December 25, 2010

Christmas Short Story: A Theory of Murder by Dennis Palumbo, Part 2

Today we conclude our featured short story, A THEORY OF MURDER by DENNIS PALUMBO, whose latest is book is Mirror Image (A Daniel Rinaldi Mystery) (Poisoned Pen Press.), a twisty, psychological thriller that'll leave you guessing to the very end. I hope you enjoy the story and be sure to check out his book!

A THEORY OF MURDER, PART 2 - By Dennis Palumbo (Go back to read Part 1)

An embarrassed silence filled the room. Then the Commissioner settled into his chair and smiled gamely. “Sorry about the interruption. With children, one does what one can. After that...” He shrugged, then turned his attention to Mina. “So, Inspector, have we taken the young lady’s statement?”

“Yes, Commissioner.” Kruger sniffed. “It was Fraulein Strauss who gave Katie Gossen the locket we found. As a gift.”

Albert cleared his throat. “Excuse me, but how did the police know the locket had originally belonged to Hector?”

Kruger laughed shortly. “Because we are not incompetent, Herr Einstein. The locket is inscribed at the back with a serial number and the name of the maker,Gerd Oberlin, on Marktgasse. He checked his records and declared it had been sold to one Hector Franks, at whose instructions it was sent by post to Fraulein Mina Strauss.”

Albert nodded. “And from whose hands it then passed to the murdered girl. So I don’t see how Herr Franks is further involved.”

“Perhaps he learned his gift had been unappreciated by its recepient,” Burlick said officiously. “That in fact it had been given to another. Driven by jealousy and rage, he stole into the Gossen home to retrieve it. There, surprised in the act, he was forced to...”

“Butcher the entire family?” Albert chuckled.

The Commissoner looked at him sternly. “I have seen stranger things in the course of my career, young man. And I don’t appreciate Jewish impertinence.”

Inspector Kruger seemed embarrassed suddenly, but by what I couldn’t tell. At any rate, he was quick to usher Mina, Albert and myself out of the Commissioner’s office, and into the bustling corridor beyond.

“Am I free to go?” I said to Kruger, trying to sound indignant. I had somewhat found my feet again.

“For now. But keep yourself available to us.” He turned to Mina. “The same for you, Fraulein Strauss.”

Mina nodded, then turned and allowed the matron to escort her briskly down the corridor. She never even glanced in my direction. And I knew, as one knows these things, that I should never see Mina Strauss again.

* * *

That night, I sat in my rooms surrounded by discarded newspapers. The murders had gripped the imagination of the Continent. The killer’s reign of terror was recounted in explicit detail, including wild theories of genetic insanity, religious cults, political anarchists gone amok.

I poured myself an unaccustomed second brandy and sat, sleepless, in my chair by the fire. I couldn’t imagine sleep. Not after what I’d seen that day.
And Mina?...Seeing her again after all these years. Learning what had happened to the locket. How could she have been so callous as to give what I had offered her to another?

I was stewing in this self-pitying broth till almost four in the morning, when a pounding at my door broke me from my reverie. I glanced at the mantel clock. At this hour?

I pulled open the door to find an equally exhausted-looking Albert Einstein, bundled into a thick wool coat.

“My God, Albert, do you know the time?”

“More intimately than most, I promise you.” Then, with uncharacteristic urgency, he brushed past me into the room and began looking about. “You’ll need a warm coat, of course. And boots. You don’t happen to own a revolver?”

“A revolver? What are you talking about?”

“All will be explained.” He stared at me, impatient. “Well, are you coming or not?”

* * *

The pre-dawn chill was like a cloak of ice. It had also snowed again during the night, leaving two-foot-high drifts that impeded our progress toward the boat-house.

Beyond the long, wood-framed structure were the venerable spires of the university, which lay under the gloom as though crouching for warmth. The only sound was the distant tolling of Yuletide church bells for the morning’s first service.

As we carefully approached the silent building, I could now hear the river lapping gently at the dock. Out on the frigid water, silent as ghosts, the rowing team propelled their boat smoothly through the mist.

Albert led us to the near side of the boat-house, and then to a position beneath the single window. We peered through the smudged pane at an empty room, warmed only by the light of a huge cast-iron stove. At the far end of the room stood a large water keg.

I turned to see Albert nodding to himself. “Of course, the drinking water...I wondered how he planned to subdue them. Some kind of soporific in the water. Then he could--”

“I swear, Albert, if you don’t tell me what’s going on--”

“It occurs to me, Hector, that I might be putting you in harm’s way. I did leave a note for Inspector Kruger, but I doubt he’d take me seriously...” He frowned. “Not that I blame him, given my gross stupidity about these murders...”

