The Invisible Assistant – An Eli Marks Short Story

August 2, 2017

“Now for my next effect, I’m going to need another volunteer.”

I timed this statement to land just as the applause from the last trick was starting to wane. I had completed a well-received Ambitious Card routine with the blonde volunteer to my left (What was her name again? Jan? Jane? Joan?) and now I needed another willing soul to join the two of us onstage.

“You know, just to ensure I haven’t prearranged any of this, let’s make the selection of the next volunteer more, I don’t know…random,” I said casually, as if I didn’t say that same phrase in that exact same way in every show. “We’ll let chance decide who will join…the two of us here onstage,” I continued, neatly sidestepping the need to remember the blonde’s name.

“I’m going to toss this into the crowd,” I said, picking up the bowling ball that I had made magically appear earlier in the act. “And whoever catches it…”

Laughter drowned out the rest of the sentence, as it always did, which was convenient, because I didn’t actually have an ending for that sentence. I dropped the heavy ball to the stage and reached into my bag, pulling out a bright orange Nerf ball.

“You know, after the unfortunate incident that happened at the last show, let’s try this instead. Heads up!”

I tossed the Nerf ball into the center of the crowd and a hand shot up and grabbed it in mid-air. “Terrific,” I said, squinting, trying to see past the bright stage lights, which were positioned low and directly in my eyes. That was often the case when doing a corporate show in a low-ceilinged hotel ballroom.

“Now you toss it somewhere else in the room.” The ball sailed through the room again and was snatched out of the air by another hand. “Great, now to really make it random, why don’t you toss it one more time?”

The ball sailed across the room, flying over all the folks finishing their identical chicken lunches, and headed straight toward a couple who had taken a standing-room-only spot on the far wall. Fortunately, the man had great timing, reaching out and snatching the ball out of the air before it could hit the woman in the face.

With the stage lights in my eyes this was all a squinty tableau, but I sensed the man wasn’t enthusiastic about being the final catcher in this selection process. Coaxing would be required.

“Impressive catch, sir,” I said, stepping to the edge of the stage. “Come on up and give us a hand, will you?” My Uncle Harry had taught me that particular phrasing, which was designed to get the audience to applaud without realizing that they were being asked to do so. They responded on cue and the man who had caught the last toss of the Nerf ball began to move hesitantly toward the front of the room

In my new position at the lip of the stage, I was finally able to get a look at him as well as the woman he was standing with, although it took me a moment longer than it should have to recognize her.

It was my ex-wife. And the guy with the great timing who was trudging slowly toward the stage was her relatively new husband.

“And what is your name?” I asked as he stepped onto the stage. He glared at me because he knew damned well I knew his name, but this was a show after all, and I had to keep things moving.

“Fred,” he growled.

“Fred,” I repeated with more pep than was really required. I traditionally always referred to him by his full name and title, Homicide Detective Fred Hutton, but I’d have to set that annoy- ing habit aside for the time being. “Fred, please step to my right, and Joan—” I turned to the blonde.

“Melissa,” she corrected.

“Melissa, of course, if you would stand here on my left.”

I had done this routine maybe a thousand times, but the sudden surprise addition of my ex-wife’s husband onstage, not to mention my ex-wife in the audience, had scrambled the routine in my head.

“I don’t know if you folks can feel it out there, but there is a real chemistry between these two volunteers,” I lied. In reality, there could not have been less chemistry onstage, as witnessed by the two stiffs flanking me. I soldiered on. “To demonstrate the connection, I propose we perform a short experiment using some playing cards and these two powerfully attractive personalities.” The flat response this elicited from both volunteers actually produced a collective chuckle from the crowd.

With that, I launched into my Cards Across routine, count- ing three cards into Melissa’s outstretched hand, and then seven cards into the hand that Homicide Detective Fred Hutton had reluctantly put forward. I caught his eye as I finished counting the seventh card, and the icy stare he gave me told me exactly how much he was enjoying his time onstage.

“To recap,” I continued, doing my best to remember whereI was in the routine and where I needed to go, “I have placed three cards in Melissa’s hand, and seven cards in Fred’s hand.” I nearly used his full name and title, but caught myself at the last second. “Now, with the help of my invisible assistant, we will demonstrate the powerful attraction between these two happy volunteers.”

