Read The Chain of Chance Online

Authors: Stanislaw Lem

The Chain of Chance (10 page)

The other questionable lead concerned a pensioner in his sixties, a naturalized American from Italy who had gone to Naples to collect his pension in dollars. He had been taking the mineral baths for his rheumatism when he suddenly interrupted the treatments, claiming they were bad for his heart. He was found drowned in the bathtub in his own apartment, exactly one week after his last visit to the spa. The autopsy ascribed the death to congestive heart failure and sudden cardiac arrest. Although the coroner uncovered nothing suspicious, the chief investigator, who had only stumbled on the case while checking the Vittorini records, ordered it reopened. Speculation arose that the pensioner might actually have been pushed under water: the bathroom door had been unlocked from the inside. An interrogation of the dead man’s relatives failed to confirm any of these suspicions; not even a material motive could be established, since the pension was only a lifetime annuity.

Of the original eight leads only the last three led to the discovery of new victims, victims whose fates were typical of the evolving pattern. Again it was a matter of single men just past their prime, only now it was no longer restricted to Americans. The first was Ivar Olaf Leyge, an engineer from Malmö. The second was Karl Heinz Schimmelreiter, an Austrian from Graz. The third was James Brigg, a free-lance screenwriter identifying himself as an author, who, on his way over from Washington, had stopped off in Paris and contacted Olympia Press, a publisher that specialized in erotic and pornographic literature. During his stay in Naples he boarded with an Italian family. His landlord and landlady knew nothing about him except what he himself had declared when he introduced himself, namely, that he was interested in exploring the “outer fringes of life”; it later came as news to them that he had been a regular visitor to the spa. On the fifth day he failed to return for the night. He was never again seen alive. Before notifying the police, the owners entered his room with a spare key to see what their tenant had left behind, only to discover that all his things were missing except an empty suitcase. They then recalled having seen their tenant leave the house every day with his briefcase full, only to return later with it empty. There was little reason to doubt their testimony, since the same family had been renting out rooms for years and enjoyed a spotless reputation. Brigg had been a bald man, of athletic build, with a face showing the scars of a harelip operation. He left no survivors, at least none who could be located. When he was later questioned, the publisher in Paris testified that Brigg had proposed writing a book exposing the seamier side of American beauty contests, a proposal the publisher had rejected as being too conventional. These statements could be neither confirmed nor denied. Brigg’s disappearance had been so complete that no one could be found who had seen him since the day he vacated his room. Random inquiries made among the city’s prostitutes, pimps, and junkies led nowhere. That was why the Brigg case was still classified as questionable; and, strange as it might sound, the only reason it was being kept on active file was that the man suffered from hay fever.

Not so the Swede and the Austrian, whose fates were never open to doubt. Leyge, a long-time member of the Himalaya Club and conqueror of Nepal’s seven-thousand-foot range, had landed in Naples after divorcing his wife. He stayed at the Hotel Roma downtown, never went swimming, stayed away from the beach, made use of the solarium, took mineral baths, and made the rounds of the museums. Late in the evening of May 19 he left for Rome, even though he had originally intended to spend the entire summer in Naples. In Rome he left all his things in the car and headed straight for the Colosseum, where he climbed his way up to the highest tier and plunged down the outer wall. The coroner’s verdict was “death due to suicide or accident as a result of a sudden mental blackout.” A tall and well-proportioned blond, the Swede looked young for his age and was extremely fussy about his outward appearance and about keeping fit: tennis every morning at six, no drinking, no smoking—in short, a fanatic when it came to physical fitness. The divorce had been settled by mutual consent, with incompatibility as the reason. These facts were established with the help of the Swedish police to rule out sudden depression as a possible suicide motive following the breakup of a long marriage. It was later revealed that the couple had actually been separated for a number of years and had filed for divorce to make everything legal.

