January 3, 2012
Walking up to that damned overblown house had always put Beker off never mind bearding Count Crusty, its principal inhabitant. Now he was here, unavoidably about to do both and all because of Carol’s dim dog. How on earth had they begun to call him Count Crusty? He was only an old man after all. Old and very rich. Or at least that’s what they said. Old and rich and rough. Made it in nickel mining, or ore smelting, or aluminum soft drink cans, who knew. But dammit why live in their neighbourhood? Why not move out into some curb appealing gated enclave, with guards and nurses and hired dog-walkers and avoid this little episode altogether?
Beker stretched his neck over the gateway, hoping to catch a glimpse of Putterball, what a stupid name, another Carol creation. He knew he was there somewhere because the note from Count Crusty had said he’d be kept tied up till they fetched him but only for 24 hours; then he’d be put down, so make it quick. Beker supposed he’d have to show some gratitude anyway but just wait till he got that damn dog home and he hoped it had had no food so it would learn its lesson because nothing else seemed to impress that major mishap of a canine.
The house showed no sign of life at all, no lights, though it was tending to dusk, no windows open; of course, for sure it was centrally air conditioned. Beker was envious and the wet spots on his shirt seemed to grow with the thought. He sighed and pushed on the gate door. It swung easily (well of course the dog would come in if he didn’t keep the gate locked) and Beker started up the short drive leading to the protuberant garage and the recessed front door. Nothing suggested he should be afraid or should have any premonitions. Carol was subsequently very disappointed in him; his thoughts were virtuously on Putterball. He didn’t really take in the low humming sound coming from the garage. It was only after he had rung the bell a few times with no response that he realized someone was running a car engine in the garage. He left the porch and walked over, thinking surely no one was that stupid, even if old and unaccountably still passing driving tests. He pulled up the garage door and was assaulted by the poisoned air. Putterball was dead too, tied up in a corner.
It took only a few minutes for the police to identify the body in the car as Richard Crandall, a.k.a. Count Crusty. He turned out to be stinking of drink. A lonely old man’s suicide. Beker wasn’t even kept answering questions long. He was interviewed by a constable, hardly worth the bother. The best moment was when he asked the cop when he could pick up the body to arrange for the funeral and the guy did a double take. Was Beker a relative? No, I meant Putterball of course, Beker said, speaking the dog’s name with dignity for the only time, and embarrassing the policeman.
Carol was devastated but it seemed so unfeeling to care more about the dog so she just walked around the house, cleaning up. Beker was silent, thinking of his 24-hour deadline that had been so insistent but had not been honoured. How easy it must have been for someone to defeat the old man, more noise than strength. A little too much liquor, or a lot. Keep challenging his drinking macho. Even after eighty that could rouse a man to foolishness. Then take the slumberous thin body to the car by way of the inside garage door. A minute to turn the car on with the old man’s keys, and leave by the back door. Or the front, who would notice or care? Putterball would squeeze back into his corner, unnoticed, always a cowardly pooch, if a pest.
The next day, Beker was outside, unenthusiastically trimming parts of the hedge when two cars trolled by. One turned into Count Crusty’s drive while the other parked on the street. People piled out — a dumpy couple from the car in the drive and a whole family, it seemed, from the car in the street. Beker watched as they assembled, and seemed to decide how to assault the now empty house. The body had been quickly removed the night before and no one would be preserving this crime scene. They had it to themselves. Relatives who had never visited before, looking out for their interests now. The dumpy couple were arguing with the tall man and thick-waisted woman from the family. Look, we came here just to be sure no one’s been trying to rip things off before everything is settled. Oh, and I guess that means us, the parents said, red in the face. Well, just you try keeping us out, we’re going in too. The two boys and the girl screamed around them, fighting over the gameboy or something Beker supposed.
