Them’s the Brakes

It was a balmy, late summer evening. Sergeant Wilson examined the mangled body in the driver’s seat, exchanging a few words with his forensics crew. When he finally trudged up the side of the ravine to the break in the railing, he was only slightly surprised to find Sherman Holmes pulling his antique Bentley into the roadside turnout.

Brakes“Well, that clinches it,” Wilson muttered. “If Sherman shows up on the scene, it’s got to be murder. Good evening, Mr. Holmes.”

“Evening, my good Wilson.” Sherman scanned the broken railing and the winding, downhill road leading to it. “No tire marks. May we assume that the driver’s brakes malfunctioned?”

“Brake lines were neatly cut. The victim is one Milton Graves. His driver’s license says he lives up the hill. Want to join me while I break the news to his next of kin?”

The men hopped into a police cruiser and hopped out again in front of a comfortable mountain retreat. The thirty-ish, attractive woman answering the door identified herself as Dominique Black, the niece and personal lawyer of the deceased.

Dominique seemed stunned by the tragic news and asked the sergeant and his companion to step inside. The first thing Sherman noticed was a balloon bouquet nestled high in the oaken rafters.

“A birthday party?” he inquired.

“For Uncle Milton,” she answered. “My cousins and I came over for a little celebration. Afterwards, Uncle Milton drove off to pick up another cousin at the airport. We were expecting them back any moment. And now you say he’s dead?”

“Yes, ma’am. Probably just minutes after leaving the house.” Wilson didn’t mention the brake lines.

The other inhabitants wandered into the entry hall and were informed of the news. The cousins, Tyrone and Chuck Graves, seemed just as stunned as Dominique, while the housekeeper, Mrs. Watts, reacted with a chilly frown.

“Do you know anyone who might have wanted your uncle dead?”

“I can think of three,” Mrs. Watts answered. “During dessert, Mr. Graves made an announcement. He had just changed his will. Instead of leaving his money to charity, he had divided his estate evenly among his nieces and nephews.”

“That’s right,” Tyrone admitted. “It came as a complete shock.”

“What a tragic coincidence!” Chuck could barely repress a grin.

“Exactly,” agreed Sherman. “What did you all do after dinner?”

Chuck, a Wall Street broker, answered first. “I was overwhelmed by the news. I telephoned my wife as soon as we left the table. I was still on the phone when Uncle Milton drove off.”

Tyrone, a pediatric surgeon, had a similar, equally provable alibi. “I was on my cell phone, talking to the hospital. I imagine the phone company can verify the time.”

“And I was with Uncle Milton,” Dominique said, “taping a video birthday greeting for the company offices. Mrs. Watts was working the camera.”

Mrs. Watts nodded. “Why do you need to know this, officer?”

“For our report,” Wilson replied, then took Sherman aside. He looked disappointed. “If their stories check out, Sherman, we’re stumped. None of them had a chance to get to the garage and tamper with the brakes.”

“But someone did tamper with the brakes,” Sherman said. “And I think I know who.”

WHO CUT THE BRAKE LINES?

HOW DID SHERMAN KNOW?

“You can’t know who it is.”  Given Sherman’s record, Sergeant Wilson hated to disagree, but this was one time when he saw no possible explanation.  “Are you saying their alibis won’t check out?”

“Not at all,” said Sherman.  “They might indeed.  Chuck might well have been on the phone the entire time.  The same might be true for Tyrone.  As for Dominique, if we didn’t believe Mrs. Watt’s testimony, then we could check the time stamp on the video recorder:  I assume that they’re all telling the truth.”

“Well, then, when were the brake lines cut?”

Sherman paused for effect.  “Before dinner, old boy.”

“Before…?”  Wilson had to smile.  “You’re slipping, old boy.  Mr. Graves only announced his will at the dinner table.  Before dinner, no one had a reason to want him dead.”

Now it was Sherman’s time to smile.  “If you were Graves and you were changing your will, who would you go to?”

“A lawyer, of course.”

“And who was Milton Grave’s lawyer?  His niece, Dominique.”

“You’re right.”  Wilson slapped his leg.  We’ll check that will.  If Dominique drew it up, then she goes to the top of our list – the only suspect who knew ahead of time about the inheritance.”