By Barbara Schading

"The perfect murder is one in which the victim appears to have died of natural causes," stated Dillon authoritatively. "You have to use poison or another method which won't arouse suspicion. The victim seems to have died of a heart attack and no one investigates it further. That's the best way to commit murder."

I took another long draft of my favorite brand of beer. Dillon was my supervisor and therefore the person who recommended my raises, so I was careful not to offend him. He himself never drank beer, but instead tried something different each time. He thought it made him more worldly. I nodded slowly, simulating agreement, as he continued.

"Now, thallium is a great poison. Symptoms are mistaken for all kinds of ailments. Nobody ever suspects foul play. Or arsenic, it's a classic. The symptoms look just like a heart attack. And some pesticides are really effective. Try paraquat, that herbicide. You can mix it up in ice cream, feed it to your victim and the doctors just think he's had a stomach bug."

Dillon went on to further describe his theoretical crime. I sat patiently and clung to every word as though I really believed them profound. I've gotten good at feigning interest in his speeches. Finally he stopped and tasted his drink carefully, a self-important smirk on his face.

I let his words sink in as though I was really considering them. It wouldn't do to let him know otherwise. I didn't call him Dillon the Villain for nothing. After an appropriate pause, I casually spoke.

"Unfortunately, an extensive autopsy could be performed if the next-of-kin requested it. It's not unrealistic for someone to suspect foul play if the victim wasn't terribly old, or if someone else profited from his or her death. And of course arsenic and thallium, being heavy metals, are readily detectable in an autopsy. Why, arsenic has been detected years later, even from cremated remains. Moreover, paraquat was implicated in several highly publicized murders recently, so the coroner might test for it in an autopsy as well. So I would recommend great caution before you rely on that method to commit the perfect murder."

Dillon glared at me, then turned away in a snit. He hated it when I suggested he didn't have the last word on a subject. He's always detested me and enjoys one-upping me however possible. Ever since he learned I was an avid mystery reader and amateur sleuth, he's tried to outdo me by coming up with these "perfect murder" scenarios.

I've tried to tell him there is no such thing as a perfect murder except in fiction. The murderer cannot possibly consider every possible thing that might go wrong, and in reality murderers are generally dumber than dirt. Our prisons are overflowing with the criminal type -- hence my point.

When I told Dillon that, I swear he felt challenged or something, because since then he's argued the point with me to excess.

He insists on dragging me out to Max's Bar across the street from our office and pumping me with drinks every Friday afternoon while he tries out his new plot on me. We order the drinks -- the same brand of beer for me, and for him whatever new drink he's read about or heard about recently, and get our own appetizers -- I prefer nachos, he escargots.

Then he expounds on his new theory, I poke holes in his "great" idea, he gets all pissed off, and we go home. It's getting to be an old routine but we've been doing this for over a month with no sign of letting up. So far, he's come up with brilliant suggestions like trying to make the murder look like a suicide, an act o fGod, an accident, or natural causes, to name a few. Each time he has it all worked out, until I give him a reality check. I'm as gentle as possible, but because he is so sure of himself, it's always taken in the wrong vein.

Or should I say vain?

"I'm just talking figuratively, of course," he snapped. "This is a theoretical discussion, merely academic! Have you finished that report I asked you to do last Monday?"

"It's almost done," I said hastily. "I'll go in tomorrow and finish it so that it's on your desk Monday morning."

Dillon gave me an odd look. To be sure, normally he merely sneers at me, so anything else but that is unusual for him, but this was definitely odd.

"No, no, that won't be necessary," he said, almost tripping over the words. "Just be sure it's on my desk by Tuesday."

Dillon doesn't like things done too far in advance. He claims it upsets his schedule. More likely, he's afraid he'll misplace documents if they're completed before he needs them. Just my opinion. I would never voice it to him, of course.

Then he surprised me by adding, "I'd hate to have your weekend plans spoiled on my account."

My antennae went on full alert. The last time Dillon gave a rat's you-know-what about my weekend plans was never. Either he suddenly got concerned that his demands at the office conflicted with my personal life, or he had an ulterior motive for keeping me out of the office tomorrow. You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to guess which.

"Great. I'd planned to go fishing as usual all weekend," I said, keeping my voice casual and draining all but the foam in my mug. I stood up and pushed the stool back against the bar. "See you Monday, then."

