The body lay on the floor. The door had been locked. No one could have gone in or out. There were witnesses in the adjoining rooms, but they’d heard nothing. Chester Bobble wasn’t called in for normal cases of murder and mayhem. No, the mysterious South Orkney detective only appeared when the Marrakesh police were desperate for a Fictional Detective and the special powers that a Fictional Detective could summon to solve a case.
Bobble examined the body, standing over it, smoking his pipe. Smoking wasn’t allowed here, but he was Fictional. He blew his trademark smoke ring over the body; it would make a nice shot if this were opted later for film. Perhaps it could even serve as the poster for the movie: sepia tones; gorgeous blonde dead on the floor, skirt rumpled, legs askew; Bobble, tall, thin, in his black cape and black slouch hat, stands over the body, blows his famous ring of smoke; body is circled, delineated, in the smoke ring.
His reverie was disturbed.
“It’s all yours, Bobblehead.” Bobble ignored the slight. Captain Abdul Murphy continued, “CSI has been all over this like flies on camel shit with fine-toothed harem combs. They’ve bagged every spot of dust, taken prints, photographed every angle. They’ve checked everything. They’ve found nothing. So they’ve called you.”
“Really, Captain Murphy?” Bobble was satisfied to hear his own low, gravelly monotone; he had almost lost his voice in “the accident,” but it was coming back nicely. “You’ve checked everything, have you? Really? Everything?”
The short, squat, almost but not quite bald, blunt police captain stared at Bobble, wordless, unimpressed, nonplussed, as the Fictional Detective surveyed the scene. Bobble pressed close to Murphy’s face and whispered, “The murder weapon? Have you found that?”
Murphy scowled. “Bobble, she’s got a silver curved Bedouin dagger sticking out of her back. A dagger with a left-hand curve, Bobble, not a right-hand curve.” Murphy narrowed his dark Irish-Libyan eyes. “You know what that means.”
“Aye, but you can’t be sure that’s what killed her, Abdul.” Bobble shook his head, a movement meant to be fraught with meaning and pathos. “People always jump to the obvious conclusions. What if that’s a red herring sticking out of her back? I always assume that what is most obvious is also probably—the most fishy. Aye, it is my modus operandi, a philosophy and method you might do well to adopt, here in your dry backwater desert demesne. Perhaps she died of an allergic reaction that was engineered in an ingenious criminal manner with some obscure South American spice, and then someone—”
Murphy’s face turned bright red. “I’m outta here.” He threw his hands up in disgust and was as good as his word, stomping out. His technicians followed him, swirling their colorful Arab CSI robes as they left the crime scene to the Orkney detective.
Bobble was glad they had left. Captain Murphy was never happy when a case was taken out of his control and given to Bobble, and Bobble didn’t want to waste any time listening to Murphy’s shallow sarcastic remarks.
Bobble blew another smoke ring.
Ah! thought Bobble. Suddenly, his incredible powers of perception zoomed in on something the CSI crew, in spite of their methodical and practiced routine, had overlooked.
They never look up, thought Bobble. Not while the body’s on the floor. They always overlook what’s above their heads.
He stepped carefully to a far corner of the room and found himself gazing with a great deal of interest at a broken spiderweb. An angry but harmless Tunisian singing spider gazed back at him with twelve eyes, returning his interest with compound interest, accumulating over time, whilst singing a very high aria, well beyond human hearing, and considering whether it was worth its effort to bite Bobble on the nose.
“A spiderweb, recently broken,” Bobble whispered, letting just a small bit of wonder creep into his voice.
And then he noticed it. That faint breeze cooling his cheek. He turned his head carefully. There it was: a huge wicker ceiling fan, spinning slowly, casting shadows, now and then, and then again, and now again, across the body on the floor.
Bobble quickly noted the degree to which the fan would cool the body and throw off the calculations of the CSI crew. Minutes, only minutes, but enough time to falsify the investigation and to influence the questions asked of the neighbors in the adjoining rooms.
Now, turning back to the spiderweb. To break it, someone would have to be very tall—this was a ten-foot ceiling—or perhaps, just waving their arms over their heads. There was that possibility, too, but he discounted it as improbable.
And once one has discounted the improbable, one is left with the impossible: someone crawling along the ceiling.
There would be no reason to break the spiderweb, unless—yes!—if one were crawling on the ceiling, the route from the window—over here—to the body—over there—would lead you through the spiderweb as you avoided the lazy blades of the ceiling fan!
Someone had clearly been crawling, upside-down, on the ceiling!
Bobble smiled. His powers of deduction were draining the mystery out of this particular crime rather quickly. This looked to be the work of a Fictional Villain!
The spider, who had decided to ignore the Fictional human below him, had switched to a solo oratorio by an arachnid Brahms.
