Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Locked Room - Window of Opportunity by P.J. Bergman

Suspicion is raised on an apparent murder suicide, but the primary suspect has a cast-iron alibi...

This exclusive short story is the third chapter of my upcoming novel, The Locked Room. The first chapter, "Private Eye" is available to read online for free here.

For more information and further chapters of the upcoming book The Locked Room, check out The Locked Room (Book).

The Locked Room - Chapter 3 - Window of Opportunity


The short story is available in its entirety below. If you want to read on your Kindle you can download it here (send to Kindle instructions here). The first chapter, "Private Eye" is available here.

Author: P.J. Bergman
Date: 2014
Word Count: 7,100 (about 28 pages)

© 2014, P.J. Bergman. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author. Extracts may be used, provided that full reference to the source is available to the reader.


(3)


Case Log #003 - January 2005

Window Of Opportunity


‘There must be hundreds of these types of cases. People with unexplained mysteries, impossible crimes.’ Anthony’s enthusiasm was reminiscent of myself in the early years of my career. He had been pacing across the living room rug for the best part of half an hour. ‘We could make a difference. Provide answers the police never could.’

‘You heard the FBI woman, we have no standing with law enforcement,’ I replied.

‘People hire private investigators all the time. There’s money in it too.’

‘$70,000 worth?’

‘Over time, maybe. Think of all the people we could help.’

I was thinking of my treatment.

‘I could manage the business side,’ continued Anthony, ‘and you bring your expertise. Focus only on those cases that seem unfeasible. Carve out a niche.’

The challenge of the puzzle did sound enticing.

‘What have you got to lose? I can knock us up a website and put out some ads. If we do get some responses it’ll at least get you out of the house.’

He had a point. In the time since my dismissal I hadn’t gotten any closer to a proper job, and my diagnosis had only exacerbated my wallowing. I needed something to take my mind off how different life was just a few months earlier. Maybe I could make a quick buck as well. The idea was far more suitable, and legal, than any of the alternatives that had been floating around my consciousness.

‘Okay. Why not? Do whatever you do on the internet and let’s see if we get any calls.’

‘Haha, Brothers Rhys!’ chortled Anthony merrily. ‘This could be fun.’

Anthony had the site live in a few days, about the same amount of time as it took to complete the Private Investigator license exam. A couple of hundred dollars later I had a newfound legitimacy. They were practically handing out badges. Anyone with some form of investigatory background could pay a nominal fee and call themselves a Private Eye. Perhaps I should have done it thirty years earlier.

It didn’t take long for us to start receiving messages, from the mundane to the outright bizarre. Most were ridiculous with no chance of a payout, and I left Anthony to send back a polite decline. Determining what constituted a feasible case was difficult. We were looking for tales of the impossible, yet it had to be based in reality. The difference between a scared person who can’t believe what they’ve seen and a plain crazy person is a very fine line indeed. It took a few false starts, a few fact-checking errands and more than a few of Anthony’s canned responses before we finally found a workable case.

The subject line simply read 'Framed and Killed', and was from a young medical student living on the outskirts of town. At $3,000 it wasn’t the most lucrative reward on offer, but at least sounded somewhat attainable. The email linked to a recent news article covering the deaths of a husband and wife. Murder suicide, pretty open and shut by the sounds of it. According to the police the man had stabbed his wife before turning a gun on himself. The message did mention a few irregularities - the odd angle of the gunshot wound, plus a lack of fingerprints on the knife. Not sufficient to sway the authorities, but at least enough to justify the possibility of foul play.

Either way the offer stipulated half the reward upon accepting the case, and half once it had been concluded. I wasn’t in a position to turn down $1,500 regardless of outcome. The student was lucky we were a (somewhat) legitimate venture, it would have been too easy to just take the deposit and run. Anthony wouldn’t even let me consider the notion.

- - -

'They say he killed her, killed himself. He can’t have. He wouldn’t.' Emma Burton stared into her coffee as she spoke. She was a mousy young girl, I reckoned about twenty-one years old. The occasional tear running down her cheek as she spoke only accentuated her fragility.

With the large number of crackpots that had been contacting us I didn’t want to give out our address, and decided that a coffee shop may the best venue for her to talk us through the case. Judging by the strange looks coming from the people at the next table I may have been mistaken.

