Read The Chain of Chance Online

Authors: Stanislaw Lem

The Chain of Chance (9 page)

After establishing that all the accidents had occurred while Coburn was on his way back from the health spa, the assistant then proceeded to the Vittorinis. Because of the American’s generosity toward the staff, they had no trouble remembering him. There had been nothing extraordinary about his behavior except that lately he had seemed more pressed for time, frequently ignoring the bath attendant’s warning to wait ten minutes and dry off before going outside. Such meager findings failed to satisfy the investigating officer, who, in a fit of enthusiasm and inspiration, undertook a review of the establishment’s books, which contained a record of payments made by all its bathing customers as well as those requiring hydrotherapeutic treatment.

Since the middle of May a total of ten Americans had visited the Vittorini spa, four of whom, like Coburn, had paid for a season pass (one could buy a one-, two-, three-, or four-week pass) but failed to show up after the eighth or ninth day. Not that there was anything particularly unusual about that, since any one of them might have been called away unexpectedly and thus had to forgo whatever refund he had coming. But now that the assistant knew their names, he decided to follow up his investigation. When later asked why he had limited himself to American citizens, he was not able to give a clear-cut answer. At one point he claimed he had hit on the idea of an American connection after learning that the police had recently smashed a narcotics ring trafficking in heroin between Naples and the States; on another occasion he said he had restricted himself to Americans for the simple reason that Coburn had been an American.

Of the four who failed to take full advantage of their subscriptions, the first, Arthur I. Holler, an attorney from New York, had suddenly left town after being notified of his brother’s death. He was now back in his native city. Married and thirty-six years of age, he was employed as legal consultant for a large advertising agency.

The remaining three showed a certain physical resemblance to Coburn. In each case the person involved was a single male, between forty and fifty years of age, reasonably well-to-do, and invariably a patient of Dr. Giono. One of the Americans, Ross Brunner, Jr., had stayed at the same hotel as Coburn, the Savoy; the other two, Nelson C. Emmings and Adam Osborn, at boardinghouses that offered more modest accommodations but were also situated by the bay. Photos obtained from the States established beyond any doubt the physical resemblances of the missing: athletic builds, a tendency toward obesity, signs of balding, obvious attempts to camouflage same. Though Coburn’s body was subjected to a thorough examination in the Institute of Forensic Medicine and showed no traces of violence, and though the cause of death was attributed to accidental drowning due to a muscle cramp or physical exhaustion, the police commission recommended in favor of continuing the investigation. Further inquiry was made into the fate of the other three Americans, and it was soon learned that Osborn had left Rome without notice, that Emmings had flown to Paris, and that Brunner had gone insane. Brunner’s case was already a matter of police record. Though originally a guest of the Savoy, he had been lying in the city hospital since early May. He was an automobile designer from Detroit. During the first week of his stay in Naples he was a model of good behavior, spending mornings at the solarium and evenings at the Vittorini spa, except on Sundays, when he made a habit of going on various sightseeing tours. Since his trips were all arranged through a local travel agency, a branch of which was located in the Savoy, it was easy to establish his itineraries. Among the places he visited were Pompeii and Herculaneum; he took no sea baths, since his doctor had advised against it because of his kidney stones. Even though he had paid in advance, he canceled a trip to Anzio on the day before it was scheduled to leave; for the preceding two days his behavior had also been somewhat erratic. He gave up walking altogether, demanding his car even when his destination was only two blocks away, which turned out to be a nuisance because a new parking lot was then under construction and cars belonging to the guests had to be squeezed into a neighboring lot.

Brunner refused to pick up the car himself and insisted that it be brought around by one of the hotel staff; this gave rise to several altercations. That Sunday, he not only passed up the sightseeing tour but also failed to show up for supper, ordering through room service instead. No sooner did the waiter set foot inside the door than Brunner jumped him from behind and tried to strangle him. In the scuffle he broke one of the waiter’s fingers before jumping out the window, suffering a broken leg and a fractured pelvis in the two-story fall. At the hospital he was diagnosed as having suffered—in addition to the multiple fractures—a mental blackout caused by an attack of schizophrenia. The hotel management was understandably anxious to hush up the whole affair. It was this incident in particular that prompted the commission’s decision—following the death of Coburn—to widen the scope of the inquiry. The case now came under general review. The question arose whether Brunner had in fact jumped from the window, or whether he had been pushed. Yet no evidence could be found to challenge the waiter’s credibility. He happened to be an elderly man with no criminal record.

