Andrew picked up the box and held it on his shoulder as he closed the trunk. Joan had asked him to bring over two dozen antique canning jars a week or so earlier when they were taking one of their strolls.
She was another man's wife, of course, and Andrew would never... He had to stop himself from grinning as he rang the doorbell to Joan and William's just-right house.
After a long delay, William answered, to Andrew's disappointment. "Andy, come in. Joan mentioned you'd be dropping by."
"Did she?" Andrew shifted the box to his other arm and closed the door behind him.
"Drink?" William led the way to the room that Joan caled the 'Drawing Room' and William called the 'Parlor'. Andrew called it the living room. It had a decent bar on one side, though.
"What are you having, William?" Andrew set down the box in the doorway.
"Call me Bill, please. How many times..." William picked up a glass from the bar. "You know what's in a Manhattan, right?"
"Uh, bourbon and vermouth?"
"I like rye myself, if you can get a good one. So, if that's a Manhattan, then I call this a Bronx: equal parts screw-top whiskey and screw-top wine."
"Uh... maybe a little less of the wine."
"Aw, Andy, I'm just kidding ya. That's what we used to drink back in the day, when we couldn't stomach liquor, but wanted to feel like we was sophisticated."
"No. Go on. What do you want?"
"Uh. Do you have any beer?"
"Beer? Um. Probably. That would be in the kitchen, not in here. The kitchen is Joan's domain." William stopped and looked Andrew in the eyes. "But maybe you knew that."
William walked into the kitchen and after a minute returned with an opened bottle of local microbrew held out like a soiled diaper. "I hear this is great."
Andrew took the bottle with a smile and sipped hesitantly. It tasted fine. A bit overwhelming with the hops, but that's how small brewers like to do it, he supposed.
"I'll take these downstairs." William picked up the box of jars and left the room.
Andrew heard the snap of wood breaking and a cascading crash of broken glass and something heavy falling down stairs. There was no shout or call for help.
He slowly lowered his glass to the table as he continued to listen, waiting for William's voice to come from the basement, swearing about shoddy workmanship or crying in pain.
There was none and Andrew silently rose from the sofa and crept toward the basement door, still listening. He paused and looked out the windows. The driveway was still empty, save for his own car. Joan, William's wife, would be away for another few hours, and no other visitors were expected; he would investigate alone.
Andrew opened the door and peered down without stepping in. He called down, "William?" in a normal, almost friendly voice and waited for a response. He called again and waited, listening for the sound of breathing.
The small light bulb was on, but was of low-wattage, a testament to William's frugal nature. All Andrew could see clearly were the top few steps, one of which was splintered and caved in on one side. He stepped over the broken wood and descended until he could see the body: splayed out face down among a pile of rusted antique farm machinery that William had been intending to restore. Tossed to the side was the box of canning jars. Glass was everywhere.
"William?" Andrew's heart was racing, but he slowly and carefully moved toward the body until he could touch it. Suppressing his nausea he tilted the head to look at the face - it had been smashed by the top of the blade of a plow resting on the floor and was unrecognizable. Andrew moved back, breathing hard. He wanted to vomit but just closed his eyes. Then, he reached forward to check for pulse. There was none. The skin already felt cold and almost damp.
Years ago, William and Andrew had played tennis nearly every week, after William had finished his classes at the medical school, when Andrew's business was still profitable. Andrew remembered William's physique on the court and in the locker room - broad shoulders and and muscular thighs. But that was years ago and the body lying below him now was nothing like the William he remembered: skinny arms and legs, pot belly, pale and pockmarked skin that had once been tan and healthy.
Andrew shook his head in pity for the man he used to know. Then he stood up and took a deep breath and assessed the facts: The old boy had been carrying a heavy load down a dim, narrow, rickety stairway when one of the steps broke, sending poor William plunging headfirst down to the bottom where he landed on a pile of hard, sharp equipment. That was it, wasn't it? Could there even be the possibility of any alternative? Might there be the slightest chance that this was 'foul play'? Who would want William dead?
