“Black Tie for Murder” Noir Short Fiction By Craig H. Bowlsby

“Black Tie for Murder”: Noir Short Fiction By Craig H. Bowlsby

Craig Bowlsby, author of “Black Tie for Murder”, has previously published short fiction in Metastellar science fiction and Neo-opsis science fiction among others. “Black Tie for Murder” was earlier long listed for the Margery Allingham Short Mystery Competition in April 2022.


I’m pretty sure I’m dead.

It feels like deadness.

I remember being alive. But this isn’t it.

I appear to be a ghost of some sort. Or…I don’t know what. I don’t even know who I am or who I’m talking to or if anyone is listening. Hold on—yes, I do know who I was: Bobby E. Traveller. E for Ernest. I’m 92 and I think I died about a day ago—maybe in my sleep. Right now, though, I don’t feel 92 years old; I feel more like 25. But when you have no solid body, and you’re just a spirit of some kind floating in space, age has little meaning. My brain says I’m Bobby Traveller.

I’m pretty sure I’m dead. It feels like deadness.

My body says I’m nobody. But…I do have a body, and hands and feet, except they glow, and I can see through them. Everything flows through me like water through a fish. Except there’s nothing to breathe, no wind, no temperature. If I say I’m made of stardust that would sound pretentious, and yet it’s the best I can come up with.

So, here I float, above the Earth, and there’s not much I know, except my memories, my old life down there, and now one other thing. Which is…very, very odd: it’s something I’m supposed to do. It seems I’m supposed to solve a murder.

Why? I don’t know.

Who? That I do know. Not that anyone’s talking to me but there’s a direction—an impulsion. It’s almost like a series of visions with subtitles. The murdered man was named John Swithins Smythe. He died a few days ago, near a city called Vancouver. And…someone hacked him to death with an axe. Okay. So, I lived in Vancouver, with my wife Julie, who died two years ago. Maybe I’ll see her again now that I’m dead.

So, whoever you people are, I want to see my wife. Where’s Julie?

Yes, I know you want me to solve this crime. But when can I see Julie?

Alright, alright, but when can I…? You can’t just…

But that’s blackmail! In heaven!

No one’s answering.

I have to say I’m not impressed.

I never expected anything like this. Also, I have to shake my non-head, because I wasn’t a detective. Or wait a minute; I guess I was, sort of. For thirty years I was an insurance investigator, so that’s similar, but why don’t they get a real detective for this job? Surely some detective is going to die soon, and they could get on it. But…there seems to be a hurry.

But If I’m dead, don’t I know more things now? Do I know how butterflies travel across the oceans and back? No. Do I know where I lost my wedding ring that time? No.


Well then how am I supposed to…

Alright—I do know something I didn’t know before: as I’ve been told, somewhere around Vancouver, John Smythe was murdered, and I need to solve his murder fast.

Why? It’s crazy. Have I gone crazy? Is this just a dream? It’s all so real. The Earth floats below me. I can see North America—the West Coast. I see the gleaming lights of cities and roads. Sharp, bright, unconcerned, unsuspecting. But a land full of murder all the same.

How could they not know who murdered this guy? I’m referring to my mysterious friends and blackmailers who put stuff into my head. Isn’t God supposed to know? Maybe the angelic blackmailers don’t. And am I an angel yet, or just a poor soul trying to make a living in heaven? But then, maybe I’m not in heaven yet. And maybe they know this stuff, but I have to find it all out for myself. Is this a test?

If I could sigh, I would sigh. It seems I should concentrate on this task, if only to see Julie again. I…well that’s something new: I just flew down like a missile. Whoa! I thought about doing it and I did it. My “head” is reeling. So now I’m hovering above a lake and a shore. I don’t know where this is, but it’s close to Vancouver. It looks like there’s a lot of cabins everywhere, or bungalows, so maybe it’s a resort.

Well, what do you know? I just pictured myself and now I look like a kind of sparkling, gangling avatar of a young man in his twenties. I’m wearing a tuxedo. Black and white, with a gray cummerbund. I only wore that three or four times in life, so why…? Who knows? Julie liked the tuxedo. Maybe she put it on me.

Okay, okay. There’s a job to do.


