THE CASE OF THE LOCKED ROOM MURDER

Most illos by Mark Fults

I was sitting in the client's chair in our reception room. Why wasn't I in my office, seated at my desk?

Because Millie was at her desk, and I liked looking at Millie. Sometimes she'd cross her legs and her skirt would slide up the same way my attention would slide up.

"Mike, look at this!" Millie said, with excitement.

I looked at the wall screen where, at the moment, news was playing. ". . .and DNA testing has proven this foot found in Central Park is another piece of the bizarre murder known as the Jig Saw Murder Case," the reporter said, his indicator on a photo of a human foot.

"You need to call the city and offer your services, Mike," Millie said, eager to forward our reputation.

"I talked with Detective Clark this morning," I told her. "He called to see if I had any suggestions." I leaned back in my chair, pleased I was actually ahead of Millie on something. "The guy was a drifter who settled in the park after his wife and boy were killed in an auto accident several years ago. He's got no relaltives. His friends drifted away. No enemies. Looks like some weirdo wanted to make his mark, and this guy was unfortunate enough to be chosen as his victim. No clues. Nothing to go on. I told Clark thanks, but no thanks."

"But Mike ?" Millie started, then stopped as our hall door opened. She put on her receptionist's smile, turned off the screen and asked, "Can we help you?"

The guy wore a spiffy white uniform, including white gloves and a white, hard-billed cap with a crossed anchors insignia. He looked about forty.

"I'm Captain Harrison from the Andromeda," he said.

The Andromeda? Wow! That was an orbiting pleasure ship for the wealthy. Aside from great entertainment in its expensive lounge, it also was a floating casino with nearly every sort of gambling. It was the result of our relationship with the alien Zonkers. When they landed on Earth, they allowed their advanced knowledge to be freely used as a sort of rent they paid Earth for allowing them to settle here.

On the ball as always, Millie said, "Welcome, Captain. How may we be of service to you?"

He looked at me. "Are you Mike Spillane, the private eye?" When I nodded, he continued, "This is a very sensitive matter. May we go to your office to explain?"

Uh-oh! He suffered from too much self-arrogance. Sure, he was important, but so was Millie. "We can go to my office," I assured him, "but Millie will have to come along. She's a very important part of this organization."

To emphasize my point, I remained seated. This could be a very lucrative offer, but money couldn't replace Millie.

His face froze for a second, then he forced a smile. "Of course, Mr Spillane. I assume this means we can trust her discretion?"

Nodding, I stood. "Absolutely. Let's go into my office."

I sat down behind my desk as Millie settled into the chair beside the desk. Captain Harrison seated himself in the remaining chair.

Yeah, yeah, I was handling things in a very cavalier way when a big case smelling of money came along. Well, I'm not in the business for the money, but the pleasure it brought me. My dad's royalties from his years of writing kept pouring in, so I had it made.

Besides, I'm the only private eye on Earth, these days.

Tenting my fingers, I gazed at our new client. "How may my business be of service, Captain?"

He was still digesting the fact he had to go into details with Millie sitting there. Swallowing, he shook his head and began. "It's a great tragedy, Mr Spillane. Jason Robards, owner of the Andromeda, has been murdered."

He glanced at Millie and then back at me. "Worst of all, it's one of those classic mystery cases. He was murdered in a locked room."

Sounded like an interesting case, but I didn't let it show. "Please explain," I said.

"Well, he had his own suite, of course. It was his living quarters and his office. Also, his safe was always loaded with the money that flowed in. There was only one way into the suite, and the door was kept locked even when he was there." He paused. "The lock was one of those palm things, where only his palm could lock or unlock the door."

"How much money was taken?"

"Well, not a lot, not really. Under four thousand dollars. It would have been on his desk as he updated the records."

"Did his palm open the safe?"

He shook his head. "No, it was voice-operated. I would guess the killer tried to get him to open it, but he refused. And then. . . ." He paused and swallowed before he went on. "Then, probably in fury, the killer took him out."

"How was he killed?"

