Authors: Michael Joseph
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Private Investigators, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Murder, #Thrillers, #Pulp
Geoffrey Compton put his hand on the smooth metal and watched the tail-lights of the taxi disappear around the bend.
He heard a noise nearby.
Ignoring it, he pushed open the wrought-iron gate and shuffled up the path.
Another sound. A soft shoe scraping the pavement. Getting closer.
Geoffrey hastily took out his key and opened the front door. Tiredness overwhelmed him. He was looking forward to his bed. Wearily, he stepped into his hallway.
Suddenly, a push in the back sent him lurching forwards. He threw out a flailing arm to steady himself, but it was too late. He was falling. The tiled floor rushed up at him, and his head struck it with a thud. His world started to darken. Shouting and footsteps sounded in the distance.
Then everything went black.
Sam Carlisle released the tennis ball and watched it fly through the air. It glanced off the ceiling, struck the adjoining wall and arrowed back towards him at speed. Nonchalantly, he threw out an arm and spread his fingers. The ball landed in his palm with a satisfactory slap. He pulled his arm back and prepared to throw again.
'Are you making that racket up there, Sam?'
Sam grinned, pushed his chair back and pulled open one of the desk drawers. He casually dropped the ball inside and shut the drawer. Footsteps were coming up the stairs.
'The door's unlocked, Moira! Just let yourself in!'
Seconds later, Sam's front door swung open and a large woman appeared carrying two mugs of steaming tea.
'Have I ever told you that you sound like my mother, Moira?'
Moira Kennedy placed the drinks down on Sam's desk.
'Plenty of times, Sam,' she smiled. 'But somebody's got to keep an eye on you, haven't they?'
Sam grinned back at her. Moira was a bubbly character, somewhere in her mid-fifties, with rosy cheeks, sparkling eyes and a permanent smile on her face. Moira was also a shameless extrovert. Today, her dyed blonde hair was piled high in an outrageous beehive. She was wearing a long, flowing dress adorned with dazzling yellow and orange print, huge hooped earrings that accompanied her regular array of brightly-coloured necklaces, bracelets and brooches, and enough perfume to overwhelm the strongest of noses. Sam thought of her as an eccentric but loveable aunt.
'I take it business is slow this morning?' he asked.
Moira owned the flower shop downstairs and sometimes popped up for a chat when it was quiet. She also owned the flat Sam lived in, making her his landlady.
'Yeah, typical start to the week,' she shrugged. 'Anyway, how was your weekend? Did any work come your way?'
Sam sighed as he picked up one of the mugs.
'Not a sausage,' he replied. 'I'm just glad of the work you and Archie push my way. I'd be struggling otherwise.'
Moira reached across and patted him gently on the arm.
'Something will turn up, Sam,' she insisted. 'Mark my words, and when it does, the work will come flooding in.'
Sam grimaced despite Moira's optimism. He had moved to Newgate, situated on the East Anglian coast, nine months ago, having chosen the bustling seaside town as his new home for no other reason than it was somewhere he didn't know. The intention was to start again after the upheaval of the last few years. He spent the first few nights sleeping in his car, parked down by the beach, passing the evenings away in the nearby Barton Arms pub. That was where he got his first break. The landlord, Archie, offered him some shifts behind the bar, and Sam quickly settled in to the job, enjoying the hectic work of serving thirsty tourists. Days later, Moira came in and mentioned she was looking for a tenant for her empty flat. With Archie vouching for him, Sam moved in the next day, glad for a proper roof over his head again. Since then, he regularly topped up his earnings from the Barton by doing deliveries for Moira. However, as grateful as Sam was to both Moira and Archie, he quickly realised he wanted more out of life. That was when he decided to start up his own business.
'Why don't you sort out your office while it's quiet?' suggested Moira, sipping her tea. 'Or catch up on some paperwork?'
Sam gazed around the sparse room. It was little more than a box room, complete with threadbare carpet and dated wallpaper. An old wooden desk, two high-backed chairs and a rickety filing cabinet were the only items of furniture in it. On the desk was an engraved nameplate. A good-luck present from Moira.
Sam Carlisle. Private Investigation.
It had made sense to put his experience in the police force to good use. Moira had been typically positive about the idea, helping Sam transform the spare bedroom into a makeshift office, finding him the cheapest places to print business cards and advertise his new venture.
