Short story, written for an assignment, with the prompt: "They found the frozen corpse at the bottom of the cliffs, a ring of keys in his left hand."
January 12, 1923
The sound of a bell echoes through the small building as I push open the door.
The lobby smells like spilled whiskey and cigarettes, and looks like it too. A trail of smoke drifts from the open door to my right, stinging my eyes and making them water.
I cough slightly and call into the other room, "Mr. Warden Crow?"
It's quiet for a moment. Then a man's low, soft voice comes from the other room: "In here."
I wave smoke out of my face and push open the door to the other room, looking around inside.
There, sitting in a chair with his feet kicked up on the desk, is a man who I have only ever heard stories about: the greatest private detective in the city, Detective Warden Crow.
He's a young man, younger than I expected someone of his talent to be. His hair is scruffy and slightly overlong, and it's dirty-blond, looking like someone messed handfuls of dirt into his hair. I can't see the features of his face through all the smoke in the dark room. It's drifting from the burning cigarette in his mouth.
He's in a long, light-brown trenchcoat, the cape of which falls past his chair and drags against the floor. His black tie is undone, and the two ends fall down the collar of the white shirt under his coat.
He slowly pulls the glowing cigarette from his mouth with two fingers, and taps it against the ashtray on his desk, letting dark ash spill out into the tray. He looks up to me, with a raised eyebrow. "Did you want to talk to me?" he says, and his voice is low and soft, without any of the accent people normally have from around here. "Or, did you come all the way downtown just to watch me smoke…?"
I'm not sure what I should do. This is the greatest man to ever live in this city. Do I bow? Shake his hand? Get to my knees and chant, "All hail the private detective Crow"? What do people normally do in these situations?
I don't know what to do, so I don't do anything. I just start talking. "My name is James August, sir. It's a tremendous honor to meet you." I give a small nod, and try to stifle the cough rising up in my throat from all the smoke.
He raises an eyebrow and gestures with his cigarette to the musty window to my left, which I can barely even see anything out of. The movement of his cigarette streaks more smoke into the air in front of his face, obscuring his features even more. "If my smoking's bothering you, you can always open a window."
I nod quickly and pull open the window. Sunlight streams into the darkened room, and I wave as much smoke out of the room as I can.
I look back to Crow. I can see his face now that most of the smoke is out and there's some light in the room. His eyes are a striking green, and he has a pale face that's dusted with gray cigarette ash, like he's hardly spent a day of his life out of this dark, smoky room. (I know that can't be true, though- how could he do all that famed detecting from inside this place?)
"Mr. Crow," I say, nodding to him again. It's the closest I can get to bowing in respect without looking odd. "I need your help. I've heard you're the greatest private detective in the country."
He takes the cigarette out of his mouth, grabbing up a bottle of liquor from his desk with his free hand. "You're not from around here," he says. "You're from somewhere else. Like me." He tilts his head back and takes a drink of his whiskey.
My eyes widen and I blink in shock. How did he know that? Is this my first glimpse of the man's legendary detective skills at work? "Y-Yes," I say, and I can't stop myself from smiling. "How could you tell?"
He reaches over to his desk and sets his bottle down on the table, with a quiet thud. "Your shirt says 'Californian and Proud'."
I look down at my shirt. "Oh! It does, doesn't it? Right, sorry."
He pushes off the desk with his feet, and for the first time I see that he's in a rolly chair. "That, and the fact that you heard somewhere I was even a mildly good detective," he says. He's far more soft-spoken than I expected he'd be, I notice. "I'm more respected out of this city than I am in it."
In response, he holds up his bourbon and blows out a puff of smoke from his cigarette.
I shake my head. "Detective skills are detective skills, sir. I'd very much like to hire you for a case, if you're not too busy."
"'Too busy'?" he says, and laughs quietly. "You're the first one to walk through that door in six months. I can't imagine a quieter place than this. I haven't been hired for a case since the police commissioner stopped letting me work with them."
"Then… you'll have time to work my case, won't you?"
He slowly shakes his head and sighs, blowing out another breath of smoke that floats away in a neat circle. "I'm out of practice. I can't work your case— all I do anymore is drink whiskey and smoke, and I think I'd like it to stay that way."
"Please, sir. I need your help. A man recently died in… 'an accident', down at the ski lodge upstate where I work. And my boss says it's my fault that that accident occurred and the man lost his life, and he says I might lose my job. It's technically in the police's jurisdiction, but they won't listen to me when I tell them that… I think there was foul play involved, and that it wasn't my fault. A man was murdered, Mr. Crow. You're the only one who can help me prove it."
