Game Over

Prime suspect and trusty companion in the Drawing Room

Prime suspect and trusty companion in the Drawing Room

PART THREE

Mrs. White ran a rooming house off the downtown square that was once a grand mansion, one of the few old homes that had escaped Huntsville’s wrecking ball. When we arrived, Mrs. White greeted us sweetly like the innocent broad we knew she wasn’t. I had the Dear John letter in my pocket but didn’t pull it out until Pistol and I accepted her offer of lemonade and teacakes.

“What a homey old broad,” Pistol whispered, his lips dusted with powdered sugar. “You’d never know she’s got somebody buried in the backyard.”

“Mrs. White, tell us what you know about this,” I said and shoved the letter under her nose. “It was in John D. Boddy’s pocket the night he was snuffed.”

She took out the letter and squinted at it. “I need my glasses. Won’t you come inside?”

So we followed our prime suspect into the foyer of the old mansion. What a sight it was, too—massive paintings, dusty antiques and mounted animal trophies on the walls, and a marble staircase leading to a second floor of well-appointed rooms.

As we entered, Mr. Green was skipping down these stairs in a white tennis sweater and white trousers, his jacket slung over his shoulder.

“What are you doing here?” I said.

Green flashed a blinding smile. “I live here. We all do.”

“That’s right,” said Mrs. White. “Mr. Green is in the Conservatory. Miss Peacock is in the Billiard Room, Professor Plum has the Study, Miss Scarlett is in the Lounge, and Col. Mustard-Lighthouse has appropriated the Dining Room.”

“Where are you?” I said.

“I have the Ballroom,” Mrs. White said. “The best room in the house.”

“Say, where do you think you’re off to, whippersnapper?” Pistol said, grabbing Mr. Green’s arm before he could dash out the door.

“A Wendy Davis rally,” said the eager young politician. “Unhand me before you muss my sweater.”

Then, through the bank of windows overlooking the backyard, we saw four mounds of freshly turned earth.

“What’s that?” I said.

“Oh, another one of Professor Plum’s backyard projects,” Mrs. White said absently as she searched a small secretary for her glasses. “He fancies himself a landscape designer.” At last she found them and put them on. Clucking her tongue, she read the rancid Dear John letter that Sarah had written.

“It was mailed here,” I said.

“I’ve never seen it before,” she said and shuddered as she refolded the letter and slipped it into the pocket of her apron. “Nasty business.”

Then Miss Scarlett burst into the room and, before she noticed Pistol and me, blurted out: “You’ll never guess—” Then, blanching a little, she said, “Oh, hello, detectives.”

Mrs. White played the good hostess. “You remember Detective Splendor and—”

“They call me Pistol,” Pistol said, jamming both fists in his pockets. He threw a look at me that said: “Now’s our chance to sweat these dames.”

“You’ll never guess what?” I said, which flustered Scarlett. She blushed. “Only that it might rain,” she said.

“And that would be good for the Professor’s little project,” said Mrs. White, leading us back into the kitchen. “Hydrangeas.”

Then, as he peered through the kitchen windows, Pistol saw something suspicious. “Someone’s in the backyard—and it doesn’t look like one of the inmates of your little asylum.”

“Oh, dear,” said Mrs. White, clasping her hands under her chin.

“You go get a look-see outside while I search the place,” I told Pistol, and he drew his revolver as he slipped out the back door.

So Pistol and I split up, leaving the two women in the kitchen. I went from room to room in the mansion, opening the doors to their wardrobe closets, rifling through their bureau drawers. I ended up in the cellar, and then I found what we’d come for. Muddy shoe prints led from the cellar door to a small dark lair lit by the dim light of a small window. The last home of Fractal Bob. I stepped in and closed the door behind me.

Nobody had cleaned up in here for years. The small iron bed had been slept in, there were bottles of booze everywhere, and ashtrays full of butts from smokes of different brands. The small typewriter had a broken ribbon. The wire basket was full of half-written trifles and false starts. The desk drawers had been pilfered, no doubt of everything Fractal Bob had owned. I turned on the desk lamp, and there it was, a telltale bullet hole in the door and a pockmark in the concrete above the bed. I got down on the cold floor, glad I’d remembered my flashlight. I’d just found the bullet when I heard someone in high heels running down the cellar stairs. It was Miss Scarlett. “Come quick,” she said breathlessly, a lock of blond hair falling over one eye. “Something’s happened to your detective!”

