Copyright Notice © 2016 Tim Knox
The call I’d been dreading came the following Monday morning a little after eight. It was a dark and stormy day with rain coming down in sheets; a day befitting my mood. I hadn’t left the house since Susan’s visit. I spent hours reading and rereading the information on the memory stick. I printed it all out, made notes, highlighted sections. It took everything I had not to call Reuben Morales to tell him what I had. But I’d made a promise to Susan that I would never break.
I watched the video a dozen times, always with my cellphone close at hand. I watched it a couple of times with the sound muted. It was easier to watch without the words. I finally had to just close the laptop and walk away.
I ignored the dozen or so calls from unknown numbers, reporters, probably. There were several calls from Winger and one from Reuben, but I let them go to voicemail. I’d retrieve them later. I had call waiting, but it didn’t matter. I had to keep the line free.
I had Susan’s cellphone number and the number for the Santa Rosa Assisted Living Center in my contact list, so they would show in my caller ID. Those were the only two numbers I’d answer.
My determined peers in the press were kept away from the front of my house, thanks to complaints from my neighbors to the police and Reuben’s influence, but I knew they were still out there somewhere, lying in wait, near enough to pick up my scent if I tried to leave. It didn’t matter. I had no desire to go anywhere or do anything but wait for the phone to ring.
I flipped through the news channels. I was still fodder for the press mill, but since they couldn’t get me to make a statement and Adrian Zoebel had jetted off to Cannes for the weekend with his supermodel girlfriend, and Allen Grumman’s attacks had grown tiresome, things had eased a bit. I mainly wanted to see if the District Attorney had made a statement, but his office was silent, which I took as a possible good sign.
I spent most of the time watching old movies and eating everything in the house I could find. Ever since I was a kid I found comfort in massive amounts of junk food and old movies, especially those with Humphrey Bogart, who was my mother’s favorite actor. If I hadn’t also inherited her metabolism I’d probably weigh three hundred pounds. I watched Casablanca five times; African Queen twice; and put The Maltese Falcon on a loop for most of the day on Sunday.
The movies were just distractions, just background noise I barely noticed. I couldn’t get Susan Harris off my mind. My thoughts were completely occupied by the knowledge of what she was going to do. I brought up her number a dozen times on my cell, but never hit send. She had it all planned out and I had no right to interfere. If she wanted to speak to me again she would call, otherwise we had said our goodbyes and that was that. Not calling her was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
I was lying in bed listening to the rain beat against the roof when my cell rang. The caller ID said “Santa Rosa AL.” I sat up in bed and stared at the display for a moment. My hand started shaking. Breathing became hard. I answered on the third ring.
“Mr. Cruze, this is Dana Anderson. I’m the administrator at Santa Rosa Assisted Living. I’m a friend of Susan’s.”
“Yes.” It was all I could say. My chest was so tight I could barely breathe. I thought I might be having a heart attack.
“I’m very sorry to have to tell you this,” she said quietly. Her demeanor was professional, but I could tell there was emotion there. This wasn’t a routine call to the family of a resident that had just died at the facility. This was about a friend.
“She’s gone,” I said.
“Yes, sir, I’m afraid so. I received a call from her landlord this morning. She passed away sometime during the night.”
“I’m sorry; did you say you were notified by her landlord?”
“Yes, sir, just a few minutes ago.”
“I don’t understand. Why would he notify you if Susan passed away there at the center?”
“Oh, no, I’m sorry, I should explain,” she said. “Susan didn’t pass away here at the center. The landlord at the apartment complex where she lived found her this morning when he went in to fix something in her apartment. He called the police. She passed away in the bedroom there.”
“Wait, hang on, that doesn’t make sense,” I said. “She wanted to die there, at the center, with you and her other friends. She did not want to die alone.”
The phone was silent for a moment. I could hear her sniffing, the sound of tissue brushing against the phone. “Yes, well, that’s what we thought, too. To be honest, Mr. Cruze we’re all in shock here. I mean, we knew she was going to do it, but, well, then it happens and you feel so helpless.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” I said again. “I’m sorry, what was your name?”
“Miss Anderson, I’m going to drive up this afternoon. I can be there by four. Do you think we could meet at her apartment? Do you have a key?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Cruze, but I can’t get the center involved with whatever it is you’re doing,” she said. “No offense, but I’ve seen you on the news, I know what you’re accused of. Susan asked me to contact you once she was gone, but I can’t get involved in anything more, for the sake of the center.”
“Miss Anderson, please, I’m not asking you to get involved in anything. Something is just not right here. You feel it, too. I know you do. “
“Sir – “
“Susan did not want to die alone in that apartment. Please, ten minutes of your time is all I ask. I promise you’re not getting involved in anything. I just need to see where she died.”
After a moment of silence, she said, “Okay, I do have a key to Susan’s apartment. She asked me to take care of her things when she was gone, get them to a charity. I assume you would like to see inside the apartment before I have everything removed?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’d like to.”
“Okay. I can text you the address. I’ll meet you there at four. And Mr. Cruze, please make sure you’re not followed by the press.”
