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The Case of the Poisoned Eclairs
A Masao Masuto Mystery
By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 E. V. Cunningham
All rights reserved.
Masao Masuto was late at his morning meditation. Here it was already a few minutes past eight o'clock in the morning and still he sat cross-legged, like a saffron-robed Buddha, in the little sunparlor which he was pleased to call his meditation room. Kati, his wife, sent the two children off to school in a flurry of whispers, and then she stood staring at the figure of her husband. Had he fallen asleep? That, she knew, would be the ultimate sin in meditation—provided there was such a thing as a sin in meditation. She herself did not meditate; it was quite enough, she once told her husband, to run the house and take care of the children—aside from which she felt no need. She was not a policeman, thank heavens; her husband was.
She was in the kitchen, putting his breakfast together, when she heard him rise and go into the bedroom to dress. A few minutes later he leaned over her and kissed the spot where her neck joined her shoulder.
"That does not make everything all right," she said.
"Is everything not all right?"
"I have been reading an article by Betty Friedan. About women. Do you know what she says about Japanese women?"
"Ah so. Will I get my breakfast or must I eat at the hash joint?"
"Your breakfast is already on the table."
"You are really the most wonderful of wives," Masuto told her.
"Only because I never stand up for my rights. Sono Asie is starting a consciousness-raising group for Nisei women. She asked me to join."
"Are you asking me or telling me?"
"I'm not sure."
"It's an excellent idea," Masuto said.
"Why not? Higher consciousness is excellent in any situation, and if you neglect my home and my children, I can always divorce you and find a truly submissive woman."
"Why must you always tease me?"
"Tease you? Never." He finished eating, rose, and put his arms around her. "I love you very much. Join any group you wish. Now I must go."
"To violence and death and murder. And now I have another day of worry."
"Absolutely not," Masuto said cheerfully. "There has been no death by violence in Beverly Hills for five weeks. In fact, I should not be surprised if they closed down the homicide department. Then I should be an ordinary policeman admonishing children of the rich who sniff cocaine and lecturing housewives on how to keep their oversized houses from being burgled."
"That would not make me unhappy," Kati told him.
Would it make him unhappy? As he drove north on Motor Avenue from Culver City, where he lived, into Beverly Hills, Masuto wondered about that. He had been in charge of Beverly Hills' tiny homicide squad for five years now. Could it be that he had become fascinated with murder? It was the ultimate crime, the single hideous mark of the beast that had scarred man since Cain first raised his hand against his brother Abel. Of course, that was a Western myth; yet Masuto, like most Nisei, was a man whose consciousness was split between East and West.
"Why do men murder?" Kati had once asked him.
"Because they lose themselves somewhere," he had replied, "and in that way they lose the rest of mankind."
"That is a Zen answer," Kati said with irritation. "You only confuse me with your Zen answers."
He reached the police station on Rexford Drive, parked, and went upstairs. Well, he confused Kati, and very often he confused himself; there was no easy answer when he asked himself why he was a policeman—any more than an easy answer to the question of why murder was done. Yet he was content to remain where he was, to accept the fact that promotion was unlikely, that Beverly Hills was not yet ready for a Nisei chief of police. He had all that he desired, a good wife, two children, his meditation, and his rose garden.
In his office, Sy Beckman, the other half of the homicide division, was at his desk, feet up, reading the Los Angeles Times. "Quiet day," he said to Masuto. "In L.A., on the other hand, they got five homicides."
"I don't envy them."
"Wainwright says to find him as soon as you come in."
Wainwright—Captain Wainwright of the Beverly Hills Police Department—sat behind his desk and stared sourly at Masuto. His expression indicated nothing; it had become fixed many years before, and Masuto could remember and count the times he had smiled. "Over at All Saints," he said to Masuto, "Doc Baxter has a cadaver that he wants you to look at. Anyway, it's time you and Beckman stirred your asses and justified my having a homicide division."
"We haven't been sitting still," Masuto said gently. "We've been on robbery. However, if the city fathers require murder, we can hire a contract man—"
"Oh, get the hell out of here," Wainwright said tiredly. "Your humor stinks."
"Do you want me?" Beckman asked Masuto.
"Finish the paper. It's just possible I can handle Baxter alone."
Beverly Hills, in spite of the astonishing growth of the small, affluent city that was entirely surrounded by the city of Los Angeles, was still too small to have its own morgue and department of forensic medicine. Instead, it used the morgue and pathology room at All Saints Hospital, which was located just at the edge of Beverly Hills, one small wing extending into the domain of Los Angeles. Dr. Sam Baxter was part-time medical examiner for Beverly Hills, a tired, professionally nasty internist in his late sixties. He regarded each summons to work as a deliberate intrusion on his time and privacy, whereby he specified the members of the Beverly Hills police force as his nominal enemies.
He greeted Masuto with a cold stare. "Do you know how long I been waiting here? It's almost ten."
