Saturday, January 24, 2009

Don’t Judge A Strangler by the Hair - Bertil Falk

Don’t Judge A Strangler by the Hair

It is indeed nice to live out here in the summer on the outskirts of the archipelago on a small islet with only one neighbor. And that at a time when even the crevices of flat granite rocks are filled up with life in the shape of moss, where uncountable small creeping things pass their lives.

When the sun shines, and the heat reaches its peak some time after that particular star was at its zenith, the mild sea breeze fondles my cheek. It actually turns over the pages for me of a book (in most cases Cicero at this time of the day). I read it in the shade of the tall spruce fir. All the while, light rollers lap against the flat rock, which dives down into the water, and against the landing stage the white cruisers sometimes call at.

The married couple has not come to their cottage this summer. They went to the other side of the globe to experience a solar eclipse and in this connection “to do the world”, as they put it. It was probably this unexpected want of ingrained summer company that all of a sudden made me feel alone even though I had spent the long and cold winter all by myself without being affected by the condition we Swedes call “Lapland melancholy”. At all events, I decided on going to the Royal Capital and have a fling at the Katarina church in connection with a symposium on eschatology.

I am not that well at home in the capital. I have spent most of my life abroad and Stockholm has more or less been a place I have passed through on my way to and from my home I – a superannuated missionary – bought on the islet in the autumn of my life.

However, now I stayed in a prison cell at the Långholmen penitentiary. The reason for that is that I happen to be a member of the Swedish tourist organization, which has turned the old jail into a youth hostel. In that way I could “do the symposium” in Stockholm in a cheap way, while my neighbors “did the world” in a more extravagant way.

The symposium on eschatology was not that exciting. It was about the same old eternal existential questions, which we Christians have an answer to, except for the moments when doubts set in, which happens now and then. But then something else happened. A young woman, who had been silent most of the time, opened her mouth.

”Not even an atheist should repudiate the theory of a Creator, who has created the universe”, she said. “For even though the atheist is right that we can’t prove anything as to the origin or the genesis of anything and everything in a scientific way, the atheist is in a similar way not able to prove the absence of a Creator. It’s not enough to refer to a Big Bang. For what released the Big Bang and what in its turn released whatever released the Big Bang? And so on in all eternity. I just ask the question! Therefor the atheist should leave the door open for the theory that the world was created by a Creator.”

The thought was sublime and I was surprised that I never had thought that thought myself. On the other hand, I am not a very profound thinker. My theology has always been simple. God created the world. Be kind to your fellow human beings. Try to understand them. Do what you can to help them. Exercise love. That kind of things, but in a way her thought was simple too and simple truth is not always simple to discover. It took a succession of inventors to invent a functioning zipper, but when it was done anyone could see how simple it is. Not to mention the typewriter! It took more than one hundred inventors to perfect that tool.

During the coffee brake, I sat down by the side of the young lady. She turned out to be a curate. Her name was Lisa Bengtsson, thirty-five years old and besides being an intellectual she was intelligent too, in my experience a rare combination. She was probably good-looking according to the ruling standard when it comes to looks. Mascara around her eyes, black-with-green painted lips. There was an Indian golden ring in one of the wings of her nose. However, she turned out to be unmarried.

Her interest in existential questions was as profound as she was unmarried and we became friends. I told her about my experiences and she listened to the story some inventive journalist had called “There Are No Pockets In Our Graveclothes” about how greed can make people do very bad things, least to say. She seemed to be affected by my story and when she heard that I lived on an island in the archipelago, she said that she would call on me some day.

For a couple of weeks after the symposium I expected to hear from her, but my telephone never rang. Autumn came with autumn storms and winter went past. When snowdrops and winter aconites had ceased flowering and pansies and coltsfoots showed off, I had since long forgotten her. Then she called. It was not exactly a frantic call, but she was eager to tell me something. She had experienced something in line with my story of the uncut diamond and the lack of pockets I had told her.

