Skeletons of Past Love
A Bo Fexler Short Story
by Clair Dickson
I've been a PI long enough that I don't get shocked when the skeletons pop out of the closet. It was a skeleton in the ground that put me on the trail after an old man.
I was inappropriately dressed for Brookshire Nursing home, but the gray-haired men didn't seem to mind my tight tee or my tight jeans as I walked down the hall to room 172. I knocked on the open door.
"Come in," the old voice inside managed to croak out. He looked even more ragged than his voice. His hair was so fine it was like wisps of thistledown. His eyes grew wide as they traveled down to the tip of my low-rise pants. Then he looked away, cheeks flushing.
"Bo Fexler," I introduced myself, shaking his hand. I sat my tall, lanky frame into the less-comfortable-than-it-looked chair. I smiled politely then said, "I wanted to ask you about a piece of property on Crooked Lake Road. In 1982, you were listed as the owner. It ended up titled to the local government after the property taxes went unpaid. It never sold at auction."
"Mildred wanted a house in the country. We built it ourselves. Mildred loved that house. You know, Mildred had pretty blond hair, too."
"Please. Call me Al. You're such a pretty girl, like Mildred was." He snuck another peak at my midriff.
"Al. When did you leave the house?"
"After Mildred died."
"And when was that?"
He blinked at me. "She wasn't happy anymore. She wanted the house in the country. A little house. She wanted to raise our kids there." There were probably a few screws loose in his head. Maybe even a few missing. Either that or he was hiding something with a veil of dementia. I've been a private eye too long to trust anything-- even senility.
I smiled politely over gritted teeth. "Al. A skeleton was found on the property. Buried. My client wanted to find out whose it might be. Was anyone buried on your property?"
"Mildred died there."
"Was Mildred buried there?"
"She wasn't happy anymore."
"Mildred died." It was like a skipping CD.
"I know. How did she die?" I was starting to think I would get more useful answers from a Magic 8 Ball.
"She was supposed to be happy there. We all were."
I stifled a sigh, stood up, and walked to the window. I decided to ask the same question with different words. "How long have you been without Mildred?" I turned back around.
Al responded, "For a long time."
"Who was president when Mildred died?"
I strained my brain for a moment, but I'd never memorized the Presidents. Too busy fending off high school boys. That and I didn't care. "Was Carter still president when you left that house?"
"Nope. By then it was Reagan."
"First or second term?"
"Did Mildred die because she was sad?"
"She died. In bed. I wanted her to be happy. But she died." That sounded as evasive as me fending off a bar-room suitor.
I sighed long and slow. "Thank you, Al. I'm just gonna go."
I stopped by the library to look up presidents. If Al's recollection was right, Mildred died between 1977 and 1981. And Al moved out between 1981 and 1985. That fit with the last property records.
But there was no death certificate for Mildred Foster.
That looked bad. Of course, it could have been some other woman's skeleton. I might be blond, but I wasn't going to spend much time on that second idea until I cleared Al's name. If. That's the funny thing about being a private eye-- I usually prove more guilt than innocence. The other funny thing is that my profession is a private investigator, yet I spend most of my time making things public. I ran out of amusing thoughts before I made it to Ruth Ann McGurney's and spent that last mile just listening to Nirvana.
Ruth Ann McGurney was Mildred and Al Foster's daughter and hopefully a better source of answers than her father. She sat with me and a cup of coffee on a screened in porch that overlooked a small, neat yard and a dirt road.
"It's been a long time since I've thought or talked about my mother."
With that much bitterness in her voice she must have had some well-ripened contempt waiting to come out.
"My mother ran off with David Lach. I'm the youngest and I had moved out the year before. Never even realized that they were lovers. I knew they were friends. My mom helped Mr. Lach out ever since his wife died giving birth to their third baby. Billy Lach. Spoiled brat, that Billy." She shook her head.
"Do you know when your mother left?"
"Middle of October. 1981."
"What happened with your father?"
"He kind of lost it. He never really seems to be aware of what people are saying to him. He talks a lot about when he built the house. And how happy things made my mother."
"And that Mildred's dead."
I narrowed my eyes. "You said she ran off with David Lach, but you know your father says she's dead."
"I think that he lost it. And in his mind, when she left, it was the same as if she had died."
"What if I told you there was a skeleton buried in the backyard. By the big oak tree."
Her big brown eyes blinked at me. They were dry. "But what about Mr. Lach?"
"I don't know. To be honest, I don't even know if the person under the tree is Mildred."
"Isn't there a way to test? Maybe DNA or something. They always do it on TV."
"Probably some way."
"Where do I go? To the police station?"
"Ah, well, the police kind of let this one go cold. The skeleton, they figured, was probably in the ground some twenty years."
