Last Seen Wearing: A Smart Guys Mystery Short Story

Jan 31, 2015 | 2015 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by Dennis Palumbo

This story first appeared in a short story collection, From Crime to Crime.

It was our first murder of the New Year.

It was also the first time the Smart Guys Marching Society had gotten together after a lapse of almost four weeks. As usual, we’d had to skip most of the December meetings due to holiday plans with our families.

I remember very clearly that cool Sunday afternoon in January. Bill and Fred had both arrived a bit early. Isaac, wearing a new sweater my wife bought him for Christmas, had trundled in from our guest bedroom even earlier, and was engrossed in the Sunday Times.

“Great to get back to the old routine,” Bill was saying, helping me arrange platters piled with assorted cold cuts on my coffee table. Luckily, he’d done a deli run before showing up for the meeting. Since I’d spent the morning visiting one of my therapy patients in the hospital, I hadn’t had time to put any snacks together. fireplace

Meanwhile, Fred was opening a huge, colorful canister of caramel popcorn he’d brought home from his law office. It was a tin container the size of a cello case, painted to look like a giant candy cane. “Client gift for the holidays,” he’d explained as he angled it through my front door. “None of the partners wanted it, so I took it home.”

“Great. So it’s been sitting around for weeks,” Bill said. “Stale, dried-out clumps of sticky, petrified carbs. Yum-yum. I’ll pass.”

“Let me guess,” I said to Fred. “Your wife didn’t want that thing taking up space in the house, so you figured you’d unload it here.”

“Hey, I resent that,” Fred answered, as he wrestled off the tin lid. “Truth is, it was scaring the dog.”

He lifted the unwieldy canister and pointed its opened end toward Isaac, who sat in his usual corner chair. “I’m afraid I can’t,” Isaac said. “My doctor has me on a strict diet. Edible food only.”

“You guys are hilarious,” Fred grumbled.

Bill smiled and popped open a brewski. “Hey, aren’t we missing somebody? Where’s Mark?”beer

“On his way,” I said. “He called just before you two showed up. Oh, and he’s bringing a guest.”

Bill frowned. “Our first meeting in a month and he’s bringing a stranger? Feels wrong, somehow.”

“This is getting to be a habit with him,” Fred said.

I pulled open a Tupperware container packed with broken, leftover Christmas cookies. Jolly Santas in green and red icing.

“He said he’s working on a big story,” I added.

“That’s what he always says.”

Fred propped the big canister against the arm of the couch and leaned back in his seat.

“To hell with him. Let’s get on with being smart.

I read an interesting article the other day about the difference between faith and belief. Perfect topic for discussion as we start off the new year.”

And it would have been, too, if Mark hadn’t shown up just few minutes later, accompanied by an unhappy homicide detective with a story to tell…

“Guys,” Mark said, “this is Libby York, LAPD.”

We all stood to welcome our guest. In her mid-30’s, Detective Libby York was very pretty, despite her cropped black hair and sober, almost sullen eyes. Her smile was brisk and formal as Mark introduced her around. Though she looked slender in her jeans and oversized jacket, her handshake had a lot of muscle behind it.

“I’ve known Libby for years,” Mark explained, as we settled into our customary seats again.

Libby laughed. “We used to be drinking buddies. The veteran reporter and the new chick cop, down-loading the day’s cargo of bullshit at the corner bars.” She gave Mark a sidelong look. “You still hang out at our old place?”

“Yeah. Except now I have a couple beers and bitch about life with a fat vice cop named Farkus. But it’s just not the same. Though it is nice to hang with someone who picks up the check once in a while.” Smiling, she casually flipped him off. Meanwhile, Fred was making room for her next to him on the sofa.

“Speaking of beers,” I said to her, “can I get you something?”

“Nothing for me, thanks.”

Mark took off his glasses and wiped them on his shirt.glasses

“Libby’s here because she’s part of an ongoing murder investigation, and I thought maybe we could help her out.”

“Yeah,” she said. “In exchange for an exclusive interview if and when we close this thing.”

Mark shrugged. “Hey, a guy’s gotta make a living. And murders are always front page news.”

“Pay no attention to that Philistine,” Fred said to Libby. “Naturally, we’d be happy to help if we can.”

“Thanks. But I gotta tell ya, I’m only here ‘cause I’m desperate.” Her look was openly skeptical. “But as I told Mark this morning, we’ve just about run out of ideas, and I’m starting to think we’ve run out of time.”

Mark put a slice of sharp cheddar between two sesame crackers. “The good news is, we know the identity of the killer. The bad news is, the police can’t find him.”

“You mean, he’s on the run?” I asked.

Libby nodded. “Looks that way. We’ve checked the airlines, train stations, bus terminals. We’ve canvassed cab companies, car rental agencies, the ports in San Pedro. We’ve even reached out to those pricks at Homeland Security in case he crossed the border, north or south. Nothing. Guy’s in the wind, vanished without a trace.”

