PreApocalyptic – Chapter 3 (a shouting match)

Aaaaaand I’m back! It seems that, last fall, school killed my creativity. Unfortunately, Christmas break didn’t really revive it… until now… three days before spring classes begin… eh, here it is:

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Jim placed the kerosene lantern on the table, filling in the void left by the sudden departure of computer screen’s pale blue glow with a warm orange. He then returned to his office, reclined in his chair, and closed his eyes. Out in the bar, the company took a moment to quietly consider what they had just seen.

“It’s preposterous,” Kate declared.

The rest of the company stared at her a moment before Mike vocalized the question they all were thinking: “Is it?”

“He did have some documented evidence,” Mark added.

“I don’t think we should take any chances!” Sam meekly suggested, attempting to assert some authority.

Ed made another one of his trademark noises.

Kate stammered. “That video could be counterfeit! They can make anything with computers — the room was dark, we couldn’t see much detail. Or maybe they had look-a-likes. I don’t know, I just don’t buy it.”

“Why would someone possibly fake this? What would he have to gain?” Mark countered. Kate raised her voice to speak over him.

“I don’t have all the answers,” she defended, “but he’s surely playing some sort of angle.”

“You don’t have any answers — but we’ve got one on that computer!”

“Listen, Mark, we don’t all take things blindly, some of us use our heads!”

“And what do you mean by that?!”

“Ok you two,” Mike matched Kate’s voice level, then topped it, “I don’t know what this is about, but I’m armed and beginning to get irritated, so if you’d cut the bickering, I think everyone in here might appreciate it.”

“Guys,” Sam said, at a level somewhere nearing Kate’s but slightly lower (and with more trembling), “we have a dead man in the freezer. Did you forget? A dead man. With a hole in his stomach. This is serious!”

“Exactly!” Mark exclaimed, “how is he playing an angle if he’s dead?!”

Kate continued, unfazed: “I’m not taking any rash action without thoroughly considering the situation; I’ve got a reputation to uphold!”

“Well I have an obligation to the well-being of my brothers and sisters, I don’t think this should be ignored!”

“I don’t give a damn about your reputation,” Mike, in a move which neared upon super-human abilities, raised his voice to yet another level, “or your obligation. Everyone just calm down so we can figure this thing out!”

“There’s a dead man in the freezer!” Sam reiterated.

“You’re fools… every one uh ya!” Ed managed to say, in his most coherent and sound sentence of the night so far.

The voices raised higher and higher in what seemed like no more than a contest of wills. Sound vibrations bounced back and forth in a microscopic ping-pong match between the four players, filling the bar with sweat, exaggerated arm flailing, and highly unfiltered declarations of feelings between the company. More so than usual, that is, but without even the excessive consumption of alcohol to lower inhibitions. The company was so caught up in their own viewpoints that nothing could hope to pull them from their voice-raising competition.

Nothing, aside from the gunshot.

All five heads, now noticeably silent, turned to see Jim standing just outside the doorway to his office, handgun pointed upwards. Dust and chips from the old wooden ceiling floated down around him, followed by a thin, but steady, stream of water.

“I think you hit a pipe,” Mike observed.

Jim nodded. “The handgun may have not been the best decision, considering the other buildings above us. You gave me no choice.”

The company pointed fingers at each other with their eyes. Jim continued:

“That was a plural ‘you.’ You all have been shouting back and forth about whether this is real or a hoax, what we should do, and whether any of this really matters to the six of us here. The way I see it is this: I’m not getting any sleep tonight. I’d like to. There’s nothing I’d like more than to sleep all night with the sound of rain outside my window, but I know that the moment I step back into that office you all will be at it before I can slam the door behind me.

“So,” he continued, “in the interest of my getting some shut-eye tonight, I suggest we resolve this issue. As I said, we’ve three main issues to sort through — whether this is real, whether it concerns us, and what, if anything, we should do. Now, the second and third questions rely upon the first. Unfortunately, we can’t get to the document evidence on the drive, so we’ll have to base out debates solely around the video. Or, more precisely, our memory of it. So, let’s discuss —” Jim paused, “and please, one at a time.”

Kate wasted no time. “That video could easily be faked. It was very dark and shaky.”

“She makes a decent point,” Mike conceded, “why are the conspiracy tapes always so shaky?”

“It was a hidden camera,” Mark suggested, “and he was running for his life. You expect him to have a steadicam on hand? But we got clear enough shots to make out recognizable faces.”

Jim interjected himself back into the conversation. “Ok. So it was very shaky, either due to our visiter fearing for his life or hiding some shoddy special effects. Both are serviceable explanations. We’ll call that one a draw. Kate: if it was a fake, how did they get all those foreign dignitaries?”

“Could be look-a-likes.” When this suggestion fell flat with her audience, she reached for a backup. “Or maybe some clever video editing. Green-screens and the like.”

