Down Among the Dead
June 14, 7:25 a.m.
I looked again at the body buried to its chest in the damp clay, then tilted my head upward to squint into the glare of the morning sun reflecting off the slick, sculpted shapes of the bluff face. I found it easy to trace the descent of the body; how it would have slipped and thumped from one cluster of shrubbery to another, bouncing and sliding in the muck down the wet walls and into the few granite outcroppings that ultimately crushed the victim's chest and skull and erased parts of his face. I cursed softly under my breath at the senselessness of it, and the young Assistant M.E. glanced up from measuring the head wounds thinking that I was addressing him. I shook my head and waved Dr. Jordan to continue with a quick, annoyed gesture of my hand. The M.E. worked back a flap of clotting flesh with his gloved index finger to check the pattern of bone displacement imbedded in the victim's brain. The impact sustained by the forehead, left cheek and sternum was consistent with the distance the body must have traveled from the top of the bluffs. It looked like a simple suicide and the M.E. reported as much to me. I nodded in agreement. I borrowed a cigarette from Freddie Jordan, tore the filter off and lit it. It was the first I'd had in two weeks. The scent of a corpse always makes me want to smoke the taste of copper out of my mouth. I inhaled deeply.
When Jordan completed his examinations and the Scenes of Crime Officers (SOCOs), had their data, the fire-rescue team looped a harness under the arms of the corpse and signaled the winch, 80 feet up on the lip of the bluff overhang, to roll. The sound of the victim being pulled from the hard, wet clay was a sickening sucking slurp over the dull rumble of the distant winch engine, as though the earth were fighting not to let go. The body was lifted slowly, jerkily from the shore of the lake in tiny spastic movements that made the corpse's arms dance like a marionette's. I turned my head away for a moment as the M.E. let his breath out in a streaming curse. I spun around to glare at the young doctor, then I saw it too. The victim's legs came from the clay as though they were fashioned from jelly. They looked boneless and rubbery. The thought that muscled into my mind was quietly spoken by the medical examiner, "This man couldn't have committed suicide. He couldn't have walked to the edge if he wanted to. Look at his legs."
I was doing just that. The newly lit cigarette dangled from the right corner of my mouth as I realized there was something wrong with the victim's lower torso. Its legs were bare and transparent. They looked like semi-dried rubber cement and where the leg bones should have been visible through the transparency, there were only elongated bubblesmade elongated by the fact the feet were being held by the shore's clay soil as the body was drawn inexorably upward. One foot was lost before anyone thought to signal the winch operator to give slack. The foot just detached itself with a dull smacking sound and remained in the clay, while the body continued to risethe one ankle swaying back and forth like a gum-rubber novelty. No blood. No torn skin and no familiar snap and pop of joints as bones separated. I shouted an obscenity as the filterless butt in my mouth burned down to my lips raising a nasty bubble.
The foot was retrieved by the rescue team, labeled and zipped into the orange body bag with the rest of the corpse. It was nine o'clock in the morning by the time the team was ready to leave. One of the rescue team members complained that the corpse's clothes were too torn in the back to cover the body and kept slipping off over the shoulders onto the chest. The man who pulled the DOA's foot from the clay hollered that he'd found the guy's pants. They must have slipped off him while they winched the body free. He brought them to me pointing out the back of the trousers. They had been neatly cut up the backs of the legs and at the seat. I had them unzip the rubber bag and take another look at the victim's clothes. They too were neatly cut up the backnot tornand a tag was sewn inside the collar. The tag read. "Jonathan Dell Funeral Home," along with a street number. I kept the SOCOs another hour searching the scene. I had no idea what my report would read like. I had no clear idea what I would report.
Feathers Pub, June 16, 12:57 p.m.
Sitting in The Feather's Pub that afternoon, over an English lunch and a Scottish draft beer, I was toying with my steak & mushroom pie and scowling in disbelief at what Mark Carpenter was telling me. Dr. Carpenter ate with gusto and drank three drafts to my one, managing to continue his monologue around great mouthfuls of both.
"I'm telling you, Ray, when I talked with young Freddie at the office this morning I thought he was out of his mind. Naturally I immediately examined the corpse myself. You can't trust assistants worth a damn. Well, when I saw the state the lower body was in, I decided to conduct the post myself-with Freddie at my elbow." He washed down another bite of his steak pie with a huge gulp of Tennant's.
"Is it part of the job, or what," I asked, staring past Dr. Carpenter's glasses into his milky-gray eyes?
"You've just been up to your elbows inside some guy's guts and not half an hour later you're sitting here shoving food in your face and telling me all about it."
"I don't get you. You told me you were interested in this one, so I'm trying to tell you what I found." He ate another forkful and peered across the table at me over his glasses. Oblivious. I pushed my plate away and reached for a cigarette, shaking my head in amusement.
"Well, do you want to hear about it or not," he asked?
"Yes, Mark, go on." We all hide from it, I thought, sighing. I caught the waitress's attention with a raised finger and indicated two more drafts. She reminded me there was no smoking in the Pub just as I struck a match. Six years of having lunch in the Feathers and now City Council changes all the rules.
"For beginners, Ray, you've got some very sick bastards running around out there. Yes sir, weird, demented. Probably some kind of cult freaks."
"Okay, you've got my attention. Why have I got sick bastards on my hands, Mark?"
"Well, you've already concluded it was no suicide, right? There's no mystery in that. But," the doctor was interrupted by the waitress dropping our drafts and removing the empty glasses. He fidgeted and cast an irritated glance her way. She moved away without noticing, which seemed to rankle him even more. "But, whoever threw our John Doe over the bluffs did it just for fun."
I was used to Mark Carpenter's turn of the dramatic and played along with him, realizing it was the fastest way to get information. I pretended to perk up and asked, "How do you know that?"
"Because he was already dead. The clothes he was wearing are standard John Doe Formal when a funeral parlor buries a stiff on the cheap. So they obviously snatched the body to have a few laughs with, then tossed it over the bluffs for early morning joggers to find and fuck up their day.
"But I got a big surprise when I went in for actual cause of death. When I opened him upand I still can't really believe this myselfwhen I opened the guy up, I found soil in his lungs!"
"There's no way it could have gotten there when they threw him over? He was buried in that clay pretty deep," I said.
