Newspaper accounts of the killings had become as commonplace as spaghetti on Wednesday nights. This much was clear: the modus operandi of the murderer involved propping his victims in a sitting position, with a stuffed panda positioned in the crook of the left arm. The panda was eight-inches tall, with Kennedy half-dollars glued over its button eyes. Analysis revealed the glue to be of a type commonly found in hardware stores. The panda itself was not so common. A replica of a Chinese panda, the stuffed quadruped was manufactured exclusively by Macrotech, Inc., whose plant was located outside Springfield, Massachusetts.
It was to Springfield I was headed that fateful night in March. The flight had begun well but turned sour when fog socked Bradley Airport in for an hour and stacked planes like paper plates for fifty miles. The flight attendants were very good. They kept us contented with cocktails for the duration of the delay. I waved off the third scotch, however. Told the girl to take it to some poor beggar in coach.
After we landed, I hired a car out to Springfield and promised the driver a bonus if we rode non-stop to the plant. He said his name was John Smith. He said he would be the best driver I’d ever had. I looked straight at him.
“Cut the nonsense,” I said, jabbing my thumb at the trunk, “and take care of my bags.” I was tired of being oiled by the John Smiths of the world, any one of whom would slit his own mother’s throat for the promise of an extra penny. I climbed into the rusting clunker and felt the seatback springs digging into my spine. Just as well. I didn’t want to nap. I wanted to think about the case. The cab lurched into the night, and I pictured the body of Angelica Hughes.
She had been found in her apartment by her boyfriend, who broke the door down the third day after she failed to return his calls. She had been dead since the first of those three days, apparently the victim of a push-in at the door the night she returned from a baby shower. The television was on and her body had been left—with panda—facing the flashing screen. She had been strangled. What the police failed to discover, however, was the faint scent of almonds in her throat. This trace of cyanide should have alerted the police to the obvious fact that the woman was first rendered unconscious and the fatal indignity not administered until she was already quite near death.
"Mind if I stop for a cup o’ joe?” Smith asked. He was eyeing me in the rear-view mirror.
“No,” I said. “I don’t mind at all. That way, I won’t have to pay your bonus.” I peered out the window and watched the wisps of fog swirl by. I was beginning to enjoy myself. Smith said something under his breath and stepped on the accelerator. The cab shot through the gloom.
Yes, the Hughes’ case should have established the criminal’s cunning and his extraordinary strength. Carrying an unconscious woman up three flights of stairs—the elevator had been out—was no easy feat. That the woman had known her assailant had also escaped the locals. Their push-in theory neatly accounted for the absence of forced entry, but did not explain why there were no screams of terror. An unconscious woman doesn’t scream, of course. Once unconscious, she could scarcely have led the man to her apartment. No, he knew her and knew where she lived. He’d brought her there and then killed her.
A road sign caught my eye. I began banging on the plastic partition.
“Smith, you idiot!” I yelled. “Turn around! You’ve missed the exit.”
I saw him glaring at me in the mirror. Instantly I recognized that glower of anger and hatred.
“You ain’t payin’ me enough,” he growled. He grinned at me. “Kick in a C-note, and I’ll think about it.” His eyes, like panda eyes, loomed large in the mirror.
Blast. Another delay.
“All right, Smith,” I said. “Stop the car.” I wasn’t going to be squeezed, not by an idiot like Smith. The car crunched to a halt along the side of the road. I climbed out and slammed the door behind me. Smith was standing there with a tire iron in his hand.
“You’re gonna give me that money, one way or another.” He waved the tire iron in my face. I sighed.
“If it’ll make you happy,” I said, “come and take the money.” He leaped forward, swinging the iron. I stepped to the side and grabbed his arm as it flew by, twisting it behind his back. With a quick turn I fractured his wrist, then caught the tire iron and plunged it point-first into the back of his skull. He fell and did not get up.
I dragged him around to the driver’s side and stuffed him into the front, propped him neatly at the wheel with his head back against the seat. Anyone passing by would think he was napping. I took the keys from the ignition and retrieved my bags from the trunk. I opened the large bag and took out the only panda I had left. The silver half-dollars on its eyes glinted at me. I placed it carefully in the crook of Smith’s left arm and slammed the door. I shouldered one bag and grabbed the other and headed off into the woods.
I hadn’t really known him, but at least I had done the job right. Macrotech wasn’t far away, and soon I would have a whole new supply of pandas.
Copyright: © 2010 Robert Meade