Death at the Pool -- An Ironwood Hamilton Mystery (and expanded #freewrite tale)

in writing •  8 months ago  (edited)


So, in my Sunday freewrite this week, I used the tragic death of an old man to illustrate the two meanings of "Caducity". Then, @wakeupkitty read it and suggested that someone might have wanted that old man dead, and I said that it WOULD be the kind of thing that Captain Ironwood Hamilton, a feature in a number of my freewrites, should investigate! Here, therefore, are the results of his investigation (and thank you, @wakeupkitty, for the inspiration)!

Strange, the things you remember at a moment of crisis...

Ironwood Hamilton recalled telling his wife Agnes about the problems of his moving home to Lofton County to accept the police captaincy of Tinyville, VA. She had laughed.

“I'm a big-city Yankee,” she said. “What could they possibly be doing in Tinyville every so often that we don't do here in the Big Apple daily?”

“You haven't yet appreciated the possibilities of living and raising our family at or near the scene of every major public incident, Agnes. Southern small-town life isn't like watching things on the news, and Tinyville wouldn't be inviting me back if there weren't significant problems.”

She had laughed then, but the tone of her voice as she called her husband from the Lofton County Wading Pool said that she had come around to her husband's point of view.

“Woody,” she said in a strained voice, “you are needed at the pool. Old Mr. Peale-Lofton has fallen in, and I think he's dead.”

The official phone in the small cabin passing for a police station had been ringing off the hook for five minutes before that – Lieutenant O'Reilly was taking the reports. Captain Hamilton was already nearly to the pool with the EMTs by then, and had taken his wife's call on his cell phone as he rode along.

“I'm just about there, Aggie – pulling through the yard now.”

There was no such thing as a parking lot anywhere around Tinyville; outside the town, there were fields and public county buildings sprouting up out of them, like odd fungus on any spot no longer fit for growing crops. All-terrain vehicles were ideal, and four-wheel drive was mandatory, although neither Tinyville nor Lofton County officially knew those things. Captain Hamilton heartily wished he had come in his pickup truck instead of taking the hair-raising ride in the ambulance – but, it was done, and he and the EMTs ran through the pool house to the pool.

Sure enough, it was old Robert Peale-Lofton, dead beside the pool, his 104-year-old face caved in by its impact on the bottom of the wading pool. One of his slippers – meant for indoor carpet, little tread to speak of – was still by the pool. The other had gone flying through the air as his legs went up and his top went down, and had landed near the counter behind which the inflatable toys for the children were kept.

The wading pool did not have an official lifeguard, so community members had gone to the rescue of both Mr. Peale-Lofton and his grandson, Robert II, who had slipped trying to rescue his grandfather and also injured himself. The EMTs had quickly shifted their attention from the deceased grandfather to the grandson.

Dozens of crying people – frightened little children and Peale-Lofton relatives – and dozens of shocked parents, grandparents, other guardians, and pool staff were also at the scene. Captain Hamilton registered the pale face of his wife and the keen wailing notes of their baby twins, Ira and Agnew, amidst the mass of trauma. Yet he had his job to do first, as the law man at the scene. Out came his digital camera, to take pictures of important things.

The body had been moved, but the cause of death was obvious on both ends – the caved-in face on one end, the tell-tale signs of reduced mobility in the legs and feet. Mr. Peale-Lofton had also had on compression stockings: he also had failing circulation and probably advanced heart disease, given that his fingernails were blue and his feet were clearly very swollen.

For all this, Mr. Peale-Lofton was dressed well – a lightweight summer suit of what had been crisp white linen, in a style recalling not only the early 20th century in which he was born but even a touch of the century before … he would have looked just as well in the antebellum South, except that he, like it, was dead and never coming back.

Not everyone was unhappy about either of those things. Captain Hamilton spotted Mr. Thomas Stepforth Sr. in the shade of a magnolia tree, his silver hair contrasting against his dark-copper skin, holding his two baby grandchildren with a look of subtle satisfaction on his face, as if some justice had been done.

Initial witness reports told Captain Hamilton why Mr. Stepforth had no grief for the dead man – the dead man had in his last minute of life come stumbling to the pool, breathing out threatenings and slaughters for the Black users of the pool. The pool had been integrated from the time it was opened in 1990, but, apparently, Mr. Peale-Lofton's mind had been stuck in the days when a whole pool would have been drained for a Black person sticking his or her toe in, and said Black person likely hung from said magnolia tree for daring to behave as an equal to Whites.

Indeed, time would continue to march on without Robert Peale-Lofton, who for racism had killed himself. Whatever else came of the matter, that would remain true.

