Monday, December 27, 2010

A Burning Buddha…

Dear Friends,

Well, here is a bit of weirdness from a couple of decades ago. I then thought that maybe I'd become a writer of crime fiction. I actually sold this story, and the Managing Editor told me it was a classic, a classic! Alas, the periodical went broke in the week between my submission and the coming issue's print run. Never got paid. There's a pattern there.


How Does the Buddha Burn?  © Steven Solomon
A stinging, half-frozen spittle rained from the autumn sky, and Lt. Detective Andrew Gateway wasn't dressed for the weather.  Ice water dribbled down his collar as he waited to be rung into #238 Quay St. He swore he'd get himself a proper winter coat with the very next paycheck.

The apartment was a one-room, four-story walk-up and, typical of the neighborhood, it was cold, had bad lighting, peeling paint, and roaches. It also featured the incinerated remains of one human being in the middle of the floor. Gateway arrived panting, shoes sqooshing, clothes dripping as Sgt. Januszewski and a couple of uniforms were mopping up. Some three hours after the body was discovered, young Johnny was the ranking officer on scene. "Hello Lieutenant. Welcome to the party."
"Thanks, Johnny. What'a we got here?" Gateway tied a hanky over his face and crouched over the corpse. He gently poked with the tip of a plastic pen at what appeared to be the detached remains of a foot. "How the Hell did this happen?"
With not a hint of sarcasm, Johnny replied: "Spontaneous human combustion, sir."
Groaning, Gateway erected himself. "Pal, my knees hurt, my back aches, I'm hungry, cold and tired. It's one-thirty in the morning. Cut the wisecracks; we got a homicide here, or what?"
Januszewski flipped open his note pad with an officiousness usually reserved for greeting citizens, not superiors. "We got one body burned to the bone. According to the pathologist's on-sight report, it apparently burned from the inside out .  No fire damage to anything but the body and the area directly beneath it on the floor. At this time, we've found no traces of accelerant or source of ignition. The only door was dead-bolted from the inside. The key is a security key. We have no record of copies being made, other than the super's and that of the victim, found among his remains. The windows are securely locked." He concludes with barely a wink, "Spontaneous human combustion is our best theory."
"Uh-huh. Okay, so who is this guy?"
"We think it's the resident, Henry Ping, but it could be Elvis for all we know; they're still checking the dental work. Downstairs neighbors made the report when they smelled something funny. Fire arrived minutes after the call to find our friend already 'self-extinguished', out like the stub end of a smoke left in the ashtray. The neighbors had seen no one come or go in the interval."
Gateway cast about the small apartment, his eyes pouring over the walls, ceiling and floor. It's only seven paces corner to corner, and the detective nonchalantly stepped over the body one, two, three times before coming to rest, kneeling in front of what seemed to be some kind of religious altar; candles, scrolls with oriental characters, a green velveteen sash, tassels and adornments of hammered tin lotus blossoms and twin, brass incense stenchers. Gateway's left knee made a loud pop as he sank cross legged onto the floor at the foot of the corpse. "What'a ya make of this, smart-guy?"
"A bit of a loose end, but we're nailing it down. Got the guy from the university due to arrive any minute; we yanked him out'ta bed. Figured you'd want to talk to him."
Gateway pulled a plastic baggy from his coat pocket, put it over his hand and gently lifted the lid off of one of the incense burners. Inside was nothing but ash. "Who's this guy, the university guy?"
"Leonard Geoffrey, PhD., a professor of, uh..." Johnny looked again to the note pad; "Professor of Religio-archaeology. Specialist in ancient religions and their artifacts. One of the officers, Chou, recognized that thing as a shrine, probably Buddhist. Thing is, there's no Buddha there. There's supposed to be a Buddha or an ancestor or something in the middle."
The venerable detective was now procumbent with his chin on the floor, a penlight  in his mouth shining at a severe angle upon the little altar. "Welp, sheems we might have shomething." He cocked his head to the side and squinted through one heavy lidded eye. "Yuh-huh... you can shee it, the indentation. There was shomethin' shittin' here." Collecting himself off the floor, Gateway offered, "When the brain arrives, let's see what he knows, but I'm thinking that what we got here is..."
"Excuse me, but your brain has  arrived." A hyperthyroid Christmas elf, six-three, gaunt and gray of beard, dressed in bright red jogging togs and a ski cap had appeared at the door. He extended his hand to a startled Detective Gateway; "Good morning, sir, I am Professor Geoffrey, but please call me Leo." Then, glancing toward the remains on the floor he gasped, "My God, what is this?"
"Ya'sir. I'm Andy Gateway, Lieutenant. As I was just sayin' to Sargent Januszewski, we seem to have a murder/theft on our hands. We hoped you might help us identify the stolen property. Seems the owner, a Mr. Henry Ping..."
"Excuse me?" Leo blanched at the mention of the name.
"I was sayin' that Mr. Ping, the apparent victim... say, do you know him, Professor?"