She came dressed as the Lutheran clergywoman she is, wearing a clerical collar, and she looked even better than I remembered her. She jumped ashore from the skerry cruiser and hugged me as if we had been friends for years or father and daughter. I realized that she and I for sure must have struck up a remarkable friendship last year, a friendship stronger than I had imagined.

After she had taken a shower and occupied one of the two guestrooms, I showed her my house and we walked around the islet. In the evening, I made a Kenyan dinner. I put some butter in the frying pan, added shallots, and when they got brown, I turned up the heat and added crocodile fillets from a can. I managed to cook a dish, to some extent similar to the delicious game things I once had when I went to Carnivore on the verge of the Wilson Airfield outside Nairobi.

Mother Lisa, as I came to call her, gorged herself and I was happy that she liked my cookery. Later on, I served her coffee and a glass of sherry, and while our northern summer sun still struggled to get down to earth in the northwest, she began to tell me her story.

“It began eight years ago”, she said. “When you told me that strange story about the diamond and the lack of pockets of its owner’s grave-clothes, I came to think of it. For like your story this is a criminal one. It doesn’t involve the desecration of a grave. It’s worse than that. It’s about murder. There has never really been anyone I could tell the story until I heard you last year telling your story in that calm way of yours.”

I had never before realized that my way of telling a story could be described as calm.

“But for some reason I hesitated to tell you”, she continued. “But now something happened a few weeks ago and I decided to come here and tell you the story. For I must talk to someone.”

“You’re welcome”, I said.

“I certainly feel to be welcome here”, she replied and smiled. “I didn’t know that crocodile meat is such a delicious dish.”

“And I’m very curious. I look forward to hearing your story.”

“Well, it was a spring day eight years ago. The standing crops outside the town where my church is grow like mad. I took the bus to the town. Together with the sexton I looked through the run of things of the upcoming weekend. It was completed before the lunch hour. Then I hastened to the market place for the purpose of having lunch with my friend Eva Granberg.

“I don’t think that anyone could fail to notice that Eva was a hairdresser. She often changed her hairstyles. Sometimes she had close-cropped hair. Sometimes she had long hair. And she used wigs. She had ponytails that were put up with a colorful ring on the back of her head and twined queues that need no ring.

‘I dress according to circumstances’, she used to say, ‘so why shouldn’t I adjust my hair to the situation? Sometimes ones hair just has to be untidy, at other occasions it would be a mortal sin.’

“Anyhow, young and old basked in the sun on the steps of the town hall. The open-air restaurant had opened a few days earlier and Eva was already on the spot when I arrived. For the day, Eva was lightly dressed and furnished with a long, plaited ponytail. She looked bright and plucky. However, there was a thoughtful expression on her face.

‘I think we could sit here’, Eva said and got to her feet.

‘Obviously’, I replied.

We went inside the restaurant and after a while we returned outdoors to our table with one tray each. Eva had chosen sailor’s beef with potatoes and onions, while I preferred meatballs with potatoes fried raw. I remember so well how we enjoyed our food with an appetite.

‘Well, what about your boyfriends?’ I said jokingly to Eva. ‘Any news?’

Eva, who just had speared a meatball, put aside her fork on her plate.

‘I don’t know what to say’, she told me. ‘Ulf and Göran are tremendously jealous of each other. I’ve told them that none of them is to my taste, so to speak, but they persist in courting me and looking askance at each other. I don’t know how to get rid of them.’

At that I looked surprised at my friend. It was something in Eva’s voice I didn’t recognize, an anxiety of some kind. Where she sat, she certainly looked pretty. It was understandable that representatives of the male species liked her. But her brown eyes, which usually sparkled, had a hesitant trait.

‘You don’t sound happy’, I said.

‘I don’t like that they’re so difficult to shake off. And I neither like that they’ve become enemies because of me.’

‘And you don’t know how to get rid of them?’

‘That’s for sure’, Eva said.”

Lisa sipped at her sherry and she looked very serious.

