It was the worst crime scene I had ever witnessed. Well, it was the first one I had ever witnessed, but it was pretty shocking: the three victims, all middle-aged males, were stretched on the big table in the meeting room of the Blandsville town Council. They had been stabbed repeatedly and their faces slashed beyond recognition.
How did I, an inexperienced, amateur private investigator, find myself here? An hour before, I had been sitting in my office in an unused warehouse, reading The Best American Detective Stories of 2010, when the phone rang.
"Mr. Petty? You may not remember me, but I was in your English class at Blandsville High six years ago. Carl. Brown." Of course I remembered him. How could anyone forget "Crazy Carl" as he was known in the staff room? And how could I forget his original term papers: one year it was "King Lear as a comedy," another "Edwin Drood: Suicide, not Murder." I would not have been surprised to learn that he was trying to prove that Jack the Ripper was really the Archbishop of Canterbury.
"What have you been doing since high school?"
"I took a degree in history and got a job with the town. Just now I'm doing research for a book on the history of the Blandsville council -- mayors, councillors, reeves."
"Sounds ...interesting." (Or soporific.)
"it is -- or was until I came to work this morning. I heard that you had become a detective and I thought you might like to investigate this case. I can't pay you, but it would be good practice and, if you solve it, good publicity. Why don't you come here and see for yourself? I warn you, though, it's pretty gruesome."
I drove to the Town Hall. I should have walked for the exercise, but it seemed more professional to arrive by car, even my aged auto. To my surprise, only one police car was parked sedately in front of the Town Hall. No flashing lights, no siren, no hordes of reporters. Inside, one policewoman was on duty.
Carl greeted me: "Good to see you again, Mr. Petty."
"You may call me Rock, Carl."
In the council chamber were the usual miles of yellow tape and two detectives dusting for fingerprints. Carl introduced me: "This is Mr. Pet -- Mr. Tuff. He was my high school English teacher and he's now a P.I. Rock, this is Les Trade and Greg Son." Their name-tags said the same thing. They did not smile or offer to shake hands, but Trade said, "That's all we need, a gifted amateur."
"I'm not gifted," I smiled modestly.
Carl was right: the scene was horrible. Around the walls, as in the halls, were formal portraits of all the town's mayors and councillors since Blandsville was incorporated in 1877, the earlier ones painted, the more recent ones photographed. The pictures were of little value artistically, but no doubt they were important historically. And producing them had provided employment for some politician's relative. Three of the portraits had been stretched on the council table, still in their frames and stabbed and slashed viciously.
"Okay, kid, let's hear it once more," ordered Trade.
"I came to work at seven thirty."
"Why so early? The building doesn't open till nine."
"I'm a morning person and I like to get a good start. I enjoy my work. I noticed that the door to the council chamber was partly open and the lock had been smashed, so I called the police."
"The smashed lock looks like an outside job," observed Son.
"Or," I suggested, "an inside job by someone who wanted to make it look like an outside job," and immediately regretted my comment because, I realized, it could cast suspicion on Carl.
"What about the cleaning staff?"
"They're usually gone between midnight and one."
"Maybe it's the Dufyan Ruffian," suggested Son.
"Who?" Carl and I asked together.
Trade explained. "He's a poor kid whose father was an art nut. Especially admired the works of Raoul Dufy. Even named his son Raoul Dufy Smith. With a name like that, the kid took a terrible teasing at school. He hated art as much as his father loved it. He started going to galleries, spray-painting the pictures and sculptures or taking an emetic and throwing up on them." Trade was enjoying his chance to display his knowledge of criminals.
"But this doesn't fit his M.O., " I said.