Copyright Notice © 2016 Tim Knox
I kept an eye on the rearview as I drove back from the drug store. I cruised slowly around the apartment complex a couple of times, looking for any sign of a black Escalade and Ahmed Omar. The coast seemed clear. I backed into a space directly across and down from Susan’s front door. As I switched off the engine my phone rang. I put Reuben on speaker.
“I talked to the investigator in Santa Rosa,” he said. “No official paperwork yet, but they’re ruling it a suicide. There were several empty bottles of Seconal and Ambien and a half-empty bottle of vodka on the nightstand. She tied a plastic bag over her head so she’d suffocate after the booze and pills knocked her out. There was no sign of a struggle, nothing out of place they could see. Open and shut.”
“So there’s no reason why I shouldn’t go into her apartment?”
“No legal reason,” he said. “Just be careful.”
“I will,” I said. “And I’ll call you back if I find anything out of the ordinary.” I got out of the car and started across the lot with the phone in hand.
Reuben asked, “What do you expect to find in there, Matthew?”
I thought about it for a moment. I didn’t know what I expected to find, but I knew that if I mentioned the memory stick and that Susan thought she was being followed by Omar my opportunity to get inside the apartment would disappear. Reuben would demand that I sit tight while he called in the local cops and drove up from L.A. to assist. I couldn’t have that, at least not until I’d had the chance to see what was inside Susan’s apartment myself.
“I don’t really expect to find anything,” I said, sounding casual. “I’ll call you when I’m headed home. We’ll grab a bite tomorrow.”
“Matthew, something else you should be aware of,” he said. I heard him sigh like bad news was coming. “Grumman is ramping up the media machine again. He came out today challenging the D.A. to formally charge you on the criminal trespass and stalking charges. At the very least he wants you picked up and your bail revoked. Don’t be surprised if there’s a uniform camped out on your door step when you get home.”
“Thanks for the tip, Reuben. Maybe I just won’t come home.”
* * *
I was about to put the key in the apartment door when a gruff voice called from behind. “Something I can help you with?” I turned to see an older man wearing a uniform shirt with a patch over the left pocket that identified him as Wally. He was carrying a tool box in one hand and a claw hammer in the other.
“Are you the landlord?” I asked.
“I’m the landlord, the maintenance man, the janitor, the pool cleaner, chief cook and bottle washer, owner of this hammer.” He held it up and shook it at me. “Question is, who are you?”
“A friend of Miss Harris, the woman who lived here.” I held up the key.
He squinted at me. “And what do you plan to do with that?”
“I plan to open the door and go inside,” I said. “If that’s all right with you.”
He tapped the hammer against his thigh. “You have a key, so I reckon it is. Just don’t come out of there with your arms full and we’ll get along fine.”
I tried a friendly smile and stuck out my hand. “My name’s Matthew. Are you the gentleman who found her?”
He set the toolbox on the ground and dropped the hammer next to it. He shook my hand and said, “I am. She was a sweet girl. Model tenant. Quite the looker when she moved in here. Damn cancer just ate away at her till there was hardly anything left. Took my third wife about four years ago. Cancer of the female parts.”
“You knew Susan, before the cancer?”
“Oh sure, she moved in here two, three years ago. Cute little thing, friendly, always smiling, never met a stranger. I called her Bright Eyes and she called me Uncle Wally.”
I asked, “How did you come to find her this morning? I mean, did you let yourself in or was the door open?”
He closed one eye and sized me up with the other. “You look familiar to me,” he said. He shook a finger at me. “I’ve seen you somewhere. You a cop or something?”
“I work with the police in L.A.,” I said, giving him an official nod. “Santa Rosa Police found my number in her phone. They asked me to come and take a look around to see if I might spot anything out of the ordinary.”
He didn’t ask for a badge, but his demeanor changed once he thought I was a cop. It’s been my experience that older people are more respectful of the law, more accepting of someone claiming to have a badge.
“They suspect foul play?” he asked. “Cops that were here this morning didn’t say anything about foul play. They don’t think I had anything to do with it, do they?”
“Of course not,” I said. “But you were the first person on the scene, so you’re key to the investigation.”
“Well, I’ll help any way I can.”
