Novels

Augustus’ Smarter Brother (part3)

February 21, 2017

Admitting to Amateurs

“Mr. Knox, I’m not sure we can tell you anything of use,” said Julius keeping his brother quiet. “But we’ll answer anything you want to know.”

“Well, Bernie was poisoned” declared Nathan. “And I imagine you know that the poison was probably administered by that tiny blade in the left hand drawer of his desk?”

“Poison, yes, I thought that could be a possibility,” returned Julius. “Didn’t make any sense leaving something like that for any other reason. Though I can’t imagine anything so deadly on that tiny blade.”

“You sure it wasn’t something he drank?” chirped up Augustus. “I read up on it. Most poisons are taken orally. That’s what the books say.”

“No, this was not ingested,” replied Nathan trying to remain patient. “So do you men keep any kinds of poison around your warehouse?” he added.

“Not much except ant spray and rat poison,” returned Julius elbowing his brother. “The rats and mice raise hell with the paper goods. They do a lot of damage and cost us money. But rat poison is not what killed Bernie, I would think. It would have to be something much more powerful and potent, like I said.”

“True, but I have to ask,” followed Nathan. “Standard procedure.”

“Have either of you left the country in the last year?” Nathan continued.

“No, we are too busy to travel,” answered Julius. “Never out of the country. We take a couple weeks off during the summer and go to Tahoe. We rent a cabin on the north shore every year. The place actually belongs to my wife’s brother. He a good guy and gives us a nice break on the rental.”

“Wait, Jules,” said Augustus. “We went to Santa Barabara for the trade show a few months ago.”

“Augie, that’s still in this country,” returned Julius rolling his eyes.

“Oh, yeah,” replied Augustus.

“Did you go south into Mexico?” inquired Nathan interested in what the almost silent brother had to say.

“Gee, I never thought of that,” replied Augustus. “Though San Diego is a lot closer. That might have been more fun than the trade show. We only got to spend a couple days. It was boring. Mexico would have been better.”

Chinatown Clown

Tuesday brought the two brothers together whether Julius liked the idea or not. It had been many hours before Julius broke the silence. Business was business. In real life he had to process invoices, get the orders out and restock materials needed. He hated to admit it, but he needed Augustus in whatever capacity his brother might fill. The folly of the previous night’s engagement was best forgotten.

“Julius, where do you suppose someone could get poison like that in San Francisco?” asked Augustus casually. “Joshua Schmidt’s Bible of Crime Detection says if you find the source, you find the killer. The police will ask everyone the same dumb questions and get nowhere. Of course, the killer will lie and say he knows nothing about poison.”

“I don’t know and I don’t care, Augie,” answered Julius shuffling papers from one side to the other. “Industrial areas, maybe. Import docks are another possibility. There is always Chinatown. They have a lot of things we don’t understand. It doesn’t matter Augie. The police will continue the investigation without our help. Let it be.”

“Chinatown, that’s it!” shouted Augustus. “Chinatown is always the place where bad things happen in the magazine stories. I’ll bet the poisons came from there.”

“I don’t want to hear this,” snapped Julius. “We’ve been in jail once already. I’m not interested in another stay at the drunk tank Ritz.”

“I didn’t think it was all that bad,” defended Augustus. “Of course, it might have been worse if we stayed overnight. I hear the food is terrible.”

Julius shot Augustus a sideways glance that didn’t need to be interpreted.

“Well, you can stay here if you want. Meanwhile I’ll check it out. How hard could it be to find out where the poison came from?” proclaimed Augustus in triumph. “I’ll break this case in no time.”

“Before you go, dear brother,” Julius began sternly. “I want your paperwork in for tomorrow’s deliveries, all of them. I’m tired of you leaving things for me to clean up. Play detective on your own time, not the company’s time. And don’t you dare call me when you get in trouble.”

Augustus didn’t leave the office until late in the day. He took care of his orders and paperwork, not speaking to Julius about his Chinatown plans. In Augustus’ opinion his brother had no vision, no adventure in his soul. Julius will sing a different tune when Augustus found the evidence to break the case. Silently, he slipped out the door and headed for Chinatown; where, exactly he wasn’t sure.

As Julius had told him, Chinatown markets were filled with things average people never saw. It was a relatively safe place during the daylight hours but turned into a place of thieves and crooks at night. The local people were aware of this and ventured out only when absolutely necessary. There were back allies that you never walked down. There were unlit streets that you stayed away from. The innocent never strayed into these areas. They knew better.

Augustus had stopped at several exotic looking businesses, food stores displaying unusual items, dried fish and mushrooms and a collection of things it was best not to know about. When he asked about poisons, the alarmed clerk would shake his head violently, muttering something in Chinese. This was repeated several times, all the shops responding the same. He approached some questionable looking men lurking, just out of sight from the average passer-by. In Augustus’ mind they appeared just the type to know about poisons. The men turned away muttering something unintelligible in Chinese.

