A Touch of Truth
by Bertil Falk
|part 1 of 3|
It was a lovely summer day and my similarly lovely neighbor had succeeded in convincing me of the importance of her painting my portrait.
“In oil?” I asked. “Like sardines?”
“In oil!” she admitted. “Like the old whopper of a pike you are. Sardines?” she sniffed.
While she painted, we discussed this and that. Among all the sorts of things we touched upon, she hit on something that she probably had harped on inwardly for some time.
“How come that you, who’ve been involved in so many criminal cases, became a missionary and not a private detective?” she asked.
“Many of my criminal experiences,” I replied, “have been part of the fact that I have been a missionary. But now that you mention it, I was once mistaken for a private investigator.”
“Really? Please, tell me about it.”
“It happened here in Sweden. I had been at a missionary station in Kenya for some years, was hit by malaria, and decided to take a vacation. A private investigator in Malmö sublet his flat to me for a few months while he solved a case somewhere else. Malmö was hit by a tremendous heat wave that summer, and you could not see the sandy beach of Ribban, it was so covered with people.
“The event that led to my involvement in his business happened at a party. I was not there. I heard about it afterwards. And I was, except for some dramatic incidents, mostly on the fringe of the case.”
I paused. “However, it was I who accidentally solved it.”
I cleared my throat and told her. “It had all begun long before. Just two years prior to the party I mentioned, a woman finally met a man she had faith in and could love. It was a day that changed her life. Every sense of insecurity, all the shame, all the anxiety that had been with her ever since she at the age of seven had been sexually assaulted by a sixteen-year old boy next door in the town of Strängnäs, all that disappeared. As if by a stroke of magic! She and her newfound love married and settled in the city of Malmö.
“Now, after two years of married life, her love was as strong as when they exchanged rings. After a tumultuous life on the high seas of mental imperfection, everything had been brought to a successful close; she had entered a safe haven. It may sound like pretentious trash, but that was exactly how she felt. Wedlock was now her haven of rest. She did not think that there was anything that could overshadow her security.
“They had many friends and often went to parties. One such evening, a Saturday in summer, when I was in that rented flat in Malmö, she stood with a glass of wine in her hand at a party and was talking to an older woman who appeared to possess a lot of information about the present guests.
* * *
“And that man,” the older woman said and pointed out one of the male guests, who was lounging about in a corner and talking to the hostess. “That man is from Strängnäs. I happen to know that many years ago he fled Strängnäs because he had committed child assaults: a true pedophile.”
Stunned, the married woman looked at the alleged pedophile. And realized with a sudden loathing, who the man was. Up through her body, an uncontrollable hatred made its way, a hatred she did not even know there was within her. It was as if an atavistic phantom had been released in her mind.
She almost dropped her wineglass. She supported herself against a highboy. She shut her eyes and her right hand grasped the edge of the piece of furniture tight. The sense of vertigo slowly died away.
When she recovered her composure, she put down her wineglass and walked over to her husband. “I’m not feeling quite well,” she said. “I want to go home. Now, straightaway!’
Surprised, her husband looked at her and he must have seen that she was serious, for he nodded approval.
When he drove home, she looked at him. She knew deep down in her ripped-up mind that her love for him was overshadowed by her hatred for the man who had destroyed her life and now all of a sudden had returned, reminding her of all the pain she had endured.
Concerned, her husband asked, “What’s wrong?”
“I must have eaten something unsuitable.” She excused herself and decided not to mention the reason for her abrupt indisposition.
* * *
I paused and looked at my young neighbor. She had put aside her brush and was listening intently. It pleased me, so I continued.
“Soon after, I had a visitor. It was a woman. She sat down in front of me and she was what once upon a time would have been called a real beauty. Moist, flaming red lips; amber-colored eyes; a big, thick nose that almost looked artificial; eyelids of mother-of-pearl; green-pencilled eyebrows. Her dark hair was in a ponytail. She was wearing platform shoes that heightened by at least an inch her ability to take in the environment. She was carrying a suitcase. Her jeans looked as if they had been sewn on her well-structured body. Her thin blouse, revealing that she did not unnecessarily use a bra, contributed its share. She was all made-up, but she was not a sketch. She was a complete work of art in mint condition. She could have been at about thirty years of age.”
