I was working on a 1,500 word mystery story and I was stumped. I needed a good way to commit the murder. I knew the victim. I knew the motive. I knew the murderer. I just didn't know the how of the murder.
My murderer was a woman. I knew from past research that women prefer a bloodless way to commit murder: no guns, no knives. Women prefer to use poison: no muss, no fuss. Just get the job done.
I'd been working on the story for three days. I had the beginning finished and the middle roughed out, but I just couldn't decide on a poison. Then I had a brainstorm.
Our county library system has what's called the Quick Information Line. You call with your question and they guarantee they'll have the answer in two minutes or less.. Well, I called the Info Line and asked the man who answered, "What's the easiest way to poison someone?" There was complete silence on the line so I thought he must need the question narrowed down to answer it. "Not arsenic; that takes too long." Still silence, so I pressed on, "I don't want anything too simple. I don't want to get caught. Just something easy and readily available."
"I'll have to put you on hold," he said, and the line went silent.
While I sat there tapping my fingers on my desk and watching the seconds tick by on the clock over my desk, I decided not to hold him to the library's two minute guarantee.
After a few seconds the phone went "click click" and the librarian said, "Ma'am, was your question, how to kill someone by poison by accident or by murder?"
"Murder," I said.
"Okay," he said, and the line went silent again.
I went back to tapping my fingers on my desk again. When I heard more clicking noises in the phone but the librarian didn't come back on, I wondered what he was doing. When he still hadn't come back on the line after another two minutes, I started playing the "what if" game. "What if" he had called the police and all those clicks in the phone were the police tracing my call. As the ticking seconds turned into minutes, I wondered "what if" he was keeping me on the phone on hold while the police were speeding to my home.
At that instant, I heard a loud knocking on my front door. I held my breath, waiting for the door to burst open and the police to run in. Instead, the knocking continued.
I started toward the door, but the phone cord was about fifteen feet too short. "I'm on the phone," I shouted. "The cord won't reach the door." No answer just more knocking.
I tried to reach the window so I could see out. The cord didn't reach there either. I went back to my desk. I looked at the phone in my hand. I put it back to my ear; still no one there. Careful not to hang up, I sat the phone on the desk. The knocking on the door sounded like someone beating on it with a hammer.
I walked bravely across the room. My heart was beating against my ribs. Taking a deep breath, I opened the door.
My mother stood there with her fist raised as if ready to knock me in the head. "What took you so long?' she said. "I knew you were home. Your car is in the driveway. I was about to call the police on my cellphone."
"I'm on the phone," I said, pointing toward the desk. "I'm on hold."
"Go ahead," she said. "After all this to get you to open the door, I'll wait."
"I've got coffee in the kitchen," I said. "Help yourself."
With a sigh, I collapsed into my chair. Putting the phone to my ear again, I still heard only silence.
Finally, five minutes later, the librarian was back. "Food poisoning from home canned food kills more people."
"Really? Food poisoning?"
"It's always ruled an accident."
I started scribbling on my paper. "You wouldn't happen to know which food poisons people most often, would you?"
"I thought you'd want to know that," he said. "It's improperly home canned tomatoes."
"And the coroner always rules it an accident," I said. "That's perfect."
"Is that all?" he asked.
"You probably want to know why I need to know that . . .," I said.
He cut me off, "Lady, it's my business to get the answers to your questions. What you do with those answers is your business. The less I know about this the better for the both of us." He hung up.
Apparently, he had been playing the "what if" game while I was on hold too.