Thanks to a noisy toilet, Benny Cooperman is pulled into a new case—when he learns that his janitor’s elderly girlfriend has died of hunger—despite having plenty of money. The question is why she couldn’t get access to it, and Benny will find himself investigating a lot of unsavory characters to find out, in a novel by an Arthur Ellis Award winner “who can bring a character to life in a few lines” (Ruth Rendell).
“Benny Cooperman, the low-key Grantham, Ontario, private eye who has as little success shushing his Jewish mother as getting Kogan, the janitor of his building, to fix the leaky hall toilet, agrees to a trade: If Kogan will deal with the plumbing, Benny will plumb the death of his pal Lizzy Oldridge, who died of starvation . . . Benny’s a charmer.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Benny Cooperman is one of the most enjoyable private eyes in crime fiction.” —The Toronto Star
There Was an Old Woman is the eighth book in the Benny Cooperman Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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There was an Old Woman
A Benny Cooperman Mystery
By Howard Engel
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Howard Engel
All rights reserved.
As I went up the twenty-eight steps to my second-floor office, I heard, as usual, the sound of the running toilet. I swallowed a curse as I came to the top of the stairs and went into the washroom to jiggle the flush handle. It was a slight mechanical adjustment, but it meant the world to my sanity. The tank began to fill and I closed the door behind me. What angered me about the sound of the running water was the fact that it announced to me and to the world in general that Kogan, the caretaker, that little man of little work, was goofing off again. Kogan hated work.
When I first met him a few years ago, he was panhandling along St Andrew Street. His favourite stand was the stretch between the Diana Sweets Restaurant and the bank at the corner of Queen Street on the north side. As a panhandler, Kogan could really indulge his sense of independence. You never saw him downtown on a nice day. I imagined him off fishing or having a sunbath on a picnic table in Montecello Park. I speculated that he might be a secret millionaire, who simply pretended to be destitute for his own amusement. He certainly seemed to be a student of human nature. He knew just what to say to each of his customers to make them part with more than just a few quarters. During the cold months I'd come into the office in the mornings and find him rolled up in a corner in Frank Bushmill's Globe and Mail. Sometimes he'd pick the washroom, which made do for both sexes, where he would be lullabied to oblivion by the bubbling waters in the ancient plumbing. Kogan was an old rummy, but he had character written in every leathery line of his face. In his third- or fourth-hand blazer and gray flannels, he looked almost dapper.
Kogan stopped being a fixture on the streets and began working at 220½ St Andrew Street when Frank Bushmill, the chiropodist, and I convinced our landlady, Mrs Onischuk, that she needed someone to take out the garbage and sweep up the offices. I think we both had the sense that we were going out on a limb in recommending him and we both lived to regret it. It was one of those good deeds that dribbles stale beer on you instead of getting you a gold star in heaven. Not only was Kogan a hopeless caretaker who neglected the garbage and failed to sweep out the offices, but he quickly became a favourite of Mrs Onischuk, for whom he could do no wrong. When I complained that his empty bottles were turning up in my waste-paper baskets or that his lunch was sometimes left in my files, Mrs Onischuk laughed at Kogan's devilment and thought less of me for complaining. Frank told me that Kogan had become fond of the Black Bush that he kept among his medical records. What broke Frank's heart was that it was all one with Kogan whether he was drinking fine old Irish whiskey or nail-polish remover.
The bubbling noise of the filling toilet diminished to the sound of a spring freshet as I unlocked the office door and kicked off my rubbers under the hat stand. Outside it was a wet December morning, but mild enough for the time of year. I looked around. My framed licence to practise as a private investigator was still hanging crookedly behind my chair. The file drawers were closed to hide their emptiness and the desk was cluttered by the mess I had abandoned yesterday at closing time.
With the toilet finally silent, I could settle down to what, from the other side of the desk, might pass for work. I paid a few bills, wrote a cheque for the renewal of my licence, and finished a report to my one and only client, whose cat had allegedly been poisoned by a jealous neighbour. Once the paperwork was under control, I rubber-tipped my teeth the way the dentist keeps telling me I should. (God forbid I shouldn't go to my grave with a full set of teeth!) When I had once more stolen a march on plaque build-up, I made a couple of phonecalls. From one I learned that the cat had been killed with a herbicide. I added that information to the report and put it into an envelope for the "Out" basket.