“I appreciate that,” I said officially. I tugged out the notepad I keep in my back pocket and flipped it open to the next clean page. I found a pen in another pocket and clicked it a few times. He watched it all with reverence.
“Now,” I said, one eyebrow raised, “why were you in the apartment?”
He wiped his forehead with a rag that was sticking out of his shirt pocket. He sat down on the steps that led to the upstairs apartment and rubbed his palms on his knees.
“Like I told the officer this morning, she left a message at the office yesterday morning and said the lock on her sliding patio door was broken, asked if I could fix it for her. I told her I’d be by this morning to take a look. I knocked, no answer, so I let myself in with the master key. I knew she stayed at her work sometimes. I walked through the apartment calling out, didn’t want her to walk out of the shower and find me there. That’s when I found her on the bed. I felt for a pulse. No heartbeat, so I backed out, locked the place up, and called the law.”
I studied his face. If he was making anything up I couldn’t tell it. “She was on the bed. Was she under the covers or lying on top of the covers?”
He scratched his chin with a dirty fingernail and thought for a moment, finally shook his head. “No, sir, she was lying on top of the spread on her back, legs straight out, arms straight out, like she was on a cross.”
“And she had a bag over her head?”
“Yes sir, a plastic bag of some kind, like a big shopping bag. I couldn’t see her face through the bag, thank the Lord. It looked like she used a scarf to tie it around her neck so no air could get in. I heard one of the officers say that’s how it’s done; take a bunch of pills to put you to sleep and tie a plastic bag around your head to suffocate yourself to death. Sounds like a horrible way to go to me, knocked out or not. I had an uncle once, blew his head off with a shotgun out back of his house. I reckon that’s a worse way to go, but I didn’t have to see that one.”
“What was she wearing?”
“Her usual,” he said with a shrug. He closed his eyes to remember the scene. “Green scrubs, a heavy sweater, tennis shoes and white socks.”
“She had her shoes on?”
“Yes sir. It looked like she just walked in, stretched out, and died.”
“Was the lock on the sliding door broken?”
“It was,” he said with a nod. “Looked like somebody took a screw driver to it, tried to jimmy it open. Goddamn teenagers with nothing better to do, I reckon. Ms. Harris hadn’t reported anything missing, so I guess they didn’t get in.” He stood up and dusted off his pants. “In fact, I need to take care of that lock before it gets dark. I can do it from the outside so I don’t disturb you.”
I shook his hand. “I appreciate that. And I appreciate you looking out for Susan over the years.”
He picked up the toolbox and gave me a sad look. He said, “I didn’t really do a very good job of that now, did I?”
I let myself into the apartment and stood just inside the door for a minute to let my eyes adjust to the low light. I slipped off my shoes and left them by the door. I tugged the latex gloves from my back pocket and pushed my hands into them. I felt a little silly, but then again, I didn’t want my fingerprints all over Susan’s apartment, just in case someone later accused me of doing something I didn’t do.
There were no windows in the room, just the double patio doors. A thick curtain was drawn across them, leaving the room dark. I felt along the wall, found a light switch, and switched it on. Two lamps sitting on end tables came on. I could hear Wally fiddling with the lock outside the patio doors, but couldn’t see him through the curtains.
The apartment was small, but neat. In the living room there was just enough space for a couch and chair, the end tables and a coffee table. There was an old style TV tray in the corner and an older model TV atop it. There was a laptop computer on the coffee table. The couch and wall matched those in the video on the memory stick.
To the left of the computer was a plastic water bottle and to the right, an ashtray that probably contained the ash from Susan’s pot. I doubted the cops paid it much attention since the body was found in the bedroom and foul play wasn’t suspected. The water bottle looked half full. It was lying on its side with the cap screwed on.
There was a short hallway off the living room. I started down it, turning on lights as I went. To the right was a small bathroom. I reached inside the door and switched on the light. Standard stuff: Sink, toilet, shower, yellow fuzzy rug, a small magazine holder made of wicker and a matching trash can. Susan didn’t use the apartment much, which would explain the lack of toiletries and makeup I expected to see lining the sink. There was a hairbrush there. I picked it up and ran a thumb over the bristles. It looked new, unused, no hairs caught in its bristles. Then I remembered Susan didn’t have hair to brush. The thought made me sick to my stomach. I gently replaced the brush and clicked off the light.
