The hours that morning were hollowed out by the sentence, “he strangled her in her pajamas sometime in the middle of the night.” Every time I focused on work, a terrified, contorted face would insert itself into my thoughts and make me a little sick. I knew Bell detested his mother; he made no secret of it. He often disparaged her as a self-centered, materialistic woman who complained and carped about how the neighbors’ wives had better houses and cars and clothes. Her husband worked as an accountant, but never earned enough money to satisfy her wants. Her children possessed average abilities, which offended her sense of dignity. Bell was one of three children, each born five years apart. His older sister and brother seemed to have no interest in him and he clearly cared little for them. Both of them left the house for college after high school never to return. Bell himself attended an average New York State college, achieved an academic level of mediocrity then decamped for San Francisco, where he lived for about ten years.
I had heard all these facts from Finn years before. When Finn was still on friendly terms with Bell he asked him about his time in San Francisco, but only learned that Bell had found and lost the great love of his life while he lived out there. Bell spoke in a strangely nostalgic tone about San Francisco, but also remained secretive about his years there.
I arrived at our lunch table to find Finn and my other colleagues already there. They had just sat down and were waiting for me so Finn could begin telling us what he knew of Bell’s situation.
“Welcome to our little lunch group,” I said to Finn as I sat down. “You already know Nabokov and I guess you’ve met Nancy, Olivia and Erica,” indicating our redheaded, well dressed and reticent colleagues respectively.
“Yes, I’ve worked with all three on various projects. And they regularly join us for drinks at Crowley’s on Friday afternoon.” The ‘us,’ Finn meant, comprise a rather hard drinking crew of warehouse employees. The “drinks” suggested a far more moderate consumption that was actually the case. Finn and his friends would descend on Crowley’s around four and carouse till four or five the next morning.
The thought of these women drinking with Finn startled me. They were too reserved to mix with such inveterate drinkers. Did their polite, demur behavior at the office reflect who they were or did their drinking and presumably riotous revels denote them?
Finn drank some water and said, “After Bell was fingerprinted and booked yesterday, he called me from the Nassau County police station. When I saw the caller ID I immediately figured it must be him. He knows I have friends who are criminal attorneys. He apologized right away for bother me but said he was in a bad way needed my help. I told him I’d do what I could and he asked me to get one of my lawyer friends to represent him. I told him I would call one right after I got off the phone with him and he thanked me profusely. I could tell from his voice that he’d been crying; it kept cracking when he spoke. There was an awkward silence for about a minute, then he said he’d talk to me soon and hung up.
“Didn’t he say anything about his mother or whether he was guilty or not?” Nabokov arched her eyebrows as she demanded this information. Finn just shrugged his shoulders and shook his head no.
“He only asked for the lawyer. I thought he would have said more. Maybe he wanted to, but couldn’t. I don’t know. My friend said he’d take the case.”
“But why do you think he’d do that to his mother? I just don’t understand it.” This was the second time I heard Erica speak. Nothing like aberrant behavior to draw a shy person out of her shell, I thought.
“Well, I am no shrink, but I think it might go back to Bell’s childhood and how she treated him as a little boy. I really don’t have many details; Bell used to describe his mother as a cruel person who alternately ignored him or belittled him. He told me that his mother never said anything nice to him and that she would sometimes call him stupid or useless if he did things he wasn’t supposed to. I don’t think she hit him, but it sounded like she was verbally abusive. Jim do you remember, I think it was about twelve years ago, a group of us from the building were at Crowley’s and Bell was there too, and he was pretty plastered?”
“Yes, very well. He went on a tirade about how much he hated his mother.”
“That’s right. He said she was grossly obese.”
“I believe he said she was a fat pig,” I interjected.
“Yea, and he told me that she spent all his father’s money and she was the most selfish woman he’d ever known.” So, I think his motive for strangling her runs deep. He seemed obsessed by how much he despised her.”
“Oh my God, he sounds really sick. But it seems as if his mother almost drove him to it. I don’t mean to excuse what he did, but I can understand it,” Erica said.
“Erica, Jim was real pals with Bell before Finn and I came to work here. Tell them about Bell’s friendship with the woman he retired fifteen or so years back,” Nabokov said.
I cringed at the false implication and glanced menacingly at Nabokov. “Finn, he always confided in you, even after you had been transfered to the warehouse. But I witnessed some revealing behavior myself right at this office. I had been working at the company for few years and became friendly with an older woman in a another department. At the time I knew Bell only by sight, I hadn’t spoken a word to him. Sitting at lunch one day in the staff room I was enjoying a quiet moment alone with my thoughts when Bell pulls up a chair, introduces himself and joins me. I politely acknowledged him and continued eating. After a few awkward minutes of silence, he began to question me. Where are you from? Where did you attend college? Are you married? The barrage of interrogation caught me completely by surprise and I scrambled to keep pace with the stream of questions. Luckily, the older woman I just mentioned arrived and sat with us and I got a glimpse into Bell’s mind. The moment she sat down Bell fixed his full attention on her. She spoke to us both equally, talking lightheartedly about all sorts of topics and I enjoyed the conversation and her company as I always had. But Bell’s disposition changed. To every remark I made, or joke I told, Bell sneered most viciously. All of a sudden he seemed to loathe me beyond any reckoning. I quickly became confused and rose to leave the table. The older woman asked me to stay longer, since the lunch hour was only half over. I excused myself, saying I had too much work to complete and hurried away from her and that dark and disturbed creature sitting with her. Later, another colleague explained to me why Bell behaved as he did. It seemed he had attached himself to this woman like a barnacle to a ship and when anyone drew her attention even slightly away from him, he had to annihilate the person out of existence. Although I didn’t know it then, I had seen the edge of the sickness that would drive Bell to destroy Driscoll and murder his mother.”
“So you’re the one who actually knows the facts of what Nabokov has been telling?” Erica sputtered.
“Yes,” I calmly replied. “Nabokov is the narrator, the bard, but I am the author of everything you have heard. Witness, participant, adversary and finally author.” Our three young colleagues looked back and forth from Nabokov to me as she and I shook our heads in subtle complicity.