Locked Room Puzzle

by Speranza

Author's Note: Written for Spuffy for More Joy Day 2013. Sorry it took so long! Thank you lim and resonant and Terri!

When Sergeant Aileen McPherson took over Detachment 6 of the North District of the Northwestern Territories from Sergeant John "Musky" Peterson, the retiring sheriff called her into what was currently his office and was soon to be her office and told her to sit down. She did, putting her hat on her lap. Musky lowered his bulk into his battered desk chair, which creaked, and regarded her thoughtfully.

"Aileen," Musky said finally, with the air of someone imparting great wisdom, "if you ever have a case gives you the stinkeye, one of the finest policemen in all the world lives not twenty miles past Miller's Hill." Musky sat back in his chair and pondered his own remarkable statement. Aileen waited, not wanting to interrupt; her grandfather told her never to interrupt. "He's retired," Musky went on, "mostly. Nobody understands it, but he shares a house with some guy he brought back from the States. Ornery. Long Polish name. Crack shot, though, when he's wearing his glasses; bastard won first place in Mamie Crenshaw's sharpshooting contest four years running, then stopped entering. Pies," he told Aileen, as if in explanation. "Apple the first year, cherry the next; still him skinny as a whippet. Wouldn't think so with all that prize-winning pie, but there you go. He was a detective, too; did I say?"

"No," Aileen answered.

"Well, he was. Chicago P.D., I think." Musky went silent, and Aileen realized that that was all.

"Well, thank you, sir," she said, and stood, sweeping her blonde ponytail into her Stetson in one practiced motion. "I appreciate it. Very useful intelligence," and she didn't really think any more about the retired RCMP officer and his pie-winning housemate until they found Marty Jones swinging dead outside his barn. "Don't touch anything," she told her deputy. "I want this whole place cordoned off. There's something. . ." She bit her lip and shook her head, looking at Jones's corpse, his cold, gray face; this case was giving her the stinkeye like none before. "Station a couple of guys up the road and keep everyone away except the photographers." She exhaled, a puff of breath that hung in the air, and beat her gloved hands together. "I'll be an hour or two, but don't worry. It's cold. He'll keep."

She took a snowmobile west out of town and drove until she saw the cabin, isolated but homey, smoke pouring out of its chimney. A man in a sheepskin coat was standing outside, rooted in the snow. The snowmobile sputtered as she powered down. He was carrying a shotgun, but he was holding it casually, barrel hanging down. She dismounted and waved as she made her way over, being sure to keep her hands visible.

Detective Raymond Kowalski was wearing his glasses.

"Detective Kowalski?" she called, peaceably extending her gloved hand in his direction even though they were still yards apart, "Sergeant Aileen McPherson, RCMP. I'm the new head of Detachment 6."

Kowalski was taking her measure, so she did the same: he was lanky, with spiky white-blond hair and blue eyes fanned with laugh lines. They narrowed behind his glasses. "Thought it was Musky over there."

"It was," Aileen said; Kowalski didn't offer his hand, so she let hers drop. "He retired. But before he did, he told me that the one of the best policemen in the world lived--" She stopped, biting her lip.

Kowalski stared her down for another moment and then broke up laughing: he had a nice laugh and a lot of white teeth. "Yeah. Uh-huh. I bet that's what he told you--but he wasn't talking about me, was he? No, he was not. He meant Fraser, go figure--but let me just tell you, Miss Sergeant Aileen McPherson of Detachment 6, that I did not just fall off a dog sled, okay? I have been around the igloo three or four times, if you know what I'm saying." Aileen nodded vigorously, and Kowalski relented.

"Come in and warm up," he said, and Aileen followed him to the door and waited while he yanked a flare gun from a holster hanging from a peg just inside. "Stand back," he said, and sent two flares bursting across the sky. "We got a system," Kowalski explained. "He'll come if he can."

