Chapter 40 (The PIN)
‘Oh my…’ the woman said and went totally silent on the other end of Skype.
‘Mrs le Roux, you recognise something?’ Deric asked, mesmerised by the shock on the women’s face.
‘Captain, you say this is the daughter of Rodney Gust?’ She asked astounded, ‘Oh my…’ she exclaimed again softly, ‘that feeling I had that evening, remember. I told you I’d a feeling, the smell. The night of Minke’s murder - that someone was there, with me, in the chalet? I don’t know how I’ve got to a bed…you remember, even in my drunken, or should that be, drugged-up state I’d remember about a smell?’
Deric nodded and could feel the hairs standing on end at the back of his neck even though he didn’t know what she was getting at, or why she was so clearly upset, ‘I remember, but how does this picture tie in with the events of November 1980?’
It seemed that Mae’s instinct was on the money with this one. Well, that’s what she does, her talent, so to speak, as an investigator and now Forensic investigator – profiling, reading people, make educated guesses.
How lucky for him she saw something worthwhile in him!
Last night was like a dream. He was going to be a dad and best yet, Mae is going to be the mother of his child. The harsh reality when he was woken this morning by his beeping mobile phone. He just wanted to ignore it. He wanted to put his arms around Mae and keep on sleeping, or doing other things, Saturday things. He didn’t want to do reality! To get up at six o’clock on a Saturday morning was blasphemy. Saturday! But, he did. He had to get up. Especially this Saturday! He stared at his wife for a while, stroked her hair and kissed her softly on the cheek before he went for a shower. When he came back she had made him a cup of coffee and toast.
‘That wasn’t necessary but thank you, sweetheart.’
‘Oh stop selling yourself short, of course you’re worth at least two pieces of toast! No sweat at all. The toaster toasted and coffee-machine made the coffee.’ She smiled cheekily up at him as she sat down on the bed with her arms around her knees, ‘You know, it may be worth your while to contact Rita le Roux again, you know, about that picture of Rodney Gust’s daughter.’
‘Why? You think she knows something?’
’Well, maybe she does, and maybe she doesn’t – it couldn’t hurt now, could it? And also Doc Martin van der Westhuizen. If he’s as sure as you about who the killer is, maybe he kept better taps on Gust than he’s letting on. Ask if they’re familiar with the picture or if something stood out to any of them. You never know. Maybe it’s nothing, but I’ve got this strange feeling in my gut, and as you know by now, it’s growing by the second.’ She patted her flat tummy and gave Deric her dazzling smile.
‘I hope all this thinking didn’t take place during last night’s love-making.’ He said tongue in cheek.
‘Oh, you know, us women we can do two things very well at the same time.’ She grabbed him by his shirt and pulled him towards her. Again he contemplated to stay in bed, but it wasn’t sleep he was thinking about.
‘What a women…That’s a woman…’
Riding his Red Devil on a Saturday at six-thirty in the morning was sheer bliss, and the only worthwhile reason for rising at six. He was as happy as a Bluebird all the way to the office – if anyone knows how happy a Bluebird really was.
He looked at his watch and decided to call Rita le Roux first thing, seeing that Monty didn’t come in yet. The timeframe between South Africa and Canada would be perfect around now. He sent her an SMS and luckily, she seemed to be alone at home and she suggested Skype, instead of him describing the picture.
And now she was staring at the picture in utter astonishment.
Rita le Roux’s voice brought him back from his reverie.
‘Captain Offbach, I don’t know if I already told you before but Minke was a man-magnet. She…well, she had this personality and then,’ Rita had this reminiscent look in her eyes, ’she came in this amazing package. I mean a beautiful face and a figure to die for.’ Guilt crept over her face, ‘Sorry, I always got this knack to use the wrong words or phrase.’
’”Figure to die for” is just a saying,’ Deric soothed, ’I’ve got the same habit of using “lucky” in the wrong context – “She was lucky that she wasn’t tortured before she was murdered” that sort of thing – as if luck was on her side at all.’
She gave a lopsided smile.
‘Well,’ she went on, ’guys she didn’t even know existed send her flowers, the odd marriage proposal and sometimes gifts. I remember the giggle we had over this professor – divorced at the time and around fifty-five – who wanted to marry her with all his might. Of course she let him down easy! A lot of guys were madly in love with her from a distance. Most kept their distance and knew their limitations. What I mean is I think George Clooney and Tom Cruise are really something, but…well…I won’t even go there. I won’t even send flowers or gifts - out of my league - if you know what I mean.’