“Video editing will only take you so far,” Mark countered, “we saw enough quick pans and changing angles to make me think that splicing footage of each one together is an unlikely option. In particular, the getaway at the end is good evidence against most of the people being digitally inserted.”

Kate sat silent, hoping someone else would come up with a point to counter Mark. No one did.

“Ok,” Jim said as he struck a tally mark on the right side of a napkin, “we’ll give that one to ‘real.’ The score is now 1-0, ‘real’ leading. Kate?”

“How about the absurdity of the whole thing?” she offered.

“Now hold on,” Jim said, “we’re still discussing whether or not the video appears genuine on its own merits. Once that’s settled, we can move on to motives, plausibility, and other abstractions. Does anyone have any other objections or supports for the genuineness of this video?”

No one did.

Jim continued mediating. “Well, in that case, let’s go on to plausibility, what —”

Kate jumped in. “It’s highly implausible. Do any of you guys know how difficult it would be to control the world? As someone involved in politics, let me tell you that it’s not so simple as being an evil overlord. Governments — actual, legitimate, democratic governments — are shockingly unorganized. There are innumerable forces and influence behind every decision made, both from the public sphere and the political. And those are just the ones done transparently! Take all the ‘behind-closed-doors’ decision and you’ve got way too much to keep track of. And that’s just in our country. Consider all the third-world countries who are less organized than ours, then put them together and you get international politics and trade. That adds a whole new level of complexity to the problem. No, no ring of power could help anyone keep track of, much less control, all of that. To do that, you would need —”

Mike interjected, “foreign dignitaries, hands in every government, secret service, mega-corporation, and more?” He took her silence to mean ‘yes, thank you, that’s exactly what I was going to say,’ and continued, “so basically, exactly what the video showed us? By your own admission, there are things at work, shaping decisions, that we don’t know about.”

“Yes,” she conceded, “but even then, it’s a long-shot. So many forces influencing the world, and one group attempting to hold it together? That building would be a very shaky foundation, and it would be only a matter of time before it topples.”

“Just like the tower of Babel…” Mark mused. When he caught the blank stares coming from four of his companions (though, to be fair, one of those four was Ed, and blank stares were the default for him), he explained. “Genesis. People, wanting to be like God, try to build a tower to the heavens, and God, not greatly appreciating this gesture, topples it. You might say these people were trying to do the same thing — be like God. Only, instead of building a tower, they try to shape the world the way they want it, to suit their own desires.”

After a moment of silence, Mike spoke up. “In all due respect, preacher, I hope you’re wrong on this one. If someone up on high decided to topple this particular tower, then we’re probably all going down with it.”

“Well,” Mark replied, “now it’s beginning to sound more like the flood.”

Sam appeared to be genuinely frightened by this point. “Let’s hope that doesn’t happen!”

“Ok,” Jim interjected, “fascinating metaphors and allusions all around, but let’s get back on topic — any responses to Kate’s claim of absurdity?”

“I’ve got one!” Mark offered.

Before he could voice his opinion, Jim asked “and you’re sure it’s an argument, not a sermon?”

“No sir, putting my lawyer hat back on.” Jim nodded, and Mark continued, “Kate, you really invalidated your own argument. Your point was that such an organization could never last — to move away from the tower metaphor, the ropes tying this thing together were to thin. No matter how much they try, this nameless organization can’t keep tabs on everyone — including themselves. Sooner or later, something would snap.”

“Exactly,” Kate exclaimed, seemingly satisfied.

“But that’s exactly what we’re told happened!” Mark slammed his fist on the table. “The video made it clear that this fell apart for exactly the reason you suggested it wouldn’t hold! The organization reached that tipping point, and it snapped!”

There was a long silence as the implications of their discussions set in with each person at the table. Finally, Jim spoke:

“Well, it’s seems plausibility has become a non-issue. That, along with the added credibility that comes from the dead man on our hands, means that from this point forward we need to approach the issue as if it’s real. As if the world’s about to end.” He stood up, looked at their faces and heard the storm continue outside. “The question now is… what do we do about it?”

No one, not even Kate, was quick to answer this one.

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PreApocalyptic – Chapter 2 (a bit of exposition)

“The line’s out,” Jim announced as he set the phone back onto the receiver.

“Can’t say I’m surprised” Mike crouched next to and examined the strange man. He touched two fingers to the man’s neck, “with this storm, I expect this man will be our last visitor tonight.” After receiving inquiring looks from the others in the room, he added, “yeah, he’s dead.”

The group, while not surprised giving the copious amount of blood he had spilled, was taken aback nonetheless by this news. Kate gasped silently and turned her face from the crowd. Sam rubbed his forehead. Mark slowly removed his hat and placed it over his heart. Even Ed seemed to momentarily sober up.

