Neighbors: Part Three

Brian’s doubts gnawed at me all the way back from the pub.

As soon as I got home I went to the police department’s website to look for any information on Emily’s death. I found it under the heading “Police Investigate Death in Little Italy.”

The article didn’t say much more than the officer had told me earlier. Two things stood out: the cause of death was still listed as Unknown, and Dave hadn’t been booked for murder.

That should have settled it. After all, if the police didn’t think Dave was involved, why should I?

Besides, how much did I really know about Dave and Emily? Were we even friends on Facebook?

I logged in to check. We were.

Feeling a little guilty, I started reading through Emily’s timeline. I told myself I was just trying to get to know her a little better, a silent memorial to the neighbor I’d lost.

And I did learn some new things. She’d been a nurse, working shifts at Sharp Hospital. She posted several photos of dinners made for her by Dave, a consolation at the end of her workday. She’d been thinking about getting a dog, and posted pictures of cute ones she’d seen on the street.

Just for comparison, I clicked over to Dave’s timeline.

Not much there. A couple of bitter-sounding posts about how the recession was supposed to be over. Half-hearted attempts to promote sales at the Macy’s he worked at. Some back and forth arguments about politics around election time.

Oddly enough, though, his relationship status was set to “Single.” I double-checked Emily’s, which was still set to “Married.”

WTF? He’d changed it already?

I scrolled all the way back to the top of his timeline. Sure enough, at the very top of the page, it announced the change in his relationship status.

It was dated 6:53 pm on a Monday, two weeks ago.

I felt a chill go down my back.

Why’d he change his status so early? Were they having problems?

I dug through their timelines for another hour, but couldn’t find anything. If they were on the rocks, they weren’t posting about it. I suppose that made sense, but why else would he update his status?

Why else, unless he knew what was going to happen?

I chuckled at myself. What did a Facebook status prove? Brian’s comments had gotten me pretty worked up, to be thinking the guy next door had killed his own wife.

And how would he have done it, anyway? If there’d been any obvious marks on the body, the cops would’ve cuffed him then and there, right?

I checked the time. 6:00. Dave’d probably be home from work by now, assuming he’d even gone. I hadn’t talked to him since last night. Shouldn’t I go over and offer my condolences?

And wouldn’t that be a great way to get some more information?

Dave answered the door after my first knock, surprising me.

His eyes were red and bloodshot. “Yeah?” His gaze wandered down to my shoes, back up to my face. “Oh, it’s you. Sean, right?”

I cleared my throat. “Yeah, I uh - " the speech I’d prepped seemed false, inadequate. “Can I come in?”

He nodded, opened the door wider. “Sure. Come on in.”

His condo was laid out basically the same as mine, but reversed left to right. His kitchen was on the left side of the front door, with the living room stretching ahead and to the right. A closed door at the far end of the left-hand wall led to the bedroom, I assumed.

“Can I get you anything?” he asked.

I shook my head. “No, thanks, Dave.” I took one more look at the kitchen, at the dirty dishes piled in the sink, the empty wine bottle in the trash, and stepped into the living room. “Actually, I was wondering if there was anything I could do. You know. For you.”

He nodded, his gaze wandering over the furniture. There was just enough room for a couch and two small chairs, all three of which were covered in a combination of cardboard boxes and candy bar wrappers. He sighed. “Thanks, Sean, but I’m doing ok so far.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

He rubbed his hand over his face. “Um, not really, thanks. Did enough talking with the cops and the doctors and the " - his voice caught - " the funeral home. I’m all talked out.”

I nodded. “Okay. I understand.” I gestured at the boxes. “Are you moving?”

He tensed, then shrugged. “Yeah. Maybe. I dunno. Might move back east. I’ve got family in PA. Don’t really want to stay here anymore, you know?”

“Yeah. I know.”

He let out a deep breath. “Anyway, I’m staying in a hotel tonight. Just gotta - " he waved his hand in the air - “gotta get away for a bit.”

I nodded again. “Gotcha. Well, if you need anything over the next few days, just let me know, man.”

He smiled a little. “Thanks, Sean.” He walked over and re-opened the door. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

I stepped out, raised a hand in farewell, and went back to my condo. I slumped on my own couch, thinking.

