They sat around the same table they had occupied every Friday night for the past umpteen years, at Bill’s Tavern, across the street from the meat market. The five of them were fixtures, more so than the faded mirror behind the bar and the “Free Beer Tomorrow” sign above the cash box. As always, they sat holding semi-warm glasses of ale, the table wet from the condensation dripping off of the mugs in the August heat.
Julius was the unofficial leader of the gathering. He ordinarily led the conversation, or at least started it in that night’s direction. Directly beside him sat Julian, called Jay by the group, so as to lessen any confusion between their names. The group had tried to call Julius “Freckles” but he would have none of that. So Julius it was. Julian, on the other hand, tried out one nickname after another on himself, first “Lefty” then “Butch” and even “Killer,” but none fit him, so he just went by Jay.
Jonny was the clown of the group, the one who invariably embarrassed one or more of them before the night was done. At a little over 5 feet tall he was warm and feisty and prone to practical jokes. And he loved mysteries, usually asking more questions than everyone else put together.
Jorge, thanks to two college degrees and a job with more letters than a can of alphabet soup, was known as the brains of the bunch. He was the quiet one, sitting and taking in all of the arguments for that evening’s mystery, formulating his answer twice before speaking once.
Alphonse was the newest member, having participated in the end of week ritual for just a little over a year. Try as he might, he didn’t feel accepted, for a number of reasons: he was the new man, and had ‘invaded’ the tribe; he had yet, in his year aboard, solved one of the mysteries; and (surprisingly, the main reason he felt like such an outsider) he was the only one whose name didn’t start with the letter “J.”
The mysteries they mulled over each week were usually true stories from the news that perplexed authorities, giving rise to public speculation and Friday night sleuths.
“His body was found in an empty, locked storage room; locked from the inside, mind you, as was the only window. And being on the third floor overlooking the busy street the window was virtually inaccessible,” said Julius, pointing at the market across the street. The police tape was still strewn across the front door.
“He had been stabbed once in the stomach, a large, jagged wound. He was wearing heavy work gloves and an apron. His body was surrounded by blood. The wound itself was almost cauterized, as if by fire.”
“His wife was charged with the murder, I believe?” queried Jonny.
“Yes, and it was her son from a previous marriage that asked me to discuss this with the four of you; he believes she is innocent,” answered Julius.
“She was the only other person in the building at the time of the murder?” Jonny wasn’t shy about asking the obvious.
“That’s one of the mysteries; the police aren’t exactly sure when the murder took place.”
“Why?” Jay chimed in.
“Well, the body was cold, of course, but it was too cold. And since this happened on the third day that the power had been turned off at the market, in this blazing summer heat, everything in there was stinking hot.”
“So that smell that permeates the neighborhood right now isn’t his body, but rather …” started Jonny.
“The odor of rotting meat from the freezers,” finished Jorge.
“And therein lies another mystery within the mystery,” continued Julius. “The room wherein lay his body was virtually odor free. In fact, the police say that when they finally broke down the door the only odor that was discernible was a sharp, acrid smell, taking their breaths away, and making it virtually impossible to breathe. They had to wait a full twenty minutes before entering.”
“With the power out, how did he keep his meat frozen?” asked Jonny again.
“Apparently he’d gone out and purchased every cube of ice in a ten block radius. Even Bill chipped in and gave a good portion.”
“Ice! He was murdered with ice!” shouted Jonny. “The murderer forged a blade from ice, shoved it in his belly, and walked away. We’ve all heard that story before.”
“And then locked the door from the inside?” answered Jorge. “Impossible.”
“The police have heard that legend as well, and have assured me that it was, in fact, impossible. There was no water present. And if he killed himself, where could the murder weapon go, but to melt and lie on the floor with his blood?”
“Wait minute; he kept his meat frozen with regular ice?” asked Jorge. His mind was obviously working.
“That would be virtually impossible. Ice melts quickly, and would have to be continually replenished.” Now Alphonse was chiming in.
“Yes, it does, but apparently he supplanted his ice with carbon dioxide. This would have been good enough to keep the regular ice frozen, if kept supplied with the CO2.” Julius relished his role as ‘master of ceremonies’.
“But the smell …” started Jonny. “The meat is rotten. The ice must be gone by now.”
“It was gone the day of his death, or so say the police. It was, after all, the odor of rotting meat, what they called the ‘smell of death’, that first attracted the police to the crime scene.”
“And he was last seen alive …?” Jonny asked what everyone wondered.
“The day before his body was discovered. This is why the condition of his body is so perplexing to the police. In one day, how did his body chill to a temperature below that of a normal ‘dead’ body?” Even Julius, their unofficial leader, had questions.
“And on the third floor, the hottest place in the building,” added Jonny.
“So let us review: he was murdered with a sharp, jagged object, which was taken by the murderer and discarded. The door was then locked from the inside. The wound was burnt in a fashion, yet there are no signs of any open flames or heat, save for this dreaded summer sun. The room had an acrid odor, virtually unbreathable, yet had no smell of death. The body was cold, colder than it should have been in the heat of the third floor.” Julius laid it all out for them.
Silence fell over the group, as together they picked up their, by now, warm mugs of half finished ale, and looked at the market across the street.
“Ice, ice everywhere, and none for my drink.” Alphonse’ mantra was almost inaudible. Suddenly, he burst out laughing, startling those around him.
“Are you mad?” asked Jonny, spilling what was left of his warm ale as he jumped.
“No,” said Alphonse, “merely happy, because I’ve finally solved a mystery.”
“How? How was he murdered?” they asked in unison.
“That’s just it, my good friends; he wasn’t murdered. He killed himself.”
Even Bill, who normally sat stoically behind the bar, leaned forward to hear the solution.
“It was the ‘smell of death’ comment that solved it for me. The ‘acrid odor, virtually unbreathable, yet had no smell of death’ convinced me I’m right. It turns out that Jonny was correct, in a fashion. His death was caused by ice.”
“But the lack of water …” started Julian, only to be interrupted.
“Yes, I know, there was no water. But he wasn’t killed with regular ice; he died by dry ice.” And Alphonse sat back, took a big swig of totally warm ale, and let that sink in.
“Dry ice? What in blazes is …” Jay started to ask what they all wondered.
“It’s the name informally given to frozen carbon dioxide. It is ‘dry’ because it never becomes a liquid. The solid form melts dead away to a gas.” Jorge, the brain, answered for him.
“And ‘dead away’ is the perfect term,” agreed Alphonse, and then continued.
“The marketer was losing his meat, and his business. He apparently decided to take his own life as well. He gathered the last hunk of dry ice he had, carried it up to the third floor, locked the door behind him, and plunged the frozen carbon dioxide into his belly. The dry ice doesn’t melt, it evaporates. As it did, it displaced the oxygen in the room, explaining the ‘acrid odor’ when the police entered. It also explains why the body was so cold, colder than a normal dead body. The dry ice was so cold that it cauterized the wound.”
“He nearly got away with the perfect murder … his own. But the smell of death, or the lack thereof, gave him away.”
Alphonse signaled to Bill, and yelled, “Barkeep, another round of, this time, cold ale for my friends. I’m buying.”