"It was like that jig-saw case in Central Park. His head was cut off and his arms and legs as well."

"Hmmm . . . ." I said, leaning back in my chair. Then it hit me. "If the door was locked, how do you know this?"

"We have a Zonker as chief engineer. He removed a panel beside the door and we went in through the panel. We had to wear earplugs until he reached the wire to disconnect the alarm." He paused a second, then added, "Not wanting business to be affected, we've closed the hall leading to the scene, and I have sworn all to secrecy. To ensure the scene is not disturbed, there are automatic cameras keyed to the new doorway and the alarm is wired to it. The Zonker engineer suggested that, and I immediately endorsed the idea."

I nodded and got to my feet, "I think better on my feet," I explained. I strode to the wall, turned and paced back. "Going from Central Park to the Andromeda seems like a stretch, so I'll put aside the similarity," I said, "but it's still strange both victims were cut into pieces." I added, "You've reported this to the police?"

The Captain shook his head. "Being in orbit, we are a nation unto ourselves. We have our own police department. You are the only ones on Earth who knows about this."

Millie held up a hand. "Yes?" I asked.

"You generally like to examine the crime scene, Mike. Shouldn't we go to the Andromeda and look around?"

"As my guests," Captain Harrison put in. "You should spend the weekend looking around."

Millie squealed with delight. "Mike, that would be fabulous!"

In two hours, we were aboard the Andromeda and in our new quarters. Millie took it all in, then turned to me. "Mike, we're sharing this suite. Don't let it give you any ideas!" she warned.

"Hey, there are two bedrooms. We're no closer than when we're in my office." I didn't add that I'd certainly be looking for opportunities to take advantage of the situation. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

Examining a control panel,I picked up a remote control and said, "Look, we have our own gravity controls! Let's see what zero grav is like."

I flipped a switch and felt my weight disappear. My first action was to stretch out in midair. "We don't need a bed," I said, stretching. "We can sleep on the air!"

"I know you, Mike. It isn't sleep you're considering."

Before I could answer, the comm buzzed. "Mr Spillane," said Captain Harrison. "Everything is ready for your inspection. I'm coming to guide you."

"We'll be waiting," I told him, reluctantly returning gravity to normal. Not used to gravity controls, I thudded when I hit the floor.

Millie put a hand over her mouth to cover a giggle.

"I wanted it that way!" I lied.

"Sure you did," Millie replied with a solemn expression that didn't hide the humorous twinkle in her eyes.

There was a knock on the door and I let Captain Harrison in. "Follow me," he said, and reentered the hall.

Saying 'the hall' is like saying a million dollars is money. It glittered and twinkled, all to the muted sound of symponies. I could almost smell those green, crisp bills that made it possible.

This aisle of wealth led us to the scene of the crime. There were two guards standing in front of the makeshift door, a door that was securely padlocked. The captain extracted a key from a slit in his belt. He opened the door and gestured for us to enter.

Soft light revealed a mahogany desk facing the door. A surprisingly simple chair was behind the desk.

"His torso was seated in the chair, his decapitated head was on the desk, and arms and legs were on the floor," the captain said.

My gaze took it all in, and I nodded. "Obviously the money had been removed from the desk before the head was put there."

"Obviously."

"Where's the body?"

"We're having him cremated. He had wanted his ashes to be tossed into space."

I stiffened. "He's been cremated? Don't tell me that! It's essential that I see the body!"

Startled, Captain Harrison drew back a step. "But. . .but why? We took pictures. You can look at them."

I shook my head. "Photos are good, but the body itself is more important to a professional investigation," I said forecfully.

The captain licked his lips nervously. "I'll check it out," he muttered.

He took his phone from a clip on his belt and started making calls. Finally he hung up and turned back to me. "We're in luck," he told me. "The body is still in the freezer."

I nodded. "Good. That's one disadvantage with crimes committed in space. All someone has to do to eliminate evidence is toss it into space, where it'll never be found. Take me to the body."

