The Chinese Checkers Murder

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“You’ve lost your marbles!” Sondra told George, her father’s long-time lover.
“He was an old man like you — 68. He died of a heart attack or heart failure. Don’t let your emotions go wild.”

She was sitting in the kitchen, breathing in the steam from a cup of tea, remembering her father. The kitchen of the ’50s ranch house was almost unchanged since her grandparents bought it in 1953. Chrome, formica and vinyl table and chairs. Refrigerator born before mother-boards were a gleam in anyone’s eye. Original dishwasher that died twenty years ago. Black, dial phone on the wall. She had used it to call George, who lived a block away, after she discovered Peter’s body.

George had wandered the house after the body was removed. In the living room he stared at the Chinese checkers board on the ’50s-modern coffee table. He had rushed back to the kitchen and proclaimed that Peter had been murdered.

Peter Dykema loved Chinese checkers. But what George saw in the living room was not right. “I haven’t lost my marbles. It’s Peter’s marbles that are the problem,” George insisted, even in his grief a person who couldn’t resist the word-play. “Come look.”

When Sondra saw the Chinese checkers board, she knew immediately.

“We gotta call the police,” said George. “It was Karl.”

“No.” Sondra resisted. “It’ll just stir up trouble. And probably can’t be proven anyway. It won’t do the kids any good to have their father charged with murder. It’s hard enough for them.”

George wasn’t convinced. He pulled out his phone and shot twenty or so pictures. He and Sondra argued all day about what they should do, continuing by text message when she went to work. She finally gave in.

“OK. Call your friend from church, Norm. He’ll know what to do.”

Norm ran his own private investigation firm. He answered the phone, “Vander Wall Research.”

“Norm, it’s George De Young.”

“George, I just heard about Peter. So sorry.”

“Thanks. It hasn’t all sunk in yet. Reason I’m calling is, there’s something suspicious about his death. I’m not sure what to do about it.”

“What do you mean?”

“You knew Peter. He was a person of precise habit and ritual. What’s called ‘OCD’ in today’s psycho-babble.

“He had a ritual whenever he played Chinese checkers — and he loved playing anyone, any time, me, Sondra, Carlin and the grandkids. When finished playing, he always had to carefully arrange the marbles in their compartments in the box, and put them and the board away in exactly the right place. Had to be done, before anything else, whether dinner or time for the kids to go home or the Cavs on TV.”

“Yeah, that’s Peter,” said Norm.

“When I saw the Chinese checkers board out on the coffee table, with the marbles scattered randomly around the board, I knew something was wrong. He would never go to bed leaving them like that.

“That’s how I know it was murder. Maybe an overdose of his heart medicine.”

“Possible,” Norm granted.

“Furthermore,” he went on, “I know who did it. That bastard Karl De Boer. Former son-in-law. Has hated him for years and finally lost his marbles and did him in.”

“That’s a long shot, George,” said Norm when he paused. “Maybe he was just more tired than usual, or maybe he was already not feeling well and decided he had to get to bed quickly.”

“No way. Why did he even have the board out unless someone was there? None of his family or friends were there last night. No. It’s definitely not right.”

Norm wasn’t happy to hear all this. Bad enough that an old acquaintance had died. He didn’t want it to be murder. And he knew Karl De Boer. Whatever his faults, and they were many, Norm didn’t think he had the character to murder. And if it was murder, he didn’t want it to be “part of the family.” Years as a P.I., after ten years as a police officer, had toughened him against crime. But it could still get to him. And something this close to the family and the church — he didn’t want that at all.

“All right, George. If you really believe this, you should talk to Sgt. Adams. I’ll set up a meeting.”

“I’d appreciate that, Norm. This has really got me worked up. How about tonight at Linda’s? I’ve got some business I need to take care of now, but I’ll be there around eight-thirty or nine tonight. I’ll need to be with my friends there.” Linda’s was a gay bar on the outskirts of town.

“I’ll contact Adams and see if that works,” Norm promised. “It’ll be even harder to persuade him than me, though. Given all the wild tips he gets in his work, he’s gotten quite skeptical and cynical.”

Norm and Sgt. Andre Adams got to Linda’s before George. Linda’s was dark and discreet. Most customers arrived as couples. The lights were low, the food was excellent, the drinks were strong, the music was soft and slow. Norm, 70, tall and bald, made his way to the bar for drinks, elbowing his way through the crowd with a polite assurance. Andre, 34, a slim, quiet African-American, with dark skin and close-cropped hair, sat in the booth and studied the crowd. When he returned with the drinks, Norm explained how he knew George and Peter and their families from church. He said he hoped George was wrong about the murder and especially about Karl.

George came in at quarter to nine, with his wife, Lucinda. Although they had been a couple for twenty-five years, George and Peter didn’t live together. George was a good husband to Lucinda — that is to say, best friend and housemate. Peter had divided his affections between his wife, now dead for eleven years, and George. As soon as he entered, George was surrounded by friends offering their sympathy. It took him ten minutes to work through the crowd and get to the booth where Norm and Andre waited.

“OK. Now tell me why you think it was murder,” Andre said, after the introductions and a bit of background questioning.

George, the retired philosophy professor, went into lecture mode, gesticulating with his large, strong hands and running them through his mane of gray hair.

“It’s possible,” said Andre, when George stopped.“We won’t be able to tell, without an autopsy, of course. But surely there are lots of other explanations for the checkers board being out.”

“Let me show you the pictures,” George said, pulling out his laptop. He showed half a dozen pictures of the board and the marbles, from various angles, and others of the living room and bedroom and bathroom.