Kate broke their moment of silence, “What do we do now?” She looked around for any sign of life from the others’ faces, “we can’t just spend the whole night here with a dead man in the room.”

“She’s right,” Jim asserted, before pointing at Sam, “run to the supply closet and get me a fresh mop bucket. Mike, I think we have some blankets in the back room. Let’s use one of those to wrap him up. Mark, I need you to head to the kitchen and clear some space in the freezer —”

“Wait, what?!”

Jim stared back at Mark, dumbfounded. “The walk-in freezer… it’s in the kitchen. Just move some boxes around.”

“I know what it is,” Mark protested, “I just think there are better ways of dealing with this than hiding it!”

Jim bit his lip. He didn’t particularly want to deal with this at the moment. He glanced over at Mike and raised an eyebrow.

The cop took his cue. “All due respect, preacher, ‘hiding’ isn’t exactly the idea here. With the phones out and the storm going, we can’t do much about contacting the authorities until morning. However…”

Jim stepped back in to finish the justification. “We can clean the blood off my floor and get rid of the smell.”

Mark accomplished his assigned task, free of any more complaining. Jim could tell that his heart wasn’t in it, but that wasn’t important so long as the job was completed. Once a suitable space was cleared in the freezer, Jim instructed Mike and Sam to transport the body, which they did, and proceeded to pick up the mop and clean the blood.

After a few minutes, the six people of varying familiarity with each other reconvened, free of the residue stench of blood and decay.

Kate, once more, asked “so… what do we do now?”

“Well,” Jim answered, “I’m going to take a nap in my office. You all are free to sleep where you may, if you so choose.” Before he was finished speaking, Jim had already begun making his leave. While still in earshot, Jim overheard their conversation. The preacher began:

“What exactly was that man talking about?”

“Don’t know, it’s probable he was delirious. Sounded like a mad man,” the cop suggested.

“The end of the world…” the businessman pondered, “if only we could know whether there’s any truth to what he said.”

There was a small break in the conversation as they mentally reviewed their situation. Jim, against his better judgement, found himself standing in the doorway to his office; with his back to the guests, he couldn’t help but keep listening. He wasn’t sure why, and certainly wasn’t looking to interject, but his curiosity had gotten the better of him.

Ed made a series of inarticulate noises which could have signaled either distress or confusion, Jim wasn’t sure; he thought he may have heard the words “watermelon” and “parakeet.”

After disappearing for a moment, Jim arrived back in the company and forcibly put his hand on the table. When he lifted it, a USB drive remained.

“If I heard correctly, that might be of service,” he said before, once again, walking away. This time, though, he took a seat behind the bar. This, he thought, might be worth watching.

The five guests looked at the drive in awe, each of their minds racing with the possibilities of what it might hold. Sam eased their tension by opening his laptop and inserting the drive. After a warm-up chime, the computer screen filled up with a video of their late visitor, looking in much better condition than when he arrived.

“If you’re watching this,” the recording said, completely oblivious of the level of cliché in his speech, “it means I’m already dead.”

Kate and Sam some jaw dropping at this line, to which Mike gave them a raised eyebrow, as if to ask ‘really, what did you expect?’ The video continued:

“I knew they were after me, but I thought I could escape them. Foolish, I know. Once they discovered I was coming clean to the world, telling the people of the world what they should have been told long ago, there was no way they’d let me live.”

“Who are —” Mark began asking, before Kate cut him off with a sharp “Shh!”

“I’m sure you’re wondering who ‘they’ are,” the man on the screen suggested, “if only it could be explained that easily. I had hoped to get this into the hands of someone who wouldn’t need an explanation; unfortunately, such a person doesn’t exist. Anyone who does know is already one of them.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Until my recent ‘retirement,’ I was a member of a… an organization. I use the term ‘organization’ loosely. I was not high ranking, as rank does not exist within this group. There is no headquarters, no list of members, no documents of any kind. There is not even a name, as names are reserved for university clubs and old men’s fraternities. We are who the Bilderberg Conference, the Illuminati, and so many others desperately want to be. We… this organization… is what every urban legend strives to be, though no legends exist about it. In all likelihood, you are the first person or persons to ever learn of its existence without undergoing initiation.”

At this point, the company in the bar was completely wrapped in suspense. The man had recorded this post-mortem message with a pause to accommodate this reaction.

“The video I’m about to show you was taken during my last attendance at one of the meetings.” At the point, the video switched from the shot of the man to a hidden camera, roughly from his perspective. He was sitting at a long table in a dark room; the faces of the other members were barely visible. The commentary continued, “I took this video as proof. The world needed to know what was going on.” The camera began panning and zooming to get a clear picture of the faces at the table. The camera revealed a mixture of unknown faces and world leaders, anywhere from Latin America to the Middle East to the USA.

“Dear God,” Kate gasped, “most of these guys have thrown around more immature name calling at the UN than a 3rd grade playground. What are they doing together at a secret society?”

