'Close Call' and No Call
This is a story that was published in It Was a Dark & Stormy Book Club on-line newsletter in April 2020.
I follow it with a short piece about a racehorse we are partners in and his recent misadventure at Woodbine!
The woman’s gaudy skirt swirled around her as she scooped up some books and magazines into her arms to make space for me to sit. Millions of dust particles were disturbed and caught in the sun’s rays that forced their way through the dirty windowpane.
Her bare toes brandished long nails with the remnants of colour at their tips. I didn’t get a good look. I didn’t want to stare at her grubby, flaky feet.
This wasn’t an ideal time to meet, she’d told me. The mornings were her best creative hours, when the words flowed and the verses gathered on the paper.
A stone-carving of a toad caught my eye, and she noticed my interest. She explained that she’d been a sculptor once, before it happened. The fact that she made reference to the tragedy, albeit fleeting, gave me an opening.
“As you know, Serena, I represent the private investigator hired by Maurice Bouchard, your son’s paternal grandfather.”
“He’s asked us to look into your partner’s death of a year ago. Maurice’s grandson, your son, Len, has recently been accused of Bert’s murder.”
“This must be difficult for you, but please tell me all you know about what happened. I’ll be recording this conversation.”
She sat on a wooden chair behind a dark table covered in papers. I wondered what she was thinking. Perhaps her recollections of the events surrounding her partner’s death would be clouded by time and distorted by grief. She stood up and threw her hands into the air.
“I won’t tell you what I said before.”
I kept silent and watched as she twirled on the spot, her skirt ballooning out, the papers curling up in the breeze.
“I won’t tell you the lies.”
“I’m here to get the truth,” I said, somewhat bewildered by her behaviour, wondering if the unbearable grief of losing her partner had sent her stark raving mad.
“I’m not mad. I’m just sad. See, the poet can’t help it.”
“Okay, tell me.”
She sat down on the chair again, rested her elbows on some papers and stared at me.
“The only problem is that you won’t believe it.”
“Yeah. Bert told Len he must be home by midnight. But Len drove the Mercedes back at three in the morning and it had a dent in the roof and was covered in mud. You must know all that.”
“They found the Mercedes in the driveway. But I want to hear what you have to say.”
“Now the truth part. Bert was angry. Really mad. I screamed at him to leave Len alone, but he wouldn’t. He lost it.”
“Did he often get angry?”
“Yeah, violent man. Angry man. Hateful. Bert and Len had a punch-up. Bert hit Len so hard that he fell and hit his head on the hall tiles. I screamed. I was half-way down the stairs. Bert picked up my best carving of a bat from the hall table and threw it. It smashed into two pieces as it hit my shoulder, and I fell down the stairs. I couldn’t move for a couple of minutes. Fear, pain, not sure.”
She smiled. “It feels so good to tell someone. I want to tell the truth.”
“Please go on.”
“La, la, la,” she sang.
Her behaviour shook me, and her words befuddled me. Lies and truths were mixed together with some curious drama thrown in—a recipe for deceit.
“I’m not making this up,” she said, looking straight at me through a web of wispy hairs that hung over her face. She had an uncanny way of sensing my skepticism. “Len got up and Bert swung at him again. I threw a piece of the broken carving at Bert and it hit him in the face. He fell backwards and hit his head on the corner of the glass coffee table. Bert was motionless.”
“Was he still breathing?”
“We had large, puffy cushions on the sofas and chairs in there. I scrambled to my feet and took one of them, the soft stripy one, and put it over Bert’s face.”
“They found Bert in the garage.”
“Yeah, yeah. That’s where I hung him up so it’d look like suicide.”
“The reason you’re telling me this now and didn't tell the police earlier…”
“I know you guys will keep digging, so I might as well come clean and save a lot of time and aggravation.”
“Len’s your son by your late husband. Right?”
“Yeah. Yeah. See, I knew you’d be digging.”
“Bert and Len fought, you say. Did Bert ever hurt you?”
“Was there evidence of his physical abuse of you? Did you ever go to the police or a hospital or your doctor?”
“So, your injuries didn’t require medical attention?”
“They did, but I didn’t get it. I couldn’t. Bert would have killed me next time.”
“Did you get checked out that night? Or the next morning?”
“But you must have appeared to be injured. You said you were hit by a sculpture and you fell down the stairs.”
“But Bert had evidence of old injuries, some scars and bruises.”
“He’s a clumsy person. What can I say?”
“I’m not making myself clear. I suspect you were the abuser, not Bert.”
“He’d been admitted to hospital four times in the previous five years. Injuries included a broken wrist, internal bleeding and some cuts and bruises.”
