The last thing on earth he wanted to do was to open that door. But he had no choice.
He believed that his brand new key copy should work just as well, if not better, than the original. But he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Helpless and mistaken—two words that would come to define David Thompson’s life.
Why doesn’t this thing work?
The copy in his hand shimmered like a gold coin in the evening sun. He put it back in the hole, wiggling and jiggling it into the deadbolt lock of Apartment 1B, a ground floor unit.
Come on already.
Some big-box worker must have made this copy.
With each wiggle and jiggle, he swayed his hips, hoping some body English might help. On the fifth try, the door finally opened. Facing David and standing upright with his back against the living room wall some fifteen feet away, was Dr. Harold Salar, his friend, client, and expert witness. He was slouching a bit and was staring at David with a silly grin on his face. A waist-high stack of papers and folders were piled in front of him; on either side, stacks of boxes and crates reached towards the ceiling and pressed against his shoulders. Harold, in his mid-fifties, was dressed in a plain navy blue baseball jersey tucked into his pleated matching golf slacks. His jet-black hair matched the color of his belt; it was perfectly combed, parted to one side. His right-hand thumb was hooked between his jersey and his slacks, so his hand covered his belt buckle. His face was olive-toned, almost tan, chiseled, and neatly creased in all the right places. All in all, Dr. Harold Salar looked pretty darn good for a dead man.
“Harold . . . HAROLD!” David boomed as he moved his athletic frame down the narrow aisle toward him in disbelief. No response. As an attorney with an estate practice, David had walked in on his share of stiffs. He had developed a keen sense of smell for a decomposing corpse. The stench screamed “dead man ahead!” to David. But Harold was upright, almost standing.
Harold’s head leaned to one side, like he was nodding off with his eyes wide open. His knees pressed up against the waist-high stack to his front that helped to keep him upright. His Baltimore Orioles baseball cap was on the floor. Through the narrow opening that allowed entrance and exit to Harold’s space, David grasped the left hand hanging down by his side. It was cold to the touch and David felt the stiffness of rigor mortis when he moved it. He didn’t need to check for a pulse, but he did anyway, just to make sure.
David’s eyes welled up when the certainty of his friend’s death hit. His hands plowed through his silvery-brown hair as he looked around for a place to sit and gather his thoughts. But there was no chair anywhere. Just mounds of stuff piled high. The only clear space was the narrow aisle that led him to Harold and another aisle that branched off to the left and right as he stood facing the corpse. David cleared some bottles and cans out of the way on the floor and sat down.
A breeze blew inside past the door he had left open, causing some papers to ruffle, or so he first thought. He looked over his shoulder to find the source of the sound and he saw, for a split second, what he thought was the shadow of a bat or a bird—maybe even a large insect—against the door as it flew out of the apartment.
He rubbed his cobalt blue eyes in an effort to process everything, but the shock of it all disoriented him. He was too shocked to cry. He simply didn’t believe what had happened. Every single conversation and shared experience with Harold raced through his mind at random, all at once. Nothing made sense. After a minute or two, David could generate only one solid thought: He needed to call Pete McNeal, his friend and the Chief of the Indigo Valley Police Department. He took his cell out of his jeans front pocket and dialed.
“What’s going on, D?” Pete asked. D was short for David, a nickname left over from high school.
David sighed into the phone before speaking. “I’m calling on official business, Pete. You need to come over to the Hilltop Apartments, unit 1B. I . . . just discovered . . . a dead body.”
“I . . . walked into Harold Salar’s apartment and found him dead. That’s all I know at this point.”
“I’ll be right there,” he said before hanging up.
David tucked the phone back into his pocket and looked up. He felt like he was back in the canyons of New York City except there were towers of junk above him instead of towering office buildings. It all threatened to bury him alive with one false move, but that’s the way he felt in New York, too. That fear, and the feeling that Harold was staring at him, was enough to get him on his feet again.
The picture window drapes were drawn, hiding the colossal mess from view. From somewhere in the room, a lamp cast beams of light across the ceiling. There was no longer any breeze blowing through the doorway to refresh the air. If the smell of the rotting body wasn’t bad enough, it was soon joined by the smell of rotting food from somewhere over the mountains of stuff, probably in the kitchen. It smelled like a garbage disposal that hadn’t been flushed in a week. David looked at Harold again. His frozen smirk suggested he was quite comfortable living in the squalor. On the floor, a family of cockroaches merrily crossed the aisle, probably en route to the kitchen to visit friends and family for a night out in the big city.
