by Morris Marshall
When Detective Barry Simms and his partner arrived at Cosgrove Apartment Complex, Mrs. Rafferty was waiting for them. She was stooped over; empty shopping bags were slung over her walker. “I think the smell is coming from there,” she told Simms, nodding toward the door across the hallway.
She had returned from shopping an hour before, thinking that some animal must have been hit by a car and left marinating in the hot September sun. The smell intensified as she approached apartment 1005 on her way to her own unit. She called the Toronto Police Department as soon as she arrived home.
The answering officer promised to send someone over, although he privately wondered how many cats Mrs. Rafferty had and if one might have died in her apartment. Perhaps she had dementia and imagined the smell. Maybe she’d left some chicken out for dinner and had forgotten about it.
“Who lives there, ma’am?” Simms asked, covering his nose.
The detective knocked on the door several times. “Mr. Kosky?” he called. “Mr. Kosky?”
“Break it down,” he told his accompanying officer.
With a couple of kicks, the door was sprung.
The television in the living room was on. Dr. Phil was droning on about the fact that people do things only because there’s a payoff involved. A photograph displayed on the oak TV storage unit showed an attractive, smiling couple.
Dressed in a black tuxedo, the man, evidently Kosky, was slim and athletic with short dark hair and blue eyes. The woman, blonde with youthful brown eyes and a bob cut, stared at the camera through a sheer white veil. An inscription below the picture said, “To Diana, love, Victor — on our wedding day.”
Kosky was lounging on a leather couch beside an open pizza box and a half-eaten slice of Hawaiian pizza. He was dressed in a pair of blue-checkered pyjamas. He stared vacantly at the visitors. His mouth was slightly open as if he planned to welcome them. White maggots crawled sluggishly over his face.
Simms clutched his stomach, grateful that he hadn’t had his usual chilli for lunch. He envisioned it spewing to the floor in a gratuitous red stream. His officer wasn’t as fortunate. Simms could hear him retching in the bathroom.
The years have not been kind, Simms thought wryly as he stared at the dead man’s wedding photo. Kosky had gained maybe fifty pounds and what was left of his dark hair had turned grey and receded harshly. He also had a scruffy beard and long unkempt fingernails.
While there were no obvious signs of trauma on the body, Simms was seasoned enough to recognize that Kosky had died of accidental choking. No homicide here, folks. Not even a suicide. All he had to do was call the coroner and get back to more pressing police matters. For some reason, he felt compelled to investigate further.
In the bedroom, Simms found a laptop, pizza boxes, soda cans, Chinese food takeout containers and chocolate bar wrappers. Two degrees graced the wall: a Bachelor of Commerce and an MBA. Piles of test papers were everywhere, some dating back five years.
Simms recognized the logo on one of the cover pages as belonging to Dow College in downtown Toronto. He shook his head. How could a middle-aged college professor with a wife die and not be missed for days? You might expect that from a recluse like Howard Hughes, but Kosky had a job, students, and a life. Not anymore, Simms amended.
He returned to the hallway where Mrs. Rafferty stood with her walker. “Can we talk in your apartment, ma’am?” he asked. “This isn’t the best environment.”
“Of course, sonny.” She wheeled herself down the hall, opened the door to her apartment and invited the detective inside.
Simms removed his shoes and sat down in a brown La-Z-Boy in her living room. It reminded him of the one his dad used to fall asleep in while watching hockey games. He leaned back, savoring the brief reprieve.
“That chair belonged to my husband. He died of a stroke back in 1986.”
Simms stood up quickly, as if the chair were contagious, but Mrs. Rafferty flashed a toothless smile and waved at him to sit down. “Relax, Detective. He won’t be back to claim it any time soon. I don’t get too many guests around here, and I’d be obliged if you’d stay awhile. How about some milk and cookies?”
Simms smiled and jiggled his belly. “No, thanks, ma’am.” He removed a tattered leather-bound notebook from his briefcase. “So, how well did you know Mr. Kosky?”
“He’d say ‘hi’ now and then. He was one of them... college professors. Business or something. I ain’t never been to college myself. When Kosky’s wife, Diana, was alive, she used to pick up my groceries for me. Lovely lady. She worked as a nurse in a nursing home downtown.”
The detective leaned forward slightly. “When did she die?”
“Last July. Liver cancer. Victor took it really hard, poor guy. I don’t think they had any other relatives, just each other.”
Simms nodded as he jotted down notes. “When was the last time you saw Mr. Kosky alive?”
“Oh... I don’t know. A month ago, maybe two. People don’t really keep track anymore. Victor helped bring my cat, Gus, home when he escaped onto his balcony from mine.”