When I examined the body -- well, the body parts -- a couple of things caught my attention. The limbs were removed with surgical precision, not just hacked off. Also, the right hand was different from the left. Yeah, I know; there's always a difference between left and right. But this was more. The right hand looked slimmer, muscles stringy.

After taking a few photos of my own, I told the captain he could complete the cremation and went back to our fancy quarters. I phoned Detective Clark back on Earth for information. He told me what I needed to know, then added, "The captain was wrong about one thing, Mike. There is one branch of the law that extends to outer space."

"Oh? What's that?"

"The EBI."

"Never heard of 'em."

"They're fairly new. The EBI was created to control certain financial transactions -- and murder."

I considered that for a moment, then said, "Let me guess. That stands for Earth Bureau of Investigation."

Detective Clark nodded. "You nailed it. Want me to see if I can round one of them up for you?"

"I'd appreciate it. It would be a good idea, however, for him to come incognito, just another guy wanting to enjoy the Andromeda's pleasures."

"Makes sense. I'll tell him to contact you."

When our gab was over, I leaned back and gave the case some more thought.

Millie interrupted my thinking. "Do we eat here or go to one of their fancy restaurants?"

"Let's eat here. When we're through, I'd like to try one of their casinos."

"Me too. Give me half the chips. I'll betcha I come out of the gambling ahead of you."

I grinned. "You're always ahead of me, Millie."

# # #

The attendant who brought our meals sat down the tray, then adjusted his gloves. "Hate these things," he said.

"I'd think you'd get used to 'em," I said.

"Over time, maybe. But they're new. The Captain told us they were to keep from interfering with evidence, whatever that means."

I could see the Captain's intentions. Don't have excess fingerprints laying around. But don't let all employees know what was going on. Could affect morale. "It'll blow over pretty soon, I'd guess." Of course it would! Mike Spillane was on the case. . , , Well, yeah; with the essential help of Millie.

"I sure hope so," he said, with a sigh. "Well, enjoy your meal."

We did, and then we left for the casino.

As usual, Millie was right. In an hour, my tokens were all gone, while she had doubled hers. But there was a good thing about our casino visit -- a man came up to me and said he was John Smith. I know, I know; dumb cover name. Whaddya expect from a new government bureau? Anyway, to verify his existence, he told me Detective Clark had sent him. He said it softly, to avoid nosey ears. Then he gave me his suite number and left. The EBI was aboard!

When we returned to our luxurious sleeping quarters, there was a message for me. It gave a location and told me to come alone.

"Gotta meet somebody," I told Millie.

"Well, let's go."

I shook my head. "It's EBI business. They want to keep it secret. I'm going alone."

Millie frowned. "I don't like that idea, Mike. You don't know your way around this place. Besides, you know how things go when you're alone."

I grinned. "Always the worry-wart, aren't you? I can take care of myself. And the directions to the meeting place are easy to follow."

"Okay, okay. Well look, no guns are allowed here, but you can use these." She handed me my brass knuckles.

"Oh well," I agreed, taking the knucks. "Anything to keep you happy." I kissed her cheek. "See ya!" I said, then turned and left.

Like I told Millie, the instructions were easy to follow. The lights were dim. Millie's concern began to get to me. I put my right hand into my coat pocket where the knucks were and slipped them on.

"Over here," said a voice from the shadows. Gripping the knucks, I walked that way, all senses alert. A movement in the shadows spurred me to duck, and a club swung through the air I had just left. Straightening, I saw a shadowy figure and swung my fist. It made a satisfying connection with someone's jaw.

"Get him!" a voice hissed.

There were at least three of them, but one was down. I might not be as bright as I would like, but this kind of fighting was just up my alley. I kicked out and someone made a shrill scream as my foot landed between his legs.

"Hold it!" a voice said. "I've got a gun!" Even in the dim light, I could see the derringer in his hand. Musta been plastic, to slip through the detection scans.

It was aimed at me.

I slumped. "You got me," I muttered. "I ain't bulletproof."

"And you can't live in space," the man said with satisfaction.

