Down Among the Dead
As she drove along, past the newspaper office, PC Welch smiled inside about sharing her past with DS Delaney. Young girls are rarely known for their insight or their foresight, so mistakes – like her and Billy O’Brien can be laughed off. Now, after the fact and from the comfort of time. Lucky her. She thought of Billy, with his left-over Disco hair, puffed up from mousse and blow drying, driving the hearse to pick her up for a high school dance and she cringed. Young and horny, she decided, was a dangerous combination.
Breaking a quick grin, she thought about Delaney’s nonjudgmental reaction to her tale of teen aged woe and thought he might be a good cop to work for. But she’d never leave the RCMP to join the Toronto police. Too many people in the cities; she preferred the rural life.
When she looked into her rearview mirror to check if Delaney was following her, he wasn’t there. Some cop he was if he got lost on the main drag. Well let’s see if he can find the police station.
She then clicked her radio mike to contact Chief Mickelson at Cobston Station. The chief wasn’t in; he was investigating a missing person’s call in the town of LeFroy and she should proceed to the Emergency Clinic beside the Legion Hall on First Street, if she needed to speak with him.
“When did the call come in, Ellie,” Welch asked the dispatcher?
“Oh way early, Amber, said Elaine Gross, the station night dispatcher. “The shift attendant called Dr. Crainford and he called the station around five this morning. I had to call Mike at home.”
“No sweat, hon. You seein’ anybody yet? If not I just met someone eligible and not bad lookin’.”
“No thanks Ellie. I’ll do just fine on my own,” warned Amber.
“But, hon this guy…”
“I mean it Elaine.”
“Have it your own way, then. Your poor puss is gonna dry up and blow away.”
Shaking her head and sighing, Welch clicked off and clicked again to contact Delaney, but he still wasn’t in her mirror. He wasn’t anywhere on the street. And he wasn’t answering his radio.
Damn. He didn’t know his way around town and if she’d lost him...
But she had to follow up with Mickelson, so, she drove to the 25th side road and headed toward Lefroy. It was only twelve kilometers from Cobston to LeFroy, and she ate up the distance in fifteen minutes, made the left turn off the 8th line and cruised to a stop in the small parking lot of the clinic. She hoped Delaney was smart enough to figure out how to catch up to her.
When she got out of her cruiser she saw the clinic for the first time and realized it was new. New as a clinic anyway. She remembered the impressive old Victorian Mansion as one of the landmarks of Lefroy and a privately owned estate. How it became a clinic she’d find out later, if it was at all important. Meanwhile, she trod the flagstone steps and entered the foyer, now apparently a waiting room, jammed with patients and their families.
She was tall for a woman, so she towered over most of the people mulling around the waiting area, and she nodded to the harried receptionist and called over the heads of those before her, “Where can I find Chief Mickelson?”
The receptionist looked up from his keyboard, his face aglow from the computer screen, and nodded toward the broad staircase to his right.
“He’s on the third floor in the overnight observation rooms.”
“Thanks. You’re pretty busy, what’s the story?”
“It’s that new strain of flu. Everybody in town seems to be coming down with it. We’re doing inoculations all this week.”
“It’s that serious? Maybe I’ll drop by after I see the Chief.”
“Believe me, officer, it can’t hurt.”
Constable Welch took the stairs two at a time and glided up to the third floor attic, which was converted into two hospital rooms complete with monitors and full sized beds. The rooms were divided by standard hospital curtains and in the larger room were cabinets and cupboards containing stocks of medical paraphernalia. In the far room, were Chief Mickelson and three other people.
Constable Welch made her presence known by clearing her throat and standing to attention. Chief Mickelson looked over his shoulder at her and gave his head the slightest shake, indicating she should wait quietly and not interrupt, then turned back to the group.
The Chief was a giant of a man. Six feet four inches of high blood pressure, shaped like a huge pear, with a shock of thick white hair cresting a square, red face in which clear blue eyes darted inquisitively at everything around them. When they came to rest, their sharp penetration could melt the outer bravado of the meanest crook, The Chief had grown up in and around Cobston and it seemed was never anything but what he was—a local cop and then the Chief of Police. Even in his own mind Mike Mickelson was one thing, a cop; all he ever dreamed of becoming and all he’d ever be if he had his way.
Constable Welch moved unobtrusively closer to catch the conversation. A woman, teary-eyed and plainly distraught, stood harbored in her husband’s arms as the doctor, Crainford Welch assumed, spoke calmly, saying apparently not for the first time,
“Lisa’s fever peaked last night at around eleven and then seemed to break somewhat. She was under constant observation and the fever didn’t return. So by four this morning, the night nurse stepped out to have her lunch downstairs. Not half an hour later, and remember there were no alarms or codes from the monitors, so the nurse can’t be blamed, Lisa apparently passed away.”
