The Capillarity of Truth [Mystery Short Story]



The Capillarity of Truth


The bedside table was ringing.


The phone on the bedside table was ringing. Jim fumbled in the dark and pressed the cold, plastic receiver to his face.

“Hello?” he said.

“Jim. It’s me. Lance.”

Jim sat up in bed as a flash of lightning illuminated waterey veins crisscrossing the window. “Sir?” The digital clock read 3:00.

“Jim, a call just came in and I need backup. We’re short manpower with all the flight delays.”

“I’ll be at the station in ten.”

“Seven if you can.”

“Sir—“ Jim began, but the other end of the line clicked dead. Jim rubbed his eyes and felt his way to the bathroom to brush his teeth and throw on some clothes.

Twenty minutes later, Jim was sitting in Lance’s police cruiser. The streetlights whizzed past outside the window like fireflies in a wind tunnel.  Flipping on the overhead light, Jim pored over Lance’s notes. At 2:54, the station had received an emergency call from Mr. Perry Perkins who said that his 11:00 flight had been cancelled and that he had returned home to find his wife, Ramona, dead in bed. Jim shook his head as they paused at a stoplight, watching as the puddles in the street changed from red to green.

Puddles. The puddles reminded Jim of his first case with Lance. A call had come into the station that a man was living in the pool basement of the Waterbury Aquatic Center near the underwater viewing windows. Jim remembered how the man, a wanted burglar, had nearly bashed in his head with a crowbar. If Lance hadn’t heard the man’s step in a puddle and tackled Jim out of the way, Jim might not—he didn’t really want to think about it.

Jim massaged his forehead trying to clear his mind. The Waterbury Case was months ago now, but he still vowed he would never be so careless again.


The door to number 1220 Raudona Street eased open a crack and the round face of a man appeared. “What do you want? Who are you?”

Effortlessly, Lance flipped open his badge from his breast pocket. “I am Lance Throckton, Arberton Police Detective, and this is my associate, James Blakely. Are you Mr. Perkins?”

“Yes. Yes, I am,” the man with the round face said. “What do you want?”

Jim raised his eyebrows at Lance.

“You called the police. . .” Lance said.

“I did?”

Lance continued, “. . . concerning your wife?”

“Yes,” Perkins nodded, “Yes, I did.”

“May we come in?” Jim asked.

“Sorry! Of course!” Perkins said, shaking his head and flinging the door open.

Revealed in entirety, Mr. Perkins was a rotund man with disheveled grey hair. He wore a white shirt, suit pants, and one black sock. Jim chose not to remark upon his missing sock.

“Right, this way,” Perkins said, turning down a carpeted hallway.

“Do you think he’s in shock?” Jim whispered to Lance as they followed the squat man down the hall. Lance chewed the inside of his cheek, thoughts elsewhere.

Mr. Perkins gestured for the two detectives to enter the bedroom on the left. “There she is. My Mona. She—” He stopped. “Mona,” he breathed, eyes wide. He stumbled backward into the hall like he had been shoved in the chest. “My Mona,” he mumbled, sinking to the carpet, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Mona.”

“If you don’t mind,” Lance said, “I am going to close this door while we work.” Perkins didn’t respond. He just sat there hugging his knees while Lance closed the door.

Jim and Lance stood, taking in the room: the motionless ceiling fan, the wooden dresser with a purse on top, the square mirror on the wall, the bedside table, the open bathroom door revealing a cluttered counter, and the travel-sized suitcase standing beside a king-sized bed.

A woman lay in the bed, her face a grey-green pallor. Jim couldn’t help thinking that she looked familiar.

“Well Jim,” Lance said, “why don’t you take a crack at this room. Show me what you’ve learned.”

Jim obeyed, moving to the bedside. He bent over the body, searching for clues. He held two fingers to her neck and listened to her chest. He sniffed for alcohol only to find the pleasing aroma of mint. He examined her body for bleeding, bruises, swelling, or bites, but found no immediate cause for her death. Jim pulled out a leather notebook and began making notes.