'They say he stabbed Mom, then shot himself,' she continued, unaware of a teenager in a green jacket behind her pretending not to listen.

'When?' asked Anthony.

'A few days ago. The police have been all over the house since Thursday.'

I jotted down the details in my notebook. ‘You were there at the time?’

‘I was in the back yard, but I heard the gunshot.’ She paused to gather herself. ‘By the time I ran in it was over. Nathan and Mr Miller were already there. He was lying...’ Another tear streaked down her face. ‘So much blood.’

Emma Burton withdrew a slim cardboard folder from her rucksack and handed it over. Bright girl - she had kept a copy of the police report. Reading through provided a pretty comprehensive series of events. Following an argument with his wife Peggy in their family home, Stuart Burton had apparently withdrawn to the shed at the side of the house to retrieve a hunting knife. He returned inside, blocked the door to the living room (in which his son Nathan was watching TV), and stabbed Peggy Burton from behind in the kitchen. He then moved upstairs to the master bedroom, placed a gun against his temple and pulled the trigger. He was found by a passer-by who entered the house after hearing Nathan Burton’s cries for help.

I had to admire the fastidious paperwork. The evidence was compelling. Ordered and meticulous, the document detailed everything from witness profiles to the ballistics report. Military files were rarely as exhaustive. Admin was always the least favored task, and was often assigned to a junior recruit. ‘Big Green Dick,’ we used to call it. Ironically my lackey of choice was called Richard. Sometimes army nicknames just provide themselves.

‘I’d never heard them argue before, and Dad wasn’t a violent man,’ continued Emma. ‘I just can’t help thinking my brother...’

Anthony looked at her quizzically. ‘You think he had something to do with it?’

‘I don’t know. He’s been acting so strange recently. He says Mom and Dad were arguing all the time, but when I visited they always seemed happy.’

‘Did you mention this to the police?’

‘Yes, but they dismissed it. Nathan was locked in the den at the time. Mr Miller saw him come out of the window. I know there’s no way he could have, but I can’t stop the feeling that he had something to do with it.’

I continued to jot down points in my notepad. ‘It says here that no fingerprints were found on the knife,’ I said, skimming through the report. ‘That does seem odd. Why would a man about to kill himself bother to wear gloves or wipe down a weapon?’

‘Exactly!’ replied Emma. ‘Plus the police say that from the gunshot residue on his fingers Dad must have used his left hand. He was right handed!’

‘Hmm, definitely unusual. Perhaps worth looking into.’

She grasped my arm across the table. ‘Does this mean you’ll take the case? Prove my father was innocent?’

I had to admit I was looking forward to casing a scene again. It felt a lot longer than it had been since I was back in Baghdad, and I missed the intrigue of the work immensely. I was also trying my best to avoid thinking about my diagnosis, which was proving difficult. A case would provide the perfect distraction. ‘We’ll certainly do what we can.’

Emma managed a whispered, ‘Thank you,’ before breaking down into tears once more.

- - -

Anthony and I drove over to the Burtons’ house first thing the following day. I had thought that being self-employed would mean an end to the criminally early mornings I had endured throughout my military career. Anthony’s enthusiasm proved me wrong. We arrived not long after 9am, having traversed the city traffic and stopped for breakfast along the way.

The house was a large semi-detached barn conversion that sat atop a sloped driveway leading down to the road. The dewy grass either side of the tarmac shone with the morning light, giving the building an almost picturesque quality. The painted red panels covering the front wall made it look more like a traditional farmhouse in Sweden than a suburban residence in LA. Judging by the doors at either end the structure had been split in two, with adjoined homes sharing a communal driveway. The only vehicle occupying the wide turning circle in front of the property was a dirty blue van that marred the mostly idyllic view.

Emma Burton greeted us as we arrived. She was more composed than our last meeting, though still visibly shaken. Thanking us for our time, Emma led us inside and past the kitchen into the living area. A young man of about twenty-five was slouched on the sofa.

‘This is my brother, Nathan,’ said Emma.

‘Good to meet...’ started Anthony.

‘Who are they?’ interrupted Nathan. He was well built with a short brown hair, and wouldn’t look out of place in a barracks in Kandahar. ‘What are they doing in my house?’