His laugh is breathy and low. "Working a case the police are already on- that's sure to make them hate me less. And it's out of town, too."
He stands up and grabs the neck of his almost-empty bottle of whiskey.
"I can't work your case," he says. "You've my apologies. Now, I'm about to go down to the liquor store, because I find myself almost out." He sloshes around the last drops in the bottle to show me. "So if you don't want to waste anymore of your time, you'll be on your way."
He moves past me, lightly patting me on the shoulder as he goes by. Then he opens the door to the lobby and goes through, leaving the door slightly open behind him.
Desperate, I shout through the door: "I can pay you 15,000 dollars!"
A loud crash from the lobby, the sound of a chair knocking over and falling to the ground, and the shattering of glass on the floor.
There's a silence for a long moment.
Then the sound of footsteps approaching my direction.
Crow pulls open the door and leans against the frame, both hands in his trench coat pockets. "Where would this ski lodge of yours be, again?"
January 14, 1923
Sanctuary Ski Lodge
It's cold here. The snow is stinging my face and hands with its chill, so I pull my scarf higher over my face and stuff my hands deep in my pockets to shield my skin.
"I still think this was a bad idea," I hear the Commissioner say behind me – to another member of the police force, I'd assume.
I turn around. Commissioner Evan Thompson looks... strange in the snow. His skin is starkly paper-white, so much that it blends with the snow, making the dark features of his face sharply stand out. His thick crop of black hair, his blocky black glasses, and his dark eyes with the black irises- and he's all wrapped in a bundle of black coats, with white gloves. He's all blacks-and-whites, like one of those silent pictures you see in theatres.
"You didn't have to come if you didn't want to, sir," I say to him.
He scoffs. "You think I want to be here?" he says. "Trust me, if I had the luxury of not showing up at the site of a 'murder investigation', then I'd be on the nearest train out of this place before I even had to interact with that nutjob. There are reasons we stopped hiring Crow, you know. I can't stand that guy."
I nod. "He told me as much. He says you don't like him because he drinks and smokes."
Thompson rolls his eyes. "Course he'd say that. It's not just that, it's everything about him. He's apathetic. He doesn't give two damns about anyone or anything, besides getting enough money to buy his next bottle of booze."
"Nice to see you again too, Commissioner," a soft voice says from behind Thompson.
I look over Thompson's shoulder as he turns around.
Crow is standing there, not dressed for the snow at all. He's really in basically the same get-up as he was in a few days ago, although his black tie is loosely tied now. He looks… out of place. He doesn't look like he belongs here, in this crisp, white snowy area- he's the type of man who really only looks at home in a dark and smoky room, which might be why he spends so much time there.
"If you're looking for an apology for that, you're not getting one," Thompson says.
"I don't expect it," Crow says quietly, taking a few leisurely steps forward with his thumbs hooked in his trench coat pockets. "It's not like you haven't said as much to my face before."
Thompson narrows his eyes. "If you're going to work on trying to 'solve' this non-case, then you should get to it already and stop wasting my time."
"If I am to do that, then I'll need the details, Commissioner," Crow says quietly, stepping up to the body and staring down at it. "Would you care to give me some background?"
Thompson stuffs his white gloves into his pockets, giving Crow a brief dirty look before beginning. "They found the frozen corpse at the bottom of the cliffs," he says, nodding to the body. "Ring of keys in his left hand."
"The victim?" Crow asks, getting to his knees next to the body.
The Commissioner pulls out a notepad, and reads from it. "Caucasian male, age 27. Bradley Mason. He was moving down the cliffs when your little screw-up here—" (he points to me, and I flush) "—decided it'd be a real good idea to unload the boxes at the top of the hill, without checking if anybody was down there. They fell, this guy took the hit."
"I did check, thanks," I say. "He wasn't down there, so I know it wasn't me."
"Well, all the evidence says otherwise, kid," Thompson says, looking to me. "Blunt force trauma to the head. Sounds a lot like something that'd happen from getting a loaded box dropped on him, don't you think?"
I'm about to say something when Crow loosely holds up a hand to get us to stop.
"Shh…" he whispers, holding a finger up to his lips. "I'm trying to figure this out, so if you wouldn't mind not bickering like schoolchildren for a moment I'd be very appreciative."
He sits down all the way in the snow, cross-legged, beside the body. (I wince. That looks unnecessarily cold. He's hardly even fazed, though.) "The key was in his left hand, correct?" he says to the Commissioner, who nods.
Crow reaches over and picks up the man's limp hand, examining it.
"Crow!" Thompson says. "Don't touch the body! How many times do we have to tell you that it is basic police procedure not to-"
"Evan, I'm being paid $15,000 to solve this case," Crow says. "I don't care about police procedure."