“They have a pretty good description, too,” Mark added, between bites. “The perp is white, average height and weight, brown eyes and a scruffy reddish-brown beard. Last seen wearing an Angel’s baseball cap, plaid shirt and Wrangler jeans.”

“Last seen wearing?” Bill chuckled. “I love it when they say that. I always think, then why still wear it? I mean, if I just pulled a crime, one of the first things I’d do is change clothes.”

“Maybe most bad guys don’t have your refined fashion sense,” Mark said. “Besides, it’s all we have to go on.”

“Let me get this straight,” I said, turning to our guest. “You know who the killer is, and you want our help in figuring out how to find him?”

“It’s not about what I want,” she answered coolly.

“But in my weaker moments, I more or less respect Mark’s opinion, and he vouches for you guys. He’s told me about how you’ve helped out the Department in the past.”

Here she glanced at the floor, voice softening. “Truth is, I’m kinda on my captain’s shit-list at the moment. So I figured if I could come up with something on this case–maybe just a new idea, a different angle–I could do some damage-control.”

“What’s the problem at work?” Fred said. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

Mark answered for her. “Detective York was cited for using excessive force taking down a robbery suspect. Put the guy in traction for six weeks. His family’s filed a multi-million dollar suit against the Department.”

Libby shook her head. “So now I have Internal Affairs crawling through my personal life. Talking to my friends, my ex, even my AA sponsor.” She shrugged. “What was I supposed to do? Let the creep escape?”

“A reasonable question,” Bill said, glancing at the rest of us as though for confirmation.

“Anyway,” Mark went on, “I suggested to her that we run the whole thing by the Smart Guys.” He cocked a thumb in Isaac’s direction, “Especially this Smart Guy, just in case there’s something the cops have missed. I mean, maybe there’s a way for a man to disappear that they haven’t thought of.”fireplace

“I can think of a dozen myself,” Fred said calmly. “Especially if he makes it out of the country. Then he’s gone for sure. My firm’s dealt with enough dead-beat millionaire husbands, corporate embezzlers and up-market parole-jumpers to make that plain.”

Libby gave a short laugh. “Our guy’s nothing like that, just your garden-variety, low-level thief who was stupid enough to kill someone in the act. Simple robbery gone wrong. Made a total mess of things and then took off.”

“When was this?” I asked.

“He’s been on the lam almost forty-eight hours. So, yeah, he’s probably just lying low for a while. He can do that forever, I guess. But most of these jerks don’t. They talk to friends, they brag, they spend money. Or else they find a ride outta town, outta state. That’s why we got people watching every means of transport. Got an APB with his description out all over the place.” She sat straighter in her seat. “I mean, we’ll catch the lame-ass bastard. Count on it.”

“Unless you don’t,” Mark pointed out.

“Yeah.” She let out a long breath. “Unless we don’t.”

The moment’s silence was broken by the sharp rustle of a newspaper being briskly folded. I turned to see Isaac smoothing down the Metro section on his lap, even as he smiled kindly at our guest. “You may indeed catch the culprit, my dear,” he said.

“But I agree with Mark–what could it hurt for us to at least hear the particulars?”

I couldn’t help but smile. It was rare for Isaac to take the initiative when it came to a problem we were grappling with. Usually, like most ace relievers, he just sat quietly on the bench till the final inning, before coming in and winning the game.

Mark nodded at the paper in Isaac’s lap. “You were just reading about it, weren’t you?”

“Just skimming the story in this morning’s Times,” Isaac said. “The victim was a Morris Ames, president of SkyWay Distributors, some kind of national marketing firm.”

“That’s right,” Libby said. “They have a suite of offices in an industrial park off of Pico. Though the company’s really grown in the past few years. Apparently, there’s been talk of a merger with some huge conglomerate back east.”

“Isn’t that always the way?” Bill said grimly. “Hell, even Ben and Jerry sold their ice cream company to some corporate behemoth. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was all some sort of international monetary conspiracy.”

Mark grunted. “I’ll make a note to bring that idea up for discussion at our next meeting. Till then, let’s stay on target here, okay?”

“Uh-oh. Somebody didn’t have his Starbucks Frappacino this morning.”starbucks

Libby’s eyes narrowed. “Jesus, is this what you guys are like? I didn’t wanna do this in the first place, but if I gotta listen to this kinda crap, I’m outta here…”

She started to rise, but Mark restrained her. “Hold on, Libby. Let’s at least lay out the facts, see what happens.
Okay? Give ‘em a half hour…you never know, somebody might have a brain-storm.” He glared over at Bill.

“Correction. Somebody else might have a brain-storm.”

“Sorry,” Bill said, raising his hands. “My bad.”

Libby just stared at Mark, obviously unconvinced. Finally, and reluctantly, she nodded and pulled a notebook out of her jacket pocket.notebook

“Okay, here’s what we got,” she said. “Like Grandpa here said, the ‘vic’ was named Morris Ames. Age 76. Built SkyWay Distributors up from nothing. Started it in his garage or something, now has a hundred employees locally, another hundred nation-wide.