This produced another ripple of laughter from the crowd. I plowed forward, using Homicide Detective Fred Hutton’s stone face to great comic effect as I completed each phase of the trick, calling on the help of the invisible assistant at each key point.

First, when he counted the cards, Homicide Detective Fred Hutton found that he had eight cards. He counted again and found that he now held nine cards. At the same time, the blonde’s stack of cards diminished from three to two and then to one. The routine came to an end with all ten cards in Fred’s hand, and only one card in the blonde’s. That card, of course, was her selected and signed card from the earlier Ambitious Card routine.

The audience gave the performance a better response than it deserved, and for a brief moment I considered ending the show right there. But I could hear my Uncle Harry’s voice in the back of my head, admonishing me for considering ending the act with volunteers still onstage. “The final applause should be for you and you alone,” he would have said. “No magician worth his salt wants to share a standing ovation with a volunteer.”

Although such an ovation seemed unlikely, I ushered the two volunteers off the stage, persuading the audience to give them “another well-deserved round of applause.” I then moved right into the classic magical snowstorm effect which I—and virtually every other magician in the world—used as my finale when a big finish was required.

I triggered my iPod with the remote switch in my pocket and suddenly the room was filled with Nat King Cole singing “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” as a snowstorm appeared in my hands and blew out onto the first three rows. This brought the show to a quasi-rousing close and littered the stage with small bits of white paper, which I’m sure was always a delight for the hotel cleaning staff.

The corporate meeting planner met me as I came offstage with a big grin and a check that, sadly, wasn’t nearly as large as her smile. All in all, a profitable if slightly bumpy corporate show.

“Imagine my surprise when I saw you two in the audience,” I said.

“Imagine my surprise when you called Fred onstage,” replied my ex-wife.

Homicide Detective Fred Hutton declined to contribute to our conversation, instead choosing to stare at a point somewhere in a far corner of the hotel restaurant. His wife, Deirdre, was taking more delight in his impromptu performance than I might have expected. When we were married, she kept a cool demeanor at nearly all times and rarely took delight in anything, especially me. We were considered to be, as many people later confessed, an odd match.

“That was a nice routine,” she continued. “With the cards moving between the people and the invisible assistant.”

“Thanks, that’s Cards Across. A classic. Next time you’re in fVegas, check out Mac King’s version. It’s sublime.” The waitress took that moment to appear with the coffee I had ordered. I stirred in some cream and took a long sip. “Had I known you two wanted to see the show, I would have reserved you some actual seats.”

“It was something of a spur of the moment decision to come see you.”

This produced a barely audible grunt from Homicide Detective Fred Hutton.

“So it wasn’t a mutual decision?” I suggested.

“Maybe not, but here we are,” Deirdre said, leaning forward, clearly finished with the chitchat portion of the meeting. “I want to get your take on something. A case we’re working on.”

While we were married, Deirdre had risen steadily through the District Attorney’s office and was now well ensconced, and well respected, as an assistant DA. Her close working relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department’s Homicide division had produced several stunning murder convictions and one divorce. This last occurrence was due primarily to her too-close working relationship with Homicide Detective Fred Hutton, although I’m sure that somewhere, somehow she blamed me.

“You’ve read about the Josiah Manning murder-suicide?” she asked.

I nodded and took another sip of coffee. “I heard about it in passing,” I said. “But I don’t know any of the details.”

“But you know who Josiah Manning was?”

I shrugged. “He was a big anti-death penalty, anti-suicide guy, right?”

“The biggest.”

“And he killed someone in the opposition?”

“Not just someone. He basically killed the opposition. Harley Keller, the leader of what people had come to call the pro-death movement.”

“Because he believed in suicide?”

“More than believed. Harley Keller was a true zealot. He was the suicide poster child.”

“They have that? Weird.” Although my alleged quip drew only a scowl from Deirdre, I thought I detected the faintest hint of a smile on Homicide Detective Fred Hutton’s lips. Then it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. “So, let me get this straight: The anti-suicide guy, who believed fervently in the sanctity of life, murdered the pro-suicide guy and then to top it all off, he killed himself?”

“That’s what the police believe,” Deirdre said, throwing a side-long glance at her husband. He did not return it.

