IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT
Chapter 2: Irina
Outside, it was a dark and stormy night. I tossed and turned in my bed, unable to find repose, mulling the strange case over in my mind. Sherlock Holmes had refused to say another word about it. Indeed, after his arrogant boast he had bustled me without ceremony out the door, telling me to think about the facts of the case and return on the morrow. He promised that he would have additional information for me to chew on by then. Immediately upon breaking my fast I hurried round.
"Ah, Watson," Holmes greeted me. "Come into the parlour. Now that you have had a night to sleep on it, I have no doubt that you have reconstructed my line of reasoning and are prepared to second my conclusion in the Great First Rate Figure Skating Mystery."
Of course he thought no such thing. And indeed, had not my friend proved his mettle on so many other occasions, I would have felt that he himself was now talking through his deerstalker.
"Well, Watson," he continued, "while you were tossing and turning I devoted my attention to a more useful task. I hacked into the police archives across the pond and downloaded transcripts of the statements given by the suspects."
(I must add parenthetically that although Mr. Sherlock Holmes is well over 150 years old, he keeps abreast of the times (I keep the other), and he scruples not a tittle about legal niceties when it comes to using the latest technology in his lifelong devotion to bringing scoundrels and blackguards to justice.)
"Let us start with the statement of Miss Slutskaya," Holmes went on. He passed the printout across the desk. "If you would just read aloud, we will see if any points particularly strike the ear."
The interview was three pages long. I include it here verbatim.
Police Chief Alexander Rostropovich, Woonsocket, Rhode Island: "Ms. Slutskaya, please confirm for the record that you have been read and that you understand your Miranda rights, and that you have voluntarily waived your rights to be represented by an attorney and to be assisted by an interpreter.
Ms. Irina Slutskaya: "Yes. What you said. Miranda rights. I have nothing to hide. Just don"t tell my husband. He is crazy jealous man. Crazy. OK? I co-operate with police, OK? We keep this just between secret police, yes?"
AR: "We are only interested in the truth, Ms. Slutskaya. What you tell your husband is your own business. Just state now in your own words what happened on the night of April 28."
IS: "OK, so it is like this. I have just finished the Champions on Ice show in Boston. I skate pretty well. Double my triple flip, but is OK. Cotton-eyed Joe. Big applause."
AR: "Cotton-eyed Joe?"
IS: "It is cowboy song. For my cowboy routine. Americans like it. Yippee-i-o-ki-ay, yes? Very patriotic. So then after the show I get in my car and drive to Rhode Island, to see Mr. Button. I already know the way. I get there about 1:00."
AR: "And for what purpose were you visiting Mr. Button at this time of night."
IS: "Mr. Button, he says he will help me with my routine. There is too much Cossack in my cowboy. Mr. Button says come to his country house. Wear my cowboy outfit, bring my whip -- he was especially firm about the whip. He will teach me to play cowboy American style."
AR: "Let me be clear on this point, Ms. Slutskaya. Is it your testimony that you drove to the victim?s house on the night of the murder to 'play cowboy?'"
IS: "Show business, Mr. Chief Policeman. In my country we call it ?
'casting couch.' Mr. Button, rich, powerful capitalist producer, he picks up telephone, calls Scott Hamilton, Sandra Bezik -- voila! I am touring with Stars on Ice, make big money. My husband, he does not understand show business. He does not like America. Anyway, it is OK. Mr. Button is old man. He just wants to pinch my cheeks."
AR: "I see. And is this a common practice in the figure skating world. Do all the girls play the game?"
IS: "Everyone except goody-goody Michelle Kwan. She sends bonsai tree."
AR: "Bonsai tree?"
IS: "Bonsai. Japanese ornamental shrub. Like topiary. Only a tree. Small tree. Mr. Button is big-time gardener. Likes to grow roses. So Michelle sends him a bonsai tree. Gift. Mr. Button, he goes gaga, Michelle is this, Michelle is that, Michelle is so wonderful. Michelle, Michelle, Michelle!"
AR: "I see. Well, what happened when you got to the house?"
IS: "I ring the door bell. Mr. Button lets me in. I am still in my cowboy costume. Mr. Button, he is wearing cowboy costume also. Rhinestone vest. Cowboy leggings. Leggings, what American cowboys wear."
AR: "Chaps, do you mean? Leather chaps over his trousers?"
IS: "Chaps, yes. Fringed leather. I do not say so much about trousers."
AR: "Do you mean...Oh, yes, I see from the report how the victim was dressed. Well, kindly proceed, Ms. Slutskaya. He met you at the door. Did you see anyone else about the house or grounds?"
IS: "No, not then. Later comes Sarah. Sarah is last to skate in show. Gold medallist is last to skate. I should be next-to-last. But no. It must be Michelle Kwan. I drive fast."
AR: "Just stick to what you saw and did, please, Ms. Slutskaya."
IS: "So, we go into the study. Big desk. There is the stupid bonsai tree sitting on the desk in a stupid pot! Then I see the gun."
AR: "Where was the revolver when you first saw it?"
IS: "It lays on the desk. I do not touch it. I know nothing about guns. I know nothing about shooting. I have never touched a gun before."
AR: "But you touched this one, didn't you."
IS: "Maybe so later I accidentally brush against it."
AR: "I must warn you, Ms. Slutskaya, that any evasion of the truth will look very bad for you. What if I were to tell you that we have identified your fingerprints as among those on the revolver."
