Novels

Sweet Dreams Raven part 1

November 25, 2018

Noticed

         The books in Raven’s arms were heavy but she didn’t feel them because the love of her life, Randy Willet was standing inches from her, though, she was pretty sure he didn’t have a clue. She never voiced that fact to him or anyone, only adoring the ground he walked on. In truth, she was sure he didn’t know she existed. Much to her dismay, the only one he seemed to notice was Gloria Caruthers, the girl with the gorgeous blonde hair and an amazing body, the only girl in her school with significant boobs, a condition Raven did not suffer from. She watched Gloria talking at him, not letting him get a word in, strictly monologue, which didn’t matter since he enjoyed gawking her physical assets more than responding to her inane gibberish. Gloria always managed to wear something revealing, provocative, usually bordering on a violation of the school dress code, which was fairly flexible to begin with. Seemingly smart and the top of all her classes, she was the most sought after girl in school, the majority of boys not interested in her brain but her other attributes

Why does she have to set her sights on Randy, thought Raven? She’s all-wrong for him; I just know it.

In front of her school locker mirror, she sighed, the reflection an image of little girl; Raven was still embarrassingly undeveloped when compared with the many of other girls her age. How unfair was that, built like an eleven year old but years older? Raven’s pretty hair framed her pretty face, a baby face according to her mother; boys weren’t interested in babies, their ego required a girl with mature characteristics. Having been raised in England to the age of nine, her accent was a thing of ridicule by the girls in her school. Elliot, another nice looking boy, was admired for his cute, sexy Australia accent, which sounded quite similar to Raven. Where was the justice in being the flotsam on the fringes of womanhood? There were a few other girls just as young looking as she; somehow they managed to have boyfriends. Why shouldn’t she?

Randy was distracted for a minute, smiling at Raven, making her turn away. Was he smiling at her or was it gas? Babies smiled when they had gas; her baby niece smiled a lot, her aunt claiming it was nothing but gas, not joy. For an instant Raven wanted to believe Randy noticed her, even though Gloria lurked nearby. Maybe it was only a fantasy but at least it was something.

Gloria never stopped to breathe, continuing on with her bragging and boasting; she was elected by her clique to be on the cheerleading squad, several suggesting she be the squad captain. The girls weren’t ignorant to her magnetic effect on boys and utilized it by nabbing one of the cute guys tossed aside by Gloria.

The only thing left for Raven was to bathe in the presence of Randy Willet, regardless of his attentions; erase Gloria and pray he would really see Raven one day. Miracles happened and it was at that moment Randy spoke directly to her, while Gloria rambled on about some inane subject, nail polish, which was not allowed in their school.

“Your name is Raven, right?” asked Randy. “Nice name; that’s a bird, isn’t it? I think we’re in the same English class third period, aren’t we?”

“Yeah, uh.” answered Raven, at a loss of what else to say.

“See you later,” he added before leaving. He smiled; and this time Raven was sure it wasn’t gas.

        No Assignment

         “Goodnight honey,” said Raven’s father. “Sweet dreams, my sweet girl.” Her father always said that, a little on the lame side, which might have been okay when she was a little girl. Now she was thirteen and three-quarters, hardly a baby anymore. He’d done this every night since she could remember. Still, it was comforting to know her father cared enough to tuck her in at night, his love and sweet tone never altering one bit.

Fern, Raven’s mother, worked part-time in real estate and wasn’t always there like her father, though she loved Raven just as much. She was good at her job and like most mothers encouraged Raven to study and get good grades, education a key in being a fulfilled woman. Whether it was her mother’s job or Raven’s age, Raven felt constantly irritated by her mother; mother/daughter talks happened more often now, Raven rolling her eyes while listening to the facts of life, as if she didn’t already know. Like a good daughter, she endured this process with a smile or perhaps, maybe it was only gas.

Thoughts of Randy Willet stirred her feelings, disturbing her sleep. Though her father repeated the ‘sweet dreams,’ mantra often, Raven didn’t dream very much, except maybe a cute boy at school; but that was different from really dreaming. As for tonight, Randy was at the top of her dream wish list, no substitutes allowed. And more important, the dream should be about him since he had actually spoken to her this very day. She wanted to savor those words forever.

Dreaming was a strange activity where some made no sense and others meaningless; she rarely remembered them when she woke up. She hoped tonight would be different; she wanted Randy pasted firmly on the dream landscape. Little did she know her dreams were taking a stroll down an avenue she never expected.

Raven closed her eyes, her mind a void, except perhaps the gorgeous Randy. All was well until she heard the sound of her brother, Tad playing his radio in the next room. He was supposed to be asleep, their parents unable to hear the radio on the other side of the house. She could squeal to her parents but didn’t want to be a snitch; there was an unwritten law between siblings, a useful tool for future blackmailing. Pounding on the wall, she yelled at Tad.

 

“Sorry Rave,” answered Tad, muffled by the plaster wall between them. Quickly, he turned it down, the music almost indiscernible; the only sounds coming from the house were the creaks and moans of an old building flexing with the changes in temperature.

These were familiar sounds, normal for this house in the Avenues. This area of San Francisco was close to the ocean where the temperature could drop quickly when the fog rolled in, which it did more often than not. Their particular house had been built in the twenties long before most of the homes in the area, a new addition added a few years after to accommodate father’s home office and make room for the washing machine and dryer. Otherwise, the houses in the area were almost identical except for theirs.

The noises in the house scared her as a little girl, imaginary monsters lurking about, bent on unknown acts deviltry; her imagination played with those thoughts until she grew out of it when her father explained what the noises were. Now comforted by the sound, there was still a hint of wonder what noise might be in the attic, some latent skulking demon, perhaps. On the brighter side, imagining Randy Willet kissing her and holding her hand for hours; she would listen to him breathe as they snuggled together, the bliss of a would-be boyfriend warming her heart.

Yes, she thought. Snuggling without Gloria yapping a mile a minute. Wow! And now to think Randy Willet actually spoke to me today.

Sleep slowly silenced her thoughts, Raven slipping into the abyss of nothingness, a blank canvas before her, waiting for whatever colors might be splashed on it. Dreaming of Randy was not to be; instead she boarded an imaginary slide, her speed unimaginable, her destination, not any place she could think of; there were sounds of birds beating their wings in the background adding to the confused manifestation. An abrupt stop landed her on a surface of soft and spongy material. Whatever it was, it was nothing she had ever seen before; it felt good on her bare feet. It wasn’t carpet or sand or anything she recognized. Yet the surface tended to change; she couldn’t explain how that was possible.

I’m dreaming, she mused. This is really something different; it feels so real. Weird!

The place she arrived was dark, no windows or light, yet she could see her arms and hands and felt the surface beneath her. She decided to explore this blackness, hopeful to find something visible. As she walked on, the unusual surface carried her, moving her feet, supplementing her rapid progress; surprisingly, she moved at a phenomenal speed without effort. A sliver of light could be seen slightly ahead, darkness covering everything else. Traveling to the light seemed like a logical thing to do since there was nothing else, no walls to touch or boundaries to hamper her travel, the opposite effect of being claustrophobic.

Raven reached where the light was coming from but saw no fixture or bulb, only light projected in the middle of an empty space. Inside the lit area, a curtain of black beads, the smell of exotic wood with a hint of something on the other side between the strands. Her hand slowly passed through the curtain, the beads feeling a little bit like the floor when she touched them. Pushing the rest of her body through the curtain Raven heard the sound of wind blowing through trees, yet she couldn’t see the trees or feel the wind. She walked outside or what appeared to be the outside.

“Okay,” she said out loud. “What next? I put in an order for a dream about Randy Willet, not some weird place in the dark.”

She really didn’t expect a response since this was only a dream but said it anyway.

“Mmm!” A soft humming began as soon as she stopped talking. She looked around getting her bearings, noticing the stars in the sky, which were not the same as the ones she knew of. Orion’s Belt was not there but a bunch of geometrical shapes that had to be impossible. Stars just didn’t align themselves in perfect squares, rectangles, octagons and triangles.

The humming stopped; the darkness, replaced with gradual illumination, like a stage play or the dimmer switch in a dining room. Raven began to recognize things, trees, a stream flowing with a rainbow colored water with a small bridge over the meandering course. Her side of the stream had lots of greenery and color while the other side was almost barren save a few rock outcroppings and dried sagebrush, no one visible on either side, a simple scene, almost sterile in appearance.

“Hello!” she called. “I know this is only a dream but I’d like to talk with someone about what’s this is. Anyone there?”

From behind one of the big trees on her side, a small baldheaded man waddled out dressed in dark slacks, white shirt, a candy stripped bow tie with a cardigan sweater, the kind of clothes a man might wear on a children’s’ show. His thick glasses made his eyes look enormous, his face and chin covered with prickly stubble; he hadn’t shaved in many days by the look of it. The small man shuffled up to Raven, looking up to her because he was much shorter than she, perhaps only four feet tall. Giving her the once over, disquiet etched on his face. He appeared quite distressed at her being there.

“Bad time, bad time,” he muttered, his voice lingering in the upper register. “I’m not sure what I should do.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Raven, annoyed with his unconcealed scrutiny. “And who are you?”

“The question is, who are you?” he replied. “As for me, I’m Arthur,”

“No last name?”

“No last names here only first names,” he answered. “Of course, that depends on whether you are a real person or a dream; but I shan’t ask which you are. Very displeased, very displeased! I don’t suppose you have a name.”

“My name is Raven and I don’t understand why you are so upset.”

“You’re not on my list, no Raven, Craven, Maven of any sort like that. You will have to go back.”

“I’m afraid going back would mean waking up.”

“Oh dear!” he squealed. “Waking up will be impossible, now that you’re here. You just aren’t on my list; you’re unassigned; it’s impossible.”

“What list is that and what do you do?” she pressed. “Where is this supposed to be? I assume this is a dream.”

“What I do?” he answered, acting extremely nervous. “I keep track of things, a bookkeeper in a sense. As for where you are…well, I doubt you’d understand, too complex for little girl like yourself.”

“I’m small for my age,” protested Raven mildly irritated by his reference. “Go ahead and try me; I’ve got plenty of time before I wake up. Besides, it’ll be interesting to tell my friends about this dream once its over; I hope I can remember it.”

“Yes, yes, all you little girls say that,” he answered, fretting over a small booklet he carried in his hand. “You understand what the universe is, correct?” She nodded.

“There is another universe you don’t know about, actually several if you must know. Put out your hand so you can see your palm and don’t move,” he instructed. “That’s right, facing up please.”

“Yes, and?” she responded.

“The universe you know of is like the palm of your hand,” he began. Arthur reminded her a little of her science teacher.

“You can see it and you know it exists because of its visual representation,” he continued. “If your hand stayed like that all the time, that would be all you perceive as your universe. Now if you had eyes in your toes, you could see the other side of your hand; you would know it also exists, other side, other universe. Understand?”

“Your point?”

“The back of your hand is another universe, a separate one,” explained Arthur. “It really is quite simple when you think of it.

“But all I have to do is turn my hand to see it,” said Raven. “How could that be another universe?”

“Dear, dear,” he mumbled. “You’re not grasping the obvious. If you couldn’t see the back of your hand it would still exist. That’s what dreams are, another universe, the side you can’t see.”

“Oh, yeah like a parallel universe,” she replied. “I read a little about that in school but don’t I believe its real. So this is supposed to be a parallel universe or something?”

“No, no not exactly parallel,” corrected Arthur. “You exist differently here than in your usual universe; parallel is quite a different concept, though it also exists in forms too difficult to explain. You have one problem at the moment; you have an unauthorized check-in time but no checkout time. That’s going to be a significant problem I’m afraid. But I just record these things not control them, not really any of my concern.”

“I’m sorry Arthur; I’m not buying any of this. There’s only one universe; everyone knows that. All this other stuff is just our brain playing games with us; I read that. What’s this checkout time?”

Arthur reached over and pinched her on the arm.

“Ow! That hurt,” yelled Raven. “What you do that for?”

“Oh, for goodness sakes, haven’t you heard about being pinched in a dream and not feeling it?” he asked. “You see if this were simply a dream you’d feel nothing; we’re very meticulous in that regard. Obviously, things have gone astray here because of your unassigned status. For reason beyond my control you’re living in this universe now, a sort of, slip into the dream universe. I can’t tell you how long you’ll be here without a checkout time.”

He shuffled through his ledger, thumbing through the pages and added, “See! See! You can’t go back without a checkout time.”

“I’ll wake up, won’t I?” she asked. “Back in my regular universe?”

“I can’t answer that,” he replied. “The Dream Actuator is the one you need to talk to; he’s the one who handles these problems. When or whether you check out of here is pretty much up to him. Like I said, I only keep the books and make sure no one gets lost or misplaced. Heavens! So many get lost in here.”

“But I’m in my bed sleeping,” she protested. “I’ll wake up and be fine. Isn’t that the way it works?”

“I can’t say,” he answered scanning his ledger. “The pinch test pretty much tells me you’re going to be around for a while.”

“So where is this Dream Actuator? I’d like to have a few words with him about this. I’ve got school tomorrow and can’t afford to miss my science test. Does he have a name?”

Arthur tapped his forefinger to his temple considering the question, in no rush to answer. With misplaced dreamers, it was always wise to measure your answers, carefully.

“Silas is what some call him,” returned Arthur, making a note in his book. “He hates it when they call him the Sandman; it’s so trite, entirely too common for someone who doles out elaborate dreams. As for his location, I’m pretty sure he’s in Hawaii or some other place with warm weather. Silas likes to sit out in the sun, though he never tans. He’s done it before; for now, the world will be dreamless for a while and that’s that.”

“You have Hawaii in this universe?” she questioned.

“No not really. Like I said this is not a parallel universe so we don’t have the same places as you do. I believe he actually did go to Hawaii in your universe. The weather there is quite hot and sticky, not sure I’d like that; it might fog up my glasses. I really don’t know why he would bother since there a lot of nice places here and he knows it. You must have slipped in just before he left, which would account for your check-in and checkout time not being recorded.”

“What should I do then, wait for him to come back?”

“I have no idea, Raven. Crossing over from one universe to another can take time if you are not properly prepared. For now I would advise you stay on this side of the bridge; you don’t want to cross over.”

“What’s on the other side?”

“Nothing you’d care for, I’m sure,” he answered. “That’s Morti Mog’s Realm, not a good place for dreams. Better to stay here, on Silas’ side, even though there really isn’t any dream assigned to you at the moment.”

Waiting

Distracted by being there, Raven suddenly noticed what she was wearing. Barefoot, she sensed the strange surface beneath her feet, yet did not feel heat or cold. She was still wearing her oversized T-shirt with Hello Kitty logo printed on the front. Her mom and dad brought it for her last Christmas instead of the sexy nightie she requested. Perhaps it was better since the material of the T-shirt was soft and comfortable. Still, a girl needs to feel sexy and it might have been nice to have the other lacy gown.

“Your name?” questioned Arthur. “Curious, unusual, how did you get it?”

“I used to think it was some hippie name; tons of kids had weird names like rainbow and tree; but I found out my mom loved reading Edgar Allan Poe. She knew the Raven by heart and performed it often with friends in her literary club, a bunch of snobs if you ask me. Poe is a little on the dark side but she liked him. Mom is a real reader, a little like me; she reads everything she can.”

“Interesting, though I’ve never read Poe,” returned Arthur. “My existence has been solely for keeping records, so I don’t get to read at all, you understand.”