The story of the Austrian Schimmelreiter turned out to be more complicated. Although present in Naples since the middle of winter, he had not started the mineral bath treatment until April. Noticing a definite improvement in his condition, he had his ticket extended for the month of May. A week later he couldn’t sleep, turned grumpy and irritable, and went around claiming that people were rummaging through his things; when his spare pair of gold-rimmed glasses disappeared and later turned up behind the sofa, he insisted it was the work of a thief. He had been living in a small boardinghouse and had been on friendly terms with his Italian landlady up to the time of his personality change, and so it was possible to get an exact description of his habits. On May 10 Schimmelreiter tripped on the stairs and had to spend some time in bed recuperating from a bruised knee. Within the space of two days he became more sociable, made up with his landlady, and, when his rheumatism refused to go away even after the pain in his knee subsided, resumed his trips to the baths. A few days later he had the whole boardinghouse on its feet with screams for help. Possibly imagining that someone was hiding behind the mirror—unlikely, since it was a wall mirror—he shattered it with his fist and tried to escape out the window. The landlady, unable to cope with the hysterical Schimmelreiter, called in a doctor acquaintance who made a diagnosis of coronary artery disease, a condition often leading to a minor stroke. The landlady insisted that the Austrian be transferred to the hospital. But while still at the boardinghouse he managed to smash the bathroom mirror and another one on the landing before being relieved of his walking stick. At the hospital he was given to fits of anxiety and crying spells and would try to hide under the bed, while frequent attacks of asthma—he was also an asthmatic—only made his condition worse. To one of the interns in charge of him he secretly confided that on two occasions an attendant at the Vittorini spa had tried to kill him by slipping poison into the bathing water and that this was surely the work of an Israeli secret agent. The intern debated whether he should include this information in the patient’s medical chart. The ward doctor interpreted it as a symptom of a persecution complex arising from presenile dementia. Toward the end of May Schimmelreiter died of lung cancer. Not having any next of kin, he was buried in Naples at public expense, since his stay in the hospital had exhausted his funds. His case therefore represented an exception to the rule; in contrast to all the other victims, this one involved a foreigner who was financially destitute. Subsequent investigation revealed that during the war Schimmelreiter had served as a clerk in the concentration camp at Mauthausen and that he had stood trial following Germany’s defeat but had escaped sentencing when the majority of witnesses, all of them former inmates of the camp, testified in his behalf. Although there were those who accused him of having beaten prisoners, their testimony was treated as third-hand evidence, and he was finally acquitted. And despite the apparent coincidence that his health had twice taken a turn for the worse following visits to the Vittorini establishment, the dead man’s suspicions proved unwarranted, since there is no known poison capable of affecting the brain once it has been dissolved in bathing water.

The bathing attendant accused of having tried to poison the Austrian turned out to be a Sicilian, and not a Jew, and was in no way connected with Israeli intelligence.

Not counting the missing Brigg, the file now included the cases of six persons who had all met sudden deaths from random causes. Invariably the trail led back to the Vittorini health spa; and since there were a number of such spas in Naples it was decided to check their records as well. The investigation began to avalanche: the number of cases that had to be checked soon jumped to twenty-six, since it was quite common for people to discontinue the baths without demanding a refund, especially as the amount of money involved was usually quite small. The investigation proceeded slowly, because each and every lead had to be fully explored. Only when the subject turned up in good health was the case dropped.