It was about twenty after ten, just when I was thinking of going out for a coffee at the Di, when there was a knock at the door. It was Kogan. He opened the door, but he didn't make a move to cross the threshold. He stood there, holding a mop, as though that would fool anyone who knew him.
"You busy, Mr Cooperman?" he said.
In spite of what I've already said, I should say that I liked Kogan. He had a way about him that made him his own man. Even in the old days when he was panhandling, I always got a kick when he accepted the change I passed along to him. He didn't take money from everyone. He prized his independence at a higher price than a looney or a couple of quarters. His way of life was a criticism of everything a would-be taxpayer like me stood for. He didn't own anything and he didn't want to. His only possession, his only treasure, was his discharge pin from the Canadian army. That made him at the very youngest at least seventy. I remember him telling me about heavy fighting at Carpiquet Airport near Caen in Normandy. Maybe he felt that having risked his life there, he was all paid-up in the work department from then on. Certainly, he had always made me feel as though he had been doing me a favour when he took on his caretaking responsibilities.
"Come in, Kogan. I want to talk to you!"
I gave him hell for the way he had been letting the garbage accumulate, the way he had all but abandoned my carpet. From his fixed stand by the door, he nodded. There was no sign of dumb insolence as he shifted his weight from one leg to the other. He stood his ground and took my criticism patiently. I left the toilet for last. It was the clincher, the single item that would make him see into his very soul. Again he nodded agreement. I told him that the time had come for him to make up his mind about whether he wanted the job or whether he would prefer to return to St Andrew Street. He stood there, mute, like an old print I'd seen in a book in the library: the teacher scolding the lazy scholar. When I'd finished, he looked up again and said:
"I'm sorry, Mr Cooperman. Sorry. You see, it's my girlfriend —"
"You shouldn't let that interfere with your work, Kogan." I was warming to the role; I could almost imagine Kogan as the lazy student. And yet somewhere I had the notion that he was setting me up. The way he stood there nodding told me he was holding his completed assignment or at least a handful of aces.
"Sorry," he repeated.
"No excuses!" I said, knowing that my comeuppance was only a word away.
"She's dead," he said. "My girl-friend died and I had to look after all the arrangements. She not having any family at all."
"Kogan," I said, feeling like the father who has just shot the faithful family dog that turns out to have been defending his child from the marauding wolf now dead beneath the bloody bedclothes. "Why didn't you say something?" I don't know why I asked. It wouldn't have been Kogan if he'd told me straight out.
"You never asked. I was going to wear a black armband, but I haven't had a minute. What with the police and all."
"Police? What have the police to do with it?"
"I called them. She shouldn't have died, Mr Cooperman. Liz had a few more good years in her. Even if her mind was going."
"Kogan, why don't you leave that smelly mop out there in the hall and come in and sit down?" He slowly came into the office and took a chair in front of my desk. He left the mop leaning against the door frame, but the smell followed him. "Now start at the beginning," I said, popping a cough candy into my mouth. "Tell me about it. The whole story."
He sat there collecting his thoughts and pinching the non-existent creases in his trousers. At last he looked at me. "Lizzy Oldridge and me go back a long way," he said. "Our parents were friends before the war. I call her my girl-friend, but it's just that she needed somebody and she didn't have family ..." Kogan wiped his nose on his sleeve, forgetting the buttons there were designed to prevent that useful service. "She'd been poorly for some time and needed somebody to do for her." I said a silent prayer, hoping that Lizzy had fared better than Frank Bushmill and me.
"I'd bring over something to eat and sometimes she'd let me in."
"Why were the cops involved?"
"I told you! I called them. Lizzy starved to death as sure as I'm sitting here. She had lots of money in the bank, but she couldn't get at it. They wouldn't let her have a cent of her own money to buy a litre of milk with. When she was so weak she couldn't get up, I went to the bank and begged them! But they wouldn't give me a brass thumbtack. Then they got an injunction so I couldn't even go near her house without getting arrested."
