The Adventure of the Chloroform Syrettes
by A.G. Serval
Gallemore had just wrapped up his second divorce when he met Elsa Manzano on a cruise. A month later they were married. A week after that Elsa got a call saying her sister was dead. They found her in a slate-grey Mercedes at the bottom of Biscayne Bay.
I asked Elsa when she last saw her sister. She said: “The family home is up for sale. My father died six months ago. Nina wanted me to go over some documents related to the estate. That’s the last I saw her. Her husband is at the house now.”
I asked if I might talk to Nina’s husband and Elsa arranged a meeting for the following afternoon.
The Manzano place was on a cliff of rock at the top of a steep drive. I pressed a pearl buzzer set in red brick. An old man in a coffee-colored suit opened the door and motioned me into a vestibule and then into a sitting room where a stout man with a lot white hair and a white linen suit held out a hand and said “Philip Ishering.” He offered me a drink from an oak and chromium bar. Across from the bar there were a pair of French doors.
“I don’t usually drink during the day,” Ishering said. “But it has been rather exceptional circumstances.” He handed me a glass of gin. I thanked him.
“What’s the last contact you had with your wife?”
“We spoke just minutes before she left. She was to stop by Reed’s to pick something up for me.”
“What is Reed’s?”
“The drug store in town. The pharmacist there, Ed Frist, helps me get things that would be otherwise hard to find.” Ishering indicated with his head that we go outside and opened the French doors which led to a terrace surrounded by coxcombs. The coxcombs looked like little red brains. Beyond them the hills rose up and a few clouds obscured their tops. It was quiet except for the sound of a motor winding up one of the side roads. I took another sip of my gin and asked Ishering: “What time was the call?”
“About 2 in the afternoon…” He paused as if to remember something, and then said: “One week ago today.”
“Mind if I ask what you talked about?”
He said: “Not at all. When I left my government post I became a consultant for the G.A.I.N. Group. Geodesics, mostly, a few other things, the use of chemical catylsts for commercial transportation: fast, easy geodesic navigation for planes, highspeed trains. To make a long story short, you need a certain kind of chloroform for this and Nina knew exactly what I needed and in what amount.”
“So she went to the pharmacist for the chloroform and never came back?”
“Not exactly,” Ishering said. He turned to look at the coxcombs.
“I’d been working upstairs since early morning. We were to have Charles and Elsa over for lunch to go over matters related to the estate. Nina didn’t want to go into details just then, it was still too painful for her, and asked if I needed anything. I told her I did and she left for the pharmacy after lunch. That was the last I saw her.”
“Mind if I ask what you had for lunch?”
“Not at all,” said Ishering, “we had halibut.”
I didn’t feel too good about Ishering’s answers so I decided to go back and check up on him. A taxi dropped me off about a half mile from the house and I walked the rest of the way. By the time I got to the Manzano place it was dark except for a yellow light coming from a small diamond-shaped window near the top of the roof. The grass was wet from an automatic sprinkler system and I slipped once or twice going around. When I got to the back I climbed part way up an iron gate that surrounded the property, took a pair of binoculars from the inside pocket of my jacket and looked up at the window. A silhouette that might have been Ishering’s was bent over something. Once or twice the silhouette got up to go somewhere, then returned. I watched this for about an hour and left.
The next day Elsa took me up on an offer to buy her a drink. We went to a place at the end of the bay road with a sign outside that said “Cloud Bar.” It was a narrow room about a hundred feet long with a mahogany bar on one side and a huge mirror on the other. I found two seats near the middle of the bar and we sat down. The bartender took note of us but didn’t do much about it. Eventually he came over and we ordered a couple glasses of beer.
Elsa lifted her glass and said: “To Charles Gallemore.” There were little points of orange light in her black eyes.
“To Gallemore,” I said. I drank nearly all of the beer in one gulp. I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was.
I asked her about her meeting Gallemore on the cruise. It was off the coast of Norway. They were both on the deck overlooking some fjords. He was wearing a straw hat with a cream ribbon around the top, and showed her very white teeth set in a fat, sun-tanned face. She said she thought he was “very simple and very American and very kind.” She told me she was heiress to a banana empire and was only on the cruise because she’d run away from her family and the bananas. When her father died she felt relieved.
After two more beers Elsa said she wanted to do some dancing, so we moved to the back of the bar. There was a kid back there wearing a pair of headphones and standing on a small riser with a couple of turntables in front of him. He was playing some kind of salsa. A woman with a blond crew cut was dancing around, shaking a leather bag with beads hanging from it. Elsa did most of the dancing and I just sort of swayed back and forth.
I spent the next two days at the hotel, only leaving my room to take the elevator down to the lobby for the complementary newspapers and the coffee. In the room I read the papers, watched television, had room service bring up eggs and potatoes and seltzer water. Gallemore called. They got the results from the mortician. Nina’s body showed no marks of blunt trauma, no knife or bullet wounds, no marks of strangulation. I went back to watching television. On the screen a man put a finger with a diamond ring on it into zip-lock bag. I fell asleep and had no dreams.
