How about some short detective fiction?
Do you like Sherlock Holmes? Do you love college? Have you ever had a weird fuckin’ roommate? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then boy do I have a story for you! This is a short story I wrote for my Fiction class this past semester. I was inspired by the Holmes story “The Sign of the Four,” as well as the excellent BBC series “Sherlock.” After going on a little Sherlock Holmes kick with those two versions, I decided to create my own with the Watson and Holmes characters (Ben Wilson and Seamus Ostendorf in my story, respectively) as American college students. If you’ve got a bit of time (19 Word pages worth), check it out:
The place was a mess, but I was desperate. I guess starting in the spring semester at New London University of Vermont leaves a man with very few options. Otherwise, I’d like to think that I never would have moved in with the strange fellow inside that apartment. I’d like to think.
As the landlady, sweet Mrs. Meadows, showed me inside, a skunky smell wafted to my nostrils. The clutter was atrocious: opened books strewn about the floor, strange tubes, bells and whistles (the appearance of a chemistry set) in even stranger places. And there he was, seated comfortably in his recliner, tall and thin and quite impeccably dressed for a man pulling on a three-foot glass bong.
“Oh for God’s sake, Seamus,” Mrs. Meadows scolded.
He coughed once but did not rise. Only after a few moments of what I can only assume was deep meditation did he feel the need to reply.
“It’s medicinal, Mrs. Meadows; you know that.”
“And just what might it be treating?”
“A bored mind, Mrs. Meadows. A bored mind.” For the first time he peered in my direction. I had the distinct sense of being evaluated- not at all an unfamiliar sensation, but one I didn’t much care for nonetheless.
“Hi, I’m Ben. I’m—”
“The new roommate, yes,” he cut me off.
“Well no, I haven’t decided to move in yet.”
He shot up from his chair and moved to a nearby table, where he began vigorously flipping through the pages of some large volume.
“I don’t see why not. You need a place to stay; I need a roommate. The numbers add up. And you can’t deny numbers, Mister…”
“Wilson. But call me Ben.”
“You can’t deny numbers, Wilson; they never lie. And the numbers also say you don’t have very many options, coming in for the spring semester and all.”
“It’s Ben.” We locked eyes. Mrs. Meadows let out a nervous sigh. Who did this guy think he was?
“Right. Ben. A veteran, right?”
“How- what makes you say that?” I managed, taken aback.
From the way his eyes lit up, I could tell he couldn’t wait for me to ask.
“It’s this stupid fucking trick he does. Don’t get him started.”
“Goddamnit, Phil, have you not moved out yet?”
Phil, in fact, had not moved out yet, although he appeared to be in the process. He was a short stocky fellow with a face that looked like it had had enough. He was carrying a large box of videogames, wore a backwards Red Sox hat and proudly displayed Greek letters on the front of his t-shirt. How the hell did these two end up together?
“Listen guy,” Phil warned. “Do yourself a favor and get outta here while you can. Ol’ Seamus here is a friggin’ nutjob.”
“Genius is often misconstrued,” Seamus muttered, still immersed in his gigantic book.
“Jesus Christ. See what I mean?” Phil put down his box, walked in my direction and handed me a flyer. “We’re having a party tonight. You seem like a pretty normal dude. Come by, maybe you’ll wanna rush this semester, huh?”
“Doesn’t he seem a bit old to pledge the juvenile institution of date-rape that is your fraternity, Phil?”
Phil shrugged. “I don’t know. How old are you, man?”
“Twenty-four,” I replied. “I did a couple tours in Iraq before enrolling.”
“Oh. Well uh, salud!” and he offered a poorly formed salute, unaware that he just toasted me in Italian. He gathered his things and headed for the door.
“There’s no age requirement anyway. Hey, it’ll be just like Old School! You my boy, Blue!” He laughed to himself and made his exit.
Seamus flipped furiously through the pages of what could only be an encyclopedia of some sort. Was he even reading anything?
“There’s no IQ requirement either,” he remarked dryly.
“Best of luck, Phillip!” Mrs. Meadows called after him. Seamus shot her a look and rolled his eyes. Just then a phone vibrated on the counter. Seamus darted over and snatched it up.
