Read The Chain of Chance Online

Authors: Stanislaw Lem

The Chain of Chance (12 page)

On his way north, however, somewhere in the vicinity of Milan, Titz suddenly swerved to the left on a straight stretch of highway, cut across a grass island, and, disregarding the blinking lights and honking horns of the other drivers, started driving down the opposite lane into the path of the oncoming traffic. Astonishingly enough, he was able to drive like this for a distance of four kilometers, forcing the oncoming cars into the most desperate tactical maneuvers. Some of these drivers later testified that he seemed to be aiming for the “right” car. To avoid a long-haul Intratrans track blocking his path, he swerved onto the island, waited till the truck had passed, then moved back into the wrong lane, where, less than a kilometer down the road, he collided with a small Simca carrying a young couple and a child. The child, though critically injured, was the sole survivor. Titz, who had been driving at high speed without a safety belt, died behind the wheel. There was speculation in the press that this was a new form of suicide in which the suicide victim tried to take others with him. In a collision involving the huge tractor-trailer he would probably have been the sole fatality, which explained why he had passed up the “chance.” The case was classified as definitely belonging to the series when reports came in concerning certain incidents that had taken place immediately prior to the accident. Just outside Rome, Titz had pulled in at a service station because of apparent engine trouble and pleaded with the mechanics to hurry because he said the “red bandit” was on his tail. At first the mechanics thought he was joking, but they changed their minds when he promised each of them ten thousand lire if they could fix his engine in fifteen minutes, and then actually kept his promise. When he gave all of the nine mechanics on duty the same “bonus,” they decided he was not all there. He might have gone unidentified had it not been that while he was backing out of the garage the German put a dent in one of the cars parked outside and drove off without stopping, though not before they were able to take down his license-plate number.

The last case dealt with Arthur T. Adams II, who checked into the Hotel Vesuvio in Naples, bought a three-week pass to the mineral baths, then dropped out a few days later when he discovered he was allergic to sulfur. At forty-nine, he was a tall and easygoing man, always on the move and something of a restless type, having tried his hand at some ten different jobs. At one time or another he had been a bank officer, a Medicare official, a piano salesman; he had taught correspondence courses in banking, worked as a judo and later as a karate instructor, and actively pursued a number of hobbies: he was a licensed parachutist and an amateur astronomer, and for the past year or so he had been publishing on an irregular basis
The Arthur T. Adams II Newsletter,
featuring editorials on a wide range of subjects of personal concern to its publisher. Copies of the newsletter were run off on a duplicating machine at his own expense and distributed free of charge to several dozen acquaintances. He was also a member of a number of different societies, ranging from a dianetics circle to an organization for hay-fever sufferers.

Adams first began acting suspiciously on his return trip to Rome by barreling along at high speed, then pulling over in deserted places; buying an inner tube when his car used tube-less tires; sitting out a storm in a parked car just outside Rome; and telling a highway patrolman his windshield wipers were broken when there was actually nothing wrong with them. That night he arrived in Rome and made the rounds of the hotels, looking for a vacancy—even though he had already reserved a room at the Hilton—returning to the Hilton only when he failed to find any. The next morning he was found lying dead in his bed. The autopsy disclosed early emphysema, enlargement of the heart, and generalized hyperemia typical of death due to suffocation. The actual cause of death was never determined. The coroner’s report suggested either overstimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system or suffocation caused by cardiac arrest precipitated by a severe asthmatic attack. For a while the case came under discussion in various medical journals, where the coroner’s ruling was attacked as erroneous. It was argued that only infants have been known to die of pillow suffocation, whereas an adult will immediately awaken if his nose and mouth are obstructed. Nor was there any evidence to substantiate the claim that he had suffered an asthmatic attack. Finally, there was the position of the body: Adams was found lying on his stomach, with both arms wrapped around his pillow and the pillow pressed flat against his face. But if it was a suicide, then it had no precedent in the records of forensic medicine. Some tried to attribute his death to extreme fright, but, although such cases have been known to occur, no one has yet proved nightmares to be a cause of death. After a long delay, Interpol finally decided to intervene when two letters turned up in the States, both mailed by the deceased to his former wife, with whom he remained on friendly terms following their divorce. The letters had been mailed three days apart, but they arrived at the same time because of the backlog of mail created by a postal strike. In the first letter Adams wrote he was depressed and that he was having hallucinations of the “sugar cube” variety. This was a reference to the period preceding their divorce, when Adams and his wife had been in the habit of taking psilocibin dished up in sugar cubes. Now, five years later, he had no idea what was causing these “freaky” hallucinations, which occurred mainly at night. The second letter was altogether different in both tone and content. He was still having hallucinations, but he was no longer alarmed now that he knew what was causing them.