IS: "OK, so it is like this. Mr. Button, he has a cowboy rope. Lasso. Lariat. He must be tied up. He is bad man. He is Jesse James, yes? He must be punished for his crimes. Robbed trains. Shot 21 men. So I tie him up. He tells me what to do with the whip."
AR: "You mean he asked you to use your whip on him?"
IS: "That, too. Then, anyway, I think then I pick up the gun. Bang, bang."
AR: "Do you mean that you fired?"
IS: "No, no. I say 'bang, bang.' It is funny play. Just then, it is loud knocking at the door. I do not know. I panic. It is my husband! He has followed me from Moscow! What do I do, you know?"
AR: "And what did you do?"
IS: "I am in panic. You do not know my husband. Crazy when he is jealous. Does not understand American ways. I do not know what to do. I run this way and that, I run to escape. No, it is a closet! Heavy door. I run into this closet. I hide. Squeeze down into a corner. Make myself small. I wait."
AR: "What happened then. What did you hear?"
IS: "I hear nothing. I wait. Then I hear a sharp sound. A shot. Maybe like a gunshot, I don?t know. Maybe like a shot. Then more noise about the room, a door slams -- maybe back door, I do not know. More noise, confusion, sirens of police. I wait. Then police search, police find me. I am cool. I am, I say in French, nonchalant. I am fully dressed. I know nothing. I say nothing until now. I tell you because I trust you. I think you will help me, yes?"
AR: "Telling the complete truth is what will help you, Irina. Do you have anything more to add to your statement? Any other details? Something more that you heard while you were in the closet?"
IS: "No, I have told everything. I could not hear. I think I go home now, OK?"
AR: "I'm afraid you will have to remain here for a while yet, Irina, until we complete our investigation."
IS: "So you will look out for me, yes, Sasha? I think you are a kind man. You will help me, yes, OK?"
"Highly significant," said Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes had sat motionless with his eyes closed while I read the bizarre narrative aloud. Now he took a draw on his pipe and gazed up at the ceiling.
"Tell me, Watson," said he, "do you believe Miss Slutskaya's unusual tale? Do you think that she might have omitted something perhaps?"
"Like the fact that she killed Mr. Button, for instance!" I exclaimed. "Picture it like this, Holmes. Miss Slutskaya contrives to jolly up this powerful dotard in exchange for opportunities to advance her career. An old, if sordid, story. For a time the game proceeds without harm. But the gentleman becomes more insistent, more aggressive in his demands. The lady becomes frightened, she panics, she grabs up the gun which she has noticed earlier, and -- seeing no other way to defend her honour -- shots the old fool through the heart.
"Now she returns to her senses. Hoping to cast blame elsewhere she seizes the dead man's chill hand and traces out, with his own stiffening fingers and in his own congealing blood, the name 'Sarah.' Sarah Hughes! the sixteen year old upstart who, in Miss Slutskaya's estimation, had cheated her out of the gold medal and all of its attendant fame and riches. Delicious revenge for the hot-blooded Slavic woman.
"Alas, now it is too late to make a getaway. Someone is at the door. The police have arrived. She attempts to hide. She is discovered, thanks to the quick and thorough search by Chief Rostropovich, and the game, so briefly afoot, is up!"
"Interesting," replied Holmes, "although I doubt that in those few seconds Mr. Button's hand had grown chill or his fingers stiff, or that his blood had congealed. However, let me call your attention to one detail. Miss Slutskaya is a strong, young athlete in peak physical condition. The victim was a man old enough to be her grandfather, still recovering from a serious head injury -- evidently it affected his brain more than we knew -- and he was bound hand and foot. I would not imagine that Ms. Slutskaya at any time felt that she was losing control of the situation."
I paused only for a moment.
"An accident, then," I improvised. "She is playing cowboy, she picks up the gun in jest. The lady being inexperienced with firearms, the revolver discharges. A dreadful accident. Miss Slutskaya flees to the closet, just as ANOTHER PLAYER enters upon the scene. The newcomer, seizing the day, writes the condemning 'SARAH,' then herself escapes through the back door, even as the police arrive at the front!"
"Indeed," mused Holmes, "indeed. Well, Watson, I admire the fertility of your imagination. So now all we need to do is identify your sinister 'other player.'"
A shudder of dread rippled through me. Could it be? Had my emotions overruled my intellect, preventing me from seeing the unwelcome truth?
Sherlock Holmes now passed over a new packet of printouts. The first proved to be the forensic report on the firearm. According to the report the victim had been killed by a single shot from the revolver that had been recovered at the scene. The piece had been dusted for fingerprints. Four clean sets had been found, together with some smudges that police experts ascribed to the gun having been handled by a fifth person, who had worn gloves.
The prints had been positively matched. They belonged to: Mr. Richard Button, the victim; Ms. Irina Slutskaya, who had already admitted to having touched the weapon; Ms. Sarah Hughes, who had been apprehended by the police holding said weapon in her hand. And the fourth set -- my mind knew it though my heart rebelled -- Ms. Michelle Kwan!
The second and third documents were worse: a record of purchase of the weapon, a very distinctive Colt 45, dated November 18, 2001, from a Los Angeles gun dealer, and an application for a license to own a firearm, issued by the State of California in the county of Los Angeles, dated November 1, 2001. And both issued in the name:
MICHELLE WING KWAN
End of Chapter two.
Does Dr. Watson's theory hold water? Did Slutskaya kill the victim by accident, followed by an attempt on the part of 'someone' to frame Hughes? Is Hughes as innocent as supposed? We haven't heard from Cohen yet.
Tune in next week for Chapter 3 -- Michelle's Story.