Brunner remained in the hospital, not because of his mental condition, which gradually improved, but because of complications arising from the mending of his hip bone, while a relative who was supposed to come for him from the States kept postponing his visit. Finally, a prominent physician diagnosed Brunner’s illness as insanity caused by an acute psychotic seizure of unknown etiology: the investigation had reached a dead end.

The second American, Adam Osborn, a middle-aged bachelor with a degree in economics, had driven an Avis rental car from Naples to Rome on June 5. In his hurry to leave the hotel, he had left behind such personal items as an electric razor, several brushes, a chest expander, and a pair of slippers. The management of the Savoy, wishing to forward his things, phoned the hotel in Rome where Osborn had made a reservation but was told that no one had checked in under that name. The hotel soon gave up trying to track down its capricious guest, but a more thorough investigation revealed that Osborn had never reached his destination. At the Avis rental agency the detective learned that the rental car, an Opel Record, had been found parked in the emergency lane in the vicinity of Zagarolo, just outside Rome—in perfect running condition and with Osborn’s luggage still intact. Since the Opel belonged to and was registered with the firm’s fleet in Rome—it had been delivered to Naples by a French tourist en route from Rome—the agency notified the Rome police. Osborn’s things were seized, and the police in Rome decided to launch a separate investigation of their own when Osborn was found at dawn the following day—dead. He had been run over by a car on the Strada del Sole, at the Palestrina exit, roughly nine kilometers from where the rental car had been abandoned.

The assumption was that for no apparent reason he had climbed out of his car and started walking along the shoulder of the road until reaching the first exit, where he became the victim of a hit-and-run accident. The police were able to reconstruct the exact sequence of events, because Osborn had accidentally spilled some eau de cologne on the car’s rubber matting; a police dog had little trouble in following the scent, even though it had rained during the night. It seems Osborn had kept to the side of the road the whole time except when the highway cut through a hill, at which point he had left the concrete road and climbed to the top of the nearest knoll. After a while he returned to the road and resumed hiking. When he came to the exit ramp, he went zigzagging down the road like a drunk. He died instantly of a fractured skull. The road was spotted with blood and strewn with splinters of headlight glass when they found the body. So far the police in Rome had been unable to track down the hit-and-run driver. The most curious thing of all was that, despite the heavy afternoon traffic, Osborn had been able to walk a distance of nine kilometers on the highway without being noticed. If nothing else, he should have attracted the attention of a highway patrol car, since pedestrians are not allowed on the highway. The explanation came a few days later, when a golf bag was found dumped early one morning in front of a police station and identified as Osborn’s through the name engraved on the handgrips. This led to speculation that he might have been carrying the golf bag over his shoulder and that, because the clubs were covered by a hood and he himself was wearing a pair of jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, the passing drivers might have mistaken him for a member of the road crew. The clubs were probably left lying at the scene of the accident; whoever picked them up must have read about the investigation in the papers, panicked at the thought of becoming personally implicated in a criminal matter, and got rid of them.

Osborn’s motive for abandoning the car and taking off with the golf clubs was still not known. The empty cologne bottle and traces of spilled cologne found on the floorboard suggested that he might have splashed the cologne on his face to ward off an attack of nausea or even a fainting spell. The autopsy failed to turn up any traces of alcohol or toxins in his blood. Before leaving the hotel Osborn had set fire to several sheets of handwritten stationery in a wastebasket. Though nothing could be salvaged from the ashes, they found among the items left behind an empty envelope addressed to the police, suggesting that at one point he had considered notifying the police but later changed his mind.