“So is there a way I can find this Dream Actuator, Silas? I’m all for dreaming but hardly want to spend more than a night.”

“Oh, Silas may pop in now and then; he likes to check up on things. You’ll have to catch him when he drops by, though he seemed pretty keen on enjoying his holiday. The last holiday he had took place in 1200BC, I believe, the Trojans and Greeks. He claimed they made such a fuss over a little marriage and didn’t want to be part of it. Of course, that didn’t happen when Silas was on holiday.”

“How long was he gone?” asked Raven shaking her head in disbelief. None of this could be true; she was sure of it. Her imagination was making it all up while she slept.

“I’m not sure but I know the gods commanded him to return to managing dreams,” added Arthur. “Thor was adamant and Zeus threw such a fit we feared he would eliminate Silas as Dream Actuator. The gods dream like mortals, you know but in a separate place set aside in this dream universe for gods and mythical creatures; they would never submit to partaking the commonness of mortal dreams. Nonetheless, the gods were quite unhappy with their dreamless nights back then.”

“What do gods dream about?” asked Raven. “Other mythical creatures? If they’re all mythical, they’re not even supposed to exist.”

“Frankly I don’t know what the gods dream of,” reported Arthur. “I only keep the dream records, dear. Basically, I get a title for a dream but never actually know what it is about. Terribly dull but it is my duty. You’d have to ask Silas; he could give you more details, assuming he would share that information; there is a clause in the dream contract which stipulates a degree of privacy.”

“Can I ask you a question?” asked Raven.

The little man smiled and nodded anticipating what she might ask. With his master gone there was little to do and Arthur rarely spoke to anyone, dreaming or not.

“If I’m not assigned a dream, then how can I be here?” she challenged. “Shouldn’t I be asleep, dreamless?”

“True, true you were asleep but drifted over before Silas could assign your dream and its termination time; that’s vital in this case,” he replied.

“I wanted to dream; I had something in mind, though it would only be a dream, not real.”

“I believe you have a reoccurring desire to dream about some young boy in your school, an ordinary dream for girls like you. I don’t know all the details, you see; I only record those coming in and going out, nothing more, though I fail to see the fascination girls have with boys or the other way around.”

“So what am I supposed to do now, twiddle my thumbs and wait for this Silas person? Is this some kind of Alice in Wonderland, where a white rabbit with a watch is going to be running around?”

“By no means. Alice and the white rabbit are on hold at the moment,” reported Arthur. “The Queen of Hearts can be quite nasty if provoked and was not pleased with Alice’s behavior.”

“You don’t really expect me to believe those characters from a book are here? They’re only a part of a story, Arthur.”

“On the contrary, they are very real in this universe. As for passing the time, it’s hard to say; you might run into a few things you didn’t think of; things aren’t as you might expect them to be. Of course, their interaction is frozen to you; don’t expect to be entertained. If I were you, I’d wait; twiddle your thumbs; I’ve always found that entertaining, though I’ve hardly had time to do so. Find something to entertain yourself; look about in the meantime. As for me, I have to tally up my numbers; it’s so hard to keep up at times, so many dreams, trillions of them.”

Scanning about, she had to agree with Arthur’s assessment; things were different. The tree Arthur emerged from had strange colored bark, a bright green instead of normal bark.

“That tree looks a lot like a redwood tree, only green,” she offered. “We have those near my house, huge redwood trees only with reddish brown bark.”

“Oh, those trees over there are ordinary,” he said. “Greenwood trees, quite commonplace here. You don’t have those in your universe, much the pity. They have an aroma similar to mint and can taste like chocolate during the pollination process; I rather fancy them myself, though rarely have the time to sample them. You’ll find many things like that, colors, smell and even things you touch will feel strange; Silas insists on flexibility in the world of dreams, mortals real life dreams mundane in comparison.”

She glanced over at the trees, again getting a faint whiff of mint and evergreen; they smelled a little like spearmint to be exact. While marveling at the smell and appearance, Arthur vanished in an instance, no trace that he had even been there. She called out to him several times without any response, her voice swallowed, no echo to be heard.

“Figures!” she said out loud. “The only person who can help me is gone, disappeared into thin air.”

She sat down on the strange spongy surface, neither hot nor cold just right. Visions of the Three Bears popped into her head with food, chairs and beds the themes, everything being just right in the end. This was not the fairy tale of the Three Bears; this was something all together different. Finding Silas was her only option in getting back to the proper universe, a universe, which still sounded more imagination than reality. Perhaps this was only a dream and her worry was for nothing; dreams can be pretty realistic, though she’d never had one like this before. She remembered Arthur’s pinch test, shocking and painful. This couldn’t be a dream.

Not dressed for traveling, she had no idea what she might encounter along the way. The place felt more like one of those sound stages in Hollywood; she’d been given a tour several years ago, surprised at the high ceilings and the vastness of it.

Does it rain here? Will I get chilled or too hot, she wondered?

A Hello Kitty T-shirt and bare feet did not bode well for the unknown conditions she might encounter. Suddenly without warning, a man’s voice whispered in her ears.

Look all around, not on the ground, to see what goodies can be found. Your wish of wishes can come true, just spin around and they’ll come to you.”

There was no way of telling where the voice was coming. She pushed herself up to investigate; another person might emerge from behind a tree or bush; it happened when she first met Arthur. For now, he was nowhere in sight, no other soul to be seen, yet when she spun around to examine her surroundings she saw a clothesline filled with clothes; it wasn’t there a minute ago. Stepping forward she touch the clothes to see if they were real or some cruel joke. Thankfully, they were real and very nice, the labels inside from very fashionable stores. Best of all, the clothes were exactly her size, neither too small nor too large.

“Fine!” she said to no one in particular. “I can borrow these clothes and return them later but the ground feels icky on my feet; I need shoes too.”

A laundry basket sat next to the clothesline, a towel lying on top with something underneath. Brushing the towel aside, she found two pairs of shoes exactly her size. One pair was a set of two-inch, sherry red high heels with rhinestones across the front with an ankle strap around the back. She loved them, delicious to look at, the sort of shoes she would never have but always wanted. Her mother would definitely not approve.

“Wait! I’ve seen these before,” she muttered. “Yeah, I remember, Outback Boutique at the mall. These were the ones in the window that everyone wanted.”

Raven couldn’t stop herself from strapping on the shoes and admiring how they looked on her tiny feet. They fit perfectly and made her look so adult until she took a couple steps and almost fell; walking in high heels was something new and perhaps needed getting used to.

This has to a dream, she thought. This stuff showing up like this isn’t possible.

She wobbled around for a few minutes finding it impossible to keep her balance on the squishy ground beneath. If she planned to walk any distance, it might be better to find shoes a bit more sensible. Then she heard the voice again.

“Oh dear, my dear, walking is quite tactical; look again and seek something more practical.”

“Wait, don’t tell,” she muttered. “Is there another pair of shoes in the basket?”

A bright colored napkin covered the bottom but something underneath made it irregular. Sure enough, a pair of bright red tennis shoes were neatly tucked under the high heels with rhinestones decorating the toes. Again, a perfect fit, including a pair of kitty cat print socks stuffed inside of them, the socks a perfect match for the shoes. Somebody or something was guiding her, but to where?

 

 

Novels

Augustus’ Smarter Brother (part 5)

May 22, 2017

Precognition Mission

          Cleopatra Rose Bocca had a good life with her husband in the suburbs of Chicago. She moved back east when she married, going back to visit family and friends a couple times a year. There was another motivating factor in returning to the San Francisco Bay Area. From the time when she was just a girl she knew when her brother, Augustus was in trouble. A few times she ignored the temptation to help, finding out later, Augustus ended up with a bloody nose or absconded lunch money. Julius tried to help but lacked the brawn to deal with the school bullies. Cleo possessed the skill and fortitude to deal with such cases.

In forth grade Chip Nastari took Augustus’s lunch money away. Chip was already thirty pounds heavier than any of the kids in his class and tough as nails. When confronted by Cleo he laughed at the threat she presented. Chip lost two teeth and all the stolen money and his own that afternoon. Cleo was a force to be reckoned with. Others tried to challenge Augustus Rose only to be set straight by Cleo.

“Angelo!” yelled Cleo from the kitchen. “I’m going to California. Book me a flight as soon as possible.”

Angelo didn’t argue. When Cleo had that feeling he knew she was always right. Someone in San Francisco was going to be very sorry, he thought.

 

Not Over Until It’s Over

Julius wasn’t sure what to say or do when confronted by Miss Liu. She was equally unsure as she stepped closer to him. The background noise of traffic and honking made it difficult to hear the Chinese woman, who spoke softly and in very broken English.

“It’s too noisy out here,” he said looking into her troubled eyes. “The coffee shop on the corner is closed. I can unlock my office and discuss things. And I think you might prefer a more private place to talk.”

Miss Liu looked left and right as if there might be an option she had not seen. Hesitantly she nodded her head in agreement. Miss Liu balked at the base of the stairs, a look of indecision crossing her face. Then she placed her foot on the first step to follow Julius upstairs. Retracing his earlier steps, Julius heard the creaking noises of the building once more. Each step groaned by the pressure exerted on the tread. Miss Liu consciously took each steep step carefully gripping the railing due to the steep incline.

The familiar hum of the florescent lights filled the office. Miss Liu sat straight up in the offered chair. Julius chose a seat across from her.

“I think long time about father,” she began pointing at Julius. “It make me sad. So I want to talk with you about remedy.”

“Thank you,” he replied. “That’s very kind of you to come here. I would have gone to you.”

“Remedy no medicine,” she announced. “You understand?”

“Yes, I know what it is, Miss Liu.”

“Make father pass into other world very fast,” she added. “Make him sleep. No wake up again.”

“Was the person who bought the remedy pleased with the results?” asked Julius. “That is why I wish to know. It’s a lot of money.”

“Chinese woman buy from me,” she replied. “She give to someone else, man I think, Chinese.”

“I use remedy before. Very good for money. No pain. Work fast,” she added holding up several fingers. “Three minutes. I want do same for father. Do not want trouble. That’s why only Chinese.”

“I appreciate your sensitivity,” answered Julius. “I would not ask you if there was trouble involved.”

She squinted at him trying to ferret out what he had said. Again she nodded, staring down at her folded hands. Julius was sure she was illegal in this country. It was probably one of the reasons for all the secrecy.

“I never sell remedy for bad thing,” she said smiling weakly. “Only for pain of dying. Woman say her nephew need remedy for relative. Medicine I give to make well. I like make people well.”

“Yes, I can see that you do,” responded Julius. “I thank you for coming to me. I guess it’s not possible to know who the nephew is. I must take your word for it regarding the remedy. I suppose it doesn’t matter. My father will find his peace in time.”

He didn’t like lying to Miss Liu. The woman did not appear to be a bad person, quite the contrary. Being undercover was not a position Julius wanted to prolong.

“Sorry,” she said. “Must go.”

Julius escorted Miss Liu to the street below, locking and resetting the alarm as before. The interview didn’t produce anything useful as far as he was concerned. No names were mentioned or volunteered. Julius will have to tell Mr. Knox in the morning about the visit. The police can decide what to do with the information.

As for the immediate present, lamb stew was awaiting him at home. Once more, this had to be the end of his clandestine career, which suited him fine. His brother might see this as another opportunity. Julius was happy to leave it to the experts.

What troubled his mind was the visit by Miss Liu. She didn’t have to see him at all. She wasn’t able to provide him with any first hand information, yet she felt compelled to see him. What difference would it make if an unknown man or woman bought that poison? Why would she bother to connect the woman with her nephew? That was far more information than necessary. Knox will have to figure out that one.

 

Planting Bernie

Nathan had the same thoughts that Julius conjured up. When a substance was passed from one person to another, the trail cooled rapidly. A Chinese woman and a Chinese nephew were two more links in that rusty chain. Was there anyone else connected to this chain? There was also the possibility this Chinese connection had nothing to do with Bernie’s demise. Nathan could be following a real dead end. Chinatown wasn’t the only place where poisons could be had. It just happens to be the best lead so far.

“Hey, Nate, you going to the funeral?” asked Art. “They’re going to plant Schwartz at Cypress Lawn at noon.”

“Yeah, I might,” answered Nathan. “Like to check out who comes. Might get lucky and find my killer. Sometimes they show up at the funerals to see their handiwork. But I think it’s a little bit too “textbook” for my liking. This case is anything but textbook. Anything on your end to report?”

“Yeah, I had this hot date last night,” boasted Art. “The girl was all over me. She couldn’t wait to finish dinner and jump in the sack.”

“No, I mean anything else about the case, stupid,” growled Nathan. “I’m not interested in your adventures in bimbo land.”

“Oh, yeah, the case,” he replied scratching his chin. “Same old stuff as before. Lots of happy people out there, glad to see the guy dead. Everyone of them has an alibi, though. The ones that don’t; aren’t in this state. Trust me, my date was more interesting than the list of people I’m checking out.”

“Keep checking, Art. I got a bad feeling about my lead. It could be everything or nothing. I hate these kinds of murders.”

 

Nathan used his personal vehicle to drive to Cypress Lawn Cemetery. Pros spotted unmarked cars if they knew anything about cops. Official cars were the same models and makes, often the cheapest models available. To be sure Nathan parked his car a good distance from the gravesite. Fog was beginning to roll in giving the air a chilly bite. The breeze didn’t help matters.

Nathan was surprised to see the plethora of flowers at the gravesite. One florist alone could not have provided the abundance of flora displayed. A canopy with chairs was erected next to the grave. A handful of people wandered inside to sit down each displaying varied emotions. The canopy did not offer any protection from the wind. Nathan doubted the service would last long.

Bernie had not been a practicing Jew. No clergy of any sort was in attendance. Most of the attendees wore fine clothing, furs and matching outfits for the women. One man in black held a book, not a bible in his hand. He seemed to be in charge of the service. Sylvia Schwartz examined her nails while she waited for things to start. Alan Cooke sat quietly his head slightly tilted gazing at the flowers, adoringly. No one appeared to be the least upset.

Finally the man with the book began to speak.

“Bernie didn’t believe in being weak,” he preached clearly. “Sure he angered some people and took advantage of others. But he did this because they were weak, a hard lesson to learn. …….”

The man droned on for fifteen minutes praising Bernie’s shortcomings. The speech was completely uninspired. It had as much depth as Bernie did. The audience was equally unimpressed. People fidgeted everyone eager to leave. The cold wind and billowing fog did not make the service easier. Sylvia pulled her fur collar closer around her neck. Others shifted in their seats, becoming impatient with the delay.

The speaker held up the book in his hand, revealing its contents Success In Business, Bernie’s Bible. His style of running the business was outlined in the text. The close management style allowed no one except Bernie to make decisions. You didn’t allow feelings enter into any of your deals. It was cold, calculating business. It was about control and power.

At the end of the speech Alan Cooke was the first to toss in a handful of dirt on the black walnut, bronze handle casket. Nathan watched as each person passed by, burying Bernie a handful at a time. A few unfamiliar faces passed by, Nathan waiting for that tug in his gut. It was difficult to explain how that phenomenon worked. A feeling, a hunch, an uneasiness came over him when confronted with a criminal.

An elderly black man did not bother to pick up a handful of dirt but rather kicked a chunk of it in the grave with his shoe. Nathan recognized him as a former driver for Bernie. He had been let go years before after he had asked for a dollar raise. There was no love lost between them. The man was there to merely witness the end of an unhappy chapter in his life. Nathan’s report gave the man a pass as a suspect. Small potatoes when you consider how many others lost money because of Bernie.