"Did you have power of attorney, Kogan? They couldn't legally let you touch her money."
"Yeah? Well, when she was well enough, they wouldn't let her touch it either. How do you like them apples?"
"Had she been certified incompetent or something? There has to be an explanation."
"That's why they're holding an inquest into her death right now over at the new court-house. I just come from there."
"Well, they'll get to the bottom of it. If there's been a slip-up, the coroner will discover it and we'll read all about it in the paper tomorrow or Monday."
"I guess," Kogan said.
"There's no way, Kogan, that an old woman can starve to death in Grantham. We've got all sorts of social agencies: municipal, provincial, federal. There has to be a better explanation than what you've just told me."
"I guess," Kogan said.
"You've been over there all morning?" Kogan nodded and added that he'd been there for the opening session the day before. He began to look twice as hopeless as I'd ever seen him. I forgot that he had a black belt in manipulation. "Maybe I'll wander over there after lunch to see what's going on," I said.
"I was hoping you'd say that, Mr Cooperman, but it may be all over by then. I'd get right on it if I were you." Feeling he had perhaps overplayed his hand, he added, "Which of course I'm not."
"I'll take a look, Kogan. They don't usually rise until one. I've got lots of time."
"You understand I'm not in a position to hire you, Mr Cooperman? I'd like to, but I'm a poor man."
"Get lost, Kogan. I'll talk to you when I get back."
"You ain't going to bill me for this afterwards?"
"Kogan, go fix the toilet! Please fix the toilet!"
"You know the way some of these sharp operators work: you think you've won a trip for two to Paris, France, and you end up with a subscription to a dozen magazines." I handed him a bent coat-hanger, which was as close to a set of plumbing tools as I had handy.
"You do your job, Kogan, and I'll do mine. You'll hear nothing about Paris from me."
He took the wire and gave me a grin. We had an understanding. Or at least I thought we had one, which, as I reflected later, wasn't the same thing at all. I know that he hadn't yet emptied his bag of tricks. Kogan, when his blood is up, is quite a manager. I only hope he didn't suspect how little I had in my office to occupy my time.
Kogan moved off, forgetting to take the mop with him. I didn't follow to see whether he was now restoring the plumbing to its rightful use. Let the public library serenade the literate and illiterate alike with the soothing sounds of bubbling fountains; a washroom should have more practical ambitions.CHAPTER 2
The new court-house replaced the parking lot that had replaced the old Carnegie Library at the corner of James and Church. We all hated to see the library go, but we had to admit that the new one, across the street next to the police station, was bigger and better. But the old court-house hadn't done so well. It had been turned into a shelter for a bunch of boutiques and cafés serving Italian coffee. It wasn't a fair ending for a building that had heard the dread sentence of death pronounced in its courtrooms. The selling of candles that smell like soap and soap that smells of sandalwood tends to trivialize a structure that is approaching its hundred and fiftieth year in the public service. How do you put a building out to stud?
Courtroom D was an L-shaped room with pews running down to face the coroner from one direction and, at right angles, to face the jury from another. A piece of dark railing, probably rescued from the old building, formed the bar that separated those with business for the court from the rest of us. There were microphones attached to the coroner's high bench and others to pickup what the witnesses and lawyers had to say. The provincial flag hung limply to the left of the coroner, Dr Geoffrey Chisholm, a man with steel grey hair and a gnarled red nose. Behind him, the wall was decorated with oak battens of wood running from floor to ceiling at two-inch intervals. Between these, the orange wall reminded you that this was the new court-house not the old one.
I moved into a back seat, beside a bailiff I knew, and listened. My neighbour Jimmy Dodds leaned over and identified the witness. "That's Thurleigh Ramsden," he said, looking up at me to see if that meant anything. It did, but the bell was so faint, I couldn't identify the sound. Jimmy read my face and supplied a few missing facts. "Lawyer," he said. "Ran for mayor three years ago. Stands to the right of the Tories." I nodded my thanks and began to tune in on the proceedings.