“More importantly,” Mark added, “why is Morrissey there?” It was a question they would never have a satisfactory answer for. The video continued:

“You may think this is the part where I tell you these people are involved in a plot for world domination. But don’t be naïve — these people already control the world. They have for the past century at least, though I don’t know for sure how long. Could be longer. No one knows their origin anymore, save the sole remaining founding member. What I do know is that every major war, assassination, every peace treaty, even cultural shifts — this group has orchestrated all of it.”

Jim looked at his guests, wishing he could see their faces. He couldn’t though, as their bodies remained motionless; their eyes were captured by the computer screen. At this point, one of the figures on the screen, a man they all recognized as a prominent African president, pointed at the camera. His fierce eyes seemed to be staring straight into the company in the bar. It frightened all of them, Mike less noticeably.

In reality, of course, he was pointing his malicious finger at their recently deceased visitor, who was understandably much more frightened than the six of them sitting in the bar. The camera jolted up and made its way to the darkness. When the image returned, it was back to the original shot of their visitor.

“I didn’t create this message to tell the world that they’re being controlled by this small organization. Most of the people in the world can live their happy lives regardless of who’s pulling the strings. No, I came to tell you what they wouldn’t. As you might imagine, controlling the world requires a great deal of observation and manipulation. The organization keeps careful tabs such things as world economy, environmental concerns, and political issues. Tonight, it got out of control.”

Almost knowingly, a crack of thunder resounded as lightning momentarily lit up the bar, reminding the company of the storm going on just outside their window.

“We now face what might be described as a perfect storm,” their informant continued. “The organization, while keeping the world afloat, has caused more problems than they’ve stopped; they’re motivated first and foremost by greed. Eventually, greed gets everyone in over their heads, even the organization.”

The man spoke quicker now, taking fewer breaths between statements.

“I don’t have much time left. I need to get moving if I want this message to be heard. I’ve uploaded documents to this drive giving more details, but here’s what you need to know: the world, as we know it, will soon be over. That much is for certain. It has already begun and cannot be stopped. There are four primary causes to this, though I’m sure they will start a domino effect, toppling over any of the other infrastructures ripe for falling.

“The factors are as follows: the imminent depletion of fossil fuels, a forthcoming plague worse than anything the world has seen, a world-wide electrical failure, and an oncoming nuclear war. These sort of things are normally regulated by the organization, but they’ve gotten out of hand. I’m telling you this, not so you can try to stop it, but so you can save humanity. This is what you must do —”

The screen went black.

“I… I think the battery’s dead.” Sam whimpered.

“Well,” Mike said, “pretty soon, it may not be alone in that.”

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PreApocalyptic – Chapter 1 (a strange new visiter)

Author’s Note:

All right, and thus ends my one month without finishing any writing (started a few though). Hopefully it won’t happen again… seems I’ve sufficiently exorcised the demons blocking my creativity (for now at least. They tend to come back without warning, so fingers crossed).

Oh, and any similarity to real people is completely coincidental. Except for Ed. I never got his name, but he’s definitely real.

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Jim stared out across the room, watching the mixture of rain and hail attack the pavement outside. It was late, the sun was down, and with the heaviness of this particular storm any light from street lamps or windows was mostly obscured as well. Three feet ahead of the window, Jim saw chaos. Anything beyond that existed only in darkness.

“Crud,” a man in a suit said as he swiveled on the barstool, “looks like I won’t be getting home anytime today.” He leaned forward on the bar and continued, “well, while we’re stuck here, give me another beer, will ya Jimmy?”

“Comin’ up,” Jim replied as he fetched a fresh bottle. “How’s the office been today, Sam?”

“Eh, you know. Nothing exciting,” he yawned. “Got some trouble getting my foot in the door right now, but things will bounce back… honestly, I’d rather not think about work right now.”

Jim nodded and moved on. His eyes scanned across those few remaining customers not foolish enough to leave during the storm or wise enough to leave before it shifted into full force. Three of the “usual suspects” remained in the bar — Sam, the aforementioned businessman, a cop named Mike, and a perpetual drunk, supposedly named Ed, though no one really knew much about him for sure on account of his general incoherence. Jim also spotted a man and a woman sitting at a table together, both late thirties or early forties. Presumably they might be a couple, but Jim couldn’t yet say for sure.

He grabbed a wet rag and began cleaning his way over in their direction until he stood within eavesdropping range. At that point, he began meticulously cleaning each table in their vicinity. It was, after all, a very slow night.

“This is crazy!” the woman laughed, “You’ve changed so much. Out of everyone we knew, I never would have pegged you, Mark, as a preacher! Of all things!”

The man, Mark, returned the polite laughs, “well, Kate, you haven’t changed one bit, and I always expected you to end up a politician!”

The two old friends continued chatting, and Jim learned a few things before he stopped paying attention. He learned that the preacher and the politician had gone to college together, except back then they were a lawyer and an actress. They ran into each other by accident recently when Kate entered Mark’s church one Sunday morning, although Jim was fairly certain it was not accidental as she seemed to be looking for an endorsement. At that point, he had gleaned enough information to satisfy his admittedly low curiosity — politics was an issue which interested Jim even less than the earlier pleasantries. Besides, the tables certainly would not clean themselves.

Jim decided that this storm wouldn’t be letting up anytime that night; it was time to take a break from his cleaning. He dropped the towel down on the last table and headed over to speak with the cop, complimentary coffee in hand.

“Thanks,” Mike said as he accepted the gift. “You about ready to kick these people off the premises? I believe it’s just about closing time. At that point, it’s trespassing to stay, and that’s a crime…”

Jim gave a weak laugh, “well, I could do that, but with this storm we’ve got, they probably wouldn’t get more than a few feet beyond the door.”

“We can get ’em for that too: loitering.”

“Good call. But I think we’ll let it slide, officer — this time,” Jim said with a wink.

“If you say so,” he replied as he sipped his coffee, “it’s your building.” Mike picked up the day’s newspaper and began thumbing through it while Jim picked up his mop. In place of cleaning the floors with such a device, as might be expected, Jim folded his hands together on top of the mop to use it as a support pole. Jim once again took a moment to look out the window and appreciate the ironic tranquility of the storm. Despite the destructive nature of such a force — the pounding of the rain and the piercing of the hail, the power of lightning and the roar of thunder — the only thought to go through Jim’s mind at such a time was the strong desire to curl up and take a nap. During a time of such intense chaos, Jim felt oddly at ease. He appreciated the irony.

His musing, however, was soon cut off by a cry from the other corner of the room.

“Hey Jimmy!” Sam called, “How do you get this TV working?”

Jim hesitated a moment, then turned and headed over to troubleshoot the machine, where the businessman, drunk, preacher, and senator sat. After a few moments of his fiddling with the cables in the back and adjusting the antennae, the static and white noise gave way to the local weather report.

“As you can see,” the weatherman said as he exaggerated arm gestures, “we have this storm on top of us. Now, it’s moving pretty quickly so it’ll pass soon, but don’t leave your houses just yet. We’ve got what appears to be a second wind coming in close after, and this one seems to be even bigger. We suggest you stay in your houses, as this seems to only be the beginning.”

The on-screen map zoomed out to reveal a swirling purple spot which easily dwarfed the city. The five guests and the bartender gave their complete attention to the on-goings of the television screen. Ed gave less attention than the rest of them, although proportionately he in fact gave more as he gave all he could given his current level of sobriety, or lack thereof.

Their attention broke off abruptly as the screen flickered away. The guests’ eyes veered over towards Jim, as if to ask him to fix it yet again. Before he could respond though, a pound of thunder shook the building and the lights went out. After a moment of silence, Ed spoke up:

“The purple hell… it’s coming for us!”

Not knowing exactly how to respond to this, Jim did the only sensible thing he could and spoke up. “Nobody panic, I’ll get some lights,” he said as he tripped over chairs and bruised himself on table corners. Eventually, he came back with a kerosene lantern and a few candles. “Not great, but it’ll do. We’ve got some light, we can wait out —”

“Jim!” Mike called from behind his newspaper. “I think we’ve got someone at the door!”

Picking up the kerosene lantern, Jim once again walked across the room. “Hold on, I’m coming!” As he walked, the pounding at the door grew heavier and heavier, as if the person on the other side grew more and more desperate. Not too farfetched a theory, considering the storm this person was stuck in.

As Jim threw the doors open, the man nearly fell in. With his arms holding his stomach and his back arched, he hunched a few steps into the room. The man, gasping for air, mostly mumbled inaudibly. After a few moments though, more definable words came out:

“… madness. Won’t stop… or no. It will. All of it… Everything. Everything will stop… they said it wouldn’t happen, but it is… it’s a perfect storm…”

“Well, I wouldn’t call this evening perfect,” Mike chimed in, “’course, I wasn’t really planning on going home, so —” at this point, the strange man lifted his arms from his stomach to reveal profuse bleeding, which proceeded to spill out onto the floor. He raised his head and looked them each in the eyes with a now profound sense of desperation. The group partook in an appropriate moment of stunned silence.

“Disease, war, famine… this is only the beginning. Or the end… it’s happening.” Urgently and with trembling, the man dug into his coat pocket and protruded a small USB drive. “This… will explain everything.”

“Wait,” Mark asked, “just what are you talking about?”

“Haven’t you been listening to anything I’ve said?” the man asked with a gallows chuckle, “Don’t you see? Tonight beckons the end of the world.”

And, with another flash of lightning and crack of thunder, their strange new visitor collapsed to the ground.