“Mind if I have a look?” Lance said, coming to the bedside.

“Sure,” Jim said, turning his attention to the woman’s immediate surroundings.

He examined the black, travel–sized suitcase next. Unzipping it, he found a couple of changes of clothes, a razor, a toothbrush, deodorant, a boarding pass, a comb, a bar of soap, and a manila folder of official-looking papers. He made a list in his notebook before crossing the room and entering the bathroom.

Jim caught his own reflection in the mirror and thought that he looked frightened. He needed to get used to this kind of situation. On the counter lay a comb, a travel-sized tube of toothpaste, a tissue box, a hand-soap dispenser and a hair dryer.  Opening the mirrored medicine cabinet Jim found a purple toothbrush, a bottle of tricyclic antidepressants, some over-the-counter painkillers, fingernail clippers, and cotton swaps. Each item found a home in his notebook.

Jim turned back to the bedroom and crossed the carpet to the purple purse on the dresser. He snapped open the silver clasp and removed the contents one-by-one: a key ring, a tube of rouge lipstick, a hairbrush, a checkbook, a tin of mints, four ballpoint pens, a hand mirror, blush, a paper-clipped wad of receipts, a pack of gum, a garage clicker, a matching purple alligator-skin wallet, and a gum wrapper with the gum still saved inside for later. Leafing through the pack of receipts, Jim found a small scrap of paper with scrawled pencil words, smeared and hurried.

“Hey Lance,” Jim said, “Come take look at this.”

Jim stared at the note, mind whirring. He read it again.



Jim rapped three times on Lance’s office door. “Come in,” Lance’s voice called. The office was simple: a bookcase, an uncluttered oak desk, a flat-screen television on the wall, and a couple of wooden chairs. Lance reclined in a leather swivel chair, watching the flat-screen television intently. Jim pulled up a chair across from him.

Gesturing to the screen, Lance asked, “What do you know about boxing, Jim?”

Jim paused a moment to think as the two men on the screen pommeled each other. “Nothing much Sir.”

“Ah,” sighed Lance, “that’s too bad. It is a wonderful sport.” He smiled at Jim. “I wasn’t half-bad at it back at Arberton High, you know.”

Jim chuckled, “You? A boxer? I would have pinned you as more of the science club type.”

“Yes,” Lance said, fingering the arm of his chair, “ but boxing, boxing was fun—the movement, the contact, the adrenaline. They called me the ‘South Paw Smasher’.” He clicked off the television with the remote on his desk. “Now, down to business. What do you need, Jim?”

“Well Sir, I have the results of Ramona Perkins’ biopsy.”

Lance swiveled to face Jim. “And?”

“The lab concluded ‘cyanide poisoning’ as the cause of death.”

Lance nodded, placing his fingertips together. “Jim, I have a proposition for you.”

“What is it?” Jim asked.

“As you well know, to become a full detective you must present a case to the police council. I believe you are ready. You’ve come a long way since Waterbury. Why don’t you take the Perkins Case? Full use of the forensic lab, complete case report, the works. What do you say Jim?”

“That sounds great, Sir.”

“Please,” Lance said standing to shake hands, “Call me Lance. ‘Sir’ is for trainees, not real detectives with real cases. Just stop by if you would like my help with anything.”

“Yes, S— Lance,” Jim smiled, “Thank you.”

“No,” Lance said, “Thank you.


“May I see them?” Jim asked.

Mr. Perkins silently handed over the bag of requested items. His hands left humid ghost prints on the plastic. He wiped his hands on his black suit pants and said, “Sir?”

“You can call me Jim if you like,” Jim said, inspecting the bag before setting it on the desk.

“Jim,” Mr. Perkins began again, “What do you need?”

“I just want to have a little conversation so that I get all the details straight for the police report,” Jim answered.

“Where should I begin?”

“Why don’t you tell me about yourself—your profession, your life, and the events leading up to the . . . incident,” Jim said, pulling his notebook from his pocket.

