The Smoking Man

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A collection of cigarette butts caught Sam’s eye when he walked out of his front gate to catch a tram to the city.

If he had been driving, he would have missed them.

A tight grouping directly under the tree. 

When they moved into their substantial residence — built by a rich bloke back in the 1970s, they decided to increase the width of their driveway. The aforementioned rich bloke had knocked down several houses and plonked his creation right in the middle of the now considerable grounds, all to impress his new bride.

It didn’t work, and he sold the house soon after.

Several owners later and Scarlett decided that this was to be their home.

Big houses were out of place in this neighbourhood, but it did have the benefit of being in the community where Sam grew up.

New electronic gates, with a pedestrian gate at the side (Sam was the only person who moved through it), were installed. The driveway brushed dangerously close to the sixty-year-old street tree. There was some discussion about whether the council would allow them to excavate so close to the tree.

These days the tree seemed happy enough, and if you stood under it — as someone obviously had, you would have a sweeping view up the paved driveway to the entrance of the house.

 

“What’s happening today, Sam?”

Scarlett was being considerate — showing some interest.

Since the accident, Sam’s world had become considerably smaller.

Blood, crushed metal, a rapid ride in an ambulance, followed by a frantic time in the emergency room.

“We have to relieve the pressure on his brain.”

What if we don’t, thought Scarlett.

A boring stay in a hospital room with an interesting view, followed by a stay in a rehabilitation facility. Sam made lifelong friends on that ward, but now he was home doing his best to regain lost memories.

“Your memories will come back slowly, or they may all come back at once, it’s hard to know,” said a kind face in a white lab coat.

 

“I have an appointment with Dr Doug at four, but not much till then,” said Sam.

“How’s it all going? The memory stuff, I mean?”

“Slowly. Dr Doug seems happy, but he would be, at five hundred dollars an hour.”

“Is that fair, Sam? Dr Doug has an excellent reputation for such a young psychiatrist. I liked him when I spoke to him. I think he has your best interests at heart. Give him a chance.”

Scarlett found Dr Doug and gently encouraged Sam to go and see him. Sam was prepared to be unimpressed, but the two of them got along. Dr Doug dealt in dreams and Sam had vivid and sometimes disturbing dreams, which he wrote down in great detail — a match made somewhere near heaven.

“I might go in early and wander around the city for a bit, or I might not and have a nap instead. I was up very early this morning. Which reminds me; you get up very early during the week. Have you noticed an older man standing outside our front gates?”

Scarlett ran her late father’s business empire, and she took it all seriously, arriving before anyone else.

“Not standing, but I have noticed an older man walking his dog. Between five-thirty and six each morning. Usually smoking a cigarette.”

“He could be the one,” said Sam.

“Why do you ask?” said Scarlett.

“I’m not sure. It just seems strange. I’ve seen him standing on the grass under the tree and staring at our house. He stands there looking like he is trying to make up his mind — ring the bell or not, then he walks off, dog in tow.”

“Do you think we need to be worried?” 

It was evident from the size of their property that the Bennett’s were wealthy. Big money attracts some who might want to lighten their load.

“No. No need to worry,” said Sam.

 

The next morning, Sam was staring out of their first-floor bedroom window when the older man drifted into view. His dog stopped as though he knew in advance that they would be there for a while. The older man dropped his cigarette on the ground, stepped on it and lit up a new one, all the while leaning on the trunk of the tree.

Despite the distance to their front gate, Sam could see the man clearly.

This routine went on for several weeks before stopping abruptly.

Sam missed seeing the man and his dog. There was something comforting about their appearance at the appointed time. They had been coming for so many days that the little dog now walked to the tree and lay down, making itself comfortable, knowing there was going to be a long wait.

“The old man and his dog have stopped standing out the front,” said Sam over toast and coffee.

“Did you ever find out who he was?” asked Scarlett.

“No, and now I miss him.”

Sam retired from detecting when he married Scarlett, but this seemed like a good time to come out of retirement.

On his next walk to the tram, Sam knocked on a few doors. Mostly his knocking was met by silence until the retired couple who lived a few doors down opened their door.

“I think you are referring to Judge Nardella. He’s been retired for a long time now, and I sometimes talk to him on his early morning walks,” said Mr Wilson,  (call me Ted).

“Neither of us sleeps very well, but Ted is worse than I am,” said Mrs Wilson, (call me Beryl).

