Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Great Castle5000 Murder Mystery

*All of the names in this story have been changed, for obvious reasons.

Murder!

It was a warm Saturday night in August, and my birthday party was in full swing. Castle5000 was packed to the gills with people -- friends, family, neighbors, children of various ages -- and everybody seemed to be having a reasonably good time.

Among the crowd of familiar faces was a handful of people I didn't know, people that had brought along by other guests. The most conspicuous of these was a couple from down the street who had been brought along by a neighbor. They were a little older than us, a kindly woman and man with obvious new age leanings. To look at them was to know that they would happily describe themselves as "aging hippies." I found them immediately likeable.

They were enthusiastic. They told me how much they loved the Castle, how much they loved our cats, and how much they were enjoying the party. They participated in the goofy party activities I had set up, jumping into the indoor geocacheing with particular zest. But they clearly had something on their minds, and at some point they began asking questions. How long had we owned the Castle? Did we know anything about its history? As they became more and more obviously nervous about their own questions, I finally pushed the point: "Is there something you want to tell me?"

There was. They live about a block away, they told me. Their next door neighbor is a reclusive older man who has lived in the same house his entire life, 55 years or something. He knows, or claims to know, all the neighborhood dirt. They had told him earlier in the day that they would be going to a party at Castle5000. When he heard this, he had said: oh, that's the house where there was the MURDER!

Now, it's strange how lightly detective fiction, B movies, and the game of Clue have conditioned some of us to think about the quintessential act of evil. My reaction on hearing this news was as if I had learned that Agatha Christie had written a novel set in our house. "A MURDER! In our own home! How jolly!" I thought. I immediately called for Mrs.5000 and pressed our new acquaintences to repeat their story. Mrs.5000, to her credit, received the news like someone hearing about, you know, an actual murder. She was horrified. As we stared at each other, me confused by her grimmace, her appalled by my merry grin, the neighbors gave us a few more details: the murder had happened back in the seventies. The victim had been a waitress at the Sunnyside Bar*, a local rock club. A customer had followed her home, broke in, and killed her.

By this time, Mrs.5000 and I had regained our composure and were back on the same page. Mrs.5000 didn't want to hear any more details about the murder, and I completely agreed. I didn't want her to hear any more details about the murder either. Our new friends were looking a little embarassed by this time, and we moved on to other subjects. The murder, however, continued to be the talk of the party until it disbanded in the small hours of the morning.

Michael5000 Discovers a Clue

A few weeks went by. No apparitions or strange noises were seen, heard, or remembered in the cavernous halls of Castle5000. No vivid nightmares of break-in and violent death were dreamed. In fact, there were no unexplained phenomena whatsoever. Yet, the story continued to weigh on our minds, and it came up frequently in conversation. I thought about it a lot. Eventually, I decided to see what I could find out. It was a unilateral decision that I didn't discuss with Mrs.5000; if I found vivid gore-splattered photos of a corpse lying face-down in our bedroom, I would simply not share the findings with my lovely partner.

But that seemed unlikely. For one thing, I doubted that I would be able to find much out about a 30 year old murder with the kind of casual research I had in mind. Secondly, I had serious doubts as to whether there had even been a murder in the first place. All we were going on, after all, were the colorful second-hand assurances of an obvious eccentric. That was fairly thin evidence, considering that no whiff of the story had come to us in the previous five years we had owned the Castle. We had for instance heard nothing from the other neighbors, including our next door neighbor, a dour TV cameraman named Doug Berkshire*. He has lived in the neighborhood since the 1980s and often grumbles, rather unrealistically we have always thought, about how much crime there is in the area. If there had ever been a murder on the block, I thought, Doug would have told us about it as soon as we moved in.

I already knew that Internet searches on the Castle's address wouldn't yield anything, and I wasn't able to find any list of murders committed in the City of Roses during the 1970s. So, I got more creative with my search terms. Searches on our street name and neighborhood name didn't yield anything. I tried searching for murders related to the Sunnyside Bar, and it turned out that there had been one, but it had happened during the early 1990s, and had happened in the bar itself. I searched for cases involving stalking and murder. I searched for cases involving bartenders and murder. Nothing was coming up.

With nothing else working out, I looked more closely at my one lead, the 1990s murder at the Sunnyside Bar. The victim in this case had been a popular bartender with an unusual name -- we'll call her Mistiy Cotter.* She had been shot in a stupid, pointless botched robbery, gunned down in cold blood in the doorway of the club. Unusual names are a gift to the internet researcher; a simple Google search yielded a few references to her murder and one other item. The items about her murder yielded no new information, but the other item proved more interesting. It was one of those homemade websites with the overdone rainbow graphics, and told a story that seemed both trivial and improbable: Mistiy Cotter, it seemed, owned a cat that became a kind of hometown TV icon. She literally dressed the cat up for crudely-made little novelty films that were shown during the local weather report. The whole enterprise was very tongue-in-cheek, and apparently had a considerable cult following.

