The Imperfect Patsy by John Dromey
The Poindexter Detective Agency was a one-man operation. Drop-in clients were welcome. There was no receptionist to stand in their way.
Since there was no one to answer the phone when the solitary lead investigator was away from his office, he seldom had the luxury of screening his potential clients in advance of a face-to-face meeting. More often than not, he had to rely solely on observation and other deductive skills before deciding whether or not to accept an assignment.
One glance was enough to tell him that the woman on the other side of his desk was accustomed to the finer things in life. Her designer clothes fit her well, and she had an air of opulence that could not easily have been faked. Obviously, she could afford the best, so why had she chosen him?
“Who gave you the fat lip?” he asked her.
“Dr. Lanier, my plastic surgeon,” she said, “but that’s not why I’m here.”
Her name was Jo Campbell and she was carrying enough collagen to fill a coffee cup. The eponymous detective had to discard a couple of his Sherlock-Holmes-inspired guesses right off the bat. He was unable to read her Botox-neutral expression, but if his prospective client was telling the truth, she had not been in a fight nor did she wish to file a malpractice suit.
“Why are you here?”
“I want you to shoot my husband.”
Lewis Poindexter pondered the possibilities. He was licensed to carry a firearm, but he was not licensed to kill. He thought about his nearly-empty bank account, his maxed-out credit cards, and the stack of past-due bills on his desk.
Reluctantly and ever-so-slowly he shook his head no.
“Maybe I didn’t phrase that right,” Mrs. Campbell said. “I want to surprise my hubby with a trip to equatorial Africa, and before we go he’ll need some shots and inoculations. That’s why I want to hire you.”
“Why don’t you get your family doctor to help? Cook up some story about you and your husband being exposed to something contagious.”
“It wouldn’t work. Harvey would rather die than volunteer to get stuck with a needle.”
“I see the problem, but what could I do?”
“You could make my dream vacation come true, Mr. Poindexter. Don’t worry; you won’t have to get your hands dirty. On the contrary, I’d encourage you to use hand sanitizer as often as possible until the job is finished. I’ll supply everything you need. All you have to do is go to my husband’s office building, ride up in the elevator with him, and stick the hypodermic needle in his left buttock. He carries his wallet in his right hip pocket. You can start with something simple. I have a syringe loaded with flu vaccine in my purse. I’ll give it to you right now, if you’ll do the rest.”
Done and done.
• • •
The “DEAD INDUSTRIALIST” headline was hard to ignore. Lewis Poindexter held the newspaper with trembling hands. He had trouble concentrating. Flashbacks to his recent experience in the elevator intruded. He relived every moment. Highlights included the way Campbell flinched in reaction to the needle, looked around anxiously, and then relaxed when he saw a fidgety woman with a pointy purse. There’s something to be said for serendipity.
Upon reflection, Poindexter was sure he’d done everything according to Mrs. Campbell’s instructions. He’d been especially careful to squeeze a drop of liquid through the point of the needle to make sure there was no air in the hypo. As meticulous as he was, could he somehow have overlooked a tiny bubble? Could Harvey Campbell have died of an embolism? There was only one way to find out.
Poindexter read the article.
The industrialist had died shortly after arriving at his office. Pending an autopsy, the suspected cause of death was anaphylactic shock. The deceased was known to be allergic to eggs.
No embolism. No poison. Poindexter was off the hook. He let out a huge sigh of relief and put down the paper. Then he remembered: flu vaccine is incubated in chicken eggs.
Surely Campbell’s wife knew all about her husband’s allergies and eating habits, even if she was extravagantly rich and far too self-indulgent to do any of the actual cooking herself.
Of course she knew.
The hardboiled detective figured he was fried.
How could he explain his criminal participation, however innocent or unwitting, to a judge? “Sure, Your Honor, I’m the one who administered the fatal shot, but Mrs. Campbell egged me on.”
He resolved to keep quiet. No one would ever hear a peep out of him on the subject. Besides, when considered from a strictly egotistical point of view, there was a bright side. A perfect crime requires a perfect perpetrator. Of course, if he wanted to be completely honest with himself, he’d have to have his business cards reprinted to read: “Lewis Poindexter, Perfect Patsy.”