“He was a big deal in his day. Sat in judgement on some high profile cases. Put Enselmo away for life. Lives in that big house up on Oakover Road. The red brick one with all the roses.”

“I know the woman who cleans his house, and she says that his house is full of boxes and filing cabinets. All his old court cases, apparently. Spent a fortune having them photocopied when he retired. She says he reads through his old cases looking for something,” said Mrs Wilson.

“Does she know what he’s looking for?” asked Sam.

“No. She doesn’t know, and she’s not game to ask.”

Sam finished his second cup of tea and wondered if he would make it into the city before he had to answer the call of nature — he didn’t. A stop at the Edinborough Garden was necessary.

His relief break made him slightly late for his session with Dr Doug, but he had a story to tell.

“So, what do you plan to do, Sam?” said Dr Doug.

“Investigate,” said Sam.

 

Another day went by before Sam walked the short distance to the judge’s house. Sam liked to let ideas percolate before taking action.

The front door was at the top of a few brick steps. Next to the door was an old pull handle doorbell. It was connected to a cable that rang a bell in the kitchen. The house was built at the same time as wealthy families had electricity installed, but some old building habits died hard.

The bell still worked. Sam could feel the resistance as he pulled on it and felt it settle back into position.

Sam was about to give it another pull when he heard the bolt on the front door unlock, and an elderly man opened the door.

The judge stood at Sam’s height. Grey thinning hair roughly combed and a gentle but determined face.

There was a moment’s silence after which the judge said, “Mr Bennett. I suppose you are wondering why I stand outside your house?”

“Good afternoon, judge. You come right to the point. Do you have a few moments?”

“No, I don’t, but if you are free tomorrow afternoon, about three, I would be delighted to serve you tea and cake. My housekeeper isn’t here today. She makes excellent teacake.”

“I’ll be here,” said Sam. He was disappointed, but he was also patient. His mentor had taught him that patience was essential. “Let the world come to you. Don’t push it away in your haste.”

 

Sam heard Scarlett’s car come up the long drive. He heard her thank her driver — she always did that, Scarlett treated everyone with respect.

The front door opened and Scarlett put her handbag on the hall table and her briefcase, a present from Sam, on the marble floor. She came into the old servant’s kitchen (Sam loved this room — a bit worn and very cosy — he wouldn’t let Scarlett redecorate it).

Sam had lit the fire, and a snack was waiting for her.

“Your coffee will be ready in just a moment.”

The coffee machine whirred happily on the bench.

“How did your day go?” said Sam, who desperately wanted to tell Scarlett about his adventure.

“Meetings all day. The glassworks expansion is going well, or so I’m told.”

“I love glass,” said Sam, for no particular reason.

“Are you okay, Sam. You’ve never professed a love for glass before, and it’s freaking me out.”

Sam laughed.

“I’m trying to be supportive. I read an article that said a wife should show interest in her husband’s work as soon as he gets home.”

“Now I’m really starting to worry.”

Sam laughed.

“I REALLY want you to ask me how my day went.”

It had been a long time since Sam had anything interesting to say when Scarlett came home.

“Okay. I’ll bite,” said Scarlett and Sam poured her coffee. The snacks looked good — she had skipped lunch again.

“Well,” said Sam making himself comfortable on a barstool.

 

“Don’t eat too much cake and no making eyes at his housekeeper,” said Scarlett before kissing Sam on the cheek. “I should be home on time. I can’t wait to hear about your meeting.”

The front door closed, and her car drove off. Now Sam was stuck with the task of filling in the hours till three.

He chopped some wood, mowed the back lawns — the front ones could wait a few days, walked the dogs and read the paper. Still three hours to go.

Sam’s physical condition was steadily improving, but an early afternoon nap was needed most days. This took him up to two-thirty. He showered and dressed and walked the distance to the judge’s house. His dogs were disappointed at not being invited.

“Maybe next time,” said Sam as he closed his front door.

 

The judge was waiting at the open door as Sam climbed the steps.

“Can I ring your doorbell, just for the fun of it?” asked Sam.

The judge nodded without expression.

With the door open, Sam could hear the bell ring deep within the house. It was satisfying.

The judge ushered Sam into the large front room. High ceilings, thick curtains, and lush furniture covered in boxes. Boxes covered most of the parquetry floor and oozed out through the connecting door into another room.

Two comfortable looking armchairs had been released from box covering duties, and Sam chose the one with its back to the window. The two men settled into their chairs as tea and cake magically appeared.