"You weren't listening to me, Ray. I said soil, like from a garden. Rich peat, loam and naturally occurring minerals. The body was discovered at the base of the bluffs, almost at the lake's edge. What you find there is sand and clay, not garden soil," Dr. Carpenter looked pleased with himself as he wiped the gravy from his already barren plate with his index finger and popped it in his mouth by way of punctuation.
"So, what are you trying to tell me? The guy died from swallowing dirt or the assholes who stole him from the undertaker's rammed dirt down his throat before they rolled him over the bluffs?"
"I'm trying to explain to you that person or persons unknown force fed this fellow his last meal from somebody's back yard cabbage patch, while he was still alive."
"If he was still alive when he swallowed the dirt, why was he dressed in burial clothes?" I asked.
Dr. Carpenter looked lost for a moment, then said, "I just slice em up, you solve the puzzles. I will say, though, there were abrasions on the walls of his esophagus; slight, but there was evidence of the soil's passage. And his nostrils were clogged with the same soil type."
I thought for a moment in silence then said, "Then his stomach had soil residue as well."
Carpenter looked down at his hands then back up into my eyes. "No. I found none in his stomach."
"Well then, what are you saying? The esophagus connects the mouth to the stomach, not to the lungs. If somebody forced him to eat dirt you'd find it in his stomach, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you?"
"Ray, it's not that simple. When somebody is forcing dirt into your mouth and you don't want him to, sometimes you take a deep breath and try to scream. I figure our boy did just that and got a lung full of dirt instead of air. It's a spasmodic reaction, simple as that."
"How much soil did you find," my voice sounded tired even to me, I didn't appreciate Carpenter's postulations or his habit of fitting the evidence to his theories.
"There was a considerable amount of soil in both lungs," he muttered.
"How much is considerable?"
"They were filled."
"Yes, dammit! Inflated. Packed solid." Carpenter was upset as much by his own answers as by the look of incredulity on my face.
"For Christ's sake Mark, are you asking me to believe that a human being can breathe in that much dirt just because somebody's trying to ram it down his throat? That's insane."
Carpenter flared, "I suppose you'd rather have your buddy Freddie's views on the matter? You're welcome to them, if you like science fiction." He got up from the table, finished his mug of beer and slammed it down on the place mat, turned on the balls of his feet and bullied his way out of the restaurant.
I cursed the doctor under my breath and signaled for the waitress again. I accepted the check for both lunches and sat sipping the rest of my beer while a crowd waited for my table. Then I cursed myself. Carried away by what Carpenter told me, I d forgotten to ask about the DOA's legs.
What would do that to a man? What chemical or combination of chemicals could turn flesh and bone into what I had seen? I unclipped my cell phone from my belt and laid down a couple of bills to cover the check. I got up from the table, which was immediately occupied by a party of four, and made my way through the crowd at the bar to call Freddie from the relative quiet of the street. As I was dialing the number a nasty thought struck me. Why had there been no blood from the lower part of the body while the head and sternum showed ample signs? Worse still, how does a corpse bleed?
That Afternoon, June 16, 5:34 p.m. 31 Division
There were three "Dell" funeral homes in the greater Toronto area, but none of them was a Jonathan Dell. I wasted an hour going through the stack of regional telephone directories, then recruited a couple of civvies and one constable who didn't look busy and asked them to do a search for me. One of the civilian employees, a young records clerk named Pamela, came back in ten minutes with a list of Dell's two pages long. Impressed, I raised my eyebrows in a question.
"I did a Google," she told me.
Of course she did.
I checked my report for the particulars on the tag in the jacket found on the body. It read, "Jonathan Dell Funeral Home, 62 Froud Street." But no city. I then compared this with the list Pamela produced for me. There was a Froud Road in Peterborough, Ontario, but the Dell was "Green Dell Funeral Arrangements," a Froud Avenue in Belleville, but it was "Miller Dell's." Actually there were nearly a hundred variations of Dell on the list, from Circle in the Dell Funeral Home to Meadow in the Dell Gardens and Funeral Home. But, no Farmer-in-the-Dell Funeral Home.
And then there was Froud Street, Cobston, Ontario"Jonathan Dell Funeral Home." Family owned and operated since 1868." Bingo.
I could easily have assigned a detective to make the one hundred kilometer drive north to Cobston and conduct the investigation under my direction, and according to procedure I would normally be obliged to do so, but I have certain prerogatives that come with my rank and this investigation had the flavor of mystery that is so rare in real police work. So I decided to go myself and interview the subjects at Dell Funeral.
You can delegate nearly everything, and I do when required, but there's nothing like taking statements face to face. Even the most mundane line of questioning can reveal secrets about the subject that can't be translated in a report just using bold type. Detectives are encouraged to look for nuances, body language, blushing, any physical giveaway that their subject is withholding information or outright lying. But even then, things can be missed if you're not trained, or if you don't have a touch of the second sight. In my opinion, circumstances and the physical condition of the deceased dictated that I conduct this investigation personally from the beginning to maintain the momentum of evidence gathering and the actual chain of physical evidence.
I left word where I was going and why, then called Freddie for any news and got his machine. Nothing yet. I left him my cell number with instructions to call as soon as he found out anything new. I called for the number of the Cobston RCMP detachment, got the address and number and cracked the seal on a square of nicotine gumthey don't let us smoke anywhere anymoreshuffled my papers, put them in my briefcase and made an entry in the log. Then I went down to the garage for my car, chewing my pretend cigarette and thinking about the next days lineup.
Next Morning, June 17, 10:34 a.m.
I took Highway 400 north and sped past the ugly spread of Toronto bordering each side of the superhighway, clipping along at 120 km per hr and even then having sometimes to pass cars in the fast lane by slipping into the empty right lane. Nobody drives the speed limit on the 400, we should give out tickets to the ones that do.
I made good progress, even with the longer rush hour metropolitan expansion brings as an after effect, until just before the cutoff at Newmarket. This is another spiraling monstrosity that was once an idyllic village set north of the angry, smoky city, now a spread of strip malls and retail chains that killed the spirit of the town over a decade ago. There's a dip in the landscape here, a ten-kilometer valley really, that seems to attract bad weather conditions in any season and hold on to them. As I approached the outskirts of Newmarket and my turnoff for Highway 11 to continue north to Cobston, the skies closed in on themselves and a shattering crash of thunder shook the air around me.
