Thursday, February 14, 2013

Skeletons Out Of The Closet by R.J. Spears


Something inside her turned to ice just as she entered the quiet apartment.  She climbed the stairs and stood in the bedroom doorway.  She knew but she called his name lightly anyway.  She looked for signs of his breathing.

Could she miss something like that from where she was standing?  Was he just sleeping very deeply?  Maybe he was sick or unconscious?

All these thoughts whirled through her mind but the one inescapable conclusion was what she knew to be true.  He was dead.  It was time to make phone calls.

I stood in the same bedroom doorway where my client, Stephanie Mason, stood less than one week ago.  David Bentley's bedroom.  Her heart was broken in this room.  A subtle chill slipped down my spine even though this was an unseasonably warm spring day.  I left my station in the bedroom doorway, and I took a tour of the room.

Something to let me in on the reason why David Bentley had taken his own life.

Bentley kept it simple.  A cheap no-frills bed.  The mattress was barren, stripped of any sheets and blankets.  Probably by forensics in case of foul play.  A second hand dresser contained the typical items: socks, underwear, some ratty shirts used for yard work.  A lonely, lopsided chair caught light as it spilled in from the front window.  His closet was small and, other than a couple suits, an array of shirts and some dress pants, contained nothing of obvious interest.

I got no real sense of him at all from the room.  Nothing struck me other than he lived a rather Spartan life devoid of everything but the essentials.  Nothing that revealed any quirks of character or insights.

Before leaving, I detoured into the study.  It was a smaller room, outfitted in the same austere fashion.  In the corner was an olive drab desk that looked Army surplus. There was a small press board veneered bookshelf, sparsely loaded with books.  Most of the books were either college texts and some mainstream fiction.  I turned my attention to the desk and methodically went through its contents, finding a few items of interest.  The most obvious of these being manila folders containing some personal papers.  I gave them a cursory inspection.

Stephanie Mason had decided to wait in her car while I was inside.  She sat rigidly.  When I got in, she was looking to the other side of the street.

She was in her thirties and was what some would call a big girl.  I guessed she was all of five ten, and I would put her hitting the scales at somewhere around one sixty or seventy.  Despite her size, her look was healthy and toned.  What struck me were her eyes.  They were penetrating and full of conviction.

“How was your relationship with David?”

“Isn't it obvious, Mr. Daulton?  It was good.  No, great.  We were going to be married in the spring.  He had everything to look forward to.  He was...he was...we were happy."  She looked away for a moment.

These are awkward moments for me.  I'm a private investigator, not a counselor, but I know that a significant part of my job requires a gentle touch.  Sometimes I deal with despair and heartbreak as much as I dealt with betrayal.

"He was more than just a decent person, he was a saint," she said.  "And I know almost everyone at church thought the same of him."  She had told me the day before at my office that she had met David Bentley at Fellowship Baptist Church just over a year ago.

“We never argued.  We had disagreements but nothing serious. I knew something was wrong from the way he was acting that last week.  But he wouldn’t talk about it. That’s what was driving me crazy, Mr. Daulton.  I can't think of any reason that he would want to kill himself.”

"Can I ask you to do something for me?  I asked.

"Sure" she replied.

"Please call me Dan.  Every time you say ‘Mr. Daulton’ I start to look for my dad." A smile slipped from her and I continued my line of questions.

“What did you know about his past?”

“He grew up in Columbus.  His parents died a couple years apart about ten years ago. They were older, and he was an only child.  He went to Ohio State,  tried pharmacy, then chemical engineering but dropped out.  He was able to use that experience to get a lab tech job at Lily.  He had been at the church before I moved to town last year, but from what I could tell, he had only been there about a year.”  She paused a moment, composing herself.  “What else did I need to know?  I fell in love with the guy in what felt like minutes.  There was nothing about him not to love.”

“Nothing you know of.  We all have our skeletons.  Something was wrong with him.  Maybe something so personal that he couldn’t bring himself to tell you.”

She looked away again and began to cry.  Her shoulders shook as she sobbed silently, trying to maintain a degree of humility.

Maybe I should have reached out to comfort her, but I knew first hand, that no pat on the back was going to make it all better.  Grief is a solitary road that we all must travel alone.

