It was one of the odder cases they’d had to deal with. None of the usual suspects or victims, low lifes living on the edge, addicts and bums. This was off their beaten track, in a pleasant apartment, among orderly folk. At first sight it looked like a minor domestic – not so unusual in any neighbourhood – but when injury led to death and the complicated story came to light, a stranger shape appeared.
Alex Giannini and Karl Svensson had been seconded to a different precinct for a while, to make up the numbers for a flu-ridden department, so they already felt unfamiliar with the upmarket area. To make it worse, their temporary boss had demanded that they ‘smarten up! You’re not in the ghetto now.’ Alex in particular found the buttoned up shirt and tie around his neck hard to get used to. He ran two fingers round his collar and then brushed his hand through his short, dark hair, to smooth its curls.
‘Stop fidgeting. You’re like a kid on his first day at school,’ said Karl.
‘Sorry, Mom.’ Alex laughed under his breath. ‘Thank god we don’t have to do this every day. Tell me again why they didn’t send a woman officer along?’
‘Because they’re all off sick of course, like half the squad. Let’s get it over with. After you.’
‘Thanks for nothing.’ Alex straightened his tie and his face before knocking on the door of the apartment.
The middle-aged woman who opened the door was disheveled and distressed. ‘What’s happened?’ she asked, even before they had time to show their ID.
‘Can we come in? It’s very bad news, I’m afraid.’ She let them into an airy living room, now littered with half empty coffee cups, discarded clothing and screwed up tissues.
‘Sit down,’ she said, making an effort to play the hostess.
‘You first,’ said Giannini, urging her to the only uncluttered chair. He crouched down in front of her, saying, ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your husband died this morning.’
A wordless sound escaped her and then she pressed her hands to her mouth to hold it in.
‘And there’s more …’ Alex paused, frowning, and looked up at Karl for help.
‘What is it?’ She looked anxiously back and forth between them. What more could there be?
Karl told her the rest while Alex tried to provide some kind of comfort. ‘Because of the circumstances we have to take you in for questioning – the doctors have confirmed that his death resulted from the incident here last week. That means it has to be treated as a possible homicide.’
‘But he didn’t blame me! He said so – he wouldn’t…’
‘Yes, we know he didn’t press charges, but that doesn’t change the fact that his fall down the stairs happened while you and he were physically fighting. It’s not just between you and him anymore – it’s a matter for the law now, which means we have to ask you to come with us and make a statement about what happened.’ They thought they knew what her statement would amount to: self-defense against an abusive husband – a victim turning on her tormenter at last. They had seen it often enough and been amazed at how long some women would endure mistreatment, how they could still claim to love their abusers.
But this time they were wrong.
‘Can I see him first? At the hospital? Please?’
‘I guess so,’ said Alex. ‘There’d be no harm in that would there, Carlo?’
So they found themselves witnessing her farewell. The body was laid out in the chilly morgue, with little sign of the fatal injury beyond a bruise on the temple and a healing scratch on the cheek. She found his hand and held it tight, then bent to kiss him gently on the lips.
‘I’m so sorry, Jonathan,’ she whispered. ‘What a bloody mess we made of everything.’
After a few minutes, she laid his hand down on his chest and turned away, looking calmer than they’d seen her.
‘Shall we go then?’
Some time later in an interview room, they started the tape to record her statement:
‘We already know you and Jonathan had a serious argument last Thursday that led to him falling down the stairs and suffering the concussion that eventually killed him. What was the fight about?’
‘A lot of things. Where do you want me to start?’ She suddenly looked too tired for this and Alex had to remind himself that she was not just a bereaved wife but a possible murderer.
‘Why don’t you start by telling us what happened that day?’
‘I’d been to the doctor in the morning…’
‘A pregnancy test – it was positive.’
‘Oh…’ Alex and Karl exchanged a glance – they were both surprised, she didn’t look like a woman expecting a first child. ‘Was that good news?’
‘For me, yes. For Jonathan, no.’
‘So were you arguing about that?’
‘You could say so – and some other stuff.’
She remembered the conversation vividly but it was too hard to repeat in this strange place to these young men who knew nothing about her life, however gentle they tried to be.
‘I’m really tired – do we have to do this now? I’m not going anywhere… and neither is Jonathan. Tomorrow I’ll tell you everything, from the very beginning, if need be.’
‘You’ll have to stay in custody tonight then. Are you sure about that?’
She nodded and they reluctantly agreed to wait until the next day to continue.
Over a beer that evening Alex and Karl mulled over the case. ‘What do you reckon? An affair – someone else’s baby? He finds out and goes crazy so she shoves him down the stairs to save her neck – and the kid’s.’
‘Maybe – but he seems to have been pretty forgiving in that case. No charges, went back home to kiss and make up.’
‘Maybe it’s kinda the other way round – she’s expecting someone else’s kid, she wants to leave but he won’t let her go. She thumps him but he plays the forgiveness card to hold on to her – or maybe threatens her: “if you leave me I’ll accuse you of assault and you’ll have the baby in prison” – lucky for her he keels over a few days later.’
‘That’s a nasty thought, Al. I thought you felt sorry for the woman.’
‘I do, I do – I’m just trying to treat it like a regular case. Let’s wait and see what she has to say in the morning.’
She looked at least as tired the next day but she sat up straight in the interview room and started to talk as soon as they set the tape rolling.
‘I’ve been thinking all night and I want to tell you the whole story – it might take a while.’ She composed herself, took a breath, and then began.
‘I met Jonathan when I was 18. He was lovely, a few years older than me, handsome and kind. I felt at home with him straight away. People were always saying we made the perfect couple. It was love at first sight, I guess – and we got married really soon. My mum and dad didn’t like that much. They thought I was too young, but they came round. They could see he was a good husband to me.’