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Richard Butler, PI – Chapter 10 (a thrilling conclusion)

Here it is, the final chapter. Turned out considerably longer than the previous chapters. I enjoyed writing this story, hope you enjoyed reading. Also, look out for “Richard Butler 2: the lack of original ideas.”

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The suspects, soon to be known not as suspects but only only guests, crowded into the closet that currently functioned as an office. Each eyed his neighbor with suspicion, for one of them had killed their friend. These nervous glances exchanged for nearly ten uncomfortable minutes before Richard Butler strode proudly into the room.

“Butler! What’s this about?!” Bagley yelled.

The private detective, not wishing to upset his carefully calculated rhythm, ignored the question. “In mere minutes,” he proclaimed to his guests, “you will all know who murdered Albert Brian O’Connor the third.” Beat. “This proved to be a difficult case for me. Many leads to follow…” Butler quickly eyed his audience, “all with their own possible motives. Perhaps it was the Italian Diplomat! Maybe, upon learning about the presence of harmful chemicals in O’Connor’s disposable water bottles, he had to end the product; he does, after all, have an obligation to the well-being of his people. My understanding is he was here to solidify a deal to get Italy the bottles before everyone else!”

The guests all gasped and gaped at their own times during Butler’s monologue, some at the revelation of the chemicals, and a few at the suggestion of the Italian Diplomat. Most, however, found the latter suggestion believable; they all still thought he was probably in the mafia.

“Cut with the theatrics, will ya’ Butler?” Inspector Bagley quipped, “some of us would like to get out of here this week.”

“You want me to jump right on to the big finish?” Butler supposed.

“If you don’t mind.”

“Well, ok,” Butler said, then with a large smile, “you did it. That’s right, people, inspector Bagley is the murderer! Wrap it up, you may all go home now. Officer, restrain this man!”

“Cheese and crackers,” Bagley whined, “fine, continue your little game. Just speed it up a little, ok?”

Butler smiled. “Alright, where was I? Oh yes, the Italian Diplomat. He probably didn’t do it. No real motive or opportunity. Doc, how many people did you tell about the chemicals?”

“None,” Dr. Steinberg affirmed. “I could not even say conclusively why Mr. O’Connor asked me about the chemicals. I didn’t give it much thought.”

“And you, Mrs. O’Connor?”

“I hadn’t told anyone. I hadn’t decided yet our course of action.”

“So,” Butler continued, “no one else knew. We have it from the head of the business herself — yes, Mrs. O’Connor — that this was confidential information. So we can rule that out as motive for the kill. However, that does not leave the involved parties free. Take Dr. Steinberg, for example. Doc, did you ever argue or disagree with Mr. O’Connor?”

“No,” he responded, “he was a very agreeable man.”

“Interesting,” Butler mused, “when I questioned you earlier, you said, and I quote, that you recently ‘had to wrestle with him.’ Suppose you could, in fact, say conclusively why he asked about the chemicals. Sounds to me like that would make a pretty good cover up.”

“Preposterous! Why, I —”

“No matter, he didn’t do it.” Butler interjected, “no, O’Connor’s recent argument with his doctor was over whether or not he should take a renewal on his medicine subscription. And he did. Nothing harmful there.”

Dr. Steinberg breathed deeply. The clever misdirection had left him nervous.

“No,” the detective continued, “perhaps a more personal motive was at work here. Now, I didn’t have to be the skilled detective I am,” Bagley scoffed at this remark, but Butler trudged on through without giving it any attention, “to notice some tension at dinner tonight. Mrs. O’Connor and Gertrude made quite a scene. And they made this scene right above O’Connor’s plate — plenty of opportunity to slip some poison in.”

Both ladies protested to this. Once Butler managed to quiet them down, he continued. “Now, Gertrude, manipulative as she is, probably wouldn’t have done this. I mean sure, she’s pathologically insane and was having an affair with O’Connor, but she wouldn’t have killed him. After all, she thought, whether true or not, that he was leaving his wife for her! That’s no reason to kill.”

Gertrude smiled a mischievously coy smile at evidently being let off the hook. She didn’t seem to mind the allegations of being “pathologically insane.” However, Butler couldn’t tell whether this was because she knew it to be an accurate assessment, or if she was just glad to have escaped suspicion. Then again, maybe she just didn’t know what “pathological” meant. Mrs. O’Connor, however, clearly saw the implications of what Butler had said.

“What are you suggesting?!” she exclaimed, “I wouldn’t kill my own husband, no matter what he was planning on doing. Gertrude, by the way, was mistaken! And why must you drag my husband’s good name through the mud? Pick on someone else for a change… Harrington, maybe!”

Harrington started to speak, but Butler cut him off.