It was all very interesting, and weird. It certainly made me sad to think that someone so clever and quirky would be randomly killed. But then, as I read further into this strange story, the other shoe dropped. Mistiy Cotter had made these little films of her cat in collaboration with her friend, the TV cameraman Doug Berkshire. Our neighbor.

In Real Life, Murder Mysteries Seldom Have Happy Endings

The pieces seemed to fit together. Mistiy Cotter must have moved into Castle5000 and befriended Doug, her next door neighbor. Together, they made the fun, strange little cat videos -- in footage I found, you can catch quick glimpses of the Castle5000 driveway and front porch in the background. The collective neighborhood memory, either confused or looking for a story, had moved the murder from the Sunnyside Bar to the victim's home. Either through further confusion, or perhaps in reaction to Mrs.5000's appalled expression, the date of the crime had been moved back a few decades. I thought I had figured everything out. The case seemed basically closed.

A few weeks went by.

Then, I happened to learn that the Library website has a searchable database of Oregonian articles. I wanted to check this out, and since I had a date and name for what must have been a significant news story, it was an obvious choice for testing out the system. And the system works fine; I put in my keywords, and it immediately returned seven or eight articles chronicling the crime, the investigation, and the eventual capture and trial of the murderers. More details just made the whole thing that much more depressing, as the newspapers filled in an account of an especially stupid crime committed by stupid people for stupid reasons.

Then, I read Mistiy Cotter's obituary. This, too, was depressing -- the life of a charming young person ended for no reason at all, and someone that I felt a certain connection with. Someone who had presumably once lived where I live now, who may have written in this room where I am writing right now, who may have once cooked food in my oven, who may once have slept where I now sleep.

Except, probably not. Because, as it turns out, Mistiy Cotter probably never lived in my house at all. She probably lived next door. The obituary kept its surprise for the end: Mistiy Cotter was not survived, as I had been expecting, by her parents and perhaps her siblings. Mistiy Cotter was survived by a husband, Doug Berkshire. Our affably grouchy neighbor with the unrealistic worries about crime. Yeah. Him.

You Never Know

In the end, the Castle5000 Murder Mystery was off by one house, two decades, and pretty much every single detail. Or was it? I suppose it's conceivable that I simply stumbled onto the wrong murder. Maybe what we learned at the party was entirely unrelated to the sad case of Mistiy Cotter, and entirely correct. Maybe, two decades earlier, someone had lurked in the dark outside the Sunnyside Bar, ready to follow some unlucky young bartender home -- to MY home. Maybe he killed her in the dining room with a rope. Maybe in the parlor with a candlestick. It seems unlikely, but it's possible.

I'll never know. On this particular topic, I'm done looking for trouble.

10 comments:

fingerstothebone said...

What a story! Good sleuthing.

Elizabeth said...

I suppose this means that your next party will not be one of those "murder mystery" dinners. Excellent post though - Agatha would have been proud. I didn't guess whodunit at all. Love those plot twists.

d said...

i was totally not seeing the victim married to the grouchy neighbor. it makes me feel sad for him.

boo said...

My heart goes out to your neighbor. He has a silly bone in him some where. In the beginning of this I was all excited to picture you filing over the cliche microfiches in the spooky library scene from movies. But now I can see why you'd want to stop digging. Heartbreaking.

Michael5000 said...

@ all: How often do you get actual plot twists in life? I feel bad for our neighbor too. He's a good guy. I wish I hadn't accidentally dug up his past. And, of course, I wish he'd had a better past.

Thanks for reading such a sprawling post, by the way....

Rebel said...

Um... am I the only one who's still a bit horrified? Would you, for my benefit, just tell me that you made this whole thing up as a pre-halloween spookiness dealie?


I once wandered into "Murder by the Book" on Hawthorne (a gal from my french class had a murder-mystery published and I wanted to check it out), and as I was in there it suddenly struck me that all the books were about people being killed. I became seriously disturbed and left.

Critical Bill said...

I'd write that story up as fiction and submit to your local literary quarterlies. Compelling, really.

Chance said...

That is really a crazy story.

Michael5000 said...

@Reb: If you're still a bit horrified, then the piece had the intended effect.

@critical bill: Thanks! I appreciate your saying that.

...and thanks to everyone else who got all the way through what I realize was a pretty damn long post. "Pithy" isn't my strong suit. But you've figured that out by now...

Bridget B. said...

I'm a little, er, late to the party on this one, but wow! What great storytelling . . . sad, since it is based in truth, but the most disturbing things usually are.

So, when's your book coming out?