So how does one go about solving a murder? I suppose one should check out things like the police report. Oh wow! Zoom—I’m in the police station. My head would be reeling again if I were corporeal. I’m standing in the hallway. Police officers are going past me. No one sees me. I’m stepping out of the way, but I think they might walk right through me if I’m in their way. A police dog is barking down the hall. I can hear them talking. So…okay…let me see the files on John Swithins Smythe.

Bang—I’m in the file room. But I don’t know which file is which, or which cabinet. I’m moving my hands over the cabinets, but they go right through them. I can’t open the files. I don’t feel them. But I wonder…

I just put my head into the cabinet. That’s really weird. My eyes are going into the files like a microscope peeling into layers of an organism. Names and data sift around me.

I just hit the S section. I’m focusing my head delicately forward. And there we have it: John S. Smythe. I can read the whole file, although it kind of shimmers and morphs in and out of focus.

So yes, he was killed with a small axe. In the head. But there’s no suspect, no murder weapon. Smythe was found in a cabin at a resort up the coast. Near Horseshoe Bay—very close to Vancouver. He’d been dead for a day. Lying in a pool of blood. A cleaning woman found him. The body’s in the morgue. Next of kin notified. There’s nothing about his business, a detail which would have made a difference to me when I was an insurance investigator.

Smythe had withdrawn $40,000 in cash two days before, from his bank, so that might have provided a motive. When the police opened Smythe’s wall safe, they found it empty of any cash or valuables.

But why would any man need $40,000 at a resort? A lot of drug deals did happen on the West Coast. It could have been for marijuana, cocaine or meth. But it’s all speculation.

Smythe lived there alone. Potential witnesses have been questioned in the resort. No one heard or saw anything. Smythe’s bungalow was surrounded by many others, half of which were occupied. Everyone there is still a suspect. But there’s no evidence to hold any of them. None of the other bungalows can be searched because there’s no evidence to link any of the other inhabitants, who will soon be allowed to leave town. Although…one person did give permission for a search, which turned up nothing.

The report says no one there has any known link to Smythe.

It seems like a pretty perfect crime.

But they don’t know there’s a ghost on their trail. Although, why would they care about that? I can’t actually do anything!

If I could see the scene of the crime, maybe—

Yikes! That was fast. I hope I get used to this. I’m standing in a large room, with a sofa and lounge chairs. The murder room, I think. It’s pitch dark but I can see everything perfectly. Several beautiful paintings line the walls. Modern furniture and long, thin metal lamps. Very elegant. Smythe had style. The place smells…well, I used to be able to smell stuff, but this doesn’t smell like anything. No cigarette smoke; no dogs or cats.

But there’s blood. Somewhere. How do I know that? I just do. Of course, a man’s head was hacked so I know there was blood on the floor.

And there it is—a dark spot surrounded by a chalk outline. Not as much blood as I thought there’d be. Maybe a foot in diameter. The victim must have died quickly. I’m kneeling by the outline, even though ghosts don’t need to kneel. I could just think my way down, and—there I am. With my body below the floor and my head just above it. A mouse’s viewpoint.

Maybe I should interview the mice.

But what can I learn from this? The report said the police haven’t found the murder weapon. So, I’ll look for that. So…if I can go through things, maybe I can make a thorough search on a grid pattern. That sounds extremely boring, but here goes.

Okay, I’m passing through walls, along the full length, like I’m putting my face into a long thin piece of cake. The thick wood is like seeing through a sandstorm, but as I walk along it, all the way to the corner, there’s open spaces and wiring and insulation. Now I’m traveling through the next wall, at 90 degrees from the first.

Nothing. Or rather, more of the same.

The next wall…the same. The next wall…the same except there’s a door in the middle.

Now I’m checking out the ceiling.

Now the floor and basement.

All the cupboards, the bedrooms, the bathrooms. I’m spending a lot of time, and all I get is nothing except wiring, pipes, and spiders.

So…no hatchet.

The police went through this house too, so that’s one corporeal search and one ghostly one. I did see the safe that supposedly held the forty grand. It was open and it had some papers, but the pages I viewed didn’t seem to mention any beneficiaries. There could be clues there, but the police would probably have scanned that.

So, what’s next?

I’ll get some perspective on the place, and up I go above the bungalow now, in the dark. Why am I up here? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll get some ideas.

