A twist in the plot -- I have decided to "solve" the Bungling case outlined in @justclickindiva's response to prompt #31!, "The Project"!
The case of Mr. and Mrs. Bungling – an attempted murder – was the type that made police captains in the Big Loft Police Department want to pull their hair out. It was not just the difficulty in finding the truth, but the consequences of not being able to sort out such a high-profile case in Big Loft, VA.
It had happened in the swanky lower middle section of Jonathan Lofton Avenue where “new family” families were allowed to move in. Mr. Bungling had become a multi-millionaire through miserly means, with a big, old house and working himself and his wife like slaves to keep it up until the incident that had made the news.
Homicide's captain and best lieutenant were out sick with Covid-19 – the rest couldn't sort it out. That meant the case was supposed to be punted to Special Investigations, but … .
“I hate Captain H.F. Lee,” the acting captain growled. “If we sit on this case, we get pilloried for being as incompetent as the news has been saying we are. If we punt it to Lee, with half of his crew out on furlough, he'll still find a way to solve it and we'll still look incompetent, like he's the only smart man in this department.”
“Yes,” said a lieutenant, “but the way 2019 was, if we bungle this … we got defunded last year by that big lawsuit, and we can't survive another hit.”
The acting captain sighed, and then sent the case to Special Investigations.
Captain H.F. Lee of the Blue Ridge precinct and Special Investigations was at home with his wife Maggie, making the best of a furlough day when he got the call from Lieutenant Andrew Anderson.
“Good afternoon, Captain H.F. Lee speaking. Homicide has sent over the Bungling case? I actually reviewed it yesterday, anticipating its arrival. Yes, have all the available data in Morton Data Master by the time I arrive. Expect me in an hour.”
Captain Lee hung up the phone and turned to his wife.
“So, tell me this, Maggie,” he said. “What would I have to do for you to try to kill me with a heavy brush broom?”
“Either you would have gone crazy, I would have gone crazy, or both!”
Laughing Mrs. Lee, without having read the case, had summarized the maddening problems of it. Mr. Bungling had insisted that there had been all kinds of problems in the marriage … but then why did he turn his back on his wife in the presence of so many available weapons? But then again, if Mrs. Bungling had wanted to kill her husband, why a heavy brush broom when work tools were available?
And then there was the question of the rats. Mrs. Bungling had said Mr. Bungling had told her that rats were trying to get into the drywall and that she was to strike them down with whatever she could find. A heavy brush broom was a somewhat appropriate weapon for rats, but given the speed of rats running … not so much.
Captain Lee, upon pulling up to the house, could see the limitations of the Bunglings' logic and ability. The once-beautiful old house was a monstrosity of do-it-yourself madness. The landscaping … the paint job … the roofing … the suggestion in the air of a not-so-good fix of a septic system and a small yet suspicious puddle in the lowest point of the yard … all the evidence was there.
Mrs. Bungling was at home and by no means happy to see another police officer, but Captain Lee's calm, old-style gentlemanly manner soon won her over, and she told him the whole story.
“Twenty years of his projects – twenty years of horrible things – project after project that a professional could have done so much better! I've seen rats, mice, yellowjackets, sewer flies … oh, those things … I can hear them buzzing now … and the rats … I grew up often homeless … oh, the rats and mice and roaches in the SROs my mother and I had to stay in … I can see them now just scurrying around at night when I turned on the lights …
“This time I overcame my fear! The floor was covered with hundreds of them and I found my courage to try to help my husband, to keep them from eating him – I saw that once, Captain Lee! A neighbor died and the rats ate him! I couldn't let it happen to my husband – I love him even with all the barking at me and the bad fixes!”
Indeed, per Mrs. Bungling's statement, there was a hole in the wall behind the water heater and some uniquely scrambled wiring – and, a tuft of animal fur such as one would expect from a rat. Captain Lee knelt down and looked through the hole, and yes, there was a rat's nest there.
Captain Lee examined the glass door that Mr. Bungling had fallen through, and then stepped outside and walked around the pool, examined the rail, and then walked around the property.
“Thank you for your time and statement, Mrs. Bungling.”
“Do you believe me, Captain Lee?”
“I believe you saw what you said you saw, ma'am, entirely.”
Lt. Anderson had completed his work by the time Captain Lee arrived at the precinct, and the sadness in the manner of the captain made glum harmony with the frustration of the lieutenant.
“The data has thrown a fork in Morton Data Master, Captain,” he reported, and Captain Lee peered over his shoulder at the ghastly bifurcation. “I mean, I don't even know which way to go on this – which way are we supposed to go when the data says everybody is lying?”
