HOLIDAY PUZZLE: A LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY

It was the kind of beery conversation that normally practical men allow themselves on a summer holiday, late at night, their families in bed or elsewhere – after the talk of footy, cricket, fish.

The three could not have been more unalike. Paul, a plasterer, with bushranger beard and antique mullet, had the winding yet stocky body that will never fit a suit, not ever. Steve, an electrician, was angular, flop-haired, with an academic stoop. And there was wispy Gavin, pale and hairy-legged – but mostly head, with those hawk features and devouring eyes.

These mismatched men only met, with their families, every Christmas. They were at first surprised to get on with one another. Then they enjoyed, and finally they craved, this freemasonry of the beach.

The late-night conversation, mostly between Steve and Paul, had turned to the usual escapist themes: real life puzzles, the unsolved, the unexplained .

Gavin, impatient with all fuzziness, invaded the conversation, talking in his fuzz-dispelling, jabbing way.

“Tonight I’ve been listening to drunks. While getting drunk. Why not? I’m on holidays. But my job is squashing or unpicking lies. In my line of work, I can let a lie pass, even let it succeed – but I have to know it’s a lie. That’s the key to insurance: know how much you are being cheated, then adjust. For me, there  can be any amount of unresolved matters – but no unsolved matters! I can lose, but I have to know I’m losing. Cheat me all you like…but don’t outwit me. Cheat, outwit: two different things.

“And since you like mysteries and since I’m drunk and since I’ve been parking my van alongside your vans for five summers now, I’ll trust you both with a little holiday puzzle. Which happens to be real. Hence the word trust. Confidential, okay? Anyway, feel free. Try and solve it before I tell you the answers.

“Some say a locked room mystery is the juiciest of all mysteries. But when you read a book or see a show on the theme, the intrigue is always stronger than the resolution. The author resorts to stunts and contrivances: secret panels, unknown entry and exit points, camouflage to blend with the curtains…”

Steve interrupted: “It’s a weak cliche. In real life, nobody is murdered like that. You want someone dead, you get a couple of Koreans, in and out of the country. Every time.”

But Paul, after a dismissive burp: “An electrician can’t think of a way to kill someone in a locked room? Apart from electrocution, you’ve got gas, poisons – any number of methods. Cheaper than Koreans.”

Gavin again: “Ah, but what if the victim had died in a way that required a second person present in the room. But what if, at the same time, there was no possibility of a second person being present? Even better than hiring those Koreans?”

“Then it would have to be an accident,” said Steve, after a studious moment.

“Or suicide,” Paul added with another burp.

“I said victim. I’m talking about a dead body behind a door padlocked from the inside. I’m saying there were no entry or exit points. Yet death resulted from a sharp blow to the head. And it was murder.”

“Makes no sense at all. None.”

“Gav, you’re talking like this actually happened…”

“It did happen. And I was involved. Which is why you have to keep it between us. This holiday puzzle is real. And remember: when there is a huge and unwarranted benefit from someone’s death, we check things you wouldn’t believe. By ‘we’ I mean the police, who see more, and the insurance industry, who see better. Before you chime in with any ideas, remember that what may seem new and ingenious to you, is old and obvious to me. Sorry, but I’m terrifyingly good at what I do.

“Just try and unravel this. See how good you are.”

*

THE MYSTERY OF THE LOCKED FLAT

Here’s the scene. An old, confused woman lives alone on the fourth floor of a decrepit six storey building in Potts Point. Everything in that building reeks of dust, stale grog, and cheap tobacco burnt fifty years ago.There’s a creaky, seventy year old lift up to her flat, which is a tiny studio, tiniest you’ve ever seen.

One day, a certain Ray, the caretaker of the block, who lives in a basement flat, knocks on the door of the flat next to the old lady’s. It’s occupied by a foreign gent, very shy, living completely alone. The caretaker explains to this tenant that he has not seen the old woman for some days. Now, this caretaker has been very kind toward the woman, doing her shopping and attending to many chores on her behalf. He’s concerned that she hasn’t been seen for a while, doesn’t answer a knock or a phone call.