The next day I woke up about nine, showered, put on the same clothes I wore the day before, had a plate of eggs, and read through a couple sections of the paper. I decided to stop off at Reed’s to talk to Ed Frist about chloroform. The place was off the main drag under a green awning that said “Reed’s” in cursive letters. It was an old fashioned kind of place with hardwood floors, and a three or four stools along a stubby counter with a soda jerk and a magazine rack next to that. The whole place has a peculiar smell, like maybe of vitamins. At the back was another counter and behind that a large man with a pair of glasses tipped up on his head, downturned black-ringed eyes and a sullen glistening mouth. I waited for the woman in front me. The man gave her a little white bag with the top edge stapled and then said: “Yes, what can I do for you?”
“Are you Ed Frist?”
“Mind if I ask you a few questions about the Nina Manzano murder?”
“Ah, that really is a nasty business isn’t it?”
“Yes it is,” I said, “Can you tell me about when you last saw Ms. Manzano?”
“Well, she’d been coming in here to get supplies for her husband. He’s a big shot, you know, working for the G.A.I.N. folks on…”
“Yes, I know that. Can you tell me exactly what she bought the last time she was in here?”
‘Well, the last few times she was in here she’d picked up three medium sized syrettes of trichloropethane. Not something you see very often people looking for that. Come to think of it, that’s what she most always came to get. Three medium sized syrettes of trichloropethane.”
“What do they look like?”
“The syrettes? There’re like little tubes of tooth paste. Chloroform, more or less. Its usually used for dyes and refrigerants. I guess Dr. Ishering found a use for the stuff for his work. Its all a bit over my head, I must say.”
I thanked Frist, had the old woman in the pale blue smock working at the counter call me a cab, and went back to hotel.
I called Gallemore that night and asked him to meet me the next day for lunch. We had warm beer and sandwiches at a tavern near the water. I told him I’d talked to Frist and that Frist had said Nina always picked up three tubes of chloroform. I also told him I thought Ishering and Elsa were directly involved in Nina’ murder.
Gallmre said: “But that’s impossible. I was with both of them when her car went into the bay.” I told Gallemore I’d thought of that, and that he ought to trust me and meet me at the Ishering place tomorrow morning at eight o clock sharp the next day.
The next morning I called a cab. The driver was an ancient-looking man with a stringy white mustache and a soiled turban. He let me off a few blocks short of Ishering’s. There was dense fog over the bay and I must’ve got turned around because I ended up in a park with ten or twelve teenagers mulling around drinking beer out of cans. They were laughing and stumbling. It was clearly a party continuing from the night before. I couldn’t see too well because of the fog but as I approached them they stopped laughing and looked up at me with sunken, pallid faces. One had a large scab on her face. They watched me as I passed and said nothing. I turned around and walked back to where the cab had let me off. After a minute or two I saw the peaked roof of the Manzano place sticking up through the green soup of the fog.
Before I had a chance to knock Elsa came out the front door in a long tan coat and a small leather travel case. She didn’t answer when I said good morning. I asked if she was going somewhere and she took a pistol from inside the coat and held unsteadily in front of her. It was a small silver gun with pearl inlay on the handle.
“If you come any closer I’ll shoot,” she said.
“Where’s Ishering?” I asked.
Still with the gun on me she said: “You don’t have any idea what’s going on.”
I said: “You and Ishering were careful. The work had been going well; the junk was heating up the engines and the navigation was ready to test. In fact the engine of the family car was locked on a beacon in the bay. With the chloroform you added to Nina’s halibut she would be too screwed up to pull the car out from out of the pull of the beam. There’d be no way for anyone to link the murder to you because you were sitting at the dinner table with Gallemore and Ishering when the car goes into the bay. But then Ishering decided he wanted a piece of the banana empire when old man Manzano died, didn’t he? You realized it was about the money more than about the affair you were having. And you decided you couldn’t allow that, so you tried to bump him off too. And you succeeded. Didn’t you?”
Elsa wasn’t looking at me anymore. There was a strained grin on her face and under the grin something like hate. “I’ve still got a little time left,” she said and began to raise her arm. On the last word I threw a sprinkler head at her. It lashed her face with water. She fired once, missing me and hitting the sprinkler, shattering it into a thousand shards. By the time she shot off the round I’d covered the five feet between us and had the wrist of her gun hand clutched in my fist. The gun fell onto the walkway and I grabbed it and put it in my pocket.
I called Bryant from a phone inside. He and three of his men came down from the station and were at the Manzano place within twenty minutes. They had Elsa in a pair of bracelets and in the back of a squad car a few of minutes after that. One of Bryant’s men found Ishering face down at his lab bench upstairs. There were little mounds of pink powder along the left side of the desk, and three little tooth paste tubes with tiny pipettes leading from the mounds. Bryant’s man turned him over. There was a small bloodless hole in his left temple.
That night Gallemore told me he hadn’t had the slightest affection for his first wife. His second wife ran off with a baseball player. Elsa, he said, he’d really loved. We stared at the bay and didn’t say anything. About a quarter mile out something flashed up in the sun and splashed back into the water. Gallmeore said. “They’re fierce when you get them on the line, and they don’t taste very good.”
About the Author:
A.G. Serval is a writer living in the Bronx