I hesitated outside her bedroom. The door was open, I could see inside, but I couldn’t bring myself to go in right away. I stood in the doorway, taking in the room. There was a double bed, a dresser, a couple of nightstands, and a small makeup table in the corner with nothing on it but a round makeup mirror on a lighted stand.
There was no clutter on the dresser, no clothes on the floor, no sign that anyone lived in the room. Other than a few framed watercolors that looked like a set you’d get at Wal-Mart, the walls were bare; no personal photos or effects. In fact, there was nothing personal about the entire apartment. It was cold and unadorned; not the kind of place I could see Susan living – or dying – in.
There were deep tracks in the carpet from the gurney that took her body away. The comforter was in a heap on top of the bed, probably left that way by the EMTs who had removed the body. I walked over and put my hands on the bed and closed my eyes, trying to imagine Susan lying there; not as a corpse, but as the woman I knew.
I sat on the edge of the bed and looked around the room from that angle; for what I didn’t really know. I couldn’t believe that Susan ended her life here, in this cold, impersonal place, all alone, wearing her work clothes, lying on top of the covers like she was nailed to a cross. I didn’t know her well, but that didn’t sound like what Susan would do. In my mind she’d dress in her favorite nightgown or pajamas; get under the covers to get warm, relax, just like she was going to sleep. There would be soft music playing, her closest friends nearby. She would take the pills, close her eyes and die a death of peace. Dying fully clothed on top of the covers couldn’t have been her plan. It didn’t make sense. Neither did tying a bag over her head. Susan was a nurse. She knew how to end her life with drugs easily enough. She wouldn’t want anyone to find her with a bag over her head. It had to be horrific sight. She wouldn’t do that to a person. It just wasn’t her style.
Rueben said the local cops found bottles of Seconal and Ambien on the nightstand. The bottles were gone, as was the bottle of vodka, all bagged and tagged as evidence, I supposed. There was no plastic bag there either; no scarf Wally said was tied around her neck. If I had straightened the comforter and vacuumed away the gurney tracks you would have never known a woman died there the night before.
I switched off the light and went into the small kitchen off the living room. It was clean as a pin; no dishes in the sink, no dust on the floor, no boxes or jars on the counters. I opened the fridge and other than an almost-empty jug of orange juice and a small mayonnaise jar, it was bare. I took out the mayo jar and twisted off the lid. The plastic jar was washed clean. Inside, in a sealed plastic bag, was Susan’s stash of medicinal marijuana. I smiled and held up the bag.
I thought about taking it and smoking it in her honor, but it’d be my luck to get busted on the way home. I didn’t need a drug charge on top of everything else I was facing. I stuck it back in the jar and closed the door. Maybe Wally would find it later and smoke it in her honor for the both of us.
I went back to the living room and sat on the sofa in front of the coffee table. I picked up the water bottle and set it upright. I picked up the ashtray and took a whiff. My suspicions were correct; it wasn’t ash from a cigarette. It was pot. The aroma reminded me of my time with Susan.
The laptop was shut. I opened it up and tapped the power button and waited for it to boot up. When I sat back something beneath the coffee table caught my eye. I reached down and pulled it up. It was a worn photo album. The pages were yellowed and a lot of the plastic no longer stuck in place to protect the photos. I was extra careful. I felt like I was handling some long-lost artifact that no one was supposed to find.
The first four or five pages were plastered with chronological photos of Susan as a child: a perfect blonde haired, blue eyed baby; a beautiful toddler with a head full of yellow curls; a lanky preteen with short hair wearing a soccer uniform; and on and on through elementary, middle, and high school. She was a happy kid, with a gleam in her eye and a constant smile on her face.
There were the prerequisite “Christmas with the grandparents” shots, pictures of her with other kids at a cookout, a bunch of cousins maybe, and a few with her mom and dad. She looked a lot like her mother. They shared the same smile. She had her dad’s eyes.
Next came the college years. She went to USC, or at least was fond of USC t-shirts and plastic beer cups. Happy, laughing, always at the center of the group, making silly faces at the camera. Not a care in the world other than making her grades and making sure her cup never ran dry.
