Poison was a woman’s weapon. Patti tipped the bottle against the light and shook it. Could she poison her husband? Weedkiller should be unnoticeable in the whisky.
It was really the twinge at the thought of food rather than the sight of the Hong Kong double hotel receipt when she was unpacking Harold’s case that slid the thought of murder in her mind.
She had nothing to gain from his death. If Harold could be disposed of ‑ a difficult thought ‑ he was such an imposing big man, he would leave only the losses on his business, and the bank’s threats to foreclose on the rambling Victorian home.
The temptation sat in the back of her mind like her yearning for chocolates. Harold kept her short of money, and when he wasn’t home short of food. Because of her hunger food had become of large importance in her life.
It was because she had run out of eggs. She told him she needed eggs for the weekend.
“Of course you don’t,” he snarled. “I’ll be away, so you won’t be cooking.”
There was one egg left in the refrigerator. She decided to make herself a chocolate cake. She liked chocolate cake and it would be nice to have it to go with her baked beans.
She cracked the egg against the basin, but whether it was because her hand was greasy from creaming the butter the egg slipped as she cracked it and broke into the sink. It was the last straw.
She sniffled in despair and yearned for a nice chocolate cake and the comfort of lots of chocolates. It was then that she noticed the practically undamaged cigar box among the rubbish. It was the same sort as the grocer stocked; not that Harold ever bought his cigars there. Harold had lots of cigars from his shadowy import business.
She would refill the box, glue down the wrapper and pretend to the grocer that he had delivered it by mistake and get her eggs. While she was carefully rolling the cigars forward from the box on the office desk with her nail file something clicked. The bottom of the box gaped open.
The book caught her eye because it was so cute, narrow and inconspicuous, covered with the same lining as the box, the key flat against its inside cover. She opened it. The book had some very interesting figures in it.
She had the key copied, copied the interstate bank address and safe deposit box number, got her eggs from the grocer, made her cake and ate it at one blissful sitting
Harold went overseas the following week. She suspected he took a companion with him. He had packed a new brand of aftershave lotion and was unusually genial.
Her aged car wouldn’t take her interstate, even if she was allowed to fill the tank at the garage more than once a week, which she wasn’t. Harold kept a careful check on things like petrol bills.
Harold was a great believer in decent accessories, for himself that is. “No one trusts a businessman who can’t afford or dress,” he always said when he came home with something new so she collected the sapphire cuff links, the tiepin and the spare gold watch.
She used up nearly all the petrol in her small car before she at last discovered the seedy but obliging little pawnshop that gave her $300 in exchange. She drove home, getting another half tank of petrol on the way.
By using interstate buses and not eating too much she could reach and open that mysterious safe deposit box. It was a very rewarding discovery. Patti extricated enough bundles of grubby tired notes to fill her shabby handbag without the box looking any different.
Money! What could she do with money ‑ apart from redeeming the pawn ticket? Once home, she replaced the key and dreamed of a little home all her own. A life with plenty of chocolates, cream sponges and dining out at decent restaurants.
Harold arrived back. For some reason he was tense and worried. He left in a temper the next morning.
“Don’t forget to pick up my suit from the dry cleaners,” he had ordered.
He always wanted his dry‑cleaning done by the firm on the other side of town and it was a regular trek to get there.
“It’s a long way over,” she faltered.
“So,” he snarled. “What do you think I pay for your car for?” Then he had given her a funny darting look of sheer hatred.
In the end she hadn’t got the dry-cleaning. Harold had used her car for something earlier that morning and parked it at an awkward angle in the garage. It needed to be backed and straightened before driving down the steep drive. She hated backing and if she dinted her car, it would never get repaired.
That night Harold although furious that she hadn’t collected his dry cleaning was all very genial and loud‑voiced as he came in with his four friends. The men retired with Harold to the den.
“To talk some business, my pet,” he had said.
She thought resentfully of the weed killer and not yet in one of the whisky bottles. Later that evening there was the rising murmur of voices, the sound of a chair being overturned. The door to the den burst open.
It was only a fight, after all. Three of the men stalked out, their faces tight with fury, and left. Harold often had violent physical disagreements with his business associates. A few minutes later the last visitor stood at the door with a concerned look on his face.
“I don’t want to worry you, Mrs. Jackson.” Why he was so apologetic? “I think your husband is having a heart attack.”
They rang the hospital. The hospital agreed he was having a heart attack and ordered them to bring him in immediately. The visitor had arrived in someone else’s car, but Harold’s car was parked outside the front door. They couldn’t find his car keys.
The visitor looked worried. “We had better take him down in your car, Mrs. Jackson. We’ve got to get him to hospital straight away.”
Harold was semi‑conscious. Between them they half-dragged and half carried him to the old Morris in the garage. He seemed irrational and thrashed wildly as they opened the car door, but between them they got him into the back seat and fastened the seat belt.
“Would you mind backing out for me,” Patti asked. “I can’t cope with this driveway.”
The visitor took the keys. Patti sat beside him as he backed the car, edged it around the Mercedes, turned it around and parked, engine running on the top of the driveway. The visitor got out. Patti was sliding over behind the wheel when Harold struggled to open the back door.
“You’re all right, old chap,” the visitor said, making a dive for him and pushing him back.
Patti got out again to help fasten the seat belt securely around Harold and shut the door. Unless it was pushed in firmly the lock didn’t hold. Harold thrashed around trying to release the seat belt, the weight of his body causing the little car to rock.
In the faint light from the street lamp his face was beaded with sweat. Patti had a twinge of compunction. Perhaps thinking of poisoning had been a bit extreme. Although Harold was an unpleasant husband, nobody deserved the agony of a death from weed killer.
She moved back to get into the car. Suddenly, the car slid with incredible smoothness down the steep dark drive.
“I did put the hand brake on,” the visitor said in shock.
“My goodness!” gasped Patti.
At the bottom of the hill, the car bounced across the little park, tipped into the gully by the creek and burst into flames.
Patti burst into tears. The visitor patted her arm, and said. “There, there.”
* * *
“Are you sure you don’t know of anyone who might have wanted you harmed?” The Coroner asked, but kindly because Patti was upset.
Patti shook her head. The Coroner shrugged and returned a verdict of death by misadventure. The brakes of the Morris had been tampered with, but poor Harold’s massive heart attack had killed him before the crash.
Before she left the house, Patti went into the den and looked at the twelve bottles of good whisky, with their immaculate gold foil tops. She smiled. She was so relieved she hadn’t given in to temptation and put the weed killer into the whisky just because she was hungry.
Poor Harold must have definitely repented of his action in tampering with the brakes. Things had a way of turning out for the best. Patti inspected her box of chocolates, mixed, and touched again for comfort and reassurance the small key and grubby scrap of paper in her pocket.
By Margaret Pearce