“I’m not here to discuss whether or not his name was good, I’m here to catch a murderer. Now, as much as I hate to say it after this questioning of my methods, it probably wasn’t the missis either. No, I suspected for a while that her jealousy was behind this, but I’m no longer convinced. So long as she ran the business, she seemed content to let Mr. O’Connor do whatever he wanted. I believe she loved the power he allowed more than she loved O’Connor, and she wouldn’t risk that.” Butler paused a moment to allow a suitable segue. “It seems the key to this case lay in two documents: a will and a note.”

At this signal, Clancy took the two documents from his briefcase and handed them to Butler. The detective continued: “the one I hold in my left hand is Mr. O’Connor’s recently updated will. In my right hand, his suicide note.”

Harrington stood up, “a suicide note! Why couldn’t you have just brought this up sooner and saved us all some time?!”

“Because,” Butler said patiently, “O’Connor didn’t write it. Now, to really see the importance of these two clues, we have to examine them together. Separately, they give their own different, incomplete, solutions to this case… but together, yes, we must look at them together.

“Let’s begin with the will,” Butler said as he began pacing through the room, a difficult task considering the lack of any personal space in that office. “O’Connor had recently updated his will. Well, not an update so much as a complete re-write. He was going to give everything he had to his son. As of a few months ago, Al. Jr. is the sole heir to the O’Connor estate. When I examined O’Connor’s safe, I discovered that someone had opened it very recently — someone knew about the change.

“Now,” he continued, “this clue by itself would lead us to convict Junior. After all, that’s a large sum of money. The problem is that Junior didn’t need the money. So long as Albert O’Connor the third was alive, he was going to take care of his son. Perhaps Junior needed assurance that his father wouldn’t change his mind again, but there’s no precedence for that. No, this clue in itself gave an incomplete picture, which brings us to the point of the supposed suicide note.”

Bagley rolled his eyes. Butler loved doing these monologues, stringing his audience along with every twist and turn of the case. Bagley wished it would just be done with. Butler continued:

“It took some work, but once we managed to wrestle my ledger away from inspector Bagley here —” Bagley smirked, not because it was retrieved but because he had inconvenienced Butler, “— I compared the handwriting on the suicide note with the signatures in the ledger. While the culprit tried to mask his handwriting, I saw through it. The writing on the page was jittery, as if the culprit’s hand was shaking while writing. Only one person here matches that description: Joel O’Connor!” The crowd gasped at this, which only fueled Butler’s enthusiasm in his presentation. “Yes, Joel O’Connor — as many of you know — has always written with a shaky hand. This led me to believe he killed his highly successful brother out of jealousy. But, as I said, these pieces of evidence must be examined in conference with each other, not alone.

“Now, I must admit that, had it not been for a stroke of luck, I may have never solved this case. No, too many strands. Too many fine points which, taken on their own, seemed insignificant. But there was one piece of evidence that tied them all together, and of all the supply closets in all the mansions in all the world, it walked into mine.” Butler paused to appreciate the way he had his audience riveted, waiting anxiously upon the next revelation.

“Italian Diplomat, would you please tell these people why I found you hiding in my office today?”

“Well,” he said, nervously, “I was getting some cleaning supplies. For Mrs. O’Connor, she asked me to.”

“Interesting…” Butler said, “during a time of mourning such as this, why would you think about cleaning? Let me ask everyone: what could you possibly need to clean up at a time like this?”

Mrs. O’Connor stammered “what do you mean?”

Butler continued his monologue. “I realized that, just because one person opened the safe, it doesn’t mean only one person was present at the time. The prints were recent, but old enough so I knew it was opened before the guests arrived. This leaves us with the three remaining O’Connors as people who potentially knew the contents of the new will. I know from overhearing that the two young men here knew, and I’ll work under the assumption that the Missis knew as well. After all, she’s probably the only one out of the three of them with the means to open it.

“Mrs. O’Connor, your one mistake was telling me that “nothing” would stop you from seeing this business through. Nothing. Not chemicals. Not O’Connor himself.”

“What? No… no!” she protested.

“O’Connor inquired to Dr. Steinberg about the chemicals,” Butler explained authoritatively, “and he decided he would pull the project. Mrs. O’Connor, of course, couldn’t have that. But she couldn’t get rid of O’Connor on her own. No, she needed help. Once the will was discovered, it was easy enough to convince Joel to write the note for her. She told him that, while Albert would never give his brother the money he needed, Junior would be more than happy to. Sure, Mrs. O’Connor would lose her money from this, but she new that she would more than make that back from the water bottle sales. All she had to do was fetch his recently refilled medicine bottle and slip an extra dosage into his wine…”

The crowd didn’t gasp this time. Instead, they stayed completely still, mouths agape with shock at the grisly details. Butler landed the finishing blow:

“The only thing you would need to clean up at a time like this… is murder!”