Nathan finally got that twinge he was hoping for. Or was it a coincidence? A young Asian man with an older woman walked to the grave. He waiting a long time before contributing his dirt to the hole, the woman not looking at the grave but clearly upset with something. He, on the other hand neither frowned nor smiled, his expression a sense of satisfaction. Of course several of the other attendees wore similar expressions. The man’s race was consistent with the only real lead Nathan had. Again, Nathan had to be cautious, not jumping to any conclusions.

The man holding the book stood his ground, waiting for everyone to leave. Nathan sauntered over to him. The man appeared to be in charge tossing the last handful of dirt after everyone else.

“Excuse me,” interrupted Nathan “I wonder if I could ask you a question.”

“Certainly,” returned the man. “And you are?”

“Nathan Knox,” returned Nathan peering down at the list the man had before him. “San Francisco Police Department. I’ve been looking into Bernard Schwartz’s death.”

“Ah, yes, I heard your name mentioned,” answered the man extending his hand. “I’m down from Seattle. My name is Gilbert Gunn, nephew of the deceased. My uncle wasn’t well liked, which you probably witnessed.”

“Yes, this is true, Mr. Gunn. The investigation has not gone the way I hoped. Too many people were glad to see him die. Some of them were here today, I imagine.”

“Yes, a lot of people openly called him a bastard,” said Gilbert smugly. “He treated me well enough for some reason I’ve never been able to understand. Maybe he felt a kinship since I really am a bastard. My mother, his sister was never sure who my father was. She had several affairs during her marriage. Of course I was given my stepfather’s last name despite the uncertainty of my heritage. I think Uncle Bernie got a kick out of that. Didn’t like my mother’s husband. Found great joy in tormenting the man.”

“Did you know everyone who attended the burial?” Nathan urged.

“I know who most of them are,” he returned. “Had them all sign a guest book. Won’t do uncle very much good, though. He isn’t going to be able to read it. But it was all in his requests for when he died. I was part of that deal. It was a deal to be sure. My uncle set aside a handsome sum of money for my services. He enjoyed dangling the carrot. It’s all in his will.”

Oh, God! thought Nathan. Another potential suspect I didn’t know about.

“So is the money something you will inherit?” asked Nathan.

“Hardly,” scoffed Gilbert. “Purely a business arrangement beforehand. He gave me some money several years ago with an equal amount to be set aside in a trust. A few thousand dollars just to keep me honest. You see, he never trusted anyone, completely.”

“What sort of business are you in, Mr. Gunn?”

“Interior decorating,” replied Gilbert. “Uncle Bernie didn’t think much of the idea but gave me the money anyhow. He believed in selling product not service. We had similar ideas about business. Perhaps that’s why he liked me. He didn’t allow sentiment to get in the way. Neither do I.”

Nathan didn’t particularly like Gilbert but was glad to get the details of his connection with Schwartz. Seattle was just a bit too far to travel to bump off an uncle for a few thousand dollars. It was one more stone he won’t have to turn over. What he did need to do is find out the name of the Asian man who was at the burial.

“I noticed a young Asian man and older Asian woman at the burial,” began Nathan. “Do you have any idea who they might be?”

“Actually, no,” answered Gilbert. “He signed the guest book but I had never heard of him before. The woman chose not to sign. Like I said, it doesn’t matter. They were probably servants of clients. I don’t know them all.”

“May I see the name?” requested Nathan. “It might help.”

Gilbert handed over the large guest book sitting on a nearby chair. A black ribbon was fastened across the book and tied in a neat bow. Nathan undid the ribbon opening the book. Only one page was needed for all the guests, though the book had twenty or more pages left.

“Mind if I copy some of these names?” he asked.

“Be my guest,” returned Gilbert. “In fact take the book with you if you like. I doubt Uncle Bernie will care.”

Nathan skipped the names he knew, concentrating on the few he didn’t. The Asian man’s signature was difficult to read but Nathan could make it out, Steven Hsu. None of the other names were remotely Chinese, so this had to be the one. Behind the name were a few Chinese symbols written vertically. It would be impossible for Nathan to know what they meant. Scribbling as best he could, he tried to copy the Chinese figures. They might be important or mean nothing at all. Nathan couldn’t allow the smallest detail to be overlooked.

Nathan took a wild chance by looking in the phone book for the suspect. There was no one by the name of Steven Hsu listed. He’d have to get back to the office and expand his investigation, using Art for the trivial tasks. First he’d visit the forensics lab to chat with Henry. It was a long shot; but Nathan hoped Henry could read Chinese. Maybe then he would have something to work with besides a name.

“This is Mandarin,” explained Henry studying the Chinese characters. “You’re out of luck as far as the name, Nate. Hsu is like the name Smith, common in China. Also the Chinese don’t put their names in the phonebook. My uncle doesn’t have his number listed. It’s a common thing.”

“Sure, I figured this wasn’t going to be easy,” answered Nathan. “Can you tell me what it says?”

“It’s hard to say,” continued Henry. “My Chinese isn’t as good as it should be. And your handwriting doesn’t help these characters. You should have brought the original.”

“I’ll do that if this helps,” said Nathan anxiously.

“Ah, I think the first character means honor,” reported Henry straining through his reading glasses. “Hard to say, but second character means family. That last one is not one I know. It could just be a saying. Might not be anything to help.”

“I was hoping for something more, Henry. You sure?”

“You leave it with me,” suggested Henry. “I’ll show it to my uncle. He’ll know what it means.”

 

Help Is On the Way

Clara pushed a letter across the breakfast table. Julius rarely opened the mail at home. He looked down at the envelope checking the return address. The handwriting looked familiar.

“Cleo?” he asked. “What on earth does she want? It’s not my birthday.”

“Open it, silly,” prodded Clara. “Unless you’re a mind reader.”

“My father always used to say, telegrams and unseasonable letters were bad news,” added Julius. “Cleo never writes. I hope nothing is wrong.”

Julius opened the letter carefully handling it like it was a scorpion about to strike. It was one page and short and to the point. Cleo did not like wordy letters.

“She’s coming for a visit,” announced Julius. “Going to be here sometime tomorrow.”

“How nice,” replied Clara. “I do love your sister. We never see enough of her. I’ll make up the spare room.”

“Yes, I suppose that would be a good idea,” returned Julius. “Cleo mentions Augustus. She thinks he’s in some sort of trouble. Cleo has always known when something was up with him. He has been saved more than once by the both of us.”

Cleo Rose, now married to Angelo Bocca, had a sixth sense about her little brother, Augustus. Experts claim some families have this ability almost to a science. More than once, Cleo knew when Augustus was in a bind before Julius got wind of it. Both siblings bailed Augustus out when he found himself in a compromising situation. As children, Cleo presented an imposing figure, tall, broad shouldered and muscular. Boys her age and older would not go toe to toe with her. Though it was unladylike for a girl to hit a boy, Cleo did not subscribe to that social norm. Several boys had suffered broken noses, black eyes and swollen lips.

“Maybe I should call her and tell her things are okay, Clara. I think Augustus is done with being a detective.”

“Oh, don’t do that,” begged Clara. “It will be fun to visit awhile with Cleo. We haven’t seen her in over a year. We’ll do a little shopping.”

 

Augustus found writing to be a chore rather than fun. He made a few more stabs at writing the great mystery, only to red line everything he had it done. He quit for three reasons. One: he wasn’t making any progress. Two: his typewriter ribbon needed to be replaced. Three: the activity bored him to death.

He would, however, hand write a letter to the management of Zimm’s and complain about the rude expulsion. Cops ate free and could stay as long as they wanted; yet paying patrons were required to order more expensive meals if they chose to stay longer. That wasn’t fair at all. Augustus regretted not getting the rude waitress’ name. He would like to add that to the complaint.

He began the letter and struggled with its content as much as he had with his failed novel. Some of his nasty comments were too bold. Others were too mild. There didn’t seem to be a good way of expressing his anger. Fifteen minutes later he crumpled the letter up, deciding it wasn’t worth the effort. Boredom crept back into his short attention span. He needed to do something interesting. Even his cat decided to sleep elsewhere in the house instead of curling ion Augustus’ lap.

What came to mind, as his head searched for something to do, was the unfinished business of the murder investigation. Though Julius and he were no longer required, the police still hadn’t resolved the case. Augustus knew he could crack the case, given the opportunity. It was time to go back to Chinatown and the apothecary and finish what he had started. He will follow the Chinese woman and find out who she mingles with. It will be a matter of time before her actions will produce the real killer. Then he will announce his discovery and be back in the detective business. Besides, his detective cards were on order and should be there within the week.

 

Julius met Cleo at the airport the next morning. The late flight from Chicago was on time. It would take another thirty to forty minutes to get the luggage. Cleo traveled light, bringing only what she would wear for the days required. Their father had said she was the orderly one in the family. She had no interest in the stationary business, however. In school, Cleo majored in history, a subject she hoped to teach in time.

“Where is our brother?” demanded Cleo. “I get this tight feeling in my chest that something is wrong. Reminds me of the day when he picked a fight with Earl Johnson. That kid would have killed Augie. You always did your best, Jules but you’re not the muscle-man type.”

“Well, I’m afraid this time you made the trip for nothing, sis. I already got Augustus out of a pickle. I’ll tell you on the way home. Oh, and by the way, he should be at work.”

“I don’t know, Jules. I’m never wrong about this. Are you sure?”

“Yeah, yeah, he was fooling around with being a detective in a murder case. We worked with the police for awhile but all that is done with. Last I heard from him, he was trying to become a writer.”

“Ha!” scoffed Cleo. “The boy has no talent in that area. Didn’t you tell him that?”

“I thought it best to let him try his hand at writing instead of something worse, sis. He can’t do too much damage in that area.”

“Good,” proclaimed Cleo. “Let’s invite him for dinner tonight. I’ll believe it when I hear it from his own lips.”

The invitation was not a request. It was an order. Cleo was the sort of woman you argued with. Her word was law; and you abided by that precept. Though it might seem that she was a bully, nothing could be farther from the truth. She had a keen sense of justice and would not arbitrarily meddle in the affairs of others. To her there were no gray areas, only black and white.

Julius dropped Cleo at the house returning to the office afterwards. All the deliveries were out and Augustus was working at his desk. A sense of normalcy prevailed. Marsha was rattling away with her bookkeeping while Diane took orders on the phone. How long that will last remained to be seen.

At lunch, Augustus ducked out of the office without a word. Julius had not yet given him the invitation to dinner and a command audience with sister, Cleo. Julius will leave a note on his desk about the dinner engagement. The mention of Cleo will surely cinch the invitation. Augustus wasn’t afraid of his sister but did have a healthy respect for her wishes.

“Diane, my sister is in town,” reported Julius. “Could you close up tonight? Augie will be leaving early too. I left him a note on his desk. It’s been awhile. Cleo is anxious about Augie. She’ll see he is fine. Thanks Diane.”

 

As before, lunch was a busy time in Chinatown. The weather turned out to be nice, stimulating the tourist in this part of town. It was interesting how the downtown area had the better weather than the more residential areas, south of Twin Peaks. Equally, interesting was the differences across the bay in Oakland and Berkeley. As a rule they had warmer weather than San Francisco.

Augustus walked back to the apothecary’s shop and waited for Miss Liu to appear. He didn’t know whether she would be there but took the chance. Taking off his suit jacket he leaned against a fire hydrant and watched the comings and goings of everyone. For all the color of the shops and displays, the Chinese, themselves were understated. Dark clothing and bland colors is what most of them wore, almost as if they wanted to blend into the background of the city.

From this corner Augustus could make out the apothecary. He wasn’t hidden by any means. Anyone wishing to avoid him could spy him from all four directions. It didn’t strike him that this would be the case. His cover was perfect. He was an average Joe enjoying the city. It was a nice day and he simply enjoyed the sixty-seven degree weather like most San Franciscans.

By 12:47PM the wind came up a little suggesting the end of the lunch hour. Eddies caused by a mild wind made bits of paper debris spin lazily in the allies. No one entered the apothecary’s building the entire time he was there. Augustus was about to leave when he was rewarded with his subject of his search. Miss Liu twisted the doorknob entering without noticing Augustus on the corner. At least it didn’t appear that she noticed him. This time he was not going to lose her.

Slipping his coat back on he briskly walked to the apothecary shop trying to look inconspicuous. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do when he got there, no plan had been staged, only an idea. Augustus chose to stay outside of the building on one end near the staircase. Two young pretty Chinese women descended the stairs locking onto Augustus’ presence. One of them kept walking toward the corner while the other slipped behind Augustus, putting a hand on his arm.

“You come here before,” she said in broken English. “Maybe you like me, yes? I like you. Have a good time.”

“No, I’m waiting for someone,” he said almost distracted by the woman’s physical charm.

“I not busy,” she added. “Don’t have to wait. Promise, you like me.”

“Uh, yeah, I’m sure you’re right,” he answered. “I can’t because I’m working on a case.”

“You police?” she responded stepping back.

“No, I’m a private detective, miss,” he boasted. “Working on an important case. Don’t have time for, you know.”

“Too much work,” she cooed. “Not good, too much work. Have fun, better.”

Just at that moment the door opened and Miss Liu exited carrying a small bundle under her arm. She moved up the street and away from where Augustus was, unaware she was being watched.

“That’s the woman,” he declared softly. “I have to follow her, sorry.”

The pretty girl sneered. “She old woman, maybe forty. Ugly too. Why you want her? Sick man!”

Augustus ignored the soliciting woman and began to stalk Miss Liu. She kept a comfortable pace looking back only twice. Augustus was sure she didn’t suspect he was following her. Each time she turned around, he quickly stared at whatever building he was next to. She will suspect he is checking an address or something like that. That was also a helpful hint in the detective guide regarding ‘tailing’ a suspect.

Miss Liu turned a corner, quickening her pace. By the time Augustus got to the corner she was almost a block away. He would have to shorten the distance or lose her all together. Several more turns here and there left Augustus standing in a dead end alley. He had no idea where he was or which one of the three doors she might have gone in. Knocking on each door was not a good idea. That was against ever rule regarding surveillance. His only hope was to wait her out. She would have to leave sooner or later, exposing the doorway she came from. He decided to wait next to some garbage cans.

The alley was surprisingly quiet. No one moved in or out of any of the buildings. The only evidence of life was a rodent of undisclosed identity and a scroungy looking cat bent of relieving the rodent of its earthly existence. To pass the time Augustus attempted to lure the cat over to him with typical words kitty endearment. The suspicious cat remained far away from the stranger, leaving for a less crowded, more lucrative hunting ground.

Hmm, thought Augustus. Must not understand English very well. But of course, it doesn’t. It’s a Chinese cat.

He looked at his watch. It was 2:23PM. Julius will have his hide for taking a long lunch. But this was more important than a few orders and paperwork. Julius will understand once Augustus gets the information the police have failed to find.

In his rush to find Miss Liu, Augustus had forgotten to eat lunch. A growling stomach reminded him of this one small detail. The smells of food cooking in the neighborhood didn’t make things easier. The alley was becoming darker and considerably chillier than before. His light, weight suit jacket did little to fend off the cold. That was the problem with big city buildings. Their height cut off the sun early in the afternoon.

It was 3:37PM and no movement in the alley. There was no point in going back to the office. In the distance Augustus could hear the sound of children released from school, yelling and laughing. At least someone was having a good time. Next time Augustus has a stake out, he’ll be better prepared with something to munch on and maybe a book to read. He had no idea it would be this hard.