“Campus safety alert! There’s been a shooting a shooting in Fairfield hall.”
“A shooting? In Vermont?” To my knowledge only deer and turkeys got shot in Vermont.
“Happens more often than you’d think. So you coming with me?”
“With you? Where?”
“To the crime, Ben, the crime!” As if this was the most obvious thing in the world.
I pointed out that the purpose of those alerts was to keep us away from the area.
“Depends how you read it.” He threw on a long overcoat and moved toward the door. “You in or you out?”
I couldn’t believe I was actually pondering the question. No more than five minutes with this guy and he wants me to run off to a shooting with him? I thought it would be quiet here, boring. I had told myself that’s what I wanted.
“Oh, don’t feel obligated to go, Ben,” Mrs. Meadows offered. “Seamus is always running off on his cases.”
“Investigations, Mrs. Meadows. So how ‘bout it, Army-boy, up for a little adventure?
I took this in and wondered whether or not I should be offended. I didn’t have time to decide. Seamus was already out the door.
It was well past 6:30 and campus had been dark for some time now. A weak yellow glow from the street lamps did its best to light the cobblestone streets. I had heard NLUVM was an old-style college, but this was ridiculous. Kind of eerie, really. Where were all the students?
“So how did you know I was in the military?” I posed this question to Seamus as we walked briskly past rows of ominous stone buildings. Was this Vermont or Hogwarts?
“It’s quite obvious, Ben, I wouldn’t want to bore you with the details.”
“Humor me,” I said, recognizing that he very much wanted to bore me with the details. He didn’t break stride as he spoke.
“You walked in with a slight limp, not a sure sign of a combat wound by any means, but I held it as a possibility. There’s increased wrinkling and dry skin on the first knuckle of your right index finger, indicating a very active trigger-finger. Combine that with a well-fit shirt tucked into impeccably ironed khakis, military precision if I’ve ever seen it, a distinct air of feeling underappreciated by your countrymen and world-weary eyes that seem bored by life outside the war-zone, and I’d go so far as to say you miss it over there. It wasn’t a great leap to make.”
“I don’t miss it,” I retorted flatly, attempting to hide my amazement at whatever the hell it was that just happened.
“OK, you don’t miss it then,” he offered unconvincingly.
“You did get one thing wrong though, Seamus.” Now he stopped. “I was Marine Corps. Not Army.”
He let out a relieved laugh and continued his pace.
“That Army-boy comment was only to get you pissed off enough to follow me. It’s good to have backup on an investigation. Of course I knew you were a Marine.”
“Of course you did,” I sighed, and hurried after.
By the time we reached Fairfield Hall, campus police had already blocked off the entrance. It was an imposing building. No more than four or five stories high, but completely made of stone and almost castle-like in its appearance. It was gothic not only in architecture, but in its disposition. Seamus strode right up to the caution tape.
“Hold on there, pecker-lips.” The man behind this witty insult stood on the other side of the barrier, a diminutive hand held straight in Seamus’s face. We both looked down to a bald, squirrely campus police officer that had a distinct air of being too big for his britches. I got the feeling he watched too many network television police dramas. He squinted at us like he needed glasses, chomping an excessively large cigar. I wondered what he was celebrating.
“Patterson, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get in there before you and your boys muck up all the evidence, or at least before the real cops get here and actually find something. You can see how that would ruin my fun, can’t you?”
“Very clever, Seamus. Unfortunately there’s no room in there for your fucked-up morbid curiosities,” Patterson chirped back.
“I think solving your last five cases for you qualifies me as more than a morbid thrill-seeker, don’t you?”
“No, Seamus, I don’t. Anyone can get lucky four or five times. Now why don’t you leave this to the professionals?”
“Because the so-called professionals are utterly incompetent. Let. Me. In.”
“No can do, guy. Look, it says right here…” he held up a blank clipboard. “No Seamus Ostendorf allowed. Ever. You’re shit outta luck kid!” He had a good laugh at this one and even I had to contain my amusement at the hodge-podge of ethnic European names. Seamus turned away, defeated. I began to follow.
