“Let me hear Uncle Gav’s story. Please. Uncle Gav, tell them to let me.”
“No, I don’t like scaring kids before bed. Not that it’s all that scary, but you don’t want to be filling your head with this kind of thing. Our three families have had our best ever holidays together, haven’t we? Let’s not spoil it with arguments. Your parents want you in bed, so off to bed.”
They had finished their last barbecue for the summer and were sitting outside in the little courtyard formed by their grouped caravans. The twelve year old sulked her way back to her family’s van to rejoin her younger brother and sister; the six adults were left to enjoy a final evening together before the big pack-up – and then that traffic-choked trek back to their diverse parts of Sydney. All round the park many families were already pulling down tents and stowing gear. Holidays’ end.
Gavin shuffled in his chair, sucked briefly on his stubbie, poked his spectacles back up the bridge of that fierce hawk nose.
“Your question: What is, in all my years investigating insurance claims, the most striking case? Well, I have an answer…When I think about it, I really should be charging for all this…”
“You get a free beer. If you don’t get on with it, you get a flat face.”
“Okay, but I might pause before the end, just to see who’s got a flair for the obvious. Because that’s what this case was about: the obvious. The thing you don’t find because it’s right in front of you, which you’d find easily if it were hidden. The success of this crime hinged on a single blatant assumption that everyone made, and which even I made, for a while.”
Clare, mother of the young girl who had gone last to bed, propped for a moment. She pointed at the open window of the family caravan.
“Paul, Laura’s awake and listening at the window.”
“Well, let her listen. She’s twelve. Let’s get on with it, Gav.”
“Where’s that free beer?”
BODY, MOTIVE, CONFESSION
A well-off doctor and his wife owned a penthouse overlooking Centennial Park. They also owned several units within the building. It’s a medium quality unit block, position being its main advantage. Go a few minutes west and you’re in Paddington, then you’re in the city. To your east is the park, the lungs of Sydney, then the old beach suburbs. The ocean side of Cook Road is lined with these plain high-rises offering park views or glimpses, or lower complexes with “Mews” or “Grove” in their names and which offer glimpses of each other. Mediocre developers sold to smart investors back in the seventies. The investors were smart because the area, though cheaply developed, holds its value. The doctor and his wife were smart people.
He was almost retired, ferociously careful with money, so he handled his own properties. The wife was a flash old sort – had her own money from a previous marriage – who shopped in Double Bay, lunched at the Cosmo, fasted at Adventist health farms, and so on. She might have bonked a tennis coach or two on the side. Still, from all I could gather, a generous and friendly type – and quite a glam for her age. Would have been a socialite and would have mixed with Eastern Suburbs types with names like Jock and Neroli, but her old man was too introverted and tight with money. Still, she had a good time around town, and showed others a good time.
She went missing. The husband started ringing friends, and everyone else he could think of, when she didn’t come home one evening. He was on the phone to police next day. Soon she was officially missing.
Then I knew about it. That’s when I delved and found out the superficial stuff mentioned above. There was a life policy involved, a really big one. Never mind how I knew an insuree was a missing person. Just remember I always know.
Some time later, in an apparently unconnected matter, there were complaints of odour in the unit of one of the doctor’s tenants. Also, the tenant had not been seen coming and going, his mailbox was crammed.
The doctor phoned, but there was no reply. Then he knocked on the door, in the company of the neighbour who had complained of the odour. There was no response, so he used his own keys to enter. Inside, he found the body of his tenant among bottles, pills and all kinds of mess. The tenant was lying in bed, and had been dead for a long time. The odour was grim.
No real surprise. It’s the kind of thing that happens in all such apartment blocks every couple of years. Still, coming on top of his wife going missing, it was a major shock for the doctor.
The doctor closed the door and, from the neighbour’s flat, called the police, who had already sifted through his private life the previous week for clues to his wife’s whereabouts. He then waited with that neighbour for the arrival of the police. When they arrived, both the doctor and the neighbour were able to fill them in on the deceased.
