Author of Murder
by Jean Rabe
The body lay on its side, twisted into an odd position.
“The carpet pattern. It has circles in it,” Ethel Dell said.
I watched the Ethel avatar—the computer game character a student on the other side of campus portrayed—study the body and the big rug underneath it. Today Ethel wore a cornflower blue short-sleeve dress that hit her about mid-calf. Her auburn hair was all flouncy curls that dangled just above her shoulders, appearing like the woman on the cover of Juice of the Pomegranate, published in 1938…one of the real Ethel Dell’s romance novels.
Ethel paced a wide circle around the corpse and then stretched out a high-heeled foot and tapped one of the circles. The nap was shag, but it didn’t move; I would have to fix that, make it responsive to a game player’s character.
“The circles. See the circles? The colors of them? Maybe the guy was playing some sordid game of Twister, fell and broke his neck. IDK.” I Don’t Know.
The body wore a black formal dinner jacket at least a century out of style, over a starched white shirt embellished with diamond cufflinks. No wedding ring, but on the index finger of the right hand there was a chunky silver and gold band set with a large yellow stone…maybe citrine, maybe topaz. I would adjust that detail, make it a ruby—better contrast. A good game should have impressive graphics.
“The circles,” Ethel continued. “IDK, Sherlock. IDK. Could be an accident—”
I made a tsk-tsking sound. “Gotta be more to it than that,” I said. “Gotta be murder. You know that, Eedee.” Ethel Dell was an awful-sounding moniker for the character she’d selected to play. I’ve called her Eedee since our first foray into my game five weeks past. “Your avatar wouldn’t be standing in this house if it wasn’t murder. I didn’t hire you to play-test a ‘solve the mishap’ game.”
Ethel got down on her hands and knees and put her face level with the victim’s. “Yeah. Okay,” she said. “Murder for sure. His eyes are wide open and I see little red spots in them. I ‘spect the red spots are a clue. Right?”
“Petechial hemorrhage,” I said.
“P-e-t-e-c-h-i-a-l. Look it up. You’re the med student. The red spots.”
“BRB,” she said. Be Right Back.
I saw her go all AFK—Away From the Keyboard—on me and Ethel Dell shimmered out of existence.
Pissed me off when she did that, go AFK, to make a snack or answer the phone, or in this case to no doubt look in one of her textbooks for the term I’d just supplied. She could’ve just Googled it, but I knew she didn’t like to flop back and forth between screens.
IRL—In Real Life—Ethel was in her second year of a bachelor’s degree RN program. She’d answered my “play-tester wanted” post I’d put in the Student Union. She wasn’t the lone gamer to apply, but she was the prettiest, definitely the brightest, and me being a student too, I only had the funds to employ one play-tester at any given time. She’d claimed to be an avid geek, that she had a top-of-the-line Alienware PC in her dorm room with a nineteen-inch monitor and regularly delved into Stardew Valley, The Bug Butcher, and Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak…and that she didn’t care much for first-person shooters and wanted to get into mystery role-playing setups.
Ethel shimmered back into view, right in the position she’d left from, though in a different dress—white, with a knee-length pencil skirt, a big green bow at the collar. Her hair was darker. A quick Google on my part: she was now the cover girl for The Way of an Eagle, Ethel Dell’s first novel, rejected by eight publishers before it came out in 1912, sold gangbusters, and boasted thirty printings in the next three years.
“WB,” I said. Welcome Back.
Why the woman had picked Ethel Dell as her avatar dumbfounded me. Maybe it was because the real Ethel wrote forty novels and therefore it gave her forty choices of cover avatars to use in the game. There were other literary ladies on the menu she could have taken: Eleanor Hallowell Abbott, Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Browning, Agatha Christie, Mary Shelley…and on and on…and Ethel M. Dell. And that’s not counting the male authors she could have selected from.
“Petechial hemorrhage. Found it in my medical dictionary,” she announced. “IRL a common cause of petechiae is from physical trauma…a long bout of holding your breath, vomiting, crying, violently coughing…that shows up in the eyes. Little red spots. Can be a sign of thrombocytopenia, a clotting deficiency, or a side effect to medications. But can also result from strangulation or suffocation, which has to be the case here since this is, as you pointed out, a ‘solve the murder’ game. By the way, have you come up with a better name than Author of Murder?”