Augustus had another fake badge and ID as before, flashing it when he thought it might get some answers. He had ordered two sets in the event he misplaced one. The Chinese merchants became very nervous around authority figures and would often revert to speaking Chinese only, when they had been speaking English beforehand. His success was fading fast as everyone chased him off at the mention of poisons.

The shadows lengthened; it would be dark soon. Most of the merchants were closing their doors and locking their accordion style gates after. Places, which had been innocent in the light of day, now became dark sinister alcoves. The faces of the people on the street were hard to make out, many choosing to duck their heads down making no eye contact. It was safer to avoid eye contact when the predators of the night were about. These creatures of the night could see into your soul and detect a vulnerable victim ripe for the plucking.

Armed with his fake badge and ID, Augustus felt confident that nothing evil would befall him. No one in their right mind would mess with the police. Dim light bulbs flickered on in some of the windows. Their glow suggested secretive things happening behind closed doors. At least one’s imagination could conjure up such thoughts. Augustus wondered how many evildoers were planning their next crime chattering in their foreign language in the shadows.

It brought back the memory of a story he had read with detective Slade McDermott, who was feared by the Tong because he was always one step ahead of them. They knew he was clever, busting in when they were about do perpetrate some dastardly crime. Slade was an expert at Kung Fu and could use common items like a newspaper to eliminate his enemies. That was an old issue of Daily Detective, a favorite of Augustus. Augustus didn’t know anything about fighting but vowed to take classes as soon as he had solved this case.

Small groups of men began taking to the streets, skulking about on corners or slightly hidden in the darkness of alleyways, their features obscured by the lack of light. They smoked cigarettes and spoke in hushed tones, foreign words mingled with the unseen presence. This wasn’t much different from what Augustus might expect in West Portal, where young people hung-out all the time. The major difference in Chinatown was the unknown eyes watching, all who passed.

Augustus laughed to himself. He will have to find his poison source in the dark hours. He remembered the many stories he had read about crimes happening at night. Illegal things banned during the day would emerge in the darkness, the night obscuring what would normally be obvious. Schmidt’s Bible of Crime Detection suggested direct questioning, when ever possible. It may not have worked on the merchants but this was a different crowd. He decided to go up to a group of young men and ask what they might know about poisons.

“Hi fellas,” he said to the men in the shadows. “Anyone speak English?”

“Yes, I speak English,” replied one of the men sporting a black coat and cap. “Why, what you want?”

“Something that might not be legal,” said Augustus in an official tone. “Of course, there will be nothing said if you tell me.”

“Drugs?” asked the man suspiciously. “You give money, I get drugs.”

“Not exactly,” returned Augustus.

The young man looked Augustus over deciding whether or not to answer him. “I tell you what,” said the young man flipping out a long switchblade knife. “You give me wallet and I no stick you.” There was the repeat sound of clicking as the other young men produced similar knives.

“Hold on, friend,” insisted Augustus. “I don’t think you know who you are dealing with.”

He produced his badge and ID in a swift motion that almost brought his life to an end. The men were about to stab him but stopped when the leader held a hand up. The man looked at the badge and laughed.

“I have same badge too, stupid man.” The young man produced a badge and ID similar to Augustus’. “Mail order. I have university degree too, Yale. Get from comic book.”

“Okay, so I’m not a cop,” admitted Augustus nervously. “I really don’t have much money in my wallet guys, honest.”

“We look, then we decide,” instructed the young man extending his open palm. “You take out very slow.”

Augustus pulled his wallet out handing it carefully to the man. The youthful man opened it and found their victim was telling the truth. Twelve dollars, no credit cards and a plethora of business cards all with Augustus Rose printed on them. His drivers’ license had an adequate photo on it to identify him.

“You important person?” inquired the man. “You got lotta business? Maybe we keep you and ask for more money. Twelve dollas not enough.”

“No, those are only business cards,” defended Augustus. “I never did very well in any of those businesses, honest.”

“You want me to believe this when you show me fake badge?” returned the man. “You lie. I think you have lot of money.”

“Listen, you can call my brother and he’ll tell you,” begged Augustus.

“What he got, phony badge too?” chided the man. The other men laughed enjoying teasing their mouse before the kill. “He bring money then I no cut you.”

 

An audible groan escaped Julius’ throat when he got the call. On the one hand, Augustus was family. On the other hand he had to learn for himself not to stick his nose where it didn’t belong. The menacing voice on the phone made no beans about slicing up Augustus if they didn’t get money, detailing exactly what they would do. They weren’t going to take no for an answer.

“How much?” demanded Julius curtly.

“Thousand dollars,” returned the man arrogantly.

“You’re crazy,” replied Julius. “My brother isn’t worth that much. Besides I don’t have a thousand dollars. I’ll give you one hundred.”

“No, one thousand,” the man insisted. “One thousand or brother die.”

“Tell you what,” said Julius calmly. “I’ll explain something simple to you. There are no banks open until tomorrow morning. I have one hundred and twenty-seven dollars in my wallet. Take it or leave it. What happens to my brother is his own fault.”