Emma took a step forward. ‘They’re here to investigate Mom and Dad’s death.’

‘The police have already done that. We don’t need more strangers telling us something we already know.’

‘Maybe they can tell us something we don’t know,’ replied Emma. Her voice remained firm despite her quivering hands. ‘Just let them do their thing, okay?’

Nathan paused for a moment, then gave an overly theatrical shrug. ‘Whatever. The cops have already been all over this place anyway.’

Emma turned back towards us. ‘I’m sorry. It’s been hard on all of us.’

‘And we’re very sorry for your loss,’ replied Anthony. ‘Both of you.’

Nathan nodded reluctantly from the couch.

I sat in the chair opposite and removed my notepad from my pocket. ‘The police report says you were in here when it happened.’

‘Like you said, it’s all in there,’ he said, pointing to the report.

‘It would be really good to hear it from you,’ I continued. ‘I know you’ve already been through it with the police, but a few quick questions then we’ll be out of your hair.’

He sighed, purposely looking at his watch. ‘Fine. Yeah, I was here. Watching TV. I heard them arguing through the wall.’

‘They wouldn’t usually fight,’ stammered Emma.

‘How would you know?’ he snapped. ‘You were away at college. They acted normal when you were around. Made like everything was okay. They did the same to me. I tried to get Mom to talk about it but she would just deny that they were fighting.’

‘Trying to protect you,’ said Anthony.

Nathan inhaled deeply. ‘Maybe. Who knows? Anyway, I never imagined Dad would do something like this.’ He paused to scratch his arm. ‘I was in here when I heard Mom scream. I tried the door, but it was blocked from the hallway. Dad must have trapped me in. It was then that I yelled for help, and tried to climb out of the front window. Doug Miller from a few doors down was walking his dog past the house at the time, and came running up the driveway when he heard me shout. He rushed into the house, and I followed once I got out of the window. Just as I was entering the house I heard a gunshot from upstairs. Doug was coming out of the kitchen, which is when I saw Mom. She was lying face down on the floor...' his voice began to trail off.

I tried to be reassuring. 'I know it’s tough. Any details you can think of would be really useful.'

Nathan raised his eyes from the floor. 'There was a lot of blood, and one of Dad’s hunting knives was lying beside her. She had been stabbed in the back.'

Across the room Emma let out a whimper, but muffled her sobs so Nathan could continue.

'Doug is a cop, so he immediately told me to call the police then he ran upstairs. I grabbed the phone and went up with him. We found Dad on the bed. He had shot himself in the head.'

'Was anyone else nearby when it happened?' I asked. I could feel the familiar aching in my chest beginning to surface, and raised a handkerchief to my mouth the stifle the cough.

‘Are you alright?’ asked Emma. ‘Can I get you anything?’

I shook my head and returned my gaze to Nathan Burton. ‘Please, go on. Don’t mind me.’

'Who else would there be?’ he replied, seeming irritated by my muffled wheezing. ‘Dad did it. He stabbed Mom then blew his brains out. I know my sister can’t seem to accept it, but that’s what happened.’

‘That’s what we’re here to find out,’ said Anthony.

Nathan’s face returned to one of anger. ‘I just told you what happened. You think he didn’t do it? Who did it then? Me? I’d like to see you explain that. I was locked in here the entire time - the door was barricaded from the other side. It’s impossible.’

‘No-one was accusing you,’ I replied with a relieving deep breath. The kid had a serious temper problem. ‘We’re just running through some standard questions.’ The idea that we had a set format to investigations made us sound more professional. I’d have to use that again in future. ‘We’ll get out of your way. Emma, would you mind if we have a look around the house?’

'No problem. I’ll come with you,' she replied.

I made towards the door. According to their report, the cops had found it locked and barricaded from the hallway. A forensics picture stapled to the page showed the chest of drawers that now sat beside the den entrance wedged between the door and the far wall. The cabinet was solid wood, and must have weighed over two hundred pounds. I pushed it back into the position shown on the photograph. A tight squeeze. There was no way anyone in the den could get out with that there.

Flipping the page revealed the images of the crime itself. Mrs Burton had been stabbed in the kitchen which was located a few feet down the hall. Once I had repositioned the cabinet I followed the corridor into the room with Anthony and Emma in tow.

