A late southerly storm had thrashed the bay, driving most of the holidayers back to their cabins and vans. On the point, a lone fisherman visible through skirts of spray, yellow jacket ballooning, guided his bait repeatedly into a favourite eddy, using the turbulence and foul light .
Beneath a dripping tarp, the three men had finished washing up after a damp communal barbecue while their families settled inside their caravans for the night. Televisions, generators, kids’ arguments – all the goodly racket of shared summers – were muffled just enough by the heavy air and hastily shut windows.
On the card table between them, three just-opened stubbies, oozing condensation, formed a little shrine to maleness, a mosquito coil smoking piously in the centre.
“So, Gav, you had your very own Locked Room Mystery, and solved it.”
“Too late. Too bloody late…”
Reverent silence, while they took a first swig for the evening.
“I was too late. And not for the only time. That’s the trouble with the insurance game: we find out more than anyone, but we have fewer powers than anyone. Did you know that the Knights of Malta have observer status at the UN? That should be us! The insurance industry!
“We’re truly co-operative and inter-operative, on a truly international scale, are we not? And we know. We don’t waste a moment finding out what colour underwear you like, all that profiling and intelligence-gathering rubbish. Our art lies in knowing what we need to know, and knowing only that. Why is insurance investigation necessarily superior to policing and spying? Because we do it purely for the money, and huge wallops of money. Purity of purpose. That makes us more just and efficient than any other investigative force on earth.”
“Gav, you insane ethnic, I wish I could love my work as much as you love yours.”
“In the long term, maybe it helped me to be a mad paisan. But how I used to thank my mother for calling me Gavin, instead of Ennio or Muzio!
“Growing up in the Riverina, with a surname like Di Gianvincenzo and a spindly little body that got me less respect from the other abruzz‘ than from the anglos…All of that might have finished me, but it was the making of me.
“My pop was an internee in the war, you know, even though he thought Mussolini was a cloth for making cheese. Lived off rabbits and bran and stolen watermelons when he got out. Hard times, hard people. Mostly good people, most of the time. Good Anglos, good Italians. Don’t come into the insurance game if you’re a hater or a cynic…Haters think they’re smart, think they’re above every game, and that’s fatal to knowing.
“But do you think I didn’t learn a bit about human nature growing up out there? Please! One of my uncles was the bloke who actually murdered D…Well, you know who got murdered.
“Yeah, I could have hated a lot people, instead I’ve hated none. And every Christmas I hang out with you two and your families. Know why?”
“Innocence! What I look for in my downtime is innocence. That’s how I do it, how I stay on top in the insurance investigation game. You think they don’t pay me well for being able to rip the guts out of all the chess players and lucky drongos and no-hopers that are trying it on with us every single moment? But I’m a Damascus blade. I don’t just need sharpening – I need balance!
“So I spend time with people like Steve here, too innocent for the all the sex and scandal of the Hillsong choir, who’s never rooted anyone but his missus, never bought a decent boat because he wants his kids to have straight teeth…
“Or you, Paul. Won’t have a single beer till your kids are fed and tucked in. You’re so innocent you probably pay the tax on your cash jobs.”
“Don’t tell me. I can smell innocence, like I can smell…its opposite.
“Gets me thinking. There was one job – I’ll never forget it – that brought back the stink of all that was worst in my childhood. The bastard got away with it too, just like the bastard I told you about last night. But, unlike Ray the caretaker, he’ll never get caught again for anything.”
“No such thing. If crimes were perfect they wouldn’t be performed by weak mugs. Because that’s all the world’s smartest, toughest, richest criminal is: a weak mug, one of life’s shortcutters. Never forget that.
“But this was as good as perfect. It was adequate to the circumstances and the society where it happened. It was an adequate murder.”
“Beer’s cold, kids are quiet. Now’s the time to tell us all about it, Gavino. But keep the insurance talk to a minimum.”
“Why not. In fact, you might just find this one educational, because it shows what successful murderers are really like. Successful murderers are like those old lady golfers who hit good rounds because they hit the ball straight and low along the ground. Successful murderers use the landscape. They have an okay plan A which is slightly better than their B and C plans. Successful murderers don’t try to rise above mediocrity. They know they’re amateurs, they know blokes like me are not amateurs. But I’m theorising. I’ll let the story explain.”
AN ADEQUATE MURDER
I said that this case had a stink from my childhood. I know myself enough to say that I still carry my small-man resentments. I can still feel like the impoverished abruzz‘ – minus the handy broad build – who couldn’t afford a seat at the Leeton cinema, couldn’t face a girl at a dance. I hated my surname, though I loved my family. All true.
