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Authors: Medora Sale

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BOOK: Murder in a Good Cause
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“What?” She looked genuinely surprised. “They pay for a lot of expensive nanny so they can leave them. And they're not going anywhere until they find out what's happening, either, if I know them.” She walked in and sat down. “I'm sorry. That sounded very unpleasant. Even Milan and Theresa didn't deserve it. But thank you for seeing me now. It's very upsetting just sitting up there with only the two of them to talk to and not knowing what's happened. Obviously there is something very wrong, isn't there? I mean, what happened to Mamma.” She gulped slightly and then gave her head a shake. “That wasn't anything normal, was it?”

“Probably not,” he said. “Although we don't know. Can you tell us anything about what happened? For example, do you know what she may have eaten or drunk this evening? Besides the tea?”

Veronika's pallor intensified. “Besides the tea? No. No, I was talking to Klaus and a girl called Kirsten. I wasn't really noticing what anyone else was doing. Until . . . I did see the teacup in her hand, though. Was there something wrong with the tea?”

“It's a possibility. She collapsed shortly after drinking it, although that doesn't necessarily mean it was the tea that caused her to collapse.” Then, speaking in a purely matter-of-fact tone, he dropped Theresa's theory into the conversation. “Your sister tells me that Mrs. von Hohenkammer was very depressed and that it seems probable that she took her own life. Had you noticed similar symptoms in her?”

“Depressed? Mamma? That's ridiculous!” She leaned back in amazement.

“You didn't observe that her recent behaviour—say, since the death of her husband—had changed? That her mental state had deteriorated?”

“Nonsense!” said Nikki. She stood up and paced restlessly around the study as she spoke. “She was very upset when Papa died, of course. They had been very fond of each other, and she depended on him a great deal. I suppose she was depressed for several months after his death, but that's perfectly normal, I would think.” She leaned against the wall opposite the desk and regarded Sanders steadily.

“Not if your parents were separated in the months before his death, I would have thought. Unless she suffered from guilt.”

“Separated? Who have you been talking to?” she asked angrily. “Is this some of Frank Whitelaw's nonsense? Listen, I was there, and I know what went on. Mamma was away for a week or ten days in Cologne at an arts festival when Papa had his heart attack. She flew back at once, but it was too late. And yes, I think that had something to do with why she took his death so hard. But she would have been devastated anyway, even if she had been there.” Tears sprang up in her eyes, and she shook her head impatiently again. “But that was four years ago. I can't imagine why Theresa said that Mamma committed suicide. Suicide! Mamma believed that suicide was a mortal sin. It's absolutely unthinkable that she would have done it.”

“She didn't feel that she was getting old and unable to function—professionally or personally—the way she used to?”

“Mamma? Mamma was a tiger. Nobody could keep up with her. She certainly has—had—more energy than Theresa ever did.” As she warmed to her subject, her face gained some color, and her eyes some of their normal snap. “She went off to dance class at least three times a week when she was in the city. And she usually got up very early in the morning and went for a long walk. I mean, really long, eight or ten kilometers. And she swam when we were in the country. She functioned better than most people in this house.” Veronika glared at Sanders so that he didn't miss the point that he was included in her survey of the people in the house.

“Any problems with alcohol? Drugs?”

“Drugs? She hardly ever drank coffee or tea, even, except for those disgusting herbal mixtures of hers. She never touched alcohol except to be polite at dinner parties. She was practically a vegetarian. Lived on yogurt and whole grains and fruit and stuff like that. She was bounding with energy all summer.” Veronika turned her head away for an instant. “She would never have done it. Never. If there was something in that tea, it got there by mistake or someone else put it in. Not Mamma. I know that.” She shook her head and looked soberly at him. “Not only that, but she was supposed to start rehearsals in October for a new play. She was very excited about it. She wouldn't have missed that.”

“Did you and your mother get along well?” he asked casually.