A detail you’d never suspect as being important has led me to the most incredible discovery. I’ve managed to get my hands on some material for a series of articles dealing with a completely new type of crime, a crime that’s not only unmotivated but also indiscriminate, in the same way that scattering nails all over the road is an indiscriminate crime. You know I’m the last person to exaggerate, but the press won’t be the only ones to sit up and take notice when I start publishing this stuff. But I’ve got to be careful. This material is too hot to keep around here. Don’t worry, though; I’ve got it stored someplace where it’s good and safe. Not another word till I get back. Will write from Rome as soon as I can. This is the sort of bonanza every journalist dreams about. And what a lethal one it is.

There’s no need for me to elaborate on the intensive search that was made into the whereabouts of Adams’s secret hiding place. The search proved to be a waste of time. Either he didn’t know anything and the letter was just another one of his hallucinations, or he had done too good a job of hiding the material.

Adams’s death brings to a close the list of tragic events originating in and around Naples. Besides the Italians, the investigation involved the law-enforcement agencies of Sweden, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the United States, who were drawn into the case because of the victims’ nationality. Interpol, which was supervising and coordinating the case, revealed a number of irregularities and minor omissions in the course of their investigation—such as failing to report missing hotel guests right away, or neglecting to perform an autopsy despite indications of a violent death—but in no instance were they able to establish any criminal motives, attributing the mistakes either to sloppiness, to negligence, or to self-interest.

Interpol was the first to resign from the case, with all the other agencies—including the Italian—following suit. It was reopened only on the initiative of Mrs. Ursula Barbour, Adams’s chief executor. Adams had left an estate worth ninety thousand dollars in stocks and bonds, and Mrs. Barbour, a woman in her eighties who had been Adams’s foster mother, decided to use a part of the estate for apprehending the murderers of the man she regarded as her son. After familiarizing herself with the circumstances of his death, in particular with that last letter addressed to his former wife, she became thoroughly convinced that he was the victim of a crime so cunningly executed it had defied the efforts of all the various international agencies combined.

Mrs. Barbour turned the matter over to Elgin, Elgin, and Thorn, a respectable agency headed by Samuel Ohlin-Gaar, a lawyer and former friend of my father’s. This was around the time when the end of my career as an astronaut was already inevitable. After Ohlin-Gaar’s people had reviewed all the files, checked every possible lead, and gone to considerable expense to consult the most eminent authorities in criminology and forensic medicine, and still failed to make any progress, Ohlin-Gaar, acting on the advice of one of his oldest associates—a man by the name of Randolph Loers, better known to his friends as Randy—decided, more out of desperation than hope, to mount a simulation mission, that is, to send to Naples an unmarried American matching the type of victim in every possible way. At that time I was a frequent guest at old man Ohlin’s place, and one day he began filling me in on the case in a casual sort of way, insisting it was not a violation of professional secrecy to do so since by now the only alternative to carrying out a simulation mission was to wash one’s hands of the whole affair.

