The body lay in the trash-strewn alley as if it was just another broken thing someone tossed away. Like a shroud, my shadow fell across the man’s face, cast by the forensic techs’ floodlights. I knelt on the cracked blacktop to get a better look. He was about my age, pushing fifty, but more powerfully built and wearing a suit that probably cost what I made in a month – at least before the blood ruined it. ID gave him the name Ken Wallace and his expression was strangely composed, as if death brought some peace he always longed for. I hoped that was true, because two bullets to the chest was a high price to pay for it.
I turned at my name and struggled back to my feet, knees popping and protesting. The job got harder every year, but not in the ways I imagined when I was a rookie.
A uniformed officer named Kemp, about the same age as my son, pushed a medium-sized, nervous-looking man towards me. His hairline was in full retreat and sweat sheened the bare skin. Like Wallace, his suit was also better than mine. “Sergeant Malone, this guy was with the vic when he was shot.”
“He tell you that?” I asked Kemp, intentionally ignoring the third man.
“Yessir. Folks in the bar pointed him out and he told me himself afterwards. Says his name’s Bryce Heisner.”
I looked at Heisner. His gaze shifted downward.
“Okay, Kemp,” I told the uni. “Leave Mr. Heisner with me, but don’t go too far.” Kemp nodded and backed off several paces, keeping his eye on the two of us.
I said, “You seem awfully nervous, Mr. Heisner.”
“Wouldn’t you be?” he snapped. “I witnessed a murder, for God’s sake.”
“Did you?” One of my eyebrows rose with the question.
“What are you implying? You think that I'd lie about-" He broke off and looked me directly in the eye. “Ken and I have been friends since college, officer. Believe me, I want the animal that did this caught." He made a noise in his throat. "Shot down in a filthy alley. It's horrible. Disgusting. I can't stand guns. They terrify me – and with good reason. To think I was so close to... My God, you can’t go anywhere in this city anymore.”
Heisner was talking a lot, but not really saying anything.
“Let’s hear what happened then.”
“Like I said,” Heisner began, “Ken and I have known each other since college. He went into law, I went into finance. I’ve been his broker for years, but aside from business now and then, we hardly see each other anymore. He suggested we get a drink.”
“He pick this place?” I asked, thinking that Marky’s Bar wasn’t exactly where you’d expect a lawyer and his broker to meet. It wasn’t quite a dive, but it was about as far from class as you could get without being one.
Heisner nodded. “We used to drink here when we were in school. It’s… changed more than we realized.”
“Sure. Go on.”
“Well, we had our drink, caught each other up, and talked a little business. About nine, I guess it was, I said I better call it a night. Ken offered to share a cab uptown. We left through the bar’s side-door, out into the alley here. A man down at the far end stepped out of the shadows, pointing a gun at us. It was one of those cheap little Freedom .380s, the kind you can get used for fifty or sixty dollars. He demanded we toss him our wallets and Ken just sort of…” He shrugged and shook his head. “Lost it, I guess. He charged right at the mugger, making for the gun, I suppose. The man fired twice, watched Ken fall, and then turned and ran. It all happened so fast, I could hardly take it in.” He shook his head again. “You know the rest. A crowd of people came out of the bar and I guess someone called 911.”
“Uh huh,” I said, noncommittally. “Anything else you can tell me?”
Heisner squared his jaw and clenched his fist. “Just that I’ll never forget the face of that… that murderer. It’s burned into my memory. I’d recognize him anywhere.”
“Sure,” I told Heisner. “Most people can recognize their own reflections in a mirror.” I gestured towards Kemp. “Cuff Mr. Heisner, will you?”
“Wha, wha, what?” Heisner stammered. He tried to shake Kemp’s hands off, but the young officer had no problem controlling him. “What’s the meaning of this? You think I killed Ken?”
I nodded. “I’m all but sure of it. We’ll get the rest of it later, motive and so forth, once you feel like telling the whole story, but you’ve practically already confessed.”
“How?” Heisner demanded, his voice shrill. “What do you mean? What makes you think I killed Ken? We were friends for God’s sake! Why would I kill him?”
“You’re his broker, so I’m guessing it’s about money,” I ventured. “As for the how, you know an awful lot about what kind of gun this supposed mugger used for a man who says he hates guns and wants nothing to do with ‘em. You identified the make from a glance, in a dark alley, something even an expert might not have been able to do, and knew how much a used one runs. You stashed that gun around here someplace, and once we locate it, I’m sure forensics will find your prints on it. Even if you wiped the outside or wore gloves, you probably forgot the cartridges.”