Staggering to the chair by the window, the old man collapsed, eyes cast heavenward and upwelling with tears. "My God, not Hank! I didn't know that this was Hank's apartment. I didn't know what this was about, the murder... Oh, dear." 
He ran five shaking, spindly fingers through his long, unkempt hair, sobbing; "Oh, God, oh, poor, young Hank, poor Hank..."
"Johnny, get the Professor a drink of water." Gateway moved to Leo's side, placing a hand on his shoulder. "I'm very sorry for your loss, uh, the shock of it all, but pardon my asking, how exactly did you know the victim?"
Gazing vacantly into the glare of a naked ceiling light, Leo was deathly white, grief stricken, almost struck dumb. Gateway saw the throbbing purple veins in his temples as he replied in a croak of a whisper; "He was a student of mine. One of the best. I hadn't seen him in some time... since summer. He'd gone off on his fellowship. Still, we were very close. I was to chair his dissertation committee in the spring. Oh, dear, the tragedy, the tragedy."
Gateway and Johnny looked silently to each other, exchanging that cop telepathy that's says "coincidences don't happen". Johnny was first to inquire out loud: "Scuse me, but, uh, Doc, do you know why somebody would kill your friend?"
Absently, Leo responded: "You said something appeared to be missing. It was a small statuette? Over there, with the ancestor shrine?"
"Yes sir, we believe it was. That's what we were hoping you could identify."
Taking a deep breath, Leo rose and shuffled over to the shrine. His right hand outstretched before him, he knelt, lips moving silently as he read down the rows of calligraphy. Using his index finger as a ruler, he took measure of the space between the incense stenchers, examining their contents and inhaling deeply the expended perfume in the ash. "Yes, it must be. Smell the poppy, the opium flowers. Yes, and it's the right size; about nine centimeters wide, four deep. He found it, alright." 
"Pardon, Professor? What did he find?"
"Why, the Burning Buddha! He found it. Hank had found it!"
Januszewski was impatient. "Ya gotta 'scuse our ignorance here, but what the f..."
Gateway, ever the diplomat,  jumped in: "What my associate is wondering is, what is a Burning Buddha? Just start at the beginning and keep it simple."
"I'm sorry, gentlemen. It's just my nerves. Well, ahem, it's actually not a Buddha, at all. It goes back much further, perhaps before the time of neolithic man."
"What kind of man?" said Gateway. "Ya gotta stick to the basics, Professor."
"Right. Oh, maybe thirty or forty-thousand year's ago, at the very beginning of religion and human society, the Burning Buddha, as it is called, was actually the father, more factually the mother, really, of all subsequent deities. Before the fertility goddess, before the sky gods, there It was, or so it has been supposed. No one actually ever found one of the figurines. There was no proof, just conjecture."
"Until now?"
"Evidently. I knew that Hank had been tracing one alleged to still be in existence. According to the lore, it had originated in the Himalayas over thirty centuries ago. At the  height of the last ice-age, it began a journey through the ages, carried by successive tribes of nomadic hunters into what is now southern-most India. By the dawn of written history, it had made it's way to the Isle of Scot, then a seldom visited way station to the premier maritime explorers of that day." 
Leo was getting pumped up, getting excited in a kind'a professorial way. "It is likely that the Phoenicians were then in possession, burying It for safe-keeping in a cave consecrated as a shrine. This was prior to one of the first deliberate attempts to find out what lay on the other shore of the Great Sea, the Atlantic. This shadow history, part legend, part fact, is told in the record of bone carvings, painted caves, etched stone and clay tablets spanning the better part of Humanity's stay on this planet. The Burning Buddha is said to be endowed with vast power, and to endow its possessor of same, for good or ill." He looked sadly to the vaporized remains of his young colleague. "Alas, it seems for ill."
What line of questioning should follow such a yarn? Ordinarily, you ask things like, "was this alleged Buddha angry enough to set fire to somebody?", or "why did the Buddha flee to southern-most India in the Tenth Century B.C?". Gateway  improvised: "Okay, is this thing, the Buddha, of value? Can it be sold? I mean, this looks like a case of art theft, stealing a church relic, that kind of thing. Right?"

Leo smiled grimly. "No, no, no. Not at all. You see, you couldn't sell it. Few enough people would know what it is, then to find an institution willing to purchase an item implicated with a murder... Even so legendary a piece would be of little value other than the scientific or, perhaps, spiritual."

