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An Old Portrait
An Old Portrait



I

Thirteen is an unlucky number. Everyone wants to avoid using it, best as possible. Is it a superstition? Different people have different answers.
        "If anyone offers me thirteen million dollars," Mrs. Smith often said, "I'd rather take twelve." But she died with thirteen knife wounds. Either it was sheer coincidence, or the murderer knew her so well and did that on purpose.  
        "It is really an unlucky number," Kelly Larson, a police detective, thought, "to the victim." She was the next door neighbor to Mrs. Betty Smith. She knew the victim well. They belonged to the same club, the local 40 Plus Women Club, and hence she was assigned to take the charge of the investigation in this case.
        The murder scene was preserved when Kelly arrived. Actually she was at the scene when her boss called her on her cell phone. She was awakened by the commotion outside. The clock on her bedside table told 1:42 a.m. By a detective's instinct, she knew something wrong happened. She jumped out of bed and hurried into her jeans and a sweater. She almost got her feet into wrong shoes, right foot into the left one, as she had just kicked off her shoes when she had returned home late last night.
        She dashed to peep out from her second floor bedroom window and saw two police cars standing at the curb near next door, with top lights flashing red and blue. A uniform came out from the Smiths' house. She went over to see what had happened.
        Betty Smith lay on her back on the living room floor, dressed in outdoor clothes, covered with blood all over. Blood soaked into the beige carpet round the body. Traces of struggle were visible. Kelly could not find the murder weapon. All the knives in the kitchen didn't match the wounds on the body.
        "How long is she dead?" she asked the coroner when her assistant Robert showed up. Robert was a talented young man though he had graduated from a police academy not long ago.
        "Maybe, about two hours. The body is still warm."
        Sure. A body got cold slow with the central heating on in the house.
        Then she checked the broken glass on the kitchen door. Burglar? It was her first thought. No conclusion in a hurry, she warned herself. After looking around, she cornered the husband in the family room. It was the husband who had called 9-1-1.
        "Where were you when it happened?" she asked Mr. Smith.  
        "I was in New York for two days at a meeting. I drove to New York yesterday and stayed there for the night. When the meeting ended in the evening today," he looked at his wrist watch, "eh, yesterday, I went to see a friend and got back after midnight."
        "Can we check with your friend for alibi?"
        "I didn't really see him."
        "So, when were you after the meeting?"
        "I went to see a movie." He grew a little nervous.
        "Alone?"
        "Alone."
        Now it fell into the category: The husband is always the first suspect when the wife is murdered.
        Especially this husband. For Kelly often heard them shouting to each other in brawl. She could not remember how many times Betty had complained to her about her husband, who had quite a few girlfriends scattering everywhere he had a meeting to attend. Kelly thought that the wife had been exaggerating. Mr. Smith was a salesman, traveling a lot. Although he was in his late forties, he still looked handsome enough to magnetize the opposite sex, but it was unbelievable that he had a girlfriend at every place he had had a meeting.  When asked anything was missing, he said that he had noticed that a portrait hung in Betty's bedroom was not there any more.


II

Betty Smith worked in a library, not as a librarian. One of her colleagues, a librarian, was a Chinese woman, also in forties, by the name of Sally Aixinjueluo. The family name belongs to the Mandarin Clan, a minority in China, but was the ruling clan of Qing Dynasty, the last dynasty in the Chinese history. "You would have been a princess," Betty often joked with her, "if Qing Dynasty hadn't been overthrown in 1911."
        She would smile at Betty. Betty liked to learn new things about other cultures in the world. Sally often told her intriguing stories of the palace secrets of Qing Dynasty. They became friends.
        Betty had a picture, or rather, a portrait of a beautiful woman attired in a weird dress. It had been handed down from her late great grandfather to her late grandfather, then from her late grandfather to her late father, and now to her. She really didn't know much about this portrait. Her great grandfather had been a major in the joint armies that had invaded China in 1900. They had entered the Forbidden City, the residence of the emperor and the empress dowager of Qing Dynasty. Her great grandfather had returned with this portrait.
        Once Betty had shown the portrait to Sally since she was a Chinese, a probable princess of Mandarin Clan, and must know something more about it. Sally looked at this portrait for several long minutes without uttering a word. When Betty asked her jokingly whether there was any secret about this portrait, Sally just shook her head. Instead Sally asked Betty how this portrait came into her hands. Betty told her what little she knew. No comments from Sally. She just listened and then she advised Betty that Chinese paintings, including portraits of that kind, were supposed to hang on the wall, but avoiding direct exposure to the sunshine. Long time storage in one place might grow mildew. So Betty hung it on the wall opposite the windows in her bedroom upstairs.