Bobble glanced over his shoulder at the body on the floor. “Lucky you,” he muttered.
He was met by one glassy, cloudy eye. The half of her face not pressed to the floor had a wry expression.
The eye remained staring, unblinking. He had seen eyes like that in the fish market in his little South Orkney village. The image took him back to his childhood: his dear mother, departed these long years, dying a gruesome death in the marketplace, as he, a ten-year-old Bobble, watched, forensic interest suddenly budding. He could still hear her explosive, blood-chilling scream as the herring under her foot skidded across the docks and she fell slowly, almost intentionally, on her back, abruptly stopping herself by hitting her head on a rusty herring-rake.
“Poor mother,” he remarked. “She had eyes like that. Well, after the herring-rake.” He returned his gaze from the past to the present, forensics flowering now within him and producing a questioning scent. He gave the body a gentle kick. The eye refused to answer it. An unblinking eye, he mused, is a dead eye. He removed a notepad from his trousers and wrote that line down. He carefully noted the lack of movement, the stiff personality. There would be no more character development for this one.
“So,” he said, scowling, “you’re a Fictional Victim.”
Bobble hated Fictional Victims. And he hated the blonde on the floor for being a Fictional Victim.
He knew exactly what he would find now: Every single person in the adjoining rooms would know Ms. Victim in some way—she would be their boss, their sister, their mother, their wife, their employer, their lover, their lawyer, their banker, their great-aunt on their father’s side. And he would find that they all disliked Miss Victim; that somehow, not one of them really minded that Miss Victim was dead. And they would all have the means and motive to kill her, every one of the bastards. Bobble had seen it all before, over and over, again and again, and then once again, too.
And now even he, Chester Bobble, Fictional Detective, had a reason to dislike her. Even in death, Miss Victim had managed to anger and annoy yet one more person. He felt an overwhelming urge to kill her, despite the fact that she was already dead. It felt to Bobble as if the entire weight of The Universe were pressing on his shoulders, pressing him to Kill This Woman! Anyone who had ever encountered her could have done it. Her husband. Her hairdresser. The guy behind the counter at the Wawa.
Aye, but only one suspect would have the means to crawl across a ceiling to get to her. Which one?
He stepped out of the room into the hall. Where was he anyway? A hotel? A boarding house? Condo unit?
Ah! A hotel. A rather fancy one, judging by the thick carpet and dark wainscoting. Bobble took in the intricate Arab designs in the wallpaper, the old wide French moldings lining the high ceiling.
Down the hall a door opened. A woman in a bathrobe stepped out and turned, arguing with a man still inside the room. Clearly a man—a woman didn’t argue quite that way with another woman. When she saw Bobble, she stopped mid-sentence and stared.
He couldn’t deny that she was beautiful. And no one would ever ask him to. Even a blind man couldn’t deny that she was beautiful, although for completely different reasons. He might say, “How would I know?” Or maybe, if he ran his sensitive fingertips over her sharp cheekbones, her icy blue eyes, even he would see. Of all the women in the world, it had to be her. The Beautiful One.
A man came out of the room, yelling, “Whata’ you waitin’ for, Agnes?”
When the man caught sight of Bobble, he waved his hands in the air and yelled down the hall, “You! Whatta’ you lookin’ at, huh?” Then he roughly pulled the Beautiful One back into the room. The door slammed shut and Bobble could hear the click of the deadbolt echo down the hall and through the years.
Her. Agnes Sphagnum. She was as beautiful as a summer’s day, and as cold as the iceberg that sunk the Titanic.
And then his world went black. Down he went.
A maid woke him up. Bobble’s first thought was of Agnes. His second was of blinding headache. The two thoughts seemed inseparable.
The maid asked him to move a bit to the left so she could get to the linens.
“Which linens?” he asked.
“Second shelf,” she responded.
Bobble handed her a sheet set and blanket.
The maid shut the closet door.
Bobble opened it and stuck his head out. “Is this a common occurrence? Finding an unconscious man in the closet?”
The maid, farther down the hall, opened the door to Agnes’ room. She entered with the linens.
Bobble went back to his own room, wondering who had knocked him out, only to find that he’d locked himself out. He put a hand to his aching head and took the elevator down to the lobby.
After haranguing the desk clerk for a second key, Bobble fancied a bit of peckish. Something about the huge marble columns in the lobby reminded him of the standing stones of home. He felt himself lapsing into his old South Orkney brogue as he strolled into the huge hotel restaurant. A waiter soon ambled by his side and sat Bobble at a table facing the wide double doors to the kitchen.
“A spot ’o peckish, an’ a rasher ’o ye haggis an’ coorn smoot, me gud ma’!” ordered Bobble, cheerfully.
“Ah, an’ ye be a’havin’ the same lark ’o yestry?” answered the waiter, the power of the South Orkney dialect overcoming him like mustard gas, despite the fact that he was Slovak.