A second later a torrent of rain hammered the highway and cars began their accustomed dance of destruction. I slowed and eased off the highway onto the shoulder to my right and turned on my flashers and the bubble lights so approaching traffic could see me there and waited out the sheeting rain. If I believed in omens, the hint of a gathering storm would have been enough for me. This was overkill.
It was over forty wet, winding minutes later, after the torrents had bled themselves dry, that I turned onto the cutoff for Cobston. I nearly missed it, the sign was so old and faded. All around fresh green and white signs announced cutoffs for the surrounding, newly prosperous communities and crawling subdivisions of larger towns, but Cobston was left to fade and chalk in the seasonal abusesun, rain and sleet. I drove down a long side road; farms in progressive states of disrepair as I nosed the big Crown Victoria down the variously tar-sprayed and graded side roads. The word washboard is only really appreciated after youve bounced your bladder into screaming pleas for release along one of these roads. Welcome to small town reality.
After a quarter mile of brown and fallow fields, I found myself on the outskirts of Cobston. Old buildings rose two stories uniformly down the block long strip, couched in both red and dirty-yellow clay brick from two centuries past of craftsmanship. It was a picture postcard if you have ever seen an old post card. To me something seemed out of place. Personality? Life? Desire or drive? The place seemed too self-contained, too protective, far too small to be the whole town.
I braked at a curb and opened the door to the big, blue car, rolled out and walked toward a storefront whose incongruous glass door was efficiently stenciled with the logo of The Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Maybe I wrote the address wrong yesterday in my book, I dragged the little battered culprit from my inside pocket and flipped it open to yesterdays notations. Nope, right address.
When I pulled on the handle to open the door I was met with an immovable force, a clunking rattle and the sight of a little business card fluttering from between the crack where door met jamb. With a resigned sigh, I bent to pick up the card. It read, as Id expected, nobody home. The constable was out on rounds and would return in an hour. It was time stamped ten minutes ago. Why didnt I call ahead?
Small towns usually only mount a skeleton force of one or two officers, usually junior and usually there to learn the ropes for six months to a year. On the other hand, those middle level RCMP officers coming up to retirement age were usually allowed to string out their time in small, quiet, rural settings as a sort of reward for long, steady service. Then of course big brass used these backwaters as a means of getting repeat screw-ups out of the public eye. I wondered which I would finally meet here.
I was about to scribble a note when my cell vibrated on my belt. It was Dr. Freddie Jordan.
Freddie, where you been? I left a message yesterday for you to call me. Im in a shit stain on the side of the road called Cobston, working on the Scarborough Bluffs DOA. Carpenter didn't give me much, so I'm going to listen to you. Tell me something I don't know," I said. "Tell me about the guy's legs.
The testsll take a day or two unless you can put an expedite on it.
Consider it expedited. What do we know?"
Freddie said, "This wasnt the guys first autopsy.
I looked my obvious question into the cell phone. Somehow Freddie picked up on it.
I dont know, Ray, really, but the corpse had been opened before and its stomach, intestinal tract and major organs were all missing and a solid spongy mass filled the cavity. I collected and bagged samples from inside and tissue samples from the lower extremities, logged them and sent to Forensic Identification Services at 2050 Jane Street.
"No wonder Carpenter skirted my question about the guy's stomach. So he was already dead when the soil was forced into his lungs? How can that happen, Freddie? Lets let FIS do its job. But that doesnt explain the legs? What did that to him?"
"I'll have to wait for the Lab results to make any informed statements on the guy's lower body, but . . . "
What, Freddie? But what? What else is there?
I don't know, Ray, the chemical composition of his legs is the banana in the split, but his lungs? After Carpenter left to meet you, I kept looking and the lungs just kept getting creepier. By the time I'd finished the cut, his lungs were beginning to dry and crumble. It's like they were adopting the consistency of the soil inside and imitating it to the point of, well, turning to dust."
You made a mistake, youre tired. Coordinate with FIS and get back to me when you have something I can use. I'll look into Jonathan Dell Funeral Home. Im trying to find the street as we speak. They've probably already filed a report.
"Theres another thing, Ray, he mumbled into the phone. "His first autopsy incision? It was scarring over when I finished."
"Don't be a dope. Get a second opinion even if you have to get it from Carpenter," I told him.
"Well, we can't find the body, Ray. He was opened from groin to chin and the top of his skull was sawn off. But, hes gone just the same.
Wheres the chain of evidence report? Thatll tell you who has the cadaver. Who signed it?
"Its missing too. And there was no trace that either of them were ever here.
"Cut the Twilight Zone shit, Freddie. Call me when they turn up."
After hanging up, I drove off the initial strip of Cobstons main drag and down a long stretch of country road edged on both sides by fallow fields stretching off for acres on end. The road paving ended after a thousand meters or so and the famous washboard roadbed bounced back into existence, rattling my teeth and juddering the Crown Vics suspension into protesting squeaks. I was looking for Froud Street and since it wasnt part of the arterial spread from the strip Id just left, it must be further on somewhere. Of course a map would have been logical tool to own, but I couldn't find anything in our database referencing Cobston - maybe it was too small. maybe it was part of a general Innisfil Township map, or maybe I should find out how to Google things.
Nearly six kilometers along the sparsely populated tenth line road, clusters of residential settlement sprang up on either side of me as I continued east. Some were ancient and well-kept farmhouses with their rolling land stretching back from the road behind them and others were obviously newer homesteads. Those on my left, rolling north, were markedly more feeble, in both appearance and upkeep, their fields stunted and browned. While the mirroring fields on the right were robust and greening in the early summer sun. Poisoned water? Bad soil? The houses themselves, to my left, looked ragged and peeling as though the owners had given up on appearances, stopped fighting a naturally occurring decline.
Cobston, it seems, was a town that stretched all the way from the secondary highway to the small lake at its eastern end, with original farms and buildings making up its out thrown extremities. The farther I drove to the east the more populated and up to date the surroundings became, with shops and grocery chains and medical buildings tastefully set among the quaint facades that must have been the original heart of the town. Unlike Newmarket and many of the communities closer in to Toronto; not a shit stain at all.