The whole group trundled to the front door and the dumpy man took out his keys and fiddled with the lock. Nothing was happening; he couldn’t seem to get it right. Let me, let me, said the other. It took several minutes and a trip to the side and back doors for them all to realize that the keys were never going to fit. Count Crusty must have changed the locks sometime before he died. Beker thought that was very interesting. Who had he wanted to keep out? Beker tried to snip his hedge a little closer to the action as the group reassembled on the front lawn again. Look we’re getting nowhere. Let’s try a window. Over my dead body. That silenced them for a second. Look, we can’t just break in. But it’s ours (from the dumpy couple). Like hell (from the tall guy). We all go in, or no one goes in. The kids made utterly evident boredom signs, gameboy or not. Let’s get out of here. We want to leave. It’s Saturday. Christ, the cops must have the keys. Let’s go ask them. But no one moved. Okay look, we’ll go to Lougheed’s. That’s his old partner. He’s bound to know, at least who his lawyer was. You think he had a will? That put a chill on things. Alright, I’m going to Lougheed’s, said the dumpy man, and trailed by his silent wife, he got into his car. That broke it up.
Beker thought there was a Lougheed & Burnett in town, wholesalers of hardware and machine tools. Was that close enough to aluminum cans? Beker took out his portable phone, Carol’s gift and he had to wear it in the garden because she refused to hunt and shout for him there. He punched in information, got the number and then called. The perky voice explained that if he wanted auto parts to press one, and repairs to press two and other assistance to press three. Three it was. Mr. Lougheed (that’s Mr. Albert Lougheed, not his son Mr. Vince) was away that day, a bereavement, his old partner, he would be back next week. This coming Monday? No, the next Monday. Beker closed the phone and thought, nine days. Maybe they were really close friends. Yeah, who never saw each other though they lived in the same town.
Maybe the cops had talked to Lougheed. Crusty had only died the night before. News doesn’t travel that fast unless it’s carried. And it hadn’t gone by way of that bunch of relatives, not yet. Beker opened his phone again and got Albert Lougheed’s home number, then Lougheed himself. He wanted to express his condolences. He was Mr. Crandall’s neighbour. Such a wonderful old character. They had talked a lot, over the hedge you know. When was the funeral? Such a terrible thing. If only he had known how badly off he was. But he had never seemed depressed. Quite the opposite. Always lively. Just recently he had seemed maybe a little crustier than usual. A real character. But he, Beker, never for a moment suspected. Did Mr. Lougheed know that Dick had changed his locks before he died? A precaution, didn’t want to be killed in his sleep, he said, heh, heh. He’d said a few other things to Beker like that. Premonitions, you know, change in the air. When was the funeral? Maybe they could talk at the funeral. Oh, was Mr. Lougheed planning a trip? Take his mind off things, yes. But he would be at the funeral, certainly, yes. Not settled yet by the family when, probably Monday.
Beker closed the phone and smiled. That put the cat among a few pigeons. He went in to tell Carol they had a funeral to go to on Monday, this Monday. She looked at him suspiciously but Beker kept his face clear. No choice, we’re neighbours. Then they went to the pound to find a Putterball II. Beker was willing to choose a much louder, bigger dog this time.
Sunday, surprisingly, Beker got another visit from the cops. Not uniformed this time. Real inspectors, or detectives, whatever. Two. They wouldn’t take any iced tea. They wanted to know how well Beker was acquainted with Dick Crandall. Oh, Beker said, not much. They talked, you know, but Crandall wasn’t the neighbourly type. But he was keeping his dog, Putterball, till he could come fetch him. Seemed hard to understand why he would leave him in the garage then, to die too, they said. Beker agreed. Maybe he forgot. Maybe. He was pretty drunk. Beker asked what kind of drink? The detectives looked a little taken aback. They weren’t sure — whiskey? Old guys like whiskey. But they made a note. Should check for empty bottles somewhere in the house. Beker said everyone did blue boxes in the neighbourhood, except Count Crusty. His bottles would be in the house or the trash. And surely this one in the house. Why not check right now, it was only next door. The two cops left and Beker tagged along, but kept to his side of the hedge, not to bug them.