She took a sip of water, then went on.
‘We’d been married for a couple of years when I got pregnant. Jonathan was a bit funny about it but I thought he was just nervous about becoming a dad, and he was really protective. Hovered over me like a mother hen. But the baby died before she was born – yeah I know it’s sad, but it’s a long time ago now. I had plenty of time to get over it…’ But she was crying as she spoke, apparently unaware of the tears.
‘We kept trying for another baby but it never happened, and so we kind of gave up on it and settled down to enjoy life together as best we could. And it was fine, better than fine, for a good few years.’
She paused and smiled a little. ‘You guys married?’
‘No, not yet,’ said Alex. ‘Still playing the field.’ He winked at Karl, who was leaning against the wall by the door, saying nothing.
‘It’s ok, you know, if you don’t screw it up like we did. … Anyway time passed and, you know, hormones mess you up. I began to think about the baby a lot and talked to Jon about adopting – I knew we’d never have one of our own…’
‘What did he say to that?’
‘He didn’t like the idea. It took a while, but eventually he told me why he was against it. He’d been adopted himself, when he was five, and it wasn’t good. He’d ended up in care until he was 16, and then thrown out into the world to fend for himself. I didn’t know why he hadn’t told me before, but I tried to understand. It was hard though and I still wanted a kid – we struggled then. We stopped talking, stopped being a proper couple I guess, anywhere outside of the bedroom. I never stopped loving him though, you know? But then I did the stupidest thing, the thing that makes it my fault too – I slept with another man – nothing serious. I told myself it was a harmless fling – other people do it all the time. But it made it even harder to face Jonathan… and then I found out I was pregnant.’
She stopped herself, looking up at them.
‘I’m pregnant! Still – how is that possible after all this?… I was so happy when the doctor said my test was positive – I convinced myself it was Jonathan’s even though…’
‘But Jonathan wasn’t so happy, you said.’
‘No – because he knew, you see, it couldn’t be his.’
‘How did he know? You thought it might be possible.’
‘Because after we lost the baby all that time ago he had a vasectomy. I didn’t know anything about it until last Thursday…he never told me – any of it – until then.’
‘Any of what?’
‘I really didn’t have any idea, you must believe me.’
‘Believe what? What did he tell you?’ She took a while to answer, looking down at her hands, which were clenched so tight they shook.
‘He was my brother.’ A long moment passed before she spoke again, but the rest came more easily.
‘I hadn’t even known I was adopted, you see. My parents never said anything – I was a baby when they took me and they thought I’d never need to know. Jonathan tracked me down – he was desperate for some kind of family. How could he know we’d fall in love?…and when we did he couldn’t give it up. He knew when the baby died it was his fault – so he made sure it couldn’t happen again. But I think it wore him down, the lie, such a huge lie. That’s what came between us, before I even knew.’
‘So… all this came out last week when you told him you were pregnant?’
‘Yes…it was like some kind of explosion – everything dragged out into the open all at once – he was furious about the baby, otherwise I don’t think he’d ever have let it out … and then I was crazy too, angry about everything, with my parents, and with him, mostly with him, for all the lies… and then we ran out of words to throw at each other and started …’ She stopped speaking, and looked down at her clenched fists, then slowly opened them and wiped her wet cheeks.
‘But it wasn’t just his lie, was it? – There was mine too, the one I was prepared to live by. This baby… if I could, I would have lied to all of us, to myself, to Jonathan, and this child, all its life, and pretended it was ours.’
They stopped the tape then. It felt like more than enough truth for one woman and her child to live with.
‘What do you think will happen with her?’ Alex asked Karl, later, as they were finishing up the paperwork for the day. ‘Will they call it accidental death and leave her alone?’
‘I hope so.’
‘All those lies…what a fucked up life.’
‘But he loved her, he did his best. Truth isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be – the lies were the only way they could be together.’
‘Does that make it ok? She was his sister!’ There was a twist of disgust on Alex’s face.
‘And she loved him, and she killed him, accident or no. I don’t know what’s ok… it’s not ours to say anyway, thank god…’ Karl said, leaning back from his typewriter.
‘You don’t think we’re being fooled, do you? It could be all a smoke screen. She didn’t have anything to say yesterday and now all this. She might have been up all night concocting it. And anyway it doesn’t really tell us any more about what happened that night … even if it’s all true…’
‘True? If it came to trial you know it’s not about what’s true, it’s about what’s provable, and with no other witnesses any defense lawyer worth his salt could sow a reasonable doubt in the jury’s minds…’
‘Don’t tell me you’re losing your faith in truth, justice and the American way…’ Alex said, drily. Karl raised a quick eyebrow at him, with a suppressed breath of ironic laughter.
‘Whatever, I think she’s for real – why bother to make up a tale like that? It gives her just as much of a potential motive as any of the things we came up with. But, did she tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? No – she only gave us the bare bones. And there’s more to a body than the skeleton … clothes can tell you more about a person than bare skin…Their lives were hung on a lie, but the rest, the flesh of it – might have been as real as anyone’s.’
‘Whoa, there, Carlo. I think we’d better get out of here before you decide to retire to a garret to write poetry.’ He stood up and stretched, then offered a hand to Karl, slumped low in his chair. ‘You look beat and I don’t want to think about this mess anymore – truths and lies and moral ambiguity. Give me a nice straightforward drug bust any day.’ Karl allowed himself to be hauled up from his chair, and rolled his stiff shoulders, while he waited for Al to tie up a shoe lace.
‘Time for a beer?’ asked Karl.
‘My thoughts exactly.’
Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts