Authors: Howard Engel
THE SUICIDE MURDERS
is the creator of the enduring and beloved detective Benny Cooperman, who, through his appearance in twelve best-selling novels, has become an internationally recognized fictional sleuth. Two of Engel’s novels have been adapted for TV movies, and his books have been translated into several languages. He is the winner of numerous awards, including the 2005 Writers’ Trust of Canada Matt Cohen Award, the 1990 Harbourfront Festival Prize for Canadian Literature and an Arthur Ellis Award for crime fiction. Howard Engel lives in Toronto.
Also in the Benny Cooperman series
Murder on Location
Murder Sees the Light
The Ransom Game
A City Called July
A Victim Must Be Found
Dead and Buried
There Was An Old Woman
Getting Away with Murder
The Cooperman Variations
East of Suez
Also by Howard Engel
Murder in Montparnasse
Mr. Doyle & Dr. Bell
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Published by Penguin Group (Canada), a division of Pearson Canada Inc., 2008
First published by Clarke, Irwin, 1980
Published by Seal Books, 1981
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 (WEB)
Copyright © Howard Engel, 1980
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The Suicide Murders
I was looking for a four-letter word for “narrow path,” when I heard high heels on the stairs. High heels usually means business for me rather than for Dr. Bushmill, the chiropodist. With men on the stairs, it was only guessing. I put away the newspaper in time to see a fuzzy silhouette through the frosted glass of the door hesitate for a moment before knocking. I called “Come in already!” and she did.
She was the sort of woman that made you wish you’d stayed in the shower for an extra minute or taken another three minutes shaving. I felt a little underdressed in my own office. She had what you could call a tailored look. Everything was so understated it screamed. I could hear the echo bouncing off the bank across the street.
She took a chair on the other side of my bleached oak desk and played around with her handbag. It matched her shoes, and I thought that the car outside probably matched the rest of the outfit. Sitting in the sunlight, with the shadow of the letters of my sign caressing her trim figure, she looked about thirty, but I put part of that down to decent treatment, regular meals, baths and trips to Miami, things like that. When she raised her eyes to look at me, they were gray.
“You’re Mr. Cooperman?” she asked.
“Would I lie to you?” I said, trying to help her over the awkward stage. The sign on the door told the truth too:
BENJAMIN COOPERMAN, LICENCED PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR
. “What can I do for you, Miss …?” Her lips smiled suddenly, like a puppeteer pulled the right string and then released it. Her eyes didn’t change.
“I’m Myrna Yates,” she said, looking to see if that meant anything. It didn’t, but what I don’t know about the upper crust in this town could fill a library. I hated to lose her respect for me so early in our association by not raising an eyebrow, but the hour was early and the day was hot. She tried it another way, with more luck. “Chester Yates is my husband.”
“Among other things, yes.” She looked down at the handbag again, just as things had started rolling.
“Sure, I guess I’ve heard of your husband. He’s not missed too many chances to be interviewed in the paper lately, has he? Still, if I were in his shoes, I’d see that it was probably good for business. How can I help you, Mrs. Yates?” She sighed like I’d asked her to write
War and Peace
on a credit card, and then looked like she was about to plunge.
“It says in your advertisement in the Yellow Pages that you do private investigations.” I nodded encouragement.
“You do civil, criminal, industrial and domestic investigation?” She was rapidly moving to the top of the class.
“That’s right, Mrs. Yates. I do all that, although between the two of us, I leave the industrial stuff to Niagara and Pinkertons. They can afford to keep all those guys in uniform and pay for the fancy electronic equipment. Me? I’m just a peeper. Divorce is my meat and potatoes. I could be wrong, though. I heard that Niagara set up six TV cameras to catch a fast operator a month ago and I hear he got away with all six of the cameras. And frankly, since they’ve been fooling around with the law on divorce, I’ve been having to cut down on meat and potatoes. Don’t listen to me. I talk too much. Is it something about those articles in the paper? Something about the subdivision he’s involved in, maybe?”