What had that accomplished? Wanting to move wasn’t telling enough. Who would want to stay in the apartment your spouse had died in? The candy wrappers didn’t speak too well of his eating habits, but that was it.

I closed my eyes, trying to remember what the living room and kitchen had looked like. Was there something I’d missed?

There was. Hanging on the living room wall, right next to the bedroom door, was a framed movie poster for Arsenic and Old Lace.

Hadn’t I seen that movie mentioned recently?

I flipped open my laptop and went back through Dave and Emily’s Facebook pages. There, listed on Emily’s About page, was her favorite movie: Arsenic and Old Lace.

I don’t know why, but I looked up the movie on Wikipedia. The movie poster on the page looked just like the one I’d seen on Dave’s wall, except his had a couple of stains near the center.

Still wondering why I was being so paranoid, I read the plot synopsis. That sent another chill up my spine.

The “friendly aunts” in the movie had poisoned their victims with a mix of arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide. How had they given it to their guests? Mixed in with elderberry wine.

It was probably a coincidence. But it didn’t feel like one.

I wondered if I should go to the police. But what would I say? My neighbor changed his Facebook status too early, and happened to give his wife elderberry wine on the night she died? Even I knew it didn’t amount to much.

I pulled out the business card the cop had given me that morning. She said to call her if I thought of anything, right? That everything was important?

I dialed her number on my phone. Maybe I could convince her.

She picked up on the fifth ring. “Detective Wright speaking.”

I swallowed, told myself I had nothing to lose by talking. “Hello, Detective? This is Sean Cook. We spoke this morning?”

I heard a chair squeak on the other end. “Mr. Cook? In Acqua Vista, is that right?”


“How can I help you?”

“You said to call if I remembered anything else?”


“Well, I’ve remembered a few more things.”

More sounds on the other end, like a notepad being dragged across a desk. “Such as?”

I glanced at the wall I shared with Dave’s apartment. What if he could hear me? “If it’s ok, I’d rather not say over the phone.” Shit, I thought, I made it sound like I knew something really important, not just some details scraped from a Facebook page. “Could I come down to the station and talk there?”

She sighed. “Sure, Sean, that’d be fine. We’re on Imperial and 25th. You know where that is?”

“I’ll find it. Thanks.”

She hung up.

I took the trolley as far down to the station as I could. 25th was way past what I considered the safe part of downtown.

Good thing I was going to hang out with the cops.

The one at the front desk made me wait while he paged Detective Wright. She showed up just five minutes later, but even that felt like an hour.

She took me back into one of their interrogation rooms. Asked me if I wanted anything to drink. When I said no, she sat down in the chair across the table from me and crossed her arms.

“So, Sean, what did you remember?”

I told her what I suspected: that Dave had poisoned his wife using cyanide or arsenic mixed in with the elderberry wine he gave her the night she died. I described how it matched up with Emily’s favorite movie, and that Dave had changed his relationship status too early.

It still sounded crazy, even to me, but I tried to make it as coherent as possible.

When I finished, she nodded, but kept her arms crossed. “Interesting theory, Sean. But it’s missing a couple of pieces.”

I sighed. “What’s that?”

“Motive, for one. Why would Dave kill his wife?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Your second problem is that cyanide leaves very distinct traces in the body: hair, nails, even urine. We always test for those in cases like this. And guess what?”

I hung my head. “You didn’t find any.”

She smiled. “Bingo.”

She stood up. “So, unless you’ve got a motive for me, or can explain how someone could poison another person without leaving any sign, you should go home and stop worrying about your neighbors killing each other. Ok?”

I nodded and stood, feeling foolish. “Ok.”

She escorted me back to the front desk, then left me to sign out on my own.

I trudged out of the station and back to the trolley, wondering how I could be so stupid.

How could I have forgotten motive? What possible reason could Dave have for killing his wife? I’d never heard them argue, never seen either of them bring a stranger home, nothing.

And of course the police checked for poison. It wouldn’t cost them anything, and would catch all the usual suspects.

I told myself to face it: I’d had a hunch, but it didn’t hold up. I almost felt like I should try to apologize to Dave for thinking bad of him.

