The Mystery from the Slush Pile

Hood ornaments of Austin Mini Cooper Mark II

The Mini Cooper - perfect for private eyes and other such luminaries

(I’m knee-deep into the second story arc for “Blood & Dagger,” my collaborative Internet cartoon. In the meantime, retrieved from the slush pile at a popular mystery magazine, I present you with a short detective story…)

McKenzie Powell – Prom Queen Detective

By D.J. Lutz

     The young woman’s smile turned into a grimace, not because of the dead body leering at her from across the room, but because the rancid grease on the bar and day-old beer stains on the tables made for no safe place to put down a Coach handbag.   Making do by clutching the iconic bag under her arm, McKenzie Powell walked up to her host, intending to extend a half-hearted greeting hug. Sam Dobbs, the lead detective from the homicide squad, was standing next to the bartender and puffing on a short stub of a cigar. Waving the cigar smoke away, McKenzie made the quick decision that there would be no hug today, not even for an old family friend like Sam.

“Well, I have to tell you, Detective Dobbs, I do appreciate being invited to a murder, but at first glance, this looks like the classic suicide.  You may have noticed the gun in his hand?”  Amateur sleuth McKenzie Powell had solved many a mystery in her short, twenty two year old life, but this one seemed obvious. However, upon seeing the disappointed look on his face, she sighed, saying what he probably wanted to hear. “Of course, if it was that open and shut, you would not have asked me to be here. Right?”

The smartly dressed young lady started casually looking around the truck stop tavern, taking interest in the wall full of old photos encased in dusty black plastic frames. She stood back from one large framed photo in particular, studying it for a moment, then carefully straightening  it. “There. That’s much better.” McKenzie had not only noticed the caddy-wonker angle of the frame, but also the subjects of the photo. This was a picture from the grand opening of the tavern, showcasing two partners, grinning ear to ear. One man even had his young daughter standing with him. McKenzie smiled. She was always a sucker for father-daughter activities, one of her favorite memories from growing up. “How wonderful these are autographed. These signatures could be valuable someday, you know.”

Samuel Dobbs cleared his throat to regain McKenzie’s attention, motioning towards the dead man’s body which was still slumped forward in an office chair. “This poor fellow is Louis Acosta. He is…was, the managing partner of this fine establishment. According to witnesses, Mr. Acosta was reading his mail, then pulled a revolver out and shot himself in the head.”

A shriek pierced the air as the lone waitress burst into tears from just hearing the detective recount the ordeal; the bartender remained stone-faced and silent, looking as gray as a ghost. Making way for the forensics team to take their photos and collect evidence, Dobbs pointed to a letter on the desk. “This is what our Mr. Acosta was reading just before…”

“I get it, Detective. May I take a look? I promise, no touching.”  The detective held up his hand, stopping her. “Okay, boys, take a few pictures and then let’s give our prom queen detective a chance to see what’s what.”  The recently graduated coed tilted her head as she smiled at the man in charge. “You are so nice, Detective, but I was never the prom queen. Too much silliness in all of that.”

“Oh, that’s right. You didn’t run, you were just hell bent for leather to bust the prom queen for false advertising.”

“Don’t say natural unless you mean it,” she sarcastically retorted.  “Now, back to the business at hand. I just want to take a gander at the blood soaked letter, if you please.”

The preppy investigator continued. “Hmmm. Apparently this man was under investigation. This is a court order, a subpoena, actually. And what a collection of charges. Solicitation, pandering, interstate trafficking of a minor for prostitution, oh…and indecent exposure….and, yes, here it is – carnal knowledge of a minor, under the age of thirteen.”

“A very busy man,” added the detective. “It’s no wonder he shot himself. Who’d want to deal with all of that public humiliation? Hell, I’d probably kill myself, too.”

“Let’s not assume anything, detective.”  McKenzie took out her compact, flipped open the mirror and started adjusting her bangs. “I actually believe you, Detective Dobbs, and the witnesses, too. Clearly Mr. Acosta shot himself.  All that blood and brain matter everywhere. Pretty obvious. And what’s worse will be cleaning up this mess. It will take a good scrubbing to get those stains out. Oh, and are those bone fragments I see on the table?  Probably from round penetrating the cranium above the right eye socket.” Finished primping her hair, McKenzie lowered her compact in time to see the waitress run to the restroom. “Someone is a bit squeamish, I see.”