The next-door tenant, quite hard of hearing, replies that he has not seen or heard his neighbour, Mrs. Horwitz, but he seldom sees or hears her, since both live so quietly. Our caretaker asks the old man to witness his use of a spare set of keys to enter the lady’s flat, to check on her well-being. When he tries to open the door, he finds it bolted from inside. It’s the kind of unsafe locking arrangement you still find in some old tenement buildings: shouldn’t happen, but does. Ray the caretaker tells the old man he has often explained to the lady that this is unnecessary and could make her inaccessible in the event of a problem – which is now the case. Both the caretaker and the old gent note an unpleasant smell from within the flat. Ray thanks the other, informing him that he will fetch a local locksmith immediately, but that it may be necessary to involve police or even break the door within the hour.

The old man retreats gladly to his flat. The locksmith, a well regarded local tradie, is summoned by phone, with the explanation that the situation may be urgent. On the locksmith’s arrival, the caretaker accompanies him in the lift to the flat they need to enter. Before the door is forced the usual checks and permissions are gone through, very quickly but correctly. The caretaker produces his ID and shows the external keys with which he has been entrusted. The bolt, which is very sturdy, cannot be fiddled from outside, so the door is expertly forced by the locksmith, with a minimum of damage. When it comes away, they see that the bolt has been not merely drawn but padlocked. The two men move forward. On the ground, blocking the door as they open it, is a white-haired woman, and that odour of decay is stronger.

Ray quickly steps forward, feels the woman’s pulse, shakes his head. He observes to the locksmith that the old lady is certainly dead and that death has obviously occurred some days before.

He then persuades the locksmith to touch and inspect the body, as if he needs confirmation. It is a real dead body, very cold, and smelling. Ray then insists on inspecting everywhere within in the tiny flat, while the locksmith observes, to make sure there is no possibility of another person having entered or stayed. He points out a bottle of slivovitz and some spillage, while remarking that it was Mrs. Horwitz’s customary drink.

Lastly, the flat has two small windows, both locked, and both looking on to a busy street with a sheer drop. The only person who could have closed and padlocked that bolt was the old lady now lying on the floor.

Using the phone in the flat, the caretaker rings the police. The door of the flat is now closed again, and both men depart together. The caretaker, who was very friendly with the old lady, is visibly distressed. At the ground floor, he asks the locksmith to stand guard a few moments while he goes back up to the flat and makes sure that the door is not just closed but locked, or at least wired shut if the lock is no longer functional. This is an understandable oversight in the circumstances. In a couple of minutes, the caretaker rejoins the locksmith and both walk out of the building. The caretaker explains that he will stay on the front step to await the police. In fact, he does just that. A cheap security camera installed at the front of the building confirms Ray’s presence there till the police arrive.The locksmith returns to his shop.

The matter is as straightforward as it can be. The police medical officer, on checking the body, finds some injury to the head, enough to concuss or kill someone extremely frail, and it is easy to assume it was the result of a fall. Later tests will conclude that this was sole cause of death. Some of the lady’s hair is found on the edge of a hard bench which separates the kitchenette from the rest of the tiny flat. It is clear also, from some spillage on the carpet, that Mrs. Horwitz had been drinking from the bottle of slivovitz on that bench. The bottle and glass are later taken away for examination, which will establish nothing unusual. No toxins in the alcohol, or in the woman’s  body, as subsequent tests will confirm. Though the lady did not fall right next to the bench, the cranial injury was such that she could well have reeled, crept to the door or even raised herself and staggered about before death. Straightforward.

However!

It turns out that Ray the caretaker has made himself so useful to the old girl that she has willed him all she has. And all she has amounts to nine million dollars worth of property, cash, bullion and BHP shares. She is the proverbial childless, unmarried eccentric, with absolutely no living family or contacts. It all has to do with a German compensation package to formerly wealthy Jewish refugees after the war, along with some complicated Swiss transactions by her family during the war. Dudley, Dudley and Allen are her lawyers, Macquarie is her bank.

There is another lawyer involved: Ray’s. This coot is a Riverina Italian like me. You think he hasn’t done a perfect job on the recent and final will, drawn up in Mrs. Horwitz’s flat? He’s a Di Marco from Griffith. Try beating a Di Marco through a revolving door, even if you go in first!

Now, if the police are alerted by all this, we have sirens going off in our heads, because there is a massive life insurance policy as well, organised for decades by her lawyers, that adds hundreds of thousands to the nine million that come with the will. The unnecessary policy was drawn up in favour of a niece who has since pre-deceased her aunt.