David gagged, did an about-face, headed for the front door and closed it behind him. The setting sun cast long tree shadows over the parking lot. A gentle breeze cleared the stench that had followed David out the door. Red maple leaves fell by his feet. He looked up. It was October 16, 2014 and the trees were half bare, except for the oaks. They’d hold on to their brown litter through November and beyond, and certainly after the town was done vacuuming the loose leaves raked to the curb. Then they’d dump them all purely out of spite and David would have to bag them before the first snow or in the spring. David called it The Oak Conspiracy; he hated these evil trees since being charged with raking up after them as a kid.
Over the years, the oaks had come to remind David of his nursing home clients: refusing to let go until the worst possible time, usually around the holidays, when flu season went into overdrive.
Down the road, David could see the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. The fall foliage had peaked and the colors were starting to fade into the gray of November. In his line of sight, flashing red lights floated in his direction; a siren screamed.
Pete McNeal parked in front of David and swung open the door before coming to a stop. A giant hand appeared on the roof of the car and it helped to guide the former high school football tackle out of the driver’s seat so that he didn’t hit his head on the ceiling. Out popped the chief, a man too tall and too wide for any mid-size police cruiser. He was totally bald by choice. He decided to get rid of it all years ago when he first started losing his hair. He told David back then he didn’t like to face the mirror every morning and wonder how much hair he’d lost the day before. “I just want to be done with it,’ he said to David before shaving it all off. Afterward, he grew a mustache, combed straight down over his upper lip, to offset his hair loss.
McNeal put on his visor cap, walked over, and shook hands with David. “Good to see you, D,” he said looking down at David. “What the heck happened?”
“The door’s open. Go check it out yourself, but you might want to hold your breath.”
Chief McNeal strode inside Apartment 1B while David fought back tears. Shock was giving way to reality. But David wasn’t going to cry in front of Pete. Not if he could help it.
Pete shuffled out after about thirty seconds. He leaned against his car to steady himself. “He’s dead alright.” There was a pause as McNeal pushed up his hat’s visor and rubbed his forehead. “Never seen anything like that . . . .”
“You mean a dead man standing or a storage locker posing as an apartment?”
McNeal looked at David for a second. “Both.”
“Why don’t you tell me what you know, D.”
David wiped his nose. “Not sure where to begin. Yesterday morning, I stopped by the big baseball field and saw a bucket of baseballs near home plate.”
“Are you still running the baseball program for teens over there?”
“No, but I’m still on the board of directors.”
“Well, I saw his name written on the bucket with a Sharpie. So I knew the stuff was his. It was an odd sight. There were a few baseballs spread over the field: one near home plate, one near the pitcher’s mound, one near short stop, and one out in left field. So I picked them up. On the way back to home plate, I saw his equipment bags in one of the dugouts. He’s nowhere around. I didn’t see his car. So I figured he had held a practice and got distracted or something and left his stuff behind.”
“I thought the season was over?”
“They’re still playing in a fall baseball league. The boys still like to practice and so he would organize a few to keep the boys fresh.”
“Okay, go on.”
“I asked Christy if he knew anything about a practice.” Christy was David’s sixteen-year-old son. “He said he and some friends were the last to leave practice three nights ago and that Harold was cleaning up around the ball field when he left.”
“Did he have any kids himself?”
“No, he has no family that I know about. His wife died years ago. He didn’t remarry. He was an only child and his parents are dead.”
“You guys must have been pretty good friends to know all that.”
“Yes. He was a little older than me, but we had a lot in common. He didn’t have any kids of his own; he just wanted to help out with the kids in town. He was my scorekeeper this past season, coached third base a lot, too. He asked me to draw up his will about four months ago. So I learned much about what I know about him from doing that work.”
“What did he do for a living?”
“He’s a retired petroleum engineering professor. He worked as a consultant. He’s known all over the world for his research.”
“Did you know he was a hoarder?”
“No, he never invited me to his apartment. Now I know why.”
“How did you get in?”
“He gave me a copy of his key a month or so ago. He insisted on giving me one, just in case. I’ve been trying to reach him on the phone. When I didn’t hear back from him, I came here and rang the bell. He didn’t answer and then I spotted his car in the lot. That’s when I decided to use the key.”
Pete thought for a second. “If you don’t mind me asking, who are the beneficiaries under his will?”
David looked at Pete, eyebrows raised, thinking it was an odd question. “I really can’t tell you that now. Attorney-client privilege rules until it’s filed for probate and becomes a public record.” David started to walk towards the apartment door. “Why do you ask?”
Pete sighed. “You can’t go in there.”
“Trust me, I don’t plan to. I’m just getting you the key from the lock.”
“Don’t touch it.”
David turned and looked at him. “What gives, Pete?”
“I’m treating this as a crime scene.”