I looked at Kemp over Heisner’s head. “They always forget the magazine and the cartridges. We get a lot of good thumb-prints off them.” I took a last look at Heisner. “I hope Ken Wallace wasn’t your lawyer. You’re gonna need a good one.
“Read him his rights and get him out of here,” I told Kemp.
Looking back at Wallace, I sighed. Some days, the job was rough, but it’s not actually the work. Not usually. It’s the people. Even when they make it this easy, it’s always hard to take.
About the author:
Brandon Barrows is the author of the novels STRANGERS' KINGDOM, BURN ME OUT and THIS ROUGH OLD WORLD. He has published over seventy stories, selected of which are collected in the books THE ALTAR IN THE HILLS and THE CASTLE-TOWN TRAGEDY. He is an active member of Private Eye Writers of America and International Thriller Writers and lives in Vermont by a big lake with a patient wife and two impatient cats. http://www.brandonbarrowscomics.com
Jack Becker, owner and CEO of PESTS IN PERIL, learned he was allergic to bee stings the hard way. He did an overnight hospital stay after being thrice stung at age six. Since then, his hatred wasn’t limited to flying creatures. He despised all insects, butterflies, moths, rodents, caterpillars, you name it.
Founding his own exterminating business gave him great pleasure on a professional and personal basis. He struggled in the beginning, but after five years, managed to keep the business afloat. Things went smoothly enough, until two big, national extermination companies nearly put him out of business.
That’s when Becker decided he needed to do something different.
Inspiration finally slapped his face in the form of one Mrs. Ellsworth, the elderly widow on Wilderness Circle. She came from money, old money. Becker just landed her as a customer. Her basement was huge, smelly, damp, and unused. Becker found no evidence of infestation of any kind, but Mrs. Ellsworth didn’t have to know that. He brought a dead mouse with him, came up the stairs to confront the homeowner.
“I’m afraid you have a problem, ma’am,” he said in his professional voice.
“Oh?” she responded, coughing into a frilly handkerchief.
“Mice. Plenty of them.” He produced the dead rodent.
“Oh my! Please, get that creature out of my sight. Do what you have to do, but please dispose of them. Quickly!”
That’s all Becker had to hear. He spent every week in the Wilderness Circle basement, hanging out for at least an hour, emerging with a report. Each time, he told Mrs. Ellsworth he was making progress, but the problem was a serious one, and that with continued, regular visits, he would be able to eradicate her problem. Becker billed her monthly at exorbitant rates. She didn’t seem to care as long as the mice were taken care of. Over time, Becker raised her rates, sucking more money from her.
“They’re raising the price of the really good chemicals,” he’d tell her. “I hate to pass the cost on to you, but I have no choice,” he’d say.
“That’s quite all right,” came the reply. “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Becker’s only concern at this point was Mrs. Ellsworth’s health. It seemed to deteriorate each time he saw her. The coughing became worse. Week after week she looked paler.
“Maybe you should see a doctor,” Becker said, a year after first concocting the scam. Not that he had any feelings one way or the other for the old woman, but he feared if she died, that would be the end of his meal ticket. She helped keep PESTS IN PERIL in the black.
“Nonsense,” she’d snap back. “What do doctors know? They only take your money. They string you along. I don’t trust the best of them,” she said. “My money isn’t going to be spent on tomfoolery. Not at my age.”
“Still, Mrs. Ellsworth, it might be wise if you at least–”
“I’ll hear nothing more about it,” she said between hacks.
A week later, Becker’s gravy train ended. Mrs. Ellsworth died. He coughed when he heard the news.
The heavy construction equipment assembled on Wilderness Circle. Becker pulled his car over and got out.
“What’s going on?” he asked what appeared to be the crew chief.
The man pushed back his hard hat. “We’re razing the house. Place is condemned.”
“Why?” asked Becker, coughing.
“Some sort of black mold. I can’t pronounce what it is. Starts with an ess. Started in the basement and extended all over the house. Shame. It’s a beautiful place.”
Becker whipped a handkerchief out of his pocket and coughed up blood.
“Hey, you might want to see a doctor about that,” the construction worker said.
About the author:
Bruce Harris writes crime and mystery stories. He is the author of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: ABout Type (2006) and Anticipations in D. Martin Dakin's A Sherlock Holmes Commentary (2021).
When the spotlight illuminates the stage for Act 3, Scene 1, I am in the front row, ready. My coat is in my lap, and my gun is underneath.