The neighbour explained that the dead man had been mostly unemployed, living off past earnings as a journalist, and clearly alcoholic. He occasionally had violent arguments with a woman visitor, and had sometimes caused disturbance by blaring classical music through the night or hitting an old typewriter at the oddest hours.
The doctor could confirm, as landlord, that the deceased had been a problem tenant, and that he had often dealt with complaints about noise and possible violence. The rent was up to date and had always been paid on time, but the doctor had contemplated eviction upon expiration of the lease.
The police, aware of the doctor’s other problems, were very helpful. He was able to go back upstairs to his penthouse while the police waited for the special ambulance service to come for the body. They promised to alert him when the flat was available for cleaning and fumigation.
Not long after, the doctor was buzzed. The policeman at his door looked pale and shocked. He had to inform the doctor that, after removing the tenant’s body from the unit, they found the odour persisting, and concentrated around a large built-in wardrobe in the same bedroom where the tenant was found dead. In the wardrobe, they found the body of a woman, evidently dead for as long as the other body.
The doctor, shaken and enfeebled, was able to come downstairs and give a positive identification of his missing wife’s body, before he entered a state of collapse. He was escorted back to his penthouse, where he took a sedative after declining outside medical help. The police now had a major crime scene on their hands, and they proceeded to inspect every inch of the unit.
The most important thing they found was bundle of wine-stained papers, written undoubtedly in the hand of the tenant. It detailed everything: his obsession, his stalking, his plan to kill the woman. He detailed her clothing, her reaction after he had grabbed her in the elevator and knocked her senseless. He described the manner of strangling with a pure yellow tie, and the stowing of the body in his wardrobe. The handwriting became chaotic toward the end of the long confession, so it was not possible to know if the document was written through remorse or grandiosity, or as a suicide note.
There was absolutely no doubt as to the authenticity of the handwriting and its accuracy as regards the description of the victim and manner of her death. His own death was certainly self-inflicted, through enormous amounts of alcohol mixed with tranquilisers. Suicide or no suicide, nobody else was responsible for his death; and I can save everyone time by making these two points clear: he, and nobody else, wrote those detailed notes before he died. He wrote drunk but of his own free will. He described the wife’s clothing, and the description matched the clothing on her body in every detail, even down to a tear made in her blouse. He described the initial head injury and the later strangulation exactly. A yellow tie he described as the murder weapon was still about her neck when she was found.
Now, what conclusions would any of you draw?
The matter passed through official hands, all conclusions well and truly foregone, not a breath of doubt about anything.
Then the matter came to me, because there was a very big life insurance policy involved. I could see nothing beyond what others saw, and was on the verge of recommending full and prompt payout of policy.
But whenever Uncle Gavin comes to that verge, he comes back from that verge! And – you ladies will have to excuse me – he checks his testicles.
Yes, I had it, that vague ache in the testicles. That signal an Old Testament God sends to insurance investigators, the principal earthly instruments of his wrath. What? You think I’m joking? I never joke about God or the insurance industry. That ache in my testicles always says to me: We are being dudded!
The respectable elderly doctor had murdered his wife. But how? And what was making me suspicious? I searched my head, racked it for some detail I’d read and passed over, or for two details that only meant something when put together. Soon, I had those two details.
I had something else floating about in my head. It was like a bacterium that floats inside your closed eyelid: roll the eyeball toward it and you lose it completely. What was it?
Back to the two details, which were all I had. As you know, I can always get a good look at someone’s finances and accounts if I need to. (Whether I should or shouldn’t is something you need to take up with some government commission with a name straight out of a Superman comic.) Remember that the doctor said the rent had been paid on time? His clear declaration of that fact is detail one. Detail two is: the rent wasn’t paid at all for the last five weeks. Now, the rent being in arrears is scarcely a surprise. Not a big thing on its own. So why would the doctor say there was no problem with the rent?
To conceal the fact that he had been in recent contact with the tenant!
This guy was tight-fisted. The rent was late. He would certainly have rung the tenant. Then he would certainly have knocked on his door. Then he would have entered the premises. Then he would have found the tenant dying or dead. This would have been long before the discovery of the bodies.