“Ay! Same ol’ lark! Makey gin, no on the vermy, an’ makey wi’ ’o uns, ye do!”
“Yes, sir, gin martini, onion, no vermouth,” said the waiter, shaking his head and recovering his own voice.
“Ay! An’ no o’ dat cocktail uns, me gud ma! A right biggo un!”
When the waiter retired to perform his duties, Bobble leaned back in his chair to survey the restaurant. He lit up another cigarette, smiled, and flicked his fictional ashes on the carpet. Aye, the peckish and haggis would set him a’right, it would, it would set him a’right. Something about this case was as off as a load of herrings that had sat too long on the stinking Orkney docks.
Bobble finished his repast with a Marrakesh burrito and a glass of cactus beer. On the way back up, he ran into Captain Abdul Murphy, who asked, rather snidely, “So, Bobble, can you tell me who killed her?” Murphy smiled wickedly.
“Perhaps,” answered the Fictional Detective, dropping his colorful accent like a case of rotten coorn smoot thrown overboard into the North Sea. That colorful accent was the only part of the job that he really disliked, but by book four in the series, it was way too late to contemplate changing his ethnicity. His legions of fans wouldn’t understand and, in addition, one simply didn’t cross the Orkney tourist board. Not them. They had too much power in the publishing industry.
“Already?” asked Murphy. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Bobble allowed his eyes a little crinkle. “I know how the killer got in the room.”
“But,” Murphy reminded him, “the door was locked. The windows, too. No one could have gone in or out. We had to send a cop down to the reception desk for a key.”
The tough Marrakesh police captain was right. It was a classic “Locked Door” mystery. A real jolly stumper.
Bobble stuck his hand in his pocket, fumbling for his pipe and matches—this was a smoke ring moment—and found his replacement room key.
The solution came in a flash!
Bobble narrowed his crinkled eyes. Yes, the door had been locked. But just suppose the killer had locked the door when he’d LEFT the room! After the murder! Perhaps it wasn’t locked before the murder! Ha! What a devious mind this villain had: He’d thought to lock the door as he’d left the murder scene, making it look like a traditionally impossible and somewhat classical Locked Door mystery. But it wasn’t!
Bobble smiled an inscrutable smile. Captain Abdul Murphy flinched; he’d been slapped in the face with that smile once too often. They progressed back to the murder scene, where the suspects were lined up like slimy kippers on a fishmonger’s newspaper. Or over-ripe tamarinds on a dirty djbella in the Jajouka quarter.
We’ve all been wasting our time, Bobble thought to himself. Then he shook his head to himself. This means that the villain didn’t have to crawl across the ceiling, after all. He could have come in through the door, like anybody else. This wasn’t a Fictional Villain he was looking for, no, it was just some ordinary guy who could lock a door, an ordinary guy with an opposable thumb. Bobble automatically began to examine the hands of every person in the room. As he had deduced, it could have been anyone. Even Agnes Sphagnum, who stood by a bookcase eating from a box of mamool. Using her index finger and thumb.
As she walked up to him, slow and deliberate, it hit him—like that iceberg striking the Titanic yet again and again—Agnes’ paramour. Wasn’t that him? The guy waving his hands in the hallway? What about that? There was something on the edge of his consciousness trying desperately to place a cell phone call to Bobble’s frontal lobes but getting really spotty reception. Agnes looked directly into his eyes, a sultry look that spoke volumes, while Agnes’ pouting and lipsticked mouth, sticky with mamool, purred only four words:
“Baby, I’m not cold-hearted.”
Bobble’s world came to sudden halt. His mind reeled. He grimaced. He hated her as only a lover can hate. She delved deep for his deepest subterranean most inner innermost metaphors. So much of her lay hidden beneath the surface, in spite of all that was exposed by that low-cut dress. And what she hid was always, cold, icy, and deadly.
“You walk like a panther,” she breathed, deftly adding five more words and one more non-sequitur cliché to the conversation, coming closer, encouraging his robust manhood, which was already stretching his pants past the point where it might have alarmed even the mysterious Inspector 23, whose cryptic message Bobble had found at the very bottom of his very own left front pants pocket that very morning:
Inspected by 23. What did that mean?
But she was cold-hearted, he reminded himself, mentally conjuring a cold shower. Cold-hearted? Bobble tried to clear his head. What had he been thinking about? Then he saw the man with the once-wavy hands, his prime suspect, slipping quietly and quickly from the room.
The wavy-handed man who had waved his hands in the air. The very guy. Who was that guy?
Of course. Pete Moss. Her half-brother. He was the culprit! “We must—” Bobble was about to say “—catch that man!” But he stopped at “must—” and gazed with shock and awe at Captain Abdul Murphy.