- - -

The police had placed markers around the scene which made it easier to line up the photos with the room. The pool of dark red surrounding the body in the images had now been cleaned, the room showing no signs of the trauma of the last few days. I guessed she had been facing the sink when she was killed. No signs of a struggle. She must have been approached from behind, never saw it coming. The coroner’s report detailed two deep wounds in the right hand side of her upper back.

‘One strike between her ribs that pierced her lung,’ I said as I approached the markers indicating the location of the body. I positioned myself where the killer must have been standing and thrust my hand forward to replicate the blow. ‘Then a second that went straight through an artery,’ I added. ‘Efficient, if messy...’

‘...Perhaps it would be best if you wait outside for this part,’ interrupted Anthony. ‘While we go through the details.’

Turning, I saw that Emma’s tears had returned, as had a somewhat bewildered expression.

‘Okay,’ she whispered, then quickly withdrew herself from the room.

‘You can’t say things like that in front of the family,’ said Anthony once he had closed the door behind her.

‘Why not?’

‘Because that’s her mother you’re talking about. Someone died here.’

I had never fully understood the value people placed on the lives of their contacts. Fear for one’s own life is an ingrained evolutionary response, but the amount of emotional fallout for the loss of a single life was always a mystery.

‘Hundreds of thousands of people die every day, and the world barely notices. These people contributed nothing of note, have no real legacy to speak of. You can’t expect me to mourn their loss,’ I replied.

‘I’m not asking you to mourn, I’m asking you to respect the feelings of those that are,’ said Anthony. ‘It’s just more considerate.’

‘Hmm.’ The military never bothered with pussyfooting around an investigation. Not until the family was informed at least.

Anthony gave a wry smile and shook his head. ‘Look at it this way, if you don’t upset the client and at least appear to care about their loss, they are more likely to provide a good reference. A good reputation means a good business.’

He was right. If I was to generate enough to pay for my treatment I would need referrals. Perhaps rapport was a necessary evil for civilian investigations.

I opened the door and gestured for Emma to come back in. ‘Sorry about that, I know it’s hard. We’re just trying to make sure we don’t miss anything.’

‘I understand,’ she said with an unsteady smile. 'What is it you’re looking for?'

'If I’m honest I don’t really know. Just something out of place. The police report is pretty thorough, they don’t seem to have missed a trick.' I sighed, gazing out of the window. The blue van parked just outside caught my eye.

'Is that yours?'

Emma shook her head. 'Nathan’s. He works in construction. Just got a big contract down the road for the new housing estate, hence him living here for a few months.'

'Mind if I take a look?'

She glanced back towards the door nervously. ‘I suppose. Be quick so he doesn’t spot you.’ Emma grabbed a set of keys from the hallway and led us outside.

The warmth of the sun had dried the dewy grass since our arrival, and the lawn beyond the driveway had lost its glossy sheen. I had to admit the LA climate was growing on me. It had just the right balance of sun, cloud and rain. Comfortable. Not something I took for granted after being stationed in the Middle-East.

The van’s back doors creaked as I opened them. Inside were piles of timber of varying types - floorboards, skirting boards, window frames. A small toolbox sat in the corner, but further inspection revealed it to be empty. At least the interior was cleaner than the dirt coated paint of the exterior. I closed the door after me and threw the keys back to Emma.

'Was the van parked there at the time?'

'Hasn’t moved' came the reply.

As we were making our way back towards the front door Anthony pointed towards a small mark on the wall of the house.

‘You see this?’ he whispered, pointing at a scratch that ran about three inches vertically up the wall. ‘Just below the upstairs window. What do you think? There could have been a ladder leaning here.’

It was a good idea. I moved in and ran my fingers along the mark. Situated at about eye level, the paint had been split by something, and the ease at which flakes fell under contact suggested it hadn’t been there long enough for the weather to erode it further.

Emma watched me examine the paint with an intrigued look. 'You have something there?'

'I don’t know. Maybe nothing. Tell me, when you went upstairs to the bedroom was the window open or closed?'

'Closed, I’m pretty sure. Why?'

'No reason.' I didn’t want to raise hopes by voicing Anthony’s ladder theory.