“But you said she was getting better,” insisted the woman, obviously Lisa’s mother. “How does she ‘apparently’ pass away if she was getting better?”
“Yes, as I told you both, the fever broke last night at eleven, but fever is a serious thing. It can flair up again in a few minutes and rage even under the influence antibiotics. That’s why we monitor patients and adjust their medication,” said Dr. Crainford, wearily. He knew that statement left a huge question unanswered (like who was monitoring Lisa as she died?) and hoped the parents wouldn’t catch the inference. But the father did.
“How the hell could your nurse not know the fever came back? You’re saying that between the times she went to lunch and when she got back our daughter died? That’s utter bullshit,” he growled. “And Mike, dammit, you know that’s bullshit. Nobody dies from fever in an hour and no nurse would leave a child alone that long if she knew she was as sick as Lisa was. Something else is going on here.”
“Nothing’s going on Trevor,” the Chief said softly. “Just try to keep calm. You know this flu is the worst we’ve ever seen; it’s hitting everybody in town and if we don’t watch out it’ll spread to Cobston and then on to who knows where? You can’t blame the doctors and nurses for what happened,” and he looked imploringly at the mother. “You know that, Monica; in your heart you know that.”
“I don’t know what I know, Mike Mickelson and you don’t know either, so don’t give me that. Alls I can think of is my little girl’s gone and I wasn’t here to do a damn thing about it. And neither was your doctors and nurses!” She broke into tears again as her husband tried to comfort her.
While this conversation ensued, Constable Welch wondered where the body of the little girl was and why this was being treated as a missing persons case. The bed was empty—both beds were empty but one was obviously slept-in. then her mental question was answered by the husband, Trevor when he asked,
“Where’s Lisa, now, Mike? Is she in the morgue?”
“Now that’s something we hafta talk about real calm, Trev. Monica, a little while after Jennifer, that’s the night nurse, right after she called Dr. Crainford here to say Lisa had passed in the night, she came back up here to compose the body and turn off all the dials and switches and the like, you see? And the thing of it is, when she got back into the rooms, Lisa wasn’t here.”
Both Trevor and Monica made as if to bombard Mickelson with loud questions when he raised both his hands palms out and motioned them with his big shaggy head to be still.
“Now there could be lots of reasons why she wasn’t here, but I don’t want you thinking that she’s still alive. Jennifer was certain Lisa was gone, and by that I mean expired, when she last checked on her. No signs of life, no blips or squiggles on the monitor screen, no pulse, no heartbeat and no breath when she bent to listen at Lisa’s lips. So that’s not a possibility.
“What is a possibility is that another staffer collected the body and forgot to tell anybody. Now we’re checking the night duty roster to see who alls listed as working but so far everybody’s accounted for and none of them moved her. Obviously someone came in off duty to lend a hand and got lost in the confusion. People have been pouring through the front door all night to get treated for this damn flu, and I’m sure the clinic called in extra help.”
“You tryin' to tell me some stranger came in here and took my little girl,” screamed Monica, her eyes turning wild and her body going rigid? “First nobody calls us to tell us Lisa’s dead and now yer sayin’ she aint even here in the clinic?”
Mickelson looked to Trevor for help, but from his own watering eyes the Chief saw he was only a few seconds from imploding himself.
It was then that Dr. Crainford derailed the coming train wreck, “Of course not, Mrs. Price, nobody who isn’t connected to the clinic can get in at night—or in the day time either, for that matter. We all wear these electronic ID cards (he lifted his card from his lapel) to get into the heart of the clinic. All the doors to the rooms need these code keys to unlock them. So, it wasn’t a stranger roaming around at night.”
“Then, who was it took our baby girl,” asked Trevor Price, his face a deep crimson and his long thin body vibrating under the restraint of giving his anger and frustration free rein. “An’ why are you waiting till just now to tell us all this, anyway? This ain’t right at all.”
“I agree, Trevor,” said Chief Mickelson as he patted the man’s shoulder and aimed him toward the bed across from the one Lisa died in, “it isn’t right and I give you my promise I’ll get to the bottom of this soon. Everything is just so confused right now and so many people are getting the same thing Lisa had, we have an emergency here and we’re trying to cope with it. You and Monica can just take a seat here for a while and calm down. Doc, can you give them something to calm their nerves while I conduct a search?” Chief Mickelson’s face, when Dr. Crainford caught sight of it, left no room for misinterpretation. The chief wanted Crainford to tranquilize them both so he could get on with it and also so they would have a couple of hours away from the soul crushing pain of losing their child--twice. Dr. Crainford went to the cupboard and took down a pair of vacuum wrapped syringes and a small bottle.
