Friday, November 21, 2008

The Case Of The White Coffin

     She must have been dead for quite some time, possibly of heart attack, they theorized. When the paramedics told him they had to take his mother to the morgue to do an autopsy, Pok Teh only nodded. They said he looked genuinely distraught. The only thing that bothered them, save Pok Teh it seemed, was the coffin that lay on the living room. There was no other indication of foul play.

     The three of us arrived at the house ten minutes after we were summoned, and was greeted at the door by one of the paramedics. My colleagues went about the business of searching the house, while I asked to be led straightaway to Pok Teh, whom we found slumped --certainly alive but not lively-- beside the entrance to the kitchen. Pok Teh was a tall, overweight, balding man in his forties. He had bloodshot eyes accented by dark circles underneath them, and a round, dreary face.

     "I'm Detective Gan." I said as I reached out my hand. He never took it, instead he continued staring blankly at the wall at the far end of the room.

     I thought I saw him give a slight nod as I sat beside him on the floor. The paramedics had just taken the body out, and from my angle I could see the edge of the huge white coffin protruding from the living room.

     "I'm sorry for your loss," I said, "but I'm here just to ask you a few questions."

     He said nothing but shifted his eyes to the ground.

     "Why don't you tell me what happened?"

     He gave an audible sigh and looked at me briefly before training his eyes on the floor once again.

     "I know this is difficult but I need your help to clear things up."

     I checked my notes. There wasn't much. Pok Teh's call came in at seven o'two. The ambulance arrived twelves minutes later.

     "The dispatcher said that you told them you found your mother lying on the floor when you arrived. You came from work, yes?" I asked.

     He gave no response and showed no intention of doing so.

     "Would you like to tell me what's with the coffin?" I offered.

     I was taken aback when the big man suddenty started crying like a baby. His body rocked with this sobs, which quickly turned to moans. I didn't quite know what to say, so we sat there just like that for a while. But even when he was through, the tears weren't enough to get him started talking.

     We arrived at the station a little past eight o'clock. I had no choice but to take Pok Teh for questioning.

     My colleagues had collected a few things that seemed relevant. We found four things stood out from the rest. One was a flight ticket going to China under the name of the deceased, scheduled for departure at six o'clock of the same day. Next was the receipt for a towing service issued at six thirty also of the same day, found in Pok Teh's shirt pocket. A bottle of Valium tablets was also found in his underwear drawer. Lastly, a huge paper bag containing two hundred thousand dollars was found in his cabinet.

     We, my colleagues and I, had different theories about the whole thing. The case was our first real assignment after having made it through the academy. Part of the job, we were told, was to make sense of the bizarre.

     "I don't like the guy from the instance I saw him," one said. "Something just isn't right about him. Maybe he had deliberately staged the whole thing to make it look like his mother was leaving the country and that he was in the middle of the road when she was dying. He must have had something to do with her death."

     "Maybe he gets to keep the house if she was out of the way. I mean, what kind of guy would still be living with his mom at that age?" another one conjectured.

     "The cash could be his inheritance," added the first one.

     "Or he was planning to leave the country after he killed her!" exclaimed the second guy.

     "Look, I don't like the guy too," I declared, "but that doesn't mean he had something to do with his own mother's death. Besides, that doesn't take into account the most bizarre thing of all..."

     "Maybe she was some sort of psychic," the second guy, the wiseass, cracked. "Maybe she saw her own death in her dream or something. That's why she bought the coffin."

     "Or maybe he's the psychic! Maybe he bought the coffin," the first one offered.

     We stopped our discussion before it got too out of hand. The autopsy report was coming in by ten o'clock, which became our self-imposed deadline for the day. We had some time on our hands.

     It took a few phone calls to sort out the first two pieces of the puzzle. First, the flight ticket. The airline stated it had to cancel flights because their pilots were on a strike, and that someone with the name of Pok Teh's mom had checked in earlier but was later informed of the flight's cancellation. Second, the towing receipt. The towing company confirmed it had indeed towed Pok Teh's car and that they had dealt with someone resembling his description. The signature on the form they faxed matched Pok Teh's signature in his ID.

     Unfortunately, ten o'clock had came too soon and the matter of the white coffin remained unresolved. The huge amount of money was almost equally perplexing. Pok Teh was a dead end because not a single word could be extracted from him. We had to send him home after receiving the autopsy report, which gave us the most important bits of fact yet. The report indicated heart attack as the cause of death, and that Pok Teh's mother could not have been dead for more than three hours.

     Two days later --Sunday-- we watched Pok Teh bury his mother in the same, white coffin that previously lay in their living room. But not before I got to take one last look at her when everyone was given the chance to pay their final respect. She could have been a foot taller and twice as large and they wouldn't have any trouble fitting her; she looked like a spoon getting buried in a shoe box.

     We invited Pok Teh back to the station after the ceremony. He looked worse than than ever, probably from combination of grief and the lack of sleep.

     "We've been busy," I started. "We've traced the coffin to its seller and we've even talked to the people who delivered it. We've also talked to some of your neighbors as well as your colleagues in the office. As for the money in the paper bag, you emptied your savings just the day before that fateful night. You weren't intending to spend all that money on yourself, were you?"

     I detected only a very subtle change in his bearing but he kept his eyes on the table. I was seated across him, barely two meters away.

     "Perhaps, you'd like to take this opportunity to tell me what happened?"

     I knew by then I wouldn't be able to get him to talk. But I had to give him a chance. He didn't take it.

     "No? Very well. Maybe I could tell you what happened?"

     The only response I got was a slight movement of his eyebrows. I couldn't say if that was an expression of agreement, bewilderment or surprise.

     "You left the office at about five-thirty," I said. "Your colleagues say it was the first time you did that in months, maybe even years. You wanted to get home early, but then your car broke down along Henderson Road, near the intersection. You had to call the towing service and it took them some time to get to you."

     I stood up and leaned forward a bit towards him.

     "With your car towed, you took a cab instead. Now I don't know why you just didn't leave your car..." I began to pace the room.

     "Anyway, you managed to call the funeral services to say you were going to be home late. It's just that you didn't expect your mother to be home. You expected her to be well on her way to China but instead you found her lying on the floor when you arrived. You never expected her to be dead. "

     The big man in front of me was once again sobbing like a child, and like the first time, it took a while to compose himself.

     "The guys who made the delivery were already on their way to you doorstep when you called the funeral service. They never got the instructions to wait for you because they left their service phone in their car. Your mother just arrived from the airport and was changing her clothes when they knocked, so she yelled to let themselves in. Coming out of her room, she must have been shocked to see the coffin in her living room, enough to give herself a heart attack."

     I paused to watch Pok Teh's reaction. By now he had covered his face with his hands and was shaking his head continually.

     "You bought the coffin over a month ago, soon after you've bought the flight ticket for your mother. But you inquired about the coffin three weeks earlier than that. It must have taken you some time to persuade her to go take a vacation in China. But things didn't go as you've planned. Your mother's flight was canceled. Then your car broke down."

     I took the bottle of Valium tablets and placed it on the table. It made a bang that was louder than I intended. Pok Teh looked up.

     "The coffin was really never for your mother was it?"

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