In the midst of this steaming hot day and wrenching emotional scene, Captain Hamilton scarcely seemed to even break a sweat. He was 45 years old, six feet tall, classical features such as an idolatrous Southern artist might carve of mature White Southern manhood out of marble, sinewy, with eyes and hair that matched the color in his name, and a cool light in his gray eyes that recalled the look of steel.

After examining the body and having it covered, Captain Hamilton pulled out his digital recorder. He was an excellent note-taker, but preferred to make recordings of witness interviews because it left his eyes free to continue to make observations of his own. Not only that: people lined up to talk into a digital recorder as if awaiting their turn at the mic, and so focused on that and stopped observing what the captain was observing.

Last but not least out of 57 adult witnesses, and the least concerned with lining up at the mic: a very shaken but resolute Mrs. Agnes Hamilton, who was glad to pass her still-frightened little boys to their father while she took the recorder and made her statement, a statement which agreed in broad facts with everyone else's.

Mr. Peale-Lofton had come cursing and swearing down the path that went around the pool house and had gone right toward the Black families nearest that side of the pool, only to slip while stepping forward and then to fall, face-down, into the pool. His relatives had come running, screaming and crying through the pool house, and one relative had jumped in, bottom-side first, to try to pull the old man out, but he had hit hard as well. Mr. Stepforth and some others near that side of the pool had helped pull both the men out and had started triage and first aid. The elder Mr. Peale-Lofton, however, was beyond help.

Ira and Agnew Hamilton calmed down in their father's strong arms, and their mother began to do the same after she turned off the recorder and looked up to see her husband's faint smile.

“Don't be jealous, Aggie,” he joked. “You know as soon as I get home, these arms are all yours.”

She smiled through a flood of tears, her dark eyes lighting up with love for her husband.

“Y'all find a spot in the shade, and I'll be back to get y'all with the truck just as soon as I've gotten Mr. Peale-Lofton to the coroner.”

The last things Captain Hamilton did at the scene were with the pool itself; he took samples of the bloodied water, and then ordered the pool drained, slowly. Mr. Peale-Lofton's sun hat and shattered glasses – trifocals – were easy to recover. A collection of Mr. Peale-Lofton's teeth, real and fake, were scattered at the bottom. Captain Hamilton photographed them where they came to rest, and then collected them as evidence.

Finally, Captain Hamilton took closeup photos of the edge of the pool where both Mr. Peale-Lofton and his grandson had slipped, and then took off his shoes and walked around the pool at the edge, twice. He then called the pool owner, Mr. Wilson, to him.

“You will be glad to know the surface at the edge of your pool is not the issue; it is excellent. My official opinion, which I will relate to the county, is that Mr. Peale-Lofton just had the wrong shoes on.”

Mr. Wilson sighed with relief.

“Not that I am indifferent to the Peale-Lofton family, but I've got a family of my own to feed and can't afford to have this pool closed for long or to be successfully sued – thank you.”

One hour later, Captain Hamilton had consigned the body of the deceased to the coroner, interviewed the family members, retrieved his own wife and littlest ones and taken them home, and was again sitting in his office, reading the witness reports Lieutenant O'Reilly had written down, and also all the research the good lieutenant had done about the victim.

In the South, history is everything. Thus it was important to understand that to be a Lofton out of the old stock anywhere in Virginia after 1864 was to be nobility of the second order, after, of course, first-ranking families like the Washingtons, Lees, Jeffersons, Madisons, Monroes, Carters, Custises, Bollings, and Ludwells. Yet in Lofton County, the Loftons were of the first rank, there being relatively few representatives of Virginia's legendary families to compete with them in that region.

Yet add Peale with a hyphen to that name of Lofton, and one may as well have dragged a star out of heaven, straight to the edge of hell. Far back in Virginia's long history, the Loftons and their cousins the Peales had started from the common criminal level and began clawing their way up, stepping on the backs of anyone and everyone in their way. Yet the Lofton family had realized earlier that flipping illegitimate gains into socially acceptable evil was the way to go. So: they acquired land, and slaves, a century earlier than their Peale cousins, and then diversified into Northern and international business well before the Civil War. Although some branches of the two families joined forces as they lurched toward respectability – hence, the Peale-Loftons – the true Loftons ascended beyond their cousins and had never looked back.

The Peale-Loftons had kept scrapping. They had built respectable front businesses after the Civil War, but they were known to also have been heavily involved in illegal gambling, prostitution, and all manner of racist terrorism throughout Virginia. Only in the fifty years since civil rights had they become primarily respectable. Robert Peale-Lofton had been among the last transition-era patriarchs of the family, old enough to have taken eager part in the “rough stuff” of the last three “dirty decades,” young enough to live richly off the rewards of more than three centuries of grinding up others … only to die like a fool at the pool.