"I was informed and I came immediately," Masuto said gently.
"What the hell, I'm not a cop. Or am I? Tell me?"
"No, doc. You're not a cop."
"But I got to turn up murder. God knows how many killers are walking the streets because you lamebrains over there on Rexford Drive can't see what's in front of your noses."
"We do our best."
"I just bet you do."
"What have you got?" Masuto asked him. "Mostly we're told about murder. It's still sort of a novelty in Beverly Hills."
"Don't get snotty with me, Masao. You're the chief of what they please to call their homicide squad, heaven help us." As he talked, he walked across the hospital morgue to the refrigerated holding cabinet and pulled out one of the drawers. "Take a look at this."
Masuto walked over to the cabinet and looked down at the pale, lifeless face of a young woman. Her hair was black, her features good. In death, she was wistful, as if pleading for all the years of life that had been taken from her.
"Ana Fortez," Baxter said. "Twenty-one years old. Admitted to All Saints the night before last with a severe case of food poisoning. Died yesterday afternoon. Botulism."
Masuto nodded. "We had a report."
"I don't doubt it. Did the report tell you that in the eight hours before she had been taken ill she had eaten three chocolate éclairs and nothing else?"
"I think that was mentioned."
"You think so," Baxter said sarcastically. "You really think so. And then she died. But you defenders of law and order saw nothing unusual in that—nothing unusual in botulism from eating a chocolate éclair?"
"Look, Doc, I appreciate your wit and irony. We were waiting for your autopsy report, out of due respect for our medical examiner. People do die from food poisoning."
"Not from éclairs."
"Why not from éclairs? The scouts have a picnic. Someone brings creampuffs, and thirty scouts end up in the hospital. It's happened time and again."
"But they don't die, mister—not from a botulism."
"Why not? I seem to remember fatalities."
"No, sir. Not from botulism. There are a dozen other kinds of food poisoning, but botulism is the rattlesnake of the lot and it does not grow in éclairs. It grows in putrefying meat and in badly canned vegetables. Did you ever pick up a can and find both ends bloated? Throw it away. It could contain a botulin. The bacillus botulinus will grow only in the absence of air, and there's no such thing as an airtight éclair, and this poor kid had enough botulin in her stomach to kill a horse. From eating éclairs? Now you tell me how the botulin got into the éclairs?"
"She's a Chicano?"
"I suppose so."
"Maybe she ate a bad taco. The meat some of those places use—"
"Shrewd, shrewd," Baxter agreed. "The cops are getting wiser. Why didn't I find it in her stomach?" He pushed the drawer back into the holding cabinet. "Tell you something, Masuto, if I had to choose between being bitten by a rattlesnake and swallowing botulin, I'd take the rattlesnake hands down."
"Is it always fatal?"
"Just about. The toxin does it—intoxication, we call it—" he grinned. "That's the medical term."
"All right," Masuto said, "you've been very clever and I salute you. Now what are you telling me? Are you telling me that this poor kid was murdered deliberately by someone injecting a batch of eclairs with botulin and then feeding them to her?"
"That's right. That's just what I'm telling you."
"It's the most far-fetched thing I ever heard of."
"I don't perpetrate the murders, Sergeant, I just analyze them."
"Are you sure?"
"You're damn right I'm sure."
"Was the kid married? Does she have a husband, family, friends?"
"That's upstairs business. I just open them up."
The hospital records listed her husband, Pedro Fortez, as next of kin. Masuto copied down the address—an East Los Angeles street—and the phone number, informed the hospital that the death had become a police matter, and then returned to headquarters.
"Pretty damn unlikely," Captain Wainwright said after Masuto had filled him in. "Who is the kid?"
"A Chicano, occupation housemaid."
"And someone puts together this crazy murder device? Balls! You know what I think? I think Doc Baxter has flipped out."
"He only does the autopsy. It's the pathologist at the hospital who came up with the botulism."
"Then we'll find the goddamn bakery and close it down. I don't buy that crap that an éclair can't kill you. My wife ate a rotten éclair once and she was in the hospital three days. Meanwhile, get through to L.A.P.D. and see if they got any cases of food poisoning. Check the County Health Service too."
Masuto nodded slowly.
"You don't agree with me," Wainwright said. "You got one of those Chinese hunches of yours."
"I don't know. Anyway, I have to talk to her husband. He's my only lead to the bakery."
"Talk to him. Only don't go looking for trouble, Masao. It finds us soon enough."
In Masuto's office, Beckman had finished the Los Angeles Times and was reading the Herald-Examiner.
"Perhaps I should wait until you finish the paper," Masuto suggested.
"Just trying to catch up. You don't read the papers, you're not in the world."
"I'm returning you to the world. Go downtown and talk to Omi Saiku. He runs the poison lab for the Los Angeles cops. He's a fourth or fifth cousin of mine, so you can tell him that you're asking for me."
