“It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well.”
The living room of the Browning house smelled of lilies and expensive wood polish. It was small, and looked smaller with the crowd that had been assembled inside. Detective Branden Horne wanted to smoke a cigarette, but dared not. The wrath of Mrs. Browning would overpower her need to know who killed her husband, which was the reason all these people were assembled. On top of that, he knew that he would have far too much to answer for before the afternoon was over as it was.
The five other people in the room were the most likely suspects for the murder of Christopher Browning. Elton, his son, looked like his father in miniature – tall and pallid, as though someone had taken a normal young man and stretched him out with a roller. His liquid brown eyes always seemed to be on the verge of tears, and he looked down at his over-large feet in despair. His sister, Trudi, was almost his opposite. She was short and heavy and outgoing, and wore colors so vivid that they hurt to look at. Even during the investigation of her father’s death, Trudi had been relentlessly cheerful, which was enough to increase suspicion in Branden’s eyes.
Curtis Hancock had been the hardest to convince to come to this meeting. He lurked in a back corner of the room and scowled, except when his eyes lit on the widow Browning. When he saw her, his ruddy face softened and he looked nearly like the person he’d been before she decided to marry the richest man in town. If the crowd could have taken a vote on who the murderer was, Curtis would’ve been hanging before the sun went down.
Addie Horton was standing next to Mrs. Browning, with a cup of tea in one hand and the other on the shoulder of her grieving best friend. She had brought over one of her hand-made prayer shawls – “A prayer in every stitch,” she’d said when she put it around Mrs. Browning’s slumped shoulders. Addie wore the role of best friend well, and it made Branden wonder how much she really knew.
Finally, Celinda Browning herself. She had been older than her husband when they married – he was a millionaire at forty-five, and she was a divorced schoolteacher in her fifties. But they had fallen in love and retreated out to his favorite country house. There she taught some local homeschool children while he indulged in his artistic hobbies. They lived a life that seemed idyllic to anyone looking in, and as far as anyone knew they were perfectly happy.
Five days ago, Christopher Browning had been found dead in his workshop, bludgeoned to death by one of his own hand-made scrap metal sculptures. His wife hadn’t seen him since the day before and wanted to check up on him, but she couldn’t even enter the workshop due to the overpowering smell of solvents and acids that he used in his work. She called the police, who sent in a HAZMAT team to retrieve the body and make the crime scene accessible. When they brought out his body and gently removed the ventilation hood from his head, Celinda had to be held back by three officers so that she couldn’t embrace her husband and contaminate the body.
Branden had been assigned to the case, and very quickly narrowed down the suspects.
“Thank you all for coming,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do one of these drawing-room reveals.” He chuckled, but no one else did. No one was even looking at him.
He cleared his throat. “You all know what happened,” he said, “but I wanted to update you on what we’ve found so far.” He took the investigation folder from his briefcase and flipped it open. “Christopher Browning was killed by repeated blows to the head with a large metal object. We think the killer was right-handed, but that’s not much to go on. The killer left no fingerprints and no DNA evidence that we could find. And the isolated nature of Mister Browning’s workshop means that there were no eyewitnesses.” He snapped the folder shut.
Branden took a handkerchief from his jacket pocket, and a small plastic bottle from his briefcase. “There are lots of reasons why someone would want to kill Christopher Browning,” he said as he uncapped the bottle. The faint smell of eucalyptus blossomed in the air, and this finally got their attention. He dripped the pale blue liquid into his handkerchief. “Money, love, revenge – those are the reasons that people usually kill.” He capped the bottle and put it back in the briefcase. “Honestly, I don’t really care why one person kills another. All I care about is that the killer gets caught.”
He put his hands behind his back and started to pace. “I talked to all of you, and really I think all of you had reasons to kill him.” They watched him as he walked back and forth, and he relished drawing out the moment. “As I said, there was very little solid evidence left behind, and I had a lot of work to do as far as investigations go.” He shrugged. “Most criminals are stupid. They make a mistake and leave something behind.” He stopped and looked at each of them in turn. “This killer did not.”