The Commissioner looks more than a little stunned, either by the amount of money or by the use of his first name. He turns around to me. "15,000 bucks?" he says, raising a dark eyebrow.
I shrug. "I don't want to lose my job."
Thompson scoffs, turning back around to Crow. "I should've known. You'd do anything for money, Crow, anything that'll let you keep on drinking under a roof. Even trying to solve this bullshit non-case."
"Never mind that," Crow says quietly, examining the man's hand. "Shush now. Let me think."
Thompson glares at him.
"The victim has a tan, I see," Crow says, examining the man's bronzed skin. "Which means he's likely rich in some way— rich enough probably to have an automobile, which could be what the key was for." He smiles slightly and looks down at his own skin, then at me and Thompson. "And it also means that he probably hasn't spent a lot of time anywhere around here..."
Thompson crosses his arms and self-consciously smoothes a hand across his paper-white face. I look down at my own skin, and, well... I'm not exactly 'bronze' either.
"Again, the key was found in his left hand, is that right?" Crow says, pulling up the sleeve of the dead body's coat and examining the wrist closely.
"Yeah," Thompson says. "What difference does it make?"
"A lot of difference to a clever detective," Crow says. "Maybe that's why you wouldn't know," he adds quietly, and I don't think Thompson hears him.
Crow rolls the man's sleeve all the way up, making sure it stays like that, and then stands up.
"The key was planted," he says simply.
Thompson is silent for a good five seconds before he even says anything. "What?" he finally says. "What the hell makes you say that? It's not that unreasonable to assume that a rich fella like that'd have an automobile."
"He may well have one, but I can assure you that he wasn't on his way to unlock it," Crow says, ruffling a hand through his blond hair. "Which means he wouldn't have been anywhere on the hill where August could hit him. The victim's not left-handed, see. There are lines in the tan on his left wrist, like a watch had been there." He narrows green eyes at the wrist curiously. "A watch that, you'll note, doesn't seem to be here anymore," he adds softly.
He starts circling around the body, staring down at it intently, and continues.
"The key was probably planted to try and make it seem like the victim died at this spot," he says. "If they made it seem like he was on his way to unlock his car, it wouldn't have been much of a stretch to say that our friend James here accidentally killed him. The murder would be explained, the death would be pinned on James, and there wouldn't be too much of an investigation into the actual event. Poor James losing his job may have been only an unfortunate side effect to our killer... or it may have been part of the motive."
"But why kill a guy, risk all that, just to make this sap lose his job?" Thompson says, nodding to me. I'm about to protest the use of 'sap' when Crow starts talking again.
"It's not the only motive," Crow says. "I'll get back to it. You'll notice the watch is gone— and did the victim, by any chance, have a wallet on him when you found him?"
"No," Thompson says, still looking skeptical. "We identified him by appearance, not identification."
Crow nods. "That's what I thought. My opinion is that this may be a robbery gone wrong- our killer finds this rich skier from out of town, and decides it's a good way to make a quick buck. He'll rob him, steal his watch and wallet, the whole, ah… shebang, as I believe they say around here. The victim put up too much of a fight, though— moreso than our killer thought— and so the killer bashes in the victim's head. The killer panics and drags the body away to here, where he knows the murder can be pinned on James."
His gaze lifts to the mountains, and he stares off into the distance, deep in thought.
"But why pin it on August?" he muses quietly, almost as though to himself. "Why not absolutely anybody else who works here? Maybe it's just a case of James being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe…"
He looks up to me. "You get paid a lot of money, do you, James? You'd have to, to be able to give me 15,000 straight just to get this solved."
I nod, slowly. "Yessir. There's a lot of risk to my job, so it pays well."
"Is your line of work a… promotional arrangement, so to speak?" he asks. "One where you can advance in the ranks, I mean."
"And what's the gap in pay between you and the next person in line? Are you at the top of the pile, something like that?"
I shrug lightly. "I think you could say that. I make a good 80% more than the guy directly below me. But what does that have to do with…?"
Crow holds up a hand. "What I'm trying to get at is this- if you were to be moved out of the picture, would the person directly below you get your job? Your money, your position, your everything?"
I frown, but nod. "Y-Yes… yes, they would."
He nods, looking back down at the body. "That's good, it gets us a step closer. So, here's how I've got it worked out— we have ourselves a man who is very strapped for cash, flat-broke. So he robs a wealthy man and kills him. But he knows that this brief surge of money is only a temporary solution. A long-term one would be to get himself a new job- James' job, in fact. And what would be a better way to do that than to make you lose that job, so he can move up? If he ties the two things together, he can knock out two birds with one stone – take care of his money problems and make sure no one pins him for the murder."