“You have been talking to people, haven't you?” Her cheeks reddened, and she raised her chin an inch or two. “Well, we did. No matter what they say. I admit we used to fight a lot. She didn't care for some of my, uh, friends in Munich, and I felt that it wasn't any business of hers who my friends were. That led to some disagreements. But even so, we were very close to each other.” She shrugged her shoulders. “I can't prove that, but it's true.” She stopped and took a deep breath. “Is there anything else you want to know?” Clearly, from her point of view, everything he had asked so far had been an impertinent intrusion. Sanders shook his head, and she walked out of the room. Every inch of her radiated honesty and truth as she moved, but he remembered that she, too, was the daughter of a great actress.

Sanders regarded the young man standing in front of him with a gloomy and jaundiced eye. The evening clothes, shrieking as they did of wealth and privilege, were enough to arouse his dislike; the youthful athleticism and automatic good manners merely strengthened it. But Sanders's expression was having its effect; the young man's elegance was being undermined by worry. Sanders started with “Your name is Klaus Leitner, and you are a nephew of the deceased?” in his coldest tones, when he was interrupted by a distinctly official knock on the door. One of the small army of men who were going over the house beckoned him into the hall.

“Yes, Collins?”

“Sorry to disturb you, sir,” said Collins with his usual calm. “I found something in the cellar I thought I should bring to your attention.”

“It better be good,” said Sanders irritably. “I'm busy.”

“Oh, it is.” There was a hint of smugness in his voice. “There's a photo lab down there. With a bottle marked ‘Cyanide' in it.”

“Well, I'll be damned,” said Sanders. Collins stepped across the hallway to the closed door directly opposite the study. He flung it open and headed rapidly down the narrow stairs, across a clean and uncluttered concrete floor painted a shiny gray, to a set of four doors in the wall in front of him. They were all shut. The one at the far end was also padlocked. “What's in there?” asked Sanders.

“Don't know yet, sir,” said Collins.

“Find out.”

He nodded and headed for the two doors at the other end. “This is a darkroom. Nothing fancy or special about it,” he said, pointing at the first door, “and this is where I found it.” He opened the one at the end, turned on a light, and revealed a full-sized bathroom. It had been given over completely to photography. Stainless-steel developing tanks, graduated cylinders, and an expensive chemical balance were lined up on the countertop. Inside the bathtub was a plastic dishpan and a black plastic cylinder with a hose attached to it.

Sanders pointed at it.

“For washing film,” explained Collins. He was the only member of the team at home in a lab; he had gone, in search of excitement, from photography to the bomb squad. After five years, in search of peace and quiet, he had transferred to Homicide. Now he stood behind Sanders, quietly waiting.

Finally, Sanders stepped inside the room, opened the cabinet doors, and contemplated a neat array of chemicals, all lined up in some sort of order, no doubt. Most of them were made by two or three prominent photographic supply companies—names even Sanders had heard of—but there were also glass and plastic containers of chemicals that were not standard enough to be sold by Ilford or Paterson or Kodak. Sitting in the midst of them was a brown glass bottle with a black plastic cap. The bottle was very neatly labeled “Potassium Cyanide. Poison. Handle with Care.”

Sanders closed the cupboard door gently and stood upright again. “That seems to be it, Collins. Thank you.” He headed back upstairs to finish his talk with Mr. Leitner.

“Who is the photographer in the house?” Sanders asked abruptly as he walked in.

Klaus Leitner had moved to the comfortable leather armchair and was apparently drifting off into semiconsciousness when Sanders asked the question. He sat up, wide awake. “I suppose if there is one, I'm it.”

“You are responsible for the darkroom in the basement?”

“Yes. Aunt Clara let me have the space. No one else wanted it.” He sounded defensive. “I'm the only person who ever uses the basement.”

“Are you indeed?” murmured Sanders. “That's interesting.”

“What do you mean by that?” Leitner asked. There was hostility in the charming voice, Sanders noted; one more jab and the smooth and polished exterior would crack apart.

“Only that down in the bathroom, which you apparently also use for photographic purposes— You do, don't you?”

“Yes. I need running water to wash film and prints, and the darkroom doesn't have any. I use both rooms.” His manner was becoming stiff.