"Wadda'ya mean spiritual?"

Leo looked to the window. The sky was velvet black, so dark that it seems to drink up even the memory of daylight. "How does one explain that; the Magick? Yes, what do we really know about it? Well, it is said that the possessor of the Burning Buddha braves great risk for great reward. Through its worship and through sacrifice, perhaps human sacrifice, he who is pure of spirit may become as the First Man, God's Prize, Master of Fire. The impure? Pray that I'm wrong, but one has only to look at what has become of young Hank."

In the moment's silence, Gateway rocked on his heels, shoes squeaking. Johnny rattled the change in his pocket, and then rejoined, "Spontaneous human combustion!"

Gateway still bought none of it: "Yeah, welp, it's very late, Professor. We might want to speak to you again tomorrow. Where can you be found?"

"I think I'll be taking some time off from work; I'm very upset. I'll probably go up to the farm. We've got a place in New Hampshire, you see."
Fine. Sargent Januszewski will see you out. Johnny, get the address and number. Oh, and get a description of the Buddha, it's appearance, okay?"

Gateway instructed the uniforms, "Wait for me in the hall; just a second.". For a moment, he quietly poked about the room. Then he halted, straddling the deceased, head down, clucking his tongue, tapping a middle finger into his brow over closed eyes. He reached out to arms-length, hitting the light switch and the room was in darkness, but for a thin shaft of yellow light falling through the crack between the door and the door-jam. It cut across Henry Ping's cindered breast like a golden dagger. 

"Beautiful morning, Johnny!" Gateway grandly surveyed the pastoral expanse of Leo's farm. "Birds are singing, the sun is shining and no trouble is winging our way!".

Johnny was less sanguine at such an hour. The farm was ninety minutes out of the city, and he'd only gotten four hours sleep before hitting road. "I don't know how you do it, Andy. Anyhow, here's the latest from the lab." He handed Gateway a folder over-stuffed with carbonless copies. "Check out the chemical analysis... yeah, that one. Seems our corpse was pickled; pickled in somethin' real flammable prior to being torched. The lab hasn't ID'd it. It's unusual, real unusual, but that's got'ta be our accelerant." 

"Walk with me and talk with me. We're supposed to meet the Professor back at the stable." Gateway strode briskly, reading and speaking all at once. "Yeah, this makes some sense. Sulfur residue; yeah, that fits."

"How's that?"

Gateway ignored the question and responded with his own. "Was the body, I mean Ping, dead already when he burned? It was Ping, wasn't it?"

"Uh-huh, the dental records are confirmed. And, he was dead when the match was lit. Strange thing, though, Ping's tissues were in real good shape. We don't think he could'a been dead more than a few hours before the fire. The coroner was impressed; said it was mighty odd."

"Odd how?"

"That residue was all through the remains, distributed evenly, right down to the marrow. You'd have to soak a guy in something like gas or alcohol for weeks, months, to get that kind of saturation."
"And that would break down the tissues, right?"
"Right! Ping was in fine shape; burned to a crisp, but otherwise fine."
"No other physical evidence? No fibers or prints?"
"No. How'd you..."
"An educated guess. Doesn't matter; they'll find it eventually."

Just inside the stable, Gateway turned, stopping Johnny with a conspiratorial arm around the shoulders: "Okay, follow my lead.".  At that, Leo came round the corner and, with a gesture of mild surprise, announced: "Oh, gentlemen! I'm sorry, I didn't realize that you were here. Come in." He ushered them to the tack room. "So, how can I be of help?"
"You know, I think we've got a solid idea where this case is going, Professor. I hope you won't be offended when I tell you that we are not considering spontaneous human combustion, Buddha-induced or otherwise, as the prime theory."
"Detective, you know your business better than I. Last night, I was merely trying to be helpful, sharing with you all that I might know. "
Gateway smiled broadly. "Yes, of course. And, perhaps you might know how one would lock a dead-bolt from the outside without a key?"

"I, uh, I'm not sure what, uh..." Leo's face took on a look of confusion that drained quickly into stark pallor. "How, uh, would... what's this got..."

"All right, Professor, I'll demonstrate. Sargent Januszewski, please give me your shoe-lace, right or left, doesn't matter."


"Your shoe-lace, please. Hurry; we're trying to solve a murder mystery here!" Johnny had not clue-one as to what Gateway was doing, but as instructed, he followed along, hopping on one foot, yanking the lace from his left shoe. "Here you go, Detective."
"Thank you. Professor, do you know what a noose looks like?"
Regaining a small measure of composure, Leo replied; "I should think so, but if this is an attempt to intimidate me, if it is..."
Gateway raised his hand in a firm gesture of silence. "Please, Professor, allow me to hold forth. You'll be glad you did. See, you take the shoe-lace, like so you wind it round thirteen times...", and thus Gateway produced a perfect, albeit lilliputian hang-man's knot. 