The hour grew late, Augustus pacing back and forth to stay warm. His stomach sounded like the first movement Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, fate knocking on the door. He was now missing dinner as well has his lunch. Detective work demanded a lot of sacrifices, he had never considered. Why was it the detective magazines never mentioned food?

He heard something stir behind him. At the open end of the alley an old Chinese man hobble with the use of a simple lacquered cane toward Augustus. Sizing up the old man, Augustus made him out to be at least one hundred years old, maybe older. Old Chinese people were hard to figure. The old man got to within a couple yards of him before speaking.

“What you do here?” he demanded without malice. “Nothing here for you.”

“I’m just a tourist,” lied Augustus. “Enjoying Chinatown. You know, the atmosphere and stuff.

The old man shook his head. It was obvious he didn’t buy the tourist routine. Augustus needed to come up with something better.

“I’m waiting for someone,” amended Augustus. “It’s official business.”

“Who you wait for?” question the ancient Oriental. “Nobody here, only Chinese.”

“Maybe, I’m waiting for someone who is Chinese,” suggested Augustus.

The old man chuckled to himself, followed by an aftermath of coughing. His smile wrinkled his skin giving him comical expression. His face betrayed his disbelief. It was as if Augustus said he was waiting for an elephant to bring him his evening meal.

“I watch you from window,” said the man. “All day you wait. You wait, nobody come. You go home now. You not police.”

“Why do you say that?” queried Augustus. “I could be the police.”

“Police not so dumb,” answered the man with another chuckle. “They sit in car, stay warm. You stand long time in cold.”

“It’s a free country, friend,” responded Augustus irritated by the old man’s badgering. “I can stand here if I want.”

The old man shrugged and turned back. In parting he added, “Bad men rob you. You wait too long.”

It crossed his mind that the old man might be right. Augustus still had the unhappy memory of such an encounter with youth gangs in Chinatown. He had to think of the various alternatives. In Joshua Schmidt’s Bible of Crime Detection a chapter dealt with alternatives. Augustus hadn’t read that chapter very well but knew he had to go to Plan B, whatever that was.

“One more hour,” he said to himself. “Then I’ll go home.

 

5:00PM with dinner on the table, Cleo and Julius looked at each other, dread gnawing away at them. Her unspoken thoughts were as loud as any audible ones could be.

“Well?” she finally said.

“I’m sure he’s just hung up in traffic,” said Julius. “Could be an accident of the freeway. I left a note on his desk at lunchtime. Told him you were here and to have dinner with us.”

“Sorry brother,” responded Cleo. “I got that feeling again. You know what that means? Our little brother is in trouble, again. I don’t know what it is. And I know you have an idea what it might be. Spit it out.”

There was no sidestepping Cleo. Julius spread the whole scenario out in detail. From beginning to end the story took a little longer than Cleo would have liked. She squinted, taking in every facet of the story. Julius could see she was formulating a plan, though she said nothing to him during his dissertation. With arms folded over her chest she nodded every so often, having heard this similar story before.

“He’s in Chinatown,” she announced. “I can feel it in my bones. Our dear brother has a talent for making the wrong decisions and has done it again.”

“Yes, that would be my best guess,” answered Julius. “I know where to start, too.”

Clara sat through the whole story, shocked at what had transpired during her absence. Drinking a beer or two was nothing when set against his night in jail and Augustus being kidnapped.

Cleo and Julius piled into the car, moving towards downtown. Commute traffic was still thick and the going was slow. Julius felt like a little kid who had been caught painting a mustache on a political poster. Cleo had that effect on him. Her no-nonsense attitude made everyone feel the same way.

“Cleo, maybe we should call the police,” suggested Julius. “Chinatown can be a rough place.”

“Yeah, and they will handle this the same way they handled the investigation,” she returned. “The police should have been on top of this case to begin with. Our stupid brother wouldn’t be in trouble now if they had been.”

“And you didn’t help matters by being so smart, Jules. You didn’t have to show Augie the right way to do things. If you had left Augie alone, he would have spent the night in jail and that would have been that.”

“Don’t go blaming me, Cleo,” argued Julius, in his defense. “If I hadn’t done what I did, Augie would be in real trouble. Besides, there was the suspicion factor about Augie and myself. We were potential suspects, you know.”

“I don’t want to hear excuses, Jules. Can’t we go any faster?”

Julius bit his lip not to say something unkind to his sister. He loved his sister but she could become extremely overbearing at times. Her tongue was sharp and quick. Her affection was equally intense, though less demonstrative.

“Traffic, dear sister,” he replied. “I can’t drive through them. Just relax. Augie has a gift for surviving that puzzles me. The luck of the Irish.”

 

Augustus examined his options. He could sit in the alley all night or return early in the morning before light. The latter sounded more appealing as time wore on. In the morning he could wait to see if Miss Liu would emerge from one of the several doors. There was only one flaw in his plan. She could leave before he got back. Then he’d have to start all over again. That was a chance he will have to take.

When he reached the end of the alley Augustus tried to remember which way he had turned. This part of town was hilly and unfamiliar to him. He knew he had walked uphill for several blocks before coming to the alley. It was only logical to walk back down until he found something familiar. Two blocks later he did discover something familiar. It was the gang of young men he had encountered a few nights before.

He thought about running, but where? These young thugs probably knew the place inside and out. Augustus did not even know where he was.

“Hi fellas,” muttered Augustus weakly.

The young man with the black coat and cap laughed at their luck. The gang began to circle Augustus, their intentions frightening.

“You got money?” said the young man.

“Uh, I’m afraid I don’t have much,” answered Augustus. “I never carry more than a few dollars.”

“Maybe brother come and give me more money,” reported the young man. “You not very smart to come back without money. This time, maybe I cut you for sure.”

The young man produced a switchblade knife, waving it in the air. Whether it was an idle threat or the real thing, Augustus was not very happy with his predicament.

“Gee, fellas. I don’t think my brother will come down here,” Augustus stated with regret. “He’s pretty pissed-off with me for the last time.”

In desperation Augustus added, “I could send you a check.”

The young men looked at one another in disbelief. Two of them stumbled backwards in laughter while the other chortled.

“You think I’m stupid?” asked the young man with the knife.

“No, not at all,” answered Augustus.

“Send me a check?” repeated the young man. “You want address to send check?”

“Sure,” replied Augustus innocently. “Otherwise I won’t know where to send it.”

“You crazy!” returned the man. “I look like I’m stupid?”

“I wouldn’t suggest anything of the sort,” answered Augustus.

“You come with us,” demanded the young man pushing the knife blade close to Augustus’ throat. “We call brother. Again!”

Augustus and the gang of men dodged through several allies and streets until they were back where Augustus had been tied up the last time. The young man was about to make the call to Julius when a couple people came walking their way. Cautiously, Augustus was instructed to be silent or serious consequences would result. The gang will wait until these people passed before continuing their extortion plans.

 

“I don’t believe it,” said Julius. “We have found Augustus.”

“Are you sure?” questioned Cleo. “It’s dark; I can’t make out a thing.”

“”It’s him,” repeated Julius. “I just know.”

The closer they walked the clearer the picture became. The young men attempted to hide their intentions until one of them recognized Julius.

“Ah, brother come without call,” said the young man with the knife.

“Hi, Cleo, hi Julius,” greeted Augustus, sheepishly. “Look who I ran into.”

“You, brother, give money or we cut ear off,” demanded the young man. He stood with his knife poised near Augustus’ neck.

“Who is he?” grumbled Cleo miffed by the demands.

“He’s the kidnapper I told you about,” Julius answered.

Cleo’s face was calm as she began to speak to the gang.

“Release my brother and nothing will happen to you,” she stated with a scary confidence the gang could not fathom.

“What you, lady?” chided the young man. “Hit me with little purse?”

“Well, now that you ask,” she replied pulling out a small revolver from her purse.

Cleo held the gun firmly with both hands aiming at the man’s head. Before Julius could object a gunshot echoed through the buildings. The young man dropped the knife and held his right hand to the side of his bleeding head. The others in the gang froze for a few seconds running in every direction once their wits returned to them. A mixture of English and Chinese could be heard as they flew through the dark recesses of Chinatown.

“Crazy lady!” complained the young man, wobbling in shock.

“Crazy or not, buddy,” she began. “I’ll shoot your other ear off if you don’t leave my brother alone, a little lower and I’ll change you sex.”

The young man did not even stop to retrieve his knife, scampering off without a word, only a wail of pain now and then confirmed his the insult to his body. Augustus stood wide-eyed, afraid to move. Julius lurched forward to discourage his sister from firing again.

“My god, Cleo,” shouted Julius. “You can’t just shoot people like that in San Francisco. You’ll be arrested. When did you start carrying a gun?”

“Oh dear brother you are so naïve,” she said. “I’ve been carrying this gun for years. There are parts of Chicago where a gal needs a gun. And, as you can see, it can come in handy when you need it.”

“But Cleo,” protested Julius. “There are laws.”

“I suppose our little Chinese man abides by the law,” she reported. “It was a choice of Augie’s ear or his. I decided to simplify the equation. At the very least it got his attention. I doubt we will see him anymore tonight.”

Augustus stared at Julius and then Cleo before fainting dead on the street. It was Probable that Slade would not have fainted under these same conditions. But Slade wasn‘t a real man, neither was Augustus.

“For a hardcore detective, Augie doesn’t have the stomach for a little excitement,” claimed Cleo stuff her pistol back into her purse. Let’s get him up and leave before I have to shoot somebody else.”

Julius patted his brother’s face, trying to bring him around. A few moans and coughs preceded Augustus’ recovery.

“Is it over?” Augustus mumbled softly.

“I’m starved,” declared Cleo. “I hope Clara’s dinner isn’t ruined.

 

The Butler Did It?

“Hey, I got that translation for you Nate,” announced Henry over the phone. “I was pretty close. My uncle says it’s hard to translate exactly. Protect family honor, is what it means roughly. He said the phase is used when there is a loss of face, or a dishonor of some kind. But I got some good news that might help.”

“What, pray tell would that be?” returned Nathan looking at the wall clock. 5:30PM and he wasn’t any closer to solving the crime until now.

“My uncle checked around and found your Mr. Steven Hsu,” replied Henry. “He asked a few friends and tracked him down. It wasn’t easy since his last name differed from his aunt. I’ll be surprised if this is your boy. The word is, Steven is a straight-shooter, no criminal record or any trouble at all. He lives with his aunt and works in an office on California Street.”

“You’re a lifesaver, Henry,” said Nathan, glad for some crumb of evidence. “I wouldn’t have found the guy without your help. I owe you one.”

“Glad to help, Nate. Call me if you need any more help. I’ll do what I can.”

Nathan had known Henry for a long time. Their working relationship was always comfortable and cooperative. Forensics was a demanding, accurate area, requiring painstaking concentration and procedures. A mistake handling evidence could dash the chances of a conviction. Henry was an expert in his field and also a likeable fellow.

Armed with the address and phone number of Steven Hsu, Nathan closed in on his prime suspect. It was a dangerous assumption to make. All he had was an exotic poison, possibly from Chinatown and a Chinese woman, Miss Liu, who had recently purchased that same poison. This is all circumstantial until they can connect all of it. Until then, Nathan will have to treat Steven Hsu and his aunt, very carefully.

It bothered Nathan when Henry questioned the possibility of Steven being his man. Nathan’s gut still felt something was going on with the man. Linking Steven with Miss Liu will be the clincher. How he will do that was another major headache. For the moment there was nothing left to do but go home.

Home?” he thought. More like a demolition site laced with feline talons.

He rubbed his legs where the tiny kittens had clawed their way to his lap. It amazed him how such small creatures could have such lethal weapons. Nathan had no objections to cats. His girls had them as pets years before. When his daughters went off to school Gladys and Nathan became the new caretakers. But the cats were cats, not kittens. They slept most of the time. The cats restricted their attentions to the food bowl and a warm lap.

Shifting his attention back to the case, he realized he could never pick up Miss Liu for questioning. Julius Rose claimed the woman was very shy and secretive. With many of the Chinese this was normal. Too many questions might expose them as illegal aliens, sending them back to China where life was harder. Many feared being deported back to a life they had escaped. Silence was their best defense.

Nathan began scooping up his papers to leave when Art rushed in.

“What, not out cruising the bars for a date?” chided Nathan. “I hope this doesn’t mean you’re actually taking police work seriously.”

“Yeah, yeah, Mr. Smartass,” answered Art stuffing a sheet of paper in front of Nathan. “Our boy, Charles Vincent took a flight this morning to Buenos Aires. I checked with the airlines and there was no return ticket purchased. I haven’t been able to check but I’ll bet his bank account has been closed too. I think Charles Vincent makes the top of our list as suspects now.”

“The butler did it?” mumbled Nathan under his breath.

“Hmmm! I can’t see it, Art,” declared Nathan rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. “Charles Vincent didn’t like Schwartz but he had no strong motive. One way or another, he was getting enough money to live well. Doesn’t make sense.”

“It makes sense to me,” replied Art. “Who else would have a key to get into the house and plant that poison? Schwartz wouldn’t even give his girlfriends a key. And I know he didn’t give any of the hookers an opportunity to move in. There’s quite a list of them, by the way. This guy gave dirty old men a bad name.”

“I don’t know, Art. I’m not sure I want to go chasing some high and mighty manservant to South America. Is there anything else on the prostitutes? He tangled with so many people it’s hard to narrow it down.”

“All I can say, Nate, the man had eclectic taste in women, all races and creeds. The list goes back years.”

“Eclectic? That’s a pretty big word for you Art. You look that one up?”

“I’ll have you know I won the spelling-bee in the seventh grade,” reported Art. “The final word, which won me the match was ‘pedagogue’. My opponent blew that one and I got it right. So there.”

“Do you know what it means?” asked Nathan curious with this new facet of his young co-worker he had not expected.

“Hell no,” exclaimed Art. “I only had to spell it, not know what it meant. Nobody knows.”

Nathan rocked back in his chair, the squeak reminding him of the need for oil.

“It means, a slave who escorts children to school,” replied Nathan. “I remembered that from sixth grade.”

“Big deal!”

The intellectual battle did not resolve the fact that a minor suspect had flown the coup. Shifting the focus of an investigation didn’t always pay off.

“Tell you what, Art. You follow the Mr. Charles Vincent lead. I’m going to stick with my Chinatown lead. Eventually we will see which of us has any luck.”

“Deal!” confirmed Art. “I’m on it.”

“By the way, do have that list of prostitutes he dealt with?” asked Nathan.

“Sure. I’m not going to waste any more time on these anyhow,” returned Art. “Not all of them are pros, either. Some thought he was for real, like they could be the permanent, Mrs. Schwartz, number four.”

Art had been correct about the eclectic nature of the women he preferred. The list of women was several pages long. Art had drawn a line through several of the names. Some had died and others no longer lived near by. Nathan looked at the unusual names, Russian, Greek, Many European, Japanese and Chinese. He scanned the list looking for the name Liu or Hsu. Nothing jumped out at him. None of those names were in the list. He tossed the list on his desk, slipping on his coat to leave.

On the way out he passed Art’s desk, cluttered from one end to the next.

“How can the man work like this?” commented Nathan flipping through the layer of papers. “Who could find anything in this pile?”

He stopped to look over the papers, which Art had been working on. Art had scribbled something on a scrap about illegitimate children and a few first names. Nathan shook his head in disgust. Schwartz lacked the scruples any decent man should have. How could anyone have children and not want to care for them? That was a question that will never be answered.