The cabin was small, lived in, intimate. Any ideas she might have had about them merely being friends were immediately dispelled, though she couldn't quite have said why: it was something about how close the couch was to the armchair, and the piles of books teetering on every available surface, and the half-finished carvings by the fireplace. It was something about the easel set up near the window and the phonograph propped open with a stack of vinyl records beside it. There was an echo of two lives intertwined, people living in each other's pockets. It didn't feel like roommates: it felt like a marriage.

"You want tea or coffee?" Kowalski fiddled with the kettle. "Fraser drinks tea but I got a French press and beans shipped up to me straight from Brazil. UPS guy's an ex-Mountie: totally nutso but the mail comes regular." Kowalski yanked out one of the plain wood chairs. "So what's this about?"

"Murder," Aileen said promptly, pulling out the other chair and turning it so she could sit on it backwards, arms braced. "At least I think it's a murder. Sergeant Musky said that if I ever needed a second opinion on a case, I should look you fellows up." Kowalski raised an eyebrow at that and Aileen said, "No, really; you, too. He said you were a detective from Chicago, and a crack shot--"

Kowalski rolled his eyes. "Christ, he still hasn't gotten over losing those pies."

"No, sir," Aileen replied seriously. "Not a bit of it. Anyway, this morning, Mary Dickerson found Marty Jones hanging dead behind his barn. She called it in, and we got there around--"

"Hang on a second." Kowalski yanked off his tortoiseshell glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Mary Louise Dickerson, the nice lady who stamps our books over at the town library?"

"Yes, sir," Aileen said; by the looks of it, Kowalski and Fraser had half the library checked out.

"Who is married to George M. Dickerson, who works out at the silver mine down near Echo Lake?"

Aileen bit her lip and nodded: Detective Kowalski might not be from around here, but he'd been living here more than a few years, and probably knew the local gossip better than she did. "Yes, sir?"

Kowalski abruptly stabbed two fingers at her. "You call me sir one more time I'm gonna lose it." He shoved his fingers through the white-blond spikes of his hair. "I thought I was rocking this look."

"You're totally rocking it, sir," Aileen said, and bit her lip to stop from smiling.

Kowalski muttered, "Mountie humor, I fuckin' love it," and then he slid down in the chair, long legs stretching impossibly out and crossing at his ankles, and said, darkly, "George Dickerson's a known asshole, okay? Mary and Marty have been having an affair, what Fraser calls consoling each other, for --I don't even know how long. Years. Decades. Since Marty's wife died in whatever year B.C. that was. My guess is they console each other couple times a week," Kowalski snorted, "which you wouldn't think to look at them, but--" Kowalski leaned dangerously forward, arms crossed over his chest, eyebrows raised behind his glasses. "People can be surprising, if you know what I mean."

"Yes, sir," Aileen replied immediately. "I know just what you mean. And I didn't know about the affair, but I figured that something like that had to be going on, otherwise--"

Kowalski grinned and tapped the side of his nose. "Otherwise what the hell was Mary Dickerson doing out at the Jones place at ass o'clock in the morning; yeah, you got it."

"Consolation," Aileen said, and tapped her nose in return.

"Right. She wasn't collecting late fees. Hang on, I hear the sled," and Kowalski got up, grabbed his parka, and went out the door. Aileen closed her eyes and listened to the increasing sound of yapping dogs, then stopped pretending that she wasn't going to take advantage of the proffered privacy; Detective Kowalski was expecting her to, she was certain: why else had he left her there? She flipped through a stack of letters, return addresses from Illinois and Florida. There was a silver-framed picture of a woman with dark hair, warmly dressed in old-style skins and furs: Fraser's mother. Aileen peered at the painting on the easel. It was colorful and abstract, but it was also, miraculously, the view from that very window; after looking at it, she saw all those colors in the snow. It was signed R.K.

