The Case of the Strong Swimmer, Chapter One (A Lieutenant David Chan Mystery)

It was winter break, which is a funny term for it here in Hawai‘i.  I’d answered an ad in the Hawai‘i Star.  A couple with a huge home out on the north shore were going to be out of town for a month, and I thought that I’d be the perfect person to housesit for them. They agreed.

With no papers to grade, it was the right time to hang out near the water.  I’d sun my way to a very dark tan for the spring semester at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.  Teaching English composition would be so much easier, I knew, if I at least looked a little healthier.

When she carried him up the steps, I could see she was a strong woman.  He was not overly large, but by looking at the two, him slumped in her arms, I estimated that he must have outweighed her by thirty pounds or so.

She said they’d been out doing some rough water swimming together.  The man had suddenly started struggling and calling for help.  She’d managed to drag him to the small landing carved out of the lava rock below.  The waters were not usually gentle out here, the waves constantly slamming up against the lava walls, and many an ‘opihi picker had found himself confronted with great danger, sometimes losing his life in pursuit of the shellfish delicacy.

I put down my book and got up from my chair, coming to her to help lower the stranger onto a day bed out of the sun on the lānai.

I could hear from the crash of the waves below that the tide was nearing its peak.  Picking up my cell, I dialed 911.  The man was breathing shallowly, I could see, but I didn’t want to wait for him to recover fully, chancing that he might take a turn for the better, and then be surprised by having him die on us.

The ambulance was on the way.  The young woman wore a white swimming cap and goggles, her muscular body darkly tanned.  She was leaning over the man, speaking to him in low tones, probably encouraging him to breathe deeply, maybe assuring him that help was coming.

“Could I please get some water?” she asked.

I went inside and poured a large glass, then headed back out.  I stopped myself, unsure if she’d meant she wanted the water for the man or for herself.  Just in case, I poured a second glass and returned to the lānai

I knelt beside the woman and wordlessly offered her one.

“He’s dead,” she whispered.

Standing up abruptly, I took a long look at the body.  Indeed, the labored breathing had stopped.

“Wow,” I said, “it looked like he was doing well.”

“Yes,” she said, “I thought I’d reached him in time.”

With that she abruptly stood up and then headed down the steps.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

She said nothing, did not look back, and disappeared down the narrow carved stone stairway.

“The police will want to know who you two are,” I called after her.

But she was gone.  I put down the water, trotted over to the stairs, and looked over the cliff’s edge.  It was nearly 100 feet to the small landing, but the woman was nowhere to be seen.

I ran around the edge to try to catch sight of her somewhere below in the water.  She was gone.

“Wow,” I thought, “she must be one hell of a swimmer.”

That she could have descended the stairs and then swum off at an obviously great pace, confirmed to me that she must be quite the athlete.  Perhaps an Olympic swimmer training in rough water.

The sirens approached.  Now I’d have to explain the strange appearance of this woman carrying the man’s body, and her subsequent quick disappearance.

The EMTs and the police came to the door simultaneously.  While the officers and I stood by, I giving them the facts as I knew them, the EMTs looked over the body, then attempted CPR to no effect.

One of them said, “You say he was breathing when this woman carried him up here?”

“Yes, that’s correct, I could see shallow breaths.  He was definitely alive.”

“Well, by looks of the marks around his neck, I think he was strangled to death.”

The two officers and I exchanged startled looks. All three of us approached the body.

All of us stood silently for a few moments.  Stunned, I could think of nothing except where that woman might be.

“I’ll call the coroner,” said one officer.  I directed him to the phone inside.

The other officer turned his attention to me.  His tone was quite different now.

“So can you describe this woman you allege carried the body up here?”

Allege.  The way he said it put me instantly on my guard.  I felt as though I were suddenly targeted as somehow complicit in this apparent murder.  I described her as best I could, noting especially her musculature, the strength of her in being able to carry a man 30 pounds heavier than she.

The officer and I had reached the cliff stairs.  “And this woman simply ran down these stairs and swam off, you don’t know where to?”

“Yes, that’s right.  She was an athlete and undoubtedly a strong swimmer.  By the time I reached this spot, she was nowhere to be seen.”

“So she saves this man, or at least brings him all the way up here to lay him down on your couch, in front of you, and then strangles him to death when you go to get water.  Is that the way you want us to understand this?”

“Well, ah, yes.  That’s not just speculation, sir.  I tell you that’s exactly the way it must have happened.”

The officer stared at me without speaking for an uncomfortably long time.  Then, “Mr. Lee, you see the logic problem here, right?   Why bring him up here where a witness might see her kill him?  Why not kill him down there?”

“I know, I know, officer.  But that’s what happened.  I’m telling you the truth.”

The officer shook his head.  “All right, Mr. Lee, I’m going to need you to come downtown with us.”

We’d reached the lānai again.  The coroner confirmed the initial EMT diagnosis.  The man had been strangled.

I knew this didn’t look good for me, but I also knew this was the truth exactly as it had unfolded.

When we arrived at the station, I asked to speak to Lieutenant David Chan.

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