“Hey kid!” Patterson was talking to me. “Do yourself a favor and ditch this weirdo. He’ll only get you into trouble. And he sure as hell ain’t gonna get you laid!” The cops erupted as if this was the funniest thing they had ever heard.
“Let’s go, Ben!” a very clearly aggravated Seamus whined. He stomped off amidst the laughter; my only option was to follow.
“Seamus Ostendorf, eh? That’s quite the name.”
“Well, you know what they say about names,” Seamus replied, power-walking around the back of the building. I waited for the rest, but it never came. Was that a statement?
“Ah. Here we are.” We were standing at a dimly lit back door to Fairfield Hall. Seamus knocked in a peculiar pattern. Within seconds the door flung open, and a security guard stood in the entrance. Seamus leaned in and they spoke in hushed tones. I rocked back on my heels, waiting to be shooed away. Soon enough though, the two exchanged the goofiest multi-step handshake I’d ever seen and we were in the stairwell.
“You know that guy?” I asked Seamus as we trudged upward.
“Maurice? I make it my business to know all the security guards around campus. Precisely for situations like these.”
“Right. Your business. But this isn’t a business Seamus. You’re a grad student, right? Shouldn’t you be doing, I don’t know, grad student things?”
Seamus let out a disinterested sigh. “Graduate studies bore me. This is my calling.”
We reached the fourth floor and quietly made our way down the hallway. There was one officer stationed outside the door, but in true campus police fashion he was facing the other way and not hard to sneak past. This part I actually quite enjoyed.
Professor Herzog’s office was, at least what I imagined to be, the dream office of college professors across the globe- a bastion of academia. Shelves of books lined every wall that wasn’t covered by paintings or maps, fancy furniture sat facing his giant oak desk, there was even a telescope pointed out the corner window. And in the middle of it all lay Professor Herzog, a pool of black crimson leaking from his head across the expensive-looking carpet, black pistol gripped stiffly by a cold hand.
Seamus went right to work, scurrying about the room like a mini Irish-German tornado. He eyed every book, shelf, map and piece of furniture in there, darting from one to the next without spending more than a few seconds at each. Finally he approached the body.
“Hmmmmmm,” he puzzled as he lifted the dead man’s head and examined the exit wound.
I asked if he was sure he should be doing that, only to be shot a ferocious look. I guessed he was sure.
“What in the name of fuck is going on in here?!”
Seamus softly laid the head back down as Officer Patterson exploded into the room.
“How the hell did you two get in here?”
“Your doorman isn’t all too perceptive, is he?” Seamus smiled back.
Behind a fuming Patterson, the doorman meekly slipped back outside. Patterson clenched an over-caffeinated fist and ordered his men to get us out of there. They promptly stepped forward to do so, but a quick look let them know I could walk myself out. Seamus wasn’t so ready to go.
“Are you sure you don’t want to know who killed Professor Herzog?”
Patterson scoffed. “Herzog killed Herzog, you twit. This is a suicide, plain as day.”
Looking to the lifeless body clutching the pistol, I had to agree. No signs of a struggle, everything in the room in perfect order. This was no locked room mystery. The old guy had offed himself.
Seamus smiled. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
Patterson scoffed, motioned for his officers to lay off.
“Alright boy genius, let’s hear your wacky theory.”
Seamus dusted off his jacket where the men had held him. From the looks on their faces, I could tell this wasn’t their first run-in with NLUVM’s resident self-made detective.
“Thank you, boys.” He moved back toward the body. “Ben, what type of gun is that?”
I looked down at the weapon. “Glock .22.”
“Very good, Ben, I knew you’d come in handy.”
Wow, that was condescending. I pictured how easily I could snap this string bean in half.
“So what, you’re gonna tell me that you can tell what type of gun was used just by examining the wound with your naked eye? And let me guess, it ain’t no Glock right?” Patterson asked mockingly.
“Actually, the fatal shot was fired from the Glock. And yes, my naked eye tells me so.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“This, Patterson.” He ran behind the desk and motioned to a large bookshelf. “This is the problem!”
“A bookshelf?” was Patterson’s response.
“Jesus, Patterson, I thought even you would surmise that the books were the problem, not the bookshelf.”
