by Paul Smith
Maddy could not be called the most easy-going of people, and Jonathan had spent the previous day, his birthday, having 'fun' against his will. These two facts in some way explained the following outbreak of hostilities.
She felt for a packet of Smarties in the car doors pocket. "Don't smile that smile at me, Jonathan, you annoying git. If you've got some smart-arsed answers to how Vincent Burton was killed, which don't involve our charming little friend in that police cell, I want to hear them, right now!"
"Don't shout at me Maddy", whined Jonathan in a voice growing higher in frustration, " I'm trying my best to explain! If you'd just stop snacking for a moment and listen to me I'll tell you how Vincent killed himself."
"I'll stop snacking when you stop lisping", sniped Maddy back, not registering for a moment what Jonathan had said. "I'm going to get you a T-shirt printed when it's your birthday. 'Born to Snack' or perhaps 'Frankie says Could I Have Another Slice Please'.
"What did you say?" asked Maddy, her brain catching up with her mouth.
Jonathan made a motion across his chest. "Born to Snack, in big black letters."
"Vincent Burton killed himself? In a locked room, where no gun was found?"
"It's quite a trick, isn't it?" said Jonathan with a hint of admiration.
Maddy almost thought Jonathan was winding her up for a second. But of course he wasn't. He was just being 'Jonathan'. Her anger boiled away as quickly as it had boiled up. She asked, "Did he shoot himself and have a moment to hide the gun or throw it out the window before he died?" A millisecond after finishing she mentally kicked herself. If that was all that had happened they or the police would have found the weapon. Plus the clean shot to the head, which Vincent had suffered, must have been fatal instantly.
Fortunately for once Jonathan didn't comment on her blunder. It was a survival skill he was beginning to develop. Instead he continued. "I went way off track with this one, Maddy. I don't mind admitting I was almost ready to believe the idea of a murderous, blackmailing dwarf. It has such a tangible gothic feel, doesn't it? Of course when you ignore all the obvious clues, the too obvious clues, a very different picture comes into focus."
Maddy began to see the edge, as Jonathan might have put it, of what had happened. "The empty dummies case and the note with the dancing men. All too convenient?"
Nodding, Jonathan continued to unpeel the banana of mystery. "We believed what someone wanted us to believe. Someone who had a very twisted way of seeing things. I only got it when you showed me Monty- Martin Goodman's address. The Manor House, Ashdon, Bucks. I bet it's as grand an address as it sounds. Especially if you compare it to Burton's address which I saw on that envelope. 15 Railwayman's Cottages is far less impressive. Why blackmail someone who has nothing when you yourself are more than comfortable? It doesn't make any sense."
"But the gun, Jonathan. How did Vincent get rid of the gun when he was already dead?"
"That was the simple bit. The rest of the planning took far more work and didn't run nearly as smoothly. Put yourself in the mind of a bitter old man, Maddy. One who's career has slipped, dare I say it, to the level of second rate children's entertainer. One who's reasons for living wouldn't make a long list. One, Maddy, whose erstwhile business partner has seen considerable financial success in the years since dropping him. How do you exact revenge? You can't blackmail him. Telling the world about the real Monty would only make Vincent look like a terrible fraud himself. I suppose he could have just arrived at Martins house one-day and shoot him with what I'm pretty sure was Vincent's National Service issued revolver. There again that would lack a certain elegance as far as Vincent was concerned. Plus of course there'd be a trial, another media circus and life imprisonment. Then, one day, he looked around his most recent pokey dressing room in a long line of pokey dressing rooms and an idea hit him. One feature in that room lead to the cascade of events which brought us here." Jonathan paused for breath.
Maddy was mentally accelerating now, brain cells flaring into overdrive. She couldn't justifiably claim to be as good at thinking around corners as Jonathan was, when two and three equalled seven. However given the right material she was just as fast, if not faster, at making two and two equal four. "The tiny little window! He hatched a plan to frame his old friend for his own murder! Giving himself a showman's exit, stage left, into the bargain! That's brilliant Jonathan!" She gave a grin that she hoped would make her instantly irresistible. It didn't work.
"It was brilliantly conceived. But not brilliantly executed, because complex plans never run as smoothly as simple ones. Yesterday morning he was forced to see Martin Goodman, who by happy coincidence lives fairly close by. You can't frame someone reliably if that person is likely to get himself an accidental alibi, like a walk to the newsagents for instance. So Vincent Burton had devised the other half of his grand scheme. He arrived at Martin's house at about lunchtime, and with the element of surprise, easily overpowered him. He shoved him into the cupboard under the stairs, which he must have noticed years before when he was helping Martin move. He locked him in, and this is the clever bit, left the key quietly on the floor near the door. He'd given Martin an alibi as watertight as a sieve, at the same time as stopping him from accidentally getting a real one. Additionally, when he was rescued, he'd tell the unlikely tale of imprisonment by the very man he'd be under suspicion of murdering! Classic misdirection!"
Maddy was also drawing the lines between dot shaped clues. "He went to the theatre that afternoon to do his show. Before he went downstairs to do his act for those children, he would have arranged the room, setting up the props he needed to frame Goodman. He'd have taken the gun and the old empty dummies case from his home that morning. I'm guessing a bit there but it fits in with what we know. Then he wrote out that note with the dancing men for the police to find, knowing full well a sharp seven year old could break the code. When the police did crack it, it would say 'blackmail' and 'close associate'. A Sherlock Holmes fan!" finished Maddy excitedly. "I wonder if he'd read A Sign of Four as well, and that's where he got ideas from?"