Deric thought he was lucky. He always thought Mae out of his league but, as luck would have it, and with a little push from his friends, he got the girl.
‘Minke was out of most guys’ league. She usually kept the flowers, the gifts she always returned. She was friendly to all, a friend to almost, but romantically…oh, you know what I mean…she wasn’t playing the field or anything like that. She was waiting for the right one. She had the odd date and so on but… Back then I was… well Rodney Gust was my boyfriend at the time. I thought he was intelligent enough to know he was not in her league - so to speak.’ She looked down at her fingers, gave her wedding ring a twist before she went on, ‘Oh he was quite intelligent and attractive in an ordinary sort of way, like me,…oh you know what I mean by out of his league!’
She had long brown hair that was tied in a ponytail low in her neck. Green eyes and a somewhat pointy nose. An everyday, ordinary woman you wouldn’t have turned around for in her youth, Deric suspected, but once she opened her mouth a lovely personality and intelligence shone through.
‘Well, let me make a long story short,’ she went on, ‘all four of them had the hots for Minke, I know that for a fact.’
She again twisted the ring on her finger.
’I told you about Burger, Martin, Rodney and Ned - the bosom-buddies. Not only the same dorm, same sport, up to the same nonsense as students. Went on wild adventure weekends and there was almost always a friendly sort of rivalry between them, with undertones of seriousness about everything. From silliness to seriousness. They were in an undeniable competition at all times. Burger was the male equivalent of Minke. Very attractive, very charming but with one BIG difference - he knew it and he exploited it. He was under no illusion about the effect he had on women and left a string of broken hearts strewn all over the place. A real ladies-man. Martin was the quiet kind – a neat-freak, all kinds of OCD - but I thought he had more of a change with Minke than Rodney.’
‘I think I understand.’ Deric said. He could see in his mind’s eye these privileged, cocky twenty-something-year-olds. Intelligent, attractive and rich – the world their oyster.
‘I always knew the effect Minke had on Rodney and hundreds of others. However, I knew Rodney was like me, smart enough to admire form the side-lines, but also smart enough to know his limits. I mean, not everyone can be a Usain Bolt at 100 metres, can they? Or so I thought.’
‘So you thought?’ Deric tried to encourage her to go on without interrupting too much.
She gave a little bitter smile, ’I guess those, who doesn’t know about the history between Burger and me, ask themselves the same question: “What the hell is he doing with her?” I’m not even going to pretend that Burger could ever feel the same love or passion for me as he felt for Minke.’ She gave a resigned shrug, ’But, I guess, shared misery changes the way people look at one another. Could also be circumstances that force people to lower their standards. So to speak’ she again gave a little resigned smile, ‘well, in his case, jail forced him to see others in…a different light, and I...well, he loves me in his own way and I’ll take that any day…’
Again Deric soothed, ‘I think my wife is far too good for me too, but like she told me this morning “Don’t sell yourself short!” So that’s my advice to you Mrs Le Roux,’ Deric supported, ’”Don’t sell yourself short”’
’I think your wife is “lucky” to have you.’ A little humour was shining through.
Deric gave a little smile, ‘Mrs le Roux you said you thought Rodney was smart enough…you mean he wasn’t?’ Deric tried to get her back on track.
’You see, he never pursued her openly or even try to date her or anything. I…we’ve went together by that time for nearly two years…let me make a long history short. When he heard – from me, mind you – that Minke wanted Burger more than anything despite the fact that everyone warned her against him and his track-record with women. I don’t know…it could’ve been the trigger for Rodney and his secret affections. I’m speculating here, he never said anything to me. Maybe he wanted to keep his options open. You know, if she rejected him, I was still an option, you know “Plan B”. I mean he had big plans for a successful future, and success included a wife, a big house and the two and the half kids’ scenario. Could also have been some kind of silly guy rivalry about the gal, who knows? Anyway, whatever the motive, that’s when he started to bad-mouthed Burger openly. To me, in any case. Actually, maybe bad-mouthing might not be the right word here. ’Stern warnings,’ she made inverted commas with her fingers, ’would be more like it. Always started with “Burger’s a nice guy, a great pal, but…” and then tells me about his atrocious handling of girls. Which was all true. How he was poison to girls in general and Minke, in particular. Which, I might add, was my thoughts exactly at the time. He went on and on about how innocent and sheltered Minke was and how Burger would ruin her. He usually ended with a statement like: “She is your best friend, for God sake, talk some sense into her head” Told me such an atrocity could not be allowed that is if I care for her at all! I remembered when Burger received his invitation to her party Rodney told me out right that I should talk Minke out of her “silly infatuation” and end this nonsense. That Burger will just use and abuse her and then leave her hanging like biltong! I was a little jealous but I thought he, Rodney, was just looking out for Minke! With a little too much zest, but nevertheless! In any case, I really tried my best – but how does one talk a girl out of love?’ She bit her lip.
