The Locked Cottage

“Watch out for the poison ivy,” Jonah shouted, pointing to the shiny, purple-tinged leaves along the side of the cottage.

The man from Central Indiana Power & Gas glanced down at the dangerous weeds, then grabbed a pair of work gloves from his tool belt. “Thanks,” he shouted back. With the gloves on, he reached through the leaves to the main valve. “It’s all off,” he called to Detective Bixby, as he turned the knob all the way. “You can go in.”

Just fifteen minutes earlier, a postal carrier had smelled gas coming through the mail slot of Anna Plinkov’s little stone cottage. He immediately called the gas company and the police. Carol Bixby had been four blocks away, driving her son to his Saturday baseball practice, and responded to the call.

“All the doors and windows are locked from the inside,” Carol observed. She had a rock in her hand and now used it to smash a window by the front door. Reaching inside, she unlatched it. “You stay out here,” she warned Jonah, then climbed in through the window. Jonah watched from the porch as one by one the doors and windows of the cottage flew open, letting the poisonous gas escape.

Jonah was still on the front porch when a small sedan pulled up to the curb. A young woman, about 25 years old, sprang out and came toward him, fumbling through a key chain. She stopped as she saw the open door and Jonah standing beside it. “The police called me,” she said. “I’m Miss Plinkov’s niece. Is there something wrong?” Then she smelled the gas. “Oh, dear.” A second later she was running into the house. “Aunt Anna?”

It was five minutes later when a second car pulled up. The driver was a young man, about the same age as the niece. He, too, climbed up the porch steps, smelled the gas, and asked about his aunt.

“I don’t know if anyone was home.” Jonah tried to sound optimistic. “Maybe the house was empty.”

“Aunt Anna is always home. “The nephew scratched nervously at a rash on his forearms. “Excuse me, kid,” he said, and disappeared into the cottage.

Jonah checked his watch—he was already late for baseball practice—then settled down on the steps. A little while later, his mother came out and sat down beside him. “Bad news.” Her face was solemn. “I found the old lady in front of a gas fireplace, one of the kind that you need to light. Last night she settled in with her usual cup of cocoa and a book. She must have turned on the gas and forgotten to light it. Or else the fire blew out.”

“Are her lips purple?” Jonah asked, trying to envision the scene.

“Yes,” Carol said. “Dead from asphyxiation. Her niece and nephew say they visit her now and then. They say her routine is always the same. An early dinner. Then she locks up the house, lights the fire, and sits down with her cocoa. It looks like a simple accident, except…”

“Except what?”

“Well, Ms. Plinkov had a lot of money in the bank. She had no children and that niece and nephew are her only heirs.”

“You should have the lab analyze her cup of cocoa,” suggested Jonah. “Maybe one of them put sleeping pills in it.”

“That occurred to me, too,” Carol said. “But even if they did… The house was locked from the inside. Bolts on the doors; latches on the windows. Miss Plinkov was alive and well when she locked up last night.”

Jonah sat and thought. He wanted it to be an accident. Then he could finally get to baseball practice. “Mom,” he said reluctantly. “I know how one of them could have killed her.”

HOW COULD THE MURDER HAVE BEEN COMMITTED?

WHOM DOES JONAH SUSPECT?

Detective Bixby looked at her son. “If it turns out to be murder, I’ll call Bobby’s mother and she’ll pick you up. You’ll still be able to play ball.”

“Good ” said Jonah. I think the nephew killed her. He must’ve come by last night for dinner. That’s when he drugged her cocoa mix.”

“And how did he lock up the house from the inside?”

“He didn’t. He left and Ms. Plinkov did her regular routine. She locked up, sat in front of the fire, drank her cocoa, and went to sleep. But the nephew was waiting outside. He went to the gas valve on the side of the house and turned it off. That made the fire go out. A minute later, he turned the gas back on.”

Carol Bixby smiled. That’s very clever. With any luck, we’ll be able to lift his prints from the gas valve. But what makes you say it’s the nephew and not the niece?”

“Because the nephew was scratching his arms. It looks like poison ivy—from the poison ivy bush right next to the valve.”