“Miss Powell, the man shot himself. We all agree on that. The reason I called you here is that I think he was forced to kill himself.  That letter is bogus.”

“Of course it is,” she said. “If there was enough evidence to warrant these types of charges, the Paducah PD would have just asked you to arrest Acosta.”

“But they didn’t,” added Dobbs. “That’s why I think this letter is a fake. No police department worth a crap would write a letter to a suspect, asking him to come in.”

“Of course not. Everyone knows that Paducah has an excellent record for law enforcement. The Chief there doesn’t play around.  By the book, he is. That said, the real reason I know this letter is a fake is because it was produced by a computer.”

Detective Dobbs was flummoxed. “What does that have to do with it?”

“Paducah’s a small town.  One of my sorority sisters was from there. Of all the stories she told us about living in Paducah, the one that struck me as most odd was that she had to drive four hours to go shopping at Neiman’s in Dallas. I asked her why she just didn’t order online, and you know what she told me?”

At this point, everyone in the bar had stopped what they were doing, enthralled by the perky young woman’s storytelling ability.

McKenzie gave out a tsk, then finished “Well, duh. She couldn’t order online because there was no service in town. As in, no Internet? This letter is an email from the Paducah Police and I sincerely doubt they traded in their Colt revolvers for Macs. Someone fluent in word processing created this letterhead, wrote the letter, and sent it to poor Mr. Acosta.”

“But why…”

“Ah. Now we get to the reason I am here. Why would this man shoot himself if he knew he was innocent?  And who benefits from this killing?  Detective Dobbs, you said that he was a managing partner. Is there a non-managing partner somewhere?”

Dobbs walked over to the wall, plucking off the photo that McKenzie had so carefully aligned. “This is Claude Humbert. He and Louis opened this tavern years ago. They were good friends and good business partners until Claude died in a traffic accident last year. He lost control of his car and slid into the Trinity River. Claude’s interest in the business went to his wife, Alise. She lives in Paris now, allowing Acosta to do whatever he wants as long as she gets her monthly owner’s draw. I checked. She is still there.”

“Drowned, I suppose?”

“Well, either that or he was killed by the alligator gar that live in the river. Nasty fish, those things. With their teeth, they can chomp through metal.”

“So you don’t know? Didn’t you find the body?”

“No. We searched for weeks. Found the car, but it had been mangled up pretty badly when jumped the curb and tore through the trees and underbrush before it hit the water.”

McKenzie was listening, but she had already started wandering around the scene again. “Anyone thirsty? I’m thirsty.”  Opening her purse and taking out a linen handkerchief, she wiped clean a spot on the oak bar before leaning over to speak to the bartender. “By chance do you have a bottle of Cross Keys wine? A nice red, perhaps?”

The young man on the other side of countertop stopped washing glasses in the deep sink and walked over to a walk-in cooler door. Unlocking it, he went inside for a moment, then returned, holding up a cardboard box with an exposed plastic spout.

“Well that would be a no, I guess.  How about a martini? Vodka, please. No vermouth. Two olives.”

The bartender started looking for a clean glass as the twenty-something sleuth turned away to address the detective. “Mr. Acosta would not have killed himself if he knew he was innocent. Yet he also must have known that these charges were false. That only means one thing…”

“You have solved the crime already, Miss Powell?” The police detective could barely fathom how she could have deduced anything at this point.

“Detective Dobbs, I think if you dig a little more into the life and lifestyle of our deceased tavern owner here, you will find that he probably is indeed guilty of these crimes. My guess is that the victim, or victims, are from Paducah, Texas. Furthermore, I believe they are dead. Acosta probably killed them in an effort to cover his prostitution activities. No wonder he was surprised when he got the letter. Even if the bodies were found, he naturally assumed there was no way he could be tied to the crimes.”

“But then how did someone know to write this letter?”

