5 – AIR OF SUSPICION
Dominic Witherspoon sat facing the television, an amber bottle of Coor’s Light in hand and a remote in the other. His eyes were glued to the set, but nothing registered in his mind. He was in a zone of thought, a zone of depression, anxiety and loss. It was an old habit and what one would call a defense mechanism.
Too many times, Shellie watched as her father drop into the old lime green recliner and disappeared. He had no answers for what plagued their lives. More and more, he fell into the evening ritual, pieces of Dom slipping away. She was losing him.
A blaring commercial for Red Apple Snapple broke her own reverie and she glanced at the television. She watched him from atop the stair steps near the second-floor landing. Her little hands gripped the stair banister bars as she put her face between the posts to watch. She resembled a prisoner. Much like her father’s life, it had devolved into more of a life sentence.
He sipped from the bottle. In reality, Shellie knew she was lucky that he didn’t do more than the one bottle each night. He nursed the same bottle for two to three hours then would fall asleep in the chair, often while watching Discovery or History specials. The drone of the narrating voice would lull him to sleep. On more than one occasion, she had also fallen asleep in the hallway only to be woken up in the late hours and carried to bed by her father.
“…a task force combining local police, homicide detectives and state investigators are concentrating their search efforts for Vicente Vargas in the Phoenix area, but there is speculation that he might be using resources to get back to Puerto Rico where he has family.”
Shellie was hungry but decided to hold off sneaking into the kitchen until he fell asleep. He was angry with her, but more than that, he was deeply disappointed in her. That hurt laid on her heart pressed on her like a heavy boot standing on her chest. He had no real idea of what to be mad at her for — she had no real idea what she had done either — but it was there nonetheless.
The police left only an hour and a half before. They had come with a search warrant and ransacked their house. The uniformed men left with her laptop and her father’s computer tower.
This was their third visit within the last two days. The first was “routine”. They knocked on their door about an hour or two after Ms. Baxter left that morning.
Somewhat apprehensive, Dom opened the door to the uniformed police. It was a learned reaction and a belief that one grew into when you lived in a rough city neighborhood. He was originally from Chicago and his Irish father worked on occasion for some known, shady associates.
From an early age, Dom was taught that police knocking on the door was a bad omen. If you were doing anything illegal, then you had to be guarded when you spoke with them. If you weren’t doing anything illegal, it still meant bad news because they wanted you to give them information on one of your neighbors or friends. It could actually be worse than the first outcome.
The two policemen relayed the grim message that Ms. Bernice Baxter had died that morning in a traffic accident.
“We have some questions for you. Can we come in and discuss them with you, sir?”
“No. We can talk right here on the doorstep,” Dom snapped, a little too sharp. The pair of cops stared at him with startled expressions.
“I… mean, no. Sorry. My ill mother is inside and she’s resting right now. I don’t want to disturb her. What do you need to ask me, officers?”
The first officer, Antony Royas, a Hispanic man with a thick mustache and short-cropped hair replied, “Well, there were some extenuating circumstances that we cannot go into, but could you tell us what Ms. Baxter’s emotional state was when she left this morning? Did she seem upset, depressed or stressed over anything?”
“Uh… Well, no, not really. Why?”
“Like I said I cannot go into details, but I have to ask.”
“She died in a car accident, you said. Why are you investigating?”
“Any fatalities have to be investigated per procedure. I’m sure you understand.”
Sitting at the kitchen table, Shellie heard their conversation.
Ms. Baxter had died! Part guilty relief and part fear washed over her. What would they do for a nurse now?
She never liked the mean-spirited Bernice, but she knew how much her father relied on her.
Officer Peter Gordon, Royas’ partner spoke up, “How about in the last two or three weeks? Was she having any financial problems or maybe was she suffering from any illnesses that you know of?” He used the end of his pen to scratch at a graying black beard as he waited on Dom’s response.
It was Dom’s turn to stare. Officer Gordon was lanky with a “runner’s body” but also seem bored and distracted. Officer Royas was heavier, but his set of keen eyes stared back with annoyance. The heat roasted the two men standing on the sidewalk.
He carefully worded his reply, “I’m not on a personal level with my mother’s nurse so I don’t know about her health, but as far as her finances, I just offered to pay her more hourly while she takes care of my mother.”
The officers nodded and jotted down the information in a hand-size notebook.
“I’m sorry to cut this short, but I really do need to tend to lunch for my mother and daughter. Is there anything else or are we done?”
Officer Gordon frowned. “Is there an issue or anything you want to tell us, Mr. Witherspoon? You seem a bit… nervous.”
Her father did not like being pressed.
“Okay. We’re done. Good day, officers.” He shut the door in their faces. The whole conversation would come back to haunt them.
He rubbed his neck and shook his head. It was obvious they rattled him with the news and the sudden stress of the nurse’s death. They relied heavily on her and it would be hard for him to find a replacement.
