It was a Thursday, just like any other day. That is, until the police showed up.
Beth had been walking casually back to her office after lunch. She didn’t immediately suspect anything out of the ordinary—it was just another sunny July afternoon. The campus did seem quieter than usual, though given that it was summer she thought it was probably just the absence of students.
As she walked into the courtyard next to her building, Beth got her first indication that this was not just a typical day. It came in the form of a crowd of people talking animatedly to several police officers. She approached the scene cautiously, curious but at the same time concerned that something serious had happened that she didn’t want to get involved with. As she got closer she could finally make out what the detective talking to the crowd was saying.
“…throughout the day, and we ask that you stay away from the crime scene for the next few days. I know this will affect your work, but we are dealing with something very serious. You may want to contact an attorney…”
Beth stopped listening and started to walk away slowly. Perhaps it would be best to leave now, she thought. But as she turned around a police officer stood in front of her, blocking her path.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said, “but we’d appreciate it if you didn’t leave this area until we’ve had a chance to ask you a few questions. If you don’t mind?”
Beth felt her heart racing. Obviously something serious had happened but she had no idea what it was. Certainly the police would know she had nothing to do with it. They couldn’t suspect her, could they?
“O…kay”, she stammered out.
“If you please, this way ma’am.” The police officer led her to another building, which apparently had been cleared out for police use. They went inside into an office room, and the officer asked her if she wanted a drink (she declined) or a donut (she accepted) and told her it would be a few minutes.
Beth’s mind raced. Should she get a lawyer? What would the police ask her? How did she end up in this place? Just this morning she had been working on a collection of papers from—gah! she couldn’t even remember it now. She took a deep breath. In any case it couldn’t have anything to do with anything illegal. Beth was an archivist; her work was to look through historical materials to organize and describe them. It was a relaxed job, where nothing really urgent or stressful occurred. At least until today.
The door opened. The detective she had seen earlier entered. She looked older up close, and her eyes glowed with an energy that suggested she didn’t normally investigate such exciting crimes.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” she said. “My name is Detective Adamek. I apologize for the delay, but I’d just like to ask you a few questions.” She took out a notepad and pen. “First, what is your name?”
Beth couldn’t contain herself. “What happened?” she asked. “Was there a crime?”
Adamek did a double take. Apparently she had expected Beth to be more informed. “I can’t talk about the case right now. If you please, just answer my questions. What is your name?”
“And what is your role at the university?”
“I work as an archivist.”
Adamek scribbled something on her notepad. “When did you get to work today?”
“Eight this morning, as I usually do.”
She kept scribbling furiously. There’s no way she’s only writing what I’ve been telling her, Beth thought. “Where were you between 12:10 and 12:35 this afternoon?” she asked.
“I was at lunch.”
“Did you eat with anyone?”
“No, I had lunch alone.” Beth thought this might seem suspicious and quickly added, “I’m sure some people saw me. Like the checkout woman.”
Adamek smiled. “Relax,” she said. “You aren’t a suspect. I’m just trying to understand what’s going on. What were you working on this morning?”
Beth prepared to answer this question, then realized she still couldn’t remember. It seemed ridiculous that she should forget what she had been working on just two hours earlier. She again worried about seeming suspicious. “The Williamson Evers papers,” was the first thing that came to mind. She knew that wasn’t right though, she had finished those weeks ago. What was she really doing? It was right on the tip of her tongue…
Adamek finally stopped scribbling. “All right,” she said. “I don’t have any more questions for you at this time. If you think of anything else, please give me a call.” She handed Beth her card. “Officer Kalis will take down your contact information as you leave. Thank you for your assistance.”
As soon as she was done with the police, Beth went outside and sat on a bench next to her coworker Amanda.
“Do you know what’s going on?” she asked.
Amanda looked at her quizzically. “What do you mean?” she said, “You don’t know what happened?”
“No, I just showed up here after lunch and the police took me in immediately for questioning. I assume there was some crime… was it serious?”
“They found… a body.”
Beth was stunned. “Someone died?”
“The police say it looks like murder. It’s a researcher that was working on something having to do with China. The crazy thing is that I actually met him this morning. He was trying to make some copies of some papers and I helped him find the copy machine. I didn’t even ask his name.”
Beth was shocked. A murder at the archive? Inconceivable. Who would want to kill some obscure researcher? Everyone there always seemed so low key. The mention of China did remind her of something she had been thinking of earlier, but she couldn’t put her finger to it. There were a lot of collections having to do with China though. She decided it probably wasn’t important.
“What do we do now?” she asked Amanda.
“The police have closed off the archive. They say they’ll need at least a week to go over it, and no one is allowed inside until then. Meanwhile we’re all getting some time off.”
“Not exactly how I pictured my next vacation.”
There was nothing more to say.