"But wouldn't that be pretty conclusive? A DNA test?"
"Yes. I'll look into it and let you know. I'm sure there's something."
"If my mother is dead, and Mr. Lach is missing. That means . . . that means my father did it, doesn't it?" Now her eyes swam in emotion.
"Explain that to me."
"My dad found out about their affair?"
"You don't think that's very likely, do you?"
"My dad was so, so determined to make my mom happy. He would have done anything for her. All he wanted, all he EVER wanted was to make my mother happy." With every dot I connected, it became clearer that the final picture was going to be an ugly one.
I waited for several moments before, very softly, I asked, "But could he do it?"
"As far as I know. I don't remember any tension. I don't even remember my parents fighting."
"Well. I'm not ready to make up my mind about who died and how."
"Will you keep me informed about it? I-- maybe I could offer some money. I don't know how this works."
I gave her my card and answered, "I'll be in touch."
The next stone to look under would be in the Lach rock garden. David Lach had three boys, Gavin, David Junior, and William. I didn't get a response from Gavin's number; however, David Junior was willing to talk to me. He called himself DJ and he lived three hours south. Of course.
It had started to rain after lunch and before my phone calls into the Lach family. The Doppler showed the mitten-shaped state covered in shades of green. It was a long, wet ride.
The tall dark second son of David Lach greeted me cheerfully and urged me quickly in out of the rain. "So, what exactly is this about? I know you said it was about my dad's disappearance. But, shoot, that was fifteen years ago," DJ said with a shake of his head, offering me a seat.
"Well, the way I hear it, fifteen years ago your father may have had a little fling with Mildred Foster."
He laughed. "A little fling. I don't know if I'd put it that way."
"How would you put it?"
"Fifteen years ago, the fling ended. You know, you're cute when you're confused," he smiled at me. He leaned towards me with his most charming smile on.
My smile was a fluttery, flustered one. I fought the urge to move away from him. "Would you believe I'm cuter when I understand?" It's my policy to not mix business and pleasure-- not that I've ever enjoyed dating-- but I know how to say the right things to keep a conversation moving more or less in the direction I want it.
"I guess I'll just have to find out. My father and Mildred's affair started a long time ago. Before Mildred and Al had any kids. In fact, Mildred didn't have any kids with Al."
DJ nodded. "Mr. Foster always made a big deal about how he wanted to make Mildred happy."
"Yeah. I've heard that. But, letting her carry on an affair with the neighbor. And, allegedly have kids with this man. That seems like going a bit far just to make her happy."
"But, she stayed with Al. Every day, she was there for him. I think . . . I think Mr. Foster was willing to give up a lot, so long as he still had his wife."
I shook my head. "That's sad."
"Not really. Everyone seemed happy with it."
"So. How is it you know about this love affair?"
"I lived in that house. I knew there was something going on. And eventually, when I got older, I asked my dad about it. He told me."
"The whole reason behind this investigation has to do with a skeleton that was found buried by the oak tree on what was once the Foster property."
"A skeleton. Like, someone buried a body there?" Shock is turn off for most rational people. Including DJ, who now leaned away from me. "You think it was my dad? That's what happened to him?"
"Well, initial evidence suggests the skeleton was that of a woman. An older woman."
"Al says she died."
"Yeah. I never heard exactly what happened."
"She died before your father left?"
"Far as I know it was the same time."
"When did your father leave?"
He thought about it for few moments. "November. I heard that they'd run off together, but that doesn't make much sense. Why would dad just leave the house, let it go into foreclosure? You'd think if he was running off to start a new life with his best friend's wife, he'd want the money from the house!"
"True." My phone chirped, and I excused myself to take the call.
"Bo, it's Frank. We were digging up the foundation from the old house, and we found another body. And with it a an extra set of clothes and boots. The skull-- there's a huge hole in his skull."
"Something tells me it's not a natural death. Did you call the authorities?"
"Yeah. Have you come up with anything?"
"I'll get with you tomorrow or the next day."
We said our goodbyes and hung up. I turned back to DJ.
"Another body?" he asked.
"Yes. Found in the basement."
"Probably my dad."
"Al would have killed both them."
"But I don't think that after all those years of letting the affair go on, he would suddenly change his mind."
"Unless Mrs. Foster and my dad were planning to run off together. Maybe they decided they wanted to really be together. I thought you were supposed to figure this out?" he teased me.
"I'm not sure that you have," I answered. "You say your father left in October, Mildred's departure is put at the start of September."
"Oh, come on. You're splitting hairs here."
"Maybe. I'm just not willing to draw the same conclusion you have yet. If I have any more questions, can I call you?"