I’ll admit it wasn’t the greatest of computer game titles, and I would indeed choose something better before I marketed it. Author of Murder was just a placeholder so to speak, and it incorporated the two basic elements of the game…your character was a dead author trying to solve the murder of another dead author. That let me use snippets from authors’ books—public domain titles—scattered here and there on the screenshots without fear of lawsuits.
“Author of Murder is just a working title,” I said.
“Work on something better.”
“So, Eedee, what was it…strangulation or suffocation?”
Ethel stood, her blue eyes glimmering. “Did you just slur your words, Sherlock?”
My name is Sherman, but she calls me Sherlock.
“Are you drinking, Sher?”
“I’m not shlurring my words, Eedee. But, yes, I’m drinking.”
“I’ve got a pot of Darjeeling next to my keyboard. I love me some black tea with a spoon of honey. You drink too much, you know that Sherlock.”
“I have a rum and cola now and then.”
“You are slurring your words.” Ethel paced around the corpse again. “Good thing it’s Friday night, Sherlock. Hangovers and morning classes don’t mix.”
“Don’t judge, just solve it, Eedee.” I sat back in my chair and added another shot of rum to my glass, kept my eyes on the monitor so I could see where her character was going.
“Suffocated or strangled…either way it’s murder,” she pronounced. “I’m gonna learn more about the dead guy before I delve into the precise cause of death.”
The nursing student was a smart cookie, maybe more clever than the average role-playing computer geek. I’d made this particular scenario a little more difficult, just for her. Might have to scale it back a bit when I approach the big game companies, make it more playable to the masses. There was no doubt I’d sell this and make more than enough money to pay for college…if I wanted to stay in school and finish up my game art and design degree. But if I made boatloads, I’d move to the Bahamas, live off royalties, and drink lots of rum. Forget school.
“I’m thinking the circles on the carpet are a clue.” She couldn’t get the friggin’ rug off her brain…which meant she was on the right track. “Circles. Dots. Connect the dots. What do the circles mean?” One more sweep around the corpse and then she focused on the room itself.
The parlor was lit by kerosene lamps that flickered as if a faint wind stirred through the open window. I was a pro at digital imaging and texture mapping, so moving graphics were easy to include. Logs glowed in the fireplace. Ethel stopped in front of the hearth and stared at the picture that hung above it…a lone brave on the bank of a river.
A pair of long leather stockings hung from the mantle; she looked at those too. Then her gaze dropped to the embers. Did she notice the charred fabric? The buckle? I’d made those details very small.
“BRB,” she said.
Once again, Ethel went AFK and disappeared from the screen. I took another long pull from my rum and cola. It needed ice. A quick trip into the kitchen, where I took time to slice off a chunk of cheddar cheese, and I was back in my chair.
Ethel had reappeared and moved to the bookcase.
“I know who the victim is without turning the body over,” she announced.
“Do tell, Eedee. Do tell.”
“James Fenimore Cooper.”
Well done, I almost said. Instead, I growled from deep in my throat and took another long pull from my drink. “And how did you come to that conclusion so fast…without turning the body over?”
“Cooper wrote a series of novels called The Leatherstocking Tales, and you have leather stockings hanging by the fireplace. The painting…that’s of the Hudson River because on the opposite side you have the ruins of seven stone buildings, a recognizable national landmark dating to the 1700s. The brave is a Mohican, a name derived from the word Muheconneok, which translates as ‘from the waters that are never still,’ the tribe’s name for the Hudson. So the painting is a nod to The Last of the Mohicans, one of Cooper’s most famous novels.”
She gestured to the house’s entry, an open frame. I figured Eedee would assume I hadn’t laid in the door detail yet.
“Cooper was expelled from Yale because he blew up a fellow student’s door…which you hint to there. Further, there’s a ship in a bottle on that shelf.” She pointed a long finger at it. “James Fenimore Cooper was obsessed with writing seafaring tales and naval history books. To top it off, the house number is 1851, the year Cooper died.”
“Bravo,” I conceded. “So you’ve got the victim. But that’s all you’ve got. No motive, no killer.”
“BRB,” she said.
“Argh.” I took another drink, refilled the glass with a double-shot of rum and more cola, and waited. Two nights ago me and Eedee went out for pizza, to talk about the parameters of my game, scripting, 2D animation, 3D modeling, and then we came back to my apartment…an easy walk up a flight of stairs ‘cause I live about the pizza place. She gave me some pointers on the life drawing in my game. Admittedly as a nursing student she had a better grasp of anatomy and said I was making the characters’ hands and feet too stunted. She was right; I fixed it. We shared a few drinks…well, I had a few drinks and then she headed back to her dorm. “Classes early,” she’d said. I figure I’ll invite her for pizza again in a few days, pick that marvelous brain a little more.
