don Johnson, Keith Olson, Dee Everett, George Miles, Bill Green.”
“Green?” I said.
Peacock gave a slight wave of her hand. “No relation. But look, Bob hated how they operate just like we do. That’s all he wrote about. He was our hero.”
“If that’s true, why go anonymous?” Pistol said. “He sounds more like a lily-livered schmuck to me.”
“You don’t get it,” Peacock said. “That anonymous thing was all just part of Bob’s schtick. It was a lark to him, a game of catch me if you can.”
I remembered the twinkle in Professor Plum’s eye as he watched his friends’ squad room ruckus. “What does the Professor have to do with this?”
“Nothing,” Peacock scoffed. “At first, we all thought it him—he— who was writing Fractal’s tracts. He’s the only writer in our group, the only one clever enough to pull off that kind of satire.”
“How do you know it wasn’t him?” I said.
“Because he swore it wasn’t. And because one night a note from Fractal Bob was delivered to me at the ‘Dust while I was having drinks there with the Professor. Plum couldn’t be in two places at once, could he?”
“The Professor could have written the note earlier and arranged to have it delivered to you at the bar after he got there,” I said.
Peacock laughed. “Plum? He’s clever but not that clever. And if he writes something, he wants everyone to know. Everyone. There’s no way Professor Plum would let anyone take credit for something he wrote, and you’re just asking for that if you leave your name off.”
“What did this Fractal Bob look like?” I said.
“How should I know?” Peacock said. “But I know he had great legs. He biked all over town.”
“How’d you know that,” Pistol said.
“He told me, silly!”
Pistol and I rolled our eyes at each other.
“Who else could have been Fractal Bob,” I asked Peacock, “if it wasn’t Professor Plum?”
She ticked off the names that had popped up in the parlor game of unmasking Fractal Bob. “But I know who it really is.” She leaned forward. “It’s Mrs. White.”
We stared at her blankly. Mrs. White, the kindly matron, the dowdy, bespectacled grammarian—a masked heart throb and political provocateur?
“Get real, sister,” Pistol said. “And we have a bona fide, mostly male stiff in the morgue that you jokers have already identified as Fractal Bob.”
We watched as it dawned on Miss Peacock that the game she and her friends had been playing was not over, and her glee all but bubbled over. “The plot thickens,” she said, clapping. “I knew it! Ain’t it great when there’s a good twist at the end?”
“So why’d you kill him?” said Pistol, dead-pan and steely-eyed.
“I just told you I didn’t. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t!”
“Yes, but Green pointed a finger at you.”
“Oh, don’t be silly! Green only knows what I tell him, and then he adds two and two together to get five. I would never have killed Bob. He and I were friends.” She wiggled her brows provocatively. “Good friends. Get it? I was his inspiration. I was his muse. The other girls don’t think so, but it’s true.”
“What other girls?” we said.
Peacock tossed her thick, dark hair. “Why, Miss Scarlett, of course.”
TO BE CONTINUED