The state of South Dakota would have executed an innocent man if Arthur Beautyman hadn’t cleared the alleged killer’s name from a sofa three hundred miles away.
Deidre Kirkpatrick, a wealthy 96-year-old recluse, had been found with a charred cantaloupe-sized hole in her chest. The list of suspects was short. Her only visitors anymore were her two sons and the medics who were regularly summoned by her medical alert pendant.
When the police located her son Ethan, they discovered his left hand was blackened and missing two fingers. A result of the same explosion that had killed his mother? Had Ethan rigged a miniature explosive device to kill her, accidentally losing two fingers in the process?
Unusual, to be sure, but the facts were clear to the South Dakota District Attorney. He pressed for the death penalty against Ethan and the jury agreed. Now, after years of failed appeals and protests of innocence, Ethan Kirkpatrick had just one hour left before his midnight execution.
“What a bizarre story,” Ruth Beautyman murmured, watching the news coverage from her home in Minneapolis.
Ruth’s adult son, Arthur, had only been half-listening, his attention mostly on his iPad. He would have preferred to be downstairs in her basement, chatting online with fellow “computer enthusiasts” (A.K.A—“hackers”). But after he was fired from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department for a massively public embarrassment, he had no badge, a terrible reputation, and nowhere else to turn than his mother’s basement in Minnesota.
The least he could do was watch TV with her now and then.
So here he was. Participating.
Ruth shook her head. “Bombed his own mother to get his hands on her fortune a few years early.”
“Just one hand now,” Beautyman joked.
Ruth laughed but shushed him for being crude.
The TV showed a clip of Ethan in court, and Beautyman jumped. “Hey! I know that guy!”
“You do?” Ruth was shocked.
“We had a drink together once. At a technology conference in Vegas maybe six years ago. He’d started a company that was pioneering some kind of keyless entry into your car and front door… or something. It didn’t seem to be going well.”
“The news said he went bankrupt. Penniless. Then a few months later… this.”
When Beautyman had met him, Ethan had seemed like a fool—a half-baked idea in his head and too much money to throw at it. But a killer? Of his own mother? He’d told Beautyman that his mother and brother had been his first—and only—investors and he didn’t seem to bear any ill will toward them.
Yet the evidence was overwhelmingly against him. Even Ethan’s own version was damning: He admitted that no one else was in the room, for one. His mother’s chest had simply exploded in front of him, he testified. His hand was injured. He got scared and ran.
It was possibly the worst alibi Beautyman had ever heard.
Nevertheless, he felt a tingling sensation on his neck, something he’d grown to trust over the years.
He opened his iPad and searched the web. The more he learned about Ethan and his keyless entry company, the more he saw a possible alternate version of events.
“Who inherited Deidre’s fortune?” Beautyman asked his mother.
“It was supposed to be split evenly between Ethan and his brother Wesley. But once Ethan was convicted…”
“… his brother got everything,” Beautyman concluded. He searched for Wesley Kirkpatrick.
Retired military. No obvious explosives experience that Beautyman could find, but that wasn’t definitive. A military officer was more likely to know how to build a small bomb than the hapless man Beautyman had met in Las Vegas.
Beautyman was almost certain he could paint the overall picture. Wesley had invested in Ethan’s company and had probably lost a good deal of money, just as Ethan had. Broke, he killed his mother, framed Ethan for it, and inherited the entire fortune himself.
Beautyman could almost prove it.
But “almost” wasn’t enough.
He checked the time.
Excusing himself to the basement, Beautyman went to his computer in the basement and quickly began a search of the deep web. Cell phone numbers were notoriously hard to find, but this is what he was good at. Using hacker forums and public web listings, he found the two numbers he needed within twenty minutes.
He pulled an old pre-paid cell phone from one of his many bins of gadgets and began charging it. As soon as it illuminated, he sent his message—now untraceable back to himself:
Wesley, I know you killed your mother.
The reply was instantaneous:
WHO IS THIS?
Beautyman ignored it and continued:
Ethan’s company sold RFID transmitters that were surgically inserted into people’s palms, allowing them to unlock doors without a key.
He tested it on himself first, putting a chip in his own palm. He never had it removed.
You created a bomb and placed it on Deidre’s chest. Probably camouflaged as her medical alert pendant.
Its trigger was proximity to the RFID tag in Ethan’s palm. When he got within range—boom.
You almost got away with it.
I’m texting you the private cell phone number for the governor of South Dakota.
Call him NOW. Confess.
If you call, you might get off with just a life sentence. If you don’t, I will turn you in and you will be exactly where your brother is right now. With no one to save you at the 11th hour.
I will give you 10 minutes to make the call before I do it myself.
Beautyman took the phone upstairs and sat down again, intent on the newscast.
A breaking news alert! The governor of South Dakota had stayed the execution!
Ruth gaped at her son. He just smiled.
Together they watched the governor announce the pardon, and Beautyman thought that he’d never been so happy to sit and watch the news with his mother.
*Erik Hanberg is the author of three mysteries, a science fiction adventure novel, and guidebooks for small nonprofits. He runs the boutique marketing firm Side x Side Creative with his wife Mary, and is an elected commissioner on the Metro Parks Board of Tacoma. Find him at erikhanberg.com or on Twitter at @erikhanberg.