. . .

Pistol was slumped in a chair with an ice pack on his head when I got back to the kitchen. His crumpled hat sat on his lap. “Well, tell me you at least got a good look at him.”

“Better than that. He’s lying in the backyard. See for yourself,” Pistol said.

I threw open the back door, but the yard was empty. “Hit him harder next time, stupid. He’s gone.”

“He’ll be back,” said Pistol, pulling something from his pocket. “I got his wallet.” And then something from the other pocket: “And his gun.”

“You get a name before he clobbered you?” I said.

“We’ve met him before,” Pistol said, “the other night at the cemetery.”

“Ah, yes,” I said. “The gunsel with the funny name.”

“Oh, my goodness. What a lot of excitement,” said Mrs. White, dropping into a kitchen chair. Miss Scarlett hurried to her side, fanning her with a hanky. But this was all for show. I was beginning to think the old broad’s specialty was trouble.

All of a sudden Mrs. White was on her feet and out the back door, clapping her hands. “You, there! Ward Three! Shoo! Shoo!”

I rushed out in time to see a big black dog, the one we also met in the cemetery, run around the side of the Carriage House and into the trees behind the mansion.

“What’s that you called him?” I asked Mrs. White.

“Why, Ward Three, dear. That’s his name.”

“Your dog?”

“Oh, my goodness, no. He’s everyone’s dog. A good watchdog he is, too. I just didn’t want him digging up Professor Plum’s hydrangeas.”

We stepped inside to find that Miss Scarlett had poured Pistol a big glass of bourbon. His head was feeling a lot better. “What’s the story?” said Pistol. “You find anything upstairs?”

“Upstairs, downstairs.” I turned to Mrs. White. “Bring everybody back here. Everybody who’s mixed up in this case. We’re going to shake them all up, see what we get.”

“Do you know who killed my Bobby Baby?” said Miss Scarlett.

“Indeed I do.”

“Do you really?” said Mrs. White. “Well, if you’ll excuse us, we’ll see if we can round them up.”

The two women left us, eager to have a word out of our earshot.

I nudged Pistol. “Let’s get something to eat. I’m thirsty.”

“Well, Splendor, how you gonna to do it?” he said.

“I haven’t the faintest idea. I’m just going to look and listen and pray that somebody makes a slip. Just one slip,” I said.

. . .

Pistol and I lingered just outside the Drawing Room as Mrs. White, Miss Scarlett, Professor Plum, Col. Mustard-Lighthouse, Mr. Green and Miss Peacock took their seats around the room.

“What’s the plan?” Pistol said.

“Build up a case against each of them. Throw everything we got at them and throw it hard enough to bounce,” I said. “Stay sharp. If anything bounces, you need to be the one who catches it.”

Pistol tugged on the brim of his crumpled hat. “You can count on me.”

“You warm up the room,” I said. “I left something upstairs.”

When I got back, the natives were already restless.

“Get on with this, copper. I’ve got places to go and people to meet,” Green said.

I started with the loquacious Miss Peacock, who had just poured her first drink.

“When did you last see Fractal Bob?”

“I’ve already told you. I’ve never seen Fractal Bob,” she said, dark eyes dancing with the mirth of some joke I didn’t get.

“You own a gun? A .22?”

“Doesn’t every girl?” Peacock said.

“Have you ever fired it in this house?”

“Of course not. But—” Peacock paused, looking uncharacteristically discreet.

“But what?” I said.

“It was Mr. Green.”

Green stood up indignantly. “I’d never carry a .22. What’d you take me for. Some kind of pansy?”

“It wasn’t Mr. Green, was it?” I said. “But why did you say so?”

“He always seems guilty of something,” she said, tossing back her second.

I pulled a .38 from the pocket of my trench coat and laid it on a round table. My suspects gasped. “That’s not mine,” Green said. “Mine’s upstairs. I’ll get it if you want me to.”

“That won’t be necessary. What about you, Miss Scarlett?”

“The only .22 in the house belongs to Peacock,” said the full-lipped blonde. Her hands trembled as she lit a cigarette.

“But I didn’t kill anyone, least of all Fractal Bob,” said Peacock.