“Three days later Eva nevertheless got rid of one of her admirers”, Lisa continued. “Car mechanic Ulf Svensson was found dead in his home. Strangled!”

I began to get an idea of the relevance of her story, but I did not say anything. Lisa stared for a moment out through the window, where the light summer sky of the evening spread a pale shimmer across the white clouds.

“To begin with the investigators thought that the marks on his throat had been caused by a thick, twined rope or a hawser. Eva was very upset when she came to see me in the church.

‘I really hope that Göran Stenlund didn’t do it’, she said.

“Do you mean that he could have been that jealous of his rival that he could have killed him?’ I asked her.

‘What to believe after all that has happened between the three of us?’ was her reply.”

Lisa once again sipped at her sherry before she continued.

“Eva told the police the story of her two admirers. The murder investigator listened to what she had to say. She told him that she had visited her murdered admirer in the evening the day before he was found strangled. She said that she had returned a book she had borrowed from him. She didn’t want him to have any reason to come over to her place and therefor she had been anxious to return the book.

“Then Göran Stenlund was heard by the investigator. He admitted that he and the murdered man had been rivals, but he also explained that Eva had told them both that she wasn’t interested in any of them.

‘So why would I’ve killed him`, he had maintained.

“Henceforth, it turned out that the police lay low while waiting for the report from the legal pathologist. When the report materialized, it became obvious not only that Ulf Svensson had been strangled but also that the murder weapon could not have been a twined rope or a hawser as they had thought from the very beginning. On the other hand the pathologist had found some hair on his throat. Since Eva Granberg was a hairdresser, this finding draw the investigator’s attention to her. But the hair neither came from her or from the rival Göran Stenlund. And they were not from the murder victim either.”

As Mother Lisa’s story evolved, it turned out that Göran Stenlund had called on Eva Granberg early in the evening before the murder took place and that they had quarreled vehemently. When interrogated, they both had given the same version. Uninvited, Göran had turned up pleading, but Eva had been unbending and told him that if he and Ulf continued poisoning her life, she was forced to give up her work and move to some other place. The next day Göran Stenlund had returned and apologized for his behavior.

And when the two women had another lunch together, Eva wore her pigtail, which hung all the way down to her behind. Now she had been even more alarmed than at their first meeting. It made no difference that the whole Nature sang and the sun shone with an encouraging shine from a heaven of blue crystal at the same time as the gulls screamed with joy of living. Eva was dejected.

‘I can see that you’re depressed’, Lisa Bengtsson had said with sympathy. ‘I hope that you won’t get too absorbed in this mess. But what did you say to Ulf when you visited him that evening?’

‘Oh, what did I say?’ Eva had exclaimed. ‘Nothing in particular.’

‘Did you quarrel?’

‘Not at all. It had sunk in that an affair between us was unthinkable. He had begun to accept it as a fact.’

‘But Göran didn’t accept it?’ Lisa had asked.

‘On the contrary, he tried to force me into a relationship and he was terribly jealous of Ulf.’

‘So he could’ve been the perpetrator?”

To that Eva responded with a smile, saying: ‘You sound like an interrogator and not like a spiritual guide, but yes, he could’ve done it, but I think that the police suspects me as well.’

In response to that Lisa had said: ‘What can I say that comforts you in this distress. It had been easier if you had been a believer.’

Lisa Bengtsson looked in a clairvoyant way across the waters.

“Göran had made an unpleasant scene”, she said. “Eva was terribly upset when he was gone at last. It was then that she saw the book she had borrowed from Ulf. She decided on returning it straight away. She didn’t find her ponytail, which irritated her even more. At last she snatched the book and went over to Ulf. He told her that he had began to understand his position.”

“And Göran?” I asked.

“As I said, he came over to her the next day. He said he was sorry and apologized. He said he wanted to be her friend. Then he went away.”

“That’s it?”

“According to Eva, yes. But the thing is that … well, Eva found her ponytail. She wore it when we had our second lunch. The strange thing was that it had been visibly lying on her desk. She thought that she had been so upset after the quarrel with Göran that she didn’t see it when she looked for it.