“Well, get Alanis Morissette on the line, because that’s pretty ironic.”

Deirdre sighed. “Eli, do you have any cultural references that are less than twenty years old?”

I was tempted to dazzle her with a Nipsey Russell-style poem on the topic, but thought better of it. “So your opinion differs from that of the Homicide department?”

“On several key points, yes,” she said as she began to dig through her purse. “Which is why I wanted to talk to you. Why I wanted both of us to talk to you,” she added. “On occasion you’ve offered a unique perspective that I think could be useful in this instance.”

“I believe the phrase you used when we were married was, ‘You have a bizarre way of looking at things.’”

“Yes,” she said, leaving it at that. She pulled an iPad from the depths of her purse. “I want you to look at this.” She opened the cover, clicking and swiping until she’d found what she was looking for. “This is about four years old, and is just one of many, many similar videos.”

She hit a play button and handed me the iPad. I tilted it so that Homicide Detective Fred Hutton could see as well, but he waved me away.

“I’ve seen it,” he said, crossing his arms and slouching back into his chair, setting his gaze once again on an invisible point across the room.

The sound of an argument pulled my attention back to the iPad. Actually, it wasn’t technically an argument, as only one person was talking. Or, more accurately, shouting.

“That’s Harley Keller,” Deirdre pointed out as I looked at the man on the screen. He was gaunt and pale, a crew cut consisting of wisps of white hair covering his large bony head. His eyes, which burned at someone off-camera, were a sharp steely blue. He was shouting, ranting really, so vehemently that small specks of white spittle were visible around his lips and on his chin.

The video cut at that point to another man who listened intently to the bile being thrown at him. Like Harley, he appeared to be in his early sixties, but there was a calmness and warmth to him that made him seem much younger.

“Josiah Manning?” I suggested, beating Deirdre to the punch. She nodded and I turned back to the screen. The show they were appearing on wasn’t The Charlie Rose Show, but they certainly could have been sued by Charlie’s people. They had blatantly lifted the program’s distinctive look, right down to the same round oak table and deep dark backdrop.

“Death is a basic human right,” Harley was shouting. “A per- son has a right to their death just as they have a right to their life. If I wish to end my life, that is my personal decision, and you and the public and the state have no right to stand in the way of my decision.” He stared daggers at Josiah, seeming to dare him to speak.

Josiah returned the stare, but his was warm and without judgment.

“Don’t you want to answer that?” Harley snapped.

“Gladly,” Josiah said softly. “It’s just that, since you have interrupted me at every opportunity this evening, I just wanted to make sure that I in turn was not about to—inadvertently—interrupt you.”

Harley sat back and spread his hands open before him, giving the floor to Josiah.

“While I certainly respect your opinion,” he said quietly, “I cannot endorse it nor justify it. Life, in all of its forms, is sacred. It was given to us and it is not ours to take away, whether via a lethal injection in a prison or an exhaust hose in a garage—”

“So you insist,” Harley said, cutting him off, “that you have a right to keep me alive, and I don’t have a right to choose the time of my death? Is that what you’re saying? But that is complete and utter—”

Some network censor somewhere had pulled the sound down for the next few profanity-laden seconds of his rant, so Deirdre took that opportunity to take the iPad back and hit the pause button.

“Wow,” I said. “After seeing that, if you told me one of those guys killed the other guy and then himself, I would have sworn it was Harley Keller who pulled that trigger twice. Not Josiah Manning.”

“My point exactly,” Deirdre said as she slipped the tablet back into the dark recesses of her purse. “I’m just having a bit of trouble getting the Homicide department to see things my way.”

“It’s cut and dried,” Homicide Detective Fred Hutton grumbled. “And that’s the truth.”

“The truth is rarely cut and never dried,” I misquoted, not at all sure what that was supposed to mean. “What does Homicide think happened?”

“Harley Keller invited Josiah Manning to his home,” he began. 

“His home?”

“Harley Keller lived in a townhouse on Cedar Lake,” Deirdre explained.

Homicide Detective Fred Hutton gave her a long look and then continued. “Harley Keller invited Josiah Manning to his home,” he repeated slowly. “At some point, the two must have gone upstairs to Mr. Keller’s office on the second floor. While in that office, Josiah Manning shot Harley Keller point blank in the chest.”