• • •
Chicken Little was right.
The sky was falling!
Poindexter fought his way up through a dark cloud. It was slow-going, and he felt he was out of his element. His progress was unsteady. Was he having an out-of-body experience of the worst kind? No, he decided. Occasional flashes of brilliant light penetrated his muddled senses to remind him he was still alive. There was no accompanying thunder — just a dull roaring sound in his ears caused by his blood rushing around wherever was customary after a severe blow to the back of the head. What had brought on the attack? Did he have some guilty knowledge that was worth killing over?
The last clear thought the addled gumshoe had, immediately prior to his descent into darkness, was of being on his hands and knees burying the Campbell file in a bottom drawer — anticipating that he’d never see it or her again — then starting to stand up.
Ever the optimist, and often the hypocrite, Poindexter usually kept the top drawer of his metal file cabinet pulled out a few inches — perpetually open — ready to receive a fresh file, or to deceive new clients into thinking he had lots of active files in there awaiting his attention. There was no criminal assault involved. Poindexter had simply hit his head on the sharp edge of the open drawer when he stood up too quickly. After a momentary blackout, he regained consciousness, recovered his equilibrium, staunched the flow of blood with his handkerchief, picked himself up from the floor and went home.
• • •
The next time Mrs. Campbell visited Poindexter’s office, she didn’t waste any time with small talk. She’d barely settled her derrière into the client’s chair before reaching for her checkbook.
“I want to surprise a dilatory, recalcitrant, balky, stubborn, foot-dragging, downright pigheaded probate lawyer,” she said, “with a one-way ticket out of my life.”
• • •
A couple of weeks later, Lewis Poindexter himself was surprised by a male client’s request.
“I want you to rid me of my wife,” he said.
“Bump her off, rub her out, snuff her.” The man leaned forward and whispered, “In other words, I want you to kill her.”
Poindexter didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. His face was an open book.
“Let’s start again,” the man said. “Jo sent me.”
“I’m not running a speakeasy here. Joe who?”
“Josephine Campbell. She said you’d know what to do.”
That explained a lot. Too much, really. Like it or not, Poindexter had a track record with Mrs. Campbell. He’d done her a couple of favors, both of which had terminal consequences, though the second favor perhaps should be attributed more to a fluke of nature than to the private eye’s prowess. Responding to a twinge of conscience, the shamus had gone to warn a high-profile probate lawyer of Mrs. Campbell’s lethal inclinations. The information had precipitated a fatal heart attack and the attorney had dropped dead on the spot. Poindexter didn’t know how to perform CPR, so he did what he knew how to do best — he cashed Mrs. Campbell’s check.
Poindexter reluctantly turned his attention back to his new client. He stalled for time by asking questions.
“I need more details,” he said. “For starters, who are you?”
“Kurt Schaefer. S-C-H-A-E-F-E-R. That’s German for shepherd.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m an inventor.”
“What does Mrs. Schaefer do?
“Not much. She likes to shop, and she likes to swim. Beyond that, she likes to do pretty much as she pleases. She’s fine as long as she gets her own way. But try to cross her, and I wouldn’t sic that sorry vixen on my worst enemy. I have to admit she hides her claws successfully most of the time, and she’s always a model of propriety in public.”
“How do you get along with her at home?”
“Well, she likes to cuddle.”
“Before or after?”
Poindexter sighed. “You say you’re an inventor. Can’t you devise some ingenious method for getting rid of Mrs. Schaefer?”
“Oh, believe me I’ve tried, but so far nothing’s worked.”
“What about divorce?”
“That was number one on my list. She refused an amicable split, and I don’t want to waste money on any other kind.”
“You mentioned a list. What else have you tried?” Poindexter asked, but then decided he was probably better off not knowing all the nasty details. “What was your latest attempt?”
“I fed her tainted shrimp. She poured on so much hot sauce it killed all the bad bacteria. I’m beginning to suspect she has nine lives. My next attempt has to be perfect. Otherwise, she may become suspicious of my behavior, if she isn’t already, and I sure don’t want to spend the rest of my life in prison.”