“Now, Göran was once more interrogated by the investigator. He repeatedly said that he had not been visiting Ulf for weeks. The interrogator pointed out that it was a well-known fact that the two men were jealous of each other and he asked what Göran had done that evening, when Ulf was strangled.

‘I was at home looking at TV’, Göran said.

‘But you called on Eva Granberg.’

‘That was earlier. We quarreled and I walked straight home.’

‘A witness says that you were out walking at 09.00 PM.’

‘My usual evening walk.’

‘Are you sure that you didn’t walk to Ulf Svensson’s place?”

‘I may have walked in that direction’, Göran Stenlund had replied whiningly, ‘but I never called on him.’“

Lisa sipped at her sherry, looked at me and said, “And now the events took a sharp turn. Eva was summoned for another questioning. The investigator was the same man as before. He smiled at her and said:

‘Well, now let us …’

At that he stiffened up and stared at her.

‘Will you please turn your head’, he said.

‘But why?’ Eva answered.

‘Do as I say’, the policeman said.

She turned her head.

‘This time you’re wearing a pigtail or queue or whatever you call it and you wore it last time you were here as well.’

Eva laughed and admitted the fact. And the interrogator asked her if it was detachable.

‘It certainly is’, Eva said.

‘A moment please’, the man said, went through the door and returned together with a woman. ‘Don’t move when we unfasten the false hair.’

The ponytail was put in a transparent plastic bag. And at that Eva realized that they thought that the pigtail was the murder weapon.”

I had listened to the story with increasing interest and I found this new twist breathtaking. From here Lisa told me that Eva became subject to what can be described as cross-examination. Had she not lied about her visit to the victim? Didn’t she visit Ulf Svensson in order to dispose of a persistent admirer? Had she not from behind strangled him with her ponytail?

“Well, Eva cried and denied and explained that she had not worn the pigtail when she returned the book to Ulf. But it looked bad. And her situation did not improve, when the forensic medicine people established that the hair on the murdered man’s neck came from her thick, plaited pigtail. But Eva maintained that she had walked bareheaded and without ponytail to Ulf Svensson’s home, since she had not been able to found it. She had not used any wig at all.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“When I read the headlines in the vestry, I understood that my friend was under arrest, for good reasons suspected of having killed Ulf Svensson”, Lisa said. “I was very upset and all of a sudden a light dawned on me. I thought I knew how the murder had come about. I didn’t let the fast growing spring grass grow under my feet. I rushed out into the sunshine and hastened across the market place to the police station, where I got admission to the investigators. They listened to me and at the end Eva Granberg was released and Göran Stenlund was arrested. Some time later he confessed.

“And what exactly had you found?” I asked my good-looking guest.

“Well, I’ll tell you what I told Eva during our third lunch. This time she wore no pigtail. The police kept it as evidence. She thanked me and said that without me, she would probably have been shaking prison bars for years. I replied that the truth nevertheless probably would have been discovered along the investigation. It just happened that I found out the solution before anyone else. I recalled that after quarreling with Göran, she couldn’t find her pigtail. Therefor she went over to Ulf without it and returned the book. Thus, she could not possibly have strangled him with the pigtail. The next day Göran returned to her and apologized. That was even before Ulf was found murdered. But Göran didn’t return to apologize. He returned to slip back the pigtail on the sly. He had stolen it when they quarreled. I guess that Göran after the quarrel stood spying outside her house. When she came out and walked to Ulf, Göran’s jealousy took on monstrous proportions. His decision to kill his rival was strengthened. When Eva was gone, he called on Ulf and strangled him with her pigtail.”

“One might say that your friend Eva escaped by a hairbreadth”, I said. “And the important thing is that your friend was innocent.”

“Was she? I don’t know.”

I must have looked utterly stupid.

“There is more to this story”, she explained.