Still looking out, she saw Benton Fraser, like his mother wrapped in skins and furs, coming around the side of the house; he'd no doubt stopped to water and kennel the dogs. She studied him for a moment, then went to the door and saw Kowalski crouched down in the snow, playing with a white Alsatian puppy. The dog leapt up to paw his legs and lick his face before tumbling backwards and jumping up again. Kowalski gave the puppy a last rough, affectionate scrub to snout and belly and stood up as Fraser approached. Something in the air crackled, and Aileen unthinkingly braced for violence, hand going to her revolver. It wasn't violence, though; instead, Kowalski strode forward, roughly crooked an arm around Fraser's neck, and tugged him into a kiss of such searing heat that Aileen had to turn away. When she made herself look back it was over, but they were standing close, heads together, shoulders bumping and talking in low tones. Kowalski tilted his head toward her ever so slightly, and Constable Fraser looked straight at her, though he shouldn't have been able to see her in this light.

"Just like old times," Fraser said in a normal tone of voice, voice carrying across the cold air. He took a step toward the house, then stopped, turned awkwardly back to Kowalski, and--kissed his cheek? No. Fraser had bitten his ear. Kowalski grinned wolfishly and trailed Fraser back to the house.

"Sergeant McPherson," Fraser said, stepping in. He seemed huge, an absolutely enormous presence. Unlike Kowalski, he extended his hand. "I'm very pleased to meet you. How may we be of assistance?"

"Well, I see what you mean," Fraser said. He was crouched in the snow below Jones's swinging corpse, fingering the ice splinters there and then, inexplicably, sniffing his fingers. "This is a pickle."

"It's hinky is what it is." Kowalski had taken up position further back, as if he wanted to taken in the entire scene all at once. Aileen thought of the canvas on the easel, Kowalski's painterly eye.

"That's what I thought." Aileen reached into her jacket, took out Jones's suicide note, and handed it to Fraser, who stood. "But look. He left a note."

"I don't believe it," Kowalski shot back.

"Mm," Fraser murmured, reading it. "Yet here it is."

"I still don’t believe it," Kowalski insisted. "It's a fake, a forgery; a set-up." He flung a hand at Jones's gently swinging corpse, which was hanging from a noose looped over a heavy iron hook high up on the barn door - with nothing underneath it but air, and ice, and snow. Jones's boots hung more than two feet off the ground. "What'd he do, run up the wall? It's crazy, the whole thing's crazy."

"So it would seem, and yet. . ." Fraser cleared his throat and read, "To whom it may concern. If you check with Doctor Phillip Swanson in Yellowknife you will learn that I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in May of this year. I have been assured that I do not have long to live. Since my dear wife Cynthia died, I have been lucky enough to have the friendship and consolation of--"

"Oh brother," Kowalski said.

"Yes, well, I suppose we needn't go into that," Fraser said, folding the note up.

"Is it even true?" Kowalski asked.

"It's true," Aileen replied grimly. "We called the hospital this morning. Worse yet, it appears to be his handwriting."

"So he leapt up and stuck his head in the noose like a trained seal. No, wait, I got it; he went up onto the roof, put the noose around his neck, and jumped."

"Seems like overkill," Fraser mused. "Besides, the rope isn't nearly long enough. This barn is at least 25 feet high, that hook there looks to be about 10 feet up, and Marty was at least 5'10"--"

"Stop, I'm getting math flashbacks," Kowalski said, and then: "Wait, I got something niggling at me. Was it one of our cases? One of Vecchio's? It was. . ." Kowalski closed his eyes and gently bumped his fist against his forehead. "There was a guy. In a locked room. Hung dead in the middle with a puddle underne--" Kowalski pointed both his index fingers at Fraser. "It was ice. Guy was standing on a block of ice, hung himself when it melted. There you go, perfect solution--we got plenty of ice, explains everything." He frowned. "Who was that, a mobster? A meatpacker? Was it Johnny the Biscuit?"

"John Dickson Carr, I think." Fraser again crouched down to examine the snow and ice under Jones's boots, this time taking a discreet taste. He glanced up at Kowalski and added, "Ironically, we just returned it to the library. But it's a highly suggestive idea, Ray. A brilliant bit of lateral thinking."