“All in good time, Detective Dobbs, all in good time. If you dig a little further, I am willing to bet that Acosta had something to do with his business partner’s traffic accident. Cut the brakes maybe, rewired the accelerator wiring. Was it a Toyota by chance?”

“But if Louis Acosta killed Claude Humbert, he just traded one partner for another. The wife lives in Paris, remember?”

“Yes, she does. I am sure she is still there, in fact, probably living quite nicely on her husband’s life insurance payout. No, there’s no reason for her to be here today. Plus, she has been receiving her owner’s equity, isn’t that what you said?”

“Yes, but even with the insurance money, she couldn’t have killed Acosta, could she?”

“Of course not. I mean, I’m a good shot and all, but I can’t score a head shot like this all the way from France. However, someone figured out that Claude’s death was not an accident. Acosta’s crimes of moral turpitude were insidious enough, but even those were not the deciding factor in this final act of violence. There was something else motivating this execution.”

By this time, you could hear a pin drop. The detective was enthralled. The forensics team had stopped their work and were all staring at the attractive young woman. The waitress was starting to hyperventilate, probably going into shock. The bartender, well, he still looked gray as a ghost.

Taking a sip of her martini, McKenzie winced at the taste.

“Detective. You asked me to come here and analyze the scene and come up with a solution and here it is — revenge. Payback, to put it bluntly.”

Putting the nasty drink back on the bar, the woman continued. “ You see, Claude and Alise had a child, a girl. You can see her in the pictures here on the wall, standing next to her dad and his business partner.  I bet when you ask her, she will testify that Louis Acosta sexually assaulted her a few years ago. When she told her father, Acosta knew he had to kill Claude before he could tell the police.”

“And how does that all figure in with this suicide?” The Detective was furiously taking copious notes. He was so very glad he had once again called his ace in the hole.

“Why don’t you ask your bartender here?”

Everyone turned towards the bartender, who summarily ripped off her wig and latex facial mask. It was the daughter in the picture.

“You hit the nail on the head, Miss Powell. Louis Acosta was a slimeball who molested me, raped girls and killed my father. I waited a year, then took the job here just to keep an eye on him. He was such a lush, he never recognized me with this wig and mask. When I saw that he got away with killing those girls in Paducah, I knew I had to finally stop him. Yeah, I’ve been spiking his drinks for the past three weeks. Anti depressants. The strain on his heart plus the anxiety caused the one, rare side effect I was hoping for — suicidal thoughts. The letter was just enough to push him over the edge. Go ahead. Arrest me. I don’t care. I got what I want. The bastard is dead.”

“That’s a great story and no jury would ever convict you, given your history with the deceased, but you have left out a rather important detail, two probably, if my hunch is correct.” McKenzie glanced over at the waitress, now mute with terror.

Detective Dobbs reached behind his back and produced a pair of handcuffs. “We are still talking about a suicide here. . . aren’t we?”

McKenzie Powell straightened her posture and looked around at everyone, straight in the eyes, as if to begin supervising the effort to clean the pig sty surrounding them. Instead, she thrust her arm out, pointing at the waitress.

“You, my dear. How long have you been working here? A few weeks?”

“Why, why yes. Three weeks tomorrow.” The girl was taken aback at the sudden attention.

“Mr. Acosta harassed you? Sexually perhaps?”  McKenzie was starting to sound like a prosecuting attorney. Everyone was on their toes, wondering who would be her next target.  Even the forensics team straightened their appearance, hoping not to incur the wrath of a prom queen packing heat.

The waitress stumbled on her words. She was ashamed to admit it but confirmed that she had been forced into an intimate relationship just to keep her job. McKenzie lowered her finger, saying “Honey, you and I are going to have a talk when this is all over.”

“To answer your question, Detective, no. This was not a suicide. It was a calculated, well planned, cold blooded murder. True, the victim here was a sleeze that should have gone to jail for the rest of his natural life, but he did not fall into the abyss of anti depressant side effects. No, he was shot at close range and then had the gun placed in his hand. Do a GSR test on his firing hand. There won’t be anything there.”

McKenzie was a fairly good shot herself, so she had immediately noticed that there was no telltale smell of cordite coming from the corpse.

“Then who?” the detective started to say.