"But who would… why would… that's not…" I can't even say anything coherent. I can't believe it.
Crow nods to one of the other police officers. "If you will, go fetch the employee working directly under James here. Bring him down."
The man quickly nods, and runs off up the hill towards the HQ, where Marlow Higgins should be working at this moment.
My stupefied feelings of complete and utter bewilderment must have shown on my face, as I looked at HQ to Crow, to HQ to Crow again. That was all I could do, all the way up until the officer came back, dragging Marlow Higgins with him by the arm.
Marlow doesn't look any different – same as he ever did. His hair is dirty blond, but in a different way than Crow's—with him, it's as though somebody mixed streaks of chocolate into fine, expensive champagne. His dark brown eyes are smooth and intelligent. I've always thought of him as being affluent – he acts and talks like he is. And he always wears that dark coat, so I can't actually ever see what he's wearing, or how expensive it is.
The officer lets go of Marlow's arm and steps back.
The Commissioner turns to him. "What's your name?" he asks. "Well, come on, we don't have all day. Let's get this over with."
Marlow is calm. "My name is Marlow Higgins, sir. May I ask what I've been brought down here for?" He raises both eyebrows, his face clear.
"We're here investigating a murder investigation, and right now you're our primary suspect," Thompson says.
Marlow's face freezes in place in shock, both eyebrows still raised. Then his expression turns confused, and he narrows his eyes at Thompson. "Excuse me?"
Crow steps between Thompson and Marlow, hands in his pockets. "I wish the news would have been delivered a touch more tactfully, but that is why you're here. But if you didn't do it, then you shouldn't have anything to worry about… now should you?"
Marlow gives a long pause. Then he flashes a cold smile. "Of course I wouldn't. Is there anything you'd like to ask me?"
"Yes, there is, in fact," Crow says. "I'd like to ask you to take off your coat."
Marlow's face goes a little paler than before, but he quickly regains composure. "What, in this weather?"
"Yes, in this weather," Crow says softly. "Look at me: I'm fine with being in nothing but a trench, in this weather. Take your coat off."
Marlow gives Crow a small, barely perceptible glare before undoing his dark coat and holding it over his arm. He has another one underneath it, though, which makes me wonder why he'd complain about the weather in the first place. The coat underneath it is not as nice as the one he's wearing on top – in fact, it's raggedy, moth-eaten – and his belt is made of cheap cardboard.
Crow takes the coat from him, holding it up and briefly looking through it. "Other coat, too, if you would," he says offhandedly, still searching through the first overcoat.
Marlow flashes a charming smile, though it's becoming clear through the look in his eyes how annoyed he's becoming with all this. "Is this a murder investigation or a strip club?" he says, laughing in a slightly nervous voice.
He begrudgingly takes off his coat, handing it to Crow. He's now in only a raggedy gray T-shirt. I can see how thin he is now, something he's apparently always hidden well before.
Crow takes the coat, throwing the other one down in the snow. I can see that Marlow is about to protest to that, but he goes completely silent and pales when Crow starts searching through the second one.
Crow pauses, latching his fingers around something inside one of the pockets.
Marlow takes one step backward, foot crushing softly against the clean snow. But the Commissioner hears that and grabs his arm to keep him from going anywhere as Crow pulls out a sleek, black-and-gold watch from the pocket of the coat.
Crow looks up at Marlow, his green eyes shining and his lips twitching with amusement. I can see him visibly fighting back the desire for a victory smirk. "Now, tell me, Higgins…" he says, taking a few steps up to Marlow. "Why would a man of your income have an expensive piece like this?"
Marlow looks around at each of us, and his gaze slowly pulls down to the snow bank.
Then he wrenches himself free of Thompson's grip and makes a desperate run for it down the white hill.
Thompson lets out a shout as Marlow shoots off down the hill. The two of us, along with half the policemen on the hill alongside us, are about to take off after him… when somebody else beats us to it.
Marlow runs quickly. The man has some fast legs on him. But I swear, I have never seen a man move faster in my life than private detective Warden Crow.
The snow wildly slides in a white blizzard beneath his feet as he skids down along the snow, brown trench coat cape whipping behind him. He goes so fast that he gets ahead of Marlow, jumping ahead and cutting him off before he gets to the bottom of the hill. He grabs Marlow's arm and pins it behind his back, forcing him to his knees to keep him from getting away again.
Another police officer quickly moves down the hill to put Marlow in cuffs. I smile a little bit at the shocked look Commissioner Thompson is wearing.
Yes, I think it's safe to say the police department will start hiring Warden Crow a lot more often now.