Simms looked around the room. “How many cats do you have?”
Mrs. Rafferty smiled. “Only one, detective, and I aim to keep it that way. I do crossword puzzles daily to keep Alzheimer’s at bay. My favorite game is chess.” She nodded at a chessboard sitting on a coffee table in the middle of the room.
“That’s a nice board,” Simms commented. “The pieces look African. I had a college friend who used to collect chessboards.”
Mrs. Rafferty sighed. “My husband and I played daily.”
Simms stood up. “Thanks, ma’am. I appreciate your time. Here’s my cell phone number in case you think of anything else.”
He interviewed several other tenants about Kosky and reflected on their comments in the elevator on his way back to his car:
He tutored my children in math...
He gave money to World Vision...
I saw him working out in the gym downstairs two months ago, but I thought he moved out...
His wife, Diana, brought us homemade chicken soup when one of our kids was sick...
On his way home, Simms stopped at Dow College. Victor Kosky’s boss, Deana Thompson, had been Dean of the Business Department for ten years. She was in her early sixties, with short white hair and black-rimmed glasses. She regularly wore dark blue pantsuits and black high heels.
On his way into the college, Simms had heard heels clicking and, when he’d turned around, the Dean had been standing there, smiling at him. She invited him to her office and sat down behind her desk.
“I’m here to discuss one of your employees,” Simms said.
“I can’t believe it,” the Dean said when given the news. “Victor was one of my best professors. He had a way with the students. Economics can be a dull subject, but Victor brought it to life. He always had great student reviews.”
“Did you notice anything different about him recently?”
The Dean paused. “His wife died of cancer last summer. That hit him hard. I met her a few times at staff Christmas parties.”
Simms nodded. “I’m trying to piece together his whereabouts over the last few months.”
“There must be some misunderstanding,” Dean Thompson said. “Victor hasn’t lectured at the college since last December.”
“He’s been teaching online courses since January. Students log in at home and take the course over the Internet. They only came in to write the final exams in person. We sent the exams to Victor by courier.”
The detective leaned forward slightly. “When did you last see Victor, Dean Thompson?”
She smiled apologetically. “I’m not really sure. Maybe two months ago... It can’t be that long. Anyway, he was paid by direct deposit so he didn’t have to come to the college to pick up his cheque.”
She’s not helping much, Simms thought. “Technology’s changed a lot since I was a kid,” he said. “We used to actually play outside instead of sitting at a computer.”
“We did, too,” the Dean replied. “Now all my grandkids do is play video games.”
“Sounds like my daughter, Rachel. A while back, she had a friend over, and they texted each other across the kitchen table. I prefer conversation myself.”
The detective was going through a trial separation and lived alone in a small apartment in downtown Toronto, seeing Rachel only every other weekend. When he did see her, she always had her smartphone. Simms worried that she’d walk right into the path of an oncoming car while texting.
The next day, he took Kosky’s laptop to a computer technician to analyze its contents. They found evidence that the professor had been involved in a three-month online relationship with someone having the user name “Chris4U.”
The technician determined that her real name was Crystal Anderson, a thirty-something personal banker who lived in Calgary. Her picture looked strikingly similar to Diana’s, Kosky’s wife. Simms scanned the rest of Crystal’s profile:
Likes: Kids, working out, movies, long romantic walks
Dislikes: Couch potatoes, fast food, frugality
Simms smiled, recalling the pizza boxes and burger wrappers in Kosky’s apartment.
That evening, he stopped for a sandwich on his way home from work and ate half of it while watching his favorite show, Pawn Stars. Around seven-thirty, Toronto time, he called Crystal, figuring she’d just be arriving home from work. The phone rang three times before a youthful female voice answered.
“Hi, I’m Detective Barry Simms of the Toronto Police Department. I’m investigating the death of someone you were seeing online, Victor Kosky.“
“Oh... you must mean Stock_dude.”
Simms bit down on his bottom lip to stifle a stream of laughter.
“Stock_dude was Victor’s screen name,” Crystal explained. “We’ve been talking on and off for the last three months. I was planning to come to Toronto to meet him next month. How did he die?”
“He choked on a piece of pizza.”
“That’s horrible. He was such a nice guy and had a great physique.”
“Had” is the operative word, Simms thought gravely.
“Victor told me he was getting over his wife’s death. He claimed he was a stockbroker and made a killing in the gold market.”
“When was the last time you talked to him?”
“About three weeks ago on the phone. When I didn’t hear from him again, I assumed he wasn’t interested. I moved on. Sorry I can’t be of more help. What did you say your name was again?”
Simms repeated the information and asked Crystal to call him if she thought of anything new.