There was a brief heated discussion in the background, all in Chinese. It was apparent they did not agree with each other, protesting the meager amount offered. On voice dominated the discussion, the man coming back to the phone.

“Okay, you bring money; then I tell you where stupid brother is,” explained the man. “No police or brother dead. Maybe I cut off finger first.”

Julius did not like threats and reacted with a curt direct response.

“Keep this in mind my kidnapping friend; if anything happens to my brother, I have friends who will track you down and eat your liver for breakfast. My brother is an idiot but I am not. Do you understand?”

The threat worked somewhat because the man answered with less confidence than before. He gave an address where to meet them and instructions on what to do when he got there.

 

Once more Julius was on the road rescuing his brother. He mulled that pattern over in his mind as he drove toward Chinatown. As kids Julius was always the one to rescue Augustus. Augustus managed to put himself in harms way more than reasonable. Julius saved his brother by the use of wits rather than brawn. Promise of dire consequence discouraged most bullies. He didn’t enjoy this battle of wits. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do. There was also Cleo, who stood a head taller than most of the boys. If Julius wasn’t successful Cleo made quick work of any boys threatening her little brother.

But now they weren’t kids anymore and this wasn’t some schoolyard thug trying to take away lunch money. Cleo lived on the other side of the country and could hardly be expected to beat up some guy in Chinatown. Julius was positive the young Chinese man was more than willing to kill his brother. Being an opportunist, money was better than a murder rap.

 

Stop-N-Swap

As agreed, Julius waited at the designated corner for the money pickup to be made. A young Chinese man, with his cap pulled over his face to hamper recognition, approached and demanded the money. He counted the money hissing with disappointment that it was not more. He gave Julius the location of his brother, cursing in Chinese as he began to leave.

“It’s all there,” complained Julius. “Remember, you’re the crook not me.”

The young man looked up, insulted but faced down immediately.

“Brother two blocks away in alley,” reported the young man pointing while covering his face. “He stupid man.”

Julius discovered his brother bound with clothesline rope. He stood in front of Augustus and folded his arms over his chest. Julius studied the dirty alley and the pathetic form of his brother smiling weakly. For whatever reason he had not been gagged and could have yelled for help. Of course, in this part of town people avoided getting into affairs which did not directly concern them.

“I’ve a good mind to leave you here, Augie. You cost me one hundred and twenty-seven dollars tonight. You will repay me or I will disown you, dear brother.”

“I thought they demanded a thousand,” said Augustus. “I heard them. One-hundred, twenty-seven isn’t even close. Would you have let them kill me?”

“Maybe,” he replied, an evil grin forming on his lips. “I didn’t have more to offer, Augie. That was all, the cash I could get. What does it matter? You’re not stabbed, injured or dead. That’s quite an accomplishment for you, thanks to me.”

“I was only trying to find out if Bernie’s killer bought the poison in Chinatown,” whined Augustus. “You even said it could be here.”

“What I said did not mean you had to go out and look,” grumbled Julius. “Don’t forget that Mr. Knox warned us against getting involved. I’m sure that never crossed your mind. I bet you didn’t even know where to look.”

“I tried all those gross food markets and asked around,” recounted Augustus. “I even flashed my badge to make them think I was a cop. They all clamed up.”

Julius shook his head squatting next to his brother’s bound body. “You really are an amateur, Augie. People in this part of the city are afraid of authority. The last thing you do is flash a badge in Chinatown. You think they’re gonna tell you all about poison because you pretend to be a cop? And also you don’t go to the markets where they only sell food. You go to a specialty shop like a herbalists or apothecaries. That’s where sensible assassins went to get their supplies in olden times. Didn’t you read about that in school?”

“I think I had the mumps those two weeks,” answered Augustus. “Or maybe the measles. Hey can you untie me? This rope is beginning to chaff my wrists.”

Reluctantly, Julius untied his brother. Augustus scooped up the fake badge which the young Chinese men left behind in laughter, unable to understand how anyone would challenge such an impressive badge and ID. He came to the conclusion that these youths must be terribly jaded.

“How did you ask people about poisons, anyhow?” grumbled Julius. “I suppose you told them you were investigating a murder or something like that.”

“Yeah, something like that,” answered Augustus.

“Think about it. If you sold poison to someone, would you admit it?” probed Julius. “Did you expect them to say, ‘Oh, sure!’ to that?”

“I suppose not,” returned Augustus. “But I didn’t know what else to ask. How would you go about it, Jules?”

“You have to understand their culture,” began Julius. “Not that I am an expert, but some cultures have methods to end an elderly relative’s suffering. It is looked upon as a kindness rather than murder. They do not have the same moral basis as we. In any event, it is not viewed as a bad thing when someone sells an herb or drug that will dispatch their loved ones from their suffering mortal confines.”

“A mercy killing?” asked Augustus.

“Mercy, yes but not considered a killing,” continued Julius. “They are also aware of our issues with that sort of thing and are very protective of this information. They’re not about to broadcast this information and end up in jail.”

“I see,” responded Augustus. “They must have thought I was trying to get them in trouble, then.”