“Always having accidents, that horrid man.” She pushed her chair back, and it scraped the wooden floor with an angry, scratchy sound. She folded her arms in a gesture of defiance, but her frown and her flushed cheeks gave her away.
“I’ve hit on the truth,” I said.
She unfolded her arms.
“You don’t understand.” Her voice was muffled.
“What don’t I understand?”
“Bert was a drunk.” She looked at me with wide eyes. Her voice had regained its sharpness. “He wasn’t too bad when he was sober, but he got drunk every night. Then he would start the ridicule about my carving, demeaning me and my work, making me feel worthless.”
“You got angry.”
“I sure did. I thought I could beat some sense into Bert.”
“But that didn’t work, I assume.”
“Yeah. Bert kept on with his taunts and ridicule.”
“What really happened that night?”
“I’ve already told you. Bert was blind drunk and flaming mad about the car. Bert punched Len and Len punched back. I threw the sculpture at them. It hit Bert, and he fell back onto the tiled floor. I picked up the big, stripy cushion and smothered him. I told Len that he had to help me hang him up in the garage to make it look like suicide or I’d tell the police he was a murderer.”
“So, Len helped you deal with Bert?”
“Yeah. Yeah. I told him he had to. Len helped enough with the lifting so that I could get Bert in the position I wanted him. But that’s all he did. I killed Bert.”
“It's odd there were no fingerprints found on the chair.”
“I was the one that put the chair there. I wiped it clean.”
“Okay. So, you both came back into the house from the garage.”
“Len was a blubbering mess. He mentioned the police.”
“How did you stop him from calling them?”
“I told him it’d be better if we found Bert in the morning, and that I’d call the police then.”
“What did you do next?”
“I helped Len up to bed. I went downstairs and collapsed onto a sofa. I could barely make it. I was so tired after getting Bert up in the noose.”
“What did you do in the morning?”
“The police came, and Len told them he couldn’t remember anything. But I’ve been worried that he might squeal.”
“And tell the police that you murdered Bert? I’ve recorded this conversation and it’ll be in the hands of the police soon.”
“Good? You haven’t told me the truth at all, have you? You’re protecting Len.”
Silence. She hung her head, her chin touching her chest.
“When Len brought the Mercedes back after he’d rolled it,” I said. “Bert lost his temper. There was a fight. Len threw the stone carving. It hit Bert, and he landed on the tiled floor. Death was caused by blows to the head, not suffocation—that’s what the autopsy report stated. The pillow didn’t play a role. Len asked you to help position Bert to look like suicide. You didn’t want to help, but Len said you had to, otherwise he’d tell them you murdered Bert.”
“No.” She stood up. Beads of sweat had emerged on her brow and glistened in the hazy sunshine.
“He threatened you, so you’d handle the rope and the chair.”
“Why would you confess to a murder that you didn’t commit? As I told you, I’m here to get the truth. Len’s grandfather, Maurice, believes Len to be innocent. So, who murdered Bert? It wasn’t you.”
“It wasn’t murder.” Her skirt had drooped, hugging her trembling legs. The truth was hidden in there somewhere.
“The evidence doesn’t support suicide.”
“But it was.”
“It can only be Len.”
“But he’s my son. And he’s innocent.”
“Len tried to protect you from Bert’s abuse. He even fought with him.”
“He didn’t do it.”
“Someone killed Bert. It wasn’t suicide. There were no fingerprints on the chair and Bert wasn’t wearing gloves. And I believe your fingerprints were never on that chair.”
Serena stared down at me. “Len’s innocent.”
“Someone must have killed Bert. If it wasn’t you or Len, who was it?”
She looked at me with watery grey eyes that had sagged at the corners.
“It was Maurice, wasn’t it?
She whipped around and her skirt caught the chair, sending it crashing to the floor.
“They won’t believe you. I did it.”
“No, it’s quite clear that you didn’t.”
“It’s all lies. You made me say things.”
“I haven’t made you say anything, and this recording of our conversation confirms that.”
She lunged towards me. “I’ll take that contraption.” She clawed at my mobile with her long, unkempt nails with their yellowed, jagged tips. But I stood up and dropped my mobile into my jacket pocket. Her steel-grey eyes glared at me with unwavering intensity. Her chest heaved and I could smell her sour breath. She lunged at me again, her hands extended as if she planned to grab my neck. I felt the warmth of her body and anticipated her scratchy nails digging into my skin. But she thrust a hand into my pocket and grabbed my mobile.