III

Kelly could not exclude the possibility of burglary that had gone awry since the glass on the back door was broken. Could it be that Mr. Smith broke the glass and hid the portrait to mislead the investigation? Kelly had seen such a portrait when Betty sometimes invited Kelly to her bedroom to look at some dress she had just bought. But Kelly was not sure if this portrait was valuable enough to be worth the killing.
        When Kelly and Robert went to question neighbors from door to door, an old lady told them that she had seen someone clad in black coming out of the front door at the time supposed the murder had happened.  
        "It's a man or a woman?"  Kelly asked.
        "Can't say. It's too dark. Didn't see clearly. But it's not tall."
        So Kelly got more questions than answers. She had two theories now. One was: The husband had really been away from home. A burglar had broken in and stolen the portrait. But Betty had come back, surprised the burglar and got herself killed. The other was: The husband had been at home and a girlfriend of his had come to visit him since Berry had been supposed to be away for a long time, but she had returned early and surprised the couple. And the husband had killed her while the girlfriend had escaped.  
        But Kelly hadn't heard anything like a brawl next door that night though she knew that Mr. and Mrs. Smith had often quarreled before. And why was the girlfriend dressed all in black? So this scenario held no water. Then Kelly remembered that Betty had told her that she had known a gallery owner, who had always wanted to buy the portrait from her, but she wouldn't have parted with it since it was a family heirloom. The coincidence was that the owner was a short man. Could a wish to buy the portrait develop into stealing and murdering? She got headache from all the analyzing and deducting.
        If the burglar theory was close to the truth, where could she find the burglar? A burglar was always like a wild goose. If the husband theory was close to the truth, no matter whatever reason he had got to kill his wife, she could at least put him under surveillance and control. Why not work in that direction for a while to see what would come out of it? She advised herself. And here was the gallery owner, too. She could give that to Robert.
        She began to follow Mr. Smith and kept a close watch on him. She found that he did have a girlfriend living in Union City, New Jersey. But before long, the girlfriend came to Mr. Smith's house since the wife was no longer a hindrance. This did give Mr. Smith a motive. And later, their marriage seemed to strengthen the motive. The girlfriend was much younger than the late wife. Men are always like that: they run after younger girls. But Kelly noticed that the girlfriend never wore anything black. It really didn't matter, she thought.  However, their marriage could not be deemed as evidence to the murder. A few days' efforts didn't get Kelly any closer to the solution. She was frustrated.
        Robert visited the gallery. He walked from aisle to aisle and didn't see anything remotely resembling the portrait. "How stupid I am." He blamed himself, "How can a thief display something stolen when the track is still hot?" He reported his disappointment to Kelly, who got an idea. She took the old lady who had seen someone coming out of the victim's house to the gallery and told her to pay special attention to the owner.
        "Does he look familiar to you? The height, the gait . . .?" Kelly asked the old lady as soon as they got outside the gallery.
        "It's hard to say. Everyone dressed in black with similar height looks the same to me." Another disappointment.