How certain are we that this is a big play by the caretaker? Absolutely certain. Now, you might say that someone of that lady’s age is going to die soon anyway, and a fall in the home is a common way to go. It’s true.

But when you work in my game, you get this ache in your testicles that tells you: we are being dudded. Trust me. We know it. We smell it. Everything about that man is wrong, wrong, wrong. And I just left out a couple of wrongs. There is the way he got the locksmith to verify the impossibility of a second person in the flat. The controlled way he got the locksmith, the neighbour, and the police involved. Do caretakers get locksmiths to force doors? Maybe they all should, but most don’t. It’s as if there is a script, a production, with a varied audience arriving at appropriate times. And he gets the audience to play little, unpaid parts. Too good.

After a bit, the police will know the caretaker is guilty too, but they’re just police.

We, on the other hand, are the insurance industry! The beneficiary has killed the old lady, and we will not let it stand.

My rule is: never be transfixed by a mystery. See it, know it – but don’t stare at it. Don’t let it own you.

Instead of staring at what the criminal wants us to stare at – at the impossible set of circumstances – I examine everything around, above and underneath. I take my mind off the centre. I look at everything he might want to distract us from. Firstly, I discover he’s been a naval electrician, eased out of the service because he was suspected of pilfering and on-selling expensive equipment. Kept his pension. I discover that he’s rotten, that he’s smart, and that he doesn’t really get caught – even when he’s caught.

Secondly, I look at the whole building, not just the flat. Obviously we had to consider early on the remote possibility of access from an adjoining flat, but that took us nowhere. As for a panel in the door, it would have been moronic on the killer’s part. With millions of dollars involved, there is no chance that we would overlook such a thing. This killer is no moron.

___

To sum up: killing Mrs. Horwitz by any remote means, using a contrivance, using an accomplice – all these things would have led to failure. If the killer had given us just one single thread, however slender, we would have seized and yanked that thread till his whole scheme unravelled.

You may think worse of me for what I’m about to tell you, but I assure you the best possible result was achieved: the best just happened to be a terrible result, and one that makes me and my firm look bloody-minded. I’m used to that, but I can assure you that as much justice as could be done was done.

Ray the caretaker is now a wealthy man, and he got away with murder. But I was able to scare him just enough to get him to waive his entitlement to life insurance on a feeble technicality. I was able to show him how he committed the murder, and to make him believe I could prove it. That was not the truth. He could have had the insurance as well, but to stop us delving, he took the inheritance and dropped the life insurance. Trust me, we would never have stopped delving. We have not stopped. The police know how Ray committed murder, because I told them. And there’s not a thing they can do.

The crime was just complicated enough. Everything hinges on the idea that nobody can be charged with bludgeoning to death someone who is alone in a completely sealed and locked room. If he had killed that woman by any other means, using any contrivance or deception, we would have nabbed him easily. Gas, poison, rigged electricity…we would have gone after him and got him. Nine million plus massive life insurance is a big incentive to a crook, but an even bigger alert to an investigator. Unfortunately, this crook understood that.

And unless somebody hands me another beer, I won’t continue.

Thank you. And pass the nuts. Thank you.

You two men can’t see how he did it, can you? Take some time to think…

No luck? Of course not! The reason you’ve failed is because you are what you should be: innocent!  Your minds went naturally to the feasible and possible,  from a human point of view – not to the demonic. You judged higher evil by human standards.

The only way this crime could ever have succeeded was by a combination of opportunism, experience, intelligence…and the demonic. It’s only through working in insurance that I’ve come to know these everyday monsters. With that indispensable understanding of the demonic, all I had to do was think long and hard enough. An answer came. It was a logical outcome without competition, without alternatives of any kind. There were no other answers.

Having worked out how he must have done it, I looked for confirmation, even if solid proof was out of the question.

*

HOW HE DID IT.

By simple reasoning I had the outline. I needed characters, details.

Footwork!

Interviewing as many tenants as I could, as well as others in that congested neighbourhood, I ascertained that Ray had been allowing an elderly alcoholic lady to stay for free in an empty flat, only occasionally and on condition that she not drink. This had been a very discreet charity known only to a few of the derelicts in the area, as well as to the odd tenant who had noticed the lady being accompanied to her free room by Ray in person. Since she was quiet, and the tenants had no way of knowing what rental arrangements were in place, her rare presence in the building was a little odd, but caused no ripples.

