A Very Talented Amateur Detective by John Carlson

“Police report a library employee was found dead at the city library this morning,” the radio announcer said. “His death appears to be a homicide. We’ll keep you up-to-date on this story. And now we’ll play you a great oldie from 2000!”

Maybe it was a great oldie for the twenty-year-old announcer. I thought it was just a bunch of racket. I turned the radio off.

Besides, I was about to have company. I could see Jeff Connors, our police chief, turning into my rain-slicked driveway. Good timing. The coffee pot was almost done brewing, and Chief Connors would be just in time for the first cup. Always the best cup.

“Thanks for letting me come on such short notice,” Chief Connors said, as he entered my kitchen. “I really appreciate this.”

“It’s no problem. After all, I’m retired, so it’s not like I’ve got a busy schedule.”

“I wish I could say the same,” Chief Connors moaned. He hung his coat up by the door, and then crashed at the small wood table my late wife bought when we moved in nearly fifty years ago. “It’s been a hellish day. I shouldn’t even be taking this coffee break, but it’s nice having a moment or two to just sit.”

I poured him a cup of coffee, and opened a bag of cookies from the local bakery. I sat down with my own cup.

“Ned, I came to talk about a new case.”

I knew this was coming. I first met Chief Connors five years ago when my neighbor was murdered. I gave Chief Connors some suggestions that resulted in an arrest and conviction. Ever since, whenever there was a murder, he’d ask for my help. So when he called half an hour before that afternoon, and simply asked if he could drop in for coffee, I knew that he was coming to ask me to help with his latest case. Presumably the one at the library.

“You know I’m always willing to help you with a case,” I said.

“Thanks. You know I appreciate this. It’s another murder. I guess we were due – it’s been six months.” Chief Connors sighed. “I took this job because I was so burned out working in big cities. I wanted a calm, peaceful place where nothing ever happens, except little old ladies running red lights, and high school boys spray painting graffiti. Instead, I ended up with the small town murder capital of America!”

“I don’t think it’s that bad.”

“No. But it sure seems that way. There have been at least seven murders in the five years or so that I’ve been here. Was it always like this?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t pay much attention to murders until the one next door. And that would have been the last murder I paid attention to if I hadn’t gone on helping you solve these cases.”

“Don’t be modest  – you haven’t just helped! You’ve actually solved them for me. You’re a very talented amateur detective.”

“You know I don’t like to take too much credit. My one advantage is that I know this town. I’ve lived here my whole life. A bit more than seventy years now. So I can see things that you may not see.” I took a sip of coffee. “Now tell me about this new murder. I assume it’s the one I’ve been hearing about on the community college radio station. I must have known the victim if it’s a library employee. Who is she?”

“It’s Wanda Caruthers, the librarian. Maybe her murder is a new way to get out of paying library fines.”

“Maybe. I didn’t know her very well, but I do know she was not a popular woman. Many library patrons didn’t like her. So it seems more likely there was another motive.”

“True. And I hear that library patrons aren’t the only people who hated her. At least a couple of people on the city council might have cheerfully pulled the trigger.”

“The trigger? She was shot?”

“Yes, twice. Probably with a gun we found at the scene. I’ve got someone checking the serial number. With my luck, it’ll probably turn out to be something stolen from a pawn shop, like that gun a couple of years ago.”

“Maybe. But that case was solved. You made your arrest and got your conviction.”

“And we’d better solve this one, too. If we don’t – well, put it this way, this time there are political issues. This murder must be solved.”

“Do you have any likely suspects yet?”

“Only half the city. Which is why I need your help – I think your insider view will be essential.” Chief Connors drained his coffee. “I hate to run, but I must. I can take you to the scene now, if you’re interested.”

I had nothing to do except dishes. And those could wait. “Yes. That would probably help me.” Besides, a murder investigation would be far more interesting than washing dishes.

We reached the library twenty minutes later. It was open, which surprised me. Could they function without a librarian? Then, again, they hadn’t closed when Wanda Caruthers was on vacation and they had managed to survive.

Chief Connors took me through the back workroom to Wanda Caruthers’ private office. He told me a custodian had found her body sprawled across her desk that morning. The body was gone, but I could at least see where the murder took place.

The office was small. It was barely big enough to hold her dented steel desk, a bookcase, and a file cabinet. It reminded me of the office I had when I was the bookkeeper for the local heating oil company – small, cramped, and windowless. I hated that place, and I plastered the wall above my desk with as many pictures as I could. Most pictures were of places that I’d like to visit if I ever scraped together the money. Bookkeepers aren’t paid very much, so seeing the pictures was the closest I ever got. They were also about the closest thing I’d had to an adventure. At least until Chief Connors started calling on me to help with murder cases.

The top of Wanda Caruthers’ desk had bloodstains, which showed that this had, indeed, been a murder scene. There didn’t seem to be anything else worth noting. I left the office, passed through the workroom, and out into the main part of the library.

Beth, my favorite checkout clerk, was standing behind the counter. She was a short, gray-haired woman who somehow exuded a sense of class.

“I’m glad to see that the library is still able to function,” I said to Beth. “Even with this awful murder.”

“Well, we’re pretty well-trained,” Beth said. “To be honest, the day-to-day function is so drilled into us that we could pretty much go on for months like this. Although I have a feeling we’ll have a librarian by the end of the week.”

“Really?”

“Yes. You remember Greg?”

“Oh. Of course. He used to work here. Clerk, too, wasn’t he?”

“He covered checkout sometimes, but he was actually branch manager. He was also a real librarian. Unlike Jeff, our current manager.”

