The Power Behind the Throne

By Barb Goffman

Barb Goffman
Mystery Writer

"The Power Behind the Throne"

was published in the anthology Deadly Southern Charm, published by Wildside Press in 2019


“The defense calls Emily Forester.”

My attorney squeezed my hand as I rose. If anyone noticed, they probably viewed it as a comforting gesture. I knew better. Bob was imploring me to follow his plan, not mine. Too bad, Bob. This was my murder trial, and we were doing things my way.

With my blond head held high and my lips pursed I approached the witness stand. I had to look right. Innocent yet sad. It wasn’t difficult. I truly was both of those things. I never meant to kill my husband. Well, not until he forced me to.

After being sworn in, I sat down, gliding my fingers over the bar at the front of the witness box. Its smooth, shiny wood surface reminded me of how nice the floors in our main house had been when they’d been installed a few years ago. Clearly it was time to refinish them, once I got this business out of the way.

Bob leaned forward from the counsel table. I wished he could have stood and approached the jury so they could fully take him in. Tall, dark-haired, with a granite chin, intelligent blue eyes, and a sharp charcoal suit, Bob was the type of man women noticed and men admired. Unfortunately, as I’d learned this week, North Carolina keeps its attorneys on a tight leash. Bob had to sit while he questioned me.

He smiled. “Please state your name for the record.”

“Emily Forester.”

“You’re the wife of Aaron Forester?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have any children?”

“Two.” Now I smiled. “Seth is seventeen, and Lucy’s sixteen.”

“Where do you reside?”

I answered Bob’s question about my home—both of my homes actually, the main house in Wake Forest and the beach house in nearby Sunset Beach, where Aaron had revealed his true colors.

Bob asked a few more preliminary questions before saying, “Can you please tell us what happened on August third of last year?”

I nodded. “I—”

“Objection!” The district attorney, Kirk Gerard, smacked the table before him. His copper toupee—who did he think he was fooling with that cheap thing?—flopped onto his brow. “Narrative.”

I sucked in a sigh while Bob and Gerard argued to the judge about whether I would be allowed to tell my story my way—the “narrative form of testimony,” Bob called it—instead of answering one tedious question after another. Bob had expected this. Prosecutors don’t like narrative testimony, he said, because they can’t anticipate what the witness will say next, impeding their ability to object. I think Bob liked this form of testimony for just that reason—anything to piss off Gerard and throw him off his game. I, of course, simply wanted to talk to the jury. I’d always been good at persuading people, and I knew I could do it here if I weren’t constantly interrupted. Finally, after a couple of minutes, the judge ruled in our favor. Maybe Bob was worth his exorbitant fee.

“You can continue, Mrs. Forester,” the judge said, a slight smile on his pale lips.

I nodded appreciatively, turned to the jury, and began telling my story. Quickly I got to the point.

“People keep saying I’m happy my husband is dead. The district attorney has called me a ‘wealthy widow’ because of the pending life insurance payment, claiming I planned all of this, instead of being the victim.”

I looked right into Gerard’s mean brown eyes. He had never believed my story, insisting I made it all up, that I killed Aaron for the money and staged the crime scene. But I knew the women on the jury would believe me once I explained everything. Women are very practical. I shifted my gaze back to them.

“Even my friends say I’m better off without Aaron. I’m sure they’re trying to cheer me up when they remind me how he drank too much and didn’t love me the way he was supposed to. That’s clearly true, considering he tried to kill me.” I paused for two full breaths to let the impact of those words sink in. “But when I lie awake late at night, I know some other truths, starting with this: I knew Aaron was the one, my future, from the moment we met—”

“Your honor,” the prosecutor said. “I object. Is this a murder trial or a romance novel? The defendant—”

“Overruled,” the judge said. “We’ve gone over this already. Mrs. Forester is allowed to testify in the narrative form.” He turned to me. “You may continue.”

“Thank you, your honor.” I looked at the jurors. “But even though Aaron was the one for me, he wasn’t perfect. That’s where I came in. As his wife, it was my job to help Aaron succeed in all areas of life. To prod him on. That’s how we got the beach house. We bought it at my insistence. We were a successful family, with two straight-A kids, the gorgeous house in the right neighborhood. A beautiful beach house was the next step for us, even if Aaron didn’t want it.”

I flapped my hand. Aaron’s reluctance to take our rightful place in the world still baffled me.