By this point, I merely stared at him.

“It was so obvious, I couldn’t see it,” Albert went on. “There is a pattern, of course. Prime numbers. Divisible only by themselves and one. Perhaps a mocking reference to his own troubles with mathematics? Who can say with such a man? One who kills so ruthlessly...I recall reading Buhler on the subject of compulsions, Atwood on multiple murderers. Mileva has some interest in psychology, and keeps many books on--”

Flustered, I cut him off. “Wait! Prime numbers..?”

“Yes. 1,2,3,5,7, etcetera. One watch-maker, two old people, three seminarians, a family of five, a rowing team--”

“Of seven!” I exclaimed. “Six oarsmen and the coxswain.”

He nodded. “Where better to find the necessary seven victims than at his own university? He’s familiar enough with the sport to gamble on it. And there has to be at least one more murderous act for the pretense of a killing spree to be maintained.”


“To hide the real motive for the crimes, and the real--and only--intended victim. Katie Gossen. The killer knew her murder would inevitably lead the police to his door...unless it was merely one in a series of brutal, senseless deaths. Part of an insane pattern based on prime numbers.”

A sudden noise from within the boat-house silenced us. Footsteps against creaking floorboards. Muffled, secretive.

Carefully, we once again peered into the shadowy room.A figure in a black overcoat and gloves was leaning over the water keg. On the bench beside him, its blade glinting dully in the half-light, was a thick-handled axe.

I felt Albert’s restraining hand on my arm, but I risked another look. The man was lifting the keg lid, pouring some kind of powder inside. As he bent, his face shone in a pale shaft of light.

I sank back next to Albert, stunned. “But I thought it was--I mean, you saw what kind of creature Hans Pfeiffer is. The way he winked at Mina...”

Albert nodded. “Yes. Coarse, familiar. But how could he not take notice of Mina Strauss? An uncommonly beautiful girl. Yet Jeffrey never gave her a glance. I thought that was odd ...unless he knew her. Unless he purposefully ignored making eye contact. Because Mina knew him--or, at least, of him--from hearing of his unwanted attentions to her friend Katie.”

“How in God’s name do you know of this?”

“I asked around at the campus,” Albert replied. “Jeffrey was hopelessly enthralled by Katie, and she spurned him. I thought something like that might be at the core of this, thinking of how Mina had likewise rebuffed you.”

I stiffened. “Thanks very much.”

He ignored this. “I’m sure his advances were crude and improper. He has a reputation for violence and drink. A loutish, aggressive type, under which lies an even darker, murderous nature. He finds being thwarted in his desires intolerable. Emboldened by his father’s wealth and position, thinking himself above the laws of God and man, he’s driven to murder. But to disguise the motive, he embeds the killing of Katie Gossen in a series of brutal slayings, seemingly the work of a madman, following some absurd, fanciful pattern...”

I struggled to absorb his words. “So you guessed that he needed at least one more to make a convincing picture. The seven members of the rowing team...But how did you know?”

“Imagination, Hector. The unheralded seed-bed of all theory.” A wry smile. “I simply imagined what I would do in his place.”

Another squeak of floorboard from within drew our eyes to the glass. Jeffrey was moving back against the far wall, axe in hand. Melting like a wraith into the lattice of shadow.

“Now all he need do is wait,” Albert whispered. “The team will be returning any moment. After a vigorous workout, they will doubtless drink from the water keg. Jeffrey knew there were too many to handle unless they were incapacitated.”

I nodded. “So after the drug takes effect, he can move in for the kill. Unless...”

Where this sudden flush of courage--or foolishness--came from, I cannot say. But suddenly I was barreling as fast as possible through the snow, around the corner of the low-slung building and through the opened double doors.

“Hector!” Albert called out, but I’d already crossed the threshold into the room.

Jeffrey Burlick had turned at the pounding of my foot- steps, and rushed now from the shadows to confront me. I leapt at him, hands outstretched, a cry bursting from my lips.

We ended up in a heap on the floor, Jeffrey awkwardly trying to bring the axe to bear. I saw the horrible glint as its blade sliced down toward me. I saw my own death.
Then I saw Albert, face red with exertion, struggling with both hands for the axe. But the burly young student merely flung Albert to the floor.

Winded, scrambling to get up on our elbows, we looked up at the glowering face of a demon. Jeffrey hefted the axe as though it were weightless, raising it high.

“You two thought you could stop me?” he cried. “Two penniless patent clerks? No one can stop me!”

“You must stop!” I gasped. “Even you must see, killing these men avails you nothing. You’ve had your revenge on’ve ended her life. Why must you end these others?”