Andrew jogged up the staircase to investigate the broken step. If this had been sabotage, someone could have sawed through the step partway, so that anything more than say, 150 pounds would have caused it to break. He swept his fingertip over the broken edge, but felt only splintered wood, not the smooth line that a saw would have created. If it was sabotage, the saboteur was very good. Andrew caught himself smiling; he knew he was being paranoid - there was nothing to worry about, he told himself.
The next obvious thing to do was to call the police. But there was no hurry. First he wanted to check the body again for anything suspicious. It wasn't the idea of murder that motivated Andrew to begin going through William's pockets, it was the fact that the old boy was always so careful. How could he have let such a simple, common accident like this kill him? Andrew had often said that William reminded him of one if his Aunt Gloria's cats, Mouser. All the other cats and dogs were inevitably struck down by cars or cancer, or walked into the woods one day and never returned. But Mouser always came back - maybe with an injured paw, or muddied fur, but always returned. Andrew had never mentioned to William that Mouser was also the meanest, most vindictive animal he had ever known.
He laughed silently at this thought until he found a piece of paper sticking out of the side pocket of William's cardigan. As he opened it, he scrolled through a mental list of what it was likely to be: receipts? No, it seemed more like a letter. A letter to the manufacturers of something or other, threatening a lawsuit? That seemed likely. William could never let himself be taken advantage of, whether by friend, by enemy, or by corporation. So Andrew was surprised when he read the following:
"To Whom it May Concern,
Know this, I did not die in any accident. I have been murdered."
Andrew read the sentence again, twice, before standing straight up. He tried looking around in the basement, but there was no light except what was illuminating the body and himself.
Murder?! He thought to himself. He wanted to act, to react, but could think of nothing to do other than continue reading.
"The person who did this has known me for many years. He covets my job, my money, my home, and probably my wife, although Joan has never demonstrated any evidence that she knew anything about this."
No, Joan wouldn't have seen this coming; couldn't have known anything. She had her own life with her own friends.
"This person has tried to kill me before. My car's brakes have been damaged. Radios have been perched precariously close to the Jacuzzi. The most clever attempt was the antifreeze margarita at Ellen and Dave's New Year's Eve party. The ethylene glycol in antifreeze tastes sweet, can be toxic with only one ounce, and death caused by ingestion typically resembles a simple heart attack. Fortunately for me, the multiple attempts to kill me have given me a healthy paranoia, and I normally only eat and drink foods and beverages that I have prepared myself with ingredients from untampered sources. Before doing anything more than wetting my lips with it, I carried my glass upstairs and looked at the liquid under the ultra-violet light from Ellen's tanning bed. The liquid fluoresced, which is a sign of the presence of ethylene glycol. I just laughed, however, and risked taking another sip. The idiot didn't know that tequila is a very effective antidote to ethylene glycol poisoning!"
Andrew remembered the party, and remembered the old boy sneaking upstairs for several minutes, then returning with a grin and an empty glass. Andrew had known by then that William knew he was being targeted, but hadn't known that the antifreeze had been detected - he had assumed that not enough had been put into William's glass. Well, he would destroy this note, obviously. But was there any indication that William knew it was him?
"Working in the medical field has been an exhausting, frustrating, but also rewarding and educational experience. My friends in forensics have helped me determine which of my suspected poisonings have been false alarms, or the real thing. And Bruce in the morgue helped me very much by looking the other way when I needed to borrow one of the bodies. I had begun looking for someone like 'Charlie' years ago, when I first anticipated needing him. He was about my height and weight, although with a bit more of a paunch, and not as fit as I like to keep myself. Also, his (to be honest) very ugly face would never be recognized for mine. But that wouldn't be a problem. Charlie lived in the freezer for years, under the venison that Joan wouldn't have touched even if I paid her."
The hair on Andrew's neck stood up straight. He strained his eyes toward the sound of the freezer's compressor. He knew if he opened the door, there would be nothing unusual. And what would that prove? Then he heard a giggle in the darkness. Andrew turned around and there was William, naked but for his undershorts, holding a shovel over his head, laughing.