“Yikes,” I said involuntarily.

“He died almost immediately,” Homicide Detective Fred Hutton continued, ignoring my short outburst. “Josiah Manning then went downstairs, sat down in a chair in the living room, put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.”

“Where did you find the gun?”

“On the floor next to the chair.”

“Powder burns?”

“Residue was found on the fingers of Josiah Manning’s right hand.”

“How about Harley Keller?”

“His hands were clean.”

I sat back and considered what I had heard. I took a sip of my coffee, which had already turned cold. “Maybe someone else shot them both and then left?”

Homicide Detective Fred Hutton shook his head. “The place was locked up tight. Both front and rear entrances were secured with heavy chain locks. All windows locked from the inside. Responding officers had to break down the front door after neighbors reported gunshots.”

“Suicide note?”

He shook his head.

I took another sip of coffee and then turned to Deirdre. “And you think it happened some other way?”

“Yes,” she said.

“What’s odd about this,” I said as a new thought began to dawn on me, “is that in reality there were three deaths that night.” This produced curious looks from both of them.

“How do you figure?” Deirdre asked.

I counted them out on my fingers for emphasis. “Harley Keller and Josiah Manning both died,” I said. “But so too did Josiah Manning’s reputation. I mean, the method of his death will now always overshadow his life’s work. The anti-suicide guy will now always be known as the guy who killed himself. And Harley Keller certainly had the motive to put that reputation to rest.” I finished the rest of my coffee. “Can we go look at the crime scene?” I said as I stood up.

Deirdre was already on her feet. “I thought you’d never ask.”

You know how you can sometimes tell when a couple is arguing, even when you can’t hear them? I mean, just by their body language? That was the sense I got as I followed the happy couple across town to the Cedar Lake neighborhood. From my vantage point in the front seat of my car, I could see them talk- ing in the front seat of theirs. And from where I sat, it did not look like a happy conversation.

For some odd reason, that made me sad. Because, I figured, if she had to leave me, the very least she could do was try to be happy with the guy she left me for. I mean, otherwise, what was the point?

In fact, on the few occasions I had witnessed these arguments, I had to restrain myself from saying something along the lines of, “Jeez, you left me so you could argue with him? You could’ve skipped the divorce and continued arguing with me.” But I wisely never said that. At least, not so far.

Harley Keller lived—or had lived—on Cedar Lake, the most mysterious of the Minneapolis chain of lakes, primarily because it was impossible to drive around it. You could drive past it, but not around it.

His townhouse, like all the others connected to it, looked rela- tively new and completely identical. A different brightly-colored windsock hung in front of each entryway, probably in a failed attempt to aid in the identification process.

Deirdre and Homicide Detective Fred Hutton were already unlocking the front door when I caught up to them. “No crime scene tape?” I observed.

“It’s no longer a crime scene,” Homicide Detective Fred Hutton grunted as he pushed the door open. I was surprised to be greeted by the sound of a yipping dog.

“Hey, there’s a dog,” I said, clearly stating the obvious. “That’s weird. Why is there a dog?”

“There are a variety of pets still in residence,” Homicide Detective Fred Hutton said flatly.

I looked to Deirdre for a more complete explanation. “Harley Keller had a dog, three cats, a bird and an aquarium. We were going to turn them all over to animal control, but the next of kin requested against that,” she said. She gestured toward the identi- cal doorway to our right. “The lady next door stops in several times a day to take care of them. His next of kin are coming to town at the end of the week to handle the estate.”

“That’s quite a menagerie,” I said. “Especially for a pro-death kind of guy like Harley Keller.”

“Yes, it is,” Homicide Detective Fred Hutton said with what sounded like a sigh. This was followed immediately by something that sounded like a sneeze. And then another. And another.

“Fred’s allergic to cats. And dogs,” Deirdre said by way of explanation. At that moment, a small mutt of a dog came racing towards us, yelping happily. Because Homicide Detective Fred Hutton was the only one of us allergic to animals, the dog naturally went right for him. He dropped a slimy, spit-covered rubber ball at the detective’s feet. Homicide Detective Fred Hutton gave the ball a disgruntled kick as he pulled out a handkerchief to catch his next sneeze. The handkerchief arrived a millisecond too late.