Here, for the moment, I ran out of speculations. It was time to look away from the core of the puzzle and play about its edges. I would assume that the doctor had done the impossible and murdered his wife. I would look for a motive, though I could not find a means.
A man who loves money won’t kill his missus for insurance. A man who loves it and desperately needs it, or a man who loves money and hates his wife…those are different matters. It was time to rake through all the private information about the doctor I could get my hands on.
Needless to say, it shouldn’t be allowed. Needless to say, you’ll never stop me. I represent civilisation’s great enabler, the insurance industry. I won’t waste my time invading your privacy out of an empty craving for power and control. However, I will use my time fruitfully invading your privacy to get knowledge essential to the continuance of civilisation. I know, you think I’m being funny. I’m not.
Anyway, argue about it all you like, but I soon had the doctor’s details before me, just about everything needed. I had his accounts, his investments, and, most interestingly, the investments made by his investments.
I started to sift…
Well, well, well.
He was the investment manager for his wife, and a very busy, tangly sort of manager. While she was hitting tennis balls, he was merging and de-merging their wealth in ways favourable to his side of the ledger. The problem is, she would soon have nothing left, and he could be in trouble himself. Of course, the businesses he was investing in were theoretically perfect for kicking back to him, so that his wife’s inheritance from fifteen years before would come back to her second husband as cash from the sale of furniture and trinkets. But the problem for the doctor lay in the emotional nature of that structuring. He had been investing not in ordinary cash businesses, but in a culture. But I’d better explain some more.
Tight-fistedness is pure emotion posing as calculation. The person who pinches pennies at one end is frittering pounds at the other. Somehow, somewhere, he is wasting money. You think a human being is devoid of passion because he is sixty and wears cardigans and drives a Camry? Forget it. Every human is a Niagara Falls of passion and emotion. The miser is a Niagara Falls held back by a flimsy dam. When the dam bursts…Am I mixing too many metaphors? I’ll get back to the facts.
The doctor, or his companies, had acquired a gift shop in Paddington and a furniture shop in Darlinghurst. The gift shop, called Irony, sold things like holy pictures and rosary beads along with sex aids and kitsch. The furniture shop, Mum’s Gumption, was a very pricey gallery of strictly fifties furniture and bric-à-brac, mostly mint-condition originals. Now, unless you are an ace in fad retailing or you absolutely have to lose chaff-bags of money in a hurry, you bankroll shops like that because you want love or acceptance or some such. You are buying into a culture more than a business. You are looking for an extension of youth. You are distracted.
What did this tell me about our doctor? Plenty. I got my Oxford Street connections on the job, and soon his double life was exposed. He had a boyfriend, much younger, and that boyfriend had managed to make himself an unfunded partner as well as manager of the businesses. Of course, the boyfriend had his own younger boyfriend, unknown to his elderly cash-cow. It’s extraordinary how faithless people can be so easily persuaded of the faith of others. The strawberry daiquiris were on him, and he either didn’t know or didn’t want to know it.
So, through passion, he had turned a sound, if dishonest, plan into a hopeless money hole. Whether he knew he was being bled is hard to know. Remember, any human is a Niagara Falls of passion and emotion – and as for a quiet one!
An aging man locked into a marriage that was all wrong for him, desperately hoping to squeeze some more juice from life, and in urgent need of a huge dollar. His wife is a spending machine who will soon learn that he’s been siphoning…
Would such a man commit murder?
Well, as you will no doubt say, I have the motive, but not the means. Someone else committed the murder for him, by good luck. So I will end my story there, unless someone has any ideas.
“You aren’t going to stop now!”
“Gav, for God’s sake!”
But Gavin was sipping on his beer and ignoring the pleas. Paul grabbed him around the neck in a choke.
“End the bloody story, or it’s your neck!”
“Okay, okay…since none of you have any ideas…Just let me finish my beer.”
Just then, Laura, the twelve year old, walked back into the group.
“You’re supposed to be in bed young lady! Have you been lying awake listening to Uncle Gavin?”
