Blackmail Can Be Deadly

Sherman was angry and fully prepared to yell at someone. This morning he’d heard that the post office was issuing a new stamp, celebrating the career of his great-great grandfather. That would have been wonderful news, quite wonderful indeed, except that the new Sherlock Holmes stamp was to be part of a series commemorating fictional heroes. And, as Sherman told anyone who would listen, his ancestor was in no way fictional.

Sherman strutted into the main post office building, only to see three other people at the counter, yelling at the city’s postmaster. The diminutive detective recog­nized one of them. It was Harry O’Doul, his next-door neighbor.

Harry waved him to join them. “This is Sherman Holmes,” he announced to the others. “From over on Maple Street. Sherman, we need to find out who rents P.O. Box 447.”

“I cannot divulge that information,” the postmaster said with a shrug.

“Why do you need to know?” Sherman asked his neighbor.

“Can we trust him?” whispered the woman in the group.

“Absolutely,” said Harry. “He’s a private detective.”

The three took Sherman aside to privately explain their predicament. “I received an anonymous letter this morning,” said the woman. She had introduced herself as Joyce. “It was blackmail. The snake knew things about me. Bad things. The letter told me to send five hundred dollars a month to Post Office Box 447. I came right over here to find out who it is.”

“I had the same experience,” said Harry with obvious embarrassment. “I don’t know how the blackmailer found out. When I got here, I found Joyce already trying to get information about the box.”

“I got here a minute or so later,” said the other man. “My name’s Bill. And don’t tell us to go to the police. I’d rather pay than have the police find out about me.”

“How do you think the blackmailer discovered your secrets?” asked Sherman.

“I don’t know,” said Joyce. “We’re all strangers to each other. We might have been involved in the same sort of activity—the thing we’re being blackmailed for—but that’s just a guess.”

Sherman was intrigued by the situation, but didn’t hold out much hope. “Even if you discover the black­mailer’s identity, it won’t do you any good, not unless you go to the police.”

“Maybe we can do something,” said Harry darkly. “Maybe we can take matters into our own hands.”

Bill nodded. “If you have any ideas on how to catch him, Mr. Holmes, just tell your neighbor here. We’ll give him our phone numbers.”

Sherman wasn’t too worried. He honestly didn’t think they would do anything illegal. But that same evening, he heard about the murder on the news.

His next-door neighbor, Harry O’Doul, had been found shot dead in a downtown alley. According to the local newscaster, there had been a struggle, and Harry had been shot at close range with his own gun.

Sherman flipped off the TV and sat in the dark, thinking. Had Harry really done what he’d threatened? Had he discovered the blackmailer’s identity and gone after that person with a gun? Sherman thought for a few more minutes, then reached for his phone and pressed #1 on his speed dial.

“Sergeant Wilson? I hear you have another murder. I’d like to help out if I may.”

WHO DOES SHERMAN SUSPECT?

WHAT AROUSED HIS SUSPICIONS?

Sherman arrived at the precinct house in a state of agitation and marched straight into the sergeant’s office.

“I blame myself,” Sherman said before Wilson could even say hello. “Harry O’Doul was my neighbor. I should have been able to piece it together.”

“Don’t blame yourself,” Wilson said. “You couldn’t have known O’Doul was being blackmailed.”

“I did know,” Sherman said.

“Oh.” Wilson looked confused. “Do you know why? We found Harry O’Doul’s diary. Turns out he torched his company’s building last year to collect on the insurance. No one knew except for the person blackmailing him.”

“I didn’t know about the arson,” Sherman admitted. “But the blackmailer calls himself Bill. Harry knew this and went to attack him. I imagine Bill acted in self-defense.”

“Interesting,” said Wilson. “What do you know about this Bill?”

“I can describe him,” Sherman said. “I assume he used to work for the arson squad. That’s how he knew about the fire. He was also blackmailing a woman named Joyce. When Bill went to check on his post office box, he found Harry and Joyce already there, so he pretended to be another victim of the blackmailer.”

“And how did Harry know about Bill?”

“That’s the part I should have known. When Harry intro­duced us, he told Bill I live on Maple Street. Bill supposedly knew nothing about Harry. They were strangers. And yet Bill called us neighbors. He somehow knew that Harry lived on Maple, too.”