‘All right, listen up now,” said Detective Shanaghy, thrusting his hands deep into his sagging pockets. He surveyed the small gathering of office staff. “I’m gonna ask you just one time: which one of you did the killing?”
A gloomy silence descended over the room.
“Isn’t it your job to find out?” said a female voice, not unpleasantly. The rest of the staff waited tensely for the detective’s reply. Three men in costly suits stood silently outside the boardroom toward the far windows.
“OK,” said the detective, “that last speaker, Mrs. Fore — I wrote her name in my notebook — was right. You’re right, Mrs. Fore. I asked that question because I wanted to see who looked guilty. I have to say, so far nobody does. But then, you may all be good actors.
“And now for the serious stuff,” Shanaghy continued, surveying faces one by one. “You say the deceased woman, Ms. Brackett, left the office at about 2:55 to use the ladies room and never came back. Why did no one go to check on her?”
“Only the women could do that,” said a young man wearing large round glasses. He was sitting near Mrs. Fore and not far from Ms. Brackett’s empty desk.
“Excuse me. Round Glasses,” said the detective. “Hold on while I look at my notes. You are Mr. More. Excuse my mistake. Then let me ask everybody this: why did none of the women go to check on Ms. Brackett?”
“I was in the inner office with the director and the assistant directors — there,” said a woman with blonde hair, pointing to where the suits were looking on from the boardroom door. “We didn’t know anything until we heard the scream. Well, I mean, the second scream.”
“To be fair, I don’t think any of the women saw Ms. Brackett leave,” said Mrs. Fore.
“And you with the second scream,” said Shanaghy, addressing the woman with blonde hair. “You’re Ms. Stilly. That’s with a “t,” you told me. I wrote that down, too. I write everything down so I don’t forget later. So then, tell me, who did see Ms. Brackett leave?”
“I did,” said Mr. More.
“And what did you do?”
“What did I do? Nothing — until we heard the scream.”
“That would be the first scream?”
“Right. And then Mrs. Fore said I should go out and see if I could see anything.”
“And did you?”
“I went out in the hall and looked around. I didn’t see anything there. I even looked in the stairwell. All I saw was dustballs and stringy bits of paper. There was only a little light from the transom. The bulb was out. Of course, I couldn’t go into the ladies room, so I came right back.”
“Who uses those stairs?”
“Nobody uses them,” said Ms. Stilly, with a shudder. “They’re dark, poorly lighted, dreary. It’s only for the building code, I suppose.”
When Ms. Stilly had finished, a police officer entered and approached detective Shanaghy, who put his head down and listened patiently.
After a few moments of listening, Shanaghy began to laugh softly.
“Officer Quigg,” he said. “What you tell me is good, but there’s something stuck to your shoe.”
Officer Quigg looked at his shoe and everybody else looked with him. There, projecting from the side of one thick crepe sole, was a stringy bit of paper.
“Where’d you get that?” asked Shanaghy, “on the stairs?”
“No, I come up the elevator, same as you. Didn’t know there was a stairs. There’s more of this paper stuff in the ladies room.”
“All right, that’ll do for now,” Shanaghy said, and Officer Quigg left as abruptly as he had come.
Detective Shanaghy stood silently turning the pages of his notepad with a moistened finger. “You keep saying the first scream, the second scream. The first was probably Ms. Brackett’s, when someone confronted her. Not loud enough to be heard in the back office. There was at least one other.”
“Making two,” said Mr. More.
“Two. And the second was when Ms. Brackett’s body was discovered by someone employed by the other company down the hall.”
The detective paused.
“Now then, we know that Ms. Brackett left the office and never returned, that Mr. More went to have a look in the hall and the stairwell and did return shortly after. Who else came and went around the time of the incident?”
“Miss Stilly did,” said Mrs. Fore, firmly. “She went out and came back about ten minutes later, after Ms. Brackett had left for the ladies room.”
“And where did you go, Miss Stilly?”
“I thought I heard thunder,” she said, glaring at Mrs. Fore. “I went out to close the windows in my car.”