After hanging up, he sat back on his couch and reviewed his case files. Victor had charged a number of items to his credit card online and had paid off the card by transferring funds from his chequing account. There were credit card payments for fast food, groceries, restaurant deliveries, utilities, pay-per-view movies, all made from the comfort of Kosky’s apartment.
For months, his life had centred on a single room, cut off from any physical contact with the outside world. Simms couldn’t fault Kosky for lying about his appearance and occupation. Loneliness did strange things to people.
Six months earlier, Simms’ wife, Paula, had asked him to move out. His after-work pub excursions with the guys had lengthened to the point where he’d sometimes stumble into the house at two o’clock in the morning, talking loudly, bumping into objects and waking up Rachel. He knew now how stupid he’d been, but those days were over. With any luck, Paula would let him move back in soon.
Picking up his TV converter, Simms thought of Victor Kosky with maggots crawling on his face. He’d been watching TV when he choked on the pizza slice. As Simms munched on what remained of his submarine sandwich, he craved a beer, but settled for bottled water. He scanned the channels for something to watch. The ballgame. America’s Most Wanted. Seinfeld. National Geographic featured a two-hour special on mating habits of the African wildebeest.
Simms sighed and shut off the TV. He had to get out of there. He felt as if his apartment was filling up with a noxious gas. His breath came in short, laboured gasps and his heart thudded. His clothes were drenched in sweat.
He ran out the door and took the elevator to the first floor. As he rushed into the night air, a cool wind struck his face, a pleasing contrast to the cloying stuffiness of his apartment. He took out his cell phone, punched several numbers and waited. After four rings, a girl’s soft voice said, “Hello?”
“Daddy! It’s good to hear from you.”
“You, too, hon.”
“I was just doing my math homework.”
“That’s great. How’s it going?”
“What’s eight times twelve?”
“Last time I checked it was ninety-six. Can I speak to Mommy for a second?”
“Who is it? If it’s a sales call, hang up. I don’t want—“
Simms heard the clicking of heels on linoleum. He held his cell phone slightly away from his ear when Paula came on. “What’s wrong, Barry? Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine. I haven’t had a drink in a month. Look, I normally wouldn’t ask this, but I was wondering if I could take Rachel this weekend instead of next. I want to take her to the new Disney movie.”
“Absolutely not. It’s out of the question. Rachel’s going to her grandmother’s house this weekend.”
“But I have to work next weekend,” Simms said. “I—“
Two minutes later, his cell phone rang again.
“Detective Simms? I hope I’m not bothering you.”
“It’s my cat, Gus. He’s trapped on one of the balconies here and I can’t get him back in. I have no one to help—“
“I understand,” Simms said. “It’s no problem. I’m only about fifteen minutes away by car. I’ll be right over.”
He drove over to Cosgrove Apartments, took the elevator to the tenth floor and knocked on Mrs. Rafferty’s door. For the second time in a week, he entered her apartment. This time he smelled cookies baking, a welcome change from the decomposition he’d experienced in Kosky’s apartment.
“Gus is out here,” Mrs. Rafferty said, leading Simms out the sliding door to the balcony.
The fat Tuxedo cat was three balconies over, meowing and quivering in the cold. Simms went back into the apartment and out into the hallway. He stopped at apartment 1008 and knocked. The door opened slightly with the chain still intact. A middle-aged woman peered out.
The detective held up his badge. “Hi, I’m detective Barry Simms. The cat from unit 1011 is trapped on your balcony. Do you mind if I retrieve it?”
The woman invited him in. Five minutes later, Simms was back in Mrs. Rafferty’s apartment, his arms overflowing with Gus.
“Do you have time for some cookies?” Mrs. Rafferty asked. “I just baked them.”
“Well... I really should be—”
“I have to thank you somehow.”
Simms sat down at the kitchen table, where the chessboard was set up. He munched on a chocolate chip cookie and chased it down with a mouthful of coffee.
Mrs. Rafferty gestured at the chessboard. “How long has it been, Detective?”
“About twenty years,” Simms replied. He was sitting in front of the white pieces. “I was chess champion of my grade six class. My friend, Ian, used to refer to chess as ‘pushing pawns’.”
“Care to play, Detective? I warn you, though, I’m rated 2000 on Yahoo. That’s expert level.”
Simms laughed. He pushed the king pawn forward two spaces. “I’m quaking in my boots. By the way, call me ‘Barry’.” He grabbed another chocolate chip cookie.
“I’m Glynnis,” Mrs. Rafferty said, before making her move.
Gus sat in the La-Z-Boy and watched them play game after game well into the night.
Copyright © 2014 by Morris Marshall