“It’s okay, Dad. They’ll send someone out.” She was referring to the Nurses Service Association.
“Uh… Yeah. Eat your grilled cheese now.” He passed by her and went upstairs to his room on the second floor.
She guessed he would be calling into work and trying to find someone to take his shift at Carmen’s All-Nighter Laundromat. Without Ms. Baxter, Dom wouldn’t be able to leave her alone with Grannie.
At times like this, Shellie especially missed her mother. Her father tried to be attentive and provided what he could, but he was awkward with affection and emotional connections. She didn’t doubt his love, but feeling it was another story.
She realized then for the first time that Ms. Baxter was the only other person she knew who died other than her mother. Both died the same way too — in a car accident.
I don’t want to go to her funeral! He won’t go, will he? She didn’t even like me, Dad or even Grannie! All she ever did was yell at us and hog the TV when dad wasn’t aroun—
She gasped. Do ghosts come because you thought bad things about them after they died?
Shellie bolted up the stairs and jumped onto her laptop to research it. Within five minutes she was lost in a series of animated YouTube videos and completely forgot about the car accident, Ms. Baxter’s haunting and her father’s work woes.
At about 7:30 that night, it all returned like a curse with the Phoenix Homicide Detectives Dale Kenton and Jerry Pence.
Dom answered the door and spewed out his excuses before they could introduce themselves. “Look, it’s late, Officers. I’ve already answered the questions put to me by the first two. My mother is ill. Can we do this another time?”
Pence rebuked her father in a stern voice. “Actually, no, Mr. Witherspoon. This is a serious matter involving the death of your mother’s nurse. I would think you could take time out to help us and provide closure for her family. After all, the woman donated her last year to care for your sick mother. It would be the most humane thing to do. No?”
The thin, white detective was dressed in a gray suit pressed sharp and neat with a black tie. He already had his hand-sized notebook out and an impatient air about him.
Dom sighed loudly but didn’t say anything else.
“May we?” Kenton poked his hand toward their kitchen table behind Dom.
Again, her father sighed and muttered under his breath, but opened the door invitingly.
“Go upstairs and check on your grandmother,” he ordered Shellie who was standing next to the television.
Detectives Kenton and Pence sat across the table from Dom, going over some information. Shellie tried to listen as she checked on Grannie, but their voices were low and too garbled to hear. The machines whirred and hummed like always. Above her grandmother’s head, bright blue numbers displayed her heart rate, blood pressure and temperature. All seemed normal.
Shellie raced back quietly to the stairs and perched in her favorite spying spot to listen.
“…several of them have reported seeing a heated conversation between you and Ms. Baxter. You neglected to tell this to the officers this morning.”
“It was just a… a… Well, it wasn’t as it appeared. She was upset with me because I ran late coming home from work. Threatened to quit,” Dom rambled on, crossing his arms over his chest.
“So, you’re saying she was angry…Emotional?”
“Yes, but before she left she agreed to stay if I gave her a raise.”
“When the officers asked you about this, why did you keep it hidden? According to those officers, you were rather ill-tempered and unresponsive,” Kenton said, applying the pressure.
“No! Not at all. I was just shocked to learn of her death.”
“Yet, you were present enough to keep information from them?”
“What’s this all about? I know you’re not digging this hard into a simple car accident. I… I’m not answering any more questions until you level with me or you can leave.” Dominic was a good man, but the stress had been wearing on him all afternoon and it was all too easy to be angry at that moment.
“Whoa, whoa, let’s not raise our voices, Mr. Witherspoon. You’re going to upset your family,” Kenton warned.
Pence leaned over the table on his elbows. “You seem under a lot of strain. We’ll be out of your hair if you’ll tell us what you last talked about this morning with Ms. Baxter. We’re not ‘digging’ as you put it for no reason.”
“What’s this all about then?” Dom insisted again.
“We can do this at the station if you would prefer,” Kenton whispered, but it was a barely-veiled threat.
Dom slouched in his chair. “No, I… I can’t leave my mother and daughter unattended.” He’d rubbed at the back of his neck again. “She…Ms. Baxter was angry like I said when I got home. She’d gotten into an argument with my daughter and was mad that I was late.”
“What was this argument with your daughter about?”
“She found Shellie on her laptop watching videos on how to hack computers. She’s always watching videos and such. It wasn’t a big deal, but Ms. Baxter said Shellie hit her and she couldn’t take it here anymore.”
The detectives gave each other sidelong glances.
“Wait… What?” Dom shouted seeing their expressions.
“Nothing. Go on,” Pence insisted, trying to appear friendly.
“NO! Leave now! You won’t talk to me, I’m not talking to you.” Her father rose from his seat, stormed over to the door and held it open for them.
As Kenton strode past, he leaned in and whispered once again, “You can expect a call for an interview sometime tomorrow, Dom. This conversation’s just getting started.”