by Hy Conrad
C.I.A. operative Gleason answered the doorbell and warmly ushered the three friends into his apartment. “There’s no water, I’m afraid. Water main break this whole side of town. I had just enough bottled stuff to make coffee.” The four intelligence officers met once a week for camaraderie, drinks, dessert and — not poker, that was too uncerebral a pursuit– contract bridge. They rotated the evenings among their four homes and also rotated the responsibility for dessert.
His guests took the lack of water with humor. Levy contributed the expected bathroom jokes then unveiled a vanilla marshmallow cake topped with a candied cherry. “My wife made it, so no cracks.”
“I thought it was my week.” Morales said, placing a bag on the counter. “I bought mini-pastries, Gleason’s favorite. What am I saying? He’ll chow down anything. Hey, congratulations, Gleason, if I haven’t said it before.”
The heavyset Gleason had just been promoted to Internal Security, an elite, secretive branch whose directive was to root out moles and counterspies. Morales himself had been up for the post and the competition had been fierce. “So, you get briefed yet?” Morales teased. “You know, all those secret ways of ferreting out moles. Vaccination scars, dental work, Eastern European tattoos.”
Levy was the director of Internal Security and put an end to the shop talk. “That’s on a need-to-know basis. Let’s play. Dessert and coffee after the first rubber.”
The fourth player, Paterno, was Gleason’s best friend, in or out of the firm. Gleason and Paterno grabbed beers from the refrigerator and sat down to play against Levy (scotch on the rocks) and Morales (coffee, black). In keeping with their regular routine, the bridge table was set up with one deck instead of the usual two, giving them a little more time between hands.
The cards fell evenly and the first rubber took over an hour. At some point in the proceedings each of the four men was dummy, the non-playing partner. In each case, the dummy took advantage of his break, getting up and stretching his legs or refilling his drink. Morales had just warmed up his coffee and picked up another beer for Gleason when Levy put down his cards with a frown. “These are sticky. Time for a new deck.”
Gleason, the host, gathered up the old cards, dropped them into a wastebasket, then went and fished around in a sideboy drawer. “Here we are. I knew I had one.” Gleason tossed the unopened box to Paterno who unwrapped it and began to shuffle.
Gleason stretched his arms and wandered away from the table. A minute later, just as he was crossing back to join the others, the overweight agent began to breathe heavily. Sweat dripped from his brow. He swayed, then collapsed to the floor. Special Agent Gleason was dead.
Despite their familiarity with death, the three agents couldn’t believe the obvious signs. For several minutes, they tried reviving the dead man. Finally, following a nasty hunch, Levi bent down over the corpse of his newly appointed assistant and smelled his breath. “Cyanide,” he muttered.
“Cyanide?” echoed Paterno. “That’s impossible. How? What the heck was he eating? We haven’t had anything.”
“Are you kidding?” Morales said. “Gleason? The human vacuum? God only knows what he’s been munching.”
Paterno pushed Levy aside and vainly tried to resuscitate his friend. “Must be a heart attack. It can’t be… I mean, if it’s cyanide, then that means one of us…” He left the sentence unfinished.
“Yes,” agreed Morales with startling frankness. “Either it’s suicide or one of us.”
As the senior officer, Levy took charge. “We have to maintain the integrity of the scene. Let’s begin here.” He pointed to the card table. As he spoke, Morales took notes. “A half-dealt deck of cards. The fronts and backs of some of the cards are slightly sticky. The card box is still on the table. Four coasters. No ashtrays. Two beer bottles to be sent to the lab for testing. Whiskey glass. Coffee mug. Gleason didn’t touch either, so they don’t have to be tested. Scoring pad and pencil. Have the pencil tested, too.”
The next area of investigation was the kitchen. Levy immediately noticed the missing pastry. “Seven mini-pastries. One empty doily. Solid white marshmallow icing on the cake appears undisturbed. Kitchen dish towel appears slightly sticky to the touch. Five empty beer bottles. Bottles, pastries, doilies, dish towel and icing. Send all to be tested.”
Before leaving the kitchen, Levy picked delicately through the wastebasket. Stuffed near the bottom was a small glassine envelope. Levy uncrumpled it. “Minute granular residue coating the inside. White.” He sniffed it warily. “Scent of bitter almonds. Add to test list.”
The hardest part, examining their friend’s body, was left until last. Again, Levy took charge. “No apparent wounds or punctures on exposed skin. Mouth appears empty. No, wait!” He re-arranged the table lamp then probed deeper. “Undissolved granule found between first and second lower molars. Poison seems to have been administered in granular form.”
Morales looked up from his notes. “Potassium or sodium cyanide. Still granular, so it hadn’t been dissolved in a liquid. What’s the toxicity and reaction time?”
Paterno knew. “As little as four grains can kill. He probably ingested the poison one to three minutes before he collapsed. Considering this, it shouldn’t be that hard to track down the source.” The other two nodded in solemn agreement.