“The other night you all swore you didn’t know this character, Fractal Bob,” I said and they quickly assured me that that was true. “How can it be when he’s been living here, too?” And then I looked from face to face to see how they took the news. Peacock and Green had gasped, but the others were anything but nonplussed. The two women, White and Scarlett, edged closer together. “But of course you knew that, didn’t you, Mrs. White? You rented him the room.”

Professor Plum turned on Peacock with belittling amusement. “Some sleuth you are. Skulking around Forest Hills, hiding behind bushes, peeking in windows, when all along Lover Boy was right here under our noses. The whole time!”

I turned my gaze on White, who was wringing her hands. “Not the whole time. Right, Mrs. White?”

“I let him move into the cellar room—my, it must have been three years ago—when his parents kicked him out. They found his political tracts, you see. But nobody else knew.”

Professor Plum raised his glass of whiskey in an arrogant little salute. “Oh, I knew. One night I followed a tall figure in a trench coat and fedora here after I’d happened upon him delivering his tracts. But I never said a word. I’d been sworn to secrecy.”

“Balderdash, Plum,” said Col. Mustard-Lighthouse.

Au contraire, Lighthorse or whatever your name is. Fractal Bob and I had quite a friendship—all by post, of course. I was his muse and his most significant influence. My thoughts became his,” Plum said, still smiling with condescension. “He was my protégé until his madness and insecurities got the better of him.”

Miss Scarlett pointed a finger at Plum. “I’ll not let you say my Bobby Baby was mad.”

“Face it, Scarlett,” said Plum, grinning incessantly. “He was barking, disturbed, crazy, plum loco. Ask Peacock. She drove him to it.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Peacock said. “Bob and I were the best of friends. Better than friends, if you know what I mean.”

Scarlett sucked in her rouged cheeks. “That’s what you think, sister.”

Green lifted his arms in exasperation. “Oh, for crying out loud! It’s Mrs. White and Miss Scarlett. They’re ‘Fractal Bob,’ always have been.”

“There’s a stiff in the morgue that says you’re wrong,” I said. “Am I right, Mrs. White?”

“Well,” she said, “I don’t know who that is. But I can promise you it’s not Fractal Bob. Fractal Bob is very much alive.”

“Here we go again,” Green said. “Somebody pour me another drink.”

Just then we heard a scuffle in the foyer, and Pistol opened the door to a gaggle of cops who held the arms of a large man, struggling to get free.

“Sit,” I commanded and the officers dumped the gunsel in a chair.

“Johnny Stompanato,” Pistol said, glaring. “Here’s the one who jumped me in the backyard this afternoon.”

Johnny Stomp let loose a loud guffaw and I smacked him. That shut him up.

“Last night you asked me to check the stiff in the morgue for a tattoo. ‘No, tattoo, no Fractal Bob.’ What was the tattoo?” I said.

“Lady Echo,” Stomp said. “Says ‘Lady Echo’ on his arm. The sap.”

“Who do you know with that tattoo?” I said.

“Not on your life, sister. I’m paid good money to keep my yap shut,” he said. “Let’s just say he’s flown the coop, and everybody’s better off.”

Peacock looked up, eyes misty with excessive drink. “You mean there really is a Fractal Bob?”

“Not no more,” Stomp said and he laughed again.

“It seems you have jumped the shark here,” said Professor Plum, his nose swollen and cheeks blushing with the warmth of a third whiskey. “Who are all these unnecessary characters and the extraneous headless stiff in the morgue? Why, this is as long as one of my columns, maybe even longer.”

Stomp jabbed a fat finger in Plum’s face. “You’re just jealous. Admit it.”

But the Professor was still smiling. “I’m no such thing. I’m a well-established writer of Northern credentials with a solid following. What do I have to be jealous about?”

“That’s rich,” muttered Miss Scarlett.

Plum’s face suddenly went slack, the smile gone. “Careful, dear. These good detectives might want to know what other young lady in the house has been packing a .22.”

I looked at Pistol. “Looks like we’ve stumbled on a little triangle here.”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” Scarlett said. “The professor is twice my age.”

“But Bobby Baby was just right in every way,” I said. “Too bad he didn’t even know you existed.”

Scarlett bristled and who should come to her aid but Johnny Stompanato. “Oh, he knew she was alive, all right. Tell them, Lady Echo. No? OK, then I will. They were pen-pals and lovers, right up until the night she shot him.”