The fool at the pool, however, had left three solid gold teeth and a fortune to match: $75 million, by Captain Hamilton and Lieutenant O'Reilly's combined calculation.

“I was going to say, 'who does that?' about those teeth, but the question answers itself,” Lieutenant O'Reilly said. “Gold is relatively soft, but he wasn't doing much chewing.”

“Soft diet, according to the medical records,” Captain Hamilton said. “His tastes even on that soft diet were expensive, though. He had $75 million on paper, but he was burning through it every way an old man who couldn't take it with him might. All these expenditures and events you found – quite a bucket list, in addition to the senior home he was in costing a million a year. He's 104, so that bill has been running a long time.”

Captain Hamilton sank into thought for a long moment, and then roused himself.

“Do you have time to run that water sample up to Roanoke?”

“I'm going now, sir.”

“Thank you – great work here. You know how I love data.”

“Yes, sir, I do. With the traffic you'll have at least an hour to think if our good neighbors stay calm and out of trouble.”

“Whoever isn't at the big pool is under some air conditioner. Or should be. The Peale-Loftons were at the county fairgrounds today, in all this heat, before Mr. Peale-Lofton wandered off to his death at the pool.”

“Plenty of shade over there, and water,” Lieutenant O'Reilly said, “and you know old folks tend to like the heat.”

“True. Their younger relatives develop a high tolerance under certain circumstances as well. Yet Mr. Peale-Lofton's first name reflects his sharing a birth date with Virginia's most famous Robert: January 19. A little late in the year for a birthday party, don't you think?”

“About 40 years past a retirement party, too,” Lieutenant O'Reilly said. “Could be a marker of some personal milestone – an anniversary of some kind.”

“Could be. I'm going to call the fairgrounds and the senior home next.”

“All right, Captain, I'll see you when I get back. I don't expect that you are hungry after seeing all of that, but, I'll bring us some late lunch anyway.”

The lieutenant went. Captain Hamilton made his calls, and then began listening to the recorded witness statements, noting in a computer spreadsheet the information that converged and diverged between the 57 witness statements he had obtained. Once he had completed that, he then added the evidence he and Lieutenant O'Reilly had obtained independently to a third sheet.

The coroner called, close to the end of this process: indeed, Mr. Peale-Lofton had been killed by his head impacting the bottom of the pool, and indeed, he had suffered from congestive heart failure. But –.

“His medical records suggest that he might have lived at least another five years – a strong man was Mr. Peale-Lofton. With just two or three inches of more water in that wading pool, he might have survived even this tragedy, because his bones were not as brittle as I would have expected in a man of his age.”

Captain Hamilton inputted that data into his sheets, saved them, then opened his spreadsheets in a program that made spatial maps of such data. In this way, the captain could literally see where his own impressions were supported or denied by the convergence and divergence of the available evidence sets. He also received good indications of where to make further lines of inquiry.

Just then, Mr. George Brockenbaugh of the Tinyville Times walked in, and Captain Hamilton smoothly clicked “save” and put his computer to sleep before the news man could get to his desk.

“You can guess why I'm here, Captain,” he said.

“I reckon I can,” Captain Hamilton said. “Would you like iced coffee or iced tea or lemonade?”

“Lemonade,” said Mr. Brockenbaugh, “although I know I can't get you to make that into a mojito for me.”

“Both of us are on duty still,” the captain said, and the news man smiled.

“True enough, Captain. I need your statement about the death of Mr. Peale-Lofton.”

Captain Hamilton considered his next words carefully. The Tinyville Times had all the capacity for drama and sensationalism of its 19th-century forebears; the proper study of journalism as put forth 150 years before at not-too-far-off Washington and Lee University in Lexington had made absolutely no impression. Tinyville was a small, slow town that needed excitement as well as news, and the Times provided. Yet that was a disaster in the middle of an investigation.

There was also the fact that the Tinyville Times was as fickle as it could be about Captain Hamilton himself. Its love affair with him coming home as a decorated Army officer and upstanding gentleman had increased because of his handling of a local gang (see the “Nunchucks” freewrite), but had given way to the hate parade concerning him refusing to just arrest all the Black kids allegedly involved in a dust-up at the county high school, and then firing the town's three most racist lieutenants (see the “Glass Bottle” and “Rush to Judgment” freewrites). Then, the love fest had switched right back on after Captain Hamilton and his long gun had defused an entire hostage situation with no loss of life to anyone involved (see the “600 Bottles” freewrite).

