The Chinese Checkers Murder (Rev 2017–03–03)

Copyright Karen Hoar |

“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 was almost unchanged since her grandparents bought it in 1953. Chrome, formica and vinyl table and chairs. Refrigerator born before motherboards 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 the EMT squad and George, who lived a block away, after she discovered her father’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. Now his six-foot-two, 220 pounds loomed over her, proclaiming 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. Come look.”

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

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

“No. It’ll just stir up trouble. It can’t be proven anyway. And 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 smartphone 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, “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?” Norm could tell how worked up George was. He knew he had to hear him out and calm him down without getting sucked into his theories.

“You knew Peter, how rigid his habits were. ‘OCD.’ He had a ritual when he played Chinese checkers — and he loved playing anyone, any time, me, Sondra, Carlin and the grandkids. When he finished, before anything else, the marbles had to be carefully arranged in their compartments in the box, and the box and board put 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. He didn’t know where George was going with this.

“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. To himself, he’s thinking, yeah, that’s strange. But murder?

“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. “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 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. But it wasn’t for him to decide.

“If you really believe this, George, you should talk to Sgt. Adams. It’ll be even harder to persuade him than me, though. Given all the wild tips he gets in his work, he’s gotten skeptical and cynical.”

Adams didn’t really follow what George was telling him but finally agreed to come out to the house to look. Norm, 70, tall and bald, was there when he arrived. Andre Adams, 34, a slim, quiet African-American, with dark skin and close-cropped hair, questioned George sceptically.

The retired philosophy professor went into lecture mode, gesticulating with his large, strong hands and running them through his mane of gray hair as he pointed to the game board.

“It’s possible,” said Andre, when George stopped.“We’ll need an autopsy. There are lots of other explanations.”

“And look — in the bathroom,” Peter added, leading them down the hall. “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.”

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 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.

Norm wasn’t happy with this, partly, he had to admit to himself, because he didn’t want it to be true. And he knew Andre wasn’t persuaded. 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. “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?”

“Message?” muttered Andre. “That only happens in detective stories.”

“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.”

He and Norm drove to the Cottage Bar for dinner. With its meat-cleaver door handle, the Cottage had been a fixture in Maasdam for nearly a hundred years. They greeted friends as they made their way to a free table in the back room. Andre made several phone calls while they waited for their dinner.

“This is too close to home,” Norm complained. “I’ve known Peter and George and their families for a long time. And if it wasn’t natural causes . . .” He was rolling a couple of marbles around in his hand, where they clicked like 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.”

There was little more to say. Conversation moved on to police gossip. After an hour, Andre got replies to his calls. He scowled. He made a 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 said, “We need to talk to George again.” They signed their charge slips and drove to Linda’s, a gay bar at the edge of town. 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 made his way to the bar for drinks, elbowing his way through the crowd with a polite assurance. Andre studied the crowd.

George came in at quarter to nine, with his wife, Lucinda. Although George and Peter had been a couple for twenty-five years, they 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. As the crowd thinned around George and Lucinda, Andre approached him.

“Can I talk to you outside? I need to ask a few more questions.” As soon as they were out, Andre’s tone changed.

“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 at church. You couldn’t stand to share him with a woman again.”

George lunged at Andre, who quickly put the 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. Her love made it possible for him to get up each day and face the tawdry, evil world his job involved. That and the marbles he rolled around in his hand when things got grim.

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