I’ve always known envy is the biggest waste in nature. It’s all subtraction and division, isn’t it? Humans are at their least rational when they envy. But if there is one thing you will learn to resent in an Australian country town…it’s the Cocky’s Son!
He’s in every town. The Cocky’s Son is the golden boy from the richest farming family. He comes not just from money but from land. Back from his city boarding school or university college, he moves about the dance or the footy crowd like a petty princeling and gets you to ache for a nod or wave of acknowledgment. He gets his driving licence without even a bribe, takes a sports car to the Easter show or Randwick Races, roars through railway crossings and scrapes his diff the way a dog pees to make his mark; he gets drunk on Saturday and drives between towns so long as there’s no out-of-town coppers around.
If he duffs your sister, you have to ask how much you value your job, not your sister. Know the bloke I’m talking about? There are thousands of him across the country, not all bad, but all likely to provoke envy in a scrawny and penniless abruzz‘ who’s good at maths, geography and little else. In my town, his people had new money through orchards and canneries. Mostly, though, he’s the squatter’s great-grandson, and the money came out of wool or beef long ago.
I’m telling you all this so you’ll understand my mood, my sense of vendetta, through it all. I don’t excuse myself, because if God gives me one big win in my life, I hope he gets me past all envy, the worst and most useless bitch of an emotion.
Above all, envy has no place in insurance, the enabler of civilisation. (Go on, have your usual snigger. Then think about it.)
Golgabri is in some of the best sheep country in NSW. The Huffs of Golgabri have been there since the mid-1800s.
Errol Huff was the Cocky’s Son of Golgabri. By his early twenties he’d married a local girl, Jeannette, who was the neighbouring grazier’s plain daughter and only child. From all that, you’ll gather that Errol knew instinctively and exactly how the Huffs had gone about things since 1860. When Jeannette’s father died, Errol was as good as the owner of his spread, although Jeannette was the owner in deed. Errol’s father was yet to do the amiable thing and step aside or down or out, so that Errol could consolidate the properties; but that was the only small cloud in his bright sky.
There were no children from the marriage and Jeannette was pushed quickly to the margin. She took to the pills and grog. She was also solidly alone when her husband was out. For a Golgabri squatter family to keep servants or helpers around the house, there has to be more than a childless couple in residence, regardless of how filthy rich they are. It’s all grazing and no hand-feeding out Golgabri way – even for heiresses!
Errol’s life was a busy round of cockying both spreads, bossing up the local clubs and interest groups, and hitting the Sydney turf scene.
It took little time before Errol Huff was to hook up with a certain female newsreader. They first met at Randwick during the Autumn Carnival. The odd photo and bit of gossip made its way back to Golgabri and to Jeannette, who bombed herself even more. There seems to have been a scene or two between the spouses, when she threatened Errol’s control over her inherited property. Mostly, though, she bombed herself out.
Errol drove his Jag to Sydney usually, though he had his own plane which he could land at Bankstown, if needed.
One weekend he headed to Sydney for the Randwick Guineas, but took the train, because his Jag had a problem and weather looked uncertain for flying. In any case, as he said, he was in the mood for a big drink, and, to those highway coppers, you could be just anyone.
He seems to have had a pretty high time down there. Newsreader had been replaced by ex-model and PR lady by then, shortly after newsreader’s forced tree-change to Woolongong television. At the end of the weekend, Errol was bundled back on the train, with much hilarity, by his AJC mates. During the trip he continued to drink a bit, and was quite chatty with everyone else in the first class carriage. He was pleasant enough, but everyone in the carriage was aware of him.
He was met at the Golgabri station by two of his mates: his solicitor and the local doctor. They had agreed in advance to drive Errol home in the solicitor’s Merc.
Now, when they got to Errol’s place, it was getting late; but Errol insisted they all come inside and have some champagne to celebrate his win in the Guineas. Jeannette, he said, would be waiting up or napping on the lounge, but she’d be happy to have some champagne. He also hinted that things were now better between the spouses.
When they entered, some lights were still on, the house was warm. All three men headed to the lounge room as Errol called his wife’s name. They found her apparently asleep under a blanket on the couch. Errol approached, kissed her. She didn’t move. He pulled back the blankets. She didn’t move. He pulled the blankets, which were wrapped right round her, to the floor, and began to shake his wife. No movement.