“Really? What makes you think—”
“I guess you didn’t see the blood.”
“Behind his head and behind him on the wall.”
“No, I didn’t see that. I figured he had a heart attack while he was standing and all of his stuff was propping him up.” David went to lean against the car next to Pete. “What do you think happened?”
“I don’t know for sure, but it looks like someone pounded his head against the wallboard so hard that they busted through it and hit a wall stud. The impact may have fractured his skull.”
David shook his head. “Oh my God.”
They looked at one another. It was like they were back on the offensive line during their football days in high school—David as guard and Pete as tackle. They would look at the defense, then at one another, exchanging their own signals to confirm their blocking assignments. The coach usually ran the ball in their direction because there was no place else to run. Their side of the line was the best the team could offer. They didn’t win a single game their senior year and the highlight of the season was when the local newspaper called them the best winless team in the state. But there were no signals to exchange that evening; they were both clueless. Murders didn’t happen but once a decade, maybe longer, in the Town of Indigo Valley. There was no modern playbook readily available.
“What’s next?” David asked.
Pete put his hand on David’s shoulder. “You go home. I’ll take it from here. I’ll get back to you once I know more. I’ll probably have some more questions for you then.”
David looked at Pete. “I feel I should stay here for some reason. Harold didn’t have anyone else. I feel I should be here for him or something.”
Pete managed a smile. “You’re a good man, D. Trust me, you don’t want to be here when the news media gets here, not under these circumstances. Do you really want to talk to them?”
“No, I guess you’re right.”
“A tackle always knows best, right?”
David nodded. “You’ve been telling me that ever since we were kids.”
“Now, go home and I’ll be in touch.”
“Okay,” David said patting Pete on the shoulder. “Thanks.”
Pete reached for his radio to call for a homicide team and the medical examiner.
David got into his 1974 pearl-white Mustang and started it up. The radio had been left on and was tuned to Bloomberg, the business news station. The commentator was talking about the spot price of West Texas Intermediate Crude oil hitting a triple bottom at $79.70 per barrel from a peak of $107.68. David didn’t know if it was the power of suggestion or what, but all of a sudden he smelled oil. He put his hands to his face and inhaled. It was oil. He reached for a bottle of hand cleaner he kept in the door pocket and tried to cleanse himself of Harold’s death and the oil too. David kept scrubbing his hands while listening before drying them with some tissues he kept in the glove compartment. All the oil pundits interviewed in the report said the price of oil was heading higher. He turned the radio off, pulled out of the apartment complex and began to drive home. His hands were trembling and still smelled like oil.
The radio report stirred up a memory of Harold. He used to talk to David about trading stocks or commodities, like oil. He’d say, “There’s no such thing as a triple bottom.” He used to call them killdeer bottoms because they aim to deceive, the way a killdeer protects its ground nest and eggs. The bird feigns a broken wing, drawing any predator further and further away from the nest by keeping a few steps ahead of it. Harold said when pundits were screeching for a “triple bottom,” their intent, like the killdeer, was to distract predators—the market participants—from its looming breakdown. The triple bottom looked like it should hold just like David’s key looked like it should work. In Harold’s eyes, three strikes and you were out; the third time was the charm; a third trip to the bottom of a trading range meant prices were going to break and go lower, substantially lower.
Harold told David his nickname once and they laughed about it. On Wall Street, they called him King Crude Salar or King Crude for short. He had been a frequent guest on CNBC, the business television channel. Harold was their go-to guy when it came to oil. His reputation was stellar, but years ago he faded from the limelight by his own choice. Then it was “Out of sight, out of mind” for him. Harold’s claim to fame was that he was never wrong when it came to oil, most notably the price of oil. And that’s a noteworthy accomplishment because most everyone is wrong when it comes to calling the market price of oil. But now King Crude was dead. While wiping away tears from his cheeks with a tissue, David couldn’t help but think Harold’s life had somehow caught up with him. What David didn’t realize was that Harold’s life was about to catch up with him too. Though David was in the driver’s seat going home that evening, Harold Salar’s hands were firmly on the wheel.
It only took David a few minutes to get home from Harold’s apartment. It took all but ten minutes or less to get anywhere within Indigo Valley, a suburban town of 20,000 in Upstate New York. When he rolled into the driveway, he saw Annie’s car though he didn’t want to see her just yet. If he did, she’d know something was wrong immediately, just by the look on his face. After twenty-five years of marriage, her radar was that good. And then he’d have to tell her about Harold’s death, something he wasn’t prepared to do until he calmed down, got his thoughts together, figured out a strategy to soften the blow. David already knew in his mind who might have killed Dr. Harold Salar. But he also knew that she’d find his theory far-fetched, maybe crazy. He didn’t feel like using what little energy he had to try to convince her that his thinking had merit.