She glided her hand over her hair.
‘Thinking about it afterwards I realized his nagging about the subject ended around the time Burger said he wasn’t going to attend the party. However, twenty-four hours beforehand, Martin van der Westhuizen talked him into attending. Even if was only to find out for himself about Minke’s feelings. Getting him out of the Doldrums, so to speak. I think Martin was just as fed-up with Burger’s love-sick nagging as I was with Minke’s. As we all know by now, it was a fatal mistake. Martin still held himself responsible. That’s what he told me some twenty years on. One mistake Burger, and especially him, will regret for the rest of their lives! Well the rest you know.’
She sighed heavily as if reliving every moment physically again.
‘I still don’t see how this picture fit into the whole affair.’ Deric said a little exasperated.
’Well, it’s not so much the picture but the hairpin that makes everything clear to me.
‘The pin?’ Deric asked breathless.
’Yes, the pin. You see, the Friday morning before the party, Burger called Minke to announce that he will attend the party. It seemed so arrogant to me that I’ve made myself very clear about the whole situation. I guess in my high and mighty “friend” position, I figure it was my duty to keep her safe from a man like Burger Steenkamp. I was worse than her mother. She took it in her stride and told me that she’s quite thankful towards me for been such a good friend and the fact that I’m looking out for her but, she would rather have loved and lost as to regret not have tried at all. That one has to make one’s own mistakes and decisions in order to learn about life and love. She’ll gracefully accept my “I told you so” and “tissues” if things take a turn for the worst.’ Again a heavy sigh, ’I unknowingly told Rodney about Burger’s unacceptable behaviour, and in turn ruined both their lives…and I couldn’t even say “I told you so” or hand her some tissues. Or even beg her for forgiveness’
’About the butterfly…’Deric brought her back on track again. God this woman had a guilt-complex about the size of Africa.
‘Sorry Captain, I getting carried away and seeing that I, after the initial heart-to-heart twenty-five years ago between myself and Burger… and a few occasions later-’
‘You mean after he’s been pardoned?’ Deric interrupted.
‘That’s right, Captain, since that time we haven’t dwell on the matter. Because…oh, never mind. Anyway, around eleven-thirty on the Friday morning before that fateful Saturday, just before she left for the venue to meet up with the planner – I remember it well for we were still in the dorm room - a package was delivered for her. It was in a shoe-box. It was like one of those big packages that you unwrap and unwrap while all the time it’s getting smaller and smaller? It was like that. She ended up with a black little box - like a ring box – amongst a ton of pink papers. She was excited at first and thought it was from her mom. She might’ve even hoped it was from Burger. Seeing that he was a bit rude about the party. I remembered her opening the box, read the note, and blushed profusely as her smile dwindled from her face. She closed the box just as quickly. I laughed at her reaction and asked if it was another one of her admirers. Judging by her red face, he’d suggested a little more than a date. She said it was a beautiful gift, but a gift she can never accept, and that she will return it as soon as possible. Usually she just laughed it off. This time it was different. This time she seemed taken aback and she didn’t joke about it like we use to do before. This time something bothered her.’
‘Did she show you the contents of the box?’ Deric could feel his heartbeat against his shirt.
‘I thought it was maybe a marriage proposal and a ring. I found it very amusing and pleaded with her to at least show it to me before she broke another heart. At first she didn’t want too, but after a little persuasion she showed it to me. Very reluctantly, but she did.’
‘It was the pin?’ Deric wanted to know.
‘If it’s not the same one, it’s it twin, Captain.’ Her voice trembled.
‘And the note? Did you read it? Do you know sent it?’
She shook her head slowly from side to side.
’No, never read it, she crumpled it up in her hand and took it with her. I did bug her for a while afterwards about “Who the poor sod was this time” but she didn’t budged at all. I thought I will pester her later about it. After the part, you know. She’ll tell me at some point, she always did. Why this bothered her so much I couldn’t fathom. I cannot tell you who send it.’ Rita le Roux turned her head like a little bird who was listening intently. ‘Until now, I think.’
‘What did she do with the pin?’