Green leapt up, surprisingly agile for a drunken man. “I knew it!”

“Sit down, you idiot,” said Scarlett. “You thought I was Fractal Bob.”

“So you admit it,” said Pistol, and Scarlett began to cry. “Yes, I shot Bobby Baby.”

“You shot at Bobby Baby,” I said. “You didn’t hit him. I found the bullet from your gun under his bed. It pierced the door and hit the wall. But there wasn’t a single drop of blood.”

“But why? Why did you shoot our Frackie Bobby?” Miss Peacock said slurringly.

I turned on Plum. “That’s a question for the Professor.”

Plum smiled again, his eyes as blue as gas jets. “I had nothing to do with it. I don’t even own a firearm.”

“You didn’t need one. You sent your love-sick little accomplice to do the deed. The two of you were both writing him letters, but he wouldn’t let either one of you get close to him,” I said. “So you sent her to his room, knowing if he’d open the door to anyone, it would be a leggy blonde with a figure that won’t quit.”

Johnny Stomp nodded his head, which was the size of a canned ham. “The stupid sap.”

Plum laughed. “You’ve got this all wrong, detective. I could have tricked her if I’d wanted to, but I didn’t send anyone.”

Mustard-Lighthouse had roused himself. “He’s finally telling the truth. Plum can’t even get the maid to take out his trash. I did it. I sent her.”

“Why on earth?” said Mrs. White.

“Minerva, dear,” said Mustard-Lighthouse, “we couldn’t afford the risk of having a new voice out there we couldn’t control. He might have said anything. Think of it. It was mildly amusing when he was on our side. But what if they had gotten a hold of him?”

“They who?” I said.

“He means The Powers That Be,” said Plum. “That’s what I call them.”

White was fuming. “I had it well in hand, Albus. You should have left it to me. We’d still have Fractal Bob and not these—“

“These what?” I said.

“Hacks,” Pistol said. “A committee of hack writers who pale in comparison to the real deal.”

“I get it,” Green said. “The real Fractal leaves and the old lady takes over.”

“You’re half right,” I said. “Mrs. White began recruiting Faux Fractals to keep the franchise going. She used Miss Scarlett to lure them in.”

“Yeah, every moonstruck poet from here to Austin,” Stomp said, and then something on the table caught his eye and he lunged for it. “My gun!”

But before he got his beefy hands on it, the officers caught him and wrestled him back into the chair. I dangled the .38 in front of him. “This is the murder weapon, the gun that killed John D. Boddy and who knows who else.”

“You can try, lady copper, but this rap won’t stick,” Stomp said. “You know who I work for.”

“I don’t care,” I said and then I stepped outside to fetch the piece of evidence I’d recovered from upstairs, a birdcage covered with a purple velvet drape. “The one who owns this is going to sing like a canary and put the both of you away.”

I yanked off the veil and inside the cage was Boddy’s skull. Miss Scarlett screamed. But the Professor was smiling again. “You can’t prove that belongs to Boddy. I have twenty-seven hours toward a master’s degree in anthropology. I have artifacts such as this all over my room.”

“And in the four shallow graves in the backyard,” I said. Then I put my two lips together and blew. At the sound of my whistle, Ward Three, the watchdog, galloped in, tripping over the carpet and losing his footing in its heavy folds. He had a dirty femur in his mouth, which he dropped at the Professor’s feet.

“Curses,” said the Professor. “Foiled by a retriever.”

“Oh, I’ve solved it,” said Green. “This one shoots them and this one buries them.”

“Hooray!” said Miss Peacock, clapping.

“Take them away, fellows,” I said, and the cops hustled out Johnny Stomp and Professor Plum. Green followed, watching the two unlikely cohorts being stuffed into a black maria for the trip to jail.

“Holy smokes,” said Green. “Politics sure makes strange bedfellows.”

THE END

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The Killer Inside You

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PART TWO

 

Before we could interview Mrs. White and our other suspects, there was a call for me.

“You the copper looking for Fractal Bob?” It was a smoker’s voice, deep and gravelly.

“Where is he?” I said.

“Meet me at Black Jesus. Thirty minutes, just you and the pencil dick you call Pistol.”

This gave us a little time to question Mrs. White. We decided to go tough on the old broad.