At first I didn’t take the thought of my eligibility too seriously, but then it turned out the job was mine for the asking. It so happened that I was fifty and—except for an occasional touch of rheumatism and of course my hay fever—in top physical condition. Since it looked so tempting from across the ocean, I volunteered for the mission. Three weeks ago, using the alias of George L. Simpson, a broker from Boston, I landed by plane in Naples, where I checked in at the Vesuvio, bought a pass to the Vittorini spa, got a suntan, and played lots of volleyball. To make it look as authentic as possible, I used some of Adams’s personal things, which Mrs. Barbour had been saving. During the time I was in Naples, a six-man team kept me under constant surveillance—two men to a shift, plus two technicians to monitor my blood, heart, and lungs. I wore electronic sensors wherever I went, except on the beach, where a pair of well-hidden binoculars was deployed. As soon as I arrived I put nineteen thousand dollars in the hotel safe: five days later I picked up the money, and kept it in my room from then on. I wasn’t shy about making friends; I visited the same museums as Adams, went to the opera as he had, followed his footsteps around the bay, and drove to Rome in the exact same Hornet. To increase the range of the sensors, the car was equipped with an amplifier. A specialist in forensic medicine, Dr. Sidney Fox, was waiting for me in Rome. His job was to examine all the medical data recorded on the tapes, which he did, and that’s how the mission ended—a complete flop.

What I had given Barth was an abbreviated version of the case, the one we always used when it became necessary to enlist the services of an outsider. We called it “the panoramic variant.”

The windows of the study faced the north, and the shade thrown by the giant elms made the room even darker. I disconnected the projector, Barth switched on the desk lamp, and the room was immediately transformed. He said nothing, with only his eyebrows registering mild astonishment, and suddenly I realized the utter futility of my having intruded on a complete stranger. I was afraid he was going to ask how I thought he could be of help—assuming he didn’t simply dismiss the whole thing out of hand. Instead he got up, paced up and down the room, then came to a stop behind a handsome antique chair, placed his hands on its carved back rest, and said:

“You know what you should have done? Sent a whole group of simulators down there. No fewer than five.”

“You think so?” I asked with some bewilderment.

“Of course. If we conceive of your mission in terms of a scientific experiment, then you failed to fulfill either the preliminary or the accessory conditions. Either
were deficient or your environment was. In case you were the cause, then you should have selected men having the same characteristic variability ratio as that exhibited by the victims.”

“Aptly put!” The words slipped out of my mouth.

He smiled.

“You’re not accustomed to our language, I see. That’s because you associate with people who have a policeman’s mentality. That mentality is all right for prosecuting criminals but not for proving whether in fact a criminal exists. I suspect if your life had been in danger you wouldn’t have noticed it. Up to a point, of course. Later you’d have been aware of the accompanying circumstances but not of the causality itself.”

“Aren’t they one and the same?”

“They can but need not be.”

“But I was ready for that. I was supposed to record anything that looked the least bit suspicious.”

“And what did you record?”

I smiled in embarrassment.

“Nothing. Oh, once or twice I was tempted to, but then I realized it was a case of too much introspection.”

“Have you ever used hallucinogens?”

“In the States, before joining the mission. LSD, psilocibin, mescaline—all under medical supervision.”

“I see … part of your training. And would you mind telling me what you hoped to achieve by taking on the part? You personally.”

“Hoped to achieve? I was fairly optimistic. I thought we could at least prove whether it was a crime or just a matter of coincidence.”

optimistic, weren’t you. Naples is a trap, there’s no doubt about that. But one that operates like a lottery, not like a machine. The symptoms tend to fluctuate, to behave erratically. They can subside or disappear altogether, right?”

“Absolutely correct.”

“All right, suppose now we take a firing zone as a model. You can be killed either by someone deliberately aiming at you or by the sheer density of fire. But either way someone on the other end is anxious to see a lot of people dead.”

“Oh, I see what you’re driving at. The element of chance doesn’t rule out the possibility of a crime, is that it?”

“Precisely. You mean to say that was never considered?” “Not really. Someone once raised the possibility, but the reply was that if that were the case it would mean having to revise the whole method of investigation…”

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