I felt his eyes on me as I made my way to the door. Come to think of it, I'd seen his car in the company parking lot the past two Saturdays as I headed out of town for my usual fishing expedition. What had he been doing? Granted he was our accounting department manager, but it's not as though he worked to exertion. I mulled over the possibilities as I walked to my car.

The next day I drove past the office. Dillon's car was there again. I rolled past slowly and tried to see in the windows but all the blinds were down. I went down to the lake and fished.

It was very peaceful and I had the lake to myself. I thought about Dillon the whole time.

Just before midnight, I parked my car behind Max's and walked over to the office. There was no sign of Dillon. I spent awhile snooping around the office for signs of something out of order.

It didn't take long to discover my desk had been disrupted. I am very precise about where I place things like my pencil holder and other items on my desk surface. I believe there is an optimal location for everything, and I place my pencil holder at the top right, not quite one arm's length from the front of the desk, exactly where I need it. The note pads I place on the left side of the desk, next to the accounting ledger which I enter financial information into every Friday. I have a habit of arranging the note pads so that they are in perfect alignment and at the lower right corner of the accounting ledger. It's a habit I have that makes things easier. I'm more comfortable when everything is in its place.

The ledgers were slightly askew. I opened the top one carefully and looked inside. I spent a long time examining the books before I discovered what had happened.

They weren't my books. They looked like my books, and the handwriting looked a great deal like mine, but it wasn't.

The numbers were different from what I had entered, too.

I spent some time on the computer and found even more of interest. I placed everything back exactly as I'd found it, turned off the lights and went home.

I didn't sleep much that night. There was too much to think about.

Dillon called me the next day and invited me to his house that evening for drinks. This was not usual for our relationship; in fact, I'd never even seen his home before, but I accepted his invitation with grace. I ran several errands in the afternoon, had a leisurely dinner downtown, and arrived at his beautifully appointed home in the country at eight. His driveway was hard to find as there were no neighbors visible from the road. I admired the landscaping as I maneuvered up the long driveway. It was a sumptuous estate. The lights were blazing along the circular drive in front of the main entrance and Dillon emerged immediately, congenially leading me inside as though we were old friends.

It was hard work to keep my smile congenial in return, but somehow, I managed.

It was apparent he lived alone. We went directly into the study. It was paneled in mahogany, dark and elegant. There were built-in bookcases with a ladder on rails to reach those books at the top. Several tribal masks from some African nation adorned the walls and a zebra skin covered the floor. It was quite more like the room of an adventurer than I pictured belonging to Dillon.

Had I underestimated him?

Dillon poured our drinks in an adjoining room and brought them in on a silver tray which he set on a glass-topped mahogany table with more worldly artifacts displayed inside.

"Laphroaig Scotch, supposedly the best single malt there is. The liquor specialist guaranteed me that if I wasn't a connoisseur already, I would be before the night was over!" He went to the fireplace and stoked the blaze.

The room felt excessively warm already. I loosened up my collar, licked my lips and tried to relax. I let him drink first, pulling away the glass just before it touched my lips as if I had remembered something urgent to say.

He enjoyed his drink and seemed not to notice I hadn't touched mine. In no time Dillon had brought up his usual subject in conversation.

"I've reached some conclusions about our weekly discussion and thought I should share them with you. After all, we've been debating this subject for many months now. I've come to realize that the perfect murder is not merely one in which no one suspects the person has died from foul play. As you stated so eloquently on Friday, this is nearly impossible to do unless the person is already at death's door. As such, there is no need to speed the victim along. But alas, it is also highly improbable that someone a killer needs to eliminate would conveniently die of natural causes. Likewise, victims of “accidents” are too easily discovered to be victims of murder. The police must investigate accidents, and forensics science is quite good these days. It would be too easy to leave something behind at the scene of the “accident” which would arouse the suspicions of the authorities. You see my point."

"Quite true, quite true," I said sagely, noting Dillon seemed satisfied at my agreement. "It would be unwise to assume the authorities are not clever."

"Yes. I believe the perfect murder requires something much more delicate, much more well-planned. Something far cleverer! Oh, the murderer must be brilliant! He must murder in such a way that no one realizes the victim is dead!"

He took another sip of his drink and seemed to notice for the first time that I hadn't touched mine. His brow furrowed as though something had gone awry in his plan. I couldn't think of how to avoid taking a drink so I held it up to my lips and drank deeply.

A tiny smile flickered across his face as he saw the liquid decline in my glass, and he nodded almost imperceptibly.

