by Richard Brawer
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
The judge banged his gavel to quiet the room. “To the charge of second degree murder, how do you plead?”
Morty’s lawyer, Burt Meechum, responded, “Not guilty.”
“Remand, your Honor,” the prosecutor said.
“Your Honor, Mr. Sinclair is the pillar of the community,” Meechum countered. “His entire life is tied to this city. He is admired by many people–”
“And loathed by many others,” the judge cut in.
“Your Honor, I object.”
“Object all you want, Mr. Meechum. Bail is set at one million dollars.”
I cornered Meechum outside the courtroom.
“Russ, you don’t look so good,” Meechum said.
I wondered what gave him the first clue, the bags under my eyes or the gut I had developed. I used to be a solid one-ninety, but the new friends I had cultivated since my wife died last year–Johnny Walk, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels– and caroused with at night until I passed out made working-out a challenge.
“It’s been a rough year.”
“If there is anything I can do, please call me.”
“Thank you. I’d like to speak to Morty.”
“How can you help? You’re not a detective.”
“I don’t know, but if Mary were alive she’d demand I do something for her brother. In her memory I have to try.”
“I’ll set up the interview.”
“What was all that about Morty being loathed?”
“Morty’s having financial difficulties.”
“I know that.”
Meechum hadn’t exaggerated about Morty being a pillar of the community. His family went back four generations in Sea Gate. Morty’s great grandfather had built most of the buildings on Main Street, the City’s north-south drag. Morty still owned a number of them, but where furriers, jewelers, and upscale men’s and lady’s clothing stores had been were now tattoo parlors, liquor stores, thrift shops, a couple of greasy spoons, bodegas and for rent signs in dirt streaked windows.
In a gamble to revive the city, Morty had mortgaged his Main Street properties and dumped the money into cleaning up the arcades he owned on the boardwalk. He had planned to rent them out for a pittance to try and get concessionaires back to the city in hopes the tourists would follow. So far he’s had no takers even for the cheap rent.
“How does his financial problems get him disliked?” I asked.
“He put the carousel up for sale.”
“Whoa is right. There are a lot of people in this town who consider that carousel as belonging to the city and Morty as only the caretaker. They feel if it’s sold, it’ll be the final nail in the city’s coffin.”
“I have permission to visit Mr. Sinclair,” I said into the intercom to the policeman manning the department’s reception desk behind bullet proof glass.
He buzzed me in and directed me to a dreary, windowless room. Cobwebs hung from the air conditioning vents in the ceiling. It looked like cool air hadn’t come through them in a long time, probably on purpose to force the lawyer for the accused to keep his meeting short.
A cop brought Morty in. At six foot six and two hundred fifty pounds, Morty could be quite intimidating. I’d seen him in action towering over his opposition in business dealings. Today his slumped demeanor and his black hair, usually slicked back with mousse, but now flopping in all directions, made him look a lot less formidable. The cop shoved Morty into a chair and took up a position next to the door.
“I’m an agent of his lawyer. We have a right to privacy.”
He smirked and left the room.
“Russ, it’s good to see you,” Morty said. “How long’s it been?”
“I didn’t kill him.”
“Why are they saying you did?”
“Yes, to approve the renovations on my boardwalk buildings. I refused to pay.”
I opened the folder Meechum gave me. “This police report is pretty convincing. The victim, Billings is his name?”
“I must have left it at one of the arcades I was working on with the carpenters.”
Morty was a craftsman and liked working with the carpenters rehabbing his buildings. I asked, “Where were you at the time of the murder?”
“In my workshop behind the house working on a model.”
In his spare time Morty built model boats. When my kids were young they couldn’t wait to go to Uncle Morty’s house and sail one of his remote controlled models on the lake across the street from his house.
“Yes. Elizabeth was in the house, asleep.”
“Tell me about the carousel.”
“I don’t want to sell it, but I need the money.”
“I heard some people are against the sale. Who are they?”
“A group led by Cal Edwards. He’s an antique carousel buff. Even makes and sells hand-carved carousel horses. I told him if he could come close to what I thought it would bring, I’d sell it to his group. So far they haven’t been able to raise the money.”