As Dr. Crainford administered the medicine to the now weeping parents, Chief Mike Mickelson turned to face Constable Welch, and then, without further acknowledgement, strode past her on his way to the landing. When he reached the stairs, Welch was at his side matching him stride for stride down the stairs.
She kept silent until they’d fought through the crush of panicked people awaiting their flu shots and lined up against the walls waiting to see someone about their symptoms. Then Constable Welch took hold of Chief Mickelson’s elbow at the front porch of the clinic and asked, “What’s going on, Mike? Did somebody snatch the little girl? Is she dead or not?”
They continued down the front steps to the parking area with Mickelson refusing to answer. Although Constable Welch respected the formidable Chief of the Cobston Police Department, she knew procedure and this was not it. She stopped short on the bottom step and said to Mickelson’s enormous back, “Chief, I represent the Federal branch of Law Enforcement in this township and I’m owed some answers. If you don’t think so, we can contact the GTA office of the RCMP in Toronto and get their view on it.”
Mickelson came to a halt beside his vehicle and his huge shoulders rose and fell as he took a deep, frustrated breath, and then turned to face her. When she saw his lined, red face, she winced at the worried frown that drew his mouth down at the sides and the rheumy liquescence of his bloodshot eyes. She feared for him in that instant; feared that the uncanny incidents of the past few days had overwhelmed him.
“I’m sorry, Amber, I know you’re right. It’s just, I can’t tell you anything just yet. This goes deeper than anybody knows and it’s gonna get worse before it gets better. Now be a dear and don’t pester me right now. I have something I have to do.” The chief spoke like a defeated man; a man caught in a trap.
“I can’t let you have that luxury, Mike. This is becoming a matter for O Division, the GTA force. Since there’s no Ontario Provincial Police detachment in this county, I’m the jurisdictional head of whatever investigation you’re embarked on from here on out.”
O Division is the RCMP’s Ontario arm, committed to the enforcement of federal statutes and to providing investigational assistance to local police forces. And Constable Welch was perfectly correct in her assessment of the situation; her authority far outweighed that of Chief Mickelson under predetermined circumstances.
“Well, you better come along with me, then, Constable Welch,” said Mickelson. “There’s somebody I hafta see about what’s been going on in my town.” Without another word, Chief Mickelson wedged himself into his police car and Constable Welch followed suit with her own and she followed Mickelson out of the clinic’s parking lot and tagged behind him, retracing her route from Cobston. But after only a few kilometers, the chief turned off the side road and took an unfamiliar graded line that appeared to lead to the Lake District and the old woods.
Amber remembered Detective Superintendent Delaney and wondered where he’d gotten himself. She tried again to raise him on her handset, but again got only static. “He can’t be out of the area,” she thought. Again she thumbed her talk button and this time seemed to connect. She heard an echoing sound and thought she detected a voice, so she said, “Detective Superintendent, I’m en route with Chief Mickelson investigating a disappearance. I think we’re headed for a little place called Froud; down near the lake on the outskirts of a forest called Aldwych Wood. It’s about thirty clicks east of Cobston. Ask dispatch for directions and please meet me there.”
She clicked off and received a definite double click of “message received” from the other end of the radio. Now she felt a little better, knowing Delaney would be joining her and the chief. She didn’t like the look of Mickelson, there was something not right about him; something edgy about his whole demeanor and his reaction to the missing girl.
She looked forward to seeing Delaney again. He somehow represented safety to her.
When that snotty bitch Amber and her big city cop left him alone, Billy O’Brien wasted no time in closing the funeral home and packing the two latest “risers” into body bags and strapping them into the back of the hearse. He policed the embalming room and the staterooms and then checked all the offices before turning off the lights and locking up as he backed out of the rear door, peeling off his latex gloves and apron and tossing them in the loading dock dumpster.
The bodies hardly filled the coffin bay of the grand black hearse; one being a shriveled old woman, paralyzed in-state for two days while the family made all the right mourning noises, and the other was the kid who croaked at the hospital last night. It was a bastard getting her out under the noses of the night staff, but luckily Jennifer was busy giving that receptionist a free ride on the pussy pony, and sneaking down the back fire escape was at most only a little cumbersome with the squirming body of the kid threatening his grip.