IV

"Let me talk to Betty's other friends." She consulted herself, "They may somewhat enlighten me with a clue."  She made a list of Betty's friends she wanted to talk to. She split the list and gave half of the list to Robert.  They would talk to people separately to save time.
        She went to the library and found Sally, who was Betty's colleague as well as a close friend. "Can you spare a few minutes and have a talk with me?"  She had met Sally a few times in Betty's house.
        "Sure. This way please." Sally led Kelly to an unoccupied meeting room and they sat down at a table, facing each other.
        "You were Betty's close friend. Tell me something about her. Anything you know."
        "We were best friends. I feel sorry for her untimely tragic death."
        "Do you know anyone who hated her enough and wanted her dead?"   
        "Betty was nice to everyone. I don't think anyone could want her dead."
        "What about her husband?"
        "I don't know him well enough to judge him. Whenever I went to Betty's house, he's mostly not at home."
        The conversation went nowhere. Kelly took leave. Next day, Kelly went to the library again, but to seek another friend of Betty's, Holly by name, who was also working there. Kelly knew her, too, because she was also a member of 40 Plus Women Club. As Kelly was more familiar with her, the conversation was carried on a bit more casually. But Holly could provide no useful information, either.
        Kelly told her assistant Robert to follow the transactions and auctions in the art market to see if the stolen portrait would turn up, but only a stupid thief would sell it when the track was still hot. Anyway, it was the procedures. Or just to try luck.
        Then a message came that a portrait of some Asian woman was for sale in a certain gallery in New York. As Robert never saw the portrait before, Kelly had to go herself to check if this was the same portrait.  She went with Robert and found the gallery. She walked about in the gallery, but didn't see any portrait. Could it be a wrong message? It's hard to say. At last she decided to talk to the owner and learned that the portrait had been sold half an hour before she arrived. The price was only a couple of hundred dollars. It didn't sound like a valuable one. Since they didn't have any clue to follow at present, she made up her mind to trace this portrait to see where it would lead them to.
        Luckily, the buyer had paid for it with a credit card. Robert was told to get the address of the buyer, which he did with a few phone calls. The address was in New Jersey. They drove back and found the address in Bergen County. But no one was at home when they rang the bell. They sat in their unmarked car and waited.  The house was big, perhaps cost a million. It was not until dark that a white Mercedes pulled onto the driveway and into the garage. They got out of their car again and walked to the front door. As the bell rang several times, the chained door was at length opened a crack. An old lady showed half of her face with one eye looking at them, inquiring who they were and what they wanted. Kelly showed her badge to her, asking to see the owner of the house.
        The door closed, the chain unhooked and the door opened wide to let them in. They were led into the living room. A couch and four easy chairs arranged in a semicircle occupied part of the room, with a coffee table in the middle of the semicircle. They noticed an oblong package on the coffee table. They felt hungry now and wanted to get the business over as soon as possible. An old man was sitting on the couch. The old lady addressed him, "Charles, these are detectives. They want to talk to you." She sat down beside the old man. Kelly and Robert took two easy chairs side by side. They didn't want to waste time to survey the rest of the furniture in the room.
        "We learned that you had bought a portrait. Can we have a look?"
        The old man didn't say anything, just tore open the wrappings. It was a portrait of a woman, but not the stolen one, to their expected disappointment.


V

Sally and Holly were also friends. They were shopping-mates, too. They had the same taste. They had the same buying ability, that is to say, they couldn't afford expensive things. They always went to expensive stores, but only bought things on sale there, if there was anything on sale. When the tags were cut off, who could tell that these things had been on sale?
        They said that they were happy to live within a walking distance of each other. They could save a bit of gas money. It is said that when you save money, you can't save a lot, but when you make money, you can make a lot. But when you can't make a lot, what can you do?  You have to save bit by bit.
        "Hello, Sally."
        "Hi, Holly. What's up?"
        "Last Wednesday, you said you were busy and couldn't go with me to that On Sale Night. I went alone and bought something really good, and cheap."
        "What's it?"
        "Two silk blouses. A lavender and a white, with flowers embroidered on the front."
        "Sounds good. Shall I congratulate you?"
        "Come over to have a look. We'll celebrate."
        Sally walked to Holly's house and they tried the blouses on before the looking glass set on the inside of the closet door in Holly's bedroom. They had almost the same height, five foot four inches for Sally and five foot four and a half inches for Holly. They had almost the same figure, not fat, not too lean, just like a model's.  They often borrowed clothes from each other. It meant that each of them had two wardrobes, which saved them a lot of money.
        "Stay for dinner, Sally."
        "Good. For celebration?"
        "We can have a glass of wine. My doctor said that a glass of red wine with dinner is good to your health."
        "I can drink wine, but hate beer. I can't understand why some people like the bitter taste. Is life not bitter enough?"
        They just put some frozen food in the microwave oven. They talked while eating.
        "What were you doing last Wednesday night?" Holly asked with her mouth half full, "You missed the fun of shopping."
        "Something personal turned up. I had to deal with it."
        They were so intimate that they almost shared everything with each other. People in the library thought that they were lesbians, but they were really not. Common taste and interest magnetized them to each other.