She shook her head like we were playing charades and I’d wasted thirty seconds not catching the conventional gesture for
. “It’s not about that at all. May I smoke?” She dug into her bag and brought out a pack of menthol cigarettes. I could have guessed. I tried my top drawer for a book of matches, but by the time I came up with one she was already exhaling her first lungful. The smoke added cotton-candy wisps to the sunlight streaming in from over the second-storey rooftops of St. Andrew Street. She looked around at my licence hanging in a black frame behind me and the studied the clutter on top of my filing cabinet. When she had satisfied her curiosity, she examined the end of her cigarette for a minute. Then she looked at me quickly, her gray eyes widening. “I think he’s seeing another woman,” she said, “and I want to know for sure. I want to know who it is and I want pictures and dates and times and …”
“The whole schmeer. I get the picture.” I lit up a Player’s Medium and took it all the way down. Then I gave her my standard speech intended to scare off clients who were just playing around. “Tell me, Mrs. Yates, have you and your husband quarreled? Did something happen this morning or last night? What I’m trying to find out is, are you really looking for a divorce? If you are, there are easier ways of going about it, God knows, than putting a tail on him. Are things that bad? Look, even though I can use all the clients that can climb those stairs, I think you ought to be honest with both of us. I don’t want you to come to me in a year’s time pointing at me and saying that if it wasn’t for me you’d still be pouring tea at the Junior League.” I could see that she wanted me to finish, so I did.
“Mr. Cooperman, I know that I could go to a lawyer. That’s not what I want. Not yet. As you guess, I’m reasonably comfortable and going to a lawyer at this stage, in this town, well it just …” She let the unfinished sentence hang there between us as though we both regularly had to face throwing up one hundred thousand dollars a year in exchange for the Russian roulette of the courtroom and golden dreams of alimony. She threw in one of her mechanical smiles, which still didn’t light up her eyes. I brushed a fallen ash off my still unmarked pad of yellow foolscap on to my shirt and tie, a klutzy gesture but maybe it lets clients relax and open up a little.
“Okay, I’ve got it so far. You are not flying out the window after a fight. You are oyster calm and collected in limited editions. What makes you think your husband is playing around, Mrs. Yates? You can be frank with me.”
“I came here to be frank. It’s the only way.”
“Good. Why don’t you start at the beginning and tell me the whole story from the top, as they say.” She took a long drag on her cigarette and let the smoke find its own way out while she collected her thoughts. I picked up a ball-point pen and looked as serious as a graduation photograph.
“We’ve been married for nearly twenty years. When we met, I had just given up on a business school after having made a mess of high school. I was popular and I ran with a pretty wild bunch. When I say
, I don’t mean like the kids today with their pot and drugs. We drank a little and fooled around, but mostly in groups, so nobody got in too deeply.” I pictured Myrna Yates at eighteen, trying it on, not getting in too deeply, and held that image in my mind while watching this immaculately tailored Myrna Yates talking at me from across the desk.
“I don’t remember when I first met Chester. I can remember a gang of college boys moving in on us. They had newer cars than the ones we were used to, and had a better line. Chester was one of them, and I remember slowing becoming aware of him being around. You know what I mean? He was just there: chunky, dependable and smiling. He was always hanging around, and soon he was running out to buy me cigarettes and freshen my drink. That sort of thing. I don’t think I ever saw him as my dreamboat. I had lots of other interests. In the summers we all went necking in the dunes down by the lake. Chester was always breathing down my neck. I could tell he wanted me, and for a long time I strung him along, not giving in to him, and not taking him very seriously. I guess you think I’m just getting a little of my own back, Mr. Cooperman?”
“Tell the story.”
“Well, soon I noticed that all my friends had paired off and I was the only one still playing the field. The field was Chester. So, to make a long story short, we started getting serious. We were married, we had a child, a girl, Ellen, who is in a home. She’s severely retarded. We didn’t have any other children. Chester came from a good family, and let his father set him up in his factory. But Chester had always liked machines and trucks, and soon he bought one and rented it out to a contractor. In a year or two he had a number of trucks doing excavation work mostly. It grew to be a fleet of them and Chester and I moved from the west end to a place on South Ridge. He left his father’s job and got into the real estate boom at the end of the sixties. I guess he had a piece of every deal around. He had the big earthmoving machines by then. Is this any help?” she asked, her eyes rounded.
“Take your time.”
“I guess we were never a deeply loving couple, Mr. Cooperman. I was fond of Chester. He was always good to me. And we went through a lot with Ellen together. He was a dependable, open sort of person. He had no secrets, he never called me out for trespassing, if you know what I mean. Then, recently, beginning a couple of month ago, that changed. He started getting moody, secretive, and that’s when the lies started.”
