Instalment 51: pages 213 - 217 [Elliot makes a night-time dash to Jervis Bay with Danielle and Eva.]
As we drove out of Canberra the twilight had thickened into a cold winter’s night at the end of the longest Monday of my life. Traffic was light, and I really wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the road, content to let Danielle drive. I certainly wasn’t paying much attention to the cars behind us, not that I would have seen anything but headlights in any event.
Eva dozed, or pretended to, in the back seat as we made our way out to Braidwood and up into serpentine switchbacks of the Clyde mountain. Had it only been Wednesday that I last made this trip? A five day span in which Danielle had gone from half-remembered friend to lover.
“So,” she said. “You never did finish telling me about your trial.”
I sighed. I hadn’t expected she’d forgotten. I’d just hoped to have this conversation later. Much later, and when I didn’t feel quite so chewed up. The throbbing in my back had become a generalised dullness and nausea now.
“I don’t suppose,” I said, distantly, “there’s any chance we could shelve this until we’ve had a chance to be – normal?”
“I don’t think there’s anything I haven’t been willing to do for you, Elliot,” she said reasonably. “I trust you. I was hoping you could trust me, too.”
I felt a heel. The drowsy numbness that pained all my damn senses, was cutting into the new-relationship euphoria. Danielle still high on the rush. I was too tired, too sore from my marrow to the surface of my skull, to feel it. But I could see it in her face, glistening in the dashboard’s own twilight.
So I began.
“Allen Calwell,” I said, “the man I killed …”
“Accidentally,” interjected Danielle.
“No,” I said. “As it happens it wasn’t accidental at all. He’d planned it rather well.”
“He planned it?” demanded Danielle, incredulous.
I ignored that for the moment.
“You remember I told you that it looked bad for me. It turned out Allen was a family man, wife and new child. He was very drunk at the time, I’d been drinking a little, but wasn’t over the limit. The skid mark analysis was inconclusive. It fitted my version of events: a little over the speed limit, but not hugely. So the case against me was reckless indifference to human life. There was going to be a young widow and her baby in court. So I did what I knew how to do …”
“What?” she asked.
“I started digging. I couldn’t believe a man with a family had been so careless, so I wondered if there was something wrong in his life, some bad news, that would be enough to make him want to go out and get so hammered he might wander out in front of a car.”
I sighed and looked out the window into the speeding darkness. He hadn’t walked, he’d jumped – with that bright, feral smile. Surprise, tag - you’re it!
“I’m a researcher, Danielle. It’s really my only talent. I thought about family trouble, so I went to check the family court records, just the public register of case names. Nothing. Next stop, Federal Court. Nothing. At the Federal Magistrate’s Court his name came up – someone had issued bankruptcy proceedings against him. That’s when I went to town. I paid for every public record search I could lay my hands on. His name came up in the National Personal Insolvency Index and a company he owned was listed as ‘externally administered’.”
“He was broke?”
“Calamitously. The man ran his own little manufacturing business, but he’d got caught in a nasty squeeze when one of his biggest customers went bust. Suddenly, he was left with a lot of unpaid bills, and his suppliers still wanted their bills payment. He was trading as an incorporated company, but was small enough that most of the people he’d been buying parts from had got him to go personal guarantor on the company’s debts, as had the bank that had advanced him money under a revolving line of credit so he could buy what he needed to fill orders before selling the finished products on. Am I making sense, here?”
“Yeah,” she said, “But why didn’t he just get himself declared bankrupt and walk away?”
“Bankruptcy doesn’t work like that. They get to take everything, and even then for years the court oversees your life. You’re only allowed to have so much a month for rent, you can only have a car and tools of your trade to a certain value. You can’t hold an office in a company. If your creditors won’t come to an arrangement, it’s a big deal, it affects your life for years.”
“That just explains why he was drinking, doesn’t it?”
“Except for the dates,” I said. “All of this had happened months before. He hadn’t suddenly hit rock bottom, he’d been there a while. Which is why he chose to do it.”
“I don’t follow.”
“After he died, it was in the papers. It had been before I went looking for all of this. The interview with the widowed Mrs Calwell. Devastated widow finds near half-million dollar payout no comfort. It was insurance, you see.”
“What?” she asked. “Your accident insurance?”
“No,” I said, “not my third party. His life insurance. He was ruined. About to lose his house. Young family to provide for.”
“But they won’t pay out a life insurance policy if it’s suicide.”
“I don’t get it,” said Danielle quietly.
“Oh yes you do,” I said, suddenly too tired to care. “I started thinking it as soon as I read that article. He smiled at me as he went over the hood, Danielle. I was the only person who ever saw him do it, but he did. He wanted me to hit him.”
I spoke to the blur of black tree-trunks and red cat-eye road markers beyond the cold glass.
“He chose me to kill him. Because if it looked like an accident, or even better, someone else’s fault – he was going to be able to provide for his family the last way he could. The insurance policy, the first four hundred thousand of it or so, was his only asset that was immune from bankruptcy law, the only major thing they couldn’t take away from him.”
“He must have been really depressed to think like that,” said Danielle. “The poor man.”
“He was a coward!” I spat. “He chose to ruin someone else’s life! He took the easy way out and got to think he was doing something noble for his family. Plenty of people work their way through bankruptcy. And he forced me … he forced me, Danielle …”
“Forced you to do what Elliot?”
“Danielle, if someone makes it their defence in a culpable driving case that they did not kill a man, that he committed suicide by stepping in front of their car so his family could escape financial difficulty and that person is then found innocent – meaning that he proved to a jury it was suicide – what do you think the life insurance company is going to do to the poor widow?”
“Oh,” said Danielle.
“Yeah,” I said. “‘Oh.’ As far as Mrs Calwell is concerned, I robbed her of her husband and nearly half a million dollars in compensation for his death. The finding in the criminal case also put her lawyer in a very weak position to try and make a claim on my third-party personal insurance. They call it contributory negligence. If someone deliberately steps in front of a speeding car with the intention of getting injured, it’s not going to be a very big settlement.”
“How much did she get?” asked Danielle, “In the end?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “My insurance company never told me. I never wanted to ask.”