"Except for how it's stupid. Those books are all stupid: the Dictaphone, the silver dagger, the icicle--"

"Two words, Ray: performance arsonist."

"Okay, yeah. Point taken."

"I'm sorry, but it was four below zero this morning," Aileen objected. "Even if he were standing on a block of ice, it wouldn't have melted."

Fraser didn't seem bothered by this observation. "There are many ways to melt ice, Sergeant McPherson. Aside from the application of various combinations of heat, pressure, and chemicals, some Inuit elders say there are spirits trapped in the ice - good spirits, the ones we believe have deserted us." He stood up and showed her a brilliant smile. "Perhaps they've finally found some way to escape."

"I'm back to the running-up-the-wall theory, myself," Kowalski muttered. "Donald O'Connor did it, why not this guy?"

"Ray, you're missing the significance of your own confused literary anecdote," Fraser said. "Carr's story of the man who hanged himself using a block of ice is the story of a suicide, not a murder. More precisely, it's the story of a suicide disguised as a murder, which is what I believe we have here."

"Right," Aileen said, suddenly seeing it. "If it were a suicide, you wouldn't care, you'd leave the ice block. But if it were a murder, you--"

"--would also leave the ice block, right, I got it," Kowalski said, abruptly beginning to pace. "Or you'd be sure to shove something under the guy--a stool, a ladder, maybe a pig-- to make it look like a suicide. The only reason you'd hang someone, even yourself, and try make it look hinky is--"

"If you wanted it to look like a murder," Fraser finished. "Exactly."

"And no murderer would do that. Unless he was a masochist." Kowalski pondered this. "Or bragging."

"Oh, I don't think he was bragging, Ray." Fraser tilted his head back to study the corpse's cold dead face, and then glanced over at Ray, whose face was taking on a similar pallor. "But I suggest we continue this conversation somewhere warmer. Preferably over some sort of hot beverage."

"Let's go back to the station," Aileen suggested. "Some of the lab tests might be back," and then she called over her deputy and his crew and gave the order to have Martin Jones's body cut down.

"Wow," Kowalski said, wandering around the room. "Wow. This is--This is just---" He stopped to look at the alerts she had posted this morning: an announcement for Canada Road Safety Week, a reminder for young people to be vigilant with their personal property, and a notification that a 75 year old male who had gone missing last week was discovered safe and sound: he had gone ice fishing. "Don't see a lot of crime, do you?"

Fraser followed her into her office and perched on the edge of her desk. "You'll have to pardon my partner. His many years in the Chicago Police Department have left him jaded."

"I am not jaded," Kowalski called through the open door, having stopped to pour himself a cup of coffee.

"Cynical, then," Fraser amended with a smile.

"I am neither cynical nor jaded, Fraser," Kowalski said, coming in. "I may have become accustomed to police stations that have more than one room, but that don't mean I can't appreciate the finer points of rural policing. " He took a sip of his coffee and grimaced. "Well, that brings me back."

Aileen handed Fraser a copy of the lab tests. "It's as you thought: there was only one set of fingerprints on the note, and the handwriting does seem to match samples recovered from the house. So I think we can safely categorize this as a suicide, though I'd appreciate it if both you and Detective Kowalski would make statements confirming your own observations of the--"

"Lemme ask you something," Kowalski interrupted. "Who do you like for it, this murder that ain't?"

"I'm sorry?" Aileen asked.

Kowalski collapsed into the armchair in front of her desk and crossed his legs, sliding his booted foot onto his knee. "Who's the top of the hit parade? Who would be your first interview? You're a cop, you're suspicious, the person you're thinking about iiiiiis...?"

"George Dickerson," Aileen replied immediately.

"You betcha," Kowalski agreed. "Go with the husband, it's always the husband. Plus a guy like George, known asshole, violent temper--"

"I checked his record: two old D&Ds. But Mary's never filed a complaint," Aileen pointed out.