“He liked staycations back in Wake Forest,” I said. “But we were supposed to be upwardly mobile. That’s the American Dream. Getting further than your parents did. So we bought the beach house here, and everything was great for a while, until our stock portfolio took a dip. So I encouraged Aaron to apply for a promotion at work. Higher in management. In prestige. In pay. And he got it. And I was happy that my husband was succeeding, like husbands are supposed to.”

I paused again, remembering our final day together, when Aaron surprised me. “Of course Aaron viewed success differently than I did. I didn’t realize that then. I just thought he was a little lazy and I had to push him to reach his full potential.”

When I said the word lazy, I could swear I heard my mother-in-law hiss. She was sitting in the row behind the district attorney, glaring at me, her hazel eyes pinched in hatred. I had always wanted her to love me. That’s how it was supposed to be. How had things turned out so wrong? Oh, yes, I had thought I could push Aaron to be a better man.

“Instead I turned him into an unhappy man,” I told the jurors. “Early in our marriage, Aaron used to come home tired but invigorated by his day, eager to tell me of some new financial strategy he and his team had devised. Now I had an angry husband who came home late and spent the night drinking. He hated all the paperwork that came with being an executive. He hated the bureaucracy. And I guess he grew to hate me. Of course, I didn’t realize it, not until it was too late.” I shook my head. “In the end, our marriage failed because I kept trying to turn him into the man I thought he should be, instead of accepting him for who he was.”

I poured myself some water from the adjacent pitcher, giving the jurors time to think about my words. Bob had advised me not to say this, not to accept any blame for what had happened. It had been self-defense, he kept reminding me. Don’t give the jury an excuse to convict. But Bob was wrong. Most of the jurors were women. They would understand that helping my family flourish required me to push Aaron to grab the brass ring. They’d get how it could all go wrong.

I drank some of the tepid water—you’d think they could provide ice—then shifted toward the jurors again.

“Anyway, last summer arrived and I packed up the kids and drove to the beach house. I attended charity events with the women in town. Bought fresh fruits and vegetables at the waterfront market on Thursday mornings, when everyone shops for their organics.” A couple of the jurors nodded. “I slathered on sunscreen and sat in the sand under a hat and a big umbrella, reading the latest hot novel. And I waited for the weekends for Aaron to come. I planned our days from sunrise on. The right events. The right people. The right parties. He wanted to sleep in, like the kids, but I insisted he get up early. How would it look if I went around town by myself on the weekends? So he accompanied me on my outings, and I encouraged him to be more enthusiastic about things. But I could tell he wasn’t happy.”

I was getting to the heart of the matter and took another good look at the jurors. They were much harder to read than I’d anticipated. At least a few seemed sympathetic—the head-tilting divorcée, the wrinkled lady with curly white hair, and the mom who was in her early forties, like me.

“In late July, I packed up the kids again and drove three hours south to my parents’ retirement home near Charleston. It was Mother’s birthday week. She must have sensed the strain in my marriage during that visit. She asked about the lines on my face. The faraway look in my eyes.”

I glanced at my mother. She’d been sitting bravely with Daddy directly behind Bob throughout the trial. She wore the perfect dress for court, tasteful and tailored. Her silver hair was expertly coifed. But Mother was sporting new frown lines, too.

“I told Mother everything was fine. No need to worry her. I knew I could fix my marriage by having one perfect weekend with Aaron, reminding him that we were made for each other. So the day after Mother’s birthday, I told her I was going back to Sunset Beach. That Aaron and I needed a romantic weekend alone.”

Remembering this day was difficult. When I gazed at the courtroom now, I couldn’t focus on anyone or anything. I was back at the shore in my mind, with the seagulls squawking and the air thick with moisture, a storm in the offing.

“I stopped at a little grocery store near our beach house. I bought wine and flowers and some nice salmon steaks. When I pulled into the garage in the late afternoon, I was surprised. Aaron’s car was there. I’d expected to beat him by a few hours. I smoothed my blouse and skirt and went inside the house, calling for him. ‘Aaron, I’m home.’ But he didn’t respond.

“I put the fish and wine in the refrigerator, arranged the flowers in a crystal vase, and set it on a table beside the staircase. I was about to look for Aaron on the deck when I heard music coming from upstairs. Soft and sultry. That’s where Aaron was, I realized. He’d planned an evening of seduction. Finally he was getting with the program. This was how things were supposed to be.