So that was the plan. Dump me into space and there'd be no body, no sign of any crime. However, this third guy made a mistake. He thought I had given up when he showed his gun.

No way! He took a step forward and I kicked again. This time it was a hand that was my target, and I hit it squarely. Just as quickly I grabbed the gun as it flew from his hand.

One I had knocked down scrambled to his feet yelling, "He's got the gun! Let's get outta here!" Even as he said it, he started running. The others followed.

"Better make it fast!" I shouted after them and grinned. Then I saw something fall from one of the bozos pocket. I retrieved it.

A white glove!

I hurried back to Millie, because everything had fallen into place.

# # #

In my suite, Millie was pleased I had figured it out on my own. "I'm proud of you, Mike," she said and kissed me.

For a few seconds, the kiss was the most important thing, but then we separated and I made a few phone calls and had a consultation with the fella from EBI. It was agreed I'd hold a meeting in my quarters in the morning.

Mind churning, it took a long time for me to get to sleep.

The next morning, my suite was crowded. Captain Harrison, of cours, as well as the EBI fella, a Zonker who was the chief surgeon on the Andromeda, the Zonker who was the chief engineer, and the guy who brought our meal. Plus, of course, me and Millie.

"Let me start by mentioning I know the Zonkers better than most anyone else on Earth. While they're way ahead of us scientifically, they're like us in a lot of other ways. The way I got to know 'em was when they hired me on a case, showing there's criminals among 'em the same way there is with us humans. I'd like to thank the two here with us this morning."

I nodded at them, then continued. "Let me tell you what happened. The murder we're investigating was clearly premeditated. Our killer tested his plan by snatching a drifter from our park down below and had his limbs and head removed, then checked to be sure what he planned would work.

"When it did, he set up a meeting with Andromeda's owner and killed him in the same way. Knowing the safe was voice-operated, he copied the command-voice on the phone, hoping to put together the order for the safe to open." I had their attention, particularly that of the Captain.

"Now he knew this would take time," I went on, "so he had to have a sure-fire way to cover his activities. He had to be able to get into the owner's quarters without being caught. So he had a new way into the office, while disabling the alarm."

"Wait a minute!" the Captain cut in. "You're saying I did it! I'm the Captain of the ship. It was to go to me at his death. Besides," he added, "His office would only open to his palm, and we put all kinds of protection to guard the new entrance."

"That's the way it used to be," I said. "You were set to inherit -- until his grandaughter came of age, which was about to happen. As for you getting into his office, that's why he was cut into pieces. With Zonker precision, you had his arm attached to your shoulder, so you'd be able to open the palm lock. Since the owner's hand didn't look like yours, you started wearing gloves. To cover the change, you ordered much of your staff to start wearing gloves as well.

"You know what? The whole thing was a waste! You didn't know it, but his grandaughter said she didn't want the Andromeda, that it was a hotbed of sin. It was going to you after all.

"You were wrong about something else as well. There is a legal department that covers murder in space. It's called the Earth Bureau of Investigation." I indicated the EBI guy. "He's about to place you under arrest." I paused. "But I have one question, Captain Harrison. Why did you hire me, when you were the killer?"

He sagged, but then looked up. "It's your record, damn you. You've lost three out of five cases. If you failed here, that would clear things up so I could take over with no trouble."

That hit my pride. "Three out of five cases?" I asked. "You've gotta be wrong!"

Duke, the EBI fella, smiled. "That was before you hired Millie, Mike. He didn't look into things fully. Since you hired Millie, you've solved almost every case."

Well, I had to admit that made sense. Millie is terrific. I can't deny that. Now, if she'd just show me how good she is in bed!

Okay, okay! But you gotta admit I'm great in a brawl.

CONTENTS


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In case anyone is wondering how a guy from 2040 dictates a story to Richard Logan in our time, blame it on the Zonkers. They arranged a mental hookup on a temporal wave, so when Richard goes to sleep, he sometimes finds himself seated by Mike's desk and listening to his tales.