The Case of the Dropped Case

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
D. Staats


Frame clutch
Photo Credit: ruby-jo

Being from Canada, I am used to snow, but I had no idea how much snow falls on Syracuse until I once spent a week in that not-too-cosmopolitan city. To be accurate, I should say that I stayed in a suite hotel in a suburb on the northern edge of the city. I was there to prepare for and testify in a case which I had investigated on behalf of a defendant who had sufficient funds to employ the—if I say it myself, it is only because it is a fact—rather well-known and well-regarded Hercules Leek.

The trial was to begin on Wednesday, and my flight from Quebec arrived Monday morning. I spent most of that first day in the office of the attorneys who were employing me, leaving them about four to go check into my motel. It was a mild April day, temperature in the forties, not a day when one would expect any substantial snowfall. The signs of impending spring were abundant, including the ubiquitous and unsightly snow detritus on the edges of roadways and around the borders of parking lots, where shrunken mounds of snow were dark and ugly with months of accumulated grit and dirt.

The attorneys were, of course, paying for my accommodations, and I was not entirely displeased with them. At five in the afternoon, the motel was quiet and peaceful. I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. I turned in a few minutes before ten, reading for a few minutes in a pocket edition of The Merchant of Venice to distract my mind before I turned out the light.

My next encounter with consciousness occurred when I was awakened by a tremendous roar followed by a loud thump. A few seconds’ pause, and then a repeat of the roar, followed by a screeching noise, and a metallic clunk. All of this noise was coming from the parking lot. I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

There, below, a rather superannuated and disreputable-looking red pick-up truck with a plow blade mounted on its front was clearing snow from the parking lot. The pestilent thing must either have had an enormous hole in its muffler, or no muffler at all. The driver, a man in his thirties with a full brown beard, had his window down and seemed to be enjoying himself. He would put the plow down and floor the gas pedal, making an ungodly roar as he picked up speed across the lot until, boom, he smashed into the remnant piles of snow at the edge of the parking lot. Then he would raise the plow blade, twist around in his seat, looking out the back window, and floor the gas pedal again, backing up to his starting point. A little correction, of course, so that he was plowing new snow, and he was off again. There were probably thirty centimeters of snow, or as the Americans would say—I had to get used to American measurements for my trial testimony—about a foot.

I went back to bed. I noted as I did so that it was 5:20. That plow had to have wakened every guest in the hotel. You really would think someone would know better.

After another day closeted with the attorneys, I got back to the motel about five o’clock. Being somewhat keyed up from my day’s work, I took a stroll around the outside of the motel. The temperature was now in the mid-50s. As I walked the perimeter of the parking lot, I noticed that the plowboy, as I resentfully referred to him, had pushed the snow with such force that he displaced the theretofore-existing snow piles, and pushed both new snow and old back further, thus exposing the bottom few inches of the old snow piles. These few inches were melting in the mild temperatures. This, of course, was no impediment to my progress, as I wore rubbers to protect my good leather shoes.

I saw in the dark, silt-laden, melting slush a small rectangular outline, which on being nudged with my toe, turned out to be a small, black purse. I picked this up, soggy though it was. It was a snap-frame purse which opened at the top. Inside, the sole object was a tiny pistol, which on my examination, proved to be a two-shot .22 caliber. On my further examination, I determined that one of the two cartridges had been fired, and the empty brass was still in the chamber. Whatever this might mean, it could not be ignored. I had to take this into custody, so to speak.

The next day was trial. I was supposed to go on the stand in the morning, but there was no surprise to me in the fact that proceedings were delayed with arguments of counsel. During one of these sessions, while lead counsel were wrangling, I asked the junior counsel if there had been any crimes in the recent past involving a .22 caliber bullet.

He looked thoughtful for a moment, then his eyebrows rose a full centimeter and he said, “Yes, yes there was a… quite, quite… quite a case.” He told me, in a low voice there in the courtroom, that it had involved a beautiful married woman accused of murdering a man who attended the same church as she. There was no time for more, as the attorneys were coming back from their sidebar conference with the judge.

After court ended that day, all the attorneys adjourned to a quiet restaurant and settled the case. The attorney who had hired me was kind enough to tell me that my testimony had been instrumental in leveraging a settlement favorable to his client. I felt I had earned my fee. And now unexpectedly I had two days free. I had been scheduled on this case for the whole week. As a matter of professional interest, and what might possibly become a legal duty to turn in evidence, I went in the next day to talk with the senior attorney and asked about the case which the junior attorney had mentioned to me.

To sum up what he told me, a thirty-three-year-old married man had been found dead in the parking lot of the motel where I was staying. It was a little more than a year ago and in the dead of winter. In the ensuing investigation, suspicion centered on a woman who attended the same church as the dead man. It turned out that the man had gone to the pastor and confessed to unwanted feelings for this woman, and as a married man not looking for romance, asked for help in dealing with them. The pastor then questioned the woman who said she had noticed the man staring at her and paying close attention to her. She said she had some reciprocal feelings, but neither of them had acted upon them, and in fact, they had avoided one another.

The pastor had decided that each of the two should be counseled by an elder in the church, and had set up appointments for them to go, separately, to confess to an elder and receive the elder’s counsel. This had upset both of the parties who feared the matter would become public and cause them excruciating embarrassment. The pastor also insisted that the man tell his wife, which, reluctantly, he did. To the man’s surprise, his wife supported him and was understanding about his struggle.