“I scurried up the stairs, fluffing my hair, glad I’d worn nice lingerie. I’d only taken a couple of steps into our bedroom before something hit the back of my head hard and I blacked out. I don’t think I was unconscious very long. But it was long enough for Aaron to tie me to the upholstered armchair in the corner, the rope wound around my stomach—over my clothes, where it wouldn’t leave marks. When I awoke, woozy and confused, he was standing over me with a glint in his eyes as he raised our gun at my face—the one we’d gotten for home protection.”

That point still galled me. I should sue that gun company. But back to Aaron.

“He told me in an ice-cold voice that he was going to kill me. ‘But before I do,’ he said, ‘I want to make sure you know why.’ Then he told me in excruciating detail how I’d enraged him every time I pushed him to achieve, as if that had been a bad thing. His voice kept rising as he went on, until he was screaming at me. He called me horrible names. For the first time, I’d wished we’d bought a home with nearby neighbors. Someone nosy who could’ve phoned the police.”

I’d never imagined privacy would turn out to be a problem.

“Anyway, at the beginning I protested. But he shoved the gun closer, so I shut up. Its barrel seems much bigger when it’s pointed at you.” I sighed. “Aaron ranted about my shortcomings for a while. Then, as thunder rattled the windows, he untied me and told me to stand. Said we were going for a drive.”

I half laughed, still finding it hard to believe. “He really planned to kill me. After all I’d done for him, this was how he was going to repay me. We started down the stairs, the gun pressed to my spine.

“‘Move it,’ he said, nudging me to walk faster.

“I twisted toward him, pleading. ‘Please don’t do this. We can work things out. You love me. I know you do.’

“He laughed in a cold, distant way. There was no changing his mind.

“After we reached the bottom of the staircase, I turned again. But before I could say another word, he yelled, ‘Shut up, Emily. I’m tired of your bitching.’ He didn’t see the vase in time, not until I’d grabbed it and smacked him on the side of the head.

“Aaron fell, dropping the gun, water and flowers flying. For a moment I stood in shock, but only a moment, because Aaron opened his eyes and lunged for the gun. I snatched it off the floor, aimed, and fired.

“I’d never fired a gun before. The jolt shook my body. But nothing shook me more than watching Aaron begin to bleed as he slumped back onto the tile floor. With the gun still heavy in my hand, I ran to the phone and called the police.”

Fat tears slipped onto my cheeks now, like the driving rain that had been slamming into the beach house that night, and I could see the jurors again. Wide-eyed. Mouths open. The pregnant woman held her palm over her heart. The divorcée offered me a sad smile, as did some of the men.

“It was self-defense,” I continued. “But it was still my fault. I drove Aaron to it by not loving him enough, by not accepting him for who he was. And for that, I’m sorry.”

Surely now that the jurors understood why Aaron tried to kill me, they would believe what happened and how I had no choice but to defend myself. Surely they would.

The room was silent for a few seconds but for my sniffling.

“Mrs. Forester, would you like a short break?” the judge asked.

“Yes.” I nodded. “But I’m done.”

“Any more questions, Mr. Gilmore?” the judge asked Bob.

“No, your honor.”

“All right,” the judge said. “We’ll call it a day and resume with cross-examination at nine o’clock in the morning.”

#

By the time court resumed the next day, I’d gotten control of myself and was ready for the prosecutor. Good thing. Gerard came at me hard, hammering that Aaron’s salary couldn’t support my “expensive tastes.” He claimed I pushed Aaron to seek a promotion so he’d qualify for a big life insurance policy. That I’d arranged for the kids to not be at the beach house the weekend Aaron died so no one could contradict my story. It felt like the jurors’ opinion of me started to turn. Frowns creased their faces when they looked my way.

Finally Gerard finished with me, he and Bob made their closing arguments, the judge gave lengthy jury instructions, and the jurors were sent out to deliberate. Bob and I went back to his office to wait. Mother and Daddy wanted to come, but I wasn’t up for company. Bob ordered in lunch, but I couldn’t eat. Now that I had no more control over the verdict, my energy had evaporated.

Not three hours had passed before the court clerk called. The jury was back.

“A deliberation this short probably means a guilty verdict,” Bob said. “You should prepare yourself.”

No. It couldn’t be.

Calmly I returned with Bob to the courtroom. Mother and Daddy smiled at me, but fear had washed the color from their faces. I was glad my children weren’t there to see this. Glad my sister, Danielle, had agreed to let them stay with her back home in Wake Forest during the trial. I was even glad, for once, that Danielle drank too much, just like Aaron had. I know it sounds bad, but the kids were smart enough to never get in a car with Danielle, so they’d be safe. And they’d be preoccupied. Danielle’s drinking problem would give Seth and Lucy something to worry about besides me.