I fidgeted some as she recovered.  "Let's change gears for a moment.  Let's say someone did kill him.  How did they do it?"  I asked.

Her initial conviction from the day before flashed in her eyes.  "Whoever did it forced him to take the poison.  Maybe they forced him at gunpoint?  Maybe they threatened someone he cared about?  I don't know.  The one thing I do know is that he couldn't have killed himself unless someone forced him to."

"It's awfully difficult to get someone to take...what was it?  Potassium Cyanide.  You said that he worked at Lily.  Something like that would be fairly easy to pick up there."

Her face flushed with anger.  "The police told me the same line of...of...bullcrap."  She clenched her fists.  "I don't want you to get the wrong impression of me.  Of us.  The media is always painting this picture of us churchgoers as Bible beating crazies.  I know I said that David was a saint.  It's not like he walked on water.  He was human with ups and downs just like everyone else.  He had his dark times.  I know there was something in his past that bothered him, but I told him that the past was the past."

She paused a moment, taking a couple breaths to maintain her composure and continued.  “Maybe what you and the police think is true.  I don’t know.  There are so many questions.  Maybe someone forced him to take the poison.  Maybe they weren’t in the room. Okay, I can accept that.  But for some reason, the man I loved killed himself, and I need to know why.”

“Even if the truth might be painful?  I asked.

“What could be worse than this?” she said.


Three days later, I sat in my office examining my notes from almost a dozen interviews.  They were from David Bentley’s friends and acquaintances.  I decided to handle this investigation like a background check.  I had done my share of those, but this was the first time I had done one on a dead person.

What I found out was that David Bentley was the next best thing to the second coming.  I wouldn't be surprised if he could walk on water and cure the infirmed after what I had heard.

Most of the people I interviewed were from his church circle.  They all described him as cheerful, helpful, and an overall nice person.  I heard accounts of Bentley helping someone fix a plumbing problem, tending to sick children, and driving the bus that picked up the elderly on Sunday morning

I talked to his supervisor at Lily Chemicals and he said that Bentley was prompt, efficient, and knowledgeable.  He even worked over time without complaining.  He told me confidentially that he would like to clone Bentley, hire the clones, and let the rest of his staff go.

His credit report was sparkling.  He had two Visa's which he used sporadically, always paying them off.  His checking account balance set in the seven thousand range, and he had a cool eighteen thousand in savings and a tidy sum in a 401K.

His life was too wrapped up and tidy.  Anyone so clean had to have a dark side but when I checked with a friend in CPD, Bentley came up clean.  Not even a parking ticket.

With no leads, I found myself back in David Bentley’s study again.  I decided that the items that I had only given a brief inspection deserved a closer look.

Before I checked the folders again, I picked his yearbook from the bookshelf and perused it.  Maybe David Bentley’s ancient history would offer some revelatory clue?

I found him among seniors, looking gallant in a suit with wide lapels and no tie.  He was an active guy.  Drama club, the student paper, the Spanish club, track, student council vice president, etc.

I replaced the yearbook and then pulled a pile of folders from his desk.  I picked up a folder marked "Apartments."  I opened it and found a series of guides for various complexes around Columbus.  There were several newspaper ads listing openings from about two years ago.  I sorted through these and found the ad for his apartment in Grandview Heights.  I looked at the back of the folder and found a lease agreement signed by Bentley for an apartment in German Village.  German Village is an area to the south of the downtown that had gone through a renaissance in the 70’s and 80’s and attracted a lot of yuppies.  From the dates on the lease, it looks like Bentley left the place about two years ago and moved to this apartment
I reached into the pile again and found another folder neatly marked “Resume.” I pulled one resume and reviewed it.  Before coming to Lily, he worked at another firm called Meditech.  It dealt in pharmaceuticals and his job was very similar.  I checked the dates of his employment and it coincided with his change of apartments.

I closed the folder and tapped the edge of it on the desk, leaned back in my chair, and reviewed my mental notes of the interviews.  All the people I had spoken to were relatively recent acquaintances of Bentley’s. None more than two years old.

