Chapter 28 (GUEST-list)
‘Morning everyone,’ Deric said as he came back from Sheffield’s office, ‘the boss wants results as always. We’d nothing to show so far in regard to the seventh victim - any new ideas?’
‘Where’s Mae,’ Monty asked, ignoring the original question.
‘Not well,’ Deric took it in his stride, ’I think she’d caught Jim’s cold, she’s staying put today and will go to the doctor later. Could’ve been something she caught on that nice vacation Latisha and she had in Cape Town.’
‘Well, we’ve got results, didn’t we?’ Latisha waved a now red-painted fingernail splattered with white dots (as per deadly mushroom) about.
’Yes, with some help from mister “Misdemeanour” over here.’ Jim said tongue-in-cheek.
‘So the lesson is: Next time take Monty with you!’ Monty said as he sipped his coffee.
’Well, at least we’ve got that one for show and tell. You know Sheffield, he is happy as long as there’s some forward movement but…this is a different kettle of fish - and I’m with him on this point - this one is little different. We can prevent a murder if we can unravel the mystery in the puzzle. It won’t be easily explained away if word gets out we let a man be murdered, even if we did try our level best.’ Deric said as he looked them over, ‘So…’
Danny wavered a moment before clearing his throat.
‘What about the guest-list?’
‘Yes, I mean, there must be someone, or more than one someone, around who’d attended that fateful party back in 1980. If we can compile a rough guest-list of who might’ve been there that night – I mean we might get somewhere with that…’ his voice dwindled away like a raindrop in the sand.
Then everyone started to twitter.
‘That’s a bloody good idea!’ Monty let go and turned to the computer immediately.
‘Where have you’ve been all out lives, Danny?’ Jim said with a smile, and Latisha, ‘Atta boy!’ in between.
’Let’s start at the very beginning…’ Deric hummed off, ‘A very good place to start…’
Jim looked at Danny, ‘Don’t mind him, it a combination of a musical mother’s upbringing and one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.’ Jim twilled one finger around his temple, ‘The police witness-list is where we must start.’
Deric gave a grin before looking at Monty, ‘Anybody fits the bill? Maybe if we go through the witnesses of the time, we might get to a few that attended that party.’
‘O, God,’ Jim said miserably, ‘I really hope it’s backed up that far back because I don’t know if I can stand that archive-graveyard one more time!’
Monty’s hands were moving around like a well-trained pianist. Seeing that it was a cold case, the information was captured for eternity, or until it’s solved, in the cyber world. It didn’t took too long before he came up with a few names and some information. In the end they had five people that seem to be within easy reach.
They all took a name and number and started to phone.
The woman who opened the door was well preserved for her age although the laugh-lines around her eyes gave away the fact that she was nearing her sell-by-date, as Latisha always put it so eloquently. Somewhere in her mid-fifties, maybe, with rich brown hair (courtesy of L’Oréal or some other brand) this was tied in a stylish, but care-free, knot on the top of her head.
She extended an elegant hand as she said, ‘Mirna de Wet’ and gave first Latisha and then Jim a sturdy handshake. According to her background she was a well-established artist, although neither Jim nor Latisha can claim they heard of her, or her work, for that matter.
She waved them inside with the same elegant hand and then turned on her heels to lead the way.
‘What can I do for you, Inspectors,’ she said as she shooed a fat ginger cat of the sofa. She sat down, pointed to the chairs and cross her outstretched legs at the ankles, ‘I must say I’m absolutely as curious as a monkey in a tree ever since you’ve called earlier.’ Her forehead wrinkled a bit, ‘Have you found the culprit at last? I can’t recall a lot more than I could thirty-something years ago.’ She gave a nervous giggle, ‘You see, I can’t even remember how long ago it was.’
She suddenly realised that she was babbling and that the people in front of her couldn’t fit in a word edge-wise. She folded her hands as if ready for church and then said, again, ‘So, what can I do for you?’
‘Miss De Wet, you were, along with quite a few students at the time, one of the witnesses in the trial of Burger Steenkamp, the man who was accused of raping and murdering Minke Blignaut-’
‘Poor man,’ she interrupted, ‘I wouldn’t say I was a key-witness, but we all thought him guilty at the time? Thank God for DNA. I thought a lot about all this in the years that followed. It’s still in the back of my mind, although, I had put it on ice for quite some time now, that is, until you’re call this morning. I really felt a little responsible for him spending all those years in jail.’ She bit her lower lip for a moment before looking up, ‘Sorry, Gussie tells me I’ve got a tendency to babble, go on.’
