Message from the Grave

A towel had been wedged underneath the door, so it took more than a little effort to push it open.

“Hold your breath,” Sergeant Wilson said to the men behind him as he pushed his way into the bedroom.

Directly behind him was a team of paramedics. They rushed to the man lying by the gas fireplace, while Wilson turned off the gas valve, then ran for the windows, unlocking them one by one and throwing them open. Throughout all this, Sherman Holmes remained in the hallway, holding his breath.

The two paramedics worked for several minutes before giving up. “He’s dead,” Wilson confirmed with a sigh. “You can come in now, Sherman—and breathe.”

Sherman entered the small, elegant bedroom, taking in the full scene. A baseball bat lay not far from the body, a towel still partly wrapped around it, doing away with the possibility of prints. The only other door opened into a private bathroom. Wilson had just unlocked and opened the window in that room, turning on the exhaust fan for good measure.

Sherman looked at the bruise on Ben Hunter’s left temple, at the blue, asphyxiated lips, and finally at the open cell phone in his hand. “If he’d called the police instead of his son’s home, he might still be alive.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” said Wilson. “My guess is the killer slugged him with the baseball bat, then turned on the gas and left. The victim recovered just enough strength to grab the phone from his pocket and press the first number on his speed dial. He wouldn’t have to give his son the address or other information, unlike the police. A smart move, except that his son wasn’t home.”

“I’m never home on weekdays,” came a voice from behind them in the doorway. In all the turmoil, they’d forgotten about the deceased’s two relatives. Doug Hunter, the son in question, was staring at his father’s lifeless body. “I guess he was too confused to remember. I did call my home voice mail and got the message, but it was too late.”

“Ben’s had some health problems,” said the other rela­tive. “And he’s been depressed. Are you sure he didn’t commit suicide?”

It was Ben Hunter’s wife—estranged wife, as she insisted on pointing out. Carla Hunter was a full decade younger than the corpse with the blue lips.

“It doesn’t look that way,” said Sergeant Wilson. “As his wife, you inherit his estate. Is that correct?”

“What’s left of it,” said Carla. “Ben’s business went bankrupt last year. If you’re looking for someone with a motive, try Doug. Ben changed his insurance to make his son the beneficiary. I believe the policy pays double if Ben was murdered or died by violence.”

“That’s true,” Doug admitted. “But I was at work all morning. You can check with my supervisor at the plant.”

Sherman nodded. The lingering smell of gas made him more nervous than he otherwise would have been.

“Can you access the voice mail message your father left? I’d like to hear it.”

Doug Hunter said “Sure,” then flipped open his own cell phone and punched in a long series of numbers. He handed the phone to Sherman.

“Someone hit me.” The voice was weak, the connection bad. “Bedroom. Gas. Don’t know who. Still in the house. In the hall. Hurry.” Sherman listened to the message twice, then handed the phone back to Doug.

“Well?” Sergeant Wilson took his friend aside, toward one of the open windows. “You think one of them hired someone? A hit man?”

Sherman shook his head. “There’s more to this case than meets the eye.”

WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR BEN HUNTER’S DEATH?

WHAT CLUE ALERTED SHERMAN?

Sergeant Wilson had a fairly easy job. The hardest parts were putting up with his eccentric friend, and then convincing the D.A. to prosecute the right person. “Who should I bring in for questioning?” he asked.

“No one,” Sherman replied. “The person who did this will never be arrested. But he won’t get away with it, either.”

“Listen, Holmes,” the sergeant barked. “I’m not in the mood for riddles.”

“There was no murder, sergeant, just an attempt at insurance fraud.” Before Wilson could explode, Sherman continued. “Hunter committed suicide—not unexpected, considering his business failure and bad health. But he wanted Doug to collect his insurance. So, he turned on the gas, gave himself a bonk with the bat, then called his son’s home number. He didn’t call the police or his son’s cell phone. Help might have arrived too quickly.”

“So the call for help…”

“Ben said the attacker had gone out into the hall. How did he leave this room and get into the hall?”

“Through the door,” Wilson said, trying to hold onto his temper.  It’s the only way out of the room.”

“Correct.  So how did the towel get under the doorjamb?  It could only have been done by someone in the room: the victim himself.