A few more pages and there was her USC graduation ceremony, grinning from ear to ear with just mom now, then came photos in a nurse’s uniform, posing with patients, staff members, doctors. Smiling, happy, successful, loving life. Then I turned the page and the “Zoebel years” began.
In the photos Susan wasn’t the tired, thin, pained woman I knew. She was beautiful, vibrant, energetic, and Zoebel appeared to be completely taken with her. In several photos she was smiling at the camera and he was staring at her like a love-sick pup. There was a strip of black and white photos, taken in a photo booth. Each frame was the same; a long passionate kiss between lovers. Their lips were locked; eyes closed. Her arms were wrapped tightly around his neck with her left hand going up to clutch at his hair. They were deeply, madly, stupidly in love. How had I missed this when I was digging into Zoebel’s life three years ago?
Then I realized how they kept their romance a secret. They never brought it to work. They never let anyone see them together; no displays of affection, no long looks, no lingering touches. They played up the rumors about Zoebel and other nurses and hushed up rumors about themselves. Zoebel’s self-control was beyond my comprehension. I wouldn’t have been able to keep my hands off her.
There was just one shot of them in a hospital setting. There was an older woman propped up in a hospital bed. It took me a minute to realize it was Susan’s mother, much older and thinner than in the previous photos. I remembered Susan telling me she died of cancer. This must have been one of the last pictures taken of her. Susan was on the left side with her hand on the woman’s shoulder and a forced smile on her face. Zoebel was on the right, wearing a white lab coat with a stethoscope draped around his neck. His hands were behind him. His was a modest smile; the kind of smile a doctor might offer the family of a terminally ill patient.
They traveled a lot. There were photos taken on a sun deck overlooking a ski slope, others taken on a cruise ship, still others taken on a beach. There was Susan and Zoebel standing in the surf with sunglasses on; sitting at a table in bathing suits toasting the camera with fruity drinks. Zoebel had always been good looking, but I never thought about how Susan might fill out a bikini. She was tanned and toned and perfectly proportioned. Her body was curvy without an ounce of fat that I could see. I cursed the cancer that had ravaged her body. God, what it had done to her, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually, as well. It consumed her from every angle.
The last photo in the album was a dark shot of them huddled close in what looked like a bar or restaurant. There was a date stamp in the corner. The photo was taken a month after Zoebel’s arrest. Behind them, standing back a few feet, drink clutched between his hands, smiling down at them, was Marc Cronenburg. His presence behind them was ghostly, demonic. It made my blood run cold.
The final few pages were blank. I assumed there were no memories worth saving after that night.
I closed the album and set it on the sofa next to me. When I left it was going with me. Someone had to cherish Susan’s memory. Zoebel certainly wasn’t going to do it. I sat there for a moment with my eyes closed. I had to get hold of my emotions. Susan was gone and no amount of anger on my part was going to bring her back.
Wally must have finished repairing the patio door because I didn’t hear him outside anymore. I got up and pushed the curtain back. The door was standard issue for an apartment like this; aluminum frame and glass; not terribly difficult to break into. I shook the handle to make sure it was locked tight. It didn’t budge. I thumbed open the lock and slid the door to the side and stepped outside. The fresh air felt good in my lungs. I hadn’t realized how stale the air in the apartment was.
Outside the door was a small concrete patio. There was a plastic lawn chair there with a small glass table beside it. There was another ashtray on the table; this one wiped clean. I turned to look at the point where the door slid into the latch. The metal facing was scratched, marks that could have been made by someone trying to pry a screwdriver between the facing and the lock. If Susan reported this to Wally yesterday, it meant the lock might not have been working properly last night when she died. My mind started creating all kinds of sinister scenarios. I shook the thought away, though it never left completely, and went back inside. I made sure the patio door was locked and pulled the heavy curtain back across it.
The latex gloves were making my hands sweat. I sat back on the couch and tugged them off and stuffed them into my shirt pocket. My focus was drawn to the floating Windows logo on the laptop screen. I leaned forward and tapped the space bar. The logo went away and the log in screen appeared. It was asking for a password.