‘Gussie?’ Latisha questioned.
‘Sorry, then it would be Missus?’ Latisha apologised.
‘I’m working under my maiden name. Some simple thing artists think of as unique. Sort of selfish about our work,’ Mirna de Wet answered promptly with a wide smile and looked at Jim again, ‘but then again – it’s a very private thing – art.’
Latisha let her eyes wondered through the room – except for a few good paintings and statues it bears the signs of a typical family room with, papers and magazines lying around, family pictures and a few potted plants that could do with some water, and of course, the ginger cat, who’d just made himself comfy on another chair.
’We just want to know if you can tell us a little more about the people who attended this party. How many, for instance, if you have to estimate?’ Jim asked.
‘You mean those who’re not dead yet.’ She laughed at her own silly joke and bit the lip one more time. ’Just joking, just joking, today’s fifty-something was yesterday’s thirty-something, or so they say, but my knee disagrees. However, there’s no denying the fact that we’re getting on in years.’ She fiddled with a large, abstract silver and blue object hanging from her neck from – what looked like – a shoelace, ‘Hmm…I don’t really know for sure… by my estimation I would say forty, maybe fifty or there about. I knew some of them, but not all.’ She suddenly went into nostalgia mode, her eyes got that far away glazed look people get when they reminisce. Jim knew the look, his wife, Josie, gets it from time to time and it’s difficult to put a stop to it.
’We all knew Minke had a thing for “bad boy,”’ she made inverted commas with her fingers, ‘Burger Steenkamp. I must admit, he was rather attractive and he’d oozed with charm. He went through girls like tissues! All warned Minke about him however, she just quietly and stubbornly took no-one’s advice.’
She looked at her hands.
’To give you an example, she had an RSVP on her invitation, which he ignored. Didn’t say yes, didn’t say no, just ignored it and then just pitched up that evening at the party. Apparently phoned her on Friday to announce that he was coming to the “Sware” on Saturday. Or that was the rumour,’ she thought some more, ‘I must say, he looked like damn James Bond in that black suit. It was a Roaring Twenties, Charleston-Great Gatsby, that sort of thing. Everything was lovely, everyone looked the part and we’ve enjoyed it immensely – up to the point of the murder, of course.’ Her voice dwindled.
‘How did you know Minke Blignaut?’ Jim interrupted.
‘We were in adjoining rooms,’ she said, again with that nostalgic note in her voice, ‘Minke and Rita shared. They were best friends forever, to quote today’s youth. They grew up together, went to the same school, that sort of thing. Hettie and I were next door, everyone knew everyone, and we were all good friends – ’
’Why did you testify against Steenkamp? What did you see that made you think he was guilty?’ Latisha wanted to know.
‘Nothing!’ she said and then softer, ‘I saw absolutely nothing. The last thing I remembered was Minke and Burger walking out the door and off into the garden. Of course, the next morning…well, the murder scene and all that. I think that’s what had convinced us that he was guilty. It was so vivid!’
Latisha caught on to the “the last thing I remembered”, ’What do you mean by that? I mean by “The last thing I remember”?’
’Well, I can remember Johan and me - my then boyfriend - heading towards the little chalet. It would’ve been my, what should I call it…my adventure into womanhood?’ She gave a snort and a little blush made its way across her cheeks, ‘Remember, back then sex wasn’t that easily…obtainable,’ little snort, ‘and a real serious step. Even as art students we weren’t that promiscuous as some may think – maybe more open than others, but still…’ She again looked apologetic, as if she should not have mentioned the word sex, ’Well, at least, I wasn’t – call me old fashioned that way! Today, these young people, it’s just too overwhelming… Well, even if anything had happened that night, I couldn’t remember squat! But, I pretended. Maybe that’s a woman thing, for Johan swore high and low that it was wonderful!’ She again snorted and then bit her lip. She looked up a little guiltily and said, ’I think I had too much to drink – far too much. I felt misty, would that be the word, like someone walking in the mist.’ She frowned sadly to no-one in particular before looking respectively at Jim and then Latisha, ‘I’m sure you know as well as I, that all the evidence was totally circumstantial, except for him been next to her that morning. Not even the staff could testify to anything concrete.’
