Perhaps the only Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America who was known almost exclusively as a short-story writer, Edward D. Hoch nearly single-handedly kept the classical whodunit alive at short-story length through the last decades of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first. It’s not widely known, but Ed also wrote many short stories that would not be considered whodunits, including his most widely distributed story, “Zoo” (a work still taught in many classrooms). He also wrote at most lengths that fall under the short-story umbrella, from the minute mystery (or flash fiction) to what the Short Mystery Fiction Society classifies a “novelette.” In celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday, we present here one of Ed’s minute mysteries, a story originally published in the Mid-December 1995 EQMM as part of a set of holiday stories with a common sleuth, under the title “The Killdeer Chronicles.” Patricia Hoch has kindly given us permission to post the story, which is copyrighted by the estate of Edward D. Hoch. We hope longtime Hoch fans and new readers alike will look for the excellent collections of his work that continue to be put out by Crippen & Landru Publishers. The latest of these is 2017’s All But Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne. A Happy Thanksgiving to all!—Janet Hutchings
It was a Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, and the autumn weather had turned chilly. Jonas Killdeer was at home in his big stone house, thankful he had no reason to go out, when Sergeant Bennett phoned him from police headquarters.
“Sorry to bother you, but we’ve had an incident down at the courthouse. Someone suggested you might help.”
“A murder?” Jonas asked. Since his retirement from an acting career on Broadway he’d helped the police on a few murder cases, with surprisingly good results.
“Well, not a human sort of murder,” the detective told him.
Jonas smiled into the telephone. “You know how to tempt me. Are you at the courthouse now?”
“I’ll send a car for you. I’ll be just inside the front door, before you go through the metal detector.”
Jonas had never needed a car when he lived in Manhattan. Up in Westchester it was different, and he’d come to depend—like Blanche DuBois—on the kindness of strangers. The sergeant often picked him up or sent a police car when his help was desired.
Thirty minutes later he entered the courthouse and met Sergeant Bennett, a balding middle-aged man who had made police work a personal crusade. “Glad you could come, Jonas,” he said, using the retired actor’s given name in a rare instance of comradeship. “We’ve got a weird one up on the third floor.”
Jonas followed him into the elevator. The third floor was divided into courtrooms, jury rooms, judges’ chambers, and waiting areas for families and witnesses. At one in the afternoon the trials were on lunch break, but a number of people were milling about. One corridor had been blocked off with yellow police tape. Bennett led him to it and raised the tape so Jonas could duck beneath it.
The old actor stared at the scorched marble floor and the charred remains of some sort of large bird. “Any idea what it is?”
Bennett shrugged. “A bailiff spotted the fire around eleven o’clock and put it out with an extinguisher. He called the bomb squad. That’s the first thing everyone thinks of these days. They were going to remove it but I wanted you to see it first. Someone joked it must be a small turkey since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, but it looks more like a chicken to me.”
Jonas poked at it with a pencil. “It is a chicken. It’s been sacrificed.”
“Could you get me a list of the trials in session today, especially on this floor?”
“Sure. There are only four courtrooms.” He went off and returned in less than five minutes with a copy of the trail docket.
“This one,” Jonas said at once, pointing to The People v. Ramon Sanchez.
“An eighteen-year-old kid accused of grand theft auto.”
“More than that,” Sergeant Bennett said. “He hijacked a carload of cocaine from some dealers. We couldn’t prove he knew the drugs were in the car, so all we charged him with was the car theft. Why’d you pick him?”
“The chicken was probably sacrificed as part of a voodoo rite.”
“In a courthouse?”
“It happens frequently in Miami, where they have a large population of immigrants from the West Indies.”
“But how could someone get a chicken into the courthouse past security?”
Jonas smiled. “No metal parts.”
Ramon Sanchez had been living with his aunt and uncle when he was arrested. Court records showed that both of them had come from the Dominican Republic. Their names were Nunzio and Maria Macoris, and Maria was the sister of Ramon’s mother.
“Is there voodoo in the Dominican Republic?” Bennett asked.
“Some, certainly. The country shares an island with Haiti, where voodoo is widely practiced.”