VI

No development for the case. Yet. Kelly didn't even know how to proceed, where she could drive in a wedge.  Robert kept watching the art market, but nothing useful turned up. The husband, Mr. Smith, was still on Kelly's suspect list.  Still on the top.  Because no one else could be put on the list to replace him.
        One day when Kelly left for work, she saw Mr. Smith getting out of his car on the driveway. They greeted each other as usual.
        "Am I still your suspect?"  Mr. Smith asked jestingly.
        "Unless you have an alibi." Kelly looked at him with a twitch somewhat resembling half a smile playing about her lips.
        "My new wife is my alibi. That night, I went to see her."
        "Why not told me so the first time?"
        "I felt shy to reveal our relationship at that time."
        "But it's not a strong alibi."
        "I know, I know." He heaved a sigh.
        Kelly bade him good-bye, got into her car and drove away.
        "Hello, Mike." It was the next door neighbor on the other side. "Now you are happy since Betty died. It seems as if you cast away an old coat and got a new one." The old man liked to kid Mr. Smith.  Mr. Smith knew that's why he was a suspect, when people looked at things from that angle. But as people didn't really accuse him of the murder, he couldn't plead for himself by saying, "Why should I kill her while I could get a divorce?"  Their bad relationship had never been a secret.


VII

"Can I come over to borrow your tear-drop pearl earrings? They match my new white silk blouse." Holly called Sally one Saturday evening.
        "Sure. You can stay for dinner."
        Ten minutes later, Holly knocked at Sally's door and was let in.
        "You can go upstairs to my bedroom, Holly. I'll make some tea and join you in a few minutes."
        A rose-wood jewelry box was lying on the bed. Holly sat down on the edge and lifted the lid of the box, which had small compartments. Holly picked up the pearl earrings and put them on her earlobes. She wanted to look in the mirror to see how the earrings looked on her. She went to the closet and opened the door. The mirror was on the inside of the closet door, but she was stunned to find that a portrait was hanging on the opposite wall in the closet with a small table before it. On the table were two candles and an incense burner. The candles and the incense were not lit, but what astounded her was that this was the portrait belonging to Betty. She had seen it more than once in Betty's bedroom.
        Sally, the murderer? Oh, no. Now that she knew her secret, Sally would kill her, for sure. She wanted to shut the closet door and pretended her ignorance of it.
        "You can leave the door open." It was Sally's voice. Holly stood frozen there, white-faced, like a statue.  
        "Don't be afraid. I won't kill you." Sally assured her that she was safe here. Holly found her limbs movable again like she were cured from paralysis. Next moment, she collapsed on the carpet. Sally carried upstairs two cups of tea. She laid the cups on the carpet and helped Holly into a sitting position. She sat down beside her and handed her a cup of tea. Holly felt her brain numb and accepted the cup absent-mindedly. She sipped some hot tea and gathered herself.
        "Why--, why--" she stuttered, "--all this?"
        "I offered to buy it from her, but she wouldn't let go."
        "Why--?" Holly still stammered.
        "Because it's the portrait of MY great grandmother, Empress Dowager Cixi. It should belong to MY family, not hers. Her great grandfather had robbed it from my great grandmother. I must get it back, whatever the cost."
        Holly got a little calmer now. "So you went to steal it last Wednesday night, I guess? Betty was murdered that night."
        "Yes. That's what I intended."
        "But why killed her?"
        "She came back early."
        "So you killed her?"
        "Not at first."
        "So, what happened?"
        "She asked why I wanted to steal it. I accused her great grandfather of the robbery. She wanted to call police. I wanted to stop her. We struggled for the phone. When she looked like she wanted to scream at the top of her lungs, I drew out the knife and stabbed her till she's motionless."
        "So you intended to kill her when you went there?"
        "No. I always carry a knife attached to my calf for self-protection. Have you ever seen me wearing a skirt?"
        "You threw the knife away, of course?"
        "No. I washed the knife and my hands clean of blood." Sally pulled up her right pants leg to reveal the knife.
        "Now you can kill me since I know all your secrets."
        "I didn't intend to kill Betty. Believe me. When I raised my knife to threaten her for silence, I seemed to see her great grandfather standing before me. I had seen his picture before. I thought at that time that I must revenge on him for my great grandmother. So I brought down the knife to stab him--her." Sally was sobbing.  No one said anything for a while.
        "Now tell me what I should do if you won't kill me."
        "It's up to you. You can go now."
        Holly got on her feet and left Sally's house, with the pearl earrings still on her lobes.