He turned to the door and draped the loop over the dead-bolt latch, motioning Johnny to take hold of the other end. "Sargent, if you would, please step outside, holding on to the shoe-lace."


"Yes, and when I say so, pull the string." Gateway shut the door in his associate's bewildered face and ordered, "Now!". The lace went tight, the noose closed over the beveled latch pulling it locked and flipping the latch downward. "Pull again, all the way!" With the second yank, the noose slid smoothly off the latch and disappeared through the crack in the door-jam. "That, Professor, is how one locks a dead-bolt from the outside without a key." Gateway flipped the latch, letting Johnny back in. The Sargent remained, hands on hips by holster and chemical mace, resting on the balls of his feet, feet at shoulder distance apart, knees unlocked, blocking the doorway like a human jersey barrier. He was just following Gateway's lead. Motioning to the rocking chair by the tack board, Gateway suggested, "Let's see if we can answer yet another question." 

Leo took a seat, nervously maintaining his gaze on Gateway, but his legs were ready to run and his mind was racing like a doped up nag in her final stretch. "I don't think I like the tone of your questions, Detective."

"I'd be very surprised if you did, Professor. Just the same, it's my job to answer difficult questions."

Leo was looking quite dispirited. Any resemblance to a Christmas elf was now utterly unimaginable."So that's it; you are accusing me of murdering Hank Ping. Ridiculous!"

"Just the same, we are left with a couple more questions, and I believe that we've got the 'solution' to the first of them." Gateway pulled from his coat a pint-sized bottle with a blue and white label. He squinted as he held it at arms length, searching his vest pockets for specs. 
"Ah, yes, here we go. You know, I ran into your veterinarian when I first stopped by this morning. He was using this on the old mare with the bad leg. You know, Stardust, she was getting a rub-down."
"I own a horse named Stardust, but I'm afraid I have no idea what that is in..."
"I'll refresh your memory. Let's see..." and he read from the container's label, "Domoso®, manufactured by Diamond Labs, chemical name, dimethyl sulfoxide. Used to treat muscle inflammations in animals. A very, very powerful solvent that penetrates quickly through the skin, tendon, muscle. Does this ring any bells yet, sir?"
"Cut to the point, please. You're loosing me."
"No sir, I think you get the point. DMSO, is also very flammable. It's flashpoint is just over two-hundred degrees. It burns a lot better than most of the stuff we'd look for at the scene of a suspicious fire. I may not know a whole lot about chemistry, but I would guess that if you gave a person, a dead person, a good soaking in this stuff, what with all the fat in a human body, you'd have a pretty good approximation of a two-hundred pound candle wick. Would you agree, Professor?"
Leo stared dejectedly at his socks. "I wouldn't have the slightest idea."

Gateway turned to Johnny, tossing him the bottle of DMSO. "Let's get a team out here to see if we can find our little friend, the Buddha." The detective stooped to the old man, now slowly rocking in his chair; "That's it, isn't it sir? That's why you killed Henry; that's the answer to our last question; correct?"

A tear crept from the corner of Leo's eye as he started to tremble. Words came with a sound like the shearing of dry, yellow newspaper; "Hank had no idea of the power, no respect for the value of the Buddha. He was going to have it examined, X-rayed, sliced, dyed and microscoped. 

He would have it be just another relic, a curiosity of the past to be cataloged and put upon the unknowing world like so much bad art... bah!" 

Johnny helped Leo to his feet. He was unsteady, as though he'd gained a decade's years since the last evening. As they escorted him into the bright, warm sunshine of a fresh morning, he continued to jabber, his cold, blues eyes afire with madness in the light of day: "I searched my life for the Burning Buddha and worshiped it, even as I prayed to possess it. He would defile that which I loved, and that could not be permitted! It is hidden now. It is hidden and it is safe. It will be forever protected. I've seen to that! I've taken the precautions."

Leo was cuffed and placed into the back of the car. He made no resistance other than to comment on the poor amenities provided by the Awards Committee. "Tell them that I expected a private car! I want my own limousine. Where is the bar? There is supposed to be a bar and telephone back here! Summon the Ad Hoc Council; I must speak with the Chairman, immediately!" 
Johnny called in and a forensic team was dispatched. Messages went out to the Boston and local DAs. An hour later, watching the green hills fade over the horizon, replaced by endless miles of interstate highway and suburban arteries, Gateway was somehow sure that the Buddha would not be found, perhaps not for another dozen millennia.

Hic Finis Est

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