A Quarantine Murder by Robert Cely, Jr.
Inspector Aldridge Davis always knew he was good. Everyone knew he was good. But after today, he was going to be a legend.
He had only walked into the Valentino Estate two hours ago, and he had already solved the murder. Or at least he was pretty sure he had it solved. A strong eighty-five percent sure. A few more loose ends to confirm what he already suspected – strongly suspected – and it would be a wrap.
Davis looked down at the body again. The last of the examiners were finishing up, and soon they would take it away to let the coroner make his official declaration on cause of death. Not that it was any mystery. The large gash in his back kind of spoke for itself.
I wonder what the world record is for solving a murder? Davis asked himself. This had to be a record, or at least damn close.
What made it all the sweeter was the victim. Victor Valentino, of all people. The self- made billionaire, philanthropist, energy tycoon and worldwide celebrity lay dead at Davis’ feet in the middle of his ornate and richly decorated study. Not only would Davis solve the case in record time – he was almost positive – but it would be the most high-profile case of his career.
Of course, the case was made that much easier to solve due to a stroke of magnificent luck. At least for him. The Valentino family, all those who lived at the estate, had been quarantined together for the last four weeks due to COVID-19. Only five family members and two servants were at the estate. His suspect list was short and a sure thing, just like he liked his women.
Davis stepped out of the study, over the body of the once-illustrious Victor, and into the dining room where those family members waited. One of them was the killer. Of that he was certain. The servants had been dismissed early in the evening and the house had been locked. So Davis was pretty sure it wasn’t one of them. That, and the fact they lacked any motive at all. Valentino was famous for his generosity towards staff and employees, and his servants were some of the most envied people in the state.
First in line was Rodrick Valentino, Victor’s good for nothing son. Fifty-five years old and never really amounted to anything. His eyes were bleary, partly from weeping all morning and partly from the gin and tonics that were the main source of his nighttime calories. Even at ten in the morning he sipped at a glass of tomato juice that Davis suspected was heavily seasoned with Stolichnaya.
Beside him lounged Christine Mallory, the wife of Victor’s dead son, Herbert. She wore a long, tye-died dress, with a collection of jangling bracelets up each arm. Long, grey hair fell down unencumbered, and largely unwashed. She had been threatening to start a commune for the last ten years, ever since her husband died in a boating accident in the Bahamas. So far, all she had done was start a Facebook page for it and continue planning, all the while living out her egalitarian dreams by sharing everything Victor possessed.
Across the room, sitting by herself and looking pensive was Sasha Valentino, the late Victor’s third wife. Of course, it had caused quite the scandal when the eighty-year old Victor took for himself a twenty-nine year old bride. That seemed to bother people more than the fact that the dark-haired beauty had been a by-subscription nude model before she met Victor. Rumor had it that Valentino was a subscriber to her services before he decided to take them on full time and upgrade to the platinum plan.
Sitting at the large, dining room table was Amadi Valentino. This was Victor’s adopted son from Ethiopia. He was discovered during a humanitarian trip there, working at the hotel where Victor stayed. The billionaire was so impressed with the boy’s mind that he brought him back to America with him to have the boy properly educated, and eventually adopted him. The serious looking young man, who stared straight ahead with a vacant look to his eyes was said to be a genius when it came to software. It was also rumored that he had a violent temper that even Victor was afraid of.
Finally, there was Ernest Rogan, Victor’s nephew. Son to Valentino’s beloved sister, the rugged, good-looking man was said to be an adventurer of a type the world didn’t make anymore. Nothing like the Instagram-tourists that flock to supposed unique destinations for ever-rare photo opportunities, Ernest truly sought out the rugged and wild places. Funded heavily by Victor, Ernest would travel with indigenous tribes, sleep in jungles, wander with Bedouins, fight with natives – and he had all the scars to prove it. It gave him a sort of haughtiness, one that allowed him to look down on regular people who he believed led sheltered and boring lives.
Inspector Davis looked them all over, reviewing the evidence in his mind. He searched for a hole in his theory, anything that might tell him he was wrong.
According to his interviews with the family, Davis had pretty much pieced together how the last night had been. The family had dinner together in the dining room, and admittedly it had been a tense affair. Being cooped up together for so long put everyone on edge. Ernest started off complaining how weak Americans had become, scared of a little virus. This caused Christine to get riled up, accusing Ernest of being blinded by white privilege. When Ernest pointed out that she was both white, and immensely privileged, the real spat began.
The argument raged for a good twenty minutes, wherein everyone accused everyone else of being rich and privileged and having no idea what real life is like. Only Victor and Amadi said nothing. Finally, Victor ended the argument with a deep and hearty laugh, thanking them all for the night’s entertainment. He then went on to list how each one, with the exception of Amadi, was a spoiled and siphoning drain on society and the Valentino wealth. He vocally considered the idea of giving all his money away, and then seeing how the family fared on their own. With that declaration, he retired to his study.
