No divots in the rug. Furniture hasn't been moved recently.
Nothing broken. Books all lined up neatly. Desk drawers closed. Papers not even ruffled.
Clean walls. No marks, no blood.
Wood parquet floors. Unscratched. No shoe scuffs. No blood here either. Nothing wrong. Except that one tile that's rotated the wrong way for the pattern. Ugh!
Everywhere she looked, there was zero indication of any violent struggle or tampering with the room's contents.
"You were first on scene, Officer Tyler?" Moreen inquired of the man who had showed her to the room.
"Yeah, me and the paramedics," Tyler answered.
"Who called it in?"
"Stephen Huber, the victim's dad. Sounds like the rest of the family was away for the weekend, and when they came home the victim's door was locked and he wouldn't answer. The dad finally came around the side of the house and looked in the window and saw the body laying there. Door was still locked when we got here."
"From the inside or the outside?"
"The handle could be locked from either side. But there's a sliding bolt, too, on the inside. We had to break it."
Moreen turned around to look at the door frame behind her. There was a splintered hole in the door frame, and both sides of the bolt now hung uselessly on the door just below the handle.
"How about the window?" she asked.
"Yeah, that was locked too," replied Tyler.
"Have you found anything else worth noting? Notes, weapons, medications, things that seem odd?"
"Nothing yet, except for the victim's key to the room was laying on the floor near the body. The forensic team's still looking for prints or hairs or what have you, but nobody's turned up anything so far."
Moreen sighed. Probably a suicide. If we can find the weapon, it's cut and dried. She called over the paramedics who, once they'd confirmed death, had moved themselves out of the way to wait for an investigator before moving the body.
The victim was lying on the area rug, face down and completely nude. Moreen took a moment to note that the back side of the victim's body had no trauma markings. However, judging from the red stain in the rug around his head area, she suspected she wasn't going to enjoy looking at the front side. "Turn him over," she told the paramedics.
"What in the…!" Moreen gasped as the front side of the body became visible. Every eye in the room turned to see and every sound in the room stilled.
The blood in the rug had prepared her for the sight of the deep puncture wound through the victim's right eye. It was unpleasant, but she'd seen worse before.
What she hadn't been prepared for were the lines of symbols in black ink that curled sinuously over the skin of the victim's forehead, chest, inner arms, and the palms of his hands.
Moreen dropped the pages of the most recent forensic report on her desk and rubbed at her aching temples. This one had informed her that despite reanalysis, all of the DNA samples from the crime scene matched to the victim, Joshua. This case had hit nothing but dead ends. They'd nicknamed it the "Voynich Case," because both the strange symbols on the victim's body and the case itself seemed as indecipherable as the famed Voynich manuscript.
Nobody had a motive to want to kill Joshua, and nobody could point to a reason he'd want to kill himself. Everyone around him agreed that he was lucid and sound of mind. He had no identifiable mental disorders and took no medications. The only oddity was that he had claimed to occasionally see things that other people couldn't. In his journal he described seeing people and objects that were there one second and not there when he looked again. Having been cleared by doctors for any mental, visual, or neurological disorder, he'd sought the advice of a priest from the local parish. Father Douglass thought that the visions were spiritual in nature, but not a cause for worry. Joshua and Father Douglass kept in regular contact and became good friends.
Father Douglass had been called to the crime scene to administer the last rites belatedly before Joshua's body was hauled away on a gurney. Not knowing what to say to someone who had just administered last rites to a close friend, Moreen had found herself avoiding his eyes as she spoke to him. Instead she stared awkwardly at the smudge of ink that had come off on his hand when he anointed Joshua. She counted the row of black buttons on his cassock. There were thirty-three.
Nothing about this made sense. There was the locked room; aside from Joshua's own key, found in the room with him, the only other key was on his father's key ring and that had been with his father in the next town over at the time of death. But even if there had been a hundred keys, the bolt could still only be locked from inside. The forensic techs had found no fingerprints, no hairs, no DNA other than the victim's own, no clothing fibers, nothing at all to indicate that someone other than Joshua had been in the room. All of that pointed to suicide. But if Joshua had stabbed himself through the eye, the weapon should have been nearby. Instead, it was nowhere to be found. And there wasn’t blood on his hands, either. Murder didn't make sense. Suicide didn't make sense. And the night-black runes on his body especially didn't make sense. There was no trace of any similar ink anywhere else in the room or the rest of the house. The phrase "perfect murder" had been tossed around the office a lot lately.
There's no such thing as a perfect murder, Moreen thought ruefully. There's a crack in every case, and if I can't find it, it just means the perpetrator is smarter than I am. She couldn't help feeling that the crack in this one was probably right under her nose, and she just wasn't astute enough to see it.
Moreen sat at the desk in Joshua's study. She had sat there many times in the past several weeks, hoping that being in the room where his death had occurred would help her find insight into the case. There was pressure from her superiors to label the case as a cult-related suicide just to close it and get it over with. Her conscience wouldn't let her do that. She was in danger of being taken off the case, in danger of losing her job, maybe. She was frazzled. She felt like her reason and sense had melted. She couldn't keep track of anything. It seemed like every time she turned around, the things on her desk weren't where she thought she'd put them. She greeted people walking into the room only to look up and realize nobody was there. So she got away from her desk, and sat at Joshua's instead. She'd already looked the room over a hundred times. She knew the sequence of the books on the shelves, had memorized the wood grains in the top of the desk. She counted the checkerboard pattern of the parquet floor tiles over and over. She knew it by heart, but her eyes and mind needed something to do while she thought, so she counted the pattern again.
Vertical. Horizontal. Vertical. Horizontal. Vertical. Vertical. Vertical. Horizontal.
That break in the pattern drove her mad. She wanted to find the contractor who'd laid the floor and clobber him. The out-of-sequence tile was right in front of the door, for heaven's sake! Right in the goddamn front of…
Moreen frantically searched the desk for a sturdy, flat object, and settled on a letter opener. She tried several times to wedge the tip of it in the cracks around the offending tile, not caring that she was chipping the wood. Finally she got it in far enough to pry the tile out of place.
There was a hole in the plywood subfloor, and in the darkness a few feet below she could see dirt. A crawlspace!
On her second pass around the exterior of the house, Moreen sighted the entrance to the crawlspace, partially hidden behind a forsythia bush. Ignoring the dirt and spiders, she crawled inside. It was dark, but one point of light told her where the hole in the floor above was located. She crawled over to it and looked up. It was far too small to be used as an exit from the room, but big enough for a knife, or an arm…
So that's it. Enter the room. Stab the victim. Drop the weapon through the hole in the floor. Take the victim's key. Lock the room from the outside. Enter the crawlspace. Toss the key up through the hole and back into the room- that's why it was on the floor. Reach up through the hole and slide the bolt into place. I can't, but someone with a longer arm could. Pull the tile back over the hole. From the bottom, you can't tell which way the pattern goes. The crack in the case wasn't under my nose, it was under my feet.
I know how, but I still don't know who or why. Scanning for any further clues, she detected a small area where the dirt floor looked less packed than the area around it. Something buried, maybe? Too anxious to delay for getting a digging tool, she started clawing at the dirt with her hands. She felt something smooth and flexible under the dirt and tugged on it. A bundle of fabric popped out of the ground with a little shower of dirt. The fabric was white, except where it was covered with the same snaking black patterns that had been on Joshua's body. Moreen cautiously unfolded the fabric, and two items fell out. The first was a slender knife that glinted silver in the scant light coming from above. The blade was coated in a dried, dark substance. Blood.
The second object was a black button.