Neither did Poindexter. Uncharacteristically for him, the professional bloodhound was running out of questions. He needed time to think.
“How do you happen to know Mrs. Campbell?”
“She lives next door. She’s the one and only reason I’m here. I want to clear the deck, so to speak. The next time I invite Mrs. Campbell over for a cookout, I want it to be just the two of us.”
There was still a decided lack of light bulbs going on over Poindexter’s head, so he decided to lie.
“I’m late for an appointment. Can you come back tomorrow, Mr. Schaefer?”
“Of course I can. I’m a man of leisure. Mrs. Schaefer will be glad to have me out of the house. By the way, how much is your fee?”
Poindexter didn’t want the job and, for once in his life, thanks to generous donations from Mrs. Campbell he didn’t need the money. He named an outrageously high figure.
• • •
“Will cash do?” Kurt Schaefer asked.
Poindexter was caught off guard.
“Do for what?”
“For your fee.”
“Sure, when we get that far along.”
“Here it is,” Schaefer said, putting a paper bag on the edge of Poindexter’s desk. “Payment in advance.”
“I didn’t say I’d take your case.”
“You didn’t have to. Mrs. Campbell assured me of your cooperation.”
Poindexter couldn’t think of cuss words fast enough to express his true feelings, so he kept his trap shut. He didn’t have a clue about what to do next either. Then he remembered a trivial bit of information from a TV documentary he’d watched one time.
“You say your wife swims?”
“Like a fish.”
“Do you have your own swimming pool?” the detective asked.
“Yes, of course. A big one.”
“Does your wife also dive?”
“Like a swan.”
“What are the chances of her doing a header into the pool when it’s empty?”
“Nil. She has the eyes of an eagle and the equilibrium of an alley cat.”
Poindexter took time out to wonder what attracted Schaefer to his wife in the first place. Animal magnetism?
The detective resumed his questioning with determination.
“Are you familiar with heavy water?”
“I am. D20 is one formula. That particular combination requires deuterium. You simply use heavy isotopes of hydrogen instead of the regular ones. Why do you ask?”
“I’ll tell you, but first you have to promise me something. Are you willing to stipulate that we’re discussing strictly hypothetical situations here and that I’m in no way, shape, or form suggesting that you do anything illegal?”
“Sure. We’re just talking about science.”
“In that case, I’ll suggest a solution to your problem. Fill your swimming pool with ‘light’ water.”
“Where do I find something like that?”
“You’re an inventor, Mr. Schaefer. Build your own converter. Use super-lightweight hydrogen isotopes, or helium, or whatever it takes. If you do all the work yourself, then there’s no paper trail connecting you to the hypothetical murder weapon.”
“So, I fill the pool with altered water. Then what?”
“Does Mrs. Schaefer always dive right in, or does she test the water first?”
“She checks the temperature with her big toe. It’s a ritual with her. Then she goes straight to the diving board. From the time her alarm clock goes off in the morning until she’s had her first dip in our pool, she never varies her routine.”
“Pavlov would be pleased. That sort of predictable behavior should make it easy for you. You’ll have all night to prepare the pool. After the light water is in place, let’s suppose some unsuspecting person has the misfortune to jump in headfirst. The reduced density of the water means there’s considerably less-than-anticipated resistance to the downward progress of the diver. Accelerated contact with the concrete bottom of the pool could cause death or a serious injury followed by drowning.”
“Wouldn’t the paramedics notice something funny about the water?”
“Drain the pool first, and then call for an ambulance. If there’s any validity to the chaos theory, the evidence will be carried out through the storm drainage system and dispersed in the ocean. Forget about looking for a needle in a haystack — it would be more on the order of trying to find a molecule in a maelstrom.”
Poindexter had noticed his client was doing a lot of blinking. Near the end of his explanation, however, he could have sworn he saw a wink.
“Hypothetically speaking,” said the inventor, “if this works out, I may come back and give you a bonus.”