He preferred to have waited until he had a full load before driving all the way out to Reverend Peeler’s place. (They were expecting two more risers this afternoon and he could drive out first thing tomorrow morning, but they had to get rid of the kid’s shell before that RCM fucking P cop, Welch, got the chance to snoop any deeper.) Shit, he didn’t really look forward to going out to Peeler’s this late in the afternoon. Bad enough in the morning, but it was pushing four o’clock now and this time of year the sun sets too damn early. There was no way he wanted to be anywhere near Aldwych Wood come sundown. Fuck that shit. But he knew Peeler wanted no hint of what was going on in town to leak out before his end of things was in place and ready to set in motion.
That Peeler scared the shit out of Billy. He couldn’t say why, but Peeler never really seemed to fill any space. Even standing in the same room, giving orders or advice, he seemed to be a projection, a hologram; without density. And when he looked at you, you couldn’t hold your eyes on his for more than a second without feeling you were being sucked into his head through those eyes. It was the creepiest thing you ever felt, no shit. You looked into his eyes and there was a hole in your belly making you feel like your brother just died—a kind of lonely grief washed over you. It was damn near like looking into your own grave and seeing yourself waiting for you to get in and take your rightful place. Christ, Billy shivered thinking about it as he slid into the front seat of the hearse and started the powerful engine.
“Stop it,” he mumbled aloud. “Just get ‘er done and forget that shit.” And as he pulled onto the road he heard the muffled voices of the two in the body bags in the coffin bay. Indistinct and nonsensical syllables rolled weakly into the front of the hearse as O’Brien took the familiar route out to Froud and the Reverend’s second house on the edge of Aldwych Wood. The muffled voices grew more distinct as the syllables began to test words and form sentences—and then pleading questions.
“Fuck, that’s all I need,” cursed Billy. “They’re learning to talk again. So much for a peaceful fucking drive in the country. Shit.”
He pulled off to the side of the road and slammed the hearse into park. Then he bolted out of the driver’s side and stormed to the back gate where he yanked open the door and smacked his hands down hard on the squirming body bags and closed each of his fists on one, dragging both out of the back and onto the lip of the tailgate. As he swiveled his body to reach for the toolbox off to the side in its concealed compartment, Billy gave each body bag another loud thump with the heel of his hand, briefly causing a momentary cessation of noise and movement then wrestled the duct tape from the jumble of odds and ends in the toolbox.
Unzipping both bags, he roughly pulled the corpses’ heads free of the rubber and tore off long strips of duct tape, while they both stared up at him with surprise, confusion and terror in their dull eyes. They glanced across the short space to one another and a hint of recognition seemed to pass between little girl and old woman just before Billy O’Brien wrapped the tape over first one’s face and eyes, covering the eyes, nose and mouth; and then doing the same to the other, effectively silencing them both. Effectively blinding and cutting off any chance of taking oxygen, as well. But Billy didn’t care about the lumps of meat in the bags, he just wanted to get it done and get away from all this shit for a night at the Palace with its steady stream of strippers and pool tables.
Back in the driver’s seat, he turned the radio on, loud, to his favorite country station and slapped the wheel in time to a twangy tune about a jilted trucker and his ex-gal’s best friend, June. “The moon is in June/ and I will be soon.” he sang to drown out the sound of his conscience. Okay, so it was only a murmur reaching up from behind his chest, but sometimes it could get to be annoying when he was thinking of something important; like the newest stripper at the Palace. Screw it; I ain’t a bad guy; why should I feel like one? I’m only doin’ my job. If I don’t do it somebody else will, right? Billy looked at his eyes in the rearview mirror; hair’s getting to that perfect length, he noticed. Just wavy and shaggy enough to look artistic to the babes; but it also meant in about a week he’d have Peeler on his ass to get it cut. Can’t catch a break, can I? He sneered at his brooding eyes in the mirror and flicked back a forelock with his left hand—the one with the big gold ring on it.
At least there’s that, he thought, I get to snag some A-stream jewelry since this all started. Peeler don’t mind if I lift a watch or ring now and then; “know what I’m sayin’,” He asked his reflection? In fact Billy had been amassing quite a stockpile of heirlooms over the past week and if Reverend Peeler had any idea of just how much he’d been pilfering, he’d insist O’Brien replace most of it immediately. Which is exactly why Peeler wouldn’t find out, grinned O’Brien as he stuck his hand out the car window to see how the ring looked in the side view mirror; nice glint how it catches the late afternoon sun, eh? It almost looks like liquid fire. Gotta find out what them symbols mean; don’t wanna wear a devil-worshiping ring. What the hell are those tools? Looks like high school math class, or something. Protractor and a set square? Fuck it; it’s gold.