“On the personal side, he has–or had–a wife of forty years, no kids and a house in Encino. He’s a big-shot in the Chamber of Commerce, an elder in his church and has voted Republican since Eisenhower.”

“Sounds like one of my firm’s clients,” Fred said. “Rich. Conservative. Pillar of the community.”

“Real traditionalist, too,” Mark added. “His only hobby was collecting Civil War memorabilia. In fact, his prized possession was a genuine Confederate cavalry saber, kept in a silver scabbard displayed on a special stand on his desk. Both the sword and the scabbard were covered with exquisite hand-done patterning. Word is, Ames would take the saber out of the scabbard to show any visitor to his office, but only he could touch it, and only he could return it to its scabbard.”

“Sounds like a total wing-nut,” Bill said.

Fred shook his head. “That thing with the sword…”

“Obvious penis substitute,” Libby said, “if you want my opinion.”

Mark looked quizzically at me.

“Hey, I don’t know,” I said. “Sometimes a saber is just a saber.”

“Whatever,” Libby said. “Anyway, we’ve interviewed co-workers, neighbors, even competitors. They all said he was a tough son-of-a-bitch, but fair. Loved his company more than anything and, apparently, very opposed to the idea of the merger.”

“Unlike his Board of Directors,” Mark said. “And Ames’ own Vice-President, a guy named Ben Fontaine. Though Ames was like a father figure to him, a role model.”

“They were tight, all right,” Libby said. “Like Ames, Fontaine is prominent in the Chamber of Commerce. Joined the same country club, contributes to the same politic campaigns, though other company employees actually liked Fontaine better than Ames. Fontaine’s long-time secretary, Jean Harcourt, described him as a ‘kinder, gentler’ version of the company’s founder.”

“Some of that may just be generational,” I said. “Men of Ames’ era were brought up to believe a boss behaved in a certain way. More removed. Authoritarian.”

“That’s right,” Fred said. “Management styles have changed a helluva lot in the past twenty years. None of our seniors partners would dare pull that Big White Chief crap anymore. The juniors would file a class-action suit.”

“All that may be true,” Mark said, “but in this case Fontaine’s ‘kinder, gentler’ nature caused a tragedy. In a way, the murder was his fault.”

“What do you mean?”

“According to Jean Harcourt, Fontaine was always falling for hard-luck stories. He was the kind of guy who’d give a homeless man a job washing his car, or help some SkyWay employee’s kid get a summer internship somewhere. Then, a few weeks ago, she recalled Fontaine asking people to let him know if they needed help with computer problems at work, or even at home. She said he was trying to drum up free-lance jobs for a computer-tech friend who was down on his luck.”

I frowned. “I still don’t see what that has to do with the murder.”

“You will,” Mark replied flatly.

Suddenly, I saw Libby glance up from her notebook. I followed her gaze to Isaac, who’d come in from the kitchen, holding two steaming mugs of tea. Frankly, I hadn’t even noticed he’d been gone. “I thought you might enjoy a cup, Ms. York,” Isaac said, handing her one of the mugs. tea

“Thanks,” she said, her voice somewhat guarded. She took the mug in both hands and sipped. “It’s great. But you didn’t have to.”

“I know,” he replied, settling into his armchair again. He put his mug on the side table, and I got the distinct impression he actually wasn’t much interested in drinking it. But he seemed to be avidly watching Libby drink hers.

There was an awkward pause and then Mark cleared his throat. “Now, where were we…? Oh, yeah, the day of the crime. Friday. Three days ago.”

“Actually, the chain of events started the day before that,” Libby said. “Thursday. According to statements, Fontaine’s regular secretary, Jean Harcourt, was out that day, and would be gone till Saturday. Yesterday.”

“Was she sick?” I asked.

“No. She flew back to Las Vegas for her high school reunion. Her boss had known about her plans for weeks. He’d already arranged for a temp, named Betty Kent. She came to work on Thursday, and they put her in Jean’s office.”
Libby paused. “It’s a big room, filled with computers and a couple desks and filing cabinets. It’s situated between Ames’ office and Fontaine’s, with connecting doors to each. Plus all three rooms have doors accessing the main hallway, which leads down to the reception area.” keypad

“Did Betty do an okay job?” Fred asked. “I mean, did she get along with Fontaine?”

“Seems like it, though she worked mostly for Ames. She says Fontaine just took a minute to introduce her to Ames that morning, then was out of the office on business the rest of the day. Ames dictated some letters, had her file some paperwork and then left early to play golf at his club.”

“It’s good to be king,” Bill murmured.

“Tell me about it,” Libby replied. “Anyway, Betty stayed on at work until five, then left. On her way out, she saw that Fontaine was back in his office. She remembers waving to him through his open office door as she went down the hall to sign out at reception.”

“That brings us to Friday morning,” Mark said, glancing over at her. “Right?”