As the dog chased after the errant ball, a large tabby cat arrived and began to wend its way around Homicide Detective Fred Hutton’s ankles. This cat was soon joined by another cat, this one small and black. Then the dog returned with the ball and the next phase of sneezing began.

“Can we proceed?” Homicide Detective Fred Hutton pleaded between sneezes.

“By all means,” I agreed. “Give me the nickel tour.”

“Sure. The dog is named Gypsy and the cats are Jinx, Penny and—” Deirdre was cut off before she could complete her list.

“He means a tour of the crime scene,” Homicide Detective Fred Hutton barked.

“Oh,” she said, acting innocent. “I thought it wasn’t a crime scene anymore.”

I put up a hand to stop them. “The way you two are behaving, it feels like it could easily become a crime scene again, at any moment. Could we just stick to the facts of the case?”

While her husband blew his nose, Deirdre pointed out the chair where Josiah Manning had allegedly shot himself. It was an oversized recliner, upholstered in a light blue plush fabric.
A large bloodstain covered the chair’s headrest. On a hunch, I tugged on each armrest. They opened, revealing a storage chamber within each arm. Both chambers were not only empty but spotless.

Deirdre pointed out the place on the floor where he had dropped the gun. I gestured toward the chair and she nodded her permission. I slowly sat in the recliner, taking care not to lean back on the headrest. The blood had long since dried, but human nature dictated that I keep my distance and so I did. I mimed the motions of putting a gun in my mouth and pulling the trigger. My arm dropped to the side. I looked down to see if my imaginary gun had landed in the spot Deirdre had indicated. To my mind’s eye, it was a direct hit.

She then headed toward the stairway. I followed, and once he was able to disentangle himself from his animal friends, Homicide Detective Fred Hutton trailed behind us. We passed an impressively huge fish tank built into one wall. The fish swam aimlessly back and forth, looking exotic and colorful. I glanced at the tank and then back to the sniffling mess behind me.

“You allergic to fish too?” I asked, trying to hide how much I was enjoying the question.

“With my luck, yes,” he said as another sneeze arrived. We followed Deirdre up the stairs, with both cats doing their best to get under Homicide Detective Fred Hutton’s feet as he blearily navigated the stairs.

Harley Keller’s office was a large room at the top of the stair-case. A computer sat atop an IKEA-style desk, with matching bookcases lining one wall. Photos of Harley with notables lined the other wall. The rest of the room consisted of a series of cat beds, a dog bed, and various carpeted structures designed to provide an indoor cat with the climbing experience they were denied by being forced to live inside. To prove that thesis, a cat I hadn’t yet seen was resting atop the highest structure in the room.

Homicide Detective Fred Hutton stood in the doorway and sneezed. As if responding to this call, Gypsy had returned and dropped his spit-covered ball at the detective’s feet. Once he realized that the human had no desire to play with him, the dog sniffed at the ball and then marched over to his rag-filled dog bed, circling the bed three times before finally settling in.

I looked down at a large dark brown bloodstain in the center of the room, which had soaked into the cream-colored plush carpeting.

“Based on the position of the body and the blood splatter, it appears Harley was shot right here,” Deirdre said, pointing to where the body had fallen.

“So,” I said, trying to work out the chronology, “Harley and Josiah came up here. Josiah shoots Harley in the chest. He falls there,” I said, indicating the bloodstain. “Josiah then marches downstairs and shoots himself in the head.”

“That’s the police version, yes,” she said.

I stooped down. From where I was standing, I could see down the stairs into the living room. However, the recliner where Josiah had shot himself was not in view. I turned to Deirdre. “And what’s your theory? That Harley shot Josiah and then shot himself?”

“That makes more sense to me.”

“Even though the facts clearly do not support that supposi- tion?” Homicide Detective Fred Hutton’s voice was a little ragged from the sneezing but his attitude came through loud and clear.

“I think if you insist on looking at only some of the facts, you can easily reach the wrong conclusion.”

I recognized Deirdre’s tone and my stomach tightened in what could only be called a Pavlovian response. I crossed the room and sat at the desk, trying to gather my thoughts while the happy couple continued to squabble. I did my best to block out their bickering while I sorted through the elements of the puzzle.

