The Poet Who Locked Himself In
by Anne van Doorn
Translated from the Dutch by Josh Pachter
Robbie Corbijn was looking haggard. There were bags beneath his eyes, and his sunken cheeks were deathly pale. I’d been working for his Leiden firm—Research & Discover, Cold Cases Our Specialty—for almost three months. During that time, Robbie had shared his files on a dozen unsolved cases with me, and we’d cleared up exactly none of them. This was why he was suffering.
That late-February morning, I stepped into the office we shared and found him at his desk, immersed in his work. I picked up a sheet of paper that had drifted to the carpet. It was an e-mail from a man who wanted to consult Research & Discover about his father’s death. According to the police, he wrote, the old man had committed suicide, but our potential client refused to believe it. His father would never have killed himself. Would it be possible for him to talk with us?
“Did you make an appointment?” I asked, holding up the printout.
“As if I haven’t got enough on my plate,” muttered Robbie.
“Maybe you should see him. Once you’ve dealt with this new case, you can go back to the old ones with a fresh outlook. And if it’s too much for you, I’ll take it on.”
Robbie eyed me, his eyebrows raised. “You, Lowina?” A smile flitted across his tired face. “You’ve barely begun your training, and you haven’t got your P.I. license yet. But you really think you can handle a case on your own? Fine, I’ll call him and make an appointment, and you can read through the file. But don’t expect too much.”
“What do you mean?”
“When I was still a cop, I investigated a number of apparent suicides. In almost every case, it turned out they were suicides, but the next of kin had trouble believing it. Suicide generally comes as a major shock. Friends and family members are left with guilt feelings and unanswerable questions. This is probably the same sort of situation. Our would-be client would be better off consulting a psychologist.”
* * *
That very afternoon, we made the acquaintance of Cornelis Meijer. He was about thirty years old, stocky, with a full head of unruly brown hair. When we were all seated, he informed us that he was a carpenter and lived in Amsterdam. His father had also lived in the city, until his second marriage.
“My stepmother has a huge house in the Veluwe, a villa that must have cost at least a million euros. When they got married, my father moved in with her. That was seven years ago.” The carpenter shook his head sadly. “Biggest mistake of his life.”
“Why is that?” asked Robbie.
“He had no business getting married again, certainly not to her,” said Cornelis Meijer. “She wasn’t his type. She’s upper class, with enough money to live the good life. She’s got a summer house on the French Riviera, what else do you need to know? He was nothing more than a companion for her, someone to take her arm and parade around the village, accompany her to museums. But my father wasn’t that kind of a man. He had only one great love in his life: poetry.”
This last word was pronounced matter-of-factly. The carpenter’s voice revealed no hint of pride in his father’s passion.
“He made a living writing poems?” asked Robbie.
Cornelis Meijer shook his head again. “Which is why he remarried after my mother’s death. She was the one who made the money, and the one who raised me. When my father found himself alone, nine years ago, he was able to survive for a while on what she left him. When the money ran out, he married Rosalinde, my stepmother.”
They met, Meijer told us, at a poetry reading in Amsterdam. Rosalinde was enchanted by one of his father’s poems, and especially by the way he read it. They married before really getting to know each other. And things soon turned sour between them.
“My father was an irascible man, which is why he preferred to be alone, so as to avoid any possible conflict. Rosalinde is the complete opposite. She thrives on being surrounded by a circle of like-minded girlfriends, all of them just as high-class and vain as herself. She resents never having children of her own to show off, and thought she could make up for it by taking a poet for a spouse. They had company every day, received a hundred phone calls a week. The situation got a little better five years ago, when my father built himself a retreat—a writer’s shed—in the woods. That’s where he died, but it was almost four months before his body was discovered.”
Cornelis Meijer nodded. “In the middle of October, my stepmother left to spend the winter in her house in the south of France. My father stayed behind in The Netherlands. The police aren’t sure exactly when he died, but it had to have been late October or early November. By the time they found him, his body was badly decomposed.”
“How horrible,” I said.
The carpenter gazed at me. “It was the worst news I ever received,” he agreed, his expression sorrowful. “I blame myself. We didn’t talk much after his second marriage, partly because I’m busy with work and have a family of my own. To tell the truth, our only contact was the Christmas cards we exchanged every year—plus the occasional Facebook post.”
“And you believe your father was murdered?” asked Robbie.
“He had to have been. When I didn’t get the usual card in December, I should have checked in on him. Then we would have found his body sooner.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I thought he was with her, with Rosalinde, on the Riviera. She’d spend five or six months there, every fall and winter, and he’d generally join her for a couple of weeks in December and January. Last September, she went to France as usual, and she claims she had no contact with him for all those months. She called, she said, several times, but he never picked up. I think she knew full well he was dead. I think she had something to do with it—if not directly then indirectly.”
“Pure necessity,” said Cornelis Meijer. “She couldn’t divorce him. Thanks to Holland’s community-property laws, she would have had to give up half her wealth. And her money was the only reason they stayed together, all those years. My father was financially dependent on her. She deposited a monthly allowance into his bank account, and that’s what he lived on. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he divorced her as soon as he was eligible for Social Security, since their relationship had long since gone sour.”
“How did your father die?”
“He was shot.”
“In his shed?”
Our visitor nodded. “I think he was at his desk, working, when someone came in, overpowered him, pressed the barrel of his hunting rifle beneath his chin, and pulled the trigger. But too much time went by for there to be any evidence. If I’d only tried to contact him—I can’t stop blaming myself!”
“The hunting rifle belonged to your father?”
