An Unexplained Death: New Excerpt
By Mikita Brottman
An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottmanby is true-crime investigation story into a mysterious death at the Belvedere―a once-grand hotel―and a meditation on suicide and voyeurism.
Mikita Brottman spent ten years sifting through the details of the missing man’s life and disappearance, and his purported suicide by jumping from the roof of her own apartment building, the Belvedere.
As Brottman delves into the murky circumstances surrounding Rey Rivera’s death—which begins to look more and more like a murder—she contemplates the nature of and motives behind suicide, and uncovers a haunting pattern of guests at the Belvedere, when it was still a historic hotel, taking their own lives on the premises. Finally, she takes us to the edge of her own morbid curiosity and asks us to consider our own darker impulses and obsessions.
MY BULLDOG IS only ten months old. He still needs to go out early in the morning, while it is dark. I get out of bed, put on my sandals, pick him up, and, in my nightdress, quietly leave my apartment and press the button for the elevator. In the lobby, we slip silently past the concierge, asleep in his chair behind the desk, and out into the morning. Although the sun has not yet risen, the air is already warm.
* * *
I see strange things at this hour. Once I saw five rats walking toward me, one in front of the other, right in the middle of the street.
* * *
The poster is new. I notice it right away, taped to a utility pole. Beneath the word “Missing,” printed in a bold, high-impact font, are two sepia-toned photographs of a man dressed in a bow tie and tux. One shows a close-up of his face; the other is shot from medium distance, showing his head and shoulders. He looks like an old-fashioned movie idol. Under the images are the details. Name: Rey O. Rivera. Age: 32. Description: 6′5″, brown hair, brown eyes, 260 lbs. Last Seen: Tuesday, May 16, six p.m. Leaving home (Northwood neighborhood) to run errands in his wife’s car. Wearing pullover jacket, shorts, and flip-flops. Carrying $20 in cash, no bank cards. There’s the name of a detective in the missing persons division, a phone number to call, and a $1,000 reward for information leading to Rey Rivera’s safe return.
The poster intrigues me. Rey Rivera parts his hair on the left. He has a slightly bashful smile. In the medium close-up photo, you can just see the trace of a flower in his buttonhole. Not a rose or a carnation; something less traditional—a sprig of jasmine, perhaps. He’s so tall and handsome I find it difficult to believe he’s gone missing. But then I realize I’ve rarely seen a “Missing” poster for an unappealing or angry-looking person. People on “Missing” posters generally look happy and beautiful because whoever makes the posters chooses the best pictures they can find. Often, they’re professional portraits taken at a prom, graduation, or wedding. To grab your attention, missing people have to possess a certain allure. They have to mesmerize you.
* * *
A student, Rachel, went missing when I was at college. I didn’t even know she had gone until I noticed the posters. The last person to see her was her boyfriend, John. He told the police that after visiting Rachel, he went to the train station, and Rachel went with him. Waiting for his train, they ran into someone Rachel knew—a friendly, long-haired young man who offered her a ride home.
It didn’t escape notice that John had long hair himself.
* * *
The next time I saw my tutor, I asked whether there had been any news about Rachel. It seemed the polite thing to do, the way you might ask about someone’s sick mother. I was expecting a friendly platitude. Fingers crossed! But my tutor’s answer made me catch my breath.
“They won’t find her alive,” she said.
My tutor was the kindest person I’ve ever known. When I missed my tutorial because I had strep throat, she came to my dormitory, sat down on the bed beside me, and placed her hand on my hot brow.
“The police gave us all the facts about missing people,” she explained. “They said it’s extremely rare that responsible people disappear the way Rachel did, without even taking their purse. But when they do, if they’re not found the same day, they have almost no chance of being found alive. The police said now it’s just a matter of finding her body. They’re about to trawl the river.”