She continued in a soft voice as if reliving it through a veil and was scared she would miss some tiny detail, ’She put it back in the box and in her overnight bag. The one she took for the weekend to the lodge. My conclusion was that she was either afraid to leave something as valuable as that in her room, or that the admirer will attend the party. I thought she will return the gift to him maybe Sunday, just before everyone goes home, that is. Or something like that.’ Rita le Roux looked as if she was caught in that moment somewhere in 1980.
She pursed her lips together and gave a deep sigh. Wipe her eyes with the back of her hand.
‘The bastard!’ she said in a loud, hissing tone, then sharply looked around as if she was afraid someone might’ve heard her.
‘Who are you talking about Mrs Le Roux?’
‘Rodney Gust!’ She hissed again and then she whispered, ‘It must’ve been him! I had my suspicions later. But at the time…no! I’m absolutely sure looking at that pin and…’ Her mouth shut like a clam.
‘And…’ Deric nudged.
‘Well, the only time I really talked about the…the…’ she again had difficulty to use the word murder, ’this to anyone else was Martin van der Westhuizen.
Like I’ve told you, Burger and I did talk about it – obviously – after he got out of prison. It was so upsetting to him that he kept silent for days after such a discussion. So, I stopped. Didn’t want to open old wounds everytime. About a month ago Martin…well, let’s just say he confirmed my suspicions… ’
‘He told you about the DNA?’
‘Yes!’ She said credulously as if Deric was a mind-reader.
‘It’s…it’s still not definite but...I mean the police…’
‘Yes, but the fact that Brenda Blignaut…the letter! Did you get a letter?’ It suddenly dawned on her how meticulously Brenda Blignaut was about all this, ‘She really wanted to make bloody sure he wouldn’t get away with it again, even after all these years, not so?’
‘It seems that way, but, I still can’t see how the pin ties in with the feeling you had that you weren’t alone that night?’ Deric asked curiously.
’Well, we’ve all got caught up in the Burger Steenkamp-frenzy in the days and weeks that followed, I forgot about the damn pin. To tell you the truth, everyone was relieved that the murderer was caught red-handed. It didn’t even cross my mind that the pin or the fragrance had anything to do with all this until long after the trial. A few months after Burger was sentenced, I visited Aunt Brenda. She and a friend were busy sorting Minke’s things. She’d asked if I wanted to help.’
‘Can you remember who the friend was?’
‘Yes, of course, it was Aunt Nora Jordan-’
‘Any relation to Mila Jordan?’
‘Yes, it was her great-aunt, I think. You know her? Mila must be around twenty now –as old as we were back then. Just children, actually.’
‘Did you know her well? I mean this Nora Jordan?’
‘Yes, she was one of Aunt Brenda’s best friends. Along with my Aunt Delia and Aunt Joanna Kent - they were best of friends. They went to varsity together back in the day. I don’t think Aunt Brenda would’ve gotten through what happened to Minke if not for those three. I don’t know if this is news to you, but she tried to take her own life more than once.’
More puzzle pieces were falling into place for Deric, but he still had to hear Rita le Roux out.
‘So, about the hairpin’ again Deric forced her back on track.
‘I asked Aunt Brenda about the pin, you know, what happened to it and the card or note. I told her that Minke wanted to return the gift and that I should maybe return the gift. I guess I was still curious about it all – I don’t know. She hadn’t had a clue what I was talking about. I remember even drawing the pin on a piece of paper as close as possible to what I remember, but it was never found.’
‘Until now, it seems. That about the same time you started on your drug-theory?’
’In fact, that was what forced me to think about everything. I didn’t allow myself before. I couldn’t go there. However, if the pin wasn’t amongst her things in the chalet, where had it gone? I’m sure she didn’t take it with her that evening. It still had to be amongst her things. The chalet wasn’t cleaned, or anything like that.
‘But, I still don’t understand, how…’
‘Aunt Brenda hadn’t had a clue what I was on about so I recounted the whole story. I told them about this elusive diamond butterfly with the blue stones in the middle, Captain – but it was nowhere to be found, so-’
‘So, if she hadn’t handed it back to its sender, you deducted that someone had stolen the pin during the night after the murder had taken place.’ Deric filled in.
‘Hence the smell of Brute and the lost hairpin…and the confirmation of my suspicion. I couldn’t comprehend Burger Steenkamp to be the sender of the pin otherwise Minke would’ve been in seventh heaven. So, like you put it so delicately, I deducted that it had to be one of the other three musketeers. Maybe I should say two – I thought it could’ve been Martin or Ned-’
‘You were still going out with Rodney Gust?’ Deric asked credulously.