That bit of stuff stuck in his sparse white ring of hair? Could it be? Spiderweb? Bobble had almost missed it! And didn’t Captain Murphy also wave his hands in the air? When he left Bobble at the murder scene at the beginning of the story?
Murphy!? Could it have been Captain Abdul Murphy!? It must have been!
Bobble turned to his left. “How could you?” he asked the Marrakesh police captain.
Murphy blinked, a telling sign that he was nervous. “How could I what, Bobblehead?”
“Murder her. Stab her in the back—waving your hands in the air!” Bobble shouted that last bit, moving closer to Murphy.
He reached into Murphy’s thin hair, which reminded him of the sparse desiccated vegetation that grew on the edge of the wadi (or maybe sun-bleached seaweed blown on an Orkney beach by the cold north sea wind; it was easy to confuse the two), picked a bit of spiderweb, and showed it to the Marrakesh cop.
“What?” asked Murphy again, clearly becoming irritated.
Bobble hung the spiderweb from his fingers. It was white and very sticky. Kinda gross, really.
Captain Murphy looked at it. “So?”
“I’ll wager this spiderweb in your hair matches the spiderweb at the murder scene. Officers, arrest this man!”
Not much happened. The Tunisian singing spider started a jaunty andante pavane that might have worked for an arachnid Gilbert had an arachnid Sullivan been suddenly available. Murphy said, “Are you sure? Could be some other spiderweb. . . .” He was grinning again.
“I’m sure that comparative DNA evidence will show that these spiderwebs are one and the same, Captain Murphy.”
“Bobble, I got caught in that web when we were examining the crime scene.”
“No, Murphy. That web was too high. You would have walked right under it. No, you got caught in that web when you decided to play around with a blonde who was a paid hooker working for Big Boss Leo Bonnanna. It got caught in your hair when you argued with her—just before you killed her—waving your hands in the air!”
Murphy looked down at the carpet. “Bonnanna. Alias, the Big Banana. Bobble, you’ve got me. I really don’t know how you do it, but even though none of this would hold up in any court of law, I feel an overwhelming urge to confess. Do you know why that is, Bobble?”
“Because my superior interrogation skills are the product of years of Detective Fiction?”
“No, because my accomplice has a gun at your back, and it doesn’t matter a damn if I confess. In fact, it will thrill me to throw it in your face, Bobblehead! I killed her. Yeah, I did it! So there. And you know who’s standing behind you, Bobble, ready to off your Fictional butt?”
Bobble slowly turned around. Agnes. The Beautiful One. He turned back to face Murphy, considering his options. All of Murphy’s loyal police officers had moved discreetly out of the room.
Suddenly, everything went black.
The iceberg hit him and down he went. Who says icebergs never strike the same place twice? Bobble knew better now.
He woke up in a soft bed, satin sheets wrapped around him. Agnes was sitting in a chair by the window sipping a Manhattan, gazing across the vast expanse of shimmering desert, burning dunes like waves on a bright frozen sea, a sea only she could see, as if she was looking for a camel, a ship of the desert, to take her somewhere far away, over the burning frozen waves, maybe somewhere life was green and lush and not wavy; maybe, maybe just somewhere with a more animated view; or maybe somewhere where she could be more certain of where she wanted to be, or go to.
At least, that’s what Bobble thought she was thinking, as he looked longingly at her slim curvy shoulders floating dangerously above the plunging back of her sea-blue satin party dress, the satin folding like ocean waves. . . .
His head hurt. Again.
“I couldn’t do it,” she said, finally. Her shiny blue back was still turned to him—he watched her shoulders moving like something he couldn’t quite remember, something cold and hard that he couldn’t quite place, floating on the sensuous swell of waves—
Waves! Waving hands! Abdul Murphy! Bobble came fully awake.
And somehow, she had sensed he’d awoken. “So, I gave Murphy two days to quit the Marrakesh police force and get out of town before I called Bonnanna. Pete helped me drag you here. You’re free to go, Chester, wherever it is you call home. And the case is solved.”
Bobble tried to sit up, but his head ached too much. Agnes; headache: it had always been that way with the two of them. He said softly, “So, you still have feelings for me, Agnes?”
Agnes turned from the window. “No. Never did. But a Fictional Detective can’t die, you know that.”
“Yes, but you could have shot me and left me for dead! And then I could have woken up and, bleeding and nearly comatose from blood loss, tracked Murphy down on my hands and knees and—in a terrible slugfest where I almost lose my life!—single-handedly brought him to justice just before I collapsed unconscious in your repentant arms!”
“Oh, God no. Please. Enough already. We Fictions have to end the story somehow, and you weren’t ending it well at all; the damn thing would have gone on for over three hundred double-spaced manuscript pages. Now it’s over, Chester. It’s really over.”