I was struck suddenly by how smoothly he and Libby took turns telling the story. Like a seasoned tag-team. “So Betty comes in at nine,” he continued, “and finds Morris Ames there, hopping mad. One of the main desk-top computers is on the fritz and he needs some important data right away. He tells Betty to ask Ben Fontaine to find somebody to fix it fast. So Betty calls Fontaine in his office and explains the situation.”

Libby picked up the thread again. “Fontaine says he knows just the guy, the one he’d been telling people about. He can personally vouch for him. Seems he used to live with Fontaine’s sister back east, before her unexpected death. Guy’s name is Gregory Sykes, a real computer whiz. Fontaine says he’ll call him right away and see if he can come over.”

“Does he get a hold of Sykes?” I asked.

“Yeah. Takes a while, almost till lunch-time, but finally Fontaine calls Betty and says–and I’m quoting from her statement here–‘Hey, I got Greg here in my office. I’m sending him down to you.’ Then Betty hears Greg say into the phone, ‘Yeah, honey, I’ll be right there.’ She says his voice was coarse and unpleasant. Instantly Fontaine starts scolding Greg, but kind of half-kidding, saying ‘For God’s sakes, Greg, you can’t talk like that. You’ll get us sued for sexual harassment.’ She hears Greg mumble ‘Sorry, man,’ and then Fontaine gets on the line again and apologizes to Betty himself. She assures him it’s no big deal and hangs up.”

Bill grinned. “Sounds like Sykes needs one of those sensitivity training classes.”

“He needed something, all right,” Libby replied. “Because Betty reports she had a weird vibe off Sykes from the moment he shows up in her office. He’s dressed as we’ve described–plus he’s carrying a big back-pack, which he casually throws on a chair. Then he takes a pair of surgical gloves and some tools out of the pack, the whole time leering at her. Totally creeps her out.”

“I can imagine,” I said.

“Finally, after putting on the gloves, Sykes gets to work on the desk-top, but he keeps glancing over at her, muttering to himself. Finally, Betty stops what she’s doing and asks what the hell he’s saying. Without looking up, he answers, ‘I’m just wondering what a fine piece o’ ass like you is doin’ in a sweatshop like this.’”keypad

“Real charmer, this guy,” Fred said.

Libby’s frank eyes narrowed. “Betty’s pretty upset by this remark, so she turns to pick up the phone and buzz Fontaine, but suddenly she feels a blinding pain at the back of her head. Then everything goes black.”

“Jesus.” It was Bill. “Sykes hit her from behind?”

Libby nodded again, putting down her notebook. “When Betty came to, she was alone in the office. Then, in a moment, she realized her wrist-watch was gone and that her purse had been dumped out on the floor. All the cash and credit cards were missing.”

Mark’s tone sharpened. “That’s when she noticed something else…the connecting door to Ames office was wide open. So Betty goes in and finds the old man crumpled on the floor near his desk, his head caved in, blood splattered everywhere. Lying beside the body is Ames’ Confederate sword, still inside its scabbard, which is also smeared with blood.”

I stared. “The sword?”

“Yep,” said Libby. “At this point, Betty says she just started screaming. A security guard happened to be at the near end of the main hallway and came running. He helped get her out of there and called 9-1-1.

“In ten minutes, officers were on the scene. Me and another homicide dick show up five minutes later, then we all wait for the M.E. But we didn’t need anyone to tell us what happened. Ames had been bludgeoned, killed by a blow to the head from the Civil War saber. Inside the heavy silver scabbard, which had been swung like a club.”

Mark took a swallow of beer. “I talked to one of the lab guys yesterday. He told me the scabbard was actually weighted at the tip, so it would pack quite a wallop.” beer

“Got the job done, that’s for sure,” Libby added. “The way we figure, Sykes must’ve come into Ames’ office after knocking Betty out, looking to rob the old man as well. Ames probably resisted, so Sykes grabbed up the
sword from its stand on the desk and swung for the fences, cracking the old man’s skull.”

“Makes sense that Ames would resist,” I mused. “Tough, old-school patriarch who built up the company with his own hands. When Sykes came in, Ames probably felt more outrage than shock at the sudden intrusion.”

“That’s how we see it, too,” Libby said. “The damn fool. Trying to stop a felon half his age. Anyway, whether he meant to or not, Sykes kills Ames. Then, probably in a panic, he empties Ames’ wallet and pulls off his watch. Ames wore a gold Rolex. The physical evidence indicates the watch had been forcibly torn from his wrist. After that, Sykes musta just taken off.”

“Anybody see him leave the building?” I ask. “The receptionist? That security guard you mentioned?”

“No, not either of them. Ironically, though, Ben Fontaine saw him. We were still at the crime scene, though the body and evidence had been bagged and removed, when Fontaine showed up. He and a co-worker had just grabbed a quick lunch across the street. Before we could say anything, though, Betty ran to him and burst into tears. ‘It was Greg Sykes,’ she said. ‘He killed poor Mr. Ames.’”

“What did Fontaine say?”