After long inquiry, I learned that she always took one of the rooms equipped – illegally – with an internal bolt. This is still a common practice in old apartment buildings around Kings Cross. Further, I learned that Ray had trained her to padlock her room from the inside. She told one of her fellow homeless that Ray had insisted on this measure.

Now do you see the demonic? Do you see how he used a second victim as a mere prop?

The second victim was waiting to be accommodated. Maybe she was sitting in his basement office, maybe in a spare flat. He obviously needed her on or near the spot, ready to move in, co-operative and sober. There would be no killing till both victims were where they needed to be.

The first victim, the feeble Mrs. Horwitz, was then killed by a neat blow to the head, administered by her devoted friend, a burly man, a shrewd military man. Because the victim was so frail,  he was probably able to ram her temple with precision against the sharp wooden bench where the hairs were found. Her body was stowed away from her flat, but not far away. Now the second victim was escorted into the flat. Her death would be by a completely different method, and this would be the great deception point. One victim had to be killed directly. The other had to be killed remotely.

Days passed. Because she never received visitors or answered her phone – and only responded to a coded knock by Ray – there was no danger of anyone trying to contact Mrs. Horwitz until Ray pretended to notice her absence.

When the caretaker and locksmith entered the padlocked flat, inside was the body of an old lady who had been given free accommodation, and a fresh nightie identical to one owned by Mrs. Horwitz. There was a well-laced bottle of slivovitz for her, which she would be sure to drink, and which would kill her. Ray had made a cracker of an exception to his non-drinking rule.

Remember when Ray asked the locksmith to wait below while he went back upstairs for a couple of minutes? That was all he needed to duck into a small cleaning room on the fourth floor, grab the body of Mrs. Horwitz, hermetically wrapped to stop odour being emitted, switch corpses, and do some positioning. Two minutes! A military man knows about body bags, and there’s a good chance that he used a fine periscope device under the door to study the position of the other woman’s body well in advance of the final mise-en-scène. He had chosen a time of day for all of this when there were unlikely to be many comings and goings on the fourth floor. The risk of interruption during the crucial couple of minutes was low. Military execution – in all respects!

It would only have taken seconds to replace the poisoned slivovitz in the glass and bottle with identical untampered stuff. If there was spillage, the police would not examine that when they had what they presumed was the same liquid in containers. And since Mrs. Horwitz was not poisoned, there was no incentive to check further.

The police saw the same scene the locksmith saw. So they thought!

Clever. You can only rely on a true alcoholic to drink plentifully and ignore extraneous tastes. Remember, if he had done the direct thing and tried to poison Mrs. Horwitz, there was the risk that she would not have drunk, or that she would have underdosed and survived. More importantly, the investigation would have been much more thorough, once toxicology was involved. There would have been an opportunity to trace something, and we only needed one tiny opportunity. Lastly, he may not have been able to train Mrs. Horwitz to padlock herself in. This was a man who groomed his victims, knew their limitations.

No, he needed the disposable proxy: his charity case. The risk lay in murdering Mrs. Horwitz, not the proxy. Mrs. Horwitz could only be murdered in one way, to maintain the illusion that murder was impossible. She had to die through a concussion behind a padlocked door with no other entry points available. Concussion was indispensable.

Sure enough…

When I inquired all over the city as to the fate of the old lady who had been Ray’s charity guest, the local derelicts and charities were in the know. There was a record of the finding of her body and of her funeral, detailed in police reports and social security records. She had ended up in the quietest part of Moore Park, between the roots of a huge Moreton Bay fig, a classic drunk’s hide around the city fringe. Nobody ever questioned how she got there, and there was no reason to question. Her name was Val. She was known locally on the Cross and identified easily when found dead – on the day after Mrs. Horwitz’ body was discovered!

We don’t know what poisons were used, because Val had been cremated with very little investigation of the cause of death. Who was going to check all that for no reason – and in the alcohol-ravaged body of known derelict? We came by all our information too late, because the caretaker’s plan was so strong, so different to anything tried before.

We suspect that the whole operation was inspired by a natural resemblance between the women. Around the Fountain area of the Cross and Potts Point, Val was often in view of passers-by. Ray would have noticed her. The first inspiration – for an efficient, opportunist and demonic mind like Ray’s – may have been that simple resemblance.

