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Brain Teaser #12

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Get that brain in gear with a senior brain teaser!

Nora Shekrie picked up the phone on the second ring. Ten minutes after she’d sent her phone number to her cousin’s friend, she had the expected call.
“Nora? It’s Todd. Can you hear me?”
“Just fine. You’re in a big city, you know. They have cell towers and flush toilets and fast food and everything.”
“I know, I know, La Paz is civilization. I’m just used to things not working quite the way I expect. Thanks for talking with me.”
“It’s your phone bill. Your e-mail said that your sociology professor is dead, and the authorities are acting strangely?”
“That’s right, except it’s anthropology. I heard the clamor when the fire truck came. I looked out of my window — his house is about two blocks away. By the time the La Paz FD got there, it was too late. The house was up in flames, just like on the 11:00 news. Straight up to the sky; it was horrible to watch. Dr. Bernardo was probably already dead from smoke inhalation. At least, from the flames I saw, I hope he was.”
“Cause of death and funeral pyre, all in one?”
“Quite. The police picked up someone suspicious in the area, and the one said something that another student translated as suspicion of some weird type of arson. He didn’t follow it all; there was a lot of noise, and we haven’t totally adapted to the neighborhood cant quite yet.”
“Can’t what? Oh, you mean the accent and dialect?”
“Right. But they let him go later that night. This place has the most tangled rumor mill I’ve ever seen, worse than high school, and it sounds like the kid’s parents are important people of some sort.”
“Such as?”
“City politics, business, and social status. Wealth, influence, and obligation are rolled up as tightly as if the feudal period were last generation instead of a century ago, or however long it was.”
“Close enough. What else?”
“We all, I mean the students, get a weird feeling about this. They’ve asked us all sorts of strange questions, like what Bernardo did in his spare time, what he ate and drank, did he smoke, did he take drugs, like they were trying to smear his reputation or something. But I’m sure he wasn’t mixed up in anything. He was on time for everything, competent every day, and brilliant at least twice a week. There are only 20 of us students on the program, and he’s here just for this one class, you know, so we’re a pretty tight group, even if he does this every year. He knows the university people, too, and I’m rambling.”
“It’s okay. Keep going.”
“Well, there are some new discoveries out at the dig, which I guess we’ll never get to now, and he must have spent all his free time between preparing for class and, uh, getting to know the T.A.”
“Right. She’s torn between shooting half the town in retribution and flying home to commit suicide. She adored him seven ways from Sunday. And he was only eight years older, so it wasn’t anything too weird.”
“Maybe someone local took a difference to that? Anyone jealous?”
“Maybe. He’s pretty likeable. Maybe he had someone down here who was looking forward to his return.”
“Well, it sounds like someone took things into their own hands.”
“That’s what some of us think, but the police sound about ready to file it as an accidental death? What can we do?”
“You can tell them it’s definitely arson. I expect they know that already, but once they know that the foreigners know, perhaps they’ll be a bit more conscious of their civic duty.”
“But I don’t know that!”
“I’m something like 5,000 miles away from La Paz, and I know it’s arson. There should be enough clues to narrow it down for them.”

How was Nora so sure?

Show Hint


What’s unusual about the location?


La Paz is about 12,000 feet (3,660 meters) above sea level. The partial pressure of oxygen is barely high enough to sustain an open fire. La Paz bought fire engines only out of civic pride: the equipment generally gathers dust in the station.

Since the flames went “straight up to the sky”, this fire had help of some sort. There was no significant wind to supply more oxygen, so someone must have “made arrangements” to make such a conflagration.

Unfortunately, we don’t have clues to figure out who did it.

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