She was right. Rachel’s body was found eighteen days after she first went missing. John, it appeared, had strangled her in a fit of jealous passion. He’d spent hours looking around her house for a place to hide the body. Eventually, he’d found an eight-inch gap at the back of a closet under the stairs crammed with household junk. After emptying the cupboard of its contents, he’d pushed Rachel’s body through the gap into the recess and under the floor. He’d then stretched out on his belly, pushed the dead body in front of him, and pulled himself along through the cavity until he was all the way under the floorboards of Rachel’s bedroom. After eighteen days in this small, hot space, Rachel’s body had partially mummified.
* * *
Full urban mummification is not as common as you might think. It requires a particular set of circumstances. Not only does the environment have to be either extremely hot or extremely cold, with low humidity and good ventilation, but also these conditions have to remain stable during the several years it takes for mummification to occur. Urban mummies are formed only when a person dies in a home with the right kind of atmospheric conditions, and only if the death goes undetected for a long time. In one recent case, the mummified bodies of a sixty-three-year-old German woman, her neurologically impaired thirty-four-year-old son, and their German shepherd dog were found preserved in their home in Florida. The cause of death was determined to be an overdose of benzodiazepines. The mother had administered the drugs, dissolved in liquid, first to her son and then to their dog, laying the pair out to die on twin beds beside each other. She left a handwritten note in German, which translated as “God’s perfection now finds expression through my body.” The trio’s mummified cadavers were found four years later. Mother was lying on the kitchen floor, clad in a dressing gown surrounded by insect larva cases, her eyeglasses adjacent to her head, a full brown wig resting gently on her bare skull.
* * *
The posters of Rey Rivera multiply. The reward has now been increased to $5,000. Walking down Charles Street in the morning, I point one out to D., who recalls how, as a young boy, he used to hear about men who went out to buy a packet of cigarettes and never came back. They usually turned out to be supporting another family in another town, he tells me. Either that, or they had just walked away from their wife and kids and gone to start life over again in another state. D. says you never hear about men doing that anymore.
I wonder: Why was it always a packet of cigarettes? What if they didn’t smoke?
* * *
As soon as you go missing, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, the chances of your survival start to diminish rapidly. Still, there are miraculous exceptions. A small percentage of people who have been missing for years manage to reach out from whatever dark world they now inhabit and leave signs for friends and family to decipher: a garbled, untraceable phone call, a scrawled message on a dollar bill, a note scratched in red nail polish in the restroom of a public eatery. Kidnap victims have been recovered as long as eighteen years after their abduction. Often, they’ve been both here and not here all along, living among us in a locked basement, a converted bomb shelter, a box under someone’s bed.
High-profile missing people are almost always young white women, and on the rare occasions when they’re found, an uneasy feeling seems to be generated around the question of their return. It is almost as if, once people enter the liminal realm of the missing-and-presumed-dead, there’s an unspoken assumption—you might even call it a faith—that they are no longer one of us. Some follow every development in such cases, vowing they’ll never give up hope that missing girls will one day be safely back home with their loved ones. But the same people often express disquiet if, after begging for the public’s help in finding their daughter, sister, or wife, family members suddenly go mute, or request privacy, when the missing woman returns.
When no explanation is offered for a person’s absence, those who have been following the story in the media or online will sometimes feel they have been cheated. In the comments section of newspaper articles and in threads devoted to the case online, there will often be grumbles that the story does not add up, that we are not being given the full picture, that the missing girl might not have been “really” missing but off on a jaunt or drug binge. You will hear the complaint that, since taxpayers’ money has been spent on the search, then we have a right to find out what “really happened.”
In the case of missing women who escape their abductors after having been kept captive for many years, people sometimes believe that anyone who remains so long with her kidnapper must be complicit in her situation, at least to some degree. This incredulity is compounded if it is revealed that, as sometimes happens, the kidnap victim had eventually been allowed to go outside her captor’s house, to do yardwork or accompany him to the grocery store. Our unease and mistrust around the stories of missing people are a defense mechanism that lets us keep the horror at bay; we can reassure ourselves that many missing people aren’t “really” missing, and as for kidnap victims, they must have been weak and gullible enough to fall in love with their captors, something a stable, rational person would surely never do.