Back in the lobby, one thing stood out in my mind. What murderer would be so stupid as to leave the murder weapon with his prints on it at the scene? Dreams of the city’s glory days and his family’s heritage may have blinded Morty to the reality as to what this city had become and made him overly optimistic about his chances of bringing it back to life, but he was not stupid. I hustled to the building department on the second floor of the municipal building.
“Can you help me?” I asked the man with his shirttail half out of his pants.
He glanced at the clock, five to twelve. “Depends on what you want?”
“I’d like to get a list of the sites Mr. Billings inspected the day he was killed.”
“Who are you?”
“I work with Mr. Meechum.”
“It’s lunchtime. Come back later.”
Like Morty had said, I knew this town and was prepared. I had a fifty-dollar bill folded in my hand. I flashed it.
“How long could it take to get the records?”
When he broke into a big grin, I added, “I’ll also need the inspection reports.”
“No problem. All public information, right.”
Ten minutes later I was back in my car reading the reports–Clark Street Grocery, foundation, plumbing, electrical approved; Sea Gate Cabinet Shop, no violations; Castle Amusement building, one exit light bulb burned out.
Main Street was more than its name implied. It was also a line of demarcation, dividing the city east and west. East were the beaches, boardwalk, churches, library, parks, and deteriorating Victorian houses where the merchants that had moved their businesses out of town and fled with them used to live and were now rooming houses. On the west side were the railroad tracks bordered by a few derelict factory buildings and the African-American community.
Clark Street intersected Main Street on the south side of town and ran due west to the highway. Thirty-five years ago it was a viable shopping street with stores catering to the community’s tastes in food, clothes and furniture, but the race riot that frightened the tourists away also resulted in many of the buildings being burned. Now the street was mostly empty lots glittering with shards of glass. But there were signs of revitalization, a liquor store–ironically never destroyed–laundromat, fried chicken take out, an adult video store, a used furniture store, and under construction the Clark Street Grocery identified by the sign planted near the street.
I pulled into the muddy lot and parked next to a pickup. The stenciling on the truck’s door read, “Cromwell Construction Company, Sea Gate, NJ.” Stepping around the puddles, I entered through an opening where the entrance door would be and walked over to a muscular black man wearing a T-shirt, jeans and a tool belt.
“Boss around?” I asked.
The man glared at me so hard I took a step back. “What you want?”
“Relax mister. I just want to talk to the boss.”
“You talkin’ to him.”
I hesitated a moment too long.
“What’s the matter, you white guys think we can’t build nothin’ unless you bossin’ us?”
“N…No, of course not.”
“So what you want? I’m busy.”
“I’m looking into the Billings’ killing.”
“You a cop?”
“Why you interested?”
“My brother-in-law is accused of the murder.”
The builder walked to the door and spit in a puddle. “I’m all broke up.”
“Did you have an argument with Mr. Sinclair?”
“Nope, we never argued.”
“Then why the animosity?”
Sweeping his arms to draw my attention around the room he said, “I am a builder and a good one. I went to Sinclair and asked for a contracting job on some of them boardwalk arcades he’s rebuilding. Told me point blank he’s got all the contractors he needs. I seen them contractors. His buddies that come down here in their Mercedes Benz from their big houses in them rich towns, never gets their shoes dirty. I was born and raised in this town. Anyone deserves to work here first it’s us what lives here, but the only blacks Sinclair hires is ones to use a shovel and haul block.”
I knew Morty’s prejudices. He spouted them often enough. He blamed the demise of his town on the riot. I swallowed hard and changed the subject to the one I came to talk about. “I understand Mr. Billings inspected this building the day he was killed.”
“He was here.”
“Did he find any problems?” I already knew the answer but I wanted to hear it from him.
Cromwell took a hammer from his utility belt and a nail from the pocket of his apron. He turned to the two-by-four framing of an unfinished room. Tapping the nail into the wood, he drove it flush with a single blow. “Not a one.”
My next stop was the Sea Gate Cabinet Shop also on the west side six blocks north in a mixed residential and business neighborhood. The cabinet shop was wedged between two rooming houses and across the street from an auto repair shop. I pulled to the curb in front of the building. Two grey haired men sat across a checkerboard on the porch of the rooming house to the left of the shop. As I swung my door open one of the checker players jumped out of his chair and yelled, “Repo man! Repo man!” Screen doors slammed, and in a blur of movement two men leaped off the porches. Seconds later two cars laid rubber shooting out of their parking places.
