Scene of a Murder
By: Tom Fowler

Prologue

The following is a portion of a short news item placed in the July, 24, 1961 edition of the Lakeside Times:

"Early yesterday morning a murder was committed in the home of William "Billy" Stuart and his wife Diane. The body of 27–year–old Donny Stuart, brother of Billy, was found by one of the several house guests staying with the Stuarts, just after sunrise. A suspect is not identified; no arrests have been made at this time."

Today, almost 58 years later, the murderer remains free.

1.

April, 2019

96–year–old Billy Smart had lived what seemed to be two lifetimes since the murder of his brother all those many years ago. It was a fine spring morning and, after a light breakfast, he was enjoying a smoke outside the front door to the retirement center he and his wife Diane had moved into late last year. I've smoked almost all my life, he thought, nobody is going to tell me to quit now. That hard–nosed attitude had brought him to 96 years of life, and it would give him the strength and courage to do what he had to do next. He realized that life as he knew it would end thereafter. Indeed, it had pretty much ended when he and Diane moved into the center due to age and health reasons, but it would truly be over very soon.

With heavy heart, Billy crushed the butt of his cigarette on the pavement with his heel and headed back inside. His and Diane's guests would be arriving soon.

2.

The people who had been in the house the night Donny was killed were, remarkably, all still alive and able to come and meet with Billy and Diane. Sitting around the large card table in the center's recreation room, selected because it sat in a quiet corner, providing a degree of privacy while at the same time residing in a very public place, Billy greeted their guests. Present for the meeting were Billy, his 94–year–old wife Diane, former sister–in–law Regina Spencer, 85, brother Fred Stuart, 87, and wife Jane, 88 years of age. No spring chickens, here, thought Billy.

"Thanks for coming everybody. This may well be the last time we are able to all be together. What I have to say will shock you, so I won't waste time and will get right to it."

"Sounds ominous," remarked Fred, drily.

"It is," replied Billy. Billy's somber tone got everyone's attention. He suspected there was one among them who was already feeling very nervous. He continued, "I know I don't have to remind you about what we have never discussed, except I think I know who killed Donny."

The people around the table were eerily quiet and still. Indeed, this was the first time since that horrible weekend the topic had been broached. Billy suspected everyone here felt they would go to their graves and never speak or hear of this again. Billy allowed a moment before resuming and said, "Remember Donny was found strangled in bed with ligature marks on his neck, muddy oversize footprints in the flower bed outside and bedroom floor, and scratch marks on the window sill outside. The ladder I kept in the backyard was found to be the ladder the murderer used to climb in the window. No fingerprints were found on either it or the window and sill." His voice broke as he added, "and no prints on Donny's body." Bitterly, he added while looking at his wife, "There was never anything found as evidence at the scene of the murder, a murder which took place in our home."

Again, it was Fred who spoke, saying, "Yes, it was quite a mystery, still is. The police could never find anything and nobody was ever charged."

Billy, fighting intense emotion, muttered, "While preparing to move here, something was found in the attic."

Regina, Donny's widow, became very agitated. She had been ill the night of the murder, hungover after too much alcohol, and slept soundly in the living room, leaving Donny alone in one of the two guest bedrooms. Tersely, she asked, "OK, so what do you have?"

After a deep breath, he answered. "In the attic, as it was being cleaned out for the move, a workman found a cloth bag taped to a roof rafter, tucked away and out of the line of sight from the attic entrance. The bag contained an electrical cord, a pair of gloves, and a pair of size 14 wet weather galoshes. Per the police photos, the cord matched the faint markings on Donny's neck perfectly, and the tread of the galoshes also match what is seen on the old photos. So, the murder had to have been committed by somebody in the house, as an outside intruder would have no access to the attic. "

"Seems odd you never noticed it in all those years," said Jane, and asked, "May we see what you found?"

Addressing Jane's request, he answered, "The items have been given to the police department." Addressing her observation, he added, "You may remember our attic door was in the garage, an old style design with the ladder attached to the wall and the entrance to the attic a push–up piece of plywood. Not real bright up there even with a second light bulb I installed. The area where the bag was found is very easy to miss, even when up there moving things around."