"What am I asking him?"
"You're asking what he has on recent food poisoning in general, and specifically whether a bad eclair can produce botulism."
"How do you spell botulism?"
Masuto spelled it out. "And get a background. If he tells you no botulism in an éclair, find out if someone could put it there. Find out if a person eating it could taste it. Get all the background you can, and then go to the County Health Service and see what they have on recent food poisoning."
"You don't think you ought to fill me in?"
"I don't know what's to fill in yet. Baxter has a Chicano girl over at All Saints who he claims was murdered by éclairs doped with botulin. It sounds crazy."
"You can say that again," Beckman agreed.
After Beckman had left, Masuto called the telephone number the hospital had given him. A voice answered in Spanish. Speaking careful, well-enunciated Spanish, Masuto asked for Pedro Fortez and was told that he was at All Saints Hospital.
Masuto drove back to All Saints, and as he entered the lobby, he noticed sitting on one of the benches a young man whose face reflected all the grief a face could hold, a dark, good-looking young man of about thirty. Masuto walked over to him and asked, speaking Spanish, "Are you Pedro Fortez?"
The eyes, wet with tears, looked at Masuto. The head nodded.
"I am Sergeant Masuto, Beverly Hills police. I hesitate to intrude on your grief, but I must talk to you. I must ask you some questions."
Fortez nodded mutely.
"We can speak in Spanish or English, whichever is easier for you. Spanish?"
"Si," the young man whispered.
"Your wife was employed as a domestic?"
"She worked for Mrs. Crombie."
"You know the address?"
He gave an address on Beverly Drive, and Masuto jotted it down. "Can you tell me," Masuto asked gently, "what happened the day your wife took sick?"
There was a long silence. Then Fortez drew a long breath and said, "Nothing happened. That's what is so terrible. We have one car, my old Ford. I work in a plastics plant in Santa Monica. When I go to work in the morning, I drop Ana off at the Crombie place. In the evening, I pick her up—only—"
The tears began again. The nurse at the reception desk came over and whispered to Masuto. Was there something she could do? "Poor kid," she said. "Are you a friend?"
"I'm a policeman," Masuto said. "Perhaps a little water."
Fortez drank the water and apologized for his tears. "We were only married a year," he explained.
"And you picked Ana up the night before last?"
"Yes. We drove home. She had a dish in the refrigerator that she had prepared for me the night before. It is called carne de res con nopalitos and it is made with much garlic and green cactus. Ana could not bear the taste of garlic. She made the dish just for me. I asked her what she would eat, and she showed me the three éclairs that Mrs. Crombie let her take home. My Ana was like a little child about sweets. She decided that the pastry would be her whole supper."
"She didn't offer you any?"
He shook his head. "I don't like such things."
"And after she ate the pastry, she became sick?"
"That night she became sick. In the morning I called the ambulance. It was too late. Then when she died—when she died—they brought her body here."
"Do you know why they brought her body here, Mr. Fortez?"
"They said she was poisoned, that the food poisoned her."
"Yes. Your wife died of a kind of food poisoning called botulism. That's what makes it a police matter. You see, we must try to find out where the éclairs came from. I don't know whether there is any reason why you must stay here now. Could you leave and return?"
"We would be very grateful to you if you could come to the Beverly Hills police headquarters and give us a statement. I only mean to let a stenographer take down what you have just told me. Then you could sign it, and we have it for the records."
"Must I? Ana is here. I arranged for the hearse to come here for her body."
"At three o'clock."
"Then you have plenty of time. This won't take more than an hour, with the driving. I'll be happy to drive you both ways."
He thought about it for awhile, then nodded. "I'll take my own car."
"The police station is on Rexford, just south of Santa Monica. Do you know where that is?"
"I know. Yes."
After Fortez had made his statement, and after it was typed up and Wainwright had read it, the captain said to Masuto, "Did you tell him about Doc Baxter's theory?"
"No. What for? He has enough grief."
"Still, if there's anything to it, he could have fed her the stuff in a mug of coffee."
"Come on," Masuto said. "A Mexican murder is an act of violence, an act of rage. If this is what Baxter says it is, it's a thousand years removed from those poor kids. It's diabolical."
"If it's what Baxter says it is. I still don't buy it."
Beckman walked in as Masuto entered his office, and stood in silence for a long moment, watching Masuto.
"What is it, Sy? What did you learn?"
"You give me a creepy feeling at times."
"That's because I'm a wily Oriental. What did Omi have to say?"
"He says you can't get botulism from an éclair. He also says you can't get botulism from Lubie's chocolates, which in case you never heard of Lubie's chocolates are maybe the most expensive candy in the world, and they're sold on North Cañon Drive over here in Beverly Hills for eight and a half dollars a pound."
Excerpted from The Case of the Poisoned Eclairs by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1979 E. V. Cunningham. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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