He heard them inside; when they started opening kitchen cupboard doors he knew they likely hadn’t found anything out in the open. There was another long time when they must have been searching the basement. They came out empty-handed. No bottles. But his blood alcohol was definitely over the limit, one said. Way over. Beker thought about the decision the killer had had to make — leave the bottle with two sets of fingerprints, or wipe it and try to re-imprint with Crusty’s alone, and risk waking him, or take the bottle away. He would have had some drink in him too — no chance of faking that in front of Crusty — harder to think straight. How dangerous would it have seemed to leave his own behind on the bottle with Crusty’s? How long since he had been there last? And how likely the cops would check for fingerprints? But a chance is a chance. And Crusty would surely have lots of other liquor bottles in the house, empties too. Well, it seemed not, if the detectives had found nothing worth taking. Trash gone on Thursday. Crusty dead Friday night. Bad luck about that trash, but if you don’t visit your friends often enough, how can you know?
Beker bought the Sunday paper to check for the funeral location. He thought that family might not know the newspaper announcement would be put in by the funeral home as part of the service, to themselves as much as the family. There it was — a tiny three lines, clearly a budget affair. Monday, he and Carol went early and got to chat with the whole group that had appeared on the lawn. Except the kids, who sat on a sofa in the reception room and picked on each other when they weren’t punching their electronics. Oh yeah, you’re the guy we saw cuttin’ his hedge, said the tall man. You have a good time? He sounded belligerent about having had his public conversation overheard by the public. Beker was unaccountably good-natured and made Carol even more suspicious. Look, she whispered, you’re just a retired government cipher clerk, not Dick Tracy. He moved over to talk to Vince Lougheed, son of Albert. This was a large young man with a thick neck. Beker thought there might be something to phrenology; in his experience, people who looked thick-headed generally were thick-headed. Carol said afterwards that wasn’t what phrenology meant; Beker said, whatever.
Vince was surprised that a neighbour had come to the funeral — he had never heard of any neighbour friend. Beker stared at him mildly and said, he had never noticed Vince there either, to which Vince turned red. Beker wondered aloud if Vince lifted weights, to keep that shape. So Vince said he got a good physique from his dad’s genes and then spent several minutes describing his workout routine and the disagreements he was having with his personal trainer. They weren’t serious disagreements; he had brought his personal trainer to the funeral too. Beker was introduced to a young man wearing a bandanna and thought maybe the two were serious after all. Judging by the clothes and the gold wrist chain, the training business must be good, thought Beker. But Albert Lougheed was a no-show. From the way Vince kept looking at the door, Beker thought maybe this was a surprise to him too, and was uneasy.
After the service — brief, no eulogy — everyone scattered like rain in the wind, but Beker had targeted an old man who kept to himself and in silent stridency wouldn’t acknowledge the family. As he walked away, Beker caught up to him and said, you knew Dick too? When he said nothing, Beker said, I guess you know what he thought of that family of his, but they’ll get it all now. The old man turned a furious face on him — that wasn’t the way it was supposed to be! Dick was sick to death of them but it was Lougheed who finally turned his stomach. Wanting him to sell his share to him so he could bring that stupid son and low life fag into the firm. Dick would never have let it happen, but he knew those money-grubbing kids of his dead wife’s would, so he was going to change his will and give it to me to look after. I was just a mechanic in the company before I retired but we got along fine. He knew I’d do just like him — and I would have too! Did you tell this to the police Beker asked? The old man looked frightened — the cops say he killed himself. They could think I killed him. They could check your story with whatever lawyer Dick was using to re-write his will, Beker said. He wasn’t using no lawyer. He did it himself. Did he actually finish it? Beker asked. I don’t know. The old man was shrinking. I knew he said he was going to tell Lougheed about it, he said. Beker wondered at the stupidity of old cronies. He rounded up Carol in a rush and said they had to get home fast. He thought he understood Albert’s absence and his jaw was tight.
Nothing seemed different from the street, but when Beker strode quickly up to his house, he could hear the animal from outside. Inside, Putterball II, a big mastiff, stood guard over a large old man, once vigorous, lying still on the hallway floor, invisible from any window, no longer bleeding from the gash in his throat. Beker had to explain to the police several times that Crandall had never left him any will for safekeeping; for some inexplicable reason, Albert Lougheed may have thought so, but he had never been that close to Count Crusty.