A Sam Smith Mystery
I feared for my client’s chair whenever Manny Fry walked into my office. As usual, Manny was sweating profusely, as usual his corpulent face glowed like a beacon and as usual the buttons on his tweed waistcoat threatened to pop as they strained against his plump belly. Manny was a solicitor, the principal partner in Fry, Gouldman and Fletcher, and although he threatened to demolish my client’s chair every time he entered my office, Manny made me smile because his presence usually meant business.
“Ah, Samantha, my dear, I do believe that these chairs of yours are becoming smaller with my every visit.”
Carefully, with his arms outstretched to maintain his balance, Manny eased himself on to the chair. Warily, while pushing myself forward on to my toes, I peered over my desk at the slender legs of the chair. They creaked and they groaned, but they held, sound and secure. Manny had landed and we could begin.
“Ah, my dear, you are looking lovelier than ever…long, auburn hair that shimmers like the finest gossamer, dark brown eyes that hint at a private melancholy, yet dance with life and vitality when amused, a rash of freckles that speak of mischief and a figure that would compel a monk to renounce his vows. Ah, if only I was twenty years younger and, I will say it before you do, twenty stone lighter!”
I smiled and tried not to blush, no easy task when you have an aversion to receiving compliments, a character flaw that went back to my childhood and my upbringing with my alcoholic mother.
“I think I have something for you.” Manny wrestled with his briefcase, eventually removing a manila folder. “Amanda Forbes, aged forty-two, separated from her husband, Anthony Forbes. The couple have a daughter, Emma, nineteen. Amanda is now living with her paramour, Gethin, an ex-commando who, by all accounts is as tough as nails in masculine company, but is as soft as a marshmallow when with the ladies. It is alleged that one week ago Amanda sought a permanent separation from her estranged husband, Anthony, and murdered him.”
“She pushed him into a lagoon at Marston Quarry; you know the disused limestone quarry just north of the city.”
“None. It was dark, around midnight. Anthony was meandering home from the golf club, drunk, when the alleged crime took place.”
I picked up a pen and a notebook and scribbled some notes. “Maybe he fell into the lagoon, under the influence,” I suggested while tapping my pen against my bottom lip.
“That might serve as our defence, although evidence at the scene of the alleged crime – fibres, a broken button, soil disturbance – hint at violence and a struggle.”
“And the finger points at Anthony’s ex, Amanda?”
Manny nodded, flapping his flabby jowls. “The couple are well known to the police and have often been overheard, arguing.”
“And that’s enough to arrest her?”
“Their arguments usually ended in violence.” Manny dropped the manila folder on to my desk, scattering papers from my current case, an investigation into the theft of fur coats from an upmarket department store. As I tidied the papers, Manny arched a questioning eyebrow. “Will you take the case?”
The mystery of the disappearing fur coats had been solved – the deputy-manager did it – so I was available. “Usual rate,” I smiled, “plus a bonus if I uncover the truth?”
“My dear Samantha,” Manny groaned, “you will have me impoverished and out on the street.” He chuckled, his hands supporting his sides, as though fearful that his belly would land at his feet. Through his mirth, he added, “But I’m sure we could release a few pennies from the tea trolley fund, should you uncover the truth.”
* * *
I read Manny’s file, detailing the case against Amanda Forbes, then I made tracks to the local prison, to interview the lady herself.
I found Amanda sitting in an austere room beside an austere Formica table. A female warder accompanied us. Needless to say, her expression bordered on the austere.
The room was drab and plain, but Amanda was smart and attractive. Her dark hair was cut short and neatly brushed, her hazel eyes hinted at intelligence while her calm demeanour spoke of someone possessing an even temperament. Instantly, I liked her, though I was mindful of the fact that in nine out of ten cases while working for Manny Fry the accused had done the dirty deed.
“I’m Sam.” I smiled as I smoothed my skirt and sat opposite Amanda at the Formica table. “I’m a private detective, working for Manny Fry.”