Ramsden was being questioned by Jack Webley, a lawyer I'd seen in action before, about the finances of Lizzy Oldridge. From his answers, I got the impression that Ramsden wanted to show that he had kept his distance from the affairs of Kogan's friend. His answers were brief and vague, as though he had important business awaiting him outside the courtroom. He kept trying to score social points with the coroner.
"She was, ah, not sartorially in the same class with Dr Chisholm, for example," he said with a smile directed at the bench.
"She was a sloppy dresser?" Webley asked.
"She was a poor dresser. Personal hygiene was never one of her strong points." Webley, who was wearing a polyester shirt, looked like he wanted to move on, but we both caught another attempt to get a smile from the coroner.
"How did you come to have joint signing authority over her accounts at the Upper Canadian Bank?" Ramsden let a slow smile reveal his large, beaver-like front teeth. He sucked in air, and seemed to expand. His small eyes looked like they were about to be popped from the stretched skin of his face. His wispy moustache waved as he exhaled.
"I don't know where you got that idea. I never had any authority over any of her bank accounts."
"Yes, but she kept the bulk of her money in her safety deposit box. You had joint signing authority there, didn't you?"
"Yes, but her bank accounts were her own business."
"Do you know how much was in her savings account?"
"I have no idea. I have a great many things pressing upon my attention. I don't pretend to know everything."
"Would you be surprised to learn that Miss Oldridge had less than ten dollars in her accounts?"
"If you say so, I suppose I'll have to take your word."
"How did you become the executor of Miss Oldridge's estate?"
"Quite simply: she asked me."
"Under what circumstances?"
"It was after a meeting of a society I founded, the Guild of the Venerable Bede. Miss Oldridge was a member, a member of long standing, if I remember aright. She used to sing the national anthem at our meetings. When she was younger, she had a remarkably beautiful voice."
"And she took me aside and asked if I would act as executor in the will she was having drawn up."
"You were one executor among several?"
"No, young man, Miss Oldridge trusted me. I was the sole executor."
"You weren't by any chance her lawyer too, were you?" Webley asked in what appeared to be an offhand way.
"No, sir, I was not!" Ramsden shot back. The coroner frowned at Webley, but did nothing with the gavel he was holding.
Ramsden was sweating under his black-and-white striped shirt. You could see his undershirt through the damp fabric. His blue blazer with a yacht club crest made him look quite the confident man about town.
"Was it at that time that she asked you to enter into an agreement whereby it took both of your signatures to gain access to her safety deposit box?"
Excerpted from There was an Old Woman by Howard Engel. Copyright © 1993 Howard Engel. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I would have to agree the solution to the story is too muddled. The original crime goes unexplained. Benny is as comfortable as an old shoe but the story lacks the spark of some of Engel's earlier Cooperman novels.
Any legal contract requires consideration on the part of both parties. Ontario private investigator Benny Cooperman gets the maintenance person to fix his toilet while that same janitor Kogan gets the detective to attend the inquest into the death of his girl friend, wealthy Lizzy Oldridge. Apparently, she starved to death. Benny is shocked to learn that though Lizzy was rich, she could not use her own money because her executor Thurstan Ramsden had set up a trust fund that gave him full and sole power. Her estate left everything to a charity coincidentally headed up by Thurstan. As Benny continues with his inquiries, he is also hired (for cash) to investigate TV reporter Catherine Bracken, but murder follows that case. THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN starts off as the best Benny Cooperman tale to date, but loses steam when the Bracken investigation veers the popular Canadian sleuth into an unnecessary subplot. Fans of the series will still fully enjoy Benny¿s antics and talent to somehow get in trouble. Kogan is a great secondary character; the deceased Lizzy comes across as a real person in retrospect; and Thurstan is engaging in very disgusting way; just hide your wallet. With what is probably going to become the most famous toilet since the one in Archie¿s place, the main story line is charming, fun and entertaining. Just flush the secondary story line for full pleasure. Harriet Klausner