I shook my head in sadness, took a deep breath and walked to the cabinet shop’s front door. The structure leaned precariously to the left. A gutter sagged to the ground on the east side of the building. Chunks of paint curled on the façade ready to peel off in the slightest breeze. Weathered cracks spider-webbed across the sign over the loading door, the wording barely readable. I recalled Billings’ inspection report. No violations. Somebody was paying Billings off to keep him from condemning this building.
I pushed the doorbell. I didn’t hear it ring so I knocked. When no one answered, I tried the door knob. Locked. I walked next door to speak to the checker players.
“Do you know what their hours are?” I asked.
“Ain’t got no hours?”
“The shop is out of business?”
I looked at the four trash bags at the curb in front of the building. “Do you know who cleaned out the place?”
“Only one person I seen coming and going out of that place is the guy they arrested for murder the other day.”
“Yeah, that’s him.”
Morty lied to me! He had to be paying off to keep this building from being condemned.
Heading back to my car I noticed one of the garbage bags had been torn open. Wrappers from fast food burgers had been pulled out, probably by a dog or rat. I nudged the bag with my foot to see if there were any letterheads or envelopes that might give me a phone number of the last person to rent the shop from Morty. Could be another suspect that Billings drove out of business by demanding a bribe the cabinet maker couldn’t pay. Sawdust puffed out along with a block of wood. I picked up the wood. It was actually three layers glued together and looked to have been sawed away from a larger piece by a band saw or jig saw. I shrugged and dropped it on top of the bag.
I drove straight east to the ocean front. I had seen the devastation many times, but I could never quite prepare my mind for it. The miniature golf courses and amusement arcades that had lined the boardwalk, and the motels and restaurants along Ocean Avenue which were patronized by as many as fifty thousand people on a summer weekend were now boarded up buildings or empty lots.
Still, like elsewhere in town, there were pockets of hope. A few hundred sunbathers lolled on the beaches, and joggers found the expansive, almost deserted boardwalk an ideal place to run. Then there were the amusement arcades Morty was on the verge of re-opening and the city’s famous antique carousel housed in the Castle Amusement building, which anchored the south end of the boardwalk and still drew parents with their children from the suburbs.
I pulled into a parking spot behind a row of six cars in front of the Castle Amusement building and shoved a couple of quarters into the meter. Inside the building, I watched the carousel whirl in a steak of multi-colored lights. Children, their parents standing next to them, grasped the fluted gold poles rising from the front of the horses’ saddles and bounded up and down on the brightly painted wooden animals.
The music wound down and the merry-go-round glided to a stop. I watched the mothers lift their children off the horses and escort them from the platform. One girl held fast to the fluted pole begging, “Again, mommy, again.” The mother must have anticipated her daughter’s reaction because dollar bills quickly materialized in her hand.
Four women and their young charges stepped onto the ride. I watched the youngsters run around the circle looking for just the right steed to carry them into their three-minute dreamland. One boy selected a horse with eagles on the side of the saddle. A girl chose a horse with brightly painted flowers adorning the bridle. Another boy mounted a horse that was in a gallop and whose mane was carved to look like it was flying.
It was Mary who awakened me to the beauty of the carousel. “It’s more than just a flashy amusement ride,” she had said.
In 1915, Morty’s and Mary’s grandfather commissioned William Dentzel to build the biggest carousel made to date. He constructed it sixty-five feet in diameter with five rows of horses in standing, jumping and prancing positions, and four intricate chariots carved as a sea serpent, dragon, swan and cherub. Scenes of men and women strolling the boardwalk decorated the panels surrounding the truck mechanism that turned the carousel. The men wore summer suits and straw boaters; the women were adorned in shirtwaist dresses, high button shoes, wide-brimmed hats and carried parasols in gloved hands. Mirrors and hand carved figures of jesters, clowns, and baroque scroll work made up the rounding boards above the panels. The Wurlitzer band organ was displayed in a gilded cage so riders could see the moving drums, cymbals, trumpets, and animated conductor. As a final touch, thousands of light bulbs in the rounding boards, crestings, sweeps, and canopy washed the carousel in an array of color.