“But you said …”

“Hear me out and I’ll explain. He confessed to the murder. He was sentenced and served seven years and was released. Good behavior and all that, you know. My friend moved to some other town and I lost contact with her.”

At that she made a wry smile.

“Then one day”, she continued, “I got to know by chance that Eva has been visiting Göran in jail every month all these years. And after his release …”, she made a long pause, “… they married. What do you make of that?”

“I see”, I replied, but I was in fact so surprised that I didn‘t see. Stunned, I said, “She may have lied to you about not being interested in him?”

“I don’t think so. I rather think that Eva carried out the murder, while he took the blame. It was kind of blackmailing on his part. He promised her to suffer her punishment in exchange for her.”

I stared at the gorgeous minister.

“Can it be proven?”

“Probably not.”

She hesitated.

“But it’s as if this story has not enough of twists, for there is one more twist to it.”

If I had expected some sensational new turn, I was right.

“You see’, Mother Lisa said, “three weeks ago my friend Eva most conveniently became a widow. Göran was found knifed to death not far away from their home. It was supposed that some jail mate had killed him. It has been said that many inmates had a grudge against him. But I wonder, I wonder. And that’s the story. What do you think?”

There was a long silence.

“A very strange story”, I said at last. “And you did come here to tell me this?”

“As I said, I can’t think of someone else. But it’s not only a question of getting a load off my mind. The important question is rather: what shall I do? Leave it is as it is or go to the police once more?”

We discussed that problem up to two o’clock that morning, and I am glad to say, that when we went to our rooms, the decision as to what had to be done was arrived at.

BIO: Bertil Falk, a retired Swedish newspaper and TV journalist. Debut at the age of 12 with the story “Trip In Space,” inspired by reading Edmond Hamilton and Eando (actually Otto) Binder. Their short stories were published in Swedish.

Got his first novel The Masked Gang-Leader published in the pulp magazine Alibi Magasinet at the age of 20.

Bertil’s only pulp mag, 1954 After that, Bertil worked as a journalist for newspapers all over Sweden and ending up as scriptwriter in the newsroom of a Scandinavian TV channel in London.
Bertil has spent more than ten years of his life in Britain, India and the United States and has travelled all over the world. He has produced TV documentaries in Kenya and Tanzania about medical doctors working for the Rotary Doctor Bank and the documentary The Woman Jack Didn’t Rip about the third victim of Jack the Ripper. She was Swedish. Some of these documentaries have been shown by QPTV in New York.

Bertil’s second mystery, 1996 In 1996 Bertil’s second mystery, Murder and Orchids was published. There is a Ginnunga gap of 42 years between the two novels. Since 1996 he has written many mysteries, fantasies and sf-stories, not to mention a bunch of short stories, most of them published in Swedish.

Bertil is now (2006) translating into Swedish the autobiography Flames from the Ashes by the Indian journalist and freedom fighter P. D. Tandon in Allahabad.
After his retirement Bertil was for a couple of years the editor of DAST Magazine, a Swedish publication dedicated to detective stories, secret agent stories, science fiction, fantasy, and thrillers: in a word, DAST. He is still writing for the magazine.

Bertil has translated a lot of short stories from English to Swedish by Arnold Bennet, John Dickson Carr, Wilkie Collins, F. R. Corson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jacques Futrelle, Willliam Schwenk Gilbert (of Sullivan fame), Jeremiah Healy, Edward D. Hoch, William Hope Hodgson, Jack London, L. T. Meade, O. Henry, Sue Parman, Anthony Parsons, Melville Davisson Post, Mark Twain, Edgar Wallace, Henry St. Clair Whitehead and Loel Yeo. Just to mention the top of an iceberg.

Bertil is living on his own in a cottage in the small village Västra Alstad in Trelleborg, the southernmost community of Sweden. He has two daughters (both of them translators) and five grandchildren, at this stage (2006) of the Harry Potter-reading age.

1 comment:

Paul Brazill said...

Okay, I haven't read this yet but what a title!