The crowd broke into hysteria. Mrs. O’Connor’s denials were drowned out by the sounds of “how could you?!” by the shocked guests and “you monster!” by the more dramatically inclined ones. No one could believe it. Especially not Inspector Bagley.

“Everyone QUIET!” the police inspector roared. Once his command was obeyed, he spoke: “One problem, Butler: what do cleaning supplies have to do with this, besides the metaphorical? Also, do you have any evidence other than speculation here?”

“Listen, inspector, I know this case has a lot of strands; it’s a complicated one. I understand if you didn’t follow everything, but we’ve eliminated all other possible solutions, so no matter how improbable —”

“Cut it Butler, it’s my turn. Doctor, you and Butler both said that O’Connor recently refilled his fluni… his medicine?”

“Yes, just the other day.”

“Wait,” Butler protested, “this is kind of… my thing.”

Inspector Bagley smirked and brought out the Flunitrazepam bottle from his coat pocket. “If he recently got a refill, why is it that the bottle we found in his office is nearly empty?”

“Well, I told you, he overdosed, courtesy of his wife,” Butler said matter-of-factly.

“Uh uh,” Bagley said, “an overdose wouldn’t have taken the whole bottle. That much and the pills wouldn’t have dissolved, not fast enough for her to slip them into his drink in the presence of their guests.” Suddenly, the tension in the room was back, and all attention was pointed towards Inspector Bagley.

“An overdose would have to be prepared outside of the room,” he continued, “but close by, probably, as no one left the dinner room for long that day. For example, that table we saw earlier — the one with the fresh crack in it — would be an ideal location. You follow?”

Butler nodded, signaling approval merely in the inspector’s line of reasoning. He continued.

“Now, our guy must have mixed most of the pills into O’Connor’s drink. Then, he took a few for himself — while under the effects of the drug, he would not be able to hold himself steady, and could write the suicide note in a completely unrecognizable hand. At this point, he probably would have fallen over and blacked out for a few minutes.”

Again, Butler nodded. He was getting impatient and couldn’t see where Bagley was going with all this. Then, just before Bagley said it, Butler realized what he was saying.

“Butler, how’s that headache of yours doing?”

“Bagley, you can’t be serious?”

The inspector laughed, “but it makes a kind of sense, right? You told me yourself O’Connor wasn’t an agreeable man, which kind of clashes with everyone else’s word. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you your murderer: private investigator Richard Butler!”

Butler cut in before the crowd had a chance to gasp. “Hold on, Bagley. If I did it, why would I even be here? And trying to solve the case nonetheless! I mean, I’ve caught murderers who tried to pin their crime on some helpless witness, but the way I see it, you’re blaming me using the clues that I found? Why would I possibly do that?”

“I’m glad you asked,” he said smugly. “It took me most of your monologue to put it all together. As I said before, angry at his mistreatment of you, you sneak an extra dosage of his medicine into his wine. You’re in a convenient place to do this, as you prepare the food. Then, you pop in a few yourself to mask your handwriting. At this point, you fall over, crack the table, and give yourself an inconveniently revealing headache.”

At the mention of this, Butler once again rubbed his head. He wasn’t sold yet, but the headache was undoubtedly real.

“Doctor,” Bagley continued, “what could be a possible side-effect of O’Connor’s medicine? If someone took too much, but not enough to kill them?”

“Well,” Dr. Steinberg said as he rubbed his chin thoughtfully, “along with blacking out, I believe the person would experience some short term memory loss.”

“And there it is,” Bagley said as he accusingly waved his finger at Butler. “You said yourself: you’ve caught criminals who tried to pin it on others, and you knew that wouldn’t hold. No, you had to believe that you were catching the murderer. You knew if you opened the safe you’d connect that to the O’Connors. You knew that your handwriting under the drug would resemble Joel’s. Heck, you set the table purposely to cause trouble between Gertrude and Mrs. O’Connor, a perfect opportunity for you to ‘deduce.’ You either knew about or planted enough leads that, once you had forgotten them thanks to the pills, you were certain to follow enough of them to make a case!”

Butler said nothing. The more Bagley spoke, the more convinced he became. After all, it sounded like a nearly foolproof plan.

“Butler! You have anything to say for yourself!?”

“It’s… brilliant,” he said with a sense of awe. “The only case I ever failed to solve… was me!”

“What’s really crazy,” Bagley said as he handcuffed Butler, “is I probably never would have solved it had it not been for your thoroughness! You turned up all the right clues… just weren’t looking in the right place.”

The people formerly known as suspects — Mrs. O’Connor, Albert Jr., Joel, Harrington, Dr. Steinberg, Gertrude, and the Italian Ambassador — and Clancy all watched in silence as Bagley took Richard Butler, private investigator away. The long night of suspicions, interrogations, and mysteries was finally over. Just before Butler had turned the corner, he looked over his shoulder and spoke.

“Clancy?”

“Yes Butler?”

“Case closed.”

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