Beth was still half-asleep when she heard the call. She had slept fitfully, dreaming of ways the murder could have happened. She heard from some other coworkers that the researcher, Dave Stewart, had showed up for the first time that day. And before he had even had any time to start his research his life was over. Was his work somehow related to the murder? It seemed unlikely to be a coincidence.
The phone was still ringing. She finally picked it up, not recognizing the caller.
“Hello. Is this Beth Goder?” A familiar voice. It was Detective Adamek. “I hope this isn’t a bad time.”
“No, I was just catching up on my sleep.” Beth heard an odd sound—a suppressed laugh perhaps? “How can I help you?”
“Well, I was going over yesterday’s notes on the Stewart murder, and I just had a few more questions to ask you. If you don’t mind, I could stop by your house this afternoon?”
“Sure, anything I can do to help.”
“Excellent, see you soon.”
As she hung up Beth felt a wave of panic. Why would the police still be interested in her? They couldn’t really believe that she had anything to do with the crime, could they? She’d have to be careful when answering Adamek’s questions. She wondered whether she should get a lawyer, but decided to wait until after she talked to Adamek. If they suspected her already it certainly wouldn’t help.
It was getting on to lunchtime, but her appetite was completely drained. Instead she spent the next few hours watching TV, dreading the knock on the door. Even then she found it hard to concentrate. The endless parade of reality shows and teen dramas was broken up only by commercials for hair products, deodorant, fast food, movies, and local art auctions and concerts.
Four hours later she was still thinking about the case, and yet Adamek hadn’t showed up. She called up Amanda to ask her if she too had been contacted by the police.
“What? No… I haven’t heard from them since they interviewed me yesterday,” Amanda said. “You say they are coming over soon to ask you about the case? I wonder what they think you know.”
“I’m worried they think of me as a suspect. I don’t know why they would think I had anything to do with it. There’s no way I would ever commit violence like that! You do believe me, don’t you?”
“Of course I do, Beth,” she said slowly. (Did Beth detect a wavering quality in her voice? Was she lying to placate her? It must have been her imagination.)
“Can you tell me anything else about what happened yesterday? How did they find the body?”
“I overheard some of the police talking about it. He was seen talking to another man. They seemed to know each other. Then he went to the bathroom, carrying a folder of papers with him. A few minutes later there was a scream from the bathroom. Jonah ran in and found him dead. There was a lot of blood. The police said he was stabbed, and the knife was next to him.”
“Gruesome,” said Beth. “I still can’t believe that happened at our archive.” She had a thought. “Wait, didn’t you say that he asked you where he could make some copies yesterday morning? Do you know what he was trying to copy?”
“Do you really think that’s related to the murder? It sounds like something from a Dan Brown novel.”
Beth forced a laugh. “I’m just trying to understand yesterday’s events.”
“Hmm, well I do remember that he was carrying a stack of papers that had some Chinese characters on them, as well as English text. I couldn’t see what they were about.”
The mention of China caused Beth a jolt. There was something here, something that she knew was important. If only she could remember what she had been working on the day before. There was something…
“Wait, do you remember if there was a picture on one of the documents?”
“A picture? What do you mean? What kind of picture?”
Beth almost had it now. If only she could remember what she was working on that morning. Then—a knock at the door. “I’ve got to go,” she said, “the detective is here.”
She hung up and answered the door. Detective Adamek was obviously dressed in the same clothes as the day before. She must have had a long night. Yet the passion in her eyes was if anything stronger than the last time Beth saw her.
“Come in,” Beth said. “What can I help you with?”
They sat down at the kitchen table, which was covered with an assortment of old mail, magazines, and trash. Adamek looked incredulously at this array, then swept an area clear so she’d have room for her notebook.
“Let’s get started”, she said. “I don’t want to take up more of your time than is necessary. As you know, yesterday there was a murder at the archive, and I’m just trying to understand what happened so we can apprehend the killer as quickly as possible. If you’ll be honest with me then things will go much more smoothly. Yesterday you said that you were working on the Williamson Evers collection, is that correct?”
“I talked with some of your coworkers. They said that you had finished working on that some time ago. Why would they have said that?”
Beth gulped. She was caught in her lie and she didn’t know how best to extricate herself. Should she tell the truth? But what would she say? That she couldn’t remember what she had been working on? That seemed even more suspicious.
“Yes, they would have said that. Sometimes we go back to a processed collection to tidy up some loose ends and make some improvements. I had finished the majority of the Evers collection earlier, but yesterday I was making some small adjustments.”
Adamek scowled. “I see,” she said. She reached into her briefcase and produced a piece of paper. “Have you ever seen this document?” she asked.
It was a copy of a letter from Williamson Evers. Beth might have seen it, but after going through some two hundred boxes of his papers she certainly couldn’t remember.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I processed his collection, but there were so many documents.”