I was pleasantly surprised to see Cobston retained its identity, at least at this end of the tenth line. Gentrification had been eschewed in favor of authenticity. It struck me now that it may well have been a conscious decision to keep the RCMP detachment out of the town proper, and retain the illusion of small town harmony.
I drove along what had to be the original main street, looking for an offshoot that was either named Froud Street or looked likely to lead to Froud. I passed banks and hardware stores, doctors offices and restaurants, fruit markets and department stores all sitting elbow to elbow with bars and second hand stores` presenting a welcoming face to townies and tourists alike.
Past the fourth block of brick fronted office and business real estate I noticed a small plate glassed box edging onto the cobbled sidewalk, with the quaintly Gothic sign, The Cobston Telegraph" and beneath it in italics, "All that should be made known. Wouldnt hurt to stop and ask, I thought. Big city cop needs help navigating Hicktowns intricate main drag. The morning was just getting better by the hour.
I was saved the embarrassment by the sudden tire-squealing arrival of the truant RCMP Officer whose Radio Patrol Car screamed to a rocking stop beside me as I parked in the diagonal lines fronting the newspaper office. Startled, I snapped a look at the young woman who exploded from the RPC and stood, practically vibrating at attention, on the passenger side of my Crown Vic. Aside from her obvious dedication to the job, among the first things I realized about her was that she was young, (too young to be a cop?) and that she was stunningly beautiful.
I popped the lock on the passenger door and waved her in. She stood where she was, just stood, waiting. Did she want me to exit my vehicle? Was it possible she was so new on the job she didnt recognize a Metro issued senior grades ride? She wasnt trying to roust me was she? I laid my left palm on the steering wheel, ducked my head to look out the side at her and pressed hard, once; the Crown Vics deep horn blared sharply. The young RCMP cop jumped where she stood, one leg jacking up and both hands flying out to her holster. As her booted foot came back to earth, she bent at the waist and glared at me through the window. I smiled and waved her in again, this time she opened the door and slid onto the seat beside me, leather belts and holster creaking and smelling new.
Sir, are you Detective Superintendent Raymond Delaney, she asked, staring directly ahead through the windshield?
I have that responsibility, I answered gravely. Constable . . . ?
Amber, sir. Constable Amber Welch.
Good to meet you Constable Welch. I dropped by your office earlier but missed you. I only poked a little, for all I knew she really was as tightly wound as she appeared. But I was testing, hoping there was a real person behind that crisp uniform and polished leather façade.
Yes sir, I apologize for missing you but we received a call for assistance. I left a note.
Its all right, I got your note. I should have called ahead before I left this morning. My fault for not alerting your station . . .
Oh, but Superintendent, I knew you were on your way, I just had to respond to a personal injury report at the 10th Line.
You knew I was coming out here this morning. How?
Your clerk called. Pamela.
Pamela, the Google Girl?
I dont know sir. Just a woman named Pamela from your division office. She looked puzzled and a little hurt that she didnt have all the information she thought she should have had.
Never mind, Constable, just a sort of inside joke I suppose. Pamelas turning out to be quite an asset. Did she explain why she called? Why Im this far north of the city?
She only informed us you were on your way and might need our help locally. But . . .
But what, Constable? She flicked her head in my direction, once, then once more, stealing tentative glances, obviously debating with her better judgment whether to commit or not.
Would I be very far off to suggest you were asked to assist the local police with their investigation? She looked into my eyes for the first time, trying to coax out a clue that she was on the right track. I must have mirrored my confusion in my eyes because as she looked for hope I watched as it fled her expressive face and embarrassment took its place. I raised my eyebrows and opened my eyes in the universally recognized question, and? So?
Im sorry Superintendent, I just assumed that with the recent string of grave robbery and tomb desecration the Cobston police had called Toronto for help. I know theyve shut us out, and the OPP, so I naturally assumed . . . She trailed off and resumed staring quietly through the windshield, hands neatly folded in her lap.
Im sorry, Constable, as luridly appealing as that might be, Im only here to investigate a simple missing John Doe . . . Even as I made the trite statement I could see the connections snaking from the cemeteries of Cobston to the foot of the Scarborough Bluffs in Toronto. From tomb violations in Cobston to the Cobston dead turning up in my back yard suddenly struck me as a pointillist procedure a simple connecting of dots one hundred kilometers apart on a map and a synaptic spark apart on the brain.
Wheres Jonathan Dell Funeral Home, Welch.
Why? Sorry, Superintendent, of course Ill take you there. Follow me.
She was back in her own vehicle with the slamming of two doors and I was racing to catch up with her as the local news came on accross an array of televisions in the department store window, beside the newspaper office. As I backed out, I saw the lead story segue from the anchor girl to a graphic of a large churchyard cemetery; close up on open graves, head stones knocked over, soil displaced to the sides, a man in a clerical collar looking grim, his red, freckled face and orange hair putting emphasis on the words he was mouthing through the camera. I planted the bubble on the dash and hit the siren. Constable Welch was nearly a block ahead of me.
I caught up to her down the street when she made a right turn, heading east toward the residential section of Cobston. The town was surprisingly large and spread out along arteries of avenues and side streets that appeared to stretch from the core out into the surrounding farmland with no real demarcation. Unlike Toronto or any large city, there was no buffer between urban and rural landscape; the one simply flowed naturally into the other without fanfare, without the jarring blight of industrial park or strip mall. From avenue to town street, from street to country road and from backyard to rustic field with hardly a stoplight, hardly a fence, Cobston transformed itself from modest metropolis to rural ambiance as easily as taking a breath.
Passing first semi modern ranch style and split level developments I followed PC Welch through progressively older and longer established blocks of housing, two- and three-storied dwellings of brick and plaster, clapboard and cedar shingle, gabled century homes were as common as the manicured lawns they sat upon and looked as though they grew on the street, rather than being manmade intrusions. Successively majestic homes rested on wider lots, spaced farther apart from one another, attics brushing treetop branches and spreading along the brow of a hill, continuing over and into the sloping valley on the far side. As I crested the hill I observed PC Welch at the far end of the avenue making another right turn and driving south. When I reached the corner I saw that the turn took us onto Froud Street.