* * *
“You better not know my name,” she said. Her voice possessed a shrill sharpness. And she added: “I need your help.”
At that I realized that she thought that I was the private eye, the owner of the flat. But instead of revealing the truth, I — probably out of pure curiosity — said, “Tell me what you want.”
“Something very special.” Her voice had a creaky quality.
“Well...” I said. I saw she wore two golden rings on her left hand. I surmised that she was married and guessed she wanted me to shadow her husband. But I was wrong.
“I want a man liquidated,” she said.
“Killed! Murdered! Executed!”
“I stared at her for a moment.
“I would say that that would exceed my authority as a... well, as a human being. Are you serious?”
“I’ve something to tell you that’ll make you realize that I’m serious,” she said.
For a moment it was as if I saw a thirty million-year old fly wrapped up in her amber-colored eyes.
“At the age of seven I was exposed to a series of sexual assaults. He was sixteen,” she continued. “He raped me. He destroyed my life. I’ve had bad relations with men ever since. But a couple of years ago I met a man I married. Our marriage has been very good... until...”
She bit her lower lip. “Some time ago I discovered the man who destroyed my life. It was at a party. I’ve found out things about him. He... he’s married. I thought that the past was gone, but my hatred blazed up again, worse than ever.” And in order to emphasize how she felt, she told me how she had been treated. It was a very nasty story and I could understand her rising anger.
“Even though your hatred is well founded,” I said, “it doesn’t justify murder. You must realize that. Have you told your husband about this?”
“He doesn’t know anything about my discovery,” she said. “And I’m not going to tell him.”
“None of your business.” She paused. “The thing is that I don’t want to involve him at this stage.”
She put her suitcase in front of me on the desk. She opened it. Banknotes! High denominations! “Two-hundred and fifty thousand crowns,” she said.
I said nothing, just regarded the attractive bundles. It certainly looked very tempting...
* * *
I stopped talking, looked at my neighbor and said: “You are not painting. Let’s have a cup of coffee.”
I went into the house and returned with coffee, a Kenyan brand.
When I took up the story again, I approached it from a different angle. “There was a man who went about it systematically. To begin with he rented a car. Then he drove home and changed license plates, after which he turned the radiator towards the province of Småland. Traffic was light.
“On the other side of a county boundary he turned off from the main road and drove into a narrow forest road. After a couple of kilometers, he stopped the car on the fringe of a clearing. There was a black Volvo. He knew it belonged to Östen Stormsjö. He walked along a barely beaten track the last two hundred meters to the deserted village where the summer cottage was.
“He walked carefully, but it crackled and creaked when he trampled on dry sprigs and twigs. He stopped and looked at the cottage. He stood still for a long while, listening to sounds. He took the gloves out of the plastic bag. Birdcalls; a frog croaked in some small woodland mere; the vague whisper of the wind; rustling leaves and the fast running of a squirrel up a tree-trunk almost sounded deafening in the silence. Sunset colored the firmament red. The heat was on. The heat wave was at its peak and would remain for some time.
“Darkness loomed. After a while, light was turned on in one of the windows. He carefully put his hands into his coat pockets. The guns were in plastic bags, heavy and safe. He was calm.
“Two hundred and fifty thousand crowns were strictly speaking not enough, but she had been definite about it from the beginning. Two hundred and fifty or nothing at all! He was not the only one, she had said. When he explained to her how much it would cost him to fix an alibi, she agreed to pay the extra. Reluctantly, she had produced thirty thousand more. Be that as it may, you cannot cross the border to criminal activities without making sure of a financial reserve to fall back on.
“Are you talking about yourself in third person singular now?” my neighbor asked.