“We found this with Stewart when he was murdered. Since you mentioned Evers yesterday I was interested in your opinion. Take a look.”
Beth read it over twice to be sure she wasn’t missing anything. It was a letter from Evers to one of his supporters in the 1980 Congressional campaign. “I don’t really see how this is related to the murder,” she said.
Adamek looked disappointed. “I’ll leave this copy with you. If you think of anything else, give me a call.”
After she left Beth audibly sighed. After all that, and it seemed she wasn’t a suspect. But the letter was so strange. Why would Stewart have had it in his hands when he was killed? Oh well, it wasn’t her job to worry about that. She sat down and started watching more TV. Again there were the reality shows, and teen dramas, and endless commercials. Hours went by, until it was evening.
She was only half paying attention when she saw something that made her realize what she had been thinking of in her conversation with Amanda. And it was a commercial! It was only an idea, but somehow Beth was sure it explained everything about the murder. Gathering up her courage, she called Adamek. The phone rang endlessly until it finally reached her voicemail. Beth hung up without leaving a message. Based on what she had seen she couldn’t wait until tomorrow.
The campus was spooky. Beth had never been here after dark, let alone past midnight, and the silence was almost ghostly. But Beth was determined. She knew that she had to act quickly. And so the only sounds in the night were the footsteps of one small archivist trying to save the world.
She found the door to the archive locked, as she expected. There was always a small hope in the back of her mind, but now she realized she’d have to start doing something she’d never done before. She paced carefully around the outside of the building, looking for something, anything that would let her inside. She’d made it halfway around, until—yes! a window that was unlatched. She pried it open and climbed inside.
It was dark. Beth had forgotten to bring a flashlight. It was too risky to turn all the lights on; there might still be some police nearby guarding the crime scene. At first she tried inching along in the dark carefully. This certainly saved her from bumping into anything, but she realized that by the time she actually found anything it would be day. And she had to hurry and find the copy machine well before then.
So Beth did what any well-trained archivist would do. She closed her eyes and imagined the stacks, the endless rows of shelves, filled with identical boxes. She walked here often, and she trusted the subconscious memories she had made. She couldn’t actually visualize a map, but still she knew how to walk, where to turn, and in just a few minutes she got close enough to see the light from the copy machine’s display. She walked up it and pressed “Start”.
A worry immediately surfaced. What if someone had used the copy machine after Stewart? Normally pressing “Start” would repeat the last job, which she had assumed would have been Stewart. There were only a few minutes between when he finished making his copies and when he was found dead, but there could have been any number of people that used the copier. It didn’t matter anymore. She grabbed the sheet of paper as it came out and started to walk back to the open window.
As Beth turned the corner she heard a sound. A footstep? A cough? Was there someone in here? If it was the police Beth couldn’t risk being found; it would look extremely suspicious. She’d have to get out a different way. She turned back and started walking slowly towards the other side of the room. The sound kept approaching, becoming louder and louder. It was unmistakable now. They were definitely footsteps. She took another step and saw a flashlight swing around and paint the place she had just been standing.
“Is somebody here?” a voice called out. “This is a crime scene. You shouldn’t be here.”
Beth continued creeping around the edge of the room as the light slowly followed her. She finally reached the door she had been searching for, pulled on the handle and click!—it was locked. The police officer certainly heard that and the footsteps started moving faster. She had no way out now, but she turned the handle with one last attempt, and it opened. It must have just jammed. She darted outside, closing the door behind her. The police officer surely heard that. She ran, never stopping or looking back.
Once she got home she quickly glanced at the paper she had been clenching. At the bottom there was a drawing of two swords clashing, one of them surrounded by flames. Beth smiled, then collapsed on her bed and slept.
It was lucky Beth had set an alarm before her adventure the previous night. Even so it was hard enough for her to wake up. But she didn’t have much time. The art auction was set to start at nine and it was an hour’s drive away, in San Francisco. She hurried to her car.
On her way there she called Adamek again. This time the detective picked up.
“Hello? Detective Adamek speaking.”
“This is Beth. We talked yesterday. I have some information about the case for you.”
“Yes? Did you find something related to the Evers letter I left you?”
“No, but you have to hurry. I think the murderer will be at Bonhams on San Bruno. They have an art auction today at nine.”
“You’ll have to give me more of a reason than that. I can’t just go off to San Francisco for the day without any pretext.”
It was time to come clean. “When I told you I had been working on the Evers collection that day I lied.”
“Oh?” Adamek didn’t sound very surprised.
“I was actually working on the Bruce Walker collection.”
“But what does that have to do with the murder?”
“I think it has everything to do with it. Walker was a CIA agent in Tibet, training the Tibetan resistance to fight against China. One of the resistance groups was the Chushi Gangdruk, named after the region of Tibet they were from. Their emblem was two swords crossing, one of them in flames.”