A chubby man stepped from behind a scenery panel and walked around the platform gathering money. Reaching me he said, “One dollar please.”
“Mr. Douglas, I’d like to talk to you when you get a minute.”
“The auction is in two weeks.”
I stuck out my hand. “Mr. Douglas, I’m Russell Gerrard, Morty’s brother-in-law.” Mary had introduced me to the carousel manager years ago. Morty’s grandfather, needed an expert to maintain and run the carousel so he had hired Douglas’ grandfather, an apprentice to William Dentzel. The son and then the grandson took over as each previous generation retired.
He gave me a limp shake. “Oh yes, I didn’t recognize you. I’m sorry about Mary.”
“Let me get the ride going and I’ll be right back.”
He disappeared behind a panel into the guts of the machine. A moment later the circus music came on, the carousel turned, and the jumping horses settled into their gait. Before it reached full speed, Douglas reappeared on the platform. “What can I do for you, Mr. Gerrard?”
“I’m looking into the Billings murder.”
“I know Mr. Sinclair didn’t kill that horrible man.”
“Because Mr. Sinclair is a wonderful man. He never once complained about the money I needed to maintain the carousel.”
I thought, did Morty have a choice? The carousel was an antique. If he let it run down he would have depreciated its value. “Does he lose much on it?”
“Around fifteen thousand a year.”
The carousel slowed to a stop. “Get off and wait for me,” Douglas said. “I want to tell you something that may be of interest.”
While I waited for him to collect the money and restart the merry-go-round I went to look at a glass enclosed display case. An old pocket watch and a pearl hair pin caught my attention. I was about to read the caption when Douglas walked up to me and said, “Sometimes the seams on the horses open and people accidentally, or maybe on purpose, drop things into them.”
“I don’t remember these displays.”
“I set them up to try and get people talking about the carousel, maybe get some more riders.”
The next display case showed two sides of a finished horse, but one side was more lavish than the other.
“You’re wondering why the right side is more elaborate than the left?” Douglas asked as if he read my mind.
“That horse comes from the outside ring of the carousel. Carousels revolve counter clockwise. The right side faces out. The artists called that the romance side and always carved it more lavishly than the left because the potential riders see the right side first.”
“Interesting,” I said and moved on to another display, which held a picture of participants and spectators dressed in lavish Renaissance costumes, carrying colorful banners and flags.
“That’s a print of a painting called Le Grand Carrousel. The painting depicts a tournament thrown by Louis XIV in 1662 to impress his mistress. It was those costumes and trappings that inspired the builders of America’s carousels. The word carousel comes from Italian words, either carosello, meaning a ball game, or garrosello meaning little war.”
“War inspired merry-go-rounds?”
“More like jousts which had become civilized. No more lances, battle-axes and swords. A game was invented in Italy where the participants rode in a circle and threw clay balls, garrosello, filled with perfume at each other. A hit eliminated an opponent. See how those Italian words became a French word spelled with two Rs by the way?”
With a big grin on his face he said, “That’s not the end of the story. To keep their horses from getting worn out or injured during practice, someone invented a gizmo where inexperienced newcomers could sit on a wooden log hung from a wheel atop a pole and turned by a plow horse and throw garrosellos at a target. When the aristocrats saw the thing they thought it was fun and had seats resembling fancy carriages attached to the wheel and an amusement ride was born.”
The carousel stopped and Douglas left me to collect the fares from the new riders and restart the machine. While he was gone, I scanned the final display and read the caption under a picture of people reaching out to catch the brass ring.
Catching the brass ring came from earlier Moorish tournaments in Spain where riders would try to spear a ring hanging on a cord. Applied to the carousel, it became known as a symbol of good luck and those snatching the brass ring got a free ride. Today, only a few carousels had brass ring machines because the insurance needed in case a rider fell off while leaning out to catch the ring was too costly.
My eyes teared. Mary and I used to compete to see who could catch the most rings. Having ridden the carousel since childhood, her experience always won out over my longer arms.
Douglas returned. “Are you alright?”