“Give it up, White,” Pistol said as soon as we entered the room where Mrs. White had been knitting furiously to pass the time. “We’re wise to you. Peacock gave you up. You’re Fractal Bob, and if you know who that stiff in the morgue is, you better ‘fess up now.”

Mrs. White set aside her knitting and looked over her horn-rimmed glasses at my partner and me. “Oh, that Miss Peacock, so silly and so impressionable. Have you ever read Fractal Bob? He just loved Miss Peacock and Mr. Green. He was so excited these young people were running for office and so passionate about local politics. Sentimental, idealistic fool, if I do say. And then what should happen but they ruined him.”

“Them who? His enemies in city government?”

Mrs. White chuckled. “No, dear, his enemies are far too stupid to catch up with Fractal Bob. You’ve got a mayor pro tem who didn’t know the First Amendment was part of the Constitution.” She laughed again, and we couldn’t help ourselves—thinking about the slow-talking mustachioed lug who had worked his way into the upper echelons of city government—we laughed, too.

Then Mrs. White grew somber. “Well, I guess he’s not so stupid after all, is he? Wiggling out of felony prosecutions with the help of the district attorney, defeating Mr. Green at the ballot box, staging a coup against the evil Don Johnson for the second spot. Why, I bet Mayor Woodward sleeps every night with one eye open.”

“So if you don’t think the Mustachioed Mayor Pro Tem killed Fractal Bob, then it must have been Don the Don Johnson, the former mayor pro tem,” I said.

Pistol shuddered. “That creepy smirk of his gives me the willies. I’d hate to get a peek in his closet. Bet there’s more in there than a couple of skeletons.”

“Yes, indeed,” said Mrs. White cheerily. “Take it from one who knows. You don’t want to be on Mr. Johnson’s bad side. But it wasn’t Fractal’s enemies that put an end to him, it was his friends.”

It had been a long night and I finally lost my temper. “Come clean, you cheeky spinster. Are you or are you not Fractal Bob, and who is that headless, no-balls stiff laid out in the city morgue?”

Mrs. White sat bolt upright and crossed her arms across her chest. She glared a hole through me, lips compressed, face white with indignation. “For the last time, I am not Fractal Bob! Miss Peacock, Mr. Green, Miss Scarlett, Plum and Mustard-Lighthouse, they all drove Fractal Bob away and I was forced—” She caught herself and quickly regained her composure. “Well, that’s all I’m going to say.”

I remembered something else Miss Peacock said before she rushed out of the interview room to resume her Saturday night bar hopping. “Miss Peacock said she was Fractal Bob’s muse.”

Mrs. White laughed in spite of herself. “That’s Rich—I mean, that’s very unlikely.”

“What about Miss Scarlett?” Pistol said, and Mrs. White looked back at him with an arched eyebrow. “Who told you about Miss Scarlett?”

“Why, Miss Peacock did,” I said. “So this was a secret?”

Mrs. White looked down musingly. “I thought so, but you’ll have to ask Scarlett.”

I was sure Mrs. White knew more, a hell of a lot more, but Pistol and I couldn’t wait. We were late for our rendezvous with the mystery man in the cemetery.

Col. Mustard-Lighthouse was waiting for us just outside the room where we’d been putting the screws to Mrs. White. “Will you be needing the rest of us tonight?” Behind him, Mr. Green, Miss Scarlett and Professor Plum were tiptoeing out the door as our fellow murder police slept snoringly at their desks. “You’re cutting into the most productive part of my day. And we really have nothing to offer you about poor dear departed Fractal Bob.”

“Whats-a-matta, Colonel? You got a severed head you gotta bury before sun-up?” Pistol said.

“My dear man,” Col. Mustard-Lighthouse stammered.

“Beat it,” Pistol said. “But stick around so we can find you tomorrow.”

*     *    *

A big black dog seemed to be waiting for us at the cemetery gate, and he followed us inside as we threaded our way in the dark toward the secluded grove where Black Jesus and our anonymous caller waited.

“Your friend?” I said, looking at the big dog padding behind us.

“He does seem to be part of this mission, doesn’t he?” Pistol said.

“You don’t think it’s Keith Olson out here waiting to ambush us,” I said.

“Naw, he’d send Mike Roempke or one of his city flunkies to do his dirty work,” Pistol said. “Olson doesn’t need to get his hands dirty any more.”