“Well,” Perkins began, licking his dry lips, “I am an accountant at Sterling Insurance & Co. I started as an intern for the company in high school. The company asks me to travel quite often. On Thursday my flight was supposed to leave at 11:00—the boarding pass is in the bag.” He nodded quickly toward the bag before continuing. “It was a rough night: security gave me a rough time and then I had to wait for two-and-a-half hours before they announced that no planes would be available until Friday afternoon. So, I returned home and—” Perkins choked on his words and burst into a coughing fit.

Jim reached into his suit jacket pocket. “Would a piece of gum help, Mr. Perkins?”

“What flavor?” Perkins managed between coughs.


Wiping his mouth, Perkins said, “No thanks. I don’t really care for mint. Mo—” her name caught and his eyes watered. “She always liked mint, but I didn’t.” He sniffed once and cleared his throat.  “She always carried a pack of strawberry gum, just for me. She was always so good to me, Jim. She was so strong. She had depression, you know, but she always tried to make everyone around her happy. Even when we were high school students, she was filled with kindness.  She was a good woman, Jim. I just—” and Perkins covered his face with his hands.

Jim finished making notes and sat in the quietly, unsure what to say to the sobbing man. Soon enough, Perkins straightened up and wiped his face with a handkerchief.

“Thank you, Mr. Perkins,” Jim said. “That will do. I will return your belongings after I examine them.” Both men stood, shook hands, and then Jim showed Perkins out and dropped off the plastic bag at the forensic lab for testing.


“Yes, please. Have a seat,” Jim said, welcoming Sterling Hoban into the small room. Hoban wore a blue, pinstriped suit with silver buttons.

“What can I do for you Sir?” Hoban asked taking a seat in the chair across the desk from Jim.

“Just call me Jim, Mr. Hoban,” Jim said, pulling out his notebook.

“What would you like to know?” Sterling Hoban said, spreading his hands wide. “I am an open book.” He brushed imaginary dust from one sleeve before crossing one leg over the other. “As a newscaster, I happen to know a great deal of information, if that’s what you’re after.”

Everything about Sterling Hoban was a great theatre act. “Mr. Hoban,” Jim said, “why don’t you start by telling me a little about yourself.”

“Well, let’s see,” Hoban stroked his chin. “I grew up here, in Arberton. I decided early on that I wanted to be a television newscaster. I have family in town, but I haven’t married. Who wants to marry the guy who reports car accidents and neighborhood scandals for a living? No one, really. When I am not working, I enjoy reading science fiction and thrillers, taking walks into town, and meeting up with friends for lunch. Come to think of it, I haven’t eaten lunch yet today.”

Jim finished taking notes before asking another question. “Tell me more about the news station.”

Sterling Hoban smiled a brilliant, plastic smile. “Well, the station is pretty small but we have our fair share of characters. There’s Bethany Tibbits, the executive producer. She has to have her coffee or she turns into a nightmare. Eduardo Marias, the assistant producer, is really the backbone of the whole station. Anton Ellis runs the teleprompter, a little too quickly in my opinion. There’s Remy Canto, the street reporter who I don’t see much. There are several others, but I can’t seem to think . . .” Hoban counted silently on his fingers, mouthing names. “Oh! I nearly forgot, Harold Berts, the meteorologist. And . . . well . . . we used to have another newscaster, Mona Perkins, but she recently died.” Here, his voice became softer, confidential. “No one at the station knows why, but we’re all very sad. Mona was a gem.”

“That’s precisely what I wanted to talk to you about. When was the last time you saw Mona Perkins?” Jim asked.

“Let’s see,” Hoban squinted his eyes, “it was on Thursday. We were meeting in the conference room with the whole team for an evaluation discussion. I remember, she asked me if I had any gum and I gave her my last piece of spearmint. Other than that, I don’t remember running into her afterwards.”

“One more question, Mr. Hoban,” Jim said. “Where do you keep your phone?”