’Well, yes, however, not long after my hysterics, as he’d baptised it, started, we broke it off – or he did. Rodney found me tedious and told me I drove everyone up the wall with my boring story about the “drug-drunk” thing and that people just wanted to put it all behind them. The murderer, he said, was behind bars and I should stop harassing each and every one with my “bloody” hysterics. We broke up. The rest you know.’
‘Did you go to the police? Did you suspect Gust?’
’Me, their star witness. Telling them they’ve made a mistake about Burger Steenkamp - I’ve made a mistake. Tell them about a mysteries hairpin that only I was witness too and a sudden, even more mysterious, memory-loss theory? You got to be kidding, Captain. Would you’ve believed it?’
Deric stayed silent.
‘Exactly! Even my real friends thought me a little strange and obsessed at the time. I changed universities at that point.’
She fiddled with her ear.
’But now, Captain, you’re thinking the exact same thing as I do. Even if you wouldn’t admit to it. Rodney been a Judge and all, and that “innocent until proven guilty” stuff, wouldn’t allow you to acknowledge it, but I can see it in your eyes. He’s the one. It’s just a little tough to do anything immediately with all his “esteem” and “elitism” and all that, isn’t it?’ She stared at Deric as if she wanted to see inside his head.
‘Mrs le Roux, do you think he worked alone?’ Deric didn’t another avenue.
‘No, I don’t. I don’t know what happened and I don’t think he planned to murder her. Something must’ve gone very wrong. More than that, I don’t know.’ She suddenly sounded bitter, ‘BUT, he didn’t hesitate to murder her and ruin an innocent man’s life to safe his own bacon, did he now?’
‘We also think the murderer must have had some help.’ Deric said softly.
She stayed quiet for a bit.
‘Ned Dunn!’ she said with venom, ‘I bet that’s why he drank himself into an early grave. At least he had some conscience left. Not so Rodney Gust – he thrived.’
‘Do you know the name Neill Kruger? Does it mean anything to you?’ Deric asked on a whim.
She frowned before a light went up in her eyes.
’I know of a Kruger, that’s what Rodney called him “Krugertjie”. He was Rodney’s village idiot.’
‘His what?’ Deric asked dumbfounded.
‘That’s what they called the first-year in those days. All the seniors had a “village idiot”. Back then varsities still had planned initiations. Not in a bad way, but some always took advantage of the poor first year students. These “slaves” or “idiot” had to do the most tedious and sometimes stupid things for their senior or “master”. Krugertjie was Rodney’s slave. Don’t know if it was this Neill Kruger - you think he was in on it too?’
‘I can’t say, but I thank you, Mrs le Roux, you’ve cleared up a lot of things.’ Deric said. He got so much more than he bargained for.
He prepared to end the call.
‘He shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this, Captain Offbach! I don’t care who he is and how much money he has!’ The bitter anger was palpable in her voice.
‘We’re trying our best to do something about it, however, we do need solid evidence to charge a man for a murder that happened thirty-five years ago. Maybe we’ll get lucky with the DNA - we cannot mug this up.’
Deric suddenly thought of something else.
’How do you think the hairpin ended up on a painting of his daughter years and years later?
‘Who knows? Arrogance? A feeling of untouchability or maybe the possibility that he still thinks nobody knows about the pin. That it was safe to give it to his daughter after all these years, or something like that?’
‘Did you know his wife – Mirna de Wet – back then?’
‘Yes I did, but I didn’t know she and Rodney hooked up until much later. I had left the end of 1981, went to another university. I only found out through Martin when he mentioned something to me on a visit some fifteen odd years back. We were already in Canada for quite some time by then.’
‘Just one thing more Mrs le Roux,’ Deric suddenly got a brainwave, ’does the 30th or 31st of January has any meaning to you or Brenda Blignaut or maybe even her daughter. Anything happened on that specific day you can recall at all?’ Deric took a stab in the dark.
She thought only for a few seconds before answering, ’Well, yes, Captain, but it has nothing to do with Minke. The 30th of January is Rodney Gust’s birthday, as I recall. Is it of any significance?’
A light went up in Deric’s eyes.
Somewhere behind her a door opened.
She suddenly whispered hurriedly, ‘My husband’s home! He doesn’t know about all this. I would like to keep it that way. Is there anything else, Captain?’
‘No, thank you Mrs le Roux…’
She ended the call even before he could say goodbye.
Deric stared at the blank, blue screen.
Oh. My. God.
Somehow Brenda Blignaut arranged for the killer of her daughter to be killed on his birthday!
Thirty days to find a killer!
“Another one bites the dust…”Queen beats through his head. Or at least is going to if something’s not done.