“Duh!” answered Julius. “Glad you can finally grasp the obvious. It is not always the criminal element that utilizes banned substances.”

“You know, I think I read that somewhere,” replied Augustus. “Now that I am untied, I can start asking the right stuff.”

“Hold on, Augie,” objected Julius. “I’m not about to come down and rescue you a second time in one night.”

“Then you do it, Jules,” urged Augustus. “I think you’re good at this sort of thing.”

Julius turned away from his brother, knowing what he should do. But instead he knew his brother would not let this go until he had tried once more.

“Okay, Augie. I’ll pick out someone and then we’ll go home. You gotta promise me you’ll leave this thing alone when I do it. There’s no proof that the poison even came from here. It was just a likely place I thought of, nothing more.”

 

A few blocks away the brothers found a small apothecary with the lights on. Not all businesses closed their door after dark. The glass front had been partially obscured by whitewash to create confidentiality and privacy for those using the service. Though lit, the inside appeared dim and lifeless. The rest of the surroundings were shrouded in darkness. They passed through the red door, Julius smacking his brother’s hands when he tried to pull out the fake badge.

“Remember, my way Augie,” whispered Julius.

The man behind the counter wore neat, yes modest clothing. His age was hard to determine but Julius put him at about late forties to early fifties. He had a very pronounced widow’s peak, which was part of the balding pattern of his salt and pepper hair. Though pleasant, his face gave no indication of emotion. His eyes darted about eagerly assessing the two Caucasian men.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” he said in broken but understandable English. “Something I can do for you?”

“In a moment, perhaps,” said Julius coyly. “We would just like to see what sort of medicines you carry. A friend of mine claims he rid himself of warts by using Chinese medicines.”

“Oh, yes we have,” said the man. “Many good thing for health.”

Julius did not go directly to the question, which fascinated Augustus, who would have asked directly. Julius poked around pretending to examine things behind the glass counters and various packaged remedies on the top. Augustus knew his brother couldn’t read the Chinese on the labels; yet was amazed at the intensity he took looking at them. The Chinese apothecary was beginning to look a little impatient and ventured a few suggestions.

“I have many fine thing for good health,” he repeated. “You say to me what ails you. I find for you perfect remedy. Very good herb for sickness and good herb for being with woman,” he added. “Have many thing for sickness you may have. I have herbs to help for breathe and some make bowel pass easy. You ask I have.”

“You see,” started Julius looking intently at the apothecary. “My brother and I have a sad responsibility. Our father is quite ill and will die. The doctors say it could be months before he leaves this world. But his pain is great and we fear his departure should be more peaceful. What would you suggest? A pain killer or something more permanent?”

“Ah, yes becoming old is a disorder of time,” began the apothecary. “It is most unfortunate you have not come here before. I have good herbs to keep old people young. Do you wish something to ease the pain until he is in the other world? Or perhaps you wish something to make his step quicker along the path. There are good and bad about both things.”

“You are the one with wisdom,” Julius responded. “It would be helpful to explain all of the options.”

“Many non-Chinese not understand Chinese medicine. We do not have special place to test. Test for thousands of years in China, only test. Are you police?” asked the apothecary politely. “It is best not to speak of some things with them.”

“No, we are not police,” answered Julius. “We are only two brother’s seeking relief for our ailing father.”

Just about that time an old Chinese woman entered the door. She looked up at us, surprised and then quickly at the apothecary. He babbled off something to her indicating she leave and come back later. She gave the brothers a suspicious look and left.

“Excuse,” the apothecary politely apologized. “She regular customer, come back later.”

“If you wish your father to have no pain, I have such a thing to do this,” he added. “Father have no pain. Father not remember anyone but sleep all the time. Other herb send father to other world, free of pain. Some quick, some very, very quick. Some little money, some many dolla.”

“But how can we be sure it works?” questioned Julius acting concerned. “If I say we use the many dollar one, our father will suffer no longer. But what if the doctors check to see if something was given to him. I could be put in jail.”

“Ah, yes,” returned the apothecary. “Many dollar one, hard to find when in other world. Only need drop and very strong, quick, show nothing. I just have Chinese woman use for her honorable mother. She say it work very good, no pain. She only person for many month to use. Very much cost.”

“Maybe I can find this herb somewhere where it is not many dollars,” suggested Julius seemingly negotiating.

“No one in Chinatown have this,” declared the apothecary. “Only come from China and too many dollars for other Chinese to sell. I only one. You go look and see. Nobody have same.”

Julius wanted to make sure the apothecary saw this as legitimate negotiations.

“How many dollars?” asked Julius. “It would be good to know, if that ends up being our plan.”

“So sorry,” apologized the man. “Only sell remedy to Chinese. But I show you how much.”

“Perhaps you will make an exception,” said Julius. “It can’t hurt to ask.”