I saw a pattern emerging here.  Bentley made three significant life altering changes, all pretty much at the same time.  He changed jobs, he moved, and he joined a new church.  People are allowed to change apartments.  People are allowed to change jobs.  People are allowed to dedicate themselves to the church or synagogue of their choice but it seemed strange that you would do all three things at once unless you were looking for some sort of fundamental shift in your life.  And what would cause that?  I didn’t know but I aimed to find out.

Meditech  was located in a bleak industrial park on the city's west side.  All the buildings were huge metal and concrete squares and rectangles designed with a studied eye to drabness.
After a fairly unproductive interview with a Mid-manager, a husky fellow named Pemberton, I was directed to one of Bentley’s former co-workers.  His name was Rusty Solwald.  After winding through a maze of corridors and having to ask directions twice, I learned that Mr. Solwald was on a smoke break at the back dock.

The dock area overlooked an asphalt employee parking lot and looked to be the company’s primary shipping and receiving area.  I found Solwald leaning on a concrete yellow cylinder positioned in front the loading dock, dreamily taking a drag off a cigarette.  He wore dark pants and a light blue shirt with the word “Meditech” embroidered over the breast pocket.  I put him in his late twenties and from my perspective, looking down from the dock on to the top of his head, he was early into male pattern baldness.

He must have heard my approach because he turned toward me.  He had one of those sour expressions that someone gives you when you interrupt an ultimately pleasurable moment.

“Rusty Solwald? I asked stepping down from the dock.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Mr. Pemberton said that I should talk to you.  I'm investigating David Bentley’s death and I wanted to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind?  I asked.

“What for?  Wasn’t it a suicide?  He wasn’t killed or anything?”

“It certainly looks like a suicide, but I just wanted to check why he left his job here.  It could mean something or it could mean nothing.”

He took a deep drag on his cigarette and flicked it away.  “To tell you the truth, I don’t know why he left.  I got the feeling that it was something personal.”

He left it there.  I didn’t.  “Could you elaborate?”  I asked making a circling hand gesture to elicit more information.

“You see, he was always so organized and during the last couple months he was here, things got a little out of order and he seemed distracted.  You know what I mean?”

“What do you mean he was distracted?

“Just not all here all the time.  I mean, here as in body, but not in spirit.  You know what I mean?”

Rusty Solwald was one of those people that had a tag line.  His seemed to be ‘You know what I mean?’ sort of people.  “Well," I said, "do you know why he was distracted?”

Before he answered he did a quick look around to check for other people.  “Listen, not many people know this, but I think David was a queer.”

I was stunned.  I found this information incomprehensible at the moment.  It didn’t seem to fit, but I tried to keep a neutral expression.

He continued.  “Now, I don’t know this for a fact.  You just get this feeling when you’re around someone for a while.  It’s not like he was a limp wrist or anything.  You know what I mean?  He was normal enough but I caught him once out here at this dock talking with this guy and, I just walked out the door, you know.  I could swear that the guy had just kissed David.  When David heard someone was there, he jumped away from the guy like he was on fire or something.  His face was all red and embarrassed like, and he kept looking at me with these quick looks.  You know what I mean?  What could I do?  I just acted liked nothing had happened.  They talked for a couple minutes and David walked the guy to his car.  I sort of started looking back in the past and I remembered that David had only gotten personal calls from guys.  One day I was talking to someone up in purchasing, and they said that they had seen him coming out of this one gay bar downtown.”  Solwald tapped his head with a his right forefinger for a moment, trying to bring the place to mind.

“Whatever its name is, I can’t remember.  So, anyway, I put two and two together.  It’s not that I mind working with a fag or something.  He was just as normal as the next guy.  You know what I mean?”

“I found myself at Colombo’s on Long Street feeling very conspicuous.  I really shouldn’t have because almost every other patron of the bar was a man.  You always hear the line, “Some of my best friends are...” and I certainly had a few gay acquaintances but I definitely felt out of place here.

It was a pretty typical bar.  None of it was decorated in pink.  There was a vacant dance floor in the back.  The place was sparsely populated with patrons.  A pitted and scarred wooden bar ran along the west wall for about twenty five feet.  Behind its expanse was a wall with a vast array of liquor bottles of different shapes, sizes and colors.  The place had the stock aroma of other drinking establishments: stale beer and sweat.

