A Prescription for Murder (#6)
To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
A Prescription for Murder
by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)
Part 10: Jungle retreat
Juan Ruiz-Montoya met with his attorney. “You know, Juan, you should have acted years ago when you first discovered that she was cuckolding you. Instead, you forgave her and didn’t even have the balls to make Marc pay. Those chickens have come home to roost. Maria knows that you have no case for divorce. And I want to tell you something else that her attorney – she’s engaged Castellaño… which means that she intends to play rough – told me. He made inquiries and learned that you’ve been with that doctor who was staying at The Beagle… the Arizona woman.”
“Who told him about Karen?”
“Juan… be reasonable… you went to Mexico City to have tests done on a prescription blank to prove the woman was innocent. Are you working for the defense now? When you got the results, you got drunk and giddy and went to the airport to buy a round-trip ticket to Phoenix… where the American doctor lives. You’ve been seen with her here, driving her home, escorting her through the hospital, drunk at the beach… yes… sitting on the sea steps at The Beagle. You’ve been acting like her defense counsel from the beginning. Castellaño knows that you spent the weekend with her in Arizona… at a Navajo Hotel and Casino. As soon as Maria learned of your flight, she called him and he contacted P.I.’s in Phoenix. You’re having an affair with this doctor. And now you want a divorce.”
“I’m in love. Karen has me going crazy thinking about her. Before, it didn’t matter. But now it’s different. I need a divorce. I want to marry her. Do I still have grounds to divorce Maria? I mean… with all that DNA evidence? And she’s started up again with Marc Celine. I know it.”
“Juan! You’re irrational! Sure, she’s been visiting him in jail. Everybody knows that. But they aren’t conjugal visits; and visiting a prisoner is not grounds for divorce. But you have now given Maria grounds to divorce you for adultery, yet she doesn’t want to give you a divorce. No, she’s going to fight for you. In the course of keeping her marital vows she says that she is morally obliged to let people know what kind of woman Karen is. Yes, she intends to ruin the doctor’s reputation back in Phoenix. Castellaño has photos of you two on the dance floor, and proof that you cohabited as man and wife in the hotel.”
Juan groaned. “So I have no grounds?”
“None.” He feigned surprise. “Oh! Did I forget to mention that Castellaño says she knows that now that you have saved the career of the American woman, that woman is free to sue Don Marco and collect many millions in damages from him for creating that forged prescription. She’ll get all his and Agnes’ property in settlement. Maria thinks that $5 million U.S. dollars will soothe her feelings about giving you a divorce.”
“Five Million? That’s insane. The government will seize his property. Karen will get nothing.”
“I said as much to Castellaño and he says Karen will be able to raise many millions from her friends and family. If she wants you that badly, she’ll find a way to raise the settlement.”
“Karen has her own financial problems supporting her mother and mother-in-law and God knows who else from her past that has their hand out.”
“If she thinks that highly of her family, it works to Maria’s advantage. She’ll want to avoid scandal.” He paused and shook his head. “And another thing, now that you’ve gone to the trouble to prove that the two kids are Marc’s, they might have a claim against his assets. You have opened one can of worms after another. Maybe they’ll resent you for sticking them in the little house on La Florida when they could have been masters of The Beagle hacienda.”
Juan sat in his attorney’s office and covered his face. “My life is over,” he said simply. “I can’t go to live in the U.S. with Karen and she can’t live here with me. I know what Maria is capable of. She’ll destroy Karen and me and the kids, too. Believe me when I tell you that this is exactly what she will do. That’s how evil that woman is.” He stood up and quietly walked out of the office.
He returned to his office at the police station. The portraits were being brought in one by one and the entire staff was ogling them, trying to guess who the women were. And then something happened that surprised everyone. Juan stared uncomprehendingly as Maria’s portrait was unveiled and no one said a word. Finally the Captain said, “Cover it and lock it in the evidence vault.”
Juan sighed. “I knew that Marc had been her lover and even now she’s visiting him in jail. She’s been crazy about him for years.”
“Your two youngest kids?” the Captain ventured to ask.
“They’re his. Years ago I got his DNA profile and ran his prints. I saw no reason to take it out on the kids.” He suddenly felt nauseous. “I’m gonna get a little air. This is a bit more than I can handle.” Nobody said a word as he left.