* * *
Susan’s apartment was at Village Square, a well-kept complex on the north side of Santa Rosa just off the 101, thirty minutes from the assisted living center. It was a nice part of town, lots of trees, not a lot of traffic. Peaceful, was the word that came to mind. I wondered if I might like living in a place like this someday. I could see how it made for Susan a calm retreat.
When I parked in front of Susan’s building there was a woman standing on the sidewalk with a set of keys in hand. “Mr. Cruze, I’m Dana Anderson,” she said, extending her hand. She was probably in her fifties, with modest makeup and graying hair that was cropped short above her ears. She was tall and thin, at least my height in flat-heeled shoes. She had a friendly smile. She also had a good grip. She pumped my hand and apologized for the circumstances.
“Have you gone inside?” I asked.
“No I haven’t. And to be honest with you, I don’t think I’m ready to.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“I thought I was ready to face this, but I’m not,” she said. She was stoic, holding back tears. “Susan was the most compassionate, loving person I knew, Mr. Cruze; one of my best nurses and one of my best friends. I agreed to be with her when the time came because she asked me to be there to hold her hand, but to be completely honest, I don’t know if I could have just sat there and watched her end her life.”
I nodded. “I understand. I’m not sure I could have done that either.”
She turned to look at the door to Susan’s apartment a few feet away. “I’m ashamed to say it, but I’m glad I wasn’t here. I’m just not as strong as she thought I was.” She tugged a hankie from the pocket of her suit and dabbed her eyes with it. “I’m sorry; you must think I’m awful.”
“I think you were a good friend who was asked to do something very uncomfortable,” I said. “No one can blame you for your feelings. Your friendship meant a lot to Susan, she told me so several times. You were one of the few people that she felt she could really trust.”
“That’s good to know,” she said, trying to smile. “There’s something else you should know.” She looked around the parking lot and toward the entrance from the street. There was no one else around. “Susan called me several times yesterday. She usually calls a couple of times a day when she’s off just to check in, but yesterday was different. When she called she sounded nervous, almost frightened.”
“What did she say?”
“She said she was being followed. She said that she had driven down to see you in L.A. and noticed a car behind her on the interstate on the way back. Then she saw the same car several times yesterday. She came back here to pick up a few things to bring to the center and she said it was parked across the lot and there was a man inside watching her.”
“Did she say what kind of car it was?”
“It was a black SUV, with tinted windows so she couldn’t see who was inside, but at one point she called me and it was directly behind her in traffic. She could see the driver clearly. He seemed to be watching her. She said she recognized him from Los Angeles. I don’t recall his name, but she said he was a very large black man with a shaved head and dark glasses. I asked if he had approached her and she said no, but she was sure he was following her.”
“Was the name Omar? Ahmed Omar?”
She thought for a moment. “That sounds right, yes.”
I turned to look around the lot. We were the only people I could see and there was no black Escalade parked there. I turned back to her and asked, “When was the last time you spoke to her?”
“Around five, I guess. She said she had a couple of errands to run and she would be back to the center for the night.”
“Did she mention the SUV or Omar again?”
“No, she didn’t.”
“And she didn’t say anything about…” I couldn’t finish the sentence. My voice just trailed off.
“About ending her life? No, nothing. She promised to give me plenty of notice when that was going to happen. I told her I needed time to prepare.”
She gave me a nervous smile as her eyes welled up. She reached for my arm. “What if that man did something to her, Mr. Cruze? What if dying here wasn’t Susan’s choice?”
“Let’s not jump to any conclusions,” I said, trying to calm her even though I was thinking the same thing. “I’ll check out the apartment and give you a call when I’m done. You go home, try to relax. You were a good friend, Dana. Susan loved you, no matter what.”
I walked her to her car and watched her pull away. I stood on the sidewalk and scanned the lot again. I thought about calling Reuben Morales to have him contact Santa Rosa PD to have an investigator sent out. If a murder had taken place inside the apartment, I was hesitant to go charging in and ruin any evidence a killer might have left behind. Then I remembered that the apartment had already been trampled by the landlord, the cops, EMTs, and the medical examiner or someone from the local funeral home called to cart the body away. Whatever evidence there might have been was already tainted to the point of uselessness. I went back to my car and took out my phone. I called Reuben for a different reason.
“Damn, I hate to hear that,” Reuben said after I told him about Susan. “That poor woman, bastards ruined her life. I’m sorry to hear she’s gone.”
“Listen, Reuben, I need a favor.”
“I need to know if the cops up here think this was a suicide or maybe something else.”
“Something else like what? Where are you, Matthew? Are you at her apartment?”
“I’m outside, yes,” I said. “I haven’t gone in. There’s no police tape on the door, so I’m assuming they suspect no foul play.”
“If there’s no tape on the door, no notice barring entry, then I would say you’re right.”
“Can you make a call to find out for sure?”
“What the hell are you doing up there, man?” he asked. “Aren’t you in enough trouble already? Do you really want to go poking around like this?”
“I just want to know the truth,” I said. “Look, I won’t go inside until I hear back from you. Please, Reuben, find out what they know; what they think happened.”
He sighed loudly in my ear. “Okay, give me half an hour. And you don’t set foot in the place until I give you the go ahead.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.” I hung up the phone and started the car. I drove to a drug store I’d passed a few miles back. I went inside and bought a Coke, a pack of peanuts, and a pair of latex gloves.