With pencil the apothecary scribbled down something in Chinese and a dollar amount, which made Julius raise his eyebrows. It was indeed many dollars and not something the average person could afford. Julius nodded and pretended to figure out something on a pad he was carrying. It was a convincing performance. The apothecary did not flinch when he wrote down the amount and he rather enjoyed the astonishment on Julius’ face. Julius thanked the man and promised to return when a decision was made regarding the ailing father.

It was either a stroke of luck or the apothecary was lying. Had they stumbled upon the one person who might have access to the poison in question? What are the odds of that? He had mentioned a Chinese woman using it recently. Julius couldn’t figure a connection between a Chinese woman and Bernie. Perhaps the old dog had pissed-off the woman enough to make her kill him. Yet, she would have to have access to his home.

“It is a sad thing to ask,” continued Julius. “Is there a way I can speak with the woman? I would like to hear her account of the process before I decide on what to do. It is very expensive and I do not wish to waste my money.”

“She come here all time,” said the apothecary. “She young woman, maybe not want to talk. Buy many herbs, make her healthy. You come Monday, maybe Tuesday she come again, one o’clock. Can promise nothing.”

Julius nodded understanding the need for secrecy and discretion. The apothecary held up his hand to hold Julius’ attention.

“Forgive me for small minute,” he announced. He held Julius’ hand turning it over a couple times. He wasn’t reading the palm but studying the texture and imperfections of the hand. He drew out a couple pinches of brown powder placing it in a tiny paper bag.

“Forgive me again,” he began. “Man who lose father have heavy heart. I can see you carry a burden. A small pinch of powder in bag will rest your heart. There is no danger in this. It comes from root of plant. It is all I can do at the moment.”

 

The brothers left after Julius’ parting comments. Augustus wasn’t quite following the script Julius had played out, but did understand they had a lead of some sort. The young Chinese woman might be the link to the real murderer, if she herself wasn’t the murderer. Augustus would never have thought of approaching the case that way. He would have to write that down when he got home.

“So when you want to head out here on Monday, Jules?”

“We’re not,” said Julius flatly. “I said I’d ask around but I never agreed to follow up. We can tell the police and they can do the rest. Let the professionals do their work. We sell stationary and that’s what I’d like to get back to. With Bernie gone we might get a few of our old customers back. I doubt Bernie’s people have anyone holding the reins of business at the moment. He micro-managed everything and never trusted another human being.”

“But the Chinese woman,” objected Augustus. “She’s the key and we’ll come off looking like heroes instead of suspects. That’s a perfect hook to give my detective agency a kick start.”

“I’ll kick start your ass if you poke your nose into this again,” growled Julius. “We’re done with being detectives. I’m going home. My wife will be back tomorrow and I still have a couple beers left in the fridge. I want to drink them before she gets back and puts me on that silly diet she’s been talking about.”

 

End of Dead Ends

Nathan sat at his desk pouring over the written reports from Art and Bill Shelby. The new guy, Shelby did a nice job, cranking out each interview with precision, questions and answers. He typed up each interview, double-spaced. Art’s reports were a little more challenging to read. His typing skills were terrible and his handwriting worse. It was a thankless task, since nothing had been established except a common dislike for Bernard Schwartz.

Shelby had done a little more research that proved interesting. Sylvia Schwartz the ex-wife was not affected by Bernie’s demise in any financial way. Their divorce decree required him to set up an annuity for Sylvia in the event of his untimely departure. She insisted upon that detail during the negotiations. He was old enough and unhealthy enough to drop dead any time. Sylvia was taking no chances on being left high and dry. With him alive she still had a considerable amount of alimony and perks.

The manservant, Charles had a healthy retirement in his contract, which left him with more money than any average domestic servant could make. There was no love lost between employer and employee, however. Charles had made that perfectly clear. This pecuniary compensation made the bad situation tolerable in the end.

A distant business client in Denver, Colorado swore he wished he had been the one to bump off Bernie but lacked the money to have it done. He also had a rock, solid alibi. The reports pouring in, pretty much followed the same pattern. No tears were shed over Bernie and a few were going to go out to celebrate his after hearing the news. There were plenty of motives but not any real suspects.

Bernie’s other ex-wives had remarried and had lost contact with him many years before. They each regretted their decision on marrying Bernie but were equally glad to be done with him. One lived in England and another moved to Bali where she and her new husband ran an export business. Neither had been out of their respective countries, recently.

 

Nathan’s phone rang. He was glad to hear Henry Fong on the receiver. Perhaps Henry could shed a little light in the dark corners. Everything to date was vague and uncertain.

“Henry, this better be good news,” said Nathan cradling the phone between his ear and left shoulder. “It’s been dismal on my side of the investigation; nothing but dead ends and frustration. I swear my hair is falling out because of it. You got anything that will keep hair on my head?”

“Yeah, Nate. It’s called glue.”

“Cute Henry. Now give me some better news. I’d like to go home before it gets late.”

You need to take a vacation, buddy” said Henry cheerfully. “Stress will kill you, you know. My cousin has a nice place in Rio Nido on the Russian River. I could get you a deal on the place for a week or so. You couldn’t stay at a motel cheaper than this.”