I caught her wrists and told her there would be nothing gained in taking the phone, but she yanked her arms free and shoved me with such force that I fell backwards onto the grubby, spongy sofa. I leapt back up onto my feet as she opened the backdoor and started down the concrete steps to the unkempt garden overgrown with thistles. I sprinted across the room and jumped onto the bottom of her skirt as it wafted over the second-from-last step. The skirt ripped at the hem but not enough to give her freedom and just enough to let her fall, face-down, into the prickly weeds.
My mobile landed on the bottom step.
I unwrapped my purple silk scarf from around my neck, pulled her arms behind her back and tied them at the wrists. I picked up my mobile and helped her to sit on the bottom step and sat down next to her on the cold concrete. Thistle seeds danced in the breeze, elusive and unsettled, just like the woman next to me.
“Maurice and I love Len so much,” she said, as tears dropped onto her dry feet.
“Let’s go inside.” I held onto her quivering arm as we stood up and went back into the house. We sat at the paper-strewn table.
“Okay. Tell me what happened.”
“Maurice and I hated the way Bert treated Len. Len was in the hospital many more times than Bert. They had the most awful fights. I tried to intervene. Before you ask, we were doing our best to get Bert out of the house. That place is mine and Len’s, left to us by my late husband, Len’s father. But I can’t face living back there yet. It’s haunted by memories of pain and anguish, of screaming and throwing, of helplessness and sadness. I made a terrible mistake when I let Bert into our lives.”
“He was after the house, wasn’t he?”
“He was after my money. I have quite a lot, although, other than the house, I do my best to hide it. He wanted control over me, and he tried to drive Len out. Maurice was a frequent visitor, and Bert tormented him as well—not so much—but still did. Maurice once said to me he could murder Bert for what he was doing to his family, to us. I didn’t take him seriously, but that night was too much for him.”
“Len did bring the car back in a terrible state.”
“No. He didn’t. And you won’t have worked this out. Bert organized to have the car rolled in a ditch down the road. Len didn’t use the Mercedes that night. He went out with friends, and they picked him up.”
“Bert damaged his own car?”
“It was mine, but Bert drove it. Damaging it was a clever plan to turn me against Len. But I found out what happened. He wanted to divide and conquer us. But the more he tried, the more we clung to one another.”
“Why didn’t you tell the truth about Maurice? And why did Maurice hire us?”
“Because Maurice loves us and did the right thing by getting rid of Bert. He doesn’t deserve to go to prison.”
“Why hire us? The truth would come out.”
“Maurice and I are desperate to save Len, but I didn’t want Maurice to pay the price. I said I didn’t want to go to the police, but I’d talk to a private investigator, and I’d confess to the murder, to save Len and Maurice. It was all my idea.”
“That’s a huge thing to do.”
“Not from where I sit.”
“But now you’ve told me the truth.”
“I want to do this for my son and Maurice. They will be fine without me. Please, please untie me and give me that mobile.”
I almost did it.
It was a close call.
Copyright Vicky Earle 2022
This is a four-year-old thoroughbred racehorse, called Chairman Fox of which we own a small share. (He has the same sire as our homebred racehorse, I'm Dashing: Society's Chairman).
Chairman Fox has had some challenges including bone chips in his knees, some illness and some bad luck.
He's an honest horse with a good disposition. You can probably tell that from this photo.
On Friday, July 15, he was looking good and feeling great. He was ready to race at last.
All the owners were present at Woodbine Racetrack to watch him run. It was a beautiful day and we were optimistic he would do well. We watched the horses load into the gate.
Then the horse next to him got rattled and threw his jockey. This is hard to believe, but the jockey landed on Chairman Fox (so, he had two jockeys!). The jockey got back on the unsettled horse and was thrown again. This happened three times!!!!
I don't blame Chairman Fox for getting a tad annoyed. I couldn't see what happened but I've been told that he reared and sat down in the gate. The vet scratched him from the race. We understand that decision. He could have hurt his back or twisted something. It is better to be cautious.
However, the horse that caused Chairman Fox to be scratched was permitted to race. I probably shouldn't admit it, but I'm glad he didn't win.
In my opinion, there should be a penalty for a horse acting up in the gate to the point that another horse is affected.
(By the way, this isn't the first time this has happened to me and my husband. But that's another story).
Chairman Fox is fine. And the jockeys are fine. No animal or human was hurt. That's the most important thing.
The trainer has taken him into the gate since this incident to try to reassure him that a jockey isn't going to come flying over and land on him again (at least, we hope not).
We hope he'll get a chance to race soon and that this time he'll make it out of the gate! He deserves a fair chance!