She heard the squeaky Mustang door close and greeted David at the side door to the red Cape.
“Hi sweet,” she said with a shiver.
“Hey Annie,” he said as he walked through the door and gave her a fly-by kiss and headed for the kitchen. Her lips were cool.
“David, we need to talk.”
Did she hear about the murder already? Must have been Elle who told her. Elle was Annie’s good friend. She was also Pete’s wife and the Indigo Valley police dispatcher.
“He’s out on the ambulance.” Christy was doing ride-alongs with a local ambulance squad as a volunteer.
“What’s . . . on your mind?”
“Come into the living room and sit down on the love seat with me.”
Oh, no, not the love seat. The love seat was reserved for anything but love, usually serious adult conversations called by Annie. “Before you say anything,” David said, “let me try and explain . . . .”
She was already heading for the living room. “David, please come and sit next to me.”
David followed with his head hanging down like a bad dog. She didn’t want him involved with the Benjamin Prior case in the first place. She knew if it weren’t for the Prior case, David wouldn’t know Harold Salar. Annie sat down and crossed one leg over the other in one gracious yoga-like move. David plopped down next to her and looked at her chocolate brown eyes. They were red and moist; she had been crying.
“My boss called this afternoon. They . . . laid me off.”
On the one hand, David was relieved for a second that the conversation didn’t appear to be about Salar. On the other hand, this news shocked David. For as long as they had been married, Annie had been doing corporate human resources work for LSB, Inc., a global oil company. She had telecommuted from home for the last ten years. There must have been ten thousand people from all over the world who had passed through Annie’s first-floor home office through telephone conferences that Annie facilitated as part of her job. David would often hear the voices from foreign lands from his basement office when Annie was using the speaker phone. He joked that their home had more international traffic than the United Nations on any given day. David knew Annie was a great employee because he saw her in action, day in and day out. He saw her glowing performance appraisals. He was jealous of her in a way. She was admired by hundreds at her company and he could hear the open admiration announced day after day on her speaker phone when he went up to the kitchen.
David worked alone trying to meet client demands. He received compliments for his work, but they were brief and fleeting and never heard by Annie except when David mentioned them. In the house, David’s permanent cheering section consisted of the two cats, but only when they were hungry.
“Oh my God. You’ve got to be kidding me. You just met with your boss last week for an hour to discuss your goals for the coming reorganization.” It was the fifth corporate makeover and fifth boss in as many years.
“They told him he had to lose some head count at the end of the week.”
“I don’t understand. They just beat earnings estimates two weeks ago.”
“Evidently they’re not making enough money.”
“How many billions is enough these days? They’ve raised the dividend and spent money on share buy-backs, but you haven’t gotten a raise in five years. You saved the company over six hundred thousand last year. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
“Apparently not. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have anything to be sorry about. What did the CEO make these past few years?”
“Something over twenty-five million. I think.”
“For doing what? Why is he making out like a bandit?”
“They say he’s restructured the company, made it stronger.”
“He came in and blamed the last CEO. Raked him over the coals. Then when earnings didn’t improve, he figured it was time to reorganize, rake the employees over the coals. Any monkey can prop up the stock price by cutting jobs and benefits, then shipping jobs to some third world country.”
“Funny you say that. My boss said they’re outsourcing much of the human resources department to India.”
“As far as I know, your employees are mostly here in this country. Our laws and customs are not well-known in India.”
“They’ll pay the people there less to do our jobs.”
“Right, they can’t measure the real cost of their outsourcing and so they don’t care because it won’t show up in a measurable way on their bottom line. How do you measure mistakes, misunderstandings, and lower morale? Nobody cares about unmeasurable items, especially not Wall Street. They see the stock price go up and that’s all they care about. Until, of course, one day when the stock price gets creamed because Wall Street figures out that the emperor has no clothes and that the CEO has sacrificed the business to line his pockets. Then this guy is out the door—laughing all the way to the bank—while looking for a new job, new prey. Then the next guy comes in and blames the old guy and the cycle repeats itself.”
Annie stared at the floor; her sandy-blond, shoulder-length hair was covering her face. David had made similar speeches to her before. The words were different, but the gist was the same. Like any good spouse, she’d usually listen attentively, maybe try to engage him. But not today. “I just don’t know why they chose me. They wanted us to be enterprise contributors; to help other departments. I did exactly that.”
“Your boss didn’t care about what you brought to the other departments. He cared only about his own bottom line and he didn’t lose so much by letting you go because you were helping others. By helping out, you probably hurt yourself.”