Alarmed, he called his doctor mate over to the couch. Jeannette was still warm as the doctor felt her pulse and listened to her heart.
Jeannette Huff had died, probably within the hour.
She was deadly pale, blue-lipped. Heart was the likely cause, so heart it was. In another place, matters would have been looked at a little harder. In Golgabri, it was death by completely unscandalous natural causes, all duly certified by local authorities. The doctor was Errol’s mate and had been doing lots of prescribing for his wife. You think he was going to probe further?
Let me tell you: that Australian country town you drive through, which seems so friendly, relaxed and open…it’s tighter, more secretive and more defensive than North Korea.
The funeral was large and moving. A famous country singer was contracted to perform Jeannette’s and Errol’s favourite song – Tears in Bloody Heaven, would you believe? – and the lady was subsequently cremated.
Not only did Errol Huff become master of a giant sheep station, he was the beneficiary of a very, very big life insurance policy. By now, you people know that can work two ways for a criminal. We, the insurance industry, are not Constable Plod!
It was too late, of course, by the time I was called in – but I’m used to that.
I drove up to Golgabri and did a prowl. I found out more about the marriage and about Errol. I hardly needed to be taught about a Cocky’s Son. There was the classical Cocky’s Son driving incident. Age seventeen, Errol had crippled an old local man when he went speeding, unlicensed, in the family Jag. (I read a French novel by that guy who wrote the Maigret books. It’s called The Accomplices, and it’s about a French Cocky’s Son who mows someone down, then gets away with it. They seem to be an international species.) Errol, of course, got away with it. The old bloke was given a wheelchair-accessible flat adjacent to the ambulance station for a very good rent, he got a lamb carcass annually – probably for one year! – and wasn’t booked for walking drunk in the road.
For a while, I thought my own inborn grudges were operating to tell me that Errol Huff had killed his wife. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t representing poor, skinny kids. I was representing the foundations of the modern world…the insurance industry! (Yeah, laugh all you like. Then think.)
I gave it one last shot, after I got back to the office in Sydney. I got hold of Errol’s credit card and bank transactions – never ask me how!
Nothing interesting came from that immediately, but it was good to have. Then I did some pure thinking.
Errol Huff was now the most eligible young cocky in NSW, and would soon own a sheep spread to rival the best in Scone or up on the tableland. You don’t put a price on that sort of thing, any more than you’d put a price on Harbour Bridge. Errol had all that, and Errol could take his pick from the mobs of flash sheilas around the AJC – even if he’d likely only marry someone from the land to carry on the Huff name.
Errol was a huge winner out of Jeannette’s death, but not one word was breathed against him. Then I started to get that ache in my testicles. Remember my ache? The one that tells me: we are being dudded. Not the inferiority-racked wog kid’s testicles. This was pain in the insurance man’s testicles, pain sent by an Old Testament God when he really wants some justice done.
A first obscure hint came from a copy of Australian Country Living, which I obtained after some searching on the Huff name. It had been published shortly after the marriage: there were pictures of the interior of the 1910 Huff mansion, and of the living room where Jeannette would be found dead. There was a big couch against the wall, and I guessed that was the one she died on.
A couch against a wall. Not much. But it got me thinking, picturing. If the couch had been in the middle of the room I may not have started thinking.
And why was the woman on a couch, and not in her bed? Was I looking at a scenario?
Pieces of info came back to me, concerning Errol’s purchases before the death of his wife. I won’t mention the crucial one yet. But one thing he bought was a modern generator back-up for the house, which he had professionally installed. If the power to the house went out, the generator would kick in seamlessly. I did some more checking around. There had been no major power interruptions in the area that would have mattered to the actual Huff house. There was a huge meat refrigeration unit away from the house, which already had its generator. There were no changes to necessitate the installation. Sometimes rich people use back-up power because they have pricey wine cellars that will spoil if there is a big swing in temp or humidity after a power failure. …
Insurance talk. Sorry. The gist is, the possible power interruptions were rare and only from storms – but storms did happen at that time of year when Jeannette Huff died. So Errol Huff had power interruptions on his mind in a big way and for no particular reason.
Why did Errol want to make sure the power stayed on?
And the why then became obvious, because of something else he’d bought.
I made a personal call to Errol.
“Hello. Errol here.” Like he was the first one in Australia since Flynn.
“Hello. I’m looking for an Danlux electric blanket with infinite variable timer and a Snugnite bedding protector.”
“What…who…who’s this?” His voice dropped.