* * *
Rey Rivera, a freelance video director, is last seen on Tuesday, May 16, 2006, when he’s on a tight deadline. He is working from home, on a quiet street in a middle-class neighborhood. His wife, Allison, a sales executive, is in Richmond, Virginia, on business when Rey goes missing. A work colleague of Allison’s, Claudia, is staying over for a few days.
Around four p.m., according to Claudia, Rey goes into the kitchen and gets himself a snack: a bag of sour cream potato chips and a bottle of sparkling grapefruit juice. Normally, Rey enjoys cooking and is health-conscious, but today he is pressed for time and grabs whatever comes to hand.
Rey is back in his office when Claudia hears his cell phone ring. A very brief conversation follows. She hears him say, “Oh, shit,” and sees him run out the back door as if he is late for an appointment. His office light is still on and his computer running. Then a couple of minutes later he comes back—but just for a moment, as if he has forgotten something. Then he leaves again. He drives off in Allison’s black 2001 Mitsubishi Montero.
At five thirty p.m., Allison calls Rey from Richmond. His phone rings for a while then goes to voicemail. Allison asks him to call back when he has a chance. Before going to bed, around ten p.m., she tries again. Still Rey doesn’t pick up. She calls Claudia, who’s sleeping when the phone rings, to ask whether Rey is home. Claudia says she isn’t sure. “He went out earlier,” she says. She goes to see if he’s back, calling his name, looking in his office and in his bedroom, but there’s no sign of him. Allison apologizes for waking her up and says she’ll try again later.
At five the following morning, Wednesday, May 17, Allison is woken by a call from Claudia. Rey still hasn’t come home. Claudia sounds concerned, but Allison tells her not to worry. At this point, Allison assumes Rey has drunk too much and stayed out all night. After all, she thinks, while the cat’s away …
She calls Rey’s phone again. There’s no answer, so she leaves another message asking him to call, then showers, gets dressed, and packs her suitcase. When she calls her husband again and there’s still no response, she starts to realize something must be wrong. Normally, she and Rey talk to each other five or six times a day. It’s not like him to ignore so many calls. But then, Allison does not worry easily. She’s experienced, worldly, and used to dealing with unpredictable situations. At first, she thinks Rey must have left his phone somewhere. She keeps calling. Eventually, her calls go directly to voicemail, which means Rey’s phone battery is dead.
During the drive back to Baltimore, Allison calls as many of Rey’s friends and family members as she can get hold of, but she can find no one who has spoken to him in the last two days. At home, she searches the house for anything that might give her a clue. She notices that Rey left his toothbrush behind, and the retainer he wore to straighten his teeth, which makes Allison think he wasn’t originally planning to stay out all night.
After spending Tuesday looking for Rey, talking to his friends, and calling the local hospitals, Allison realizes she needs to file a missing persons report. This report, filed on Wednesday, May 17, 2006, at three p.m., states that Rey Rivera is a thirty-two-year-old Hispanic male, six feet five inches tall, weighing two hundred and sixty pounds. He has a scar on the right side of his face, his teeth are crooked, and he is believed to be wearing thick-rimmed black glasses. He’s taking no medications, has no medical or psychological problems, and has never gone missing before. He’s lived in the city for two years and two months, and he’s registered with a dentist but not with a doctor. Allison doesn’t know his blood type.
If the FBI gets involved with a missing persons case, it’s because the individual is obviously endangered, and the disappearance clearly involuntary. The majority of these “severe and urgent” cases involve young children. But in ordinary busy police departments, where budgets are limited and resources spread thin, missing persons cases are a low priority. This is because the vast majority of such cases turn out to have nothing to do with law enforcement.
The missing people turn out to be travelers who return home later than planned, or seniors with dementia who’ve wandered off; they may have stormed out after an argument, or not returned home after a drink or drug binge. And, of course, a number of people “go missing” by choice, skipping town deliberately to escape bad debts, an unhappy marriage, or a web of lies that’s starting to come undone. Perhaps the police assume Rivera is someone like this. No crime has been committed; somebody’s husband hasn’t come home. No doubt the cops assume the couple are involved in some kind of domestic dispute, especially since Rey’s wife is out of town and there is another woman staying in their home.