Everything hinged on death by concussion and on the locksmith, who was able to verify within the day that the room had been bolted and padlocked from inside. This left us clueless till both bodies were cremated and all hope of proof dissipated.

Mrs. Horwitz’s flat, was, of course, super-cleaned the day her body was removed. Since the police had no interest in her death till her wealth and probate arrangements were known, Ray had days to clean up. He even managed a little accidental fire in that cleaning room where he must have stashed the bodies. If reasoning alone did not convince me that he had kept them there, the purging fire did. So careless of a military man to store solvent soaked rags in that way!

It was now too obvious, and too late.

I had all the proof which curiosity needed, and none that the law needed.

***

The last of the romping, squealing kids had left the beach. The whole park was asleep, barring small groups of drinkers and card-players, clustered round LED lamps amongst the cabins and vans. Steve the electrician stretched and yawned.

“Quite a story. Hate the ending.”

“Who doesn’t?”

“This Ray…he’s doing it pretty sweet?”

“Owns a stud – a low-rent one for trots – and a crap vineyard. Sponsors a drag racing team. All that kind of stuff. Demons tend to be pretty mediocre characters once they get what they want. And yet…”

“With nine million, where’s the ‘yet’?”

“Nothing concrete. It’s just that he has a very special enemy now.”

“The demon-in-chief?”

“No. Not that. Or that, as well. What I mean is that you can defy the government, the police, the tax office, the mafia, the CIA, the Vatican, your conscience, the Indian Cricket Board even…and you might get away with it.

“But there’s an even higher force bringing order into life.

“Look around you here, at all this peace and security. Coastal NSW at Christmas time. Beer, surf, fish, kids…This is the pinnacle, right? Forget Ancient Greece and Beethoven and all that caper. This is as high as humanity can go. Breathe it in. And ask yourselves: what is the main provider of all this peace and security, the real guts of a civilisation? This freedom…who makes it happen? Government? Police? Army? The Church of England?

“Me. That’s who. And the game I’m in.

“And in that game, we know people cheat us all the time – in boring, standard, obvious ways that seem flash to them because they are mugs. We pay  the greedy mugs out if we have to, sue them or stall them if possible, adjust premiums upward where we can. So it goes. Nobody ever beats us. Customers just rob one another, via claim and premium. We’ve soaked up their winnings well in advance. We own the game. We don’t mind paying out to cheats. How could we? We’re forced to do it daily – but we know why we’re doing it each time. We know. Nor do we mind people’s contempt: we send them fat bills every year for something they can’t ever see or touch. Who wants that?

“No. What we hate, is not knowing. Because we, more than anyone else, need to know. Screw us over as much as you like. But never bewilder us. Never!

“Ray the caretaker almost succeeded in humiliating the greatest and most essential enterprise on earth. He challenged us and nearly beat us. He attacked our confidence.

“Ray tried to make the insurance industry look small in its own eyes…

“He’ll pay for that.”

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About mosomoso

Growing moso bamboo on the mid-coast of NSW, Australia.
This entry was posted in CRIME/DETECTION and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to HOLIDAY PUZZLE: A LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY

  1. Beth Cooper says:

    I agree with you mosomoso that plots of the ‘locked room’ genre often
    disappoint when the resolution doesn’t match the intrigue. In this plot
    your structure get’s round this, The Insurance angle works well and gives
    a reader access to the solution which though you could say was outside
    the likely, satisfies us because it fits with setting, opportunity and the
    ‘demon’s’ intelligence.And you get a nice dynamic between the sleuth
    and the perpetrator.

    • mosomoso says:

      Beth, I started off using two identical rooms on different floors. Then I realised I’d still need two corpses, so why complicate? Damn, it’s hard to come up with simple intrigues and plots that don’t leak like sieves.

      The third holiday puzzle’s central idea appeals to me most because of its complete simplicity. However, when you are the writer you can’t tell if the reader is left guessing to the end. And we have to keep you guessing, right? I really appreciate you giving me the reader viewpoint.

      I’m thinking of bringing back Gavin Di Gianvincenzo in one of my final stories. (I only have three to go to finish the project.) I want him to come back in a story that’s more a Hadley Chase or Simenon yarn than a mystery. I want him to be like Cato in the Purgatorio: the redeemed have to come past him before they can ascend. Sound heavy?

      Don’t worry. I’ll keep things light and pulpy. It’s what I do!

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