We continued round the outside of the house. The side of the building was a solid wall, with one window in the center just above the shed. A remnant of the original barn, the window was the only one in the house that had kept the original frame and features. From what I had seen all of the other windows were relatively new with double or triple glazing. This was larger, featuring red wooden shutters that matched the paneling covering the front of the house. One side of the window was gently swinging in the wind.

'And this one?' I asked hopefully.

'Open I think. It usually is. Lets a bit of air into the upstairs hallway. You think I could be right? Thinking Dad didn’t do it, I mean.'

'I’m just trying to rule out any possibilities. Best to keep an open mind, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up.'

I was trying to run my mind through possible escape routes, ways that a murderer could have left the scene before Doug and Nathan arrived upstairs seconds after the shot. It was unlikely, but not impossible. It was probably best not to express any thoughts before I had proof. I was about to ask about exact timings of events when I noticed a glinting piece of metal under the shrubs beside my foot. At first I thought it was a coin, but reaching down revealed it to be a bullet casing. Small caliber, pistol most likely. An odd place in which to find it. I looked around for signs of where the slug may have ended up, but to no avail.

‘My Dad kept his guns in a safe in the shed,’ said Emma. ‘You think that’s one of his?’

‘Perhaps.’ If the gun had been discharged here whatever its target was must have disappeared. The casing could have been dropped by Stuart Burton on the way to the shed, but that wouldn’t explain why he’d used a small caliber pistol in the first place. The police report had mentioned that he was the occasional hunter, but had licenses for rifles for that purpose. There was no mention of any casings around the house. This was intriguing. At last, something the cops had missed.

Inspecting the rest of the exterior revealed nothing else of note. I sketched the layout in my notepad for reference.


  1. Where Peggy Burton’s body was found
  2. Mark on outer wall
  3. Bullet casing

- - -

Emma’s phone rang as we made our way inside.

‘I’m sorry, I have to take this,’ she said.

‘No problem. We’ll just continue upstairs.’

‘Okay.’

Around to the right was the master bedroom where Stuart Burton had been found. As in the kitchen, police markers indicated the location of the body. He had been found lying on his back on the bed. I estimated that he would have been standing facing the door to the hallway when he died.

The blood had been cleared, but there was a smudged stain on the wall which featured a small hole in which the bullet had lodged. It was unusual - my experience with suicides in the military had taught me that the victim usually fires upwards through the brain, meaning the bullet hits the ceiling or upper walls. Here the bullet had ended up just above the bed’s headboard, about five feet from the floor.

I stood between the police markers, reliving Stuart Burton’s last moments. The bullet had entered the left side of his skull and exiting towards the front wall of the building. It would be almost impossible to achieve while holding the gun with his right hand. Maybe Emma was onto something.

‘What do you reckon?’ I asked Anthony as I examined the room. ‘About the case.’

‘Me? You’re the expert here, I’m just along for the ride,’ he replied.

‘I’d be interested nonetheless.’

Anthony considered his response for a moment. ‘The son is fiery enough. He was the only one anywhere near at the time, and didn’t seem too supportive of his sister’s theories. If he wasn’t locked in another room at the time he’d be the clear suspect.’

‘Though if he did he’s engineered himself a pretty strong alibi.’

‘True. I have to agree with his sister, there is something off about him. He was very quick to think we were suspicious of him.’

‘Rightly so,’ I smiled.

‘Well without explaining how he did it our suspicions are pretty much useless.’

‘Indeed.’

After a quick look in Nathan’s room we wandered down the corridor to the old barn window. I inspected it for footprints or other marks. As far as I could tell this was the only window that was open at the time, and the only one that a potential assailant could escape through without being seen. I couldn’t see anything untoward, and the shed below would make it difficult to place a ladder. By the looks of it the flimsy roof of the shed wouldn’t support a person’s weight. Worth considering nonetheless. I added it to my notes.


  1. Where Stuart Burton’s body was found
  2. Bullet hole in the wall

- - -

‘I know you think I did it.’ The voice came from behind us. Nathan had appeared at the top of the stairs. ‘I heard you talking through the wall.’ His voice was deeper, menacing even. He continued before we had a chance to speak. ‘Even if I did do it, you’ve got no proof. Innocent until proven guilty, that’s how it works. Emma may have her theories, but she can keep them.’