When I first read about the case, I have to confess, I, too, blithely assumed that “female houseguest” implied “cheating husband.” But after Tuesday, May 16, Claudia exits stage left, leaving an empty space where she once stood. She is merely an extra in the plot.
The days pass. There is no sign of either Rey Rivera or his wife’s SUV. There’s been no new activity on his cell phone. As word of his disappearance spreads, friends and family members arrive to help with the search. His brother, mother, and sister come to town from Florida; Allison’s parents arrive from Colorado. Everybody says that for Rey to disappear without a word is completely out of character. They all say he’s the kind of man who will tell you not only where he’s going, but why, and for how long, and exactly when he’ll be back.
The case is still not high priority, but it is not low priority, either. The fact that so many people turn up to help gives it significance. The subjects of low-priority missing persons cases have no friends or family to put the pressure on: they may be transients, shut-ins, or senile elders with no living relatives. They may be people with high-risk lifestyles—drug addicts, alcoholics, illegal immigrants, ex-inmates, sex workers, heavy gamblers—or who have disappeared before, especially if they suffer from mental illness.
Sometimes, when people go missing, friends and family discover they have a secret life. They may turn out to have been involved in complicated relationships or to have been hiding addictions, debts, diseases, pregnancies, or problems with the law. But nothing like this seems to be true of Rey Rivera. Everything points to the fact that he is exactly what he appears to be: an upstanding citizen. He is a married homeowner with a steady job, a stable mind, a substantial income, and a close network of supportive friends. No skeletons emerge from any closets. Still, this is not enough to spur the police into action. For that, the case has to involve concrete evidence of foul play.
I hear nothing more about Rivera until the following Tuesday, May 23, 2006, when, suddenly, his name is all over the news. His wife’s car has been found. That afternoon, Rey’s in-laws had decided to recheck some of the parking lots close to his former place of employment. The first lot they visit is on St. Paul Street, four or five blocks from the brownstone in the Mount Vernon neighborhood where Rivera used to work. Here, they find their daughter’s black Montero, undamaged. The lot attendant, who’d gone home at six the evening before, did not recall the Montero entering the lot, but he’d seen the car—had given it a parking ticket, in fact—on the morning of Wednesday, May 17, almost a week ago.
Has the Montero been parked there for six days, right in the middle of the very neighborhood that is being searched so carefully by Rey’s friends and family? On either side of the parking lot, the streets are still plastered with missing posters. But the posters show a photograph of Rey Rivera, not of a Mitsubishi Montero. The vehicle could easily have been overlooked while in plain sight, like the purloined letter in Edgar Allan Poe’s story of the same name. Poe’s detective, Auguste Dupin, the connoisseur of the obvious, sees what the police have overlooked precisely because it is right in front of their eyes.
As soon as she recognizes the vehicle, Allison’s mother calls her daughter; then she phones the police, who say they’ll have to impound the car and then bring Allison and her parents in to headquarters for questioning. When Allison gets the call from her mother, she’s just gotten out of the shower and goes into a state of panic, grabbing the first items of clothing she sees. She asks a friend to take her to the parking lot, as she is in no state to drive, and gets into her friend’s car wearing a tank top, cutoff jean shorts, and no shoes. Her hair is still wet. At police headquarters, Detective James Mingle of the Missing Persons Unit interviews her for more than eight hours. Television trucks are on hand to cover the story. Now that the car has been found, the case has become high priority.
* * *
When it comes to missing people, the first day or two after they have gone, it is as though they have left a door open behind them, and they can still turn around and come back. But after five or six days, you get the sense they have crossed all the way over. All that remains, if you’re lucky, is a vague glimpse, caught on tape somewhere, of a pixelated ghost.
* * *
When I was at college, I answered an advertisement on a university notice board placed by a retired psychoanalyst offering treatment free of charge. Dr. B. was a tall, elderly, white-haired gentleman with time on his hands. He always wore sweaters or cardigans with house slippers. He’d decided to continue to treat one or two students who would not normally be able to afford his fees. I saw him twice a week for two years.
