by Steve Englehart
The afternoon was brilliant–hot golden sunlight reflecting off the oleander leaves, bees buzzing hungrily over the honeysuckle vines which wound around the summer house gate. But inside the little building itself there was darkness and a dead woman. She had been born Chinese but her face was black and swollen. Red vomit splattered her fashionable silk blouse and the scratched and dusty floor. She was sprawled below the skylight, whose illumination was grayed with hanging cobwebs. Frantic marks in the layer of dust and dead flies on the windowsill showed how hard sheÕd tried to scrabble her way clear, and the lack of any broken glass showed how little time sheÕd had to scrabble, after the gas pellet erupted with…
“What d’ya call that stuff again?”, Ambrose asked.
“Xylor-B.” Bentley dolefully studied her superior, out from Washington. ÒAll they had to do was toss it in and slam the door behind them. She had maybe fifteen seconds after that. Now if it had been one of ours, sheÕd have had no more than five, but this gas is Chinese.Ó
Ambrose nodded. Some small thing in the corner caught his eye, and he went over. It was a tiny brown mouse, and it, too, had a blackened face streaked with red. Ambrose hoped the people who said the gas degraded in 40 minutes knew what they were talking about. He kept his hands in his pockets.
ÒLetÕs hear what weÕve got,Ó he said.
Bentley consulted papers. ÒSarah Chang, as you know, is an agent for the PeopleÕs Republic, based in Beijing. She had never visited this country before, we think, but if she was counting on that she was over-optimistic. She was followed from the moment she left the airport two days ago. During the next twenty-four hours, she met with two other agents working for China, Salman Dijani and Sven Erikkson. Dijani and Erikkson were also put under surveillance.
ÒBut none of them was stupid, and all of them were pros. Chang slipped her tail yesterday during the noon rush, and wasnÕt seen again until she was found here. We doubled the teams on Dijani and Erikkson after that, but, maybe, there were too many cooks. Dijani made a dash through the subway just after two, and was off the leash until six, when we found him sitting down to enjoy his dinner at MarshallÕs Restaurant. Erikkson, on the other hand, drove the wrong way into a one-way street just as the theaters let out around ten-thirty last night, took a left into an alley, and was gone until he came tooling home around one this morning.Ó
ÒI donÕt see a problem yet,Ó said Ambrose. ÒWhat time does the Medical Examiner say she died?Ó
ÒYouÕll see the problem now. Xylor-B boils the blood, and keeps the core temperature over 103 until decomposition sets in. SheÕs still warm.Ó
ÒYou mean they canÕt say when she died?Ó Ambrose resisted the urge to touch the corpse. He resisted a number of urges. ÒWhat do we know about this place?Ó
ÒThe estate belonged to Hendrick Fitch, the silk importer, who died last October leaving his bride of three months, three ex-wives, and one son from the first marriage. The old man liked to use it as a writing room–and, so they say, as a place to hide out from his wives, which may explain why he went through them the way he did. After his death, the new wife, Gretchen, had the entire estate cleaned–or cleaned out–with an eye toward turning a profit on everything she didnÕt want. This apparently set off the ex-wives, who either valued FitchÕs memory or wanted their share, and it ended up in a court fight over the will. The judge ordered Gretchen to close everything up and move out pending his decision.
ÒSince then, no one at all is here during the day, and, although thereÕs a night watchman from 8 PM to 8 AM, he spends most of his time in an area he was allowed to set up in the big houseÕs garage. HanrahanÕs his name, and he says he only comes to this side of the grounds once a night, around 11, and then in the morning before quitting time. He never goes inside the buildings, and from the way he acts, I donÕt think heÕs too rigorous about any of his duties. But at 7:34 this morning he saw footprints in the dust of the front porch, looked in a side window, saw the body–and here we are.Ó
Ambrose opened the door and looked at the marks the watchman saw. ÒItÕs a perfect murder spot,Ó he muttered. ÒIsolated, but accessible through the woods behind the estate. If you knew it was here, knew what the watchmanÕs schedule was, you could be sure of complete privacy. It looks like the murderer arranged a meet with Sarah, then stepped out the front door, tossed the pellet in, and held the door shut until she was dead.Ó
ÒYes, but thereÕs a reason I asked that you be brought in, sir. FitchÕs import business took him to Hong Kong, Taiwan…and the PeopleÕs Republic. The most recent ex-wife, Iris, tells me Fitch was having an affair with a Chinese woman as their marriage was breaking up, and believes (or would like to believe) that he, in fact, married the Chinese woman before he married Gretchen, thereby making the marriage to Gretchen invalid. We investigated ChangÕs itinerary…and found that her ticket to America was one-way only.Ó