“In that bathroom,” continued Sanders, ignoring the response, “we have found a glass bottle marked ‘Potassium Cyanide.' Is that yours?”

“Yes, it is.” Klaus grew distinctly pale. “I use it in processing.”

“Really. Do all photographers have enough cyanide in their possession to wipe out several households full of people?”

“No.” He had started to scrape nervously at his forefinger with his thumbnail; the action created a small but irritating noise. “It's used in a few specialized procedures. Most photographers wouldn't bother with it.”

“Like what?” said Sanders nastily, trying to widen the crack.

“It's used for intensification of negatives.” The thumbnail slowed.

“And that is?” With that question, Sanders lost him. Leitner gave him a thoughtful look; the anxiety ebbed away from his taut shoulders.

“I'd have to show you a print from a negative I'd processed. Otherwise, it's too complicated to explain.” His voice suddenly became enthusiastic. “Just a minute.” He bolted out of the room with such speed that Sanders was powerless to stop him. By the time he had yelled at someone to go after him, the basement door had opened, and hurrying feet on the stairs were the only trace left of him.

“Oh, Jesus,” muttered Sanders. “He's probably down there swallowing the rest of the cyanide.” But before he could get around the desk to rush after him, he heard footsteps racing back up the stairs.

“There should be some in here,” said Klaus, breathlessly waving an orange box in one hand. “Come on. I'll spread them out here on the table.” He pushed aside the photo albums and began to riffle through a pile of prints from the box. “There, that one worked fairly well. And so did that.” He smiled.

Sanders looked down at the first print. It reminded him of an inkblot test. It was a collection of very black shapes against a very white ground and made no sense to him at all.

“If you want to see what goes on, look first at a print I made before I altered the negative.” Beside the first one he put down a print of a reclining nude, small breasted, long legged, and round in the hips, with long hair that almost hid her face. Sanders was more impressed with the subject than with the technique. “Now what I did here . . . you see that the contours of the body are made up of alternating light and dark sections?” Sanders nodded. “Okay. I bathe the negative in Monckhoven's Intensifier—”

“What's that?”

“It's a bleach, a mercuric salt bleach. It alters the composition of the silver in the negative—you know, so it will behave differently. Then I plunge it in a bath of silver nitrate and potassium cyanide. Now, wherever the negative is thin—where there isn't much silver and so a lot of light will pass through it—the cyanide clears out the silver that's there, but more silver builds up in the denser section of the negative. So where there's no silver, you get a very dense black on the print because the light goes right through to the paper”—he was pointing to various sections of the print as he spoke—“and where there's a lot of silver, you get a very white white. In effect, you've wiped out all the middle tones, and you get this stark, contrasty print that has a rather surrealistic effect, I think. I was considering putting this one in a show—a better print of it, of course. This is just a work print.” He stood back to let Sanders admire the results of his technical wizardry.

Sanders picked up the print, looked at it for a puzzled moment, and put it down again. “Very interesting effect.” He preferred the girl before she had become a mass of black-and-white blotches but refrained from saying so. “Where do you usually keep the cyanide?”

“In the bathroom with the rest of my chemicals. That's where I mix up developer and so on. That counter around the sink is very handy.”

“And you don't keep the cupboard or the room locked?”

Leitner shook his head. “It never occurred to me. I should have, because Theresa's children go down there sometimes.” He gave a helpless shrug of his shoulders. “I'm not used to being around kids. I didn't think.” He stacked up the prints again, his hands nervously tapping them together over and over again, and then put them back in the box. “I assume you believe that Aunt Clara was killed with my potassium cyanide,” he said finally, and sat down beside the table, looking exhausted and miserable.

“I don't assume anything. I find it interesting that there is potassium cyanide in the house. Who knew that it was there?”

“I don't know.” He looked up at Sanders and brushed his hair out of his eyes. “Anyone could have gone down into that bathroom. The cyanide was clearly labeled. And people go down there to get wine, and the freezer's down there. . . .” His voice trailed off helplessly.

BOOK: Murder in a Good Cause
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