“Let me get this straight,” I said. “Your girlfriend wants you to kill her husband?”
The man across the desk nodded unhappily.
“For the insurance money?”
Again, he nodded. “That’s right.” His narrow face twitched, making him look more like a rat than ever.
“And she can’t divorce him and get alimony because he won’t give her any? And that’s because he knows she’s seeing somebody, though as yet he doesn’t know who?”
“He isn’t rich either,” the man said. “The alimony won’t be much, nothing like an insurance payout.”
I sat back and studied him. Despite his ratlike, unprepossessing appearance, there was something which persuaded me he was serious. He looked scared. It’s the frightened-looking people who tell the truth. If he’d appeared sincere I’d have likely ignored him.
“Um, well,” I said at last. “It’s not as though I don’t believe you, but we don’t exactly come across this kind of thing every day. You’ll forgive me for saying that it reminds me of the plot of a James Hadley Chase novel.”
His expression said he had no idea who James Hadley Chase was. “Can you do something about it?”
“Let me go over this a minute.” I looked at the notes I’d been taking. “You’ve been seeing this lady for three months now. You first talked online, on a dating site, and you met at night, in a restaurant. After a couple of times out, she invited you home on an evening when her husband was away. Right?”
“Yes, but I don’t see...”
“Just checking the facts, sir.” I looked at the notes again. “You said she was friendly and, er, insatiable?”
He nodded miserably.
“You said you’d never felt wanted by women before, so you fell for her hard. And for a month or so things went along perfectly.”
“Right, but then –“
“Then she started talking about leaving her husband, about how he mistreated her, and emotionally abused her. Of course, you sympathised. Even if you weren’t sleeping with her, what else could you have done? Nothing.”
“I asked her to leave him, but –“
“But she said she didn’t want to be destitute. Also she said that she didn’t want to be a financial burden on you. So how long did things go on like this – a month? Longer?”
He shrugged. “Until three weeks ago, when...”
“When she mentioned that her husband had a large life insurance policy, with her as the beneficiary,” I said. “And did she ask you to kill him right away?”
“Well, not in so many words. She said something like, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if I could get the payout from that. Then I could be both free of him and financially secure.’ “
“And what did you reply?”
“Nothing much. I just pointed out that her husband was still only middle-aged, and healthy, so she wouldn’t be getting hold of it for a long time, if ever.”
“Did she say anything then?”
“No, but two days later she had bruises on her arms and back, and she said her husband had beaten her. And she said ‘I wish he were dead.’ “
“ ’I wish he were dead,’ ” I repeated. “I see.”
“I asked her then to leave him, and that money wasn’t so important, but she refused. She said...” he looked down at his hands, their fingers twisting together. “She said she couldn’t stand him any longer, but that she wouldn’t quit what was hers by right either.”
“And then she asked you to kill him?”
“Not until three days ago. Then she said she’d been beaten again, and showed me whip marks on her back. And she said that we should kill him.”
“The both of you?”
“Well...she said she’d tell me when and where, and give me a knife to do it with. She showed me the knife, too, a big bayonet thing with a grooved blade. She said I’d do the actual killing, because I was bigger and stronger than she is. And she’d provide me an alibi, if one were needed, of course.”
“And you waited till today before coming here?”
There was a brief pause. He kept twisting his fingers together. “I was trying to think what to do. I couldn’t make up my mind.”
“I understand that.” I did, too. I could see him agonising over his options. “Why didn’t you simply dump her?”
He didn’t say anything, but the misery in his face gave the answer. He couldn’t give her up, not so easily – she was probably the first woman who’d given herself to him.
“Actually,” I said, “since a crime hasn’t been committed yet, there isn’t a lot we can do. I suppose you don’t want me to have a talk with the lady about this?”
His expression of alarm showed he didn’t.
“I’ll keep an eye on things as far as possible,” I said. “Just make sure you keep out of trouble, young man.”
He nodded so eagerly I thought his neck would crack.
“Can I have a word with you?”
It was close to midnight, two evenings later, and as he peered at me fearfully round the edge of his door I thought for a moment that he didn’t know who I was. Then he opened it a little wider. “What happened?”
“Quite a lot,” I said. “Your girlfriend’s husband was found dead an hour ago.”
He went white and swayed. “I didn’t do it. I swear!”
“Yes, well. I’m not saying you did. But these things have to be investigated, of course. I’m sure you understand.”
“Oh, yes, of course.” He was beginning to recover a little of his composure. “How did her husband...die?”
“Stabbed,” I said. “He was found near his car, by the side of the road. He’d been stabbed by a large knife, right through the sternum. A bayonet with a grooved blade. Does that sound familiar to you?”
“The kind of knife she showed you. Of course, there are many like that, and it shouldn’t really matter, since of course there shouldn’t be any of your prints on it. Right?”
He looked suddenly stricken again. “The knife...I touched it.”
“Hmm?” I looked at him. “You didn’t tell me that the other day. Where were you all evening?”
“I was with...her. And after that I came straight back here. I’ve been home for hours.”
“Alone, of course?”
He nodded. “I was just...thinking.”
“Thinking.” I shut my notebook. “Well, sir, could you come along to the station for a few questions? Just for a short while, then you can come back.”
I stepped back to let him precede me down the stairs. “My car’s parked down there,” I said. “I’ll drop you back later.”
He shuffled down the deserted pavement. The houses were dark and the street lighting almost nonexistent. The only illumination was from the distant glitter of scattered stars. “Thanks.”
“That’s all right. Now, this lady of yours. Can I ask a question about her?”
He threw a wide-eyed, terrified glance at me over his shoulder. “What?”
“You do realise, sir, that she might have entrapped you in the relationship? Perhaps her entire scheme was to get you to kill her husband – right from the beginning?”
His expression said he had considered the possibility.
“After all,” I continued, “if you pardon me for saying so, you aren’t exactly a prime catch for someone with her looks, are you? She could probably do rather better.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just a possibility to think about, that she has a boyfriend somewhere. Someone who she could go away with, if she could get you to kill her husband. That is possible, isn’t it?”
He opened his mouth and closed it again.
“This boyfriend,” I said. “Let’s say he’s a man with a ruthless streak, just like her. Once they realised you weren’t going to do it, they decided to kill him themselves and pin the blame on you. That way they can still get away with it. It’s possible, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” he whispered.
“Perhaps they’ve had some inkling that you’ve gone to the police. So they’d be sure to implicate you as completely as possible, so that nobody would believe in your innocence.” Oh, the threads were coming together, and I was feeling good. We had reached my car, and I fumbled in my pocket. “Ruthless people, as I said, and possibly with some inside knowledge. Perhaps they’re relying on you doing something stupid, like trying to run away, or resisting the police and forcing them to shoot you down. That would put the seal on your guilt. Wouldn’t it?”
“This boyfriend,” he whispered. “Who is it?”
I smiled and took out my hand from my pocket, so that the starlight glittered on the pistol barrel as I pointed it at him.
“Guess,” I said.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013