“Well yeah, that’s what I meant…”
“All of these books, every last one of them, pertain to the same subject. And that subject is…”
I leaned in and took a look. “Antique guns.”
“Very good again, Ben! And further inspection will show that not one of these books covers any sort of firearm manufactured after World War II. And even further inspection, if you can wrap your head around that concept, Patterson, will reveal that something has been removed from this very shelf, something that, outlined by dust, takes the shape of a capital ‘I,’ and what has the shape of a capital ‘I,’ Ben?”
I didn’t appreciate being thrown questions Seamus clearly knew the answers to, but he appeared to be onto something and I couldn’t help but be intrigued. I let it slide and gave the answer he was waiting for: a gun rack.
“A gun rack! And judging by the size of it, a single pistol gun rack, a single pistol we can only assume was an antique. Like any good enthusiast, the man was a collector! I’d be willing to bet he had a much larger collection at home, after all, no guns on campus, right?” He motioned to Patterson’s holstered flashlight. Patterson gripped it uneasily.
“So I ask you, Patterson, why would a man, who has clearly dedicated so much of his life to antique firearms, choose to end it with a brand-spanking new Glock .22?”
“Um,” was all Patterson could muster.
“Precisely, Patterson! He wouldn’t! Professor Herzog was indeed killed by a Glock, but it was not by his own hand. You sir, have got yourself a murder.”
The room was completely silent. I found myself just as stunned as the rest of them. Finally Seamus broke the quiet.
“Don’t you think you should do something about it then?”
“Oh. Right.” Patterson began barking out orders to his men. “You! Secure the perimeter again! And you! Check for prints on that gun!”
“I wouldn’t bother with that, Patterson,” Seamus advised as we made our way to the door. “This man was way too thorough to leave behind anything like that. Why do you think he took the antique gun?”
“To steal it?”
“No, Patterson, so fools like you couldn’t put it all together. Thankfully he couldn’t take the books.” With that, we made our exit.
“That was incredible!” I exclaimed as we made our way back to the apartment. A soldier sees a lot of unbelievable things in his time, but nothing quite like that. I had to hand it to the cocky bastard.
“Just reasoning, really. You make for good backup. I suppose you’ll be needing a place to stay tonight?”
I conceded that I did and asked if he minded.
“Not at all. We have more work to do anyway. Who would want Professor Herzog dead?” Seamus ruminated on this while I pulled out Phil’s flyer from my pocket.
“Actually,” I started, “I was planning on checking out this party. You should come.”
The look on Seamus’s face made me wonder if I might have actually spawned eight heads.
“That party? You can’t be serious.”
Unsure why I couldn’t be serious, I insisted that I was.
“Suit yourself then, Ben. There is a killer on the loose, but by all means, you go have fun.”
I wasn’t about to be guilt-tripped by an egotistical amateur detective, so I ignored this passive-aggressive shot.
“Can I still crash at your place?”
“Sure,” he said. “Just knock when you’re back. I’ll be up.”
I told him it might be late.
“Like I said, I’ll be up. I have work to do.”
I went to the party later that night. It wasn’t my first college party. I had visited my older brother when I was in high school. He taught me how to get blackout drunk, a habit I quickly kicked but he still hasn’t managed to. I’d been to a couple of parties back home while on leave, too. This was no different than any of them. Except that for the duration of it, I could not stop thinking about murder.
Unsurprisingly, this nagging thought didn’t help my social skills. I met a few people who were nice enough, even some pretty girls, but my mind kept wandering. What was Seamus up to, I wondered. What did he mean he had work to do? It’s not like he had any leads- did he?
After three or four beers and a few hours worth of awkward interaction, I decided to call it a night. I wandered back to Seamus’s apartment and attempted to recreate the knock I had heard him perform on Maurice’s door. Immediately it swung open.
“A cute attempt,” Seamus mused, “but way off.”
I followed him into the apartment, where I hoped I would be shown right to my room, but Seamus had other plans.
“A huge break-through, Ben, a huge break-through! If I can just finish reading these journals tonight, I think I may be close to our man.”
At this point I was extremely tired and completely uninterested, so I began to slur my words and explain that I needed to pass out immediately. Seamus dropped his enthusiasm and looked at me with knowing eyes.