Driving down the tree lined, brick cobbled road with its houses set back from the curb so the house numbers were barely visible, I felt as though I was driving back in time. Dappled shadows from overhanging boughs danced across both road and mown lawns, spilling light and shade in a rhythmic see saw wash, complementing the vision of past life looking back at me from behind a safe assumption, the assumption that time flows only one way forward.
Through a break in the overhanging branches the sun stabbed down on the wide stone verandah of a house on my right illuminating the activity there. For a moment I thought I saw an ice delivery wagon standing to the side of the house, complete with a harnessed and blinkered horse, while a huge man in undershirt and leather apron struggled to balance a block of glistening ice on one shoulder with iron tongs while accepting coins from the housewife at the door, I hadnt seen an ice wagon since I stopped watching black and white movies on the late late show.
The dappled light faded as a cloud passed overhead and the picture dimmed, I hadnt realized it but Id stopped in the middle of the street as I watched the tableau and now I was blasted by angry horns from behind. I stepped on the gas and the Crown Vic bolted with a squeal past the old house, empty now of ghostly housewife, iceman and horse drawn wagon, just another stone house on a street of stone houses blinking innocently at me from their places in the shade.
Police Constable Welch was waiting for me a hundred meters down the street, parked in front of an impressive fieldstone structure with a polished granite front and boasting a massive brass plaque riveted to a Celtic Cross carved of a single piece of slate standing eight feet in height. The plaque read, Jonathan Dell Funeral Home. This must be the place.
I slipped into the gravel parking lot beside the RCMP unit and saw that Welch was out of her car and standing at agitated attention halfway between the lot and the side entrance to the funeral home, her eyes darting from me and my unhurried progress from my own car and the side door of the building, as though she expected a break out of suspects at any second. When I walked toward her, straightening my jacket and tie and brushing the crease back into my pants, I got the very real impression she wanted to grab my lapels and hurry me along, but that could just be a carryover from my earlier hallucination.
Without actually waiting for me to come along side, PC Welch slammed through the door and washed down a back hall lit and decorated in utilitarian beige and obviously closed off to the public. There was a ubiquitous hum of an industrial HVAC system stalwartly ventilating embalming room odors up through hidden ducts and out beyond the buildings roofline. And there was something else in the otherwise empty hallway, the high pitched, irritating whine of a bone saw.
She led the way down the hall to a brace of sliding glass doors and paused. The doors opened on their hydraulics and PC Welch stood with her back against one of them, waiting for me to catch up. As I stepped through I found myself in a hushed and muted lobby, thick carpets and flock wallpaper working with heavy drapes to muffle any attempt at natural sound and making me conscious of the artificial manipulation of visitors who whisper in deference to the weighty ambiance. But Constable Welch was an electric presence amid the forced solemnity, she called out in the best cop voice Id heard since my days on riot duty, Billy! Billy OBrien you get out here right now. Ive got a few questions for you.
I was still working my jaws, trying to pop my ears, when a door along the far end of the vestibule hushed open and a small man in a black suit and pasty demeanor stepped, ghostly, from behind the heavy panel and swept in little steps into our midst. From down the hall he looked to be in his sixties and desiccated of both spirit and vitality, as he grew closer, however, I saw that it was misdirection. He was actually only in his early thirties and the configuration of his face and affected stance of his bony body only lent the illusion of master mortician to an otherwise nondescript specimen. But then he spoke.
Why, Amber, what a pleasant surprise. PC Welch actually flinched at the obsequious syrup that dripped from the toadying mortician. How delightful to see you again, but I hope this isnt a professional visit, a matter of personal bereavement as it were. Nothing so tragic as that I trust?
Save the theatrics, Billy, this is Detective Superintendent Delaney from the city, hes here to ask you a few questions, hes not a customer.
Well, said the tight little man, we at J. Dell Funeral are always happy to help the police in any way we can, as you well know, Constable Welch.
Constable Welch burned a hole through OBriens forehead with the intense hatred of her glare. OBrien took a practiced step backward and dry washed his hands beneath his innocent smile and I was suddenly reminded of Peter Lorrie in The Maltese Falcon. Obviously these two had a history together that I didnt have the time or the energy to uncover.
Two days ago a body from your funeral home turned up in my division and Id like you to help explain how it might have got there.
From Jonathan Dell? Thats strange. Who was it, if I may be so bold? Peter Lorrie would have approved.
He didnt say, I answered, stepping so close to him that I trod on his right toe, so when he tried his patented backward step he nearly fell on his ass. Constable Welch shot her arms out and caught him just in time. He looked up at her and then at me and realized something important. Recess was over.
Welch levered him back upright and he dusted off his embarrassment, shooting his cuffs back into place and cleared his throat, About four nights ago a stiff was dug up and snatched. Guy was from north of town, local farmer. We figured it for a prank and wed recover the body before the family ever heard about it. Peter Lorrie was gone and here stood Elisha Cook Jr., as the hard-boiled gunsel, Wilmar. You just never know, do you?
Why a prank, I asked?
We knew the kids who did it! Little bastards turned up the next morning bruised and battered at their parents houses with a bullshit tale about the guy coming to life and taking off on his own down the road. Said when he woke up in their van it scared them so much they ran off the road into a ditch.
Who investigated? From Constable Welch. OBrien ignored her. She spun him around by his padded shoulder and he threw his hand up and sputtered, Mickelson, Chief Mickelson sent Jerry out to the site and he did a look around. Nothing. No body, just the van in a ditch and most of an empty case of Labbatts Ice.
They say why they dug up the corpse? This question was from me and he answered right away.
They were taking it to a party. Thought itd be a laugh to prop the body on the couch and videotape reactions when the other kids realized they were sitting next to a dead body. Said they were going to mail the tape in to that Jackass TV show and make some money. Ask me the idiots had an accident on the way to their party and lied to try to hide losing the body.
"Who pronounced the body; the doctor of record, I asked?
Ill have that on the transfer forms from the hospital, but what should that matter, its only a case of vandalism and misdemeanor public nuisance? Isnt it? OBrien looked worried.
Lets say Im interested in cause of death with this one. Id like a copy of the autopsy report from the attending. Why, is there a problem?
Not normally, no, he shrank into a tighter more compact version of himself as he edged incrementally back from his answer.
But, I asked?