“Shit,” I said. I knew in the movies the hero would simply type in a few logical words and one of them would amazingly turn out to be correct. I knew the odds of that happening for me were slim to none, but what the hell. I had nothing to lose.
I typed in susan.
I typed in susanharris.
I typed in sarahwoodley.
This was much easier in the movies. I typed in every variation of her name that I could think of; all with the same result. Password incorrect.
It pained me to do so, but I typed in adrian.
I typed in zoebel.
I typed in adrianzoebel.
Just for kicks I typed in adriansucks. Still, no good.
“Come on,” I whined. I rubbed my hands together and stared at the screen. I wasn’t good with computers. Sure, I used computers to bang out articles and books, but if it wasn’t for work I’d never turn a computer on. I don’t email friends (that would require friends), I don’t have a Facebook account, and I don’t watch funny videos on YouTube. If the internet depended on me for its existence it would have died of neglect long ago.
I looked around the room for a hint, but came up with nothing. I replayed every conversation I’d had with her in my mind. I tried to recall everything I knew about her. Nothing came to mind until I felt an itch on the underside of my wrist. It was my subconscious giving my body a hint. I was reminded of the small tattoo on the underside of Susan’s wrist. I smiled and typed in “cancersucks.”
The screen went dark for a moment, then a sound came from the speakers, a happy musical tone, and the computer desktop appeared. The background was a photograph. I recognized the ocean and beach from one of the photos in the album. Susan seemed to have a hard time letting go of memories, even those that turned into nightmares.
I leaned forward and stared at the screen. “Okay, what do I do now?” I dug my cellphone out of my pocket and called the one person who I knew might answer that question. His name was Dougie. He was the tech guru at the Times and someone I had bribed several times to do a little digital investigation for me. Some would call it hacking. I call it digital investigation.
He answered on the first ring. I said, “Dougie, Matthew Cruze.”
“Matthew Cruze. Mr. Big Shot Celebrity. Mr. Boy Am I In Deep Shit Now.” Dougie considered himself to be quite the comedian, though the range of his humor was limited to a very bad Rob Schneider impression. I needed him, so I played along.
“It’s the Cruze man calling the Doug man,” I said.
He laughed and asked, “So what can the Doug man do for the Cruze man today?”
“I have a computer question.”
“Shoot,” he said.
I put him on speaker and set the phone on the coffee table. “Okay, I just booted up a computer that belonged to a friend of mine.”
“The Cruze man has friends, look at you.” Dougie could also be an asshole.
“How can I tell what program she used last? And what files she might have been using when the computer shut down?”
“Jeez, is that the best you can throw at me? A five year old can tell you how to do that?”
“Well I don’t know any five year olds, asshole. Can you help me or not?”
“Mac or PC?”
“Okay, see that little icon in the lower left hand side of the screen? The Windows start icon? Looks like four little squares of different colors?”
“Click on it.”
“Okay,” I said, sliding my finger across the keypad.
“See the list of programs there? That’s the list of programs last used. The most recent one will be at the top.”
“The top one says Dell Webcam.”
“Okay, that means she used the webcam program last.”
“Okay, so I can mouse up to this and launch the program, right?”
“You’re learning. We’ll have you playing Pajama Sam in no time.”
“Okay, the program is coming up.” My face suddenly appeared in a small window on the screen. I smiled, frowned, tilted my head to the side like a dumb animal.
“You can probably see yourself,” he said. “Smile for the camera.”
“Okay, so if she was recording a video the last time she used this program how do I find that?”
He said, “At the top of that little window you’ll see a menu of some kind. Mouse over that and see if it lists recent files. If so, just pick the one you want, bring it up and just press play.”
There were several files listed there. They were all named “susanharris_” with a date at the end. I assumed it was the date she had recorded them. The most recent video was appended with yesterday’s date. Further down I saw the “susanharris_truth.mpg4” video, the one she had put on the memory stick for me. I went to the top one listed and clicked to open the file. After a few seconds Susan’s face appeared frozen in the little window. My heart rose into my throat. The cursor hovered over the Play button.
“Thanks, Dougie. I owe you one.” He started to say something else, but I hung up on him.
I held my breath and clicked Play.