"Doesn't matter. Jones was consoling his wife and he snapped. That would be the story, right?"

"Yes," Fraser said thoughtfully, "though one hopes someone would have asked, 'why now?' After all, Mary and Marty had been consoling each other for years. I knew, you knew, surely Mr. Dickerson--"

"Nah, men are crazy, Fraser; I should know, I am one. Plus there's you. Nobody'd have questioned it."

"Hm, I see your point," Fraser said, and then, perhaps seeing that Aileen wasn't following: "What Ray's saying is that, unpleasant a man as he might be, George Dickerson might well have been framed for this murder, had we mistaken it for a murder, as was clearly intended."

"Yeah," Kowalski said. "So I'm asking quo vadis? Who benefits?"

"Cui bono, but point taken. And there's really only one reasonable answer."

"Mary Dickerson," Aileen replied.

"Mary Dickerson," Kowalski agreed.

"Indeed," said Fraser.

Aileen frowned. "Do you think she was in on it?"

"I don't, in fact," Fraser said. "I think it more likely that Marty found out that he was terminally ill and saw an opportunity to get George away from Mary. But considering the severity of the accusation--"

"You can't just go framing people," Kowalski interrupted. "Not even assholes."

"--we're obliged to at least ask the question; language, Ray."

"Sorry. Pardon my French."

"That is not--never mind."

"We took her home," Aileen said. "She'd had quite a shock. But we told her we'd want her to come in to give us a statement when she felt better. I'll have someone go get her. We can do an interview."

"I'll do it," Kowalski said, taking a last swig of coffee and crumpling his paper cup. "One cup of lousy coffee, I'm a genius in the interrogation room."

Fraser smiled at Kowalski, eyes crinkling fondly, and then said to Aileen, "He is, actually."

Mary Dickerson arrived, pale and with red-rimmed eyes, and Kowalski suddenly seemed to transform: he became almost boyishly awkward. "Hey there, Mrs. Dickerson, I am so sorry to bother you but obviously there are a lot of loose ends to what happened today, so me and Fraser are helping out."

"It's all right, Ray," Mary said tiredly. "I understand."

"C'mon in here, we'll have a talk," Ray said, and gently escorted Mary Dickerson into Aileen's office, which they used on the rare occasions when they needed to interview someone privately.

Aileen watched them go, then turned to find Constable Fraser sitting watching her with an amused expression on his face. "He's a very good policeman. I'll bet Musky didn't tell you."

"He told me that Detective Kowalski was a crack shot."

Fraser sighed. "People always underestimate the fierceness of rivalries in a small town. Ray doesn't even particularly like pie." He smiled at her, then scootched forward in his chair, fingers laced and hanging between his legs, inviting her into his confidence. Aileen hunched forward and cocked her head to listen. Fraser licked his lips. "When we first came to live here, we had been on the ice for over a year." Aileen's surprise must have shown on her face, because Fraser said, "Oh yes. We went all the way to Resolute before turning back." He bit his lip and then went on. "That year on the ice. . .we came back changed, wild: half savage, I suppose. Soulbonded," he added, after a pause. "I thought I knew him before we left--I don't suppose anyone embarks on a journey like that with someone they don't feel close to --but I was wrong. Out on the ice, we...." He trailed off, staring down at his hands. Aileen took the opportunity to study his face, which was defined by laugh lines. He had the occasional thread of silver in his dark hair. "Now it's as if I see him in a different spectrum of light," Fraser said finally. "He's a fine man. And an excellent police officer," he concluded, abruptly sitting up. "You needn't worry."

"I'm not worried," Aileen said with perfect honesty. "Tell me, Constable--Resolute. Were you looking for the hand of Franklin?"

"Yes," Fraser said.

"Did you find it?"

"Oh yes. And someday you will, too."