“Yes, fine. Just reminiscing.”
“Mary loved this merry-go-round.”
“Would you like to see some more things?”
“Yes, please.” The more I learned the better chance I had to find the real murderer.
He walked to a door in a plywood wall and unlocked it. “My work room.”
As we entered I asked, “What happens if the shut down timer fails?”
“I pull that switch over there.”
The smell of paint, glue, and sawdust in the confined room attacked my nose. C-clamps, bench clamps, rasps, calipers, planes and chisels–their wooden handles worn smooth from years of use–hung on pegboard over a scarred workbench. A band saw stood next to the workbench. When I spotted rubber mallets I re-scanned the room looking for a hammer, but I didn’t see one.
A carousel horse was attached by its pole to brackets in the ceiling and floor. The left ear and a small section of the mane were raw wood.
“The horses get scratched and nicked and I repair them here.”
“Doesn’t repainting affect the value?”
I nodded. “It’s a shame this carousel is going to be sold in a couple of weeks.”
“Very bad, very bad.”
“Do you blame Mr. Sinclair?”
“Oh no, he has to do what is best for him.”
“What are you going to do?”
“There’s another job I’m considering in Alabama. A theme park operator is re-assembling an antique carousel and asked me to supervise the work then run it.”
“I’m surprised Billings spotted that bulb out.”
“Oh, you know he was here that day?”
“From his inspection report.”
“Yes, of course. If I wasn’t away, I would have changed it before Mr. Billings noticed it.”
“You were away? Where were you?”
“In Philadelphia celebrating my sister’s sixty-fifth birthday.”
“Does someone run the carousel when you’re gone, or do you shut it down?”
“Cal Edwards runs it for me when I’m away or sick.”
The man who couldn’t raise the money to buy the carousel!
“That’s what I want to tell you. He…”
“I don’t want to accuse anyone.”
“What is it?”
“When I’m away it seems the fees are lower than they should be.”
“You think Edwards is stealing?”
“I don’t know. It’s hard to say because on any given day we could have a hundred riders or ten, but it seems that whenever Mr. Edwards runs the carousel, the number of riders is always on the lower side. I mentioned it to him a couple of times, but he said they were off days.”
“Where can I find him?”
Edwards owned an apartment complex on the north end of town. Unlike many Sea Gate apartment houses that were in desperate need of a carpenter and a coat of paint, the brick façade on Douglas’ complex gleamed a lustrous red. The white doors and trim around the windows sparkled. The shrubs were sculptured into perfect balls and cones and the meticulously manicured lawn looked ready for a croquet club to plant their wickets. Only the sign near the sidewalk detracted from the postcard like picture. Painted over the shadow of a carousel horse the message read, Keep the Carousel in Sea Gate. Send your donations to Save The Carousel Committee, 300 Lake Drive, Sea Gate, NJ 03258.
I rang the office bell. No one answered. I heard the whining of a saw coming from the rear of the property. I followed the sidewalk to a row of garages. One door was open.
In the garage, a man with his back to me maneuvered wood through the blade of a band saw. Like in Douglas’ workroom, the odor of paint, sawdust, and glue seeped out, but nowhere near as overpowering because the door was wide open.
Stacked in a neat row against the rear wall were planks of wood. The same tools I saw in Douglas’ workroom hung on pegboard. Templates of heavy craft paper were piled high on a table in a corner. Pieces of shaped wood cluttered the floor and the table in the center of the room, but what attracted me the most was a full-sized carousel horse just inside the door. It looked similar to the ones on the carousel.
The saw stopped.
He almost jumped out of his denim coveralls. “You startled me.”
“I’m Morty Sinclair’s brother-in-law.”
He slipped his hand under the bib of his coveralls and scratched his chest. His round shape and that movement reminded me of Megilla Gorilla, a cartoon show my kids used to watch.
“What do you want?”
“I’d like to talk to you about the murder.”
“I didn’t kill him.”
He turned away, grabbed a broom and dustpan and started to clean up the sawdust. Oh, he was paying off alright, probably for each certificate of occupancy.
“I don’t have to talk to you.”
I needed to put him at ease. I pointed to the carousel horse. “Did you make that?”