“Thanks for the offer but the wife wants a new kitchen,” returned Nathan. “At the rate she’s talking, I’ll have to work five years past my retirement to pay for it.”

Nathan rocked back in his squeaky chair, preparing himself for a long report.

“So, what you got for me?” pressed Nathan seriously. “I have motives all over the place and need something concrete.”

“I sent the samples with my tests to Sacramento,” reported Henry. “They have more sophisticated equipment and can get a better handle on the poison. My contact there loves challenges and jumped right on it.”

“And?”

“The poison is probably some kind of snake or spider venom. We don’t have any names yet for it. It did not come from around here,” continued Henry. “Also the lab found traces of rhino horn and frog parts. None of those had anything to do with the actual poison”

“African?” asked Nathan.

“No, not exactly,” continued Henry. “The frog traces they found were from an South American species. Of course, the rhino horn came from illegal trade in Africa. I’d be willing to bet our poison came from China or someplace in the Fareast. They still believe these things have certain medicinal value and buy it in spite of moratorium on these animals.”

“Not sure that helps me much,” groaned Nathan. “No one seems to have been out of the country recently. It would have to have been purchased locally, unless I’m missing something.”

“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing,” answered Henry. “There are a few back-street places that might have something like that. Chinatown would be my guess. I still have family there. My uncle still hasn’t learned to speak English but knows everyone in the area. My mother says he never will learn English. Old ways for some of them die, hard. I could make a call and see who might be selling stuff like that.”

“Anything, my friend would help,” returned Nathan sighing. “I really hate these kinds of murders. A gun, a knife or fingerprints are the kind of evidence I like, ballistics and blood.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean, Nate. Someone out there knows the potential of this poison. We’ll get it narrowed down for you. Don’t forget my offer about Russian River. A little kick-back time might help after this investigation.”

Chinatown, thought Nathan planning what to do next. Now there’s a nightmare waiting to unfold. I hate working that section of town.

 

Money may burn a hole in your pocket. But important information wants to explode in your brain. Augustus, against his brother’s better judgement decided to call Inspector Knox about the Chinatown apothecary. Surely, this would shift all suspicions from Julius and himself.

“Hi, I’d like to speak with Nathan Knox, please,” began Augustus. “It’s about a murder case he’s working on.” In the background he could hear an occasional beep, which meant the conversation was being recorded. “Tell him its Augustus. He’ll know who I am. I’m working the case for him.”

There was a brief period of waiting on hold. His line had been picked up a couple times by accident and put back on hold. Augustus thought this wasn’t very efficient and would mention it to Knox.

“Nathan Knox here,” reported Nathan on the phone. “Is this Augustus as in Julius and Augustus?”

“Yeah,” answered Augustus. “And I have some information for you. Big stuff.”

“It’s not a confession, I hope,” groaned Nathan. “I’d hate to be wrong about you brothers.”

“No, of course not,” replied Augustus, slightly miffed at the suggestion. “I think I have the address where the poison came from. It’s in Chinatown. It was Julius’ idea to check that out. And he was right. I also got mugged in the process. There’s never a cop around when you need one.”

“What makes you so sure this is the place?” asked Nathan.

“We sort of tricked the guy into thinking we wanted to poison our ailing father,” reported Augustus. “We lied about that. Dad died a few years ago, natural causes of course.”

“Of course,” parroted Nathan becoming weary of amateurs investigating serious crimes.

“Anyway, The Chinese guy said a woman came by to pick up this poison,” continued Augustus. “It was a Chinese woman, in fact. So your murderer has to be a Chinese woman.”

“Oh, and you know this for a fact?” queried Nathan.

“The Chinese apothecary said no one else had purchased this very expensive stuff in months. He claims he’s the only one who carries this substance.”

“And you believe him?” asked Nathan.

“Yeah,” replied Augustus. “Why shouldn’t I? Do you think he lied?”

Nathan dropped his head to the desk, hitting the lamp on the way down. He couldn’t believe how stupid the man was on the other end of the line. It was amazing to him that Augustus even found an apothecary, who claimed to have such a potent poison.

“Well, I know we’d like to think he was telling the truth,” returned Nathan. “But that is often not the case; especially when we’re talking poisons. These people aren’t stupid. They can mislead you if they don’t trust you.”

“No, I think he was telling the truth, Mr. Knox. Julius put on a great act for the guy. It even impressed me. I think we could have checked on the Chinese woman if Julius hadn’t insisted on going home. Something about beer in his refrigerator.”

“Beer?” questioned Nathan. “What does beer have to do with this case?”

“Nothing,” replied Augustus. “His wife is still out of town and he likes to cheat on his diet. His wife won’t let him have beer because it has too many calories. I don’t drink much, so I wouldn’t know. Jules also likes Dr. Pepper too. Now that has to have a lot of calories. Do you think beer has a lot of calories, Mr. Knox?”

There was an audible groan from Nathan as he lightly pounded his desk with his fist. It was times like this that made him believe he should have gotten into real estate instead of the police department.