Anybody else hear thunder?”
“Ok, apparently no one did. Anybody else go or come? You, back there, Suits; did any of you go out?”
“And you didn’t hear the first scream either. Like Miss Stilly, who was in the back with you.”
“The newsboy came and went,” said Mr. More, looking up suddenly, “for what it’s worth; but that was before the first scream. He was new, a younger guy; didn’t know his way around; didn’t announce the name of the paper the way the regular guy does. Kind of humorless, I thought.”
“What do they do when they come? What did he do?”
“Put the paper on the table there. Took the old one and left without a word.”
“The paper came late,” said Miss Stilly. “Normally I carry it back to management as soon as it’s delivered.”
Shanaghy took a few steps toward the table. “Is this the copy that got delivered? I see it in other offices; must be very popular. This one’s got strips like spaghetti hanging out of it . . .” He turned toward Mr. More. “That may explain the bits of paper on the stairs and in the ladies room.”
“An error at the printer, probably,” Mr. More replied.
“OK, I learned something. And then when the second scream came, what then?”
“You can be sure that got our attention,” said Mr. More.
“And what happened?”
“Some of us thought it was a prank, others were afraid to look. Then we heard a commotion in the hall. Some people from the other office had gathered out there. We heard someone say “murder” or “Is she dead? We thought about Ms. Brackett — a bit late, I guess.”
“And what did you do after that?”
“We stayed put. It might have been a shooter. It was the consensus to stay put. We waited here till the patrolmen came. We still haven’t budged from the office.”
“You did the right thing,” said Shanaghy. “But for the life of me I can’t make any sense of this case. I can’t figure out why anyone would want to kill poor Ms. Brackett. There doesn’t appear to be a motive.”
The detective pulled on his nose and gave it a gentle rub. Then he lifted his eyes toward the boardroom.
“Hey you,” he said. “Back there. Anything to say? For managers you seem to be a bunch of shy and retiring types.”
At that they all laughed but no one had anything useful to offer.
“OK, then,” said Shanaghy. “I’ll be burning the midnight oil on this one. You understand that I may return at any time to question you, individually or collectively. I may call you to the station.”
The detective folded his notepad and put it inside his jacket. When he was about to take his leave, Mrs. Fore shot up her hand and said, “Detective, I believe I know who did it, and why.”
Shanaghy stopped in his tracks. He clicked his pen shut and turned and looked at Mrs. Fore.
But before she could say another word, the door sprang open and Detective Shanaghy’s friend Giacomo Flange came through. He was pulling a wheeled hard case filled with photographic gear.
“What the . . . ?” said Shanaghy, stepping backward toward the file cabinets.
“Portraits,” said Flange, nodding toward the boardroom.
“Who let you in here?”
“Officer Quigg did — right after we solved the case. The newsboy did it.”
“How do you figure that?”
Then Mrs. Fore, seeing her chance, began jumping up and down and waving her arm impatiently “Oh, I know the answer to that. Can I please?”
“Go for it,” said Flange, before Shanaghy could open his mouth.
“The paper bits, the shreds of paper,” she said. “The shreds on the steps nobody uses. The shreds in the ladies room . . . the shreds on the newspaper copy on the table . . . brought by a new deliverer who didn’t know his way around.”
Mrs. Fore continued to lay out the evidence while Shanaghy wrote it down on his notepad as fast as he could. When she had finished, there was a brief, muted applause from her colleagues.
Shanaghy and Flange stood looking at each other in silence for a moment. Afterward Flange said, “A failure to accept responsibility for his blunder going in. And then again for his impetuous crime.”
“I don’t know,” said Shanaghy, finishing up his writing. “We’re going to need more than a few shreds of evidence.”
Flange laughed and resumed his laborious progress. “The missus there will explain it to you,” he said over his shoulder. “And I’ll always be available for consultation if you need me.”
Symons, a freelance translator and technical writer, was a long-time member of the U.S. 1 delivery team (occasionally dealing with strands of newsprint) and served for many years as a reader of submissions to the Summer Fiction issue.