The other bungalows are pretty dark. They’re spread out about fifty yards from each other. Porch lights twinkle from a few of them. I sense the lakefront behind me, lapping gently, a dark, deep, mysterious cauldron of secrets. I’m sure many things have been lost there—rings, hearts. Axes.

But something else intrigues me. One of the bungalows is lit up with warm yellow light pouring through its windows, melding into the darkness.

That’s extremely inviting. For a ghost who just might come to dinner.

And away I go. Now I’m in the sitting room of the bungalow. Ten diverse people sit or stand, carrying drinks and plates of appetisers. Some are elegant and formal; some in beachcomber wear; it appears the party was come as you are. I, of course, wear my tuxedo. But no one notices me. I’d love to be tasting the cheese and wine and mingling. But…one holds a party like this for a quick farewell. Or perhaps an impromptu discussion. Or of course, a wake.

I’m listening to them, walking between them. Disordered words are thrust back and forth. No well-formed theories are being explained. No blithe discourses on favorite subjects. This party is sombre and stiff. No one wants to be here. They keep their glasses to their lips.

As I drift past the guests, a dog barks sharply. It’s a German Shephard and it seems upset; it paces tensely, its eyes wide. I wonder…oh my God, the dog’s looking at me! It’s me! It can see me!

A middle-aged woman in a black dress shushes it, pulling the dog by its collar to a cushion on the floor. The dog whines, head swinging back and forth between the owner and me, reluctantly settling back on the cushion.

The owner says: “I don’t know what’s gotten into Bunny. She’s usually quiet.”

“I guess everyone’s jumpy,” says another guest, a young man with shaggy black hair and rheumy eyes.

I remember the police dog barking in my direction back at the station. Then I remember dogs and cats from my old life that used to jump around wildly for no reason, as if seeing ghosts. So maybe we should have taken them seriously. At least now I know I do have that effect. So, is it just dogs and cats or other animals? And what about children? I’ve heard that kids’ perceptions change as they age. I just don’t know, but I feel more attached to the corporeal world now. Not that it matters much.

Bunny might know who killed Smythe, but I don’t speak dog. Maybe I can send my thoughts to her. I try to do that, pushing the question through the air, or what they used to call the ether. But Bunny just whines like a deflating balloon.

A dead end. Except worse than that probably, because Bunny might just ruin anything I get started. I’ll have to steer clear of her.

The shaggy-haired guy says, “No matter what we think of Smythe, he was a pretty good neighbor, and he didn’t deserve getting axed.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Jason,” says another young woman in a green dress, “we don’t have to talk about it like that.”

“Well,” says Shaggy—or Jason. “Alright, sorry.”

The others agree. I’m thinking Jason’s the host.

They all look like they want to leave.

Which means I’d better get down to business. But I can only think of doing another evidence check. So here I go, floating through stuff. I avoid Bunny—making it slow, so I don’t set her off. I float through everything I can see—the cupboards, the bookcases, the sofas. It’s hard to keep my eyes open because my former eyeballs would be full of stuffing, or wood slivers.

I go into the kitchen and pass through the refrigerator, then the sink, and all the cupboards there. There’s nothing incriminating, like $40,000 or an axe. I noticed some rotten food, but that’s no crime.

I float through the ceiling into the upstairs bedroom. More cupboards. Lots of boxes with tax records and books. But no murder evidence.

Downstairs again, slipping in and out. I wonder what would happen if I floated into their brains? Would I get their thoughts? And dare I do it? Well, why not? What’s the worst that can happen? I choose the lady in the green dress. She seems nice and warm, and attractive. It might be…stimulating?

I pass right into her head.

A huge spark show engulfs me, like a galaxy of stars whizzing around at super-speed. The rest is grey and spongy. My breath stops. Except it can’t really because I don’t breathe. I gather my senses and ask the question: did you kill Smythe?

No answer comes back. It’s just the sparks, madly passing before me.

I step back out.

Miss Green Dress is shocked, her hand to her mouth. Her eyes are wide. She says, “I just felt a real shiver.”

Jason shrugs. “Maybe it’s…”

“Don’t say that,” says another young man.

Jason shrugs. “How do we know anything about stuff like that? Smythe could be haunting the place.”

They groan.

“It’s your place,” says Miss Green Dress. “And is there a draft?”

“Maybe,” says Jason. “But there shouldn’t be.”

