The Locked Room

I sighed, exhaling a long plume of smoke as I reclined in my worn leather chair. The fading letters on the clouded glass of my office door read ‘Vincent Hayes, Private Investigator’. Business had been slower than a lame turtle these past few months, so when I got the call asking me to investigate a seemingly impossible murder, I leapt at the chance to sink my teeth into an intriguing case.

The scene of the crime was the top floor office of Walter Donovan, a wealthy local businessman who’d been found dead at his desk, shot straight through his heart. The office had been locked tight as a drum from the inside. Police were baffled by the killing – no gun or shooter found on the premises. I was brought in to illuminate the shadowy questions surrounding this ‘locked room’ scenario.

When I arrived at the sleek downtown high rise, I ducked under the crime scene tape and was greeted by a uniformed officer. Forensics techs were still sweeping for prints and trace evidence, but Donovan’s body had been cleared. I made my way across the room to examine the locks on the door and windows – all secured, no signs of picking or forced entry.

“So, how’d our killer get out of a locked room on the 14th floor?” the officer asked with a perplexed shake of his head.

“That’s the riddle I’m here to solve,” I replied, peering around for any clues of a hidden exit.

My searching gaze fell on some scrapes in the polished wood floor, marks that looked suspiciously like they’d been made by furniture on casters. The tracks led directly to one of the room’s built-in bookshelves. I walked over and found the shelf conspicuously empty of any volumes, and much deeper than necessary. I pulled the shelf unit out from the wall to unveil a secret passage hidden behind.

“Well now, what have we here?” I mused aloud. The killer had made their escape through this previously unknown door. But its existence opened up even more questions – namely, how did the assailant know of the passage, and what would motivate someone to want the successful Donovan dead?

I examined the passage and surrounding office intently for more pieces to the puzzle. In the passage, the beam of my flashlight illuminated muddy boot prints – clues the perpetrator had neglected to hide about their identity. The tread appeared very similar to cowboy boots. And that made me consider Donovan’s main business partner, Lucas Grayson. The two had built a profitable oil and gas company through acquiring drilling rights on various ranches around the county.

A quick perusal of financial records on Donovan’s desk revealed the firm had recently purchased new claims throughout the area, many on land owned by families Grayson had personal friendships with. This connection felt like more than sheer coincidence. I had a viable suspect.

I paid a visit to Grayson’s sprawling ranch located just outside the city limits. Upon finding him out inspecting his property, I made note of the cowboy boots he was sporting, still covered in fresh mud and prairie dust. When questioned, Grayson vehemently denied any role in his partner’s demise. But from his nervous body language and dodgy answers, my instincts smelled guilt on him stronger than month-old fish.

I decided to press him harder. “Let’s cut the crap, Grayson. I know you and Donovan must’ve had a major falling out over those new drilling leases. He refused to sell you the rights, so you took matters into your own hands.”

Grayson scowled at the accusation. “You got it all wrong. You don’t know what really happened.” But the stormy expression in his eyes signaled I’d hit close to the truth.

Grayson remained steadfast in his denial of any involvement in Donovan’s demise. He insisted on his innocence, emphasizing that he had no part in the events leading to Donovan’s unfortunate end. Despite the mounting evidence and increasing suspicion from those around him, Grayson stood firm, unwavering in his assertion that he was wrongly accused and completely unconnected to the incident.

A few days later I received an unexpected visit from Donovan’s widow that turned everything upside down.

Mrs. Donovan, eyes red-rimmed from crying, dropped a bombshell that made me whistle low in surprise. “My husband was having a sordid affair with Lucas Grayson’s wife,” she revealed between dabs of a lace handkerchief. “And now the woman is pregnant with Walter’s child.”

I slowly leaned back in my chair, thoughts swirling at this shocking new information. The pregnancy revelation suggested an entirely different motive for Grayson wanting Donovan dead. No doubting the fury of a man who discovers his mistress is carrying her lover’s baby.

I decided to quietly pay Mrs. Grayson a visit, hoping to confirm my developing hunch. The tense conversation that followed bore out my theory – Lucas had learned of the affair some time ago but had been unaware of the pregnancy until after the murder.

“He killed Walter in a jealous rage, not over me or any baby,” she insisted, dabbing at reddened eyes with a crumpled tissue. “Their partnership was strained as it was. This just pushed him over the edge.”

I left even more puzzled. If Grayson hadn’t known his wife was pregnant, it negated the angle of vengeance for her supposed infidelity. So, if not a crime of passion, what else could explain such an elaborate murder plot? There had to be another piece to the puzzle that I was missing.

I retreated to my office, reviewing case notes and downing whiskeys late into the evening, hoping to spot details I’d previously overlooked. Somewhere around glass three, staring at those crime scene photos of the boot prints left in the dust, an idea struck me sideways.

The tread – I’d assumed they were from cowboy boots or work boots. But in fact, they appeared to match riding boots more closely. Boots a wealthy woman might own. Boots like the kind Mrs. Donovan favors, perhaps?

My mind raced faster than a thoroughbred. The land rights documents showed Donovan had recently put those lucrative new oil leases not in his name, nor his company’s, but his wife’s instead. She was now positioned to earn a small fortune from them. And having learned of the disastrous affair, she’d realized divorce would put her profitable future assets at jeopardy.

Killing her deceitful husband while framing his estranged business partner suddenly made perfect, cold-blooded sense. She knew all about that hidden passage from her visits to the office. It was the perfect way to commit an untraceable murder right under the nose of the police.

When confronted with this new deduction, Mrs. Donovan broke down into convulsive sobs. “I only wanted financial stability for myself and my son should Walter leave us for that woman,” she choked out. “Once I discovered his affair, I feared he would gamble away our money on risky drilling leases. I snapped – I had to protect me and my boy.”

In an emotional moment, she had crafted an ingenious plot to murder her husband in a locked room and implicate someone else for the crime. But her sentiments had gotten the better of her, compelling her to confess.

In the aftermath, Grayson took over Walter’s share of the business, minus the disputed land leases. And Mrs. Donovan served several years in prison for her crafty but impassioned homicide.

I’d finally laid to rest the confounding riddle that was ‘The Locked Room’. The twist of truth behind it had admittedly surprised even my seasoned senses. But closure had been reached, motives uncovered, justice meted out. Another case for the files.