But he got here in a sealed coffin with all the embalming paperwork already filled out and instructions for immediate interment. Look, we had no need for cause of death records or consent forms from the next of kin to do a cut in the first place. We were told he died a natural death and immediate burial was requested.
Who was the doctor of record, I asked him again, moving him with my stomach into the wall?
Ok, ok, I lied. I cant look it up. There is no cause of death because there was no attending physician. The DOA got here shrink wrapped and coffin sealed from St. Marks Church. Chief Mickelson and Reverend Peeler told me the paperwork was taken care of and would be filed in due time and the family just wanted him in the ground right away. Mickelson is persuasive as hell on his own, but Peeler is just plain spooky you dont argue with Peeler. So Bob Spagnola and Ray Kantauk did the burial that same afternoon.
OBrien flicked his eyes from Welch to me like he was spectating at a ping pong tournament; sweat beading on his upper lip as he wiped his hands on his black morticians pants.
Who was in the coffin, I asked?
Hell if I know. Could have been anyone.
I asked Constable Welch, Does this sort of thing happen often in Cobston? Surreptitious burials of mystery corpses, falsification of records, tampering with the dead?
I laid a finger heavily on OBriens shoulder, How can you be sure you buried a man and not a hundred kilos of marijuana?
Because those asshole kids dug the grave up that night and pried the coffin open to steal the stiff, thats why. Id have been in less shit if it was dope Peeler and the Chief have been on my ass every day to get the body back, but its gone. No trace. Maybe it did get up and walk away, who knows?
The DOA that turned up in Toronto exhibits unique pathologies that have to be examined and explained immediately. If it is your missing corpse a cause of death is imperative. What did you tell the Police Chief, whats his name Mickelson? when the corpse turned up missing?
Didnt get a chance to say anything, the kids blubbered to their parents about the accident and they called him. Then he reamed me out for not knowing they dug the body up in the first place.
Whose body was it? Id like to have a name at least as a starting point. We can backtrack from there after I talk with Mickelson.
Which one, the one the kids dug up or one of the others?
What others, I asked?
Man are you out of the loop, he said. Amber, doesnt he know?
"Know what," I asked?
"I told you sir, the grave robberies. There have been three so far," she explained.
"Yeah, you said that didn't you?"
On our way outside to the cars I slipped a sideways glance at Welch and observed. Theres plainly a history between you two and were I a betting man Id lay long odds that it isnt accompanied by a bouncy tune when you play in back in your head.
That noticeable is it sir? Im sorry for my behavior, Superintendent, It wont happen again.
On the contrary, I encourage proactivity in my own officers, so its reassuring to see it in others. Whats the story with you and OBrien?
We dated for a while when I was in High School. She said.
He has to be fifteen years older than you are, I prompted.
Ten, and only I was in high school, Billyd dropped out when he was sixteen, but he was a local legend a hell raiser who had a good job and drove a fast car. He was kind of big and sexy.
Big and sexy, I repeated?
I was only fourteen Ive grown a lot since then in a lot of ways. I didnt realize back then Billy was already as big as he would get. I also didnt see it was wrong to be sleeping with a twenty-four year old waste of space.
What ended the romanced, I asked? Had to be something major for you to hold the grudge this long.
Id rather not get into it, Superintendent. If you dont mind.
Do you have an older sister, by any chance?
How did you know?
An educated guess, I said. How long did it take for you to get back on speaking terms with her?
Over two years, she admitted.
What a tangled web, indeed, Constable. I once broke my big brothers nose. We were only six and seven at the time and it was an accident, but you know, I think he still plans to get even.
She smiled and the tension left her beautiful face, her eyes shone in the afternoon sun.
Lets go see what we can learn from Chief Mickelson. I said. As we both got into our respective cars I ducked my head toward the passenger window and asked loudly, What kind of fast car did your ersatz Fonzie drive all those years ago?
Same one he drives now, the J. Dell Funeral Hearse.
We both snorted a laugh and started our engines.
Constable Welch negotiated the Cobston streets with the panache only a bred-in-the-bricks townie can muster. It was a pleasure to follow her lead. And I found my mind wandering as I drove, slipping over the details as I knew them, but not catching a firm hold on any. It was obvious the undercurrents were strong, here, and held the answer to why Mickelson was jeopardizing his career to cover up what was plainly an important investigation whose implications outstretched the embarrassment of a small town vicar and an overcautious rural cop. Whatever killed the Bluffs Corpse could pose a national medical threat and there was no room to caudle egos or condone sloppy and exclusive police procedures.
Welch made a turn on Kingston Street and we retraced our path past the newspaper office. There was a funny looking duck standing in front of the plate glass window, snowy hair and beard, and a loose fitting tweed suit with matching vest, all that was missing were half-glass reading glasses and a green visor, the kind editors wore in old movies. He looked directly into my eyes as I drove slowly past and I thought it strange that he triggered a vague memory that tickled the edges of my mind. Then he raised his arm and pointed up the street, lifted his eyebrows and nodded his head, then looked where he was pointing so I’d follow suit. As I did, I saw a magnificent, maroon Buick convertible that must have been over fifty years old but looked like it just rolled off the assembly line that morning.
The Buick was idling by the curb and the top was down. Behind the wheel was a man, dressed similarly to the old guy in front of the newspaper office, old-fashioned suit and grey felt fedora with a snap-brim. As I came up behind him he beeped his horn – a hearty blast of deep harmonics, nothing like the weak bleat my Crown Vic could muster – and he raised his left hand in a motion reminiscent of a Wagonmaster signaling 'wayward ho!'
He only had three fingers on his hand; the pinky and ring fingers were missing at the base knuckles, flush with the palm. He turned his head and smiled at me as I slowed to a stop just behind his left rear bumper and my blood chilled instantly. It was like I was looking at myself, at my own reflection in an imperfect mirror. It was my face all right, but there were subtle differences in line and form. I suddenly had the same feeling I’d experienced with the phantom ice wagon and the shimmering ghost house; as though I were witnessing events from another time imposed on my own.
But then the driver of the Buick asked, “Are you coming?” He pulled out from the curb and accelerated down Kingston past Church and then turned right on Chestnut and after a few kilometers he turned left on the 10th sideroad. Before I realized what I’d done, I’d left Constable Welch on her own and didn’t really care, I had to follow this ghostly anachronism; the pull was visceral. It felt right.