Juan started to head for a cantina. He wanted to get drunk; but he feared that if he were drunk he’d go home and fight with his wife. He was convinced that he hated her enough to kill her. He decided to stay cool and simply remove his remaining possessions from the house.
He went home, and while his wife taunted him, telling him how much it would cost him to make a fool of her, and for trying to throw her out into the gutter, and how she would let the world know about the American tramp, he turned to her and said, “Stop. Enough. Marc Celine’s portrait of you playing with yourself is now at the police station. It’s a great likeness. Everybody says so. So just be careful about what you say and do. I can leave town willingly, but you may be run out as a hypocritical whore.” She stared at him and said nothing as he gathered all his possessions and called his office to announce that he was taking an indefinite leave of absence.
He turned in his badge and official weapon, cellphone, uniforms, and his computer. He trashed all his photographs, souvenirs, and awards. He gave all of his clothing except several pairs of Levis, underwear, shirts, a jacket, and shoes, to the church’s charity store. Among the items he kept were his personal Colt .45, several knives, and his binoculars.
When everything was packed into a cloth duffel bag, he walked down to the docks and sat for several hours waiting to take the ferry across to the peninsula town of Calentura. A peddler sold post cards. In tiny script, he wrote a brief note to Karen. “Karina, Maria won’t give me a divorce and says she will destroy your reputation if I continue to ask for one – unless I give her a 5 million U.S. dollar settlement. She has photographs of you and me dancing and registered as husband and wife. I can’t get a job in the U.S., and I won’t live on your money. I prefer to live alone and remember our time in Arizona. I love you and won’t spend a day of my life without saying your name in my prayers. I order you to forget me and pray that you will be as disobedient in this as you are in most things. All my love, Juan.” He bought an envelope, addressed and stamped it, and gave it to the ticket master to mail. The ferry bell sounded and he bought a ticket and went aboard.
When the ferry reached Calentura, it was evening and getting cold. Juan began to walk aimlessly down a narrow trail that led into the interior. Palmetto palm fronds slapped and scratched him, tough Caribbean agave leaves stabbed at his legs, and the sticky sap of insect eating pinguicula plants stuck to his levis. It was pointless to try to cut his way through the primary jungle growth. There was just too much of it. He knew that poisonous plants and venomous spiders and snakes were likely nearby and probably ready to attack; but he didn’t care. But his indifference about the hazards he encountered soon gave way to frustration. The trail had to lead someplace, he reasoned. And then, just as the twilight was beginning to slip into darkness, he came to an old abandoned hut. The door was ajar, stuck in mud. He pushed it open and was brought to tearful relief when he saw a hammock inside and tested it and found that it was still strong enough to support him. He did not bother to get up again to shut the door or check to see if there was anything dangerous inside the little dwelling. He lay in the hammock and let his mind go blank.
There is a point in the attempt to solve a problem in which all reasonable approaches have been tried without success, and the mind is simply unable to think of another way to find the answer.
Rarely, the problem will take on a special challenge of its own and a person will pledge himself to continue, to become better prepared and so be able, at some future time, to solve it. A “pons asinorum” of geometry decision is reached. The person does not say the usual, “I cannot cross this bridge.” He says, “I’ll review the lessons and try again.” When the former decision is made, usually the entire subject – be it geometry, sailing, carpentry, or a social problem – results in a complete rejection of the subject. He surrenders to the problem and experiences the revulsion of defeat. He will feel disgust for geometry, sailing, carpentry, or the relationship. He turns away from the troublesome topic and moves on, doing what he can to erase all memory of the failure.
Juan’s problem with his wife was not one that could be solved by applying the correct formulas of legal redress, a solution that, in his opinion, two moral human beings would apply. But for years he had ceased to think of Maria as a human being but rather as a source of “present” irritation which he could counter with steely indifference. As he diagnosed his marital problems, it was a rash that was only a rash and not the incipient stage of a fatal disease. He had taken a laissez faire attitude, not particularly caring what she did, and he assumed that because he didn’t care then he would never care. And he also thought that what she had done was so egregious that she had reached the limit of harmfulness. He never imagined that his wife would make Karen suffer because he loved Karen. She hated him so why would she care? Through the night as he was awakened by the howler monkeys and the screeching creatures that cavorted on the thatched roof, he admonished himself aloud, “Did you think you were shadow-boxing? That what you were fighting wasn’t real and couldn’t fight back? Well, you’ve been knocked on your ass. The game is over. You lost.”