The door of Aileen's office opened suddenly and Kowalski came out with Mary Dickerson who, to Aileen's surprise, looked much better. Fraser got immediately to his feet. "We're good, she's good, everything's good," Ray said, slamming Mary's signed statement down on the table. "She's got a friend she's gonna go stay with for a while. In the meantime--" He crossed over to the station's information board, snatched up a brochure entitled "Family Law in the NWT: Begin A Better Ending," and handed it to Mary. "Plus, there's--hey Fraser, what's the name of that group in Moose Bay? Haven? Refuge?"

"Oasis," Fraser said.

"Oasis, yeah. Call Oasis, they got counselors. They can also set you up with a good divorce lawyer."

"Ray, thank you," Mary said. "Really. I don't know how to--"

"Do me a favor, put aside a copy of The Professional by W. C. Heinz, that's H-E-I-N-Z like the ketchup. I'll pick it up next time. Great book," Kowalski told Fraser. "It's about a boxer who--"

Fraser gave Kowalski a quick glare before turning his attention fully to Mary. "Marty loved you," he told her, "I'm sure of it, but what he tried to do was wrong. That isn't the way out, Mary. There are people who can help you through this: you won't be alone. If you want help. If you're ready. If--"

"I'm ready, Ben." Mary set her mouth. "And I don't think George'll put up too much fuss - he might've, back in the day, but he's not what he was. And with Marty dead--" Her lip quivered and she clamped down on it. "Well, that just makes it easier. George couldn't stand me leaving him for Marty –more for his ego than for losing me," she snorted. "But now I'm not leaving him for Marty. I'm just leaving him."

"Good for you," Fraser said.

"I just love a happy ending," Kowalski said.

"You see," Kowalski said afterwards, putting on his coat, "I get the rural policing thing."

"I never said you didn't," Fraser protested.

"You said I was jaded."

"Well, I say a lot of things, Ray."

"Just take it back. And cynical--take back cynical, too. Because that was a top-notch bit of rural policework I just did there, if I say so myself, which I just did. Personal touch," he said, counting the points off on his fingers. "Engaged with the community. Knowledgeable about local resources--this is the kind of stuff that really boosts your end of the year paycheck, Fraser."

Aileen smiled. "It was very good work, Detective: thank you. And I'll follow up with Mary tomorrow; I might put her house and the library on the patrol list, just to keep an eye out while things get sorted."

"Ray and I could also make a visit to Echo Lake," Fraser mused. "It might be worth having a word with George's co-workers at the mine. They're good men--they might be able to avert any problems at the source."

"That's a good idea," Aileen said.

"Speaking of good ideas: we're in town, Fraser. Together. At the same time together. Very possibly we have lost the art of socializing with other people--"

"We've never known how to socialize with other people."

"--but we're even worse at it lately. Also, speak for yourself: I was the king of the Crystal Ballroom."

"You never got to the--"

Kowalski clapped him on the shoulder. "I think we should go over to Randall's. I think you should buy me a beer. Possibly more than one."

Fraser reached for his hat. "Why do I have to take you for a beer, possibly more than one?"

"Because I said so. Because you have to keep me in the style to which you have accustomed me, Fraser, which includes freezing-ass cold and no sunlight for half the year. And amazing beer. Beer that would be the envy of. . .people who don't have it. You get what I'm saying?"

"Right you are, Ray." Fraser flashed a smile at Aileen, put on his hat, and followed Kowalski out.

Aileen collected all the paperwork - the lab work, the suicide note, the signed statements by Mary, by Fraser, and by Kowalski--into a folder and took it back into her office, which had once been Musky Peterson's office. She glanced at the chair where he used to sit--not the same chair, actually; she'd requisitioned a replacement when she took the office--and remembered him telling her about the finest policeman in the world and his crack-shot roommate. She yanked open her file cabinet and shoved the paperwork inside. Nobody understands it, Musky had grumbled. Aileen stood there and grinned.

I do, she thought, and shoved the file cabinet closed.

The End

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