- Published: 2 July 2021
- ISBN: 9781761042959
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 304
- RRP: $34.99
The Coffin Confessor
It’s your funeral
It was a perfect day for a funeral. A bright summer morning on the Gold Coast. In a few hours the heat and humidity would skyrocket, baking the steepled roof until the chapel was oven hot. But for now the weather was on the side of the mourners, who shuffled into the church to pay their respects to the deceased. The men wore simple black suits, the women tasteful knee-length dresses in muted tones, with the occasional splash of colour.
I filed in along with them, sombre, head bowed respectfully while we took our seats, chairs scraping and shoes squeaking.
The ceremony opened with a few words from the priest, a hymn, and then a big fellow seated in the pews stood up and slowly made his way to the lectern. There, he stood for a moment, shuffling the papers he’d prepared for the eulogy. He introduced himself as John, the best friend of Graham, the deceased, and welcomed us to his farewell. They’d all known and loved Graham, and they’d all miss him.
John was a big guy – the silver-haired, red-faced Queensland farmer type used to getting his own way. The sort of man who wore a big, easy smile on his face as he made his way through the world. But his mouth turned down as he cast a sad look towards the coffin that held his best friend in the whole world, Graham Anderson.
John stared off into the chapel mournfully, took a deep breath, then began to speak. The crowd listened respectfully as he delivered his opening words. His voice echoed through the chapel, over the sound of gentle weeping from some of the mourners. It was a beautiful scene, a Hollywood-perfect opening to a funeral service.
After exactly two minutes had passed, as arranged, I stood, tugged my suit vest down to neaten it, and cleared my throat. I reached into my vest pocket to retrieve a letter.
‘Excuse me, but I’m going to need you to sit down, shut up, or fuck off. The man in the box has a few things to say.’
Every eye in the room turned to me. The priest’s jaw hit the floor. He didn’t know what was happening – he was in shock, by the looks of things. But my attention was focused on John. He was the one I had come to confront, and I kept an eye on the would-be eulogist while reading from the letter, which Graham had given me.
By the way the colour drained from John’s face, I could tell he knew what this was about. He was shit-scared. As well he should have been.
I’ll explain why in a moment, but first we’ll have to go back in time a few months, back to when I first met Graham, the man lying in the coffin. He’d hired me as a private investigator.
Being a private investigator – or PI if you’re short on time – is pretty much what it says on the tin: my clients hire me to investigate things that someone else would prefer to remain private. If you believe the way we’re portrayed in the books, films and the media, you’d think most of that work is following cheating spouses around with a telephoto lens camera. And you’d be right.
A huge percentage of PI work is just men and women who have grown suspicious of their significant other and want someone to bring them evidence that confirms that suspicion. There are whole agencies dedicated to this line of work. They’ll hang around and stalk your spouse until they can bring you the unhappy proof that they are running around on you.
That was never my forte, nor was it something I particularly enjoyed doing. The way I see it, if you’re so suspicious of your partner that you’re prepared to hire a PI, then I can guarantee your marriage has problems. I’ll save you some cash by telling you what you already know: they’re screwing around, and you’d be better off hiring a marriage counsellor than a PI.
Apart from infidelity, nearly every other job involves looking into some kind of commercial problem for the client. Theft, fraud, blackmail. In the end, most PI work comes down to money. Love and money – the only two things that get your average person worked up enough to call a PI.
Graham’s case involved a little of both. He first engaged me in early 2016 to investigate his finances. A farmer in his mid-sixties, Graham was a self-made man. But he’d recently fallen ill, and had been unable to keep up with the workload of managing his business. He had a suspicion that, while he was laid low, his accountant was taking advantage of his reduced faculties. He’d noticed a little money going missing here and there, and things weren’t quite adding up; he had a gut feeling that someone was ripping him off.
Graham reached out to me because I have certain skills in that area, but I couldn’t take the job straight away because I was flat out with other work. But Graham wanted my skill-set in particular, and he was happy to wait.
When I was finally available to investigate properly, about half a year later, I worked out what was going on fairly quickly. Money was being funnelled from his accounts, and I was able to figure out by whom. With enough pressure applied to the accountants in question, the money was returned and the case was closed. Graham considered it a good result.