At dawn he continued walking down the trail which had curved in a subtle way, and he knew, as he listened to the surf, that the path he had initially taken formed a semi-circle path. The sea between the peninsula and the mainland was before him. He combed the beach until he found the remains of a fishing pole and the dead body of a turtle that had gotten entangled in nylon fishing line. A hook hung from the end of the line. He unwrapped the line, connected it to the pole, and set out to catch himself breakfast. He had binoculars in his duffel bag. He returned to the shack, removed the lens and started a fire. Inside the shack, on the floor’s center, just as the inditas would have it, was a fire pit. He’d use it once he got a fish to eat. Surprisingly, using a worm as bait, he caught a small robalo or snook. He gutted and scaled it at the beach; and using a jury rigged spit, he cooked it in his hut. “Beginner’s luck” was not a term that occurred to him.
Using the shack as a base, he began to explore the peninsula’s uninhabited shoreline. He met a few indigenous people who sensed the misery behind his smile, and the hunger that had no appetite. They fed him beans and corn they had raised themselves. He promised to return daily to buy produce from them. He also could buy one chicken egg a day, they told him. He did this for several weeks. He didn’t try to fish again since he had preferred to eat the food the farmer and his wife sold; and, too, he knew that they had begun to count on receiving money from him. He also returned to the tienda at the embarcadero to eat; but he soon ran out of cash. He called his lawyer, asking if he could make a quick inquiry about the distribution of the funds the department still owed him.
“I can answer that right now,” his lawyer said. “Maria’s lawyer petitioned and she was immediately granted half of your pension money in monthly allocations. I know you were with the department for more than twenty years, but they’re using the twenty year retirement figure. The rest is going into a credit union police account in your name.”
“I need some money. Not much. Maybe 100 pesos a month.”
“Six U.S. Dollars? Rather than go through the complications of getting access to your money, accept two hundred pesos as a gift from me. I’ll give it to the ferry operator so that he has it with him tomorrow. How’s that?”
“You’re a good friend. I’ll make it up to you.”
“Stay out of trouble. You’ve got time now to think. So think. Do you want me to send you a few books? Paperback action stories… Clancy? Le Carre? Ambler?
“Sure, any and all.”
He met the ferry the next day and got enough money to continue buying an egg, beans and corn. The money wouldn’t last the month, but, he optimistically thought, the fish were always there.
In January, before he was completely out of funds and had not been able to repeat the initial success he had fishing, he decided to go farther inland to look for work at a mining operation he had heard about. He had thought he would never be sad to leave his insect infested shack, but he was sorry to leave it. His shoes, he noted, had started to fall apart. The stitching that held the sole to the vamp had rotted. He soon preferred to walk barefoot. His beard had grown in two months. “If they put one of those “se busca” notices out for me,” he said to his reflection in a shard of mirror he found, “no one will recognize me.”
As time passed, countable by sturdy days, Karen remained deliriously happy; but as time began to measure itself in weeks and these too passed with no word from Juan, her initial joy began to stretch itself so thin that there were moments it tore itself to shreds and could offer no resistance to dark thoughts of abandonment. As she bought a frozen turkey dinner to eat on Thanksgiving Day, she considered that she had not heard from Juan for an entire month. He could have called from a pay phone or sent her a post card or at least asked Alex – he did have a legitimate reason to contact Alex – to deliver a simple message of “Hello.”
She had bought a furnished bungalow in a retirement community in Tucson and helped her two guests to move into it. The drive back and forth helped to keep her mind off Juan. Yes, it was entirely possible that he had reconciled with his wife. She grew angry. Perhaps, she thought, he had been killed. She began to fret. She could cope with any possibility if only she knew what it was.
Alex Devers finally called to inform her that the matter had been settled in her favor, that there would be no further interest from her insurers regarding Agnes Celine, and that he regretted any inconvenience the matter had caused her. “As long as you’re being so nice,” she replied, “perhaps you would do me a favor. Call Detective Inspector Juan Ruiz-Montalvo down in Chetumal and tell him the news. Actually, what I want to know is whether or not he is still alive, but telling him the news will get that answer.”