Amanda glanced up at me. She nodded, acknowledging my presence, then she cast her eyes down to her hands, which were resting together on the scarred surface of the table.
I continued, “The charge sheet says you murdered your husband.” “Tony, my ex-husband,” Amanda corrected. “We separated.” “You were overheard, arguing.”
“Tony and I always argued.” Her tone was flat, her eyes bright with unshed tears. “Why did you argue?”
“Because Tony was violent; he used to beat me. He used to look at me, black and blue, and say ‘what happened to you?’ And I’d say, ‘you beat me again’ and he’d deny it. Then he’d fly into a rage and accuse me of trying to blacken his name, of having affairs and then he’d beat me again and the whole cycle would continue.” Amanda closed her eyes and a silent tear trickled down her right cheek. “Of course, this usually happened when he was drunk.”
“How long did this go on for?” “Nearly twenty years. Then I left him.” “Why did you stay so long?”
“Pride; I didn’t want to show my friends and family that I was a failure. And I guess I reckoned that I deserved the beatings, that the bad feeling in our marriage was all my fault. And when he wasn’t being a bastard Tony could be so charming…”
Amanda opened her tearful eyes and stared at me. I was in the room, but my mind had wandered to Dan, my ex, and four years of relentless beatings. Like Amanda, I’d suffered at the hands of a violent husband, though fortunately I managed to get out of the marriage after those four painful years.
Despite a censorious frown from the female warder, I reached across the table and placed a hand over Amanda’s fingers. “Don’t worry,” I smiled encouragingly, “I’ll get to the truth. I’ll get you out of here.”
Manny’s file revealed that Anthony Forbes had a mistress, Julia Lyall. Her address was supplied so I called on Julia and found her sitting in her garden, under a parasol, drinking from a tall, iced glass. Like Amanda, Julia was a smart, attractive woman, though with blue eyes and dyed blonde hair. Anthony obviously liked women of a certain type because Amanda and Julia were of a similar build; slim, yet curvaceous.
I introduced myself to Julia and asked forgiveness for the intrusion, then I stated my business. “I’d like to ask you some questions about Anthony Forbes’ murder. I believe the two of you were close?”
Julia gave me a frosty stare from behind her iced glass of orange juice. If looks could kill, I’d be pushing up the daisies. “I’ve already talked to the police.”
I nodded and smiled patiently. As much as I liked Amanda, I disliked Julia. I’d being doing this job for five years and when I interviewed people they tended to give off a certain vibe. Quite often, it wasn’t what they said, but what they didn’t say, or their body language, or the evasive looks that invited you to read between the lines.
I asked, “Do you have an alibi for last Saturday night?”
Julia scowled. She placed her glass on a low garden table. Then she adjusted her parasol, casting her face in shadow. “Why would I need an alibi, I didn’t kill Anthony, that bitch of an ex-wife murdered him.”
“You don’t like Amanda,” I concluded.
Julia picked up a straw sunhat from the garden table. She placed the hat on her head, shielding her eyes. “I’m not saying anything. Now get out of my garden; leave my house.”
I stood my ground. I took no pleasure from annoying people, but over the years I’d learned how to gauge their hostility and level of threat. I wasn’t going to make it on to Julia’s Christmas card list; equally I judged that she wouldn’t chase me off her premises with her garden rake, just yet. Before that happened, I reckoned that I had time for at least three more questions. I asked question one, “Did you love Tony?”
“Anthony, you mean. Sort of.” Julia shrugged, a gesture of feigned indifference. “We got on well, most of the time.”
“And at other times?”
Julia’s scowl intensified. She narrowed her eyes, then leaned forward and glanced towards her garden rake. “You’re a right snoop, aren’t you?”
“I’m only looking for the truth,” I replied defensively.