“And look — in the bathroom. Peter had his rituals there, too. He always laid the toothbrush across the dental floss container on the counter. That way he knew he had remembered to do his teeth. In the morning he moved the floss to the medicine cabinet and put the toothbrush in that cup there.

“This morning the toothbrush is still in the cup and the floss is in the medicine cabinet. He didn’t brush his teeth last night!” George finished with a flourish; one could almost hear the logic professor’s “Q.E.D.”

Andre and Norm had followed George up to this point. Now Norm broke in. “How do you know it was De Boer? You make a nice case that it might be murder. But why make him a suspect?”

“The only possibility. Only enemy Peter ever had. And boiling mad because the judge finally issued a restraining order barring him from contact with Carlin and the kids. It was all Peter’s doing — the money and the arguments to persuade Carlin to finally get the order.”

George drained his drink and filled them in on Peter and Karl’s history.

They had feuded right from the start — about Karl’s lifestyle, his unstable employment history, and his treatment of Carlin. During the marriage, Carlin worked full-time to support the family while Karl drifted from job to job with long periods of indolence between jobs. There was an angry divorce after ten years of stormy marriage and three children. Karl blamed Peter for the breakup of his marriage and hated him for providing the money to enable Carlin to contest the legal assaults he mounted against her.

George emphasized that Karl would not have known about Peter’s compulsive need to put the board and marbles away just right. He had never even been allowed in the house.

Andre stared at the photos. Norm could tell he wasn’t any happier than he himself was with the way George was fingering Karl. There were too many other possibilities, even if George was right about the Chinese checkers board.

“I don’t know much about Chinese checkers,” Andre said. “Haven’t played since I was a kid. But those marbles don’t look like a game in process.”

“You’re right,” George answered after a careful look. He fidgeted with the zoom on the photo app. “You know,” he said, “Peter had another habit. Sometimes, if the board was out and there was conversation — maybe before the game began — he would randomly put marbles on the board while he talked.”

“So you’re thinking Peter and someone had a conversation over the checkers board last night?”

“Yeah, possibly . . .” Then he said, hesitantly, “What if that pattern of marbles is not random? What if Peter was sending a message by having the board out and placing the marbles?”

“What kind of message?” asked Andre. “That only happens in detective stories,” he scoffed.

“I don’t know.”

“Look,” Norm said. “There are basically two rows. Six white marbles and nine black marbles. That doesn’t seem random. Sixty-nine. Or ninety-six?”

“Ninety-six was when Karl and Carlin got married,” said George. “Could that be pointing to Karl?”

“Maybe,” said Andre. Then he added, “Thanks, George. We’ll take it from here. Would you email me the photos?”

George sent the email off immediately and then went to be with his friends. Andre made several phone calls.

He and Norm left Linda’s and went to the Cottage Bar. They needed a quieter place to talk and Andre needed dinner — and didn’t want to pay Linda’s prices. With its meat-cleaver door handle, the Cottage had been a fixture in Maasdam for nearly a hundred years. It was quiet at this time of the night. Andre greeted one or two friends before he and Norm settled in a booth, waiting for replies to Andre’s calls.

“This is too close to home,” Norm complained. “I’ve known Peter and George and their families for a long time. And if this wasn’t natural causes . . .” He was rolling a couple of marbles around in his hand like Captain Queeg and his ball-bearings. Murder was, at least till recently, rare in this small Cleveland suburb. He reflected that if George hadn’t noticed the Chinese checkerboard anomaly, this murder, if it was one, would have gone unnoticed.

“It makes some sense, though, about Peter’s OCD,” he continued. “I remember he always took forever after Men’s Fellowship at church, making sure everything was put away just right. George would get frustrated out of his mind. But I don’t see Karl De Boer as a murderer. He’s lazy and irresponsible, but not the type to commit murder.”

“If there’s one thing the history of crime tells us,” Andre reminded him, “the most unlikely people can be murderers.” He got up and went to the bar for two more beers.

There was little more to say about the case. Conversation moved on to police gossip. After an hour-and-a-half, Andre got replies. He scowled. He made another phone call, to Sondra, and asked her about Peter’s friends. Hearing just one side of the conversation, Norm was concerned, but not able to tell what it was all about. It was too soon for the autopsy report.

When he got off the phone with Sondra, Andre was angry. He relayed what he learned. Norm was shattered.

“You don’t have to come along,” Andre said.

“No. I’ll see this through.” They left a twenty and a ten on the table and went out to Norm’s car.

George and Lucinda were just heading for their car in Linda’s parking lot.

“George De Young, I arrest you for the murder of Peter Dykema.”

“What’s this absurd nonsense?”

“You over-played your hand, Professor,” said Andre. “None of the marbles had any finger-prints. Nor did the board. They’d all been handled with gloves. Peter didn’t set them out.”

“Karl De Boer couldn’t have killed him,” Andre continued. “He was stuck at home all last night — his car had been towed earlier in the day. If he had walked to Peter’s, the security cameras on his street would have caught his image.”

“So?” said George. “Must have been someone else then. But not me. He was my best friend.”

Andre continued, “Sondra reported that her father had been falling in love with a widow he got to know at church. You couldn’t stand to share him with a woman again.”

George lunged at Andre, who quickly put the much bigger man on the ground and handcuffed him. Several marbles rolled from his pocket as he lay on the ground.

Norm went home to his wife, Gerry. Their love made it possible for him to get up each day and face the tawdry and so-often evil world his job involved him in. That and the marbles he rolled around in his hand when things got grim.


Also published at The Weekly Knob on Medium.com

Image: http://www.dreamstime.com/karenkh_info

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