Sadly, that’s where the good news ended for Graham. He was in worse health than he’d let on, and at the conclusion of my investigation, as we were wrapping up, he disclosed that he was terminally ill. He’d been happy to wait the six months it took for me to take the case on because he thought he had plenty of time. That turned out not to be the case.
‘I thought I had longer than this,’ he told me, as I sat by the bed he could no longer leave. ‘But I suppose everyone thinks that. You get told you’ve got just a few months to live and you think, Oh yeah, whatever, I feel great, I’m going to live for years. I didn’t know it was all going to go this fast.’
Our conversation led to matters of mortality – death, the afterlife. Graham wasn’t really afraid of dying, but he was curious about what happens to us after we close our eyes that final time.
‘I don’t have any idea what’ll go on after I’m gone, or where I’m going to end up, but wouldn’t it be nice to know?’
‘Well, let me know once you find out,’ I said. ‘Send some sign from the other side. Let me know if you enjoyed your funeral.’
He shook his head. ‘I don’t reckon I will. I already know I’m going to hate my funeral.’
Graham told me that he didn’t think much of most of the funerals he’d been to. He was always surprised and disappointed, because he’d expect to see a true reflection of his loved one in the memorial service – the things that made them unique, that people loved them for. The good and the bad. Instead, he got a sanitised, watered-down picture of some kind of saint, delivered by a priest that nine out of ten times didn’t know the deceased from a bar of soap. He’d even had friends who had recorded their own video eulogies, only for their message to be considered inappropriate for some reason, and the service instead ran a slideshow of photos from their life.
Graham mentioned that he’d like to write his own eulogy. He’d fill it with the things that really mattered to him, leaving the world in a way that he felt actually represented the way he’d lived.
‘Why don’t you do that?’ I said. ‘Film a video and get them to run it at the service.’
‘I know they would never run it. Someone would decide it was too confronting for my family and friends, and they’d be afraid of insulting those left behind. There’s no point.’
‘I could always do it for you,’ I joked. ‘Crash your funeral and deliver the eulogy that you really want.’
We had a laugh about it, shook hands, and said goodbye. I didn’t give it another thought.
But a few weeks later I received a call from Graham.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ he said down the line. ‘I’m going to take you up on that offer.’
‘I want you to crash my funeral. Interrupt the service and read out the message I’m going to write for you.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘Dead serious. And I’m going to pay you ten grand to do it.’
Fuck me, I thought. ‘That’s a lot of money.’
‘There’s a lot I want to say. You see, there’s something I want revealed at my funeral. My best mate, John, is insisting on giving the eulogy.’
‘So? What’s wrong with that?’
‘He’s also trying to screw my wife.’
It turned out that Graham had an important bit of personal business to settle before he could rest in peace. John, his best mate of many years, had been trying to crack on to his wife.
In fact, pretty much from the moment Graham got ill, old mate John had been secretly trying to get into Mrs Graham’s pants. Even though she hated the bloke! She wanted nothing to do with him, and hadn’t approved of the friendship for years. But for months now, John had been cornering her in her home, trying to kiss her, patting her on the bum, putting the hard word on her. At first she didn’t tell Graham, because she didn’t want to upset him, but in the end she didn’t know what else to do about it.
But once she told him, Graham didn’t know what to do about it either. He was your typical country bloke – in his younger years, he had been a very hard man, doing what he needed to in order to get by in the world. There’s a certain kind of man, particularly from that place and time, who is used to settling things with fists, and has no skills in verbal confrontation. Graham had worked hard, paid his way, done all the right things in life. But now here he was, sick and dying, unable to deal with this betrayal directly.
Even if he did confront old mate John, Graham knew his friend wouldn’t give a shit – harassing your dying friend’s wife isn’t the action of a man who feels shame.
So Graham wanted me to interrupt the service at his funeral, where John had already volunteered to do the eulogy, and put him to rights in front of all the people they knew, something Graham didn’t have the strength to do anymore.
‘I feel weak,’ he confessed. ‘I hate it, being so helpless. I’m ashamed that I can’t do anything about it.’
He felt awful about what he could see going on, and I did too. It was obscene for a man on his deathbed to be watching someone he’d trusted sexually harassing his wife, unable to intervene. Graham clearly loved his wife with all his heart – it was quite cool, to see this hard man not afraid to have a soft side – but it also meant that what his mate was doing really hurt him.