The rest of the family peeled away one at a time. Each ventured into the study to speak to Victor that night.
Sasha was first, telling her husband good night, then retiring under a strong dose of Ambien. She claimed that the conversation was cold, but cordial.
Amadi was next, stepping in to commiserate with his adopted father. According to his testimony, the two discussed an investment venture in new software that they had just begun. Their talk lasted until about 10:45.
Next in was Rodrick. He came in, quit inebriated by the witness of others, and demanded to know why his father hated him. They argued using outside voices and naval terminology. It ended with Rodrick accusing Victor of soiling his mother’s memory with that internet hooker and storming upstairs. He tripped on approximately every third stair and then passed out in his room.
At 11:10 Christine made her appearance. She walked past Ernest smelling heavily of herbal medicine and into the study. No one heard what went on there, but Christine told Inspector Davis she reminded the billionaire of the simplicity of life without possessions. According to her interview, Valentino was most receptive to the idea, and agreed whole-heartedly that his life had become consumed with greed and selfishness. She was even under the impression that he would join her commune.
She left at approximately 11:30 and at that point Ernest went to talk with his uncle. He told Davis that he was quite offended that Victor had lumped him in with the rest of the family, and from that moment would not accept another dime of Valentino money. He was going to prove to Victor that he was independent and industrious, and that he would make a name for himself that would make the Valentino name a footnote. It was all said by 11:45, whereby he went upstairs to bed.
No one claimed to have left their room after visiting Victor in his study. Ernest was the last to see him alive, but Amadi heard him open a window around midnight, presumably to enjoy his nightly cigar. When the maid came in the next morning, the window was still open, and Victor was lying in a pool of his own blood. The cigar, smoked halfway down, lay beside the body. A ceremonial Persian dagger, coated in blood, was found behind the desk.
According to the ME at the scene, time of death was most likely between midnight and two AM. Davis favored 12:30 himself, assuming Victor lit his cigar as soon as he opened the window. The unlit ones on Victor’s desk proved to be both long and fat, and finely rolled, making for a slow smoke.
There were no prints on the knife, which had been taken from a decorative spot on the wall. Davis would have liked prints, but they weren’t necessary. The fact that all the items on Victor’s desk had been scattered around, telling Davis the victim didn’t die immediately; that the knife had been removed by the murderer after the stabbing; that the Persian blade was the chosen weapon; that Victor’s watch had been removed from his wrist; that the desk was forced open and files on the Valentino charitable organizations had been stolen; all this combined with what Inspector Davis learned from the family told him all he needed to know. He was certain he knew who the murderer was.
Hearing the examiners load the body on a gurney, Davis excused himself from the estate. He followed the body back to the morgue, eager to talk to the coroner. Once he got the official declaration, he could go ahead and get the arrest warrant.
Davis was almost giddy as he watched the coroner examine the body. Doctor Abrams worked quickly. After a brief inspection, he nodded to Davis.
“Cause of death, stab wound to the back,” he said. “Nicked an artery. Poor Victor bled out internally. Chest cavity is full of blood.”
“What time?” Davis asked.
“Between 12:15 and 12:45 last night.”
Davis smiled and patted the coroner on the back. “Thank you doctor,” he said. “You’ve made me a happy man. I’m going to go get a warrant.”
“Don’t tell me you already know who did it?” he asked.
Davis couldn’t help himself. So he laid out the evidence as he knew it, making the salient points as needed. He even amazed himself at how eloquent the whole thing was.
“That is how I know,” Davis concluded. “That the murderer was…”
“He wasn’t murdered,” Doctor Abrams interrupted.
“Excuse me?” Davis asked, unsure that he heard right. “Did you just say he wasn’t murdered?”
“That’s right,” the coroner said.
“What do you mean? You just said he died from blood loss. Stab wound to the back. All that stuff. What do you mean he wasn’t murdered?”
“That was before I saw this,” Abrams said, lifting up a folder.
“What’s that?” Davis asked.
“Lab tests,” the doctor said.
Davis paused, confused at the turn of events. “So why does that change anything?”
“It says here he tested positive for COVID-19,” the doctor explained. “And didn’t even know he had it.”
“So, anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 is marked officially as a coronavirus death,” Abrams said.
“But he was stabbed,” Davis complained, panic setting into his voice. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The legend was beginning to fade.
“Doesn’t matter,” the doctor said. “Rules are rules. And according to official record, anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 must have that as their cause of death. That means Victor Valentino wasn’t murdered. He died of coronavirus. Case closed.”
The coroner switched off the overhead light and walked out of the examination room. Inspector Davis was left alone with the body, feeling more sorry for himself than the recently deceased Victor. Visions of potential glory faded away, making him feel as dark as the room. He shook his head and sighed, then resigning himself to the inevitable, shuffled out of the room.
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