 

“Nate, someone called just now for you,” announced Gladys as he trudged up the stairs. “I told him to call you at work tomorrow. But he said it was important. I wrote it down somewhere on a piece of paper in your den. Is Chinese okay for dinner? I ordered it about fifteen minutes ago. Sweet and sour pork and that fried rice you like.”

“Chinese? Yeah, sure. Did the man give a name?” asked Nathan eagerly.

“I don’t remember. It’s all scribbled down on the note,” she answered.

Bypassing the living room, Nathan immediately went down to his den in search of the note. Gladys was not always on top of things when important calls came but she did at least take down the messages. He opened the door to the den, two excited kittens immediately attacking him, latching onto the cuff of his pants. Gently he removed them trying not to damage his suit in the process. With long strides he walked to his desk. The kittens scampered after him, a new moving target.

Much to his dismay several papers were on the floor, some chewed up by playful kittens. Others were scattered behind, under and to either side of the desk. Most of the papers were nothing important but the note might be. On hands and knees, he searched the bits and pieces on the floor for something resembling a note. He found a partially, intact cleaners receipt reminding him to pick up his other suit tomorrow. He picked through a few torn pieces trying to match them up.

The kittens took this as a chance to climb on his back, swatting at the bits of paper as he looked at each of them.

“Gladys!” he hollered. “Come down and show where you put the note. While you’re at it, get these animals off of me.”

The note was retrieved and the kittens tucked into a pet carrier for the few minutes while Nathan attended to business. Julius Rose left a number and an urgent message to call.

Clara Rose answered the phone unable to explain the message because she was completely unaware of Julius’ covert operation. She promised to have Julius call as soon as he got back from Chinatown.

“Chinatown?” said Nathan shocked. “What is he doing in Chinatown?”

“Oh it’s nothing, really,” replied Clara. “Augustus seems to be in some sort of trouble. Julius will get him out of it. He always does.”

Nathan thanked Clara then called the police desk to hear if there was any news regarding a disturbance in Chinatown. The black and white squad cars cruised through the area but seldom wandered on foot there. The Chinese had a way of handling their problems, eliminating the need for police intervention. The police rather preferred it that way too.

“Sergeant, do you have anything going down in the Chinatown area?” asked Nathan over the phone. “I may have an operative in that area in need of help.”

“Nothing special, Nate,” answered the sergeant. “There was one report of a gunshot earlier this evening. But that’s kind of a normal thing. We get that a lot. Probably just a firecracker. Every store has them, you know.”

“Did you send anyone to check it out?” pressed Nathan.

“My guys were in the area and never heard a thing,” reported the sergeant. “Like I said, it was probably a firecracker. We don’t have time to waste on chasing down a garbage-run like that. Bad enough they got to scoop up the drunks. Sorry, Nate. Can’t give you any more than that.”

The last thing Nathan wanted was to work overtime chasing down one or all of the Rose brothers. At this point it didn’t matter. They were either alive or dead. In both cases, Nathan won’t help matters by skulking around Chinatown.

Investigating violent crimes had a down side, when you cared about people. Nathan was taught to be objective and uninvolved, emotionally. Sometimes that was possible and sometimes it kept him awake at night. Murder was a serious business with a chance of further violence to others. Nathan made every attempt to remove the innocent from further harm. The Rose boys had a talent for making that hard to do. Until he got a call from Julius, he was going to feel uneasy.

Nathan waited by the phone for a few more moments and pulled out the 38 caliber revolver from its holster. He remembered when he bought the gun years before. As a young cop he had practiced with it until he was a dead shot. Criminals would not get the jump on him. Over the years he went less and less to the police range. The significance of this deadly weapon was beginning to sink in.

He had never shot anyone and hoped he would never have to. A few times as a beat cop he fired in the air to scare the criminal. That was usually enough to bring them to a halt. In that entire time he had never been shot at. Perhaps that was what allowed him to remain in the police department. Being shot at adds an element of danger, which can unnerve the bravest of men. Once that happens, it’s hard to do the work you’re supposed to.

Before becoming a policeman, Nathan had been in Germany during the war. As luck would have it, he missed D-day by a week. He had been assigned to Military Police training. The course was pushed hard in order to get fresh troops to France and Germany as soon as possible. Nathan was shipped over soon after completing his training. The majority of his duties involved guarding important places and keeping the wild soldiers from hurting each other. The job didn’t have the glory of the frontline troops. It also didn’t have the dangers closely related.

But the dangers of war weren’t reserved for the frontline exclusively. Small pockets of resistance were all over the place. A small town or country lane could possess a German sniper ready to take out as many Americans as he could. Even if the areas were cleared, danger rode high above. Nathan had his first experience with a German fighter plane that chose to dive out of the clouds spraying machinegun fire inches away. He hadn’t been hit but the memory of the incident was never forgotten.

The armory he guarded provided no shelter from the plane. A shallow ditch was the only thing close to cover. The attack was so sudden and frightening Nathan soiled his trousers. He might not have been the first or the last to do so. The worst part of this humiliating condition had yet to be done. Four more hours on guard duty remained. Leaving his post was not an option.

Novels

Under the Canopy (part4)

May 4, 2017

Sad Parting with Surprise

The sun was still hiding behind the trees on the day of my departure, small rays cutting through the morning mist as the jungle was waking. Ahan and Caihe had packed the things I would need including food for my trip downriver. Both acted very business like until I loaded my things to leave. Caihe was the first to come to me holding me tight, murmuring sad words.

“Baby, remember,” she managed in English pointing to her belly. “You live inside. Good.”

Her tears came quickly and she did nothing to abate them, emotions out in the open. The avalanche of tears was joined by Ahan, who came to me with our baby boy held tight between us. She did not say anything except for what might be construed as love. For a few seconds I felt as if I should challenge the decision to leave; the reality of the gods’ decision overruled that irrational thought. I needed to respect the ways of my people, my people?

In Boston I was nobody, a face among thousands of faces one might pass on the street. There was the handful of friends, my existence to them bound by nothing except a nod and handshake. I wasn’t even sure if Sylvia Masterson kept my things or thought of me anymore. By all logic she should have assumed me dead; that’s what all the others must believe. And thinking of Sylvia, how could I explain the life I had with two wives? That sort of immorality flew in the face of polite society, their judgments about things they did not understand. Returning will not bring the joy I thought it would.

Charlie was one of the volunteers assisting me on my trip downriver. He was not leaving but staying with his wife and caring for Caihe in my absence. Several men stood in the center of the clearing with spears in hand, raised in a final salute, a muttered word or two in unison; I did not understand them. Yanomi met me at the edge of the assembly to present a small pouch of herbs and medicines he taught me to use. His face was expressionless save the hint of regret in his eyes. He had made several cuts in his skin to show his grief and to remind him of me: My enemy, my friend.

The small stream where I had originally set foot was swollen with several additional inches of water allowing the dugouts to move easily downstream. My shorts were ragged, providing little coverage. I felt obligated to wear them since I was slowly returning to a world that did not understand the beauty of the naked human body. The tribe I lived with was as natural as the trees or the streams that laced through the jungle. How odd it seems to see their nakedness as a bad thing, now. This day I viewed my own clothes as a violation against nature, a slap in the face to the innocence of a simple people.

Two dugout canoes made up our small entourage, two men and Charlie, my companions back to near civilization. I vaguely remembered the trip upstream almost a year before, so intent on photographing the beauty. Going back I didn’t miss one thing, my eyes trained to see what might appear invisible to others. Turtles maneuvered in the deeper water. The white dolphins played near our boats bumping them in play. The monkeys and wild parrots zoomed in and out of the trees watching our progress through the waterways. I could name the trees and plants that decorated the shores, a different journey than before.

We camped a few times before reaching the drop off place, where I was to travel by myself. The men had speared fish and even found a turtle, which we feasted on over a small fire. On the final morning I was up before the others looking to where we had come and where I was going; a feeling inside of me pulling from one direction, my body transported to another. In the dim light I sat at the water’s edge contemplating my life so far, what I had learned and the many lessons facing me still.

I heard a noise to the left of me and turned my head to see who or what it might be. I expected one of the men to be standing there preparing to head home. Instead, in the shadows of the shoreline I saw a creature of enormous size lapping at the water careless of my presence. It turned its head toward me, studying my face as if it was going to say something, it’s gaze locked on me for several minutes, head moving out from beneath the branches. I had only seen glimpses of a jaguar before. This one was close enough to feel his hot breath against my skin.

I wasn’t afraid of him; rather I was curious what he wanted from me. I suppose I would make a decent meal for a jaguar this size but he had eaten already. I’m not even sure why I knew that, it was just so. He stepped closer to me sniffing the air with his mouth open. I saw myself as if I were looking through his eyes, a ragged man with a destiny beyond the Amazon. The jaguar’s large canine teeth looked quite imposing, though they were not going to do me any harm; I could see that as well as feel it. He pulled back breaking our trance and romped into the jungle, leaving me with my mouth open, not nearly as threatening as his.

I sat for many more minutes before Charlie walked up to me to ask if I was ready to go. I recounted my encounter with the jaguar; his eyes became large as he studied the paw prints in the soft mud, muttering something unintelligible. I watched him stagger in disbelief as he repeated the words. He beckoned the other men and pointed to the ground beside me. I asked him what it all meant.

The loose translation was probably not very accurate, the essence of it buried in words I could not fathom. What he did say, and I did understand that part, I was visited by a god; it was an important one acknowledging me as a notable being. Only a shaman could enter the spirit as one with the jaguar. A holy man such as that may live a lifetime before encountering a visitation from this noble beast and god. Charlie said it was my magic; my own interpretation was a little different. My jaguar represented the Amazon, the wildness of it all. It was saying goodbye and reminding me of the powerful domain of the gods, the people, the Amazon.

With reverence my caretakers sent me on a course downstream to where I would find the mission station, an extra spear in the event I wanted to hunt. Charlie warned me to stay close to the edge but not so close to tangle with the snakes in the tree branches and other troublesome creatures. Since the water was swift I had little to do but guide my canoe with the primitive paddle I was given. I would get to my destination before dark, a surprise to those at the mission, unaware I even existed.

My arrival was not only a surprise but a cause for celebration. Brother Emanuel had prayed I should come to no harm after it was discovered I had not returned with the others from the expedition. Michael McGhillis and Murray Feltsten had been killed during the expedition’s escape, close to a year ago, Reggie and Earl Tombs badly wounded but survived. Two more of the porters had been slain as they ran to the boats a sad loss to Brother Emanuel.

The account of the expedition was retold in detail by one of the Indians at the mission. He said the band could have killed all of them but wanted to chase them off as a warning. It made more sense to show your strength, letting others retell the story than kill everyone and provoke others to return. As primitive as the band seemed they had wisdom beyond what white men possessed, war was not a vocation they wish to perpetuate.

Home

Weeks passed before I was able to make my way out of the Amazon and to the coast, Brother Emanuel making every effort to make me comfortable. The steamboat flowed quickly downstream passing many places spoiled by man. I hadn’t noticed that initially when we traveled upstream the year before my eyes studying the wonders of a new and different place. My time spent with the Indians gave me a better perspective from which to view the violation of nature, beauty and the Amazon. It is no wonder the Indians worried about the intrusion from the outside world.

Boston seemed a million miles away; I had just enough money to board a ship heading up the Atlantic Coast. The days that followed were a blur of people, ocean and my thoughts. I laughed when we landed on the East Coast, the temperature well below freezing, nothing like the jungle heat of my past year. I’d lost weight and my clothes hung on me because of it; also because they weren’t my clothes; several of the seamen volunteered a few garments to replace my tattered ones. I wasn’t in a position to be too picky when the offer of clothing was presented. I shivered though someone gave me an extra heavy coat to wear, Boston colder than I remembered.

I had lived in Boston for a long time before going on the expedition but was seeing it for the first time, for what it was, buildings, streets, stores, cars all the things that require money. Without that you starve and lived in a cardboard box or worse. Civilization? The Indians were more civilized than that. Food and lodging was a matter of using what was handy, picking fruit off the trees and catching fish or animals to eat. Life wasn’t about what you had rather what you shared.

The money wired to me through the American Consulate was from the Boston World Adventurers Club barely enough to get me back with a few scant meals in the process. I didn’t have a lot of choice about where to spend the night when I set foot in the city. The YMCA would take me in for now but I wasn’t sure that was the best idea considering my former landlady’s generous and kind nature. She would be offended if I did not come by and tell her I’m safe. Maybe then I’ll find somewhere to roost for the night, laying in plans for a future residence. I couldn’t imagine she’d keep my room after all this time, let alone all my photographic equipment.

I wanted to see Sylvia, though I don’t know what I would say to her. My adventure was something I lived, not simply experienced; I lived a lifetime in less than one year, a hunter, builder and family man. I worried for my life, which was never in question in Boston. Telling her I had two wives could upset her sensibilities, a smudge on my character as a respectable man. It was best to say nothing of those times, opting instead for a light, simple exchange and then departing for the YMCA or where ever.

 

I knocked on the door unsure whether I should just step inside without an invitation. I waited several minutes before Mary came to the door her arms loaded with towels and bed sheets. She promptly dropped them clapping her hands to her mouth in fright, unable to say anything. She crossed herself several times before I could say a word.

“Hi Mary, is Mrs. Masterson in?”

Scooping up the fallen laundry she rushed off whimpering and mumbling something I couldn’t make out, God being one of the key words. It reminded me a little of the babble I experienced in the band. A flurry of excitement ensued; Sandy Nelson stormed up to me, grabbing my hand and shoulder tugging my body into the house.

“Why the hell are you standing out there my friend?” bellowed Sandy in his usual coarse manner. “The prodigal son shouldn’t have to knock, especially when he returns from the dead.”

“I was never dead, Sandy. I’m quite alive, though I wasn’t sure for awhile if that was going to happen.”

“Come on inside and take a load off of those feet. You can tell us all about it; I’m sure it was quite an adventure, wild Indians and such.”

I smiled weakly as I followed him into the parlor. I sat in the same chair I had many times before, remembering the comfortable familiarity of the room, the large painting of Alexander ‘The Great’ Masterson gone; it was replaced with a painting of a pastoral scene with trees and a gentle stream meandering through a lovely meadow, a small girl playing at the water’s edge. The imposing figure of Alexander was no longer looking down upon us prepared to smite us lest we get out of line.

I thought of what to say but could not come up with an easy account of my life, two wives controversial. Many things had to be edited because of what others might think. After several moments of thought, I decided to keep it very simple.

“I guess I just lived in the jungle like the Indians. They taught me a few things and treated me well. It was hard at times but they were patient with me. I’m afraid my hunting skills were pretty horrid.”

“Come now!” barked Sandy. “Did you shrink any heads or eat the hearts of any enemies?”

It was such a ridiculous question I could say nothing except, no. Sylvia Masterson stepped into the room just at that moment, saving me from further probing, inaccurate accusations I would have to dispute.

“Why Mr. Merrill what a wonderful surprise,” she said in perfect form and grace. “We had heard rumor.”

She hesitated, unsure what to say adding, “Are you here just this day?”

“Yes, Mrs. Masterson only a few hours ago, in fact.”

I do believe she would have cried had there been no others in the room. “I thought I should come by before finding a place to stay. I wouldn’t want you to think me rude.”