Captain Lee affectionately thought of Andrew Anderson as his “Son of Thunder” … world class investigator in training, but passionate and excitable … and teachable.
“Well, maybe everyone is lying – that may be our decision if the evidence says that.”
“Can we do that?”
“If the evidence says we can.”
“Well, it does! The topography and the upkeep of that section of Jonathan Lofton Avenue says there's no way you have even a dozen rats just running through there – a few, sure, but not hundreds – and yet we have witnesses that say that all that flapping around in the yard was to swat those rats!”
“Just two of ten – the Asters, next door,” Captain Lee said, “but yes, they are clear about Mrs. Bungling working on those rats, and their description has dominated the media accounts.”
“And then there's the brush broom, sir – there's no way that she could have knocked Mr. Bungling unconscious into the rail by the pool with that thing. And yet no fingerprints were found on any of the heavy tools that she could have used to actually strike the blow.
“And then there's Mr. Bungling's own statement. He says he was struck by the broom in the house, went through the window, hit the rail before the pool, and passed out – but our colleagues searched the house and found him unconscious there.”
“I noted that,” Captain Lee said. “Pull up the scene map, with the data of witness locations on it.”
The computer cued up the scene and did the best it could – Mrs. Bungling in the yard, looking like she was about to tee off with a brush broom, the different neighbors staring and pointing from their positions, and Mr. Bungling nowhere to be seen, because …
“You would think that if he was down by the rail, he would have been seen standing up while all cut up with that glass and staggering back into the house,” Lt. Anderson said.
“You would think so, were you not looking at the rats and the woman trying to kill them,” Captain Lee said.
“Yes, but look at where the Asters were. They couldn't have missed him even if he crawled.”
“And yet they did, Lieutenant, somehow.”
Lt. Anderson looked again, and then jumped.
“It could be a question of perspective, Lieutenant,” said Captain Lee, and pulled out the Asters' witness statements. “Has Homicide placed them on the map incorrectly?”
“No … no … we need to go look at that again, though.”
The Aster home – palatial in aspect and upkeep, a violent study in contrasts to the Bungling home next door. Mr. Aster was not shy about pointing out the fact: “The man deserved to be killed for bringing the property value down as he has – all this work I've put in here!”
The Asters agreed about the rats, more or less … when Captain Lee asked Mrs. Aster directly, she said, “Oh, the things were horrible – five or six of them – five or six –.”
“Hundred! Five or six hundred of them!” Mr. Aster roared. “That dump was just full of them!”
Captain Lee and Lt. Anderson listened attentively to the story that had dominated the news, and then departed to take a walk around the neighborhood one more time to be sure.
“Wow, Captain Lee,” Lt. Anderson said. “I was right.”
Captain Lee picked up the phone and called the acting captain in Homicide.
“Your officers just need to ask one additional question of every witness but the Asters. I will send it over in our report, and then you will have no trouble getting a warrant for Mr. Aster's arrest, for the attempted murder of Mr. Bungling.”
Captain Lee and Lt. Anderson went to socially distanced lunch in the precinct parking lot, and Captain Lee explained after Homicide called back with the details of the arrest.
“That fork in the data was like a fork in the road leading to two dead ends. There was no way for us to go because you were correct: everyone was lying, or at least 10 of 12 were caught up such that they didn't see what they saw, namely, how Mr. Bungling got back into the house. The Asters should have seen it directly – in fact they must have. If they did not report it, why?”
“That was the key,” Lt. Anderson said. “Everyone was focused on Mrs. Bungling flailing around, but now that all eight of the other witnesses have been asked directly whether Mr. Aster helped Mr. Bungling back into the house, now they remember seeing that!”
“The mastery of misdirection,” Captain Lee said, “made possible by the exploitation of crowd psychology and Mrs. Bungling's childhood trauma response. She flashed back to several traumatic incidents with rats in her childhood as I interviewed her. So, when the rats from the nest behind the water heater came out, she might have had an episode in which she might have accidentally struck her husband several times, and then remained in the yard, still fighting the rats in her past.
“Mr. Aster took advantage of the situation, acting in plain sight while everyone was looking at Mrs. Bungling. The actual weapon – a wrench – was found in Mr. Aster's garage, with Mr. Bungling's blood and hair on it. He brought it with him when he 'helped' Mr. Bungling back into the house, and then struck him with it. His motive, of course, was the lowering of his property value because of the Bunglings' DIY eyesore next door. Mrs. Aster covered for him.”
“Wow,” Lt. Anderson said. “The Bunglings are 20 years of straight crazy, the Asters homicidal.”
“And thus,” Captain Lee said, “the fork in the road at which we have met them leads to no direction home for any of them.”
“How sad, Captain.”
“I concur, Lieutenant.”