I sought help from Dr. B. because I’d started to feel invisible. Other people didn’t seem to notice me, or, if they did, they didn’t remember me when they saw me again. I’d talk to someone in a bar or coffee shop, eat lunch with them on the library steps; then a week later they’d sit next to me in a lecture and ignore me, or walk past me in the street without a glimmer of recognition. I didn’t seem to be even slightly familiar to them. I appeared to be completely forgettable. To make matters worse, I’ve been cursed with an infallible memory for faces and names. For someone so easily forgotten, this is not an enviable gift. It makes me feel even more invisible.
One day, during our session, Dr. B. seemed to suddenly grow impatient. He told me that my analysis was going nowhere. I was too inhibited, he said.
He told me I was like a snail whose antennae were attuned to pick up the interest and attention of others, and when I sensed none, I immediately withdrew. I could tell at once when people didn’t register my presence. Dr. B. said that I suffered from “paranoia with a minus sign.” Instead of believing that everyone was plotting against me, I felt that nobody ever paid the least bit of attention to me at all.
He told me I had to overcome this problem. Fortunately, he said, he knew a technique that often worked in such cases.
“Close your eyes,” he said, cracking his knuckles.
I heard him moving his chair closer to the head of the couch. Then he placed one finger gently between my eyebrows and began slowly running his fingertip down the length of my nose. I could feel his hot breath on my face. He repeated the action five times before I asked him to stop. I told him it was not working. I felt even worse.
“On the contrary,” he said. “You have just insisted on something very firmly. You’ve never expressed yourself to me so openly before.”
The nose stroking, when it happened, came out of the blue and took me completely by surprise. I searched long and hard, but never found it in any book of psychoanalytic, therapeutic, or mesmeric techniques.
It is, however, the only reliable method of hypnotizing a shark.
* * *
Thirty years later, I am still invisible. Returning with my bulldog from his lunchtime walk, I step out of the elevator in our building and notice a musty smell in the hall. The carpet is covered with plastic. Two contractors emerge from a doorway, pulling a cart loaded with trash bags.
“Does somebody have a leak?” I ask.
“A leak? No,” the younger guy replies. “We’re just putting the plastic down to protect the carpet.”
“Oh. Did somebody die?”
The older guy laughs.
“Don’t worry. If he did, it wasn’t here,” says the younger guy.
They’re cleaning out Mr. Becker’s apartment.
I spoke to Mr. Becker only once. He’d introduced himself to me in the elevator about a year ago. I remember thinking that he looked like Martin Luther. Or at least, he looked like the image that came to mind when I thought of Martin Luther—a Flemish portrait of a thin-lipped, ruddy-cheeked man in black robes and a black hat. Mr. Becker had the same thin lips and suspicious feline eyes.
A week after meeting Mr. Becker, I was about to step into the elevator when I saw him again, walking through the lobby. I held the elevator doors open, smiled at him, said hello, and pressed the button for the fifth floor. Unsmiling, not meeting my eyes, he went to press it again right after me, even though, when he’d introduced himself to me just a week earlier, we’d discussed the fact that we both lived on the fifth floor. It was not that he was politely ignoring me, I realized, the way people will sometimes do when your presence is inconvenient to them. He seemed too young to have dementia. No. Mr. Becker had forgotten me already. Even the presence of my dog did not remind him. My cloak of invisibility had made everything around me vanish, even the bulldog at my feet.
It is a kind of contagion.
On the fifth floor, the musty smell lingers in the hallway for about a week after the contractors have left. When it has finally disappeared, I walk down to Mr. Becker’s apartment. The door is slightly ajar. I don’t knock; I just push it a little. It swings open, and I can tell at once the apartment is empty. It’s a corner apartment, like the one D. and I share, with windows facing the back and the side of the building. It’s been stripped to the bone. Even the carpet has been pulled up, exposing the bare concrete floor. Not a sign of life remains.
Well, Mr. Becker, I think. Who’s invisible now?
Copyright © 2018 Mikita Brottman.