Herbert Heyne, a forty-nine-year-old naturalized American of German origin and owner of a drugstore chain in Baltimore, landed in Naples around the middle of May. An asthmatic, he had been undergoing treatment for years in a number of sanatoria when a lung specialist prescribed sulfur baths as a precaution against rheumatic complications. He began his treatment in a small place located not far from his hotel on the Piazza Municipale, taking all his meals in the hotel restaurant where, nine days later, he created a scene by insisting the food tasted vilely bitter. After the episode in the restaurant he checked out of the hotel and traveled to Salerno, where he registered at a seaside resort. Late that same evening he decided to go for a swim. When the porter tried to talk him out of it because of the strong tide and poor visibility, Heyne insisted he would die not from drowning but from a vampire’s kiss. He even showed him where the kiss of death would come—on the wrist. The porter, a Tirolese who began treating the guest as a fellow countryman the moment the conversation switched to German, went down to the beach when he heard Heyne crying for help. A lifeguard was found and the German was rescued, but when he began showing signs of madness—such as biting the lifeguard—they decided to have him transferred by ambulance to the hospital; there, in the middle of the night, he got up out of bed, smashed the windowpane, and started slashing his wrists with a sliver of broken glass. The nurse on duty alerted the staff just in time to save him from bleeding to death, but he came down with a severe attack of bronchial pneumonia and died three days later, without regaining consciousness. The inquest ascribed his suicide attempt to the state of shock caused by his near-drowning, which was also cited as the cause of his pneumonia. Two months later Interpol was brought into the case, when Heyne’s Baltimore lawyer received a letter mailed by Heyne shortly before his departure from Naples stating that in the event of his sudden death the police should be notified at once because he suspected someone was plotting to kill him. The letter gave no other details except that the suspected killer was staying at the same hotel. The letter was sprinkled with a number of glaring Germanisms, although Heyne, a resident of the United States for twenty years, had a perfect command of English. This fact, along with certain discrepancies in the handwriting, made the lawyer dubious of the letter’s authenticity—it had been written on hotel stationery—and after learning of his client’s death, he went ahead and notified the authorities. The handwriting expert’s report confirmed that Heyne had written the letter himself but in great haste and a state of extreme agitation. At this point the case was dropped.

The next case to come under review was that of Ian E. Swift, English-born, U.S. citizen, fifty-two, manager of a large furniture company in Boston, who landed by ship in Naples in early May, paid for a series of baths at the Adriatica, and stopped showing up after a week of visits; he stayed for a while at a cheaper hotel called the Livorno, then moved into the more luxurious Excelsior the same day he quit the baths. Witnesses were questioned in each of the hotels, but the testimony seemed to revolve around two different persons. The Swift at the Livorno spent most of the time in his room slaving over business correspondence, was an all-day boarder because it was cheaper, and occasionally went to the movies at night. The Swift at the Excelsior toured the local nightclubs in a hired, chauffeured car, traveled around in the company of a private detective, insisted on having his bed changed every day, had flowers sent to his hotel room, accosted girls on the street with invitations to join him for a ride and for supper, and went on periodic shopping sprees. He kept up this boisterous routine for four days. On the fifth day he left a note for the detective at the reception desk. When the detective finished reading the note in astonishment, he tried to reach Swift on the phone, but Swift refused to answer, even though he was in his room. He kept to his room the whole day, skipped lunch, and ordered dinner through room service. When the waiter appeared at the door, he found the room empty and heard Swift talking to him through a crack in the bathroom door. The same scene was repeated the following day—as if he couldn’t stand the sight of the waiter. He kept up these antics until one day another man checked into the hotel, a man named Harold Kahn, an old friend and former business partner of Swift’s who happened to be en route to the States after a long stay in Japan. Learning by chance that Swift was registered in the same hotel, he decided to pay him a visit, and forty-eight hours later they were both aboard a Pan Am jet bound for New York.

Though it lacked a fatal epilogue and therefore seemed to be an exception, Swift’s case was nonetheless included in the series, since Swift really had Kahn to thank for his lucky trip home. The private detective testified that Swift had struck him as being not all there, that he was constantly talking about his negotiations with a terrorist organization called “The Terror of the Night,” which he said he was prepared to finance if he was promised protection against a killer hired by one of his competitors in Boston. The detective was supposed to be a witness to these negotiations and act as a bodyguard. The whole thing sounded so preposterous that the detective’s first impression was that his client must be on drugs. Swift’s laconic note, in which a hundred-dollar bill had been enclosed, was in effect a letter of dismissal. He made no mention of his enemies except to say that they had come to pay him a visit at the Livorno, though in fact he had not received a single visitor there.

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