“We’d better talk to the aunt and uncle.”
Nunzio was a rough-looking man of about forty who used an aluminum cane because of a knee injury he’d suffered working on the docks of Santo Domingo. It was then, he told Jonas and Sergeant Bennett, that he and Maria had come to New York and later to Westchester. When Maria’s sister fell ill, Ramon had been sent to live with them. “He’s a good boy,” Nunzio insisted. “This business with the car is a terrible mistake.”
“Did you sacrifice a chicken so the jury would free him?” Bennett asked.
“We are good Catholics. We practice no voodoo.”
“What about Ramon? He’s free on bail. Where is he right now?”
“Over there.” He pointed at a young man whom they hadn’t noticed, probably because with his moustache and slicked-down hair he looked more like twenty-five than eighteen.
When his uncle pointed, Ramon Sanchez walked over to join them. “What’s this?” he asked. “More lawyers?”
“Police,” Bennett identified himself. “We’re investigating the fire a couple of hours ago. Know anything about it?”
“I was in the courtroom. The judge and everyone else will tell you that.”
“They take a morning break.”
“The fire came after the break. My lawyer had to stop the testimony till we found out what the trouble was.”
“What’s your lawyer’s name?” Jonas asked.
“Ralph Schindler. You want to ask him? He’s coming back now.”
Schindler was a well-dressed attorney who’d obviously instructed Sanchez how to dress for his court appearance. “You’re holding up good in there,” he told the defendant, patting his shoulder. “Mr. Macoris, I expect we’ll be calling you and your wife this afternoon. I’d really like to wind up our case before the long holiday weekend.”
“Where is Maria?” her husband asked.
“I thought she was here with you. Did she go out for something to eat?”
The courtroom doors were standing open and Ramon peered inside. “Here she is, taking a nap!”
Nunzio started for courtroom, leaning on his cane. “She shouldn’t be in there,” the lawyer said. “She hasn’t testified yet.”
Jonas was at the courtroom door as Ramon Sanchez reached his aunt. He saw the young man gasp and turn away. “What is it?” he asked, but then he saw the handle of the ice pick protruding from just under her left breast.
Jonas Killdeer had planned to spend Thanksgiving Day alone, as he usually did since his retirement. His closest theater friends were working, and his sister was visiting her husband’s family. He certainly hadn’t expected to dine with Sergeant Bennett—Matt Bennett—and his wife Kelly.
It wasn’t until Kelly was serving the pumpkin pie that Bennett asked, “Have you had long enough to think about it?”
“I suppose so,” Jonas answered.
“The feeling is that the kid killed her because she wasn’t going to back his alibi.”
“So he stabs her with an ice pick in the courtroom during lunch hour? Be reasonable, Sergeant.”
“Call me Matt, Jonas.”
“All right, Matt. Tell me what you’ve found so far. What about the chicken?”
“It was a sacrifice, just like you said. The lab found traces of various spices and herbs that were added to the bird before the fire. It’s all part of the voodoo formula.”
Kelly Bennett, who took none of it seriously, commented, “I wonder if that recipe would have worked on my turkey.”
“It worked on the judge. After the murder in his courtroom he declared a mistrial. Schindler claimed he couldn’t continue with the defense with his star alibi witness dead, and the judge agreed.”
“What about the chicken?”
“That much we’ve solved,” Bennett confirmed. “Maria Macoris brought it to the courthouse and sacrificed it. In her large purse we found the plastic bag she carried it in, together with the various spices and herbs. And matches. But that doesn’t tell us who killed her.”
Jonas smiled at Kelly. “This pie is delicious, Mrs. Bennett.”
“I’m glad you like it.”
He turned back to her husband. “I suppose the voodoo was the last straw for him. He must have detested what she was doing, and he used the ice pick he always carried with him.”
“Who, for God’s sake?”
“Nunzio, of course. He’s the only one who could have killed his wife. An ice pick is a metal implement. How do you think it got through the metal detectors at the entrance? Not in the bag with the sacrificial chicken, not in the lawyer’s briefcase. It got through the metal detector in Nunzio’s hollow aluminum cane.”