'I might well have a sort out, Moira,' replied Sam, knowing very well he wouldn't.
He wasn't an office-type person, having acquired the cheap furniture to humour Moira more than out of any real need. Anyway, there hadn't been enough cases to generate substantial paperwork. The last time he looked, the filing cabinet held several sheets of paper, a few paper clips and the odd cobweb. The desk drawers contained even less. Business had been slow from the start. Newgate appeared to be awash with missing pets, cheating husbands and little else, causing Sam to doubt his choice of location for such a venture. He never refused these assignments, but hunting down lost moggies and errant partners was slowly losing its appeal.
Just then the phone on his desk sprang into life. Moria let out a tiny gasp of excitement, knowing the land-line was used solely for business calls. Sam rolled his eyes good-naturedly at her as he put the phone to his mouth.
'Hello. Sam Carlisle.'
The voice on the other end was crisp and eloquent.
'Ah, Mr Carlisle. My name is Benjamin Compton. I was wondering if you might be able to help me...'
'I'll certainly try, Mr Compton,' said Sam, extracting a notepad and pen from his drawer. 'What can I do for you?'
Silence. Sam could hear shallow breathing down the line. Benjamin Compton was trying to decide how to proceed. Or even if he should. Sam readied himself for another sorry tale of infidelity.
'My father passed away recently, Mr Carlisle. The cause of death was suicide.'
'You don't sound convinced?' remarked Sam, tapping his pen lightly on the pad.
Hesitation again. Sam waited patiently, curiosity rising within him.
'I'm not, Mr Carlisle. I strongly believe my father's death was suspicious, and I would like you to investigate it.'
The buzzer shook Sam out of his daydream. He stood up, walked over to the wall and pressed a button on the intercom.
'Push the door, Mr Compton. I'll be waiting at the top of the stairs.'
Sam went over to the window and pulled the blind down partially, blocking out the intense late-afternoon sunshine flooding his office. Then he made his way to the front door of his flat and waited, listening to heavy footsteps steadily ascend the stairs. Moments later, Benjamin Compton appeared, looking slightly flush in the face. He halted at the top, hands on hips, catching his breath.
'Too old for stairs now,' he grimaced. 'That's why I live in a bungalow.'
Sam smiled back at him.
'Well, come on through and take a seat. Would you like a drink?'
'No, thank you all the same. I would rather get straight down to business.'
That suited Sam fine. He led his visitor into his office, where the two men took a chair either side of the desk. As Benjamin Compton squeezed into his seat and surveyed the spartan room and its meagre furnishings, Sam quickly studied him.
His guest was a large man, both in size and presence. Well over six feet tall, his solid frame, broad shoulders and large hands gave him the physique of a former boxer. About sixty years old, he was clean-shaven, with a full head of grey hair and clear blue eyes sat deep within a serious face. He was dressed in a smart dark-blue suit and tie, despite the sweltering July heat. Italian leather shoes and an exquisite gold wristwatch suggested a certain amount of wealth. Sam found himself intrigued by his visitor. A man confident in manner and appearance, exuding an undeniable air of authority.
'So, where shall we start, Mr Carlisle? With all due respect, I'm not accustomed to dealing with a man of your profession.'
Sam smiled. Their telephone conversation had been brief. Sam had explained he preferred they discuss matters face-to-face.
'Very few people are, Mr Compton. How about we start by dropping the formalities? Call me Sam. Please.'
His visitor failed to hide a look of bemusement. Sam knew what he was dealing with here. A man accustomed to a particularly formal way of life. He wondered what Benjamin Compton's story was. Ex-army? Former public schoolboy?
'Very well, er, Sam. In that case, I suppose you should call me Benjamin.'
Sam smiled again. Benjamin was a concession, at least.
'Okay, Benjamin. You can start by telling me the circumstances surrounding your father's death.'
Benjamin Compton sighed and looked down at his hands. When he raised his head again, there was uncertainty in his eyes.
'My father, Geoffrey Compton, passed away last week. He was eighty-seven years old. He was found at home, in his armchair, by a neighbour. A bottle of whisky and his anti-rheumatic tablets were by his side. The post-mortem stated he overdosed on the tablets and alcohol.'
Benjamin's bottom lip quivered.