"You can call me if you need something to do Friday night, too," he added.
"I have to work," I replied unapologetically. Being self-employed means setting my own hours. Handy for a person with little interest in the dating scene. I turned up the music in my car, picking a good song to lose myself in until I could focus on the facts, rather than the people around it. I like to solve mysteries. I like the challenge.
I went back to the newspaper morgue to see what the local reporter had rustled up on the subject, if anything. The odd disappearance of Mildred and David would have garnered at least a little press. Perhaps even a police investigation.
I started in September, skimming each page. By the time I got to the end of October, my back was twinging in pain and my eyes were having trouble focusing.
But there was the little article. Probably not more than five hundred words under the title, "Local Man Missing." It was Gavin Lach who reported his father missing. There was no connection between David and Mildred in the article. There was, however, the name Phillip Olins. He was a long-time neighbor and friend of both David Lach and Al Foster.
Unfortunately, Phillip Olins had disappeared from the phone book. He did have a son just a short rainy drive away. Between the library and Ray Olins' house was a brief stop to look over the new gruesome discovery. When I restarted my drive to Ray Olins, the rain lightened to a sort of mist.
I arrived at Ray Olins' house, exchanged greetings, and then I asked him for help finding Phillip Olins. With a smile, the son led me into a family room at the rear of the house.
"Hello there. What can I do for you, little lady?" Phillip queried most genially.
"Well, I'm hoping you can help me fill in some blanks in the Al Foster story."
The pleasantness was washed away from his face by the sadness that came over him. "Al Foster. It’s probably far too late to tell you to leave that old man alone."
"Yeah. Pretty much. My client bought the property Al used to own." I filled him in on the story so far.
He pressed his lips together and looked at the floor. Finally, he lifted his gaze to mine. "Yes. The body is Mildred's."
"Do you know how she died?"
"I'm not sure. Al said there was a bruise on her neck. Officially, it was called natural death."
"I never found a death certificate for her," I countered.
"It was probably under her real name. Mildred never legally married Al. She never legally used his name. She did it sometimes so people wouldn’t ask questions. Her last name was Polt." He spelled it for me.
"Oh. Why didn't she marry him?"
"I don't really know. Wasn't any of my business."
"If there was a bruise on her neck, wouldn't that indicate unnatural causes?"
"Al said that it had happened a few days ago."
"Still looks like they had a fight and he killed her."
"Except no one who knew Al would believe he'd do that. Especially since he was devastated by her death. Just, completely devastated. He refused to let the doctor take the body, even said that he’d bury her himself when he was ready. Now, that was a little creepy, I gotta say. But he buried under the oak tree."
"So, then, who killed Mildred?"
"I'm guessing you heard about the relationship between Mildred and David?"
"I asked him what happened to Mildred. He, of course, said that she died. And she wasn't happy. Several times. Then he said that David had done it. That David had taken Mildred from him. Again. This time she was gone for good."
"Paper said you were David's friend, too. Did you ask him about it?"
"He denied it. He said that things weren’t like that with him and Mildred anymore. He said she must have found someone else."
"Unless you knew Mildred. She didn’t love David like she loved Al. It was different with David. More superficial, I guess."
"A sexual relationship."
He smiled, a little embarrassed. "Maybe. You gotta understand that we didn’t talk about things like that."
"But, yeah, that’s probably what it was. Then, next thing I know, David’s not around any more. Al wouldn’t say anything. Did he do it? I don’t know. David’s house went into foreclosure. Then, one of Al’s kids got him moved to that nursing home. He was awful young, but there wasn’t anything left of him. I think if he’d have stayed in that house, he would have just stopped living. He had no interest in going on without Mildred. That’s why he let her keep up with the affair with David."
"Al said Mildred wasn't happy anymore. What made her unhappy?"
Phillip shrugged. "I think . . . I think there was a fight between her and David."
"He wanted her to run off?"
"I don't know about that."
"She was unhappy. She had a fight with someone-- Al or David. And then she's dead. Soon after that, David's dead. Something's not making a lot of sense to me."
"Things don't always make sense, honey," he told me.
I rolled my eyes. "Do you think Al could have killed David?"
"Yeah. He wasn't right after Mildred died." His conviction surprised me. What kind of friend is that certain of his pal's murderous ability.
After several moments of listening to rainwater tinging in the gutter, I stated, "There was a second skeleton. Buried in the basement."
"A hole in his head?"
I started. "Yes."
"Al would have used the decorative fire poker that his great great grandfather had forged as a blacksmith."
"Ah." I had trouble sounding convinced. "Makes sense. I just have one more question. How come no one told the Foster kids that their mother was dead?"
"I don’t know."