His face brightened “Yes. You want to know how they’re made?”
“Sure,” I said. Anything to keep him talking.
“A completed horse takes seventy-five pieces or more. I use those templates to mark where to cut the wood. The whole leg can have up to fourteen pieces. The horseshoe alone can have five pieces. Once the horse is assembled then comes the hard part of carving the details. That’s where the amateurs like me are separated from the old time carousel builders– Dentzel, the Muller Brothers, Carnigliano, Looff, Illions, Carmel, Parker, Herschell, Spillman, Stein, oldstein. Those guys were true artists, I’m just an amateur.”
“I think your work looks great. What do you do with them when they’re finished?
“I sell ‘em.”
“How much will you get for it?”
“Five thousand, sometimes a little more.”
“Who buys them?”
“Amusement parks. It’s a pittance compared to what the ones on our carousel will go for.”
Interesting he said, our carousel as if he owned it. “How much would that be?”
“Thirty-five thousand dollars, more or less.”
“Then there’re the rounding boards, chariots and band organ. They’re worth thousands also.”
“I heard the auction will bring a million and a half.”
“Yeah, son-of-a-bitch is selling it off piecemeal rather than to one buyer who will keep it intact. I was behind Morty all the way in trying to revive this town. I fought the corruption with him. Then he turns around and puts the carousel up for sale.”
“It is his to do with as he wants.”
“Morty’s father and grandfather knew their carousel was a treasure of this city. Said so more ’n once. They didn’t want it sold.”
He rested his hand on the finished horse. “Yeah, and so do friendships.”
Small talk over, it was time to get back to business. “I understand you managed the carousel the night Billings was killed.”
“I’m the only one Douglas trusts, to a point.”
“To a point?”
“Whenever he’s away, the first thing he does when he gets back is check to make sure I shut it down properly.”
“When did he come back from Philadelphia?”
“I don’t know. I locked up at six. We don’t stay open nights anymore.”
I didn’t have to ask why. The boardwalk wasn’t totally empty at night. Like vampires, the hookers and drug dealers came out of their lairs once the sun had set and hawked their products and services. Morty had told me the cops didn’t even try to clean them out, instead opting to hit them up for payoffs.
“What do you do with the receipts?”
“He leaves me a deposit slip and the night deposit bag.”
We stared at each other for a moment.
I took a piece of layered wood out of a barrel and flipped it around in my hand. My stomach knotted. Son-of-a-bitch! “What is this?”
“Scrap.” He pointed to the wood piled in the back. “The first thing I do when making the animal is glue planks of wood together to make a thicker piece.”
“Can I keep it?”
“If you’ll go away.”
“What’s up? You find something out?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
Standing over Morty, I tossed the scrap wood onto the table. “What is this?”
“A piece of wood.”
“Don’t be cute with me. If you want my help, I have to know everything. What were you doing in the cabinet shop?”
He licked his lips, bowed his head and muttered something unintelligible.
“Let me help you. You’re making carousel horses?”
“What’re you doing with them?”
“Why did you need the cabinet shop? Why didn’t you make them in your workshop?”
When he didn’t answer I said, “There’s only one reason for secrecy. You were doing something illegal.” I slammed my hand on the table. Morty flinched. “What was it?”
“This is confidential, right?”
“Yeah, sure,” I lied. I wasn’t his lawyer nor was I an agent of his lawyer. I knew enough about the law to know if anyone questioned me about my conversations with Morty I’d have to testify as to what he told me.
“Okay, I was counterfeiting carousel horses and selling them as Dentzels.”
“Don’t con me, Morty. You’re not selling the ones you made as Dentzels. You’re a great craftsman, but you’re not that good.”
“Okay, I’m not selling mine as Dentzels. I copied a few from the carousel and switched mine with them and sold the real ones.”
“How did you get the plans?”
“On the internet. You can find anything there.”
“I photographed the horse I was copying with a high resolution camera. Then I took samples back and forth a few times until I got the right match.”
“How many did you switch?”
“Three. It takes time to set up an auction. The pieces have to be authenticated, a catalogue printed and distributed. I needed cash to hold me over.”
“How did Billings get involved?”