Anthony held up his hand. ‘We...’

Nathan cut him off. ‘The police have been all over this house. Murder suicide. That was the conclusion. You think you’re smarter than them? Smarter than me? My Dad thought he was clever too, and look what happened to him.’

We stood, stunned. Nathan glared at us, his strong hands clenched into fists. ‘Go back to wherever Emma found you, you’re not going to find anything here.’

A few seconds passed in silence, before Nathan offered a crooked smile and disappeared down the corridor.

‘Was that... gloating?’ asked Anthony once Nathan was out of earshot.

‘It seems like your instincts were right,’ I replied. ‘Like he’s challenging us to take him down. I’d love to oblige him, if I could figure out how he managed to wedge that cabinet from within the den.’

Anthony nodded. ‘Even then, he wasn’t even in the building when Stuart Burton was shot.’

‘Maybe.’

‘What if...?’ Anthony paused to ponder. ‘You think he may have worked in conjunction with the other witness? Doug Miller?

‘The cop? It’s a long shot. I guess at the moment it’s the best we have. Perhaps it’s about time we caught up with Mr Miller.’

- - -

My cough plagued me throughout the journey to the police precinct. Attacks had become more common, sometimes resulting in blood. The first occurrence had terrified me as I gazed down into my palm. Even though the diagnosis was monstrous, somehow it gave me comfort. Whether it was denial, acceptance, or ignorance the blood had lost its mystery. It was a symptom, not a death sentence. At least not immediately. Solving this case wouldn’t get me far, but would at least cover the cost of the initial countermeasures. I could work out how to pay the remainder once treatment had started.

I had regained my strength by the time we arrived. The precinct was a small cream building on the interstate with little to indicate its purpose save the few police cars parked outside. Inside the receptionist looked equally sedate, though dutifully called through to the offices upon request. A few moments later a balding man with a neatly groomed beard strode in from one of the side doors. He introduced himself as Doug Miller, and led us through to a small office in the back of the building. It was only as I sat down that I noticed a large Alsatian staring at me from the corner of the room.

'Don’t worry about her, she won’t hurt you,' said Miller with a smile. 'Rosie is as friendly as can be. When she’s off duty.'

I looked at the dog gingerly. Its eyes didn’t waver from my throat.

'You’re here about the Burton family?' he asked.

'Yes - the daughter Emma requested that we look into it.’

'Family member doesn’t think their parent is guilty. It’s a common issue, doesn’t usually mean they’re right,' he said with a snort.

‘True, but doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong.’

Miller didn’t seem impressed. ‘Well I don’t know how much I can tell you - obviously being a witness I wasn’t working on the case. Some of the other guys here may be able to run you through it.’

‘We’ve already seen the police report,’ I replied. ‘We just had a couple of questions for you. As a witness, not an officer.’

Miller eyed us warily before relaxing back into his chair. ‘Oh, well I’ve only got a few minutes, but fire ahead I suppose. They were neighbors after all.’

‘Did you know them well?'

'Not really. Just to say hello as in passing. I walk by there every day at 7pm on the dot when I take Rosie for a walk.'

'And you were first at the scene?'

'Yeah - I ran in when I saw the son shouting from the ground floor window. He said he thought his Mom was being attacked. Nathan, that’s his name. He was climbing out and told me to help his mom.'

'Do you remember which window?'

Doug thought about it for a moment. 'Yes, the second one to the right of the door. Definitely.'

'Go on.'

'The hallway was empty so I ran to the kitchen. To be honest I was just acting on instinct, I had no idea what I was going to do if I found something. Anyway, when I got to the kitchen I saw the woman on the floor, and recognized her as Mrs Burton. I went to check for a pulse - she was still warm, but no signs of life. The blood around the body was still pooling, she must have died seconds before I got there. No chance of saving her. It was then I heard a gunshot from upstairs. A few seconds later Nathan joined me at the kitchen door. Must be tough for him, seeing his mom like that. So I went upstairs...'

'...towards the gunshot?' I asked.

'Like I said, it was all muscle memory. I didn’t have my gun on me but I didn’t want to wait for backup and risk anyone else upstairs getting shot. I told the kid to call it in, but he just followed me up the stairs with the phone. Turns out it wasn’t dangerous anyway - second victim was dead on arrival.'