“Revenge?...on Katie?” His eyes narrowed to dark slits. “She’s nothing! She means nothing to me. The design is all. The purity, the immutable beauty...”

He paused then, regarding me with bemusement. “Something a man like you could never understand. Bound by your pathetic, bourgeois pieties...”

As, tightening his grip, he raised the great axe once more to strike--

When another voice shot through the room. “Not as pathetic as you, Jeffrey!”

Burlick froze where he stood, as the tall, ramrod figure of Inspector Kruger stepped through the doorway. He held a police revolver pointed at Jeffrey’s chest.

“Put down the weapon, or I’ll be forced to fire.”

Jeffrey wavered, glance darting from us to the Inspector. “I assure you,” Kruger said sharply, “I don’t care who your father is. I will shoot you where you stand.”

A strange, anxious smile played across the young man’s lips. “My father?...with his rules and regulations. So rigid, unbending. The unspeakable hypocrite! You don’t know what he’s really like, what he did to--” His voice caught. “He’s the monster.”

His eyes blazed now as he turned to stare at Albert. “And yet powerless against the march of mathematical inevitability! Surely, Herr Einstein, you must understand. If no one else, surely you...”

Then suddenly, in two brisk strides, Kruger was at the killer’s side, the revolver pressed hard against his ribs. Jeffrey Burlick gave the Inspector the merest look, before letting the axe fall with a clatter to the floor.

Albert rose beside me and smiled at the Inspector. “I see you received my message,” he said. “I’m surprised you gave it any credence.”

“I’m surprised that anything surprises you, Herr Einstein. Not after this.” He nodded at Jeffrey, who, to my utter incomprehension, stood calmly with his arms folded, as though waiting for a train.

“No.” Albert was shaking his head. “I miscalculated. Your arrival here was an unexpected variable. A random occurrance.

If I didn’t know better, I’d think perhaps God plays dice with the universe after all.”

I struggled to my feet, my fear rapidly being replaced by irritation. I hated when Albert talked like this.

“Forget your theories, for the love of heaven!” I snapped at him. “We were almost killed this morning.”

“I wasn’t the one who seemed intent on heroics. Honestly, Hector, that was perhaps the most amazing surprise of all.”

In a matter of minutes, a police van had arrived, and Jeffrey was bundled away in restraints by two stout officers. Inspector Kruger followed them out.

Alone with Albert in the eerie stillness of the boat-house, I gave voice to my thoughts. “Young Burlick must suffer from a diseased’s the only explanation...”

Albert looked off, in that way I’d become accustomed to.“No, he’s not mad. He knows the difference between right and wrong. I saw that clearly. He just...doesn’t care.”

“But that’s unthinkable! To butcher innocent people without remorse? Without a conscience? Believe me, Albert,

I doubt there’s a word for such pathology in your wife’s scholarly books.”

“Perhaps not,” he replied with a sad smile. “But I fear one day soon there will be.”

* * *

Outside, another gentle flurry of snow had begun to fall, and I realized with a start that tomorrow was Christmas Day. Though, admittedly, such holiday thoughts were far from my mind at that moment.

Albert and I stood with Kruger, watching as the rowing team, oblivious, began making their way to shore. From the dock, I could hear the sounds of another pair of policemen, dumping the keg of drugged water into the river.

Another sound, that of boots scraping heavily against frozen earth, made us turn. Jeffrey Burlick, shackled hand and foot, was being led to the rear of a police van. As the door was held open for him, he paused and looked directly, nakedly, at us. Then, showing a small, tight smile, he turned and stepped into the van. As it rumbled away in the blur of morning light, Albert looked gravely at Kruger.

“He’s the Commissioner’s son. This will cause a scandal.”

“Not my concern.”

Their eyes locked. “I am curious why you believed me,” Albert said quietly.

“Let’s just say, not all of us share the Commissioner’s prejudices, Herr Einstein.”

Then, with a curt bow, Kruger went to join his men.

Albert watched him go, before brushing himself off and heading in the opposite direction. I followed.

“That’s quite enough adventure for me,” he said. “Now it’s back to my physics papers.”

“No,” I said. “It’s back to the office, and the Beringer patents. We work until six, even on Christmas Eve. Or Hoffmann will dock your pay.”

He grimaced. “And Mileva will be furious.”

Then, smiling, Albert Einstein put his arm around my shoulder. “Ah, Hector, the mathematics of love. Compared to it, physics is but child’s play.”

On the way back to work, we stopped for a sausage roll.


(c) 2010 D. Palumbo - reprinted with permission, Candid Canine,