Monday, April 23, 2012

Beach Tale: "The Butler Did It" a mini-mystery

          “It’s a classic case of the butler did it,” Jeffery said with conviction.
I suppressed a smile.  This was his first big case.  He had a stack of notes as tall as the Washington Monument that he kept thumbing through, checking facts, reports, statements, etc.  He was tackling this like it was a exercise developed for a first-level evidence class.  I hated to burst his bubble, but real life murder cases rarely come tied up in neat little packages. 
          I, on the other hand, was going on thirty years of street smarts.  I’d spent yesterday pouring over the evidence, trying to make some sort of crazy sense out of it all.  For lack of a better suspect, it did look like the butler had killed his employer, because he was the only other person on the grounds of the estate that evening.  But deep down something just didn’t feel right.  A puzzle piece was missing. 
          “I’m telling you,” I said, “the servant didn’t have any motive.  He may have had means and opportunity, but you’ll never get a case to stick without motive.”  I polished off the dregs of my ice cold coffee and spun around and performed a fade away shot, tossing the Styrofoam cup towards the trash can.  It hit the rim and bounced in. 
          “Two points,” my protégé said, holding his hand up for a high-five.
          I slapped my hand against his. “Days like this I wish I’d stuck with basketball.”  At least in basketball there was closure at the end of every game.  You either won or you lost. Not so in the crime-detecting world.  Sometimes the bad guys got away.
          I hitched my hip on the corner of my metal desk, grabbed a pencil out of my Ohio State University pencil cup and tapped it on the stack of notes.  Like the opening scenes of a scary movie, I allowed the layout of the deceased’s estate to play in my mind. 
The entire compound was surrounded by eight-foot-tall iron fencing, the cares of which were so close together not even an alley cat could squeeze through.  The pool, set down the hill from the main house, was itself surrounded by a five-foot-high adobe wall with a locked gate.  Unauthorized entry would require a ladder or rope to get over it.  And yet Mr. Manfrey, heir to a successful national bakery company, had been found floating in the pool, the obvious victim of foul play.
“Let’s go over this again,” I said with about as much patience as a kindergarten teacher on the last day of school.  “Charles Manfrey had made a presentation of two-point-six million dollars to the Pets are People Too fundraiser at ten o’clock that evening.  Early the next morning, he was found floating face-down in his pool.  Autopysy showed death by a blunt instrument at the base of the skull.”  And that’s the rub…the security cameras didn’t reveal anyone other than Manfrey roaming the property that night.  But the guy sure as heck didn’t clunk himself on the back of the head.  “Estimated time of death?” I asked. 
“Around midnight,” Jeffery answered.  “The exterior security cameras show Mr. Manfrey pushing a beverage cart into the pool area around that time, as if he were maybe expecting to host a small party.  And then he exited the pool area, presumably to greet his guests at the front door.”
“But no more activity is noted?”
          “Correct.  The cameras don’t show activity inside the pool area itself, just the property perimeter and the path between the house and the pool.”
“And nobody came through the front gates and nobody scaled the walls.”
          “Correct.  Cameras within the estate are only on when he’s away from the house.  According to the butler, Mr. Manfrey didn’t like his every movement being watched, so he always killed ‘em the minute he entered the house, only monitoring exterior shots.”
          “Can’t say as how I blame him.  But no signs of a struggle anywhere in the house?”
          “What about the guy who discovered the body--the pool man--what did he have to say for himself?” 
          “Said he found Mr. Manfrey floating in the pool and called 9-1-1 from his cell phone.”
          “What time?”
          “Six thirty a.m.”
          “Wish I had a pool guy who showed up that early in the morning.”
          “You don’t even have a pool.”
          “Wish I had one of those, too.”  That brought a smile to young Jeffrey’s all-too-serious face.
          “Where was the butler?”
          “According to his statement, still in bed. Sunday was his day off.  He has an apartment over the garage, and was roused by the emergency responders.  No alibi, though.” 
          Jeffery was starting to anticipate my questions.  There was hope for this boy yet.   Butler’s name was Frank--”
          “Hank,” Jeffrey interrupted.  
          “I stand corrected.  Hank Frieman.”  Before I could form another question, my stomach growled, reminding me I hadn’t sent anything but coffee it’s way since 5 a.m.  “Hungry?” I asked. 
          Jeffery nodded his head.
          I leaned over and snagged a twenty dollar bill out of my desk drawer and handed it to him.  “You fly, I buy.  I’ll take a burger with all the fixin’s and a chocolate shake.  No fries, though, I’m trying to watch what I eat.”
          Jeffery smiled, and then scurried out of my office. 
          It would take at least thirty minutes for Jeffery to return with lunch, so to wile away the time I grabbed a random file from the stack o’ stuff then collapsed back into my squeaky chair.  Ah, some light pre-lunch reading: The Last Will and Testament of Mr. Charles Manfrey.  His sole beneficiary was his brother, Henry Manfrey.  According to the lawyer’s statement, the two hadn’t had contact in over 40 years.  In fact, the lawyers indicated they’d lost track of Henry completely.  The file did contain a picture of younger brother that looked to be cut from a high school yearbook.  Judging by the style of his suit, I’d say the time period was late 50s or early 60s.  He was two years younger than Mr. Manfrey, which means he’d be pushing 70 now.  Good luck finding him, I thought. 
          I tossed that one aside and reached for a second file.  This one was the butler’s statement.  Hank Freeman, aged 68, had been in the employ of Charles Manfrey for over a decade.  According to other staff members, the tow men had developed a friendship and often sipped cognac in the evenings together.  Hank had a thin face that had been badly burned on one side, but there was something hauntingly familiar about it. 
I reached for the file containing Charles Manfrey’s last will and testament and, on a hunch, compared the pictures of young Henry Manfrey to old Hank Freeman.  Age and the burns to the face had obviously altered the man’s facial structure.  The same guy? An interesting possibility. 
I thought some more.  Hank was a nickname for Harold.  Freeman was a flip-flop of Manfrey.  The dots started to connect in my mind. 
I cued up the security loop and looked at the part where Mr. Manfrey pushed the cart, which looked like an old-fashioned Good Humor Man ice cream cart, into the pool area.  The image was in black and white and grainy, as security tapes, especially exterior night ones, are, but the man wearing a hooded robe and walking hunched over like a 72-year-old man pushing a heave load was Mr. Manfrey.  Or could it be Mr. Freeman?  Could Hank, or Henry, have killed his brother then pushed it to the pool and out of the sight of the cameras dumped the body into the water?  And would he be the one to inherit the millions?  Now we had motive! 
I grabbed my jacket off the hook by the door and brushed past Jeffery, who was on his way back in.  The burgers smelled too good to pass up.  I grabbed the sack, extracted a burger and unwrapped it as I headed down the hallway.  Jeffery followed dutifully behind.
“Where are we going, boss?”
“We have an arrest to make.”  I chocked, either on the hunk of juicy burger, or the words I was about to utter.  “”You were right.  It’s a classic case of ‘The Butler Did It.'"

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