“Sure,” Alex said. “Be happy to. I have his private line and I have his office. I guess it would be best to call his office.”
“Give me a few minutes and I’ll get right back to you.”
Karen waited. At least one awful possibility would be eliminated. She chastised herself for spying on him. But, she argued, what alternatives did she have?
Alex called with what he considered good news. “Juan’s on indefinite leave. He’s been gone a month or so and nobody knows when he’ll be back. His captain said he went into the bush someplace.”
She thanked him, disconnected the call, put her head down on the desk and cried. The next day she got a handful of quarters and went to the bus stop and called Tony at his bank office. His secretary was cheerful. “He’ll be in the office tomorrow, as a matter of fact. I just heard from him. He’s finally back from Mexico. Who shall I say called?”
“Doctor Breiton. I’m sitting here at the bus terminal waiting for someone to arrive and the bus is late so I thought I’d chat with Mr. Celine. My cell’s battery died. If he’s not too busy, he can call me at home or at my office.” As she walked away from the public phone she called herself an idiot. “As long as I was going to give my name,” she muttered, “I might as well have stayed at my desk. What a stupid lie.”
Later that afternoon, he called her. He seemed rested and calm. “Howdy, Partner. I’m glad to hear your voice. There aren’t many people I can discuss the ‘Chetumal affaire’ with, but of all of them, you’re the best. I was just going to call you when my secretary said you called.”
“Great minds think alike,” she said.
“In that case, we’re obviously thinking about a nice place to have dinner. I’ve got absolutely nothing but decaying crap in my refrigerator. When are you through work?”
“Today….” she checked her calender. “I’ve got a 4 o’clock. I can be ready by 6 p.m.”
“Your office or your house?”
“House. How about if I make dinner. You won’t have to dress.”
“Wonderful. See you then.”
Excited by the possibilities, she went to the grocery store and bought a freshly roasted chicken, a jar of mole, sour cream, and a spanish onion – this completed the main course of Chicken Mole. She also bought the ingredients for a Caesar’s salad, including a wedge of parmesan cheese and anchovies. She went to the old French bakery Henri loved so much and bought a box of their most recently made eclairs and two baguettes and a small container of their special French butter.
She splurged on wine: 2 bottles of Chateau Palmer 2006 at nearly $150 a bottle. She suspected that she was compensating a sense of loss, but that no longer seemed to matter.
She served dinner in the kitchen nook rather than the dining room. With the lights out and the candles lit and the fresh centerpiece of roses, the meal, served casually in a booth took on an intimacy it would not otherwise have had. Except for the sliver of breast meat that Karen ate, Tony chatted and ate until there was nothing but bones left on the chicken’s serving dish. The salad was gone, too. “I was starving,” Tony explained. “For the past weeks I’ve been in culinary hell.”
“Give me the details…. all the gory ones, too. Leave nothing out. I’m dying for news.”
“Let’s see… you left right after Columbus Day. The shit hit the fan just before that – but I don’t think you knew about it. Marc and I were asked to go down to police headquarters and Marc said we’d first drop Dan and Ramona off at the airport. They said, ‘Fine.’ We should have kept our mouths shut. It gave them time to get a warrant to detain Dan and Ramona at the airport. They were taken in for interrogation about their Nicaraguan coffee deal. If it hadn’t been for Aggie’s death, they would have been long gone. But they had to stay over another day for the memorial service and in that time, the Federal police investigated and found out it was a scam.
“They also kept Marc and me. I was just ‘johnny on the spot’ – someone who was close to two felonies. While we were in limbo, they received forensic proof that the prescription was a fake. They held onto me because some strange young woman who uses colorful names had been picked up in Florida trying to sell an 8 million dollar estate that she didn’t happen to own. She had implicated me in the sale when she was apprehended. Sang like a canary. Named people like a conspiracy theorist. One by one the names were cleared and I can tell you they didn’t start with the alphabet. I was among the last cleared.” He paused to inform her, “This is fantastic bordeaux. Fantastic. I feel like a pirate swilling the stuff… but it is excellent.”
She brought him the second bottle to uncork. “I’m glad you like it. What happened to Marc?”