“Well, I came over right away, and confirmed that Ames had been the victim of a robbery-homicide. Fontaine turned white as a sheet and said that he’d actually seen Sykes earlier, when he’d gone out for lunch. Sykes was running like hell down the hallway and bumped into him. But he just kept going, and then out an emergency exit door. ‘I called after him,’ Fontaine told me, ‘but he didn’t answer. I was late myself, meeting with Will Creasey for lunch across the street, so I guess I didn’t give it another thought.’”

She looked up from her notes. “Then Fontaine asks me what happened. I told him Ames had been killed with his Civil War saber. Meanwhile, Betty’s still blubbering.” notebook

Libby grimaced. “Real faucet, that chick. I hate that ‘damsel-in-distress’ crap. Fact is, Fontaine looked pretty stunned himself, but he did his best to console her.”

She checked her notes again. “Betty says, ‘It was awful. All that blood.’ Then Fontaine says, ‘I can’t believe it. Greg wouldn’t bash someone’s head in, just for some stupid cash and jewelry. I mean, I know him. He couldn’t do it. Not for any reason.’”

“Obviously, he wasn’t as good a judge of character as he thought,” Fred offered.

“Guess not.” Libby shrugged. “I had Betty and Fontaine taken to the station for further questioning. Meanwhile, I canvassed everybody in the suite, taking statements. Two people saw Greg Sykes hurry out the emergency exit door. Plus, when we talked to Will Creasey, he told us that Fontaine had commented at lunch about Sykes’ odd behavior.”

“Anybody see him driving off the lot?” I asked. “Or even get a license number?”

Libby shook her head. “According to Fontaine, Sykes hadn’t bought a car yet. Took buses or whatever.”

Mark nudged her arm. “Tell them the part about Fontaine’s sister.”

“I was just getting to it.” Libby took a long breath. “When we questioned Fontaine at the station, he repeated that he couldn’t believe Sykes capable of murder. ‘He was brilliant, but geeky,’ he said. Sykes had been his sister’s boyfriend back in some godforsaken town in rural New Hampshire. But they’d lived together for only six months before she died.”

“How?” Fred asked.

“She fell down the back stairs of their apartment building.”

“Christ.” Bill sat up abruptly, voice tinged with excitement. “Maybe Sykes pushed her. Maybe it was murder.”

“No. According to Fontaine, she was alone that night. Sykes was away on a job somewhere. The local cops ruled it an accident.”

“So what happened to Sykes?”

“Sounds like he just bummed around for a year or two, doing odd jobs, then he decided to come out here, start a new life. He got in touch with Fontaine when he hit town and asked for his help picking up free-lance tech jobs. Fontaine said he felt obligated to do what he could.”

“In a way,” Fred said casually, “I guess they were almost like brothers-in-law. I can see how Fontaine might feel he ought to help the guy out.”

“Guess so, though Fontaine admitted that Sykes was a bit odd, very eccentric. Sykes often boasted that he was ‘off the grid.’ Meaning that he had no social security number, paid cash for everything, never paid taxes. ‘Kind of a libertarian nut,’ was the way Fontaine described him. ‘But he always seemed harmless enough and, like I said, brilliant with computers.” She frowned. “And that’s about all we got.” With that, Libby tossed the notebook on the coffee table, next to where she’d put her mug of tea. She seemed to hesitate for a moment, looking at the cooling drink, before picking it up again. tea

I found myself looking over at Isaac, whose own gaze was riveted on the detective. What the hell was going on?

My reverie was broken by Fred, who was piling slices of roast beef on his plate as he spoke.

“So what’s the status of the investigation?”

Libby spoke between sips of tea. She sounded weary.

“The status is, Sykes has disappeared. Fontaine’s devastated, according to his regular secretary, Jean Harcourt, who’s back from her trip. She says he feels responsible for Ames’ murder, since he was the one who recommended Sykes. He’s currently under a doctor’s care. Meanwhile, the Board of Director’s considering making Fontaine the new CEO, but he’s evidently not interested.”

“What about the temp who found the body?” Bill asked. “Betty Kent?”

Libby smirked. “Also on medication. Total pussies, both of ‘em, far as I’m concerned.”

“What about the murder weapon?” Fred said. “Any fingerprints on the scabbard, or maybe even the saber hilt?”

“No. Remember, Betty said that Sykes wore surgical gloves while working on the computer.”

“What about Sykes’ place here in town?” I asked.

“Fontaine gave us the apartment address,” she said. “One of those rent-by-the-week places. Our forensics guys searched it but didn’t find much. Hangers strewn about, bed unmade. A half-empty box of surgical gloves, tossed in a corner. Sykes musta left in a hurry.”apartment

“Did they talk to the apartment manager?”

“It was some stupid kid. He confirms that a guy named Gregory Sykes, matching the description, rented the room a couple months back and paid upfront in cash. Even so, they usually require a credit card imprint, but the kid admitted that Sykes slipped him a hundred bucks to let it go.”