Julia stared at the rake. At first, her features were hard and ugly, but then they softened as she eased herself back into her garden chair. Her straw sunhat shielded her face and eyes, so it was difficult to judge what she was thinking. However, when she spoke a few moments later, her tone was more reflective. “Anthony used me. He said he loved me, then I discovered that he had another woman in Grangetown. He was two-timing me, and I resented that.”
“You were jealous?”
She nodded slowly, her gaze lost among the flowerbeds. “I guess so.” “And in a fit of jealousy you killed him?”
Julia turned to face me. She reached for a pair of sunglasses, but not even the sunglasses, her straw hat or the parasol could hide the tears as they trickled down her cheeks. “I loved Anthony. I didn’t kill him. Even though I admitted to the police that I haven’t got an alibi, you won’t pin the blame on me.”
I read through Manny’s notes again and discovered that Anthony Forbes was a non-swimmer, that he had enough alcohol in him to intoxicate an elephant and that he was dragged from the lagoon amidst a tangle of flotsam and jetsam. With those facts in mind, I decided that it was time to visit the scene of the crime.
When I arrived at the disused quarry I discovered that the murder scene had been secured and cordoned off with police tape. I wandered around the perimeter of the scene, to no great effect. The sun was hot, the ground was hard and my feet ached. I sat on a large limestone bolder and removed my trainers. As I shook fragments of stone from my trainers a man approached. He was in the autumn of his years, white- whiskered, dishevelled and dirty. Despite the heat, he wore a dusty raincoat, which clashed somewhat with the flip-flops on his feet.
“Hello,” I smiled pleasantly, “I’m Sam.”
“Mr Caruthers, at your service, ma’am,” the old man replied, bowing and removing an imaginary hat. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“You got a first name, Mr Caruthers?”
“Charles.” He offered me a toothless grin. “But you can call me Charlie.”
I eased my feet into my trainers then followed Charlie as he wandered between the limestone boulders, his rheumy eyes fixed on the ground. “Do you come here often, Charlie?”
He stooped, picked a stone from the ground, studied it, decided it was of no value, then tossed it carelessly over his shoulder. “I nose around, looking for bits of scrap.”
“Do you find much scrap?”
He nodded. “People are always throwing things into the lagoon.” “Including other people?”
Charlie gave me a toothless, mischievous grin. “Like I told the police, I wouldn’t know about that.”
I followed Charlie through the quarry and discovered that he had an interest in fossils, which he found embedded in the limestone. He offered to show me his collection, so I kept pace with him, until we arrived at a tin shack, a foreman’s office that had once served the quarry, and now acted as Charlie’s humble abode.
“Would ma’am like a cup of tea?” Charlie asked as we entered the shack. I smiled and shook my head, “Sorry, Charlie, I drink coffee.”
“Oh, shame.” He frowned, clearly mortified, and I felt as though I’d stepped on a child’s favourite toy. “Still,” he brightened, reaching for a kettle, “more for Charles.”
Charlie brewed himself a cup of tea on a fire made from kindling. He poured the hot water on to an emancipated teabag that had obviously done yeomen service over many infusions. He supped from his metal cup and sighed with contentment.
“Did you see a man fall into the lagoon on Saturday night?” I asked while studying Charlie’s fossil collection. The collection was varied and impressive with an impression of a dinosaur tooth from a Zanclodon Cambrensis being the outstanding example.
Charlie hid his face behind his metal mug. He shook his head and scowled. “Charles doesn’t want to get involved.”
I thought on my feet. Despite the grime and the fact that I didn’t like tea, I would have to ingratiate myself to him. I smiled, “Maybe I would like a cup of tea after all.”
Charlie danced around like a child on Christmas morning. From a wooden shelf, he found a second metal mug, washed it with boiled water then made a weak, insipid brew. He handed the mug to me and I sipped cautiously, as though anticipating hemlock. “What happened on Saturday night?” I asked, my lips hovering over the steaming mug.
“She pushed him into the lagoon, didn’t she.” “Who? Describe her.”
