Death by Default
by D. J. Herda
The Hymie Stiehl Series, including...
Crazy as a Loon (complete)
Murder in the Court
Stiehl Stalkings (complete)
But he wasn’t dead as a result of suicide. He was dead because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. As he plummeted past the ninth floor, a shotgun blast erupting through a closed window put an end to his suicide attempt. Forever. The shot caught him flush in the face, blowing a hole in him the size of New Jersey. He was dead before he hit the net.
* * *
The room on the ninth floor of the Statford Inn Towers belongs to an elderly man, Jules Richardson, and his wife. In the middle of a vehement argument, Richardson stomps into the bedroom and emerges with a shotgun. But he is so upset on this particular evening that, when he points the muzzle toward her and pulls the trigger, he misses his wife completely. The pellets go through the window just as Ronald Deus plunges past.
The police arrest the old man, and the D.A. charges him with murder.
When Richardson’s wife, Laverne, asks Hymie Stiehl to intervene, the amateur detective begins asking questions. Stiehl learns that Richardson frequently threatened his wife with an empty shotgun when they argued. It was something of a game. The gun had always been empty, according to the wife. It is the same story Richardson tells investigators from his cell.
Stiehl convinces the D.A. to lower charges from murder to involuntary manslaughter, and he arranges to get the old man out on bail. Stopping by the medical examiner’s office, Stiehl learns that the cause of Ronald Deus’ death is officially listed as homicide.
“Ordinarily," the coroner tells Stiehl, “someone who sets out to commit suicide and ultimately succeeds, even though the mechanism might not be what he intended, is still technically committing suicide." The fact that Deus was shot by someone else and killed in the process of attempting suicide, even though he probably wouldn’t have succeeded, makes it a homicide.
Stiehl asks the coroner who the murderer is, and the examiner tells him, “Why, the old man. Richardson.” Stiehl shakes his head. “He admitted shooting the gun,” the coroner adds. “He admitted hitting Deus on the way down.”
“He admitted hitting someone on the way down,” Stiehl says. “But he denied ever loading the gun, and so did his wife.”
“Murderers deny things every day,” the coroner says. “Besides, if not the old man, who? His wife? They were the only two people in the room when the gun went off.”
Stiehl pauses, grabs his hat, and slips his beefy head inside. “No. No, it’s neither one of them. I’m sure of that.”
“Well, who then, Mr. Hot-Shot Detective?”
Stiehl stops and turns back to the coroner. “Ronald Deus.”
As Stiehl’s investigation unwinds, he draws upon his long-time freelance collaborator, D. J. Arterian, who unearths a witness who says he knew the old couple’s son, Duke Richardson. He’d accompanied Richardson to the apartment six weeks prior to the fatal night. Richardson had loaded the shotgun before returning it to his father’s closet.
Stiehl turns up more facts. The old lady was about to cut her son out of her will. The son, knowing his father’s propensity toward punctuating their arguments with an empty shotgun, loaded the 12-guage with the expectation that his father would one day grab it, pull the trigger, and the job would be done. With his mother out of the way and his father under indictment for murder, he would be back in the will.
So, Arterian says, it was the son who was the murderer—the kid who loaded the shotgun and actually caused the murder, although he killed Ronald Deus and not his own mother, as he’d planned.
Yes and no, says Stiehl. Ronald Deus was not the deceased man’s real name. Deus had gotten into some trouble at the securities firm where he worked. He’d transferred some of his clients’ stocks into his own name and cashed them in. By the time authorities had caught on to him, he was gone. He apparently changed his name to Deus to avoid prosecution.
The D.A. appears suddenly, and Stiehl escorts Arterian and their guest up onto the roof of the apartment building, where he reenacts the crime. He explains how Ronald Deus—or whatever his real name was—was despondent over the fact that he had failed to engineer his mother’s death. He had loaded the shotgun and goaded his parents into several arguments—all to no avail. With little hope of ever regaining his family heritage and federal investigators closing in on him, Deus decided there was nothing left to do but jump.
“I don’t get you,” the D.A. says. “You’re not making any sense. I thought you said the Richardsons’ son had loaded the shotgun. I thought he was the one who wanted his mother dead.”
“Exactly,” says Stiehl. “And when that didn’t come to pass, Ronald Deus, also known as Duke Richardson, jumped off the tenth floor of his parents’ apartment building, just moments before the shotgun blast fired by his own father went off. The couple’s son, Ronald ‘Deus’ Richardson, had loaded the shotgun and left it for his father to find, unknowingly engineering his own murder.
“What about the missing funds the kid stole from French and Salomon?” the D. A. asks.
Stiehl shakes his head. “Gone. Probably for good.”
“When we searched the kid’s room, we found a one-way ticket to Panama, which the kid obviously decided not to use. I have a feeling that the funds are sitting in a shoebox at some freight depot somewhere, just waiting for someone to claim it.”
“That’s just great,” the D. A. says. “That could have put me in good with the mayor.”
“You can still get in good with the mayor, Mike,” Stiehl says. “Just hand over the key.”
Two plain clothesmen and three uniforms burst out upon the roof, and Stiehl motions for them to search the D. A.
“What are you talking about? What’s going on here?”
“We know all about it, Mike. We searched the kid’s room; but you searched it first, remember?”
“Yeah...so I searched it first. So what?”
“You found the key to that deposit box, and I’m betting you haven’t let loose of it since.”
“That’s crazy. And what if I did find a key. I had no way of knowing...”
“Ahh, but you did. You learned from forensics that Deus and Richardson were one-in-the-same, and you figured the rest out for yourself. But you made one big mistake.”
“Yeah?” the D. A. says as a uniform rifles through his pockets before finally pulling out a single small key. “Yeah, smart guy, tell me. You tell me my one big mistake.”
“Making that one-way reservation for Panama on Equadorian Air...in your
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