Before the date of the counseling sessions, the man and the woman decided to meet to see if they could not between themselves resolve their feelings and clear the air, so as to avoid the necessity for the counseling. They met at the restaurant of the motel in question. According to the woman, it was at first an awkward meeting, but as the two of them talked, they found that their impressions formed at a distance, each of the other, were unrealistic and inaccurate. These impressions gave way to a sense of the other as a real person with faults and a genuine desire to live out the gospel. They each decided that they could manage to maintain a non-threatening Christian relationship and that further intervention would be unnecessary.

They left separately, as they had come. The woman testified that she had driven away before the man and that she saw him leave the restaurant and walk to the parking lot by the motel, opposite from the restaurant parking lot where her car was. She said that on her way home, a giddy feeling came over her. She was very happy, and when she got home, perhaps did behave in a somewhat giddy manner, and was especially joyful that she would not have to tell her husband about the matter.

The next morning, the man was found under a car in the parking lot, frozen stiff and shot through the heart with a .22 caliber bullet. The murder weapon was never found.

At the trial, the principal evidence against the woman was this: she was the last person seen with the victim; she was distraught upon arriving at home that night after meeting the victim; her husband had a .22 rifle and she had access to his ammunition; she had a motive to avoid the disclosure of an illicit love affair.

The jury of five men and seven women deadlocked, seven to five in favor of conviction. The prosecution declined to re-try the case. Many in the community still think she did it, and she leads a difficult existence, employed as a bookkeeper for a small firm.

This cleared up one question. I would have to turn in the purse and the pistol to the police as potential material evidence in a criminal matter. Whether this would result in a re-trial of the matter was unknowable. After a year out of doors in the snow and rain, there were not likely any fingerprints other than my own, which probably covered the entire pistol, being that it was so tiny. Whether there would be any useful ballistic evidence was also uncertain.

Before I turned in this potential evidence, I thought I would see what I could do by way of clearing up the matter. I spent Thursday afternoon in the courthouse, reviewing the trial record. After dinner that evening, I went to see the woman, still uncertain about how I would get rid of her husband so that I could talk to her alone. The address I had for her was in a set of identical two-story apartment buildings. In the dark it took me some time to find the right building.

She answered the doorbell promptly. She was tallish, perhaps an inch taller than my below-average height. She was not so pretty as I had been led to expect. A certain world-weary sadness played about her eyes. Maybe her ordeal had aged her and robbed her of her looks, or maybe I was looking at the ravages of guilt—maybe she was a Dorian Gray without a portrait in her closet.

I introduced myself. I told her I was an investigator who perhaps had new information about the murder of Jason Martel. She let me in but was wary, as, fortunately for me, her husband was not home.

Without any preliminaries, before even either of us had sat down, I took out the small purse, held it in my palm outstretched towards her, and asked, “When did you lose this?”

She looked at the purse, knitting her forehead together, then looked at me with open, innocent eyes. “It’s not mine. I’ve never seen it before.”

“But you know what’s in it.”

“No… no, no, I don’t.”

All right. I put the purse back in my pocket. Despite this gambit of mine, she asked me to sit. I told her what I had learned about the case and asked her to correct any misunderstandings I might have and fill in any information she thought I might be missing. We talked for nearly an hour. She never once smiled. I sensed that if I showed her the pistol, she would start crying, so I didn’t.

I came away feeling sorry for her. Not that I necessarily thought she was innocent. However, if she were acting, she was very good; but then, she’d had a year to rehearse.

Whenever a married person is murdered, there is always a natural suspect ready to hand: the spouse. I had learned that Louise Martel had collected $250,000 in life insurance benefits upon her husband’s death. Whether this could be motive, would depend on what kind of person she was. I made plans to try to talk to her the next day, Friday.

Louise Martel lived in a very upscale neighborhood. Her house was by no means the largest in that neighborhood. However, it was distinctive in that it had been designed—or remodeled—to mimic a Mediterranean villa, with a red pantile roof, a stone wall with an un-doored opening, and a side patio surrounded by trellises. It looked out of place in snowy Syracuse.

I let several minutes pass before I rang the bell a second time. According to my research, she was a self-employed interior decorator, so it was likely that she was home. However, there were no lights visible through the windows, so I could not be sure.

After another long moment, the main door opened with a sound of rushing air as the opening created a vacuum behind the storm door, which clunked as the pressure of the outside air pushed it in tighter against the jamb.

“Yes?” said a woman with dark hair pulled back into a tight pony tail. She was shorter than I and oddly, the level of the foyer floor was a few inches lower than the porch on which I was standing. Consequently, she was staring up at me. She was not unpretty, but she had a peculiar nose, with a bulbous tip.

With age and experience, one does get a sense of people. Instantly I changed my planned approach. Speaking loudly so as to be heard through the storm door, I said, “I think I have found some property which may belong to you—if you are Mrs. Martel.”

She cocked her head and looked at me closely. “I used to be. I go by my maiden name now, Wilson. What is it?”

I took out the purse and holding it between my thumb and forefinger, waggled it as if it were a fish lure. From her reaction, I knew I had her. Getting an admissible confirmation was a matter of using established techniques. It was routine for me.

I flew back to Quebec quite satisfied with my week’s work in the States.

pencilD. Staats is a writer who does not want the reader’s perception of the work to be colored by any description of the author. Would the reader enjoy this story more if he or she knew that it had been written by Anton Chekhov or by Melvin Snodgrass from Podunk, Idaho? Email: d.staats100[at]comcast.net