“Tell you what,” began Nathan. “Tell your brother I’d like to talk to him. Maybe we can work something out.”

“About the beer?”

“No, I’ve got an idea that might speed up this case,” said Nathan. “I think your brother might be able to help.”

“Gee, I don’t know,” answered Augustus. “Jules, didn’t seem too keen on playing detective. Told me I was incompetent. Can you believe that? My own brother thinks I’m a dummy.”

“Just have him call me as soon as possible,” replied Nathan impatiently.

 

 

Later that day, Julius and Nathan had a long conversation on the phone about the brothers’ investigation in Chinatown. Nathan was not happy with the two men but was secretly pleased with their findings. Nothing else to date had born any fruit in the investigation. The Chinatown apothecary looked hopeful. There was one problem. To put another undercover officer in Julius’ place would throw suspicion their way. Two non-Chinese people asking the same questions about poison might seal up this lead.

Since Julius was not with the police department and already had some success extracting information from the apothecary, he was the perfect candidate to find out who the Chinese woman was. She might be the connection Nathan needed. He had a hunch the woman had nothing directly to do with the murder but was merely the courier for the poison, the murderer being smart enough to cover his trail. Besides, the apothecary claimed he wouldn’t sell to non-Chinese. That might make perfect sense.

“I hate to do this,” admitted Nathan. “I need you to continue probing this apothecary in Chinatown. He knows something and is our best lead so far, though it’s against department policy to use civilians. But I don’t want to take a chance of losing this lead. You can get enough information to crack this case. We’ll do the rest, of course.”

“Are you crazy? I sell paper and other stationary supplies,” protested Julius. “I know nothing about investigating. The only reason I’m involved at all is because of my stupid brother.”

Nathan leaned back in his chair a loud squeak temporarily distracting him. He needed to play this guy right or he’d lose him. It reminded him of fishing. When you got one on the line, you can’t be hasty. Let him work a little first.

“For a guy who doesn’t know what to do, Mr. Rose,” announced Nathan. “You’ve found out more information than the entire police department. I wouldn’t worry about whether you’re qualifies or not. Give it your best shot. If it works we’ll have our murderer or a good lead to him. If it doesn’t then we follow some other leads. You’ve got nothing to lose.”

“So you have a lot of leads?” asked Julius. “You really don’t need me, right?”

“No, not exactly,” answered Nathan. “Mr. Schwartz had a lot of enemies, more than you can imagine. There are still tons of people to interview and we haven’t covered everyone yet and I can’t ignore any of them. Most people we contact will check out or have been dead for awhile. Not many dead men murder anyone.”

“I’m not sure, I’m suited for this clandestine position,” grumbled Julius. “I’m not exactly a fan of murder mysteries, like my brother. I’m sure he’d jump at the chance, though I doubt he would have much success. Augustus will want to be part of it. I doubt you can keep him away.”

Nathan sat up quickly, his chair making another squeaky protestation. His brow furrowed at the thought of Augustus Rose being a part of anything involving such a delicate operation. It was obvious Augustus would not do. The man was a certifiable idiot and lacked the subtlety needed for this unorthodox scheme. There was also the chance something might happen to him which would really put Nathan on the spot for using civilians.

“Your brother will have to stay out of this,” insisted Nathan. “He’s a bull in a china closet, excuse the pun.”

“I see your point. But on the other hand,” Julius mulled over. “My brother has a talent for getting into trouble and coming out smelling like a rose, excuse the pun. The man has a charmed life.”

Julius gazed out the window of his office at the traffic on Ninth Street the screeches of brakes drawing his attention. It stuck him that people were unpredictable, cars whizzing by, passing here and there without so much as a signal. No wonder there were so many accidents in the city. He turned his attention back to the phone.

“There is something that worries me,” continued Julius. “If I am, indeed, going to help you, isn’t there a chance the murderer might turn his wrath on me? He’s bound to find out that someone is poking into his affairs.”

“Why did you say, he?” asked Nathan. “Do you suspect someone?”

“Hardly,” returned Julius irritated by this needless interrogation. “I used, he, as a general term, nothing specific. I guess it could be a woman though I doubt it is the Chinese woman. A clever killer would hardly connect himself directly. It would be too easy to trace him. But there is another problem that will surely arise.”

“And what is that?” replied Nathan anxious to hear any other hunches.

“There is no way in hell I can keep Augustus out of this,” said Julius. “I know my brother; and if I don’t bring him along, he’ll strike out on his own. God knows what sort of trouble he’ll get into. You really don’t want that, do you?”

“Yes, I see what you mean,” returned Nathan rubbing his chin. “Your brother seems to have no restrictions when it comes to bungling new endeavors.”

“That’s putting it mildly, Mr. Knox,” said Julius. “He doesn’t consider this a hobby. This is as serious as it can be for him. He’s been this way ever since he was a kid. I’ve been bailing him out ever since then.”

“Well, I guess he’ll have to be part of the operation, then,” conceded Nathan, grudgingly. “You’ll have to ride herd on him. Your brother could blow this whole thing if he acts wrong or says something inappropriate. It’s an easy mistake to make, even for professionals.”