Soon the jury filed in, and the judge got straight to business.

“Has the jury reached a verdict?” he asked.

“Yes, we have, your honor,” the foreman replied.

He was lanky, a carpenter—one of the jurors I hadn’t been able to read while I testified. Bob hadn’t wanted him on the jury. Said he’d hate me. The way the foreman refused to meet my eyes now, I feared Bob had been right.

While a clerk handed the judge a slip of paper with the verdict on it, Bob and I stood. He touched my arm, and it felt good, reassuring, until I remembered that Aaron had touched my wrist like that during our wedding ceremony, making me feel certain our marriage would succeed. Look how well that had turned out.

The judge scanned the verdict, nodded, and the clerk returned the paper to the foreman. He rose from his seat in the jury box and began to read aloud.

“We, the jury, find the defendant, Emily Forester”—he raised his head and looked at me dead on—“not guilty.”

I clapped my hand over my mouth as my mother said, “thank God,” and the courtroom audience began buzzing with a mixture of surprise, glee, and—mostly—anger. But I couldn’t pay much attention to what anyone else was saying. I kept hearing the foreman’s words echoing in my head.

Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty.

I collapsed into my chair, my eyes watering, halfway between tears and laughter. The jurors understood. They got it, even the ones I hadn’t been able to read.

That’s the thing about stoic people. You never really know what they’re thinking.

#

It’s been several months since the trial, and I’ve become stoic, too. So I’m glad to have the chance to sit by the pool at my parents’ country club tonight, watching the sun set without anyone lounging beside me, peppering me with questions about my day or telling me funny stories, trying to lighten my mood. Mother and Daddy are out ensuring everything’s ready for Daddy’s seventieth birthday party tomorrow. The kids are at a movie. And the other club members are the smile-and-wave kind—with me, at least. Not chatty, which I appreciate. I’m glad to have time to think.

I’ve spent a lot of time since the trial thinking about my life, and I realize that my marriage was doomed from the moment Aaron and I met. I pushed him to the brink. And I do take the blame for that.

But not all of it.

During his ranting and raving the day he died, Aaron revealed some things I hadn’t known. He had pursued me our junior year in college because he’d thought I was the one for him. I checked all his boxes. Attractive, smart, determined. I’d make the perfect corporate wife, helping him raise the perfect family, he’d said. We were more alike than I’d ever imagined.

Except it turned out I had bigger dreams than he did. I wanted the beach house, trips to Europe, expensive private school for the kids, and fine clothes and jewelry for me. All Aaron wanted was a good little wife, a solid management position, and a little something on the side. I guess he thought having a mistress would make him a real man.

To add insult to injury, he didn’t cheat with some random woman. He did it with my sister. They’d been at it for years. Danielle liked him for who he was, he said. They had fun together. And he’d finally decided he wanted to be with her all the time. No more harping from me. Just lots of fun with her. He didn’t care how it looked. So after an appropriate mourning period, he was going to marry Danielle, without all the hassle and expense of divorce and alimony.

I hadn’t mentioned this to anyone. Not my attorney or my family or my friends or the jury. I hadn’t even mentioned it to Danielle, whom I tripped down the stairs at my parents’ house an hour ago, right before I left for the club. She’d flailed as she began to tumble, her ever-present glass of gin crashing down the carpeted steps. A happy thunk sounded when Danielle’s head hit the wood floor in the entryway, her neck as twisted as the staircase, with blood seeping out of her ear. I was glad I didn’t need to slam her skull against the floor myself, though I’d been prepared to do it if necessary.

Mother and Daddy should be calling any time now, having found my poor dead drunk of a sister. I’m sorry to put them through this, but there really was no other way. I couldn’t be the one to find the little home-wrecker, not after what happened with Aaron. Besides, Mother and Daddy are strong. They proved that during my trial. They can handle this.

As for me, I’m not sure what’s next. With Seth and Lucy on track for the Ivy League, and Aaron’s life insurance payout more than enough to cover their education and keep me in the lifestyle I deserve, my future’s wide open. I’ve already shown the world I can be a successful wife and mother—the ultimate power behind the throne. Now I’m going to take that power out for a spin, promoting the one person I’ve been neglecting all these years—me.

I don’t know how I didn’t realize it until now. This is how life is supposed to be.