“So you’re suddenly completely and utterly intoxicated, is that right, Ben? Have you not yet picked up on my powers of observation?”
I quickly cut the act.
“Alright, you got me. But can I please just go to bed now? We’ll talk about this in the morning.”
“Fine,” Seamus conceded. “I should have it solved by then anyway. You can take Phil’s old room.” He pointed around the corner, where I swiftly made my way to a long overdue sleep.
I awoke the next morning to a tropical strumming. It was pleasant music, but disconcerting for the fact that I had no idea where it was coming from. I wandered out to the living room to find the source, where Seamus sat plucking away at a ukulele. I would say I was surprised, but after less than twenty-four hours with this man nothing would surprise me.
“Excellent, you’re awake. Shall we get breakfast?”
I’m never hungry right when I wake up, but I could tell this was more of a plan being laid out for me than an invitation. I agreed, and shortly after found myself in the school cafeteria.
“A grad student eating in the cafeteria. Figured you’d be sick of this by now,” I commented.
“Granted, it’s not the most delicious food in the world.” He pushed around some french fries. “Or the healthiest for that matter. But who has time to cook these days?”
I conceded that he was indeed a busy man and asked what it was that he was so excited to tell me the previous night, knowing exactly why we were out to eat.
“I’m glad you asked,” Seamus said, grinning.
No kidding, I thought to myself.
“Well, last night, while you were off partaking in God-knows-what, I paid a little visit to Professor Herzog’s home. It was quite easy to get in.”
“What?!” I interjected. “You broke in? You can’t just break into people’s houses, Seamus!”
“Oh calm down, I didn’t break anything. I just kind of, made my way in. I didn’t break in. Big difference.”
I couldn’t tell if he was really justifying this to himself, or pulling my leg. Either way, a crime had been committed. Maybe Patterson was right about this guy getting me into trouble.
“So you ‘made you’re way in.’ Then what?”
“Then I made my way out… with these.” He held up what appeared to be three journals.
“Journals?” I asked.
“Very good, Ben, you’re becoming quite adept at this. We could make a formidable team.”
I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of that, but I allowed him to continue on.
“And what is in these journals, I’m sure you’re asking yourself? Well, only the name of our killer.”
If I wasn’t intrigued before, I sure was now. I blocked out the sights and sounds of the sorority seated to my right as I leaned in for an explanation.
“Jeremiah Short,” he stated proudly. “Jeremiah Short is our killer.”
I stared at him, unsure. He’d proven himself quite capable in the art of deduction, but this seemed ridiculous. What did the old man do, tell his diary who was coming to kill him?
Seamus cleared his throat. I obliged.
“How did you figure that out, Seamus?” I offered, feeling a bit like a broken record at this point.
“As we have come to learn, Ben, numbers never lie. A quick tally of ‘Jeremiah Short’ references in these journals reveals that the name in some form appears a whopping 56 times. Now, there are other frequent names, such as Michael Shipley 12 times and Elizabeth Ellison 18 times, but none even close to the frequency of Short’s name. So the numbers tell us that there is something significant about this Jeremiah Short character, don’t they?”
“How many times does ‘and’ appear?”
“Three hundred and twenty-nine times.”
I began to laugh but quickly stopped at the puzzled look on Seamus’s face. He was serious. Of course he was.
“Ok,” I began, “what’s significant about Jeremiah Short?”
“To answer that, we must first return to the scene of the crime,” Seamus replied with an oddly lustful tone.
I groaned. “Dude, we just sat down.”
“Not literally, dude, walk with me to the scene in your mind.”
I had never taken my mind for a walk before, but this seemed to be a weekend of firsts. I nodded for him to continue.
“Now, think back to that bookshelf, Ben, what do you see?”
Clearly being led along again, I told him I saw books.
“Brilliant. Now what don’t you see?”
“The gun rack?” I guessed.
“Double brilliant. Now what do you see where you don’t see what you should have seen?”
“Are you fucking with me?”
“The imprint in the dust, Ben! The imprint where the gun rack should have been!” Seamus bellowed, sorority girls and my as-yet-unsullied reputation here be damned. “One side of the imprint had a slight layer of dust over it while the other side was completely bare, suggesting that one end of the rack was significantly heavier than the other, lifting it off the shelf.”