“I’m told you have these products, used once only. The polyurethane film in the Snugnite slows evaporation – so important to keeping a body warm – but feels like a sheet. The Danlux blanket can be run reliably and safely for days on end at a low temp, but can also be controlled on a seven-day timer. Will reset and continue perfectly in the event of a power interruption. And I’m told that, as of some weeks ago, a long power interruption can’t happen in your house.
“According to Select magazine, the top-of-range Danlux never malfunctions. It also looks and feels like a real woolen blanket. Plush, they say. You get what you pay for. I always go for quality in electric blankets. The wrong bedding makes one feel like one has been… suffocated while sleeping.”
There was silence on the line. Then Errol’s voice went lower.
“How much will I pay you, Mr. Huff?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Out of town people are so awkward, aren’t they? Local cops, local medicos, local everything. That’s the country way. But I’m from out of town, Mr. Huff.”
“Nothing for me. But a certain insurance policy will be found to have a technical difficulty in its wording or…well, I don’t know yet. But you will waive all claim on that policy. If you don’t, you’ll be hearing from me. I won’t say sleep tight.”
“So, Gav, the blankets he pulled off his wife were just to keep the corpse warm after he suffocated her?”
“Of course. But Errol knew carcasses! There was an art to how he did it. The house was probably timed to warm up just for a couple of hours before the three men arrived. He may have dosed her – after she’d lapsed into a drowsy state – with lots of antibiotics, to slow putrefacti0n after death. The house was cold for most of the period, the blanket would have been on a timer to kick in a few hours before she was found dead. He wanted the body cool, then – after rigor but before putrefaction, gas, lividity and so on – he warmed it up again with the timer. Where was the risk? If the train had been late, if her body had been discovered earlier, there was still a strong likelihood that her death would be declared natural, or suicide at the worst. Even accidental suffocation was a possible diagnosis. That can happen. There was nothing particularly suspicious about an electric blanket round a sleeping, heavily medicated woman. But the ideal was for nobody to notice the nature of the blanket and the timer.
“Errol could have simply dosed her heavily with sleeping tablets for an apparent suicide, but overdoses are very unreliable, suicide is scandalous. Too clumsy and uncertain. Gentle suffocation of a sleeping and weakened woman is ideal, which is why I assumed suffocation without actual proof. No, he wanted her definitely dead before he got on the train to Sydney.
“Why the living room? Because he wanted to find his wife’s body at the same time as his two mates found it. He couldn’t bring them straight into her bedroom, could he? Errol did not want to be alone with the warm body for a couple of minutes, because that might just have raised suspicions of suffocation, however remote the possibility. What made his mates less suspicious, however, was the very thing that made me more so.
“Think how safe the whole thing was. It didn’t need to work. The plan couldn’t fail, it only ran the risk of a certain degree of failure. Go back to what I said at the very start. Errol was like that old lady who wins the golf trophy because she hits every shot low and straight along the ground.
“Errol, if you like, was humble.
“In fact, the plan, which did not need to go perfectly, went very well. At the apparent time of her death, he’d been sitting in a train carriage or driving along with friends. And the couch was against the wall, so all cords were concealed. Some hours of warmth with not too much evaporation and you have a fresh-feeling corpse. Errol is a very smart man, with bush smarts. Maybe he’d practiced on dead animals, we don’t know. None of it was perfect, but perfection wasn’t necessary. In any other circumstances it would have been a cheap stunt, easily exposed. But when you’re the Cocky’s Son, and it’s locals with locals…who’s going to check or even notice the bundle of bedding on the floor? And even if they had noticed? Errol knew his audience. All his mates really would have demanded in the circumstances were the right appearances. So life on the land could go on. Killing for prime Golgabri paddocks is not the same as killing for money or sex. No, it’s almost noble, when you live out there for a few generations.”
“You could never have gone through with your threat to prove what he did?”
“Of course not. She’d been cremated, there was no evidence of any sort. If Errol had laughed at my call, that would have been the end of it. I had nothing but a guess and that testicular ache. But my call worked. The company saved a few hundred thou. Whatever they pay me, it’s not enough.
“And I cost the Cocky’s Son some nervous moments and broken sleep. That shouldn’t come into it, but it does. At times I’m still the scrawny abruzz‘ standing outside Leeton Cinema, counting his cents to see if he can afford the front rows. And the Cocky’s Son rolls up with his sheila in his red MG and strides past me like I don’t exist.
“Yeah…like I don’t even exist.”