“That’s all ancient history. What does it have to do with a murder in 2012?”
“I thought the same thing before, which is why I didn’t remember it when we talked. But then I saw a commercial for an art auction. One of the pictures they showed was a flag with the Chushi Gangdruk emblem. We have a few similar flags at the archives, and they usually aren’t very valuable. But there was a set of seven flags made just for the Dalai Lama. They tried to win his support for their movement, and although they failed to get him to abandon his message of peace the flags themselves are very valuable. They each had a unique marking on the lower right corner. Unfortunately no one knows what the markings actually should be, so it’s too easy to make a forgery from one of the other flags. But if there was some way to find out that a flag was genuine it would go from a piece of cloth to a $100,000 artifact.”
“You’re saying the murderer found a way to prove it as genuine?”
“Right. It was in the archive the whole time. A letter from Walker to his parents describing some of the artwork from Tibet. One of the things he described was a flag made by the Chushi Gangdruk. He was so thrilled by it he even included a picture, with the markings clearly visible in the lower right.
“I have a copy of the letter with me right now, but with the original you would have enough evidence to convince a collector that your flag is one of the rare ones. I think the murderer was looking for that letter, and when the researcher that had it wouldn’t give it up he killed him and took it. Today he’s going to buy the flag. It might be our last chance to catch him before he disappears. You’d better hurry over to Bonhams.”
“I left ten minutes ago.”
Beth was waiting outside of Bonhams. After all that, as soon as Adamek arrived she wouldn’t let her go inside. It was too dangerous, she’d said. Beth wasn’t worried. The original crime was on the spur of the moment; it was unlikely the murderer would do anything dangerous at the crowded auction. There was the hint of fear for a second. Why risk her safety needlessly?
No, she had to see if her theory was right. “Lot 9, a Chushi Gangdruk flag from Tibet” she heard, as she ran inside. “The opening bid is set at $100.” Beth waiting in the back, watching to see if there was any movement. She saw that interest in the flag was minimal; auctions would usually start with the less exciting items to build interest in the more valuable pieces. It was only a few minutes before the bidding was over. The man with the winning bid was dressed in an immaculate suit. Could he really be a killer? She had expected someone in a trench coat and fedora.
As he went over to the side of the room to pay, Beth saw Adamek following him. She wasn’t being very stealthy about it, perhaps she felt that he wouldn’t be anticipating anything. She walked up to the man more closely and started saying something. Beth was too far away to hear and she moved closer. But before she could hear anything he bolted for the door, running right past her. Adamek walked casually after him. As she noticed Beth she stopped and gave her a sly grin.
“You were right,” she said. “This case is big for me. So much that I don’t even remember whether I asked you to stay outside.”
Beth reddened. “But, isn’t he escaping?” she said.
“I just needed him to do something that would give us probable cause so we could arrest him and search him for the letter. There are some officers waiting outside.”
“There’s just one other thing I’ve been wondering about. Why would Stewart have had the Evers letter in his hand?”
Adamek smiled. “At least there’s something I can contribute to this case. Stewart had the China documents with him when he went into the bathroom. The murderer must have planned to swap in the Evers letter for the Walker letter while Stewart wasn’t looking. When Stewart caught him, well, you know the rest.”
It all made sense now. “It was unfortunate for him he picked that letter. If he had one from a collection I hadn’t worked on you would have never called me to follow up and I would never have made the connections I did.”
“Yes, but how could he know that sometimes it’s not the collection but the archivist that matters? You know Beth, I was very impressed with what you did. I don’t suppose you’ve ever considered police work?”
“This has been enough excitement for me for a long time,” she said. “I’ll stick to processing collections. You never know when something like this will happen again, and without the archive we would have never had the right knowledge to catch him.”
They went outside together. A crowd was gathered around a police car. Beth didn’t even turn her head as she walked away.
They reopened the archive the following week. It seemed the murderer confessed immediately after being arrested. He’d never meant to actually hurt anyone, but he got caught up in the moment, not wanting to let such a lucrative find slip away.
Beth arrived at work smiling. All the talk was about how quickly the police had arrested the murderer. She’d asked Adamek to leave out her part in it, not wanting to make a big deal of it. She did regret it briefly, thinking that it might have been nice to get all the attention. But she knew it would have soon become annoying.
She went to her desk and reopened the box she had been working on. On top was the Chushi Gangdruk flag that was the source of her discovery. It was crazy that her story was actually accurate; she had always felt it to be such a leap, but had acted on it for want of a little adventure. She had always thought it strange that anyone would kill for a piece of artwork. Now that she looked at it though, there was a certain charm to the design. It represented a group that fought for what they believed in, and knew their goals and their enemies. The world was much less clear now.
The art itself was very skillfully done. As Beth looked at the flag more closely something unusual caught her eye. In the bottom right corner there was some kind of symbol…