Annie looked up, pushing her hair back. “I’m so sorry . . . I feel like I let you down.”
David put his index finger under her chin and gently lifted her head so that her eyes met his. “This had nothing to do with you. Your number came up. You survived three years of layoffs and it was simply your turn.” He kissed her softly on the lips. Annie managed a smile.
David realized that he had to talk about the Salar murder right there and then. It might not have been the best moment, but if he didn’t mention it, she was going to find out about it within hours. News like this traveled fast in Indigo Valley. Better it came from him than someone else.
“Honey, I’m afraid I have some bad news too.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s about Dr. Harold Salar.”
“What about him? Is he okay?”
“I’m afraid he’s . . . dead.”
“Oh, no.” She looked down again and began sobbing. “That’s awful.” David held her close and stroked her hair. “He was such a nice man,” she said.
“Yes, I know.”
“How did it happen?”
“The police think he was murdered.”
Annie stopped sobbing and looked deep into David’s eyes. “Who would want to kill Harold?”
“I’m afraid it might have to do with the Prior case.” Ben Prior was a thirty-five-year-old dockworker who was burned when the fitting came loose on a hose he was using to offload a rail car full of crude oil onto a barge in Albany. It sprayed him and then somehow a spark lit him up like a human torch causing second- and third-degree burns all over his body. David had sued the Helmsley Oil Company and two railroad companies on behalf of Prior.
She got up and moved to a stuffed chair she inherited from her immigrant grandfather, a strong-willed man who started his own electrical supply store and became very successful. “I told you not to take that case.” Annie had told David not to take it, not because he couldn’t handle it, but because it was a contingency fee case and David would only be paid if he won or settled the case. Annie liked the steady income of transactional law like drafting wills or doing real estate closings, much like selling light bulbs had been a steady business for her grandfather and then her father.
David countered with a move to the Chippendale armchair with its high, carved wood back and lion’s paw feet. It was inherited from his grandfather, a marketing man and artist in his spare time. It was otherwise known as the “king’s chair” because it resembled a throne. David ruled his imaginary monarchy from it. “I felt it was the right thing to do under the circumstances.”
“Times have certainly changed, David.”
David knew she was right. He had taken the case because Dr. Harold Salar was his expert witness. Salar earned his PhD in petroleum engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He was the recognized world authority on petroleum chemistry and had been an expert witness for Big Oil, even after his retirement to Indigo Valley. After he learned from the locals that David was Prior’s lawyer, Salar contacted him and volunteered to be his expert witness in any lawsuit. Big Oil’s big expert had flipped sides and that was all David needed to hear for him to pursue the case. And it was the only reason Annie was held in check on the topic. Now that Salar was dead, David was without an expert witness with a trial looming.
“Yeah, times have changed for both of us,” David said.
“I feel so bad for Harold. He was such a nice man. Any idea who could have done this to him?”
“Yeah, I have a suspicion.” He had come up with a theory on the car ride home from Harold’s apartment.
“What does Harold’s death have to do with the Ben Prior case?”
“I have a hunch, that’s all.” David didn’t want to share his suspicions with Annie before confirming them. His theory would scare her. More than that, if she discovered that he had fronted expenses on the case by taking on more debt without consulting her, he might end up in worse shape than poor Ben Prior. She didn’t need any more bad news on her plate and he didn’t need a fight.
On the other side of the house, they both heard the side door open.
“Christy, is that you?” Annie asked.
“Yeah Mom, it’s me.”
Annie whispered to David, “Not a word about this to Christy.”
“About what,” David whispered back, “your layoff or Harold’s murder?”
David eyes rolled because he knew the news of Harold’s murder would find Christy soon enough.
“Why are you guys whispering?” Christy asked as he walked towards the living room.
“It’s what parents do,” David said.
Christy was now standing in the living room entranceway, leaning against the molding. He was almost as tall as his old man, a fact that he reveled in pointing out to David. “I heard,” Christy said with his voice cracking, “I heard about Mr. Salar through the grapevine while I was on a call. What happened to him?”
“I don’t know,” David said. “The police suspect foul play.”
Christy thought for a second. “But Mr. Salar was such a good man. I mean, he was our scorekeeper, a coach too, and he didn’t even have a kid on the team. Why would anyone want to kill him?”
Annie shook her head.
“Fair question, Christy,” David said. “I’m afraid we don’t have any answers at this point.”
Christy pulled up a chair and all three of them sat there silently recalling their memories of Harold, trying to imagine what might have happened to him. None of them could imagine the profound impact his death would have on their own lives. Harold’s passing had set into motion a series of events that would haunt the family forever.