“He used it to scare away varmints,” Cornelis Meijer explained, “so he wouldn’t be disturbed at his work. Rosalinde’s property extends back into the woods, there’s no fence or other barrier. So he always kept the rifle handy.”
“Did you ever visit your father in the Veluwe?” asked Robbie.
“Once, three years ago. Rosalinde was in France; otherwise I wouldn’t have gone. I still remember our goodbye. The last I saw of him, he was walking up the narrow path that led out to the shed. He went in and closed the door. That was the last time I ever saw him. Three years later, he died behind that same door.” Meijer sighed deeply. “If only he’d never married that stuck-up woman!”
He handed over a thin file folder and left with Robbie Corbijn’s promise that we would go to the Veluwe the next day. The folder contained no photographs of the scene of Meijer’s father’s death and no forensic report. Apparently such evidence hadn’t been thought necessary. The old man’s death was so simple, such an obvious suicide, that I couldn’t see any possibility of satisfying our client. Would this indeed turn out to be one of those cases where a survivor can’t live with the thought that his loved one has killed himself?
The police report stated that they had been contacted on Saturday, February 13, by Albert Meijer’s elderly neighbor. She had herself received a telephone call from Rosalinde Meijer-van Henegouwen, who had made several unsuccessful attempts to reach her husband by phone from the Riviera. Although the elderly lady was not on good terms with the eccentric Albert Meijer, she agreed to check in on him, to make sure that all was well.
When she arrived at the villa, the front door was locked, but the back door stood open. She followed the path out into the woods and found the shed, whose door was closed and locked. She was certain that something must be terribly wrong, since an awful smell hung in the air. She knocked on the door and called Meijer’s name. There was no response. Peering through the only window, she made a gruesome discovery: Meijer’s decomposing body lay stretched out on the shed’s concrete floor.
Looking through the same window, the officers who responded to the neighbor’s call could see why the shed door wouldn’t open: It was barred shut from the inside. The window was also locked, so they forced the door. The medical examiner determined that the cause of death was wounds inflicted by a load of buckshot. The weapon, a double-barrelled shotgun, lay beside the corpse, and the dead man’s index finger still rested on the trigger. The gun held one live shell in firing position and one expended but unejected cartridge. The coroner found gunpowder residue on the remains of Meijer’s hand. The conclusion was inevitable: The poet had fired the fatal shot himself.
There was no doubt that it was suicide. The officers made two discoveries in the shed that underlined this conclusion: a postcard and a bank statement, both thumbtacked to the wall. The postcard had come from France and was signed by Rosalinde Meijer. On it, she had told her husband that she no longer loved him, and that there was no reason for him to join her in France. The bank statement was for Meijer’s account, and it showed a negative balance. Each of these items provided evidence of a motive for suicide.
The case, therefore, had been closed.
In my mind, however, there were two noteworthy points left unexplained.
First was the date of the apparent suicide. The investigating officers had found advertising circulars in the mailbox outside the villa. The oldest of these had been delivered on October 29. This led the officers to conclude that Meijer had killed himself on that date, or shortly before it. But this conclusion was contradicted by the statement given by the elderly neighbor. She stubbornly insisted that Meijer was alive at least through the end of the first week of November. She acknowledged that she couldn’t actually see him from her property, but she had heard him cutting wood with his chain saw, as he did every autumn. The reason she was so certain of the date was that November 5 was her birthday, and she had been annoyed by the noise of the saw, which had continued over the next several days. At the end of October, a storm had caused considerable damage in the woods, and Meijer was apparently cutting up the many fallen trees for firewood. But why, then, hadn’t he emptied his mailbox after October 29? The neighbor had answered that question by pointing out that Albert Meijer was a bit of a hermit, uninterested in the world beyond his domain.
The second noteworthy point was contained in the statement Rosalinde Meijer-van Henegouwen had given to the police. She had reacted with surprise when the investigating detective told her that her husband had barred his shed’s only door. As far as she knew, there was no bar on that door.
When I finished paging through the file, Robbie asked me what conclusion I had drawn.
“Suicide,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
“What else could it be?” I said, shrugging. “I don’t think there’s any reason for us to go to the Veluwe tomorrow.” I explained about the barred door and the gunpowder residue on the dead man’s hand. “Albert Meijer shot himself. His son can’t accept that reality, which is why he came to us. Perhaps it’s partly because he blames himself for not taking more of an interest in his father.”
“Guilt feelings, then.” Robbie smiled. “I wonder . . .”
“Well, what do you think?”
“I think he’s feeling angry, not guilty. He didn’t get along with his stepmother. And Rosalinde didn’t call him when she couldn’t get a response from her husband—that speaks volumes about their relationship. Rosalinde doesn’t have children of her own. Cornelis Meijer hoped he’d eventually become the sole heir to the villa in the Veluwe and the second house on the Riviera. Thanks to his father’s suicide, though, Rosalinde can now remarry, and he can forget any prospect of an inheritance. The person who profits most from a verdict of suicide would be Rosalinde. So I wonder . . .”
“Why did she wait so long before asking the neighbor to take a look? Was their marriage that damaged? Imagine for a moment that she did have something to do with his death. In that case, she knew he was lying there in his writer’s shed. It would have been in her interest to make sure his decomposing body was found before she returned from France, so that she wouldn’t have to ‘discover’ it herself. That would have underlined her complete innocence. If we go to the Veluwe tomorrow, I’ll be especially interested in that barred door, which you find so conclusive.”
Copyright © 2019. The Poet Who Locked Himself In by Anne van Doorn