“A place to stay? You need look no further Mr. Merrill; your room is as you left it save a little cleaning here and there. You are very welcome to continue living here until you decide otherwise. The evening meal will be ready by the time you’ve settled in. I trust you will share our table as before.”

It felt odd to be called by my last name again. Even on the trip back the sailors called me James or Jimmy, the latter, not a name I generally use. Sylvia’s eyes danced as she spoke scanning the small group of men, folding her hands just at her waist trying to contain her excitement. The moisture in her eyes still remained, though controlled by her proper upbringing.

“Mary!” she said loudly. “Please attend to Mr. Merrill’s room immediately. Set an extra plate as well; he will be dining with us tonight.”

A bottle of sherry and several glasses were produced, Sylvia filling them all, passing them to each of her boarders. Her warm smile greeted me as they toasted my safe return. Several remarked on the trials I must have endured, voicing their concerns about my captivity by such a violent collection of primitives. I couldn’t confirm or deny this as I didn’t understand what they meant by violent. My experience with the Indians was anything but violent. But how could they know; how could they see these people and the life they led? You had to be there and even then it wasn’t easy to understand it all.

I knew some of these people in the parlor; but what did I really know about them? They lived behind closed doors when they were not in the parlor. In the Amazon we had no doors to hide behind, exposed to all who might pass our way. The boarders didn’t hunt or spend time together sharing their stories and food except for a prepared supper. They expected food to be brought to them regardless of their status in life. And what status would that be? Sylvia Masterson was the only person with status in the room, the chief of this band.

News in my absence was retold, bringing me up to date. They did share the looming of a war in Europe, Adolph Hitler emerging as the monster of Europe determined to rule all of it. I could feel the imbalance of a war, even as I sat in the safety. Maybe it was because I understood about balance and the gods. In the Amazon no one spoke of war, only ways to avoid wars. Was it primitive to wish for peace and avoid conflict?

Sylvia, bless her heart, could see I was becoming overwhelmed with the conversation; men being men, barked about America’s possible role in the European conflict.

“Isolationism is impossible today,” spouted Sandy pushing his sherry glass forward to make his point. “The Huns have risen once again. If we sit on our hands and wait, they’ll be at our doorstep within the year.”

“Gentlemen, you will have to excuse us,” interjected Sylvia. “I believe Mr. Merrill would like to be reacquainted with his room. I’m sure he is quite fatigued from his travels.”

My rescue from the boarders was greatly appreciated. I doubt I could have responded in a civil manner given my own opinions on war. Sylvia led the way down the hall to where my former room was, smelling clean and fresh, the linen just changed. The radiator groaned and hissed, Sylvia had fixed it during my absence. Tucked into a corner was all my photography equipment, neatly arranged and covered by a sheet to keep the dust off.

“I never gave up hope James,” she said watching me. “Those men came back saying you had to be dead, there was no other possibilities in their opinion. I couldn’t believe that; I didn’t want to. I prayed.”

“This is all so unbelievable,” I responded eager to show my gratitude. “This is more than a kindness, Mrs. Masterson, it truly is. Thank you.”

She put her fingers to my lips, wrinkling her brow. “Sylvia, please,” she requested. “And I shall call you James, unless…..” She trailed off.

We stood for a moment unable to speak. Tenderly she placed her hand on my arm. I couldn’t think of what to say; she was not at a loss in that respect.

“Do you know, I stood here in your room, often imagining you in it,” she spoke softly. “I touched the clothes in your closet feeling you in them, warm a smile on your face. The smell of you still clung to some of them, deliciously. It faded over time, much to my dismay. I sought you through my spirit guide, who said you had not passed to the other side yet. It is so hard to believe in something and still have doubt. While the spirit guides claimed one thing, the men of your expedition supported an unhappier end.”

I stood there speechless unable to tell her all that she should know, the truth of who I had become. I did feel something for Sylvia, something that was growing into what, I did not know.

“Sylvia, there are things I did that I have to tell you. I was not a prisoner of these people in the true sense of the word. They insisted I act like them as much as possible, which included affairs of the family.”

“Family?”

Carefully I recounted the story of my two wives unsure afraid what to expect as a reaction. I felt shame now; that was not something I felt when in the Amazon. I took the opportunity to tell her of my son and unborn child and my guilt and sadness at leaving them behind. I had to release Sylvia from any obligation she might have felt before this information, though I told her I did not love these women.

“I understand if my story alters your impression of me,” I continued. “I did not resist, as I should have, my moral conscience compromised by the situation at hand.”

One reflection was going to be hard to relate but I decided it was best to lay all the cards on the table.

“Frankly, these people did not strike me as immoral beings, their view on living quite simple and practical. Carnal exercises were viewed as pleasure and a way to perpetuate the population of the band. Whether it makes a difference or not, I did not feel love for either of my wives; I know that sounds terrible.”

Sylvia removed her hand from my arm. I expected her to turn away and leave with a disparaging comment or rebuke of some sort. She did not. Instead she opened the door to her room across the narrow hall turning back to me as the door swung open.

“James, you speak of practicality as if it were a bad thing. It is not very practical that I live in this large house with no company except my boarders. To the men living here, I am just a mother who attends to their comfort and care as would be expected. However, I am a woman with all that it involves being such. Sadly it involves nothing but the four walls of my room alone at night and a cold bed. I am not a wanton woman but I do have needs. If you are so inclined, I’d like to share my affections so that we may dispense with the loneliness we both must have in common.”

She reached across the hall taking my hand and moving me toward her room. I was taken aback by the passion I saw in her eyes, the overwhelming desire she felt. Unlike my wives of the Amazon I could see this woman wanted to love me; she needed me not because it was her duty. It was her choice. Love? That question could only be answered in time, my return to civilization needing more familiarization.


Club Visitation

A day or two later a caller came to the door seeking audience with me. Derek Clemens stood composed, erect, his neatly pressed suit almost too formal for a daytime visit; I shouldn’t be surprised since the wealthy tend to dress better. He smiled at me pleased to see I was alive and well. Removing ourselves to the parlor we sat unattended by any of the other boarders most of which were at their respective places of employment. Awkwardness existed between us, suggesting guilt on his part of the expeditionary plans gone afoul.

“James I am so glad to see you have suffered little,” he announced fiddling with a hankie tucked into one sleeve of his coat. “Of course that may not be entirely accurate since I was not there to witness the ordeals you must have endured. I read about the atrocities regarding the savages of the jungle, several men not returning from that ordeal.”

He removed the hankie dabbing it around his nose. “Blasted cold,” he remarked. “The weather brings it on every year without fail. With all the advances in medicine you’d think they would have found a remedy for this.”

He wrinkled his face as he wiped his nose adding, “But that is not the reason for my visit; it is two fold. I found the behavior of our expedition deplorable, inexcusable. Murray Feltsten, God rest his soul, should never have been allowed to participate in the expedition following his counterfeit pygmy; I had my reservation about the man years ago, when he bragged about his unsubstantiated claims as an adventurer. The point is, we put you in an impossible situation not acceptable to our organization or any other for that matter. The Boston World Adventure Club has decided to compensate you for your incarceration and commission you to write your account of the expedition following their hasty departure or should I say cowardly escape. You will be paid well for it and we can promise it will be published and made available to those of like interests.”

“I’m not sure what I can write about Mr. Clemens. The only complicated man in the group was the shaman and I’m not sure I understood much about him. The life of these people is quite simple by any standard.”

“Let us be the judge of that James. We will provide you with any professionals to assist you in the endeavor, editor and the such.” He paused for a moment mulling over another item of interest, reluctant to place it on the table for discussion. “By chance did you bring back the photographs of the expedition? They would be a generous contribution to the book.”

I grinned, saying nothing, the photographs a diary of sorts, an account of a year of my life in the jungle. How could I surrender the images I saw and lived with? My silence was enough to convince Clemens I did not have what he wanted.

“Hmm! Yes, I imagine getting away with your skin was enough,” he added without waiting for an answer. “Please come round to the club when you can. Several of the members are anxious to see you again. Reggie would enjoy an opportunity to jest at your expense, I imagine. He means well, you know, in spite of his brutal humor at times.”

Without ceremony Derek Clemens rose from his seat and out before I could bid him a polite farewell. His car and driver were waiting in front of the house the driver opening the door as Derek descended the porch. I scanned the compensation check, which Derek had handed to me before leaving, a significant amount, though no one can put a price on the anxiety of being left behind with one’s mortality dangling at the whim of a leader and shaman. I’ll never know if the shaman really did communicate with the gods or decided his magic position in the band was secure.

Thinking about it, in another way I felt guilty taking the money because I was not mistreated during my stay with these Indians. Playfully mocked for my inability as a hunter, yes, yet no one abused my person, my captors more amused than threatened. My guilt also extended to my denying possession of the photographs. Perhaps it was an omission rather than a lie, though it would be hard to confess it as a lie. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know what to say, Derek taking my silence as a denial.

 

It took me awhile to sort out why I had not said anything about the photographs. By rights they belonged to the club that paid for them. Days later I processed the remaining undeveloped film, the likeness of Malapa, Yanomi, Nomami, Ahan, Caihe, my infant son and collection of others jumping out from the print paper. These were not just pictures of Indians and the jungle, me an objective observer. These faces and places were not unknown to me each stirring a memory not so removed from today.

I knew the names of those people and lived in the jungle among the animals I photographed. They weren’t items of scientific interest or anthropological study but my life for a year, a private record, an existence good and bad for whatever that was worth. How could I turn over a part of myself?

I studied the photographs of Yanomi, the shaman; I saw the changes in his face from our rough beginning to a later time when we had become friends, perhaps contemporaries in magic. His first picture was grim and foreboding; the later photos displayed a man, who cared about his people and the gods they believed in. By the end I was included in that mix or so it would seem. To the casual observer he did not look like the imposing figure he represented; short, skinny and old, Yanomi was second only to the leader and first when it came to matters of the spirits. In all instances his word carried the power of the gods; no one would challenge that. Whether it was the gods or the shaman who made the decision to send me home, I was glad to be back.

There were photos of Ahan naked as the day she was born, her belly large with my child, smiling, satisfied she was the wife of an important man. Even though there was no real love, I felt pride in my young wife and the child I would never know. I regret I ran out of film before I could capture Caihe’s blossoming belly. It was odd that I even cared whether my second child would be a boy or girl. Yanomi’s prophetic declarations had not extended to Caihe’s unborn child, the gods noncommittal according to the shaman. I suspected it was going to be a girl since his silence implied that. Their culture saw boys as valuable because it added another hunter/warrior to the band, girls taking their place as child bearers, Yanomi not wishing to disappoint me with the sad news of a girl. I felt that Caihe knew the truth and was afraid I would be angry with her. Whatever the sex of the child I hoped it looked like its mother with her round face and beautiful brown skin, preferable to the pale freckled body of mine.

I studied my feeling for these women, each possessing a spark unique to their people; life to them appeared to be an adventure everyday. I never felt like they needed me; rather I needed them. Perhaps love is overrated in our society; people do marry without love and managed to remain together for a lifetime. Some fall in love without plan for future, making the best of what they have together. Love does not have reason or logic, only an abstract feeling we have no control over. Yet to me love is something more than producing children or planned routine we need to follow. It is the confusing emotion illogical and joyful, the missing element from my jungle family.

It might appear that I am sad and lament about leaving the jungle; nothing can be further from the truth. I didn’t belong there; Yanomi saw that through the eyes of his gods. My place is here with Sylvia, a woman who loves me for who I am, not out of duty. We don’t need words to show it, our eyes consume each other, our hearts belonging to one another. That was the difference I felt, Sylvia stirred a love I did not know I possessed.

She and I never speak of the Amazon now that I am returned to civilization. Sometimes I take out the large cardboard box with my photographs of the jungle; I do this alone and reminisce about the images on the photo paper. In my head I hear their gibberish and watch as they make faces to one another joking about my spear throwing. I laugh along with them now, another time, another life.

 

Novels

Augustus’ Smarter Brother (part 4)

April 27, 2017

 

Digging Deeper

 

Jules maneuvered his car towards Chinatown hoping to find a parking space where it was not hidden in the shadows. There wasn’t anything to steal in the car but that did not prevent the curious from breaking in. The 1952 Plymouth did not like the hills. It was only a six-cylinder engine designed for economy, not power. The paint had faded and worn in places, displaying a hint of rust beneath. He didn’t see any reason to replace it since it got him to where he needed to go. A little wash and dash of wax made the old buggy look fine.

“We should have brought my car,” complained Augustus. “We hardly look like lucrative detectives driving through town.”

“Stop you’re whining, Augie. I’ll avoid the really steep hills. I can make it up California Street with her. She’s not that bad. And besides, we don’t want to look like detectives. It’s like waving a red flag at a bull, dummy. We need to be inconspicuous.”

“Oh right,” responded Augustus. “Now that you mention it, I read that somewhere.”

Two blocks from the apothecary they found a place to park. Julius had not formulated a specific plan at this point but decided to ask about the Chinese woman in a round about fashion. Perhaps the woman will be dropping by while they are there. A few veiled, tactful questions might yield names.

Chinatown looked so different in the daytime. The dark, secretive allies of the night before held signs in Chinese, often in red. The buildings also had many splashes of red decorating shutters and trim. At night the red turned black without lighting. An odd fact considering, fire engines in the city were all red. Then again, police cars were black and white. But they also had bright flashing lights to warn people.

In the daylight they had almost missed the apothecary. It was an unpainted building with a sign in Chinese. One could assume it was the calling of those inside the building. Julius noted the apartments above the establishment, four stories. Side doorways and stairs gave access to those residences. He had not noticed them before. Streaks of rust ran down the sides of adjacent buildings with fire escapes. The unkempt buildings were the slums waiting to burn down or be condemned. The city didn’t care about this part of town so the former was the only urban renewal in Chinatown.

From the outside Julius could not detect any movement within. The whitewashed windows made it appear vacant. Julius tried the door handle; it twisted open revealing the same bins and displays they had seen before. No one was at the counter but a noise from the back suggested someone was about to meet them The apothecary appeared looking blandly at the two men, his recent memory placing them there the night before.

“Good day, gentlemen,” said the apothecary his words heavily accented. “How is father?”

“Our father is dead,” blurted out Augustus. Julius kicked his foot sideways to keep his brother quiet.

“My brother means our father is dying,” corrected Julius. “I fear our grief, at his suffering, has made us feel as if he were dead already.”

“Oh, yeah,” amended Augustus. “Grief. That’s what I meant.”

“Ah, yes,” replied the apothecary a bit more wary. “I know of such grief. My own father has left this earth a short time ago. He was very old.”

“I was hoping we might come to some agreement about, … ahem!.. remedy we spoke of. I know you do not sell to Caucasians. But perhaps someone else can purchase it for us.”

“Perhaps,” responded the apothecary noncommittally. “Many come with problems. I do not ask questions. They use herbs the way I tell them. That is all.”

A sleepy Chinese woman came through the door. She was dressed comfortably in a silk robe and strikingly beautiful. Augustus couldn’t help staring at her. She rubbed her eyes and smiled back at him. The smile was insincere but inviting.

She babbled something in Chinese to the apothecary, who brought out a small package for her. She paid him exchanging a few more animated words. On her way out the woman swung her hips more suggestively than when she entered, an obvious attempt to impress the men.

“Lady just hear of your sadness,” reported the apothecary pointing at the departing woman. “She say she expert in making man happy again. Live upstairs. Very good.”

“What does she have to make us happy?” asked Augustus staring at the place where she exited.