“I discovered it by accident to start with. Then I confess to checking up on him. I phoned the office on a Thursday afternoon about something. Two months ago. His secretary told me that Chester was over at City Hall meeting with Vern Harrington. Well, I know Vern and Doris quite well, and I thought that what I had on my mind—I forget now what it was—was important. So I phoned Vern’s office and there wasn’t a meeting at all. Chester hadn’t been there and wasn’t expected. Vern thought I was checking up on my husband. We both laughed. That night I mentioned Vern—not that I’d phoned or anything, but just that I’d been thinking about him and Doris—and he didn’t turn a hair. That’s not like Chester. He usually gets beet red if somebody says ‘brassière.’ His face doesn’t hide much. One week later I called again about something and I was told that he was keeping a dentist appointment. Again that night I mentioned that I should see my dentist, and he let that sail right past without comment. He wasn’t at the dentist’s I’m sure. I got more and more suspicious and I began phoning or stopping by the office when I was out shopping and discovered that most of the times he wasn’t there the reason given was a lie. Do you think I’m being silly, Mr. Cooperman? Have I been watching too much television? I don’t want to be the last to know if he’s been playing around. What do you think I should do?”
I wish about then that I had a pipe to use as a prop. I needed something to enhance my dignity: a streak of gray at the temples, fifteen thousand dollars in the bank, that sort of thing—just so she’d know everything was going to be all right. I shifted myself around in my swivel chair and leaned back. I knew just how far I could go before I had to pick myself up off the floor. She was still asking me questions with her big gray eyes.
“Well, it may not turn out to be as mysterious as it looks, Mrs. Yates. There are hundreds of things he might be doing without endangering the sanctity of your marriage. My father, for instance, for years was a secret gin rummy player. He used to take two-hour lunches and when he got back to the store had to duck out to the United Cigar Store for a sandwich. My mother caught up with him in the end, but they celebrated their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary recently.” I waited for the anecdote to take hold and then made a suggestion. “Tell you what I’ll do, let me nose around a little and report back to you in a couple of days. If I turn up anything interesting, we can have another talk. If it’s just business or something like gin rummy, then you’ll have to take my word for it when I say ‘Don’t lose any more sleep.’ How does that sound? If you like it, it’s going to cost you a hundred a day, say for three days, if it takes me that long, and expenses.”
She pulled her handbag open and put fifteen twenty-dollar bills on my blotter. I put the money in my billfold without actually jumping across the desk and hugging her. Since the first of March when I had to put up my annual licence fee, a nick out of my almost non-existent income adding up to five hundred dollars, things hadn’t been lively around the office. I’d traced a runaway couple to Buffalo, I’d found evidence that the poor abandoned Mrs. Furstenberg was getting a big one on the side every month from a former basketball all-star. And I’d taken on a lot of crazy things that I shouldn’t have of course. I could do worse than spend a few days tailing Chester Yates. A guy like that goes into a lot of fancy places in a day.
“Tell me, Mrs. Yates,” I said, wagging my star sapphire ring in her direction, “have the absences of your husband formed any sort of pattern? Have you been able to anticipate when he is going to be away without leave?”
“Yes. It’s always a Thursday and always after lunch, from around two-thirty to four-thirty. Sometimes he doesn’t come back to the office.”
“Mr. Cooperman, today is Thursday. I wonder, could you see where he goes this afternoon?”
“As a matter of fact, Mrs. Yates, I’m going to move some other files off my desk for a few days and concentrate on this one. Where is your husband’s office?”
“It’s on the seventh floor of the Caddell Building.”
“That’s on Queen Street?”
“Oh, near the market.”
“Well, don’t worry. I’ll find it all right. When I have anything to tell you, how do you want me to get in touch?”
“You may call me at home. I’m there all day most days.”
“Right. That’s in the book is it?”
“It’s unlisted. I’d better give it to you.” She gave me the number which I added to the doodles on my yellow pad, then I got up with what in a taller man would signal that the interview was concluded. Since she remained seated, I walked around my desk and took her hand. It was a strong and determined grip, which she released with one of her puppeteer smiles. “I’ll hear from you, then,” she said turning. I beat her to the door.
“Yes. And in the meantime, let me do the worrying.”
I listened to her receding footsteps down the stairs to the street, and looked at my watch. It was nearly noon. I had a couple of hours to kill until I had to pick up my man at the Caddell Building.