“Right here” Hoban said, reaching with his right hand to pull a shiny black rectangle from his left breast pocket. “In my pocket of course.” Hoban slipped the phone back into the pocket. “Why would I keep it anywhere else?”

Jim smiled and clicked his pen once he finished scribbling. “I believe that will do. Thank you for coming in, Mr. Hoban.”

“That’s it?” Hoban said, standing. “No secrets? No tricks?”

“No tricks,” Jim said. “I just needed to have a conversation, that’s all.”

“Ok,” Hoban said, flashing the plastic smile again as they shook hands.

“Have a nice day, Jim,” Sterling Hoban said, opening the door.

“You too.”

The door to the small room closed with a satisfying thump.


Tomorrow. Tomorrow was presentation day. Jim knew there was no way around it; every detective trainee had to pass the final presentation. Tomorrow, he would stand in front of a board of the highest-ranking law enforcers in Arberton and present the entirety of the Perkins Case: his methods, reasoning and conclusion. It’s just telling the truth, Jim reminded himself, adjusting his pillow. He thought back to Waterbury and his conversation with Lance in the car on the way to the Aquatic Center.

Truth, Lance had said. Truth is our medium and reasoning is our art. Truth has capillarity—it always finds a way to the surface of things. In science, capillary action is a special property of water. When water touches, say, a piece of paper, it will seep upwards against gravity until it feels satisfied with its result. Truth is like that; it has a way of making itself known against all odds. Never underestimate the virtue of truth.

If Lance trusted the truth, so would he. Jim rolled over.Tomorrow would not be another Waterbury. Jim covered his head with his blanket to drown out his thoughts.

Just take deep breaths, he told himself. Deep breaths.


Jim stood at the front of the police council room. Twelve men sat around the grand table, all of them wearing pressed uniforms, all of them serious and business-like. In the back corner, Lance Throckton sat gazing out the window, listening, but not looking.

Jim cleared his throat to begin. “Thank you all for attending this case report. I will do my best to portray the facts as I have come to understand them. With your permission, I will begin.”

One of the officers nodded. “At approximately 1:30 in the morning on Friday the 15th of November, flight 232 was cancelled and Mr. Perry Perkins was forced to scrap his planned business trip. As you will recall, the weather that night was terrible, so the drive home to Arberton took him nearly an hour. When he arrived home to number 1220 Raudona Street, he found his wife, Ramona Perkins, dead in bed. He immediately phoned the police.”

Jim slipped his hands into his pockets and began to pace.

“Detective Throckton and I responded to Perkins’ call. There was nothing unnatural about Mrs. Perkins’ death.  that seemed unnatural aside from the distinct aroma of mint about her person.”

Jim stooped to pick up a briefcase from the floor and placed it carefully on the table. He pulled latex gloves from his pocket, slipped them on, and clicked open the briefcase. He continued, “An examination of the room yielded a note scrawled in pencil of a scrap of paper.” Jim lifted a piece of paper from the case. “It says: I’LL COME TO YOU TONIGHT WHEN HE’S GONE.”

“This note,” Jim continued, “was the first concrete evidence that something more was involved in this case. The second was the biopsy report, which concluded cyanide poisoning as the cause of death. This, of course, immediately suggested suicide. Ramona Perkins was, after all, diagnosed with clinical depression. She had either ingested or injected the poison. The lack of a puncture wound ruled out injection, so she must have ingested it. Since cyanide acts in minutes, the poison’s source had to be nearby. I concluded that there were a four suspicious items in the room and tested each of them.”

Jim removed a bottle of pills from the briefcase. “First, these tricyclic antidepressants. I thought she might have switched out the pills for cyanide to hide them from her husband, but lab results indicated that these were just plain depression meds. Second,” he lifted a tin of mints from the briefcase. “These mints were doubly suspicious because of the ease of hiding cyanide pills in a mint tin and their smell. Unfortunately, the lab test was negative for cyanide. Third, I suspected the chewing gum from Mrs. Perkins’ purse.”