"This method, by far, is the best way to commit the perfect murder. The killer sets up his victim for a crime he has himself committed, shall we say for the point of argument an embezzlement, and then does away with the victim in such a way that the victim disappears forever! The victim is blamed for the murderer's crime, the embezzlement, and is thought to have skipped the country. Voila!"

I didn't answer, but sipped again at my drink.

"Well?" he demanded after a moment when I did not respond.

"The killer has spent all this time embezzling himself, I presume, and then sets up the victim to be his fall guy?"

"Certainly! Someone has to look guilty or the killer might be suspected for the real crime, the embezzlement!"

I looked across at him and chills ran down my spine. It took all my nerve to keep my voice casual.

"How would you have the victim disappear? It must be a plausible disappearance, or his family and friends would become suspicious. Why wouldn't they suspect foul play? He just disappears once the crime becomes public? People might not believe he was the type. Close family members, perhaps a girlfriend, that sort would never accept the victim's disappearance."

Dillon's eyes glittered. "Ah, but there I have it covered! The killer must have planned this all out for some time and prepared the disappearance scheme for his victim! He chooses his victim from likely candidates for the em, er, crime, and also selects him based on his lack of a personal life! Then the murderer arranges a plane ticket in the victim's name for some country that lacks a good extradition policy. Say Brazil."

"So the victim would be presumed to have flown to Brazil with the cash he'd embezzled, is that right?"

Dillon nodded impatiently.

"And then when he doesn't show up for work the next day, the police find the money has disappeared, find a receipt for the flight and assume he's out of the country and can't be touched."

I pretended to contemplate it while I sipped again from the glass and tried to look impressed. "It's quite a good scenario. The killer could stash the airplane receipt in the victim's office, like it had been forgotten or something, and they'd know it was him. Good plotting, Dillon!"

Dillon looked positively contemptuous. "No, that wouldn't be good enough! I thought for sure you would get the whole picture, since you're the amateur sleuth!" He glared at me and finished his drink.

"The airlines would not confirm that the victim had flown out of the country at all, since the tickets would not have been used! The victim would be killed, and buried in the -- at some out-of-the-way location where the police were not likely to look. The victim's prints would be placed post mortem on certain incriminating documents which themselves would be later placed in the victim's office or somewhere else where the police could readily find."

"I see! A truly clever plan. And I presume the money would have been transferred to some Swiss account in the name of the killer already? Is that how it would work in such a scenario?"

"Yes, something like that," replied Dillon smugly. Without seeming to realize it he almost instinctively stroked his breast pocket.

"So what did you think of the Scotch?" he asked, suddenly remembering he hadn't done so already.

"It was quite unusual. A very peaty flavor."

He frowned briefly, then stood up. "Come, let me show you the grounds."

"It, it won't be too dark outside" I asked hesitantly. This was about to come to a head.

"Oh, no! The path is well lighted. I have a splendid garden. Let me show it to you. "

We went outside and Dillon selected a hoe from a garden shed. "The truth is, I have a problem with gophers at night and need to be sure none are about," he said almost apologetically.

The path was clearly visible. We followed it to the edge of the garden. Dillon stepped off the path into a garden bed. "Aha, here is one of the vermin! Come take a look."

I came forward and saw the man-sized hole already dug. Dillon's eyes glittered in the dim light as he swung the hoe at me.

His expression changed to surprise, then horror as his arms fell weakly by his sides and he toppled headfirst into the pit.

I jumped down, checked his pulse and then his pocket. The Swiss account number was listed plainly in a small new balance book together with a substantial sum recently deposited. I covered him up carefully, then returned to the house and eliminated all evidence of my being there. I had a few items to take care of at the office and then I went home for the night.

I slept very well.

I was, you see, a connoisseur of Laphroaig already. Any trace aroma not belonging to that remarkably pungent Scotch I would detect long before tasting it.

And so I had switched the glasses while he tended the fireplace. On Monday the police swarmed about the office, but Dillon had disappeared along with several million dollars he'd embezzled. Oh, sure, he'd tried to make it look as though I'd had something to do with the crime, but it was a sloppy attempt and the police caught on to it at once, almost embarrassedly telling me about his deeds. They never did figure out how he had left the country, since the tickets were never used. And the money was never recovered, either.

Dillon had come up with the perfect murder. I toast him at Max's every Friday.

With Laphroaig, naturally.