I ignored her question. “The man moved towards the cottage and carefully went round the corner at the same time as he put on the gloves,” I said. “The pedophile and rapist sat inside the glazed-in veranda that obviously was an addition to the cottage. The door was open. Soundlessly, the assassin slipped into the house. There were no creaking floorboards, only new, brown-painted planks. They would not creak for many years to come.
“He looked into the room and caught sight of a wall calendar. He got an idea. The intended victim was reading a book. He did not hear the light rustle when the weapon was brought out of the coat pocket and released from its plastic bag. The hired murderer stood behind the man’s back.
“The victim only managed to feel the light touch of the muzzle at the same moment as the gun went off, and the bullet entered his temple with a smacking noise and went out the other side. The head fell to one side; some blood and substance ran out, less than the perpetrator had expected. The book fell to the floor.
“It was an old Nancy book!
“The hired murderer walked to the door, dropped his hand into his left coat-pocket, fished up another weapon, released it out of the plastic and discharged one more shot into the air. Then he returned to his victim. With some difficulty he worked the second weapon into the dead man’s right hand. The index finger on the trigger. Just like that. The arm dangling across the elbow-rest. Good! It would not be an easy task for the forensic laboratory, the perpetrator thinks.
“I can’t believe you did this!” my neighbor exclaimed.
Once again I ignored her and continued: “As agreed upon, he picked up the ignition key from the desk. Next he walked into the room with the wall calendar. He tore leaves from it. The day’s date: July 5. He continued with July 6, July 7 and July 8. He put the leaves in his pocket.
“After that he closed the door of the veranda, left the cottage and returned to his car. Two hours later, he was back in Malmö. He replaced the registration plates. He flushed the leaves from the wall calendar down the drain. He took out his suitcase, took off his clothes and put the murder gun and false registration plates on top of the undergarments and the outdoor clothes together with the gloves and the socks and the shoes and wrapped everything in plastic.
“Then he returned the rental car and took a bus to Malmö Central Railroad Depot. He bought a one-way ticket to the main station of Copenhagen. There he bought another ticket, this time for Paris. Some 52 hours later he arrived on a bus in Lisbon, where on the evening of July 10 he embarked on a cargo-ship with passenger cabins. At 11 o’clock a.m. the next day it departed for the West Indies.
“Late at night — somewhere between the two continents — he threw a parcel into the water. It contained his victim’s ignition key, the false registration plates and the murder weapon and the gloves and the clothes he wore when he killed the man in the cottage. Everything carefully wrapped up in plastic.
“This was the opportunity that for years he had been waiting and planning for. He had been well prepared. No permanent address or taxes paid for years. His name had disappeared from public documents. His forged Swedish passport had still eight years to go. As a matter of precaution he had a spurious British passport as well. And he had obtained a U.S. green card from some Indians in New Orleans just in case, it might be easier for him to hide in English-speaking countries than in Latin America.
“Had he missed something? Was there any hole in his plan? Could someone have recognized him? No, he had most probably committed that famous crime they continually talk about in old mysteries.
“At twilight he looks out at the sea. A flying fish lands on the deck. The perfect crime, yes!”
I smiled at my neighbor. “Do you really think that I did all this?” I sipped at my coffee, as did she.
“What happened then?” she asked.
“An old friend of mine, Roland Franzén, was brought in from the cold.”
And I continued. “The woman, short in stature, was bloodless. Her lips white. A lipstick would have clinched the matter. Her eyes possessed an irritating attitude. She wore black ordinary shoes. Entirely dressed in a dark-brown dress. Her fair hair stood out from under a snuff-colored beret.
“Linda Stormsjö, who recently had become a widow, tried a dogged smile. Her thin nose trembled from recurrent snorts she did not seem to be able to control. My old friend Roland Franzén listened to her account. He was of course a retired murder investigator, but at the request of the Homicide Division he had resumed his duties. The hot summer’s crime wave was sprayed with people on holiday and on the sick list combined with the normal lack of police investigators.
“There were not enough people to handle all the problems streaming in from a more and more frustrated and unreliable public. As far as could be judged, this woman’s husband had committed suicide. She had herself wanted to talk to the police.”
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by Bertil Falk