I didn’t sleep well that night. I kept jolting awake, frightened by dreams of some mad tea party with all the colors drained out of it. Dave was there, hanging in the background, screaming “Charge!” every five minutes.

Not relaxing.

After I gave up on sleeping and just got up, I dressed and went downstairs to fetch the mail. I’d forgotten it the day before, and was hoping my unemployment check would be in there.

Instead, I found the motive.

Tucked between a junk circular and a bill from Cox Cable was a letter from a law firm to Emily Ericson. It was stamped “second notice” in big red letters. The mailman must’ve pushed it into my box by mistake.

Normally I just push these mis-filings back into the mail slot, so they’ll be sorted properly the next day. This time, I carried it up to my apartment with the others.

I looked up the law firm online. Their specialty was Estate Planning and Wills.

Had Emily recently updated her will? I went back through her timeline. Nothing in there.

Maybe someone in her family had died?

I used Facebook to track down her sister and brother, which gave me her maiden name. Their posts led me to her mother’s blog, whose most recent, sad, entry talked about the death of Emily’s aunt two weeks prior.

Perhaps her aunt had left something for Emily in her will?

I knew it was a federal crime to open someone’s mail. I told myself Emily was dead and wouldn’t mind, especially if it helped catch her killer.

Sure enough, the letter was a notice from the law firm that Emily’s aunt had recently died and named Emily as the prime beneficiary in her will. The lawyers needed Emily to come down and sign some paperwork to make everything official.

It didn’t seem that exciting until I Googled her aunt. Turns out she’d owned a majority stake in an international shipping business, with branches on both coasts. The stock alone was worth a few million.

Had Dave kept back Emily’s mail? If she didn’t have a will written up, he’d get everything now.

I called Detective Wright. I didn’t mention the letter, just suggested that she look into Emily’s extended family. I told her it was something I’d heard from Emily a few weeks ago, about her aunt being sick.

I could tell she didn’t think it was important.

Two hours later she called me back.

“I don’t know how you knew,” she sighed, “but it seems Emily stood to inherit a lot of money before she died.”

“Did she?”

“Don’t gloat, kid,” she chided. “You haven’t explained the disappearing poison.”

“Yeah.” I glanced at my laptop, open to an article on cyanide poisoning. “Still working on that one.”

“Well, if any more ideas hit you, give me a call. If it helps, I’ll put it down as an anonymous tip, see if we can’t pay you for your time.”

Seriously? “Um, thanks,” I mumbled.

“No problem,” she said, and hung up.

I went back to reading the article.

According to it, a person could die from ingesting just a little bit of cyanide. In a low enough dose, the person would slip into a coma, twitching a little before going into cardiac arrest.

Sounded to me like what had happened to Emily.

But where was the evidence? Cyanide victims were supposed to get a pink flush, and leave traces of cyanide in their blood, their lungs, their urine. Where could it have gone?

I kept thinking about the question through lunch, turning the problem over in my head like some homework assignment.

Maybe I was thinking about it in the wrong way. If I were Dave, how would I get rid of it?

The answer hit me like a slap in the face. In the urine.

I dialed the detective’s number. As soon as she picked up, I burst out with “Did Emily have any urine in her body?”

“Sean? Is that you?”

I cleared me throat. “Yes, Detective Wright, it’s me. Look, I think I’ve figured out what happened to the cyanide. Did Emily have any urine in her body when the EMTs got her?”

She sighed. “I can’t tell you that, Sean. Why don’t you tell me what you’re thinking, and I’ll look into it?”

I took a deep breath. “Okay. I think Dave gave her a really low dose of cyanide in the wine, just enough to turn her sleep into a coma, and slowly kill her.”


“Most of what her body didn’t absorb went into her urine.”


“I think Dave somehow pumped the urine out of her, so we wouldn’t find anything.”

She sighed. “That’s kind of a stretch, Sean.”

“I know, I know.” I swallowed. “But there’ll be evidence. He had to get rid of the urine, right? He probably flushed it down the toilet, which means he might have splashed some around. And -”

“And if he threw away the container, it’ll be in his trash,” she finished. She was quiet for a few seconds. “All right. I’ll check into it. If I find anything, you’ll know.”

“How’s that?”

I could hear her smile through the phone. “We’ll be making an arrest, that’s how.”

Ron Toland @mindbat