I thought to myself, if my mate did that to me, I’d be gutted. Imagine being called upon to defend your family and you’re too sick to do it – you can’t move, you can’t act. It’s just a shocking dilemma. That’s probably why I refuse to have close friends.
Anyway, that’s what convinced me to take the job. Graham’s situation really got to me. Certain events in my own life have given me sympathy for anyone who finds themself helpless and at the mercy of those they thought they could trust.
‘You’re on,’ I told Graham. ‘Fuck that guy. I’ll crash your funeral service and tell him how it’s going to be.’
‘Do you think that’s out of line?’
‘It’s up to you,’ I said. ‘It’s your funeral.’
While my instinct was to help a dying man out, at the same time I couldn’t just take Graham’s word for it. I needed proof.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a PI, it’s that there are three sides to every story: yours, theirs and the truth. Experience has taught me not to trust anyone or anything until I have evidence – and there’s always a way to get that.
With Graham’s permission, I set up a hidden camera inside his home. That sort of thing is illegal, unless you have the permission of the homeowner, in which case anything goes. At the start of my career, something like that would have been a huge procedure – installing the cameras, recording everything, retrieving the footage – but spy camera technology is so advanced these days, it makes everything a lot easier.
You can get these tiny little cameras that take up almost no room, and they upload the footage straight to the cloud, so it can be accessed from anywhere. You can have cameras hidden inside stuffed toys to keep an eye on nannies, or cameras hidden inside lipsticks to catch cheating husbands. You can go online and buy a body camera that looks exactly like all the other buttons on your shirt. The moral of the story is: in today’s world, you can never be too paranoid.
Setting up the camera in Graham’s house was straightforward. I used a little camera, not much bigger than a thumbnail, and placed it on his bedhead. That let me see straight down into his hall and into the kitchen and dining area. It was where Graham had advised me to put the camera to get the most footage, and it was essentially the view from his deathbed. I got a front-row seat to everything he saw.
It wasn’t pretty. By the next evening, I had all the proof I needed.
Pretty much the second John thought he was alone with Graham’s wife, he was moving in on her. Patting her behind, trying to kiss her neck. He’d try to grab her in the hallway as she passed and she’d have to push him away. Real sleazy eighties-movie bullshit. He’d spill a drink on his shirt on purpose and then take it off and ask her to wash it for him, and then he’d be standing there flexing his muscles. What a fucking wanker.
One look and I could see from his behaviour that this was not the first time John had tried it on. Like Graham said, this had been going on for months.
I went to Graham with the footage, but it was nothing new to him. That’s why he’d hired me to crash his funeral. The situation was pretty dire. I had no hesitation at all.
Not long after that, Graham passed away. The time from when he first disclosed to me how ill he was and his passing was only a matter of weeks, and it had been just nine days between me agreeing to crash his funeral and Graham drawing his final breath. By then, everything had been settled. My client had made a deathbed request of me, and nothing was going to stop me from following through.
On the day of the funeral, the hardest part was knowing what to wear. Not a lot makes me nervous. I live on the fringes of the Gold Coast, close to both an army base and a tropical rainforest. Depending on the season, I’m dealing with snakes, spiders, cyclones, floods, bushfires. And that’s just at home. As a private investigator, I’m used to all sorts: criminals, cops, drugs addicts, liars, thieves, extortionists. None of it bothers me. For a long time, getting punched in the face was my idea of a good time.
But before Graham’s funeral, I was hugely concerned about picking the right outfit. It seemed pivotal and I got absolutely stuck on it, as though I was a debutante on the way to my first ball. Should I wear black? Black is the colour of mourning, but I wasn’t exactly a mourner. In the end, I decided on a suit without a jacket – trousers, white shirt, tailored vest. It was nice, respectful attire, but without being too over the top.
So, all dressed up, I entered the church, and had one final moment of indecision: where should I sit? Traditionally the pews on the left-hand side of the church are for family, and those on the right are for friends. I wasn’t family, but I wasn’t really a friend, either. I didn’t actually know anybody there.
For my part, I had been trying to fly under the radar, saying nice stuff about Graham when I was spoken to, but not drawing attention to myself. But as I was walking into the church, people came up to me and paid their respects.
‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ they said, or, ‘How did you know Graham?’
I could only give a vague answer. ‘We used to work together.’
Which was true, after all. He’d hired me and I was there to do a job.
In the end, I chose to sit with the family, near enough to the front to do what I had to do.
When John stood up and took to the podium, I identified him easily. He started to give his speech – a hypocritical, dishonest, self-serving recounting of the life of his dead friend. Graham had instructed me to interrupt his best mate’s speech no less than two minutes in, so that was when I got to my feet and made my introduction.
‘Excuse me, but I’m going to need you to sit down, shut up, or fuck off. The man in the box has a few things to say. My name’s Bill Edgar and I’m here on behalf of the deceased, who has a message for you all.’
The church was so quiet that you could hear the rustle of the paper echoing through the corners of the hall. I unfolded Graham’s final message and read aloud.
‘John, it’s Graham Robertson here. I’ve hired Bill to interrupt your eulogy to tell you that I witnessed you, on several occasions, trying to screw my wife. God love her, she rejected every one of your advances. But that doesn’t change the fact that a mate does not do that. Especially when one is lying on his deathbed. I hate you for what you did, and what you were trying to do. My final wish is that you fuck off from here. You’re not welcome at my funeral, and you’re certainly not going to speak on my behalf.’
I looked up from the letter. John had dropped his notes – I heard them fall to the floor in the hushed room. He was gripping the sides of the lectern and his face had turned a really funny colour. He must have been paler than my poor client in the box. That was great to see.
You could tell this turn of events had knocked the wind right out of him, which I wasn’t unhappy about either. The guy had a really punchable face. Imagine Bob Katter without the hat – silver hair, red neck, a really cocky, king-shit-of-a-small-town vibe.
Before I was done, the dude lost his nerve and left, full of shame. A woman, who I assume was old mate’s wife, got up and followed him out. She looked furious.
A few others in the congregation tried to object, telling me to sit down, but I calmly told them the man in the box had more to say.
‘Either you stay and listen to what that is or you too can fuck off,’ I said politely, and kept reading from Graham’s letter.
‘Further, if my brother, his wife and their daughter are here, you can kindly fuck off too. I haven’t seen you in thirty years, and now you show up to pay your respects? You never respected me in life, so why should you respect me now? Where were you when I was alive and could have used you around in the hard times?
‘This funeral is for my loved ones, who I will miss dearly, and for my wife, who I loved until my last breath. I love you still.’
With that, I folded up the letter, put it back in the envelope, and walked up to the casket, where I laid it gently on the wood.
There was still not a sound in the church as I walked back down the aisle, my footsteps ringing out behind me until I reached the double doors.
If the service continued after I left, I don’t know. That wasn’t really my business. I’d kept my promise to my client and delivered on his final wish to dish out some measure of justice to his best mate, who’d revealed his true colours the second Graham was too sick to defend himself.
I was on my way to my car when a young woman called out to me. She caught up with me and introduced herself as Graham’s daughter. She thanked me for what I’d done.
‘Dad would have loved that,’ she said. ‘And Mum loved it too. I’m so happy this happened.’
She told me that her mum had not known what she was going to do about John, especially now that Graham was gone, as he’d kept coming on to her again and again even after she’d let him know he disgusted her. Now that the guy had been shamed in front of his whole community, her mum didn’t think she needed to worry about him ever again. Even better, that community knew she’d knocked him back at every step, and her own reputation was secure.
‘Happy to help,’ I said, and I was.
My whole life up to that point had made me into the kind of bloke who does not give a fuck about what people think of him. There are a few things I do care about: my wife, my kids, and those who can’t look after themselves. After all – if we can’t trust those closest to us, what chance do we have in life?
MY NOVEL TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN was published in October of 2017, and after spending that month on tour for the book, I came home to Indianapolis and blazed a trail between my children’s tree house and the little room where my wife and I often work
I am in the spare room, which doubles as my office, and I have just finished my day’s work.
It’s the middle of the night and I’m huddled over, dragging my dilly bag, which is chock-full with all sorts of goods – jewellery, frozen food, wallets and the like.
When I was a kid, my aspirations were simple. I wanted a dog. I wanted a house that had stairs in it— two floors for one family.