These are the Fairfield Community Players, and Fairfield’s finest actor, the program tells me, is Dr. Jerry Whitesides, an orthodontist, who is playing the role of Claudius. His wife and receptionist, Betty, is playing Ophelia. They are exactly as good in their roles as you would expect.
Not many community theatres have the guts to try Hamlet. Some plays are beyond what a bunch of amateurs can attempt without seeming ridiculous. It always comes down to this: Is the lead role beyond the abilities of their best actor? This is why community theatres never do Death of a Salesman. They don’t have anybody who can handle Willy Loman, so they do The Crucible instead.
Bottom line: put Dr. Jerry on stage as Hamlet, and summer stock becomes laughing stock. So the guy playing Hamlet is a ringer. His name is Blanford Plantain, and he is a theatre professor at the state college twenty miles down the road. While his performance for the first two acts has been merely adequate, he has nevertheless made this production possible. Upside: the Fairfield Community Players have someone who can (barely) pull off the role of Hamlet. Small downside: the Fairfield Community Players have an actual actor performing next to Dr. Jerry, and the contrast hurts to see. Huge downside: while my fellow American playwrights and I continue to produce quality new work every year, the Fairfield Community Players have gone out of their way to produce a British play that is more than four-hundred years old.
This is why Blanford Plantain must die. He has made this possible. I have no idea how much the Fairfield Community Players are paying him, but he should have said no. He should have said, “The world doesn’t need another production of Hamlet! People are still writing plays, you know.” But he didn’t say that, so it has fallen to me to bring this message to the people.
Professor Plantain steps into the spotlight. “To be . . .” His voice trails away, an overly long dramatic pause teasing the soliloquy to come. Very amateurish of him. He knows better. A few audience members giggle. Maybe Professor Plantain is mocking them? “. . . or not to be, that is the question.”
And that’s also my cue. I stand up, point my gun at Hamlet, and put six bullets into the goddamn Prince of Denmark. I didn’t plan it, but I jump onto the stage and shout, “Sic semper Shakespeare!” Later, some news reports will mock my Latin, but just like they say, there really is no bad publicity in this business.
I run for the exit, stage right. One of the stagehands tries to stab me with a plastic sword as I go by. Other than this, I meet no resistance. I’m out the door and into the night.
The next day, television news shows are blaring about the SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGEDY, but none of the talking heads have any clue about my motivation. Most of these people, of course, couldn’t name a playwright other than Shakespeare. For now they are just wondering why someone would want to kill poor Blanford Plantain, who, according to his colleagues, students, and nextdoor neighbors, was such a nice guy.
That night, two states away from the Fairfield Community Players, the Elderwood College Department of Theatre is staging its own production of Hamlet, and I am not surprised when they dedicate the show to the memory of Blanford Plantain. When Act 3, Scene 1, begins, I can feel everyone get tense, which is why I wait until the end of the play to kill Hamlet. When he says, “O, I die, Horatio,” I hit him with a rifle shot from the balcony, and he does, in fact, die. Commotion ensues, and once again my escape is easy.
Now I am ready to declare my motives. I send my manifesto—“Declaration of the Liberation of the American Theatre”—to the New York Times, along with my credentials for being the killer: original programs from both productions of Hamlet.
The next day, well before my manifesto reaches the Times, theatres all over the country announce they are cancelling productions of Hamlet. The problem, it turns out, is even worse than I supposed. There are more Hamlets in production in the United States than I would have imagined possible.
Then, after the Times publishes my manifesto, hundreds of theatres across the country either close or bring in metal detectors and armed guards. I know that I may have to lay low for a long time, but only two weeks after the death of Blanford Plantain, a miracle happens. In London, someone murders a Hamlet! And then it happens in Bulgaria! And Ukraine! Now productions of Hamlet are being cancelled all over the world. One month after the death of Blanford Plantain, the Times reports that there are currently no productions of Hamlet taking place anywhere in the world!
I’m leading a movement now, which is wonderful, but all these dead Hamlets suggest that my acolytes are missing the point. Do they read the Times in Bulgaria and Ukraine? My manifesto makes clear that Hamlet is merely a symbol of the disease that infects American theatre — and, as I am now learning, world theatre. We will never win this war if we kill only Hamlets.
Clearly, we must take the battle to new fronts, and my path ahead is clear. Tomorrow, I will kill my first Lear. Next week, I will machine-gun my first production of Our Town.
About the author:
David Rachels is co-editor of the publishing imprint Staccato Crime, which resurrects forgotten noir and true crime classics from 1899-1939. As well, he has edited four volumes of short stories by the classic noir writer Gil Brewer.