When you know your local news media is bipolar, you proceed with great caution.

“So far as evidence at hand shows after two hours of investigation, Mr. Peale-Lofton came in a very excited state to the pool, slipped, and hit his head on the bottom of the pool, resulting in his death. The pool owner is not to my judgment at fault; all proper safety precautions had been maintained and were in force.”

“Any idea why he was so excited?”

“According to the witness statements, Mr. Peale-Lofton was angered by the presence of both Black families and White families sharing the same pool.”

“I heard that too,” Mr. Brockenbaugh said. “Some people do want to maintain the old standards.”

This was a news man's gambit to get a juicy comment. The captain's opposition to those standards being maintained was a known fact. Nevertheless, Captain Hamilton would not be drawn into comment along that line.

“More lemonade?” he said, and refilled the news man's glass.

“In your opinion, was it just an accident or something more sinister – any evidence he was pushed or pulled into the pool?”

“According to the witness statements, it was an accident. When I have completed my investigation and can comment more intelligently on the rest of your question, I will let you know.”

“Any chance you can get back to me before tonight?”

“I will let you know.”

“I'd love to have the whole story before Roanoke, Lexington, and Richmond start running their news people through here!”

“I will let you know.”

“Can you at least call me first?”

“I will let you know.”

“You know, you could get better press in this town if you would cooperate just a little more!”

“No comment.”

“Thanks for the fine lemonade, Captain.”

“You're always welcome, Mr. Brockenbaugh.”

After the news man had gone, Captain Hamilton woke his computer up and looked at his spatial map again. He then looked back at his spreadsheets, and listened to certain witness statements again. He then consulted the county map, and the thermometer. It was still 97 degrees, even with what passed for air conditioning in the makeshift police station doing its best.

Lieutenant O'Reilly came in, shaking his head and soaked with sweat.

“Just getting from the deli to the car, and the car to in here – I didn't realize how hot it was because I've been here since early this morning!”

“It's going to be a lot hotter tomorrow,” the captain said. “Cool on off, and then let's eat, and then I've got to make one more run before I can come back and we can close shop for the day.”

Captain Hamilton's run required a half-gallon of water – to drink and to splash on himself – as he returned to the immediate vicinity of the wading pool to search the field on which it stood for the last necessary evidence. Some of it had been destroyed by the ambulance, but not the key portion, which he knew would be there because of what his wife and 36 others had told him.

Several good photographs, and then back on the road to the ritzy senior care home where Robert Peale-Lofton had spent his last 20 years of life. There, the family was removing the deceased's effects, and they were still using the all-terrain safari bus they had rented to get the family patriarch and themselves to the county fairgrounds that afternoon. Their vehicles were all still in the parking lot – in Roanoke County, where there was such a thing as asphalt, melting in the heat.

Homeward at last, and to the keeping of his promise – Captain Hamilton took his wife into his arms the instant he arrived at home, while their “Baby Hams” grabbed onto his legs. Later, in the privacy of their bedroom, she had wept … even though she had been born a New Yorker, the sensitivity of her spirit was worthy of a woman whose senses were not deadened by the constant tragedies of big-city life. And, as her husband had said, seeing things on the news was different than being at the scene anyhow. Nor could real life in Tinyville be turned off.

“The pool will be open again tomorrow, but don't go back there,” he said. “I've picked up a huge inflatable kiddie pool, and I'll get it set up in the backyard before I leave for work tomorrow. Best to use that for the next few days. It is just getting hot, Agnes.”

Indeed. Early that next morning, Captain Hamilton arrived at the county courthouse to get his warrants, and passed the day working with county law men to track down and arrest each and every one of the members of Robert Peale-Lofton's family who had been shrieking and crying behind him at the pool, on suspicion of first-degree murder. A few relatives had time to warn others, but those others soon found out why if your vehicle didn't have at least four-wheel drive, you really didn't want to start a car chase with those county law men who did have such vehicles in Lofton County. Captain Hamilton and his pickup truck were the stuff of nightmares in the rear-view mirror …

Mr. Brockenbaugh eventually got his exclusive interview with Captain Hamilton.

“There were 57 adult witnesses to the presumed accidental death of Mr. Peale-Lofton: 37 adults at the pool and 20 relatives. Within that large of a pool of witnesses, there should be major agreement in what was witnessed, and many areas of minor disagreement based on differences in viewpoint. The 20 relatives also described to me the incidents leading up to the family patriarch's tragic death, and given 20 witnesses, one also expects to see a pattern of broad agreement and minor disagreements.