“Again, no ID that could help track him down.” Fred said quietly. “Talk about disappearing without a trace.”

Bill turned to Libby. “You sure you checked all the cab companies, rentals agencies? How about private flights out of Van Nuys Airport?”

“We checked everything,” she replied, an edge in her voice. “And remember, this isn’t Donald Trump we’re talkin’ about, renting planes and hiring limos. If anything, Sykes is probably running so low to the ground that he’s under the radar, not above it.”

“In that case,” I said, “maybe he just stuck out his thumb and hitched a ride. SkyWay’s offices are just off Pico, right? Million cars a day travel that street.”

“We thought of that. We figured his best bet would be to hitch to one of the freeways, the 405, 101, one of those. So we’ve contacted all the motels in a two-hundred-mile radius, just in case he was stupid enough to take a room for a night. We’ve also put out bulletins to Highway Patrol to check out service stations, rest stops.”

Fred scratched his thinning, reddish-brown hair. “In a city this size–hell, in a state this size–a guy like this could be anywhere. And like I said, once he’s out of the country, forget about it.”

Mark leaned back and adjusted his glasses. “That’s it, then? No more ideas?”

He swiveled in his seat to face Isaac, whose eyes were lidded, though whether from fatigue or concentration, I couldn’t tell. “What about you, Isaac?” Mark said. “Any suggestions about finding Gregory Sykes?”

“Just one,” Isaac replied. “Stop looking for him.”


“Why?” Libby stared at him.

“Because, my dear,” Isaac said ruefully, “I’m afraid he doesn’t exist.”

As is often the case when Isaac drops one of his bombshells, we all started talking at once. Except for Libby, whose cool gaze regarded Isaac with equal parts disbelief and curiosity.

“But Ben Fontaine saw him,” Bill said, half-rising from his seat. “And that temp, Betty. He worked in the same room with her. He knocked her out from behind.”

“And what about the office workers Libby questioned?” I added. “They saw Sykes go out the emergency exit door.”

“I know what all those people saw,” Isaac replied, “or at least what they said they saw.”

Fred stirred. “I don’t think I follow you, Isaac.”

Isaac paused. “Remember that Smart Guys meeting about six months ago, Fred? The discussion about chaos theory, and Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty.”

“I remember it,” Bill grumbled. “Gave me a headache.”

“Of course I remember it, Isaac,” Fred said, looking puzzled. “So?”

“There was this French philosopher you quoted…I forget the name. What was that thing he said?”

Fred thought a moment and then smiled. “Oh, sure. You mean Charles Renouvier. He said, ‘Plainly speaking, there is no certainty. There are only people who are certain.’”

Isaac nodded vigorously. “That’s right. In this case, it’s Betty Kent, and those office workers and especially the police who are certain–certain that Greg Sykes is the killer and that he’s on the run. That he’s a greedy social misfit who murdered Morris Ames in the heat of the moment, during the act of robbing him.”

Here Isaac swept all of our faces with his gaze.“In other words, that everything that happened the day of the crime was unplanned, inadvertent.”

Libby appraised him with renewed interest. “But you don’t think so, do you?”

“No,” Isaac said simply. “I think the murder of Morris Ames was premeditated. That it was the result of a plan set in motion some months ago. By Ben Fontaine.”

“Fontaine?” Mark said, blinking behind his glasses.

“But that’s impossible,” Libby said sharply.

“Are you certain?” Isaac’s smile was a challenge. “Granted, the motive was in fact greed, but not for something as trivial as cash and a Rolex watch. Ben Fontaine killed Morris Ames because the old man refused to sell the company. He killed Ames because, as V-P and heir apparent, it was logical to assume the Board would elect him to run SkyWay Distributors. After which, Fontaine would eagerly accept the merger offer and reap the financial windfall sure to follow.”

I, for one, was speechless. Isaac, on the other hand, merely sat back in his venerable armchair and lidded his eyes again. “And that,” he said, “is what I think.”

Mark peered at him. “But how? What actually happened?”

“Well, let’s just look at the facts,” Isaac replied. “First, Fontaine plans the murder to coincide with when his long-time secretary, Jean Harcourt, is out of town. Everybody knew of her plans to go back for her high school reunion. Why was this important for Fontaine? Because as someone who’d worked with him for years, who knew him intimately, there was every chance Jean would see through his disguise.”

“Disguise?” I said. “You mean, he was…”

“Think about it. The temp, Betty, stated that she only spent a few minutes with Fontaine on Thursday morning and then he was gone the rest of the day. The next time she saw him was that evening, as she was leaving work. He was back behind the desk in his office and she waved to him through the open office door. In other words, her interactions with Fontaine were quite limited. Again, unlike his regular secretary, who was no doubt quite familiar with his voice, manner, gestures, what have you. Recall, too, that Morris Ames had already left his office earlier that day to play golf. I believe that, after Betty left, Ben Fontaine went down to Ames’ empty office and tampered with that desk-top computer. When Ames comes in the next morning, he finds that it doesn’t work. So Ames tells Betty to call Fontaine–as Fontaine knew he would–and ask him to get some repair person in right away. Betty does as she’s told, and Fontaine assures her he knows just the person.”