I sat nursing an Uncola, waiting for the evening bartender because the day man had only worked there for a couple months.  I wondered if I should have worn an armband that said, “Hetero.”  I guess I was playing into a stereotype, but I couldn’t help myself.  I was facing my own prejudice, and it was making me supremely uncomfortable.

I noticed the early bartender at the end of the bar talking to another fellow who looked of a similar vocation.  At least it seemed that way since the guy had just put on a stained apron, but maybe I shouldn’t make assumptions.  My track record wasn’t too good lately.

The new arrival started my way with a confident swagger.  He was a beefy guy with a round face bisected by a handlebar mustache.  “You a cop?”  he asked.

“No, I’m private.  I’m just trying to track someone down,” I replied.

He leaned closer to me as if we were sharing some clandestine information and almost whispered, “I don’t know if I should help you at all.  We don’t need anyone coming in and hassling us.  We have enough problems.”

I had to head this off.  “That’s why I came to you and your friend first.  I thought that if I started interrogating your patrons...well, it might cause a problem, and that’s the last thing either of us want.”  I tagged the sentence with my most earnest smile.

It must have worked because he asked me what I wanted, and I showed him the picture of David.  He put on a pair of reading glasses and examined the photo for a moment, then placed it on the bar and slid it across to me.

“Yeah, this guy used to hang here a couple years ago,” he said as he took off his glasses, in one fluid motion, and put them back in his apron.

I nodded my head to solicit further information, and he took my cue.  “His name was Dan or Dave or something that started with a D.”

“Did he come in alone?  Or do you remember if he hung around with anyone?”

“Our clientele changes all the time,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.  He scratched his head and then said, “I remember that he used to drink a lot.  And he tipped well.  He could have met someone here.  I’m not sure.”

“Are you sure you can’t remember anyone?”  I asked.

He told me he didn’t, and I gave him my card in case anything came to mind.  I was out the door with my prejudices and all, feeling a bit ashamed of myself for having them but knowing that there wasn’t much I could do about it

I hesitated calling in my daily report to Stephanie because I knew that this news would devastate her.  Not one of David Bentley’s new circle knew or even suspected his past.  He was a knight in shining armor who rode boldly into their lives.  Who was I to destroy this image?

A day went by and I made excuses to be out of the office, only checking my answering machine and returning Stephanie’s calls when I knew she was at work.  I sort of felt like a kid who was avoiding telling his parents about a bad report card.

It was late on a Thursday when I got the call.  I identified myself and said hello.  A scratchy, deep male voice on the other end of the line said, “Is this the private investigator that was asking about David Bentley?

“Yes,” I replied.

“I know who’s responsible for his death,” he said matter-of-factly.

I asked “Who,” but he refused to tell me over the phone.  He gave me the address of a house in Clintonville.  I told him I could be there in less than twenty minutes.

It was twilight, and a cool breeze cut through the air carrying the odors of spring flowers as I got out of my Cherokee.  I couldn’t tell a daffodil from a daisy and, unlike most people, I never really liked the aroma of flowers.  I found their odor reminiscent of an old woman.

Clintonville is to the north of Ohio State’s campus and is an authentic, middle class urban neighborhood.  All the houses are too close together for my taste. Some of the houses on the south were inhabited by students, but the farther north you got the more the student population thinned out to the normal folk.

The place was a two-story frame house which needed a paint job.  I hesitated before ringing the bell, asking myself if I should expect any danger in this encounter.  This person had said they knew who was responsible for David Bentley’s death.  Maybe this was a setup?

Some intuitive sense told me that this wasn’t the case, and I rang the doorbell.

After a couple moments, a man opened the door and stood wavering slightly as if the breeze might topple him at any moment.  He was back lighted by a bright foyer light causing his face to become a collage of more shadow than light.  The smells coming from within the house were a stark contrast to the outside aromas.  My nostrils were assaulted with the strong smell of disinfectant and rubbing alcohol.

The same scratchy voice from the phone asked, “Are you Mr. Daulton?”

I said yes.

“Won’t you come in?” he said moving from the doorway to allow me entrance.  He seemed to be around six foot and, judging by his silhouette, was painfully thin.  The foyer was mostly natural stained wood.  A staircase was to the left of the door leading to a second floor.  The man gestured to a semi-darkened room off to our right and shuffled into it.  I followed.