Poindexter hoped not. Given his druthers, unless it was the briefest of all possible contacts to return his unearned fee, he didn’t ever want to see Mr. Schaefer or the likes of him again.
• • •
The newspaper headline caught Lewis Poindexter’s attention right away. “FREAK ACCIDENT IN SWIMMING POOL. TWO DEAD.”
That didn’t quite add up. If Mr. Schaefer had been successful, there should have been only one death.
Poindexter read the article anyway. Sure enough, it was about the Schaefers.
Even so, something didn’t wash.
According to the article, forensic evidence suggested that Mrs. Schaefer had dived headfirst into a pool that was only partially-filled with water. Unconscious, or already dead, her body had settled on top of the drain outlet for the pool.
When her husband — a noted scientist — saw what had happened, he’d behaved rationally. First, he’d opened the drain valve with a remote switch, and then he went into the pool to rescue his wife. Based on the blood trail, he’d managed to drag her body only a few feet before his underwater exertions caused respiratory failure followed by cardiac arrest.
When emergency personnel arrived at the scene, they’d found the two bodies lying at the bottom of an empty pool.
The fire department had double representation. Not only were the members of the underwater rescue team there, but a regular fire company had responded to reports of a tool shed fire on the property. The suspected cause of the fire was faulty wiring on a timer for the swimming pool lights.
Poindexter knew better. The first-responders, the medical examiner, the police, and the reporters were all barking up the wrong tree. He could even name the tree. A slippery elm.
Lewis Poindexter was reduced to being an armchair detective. He needed to solve the Schaefer case for his own peace of mind.
Armed with all the facts he’d been able to garner from newspaper accounts, the private eye played the Schaefer scenario over and over again in his mind.
Finally, he hypothesized his own sequence of events.
Mr. Schaefer had somehow or other accomplished the impossible. After constructing a homemade converter, he’d filled the swimming pool with light water. The device itself had been destroyed in the fire that consumed the tool shed. That incineration was not an accident.
Mrs. Schaefer had plunged into the pool as planned, but then the plot veered away from the script. Her body blocked the drain.
Mr. Schaefer flipped the drain switch and waited. Nothing happened. The surface tension of the water was undisturbed. He set fire to the tool shed. When he returned to the pool, he found the water level unchanged.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what happened next. Schaefer had the choice of using the long-handled leaf skimmer to push the body to one side, or of going into the pool himself and using his bare hands. Either method might leave bruises. He mentally weighed the risks and chose the latter option.
He should have given some serious thought to the reduced weight of the liquid in the pool. Instead, holding his breath, the scientist had slipped over the side near the shallow end and started walking across the bottom of the pool.
He reached the deep end, moved Mrs. Schaefer’s body off the drain, then bent his knees and kicked off to swim toward the surface.
The light water had insufficient buoyancy to support his bodyweight. He dropped back to the bottom. The killer started wind-milling his arms and jumped again. Closer, but still no fresh air.
He might have succeeded in kangaroo-hopping to the ladder if he’d started sooner, but by that time he was out of breath. He collapsed and either drowned or asphyxiated before the now unobstructed drain could finish doing its job.
If only he’d patented his process, Mr. Schaefer could probably have made a big enough fortune to pay for any number of divorces. As it was, the secret of his device died with him.
Either that, or the inventor — frustrated when he was unable to make a scientific breakthrough in a timely fashion — had resorted to an old tried and true method, bodily throwing his spouse into an empty pool, then collapsing from the effort and tumbling in after her.
Poindexter preferred his first hypothetical version. Case closed.
Well, not quite. The office door opened.
This time, Mrs. Campbell didn’t even bother to sit down.
“I’ve brought you a cashier’s check,” she said. “Thanks for getting rid of those pesky neighbors of mine.”
© 2014 John Dromey
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Fluttering in the Remains
The Imperfect Patsy
A Suitable Poison
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John Dromey - John H. Dromey was born in northeast Missouri. He’s had short fiction published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Gumshoe Review, Plan B Magazine, Plasma Frequency Magazine, Woman’s World (a mini-mystery), and elsewhere, as well as in a number of anthologies.
[ August, 2014, John Dromey ]