I knew from past experience that if Deirdre was insisting about a point this vehemently, there was likely something behind it and it was worth pursuing. She was adamant that something wasn’t quite right in what we were seeing. She didn’t believe Josiah shot Harley and then himself. And given what little I knew about the two men, I was inclined to agree.

However, if Harley merely wanted Josiah dead, he could have just shot him and then, if he was so inclined, he could have shot himself. But instead, he felt the need to kill Josiah’s reputation as well. But how?

I thought about all the methods I knew to get an object from one side of the stage to the other. All the ways I had learned to take something off a person without them knowing it, and the more useful art of putting something on them without tipping

them off. I thought about mirrors and stooges and dual realities and other forms of misdirection. I thought about my act from that afternoon. And then a glimmer of an idea began to take hold in the back of my head. But it was having trouble making itself heard above the din in the room.

“Could you two please knock it off?” I finally said, saying it much louder than I had intended. My volume and tone produced the desired effect and they both stopped in mid-argument. “I can’t hear myself think,” I added at a much lower level. I got up and saw that they were each looking at me like contrite children. I moved to the center of the room.

“This is where Harley was standing when he was shot?”

Deirdre nodded, double-checked it with Homicide Detective Fred Hutton, and then nodded again.

“Is it possible that someone could use a handgun like the one used in this case and shoot themselves in the chest? I mean, hold their arm out, point the gun at their own chest and shoot them- selves?” I demonstrated what I meant, stretching out my arm and turning my hand back toward my chest.

Deirdre started to answer, but Homicide Detective Fred Hutton beat her to it. “Yes, but a bullet to the heart would produce nearly instant death,” he said. “There would be no time to get the gun downstairs. Not to mention the powder burns on the hand.”

Deirdre held up a hand for him to stop talking. He didn’t look like he wanted to, but a sudden sneeze shifted his attention away from me and back to his handkerchief. Deirdre jumped on this pause.

“What are you thinking?” she said, stepping toward me.

“What if it happened this way…” I began, heading toward the door. “Oh, do either of you have a gun? I mean, an unloaded gun, about the same size that was used here?”

Still unable to speak, Homicide Detective Fred Hutton shook his head and then registered a look of surprise as Deirdre began to dig through her purse. A moment later, she produced a small handgun. “I checked it out of the armory this morning,” she said by way of explanation. “In case we needed to reenact anything. Don’t worry, it’s not loaded.”

“Great,” I said, taking the gun from her, surprised at its heft. It was a little heavy, but not too heavy for what I had in mind. “Also, do you have any gloves, like the ones you use when sifting through evidence?”

Deirdre nodded at Homicide Detective Fred Hutton, who glared back at her. There was a short tense standoff, and then he acquiesced. He put his handkerchief in one pocket and then pulled a pair of thin latex gloves out of the other. He handed them to me and I pulled one onto my right hand as I sprinted out of the room and down the stairs. I ducked into the kitchen for a moment, and the couple had made it to the base of the stairs by the time I returned.

“Okay,” I said, beginning my impromptu presentation, “let’s try this scenario on for size. I am Harley Keller and I have invited Josiah Manning over to my townhouse. I’m not entirely sure how I got him here, maybe something about burying the hatchet, but anyway, I invite him and he comes over.”

I walked to the front door and mimed each action as I narrated. “Josiah comes in the front door. I welcome him and lock the door behind him and chain the door. Then, with his back to me, I knock him out with the butt of the gun.” I went through these actions, pretending to strike and then lower an unconscious body into the recliner. “Now, this puts a pretty big wound on the back of Josiah’s head, but that will be obliterated when I put the gun in his mouth, wrap his finger around the trigger and then pull it. Blam!”

My impression of the sound of the gun was loud enough to make Deirdre jump. I patted her on the shoulder as I headed back to the stairs. “Sorry about that,” I said. “Anyway, now Josiah is dead and he’s got powder marks on his right hand. The first half of my plan is completed. Now for phase two.”

I took the stairs two at a time, and then had to wait while Deirdre and Homicide Detective Fred Hutton trudged back up the stairs. Once again, the cats did their best to trip him up. I waited patiently for them to arrive and then waited a few more seconds for another quick round of sneezing.