As the huge Buick rode the rises and dips, kicking up a dust plume from the dry graded road, it floated as solidly as a ship at sea, hugging the rutted road like a lover, while I jounced and juddered with each bump of the uneven surface. Once or twice, when I let him get too far ahead, his car shimmered and faded in and out of my view, forcing me to accelerate just to keep him in sight. We were fast beyond the limits of Cobston and into an area I would never find again without a good local map. The road narrowed and was closed in on both sides by ever diminishing fields and by the steady creep of tangled trees and black boggy lowland, but I kept the Buick in my windshield. Until it was swallowed by a sweeping curve in the road and absorbed into a wildly wooded expanse that reached from the watery edge of a dark lake and high up onto a rolling riot of forest. I’d lost him.
My radio crackled and sputtered and finally spat out a garbled message. The voice was vaguely recognizable as Constable Welch’s. I lifted my mike and thumbed the transmit just as I passed a break in the trees to the east side of the road and spotted a plume of dust trailing down a private drive into the distance. It could only be the Buick. I double clicked the transmit button to acknowledge I’d received and stood on my breaks. I slammed it into reverse, hauled the wheel and spun the Crown Vic in a fishtail to follow the disappearing trunk of the Buick.
The sides of my car were whipped by vines and branches and gouged by low lying limbs as I navigated the rudimentary roadway and all the time the radio crackled and squawked insistently. Finally I turned it off. Silence. Only the whisper of my passage and the far away slap of leaves against the sides of the Vic. I wanted to slow down but whenever I did the Buick wavered and winked out of sight, so I had to maintain my distance and that meant driving dangerously fast down an unfamiliar road, and for what? I didn’t even know who I was following or what compelled me to find out.
What was I doing?
I eased on the breaks and let the Crown Vic roll to a long stop as I scanned the road ahead and the trees bounding me on every side and realized I was chasing a ghost.
What was I thinking?
I slapped the gear into park and snapped off my seatbelt. I sat there breathing hard, staring redly into nothing.
Where the hell was I going?
Then I saw it.
It was a rail gate recessed into the side of the forest just off the road. You’d miss it if you were driving by and didn’t know where to look. You were supposed to miss it because it was so well hidden that was the point.
The gate was half open and there were tracks in the shoulder of the road that told me that’s where the Buick wanted me to follow. I slid my right hand under my left armpit and unsnapped the hammer clasp on my shoulder holster and unseated the Glock for an easy draw. That’s where the Buick’s driver wanted me, that’s where I was going.
The sky was darkening as I crawled the Crown Vic quietly along the deeply rutted drive. It was nearly six-thirty by the dash clock and outside of the canopy of trees and brush the sun was still shining somewhere. Just not on me.
The drive twisted and turned, violently in wooded places, and dipped into running creeks and spongy fens in others. I took my foot off the gas and rolled down, tapping the breaks in some spots and shifted down into third in others to climb back up. All around were wet green overhanging reminders of just how deeply into this place I’d come. Cedars, choking vines, twisted willows, stunted maples, a madness of contorted growth killing any hope of natural foliage.
Then I noticed something startling. The wild growth stopped. And the roadway cleared of obstacles.
Before me was a level, wasted glen. A straight road into a two-acre cul de sac on which stood a collection of weathered outbuildings and a main house with a twisted junkyard to the side. Behind it loomed a forest of titanic proportions and insane aspect. 'To To,' I thought to myself, glibly, 'this ain't Kansas, no more.'
I drove up to the yard at the side of the main building and stopped. I clicked my radio mike to make contact with Cobston Dispatch, clicked again in hopes of raising Welch. Silence. I suddenly felt the urge to call Toronto and report my situation, but shook it off realizing I was just spooked.
I opened the door and waited for somebody in the house to make contact, but the place looked uninhabited. So I got out. I left the car door open, easier to hear the radio, I told myself, then went to pop the trunk. Inside I reassured myself of the tactical case containing the Kevlar vests, automatic weapons, shotgun and stun grenades standard in every senior grade’s issue. I didn’t burden myself, but slipped a small assurance under my jacket behind my back.
The sun was growing a deeper yellow, nearing orange, as I made my way across the yard to the outbuildings that sided the main house. As I approached I noticed a number of free standing structures cobbled together from various discarded pieces – one inch plumber’s pipes and chain link fencing, two-by-fours and lathing and simple poles made of debarked saplings crosshatched by vines – but each held the stretched and curing pelt of some dead animal, still stinking in the lowering sun.
Up against the sides of the sheds and outbuildings were racks of jury-rigged shelving in every imaginable configuration and construction. But on each was a specimen of carnival sideshow imagination that would have curled the toes or PT Barnum himself. Glass containers filled with unknown liquids cushioned unnamable creatures of the most crippled imagination. In many cases the containers were as interesting as the freakish lumps they contained.
Many were octagonal with bluish pigments in the glass while the curiosity within was a pale grey through the glass but a bright yellow if you looked directly down into the jar. One was a clever fusion of a dove with the paws of a raccoon instead of wings and the feet of a small dog. There was a disturbingly real figure of a child with a furred body and trout fins and tail. They all looked to be perfect fakes and whoever rented them out to carnivals and specialty acts had to be making a good living.
I moved past the racks of jars and closer to the house when I heard a voice beside me. It was small and seemed far away and muffled, and I think it asked for my help. Naturally I looked to see where the voice came from but all I saw were the rows of jars, bell jars, mason jars and wide-bodied bottles, all floating sideshow novelties. All gently adrift in their own eternity.
As I still scanned the rows of oddments, a sharp, groaning creak caught and pulled my eye from the disturbing impression of a waving fin in one of the bell jars. I turned my head toward the porch of the house in time to see an ancient, craggy browed character toe open the screen door with his cleated work boot and tilt a double barrel Ithaca at me by way of acknowledgement.
“Bin waitin’ fore yew, mister. Took yer damn time.” He looked down from the porch at me like I was at most a tolerable interruption and at worst like he’d rather just use the shotgun and have it over.
“C’mon up the house if ye’ve finished gawkin’. Sumun’s here t’have words with yew.”