Bill said, “That’s why Fontaine had been asking around the office to see if anyone needed computer work done.”

“Exactly,” said Isaac. “He was setting up the existence of a friend who was looking for free-lance jobs. After all, he had a reputation as a Good Samaritan. It was entirely believable that he’d be trying to drum up work for someone, especially a guy down on his luck, who’d once been his sister’s boyfriend.”

“Incredible,” was all I could say.

“Now this next part is crucial,” Isaac went on. “As it nears lunch, Fontaine buzzes Betty from his office and tells her he has his computer-tech friend, Greg Sykes, with him, and that he’ll send him right down to her.”

“I know where you’re going with this,” Libby said excitedly. “Fontaine pretends to be Greg Sykes on the phone, to give Betty the impression there are two of them in his office.”

I swear, Isaac practically beamed at her.

“That’s right. Fontaine, changing his voice, pretended to be Sykes. He even emphasized this by having ‘Sykes’ say something inappropriate to Betty, and then appearing to chastize him for it. So the stage is set for Sykes’ appearance in Betty’s office. And what does he look like? Scruffy beard, back- pack, baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. And what does he do? He acts like a demented killer out of a horror film, muttering as he pulls on his surgical gloves, leering in an obvious way at Betty, saying more inappropriate things. You see what I mean? He’s practically wearing a neon sign that says, ‘Notice me! I’m weird! I have lots of specific features you can describe to the police.’”

“Which she did,” Mark acknowledged.

“Anyway,” Isaac went on, “disguised as Gregory Sykes, Fontaine knocks Betty out when her back is turned to use the phone. Then he goes into Ames’ office, where I suspect he’s happy to reveal his identity to the old man. Maybe they argued. Maybe Ames did try to resist, defend himself. Who knows? What I do know is that Fontaine picked up the Civil War saber in its heavily-weighted scabbard and clubbed Morris Ames to death.”

Isaac’s face tightened. “As I say a premeditated act. The use of the disguise confirms that. As does renting the room weeks ago while wearing the Sykes disguise, and paying for it in advance. As does leaving the bed unmade in the apartment, and making sure a half-empty box of surgical gloves is found there, too.” Isaac drew a breath here, to let this all sink in. I could tell that, as always, he enjoyed the effect his own “performance” was having on his audience.

“So, what happens next?” Isaac folded his hands on his lap. “Fontaine empties Ames’ wallet, as he’d done with Betty’s purse. He makes a point of roughly pulling the old man’s Rolex from his dead wrist. All to make the crime look like a spur-of-the-moment robbery, with an unintended murder thrown in. Then, still dressed as Sykes, he goes down the hall and out the emergency exit door.”

“That was when he was seen by those office workers I talked to,” Libby said.

“Exactly. Then Fontaine hurries to his car, which I’m sure he parked at an isolated area of the lot. He gets in, peels off the Sykes clothes, beard and hat, stuffs it all in the backpack, and then puts it in the trunk for disposal later. Then he meets his co-worker Will Creasey for lunch, as previously arranged, during which he makes a point of telling Creasey about bumping into Sykes as the latter was hurrying out of the building.”

“All to make the fictitious Sykes seem real,” I said.

“But wait a minute,” Mark said. “What about all that stuff about Sykes being Fontaine’s sister’s boyfriend? Is that all fiction, too?”

Isaac paused. “I think Fontaine invented the story of Sykes’ relationship with his late sister. By claiming that his sister died under mysterious circumstances, it throws even more suspicion on Sykes. It creates the picture of an impulsive, potentially violent man who’s killed before.”

“So what do you think happened to her? If she even existed.”

“I suspect she did in fact exist. That she lived in a small town in New Hampshire and died from a fall. But I bet a check with the authorities there will reveal that she wasn’t living with anyone named Gregory Sykes. In fact, maybe she lived alone at the time, or with someone else whom the police subsequently cleared.”

“We’ll check, all right,” Libby said firmly.

Isaac finally took a sip of his own tea, now long grown cold.tea

“There’s one other thing that bothered me about the so-called robbery from the start,” he said. “If Greg Sykes was just a simple thief, someone who suddenly saw an opportunity to rob a defenseless girl and a frail old man, why just steal cash, credit cards, and jewelry? Why not take what was obviously the most expensive-looking thing in the office, the sword and scabbard? He had to assume it was valuable. Silver, buffed to a sheen, proudly displayed on the boss’ desk. At the very least, why risk leaving the murder weapon lying around? Remember, he had that bulky backpack. He could’ve stuffed the sword and scabbard in there and waltzed right out of the building.”

“Another good point,” Mark had to admit.

“Was that what tipped you off that Sykes was in reality Ben Fontaine?” I asked.