We waited a few minutes in the dark for our mystery man to show himself. The dog sat at our feet, as vigilant as we were, scanning the gravestones and cedars for any sign of movement. I looked up into Jesus’s face as the wind stirred the leaves on the trees and the mist closed in around us. “They say he weeps and his palms go up or down or something,” I said.

“Bullshit,” Pistol said, lighting a cigarette. “How long do we give this mope?”

Then, not ten feet away, someone lit a match and it glowed in the dark. I put my hand on the gun in my pocket and the dog got up, growling.

“Show yourself,” Pistol said.

“Nothing doing, bright boy,” the man in the shadows said.

I put my hand on Pistol’s arm. “Johnny Stomp,” I said.

It had to be Johnny Stompanato, local gangster, the muscle behind all the schemes and scams of The Powers That Be.

“You got something you want to tell us or is this some sort of shakedown?” I said.

“I got nothing to tell you, lady detective. It’s the other way around,” said Stomp. “I got some anxious muckety-mucks on my hands. I need to know the name of the corpse lying around the morgue.”

“Tell Mr. and Mrs. Muckety Muck we don’t got a name,” Pistol said.

“What’s he look like?” Stomp said. “This corpse.”

“Hard to tell, Mister. He’s missing his mug. His whole head, in fact,” I said.

Stomp was quiet, but we watched him drag on his cigarette, the glow at its tip becoming brighter as he sucked on the other end.

“Go back and check for a tattoo. Red rose with the name of a dame underneath. No tattoo, no Fractal Bob. I’ll call you in an hour or two,” said Stomp.

“We don’t take orders from thugs,” said Pistol, whipping out his handcuffs and starting at Stomp. But Stomp drew a snub-nosed revolver and pointed it at Pistol’s chest. Then the big black dog sprung into the air and knocked Stomp down. The gun went flying.

“Call him off,” Stomp screamed as he wrestled with the dog.

“Not our dog,” Pistol said. And he picked up the gunsel’s snubnose as we walked away.

*  *  *

The body of Fractal Bob, John D. Boddy, or what have you, lay naked on a gurney in the cold, brightly lit morgue. Pistol and I got an interesting surprise, however.

“He’s got balls,” Pistol said.

“Yeah, nice big ones,” I said.

“Simmer down,” Pistol said. “He’s dead, remember?”

But that wasn’t hard to forget. In addition to his yellow pallor, our strapping corpse was also sporting stitches from a Y incision and what was left of his neck was ragged and raw. Just then the coroner came over and winked at me.

“Wowser. He’s got balls,” I said.

“Indeed he does. Nice big ones,” the coroner said.

“But you said the balls were gone,” Pistol said.

“Did I? Well, I meant that only metaphorically,” the coroner said. He handed me a letter, which he had pulled from Boddy’s neat pile of personal effects. “You missed this.”

It was a Dear John letter signed by a woman named Sarah. It read as brutal and raw as the torn flesh on Boddy’s jagged neck. I passed it to Pistol, who skimmed it. “Ouch,” said Pistol, grabbing his own package.

“Maybe she killed him, this Sarah,” I said.

“Maybe so,” said the coroner. “But the letter is dated three years ago and it was mailed from up East. Plus, I don’t think a broad who can write like this needs a lead pipe or a revolver to make her point, and my guess is that she’d rather leave him alive to suffer rather than put him out of his misery. Whoever killed Mr. Boddy bludgeoned him, stabbed him or shot him in the head or, possibly, choked him or hung him from a rope.”

“Why cut off the head?” Pistol said.

The coroner picked up a small saw for use, no doubt, on the next customer. “Maybe it was the chilling effect of the eyes looking back at the killer—open wide in the terror of his final seconds, blank, accusing. Whoever it was, they couldn’t stand the eyes.”

Pistol was green around the gills, and I took him by the arm to lead him out. “Wait a second,” he said. “Tattoo.”

So I went back to the stiff and checked both arms. No rose tattoo. No tattoo at all.

“Let us know if someone claims Mr. Boddy’s body,” I said over my shoulder to the coroner as an orderly wheeled Boddy back to the morgue’s ice box. “Fat chance,” said the coroner just before he flipped on the saw.

“Now what?” Pistol said as we stood outside the morgue and a light rain began to fall.

“Damn, we need that head.”

