December 21, 2011

A Christmas Short Mystery: A Theory of Murder by Dennis Palumbo

Today's Christmas treat is a short story by author and former screenwriter, DENNIS PALUMBO, which was featured here last year.

Palumbo's story, A THEORY OF MURDER, features Albert Einstein and originally appeared in The Strand Magazine, and then was part of the short story collection, From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). Palumbo's credits include being a staff writer for the ABC TV series, Welcome Back, Kotter (remember that?)

FEVER DREAM, his second crime novel from Poisoned Pen Press features psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, a trauma expert, who treats victims of violent crime. It follows the acclaimed MIRROR IMAGE.

Palumbo's short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand, Written By and elsewhere. He provides articles and reviews for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Lancet, and many others. His column, “The Writer’s Life,” appeared monthly for six years in Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America. He’s also done commentary for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and blogs regularly for The Huffington Post.

** Go to Part 2.

A THEORY OF MURDER - By Dennis Palumbo - Part 1

My friend Albert Einstein unwrapped his sausage roll, then looked up at me with those frank, dark eyes. “Tell me, Hector, what is the secret to living in harmony with a woman?”

I shrugged in my thick overcoat. It was cold out here in the dawn mist, beneath the wintry mantle of holiday snow. We sat, as we did every morning before work, on a bench overlooking the Aare River.

“I know less about women than you do,” I answered, sipping my tea. “At least you’ve managed to marry one.”

“I prefer to think that Mileva married me. For my money, perhaps?”

“It can’t be for your looks,” I said.

He smiled, then bit into his steaming roll, chewing as carelessly as he did most things.

Below us, the river flowed stubbornly around islands of scrabbly ice. Traversing its treacherous surface was a sleek racing scull being rowed by the university team, undaunted by the frigid conditions. I could just make out the half-dozen broad-shouldered students, encased in thick coats and heavy blankets, urged on by their coxswain.

We ate in a familiar, comfortable silence. Then I became aware of the rolling of cart-wheels on icy cobblestones, the flap of shop windows opening to the new day. Cool morning light poked through the haze, revealing the shapes of old, weathered buildings--relics of a past that young men like Albert and I had long since shrugged off.

We were the new generation, like those students on the water. The men of the future. It was the year 1904.

We finished our meager breakfasts and trundled down the snow-draped streets. It was two days before Christmas, and we passed several small clusters of religious folk, in gaily-colored mufflers and hats, ringing their bells and collecting for the poor. As usual, guilt made me dig into my own relatively poor pockets for some change.

Albert had said little as we made our way through the growing, early-morning throng. He’d seemed quite distracted these past months, though whether due to marital problems or his struggles with his arcane physics papers I couldn’t be sure. Whenever I asked about them, he’d merely say they weren’t ready for publication yet. I confess I doubted whether they might ever be.

At last, Albert and I arrived at the patent office. Inside, we found our employer, Herr Hoffmann, his thick mustache stained with coffee. A copy of this morning’s Gazette was in his hand.

“Have you heard the news?” he said, more agitated than usual. “Have you?”

“Are the planets still holding to their prescribed parabolas?” Albert asked mildly.

“Are they what--? Honestly, Herr Einstein--”

Hoffman shook his head, and raised the folded newspaper like a flag.

“The most horrible of all,” he said gravely. “Just last night...not five blocks from this very room. And during Christmas, for the love of God.”

“More murders?” I said, stunned. “Like before?...”

“Worse. An entire family. Husband, wife, three children. Murdered in their beds. Slaughtered like cattle.”

I took the paper he offered, my hands trembling as I read the horrible details.

“You must see this, Albert,” I said. “It’s unnatural. A crime unlike any in history.”

“Now that, dear Hector, I sincerely doubt. I trust you’ve heard of the Boer War. The massacres on the African coasts. Certain penal colonies in the Australian continent...”

“Yes, yes,” I said irritably. Truly, Albert could be maddening at times. In such moments, I didn’t envy Mileva her choice of husbands.

“My point, Albert,” I went on cooly, “is that a monster is afoot in Berne.”

“Exactly!” Hoffmann sputtered. “We have a Jack the Ripper in our midsts.”

Albert opened his eyes, at once penetrating and leavened with sadness. “Yet one far less discriminating. The Ripper chose his victims from among the women of the streets. This killer chooses random? That, I suppose, is the great bafflement. How he chooses his victims, or why.”

Hoffmann nodded. “That’s what the police say. There appears to be no motive.” He pointed to the paper in my hands. “You see, they’ve listed the deaths so far. The watch-maker, stabbed in his shop. The knifing of the elderly couple. Three seminary students, hacked to pieces. Now this poor family.”

“No recurring pattern,” Albert mused. “So unlike the universe, when you think about it. Or the habits of most men.”