I could tell them, but they wouldn’t believe me. In any case I’ve found nothing useful. What good am I? I look around the room. A hallway leads off to the left, circling to the kitchen, while a small staircase of four steps leads up to a landing on the right, swinging around again to the same kitchen. Maybe there’s something I’ve missed.

I float through the sofas again. Then the entertainment system, with its wide screen, then up the stairs, and through a green ceramic pot, sitting on the mantle above, the size of a wastebasket, with small green shoots showing. And then…oh my god. There is something there, in the middle of the dirt, like a prize in a chocolate cake. It looks like an implement. In the middle of the pot. Covered in earth, an axe could be mistaken for a trowel, or a hammer, or…nothing; it is an axe. Small to be sure, but by swishing my eyes through it ten times, it becomes obvious.

So, is it a stupid place to hide a murder weapon? Not necessarily. After all, the police have no search warrants, and the owner can move it fairly easily in the next day or two if he or she has to. He can also just disappear to another city or country, despite the admonition to stay in town, assuming he has that all planned.

Well, well, well. I’m not such a bad sleuth after all. Just a useless one. I can’t assemble the guests and reveal the killer with a brilliant analysis. I don’t even know who the killer is. And I doubt that would be enough for my blackmailing superiors in the ever-after-ether.

I begin pacing on the stairs. Up and down, looking back and forth at the ten people.

Bunny is growling, low in her throat. I want to growl back, but I can’t blame her. She’s just protecting her master. Which…gives me a new idea.

Kneeling on the stairs I curl my lip at Bunny. I scowl at her, and she tenses, her chest rising. Then I disappear from the stairs and out of view. But suddenly I spring back into the pot, and stick my head through it, snarling and gnashing my teeth at Bunny.

It’s too much for her. She springs out of her cushion, barking madly, and charges into me and the pot, where the receptacle smacks against the balustrade and then rebounds, crashing to the floor. I sink beneath it, into the floor, leaving my head in it, still scowling at Bunny, who then attacks the broken pot and its green shoots, raking through the pieces and dirt with her paws trying to get at me.

After a moment of shock, Bunny’s owner lurches to the dog, trying to grab her back.

“Bunny! Stop! Bad girl!”

The others groan and yell.

“I’m so sorry, Jason,” says her owner, finally dragging Bunny away from the mess.

But then they see the little axe protruding from the lumps of dirt and shards of pottery. One of the guests nudges it out with his foot.

“What’s that?”

“Is that what I think?”

“Oh my God.”

Jason freezes and sputters, “It’s just a tool that got stuck in there, I guess.”  The tool looks like an axe—not a trowel. “Don’t worry,” he mumbles, still hesitating, “I’ll clean it up.”

Mouths stay open. Mouths clamp shut. They look at each other in shock. I rise from the pot and stand to the side, wiping off the non-existent dirt from my tuxedo.

Jason clears his throat, quivering a bit. “Maybe it’s time to end our soiree. I guess we should all just go home now to our bungalows.”

One of the young men says, “You are home, Jason.”

“Yes, of course,” says Jason. “I’ll be staying here.”

An older man pulls out his smart phone and dials 911.

“What are you dialling?” croaks Jason.

“Well,” says the man, stonily, “the police. I mean…that is an axe.”

“It might be,” says Jason, “But I don’t know how it got there.”

Everyone knows how it got there, including me. So, the rest of the case, at this point, is bound to be a formality. Should I stay? I don’t see Jason pulling out a gun. They wait, watching while the guest calls the police. Jason asks to talk to a constable when the guest is finished, and after the guest gives the details over the phone, he hands it over. Jason launches into a story of innocence while the guests perch or lounge awkwardly waiting for the police, like they’re balancing on a high window ledge. Bunny still watches me, angrily, brooding. I smile at her—my partner in the investigation. I want to reward her, but we tuxedoed masked men have to ride into the sunset.

Or at least the cosmos.

So now I yell up to the powers that be, and rise myself out of the bungalow, looking down at it. I did it! I yell. It’s solved. I did my duty.

They thank me. Okay. You’re welcome. Now I want to—

What? Another case? What other case?

Listen, I’m not some great detective. I got lucky. Don’t you see that I got lucky? I’m just a ghost in a tuxedo—

But I want to see Julie. You said I would see Julie.

Oh, for the love of God.



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