“Lady have talent in physical pleasures,” answered the apothecary. “Very reasonable and very good.”

“Uh, that’s not exactly what we had in mind,” responded Julius. “Though I appreciate the gesture.”

“Yes, grief not always satisfied with woman,” replied the apothecary.

“Oh, I don’t know,” ventured Augustus. “I wouldn’t mind…”

Julius kicked his brother again.

“There was a woman who you said used the remedy,” said Julius. “Not to be disrespectful to you or to her, I would still like to talk to her about the results. Perhaps she can direct me in how it works.”

“I cannot say whether this woman would wish to speak with you,” returned the apothecary, his face maintaining calm. “She come in this time of day. Miss Liu uses my herbs and remedies to help others in Chinatown, those, who cannot afford a hospital doctor. She is better than a white doctor. Very skilled woman in medicine.”

“I see,” commented Julius. “Fascinating. I never knew anything like that existed.”

“Many things happen which outsiders know nothing of,” added the apothecary.

“Since we have to wait,” Augustus suggested pointing to the floor above.

“We would not like to miss the healing woman, Augie,” said Julius glaring at his brother. “We’ll wait outside.”

“By the way,” added Julius. “What does Miss Liu look like?”

The apothecary shrugged saying, “She Chinese. Not so young like lady upstairs.”

It wasn’t much of a description but then Julius wasn’t an expert at distinguishing specific characteristics of Asian women. Augustus looked toward the ceiling as they went out the door. Julius didn’t want to know why. Julius felt the woman might not come in if two Caucasian men are there. The locals were wary of non-Chinese in their community. It was best to give the woman room and hope Miss Liu would feel comfortable enough to disclose details of her practice.

“Augie, we will wait for awhile,” announced Julius. “If Miss Liu doesn’t show up in the next twenty minutes, we’ll go back to work and try again later. There’s still a lot to do in the office before closing. This little charade is not a priority.”

“Do you think we could grab something to eat?” ventured Augustus. “I’m starved.”

“There are some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the car,” answered Julius. “If you’re that hungry go back and get them. I’ll stick around here.”

“Peanut butter and jelly?” complained Augustus. “What an imagination! Couldn’t you at least make something good?”

“My wife is still out of town and I used up all the cold cuts in the fridge,” reported Julius. “I wouldn’t complain if I were you. You could have made your own lunch. I told you where we were going last night.”

Augustus stomped off like a spoiled child to get the peanut butter sandwiches. Meanwhile Julius stood at the corner a few buildings away from the apothecary. From his vantage point he could see everyone who came and went from that building. He could only take a guess which woman would be the one he sought.

Five minutes later a woman from the apartments above came down to the apothecary. She was dressed very much like the young woman who came in before. He could barely make out her face but believed she was young like the other woman. False alarm, he thought. The woman glanced at him when she left, holding something to her chest. He heard her giggle as she opened the door to the inside stairwell.

That old man must be telling everyone about us, he thought. I wonder what’s taking Augie so long with those sandwiches. He should have been back by now. I hope he hasn’t done anything stupid.

A few more minutes passed before Augustus showed up. He was eating noodles out of a cardboard bowl with chopsticks. It was comical watching him scoop up a large amount of noodles only to have most fall back into the bowl before getting them into his mouth. Julius was sure the locals found it equally funny. Augustus’ suit had several spots where the noodles had flailed, spattering drops of cooking oil.

“So, where’s the peanut butter sandwiches?” asked Julius.

“Oh, yeah, I decided to buy this at a little hole in the wall I found,” answered Augustus. “It smelled good when I was walking by. Guy didn’t speak any English, either. Had to point a lot to get him to sell me some of this.”

“And where are the sandwiches, Augie?”

“I never made it to the car, Jules. It took awhile to get my food, so I came back as soon as I did. Didn’t want you to worry about me. Boy, I don’t know what kind of meat this is but it’s pretty good.”

“Maybe it’s better you don’t know what it is,” mumbled Julius aware of the unique diet of the culture.

Julius stared at the apothecary’s place, his stomach growling. A peanut butter sandwich would have been nice about now. His brother’s omission was not one of meanness; Augustus never looked beyond his own needs. The slightest distraction would send him off on a rabbit trail. Julius accepted this about his brother and held no ill toward him. Yet it was frustrating at times.

Julius looked at his watch. No one entered the apothecary. It didn’t look very hopeful. It will take three minutes to walk back to the car, another ten to twelve minutes to get back to the office. If they left now they would only be fifteen minutes late from lunch. But why should he worry? He was the boss. He sort of made his own hours anyhow. Julius decided to wait a few more minutes.

People on the streets passed the men by, some looking and some completely oblivious to their presence. Augustus had finished his noodles and wandered about trying to dispose of the cardboard bowl. He found a trashcan in an alley across the street, depositing his garbage on the top of the lid. The can was overflowing and would have spilled its contents had the lid been removed.

A Chinese woman walked by Julius giving him a quick glance as she turned the corner towards the apothecary. Her face did not betray her age. It was full, pleasant and common. Julius could see it in her eye, the suspicion she felt. She did not stop, continuing up the street until she reached the apothecary. The woman looked over her shoulder at Julius, deciding to enter the building in spite of her suspicions. Was this the woman?

The lady of questionable virtue came down from the upper apartments and walked towards the corner where Julius was. She smiled looking him over with renewed interest. Augustus was still in the alley attempting to scrape something off the bottom of his shoe.

“Father die, you not happy,” she said putting on her best come-hither look. “I make you very happy. You like?”

“Sorry miss, I’m afraid that’s not what I need at the moment.”

“Then you go away,” she snapped. “My corner here. You find other corner.”

At that moment Augustus returned looking back at his foot as if it were trailing a piece of toilet paper.

“God, that alley was disgusting,” he grumbled. “The smell was enough to knock you over. I stepped in something too. I don’t think it was anything nasty; I’ll have to check later.”

He looked up to see the lady on the corner. He smiled flashing his eyes at the lovely working girl. She pursed her lips in a suggestive kiss, sliding a leg through the slit in her dress. Though covered by a thick coat, he could see she possessed all the elements an attractive woman should have. His thoughts were derailed when Julius yanked on his arm.

“We need to walk back to the apothecary, Augie,” declared Julius. “I think our woman, Miss Liu has arrived.”

Augustus followed reluctantly looking back at the young woman on the corner. At the door Julius stopped short, Augustus almost running into him..

“We can’t go barging in like a herd of buffalo,” he muttered. “You wait here while I go in.” Sensing an argument he added, “I’ll let you know what happens, Augie. I just don’t want to woman scared off. This won’t take long.”

 

Naughty or Nice

Nathan Knox continued his elimination process by calling other suspects on the list. One name on Bernie’s list was a woman called Krystal Epstein. He checked to see if the woman had a record. That was pretty standard for all suspects. To his surprise she had a long list of negative encounters with the police in several of the Bay Area cities and counties. The violations listed from confidence scams, theft, breaking and entering to soliciting sex. Miss Epstein was preparing for a long life of bending the laws and a long residence in jail. The more recent activity was damage of private property.

Nathan pulled the file to read the specifics. The report was filed with the San Francisco Police Department, a Bernard Schwartz claiming Miss Epstein of 7510 Ulloa willfully threw a large block of concrete through the complainant’s car window, damaging the windscreen and tearing the leather seats. The suspect then deposited a foul smelling substance inside the car.

The police dropped the charge due to insufficient evidence. Neither the concrete block nor the foul substance could be traced to Miss Epstein. It was only supported by the word of Mr. Schwartz without witnessing the action. Relationship between the two was ascertained as casual partners or ex-girlfriend.

Nathan sighed picking up the phone to arrange a meeting with Miss Epstein. The gut was telling him not to bother. His feet ached because he had forgotten to change the arch supports in his shoes. Flat feet and fallen arches had taken its toll when he was a beat officer. As an investigator he still managed to be on his feet more than he wished. Miss Epstein was the next best lead he had. Obviously this woman had it in for Bernie and likewise.

“Hello,” began Nathan standing at the doorstep. “Are you Krystal Epstein?”

“Who wants to know?” she answered. “I could be; then again, I might not be. Depends.”

“My name is Inspector Knox of the San Francisco Police Department,” he continued. “I’m investigating a criminal matter regarding Bernard Schwartz. I understand you had an association with Mr. Schwartz, recently.”

“Yeah, and they can’t prove anything,” she shouted back. “The charges were dropped. I hope you’re not digging this up because Bernie paid you off. That would really piss me off. I have my rights, you know.”

“No, Miss Epstein,” corrected Nathan. “It has nothing to do with the car incident. Mr. Schwartz is dead, perhaps murdered. Haven’t you read it in the papers?”

“Dead?” she responded surprised. “Why you calling me then? You think I would kill Bernie? Ha! The man had serious enemies, more than me. I only want to hit him where it hurts, pal. Get my meaning?”

“I see,” replied Nathan. “You were pretty angry with him, then?”

“Bernie screwed me good,” she continued. “Bastard even took money from me, one thousand dollars. Claimed he was investing it for me. I found out he was investing it in some brunette bimbo. I didn’t care about the other girl. He wasn’t exactly my exclusive client, if you know what I mean. But we made a deal. I would be his regular for six months and then he’d set me up with a good investment instead of paying me outright.”

“So you weren’t angry with him because he was cheating on you?” asked Nathan. “You provided a professional personal service, implied of course. Then he didn’t honor the financial arrangement.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she answered mockingly. “That was part of the gyp. He didn’t want to pay up front. Gave me some story about doubling my money in a few months. I looked at his house and car and figured the guy might be right. Guys with money do that kind of thing. He lied to me, of course.”

“You didn’t wish to pursue the matter legally?” asked Nathan.

Krystal rolled her eyes. “It’s not exactly something I can bring up in court, Mr. Knox. Think about it.”

“Yes, I see,” he returned. “So then you did nothing?”

Her mouth twisted into a stupid expression. Once again she rolled her eyes.

“This is off the record?” she inquired afraid her statement can be used against her. “Not that I had anything to do with it, but there was the car thing. You could say that was a little payback.”

“Did you spend a lot of time in Mr. Schwartz’s house?” asked Nathan.

“No, he preferred using another location for our business arrangement.”

“I thought you said something about him having a nice house,” suggested Nathan.

“Yeah, I only saw it once when he needed to stop to get his rotten cigars. I saw enough to know the man was rollin’ in dough.”

“Miss Epstein, do you have any drugs or poisons in your home?”

“No drugs,” she answered slightly irritated. “You trying to set me up? Got ant poison. That’s all. Why? Did Bernie get knocked off with ant poison? Now that would be something. A guy like him, it should have been ‘rat’ poison.”

“I’m afraid I can discuss that with you, Miss Epstein. I think that’s all I have for now. I may need to talk to you sometime in the future. I would prefer you stay in town for the next couple of weeks.”

“Hey, I have work outside of the city, pal,” she grumbled. “I can’t always be around when you feel like it. I have a regular, er, client in Sausalito on Fridays. I’d give you his number but I doubt his wife would be too happy taking my messages there. I’ll be around, don’t get you shorts in an uproar.”

Nathan left the residence of Krystal Epstein, his gut feeling telling him she was just another dead end. However, the issue of money gave her a perfect motive for the crime. Though rough around the edges, she appeared to be the type to do petty things in retribution. The damaged car was more her speed, not murder.

There was also the question of access to Bernie’s home. Krystal didn’t have a key to the house, or so she implied. She could be lying about that but he doubted that. Nathan will have to chalk her up as a viable suspect despite his gut feeling. The list of potentials grew by the minute. Bernie’s habits opened another direction of questioning. If he did frequent street women, there was the possibility of someone else, or another pro having a vendetta against Bernie.

 

Undercover

Miss Liu swiveled around when Julius entered the shop. A whispered exchange followed between the apothecary and Liu. She kept her eyes to the floor, avoiding Julius’ gaze. She was a woman in her early forties, plain and common as far as Julius could tell. She had a face that could disappear in a crowd of her fellow Chinese. The apothecary beckoned Julius with a wave of the hand.

“This Miss Liu,” he announced softly. “I tell her about your father. She very sad for you.”

“Does Miss Liu speak English?” asked Julius.

“Yes, she speak but not very good,” returned the apothecary. “In this country only two year from China. Learn some English from British. Not enough.”

“Perhaps you can help if she doesn’t understand me,” suggested Julius. “I wouldn’t want to offend her.”

“Yes, I understand,” answered the apothecary. “Good idea.”

“Could Miss Liu tell me how well the remedy worked on her client?” questioned Julius. “Was it fast and painless? You can understand why I ask such a thing.”

There was a brief exchange of words in Chinese followed by some head shaking and hand gestures.

“She say, she not use,” replied the apothecary. “Sell to other Chinese woman, who have sick relative. She say, remedy work very well. Use many time before with others. Other woman ask same thing. Other woman, never use before. Not know how quick.”

“Did she know the other woman?” inquired Julius.

Another flurry of singsong foreign words moved between the woman and the apothecary. Miss Liu was becoming uncomfortable with the questioning.

“She say, woman older. Friend of woman tell about Miss Liu,” answered the apothecary. “Many times better not to know. Remedy very strong and make trouble with police in this country. She never know what Chinese woman use for. Never ask.”

Julius could see the doors were closing on this conversation. To pry any more would kill any possibilities of finding the right person. He decided to end the inquiry.

“Thank Miss Liu for her help,” said Julius. “I don’t suppose she would help me in my situation. I could pay well for her services.”

The apothecary translated for Miss Liu with her shaking her head at the end.

“Miss Liu say she can only do for Chinese,” returned the owner of the shop. “But she wish father pass quickly. She very sad for you.”

Julius was about to leave, stopping short of the front door. He reached inside his pocket and extracted a business card. He handed it to Miss Liu with a nod and left the shop without another word. He wasn’t sure why he had done that, an impulse or something. The woman didn’t speak very good English and wouldn’t be able to call him in the first place. On the other hand, it might show his on-going need for information about the remedy/poison. Maybe then, she might decide to accommodate him.

Augustus lingered at the corner, watching people pass by. Tourists paid no attention to him and the Chinese eyed him with suspicion. A few working girls waltzed in front of him to see if he was interested in their services. Men often cruised this part of town, looking for sexual diversions. Lunchtime and evenings were the prime times for such activities, the girls taking full advantage.

“So, what you find out Jules?”

“Not too much, I’m afraid,” answered Julius. “The woman, Miss Liu sold the poison to another woman. She didn’t know her so I couldn’t dig any deeper. Besides I could see she was getting nervous. I don’t know if any of this will help Mr. Knox.”

“Who cares about him?” replied Augustus. “We’re the ones who will bust this case wide open. The cop will only blow it.”

“Augie, I have to remind you, they are the professionals, not us. I’m only doing this because you had to stick your nose in it and involve me.”

“Why don’t we tail this Liu woman when she comes out?’ suggested Augustus excited. “My crime detection books say accomplices always return to the killer. She’ll lead us right to her.”

“No!” exclaimed Julius. “We’re going back to work and finish up the day. We’ve already taken an extra forty minutes in our lunch break. Remember we set an example for our employees. I’ll tell Mr. Knox what I’ve learned. He can take care of the rest.”

“But Jules!” complained Augustus. “We got the woman in our sights. How can you pass this up?”

“No, and that’s it,” barked Julius. “No arguments. I’d be willing to bet Miss Liu won’t be leaving by the front door. She looked pretty tense.”