It matched up. 'Tell me, when you found Stuart Burton was he still holding the gun?’

'Umm, no I don’t think so. The weapon was found lying near the body. Why is that relevant?’

If he had been holding it in his right hand it would have least have proved he couldn’t have shot himself. Overly hopeful for a simple solution. I couldn’t rule out the possibility that Miller was involved, no matter how improbable, so kept my cards close to my chest. 'I’m not sure it is yet,' I said vaguely.

Miller looked at me suspiciously. He had volunteered the information but now looked like he may be regretting it. I thought I would probably struggle to get more out of him. It was getting late anyway, time to head home.

- - -

The night passed without much sleep. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more to the case. Something we were missing. Emma had invited us to return the following day for a second look over the scene, but I wasn’t optimistic. The police had covered almost everything and had come to a firm conclusion, perhaps I had been foolhardy to think that we could arrive at a different one.

‘Did you manage to find Mr Miller?’ she asked upon our arrival.

‘We did, but learned nothing new I’m afraid,’ I replied.

Emma led us through to the kitchen. Nathan was sat at the table, sipping a coffee in silence. He eyed us up as we entered, but refrained from speech.

‘I’m not sure...’ I started. I was cut short by a violent coughing spree. My ribs were still aching from the car journey the previous day, and gasps of air came only with significant effort.

‘Can I get you some water? We have bottles in the shed,’ asked Emma. ‘I’ll go get you one,’ she added before waiting for a response.

Nathan smiled his crooked smile in silence, as if willing the cough to take me.

Emma can’t have been out of the house for more than a few seconds when we heard a crash from upstairs. I jerked upright with the shock, my cough disappearing as quickly as it had come. We all looked towards the door in unison.

‘Is there anyone else in the house?’ asked Anthony.

Nathan shook his head, his expression having switched to one of genuine concern.

Anthony cautiously headed upstairs as I followed a short distance behind. We searched in vain for something broken or out of place. There were no signs of life. It was as I was walking out through the corridor that I heard Emma swearing from outside the barn window.

'Are you OK?' I shouted out of the window as I looked down on the shed.

Her head appeared from within. 'Fine - just knocked over a tool box.'

I stared at her for a few seconds, paralyzed. It fit - the cabinet, the bullet, the scratch on the wall. Emma was right, her parents were murdered. I stood stupefied, the reality of the crime unfolding in my mind. It was as cold and as calculated as I have ever come across.

- - -

To avoid suspicion I concealed my call to the police as a trip to the bathroom. They arrived without alerting anyone in the house, and were greeted at the door by a confused Emma. With everyone gathered in the kitchen I began the story of how the double murder was orchestrated.

‘In my mind there was only ever one suspect, but to accomplish the crime he must have done the impossible. A witness, a cop no less, placed him in different areas of the house at the time of both murders.’

Nathan glared at me from across the table.

‘I kept running it through my mind, trying to think of a way Nathan here could have killed his mother, locked himself in another room within a matter of seconds, then shot his father while outside the house. It made no sense. It took a simple accident, a crash from the shed, to make me realize I was looking at it the wrong way round.

‘The sound appeared to originate upstairs. The whole house is double glazed, with the exception of the open barn window at the side. From within the house the easiest way for the noise to reach us was through the upstairs window. It was probably an unnecessary detail, but definitely helped with the illusion. What if the gunshot Doug Miller heard was not created upstairs, but from outside the window? This simple thought confirmed my suspicions. There was only one person who could have been in the vicinity of the window at the time of the gunshot - Nathan. He had killed his father earlier and left the gun at the scene.’

I turned towards Nathan, and had to admit some satisfaction as I saw the blood draining from his face. ‘You’d done your homework - by forcing your father to place his hand near the gun before you pulled the trigger you could ensure accurate residue patterns. You then used a second pistol to create the sound that everyone would assume came from Stuart Burton. A simple mistake led me to it - you forgot the bullet casing.

‘Of course, this doesn’t explain how you appeared in the window of a locked room separate from the second victim, and if it wasn’t for a small scratch on the outer wall I may never have discovered the method.’