The third American, Emmings, was a press correspondent for United Press International. On a return trip from the Far East, where he had been on a recent assignment, he decided to stop over in Naples. He made a two-week reservation when he registered at the hotel but then unexpectedly left town on the tenth day of his stay. At the British European Airways agency he booked a seat on a Naples-London flight, and it took only one phone call to establish that immediately after landing in London he had committed suicide in one of the airport rest rooms. He shot himself in the mouth, and died three days later in the hospital without ever regaining consciousness.

The reason for his abrupt departure was completely legitimate: he had received a cable from UPI instructing him to conduct a series of interviews in connection with rumors of a new scandal in Parliament. Emmings had the reputation of being a courageous and well-balanced man. He had served as a war correspondent in Vietnam, and before that as an apprentice reporter in Nagasaki following the Japanese surrender, where one of his eyewitness accounts had brought him instant fame.

Confronted with such facts, the assistant was eager to follow up his investigation by flying to London, the Far East, and even Japan, but instead he was instructed to interrogate those persons associated with Emmings during his stopover in Naples. Emmings had traveled alone, so they again had to rely on the testimony of hotel personnel. His behavior revealed nothing out of the ordinary. But the maid recalled that while cleaning his room after his departure she had come across traces of blood in the washbasin and bathtub, as well as a bloody bandage on the floor. According to the autopsy report in London, Emmings had suffered a laceration on his left wrist. The cut was covered with a bandage and had a fresh scab. The conclusion reached was that Emmings had tried to commit suicide in the hotel by slashing his wrists but had then bandaged the wound before riding out to the airport. He, too, had taken the mineral baths, made daily trips to the beach, and toured the bay in a rented motorboat—in other words, had behaved in a most normal fashion.

Three days before he died, Emmings had gone to Rome to see a press attaché at the American embassy, an old acquaintance of his. The attaché later testified that Emmings had been in high spirits, but that on the way back to the airport he had never stopped glancing out the rear window, to the point where it became obvious. Jokingly he had asked Emmings if he’d made any enemies in Al Fatah. In reply Emmings had smiled and hinted he was on to something else, something he couldn’t leak to anyone, not even to his friend, though it didn’t really matter since it would soon be all over the front pages. Four days later he was dead.

Enlisting the help of several agents, the assistant went back to the health spa, this time to review the records of previous years. His presence at the Vittorini spa was becoming less and less welcome, since these constant invasions by the police were jeopardizing the establishment’s good name. But when all the books were finally brought out into the open, eighteen new leads were uncovered.

Even though the pattern of events remained a mystery, the assistant began focusing his attention on men who were middle-aged foreigners and whose daily routine was suddenly interrupted some time between the second and third weeks of their stay.

Two of them turned out to be false leads. Both involved American citizens who had unexpectedly cut short their stay in Naples—one because a strike had been declared at his company, the other because he had to appear in court as a plaintiff in a suit filed against a construction company accused of installing a defective drainage system on his property. The date of the hearing had been inexplicably moved up.

In the case of the owner whose company had been struck, the investigation was finally called off when it was learned that the owner had died and that a separate inquest was already under way as a matter of course. Eventually the police in the States reported the man had died of a cerebral hemorrhage exactly two months after his return trip to America. For years the deceased man had suffered from a cerebral vascular disease.

The next lead, the third, involved an actual criminal case that was never included in the official file because this American’s “disappearance” was caused by his having been arrested by the local police. Acting on a tip from Interpol, the police uncovered a large amount of heroin on the suspect. He was presently awaiting trial in a Naples prison.

Three of the eight leads were thus eliminated. Two of the others seemed questionable. One involved a forty-year-old American who had come to the Vittorini spa for hydrotherapeutic treatment but who had stopped coming after injuring his spine in a water-skiing accident. The accident occurred while he was wearing a sailing kite harnessed to his back that allowed him to maneuver up and down on the towline; when the motorboat suddenly made an abrupt turn, the man came crashing down from a height of more than a dozen meters. Because of his injury he was laid up in a cast for a long time. The driver of the motorboat was also an American, a close friend of the victim; the incident still wasn’t considered closed, because while convalescing in the hospital the man with the back injury developed a fever and began raving in delirium. The diagnosis wavered between some exotic disease contracted in the tropics and a delayed case of food poisoning.

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