The living room had the same stained natural wood, the floor covered with a worn oriental rug.  Most of the light was indirect, seeping into the corners of the room.  A large flat screen flicker quietly in front of a luxurious, hunter green leather couch.  It was covered with a sheet and a blanket.  The couch was positioned beneath a bay window with mini-blinds shut tightly only allowing in the smallest shafts of cool, blue twilight.
I still hadn’t had a direct look at my host, although I could now tell he was wearing sweats, a t-shirt and had some sort of baseball cap.  He walked around a mission style coffee table in front of the couch, turned and motioned to an overstuffed chair.

“Won’t you sit down?” he asked, and I complied.

He didn’t so much sit as collapse onto the couch.  He emitted a muffled groan as he situated himself.

“You’re probably wondering who I am and why I called you here this evening,” he said, and then laughed deeply, seemingly delighted with his utterance.  The laugh turned into a coughing fit, and after he got himself under control, he continued.  “I’ve always wanted to say that.  ‘You’re wondering why I called you here this evening?’” he said in a deeper, put-on voice.  I was getting a better look at his face now as my eyes adjusted to the subdued lighting of the room.  He was wearing was a Cleveland Indians cap.

His face was gaunt with pallid skin tightly stretched over high cheekbones and his eyes were deeply set, turned into dark sockets by the subdued lighting.

I told him I was wondering.

“I told you that I knew who was responsible for David Bentley’s death on the phone.  Well, my name is Michael Smith, and I’m responsible for David’s death.”

We sat in a heavy silence.  How do you respond to this sort of revelation?  There was a story to be told.  I knew this, so I kept silent and waited for Michael Smith to continue.  Although I suspected I already knew what he was going to say.

“Frank, from Colombo’s, called and told me that you were in asking about David."  He coughed slightly to clear his throat and continued.  "David was my lover on and off for almost six years.  It was a turbulent relationship, you see.  David was hidden deep in the closet.  He would only see me when it was safe for him.  I hated his terms, but what could I do?  I loved him.  No, I adored him.”

He broke from his story and asked, “What do you know about David?”

“I’ve interviewed a number of David’s friends, and they all think he’s a saint.”  He smiled at this comment.  “But noticed there was a big gap in his life.  He went from high school to college, then nothing for about six to seven years.  He changed his job, moved into a new apartment in a new area of town, turns up in this church, falls in love and gets engaged, all in a very short time span.  Those are dramatic changes.  I also noticed that there were no photographs or mementos in his apartment that would reveal anything about that time.  And no sort of records?  I just don’t see someone starting over and erasing a part of their past for no reason.”

He leaned forward on the couch and said, “Yes, it was too much.  Too much for David.  I’d like to say that it was too much for me but I know better.  David was a deeply spiritual person as you could probably tell from talking to his new friends.  In some ways, he was the most innocent person I’ve ever met.”

“I say I was his lover but did that make him gay? I don’t know what to think? He was engaged to be married. Does that make him bisexual? What do these terms mean? There are some people in my community of friends that say that there’s no such thing as a bisexual. I don’t know, but David was above those sorts of titles. Am I getting too philosophical for you? Are you a ‘just the facts’ sort of detective?"

I shook my head and he continued, “He wasn’t happy being with a man.  He was raised a strict Catholic.  All that Catholic guilt and shit.  This caused him untold torment.  He would see me for a period and then break it off.  I don’t know what he would do for those periods. Sometimes it would be weeks, and sometimes it would be months.  I may have misstated something earlier.  I said I was his lover, and I was in love with him, but I also hated him.  The reason I hated him was because I loved him.  I wanted him and, worst of all, I needed him.”

“During those times I would literally pine, but sometimes I distracted myself with others.  But they all seemed pale in comparison to my David.  You can probably tell that I’m not a well man.”  He waved his arm around the living room.  “This is my domain now.  I don’t have the strength to even go upstairs at night.  You know what I have, don’t you?”

I nodded my head.

He removed his ball cap, and I could see the Kaposi sarcoma spots high on his forehead.  His hair was cut close to the scalp, and the purple blotches were about the size of dimes, intermixed with his hairline.