'Take your time,' urged Sam, leaning forward in his chair. 'This can't be easy.'
Benjamin swallowed hard.
'Thank-you, Mr Carlisle. Sam. That's very kind of you. Where was I? Oh, yes, now I am not doubting my father
swallowed the tablets and washed them down of his own accord, but I do believe there is more to it. My father was not the type of man to take his own life. Something drove him to it. I'm sure of it.'
Sam nodded thoughtfully. Having spent most of his adult life in the police force, he had seen and heard just about everything. In all that time, he couldn't recall ever hearing words spoken with such conviction.
'Okay, Benjamin. Let's hear your reasoning.'
'My father was a strong man who did not suffer fools. I suppose he was typical of his time. Proud, hard-working, reluctant to show affection.'
Sam nodded. A different world back then. Different attitudes.
'He fought in the Second World War but never spoke of it. He spent his entire working life down a coal mine without ever complaining. Many years ago, he was injured down the mine. It left him with a permanent limp, but he never moaned about that, either. My father was a fighter, as tough as they come. To him, suicide would have been a soft way out.'
'How bad was his limp?' asked Sam.
'Manageable,' replied Benjamin. 'It slowed his walking down. He also had a touch of arthritis in the leg, but the tablets relieved the pain.'
'And his general health?'
'Good. He rarely visited a doctor.'
'What about his mental state?'
'He was still as sharp as a tack. He would have been fully aware of what he was doing when he took those tablets.'
'Was there anything troubling him?'
Benjamin shook his head.
'No. My father didn't let anything get him down. Not even when he was attacked last year.'
Sam raised his eyebrows.
'He was on his way home from Newgate Ex-Servicemen's Club one night when someone assaulted him on his doorstep. Fortunately, a passer-by disturbed the attacker, who ran off. My father spent a week in hospital with bruising. He was lucky to get away so lightly considering his age.'
'Did the police arrest anyone?' asked Sam.
'No,' replied Benjamin. 'The culprit was never caught. The police presumed it was an attempted robbery. The person waited for my father to get out of his taxi, then pounced on him as he opened his front door.'
'How did it affect your father?'
'It didn't. He was back down the club a week after his release from hospital. He used to say his nights down there were his last bit of independence, and he wasn't going to give them up for anything.'
A sad smile played on Benjamin's lips.
'How did he manage at home?' asked Sam. 'Was he able to look after himself?'
Benjamin nodded vigorously.
'He refused to discuss going into a care home. He got by with visits from carers and home help. They did his shopping and cleaning. The next-door neighbours would pop in and check on him, as did some of his friends.'
Benjamin paused. He looked down at the carpet, lost in thought.
'I tried to call round as often as I could, but it was difficult. I'm away a lot...working.'
'What do you do for a living, Benjamin?' asked Sam, eager to find out more about the man opposite him.
Benjamin perked up slightly.
'I'm a university lecturer,' he replied. 'Physics and chemistry. I also do a lot of public speaking. That's where I was the night my father passed away, attending a conference in London.'
'What about other family?'
'My mother died ten years ago. My brother lives with his wife in Scotland. They have three grown-up children and several grand-children up there.'
Benjamin looked at him blankly.
'Have you ever married?'
'No.' The reply was curt and serious. 'My work is all I need.'
Sam found the reaction interesting. Benjamin Compton was possibly the most highly-strung man he had ever met.
The two men talked some more. Benjamin insisted his father's mental state had been normal prior to his death. The two men had talked over the phone only hours before Geoffrey was found slumped in his chair. Nothing in the old man's voice had suggested a troubled mind. He wasn't lonely. He had no financial problems. No enemies Benjamin knew about.
Sam offered some unsavoury theories. Was it possible someone had stood over Geoffrey and persuaded him to swallow the pills and alcohol? Benjamin was openly hostile to the suggestion, making it clear his father would not have allowed himself to be humiliated in such a way. What if the tablets and whisky had been physically forced down Geoffrey's throat? Again, Benjamin was indignant, expressing the belief his father would have fought bitterly for his life. Anyway, the post-mortem report declared no struggle had taken place. No bruising had been found on the skin. No cuts or contusions.
Sam agreed to look into it. It was too early to form an opinion, but he wondered if Benjamin Compton was simply unable to accept the sad reality his father had grown tired of life and ended it by his own hand.