“Okay, so now it’s Harley’s turn,” I said, stretching my right arm as far in front of me as I could and pointing the gun back toward my chest. “I shoot myself point blank in the heart, drop the gun and die a few seconds later.” I looked up and smiled at the couple in the doorway. “Just that simple,” I added.

Deirdre squinted at me and Homicide Detective Fred Hutton shook his head.

“Now,” I continued, “you’re probably wondering how Harley got the gun from the floor next to him, down the stairs and next to Josiah’s body.”

“Yes, we are,” Deirdre said, sounding annoyed. “That’s the whole point.”

“Well, I think he did it the same way I got the cards from Joan’s hands to his hands during my act today,” I said, gesturing toward Homicide Detective Fred Hutton.

“Melissa,” he said, and then blew his nose. “What?”

“The volunteer’s name was Melissa.” “Whatever.”

“So,” Deirdre said, clearly frustrated, “how did you get the cards from her hands to his hands?”

I smiled. “With an invisible assistant,” I said. Before she could pursue this further, I checked that I was standing in the right spot and pointed the gun at my chest.

“Blam!” I shouted, again making her jump. I clutched my chest with one hand, while dropping the gun to the floor with the other. And then I prayed.

A moment later my prayers were rewarded as we heard the patter of paws on carpet. We turned to see that Gypsy had jumped out of his dog bed and was scampering across the room. He happily picked up the gun between his teeth—it was a mouthful, but he was able to grasp it tightly—and then he trotted out of the room and down the stairs. We followed, heading halfway down the stairs, just in time to see him drop the gun right next to the recliner. He started back toward us, forcing me to run back up the stairs to Harley’s office.

“A dog that smart, you could teach him that trick in just a few days,” I said over my shoulder.

“Well, that covers the gun,” Homicide Detective Fred Hutton said between sneezes. “But what about the powder burns?”

I returned to my position in the center of the office and peeled off the glove. “In the few seconds I have left after shooting myself,” I explained, “I peel off the glove and drop it to the floor.” I did just that.

“But we would have found it by the body,” Homicide Detective Fred Hutton began, but he was interrupted by Gypsy, who ran back into the room and up to the glove. He sniffed it for a brief second, then picked it up and carried it back to his dog bed, where he began to chew on it happily. In just a few sec- onds it was virtually shredded.

“I ducked into the kitchen and put a dog treat into that glove,” I said, “but I suspect Harley probably used a linen glove and soaked it in chicken or beef broth the day before. I think a thorough examination of Gypsy’s dog bed might even produce a few remaining tatters of that glove, which would undoubtedly have powder burns on it.”

Homicide Detective Fred Hutton made a move toward the bed and the glove Gypsy was currently enjoying, but the dog growled and barred his teeth. The Detective wisely stepped back from the dog bed. “We’ll look into that,” he said dryly.

“What I’m really hoping, Detective, is that you can find it in your heart to not arrest that dog as an accessory to murder.” This produced a smile and a chuckle. But not from Homicide Detective Fred Hutton.

He turned and spoke sharply to Deirdre. “That’s not funny.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “It’s a little funny. You just have no sense of humor.”

This remark triggered a new phase of their ongoing argument. I listened for a few painful seconds, and then held up my hands in protest.

“Here’s the thing,” I said as I backed toward the door. “I am happy to help you out from time to time, but if it means having to endure an episode of The Bickersons every time I see you two, count me out.” Deirdre gave me a puzzled look. “In case you’re keeping track, that reference is probably well over sixty years old.” This did little to abate her confusion.

“Thanks again, Gypsy, for being the best invisible assistant I’ve never seen,” I continued, tossing the remaining dog treat across the room. The little dog jumped up and caught it in the air.

As I headed down the stairs, I could hear the crunching of that dog treat, followed by the sound of an argument beginning anew. This was cut short by another flurry of sneezing, which was the last sound I heard before I shut the door behind me.

Copyright John Gaspard. Published by Henry Press. All the books in the Eli Marks mystery series (The Ambitious Card, The Bullet Catch, and The Miser’s Dream) are available in hardcover, paperback, Ebook, and audiobook formats.     

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Genii Magazine.