"Perhaps," agreed Jonathan, also flushed with the thrill of undoing the bow on this particularly well wrapped parcel of impossible crime. "On his return from the stage, he locked himself carefully in the room, opened the window and readied himself for the final curtain. Except he'd made a couple of oversights. Silly little things any distracted sixty-something-year-old might overlook. Firstly a set of photographs he'd meant to post, still sitting in the draw of the rooms desk. They'd been sent to him in error and he'd had them nearly a month without getting around to doing anything with them. You or I might have just thrown them away but Vincent thought of them as unfinished business, a loose strand in his life. So he took the time to get the address of the photographic companies returns department and packaged the pictures up to send back. Probably he meant to post them that morning but in all the excitement of his impending death he forgot about them. Then something else occurred to him, one with potentially more serious implications. The revolver still had all six bullets in it. He would have meant to get rid of five of them earlier. He only needed one to do the job and for reasons I'm sure you've worked out, Maddy, he didn't want to leave the others in the gun. So he took them out, and, having nowhere better to put them, he dropped them in the bin with the fake coded letter. He hoped everyone would assume they'd been left for him with the message to add a sinister something."
"Vincent Burton manufactured a cunning set up and shot himself. I can see that clearly now. But, and don't think too badly of me Jonathan, I can't for the life of me conceive how he disposed of the gun without outside help." Maddy looked at Jonathan with the pleading eyes of a puppy dog that's been on a course to improve its emotional manipulation skills.
Jonathan looked serious. "You know I see things sometimes, and I don't realise their significance for hours or days? The image just bounces around in my head until it hits something and makes a connection."
"I know", said Maddy, "It's me who has to watch you staring off into space like a stunned sheep. So what piece of the jigsaw have I been missing, Mister smarty-pants? Come on Jonathan, put me out of my misery? How did he do it?!"
Jonathan kept eye contact with her and said a single word. "Balloons".
Her goldfish bottom lip wobbled for a moment and then fell still.
"The absolute bastard!" she exploded, slapping the steering wheel. "I knew it'd be something like that!"
Creek smiled back at her astonished face. It was always a kick for him to see her so utterly stunned. She looked so pretty that way, he thought for a moment, before quickly dismissing (for a while at least) the crazy idea of the two of them ever being an official item. He'd not last two weeks.
To finish his dissection of the crime, Jonathan continued. "He used balloons and that helium gas cylinder from his clown act. Carefully blew up thirty or so to the right size before he went downstairs to do his show, leaving them bobbing on the ceiling. That's all he needed to carry the gun from his hand and out of the window within a few seconds of shooting himself. He'd run one out of the window on a long piece of string and slide the others up to it using slipknots. Then he'd attach the gun, and maybe a cloth to keep the traces of gunpowder off of his hand, to the end of the string. He pulls the gun to his temple and Bang! The balloons lift and take the evidence of suicide up and away with them. It's so simple I'm shocked more people don't do it. While we were banging on the door we didn't hear the gun hit the window frame and leave that gouge I noticed. It's funny how something like that can make you think someone's struggled out through a window where in reality it's the weapon that's left that way. When I looked out of the window to see if I could see anything, it never occurred to me to look straight up. If I had I might have seen the balloons rising vertically in the still air. That's why five bullets were left behind in the room. It wasn't a matter of someone overplaying a threat, it was because Vincent didn't want to send a loaded gun out into the world to wander the jet-stream. When it eventually comes back to earth anyone could come across it."
Maddy had the glazed look of someone in the presence of Jonathan when he was in full flow. "It's all well and good explaining it to me, Jonathan, but without any real proof, how are we going to convince DI Fortune? That gun could be hundreds of miles away by now. It's not as if we can confront the cunning perpetrator in the smoking room with our laser-like insight. He's dead. Actually, now I come to mention it, how come when you do your 'wrapping-up-the-crime' routine, the guilty party always puts their hands up and says, 'I'll come quietly?' I don't know about you, but I'd make a run for it or ask for my Solicitor. The last thing I'd do is volunteer information that fills in the blanks for my accusers."
Jonathan looked at her in silent horror, his mind standing at the edge of some Truman Burbankian abyss. His voice faltered. "I, err, assumed it, um, was because they knew we had them cornered?"
Maddy broke into a smile, her own subconscious worries dispelled. "Yes", she beamed, "that's exactly what I thought."
They both slid out of Maddy's decrepit Volvo and walked back towards the Police building to return Martin's tape and for a showdown with DI Fortune.
"I suppose, " said Maddy, thinking aloud, "that the, err, financial irregularities, linked to Vincent Burton and Monty a few years ago involved the half of the partnership that no one would have believed possible of tax evasion?"
"Seems likely, doesn't it? He didn't sound happy at the thought of anyone going through his house with a fine toothed comb. Perhaps his mattress is stuffed with £50 notes?" commented Creek, his hair bouncing as he walked.
Maddy was happy. All the loose ends of a hectic two days appeared to have been tied up. There was just one more question left unanswered.
"One last thing, Jonathan. When we first broke into that dressing room", she said, "didn't I say the poor old bugger had killed himself?"
Jonathan kept walking and didn't turn to look at Maddy. "Yes you did", he replied curtly, seeing a 'Maddy shaped' dark tunnel of smugness open ahead of him, stretching on forever.
Maddy's smile became Adam Klaus wide and threatened to make the top of her head fall off.