Wheeling back to the bartender, McKenzie started shaking her finger at the master of disguise. Dobbs slapped the cuffs on her and started leading the woman to the door.

“Not so fast, Detective. This gin slinger left out a few key facts. The first one being that she didn’t kill the man.”

Detective Dobbs started to release the woman, but McKenzie held up her hand to stop him.

“I said she didn’t kill him, but she is still an accomplice.  I suspect you ran GSR tests on her and the waitress and found nothing. Correct?”

“Yes, but…”

“And there were no other witnesses?”

“No, but what are you trying to get at here? If she’s an accomplice, she can tell us who did it!”

McKenzie walked over to the wine cellar, opening the door. “This is the second detail that the bartender had left out. Here’s your killer, Detective.”  Looking inside, McKenzie beckoned “Come on out Claude, you must be cold.”

Hands in the air, a parka clad man stepped out from the frigid room. It was Claude Humbert, back from the dead. Dobbs grabbed an extra set of handcuffs from a case clipped to his belt and secured them around the killer’s wrists. Soon, both father and daughter were on their way to the station.

As they were leaving, Detective Dobbs had one more question for his young sleuth. “So, Miss Powell. How exactly did you know it wasn’t the bartender and how in the world did you know Claude was in the cooler?”

“Detective, do I need to spell everything out for you again? The first thing I did was rule out the waitress. She couldn’t even keep her stomach from turning when I started to talk about the crime. No way she could have had the guts to pull off this one. Yet, every time I looked at the bartender, “he” was stone cold expressionless. I quickly decided that the lack of emotional response, along with the pale gray tint on the cheeks, meant that he was wearing a mask. And the wig color did not match the eyebrows.  A poor disguise if there ever was one.”

“And how did you know she was related to Claude? The wig color could not have possibly led you to that conclusion, could it?”

“No, of course not. The ears, however, are one of the most commonly missed areas when people decide to wear a disguise. They want to be able to hear everything, so they leave their ears alone. Ears are almost as good as finger prints. Everyone’s ears are slightly different and I got a good look at both her and Claude’s ears from the photos. When I was tossing my hair around, I was actually focusing my attention on the bartender’s ears, affirming my belief that the earlobes matched the ones on the pictures.”

McKenzie continued. “Plus, what clinched my thought that the bartender was a fake was the awful martini.  No self respecting bartender could have screwed up a simple drink like that one. I even spelled out what to put in it. And who in their right mind puts red wine, even boxed red wine, in a cooler? Dreadfully wrong in any social circle. She was an awful bartender. You would have figured it out eventually, Sam. I’m sure of it.”

The detective shook her hand. “Well I must admit, that was a brilliant bit of detective work, all from just a glance at a picture. And Claude, the cooler? How?”

“Goodness, that was the easy part.” McKenzie added.

“First, I am sure that he will confess. His lawyer will want him to speak up in order to prove mental instability. Second, you will find gunshot residue on his left hand and forearm. It all makes perfectly good sense when you think about it.”

“Why his left arm? Is Claude left-handed?”

“Yes, he is. You can tell by the slant of his handwriting on that photograph we observed. And you will remember that Acosta’s fatal wound was a bullet entering above his right eye and exiting through the back of the left side of his skull, typical of a shot from a left-hander facing the victim. The bartender, and probably the waitress, are right-handed. That meant that Claude, the only known lefty, had to be there somewhere, waiting for the coast to clear. Not knowing who, if anyone, would be outside, he certainly did not want to take a risk by being seen leaving the bar. The daughter must have locked him in there before they called the police.“

Detective Dobbs was amazed. “Who knew you could get such an education from a prom queen?”

McKenzie tweaked the detective’s ear until he started to squeal like a pig.

“Okay, okay. Enough about the prom queen bit. I’ll stop.”

“Thank you, sir. So very kind of you. Now if you will excuse me, I have a brunch to attend at the Yacht Club.  It’s the Mayor’s birthday, you know.”

The two walked out of the tavern, into the bright sunlight. As they parted ways, the detective turned around to say thanks, but McKenzie Powell, the “prom queen” detective, was already gone, her gunmetal gray Mini Cooper convertible racing off to the yacht club…and another mystery.

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