“Except for one thing,” I said. “He always uses a blade of some kind. A scissors for the watch-maker, a knife for the old couple, a thick cleaver for the students. Appalling.”

“And inefficient,” Albert said. “Unless the killer’s trying different approaches to discern the most effective. Trial and error. Hypothesis and experimentation. The scientific method.”

I stared at him. “The man’s obviously deranged! And you talk of methods...?”

Hoffmann clucked his tongue. “Sometimes, Herr Einstein, I worry about you.”

“I’m touched, Herr Hoffmann.”

“Exactly. That’s what I’m worried about.” Hoffmann laughed at his own wit and shuffled over to his desk by the front door. “However, should you feel inclined to join the rest of us in the real world, I’d appreciate the schematics of the Beringer application by first post.”

As I turned to my own work, I caught sight of Albert once again leaning back in his chair. He seemed to be staring at a spot on the ceiling. Or perhaps through the ceiling, and the sky beyond, to the very edge of the universe.

I hated to agree with Hoffmann, but Albert’s mind did usually seem everywhere except in this real world of brick and soil and sausage rolls, of yearning and sorrow and sudden, horrible death.

My odd friend Albert. So secretive about his as-yet unpublished physics papers, yet so casually sure that they’d stun the world. At times as playful as a child, at others sober and introverted.

Especially today, since hearing the gruesome news about the murdered family. Albert and I had exchanged not a word, cloaked in a thick silence broken only by the shuffle of drafting papers, the scratching of pens, the muffled ticking of the wall clock.

Until lunch-time arrived...along with an Inspector Kruger of the local police, who entered stamping snow from his boots.

Herr Hoffmann stood, mouth agape, as the tall, slender Kruger pulled his gloves from his hands and saluted.

“Just routine police work,” Kruger assured us. “We have these murders, you see. The whole Department is engaged.”

“Of course.” Hoffmann rubbed his hands nervously. “It’s a comfort, knowing our police are on the job. Berne is a peaceful town. We’ve never known such brutal events before.”

Kruger smiled. “Calm yourself, Herr Hoffmann. Men must be strong. It is our duty.” He turned to me. “Actually, I’m here to ask Herr Franks to come with me. To headquarters.”

“Me?” Like an idiot, I actually pointed to myself.

Albert rubbed his nose inoffensively. “Is Hector a suspect in these killings, ludicrous as that sounds?”

Kruger tightened his jaw. “I can’t say more.”

I looked over at Albert, whose own jaw tightened. He’d never handled authority very well, he told me once. I could plainly see that now.

“I suggest I accompany you, Hector,” he said at last. “As your second.”

Kruger looked as though he were about to respond, but then merely shrugged. He ushered us out the door.
* * *

The police wagon, wheels rattling, turned onto Aar-strasse. I frowned at Kruger, wedged between Albert and myself in the rear. “This is not the way to police headquarters.”

Kruger shrugged. “We must make one stop first.”

We pulled to the curb before a rambling, two-storied house shadowed by ancient firs thick with snow. A squad of uniformed policemen milled out on the lawn, hugging themselves against the cold, smoking brown cigarettes. As we climbed out of the wagon, the men came quickly to attention.

Beside me, Kruger merely grunted his displeasure and led me up the icy porch steps and into the foyer of the somber house. I heard Albert’s steady shuffle behind us.

The first horror awaited us in the drawing room. Splashes of dried blood covered the carpet, the arms of chairs, the gilt-edged picture frames—-even the still-hanging Christmas tinsel and carefully-wrapped presents under the tree.

The Inspector pointed at an obscene black stain near the hearth. “Herr Gossen and his wife were killed there.”

I couldn’t find words, but I heard Albert’s quiet voice behind me. “The children?”

Kruger nodded to the staircase. “Upstairs.”

He led the way up the velvet-lined steps and into the first of two bedrooms. Toys, stuffed animals, and colorful downy blankets attested to the ages of the former occupants. Twin boys, I recalled from the Gazette, not yet five.

Kruger drew our attention to the little beds. Blood-soaked. Sheets a tangle. “Murdered as they slept,” he said. “Perhaps it was a blessing.”

I found my voice. “But why are you showing this to us? To me? I don’t understand--”

Kruger stirred. “You will. In the girl’s room.”

He led us to the second bedroom, evidently that of a girl in her teens. Soft, feminine. I thought I saw the glint of a blond hair in the afternoon sun, where it adhered to a blood-stained pillow.

I took a breath, then felt Albert’s reassuring grasp on my arm. It was he who questioned the Inspector this time.

“I don’t see the reason for bringing us here,” he said.

In reply, Kruger took a folded cloth from his pocket. Within lay a heart-shaped gold locket, smeared with blood.

“It was found clutched in the dead girl’s hand,” Kruger explained. “Which was severed from her body, and lay a few feet away from it on the floor.”

“No!!” I cried. It took both of them to keep me upright as I swayed, gasping. “ can’t be...”

