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Monday, March 13, 2006

Competition!

I don't often post my fiction on my blog or forum, but I thought it might be fun to include here one of my mini-mystery stories from a book called Five Minute Crimes, published by Lagoon Books.

As you'll see, you have to work out how a murder (well, several, actually) was committed. I'll post the answer next Monday, 20 March. If you'd like to have a guess, e-mail your answer to me at competition-at-nickdaws.co.uk (change the -at- for an @ sign). All correct answers will be put in a draw, with the winner receiving either a copy of my short story writing tutorial Short Story Acumen or one of my trivia quiz books (your choice). If you've already got a copy of this book, you are on your honour not to cheat!

Good luck!

MURDER ON THE MENU

by NICK DAWS

Lieutenant Jake Strogani stifled a yawn. He stared at the station clock, which told him it was two a.m. His shift had officially ended two hours ago, but Jake wasn't going anywhere till he had cracked this case.

Call it cop's intuition, call it what you will, but Jake knew that somehow Raph Minton was behind these four deaths. He stretched his arms above his head, took a deep breath, then began poring over his notes once more. Somewhere in those notes, there just had to be the clue he needed to put Minton back behind bars.

* * *

Prior to that fateful 911 call, it had been a quiet shift for Jake: a couple of drunk-and-disorderlies; a domestic in Lowtown which young Sally Barton had sorted out; a child with a lost dog; and the usual slew of traffic violations - hardly the stuff of docu-dramas.

Then the call came in. There had been an incident at a drinks party in Park Vale. Four deaths, possible homicides. Sergeant Walters had taken the call. Jake overheard him recording the details: "So that's Ralph Minton? Oh, R-A-P-H, Raph. The Green House, Park Vale. Yes, I have that."

The name rang bells in Jake's head, and after a moment he remembered why. It was one of the earliest cases he had worked on. Thirty years ago, Raph Minton had been tried for the murder of his wife, Clara, and her lover. Minton appeared to have a watertight alibi. Somehow, however, the state prosecutors had broken it. Minton had gone down for second degree murder, lucky in the end to get away with that.

Minton always maintained his innocence, but in jail he was a model prisoner and got maximum remission. After fifteen years he was released. He stayed in the area, and Jake had followed reports of his progress with mild interest. A couple of years after his release, the local paper ran a story on how Raph had been named salesman of the year by insurance company Eternal Life. A few years later he set up his own financial planning company, Minton Associates; and now, ten years on, he was a multi-millionaire and a pillar of the local community.

And now this - four deaths, all senior partners in the law firm Smith, Knight, Winter. There was something familiar about those names, too. Jake decided to go along with his officers, Hall and O'Grady, to see what had happened for himself.

As they drove between the gates of Minton's luxury home, they passed an ambulance which was preparing to leave. The paramedic glanced out at them and shook his head. Hall parked in the drive, and the three made their way down the path towards the house. Distraught guests were spilling into the gardens. They passed a young man comforting a blonde woman who was in tears. Another young woman, with shoulder-length auburn hair, looked on grim-faced.

Jake paused. "You go on ahead," he said to the officers. "I've got one or two things to check here."

"Don't you want to see the bodies, lieutenant?" O'Grady asked.

Jake shook his head. "I've seen enough dead bodies," he said shortly. He turned to the young woman with the red hair.

"Lieutenant Strogani, ma'am. Can you tell me what happened?"

"Oh, yeah, sure." The young woman managed the thinnest of smiles. "I'm Rebecca Graham, junior partner in Smith, Knight, Winter. Mr Minton invited all the partners here tonight, to celebrate the agreement for our firm to represent Minton Associates in its future dealings."

"Uh, huh," Jake said. "I assume we're talking big bucks here?"

Rebecca nodded. "Minton Associates is the biggest financial planning company in this state and five others, and moving into new areas like property development. We estimated the contract could be worth as much as five million dollars."

"The partners must have been pleased to get a contract that size."

"Well, yeah. And a bit surprised, too. I mean, I suppose you know that before they set up in practice, the senior partners here worked in the state prosecutor's office. They were the people who got Mr Minton sent down all those years ago. I guess it shows he doesn't bear grudges though."

That would explain why the names of the partners seemed familiar, Jake thought. "So what happened when you arrived?" he asked.

"The junior partners got here first. That's expected, of course. Mr Minton welcomed us in, and insisted we have a glass of his home-made punch." Rebecca made a sour face. "I don't know what was in it, but it was icy cold and tasted strong. After that, he took us to the lounge, where the caterers had set up the buffet. We chatted to Mr Minton, ate and drank, admired his paintings - all the things you do at a party."

"And Mr Minton was with you the whole time?"

"Oh yes. I was talking to him."

Jake scratched his head. "So when did the senior partners arrive?"

"An hour or so later. First of all Mr and Mrs Smith, then Mrs Winter, then Mr Knight."

"And Mr Minton was pleased to see them too?"

"Certainly. He made them try his punch - it was all gone by the end - then they came up here and joined in with the party."

"What about the food. Did they have anything special?"

"You mean, did Mr Minton set aside special canapes for the senior partners?" Rebecca gave a short laugh. "Seniority doesn't extend that far, lieutenant. They had sandwiches, dips, vol-au-vents - just like the rest of us."

"And when did you first realise anything was wrong?"

Rebecca bit her lip. "It must have been about half an hour after the senior partners got here. Mr Smith just doubled over. At first I thought he'd choked on a sandwich or something. Mrs Smith rushed over, and the next thing I knew both of them fell to the floor. Mrs Winter said she'd call an ambulance, but before she could do anything, she collapsed as well."

"And Mr Knight?"

Rebecca nodded. "He'd gone to the rest room, so we didn't realise at first. By the time the ambulance arrived, all four were dead."

Jake asked Rebecca a few more questions, but there was little more she could add. He thanked her, then continued to the lounge where the bodies were awaiting forensic examination. Someone had covered them with sheets, and that was fine by Jake. He had no wish to confirm how dead they were.

Raph Minton himself was in the lounge, his long face a study in anguish. "Lieutenant Strogani, what a terrible business. I've told your officers everything I know, but if I can be of any further assistance..."

Jake took one look at Raph Minton and knew he was lying. Beyond a doubt, he had murdered all four senior partners. But how had he done it? That was the question a jury would need answered.

* * *

In his office, Jake studied his notes again. Minton had a motive, all right - revenge on the team of lawyers who, thirty years ago, put him away for murder. But what was the method? Somehow, he felt sure, the answer was in the punch; but there had been only enough for one glass per guest; and by the time everyone had been served, the bowl was empty.

And anyway - Jake scratched his head - all the guests that night had drunk the punch, and the junior partners experienced no ill effects. Neither could Minton have tipped poison into the bowl during the evening. Rebecca was adamant that Minton was with her in the lounge the whole time.

Then, suddenly, the pieces fell into place. Jake hit the side of his head with his fist. Of course! That was how Minton had done it. He picked up the phone. Tomorrow, his own face would be on the front page of every newspaper in town, while Minton's ugly mug would be where it belonged - back behind bars!

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