Diane, who until now had remained silent, as she thought she knew what her husband had to say before the meeting began, offered, "you didn't tell me you knew who the killer is, you just said you had something important to share with the family."

"I didn't want you to be tempted to talk about this before now."

"OK." Diane's hands shook as she answered. "I couldn't have offered much help, anyway. That night, you know I divided my time between our bedroom and sitting with Regina in the living room."

"I know. That's another reason I didn't say anything to you. I didn't mean to show a lack of confidence, but the element of surprise here is vitally important."

Before anyone else could speak, Jane asked to be excused for a restroom break. "I may be a few minutes," she said, "you know why."

"Take your time," replied Billy. It's sad, he thought, since having polio soon after World War II ended, she had difficulty walking. Today, at age 88, she was confined to a wheel chair. He admired her courage.

When Jane returned, Billy asked the group what they thought of the announcement of recently found evidence. Fred spoke up, but did not answer immediately. He sat for several long moments rubbing his hands. Fred had experienced life–long arthritis and had lived with the ache and soreness all of these years, which only became worse when experiencing emotional stress. Finally, he spoke. "This just seems so bizarre. Did the police find fingerprints or any other evidence on the items in the bag?"

"No. They're still looking, but it's very doubtful they will."

Regina asked, "You say you know who killed Sonny. Do the police know, and are they going to make an arrest?"

Billy felt as if he may faint. He had waited almost 58 years for this moment; a moment which he never dreamed would play out in this fashion. Slowly, in a voice so low the group had to strain to hear it, he said, "No to the arrest. The killer is getting away scot–free — except from me."

3.

The killer sat, defeated both physically and emotionally, and said, "I've been tortured for all these years. I'm glad this has come out. How did you figure it out?

Billy prepared to speak, painfully aware that this was something eerily similar to an Agatha Christie mystery. Awkwardly, he began, "Well, this won't take long. Of course, I knew I didn't kill Donny. Regina, It wasn't you, you were dangerously drunk and your snoring filled the household all night long — sorry to embarrass you with that, but you have just been exonerated of murder. Fred, your arthritis counted you out. It was severe even when you were a young man in your 20s, even before that, and I seriously doubt you could have maintained enough pressure on the cord for as long as it would take to strangle a person, especially wearing gloves." Pausing for a moment to regain his composure, Billy looked over to Jane, "it couldn't have been you, Jane. No way could you have climbed a ladder into a window, or been strong or coordinated enough to climb the attic ladder into a dimly lit cramped space and hide a bag of evidence."

There was a noticeable silence at the table, in a room which was never much noisier than a quiet library. Looking over at Diane, voice now shaking, Billy said to his wife, "Why?"

A broken Diane Stuart replied, voice just above a whisper. "I've hidden this all these years. Donny and I were having an affair. I admit it; I got stuck on your much younger brother. We had a spat, and he threatened to tell everyone at some point during the weekend. Time was running short; I had to do it that night. I laced Regina's drinks with straight grain alcohol and the rest was easy. I had this planned before everyone arrived for the party weekend." Looking at her former step–sister–in–law, she said, simply, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, to you all." Looking back at her husband, she asked, "Why aren't you having me arrested?"

Billy took a moment before answering. "You are the mother of our children. I have no real proof. At our age, I doubt they would send you to prison; if they did, you wouldn't last long. From both what you have said and what I came to believe while considering what to do, I believe you have been in your own private prison for a long time." Wiping a tear from his eye, he asked the group, "Can we agree this lifelong nightmare ends right here and right now?"

Nobody said a word. There were slight nods of assent.

One by one, they left by the same door they had used to enter, barely half an hour ago.

Epilogue

The emotional shock was too much for persons in their late eighties and nineties. Within a year, all of them were gone to wherever we go when we die, laid to rest by children, grandchildren, and close friends who had no of idea the terrible secret they had been burdened with.

The last to go was Diane. It was as if Divine Providence had saved the worst and longest running nightmare for the one who had caused it for them all. It is said there is no justice in this world. Some would say that is not true, and this story which began on a drunken weekend in the summer of 1961 and ended in a retirement center 58 years later, would seem to prove it.

So, consider carefully the life you are living, or have lived, if you wish to pray for longevity and length of years, and remember the time honored admonishment, "Be careful what you wish for, you may get it."

The End

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