Ridiculous attention to detail aside, I still didn’t see the significance of this fact. I pointed out that the handle of a gun is heavier than the barrel.
“A fair point Ben and I expected you to say that, but gun racks are manufactured to counter-balance this weight. And they are made to counter-balance from right to left, so that the gun can be displayed pointing from left to right. In this instance, the lighter end of the rack was on the right, which tells us what?”
I pondered this.
“Herzog had a shitty gun rack?”
“Possible, but not nearly interesting enough for my tastes. No, it tells us that something was in that gun rack. Something Herzog himself hid in there. Something like… treasure from Vietnam perhaps?”
This time I could not contain my laughter. Seamus really was a nut-job.
“He did fight in Vietnam, you know,” said Seamus, annoyed.
“Oh yeah? What did you do, sniff his corpse for the scent of rice paddies and napalm?” I laughed back.
“No, it was in his journal.”
“Also in his journal,” he started back up, glad to be back in control, “are allusions to an unnamed theft of some kind while he was serving. A theft, if Herzog’s remorseful tone is to be believed, that he feels quite guilty about.”
“So Herzog was a thief?”
“If you believe one act of theft makes a man so, then yes, Herzog was a thief. He did not act alone however.”
“Jeremiah Short,” I exclaimed, feeling every bit the master sleuth Seamus fancied himself to be.
“Obviously,” he snorted, shooting me back down to earth. I hated how easily he did that.
“Fine, he stole some unnamed object in Vietnam with Jeremiah Short. That hardly means Short came over here forty years later and killed the man.”
Seamus offered a devious grin.
“No, Ben, it does not. But the fact that Herzog then took it for himself and lived the rest of his life in fear of Short finding out just might.”
“This is all in his journals?”
“More or less. Quite introspective people, these college professors. I suppose they have plenty of time for it. Shall we go back to the apartment and mull it over?”
He stood up, but I was not yet satisfied.
“So after all this snooping around, investigating, art of deduction crap, solving the whole thing comes down to reading a guy’s journal?”
For a second Seamus looked insulted.
“Well don’t downplay it Ben, it wasn’t easy to obtain. And his handwriting is- was quite sloppy.”
I shrugged. What was there to argue?
“We solved the murder, Ben, get with it! To the apartment!” he yelled for all the world to hear and left me standing, horrified, as I tried to avoid several female glares.
“We, um. We were playing Clue.” I looked to our table, devoid of any game board. “On our phones.”
I’ve never left a cafeteria faster.
Back at the apartment, Seamus was quick to pack a bowl of pungent-smelling medicine.
“What are you doing? Don’t we have work to do?” I objected.
He took a massive hit and coughed out his disagreement. “Work? The investigation is over. We solved the case. What work?”
“Work like catching Jeremiah Short?” Now I was the one suggesting foolish adventures? What had this crazy person done to me?
Seamus seemed to find this thought amusing. “Short’s long gone by now, we’re not going to catch him. That’s for the police to handle. Won’t you join me?”
He motioned to the bong.
“But we haven’t alerted the police. Why not just tell Patterson what you know?”
A look of disgust from Seamus. Should have seen that coming.
“Patterson will never know what I know. Because I know that he was right about the killer stealing the gun rack.” He shuddered. “Scary thought isn’t it?”
Nobody ever said geniuses weren’t petty. I gave him my most disapproving look. Seamus groaned.
“Look, Ben, if you want to go tell the real police what we’ve learned, be my guest. But it won’t be easy; it will be long, and quite frankly I’d rather wait until they come to me. They always do.”
Another long pull. I wondered if the THC was going straight to his ego.
He patted the spot next to him on the couch. I eyed the chemistry set in front of it and the heap of books on top of it. I took in the whole apartment. It looked as if Einstein and DaVinci hosted an orgy and hadn’t bothered to clean up. Then I looked at Seamus Ostendorf, undoubtedly the most peculiar man I have ever met, clutching three feet of glass and watching me expectantly.
“What the hell?” I thought, and joined my new roommate on the couch.