A Matter of Principle
by Brian Biswas
|part 2 of 3|
The preceding events occurred on a Friday after school. Rob’s disappearance wasn’t noticed until Monday morning when he didn’t report to work. Rob was a responsible employee and had always called in to report an absence. This unexplained absence was a cause for concern. The front office called his home but got no answer. They did nothing further that day, but when Rob did not show the next morning they called the police.
* * *
The police department’s preliminary investigation turned up nothing unusual in Rob’s past. Another teacher mentioned Rob seemed troubled by Marie’s departure and it became apparent to the police that Rob and Marie had had a close working relationship. Jason’s misanthropic ways were also uncovered.
The police theorized there may have been a domestic dispute and officers were dispatched. Officer Strunk and Officer Waid. Strunk was a police veteran with nearly thirty years of service; Waid had been an officer just over a year.
* * *
Officer Strunk and Officer Waid bounded up the steps of Jason’s house two days later at 9:45 a.m. They knocked on the front door.
Jason opened the door and poked his head out. He did not look surprised to see two officers of the law on his doorstep. “Yes, gentlemen?”
“Sorry to bother you, sir,” Officer Waid said. “Creekside reported one of their teachers hasn’t shown for work the last two days. They — ah — they are concerned.”
“I don’t understand. Why are you here?”
“Apparently, the man knew your wife. Could we speak with her? We’re simply trying to follow up every lead, you understand.”
Jason frowned. “She isn’t here,” he said. “She went to visit her sister last Friday.”
“Any reason she didn’t tell the school her plans?”
“She doesn’t work there anymore.”
“I see.” Officer Strunk looked at Jason as if sizing him up. “Why did she go see her sister?”
“She’s ill. It came on suddenly.”
“I see.” The officer paused. “We’d like to look your place over, if you don’t mind.”
“No problem. Come right in.”
* * *
The officers performed a thorough search of the Lewd premises but found nothing unusual. There was no sign of either Marie or Rob, not that they had expected to find either of them. The house looked tidy. When asked if he had heard of Rob Sullivan, Jason looked puzzled. “Name sounds familiar,” he said. “Marie might have mentioned him once.”
Jason produced a picture of Marie’s sister upon Officer Strunk’s request. She was a thin woman, maybe thirty-five years old, with shoulder-length blonde hair and green eyes.
“When will your wife be back?”
“Depends on how quickly Jill recovers.” Not the slightest hesitation.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“Okay. We won’t bother you any longer.” They turned to go. But then Officer Waid turned back around and added: “Would you have your wife contact headquarters when she gets back? A few questions we’d like to ask.”
When they reached headquarters Officer Strunk wrote up his report. Five pages that said they’d found nothing. Probably Rob had run off with Lewd’s wife, he thought. It happened all the time. One more year and he could retire. He was counting down the days.
* * *
The Sergeant read the report over carefully. “Seems okay.”
Officer Strunk frowned. “Meaning?”
“We’ve run background checks on Lewd and his wife. They’re clean as whistles. His story checks out as well. Marie has an elder sister named Jill. Don’t know if she’s sick or not but she was definitely the lady you describe in the photograph. She lives in Cleveland. If Mrs. Lewd returns we’ll question her, but between you and me I doubt we’ll see her or Sullivan again.“
Peter Worth taught fifth grade at Creekside. He was the first person the police interviewed after Rob’s disappearance. And they had reason to be interested in what he had to say. It was Peter who told them Rob seemed distressed when Marie left.
Peter had met Rob in graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh ten years before, and the two quickly became friends. Upon graduating, Rob took a position at Creekside. Peter received employment at a school in Illinois, but even then the two corresponded often. It was interesting to compare life at school during those early years, and they were able to help each other when times were rough.
Peter married a girl of Irish heritage after a short engagement and Rob was best man. When an opening became available at Creekside the following year, Peter applied and accepted at once when an offer was made.
Peter and his wife lived about a mile from the Lewds in a small red-brick house they rented. Peter was aware of Rob’s attraction to Marie and knew that Rob had been upset by her resignation. In addition, he knew Jason was a recluse (Rob told him once). He knew Rob suspected relations between Marie and her husband were strained. And he knew as well that Rob could be quite headstrong.
“This isn’t like Rob,” he told his wife one Friday evening. “Call me crazy if you will, but I’ve known Rob so long — he never simply up and disappears. Something is terribly wrong. And I’m going to find out what.”
At nine o’clock the next morning Peter parked his car a block from the Lewd residence and waited. There were lights on in the house and the blinds had been pulled. At one point someone peeked through the blinds, but Peter couldn’t make out who it was. A few seconds later the person disappeared.
Two cars were in the driveway. Peter recognized Marie’s red convertible. The police mentioned Marie might have left town to attend to an ill family member. So she had finally returned — but when? Peter had never seen the other car before, but assumed it was Jason’s. Chances were both Marie and Jason were at home, which was not good. Peter wanted to be sure Jason was not in the house; he wanted to talk to Marie alone.
Thick, dark thunderclouds rolled overhead. At one point a hail of large drops splattered against the windshield, but it stopped after a few seconds. There was a pit in Peter’s stomach and he realized his right hand was trembling. He was about to give up and go home when the front door opened and Jason emerged. Peter trained a pair of binoculars on the object of his quest.
Peter had seen Jason once or twice before, when he had gone to the Lewd house to see Marie on school business, and he had never liked the looks of the man. His eyes were wild, his hair disheveled, and he spoke in short, clipped phrases that could be unnerving.