“Also, in any case of loss of life, there is inevitably blame-shifting among the witnesses. The gravity of death in one's presence is so heavy that human nature wants to throw that gravity off. Subtle comments about the state of the pool, about who let that old man loose to kill himself – in 57 witnesses, you should expect to hear a lot of that, and among the 20 witnesses in family, you should especially expect to hear that, for they were responsible for their relative while he was away from the senior home.

“Yet in this case, two sets of patterns show unusual agreement: the 20 relatives have practically no minor differences in their accounts of what happened between the fairgrounds and the pool, and no blame-shifting among themselves. They have a level of agreement that you would see if five fine actors acted the same role – mild differences in interpretation, but word-for-word agreement. The problem is that when you see that kind of convergence, you know that there is rehearsal and a script, and if an accident has a rehearsal and a script, then it should be investigated as a murder.”

“You knew that when I walked in here yesterday!” Mr. Brockenbaugh said.

“But not for the record,” Captain Hamilton said.

“As I was saying: then there was the physical evidence. First of all: Mr. Peale-Lofton's shoes were the slippers he wore at the senior home. His feet were very swollen, so I could see why his family might have left him in those slippers during a day out. Yet there was no way he could have trudged a mile from the county fairgrounds in them to the pool – they weren't dirty or damaged enough for them to have been through that, and the compression stockings and Mr. Peale-Lofton's skin were also not damaged.

“There was also the heat to consider: the high temperature yesterday was 105 degrees. Mr. Peale-Lofton was 104 years old, with heart failure and severe arthritis, and was in a fit of homicidal anger. There is no possibility that he could have walked that far, in that state.

“Then we have the curious case of Mr. Peale-Lofton's trifocals, curious for two reasons. First, the lenses had not been caved in like their owner's face, but knocked out from the opposite side. Second, not one of 57 witnesses noted that Mr. Peale-Lofton had them on when he walked up to the pool. Given his poor eyesight, there is no possibility that without his glasses that he could have seen the danger he was in … but there was also no possibility that he could have found his way to the pool on his own without them.

“Yet, the trifocals were in the pool. Recall that Robert Peale-Lofton II also made a dramatic entrance to the pool, and received an equally dramatic but ultimately minor injury. He knew to go in bottom-side first, and he took his time being helped out. The trifocals were nearer where he landed than where his grandfather and his rescuers were, whereas his grandfather's teeth were scattered in a much closer radius.

“That left the question of how Mr. Peale-Lofton himself got to the pool. 37 witnesses said that he had come down the path that goes around the pool house, not through the pool house itself. On that side, there was the track of a large vehicle, where it had driven off the main path, sat for a while, and then pulled off. The senior home representatives told me that the Peale-Lofton family had rented an all-terrain safari bus for their day out, and when I saw the vehicle later that afternoon, it had the melted asphalt from the senior home parking lot on it, the finely kept dirt of the fairgrounds, and the rough black soil of the field around the pool house.”

“Open and shut case!” cried Mr. Brockenbaugh.

“No,” Captain Hamilton said. “Enough evidence to arrest on suspicion of murder.”

“What about motive?”

“Mr. Peale-Lofton was about as hard to get along with as his final introduction to the public would suggest, according to the senior home representatives and some members of his family who privately reached out to me. He was not merely a racist; he was abusive and threatening to his own family as well. With that: his burn rate of his $75 million fortune on paper had already reduced his actual fortune to $52 million, and his burn rate had increased to $10 million a year this year. He was projected to live five more years. By that time, very little of his fortune would have been left.”

Captain Hamilton paused, and gave a slight sigh.

“Mr. Peale-Lofton also died intestate, without a will. By the time probate is finished, the result will be very little left even for those not convicted of any crime connected with Mr. Peale-Lofton's death.”

“What a waste,” Mr. Brockenbaugh said.

“All the way around,” Captain Hamilton said. “Mr. Wilson is still likely to lose his wading pool because we parents and grandparents are not likely to feel comfortable there any more, and an entire branch of an old family in Virginia has fallen.”

“That family was always known for climbing over anyone in their way.”

Captain Hamilton shook his head.

“About that I have no comment for you.”

“Do you always have to stop just short of being really interesting?”

“The times and this town we live in are interesting enough, Mr. Brockenbaugh, to not need me putting my foot in my mouth. We have had enough tragedy for now.”

Photo Credit: Taylor Simpson on Unsplash

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You made a great and believable story out of it.
An old man living in a nursery home was not the family's biggest fear but to run out of money.


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Never would have thought of it without you -- thank you for the inspiration!

You are a great writer and it was just a thought. You decided to take the time to work it out 😘👍💕

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