Jim removed a pack of strawberry gum from her purse. “This pack of gum tested negative as well, and I learned from interviewing Mr. Perkins, that she kept the gum for him, not for herself. Fourth,” Jim produced the tiny wad from the briefcase, “this piece of chewed mint gum, saved in a wrapper in Mrs. Perkin’s purse. I learned from an interview with Sterling Hoban, a colleague of Mrs. Perkins’, that he gave her this gum. The gum tested positive for cyanide, and I began putting the pieces together.”

Jim glanced over at Lance, still looking out the window. “Hoban yearned for someone to love. He passed Mrs. Perkins a note at work one day indicating he would pay her visit that night while her husband was away. Hoban, who had prepared some cyanide gum he hoped to plant somewhere where Mr. Perkins would find it later, was furious when Mrs. Perkins turned down his request. He turned on her and thus, Mrs. Perkins was found dead in bed after having chewed cyanide gum.” For a brief moment, the corner of Lance’s mouth shifted. Was that a smile or something else? A murmur of approval spread through the room.

Somewhere inside Jim’s mind a voice screamed, You would ruin a life? What kind of man are you! Don’t you care at all? Are you a cold-hearted logic machine? Jim closed his eyes. Never underestimate the virtue of truth.

“But,” Jim said, “that conclusion was incorrect. Cyanide acts in minutes; if Mrs. Perkins had taken the gum at work, she would have been dead before she reached her car. Additionally, a left-handed person must have written the note because the writing was smeared to the right. However, Sterling Hoban was right handed, as indicated by his preference to keep his phone in his left breast pocket, an awkward location for lefties. This led me to test the items a second time, personally, so I could be sure of the results. The chewed mint gum tested negative.”

Lance continued looking out the window. He looked bored, chewing on the inside of his cheek.

“This left the question unanswered. How did Mrs. Perkins ingest the cyanide that caused her death?” Jim reached into the briefcase and removed a final item. “This travel-sized mint toothpaste tested positive for cyanide. If we estimate that Mrs. Perkins brushed her teeth before getting into bed using a blob of toothpaste with a mass of 1.5 grams, it is entirely likely, that she could have ingested the 0.075 grams of cyanide necessary to end her life.”

Jim returned the toothpaste to the briefcase and pulled off the gloves.

“Cyanide toothpaste would have been too much of a hassle for any suicidal individual. The poison was designed to be taken by accident.”

Jim tapped his head as if pointing out his exact train of thought. “I wasn’t long before I realized what was missing from Mr. Perkins’ suitcase: his toothpaste. He had a toothbrush, but no toothpaste.

“Mr. Perkins toothpaste must have been confiscated by security at the airport. This means that the toothpaste he took contained more than 100 mL of paste and was not travel sized. He must have taken the wrong toothpaste, the home-sized toothpaste. The cyanide toothpaste was meant for Perry Perkins, not his wife.” Jim snapped the briefcase closed and forged ahead with the analysis.

“I gathered all the evidence together and constructed a list.” Jim counted off each point on his fingers. “1. According to the note, the murderer had, or wanted to have, relations with Mrs. Perkins. 2. This person had access to cyanide. 3. This person was left-handed.”

“I was left with one suspect: a ‘south paw’ boxer with access to cyanide and the ability to tamper with test results. His file suggested that—”

There was a crashing noise from the back of the room and everyone turned to see Detective Lance Throckton sprawled on the ground, his chair overturned. Someone screamed and the room burst into chaos. Jim tried to reach Lance, but there were too many people in the way. Somewhere, an alarm was going off. No. No. No. Jim’s mind yelled in time with the alarm. Jim watched helplessly as Lance was placed on a stretcher. As the stretcher passed Jim on its way out the door, something dropped onto the floor. Jim stooped over and picked it up. It was a pack of gum labeled ‘Cyanide Gum’.

Lance’s words passed through Jim’s mind. Truth is our medium and reasoning is our art. Jim shivered and slipped the pack into his pocket.


He might need it for later.




References   {Airport Security}   {Facts About Toothpaste}   {Facts About Cyanide}     {News Stations}



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