He walked back to his briefcase and took out a small glass bottle, filled with a pale yellow liquid. “That doesn’t mean, however, that the killer didn’t make a mistake.” He uncapped the bottle and swiftly brought the handkerchief up to cover his mouth and nose.
The room went mad. Celinda Browning doubled over and vomited onto her shoes, just moments before her daughter did the same. Elton groaned and held his stomach, his face reddening as he willed himself not to lose control, and Curtis was on his feet, waving his hand to try and clear the air around his head of the horrifying sulfurous stench that had erupted around them. Branden smiled under the handkerchief, even though his eyes were beginning to water. He’d confiscated the stink bomb from his son weeks ago, and had been looking for a good chance to use it. The capstone of a murder investigation was as good a time as any.
He put the cap back on the bottle and went around the living room to open the windows, gripping the handkerchief in his teeth. The smell would never really go away, but he figured that Mrs. Browning would have enough money to get it ripped out and cleaned. Knowing that his little stunt revealed her husband’s murderer would be some small comfort.
When he turned back, the group was glaring at him, in between heaving breaths and groans. Elton had the collar of his shirt up over his nose, and Trudi was helping Addie guide Mrs. Browning to the sofa. After a moment, Branden lowered the handkerchief and blinked a few times at the lingering smell. “Mrs. Horton,” he said to Addie. “How are you feeling?”
“How am I feeling?” she said over her shoulder. “That was an ugly stunt you pulled young man. Poor Cellie is already in enough distress!”
“Yeah,” Branden said. “But I asked about you. How are you feeling?”
Addie stood up, but didn’t say anything.
“You didn’t seem too bothered yourself,” he said, taking a step towards her. “Didn’t that smell get to you?”
Her face went flat and she narrowed her eyes. “If you must know,” she said, “I was born with no sense of smell.” She sniffed, and Branden suppressed a smile. “It’s something I’ve never been terribly thankful for, until now.”
Branden nodded. “I thought so.” He put his handkerchief and the little bottle in his pocket. “When I visited you, you were doing laundry, right?” Addie nodded. “I remember that, mainly because I was wondering what kind of detergent you used. The basket in your arms should have smelled like flowers or sunshine or something, but it actually had quite a whiff of metal oils and some of the other chemicals that the deceased used in his craft. Not a smell most people would want lingering among their clean clothes, I thought. So I did a little asking around.”
Addie Horton had gone pale as Branden talked, and she looked around the room as though she was looking for someone to come to her rescue. All she saw, however, was anger and astonishment. She was starting to breathe more quickly, and Branden readied himself for anything. “You didn’t know what the workshop smelled like, Addie. You had no idea.” He took another step closer to her and she flinched. “You killed him. The smell stuck to your clothes and you brought it home.”
“You have to be kidding,” she spat. “You can’t prove it was me just because of that!”
Branden nodded. “You’re right – we can’t. But I only said that we had very little evidence. Not that we had none.” He smiled sheepishly. “The thing about fingerprints? I lied.”
Addie gasped. “Then all this…?” She looked around the room, at the people who were pale and sick and furious. Mrs. Browning looked like she was ready to pass out again. “Why did you do this?” Addie asked.
“I needed to be sure,” Branden said. “And like I mentioned, I’ve always wanted to do the drawing-room reveal.” He took his cell phone out from inside his jacket. “You want to come quietly?” he asked as he flipped it open. “Or do I need to call in some back-up?”
The moment hung in the air, and Branden honestly wasn’t sure which way she would go. Finally, she just slumped and nodded. Branden dialed his phone. “It’s over,” he said. “Come on in.” He reached out and took her shoulder.
“Cellie,” she said, turning in his grip. Mrs. Browning looked away from her. “Cellie, I’m sorry.” She tried to reach out, but Branden pulled her away. “I can’t explain, but… I’m so sorry.” She crumpled to the floor as she said the last words, and Branden caught her in his arms. He held her there, in silence, until the other officers came in, handcuffed her, and led her away.
This was done for the upcoming Worth1000.com contest “Odor.” With luck, I’ll be able to chop out 200 words and get the rest into fighting shape in the next twelve hours….