“So Greg might come back?”

“I’m betting on it. I talked with someone on the board an hour ago.”

“What happened to Greg, anyway? I know he’s still around town. It seemed strange he’d leave – he liked being here so much.”

“Officially? He resigned to pursue other options.” Beth paused. “I don’t like to gossip. But I’ll tell you this because you’ll probably hear it sooner or later. Particularly since it looks like you’ll be solving the case.”

“I’m assisting Chief Connors, but as for solving –”

“Don’t give me that. I know what I hear about you, and I hear it from reliable sources.” Beth smiled. “Never try to lie to a library employee. We are trained to ferret out facts.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I laughed.

“You remember when Stacy Miller was murdered? A year or so back?”

“Of course. I helped Chief Connors with that one, too.”

“I know. I’m really close to the family. I knew Stacy when she was just a little girl. Oh! I could have killed the murderer! It’s a good thing they arrested him before I had a chance! Anyway, I know the lengths you went through to see that case solved. But back to Greg. He left because he had to. Wanda never really liked him personally. She finally decided it was time for Greg to go. Wanda engineered things so she’d have a good excuse to fire him. He decided to resign and keep a clean record.”

Interesting. Greg would probably welcome a chance to come back to the library, particularly if he became the head librarian.

I thanked Beth, and then headed off to talk with someone else. It would be a long afternoon of interviews.

Chief Connors drove me home about 6:00. After a quick supper, I built a fire in the living room fireplace, and sat down to think about the case.

Earlier, I’d spoken with many, many people at the library – staff, police who’d been there all day, and even a couple of library patrons. The interviews seemed endless. But I was able to get a straightforward story everyone could agree on.

The library had closed at 6:00 the previous evening. By about 6:30, all the staff was gone, except Wanda Caruthers. She often stayed late to do paperwork. Chief Connors thought it was very possible that the murderer came to the library before closing and hid in a restroom. When the place was quiet, the murderer went to Wanda’s office, and killed her.

The gun was now identified. It had been the victim’s gun, but it was stolen from her six months before.

There were no known witnesses, and I doubted any would turn up. The area around the library was always quiet at night. Chances were excellent that the only two people in a two-block radius at the time of the murder were Wanda Caruthers and her murderer.

As for people who had a motive, Chief Connors said it would almost be easier making a list of people who didn’t have a motive. She was unpopular. She ruled the library with an iron hand, and she treated even the best library clerks like little children. Many patrons had violent clashes with her over one library policy or another.

Still, I had no doubt that an arrest would be made.

My doorbell rang about 10:00. It was Chief Connors and a uniformed officer I didn’t know. I let them in.

“I had to come and see you,” Chief Connors said. His voiced sounded oddly worn. Much more worn than I’d have expected, even after his long day. “Some new evidence turned up.”

“Come and sit by the fire and tell me about this evidence,” I said. “Want something to drink?”

“No, thanks. This will only take a minute.” Chief Connors sighed. He stared down at the fire a moment. “I don’t know how to say this, except to tell you what turned up. We stumbled on Wanda Caruthers’ cell phone. We found it hidden away. We might not have discovered it if it hadn’t been for an accident.”

“Don’t cell phones keep a record of calls made? Are there any calls of particular interest?”

“It’s not a call that’s interesting. She was apparently experimenting with video recording when she died. We’ve got a good video showing everything. So I’m afraid I have to arrest you for her murder.”

I felt a sense of shock. I’d worried that this day might come, but hadn’t really expected it.

“I also had a clue this afternoon,” Chief Connors said slowly. “When you asked me for the murder victim’s name, you asked me for her name. The radio announcements stated it was a man who was murdered.” Chief Connors sighed. “I just don’t understand why you killed her.”

It was simple, actually. It all began about five years ago, when I got into a huge fight with my neighbor over the property line. It had gotten heated, and the next thing I knew he was lying on the floor, dead. His skull was crushed with a heavy wrench. As I cooled down, I thought of a way to shift the blame to another neighbor. I rigged the evidence, and then helped steer Chief Connors in the direction I wanted him to go in.

That would have been the end of it, except I found I liked being part of the investigation. It gave me a sense of excitement that I’d never had before. It was like being in a TV show or a movie. Not the boring life of a retired bookkeeper. And so, to recreate the excitement, I killed again. Every few months, I’d commit a new murder. Then I’d play the brilliant amateur detective and help Chief Connors “solve” the case. Wanda Caruthers was only the latest murder.

I’d planned it since summer. We’d had a clash over some fines, and I was reminded of how unpopular she was. She’d be a perfect victim. So I broke into her house, stole her gun, and bided my time until the evening of the murder. Then, as Chief Connors had speculated, I went to the library right before they locked the doors and hid in the men’s room. After closing, I found the librarian in her office and killed her. I planned to accuse Greg, the former branch manager, of seeking revenge because Caruthers had forced him to resign from the library.

I couldn’t tell Chief Connors any of this, of course. It would further incriminate me. Although I knew that it was over. They’d get me on this murder. Then they’d reopen the past cases I’d been involved in.

“I don’t think I’ll say anything until I have a lawyer,” I said.

“That’s probably a good idea. We are on opposite sides, now. You must understand that.”

“I do.” I looked at the fireplace screen. It was properly closed. The fire could die out on its own, and the house would be preserved for whoever lived there next. “I’m ready to go.”

 

John M. Carlson is a short story writer living near Gig Harbor,  WA. Visit his site at writerjmc.blogspot.com.