Nothing Illegal

by Stephen Looi

 

Mrs Dalton heard the gunshot at around 10.50 pm, just as she was watching the late evening news. She had no doubt it was a gunshot, in fact she instinctively knew it was a shot gun - no peashooter that. It came from the direction of her neighbour's house, the Vilanovichs'. She had immediately rung the police.

Sergeant Kiley knew Mrs Dalton well. The police force depended on people like her to be 'eyes and ears' for them. No errant driver or suspicious stranger in her neighbourhood had gone unreported. Although in her eighties, Mrs Dalton was a pretty sharp lady, and she had been around guns before. In her younger days she was reputed to be a great shot and often accompanied her husband (now deceased) on his many hunting trips. So when she said she had heard a gunshot, you had better believe it.

Sergeant Kiley quickly alerted the armed offenders squad. He did not know the Vilanovichs. At best, someone may have let off a round at a dog rummaging through the rubbish, but with gunshots it always paid to expect the worst. What Sergeant Kiley was not prepared for was the scene that awaited him and the squad when they burst into the house after getting no response to their calls.

Nick Vilanovich had shot himself. He had put the gun barrel in his mouth, the way Sergeant Kiley had seen it done in the movies - only in the movies it usually involved a handgun. Nick Vilanovich had sat on his bed, with the gun butt on the floor. He had tied a string around the trigger, looped it around the trigger guard and quite simply, pulled the string.

Nick Vilanovich left behind two suicide notes: one to his wife who at the time was visiting their daughter in Melbourne, the other addressed to a Pastor G Graham. It did not take Sergeant Kiley long to track down the pastor. The content of the letter pretty much laid the cause of the suicide on the good reverend.

Pastor Graham Graham's father had a curious sense of humour, as evidenced by the naming of his son. Later in life Pastor Graham had got around the problem of his name by calling himself G Graham. He was just grateful - particularly when he decided to become a pastor - that his father had not named him Billy.

Few parents realise the impact names have on their children. Perhaps because of the teasing that Pastor Graham had had to endure when he was a kid, he had become a very agreeable, some would say weak, sort of fellow.

He stared at the copy of the suicide note on his table. He had persuaded Sergeant Kiley to let him make a copy. The meeting with the sergeant itself had been formal and frosty. Pastor Graham cooperated, as he usually did with anyone, to the fullest. The meeting had lasted 40 minutes and he had called the church's finance committee chairman the moment Sergeant Kiley left his office.

As he stared at the piece of paper he wondered how events over the last six months could have spun so out of control.

 

Pastor Graham knew Nick Vilanovich well. Nick was the owner and sole proprietor of Vilanovich Builders. Pastor Graham had first met Nick eight years ago when Nick did a small roof repair job for the church. He had found Nick's prices to be reasonable, and Nick to be someone whom he could depend on to get the job done without too much hassle. Since then, he had always turned to Nick for any maintenance work the church needed.

Six months ago, when the church received approval from the local council to go ahead and build a new car park and a kindergarten on the empty lot next door, Pastor Graham had naturally turned to Nick. Nick had been in financial difficulty for some time - he was a better builder than a business man. The timing and size of the new project was a much needed break for him.

Pastor Graham had assumed the Finance Committee would leave him to deal with contractors as was the case in the past. But he had not counted on the Finance Committee's new chairman - Jonathan Cashmore.

Jonathan Cashmore worked as a finance manager in the city and was co-opted onto the Finance Committee because of the financial and modern business expertise he could bring to the committee. When the last Finance Committee chairman retired after having finalised plans for the new development, the remaining committee members were quite relieved that Jonathan had volunteered to take over.

 

As he walked into Pastor Graham's office Jonathan was surprised how frail the pastor looked. He had been quite emotional over the phone. Jonathan had considered the matter a minor irritant that could easily be dealt with. If there was one lesson he had learnt in his years in business management it was that you can - and should - bend and stretch the rules as much as possible, but never break them. He was sure the church had not broken any law.

Pastor Graham jumped to his feet the moment he saw Jonathan and handed him the note, "Look at this!"

Jonathan glanced at it for a second and said, "As I told you on the phone, we have done nothing illegal, and you should not be worried about this."

"Yes, Jon, but morally, we are as guilty as . . ." his voice trailed off.

Jonathan disliked being called Jon. The three-syllabled Jonathan had a distinguished ring to it, but under the circumstances he let it pass. With deliberate patience he said, "We have been through this many times before, Graham. We have an obligation to our fellow brothers in Christ. We did not have a contract with Nick. We gave the contract to Christian businessmen who quoted us a good price and on top of that pledged to tithe ten percent of their earnings to the church".

"Yes, but I gave Nick my word. He had already started work. He invested in materials and manpower based on my word!" The pastor was getting all worked up again, thought Jonathan.

"But we paid him for the work he had already done." Jonathan frowned, then continued, "Look, which is more important? Your word, or our obligations to our Christian brothers? Christ himself spent his last few moments on earth praying for unity amongst Christians. That should tell you how important it is. We are a minority in this country. We have to love and look out for each other, because nobody else will. The Bible says this is how people will recognise us as Christians." Jonathan could see himself now, up at the pulpit, pacing, expounding Christian unity.

Pastor Graham sighed and slumped deep into his chair, looking more frail than ever. It dawned on him that he and Jonathan were on completely different wavelengths. Jonathan was simply incapable of grasping the reasons for his distress.

 

For a long long while after the incident, Mrs Dalton continued telling the Vilanovich story to anyone who would listen. Each time she told it with a little more relish and with a little more embellishment.

For the first time in his 19 years with the force, Sergeant Kiley needed post-trauma counselling. For almost three months, all he could see every time he closed his eyes was the scene as they burst into Nick's bedroom. He often wondered aloud whether there should not be a law to prosecute those who caused the death of others though they may not actually pull the trigger.

Mrs Vilanovich fell ill soon after her husband's death and passed away. Her daughter returned from Melbourne to sell her parents' house, but the money was hardly enough to cover their debts as the house was already heavily mortgaged.

Pastor Graham took early retirement and left the church altogether. It was rumoured that he joined some obscure organisation to work amongst the poor in South America.

Jonathan Cashmore held the position of chairman of the Finance Committee for a second term. He declined a third when he was elected chairman of the Board of Elders.

 

Stephen and Sarah Looi interrupted their studies after two years at BCNZ, to return to Singapore to join OMF. They have three children, a girl, the eldest, and two boys - the younger of whom still hold ambitions to be the first Chinese All Black.


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