“How can you be so sure there is a back door?” grumbled Augustus.

“It’s simple, dear brother,” answered Julius. “When we were in the shop, I could see a staircase and light behind the curtain. Most of these places have back allies for garbage cans and such. Where do you think all these allies lead to? There’s got to be a back door. Let’s go.”

 

Kitchens and Kittens

Nathan followed a couple more leads with as much success as before. Suspects were pilling up like cordwood. He had enough motives to bury Bernie twenty times over. What he didn’t have was any concrete evidence against anyone. The day had worn down to a fruitless outcome. He will go home kick off his shoes and hope dinner was ready. His wife will continue to yap about remodeling the kitchen and that was fine for the time being.

The driveway to his house had a huge dumpster parked in it. A trail of debris lead down the front steps, a man sporting a cowboy hat followed the same path to the dumpster carrying more debris.

“Who the hell are you?” demanded Nathan.

“Freddie Oldhouse of A-1 remodeling,” answered the man. “Who the hell are you?”

“I live here,” replied Nathan incensed with the attitude of the stranger. “What are you doing here?”

“The misses said she wanted to remodel the kitchen,” reported Freddie. “You’re lucky I was free this week. Just got finished with a big job downtown. Took two months to wrap up. Was there so long I thought they were going to start charging me rent.” He laughed at his own joke. “Your kitchen shouldn’t take more than a month to square away. It depends on whether the wall we take out is a bearing wall. Gotta check that before we do much more.”

“Remove a wall?” replied Nathan in shock. “I never heard anything about removing a wall.”

“Hey, I only work here, pal,” Freddie returned. “I do what I’m told.”

Nathan rushed up the stairs to find his kitchen stripped of cabinets and plaster. Bare studs with electric wires and plumbing were all exposed. Gladys sat calmly in the living room reading Sunset magazine dog-earing several pages.

“Gladys, I thought we were still talking about remodeling,” grumbled Nathan. “You never said we were going to start this week. What about the stove you wanted to look at? Don’t you think we should figure out the size and all?”

“Don’t be silly, Nate. Freddie told me he can get it at contractor’s cost for us. He also said something about a deposit for the work. Do give him a check before he leaves. I wouldn’t want him to stop working.”

Nathan looked around surveying the chaos in the kitchen, which also extended into the dining area. The refrigerator buzzed and hummed right next to the china cabinet. Pots and pans were stacked against another wall. The contents of the kitchen cupboards lay scattered across the dining room table. Nathan could not say what he was thinking. He will retreat to his study and consider how to deal with his crazy wife. At least there he can get away from the mess. He had some serious work to do on the Schwartz case before dinner anyhow. His two amateurs had turned up a few new leads to follow. Nathan will have to decide what to do with the information.

Both of his daughters lived away from home. Nina, the oldest was married, living in Colorado; Zoe was attending UC Davis, seeking a degree in veterinary medicine. The girls used to share the added room in the garage area. It was spacious and adequate for the girls’ purposes. When they moved out Nathan had nabbed the room for his study. Zoe would use the second bedroom upstairs when she came. He liked the room because it was away from the rest of the house. Gladys referred to the study as ‘the dungeon’.

Nathan could still hear booming and banging as he descending the garage steps. Freddie was making his last adjustments before calling it a day. The upstairs was littered with bits and pieces of plaster and wood chips.

“Sanctuary!” he thought to himself opening the downstairs study.

It smelled funny to him. There had always been a musty smell to the place because of the dampness of San Francisco. But this was a different smell. A terrible thought occurred to him. The sewer might be blocked and leaking somewhere. That meant getting a plumber and more money.

Flipping the light switch on, the reason for the smell became clear to him. In the far left-hand corner near his desk was a box filled with sand of some sort. And around his feet sat two tiny kittens mewing, anticipating some reward. The larger of the two sported a deep orange coat with stripes, while the other was a soft gray color. Nathan was not an expert on cats, but little fellows had to be quite young, given their size.

The little gray kitten stretched his paws upward toward Nathan’s leg. Digging in with his claws he began to scale Nathan’s suit pants.

“Ow!” yelled Nathan detaching the small fuzzy creature.

“Gladys!” he shouted from the door. He repeated that until he heard her footfall on the stairs.

“What, honey?” she called back.

“Uh, what are these things in my study?” he asked.

“Kittens, silly,” she returned. “You’ve seen kittens before.”

“Yes, I have,” he answered exasperated. “But what are they doing in here?”

“All the noise upstairs frightened them,” she began. “So that was a better place for them. Besides, I didn’t want anyone to step on the little fellows. Aren’t they the cutest things?”

Communications between husband and wife often lack clarity. Men tended to become linear in their discussions, while women covered a much broader area of interest. Nathan had such a relationship with Gladys. Though he loved her, he didn’t always understand what she was trying to tell him. He would have to resort to specific questioning to get to the bottom of this new situation.

“Okay, I know what they are and sort of why they are in my study,” he replied. “Where, exactly, did they come from?” He was sure to emphasize ‘exactly’ to be sure his message could not be misinterpreted and end in some rabbit hole she may choose to go.

“Zoe brought them from Davis,” answered Gladys. “She rescued them from the pound and decided to keep them. They wouldn’t allow her to keep them in the dorm so she brought them home. I think they’re very cute. Zoe said she will take them back once she and Billie find a place to rent. So many silly rules in the dorm.”

“Billie? Who’s Billie?” probed Nathan unaware of this new information.

“Oh, I’m sure I told you about him,” Gladys continued. “He’s a nice boy who is in his last year at Davis. They spend a lot of time together when they aren’t studying. Zoe really likes him.”

“Studying. Yes, I see,” followed Nathan. “Roommates.”

Nathan was about to throw his objections into the mix about his daughter sharing a place with, to his mind, a relative stranger. But his attention shifted back to the ankle-biting kittens. While Gladys and Nathan discussed the matter at hand, the tiny orange kitten had begun to chew on Nathan’s shoelaces. One of the plastic tips had already been destroyed.

“Gladys, I’m not crazy about kittens in my study,” he said firmly. “I have important papers in here. I can’t have a bunch of kittens running about. How am I going to focus on my work with them chewing on my shoes and climbing on my leg?”

“It’s only for a little while, Nate. Don’t be such a grouch.”

Nathan knew this was not an argument he was going to win. Gladys and the girls had always gotten what they wanted as long as he could remember. His job was a facilitator. Nina had wanted horseback riding lessons. Zoe wanted tap dancing lessons. The list went on and on, Nathan bending to their demands. For now it was the kitchen and the kittens.

 

Calm Before the Storm

Julius called Nathan Knox with the information he had managed to dig up. It wasn’t much to go on but it was better than the information Nathan had to date. The necessity for the brothers to be involved beyond this point was beyond their call of duty, which suited Nathan fine. Julius was glad to return to his work, though his brother sulked since returning from Chinatown.

The timing was good considering Julius’ wife Clara had just returned from her visitations with family and old friends. Julius would be back on his diet without the beer he loved. Even without the beer he enjoyed the stability of his normal life. And business was good. Bernie’s passing left a significant gap in the stationary business. Bernie’s silent partner, Alan Cooke was truly silent. And the remainder of the workers at Schwartz and Cooke had no one to run the show. Bernie had played his cards close to his chest, letting no one in on his dealings.

The morning started off with a lukewarm Dr. Pepper. The soda machine had been accidentally unplugged in the early morning by the contractor fixing the overhead skylight. Julius didn’t care. He busied himself with the new orders piling up on his desk, Bernie’s people bailing. Later he will slip down to the coffee shop for a Danish pastry, a no-no his wife would be displeased with. His diet left him hungry most of the time. Clara will never know.

Augustus continued to sulk producing nothing in the way of real work. Even so, Julius didn’t care. Diane and the other girls will pick up the slack as they always did. An odd feeling struck Julius at mid-day. Looking over the new orders he became aware of the significance of them. A man had died. This was the legacy of a terrible murder. Taking joy in such luck was wrong; the thought had tempered Julius’ mood.

“Augie,” said Julius at the end of the day. “Why don’t you come over for dinner tonight? Clara said she was making a nice lamb stew with string beans. I know she makes enough for a small army so there will be plenty.”

“Naw, I think I’m gonna go home,” returned Augustus with his elbow on the desk his hand supporting his chin. “I’m not feeling very social. Thanks, though.”

“You’re not going to poke your nose into the murder case again?” inquired Julius a hint of concern in his voice. “Mr. Knox warned us about fooling around with his case.”

“Naw, I’m thinking of starting a new business,” he returned, moodily. “Thought I’d become a writer or something. I saw an ad in Sunset about becoming a writer. Have to send $9.95 for the information about it. Writers make lots of money. How hard could it be to crank out a couple hundred pages for a book? Maybe I could write a murder mystery.”

“That sounds safe,” admitted Julius. “The offer of dinner is open if you change your mind.”

Augustus pushed himself up from his chair, grabbing his coat of the coat rack. He sighed deeply slipping the coat on with effort. Julius watched him trudge to the door and leave without saying another word. He felt sorry for his brother. Augustus meant well but never seemed to settle on anything that was just right for him. Of course, what was right for Augustus was limited to his attention span.

Julius worked for another forty-five minutes before wrapping up all the new orders. He called his wife letting her know he would be a little late. Diane and the other girls had left long before. Alone in the office, Julius was made aware of the sounds not heard during the day. The old building creaked and vibrated with the change of temperature and the passing of large trucks. Ninth Street was the main drag off the freeway, tons of traffic passing every minute. The wheels of commerce never stopped even though people died every day. The thought made him feel insignificant.

Julius looked at the clock on the wall. He heard the hand click to the next minute, 6 pm. There were a few small orders left. None of them needed to be written out until the next morning. He should leave before Clara starts to worry. Lamb stew does not keep well. Clara did not like being kept waiting, either. It was understandable. In marriage you make promises to be considerate of each other. Despite the diet, Clara was a pretty good wife.

The steps to the ground floor moaned as Julius descended. They were a bit imposing since the builder of this ancient structure had designed shallow, steep steps. That was just the way of things in the downtown area. The building was probably built long before there were building codes. His father had made several repairs and changes years before. Old buildings needed constant care.

He reached the bottom of the stairs and prepared to set the alarm. Thirty seconds later he was outside locking the door. A stiff wind blew down Ninth Street carrying grit and discarded bits of paper. He shielded his eyes from the gust seeing one person a few yards away. At first he couldn’t make out who it was. The drunks often slept against buildings and doorways. His building did not have a good place for these people to spend the night, so it was odd to see someone.

His eyes focused on the person, a female, noting the slight build and the scarf wrapped over her head. She had her back to him and did not seem like the usual bums found around Ninth. He figured she must live in one of the cheap apartments around the area. Rent was cheap in these places over warehouses and businesses; perfect for transient tenants, who might stay a month or more. The old and destitute lived in these places. Another gust of wind made him turn away. When he turned back the woman faced him.

He couldn’t tell for sure who it was. She looked Asian, though it was difficult to tell with her wrapped up like she was. The woman looked directly at him and approached cautiously. In a few steps, Julius could see it was Miss Liu.
Meanwhile, Augustus, true to his word was filling out an order for a writer’s kit. The money didn’t seem like a lot to him. On the other hand, he couldn’t see why he needed to spend a dime to be able to write. All he had to do is sit at a typewriter and begin. Why waste money on some stupid kit? He should give it a whorl, before investing $9.95 for a pocket dictionary and a “How To” manual.

He pushed aside a bunch of boxes and books, making a clear spot for his typewriter. The only thing that remained was to seek out his typewriter, which was hidden somewhere in his house. The machine was an inexpensive portable machine. Augustus preferred the electric one they had in the office, the IBM Selectric. It was the newest thing on the market. If you held a key down it sounded like a machinegun. But the portable would have to do for the time being, until he published his first book and invest in a better machine.

After an hour of searching the typewriter was unearthed under a pile of detective novels and magazines. Cobwebs laced the interior with a thin coat of dust for good measure. He had to clean it up before pounding out the next best seller. After a little work with a vacuum hose and sewing machine oil the old typewriter came back to life.

Poised at his desk he loaded a piece of paper into the machine. It took a little while to remember how to set the margins and tabs. It wasn’t as though he had used this instrument often.

He wrestled over a title for the book. Titles are everything in a story. A catchy title can make or break a novel.

“Hmm! What about?” he mumbled repositioning himself. “Chinatown Poison! That’s it.”

Augustus typed the title at the top. Now all that remained was the story beneath. But how does one start? He began with this bit:

 

It was a sunny day in Chinatown. The streets were filled with Chinese. The Chinese all looked like trouble. There were some white people too but not many. Marlon asked himself why there were so many Chinese in this particular area? Did it remind them of China? Or was it because the place had a creepy feeling and they liked that?

 

The literary beginning suffered from the lack of training and wasted hours spent reading cheap detective stories. For the first page and a half he wrote a series of questioned. There was no substance except a glimpse at Marlon, the detective and the location, Chinatown. After an hour Augustus had finished two pages. Writing wasn’t as simple as he thought.

Perhaps he needed to set the scene somewhere else, he thought. In that case I’ll have to change the title. Maybe the Chinese aren’t interesting enough. Europeans should be a good subject for mysteries. That could be it. It might flow easier with people who weren’t so hard to figure out. I’ll tackle the new beginning after a quick burger at Mel’s or Tic Toc. My hunger could be slowing him down; giving me writer’s block. I’ve heard about things like that.

Augustus ended up at Zimms on Nineteenth Avenue. The place was a little pricier but less of a hassle with teens and cars, Mel’s being one of the major hangouts for the teens in the city. Augustus liked to go to check out the cute girls but the young girls wouldn’t give him a second look. Zimms, on the other hand was closer and dealt in a mature clientele. Lincoln High School was a few blocks away. The kids hung around there after school but not at night.

Augustus brought along his two pages and a red pencil. He decided he would revise the story injecting English, German or Russian characters. A couple stools down from him sat a cop munching on a huge burger with fries. He was just about finished, ready to pay. The manager of the restaurant waved a hand to dismiss the charge. Cops ate free at Zimms. The owner liked the visibility of police in the place. It kept the troublemakers out and discouraged thieves. Augustus was not so lucky.

Augustus drew a red line through the title. It didn’t make sense to call it Chinatown Poison if it took place in Europe. There was the possibility, however that some cities in Europe might have areas relegated to the Chinese. He re-entered the same title in red. This process continued for the next thirty minutes while he chomped on his burger. At the end the pages were almost entirely red with changes.

The waitress strolled over to him, watching what he was doing.

“Hey, buddy,” she said casually. “This isn’t a library. We got people waiting for a seat. If you’re done, I’ll get your bill.”

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” complained Augustus. “There’s only one couple waiting at the front door. Someone else will be leaving soon, I’m sure.”

“Listen, if you order something expensive, we are flexible,” lectured the waitress. “A lousy burger gives you a half hour, tops. You don’t leave, we can call a cop. See the sign over the menu?”

“RESTROOMS FOR PATRONS ONLY,” he read out loud.

“No, the other one,” she continued.

‘NO LOITERING’

“Define loitering,” insisted Augustus.

“That’s what you’re doing, my friend,” she answered. “I’ll be glad to wrap that pickle and tomato if you like.”

“That won’t be necessary,” he snapped. “Next time I will seek a friendlier place to eat. You may have just lost a customer.”

“I’m sure the news will break Mr. Zimm’s heart,” returned the waitress scooping up the money Augustus put on the counter.

 

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?”