“I picked this up with one of my distractions when David took one his vacations from me.  I never told him that I had seen other men in his absences.  I was worried that he might not want to see me any more.  Do you think that’s selfish?”

I once again remained mute.  We sat in silence with the flicker of a muted television washing over us like a fire throwing off splashes of color.

“David was here last week.  I called him.  I was feeling guilty about not telling him about the other men.  About having unprotected sex with him afterwards.”

“David did a good job with his final break from me.  I hadn’t heard from him for over two years.  Of course, my life went on.  Then I started noticing the symptoms.  I had seen them before in friends.  Maybe it was denial because I waited and waited to get tested.  For some reason, the doctors can’t get any of the treatments to work for me.” He paused and rubbed his eyes for a moment.

“Well, when I did, I became so angry and, then, self-absorbed. I blamed David a great deal of the time. If he had stayed with me, I never would have had to have to seek out the company of others.” He paused from his soliloquy and sighed. “Those sorts of vicious rationalizations.”

“I’m on the downhill slide now.  It’s obvious, and I’ve begun to think about the bigger picture. I had some friends look into David’s new life...his new happy life. They filled me in and I kept wondering. It began to nag at me. What if? What if? So, I called him and asked him to see me. At first ,he refused, but then I had to tell him about my condition. He came right away. We sat here just like you and I are sitting now. I talked and talked just like I’m doing now. And he listened. He was always a good listener. I told him that I felt guilty about him. That I was concerned for him. He said that he would be fine. He convinced me of that. He had a serenity about himself now that hadn’t been there when...well, back when we were an item.”

He tried a weak smile but the corners of his mouth fell.  Silent tears begin to run down his cheeks.  He leaned forward, put his head in his hands and sobbed.

After a moment he looked up, tears streaking down his face, and said in a voice thick with grief, “What have I done?  Oh God, what have I done.”

He sobbed inconsolably for a few moments his head in his hands, rocking gently back, and forth while I sat silent.

After wiping his nose with his sleeve, and composing himself, he looked at me again.  “Do you know what he did before he left?”

I shook my head.

“He prayed for me.”

I had my final meeting with Stephanie on Friday afternoon.  She was able to get off work around three in the afternoon.  The sun was fighting to break through a dark cloud cover as I looked out my office window.  There was a chill in the air, a striking contrast to the past few warm days.  Columbus’ springs were always flighty and unpredictable like a teenage girl.

Stephanie Mason entered my office tentatively, and I asked her to sit down.  She did.  She was dressed in a long flowing dress with a flower pattern on it.  The background of the dress was black and the bright flowers stood out, almost life-like contrast with their dark backdrop.

Now it was my turn to build a case.  My case rested on one question and, from there, I had to improvise my answers, but I knew where I would go.

I filled her in on all the interviews up to the one I had had Rusty Solwald.  It was time for me to pop my question.

“Stephanie, I have a question I need to ask you. It’s going to be very direct and personal, and I need you to answer honestly.”

She look at me intently as if she were actually on a witness stand, “Okay.”

“Did you ever sleep with David?”

She paused, and I could see a myriad of emotions float like a cloud over her face.  She finally said, “No. Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to, and I’m not a virgin or anything but we had decided that we would wait. Actually, David suggested that we wait.”

It was all I needed to know. I had made a detour on the way home after Michael Smith’s confession. Of course, it wasn’t a confession. There was no penalty for infecting someone other than the one the carrier shared with the infected. In this case, the de facto penalty was deadly for both.

I used the key to David’s apartment again. I went through his garbage and found the test results from the clinic. They were wadded up in the bottom of the trash, ready to go to the dumpster.

So, my improv started. I had designed a pattern of lies that seemed plausible. David had had a history of depression. His parents had really died in a horrible accident in which David had always blamed himself. His Uncle blamed David for his sister’s death. Things must have come to head.

It sounded okay to me.  Of course, if she did any checking, she would probably uncover the truth. I think underneath she knew that it was something else, but she needed the story to be this way. She needed her saint to remain saintly, and David needed to keep his skeletons in his closet. His past would be his past.

It worked for me.

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