The judge’s housekeeper was modestly dressed, barely concealing her fifty-odd years. Sam tried to smile at her, but she avoided his gaze.

The judge poured from a china teapot. The tea was hot, and the cake left crumbs on Sam’s shirtfront. He tried to flick them onto his other hand and deposit them onto his plate with only moderate success.

Other than to compliment the judge on his teacake, Sam kept silent.

“In your career, have you ever caught someone who turned out to be innocent?” said former judge Nardella.

“Not that I know of,” said Sam.

“What would you do if you had?”

A moment of silence.

“Do my best to rectify the situation,” said Sam.

Another moment of silence.

“If you don’t mind me asking, are these, in the boxes, your old cases?”

“Yes.”

“Why do you have them here?”

“I’m reading through them — looking.”

“For what, judge?”

“My mistake. I know it’s in here — somewhere.”

“I’m sure, with your reputation, the courts would dig out any file you asked for. What is the name of the defendant?”

“I don’t know which defendant it was,” said the judge. He stared at the boxes, and for a moment, Sam thought he had lost his attention.

“You don’t have to answer judge, but are you a religious man?”

“Yes. Catholic. Devout.”

“I don’t want to sound rude judge, but I strongly suggest that you stop torturing yourself.”

“I stood outside your house because I wanted to ask you what you would do. You are known as an honest, brave and principled individual. I couldn’t get up the courage to ask you, but here you are, and you have given me your answer.”

The judge went back to staring at his boxes, piled so high that Sam feared for the judge’s safety.

The dusty smell that only librarians and archivists know filled Sam’s nostrils as he said his goodbyes. The housekeeper showed him to the door.

“Your employer is not a well man,” said Sam.

“I know, but he doesn’t listen to me. Thank you for coming Mr Bennett.”

Sam’s walk home was considerably slower than his journey to the judge’s residence.

 

Scarlett was home very late despite her assurance. She crept into the bedroom so as not to wake her Sam.

“There’s a plate in the fridge. I can heat it up for you,” said Sam in a muffled voice from under the covers.”

 “No need. I ate at the office. Someone Ubered Italian food. So how did your afternoon tea go?”

“I’ll tell you about it in the morning, but the headline reads, sad afternoon had by formerly famous detective.”

“Oh,” said Scarlett as she slipped into bed next to her Sam. She snuggled up to him feeling his warmth and smelling his aroma. She put her hand on his bottom.

“So, that’s how it is,” said Sam.

 

A little over three months later, a package arrived for Sam.

“Sign here please, sir,” said the thirty-something-year-old delivery driver. “Love your house. Felt like I needed a passport to get through the gate.”

Sam’s dogs were getting curious, trying to push past him to get at the delivery driver. In their experience, delivery drivers had a plethora of interesting scents to investigate.

Sam gave the young bloke a smile and carried the package into the small kitchen. It sat on the old bench like a suspicious package in the suspense movie.

The dogs looked at Sam for direction.

“I guess I should see what’s in it.” A thought crossed his mind, should I put it in a bucket of water first?

The thought passed quickly.

The package put up a bit of a fight. Finally open, there was a thick file with a person’s name on it. The folder was tattered and worn, and the name was written in an unsteady hand. Apart from the file, there was a letter.

Dear Mr Bennett.

I found what I was looking for.

After you have read the file, I give you my permission to do with it what you will. The man died in prison after his first three years of a life sentence, so I cannot put this right. Maybe, by shedding light on my foul deed, his family can have some peace. I am in no way defending myself, but at the time, I was distracted by domestic issues. I missed the clues because I was wrapped up in my own worries. I should have directed the jury to acquit, but I was selfish and self-absorbed. I hope my God will forgive me. My life will be over by the time you read this, and I’m wondering if my God will forgive my early arrival.

Thank you for listening to me. You are a good man.

Yours sincerely,

John Nardella

The obituaries listed the death of former Judge Nardella and you had to read very carefully, between the lines, to decern that the good judge had taken his own life. The article listed his considerable achievements.

The man deserved his rest.

When Scarlett had gone to work, Sam walked to the far corner of his backyard. The dogs followed him and sniffed as he dug a large hole.

He placed the unopened file in the hole and poured kerosene on it, lit it and added more fuel until it was reduced to ashes. The dogs watched as he pocked the ashes and added more fuel, lit it again and watched it burn.

The dogs got bored and fell asleep on the lush grass as finally satisfied that the file was destroyed, Sam filled in the hole and walked back to his house.

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