“Sorry,” Ethel said when she popped back on the screen. “Had a phone call. A telemarketer. I do not have the funds for a timeshare. Not yet anyway. Why do they always call me?”
Ah, once more I thought about the Bahamas. Rum on the beach.
She spent the next hour going through every room of the house, clicking on the novels on the shelf, examining a curio cabinet, going AFK every once in a while.
“I watched a Law & Order marathon a week ago,” said. “Love Lennie Brisco, ya know.”
Whoever the hell Lenny Brisco was. “Yeah, gotta lovesh Lennie,” I said.
“You’re slurring your words.”
“Whaaaaaaaaaaaatever.” I drained the glass. “Just figure this one out, Eedee. I was hoping to get in three scenarios tonight.”
“WWBD,” she stated. Sometime while Ethel had been moving through the house she’d changed clothes again—this time her character wore a straw hat, a blue-green two-tiered skirt, a matching blouse with butterfly sleeves, and a sash. A Google: the image of the woman on The Desire of His Life, a 1920 Ethel Dell novel. “WWBD,” she repeated.
“When I’m playing one of these games I always ask myself WWBD. What Would Brisco Do? Lennie would follow the money. Lennie always followed the money.”
“C’mon, you gots this,” I encouraged her. “I gots a scenario with Mark Twain all queued upsh. Screw Lennie Brishco.” Even I could tell I was slurring my words. “Who shtrangled James Fenimore Shcooper? Eh, Eedee?”
“Hah! He was strangled. Not suffocated. Strangled! Thanks for that tidbit.” She paced around the corpse one more time. “So I have the method…strangulation. I have the means…the belt from the trousers.” She gestured to the fireplace. The buckle from the belt glimmered amid the embers. She had noticed! “The body’s all twisted because you have a twisted imagination, Sherlock.”
Ethel padded toward the curio cabinet and pointed. “See that Napoleon figurine? It’s knocked over. Napoleon has fallen. See the circles on the carpet? They symbolize balls. Balzac. The killer is Honore de Balzac, a playwright and novelist humorously mentioned in The Music Man. He had a collection of short stories that were set in the years after the fall of Napoleon. Balzac was a noted admirer of James Fenimore Cooper.”
“Sssho whats the motive?”
“BRB,” she said.
I leaned back in the chair and stared at the empty room on my computer screen, barely registered the footfalls in the stairwell or my door being jimmied open. I didn’t have the strength to swivel the chair and see the intruder.
I didn’t need to. I knew it was Eedee. She must have been playing the game on her iPad while she hoofed it over here.
“Whatsss the motive?” I repeated.
“For Balzac, I figure jealousy. But the best motive is always money,” she said, leaning over my shoulder and speaking softly into my ear. “It’s a great game you’ve created, Sherlock. I’ll sell it and pay for nursing school and then some. Maybe get a car. Maybe get one of those timeshares the telemarketers keep calling about.”
How? my lips formed. The means?
“When I was here the other night after pizza.” She pointed to the rum. “Nursing student, remember. Excellent student. Did you know that well more than a thousand people died accidentally in the past decade from taking too much acetaminophen? Combine it with alcohol. Combine a lot of it with alcohol, and you get liver failure and death. I’d ground up a whole pack of pills and dumped the powder in your rum when you weren’t looking. I figured you’d drink yourself silly this weekend and go AFK forever.”
I tried to reach for my cell phone, but she pushed it away. She was wearing gloves.
“Even if somebody finds your body tonight—” She stretched across me and plugged a jump drive into my computer and started downloading. “—by the time you get stretched out on the autopsy table all that acetaminophen will be gone. Lots of empty rum bottles in your kitchen, a near-empty bottle of Tylenol on the sink. No foul play. An accident. One more statistic for WebMD.”
I couldn’t move, could barely breathe. I watched her siphon every bit of data of my murder mystery game, delete the appropriate files from my hard drive. I knew the cops wouldn’t check the computer, not the wiped stuff. They’d see the rum. I’d paid her cash, no money trail. Nothing concrete to connect us. One night out together for pizza, but I went out for pizza often with a lot of different girls.
She’d get away with my murder.
“You know, Sherlock, I hadn’t liked your game title at first, Author of Murder. But I think it’s appropriate. I’ll keep it.” She paused and added: “NNTR, baby.” No need to reply.