“So you recognize the locket?” Kruger stared at me.

I nodded dumbly. How could I not? It had once been mine.
* * *

“It was a cruel act,” Albert was saying to Kruger, as we sat in the Commissioner’s office at police headquarters. “And unnecessarily theatrical.”

“Perhaps.” Kruger’s bald head shone in the wintry light from the windows. “But I thought it might be effective.”

“For what? Extracting a confession from Herr Franks? You can’t possibly suspect Hector of these heinous crimes?”

I sat in silence on a padded bench at the far end of the large, wood-paneled room. I felt disembodied. Adrift in a nightmare from which I couldn’t awaken.

Until I was startled from my melancholy by the arrival of a slender young girl, in the company of a police matron.

“Mina!” I said, leaping from my seat. Upon seeing me, Mina froze in her tracks, face turning pale as chalk.

She was as beautiful as I remembered, luminous eyes now red-rimmed from recent tears.

Kruger rose, and turned to Albert.“This is Fraulein Mina Strauss,” he explained. “She was a school-mate of the late Fraulein Gossen.”

Mina’s voice quavered. “Poor Katie. She was my best, my truest friend. We...” She burst into tears, hands covering her face. The stoic matron idly handed her a handkerchief.

“Fraulein Strauss is also known to Herr Franks,” Kruger said, finally looking at me. “Isn’t that so?”

“Yes. I...we...” I looked at the floor. “I loved her once. Some few years ago.”

“Love?” Mina’s eyes found mine. “It was an infatuation, Hector. I was only sixteen, and even I had the wit to know that.” She turned to Kruger. “Hector worked for a summer for my father. He...flattered me with his attentions. But I never returned his affections. Even after he sent me the locket.”

Kruger pointed to the gold locket on the table next to us, still nested in the folded cloth. “This locket?”

Mina nodded, miserable. “I shouldn’t have kept it, I know. But it was so pretty. Perhaps I’m vain. Perhaps...” Her smile back at me was kind. “I’m sorry, Hector.”

Albert took a step forward, hands in the pockets of his loose trousers. Old pipe ash flecked his sweater.

“Might I ask how the locket came into the possession of Fraulein Gossen?”

Mina gazed warily at Albert’s careless appearance. I could sense that she found him...unimpressive.

“I gave it to Katie,” she said carefully. “As a token of our friendship, our bond. We shared a special kinship...a...” She looked at me for a long moment, then away, as though having decided I wouldn’t understand. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Now my world is over. Finished.”

I found her words perplexing, and glanced over at Albert. But his expression was unreadable.

Suddenly, a heavy tread sounded in the doorway. It was the large, imposing figure of Commissioner Otto Burlick. In his wake came a sturdy-looking young man wearing rimless glasses and a crisp college uniform beneath his winter coat. He had the same thick, dark features as the Commissioner.

Behind him, lounging in the doorway, was another college youth. Though he had the sullen look of a street ruffian.

Burlick lumbered over to his desk, rumaging hastily through the top drawer until he pulled out a check-book.

“Won’t be a minute,” he said to the room, exasperated. “My son Jeffrey is in need of a loan.”

“It is a loan,” Jeffrey, the first boy, protested. He glanced neither at me, Mina, nor the Inspector. “I’ll pay it back.”

“Don’t grovel, Jeffrey,” said the boy in the doorway. “It’s disgusting.”

Jeffrey whirled at this, face reddening. “Do shut up, Hans. If it wasn’t for you, egging me on...”

Hans laughed sourly. “So now it’s my fault you bet on the wrong boat?”

Burlick looked up from his desk, bristling. “Hans Pfeiffer? I’ve heard Jeffrey speak of you. You think you’re some kind of tough character. No doubt you’d benefit from a good hiding.” He turned to his son. “As for you, Jeffrey. Gambling on athletic events? Is this what they encourage at your university? I shall have to speak to the Chancellor...”

Jeffrey gasped, mortified. “Father, don’t!”

Burlick returned to his check-book. Jeffrey, seemingly at a loss, swept the room with his eyes. Then, with a forced casualness: “Hello, Herr Einstein.”

Albert registered a mild surprise. “Do I know you?”

“I’ve seen you around the campus,” Jeffrey said easily. “A real scholar, I’m told. Not like me. You wouldn’t want to hear about my difficulties with mathematics.”

Albert gave him a rueful smile. “I can assure you, young sir, mine are far worse.”

The sound of Commissioner Burlick ripping a check from his book drew our collective gaze. He gave it to Jeffrey, glowering. “Now go! And, by God, look to your studies.”

Jeffrey nodded, stuffed the check in his pocket and sauntered out. Hans turned to follow, but not before giving Mina a leering wink that made her look away.

* Go to Part 2.

(c) 2010-11 D. Palumbo reprinted in Candid Canine,