VIII

"Betty was my friend. Sally is my friend, too. What should I do?" Holly asked herself over and over again that night when she was lying on her bed, wide awake. How could she sleep, with mental burden so heavy? If she went to the police, she would look like she's betraying Sally. If she didn't go to the police, she would look like she's betraying Betty. If she betrayed Sally, Betty wouldn't resurrect like Jesus Christ. If she betrayed Betty, Sally would be safe. But should she protect a murderer? But she's not a serial killer. Not like another life was in a danger from her. But Betty didn't deserve death by stabbing. She was not yet old. She still had a long time to live. But Sally didn't intend to kill her. The disaster was all caused by Betty's great grandfather, by his robbery of the portrait. But why did Sally's great grandmother want to have her portrait painted in the first place? No portrait, no robbery, no murder, no disaster. She got a headache. She fell asleep at last.
        Next day when Holly went to the library, Sally was not there. "Did she run away?" Holly pondered.  Sally was not in the library the next day. And the next day. "Sally must be in a safe place now." she mused. Now she could tell Kelly the truth for Betty's sake. And the police would never find Sally. She didn't betray either of them.
        Kelly got a warranty to search Sally's house. Sally was not there, but the portrait was there, hanging in the closet. If Sally fled, why didn't she take the portrait with her since she had killed for it? The portrait could be rolled up into a scroll and fit in any duffel bag. Maybe, Sally didn't escape. She just left home for a few days for some reason or other. Kelly didn't touch anything. She would make the house a snare and put some policemen to watch it.
        On the coming Friday night, the policeman on the stakeout noticed the lights on in a second floor window of that house. It was the bedroom window. He radioed in the message and called for backups. Robert was among the first to arrive. He entered the house through the back door by breaking a pane of glass on the door. He dashed upstairs with a drawn gun, followed by two policemen. He kicked open the bedroom door and pointed the gun at a figure inside the room. He didn't even know who it was.
        It was Sally, of course, in her own house, in her own bedroom. She wanted to relax after Holly left her house. She traveled to Florida for a whole week on a vacation. She had called the director of the library, but Holly didn't know.
        Though with a gun pointed at her, Sally was very quick and nimble. She crouched a little, jumped forth a few paces in the crouching posture and turning a bit to the right, kicked up her left foot at Robert's stomach, sending him skidding across the floor out of the room into the hallway, knocking down the two policemen in his wake. Before Robert could get up, she jumped out through the window frame, breaking the window in the process. She landed on top of a police car. There were many policemen in the street now. They all drew out guns. Sally leaped from the top of one car onto the top of another, and still onto that of another, but at length got a shot in the left leg and fell on the ground. She was immediately surrounded by policemen. Kelly approached.  "Hello, Sally. I never know you have such marvelous kungfu."
        The news about the portrait was all over the country, on the newspapers, on radio and on TV. The portrait was kept in the vault of a local bank, with policemen stationed there round the clock. The portrait was valuable, because, according to an article on one of the newspapers, a photograph of Empress Dowager Cixi taken by a Japanese in the fifties of nineteen century had been sold at an auction for thirteen thousand British pounds. What should the portrait be worth nowadays? It had originally belonged to the Mandarin royal family, then had been robbed and possessed by a major from a foreign country, and now was retrieved by a member of that family through murder. Where should this portrait go now? A suggestion came into public notice that the portrait had best go back to where its original owner, Empress Dowager Cixi, had lived, which would save a lot of lives in America in the years to come.
        Only Holly felt sorry that she betrayed Sally and didn't bring back Betty.

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