His rock steady leveling of the shotgun’s pointed end demonstrated all I needed to see of his determination. Nobody wants to see the effects of a twin barrel on human flesh and bone and no cop will risk antagonizing anyone on the other end of one. I raised both of my hands to shoulder height and walked from the racks and toward the house.
The old man stepped out farther onto the porch and I could see clearly that he was well into his eighties, wispy white hair nearly covering a liver-spotted balding head with a distinctive pointed dome, leathery face and hands, rail thin, bony body, but with an undercurrent of steel in his stringy muscles. His eyes were strikingly clear of rheum and pierced into mine. Daring, or simply expecting a dismissal of his strength?
I passed him close enough to smell his age, dead skin and simple soap. I made no quick movements as he followed behind me and laid the shotgun bore on my right shoulder and said, “Down that way. Threw t’the kitchen straight ahead. Got tea steepin’.”
“You don’t need the shotgun,” I said. “I’m here because I . . .”
“We’ll see soon enough what’s needed, young fella. Jest keep steady an the day’s fine.”
We followed a long hallway that must have traveled the length of the old house from the front to the back, side doors on the left and right all closed. The musty odor of wallpaper, lath and plaster past their prime pervaded the walls, but reminded me of visits to uncles, aunts and second cousins in farmhouses in Peterborough, Tweed and Belleville when I was young. I couldn’t help feeling comforted by the aroma.
Finally the dark hall gave way to a massive kitchen, fully the entire width of the first floor of the house and deep enough to hold a harvest table and chairs with room to spare for a wood stove on one side and an antique icebox on the other. A dry sink sat under one set of windows at the left of the back door and a tall pine pantry stood on the right.
All this I noticed after seeing the man sitting in a chair at the harvest table. He was the same one from the Buick. Sitting, smiling up at me from under his grey fedora, he waved his three-fingered hand and said, “I was hoping you’d make it, Inspector Delaney. You don’t know how hard it was to get you here.”
The earlier sense of familiarity washed over me in waves as he spoke, and mixed with the odors of the old farmhouse to create a nostalgia that was as tangible as a warm handshake.
Reality told me I didn’t know this man who looked so much like me, but all my inner certainties insisted I did. He had my grey-green eyes and deep brown hair – his turning to white at the sides – I saw my amused sarcasm in his near smile, my County Cork nose chiseled in a slalom bump then up to a faint rise, the set of his wide shoulders could have been mirrored better only in a mug shot of the two of us in a lineup, his voice even resonated as I’ve heard mine countless times on taped depositions.
But his eyes held a depth of painful knowledge I could never match.
Of course I knew him. He was a blasted version of myself, gutted and cored, flayed and sacrificed to whatever whim takes the raving gods of an insane world.
“Ah, I know that look,” he said, his lips pulling at the right corner into a ghost of a smile. “You’re owed an explanation, kiddo, and I’m the guy who might be able to give it to you.” Then he glanced over my shoulder to the old man behind me and said, “Henry, why don’t you tell Geoff and Andy to come join us?”
“Yew shore, John?”
“Sure as shootin’, Henry.” And he smiled fully into the old man’s sharp eyes as I turned to watch him shoulder the Ithaca and glide back down the hall to one of the closed doors and disappear. He turned back to me, "Impressive old man, isn't he?"
"Let's concentrate on who you are," I answered.
"I wouldn't want to be on the left side of his good graces, I'll tell you. Henry Froud's as even as life and death when he knows he's right."
“Who the hell are you?” I asked, reaching under my left shoulder.
“That’s a whole history lesson in itself. God, you look like your mother.”
“I don’t like being at a disadvantage,” I said as I slid the Glock out and set it on the table before me.
“Well, I have to warn you, Inspector, you are at a disadvantage, a deadly disadvantage.”
I thumbed the hammer and turned the pistol on the harvest table to point in his direction. “I’m used to being answered. I’m not playing with you.”
As quiet as a mist Henry Froud appeared at my left side, startling me into grabbing the Glock up from the table. The crack of his shotgun barrels against my inner wrist sent it tumbling and skittering to the other end of the table.
“Lookit that, dad,” said a deep voice at my right ear. “The City Police brought along his girlfrien’s gun. She muss really like him.”
I turned to see who was there so close to me, and looked into the torn face of the corpse I’d seen only yesterday, buried up to its chest in the clay of Scarborough Bluffs.
“You remember Geoff, don’t you, Inspector,” said the smiling man at the end of the table, spinning my gun by its trigger guard?
“I told you it wasn’t easy to get you here. It’ll take Geoff a few days at least to get himself back together. We’ve been trying to get your attention for a week.” He pushed my gun back at me and it skated across the pine surface to within an inch of my grasp.
“If you can keep from shooting me for a while, I’ve got something I think will catch your investigative fancy. Andy, pour the tea. And put a little something extra into the Inspector ’s cup. He looks like he can use it.”
A big boy, nearly six feet six inches tall, blonde, blue eyed and still hanging onto baby fat over massive muscles, was suddenly before the wood stove, lifting kettle and cups and turning towards those of us at the harvest table, ready to serve. His face was beatific, innocence personified, somehow untouched – maybe simply unformed, I couldn’t tell, then.
“So, Raymond,” said the man in the fedora as the others took seats surrounding me. “to answer your first question, let me ask you one. Did your mother ever mention her uncle John?
"I know my little brother, Bill, was always on about me being a private eye and a war hero and everything. After he grew up and got married, surely his daughter heard all the stories about how I went away one day and never came back? She must have been born the year before all this began for me.”
I felt electrified. Stunned. There he was in faded, family pictures – that cavalier, sardonic war hero, arm supported by a sling hiding a chest wound of mythic family legend, standing over my fourteen year-old grandfather with his hand on his head, ruffling his hair. Medals, covering his tunic. Then in another black and white Kodak, my grown up grandfather standing shoulder to shoulder with this man, years later, under a newly painted sign advertising ‘Personal Investigations and Private Inquiries.’
And I saw again one of a number of photos, in my mother’s special album, of her father with his brother John. The last pictures ever taken were with my grandfather and his brother together holding my mother in their arms.
“I need some time,” I stammered.
“I know you do. ” He tilted his head and offered me his smile and his eyes meant every part of it this time. ”Andy, more whisky.”
To Be Continued...