Now he looked even more imposing. His face was scarred and weather-beaten, his arms long and muscular, his hands enormous and covered with short, brown hairs. He must have been over six feet tall. But it was his eyes that were most unsettling: light-blue and bloodshot and they seemed to burn with rage.
Jason looked nervously up and down the street while he fidgeted with his coat pocket. Then he got into his car and drove off.
Peter knew he didn’t have a moment to lose. He got out of the car, crossed the street, and ran up the steps to the house. He rang the doorbell, but no one answered. He tried to open the door. It was locked. He went around to the back and tried the back door. Also locked. He looked inside through the dining room windows. He saw the dining room table with a vase of flowers on it. Off to one side was a piano and he recalled that Marie played occasionally at school events. On one of the walls was a poster of Mozart, on another a tapestry of a schoolyard. He was turning to look for a side entrance when he heard someone moaning inside the house.
He rapped on the window. “Hey!”
Another moan — no — it was more like a low wail. A long-drawn-out wail of abject unhappiness. Peter had never been a believer in the fantastic, but as he listened to the ghastly moans from within he could not help but wonder. These were not earthly sounds, certainly, but sounds from the depths of an infinite universe. And they seemed to be urging him forward.
Something had been gnawing at Peter all morning and now he knew what it was. The day before Rob disappeared he told Peter that Marie was unhappy. At the time Peter assumed Rob was referring to the days before Marie resigned. But now he wasn’t so sure. It was just as likely Rob was referring to the present. How would he have known she was unhappy if he was no longer in contact with her? Peter tried to force the thoughts that flooded over him from his mind.
He picked up a rock and hurled it through the window. Then he picked up a stick and broke away the remaining shards of glass. He reached inside, unlocked the window, and pulled it open. Then he pulled himself up onto the sill and climbed through.
That’s funny, Peter thought to himself. He was sure he had heard something. He figured that since he was inside the house he might as well have a look around.
Peter went into the kitchen and the dining room. He examined the living room as well. There was a picture of Marie on the fireplace mantle. She was wearing a green sweater and was holding a bouquet of red roses. Her green eyes were bewitching. Marie looked so pretty — so happy and content — that Peter realized why Rob was so fond of her.
A study off of the living room contained an oak desk and a couch. He looked at the papers on the desk. There was a bank statement and a telephone bill and a letter to — Jason’s mother! Jason (he had signed the letter) had written that the weather in Pittsburgh was unbearable, that he was still looking for work, and that several possibilities had recently presented themselves. He didn’t mention Marie.
Peter went back into the living room. On the living room sofa was a man’s leather jacket. In one of the pockets Peter found a ticket to the horse races. It was dated the day before.
Peter glanced out the windows and saw an elderly couple walking arm-in-arm, an ice-cream truck, a boy on a bicycle. But no sign of Jason. The air in the room was deathly still. One could have heard a pin drop. Peter knew he should probably leave, but he couldn’t bring himself to do so. There had to be something here.
He started up the stairs.
On the second floor there were two bedrooms and a bathroom. The bathroom was spotless. The tub sparkling, the towels freshly laundered. The first bedroom looked to be a guest room and Peter saw nothing unusual. It was in the second bedroom — the Lewd’s bedroom — that he finally made a discovery. A piece of fabric on the floor. A piece he recognized as coming from the shirt Rob had been wearing the day before he disappeared. He remembered the material distinctly, for it was from a new shirt, a shirt made from pressed Egyptian cotton (Rob had mentioned this proudly). Peter had never felt anything so soft and he recalled commenting on it at the time.
Peter searched the room thoroughly looking for something — anything — that would tell him what had happened to his friend. He looked behind furniture and underneath the bed. He searched through the dressers and a chest of drawers. He opened the large walk-in closet and went inside. Nothing.
Just then he smelled something funny — a stale smell in the air. He glanced up at the ceiling and saw a hatch. An opening to the attic, no doubt. The hatch was made of plywood that had been painted a bright green, a brighter color than the dull green the rest of the closet had been painted. But that wasn’t all Peter observed. There was something else. Something more horrific. The last time the hatch had been closed the latch hadn’t been completely thrown and it was slightly ajar. And through the crack he saw drops of blood that were slowly forming.
Peter felt nauseated, but he knew what he had to do. He went out into the hall and got an old wicker chair he had seen there and he brought it back into the closet. He got up on the chair and opened the hatch. Then he pulled himself up into the attic.
And he screamed.
Facing him, like a hideous gorgon, was the decomposing body of Rob Sullivan. The poor man’s throat had been slashed and blooded still dripped from the wound.
“It seems an odd place to hide a body,” I interjected.
“It’s happened more than one might think,” Charles replied with a smile. “How many times have the bones of a wife been found in the attic after the death of the husband? And vice-versa. Why, there was a case in Florida once where—”
“Enough!” I cried. “I get your point.”
“Besides,” he continued, “in all likelihood Jason expected a visit from the police. Marie had left Creekside and Rob was missing. Jason had suspected an affair and he must have felt the police would uncover evidence of one as well. And that would lead them straight to him for questioning. He couldn’t very well bury the body in his back yard, so he had to hide it in the place he thought least likely to be searched. And it turns out he was right. At least as far as the police were concerned.”
Charles picked up his coffee mug and took a sip. Then he continued with his story.
Copyright © 2012 by Brian Biswas