"Because then the rest of the story would come out, wouldn’t it? About the affair between David and Mildred. Which would have devastated Al. Losing his wife was bad enough, but learning of the affair would have broken his heart."
"Everyone knew about the affair."
The way he looked at the floor to the left of me stacked on top of the odd comments and made me realize I was looking at a killer. He didn't look dangerous, but time dulls even the sharpest blade. "Except Al," I declared.
He wet his lips with a dry tongue. "Oh, he knew," he tried to dismiss.
"I would hate to have been the one to tell that sweet man what his wife was doing with his best friend."
"Well, he. . . he needed to know."
"Why?" I demanded.
"So he could understand why David killed her."
"What? You mean, he was told after she died? Wow. That's cold."
"He didn't understand what happened. He knew she didn't die of natural causes, but it was hard for him to not know."
"I don't believe he does know. He'd have said something. In that jumbled brain of his, he would have said something about how he lost her. I think knowing his friend killed his wife would have jarred him enough that it would be part of that loop he speaks. About how Mildred was supposed to be happy. About how she wasn't happy. Then she died. He'd say something about how HE didn't make her happy."
Phillip shrugged his shoulders. "You can't prove anything, though."
My insides had turned to ice, so the words were cold when I spoke them. "Al didn’t kill David, did he? You did. You were upset about what David had done to Mildred and you wanted to help your friend. You were so certain that Al would have used that fire poker—which means you must have used it."
He moved fast for his age, lifting from the sofa and charging at me. He stretched his arms out and gripped his bony hands around my neck. This wasn't a TV movie, so he didn’t spill a confession as he choked me. I pulled at his thumbs, tried to find the pressure point in his wrist, and knocked over the table lamp as I tried to pull away.
Then, the hands were off my throat. Phillip’s sidestepped, hands at his sides. I looked at the son.
"What just happened?" Ray demanded.
"Apparently I said something he didn't like," I stated the obvious.
"What did you say?"
"That the only way he could have already known that the body found in the basement of Al Foster's old house had a hole in its skull was if he put it there." My gaze was steady on Ray. Then, I turned a piercing look to Phillip, standing at the end of the hallway. And noticed something.
The man had unusually small feet—tied into a pair of shoes heavily worn on the outsides more than the insides. Like the extra pair of boots buried along side the body in the basement.
"Well-- maybe not. I don't believe my dad killed anyone."
"No one wants to believe that of anyone. But these marks he left are rather like an unvoiced admission of guilt. He can be violent. He may have been trying to kill me. After I . . . well, accused him of murder."
"Dad?" Ray looked helplessly at his father.
Phillip didn't deny it. "Mildred was his life," he said softly. "Losing her was the end of his world. And David Lach took her away."
Ray's face contorted. "I-- I am so sorry," he choked out. "I--"
I didn't have anything to say. At least not out loud to Ray or Phillip.
My words were for the report I had to write up on the case. To go with invoice.
A few days later, when I was wrapping up the paperwork for the case, complete with the death certificate for Mildred Polt, the results came from the DNA testing lab. The body under the oak tree was Ruth Ann McGurny’s mother. The body in the basement was her father. I added the information to my report and printed off several copies. One for my client, who had enjoyed the sordid tale, calling it a real life kind of 'Law and Order'. The second copy I mailed to DJ Lach. I got a call from his lawyer about a week later. The lawyer told me DJ was looking for justice, though I suspected it was really a quest for revenge. Only, revenge on an old man like Phillip Olins would likely be unfulfilling.
The third copy I took to Ruth Ann. I had already given her a summary over the phone. She dunked her tea bag in the cup far longer than necessary. "I talked to my dad the other day. Well, you know what I mean," she added with a sad smile.
"I told him what you said to me, about the affair. Told him I understood why he did it. He told me he didn't know anything about it. I told him about the DNA evidence. That it showed the body under the house was my dad. I wasn't sure if he got it. It's hard to tell with him."
"This morning, the nursing home called. Al went into the kitchen real early. He got a knife." She closed her eyes, forcing the tears onto her cheeks. "He's dead. Do you think-- do you think maybe he didn't know?"
I didn't answer.
"What is it they say about a woman's heart?"
"Tripe. Would you have told him, if he didn't know?"
"I think he should have known."
"Even though it broke him."
I shook my head. "I've been a PI for six years now. Trust me, some secrets should stay dark secrets. Sometimes the skeletons should stay in the closet. Or buried so they don't break more hearts, more lives."
Clair Dickson writes Bo Fexler stories when she's not teaching alternative high school. She's had over thirty short stories accepted for publication in the last year. Visit www.bofexler.blogspot.com for links and more. She's flattered to be listed as one of the favorite daughters of Spade.