“I couldn’t sleep, Mum. Uncle Gavin, I can finish the story for you.”
“Really? I’m glad someone has been thinking as well as being entertained.”
“Just get back to bed, young lady. It’s not the kind of story…”
‘No, no. It’s the last night of holidays. Let her stay up a few minutes and finish my story for me.”
“She shouldn’t be hearing all this stuff about gay people in Darlinghurst.”
“Mum, you should hear what goes on in the Castle Hill Gospel Choir.”
“I give up!”
“Okay, finish my story for me.”
The young girl wound herself onto her father’s lap and said simply:
“The man made it up.”
“What man made what up?”
“The man who said he’d done all those things to the lady. He made it up. Uncle Gav, when he wrote down all those things, he didn’t use the lady’s name, did he?”
“No, you’re right. He just referred to her as ‘she’.”
Gavin started to grin as the others shook their heads. Paul explained indulgently to his daughter:
“He didn’t make it up, princess. He really did all those things. They found the lady’s body in his room. And he wrote down everything in detail, how she was dressed – everything. Maybe you really should just go back to bed.”
“You’re not listening. He wrote it all down. But he didn’t do it. The other man did it.”
“Come on, off to bed!”
Gavin burst into laughter.
“Maybe the rest of you should go and lie down, while I talk to the one truly intelligent person in our group: my little mate Laura.”
“Tell them, Uncle Gav. They won’t listen to me.”
THE RECIPE IS NOT THE CAKE
What, in all of this, was the thing that everyone believed, and which even I believed for a while? Only Laura here – whom I will one day welcome into the highest field of human endeavour, insurance investigation – saw what lay in plain sight, and saw it straight away.
The confession was an unfinished, unpublished work of imagination. It was the start of a yarn: a novel or short story.
And you’ll all be happy to know that, once the single, simple illusion was shattered, once I decided to test every previous assumption, the trial and conviction of our doctor followed on quickly and easily. He did not get away with it. Moreover, Irony is now a gay but irony-free delicatessen. They are among the blessed few who import genuine pecorino. Send them some business. Mum’s Gumption is now a travel agency. They specialise in New Caledonia packages.
It’s was simple. It was too bloody simple, wasn’t it?
A tenant, an ex-journo who drinks and makes too much noise with an old typewriter. He wants to write a story, maybe something commercial to pull him out of the miseries. A serial killer yarn? What old journo doesn’t have a literary idea or two in his drawer? He can’t type without attracting complaints, so he writes his story by hand. He doesn’t get far into his story, because he’s horribly drunk.
He then does what many alcoholics do. He dies alone in a mess of empty bottles and empty resentments. May he rest in peace. His landlord, anxious for the rent, finally makes his way into the flat and finds his tenant just expired. He also finds the manuscript, hand-written.
Someone has just gifted him an incontrovertible confession. And someone has given him a perfect a place to put his wife’s body. The only catch is that he must act quickly, so there is no apparent difference between the two times of death. Perhaps a contrivance with dry ice is used to slow corruption of the first corpse – a medico knows how to arrange something of that nature – but speed and decisiveness will be essential to success.
His wife will have to die immediately, or not at all. The second death will have to seem like the first, by however slight a margin.
In the tenant’s flat, he probably finds lots of other writings, submissions, rejections etc. All of that is removed and destroyed, to help maintain the simple illusion of a hand-written confession.
That’s right. You are all nodding now. But did you see it? No, it never occurred to you that what was written preceded everything else. It was a piece of unpublished fiction, and the murderer only had to match the clothes and circumstances to what was on the paper. A bump to the head, a torn blouse, a tie around the neck. First the recipe. Then the cake.
It was the tie that was our first breakthrough, once I finally saw what should have been obvious from the start. The doctor had never been a power dresser, was not the type to own a yellow tie – so he had to buy one quickly. By bad luck, he bought the very first item from a newly imported batch, and the salesperson remembered him. After that we had an avalanche of proof against him. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. It was…
Should I say “child’s play”?