“Impossible, Splendor. It could be anywhere.”

 * * *

Pistol and I grabbed some bacon and eggs at the Cafe Texan just after sun-up, and I sent him to talk to our prime suspects, Fractal Bob’s friends, and his favorite targets: Dee Everett, former chamber president/floogie and tax fund misappropriator, chamber toady George Miles, Mayor Pro Tem Olson, Councilman Don the Don Johnson and former Mayor Bill Green. Then I sent some cops out to beat the bushes for Boddy’s people as I searched high and low for Poison Pen Sarah of Boston, Mass. I finally found her number in the Boston phone book at the public library. She answered breathlessly on the eighth ring.

“Please explain this most inopportune of interruptions,” she said, still catching her breath. I introduced myself. “Oh, Huntsville, Texas. Really”—though it sounded instead like “rally” in her sham British accent. “You must be calling about my ex-lover Bob. Well, I can assure you I haven’t set eyes on his doleful mien in three years or more. So unless you’ve called to tell me he’s left me a fortune, I must return to my boudoir where I am entertaining. Tah tah.” Click.

Pistol burst in just as I found on the letter and its envelope a couple of little clues I had overlooked. But Pistol couldn’t wait.

“Listen to this bullshit,” he said. “Keith Olson doesn’t know a John D. Boddy; in fact, nobody does. No record of him anywhere. And Olson’s never heard of Fractal Bob. He can only read at a fifth-grade level,” Pistol said, holding up an anonymous tract, “so this hilarious masterpiece of satire was way over his head. Couldn’t find Dee Everett, George Miles or Don Johnson. That’s a slippery lot. But Bill Green is a nice man. He’s just got some very funny ideas about governance.”

“What did our colored playing pieces say?” I said.

“Mr. Green says Miss Scarlett and Mrs. White are Fractal Bob. He found the printing press in Mrs. White’s garage and a typewriter in Miss Scarlett’s closet.”

“Well, ain’t he the little Snoopy McSnooperson?” I said.

“Miss Scarlett claims neither she nor the White broad are Fractal Bob. But this Scarlett dame says there’s no point in even asking anyone if they’re Frackie Bobby. If someone cops to it, they’re lying. The first rule of Fractal Bob is to deny, deny, deny.”

“Hold it right there,” I said. “You’re saying that if I ask someone if he’s Fractal Bob and he says no, he could be lying or he could be telling the truth. But if I ask someone if he’s Fractal Bob and he says yes, he’s definitely lying?”

“You got it,” Pistol said. “That’s the Fractal Bob code.”

“For crying out loud. Are you starting to hate these people?”

Pistol quieted me and picked up the thread of his interrogation summary again. Col. Mustard-Lighthouse says he learned from Green and Peacock about White and Scarlett, but he’s not sure who writes what or if there’s a real Fractal Bob somewhere. If there is, his money is on crazy George Russell. Professor Plum says it’s certainly not George Russell but “a committee”—which never included him, mind you—that writes, publishes and distributes the tracts. He knows who’s at the center of it all, but he can’t say. He’s been sworn to secrecy. “And the Professor opines that if someone killed anyone around here, it could only be with the permission of The Powers That Be.”

“Are you also lying if you say you know who Fractal Bob really is?”

“Absolutely,” Pistol said. “According to Fractal logic.”

“So why did Miss Scarlett accuse Mr. Green of killing her Bobby Baby?”

Pistol pushed his hat back and wiped his forehead hastily with his handkerchief. “She accused him before he could accuse her, but both swear they didn’t do it.”

“Wowser. So what about Mrs. White?” I said.

“She’s so sweet,” Pistol said. “She served cake and coffee and asked me about my kids. Did you find that heartless bitch, Sarah?”

“She was no help, but look at this.” I showed Pistol the letter—it didn’t begin “Dear John” but “Dear Bupkis.” And even screwier, it wasn’t mailed to Mr. Boddy. The envelope was sent to “Occupant” at the address below.

“Holy cow, I know this address,” Pistol said. “I was just there!”

“Whose is it?”

“Mrs. White’s!” Pistol said and then he snatched the letter from me and dashed out the door. I picked up my coat and ran after him. If Pistol was going to crack this case wide open, I damn sure was going to be there.

To Be Continued.

Fractured Bob

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PART ONE

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.

They gasped.

“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