Isaac permitted himself a sly smile. “Actually, no. It was a mistake that Fontaine himself made, when he first arrived on the crime scene. Remember, Libby told us that Ames’ body and the murder weapon had already been bagged and removed. When Fontaine asked what happened, Libby told him Ames had been killed with the Civil War saber. Then, while consoling Betty, what does Fontaine say?” He closed his eyes, and recited back what Libby had read to us from her notebook. “Fontaine says, ‘I can’t believe it. Greg wouldn’t bash someone’s head in, just for some stupid cash and jewelry.’”

Isaac sat up straight, and opened his eyes to meet ours. “If I was told someone had been killed by a saber, I’d assume the victim had been stabbed. Wouldn’t you? I mean, who would know that Ames had been bludgeoned to death? Only the killer.”

“My God,” Libby said. “You’re right. Fontaine had just shown up. He couldn’t have known how Ames died.”

Now Mark was on his feet. He turned to her. “I think you’ve got that new angle you wanted.”

Isaac sighed. “If you can prove anything I’ve just said. Much of it’s pure conjecture.”

“I have a thought,” I said. “Most surgical gloves are coated with a fine powder, a kind of talc. With forensics today, I bet you could do an examination of Fontaine’s hands to see if any residue is left.”

“That’s right,” Bill said. “I saw a documentary about that once. There might be something left days later, even if he washed his hands a dozen times since then.”

“Or,” Fred chimed in, “you could examine the trunk of Fontaine’s car, looking for threads or fibers that might’ve come from the backpack. Or, if we get really lucky, a loose hair from that fake beard of his.”

“Or,” Libby said, somewhat deliberately cracking her knuckles, “you could just give me five minutes alone in a room with him.”

Mark laughed. “No chance. You’re in enough trouble with Internal Affairs already.”

“Jesus, I was kidding.” She grinned. “I think.” With that, she rose and thanked us all for our help. Then she stepped over to where Isaac sat and held out her hand. “Especially you, Isaac. Real head’s-up work. Thanks.”

Standing, he took her hand in both of his. “Glad if I was any help. And I hope we’ll get to meet again.” Issac kept hold of her hand another moment.

Finally, a bit at a loss, she said, “Me, too.” Then she turned to Mark. “Hey, man, I gotta get back to the station. Time to put Fontaine in my cross-hairs.”

Mark looked at the rest of us. “Sorry, guys. I’m her ride, and she’s my exclusive. I’m outta here.”

After a few more good-byes, he and Libby were gone.

“God, she was cool,” Bill said, reaching for one of my leftover Santa cookies. He nibbled it tentatively.

“I liked her, too,” Fred said. “Though not, I think, as much as Isaac did.”

“Yeah, Isaac,” I said, folding my arms. “Why were you so…I don’t know…solicitous? What was that about?”

Isaac looked off. “Nothing. She just reminded me of someone.” A long moment’s pause. “My daughter.”

“What?” Bill said, exchanging looks with me. “I didn’t know you had a daughter.”

“Me, neither,” Fred added. “Jesus, Isaac, you never talk about your personal life.”

“You’re right,” he said. “I don’t.”

Fred stroked his beard thoughtfully. “I mean, I always just figured you were kind of…well, private about that stuff, sort of like I am.”

I said nothing, though I recalled my wife mentioning when Isaac moved in with us that there was a family rumor that he’d had a child at some point. But neither of us wanted to pry once it became obvious just how zealously Isaac deflected questions about his personal life.

Now, however, after swallowing the last of his cold tea, the guarded look on his face seemed to fade. He sat back in his armchair, hands once more folded on his ample stomach. “Look, fellas, maybe I am a bit tight-lipped about things,” he said. “Maybe, like Morris Ames, I’m just from a generation that kept private things private.”

“We understand that, Isaac,” I said carefully. “But we’re also your friends. If you ever do want to talk about something…”

His smile at me was as warm as it was skeptical.

“Maybe,” he said. “Someday. It’s a long story. On the other hand, maybe some mysteries are better left unsolved.”

There wasn’t much I could say in response to that. So I didn’t.

You can find more mystery reviews, articles & short stories (including more Smart Guys stories) in our mystery section.

Dennis Palumbo is a former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), who is now a licensed psychotherapist and author. His mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere, and is collected in From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). His acclaimed series of crime novels (Mirror Image, Fever Dream, Night Terrors and the latest, Phantom Limb) feature psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, a trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh Police. All are from Poisoned Pen Press. For more info, please visit You can find more info on his website.


  1. Very enjoyable story. Thanks.

    • Thanks, everyone, for the wonderful comments. I hope you’ll check out the short story collection, FROM CRIME TO CRIME, for more Smart Guys Marching Society stories. The publisher is TallFellow Press.

  2. A delightful and insightful start to my day. Thank you.

  3. Thank you – loved this story.

  4. Great story~thank you.

    • I also hope you’ll consider checking out my Daniel Rinaldi series of mysteries. The latest (and fourth) is calleded Phantom Limb. The publisher is Poisoned Pen Press.


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