“My brother lives in a fantasy, not always able to see the obvious problems,” replied Julius. “I’ll do what I can.”

 

Nathan thought more seriously about Henry Fong’s offer to use the cabin at the Russian River. A week of vacation would help clear the air and give Nathan the needed rest from the demanding police work. It wouldn’t be easy getting his wife to go along with the idea, since she was locked into getting the kitchen remodeled. On the other hand, it would be a good idea to be out of the house during some of the major construction. He will have to talk to her about it.

He also thought about his decision to put an amateur in a position of such sensitive case. It went against all logic, his superiors never agreeing to it. And so, he will not tell them. Nathan preferred doing things by the book. It made things less complicating than working outside the framework of rules. But doing things by the book didn’t always get results. He could only remember a handful of instances when he did a few, if not illegal, questionable things. Most of them worked without repercussions.

It worried him to have Augustus was part of the unofficial team. Nathan had long since discarded any notion that the brothers were the potential killers. Julius was too level headed and Augustus a little thin on smarts. After all his years as a cop, he didn’t feel that itch that went along with a real suspect. These boys lacked that prime criminal element, which he knew so well.

To make no mistakes, Nathan would stick to these brothers like glue. Anyone willing to commit murder might not hesitate doing in the brothers. He will keep that little fact silent. Julius has already gotten too close for Nathan’s comfort. The Chinese had a grapevine to rival any forms of communications. Once suspicion was cast on the brothers their lives would not be worth a nickel.

For now it was time to finish up the paperwork and close up shop for the night. Nathan’s wife wanted to look at paint chips for the kitchen and browse through a few stove catalogs. There were other things to decide on as well. A new stove would demand a new exhaust hood. Tile would have to match or compliment the paint. Nathan wondered which was more demanding, police investigations or redecorating a kitchen.

 

 

Julius sat in the living room debating on whether to watch a little television. It might help take his mind off of the events of the last few days, even though there wasn’t anything on that he liked. He had grabbed a small pizza at the deli enjoying one of the bottles of beer temporarily stashed in the refrigerator. Perhaps he would have another beer to chase away the concerns of this new development. There was no reason to stop at one; no one was around to object. The way he felt made a second beer sound better and better. It wasn’t every day when a police officer asked you to pry into a murder case.

“I can believe I agreed to do this,” he said out loud. “What was I thinking? And then there is Augustus, who’s liable to screw it up. I can’t think about that now. It won’t be my fault if this doesn’t work.”

He stopped his ranting and laughed at himself. The picture of him talking to thin air with a beer in one hand and a slice of pizza in the other must appear ludicrous. His mother had always told him to avoid people who talked to themselves. Nuts like that belonged in institutions where they were locked up, she would say. Nathan knew none of these people were dangerous. Otherwise they’d have to lock up hundreds of people, who loitered close to the office. Winos and disturbed people lived in every empty doorway from the wharf to Eleventh Street.

 

“Did he really say that?” asked Augustus excited by the prospect. “We are on the case?”

“Only until Mr. Knox gets enough information,” answered Julius. “I report what we find and then he’ll take over. We don’t have to do anymore than asked for.”

“See, Jules,” said Augustus. “The flatfoot knows we can crack the case. My detective agency will take off once we catch the killer.”

“Flatfoot?” inquired Julius skeptically. “You’ve got to stop using those dumb magazines and paperbacks. I’m sure Mr. Knox would not appreciate being referred to as a flatfoot.. And speaking of cases, did you write up that rush case of heavy bond this morning. It has to go out before noon.”

“Oh, yeah,” answered Augustus. “I’ll get right on. Then we can head out to Chinatown for more leads.”

“We’re not going anywhere until your desk is clear, Augie. We still have a business to run, whether you like it or not.”

Julius walked out to the hall to buy a Dr. Pepper from the machine. Curiously, he had just heard that the main ingredient was prune in the concoction. It didn’t taste like prune juice but he couldn’t dispute what he had heard. Science found ways of making all sorts of things out of everyday food items. He also heard that soda manufacturers were working on diet sodas. He couldn’t imagine what they would taste like.

That morning the fog had been thick and damp. Mustiness hung in the air, stimulating the smells Julius had long become accustomed to. The well, worn steps and top landing gave off an old wet wood odor. The smells from the plant below never changed. Oil and gas fumes drifted upward searching for the open air. The only clean smells came from the newly delivered paper goods.

Julius enjoyed these familiar smells savoring his prune juice, Dr. Pepper. For all the hard work involved he loved the business. It was the only constant in his life he could count on. His first exposure to the stationary business was at the age of seven. Julius’ father had brought him to work during one summer to file papers. All he had to know was his ABCs. Julius needed a box to stand on to reach the horizontal file cabinet. For his work he was rewarded with seventy-five cents, a virtual fortune in those days.

“Jules!” yelled Augustus from the office door. “I’m done. Can we go now?”

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