I nodded to Anthony to acknowledge his contribution. He didn’t notice - his gaze was fixed on Nathan Burton.

‘You knew that Doug Miller walked past at exactly 7pm, and waited until you saw him approaching before murdering your mother,’ I continued. ‘Mr Miller was a police officer, about as reliable a witness as you could have. He would validate a simple alibi - you were in another room.’

Nathan’s smile had long evaporated, and he now watched me closely. Emma was on the verge of tears, but listened attentively with the odd glance towards her brother. She seemed almost afraid to make eye contact with him, despite the two police officers who stood between them.

‘As he saw Doug approaching Nathan stabbed his mother from behind then went to the kitchen window to cry for help. To Doug it would appear that Nathan was climbing out of the den window, the second from the door, thanks to a simple dummy window frame placed on the wall to the left of the kitchen. The real Den window would be obscured from view by Nathan’s van.

‘As Doug ran inside Nathan must have exited the window and placed the false window frame in the van. It could be hidden in plain sight among other building materials. The van could then simply be pushed a few feet to reveal the actual den window. From there it was just a case of firing the second pistol into the air to create the illusion of Stuart Burton’s suicide, then a few moments later joining Doug in the kitchen. The door to the den, barricaded from the hallway by Nathan earlier, would stand testament to him being locked in the room next to the scene.’


  1. Nathan exited through the kitchen window
  2. Removed the false window frame and placed it in the van
  3. Pushed the van forward to reveal the real den window
  4. Fired a second pistol to emulate Stuart Burton’s suicide
Emma turned towards Nathan. I had expected more waterworks, but she had composed herself and now stood over her brother. ‘Why did you do it?’

Nathan sighed, calmer than I had ever seen him. His rapidly fluctuating moods were eerily disconcerting. ‘It was the arguments, I couldn’t take it any more.’

‘They didn’t argue,’ she replied.

‘They did. All the time. I could hear them through the walls. Dad would be at it constantly.’ Nathan shifted his tone to impersonate his father. ‘He’s wasting his life. Look at Emma, she’s top of her class at UCLA. What’s Nathan got? A job as a laborer in a downbeat construction company. I didn’t pay through the nose for his education just to see him fitting drain pipes.’ His voice returned to normal. ‘Mom would argue, but she was just as bad. They’d never say it to my face, but I was a disappointment. Not smart enough to carry the Burton name. They deserved what they got.’

Emma shook her head violently. ‘I don’t believe you. They loved you. Dad didn’t care what you did for a living.’

Nathan stood in anger. ‘You’re wrong. I heard it through the walls.’

The two police officers were quick to grab him. Forcing him down into the table, they swiftly cuffed his hands behind his back.

Perhaps his parents did argue about him, perhaps he was hearing things. Given the ingenuity of the crime I wouldn’t rule out him fabricating mental illness in a bid for a reduced sentence. I wasn’t in a position to judge, and had no desire to do so. The kid had issues, that I was sure of. He maintained an aggressive rant all the way into the back of the police car, and was only silenced when the door shut behind him.

Emma Burton barely made a sound following his arrest, but true to her word produced the rest of the reward. Not bad for a couple days work.

- - -

Anthony was right. There was money to be made. With a steady stream of cases and a bit of luck, maybe even enough to pay for my full treatment. If only I could wait that long.

The reward for the Burton case quickly disappeared. When initially told of the costs I hadn’t really appreciated the enormity of the task ahead of me. A few thousand bought me little more than some intermediary medication, initial appointments and a scan.

My problem was time. With each visit Doctor White stressed the urgency of the treatment. Every day I delayed would increase the risks, and decrease my chances of success. He walked me through the full process - radiotherapy, chemotherapy, possibly even surgery. It was a long road, and I needed to get started as soon as possible.

By the time I had accumulated funds I may be past saving. After my diagnosis the insurance companies wouldn’t go near me, and the banks were less than sympathetic. I needed a sponsor. Someone who could cover seventy thousand dollars in the short term while I paid them back over time.

As reluctant as I was to ask, there was only one person I knew who had that kind of money. Brian Mitchell.


...The story of Kenneth Rhys continues in The Locked Room. Click here if you'd like to be notified when the book is released. You can find more information about the book here.

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