“He’s in big trouble. My kid brother invites trouble. He gets mixed up with all the wrong people, people who like to huckster Ponzi schemes and land swindles. You remember Robles?
Well, he and the few others who invested demanded their money back. This time, Marco wasn’t going to get out of it so easily. Robles had written his check for $250K to Dan in care of the Preciosa’s parent company… or so Robles attested. The checks had been cashed locally by Marc who was the registered agent. Cash had to be brought down from the Cancun branch to meet the ‘on-spot’ currency demand and Dan and Ramona took the Beaglette out for a sail that afternoon – the day of the memorial service – and handed the money to a confederate. So there was no cash to be returned. Robles was hot from losing all that dough. He said some stupid things and public opinion ran against him which certainly didn’t help to cool him off just before the election.
“The phony prescription put Marc squarely under suspicion for Agnes’ murder. University botanists advised the D.A. of Cerbera Odollam’s lethality and some physicians reported on the similarity of the toxin to – what is it that Agnes suffered from?”
“Yes, that’s it. It mimics the symptoms. Marc tried to mitigate his situation by signing over The Beagle to the University – which is what Agnes wanted, but I don’t think it did him any good. Since the plants had to be maintained, the judge ordered the University people to take temporary possession of the place.”
Karen wondered about the paintings. “Marc was still in custody when I left. Did he ever get home?”
“You’re interested in those paintings in the attic. Confess. Louisa told me she had taken you up there just before you left.”
“Yes, guilty. What a collection! Were they all accounted for?”
“I guess. Well, I don’t know. I never took an inventory, you understand. Marc remained in custody so he couldn’t have destroyed any of them. I saw them as they were brought into the police station.”
“Did you know any of the women? Karen asked.
“There was Clara – Louisa’s sister; Maria Ruiz, the cop’s wife; a dreadful portrait of Agnes when she was obese… some others I can’t remember. Anyone in particular you interested in?”
“What about Estella Robles?”
“Good Lord! He painted her? I would definitely remember if her portrait had been included. So, no, she wasn’t there.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Karen sighed. “The Robles family would not like the public to see that portrait.”
“Word has it that Estella cozied up to Miguel to get him to do some kind of favor for her. Maybe destroying that portrait was the favor. Ok, I’ll bite. How had he painted her? My imagination is carrying me away. Did you ever see such trash? I was ashamed to see the name “Celine” on the lower right hand corner of the paintings.” He began to laugh. “What awful shit those paintings were. And the funny thing is that he got the faces so right that even after years, you could still tell who the woman was. I was more or less just being detained. Marc was in a different part of the building. When I heard the cops laughing, I asked what it was all about and I was escorted from the holding cell I was in to go have a look. He did have talent, but I don’t think I ever realized how sick he was.”
Karen wanted to change the subject. “Oh, by the way, my insurance company’s investigator called to inform me officially that there would be no malpractice charges brought against me. He told me that I can now relax.”
“How am I going to match that for a Christmas present?”
Karen blushed. “I wasn’t fishing for a present.”
“Just the same, you’re gonna get one. Thinking about you and the narrow escape you had from my brother’s scheme is what kept me sane down there. I was in the hoosegow for a few of weeks.” He paused before asking, “You got a screened-in veranda around here? I’d love to go out and smoke a real Havana cigar after that great meal.”
“Screened? You’re not in Chetumal anymore.”
“Jesus. No mosquitos here! My brain is still south of the border.” He stood up and Karen led him onto the back patio.
“Stretch out on one of these deck chairs and if you want to go swimming bare-assed, I’ll leave the lights off.”
“You’re killing me! A smoke and then a swim! I love this place. You’re gonna get an even nicer Christmas present.” He lit his cigar and stretched out on a padded long chair. “Heaven,” he sighed.
“Tell me what other news there is from Mexico?”
“Ignacio Robles lost the election by a slim margin. He blamed negative publicity. To paraphrase his concession speech, he said, ‘Unscrupulous people have attacked my family, my daughter’s good character, my wife’s health, my finances, my relationship with people who were not what they had appeared to be – but these people – and I speak specifically about the persons who attended the seminar at The Beagle hacienda, had fooled everyone who knew them. Yet, I alone was blamed for the financial misfortunes that befell other victims. It was as if I, myself, had not been a victim.'”