’And in this case, circumstantial wrong,’ Jim said softly, ’all the witnesses saw actually nothing. If I read the transcript correct. Steenkamp was just at the wrong place at the wrong time – granted – with one hand on the victim’s neck. The last thing all could attest too definitely was seeing the two of them walking out into the garden together hand in hand. Everyone just assumed he did it.’
She pulled at the necklace-monstrosity nervously.
‘That I can’t deny,’ she said with a dark tone to her voice, ‘six of us, at the time, were called to the witness-stand,’ she looked up and her eyes looked moist, ‘they could’ve called ten or twenty more, if they wanted to. The Defence, however, accepted that Burger was with her the last time anyone saw her alive and probably at the estimated time of the murder. Hell, he woke up next to her – that’s what we all saw and he claimed at the time.’ Her voice got very soft, ‘That was the poor man’s best defence. He woke up and can’t remember.’
She re-crossed her feet, interlaced her long fingers and then opened her mouth slowly and she kept it that way for a few seconds before saying very softly, ’I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that hype of been swept up in some kind of hysterical frenzy – I guess it would be something like a story out of the Bible: “Crucify him! Crucify him” while all the time the real murderer where standing in plain sight! Must’ve been! All evidence against him was circumstantial, but we’re all swept up in the hype of crucify him - as if under hypnosis!’
She pulled the necklace thing so tightly Jim was scared she might strangle herself.
‘We’d sentence a man to life-imprisonment for what we thought we knew! Youth is wasted on the young – is that not what it’s says? They’re like sheep - if one crosses the road, all must cross the road. One doesn’t think as an individual – it’s like a “group-thinking” sort of thing! God knows, maybe Burger Steenkamp would’ve still been in jail if it wasn’t for DNA testing.’
She re-crossed her legs.
‘I still feel now…’ she hesitated again as if the dictionary doesn’t held enough words to describe her emotion, ’I feel ashamed, that’s what I feel: ashamed. We might’ve, figuratively speaking, murdered that poor man alongside Minke, in our young and foolish enthusiasm and outrageous righteousness at the time.’
’Everyone, including the police, thought the same thing back then – came to the same conclusions, so it wasn’t your fault entirely.’ Jim offered a little sympathy.
’Well, sometimes I just feel…well, I don’t know, what I really want to say. It’s just, we were so quick to judge…to point fingers…to have our minds made up for us. I often wondered if we didn’t make the police’s mind up for them.’ She looked up, now pulling her, already too long pinafore-dress, to stress-level over her thin knees, ’It was so quick, the arrest, I mean. Less than forty-eight hours after the murder he was arrested, and we were all keen enough to make him pay for what he did! Like a lot of vultures, you know, just waiting to pick the bones clean.’ Her voice was scarcely audible. ‘We absolutely made ourselves believe that he was guilty.’
‘Well, you know what they say about hindsight,’ Jim said with more sympathy, ‘ma’am, you’ve said the four of you knew each other quite well,’ Jim consulted with his notebook, ‘Minke, Rita, Hettie and you…’ then he looked up, ‘are you still in contact with any of the other three?’
‘Hettie and I still talk from time to time, she and her family live up in Port Elizabeth for the last, oh, I don’t know, twenty-five years. After the murder we all sort of drift apart. At the end of the next year – 1981 I think - Rita transferred to another university – Cape Town or Bloemfontein, not sure. I never spoke to her again.’
So, you don’t know where we can find her, I mean Rita.’
‘No, sorry I don’t.’ She frowned, ‘What happened to Burger Steenkamp?’
‘We haven’t been able, up to now, to track him down, but we’re looking.’
‘Isn’t he in the system?’
‘Remember, he’s not paroled, he was pardoned. He…well, we don’t know where he is at the moment. The police do not keep tabs on innocent people, like we do with someone’s who’s paroled.’ Jim said.
‘Maybe that’s what I would have done in his place… just vanished.’ Her eyes were soft as she said the last two words, ‘I can’t even think where one start your life again after something so horrible happened to you.’
Jim and Latisha realized that this was her ceiling of knowledge about the people and the case. They rose.
‘Thank you for seeing us Miss…Missus de Wet-’
‘Miss,’ she interrupted, ‘just one of those silly things - remember.’ She giggled nervously. ‘By the way, why is this all of sudden interesting after all these years? Did you find the real killer?’
‘No, still a cold case. We’re just trying to tie up some loose ends, or at least, look from another angle.’ Jim said, for he was not about to offer any explanation or reveal anything about the “Ice-Cream Club”.