Charlie offered a description of a smart, attractive woman, a description specific in some details, yet vague enough to match Amanda and Julia.
“Did you see her face?” I asked.
“Nah.” He shook his head. “It was too dark.”
“What happened before she pushed him into the lagoon?”
“There was a bit of a kerfuffle, pushing and shoving, an argument.” “Did the man or woman say anything specific?”
“Yeah.” Charlie’s hirsute face brightened, his skin shining red, contrasting with the thorny white of his whiskers. “She said, ‘goodbye, Tony’.”
I frowned while my stomach did a backward flip, a reaction that had nothing to do with Charlie’s tea. “Those were her exact words?”
“Exact words.” Charlie placed three fingers to his forehead then gave me a sharp salute. “Scouts honour.” “Did she say anything else?”
“Nah, that’s all. Just ‘goodbye, Tony’.”
I stared down to the ground, my thoughts lost in the dust that covered the floorboards.
Inching forward, Charlie sensed my distress. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Don’t you like my tea?” “Nothing wrong with your tea, Charlie.” I glanced up and gave him a wan smile. “It’s your words I’m finding hard to swallow.”
* * *
After chatting with Charlie, I knew who had pushed Anthony Forbes into the lagoon. That knowledge did little to lighten my mood and the motive still troubled me. I knew from my own experience that victims of domestic violence are just that, victims, they are not aggressors, though of course some women reach the edge and do fight back. I sensed that Amanda had reached the edge a long time ago and she had decided not to fight back. Instead, she had removed herself from the abusive relationship and created a new life with a loving partner. She had no reason to resort to violence, no motive to push Anthony into the lagoon. Then I read through Manny’s notes again, before calling on Emma, Amanda’s daughter, and with Emma, I found the answer. Back at the austere interview room with the austere female warder and a pensive Amanda Forbes, I asked, “Why did you do it?”
Amanda stared at the Formica table, the stark, bare, overhead light bulb creating a halo on her gleaming dark hair. “I told you,” she mumbled, “he used to beat me.”
“Why didn’t you report him to the police?”
“I did, but nothing happened. The police, social services, Uncle Tom Cobley and all, no one wanted to get involved. After all, it was ‘only’ domestic violence, something we had to sort out between us. It was just me and him, me and his fists.”
“What happened, the night you pushed him into the lagoon?”
Amanda stared at the table. Gently, her shoulders started to shake and, silently, she began to cry.
“He phoned from the golf club, drunk and abusive. He wanted to see me alone, but I’m with Gethin now, so I told him that that would not be possible. Then he said he’d go and visit Emma instead…”
Amanda glanced over to me. Her eyes shone with recognition and understanding; instinctively, she knew that I’d been to visit her daughter; she knew that I’d seen the bruises on her face.
“Because he couldn’t get at me, he’d taken to beating my daughter. I guess I just snapped; I couldn’t bear the thought of my daughter enduring what I’d endured. I knew he’d take the short-cut through the quarry, so I relented and said that I would meet him after all. I didn’t go there with murder in my mind; I went there to confront him, to tell him to leave Emma alone. We argued, of course, I said ‘goodbye, Tony’, there was some pushing and shoving and in he went.” Amanda sniffed in a vain attempt to hold back her tears. Then she continued, “I’m sorry if I disappoint you. I’m sorry I’m not the saint you thought I was. But what can you do when someone starts beating your daughter? What can you do when no one will listen, when no one cares? I’m not proud of myself, in fact I feel downright guilty, but I was desperate. Surely you can understand that.”
I’d been there myself, so I was not a disinterested party. In fact, I was biased, firmly on Amanda’s side. Was she guilty or innocent, a villain or a victim? I guess that’s for you to decide.
Story Copyright © 2014 Hannah Howe. All rights reserved.
Hannah Howe, author of the Sam Smith and Ann’s War Mysteries, and Saving Grace, a Victorian mystery based on a true story.
Contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org – Website: https://hannah-howe.com