“He came to the cabinet shop that day to inspect. I had just finished a horse. He asked me what I was doing with it. I told him I was selling them like Edwards. He demanded his payoff to keep the building from being condemned. I refused. That night he was driving by the carousel and saw me loading a horse into my truck. He guessed immediately what I was doing.”
“How much did he want?”
“What were you going to do when the antique dealer who bought your phony realized he was duped?”
“I wasn’t going to allow mine to be auctioned off. I told the auction house I need a couple for display in my arcades and would take them off before the sale.”
“But knowing Billings you knew he would demand more after the auction to keep quiet about the fakes. If word got out about what you did, who would believe there were only three. The entire integrity of the carousel would be in doubt and the buyers would want their money back, so you killed him?”
“No, I swear. He was sitting in his car talking on his phone when I left.”
“Then how did your hammer with his blood and hair and your fingerprints on it get into his car?”
“I don’t know. I must have dropped it during the switch. It wasn’t in the truck when I looked for it. The killer must have found it and used it to kill Billings.”
“What time did all this go down with Billings?”
“Around midnight, maybe a little later.”
I jumped on the carousel before it came to a complete stop, wove my way through the horses wondering which ones Morty had switched. I hopped off at the opening in the panels and slipped behind them. “Mr. Douglas, we have to talk.”
“You can’t be back here.”
“You killed Billings, didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“When did you return from your sister’s party?”
“I told you, in the morning.”
“You sure about that? It won’t be hard to check.”
He rose from his stool. “I have to collect the fares.”
I blocked him from leaving. “They’ll wait. Here’s what I know. The medical examiner puts Billings’ death around one in the morning. Billings died sitting in his convertible right outside the carousel. Mr. Edwards told me you always check the carousel when you return from a trip, even before you go home.”
Douglas tried to get around me.
He cowered back to his stool.
“This is what I think happened. It was you who was skimming because Billings probably threatened to shut down the carousel if you didn’t pay him off. There’s no cash register or counting machine to tell how many riders you have. Your whole life’s work was maintaining this carousel. You would have been devastated if you couldn’t run it.”
I stared directly into his eyes. He couldn’t hold my gaze and dropped his head.
“You worked with these horses all your life. You already knew some had been switched. You’d spot the fakes immediately. You probably thought it was Edwards. I’m sure you were at your sister’s party, but you didn’t come back the next day. You came back that night and hid, hoping to catch Edwards switching a horse.”
“That’s not true.”
“You saw Morty and Billings talking and then Morty loaded a horse into his truck. I’m sure you were enraged, but what could you do about it? Morty owned the carousel and if he wanted to switch horses or sell them it was his business. Then Morty drove off and Billings was sitting in his convertible talking on his cell. You saw Morty’s hammer on the sidewalk or in the gutter where he had dropped it.”
“No,” he whimpered.
“Three generations of your family’s work would be gone soon. You took advantage of an opportunity to punish Billings and Morty at the same time. You picked up the hammer with your handkerchief or a piece of paper and smashed Billings’ head then threw the hammer into the car.”
“You can’t prove that. I wasn’t here. My sister will tell you I stayed over in Philadelphia.”
“Are you going to have your sister lie for you? She would go to jail as an accomplice.”
He continued to stare at the floor.
I needed something to make him confess. I had read an article about a new forensic technology. I had no idea if it would work on the murder weapon. I took a chance.
“I’m going to have a forensic specialist go over that hammer with DESI. Do you know what that is?”
He shook his head.
“It’s a new technology to detect trace amounts of materials. It will detect anything that touched that hammer. If you got even the minutest particle from your handkerchief or whatever you used to hold the hammer, it’ll show up under DESI.”
He started to cry. “These animals are my babies. When they get injured, I console them and nurse them back to health. I worried every night this week wondering if my kidnapped babies fell into the hands of an abuser who whipped and scratched him.”
Helping Mary’s brother made me realize she would not approve of the way I had been mourning her. I took the three guys who had deluded me into believing I needed them to get through the night, and poured them down the drain.
There are many antique carousels in California. To find one near you go to: carousels.org. Scroll to the bottom of the home page and click “Carousel Census.” Then click “Classic Wooden Carousels.” Scroll down to CA.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.