“What did Juan Ruiz do when he saw his wife’s portrait?”
“After that episode the night of the memorial, I thought he’d be bouncing off the walls. But to his credit, he stayed cool. No histrionics. The University handed the paintings immediately to the police – so the newspapers never got a look at them. The students kept them draped when they carried them into the station. God… what vile shit they were.” He lapsed into silence and then began to snore lightly. Karen took the cigar from his hand and placed it in an ashtray. Then she got a light blanket and covered him.
She quietly entered the kitchen, cleared the table, loaded the dishwasher, and went to bed.
In the morning, Tony Celine had vanished and were it not for the cigar in the ashtray, there would have been no evidence that he had ever been there. The blanket she had put over him had been neatly folded at the foot of the long chair.
“All that,” she mumbled, “and I’ve learned nothing more about Juan except that he has seen the painting. Maybe he thinks I saw it and he’s angry that I didn’t tell him about it… and warn him.” She had Juan’s private number. She wanted to call him and often took her iPhone out intending to call him, but she knew that he knew her number as well. And she was no longer in any jeopardy.
She began to get her hair done regularly by the stylist who had done Anthony Celine’s wife. She learned that Marc had been incarcerated in Mexico and that all of his Arizona property had been seized by the U.S. government. No one knew specifically why or for how long the property would be held; but it did not matter, apparently. Between jail and the lawyers his life was over. Marc also faced even more serious charges. Besides the murder of his wife, he was being held for what was worse than murder, the illegal sale of national treasures, the Mayan Antiquities he had obtained in Mexico.
In December Tony called from Boston. “I’m here visiting my late wife’s family. We all miss her very much. She died here in Boston, in the hospital where she was being treated. Pancreatic cancer. I’ll say no more about it. It’s not a pleasant subject. But I wanted to hear your voice. I left my car at the airport so on my way home tomorrow afternoon, I’d like to stop by for another visit. And this time I promise I’ll do all my sleeping on the plane.”
“What time will you be getting in?”
“Why don’t we go out for dinner. I’ll go right home and change clothes and pick you up at 6. How’s that?”
“Fine. I’d like that.”
He had made reservations at his club. After dinner, they could dance in any traditional ball room style they chose.
More than a month after he sent it, Karen finally received Juan’s postcard. She could see the date but could not read the smudged postmark. Knowing that he had taken an indefinite leave of absence, she surmised that he had gone to some isolated place. He said goodbye. Their love affair had ended. No doubt he had gone into some remote jungle enclave, a place where he’d get malaria or one of those terrible tropical parasitic diseases. One moment she was angry with him in his orgy of self-pity and the next moment she worried about him and wanted to tell him that everything was going to work out for them. All through the Christmas holidays she waited and hoped she’d get another letter or that he would call. Nothing happened.
Tony, on the other hand, was sweet and attentive. He gave her a gold bracelet for Christmas and made reservations for them to attend a formal New Year’s Evening party at his club. She busied herself with finding just the right gown. “It’s part professional and part personal,” she told herself. A few of the people who had been questioned by the insurance investigator in mid-October would be there. It would be nice to let them see her so carefree and, well… glamorous, for a change.
The agent for a speaking tour called and asked if she’d be willing to give a lecture in Fairbanks, followed by others in quick succession in Seattle and San Francisco. A company had manufactured a new system of monitoring the performance of diseased or weakened hearts. Karen had used the system provisionally and had found it useful, particularly among the elderly. She agreed to deliver talks on what she privately called, “infomercial medicine.” She told Tony that she had agreed to the tour. “I’ll leave on January 4th and be home on the 11th.”
“Do you want company?” he asked. “I’m not being polite. I’d really like to see the great Dr. Breiton in action. It’s a comparison thing. I really want to know if you’re as good as I was giving Agnes’ cinematic eulogy.” With that the two began to laugh heartedly.
“If you’re willing to pay your own expenses, why not?”
“I’d be willing to pay yours,” he said. She smiled and called her agent and told him to make reservations for two and to charge the second one to the credit card number Tony had given her.
The terms of her contract stipulated that she was not to share her room with anyone. It did not stipulate that she couldn’t stay in someone else’s.