As he drove along the side road he could feel the night getting nearer and swore at himself for starting out so late. Why couldn’t he stand up to the old bastard and have his way once in a …
… What the fuck is that!
As Billy drove by the old dirt road leading up to the Froud farmstead, he saw the devil’s tail of dust hanging over the forest and could just see the shine from a bumper near the crest of the road. Who the fuck’s that? I’ll bet it’s that fuckin’ Toronto cop! What’s he doin’ stickin’ his nose up old Froud’s ass? Fuck me, Peeler’s gonna shit mini bricks. Oh, Christ he’s comin this way! And Billy floored it and the big hearse dug into the road like a tank and shot forward, bleeding gravel and smoke behind it. “Shit, what if he saw me?” But Billy’s reflection didn’t answer him, it was too busy looking at the road ahead of them and darting to the side mirrors for reassurance that Delaney’s car wasn’t magically behind him.
“Fuckin’ cops. I can’t catch a fuckin’ break, can I?” And just then the two corpses in the back of the hearse began struggling again and moaning from behind their taped mouths. They seemed on the brink of panic as they thrashed inside the heavy body bags, crashing heels and heads onto the floor of the wagon and setting up thickly muffled thuds that flooded Billy’s ears like peals of doom. “Man o man don’t let me get caught with those two fuckers in the hearse. I’m screwed fer shore, man. Fer shore.” And he sped into the lowering afternoon sun hoping to reach reverend Peeler’s place before any cops could reach him.
As Constable Amber Welch tailed the chief’s car along a rutted road, she had second thoughts. There was that strange something about him as he told her he had to see someone about what was happening in his town—a resignation to a disagreeable chore, more than a simple task. There was too much about how Mickelson handled the whole situation that didn’t ring of police procedure. Where were the deputies? Why hadn’t the chief assigned them to canvas the clinic and surrounding houses and streets? Where was the medical proof the little girl had, indeed, died in the night? The readouts from the monitor, the chart with the TOD and the doctor’s signature should have been the first things Mickelson shared with Welch; as a simple courtesy, from cop to cop, if nothing else.
No, there was something about this that made Welch think too many things were connected. What was the common denominator in all of what was going on in Cobston this past week? What centerpiece of evidence had brought it all to a head? Well, that had to be the body missing from Jonathan Dell’s Funeral Home and the corpse Detective Superintendent Delaney came up to Cobston to identify. And who knew about that body better than the two delinquent stoners who dug it up in the first place? Nobody, that’s who.
Amber abruptly slowed and turned her cruiser around and headed back to Cobston, snatching up her radio mike as she straightened the wheel and stepped on the gas. “Ellie? Come in dispatch.”
“Hi hon, change yer mind about that date I found for you?”
“Bite me, Ellie. Listen, what were the names of those two assholes that dug up the corpse a couple of days ago? The ones that Chief Mickelson’s deputies interviewed?”
“I think I got the names here somewhere, but I don’t think anybody interviewed them.”
“Nobody talked to the kids. They’re a couple of fuckups; crankers, potheads, acid heads as far as that goes. So nobody paid any attention to them.”
“But Billy told us that Ray and Bob investigated the scene and took their statements about the grave robbing and the crash and they told the chief…”
“You can’t rely on what that Billy says. You should know that, girl!”
“It seems I can’t rely on lots of people, Elaine. Has the Chief radioed in where he’s going?”
“He’s been silent since this morning when he went out to Lefroy,” said Elaine.
“Do me a favor and call me when he checks in. Where are Bob and Ray,” Welch asked?
“Ray’s off today and Bob’s comin’ on duty at six. But I think they’ll both be called in because of this flu epidemic. Did you see what’s happening at the hospital?”
“I’ve been kind of busy today Ellie.”
“It’s a goddam circus over there. Emergency room’s full up.”
“Lefroy’s pretty sick, too. Just gimme the addresses of those kids, will ya Ellie? And what are their names?”
Elaine relayed the information and Constable Welch drove out through Bell Ewert to the 25th side road and then on toward Innisfil Beach Road. She backtracked along Lakelands Avenue and stopped in front of a pair of abutting ramshackle, winterized cottages and parked. She got a similar premonition to that which Detective Superintendent Delaney had felt that morning before entering the Froud farmhouse, wondering if she should check in at her headquarters to let somebody know what she was up to and where she was going, but she, too, shook it off.
Under normal circumstances she would have strode up the pathway to the front door, scorching the fieldstone walk with her police boots, her nastiest cop look on her pretty face and lowered her voice a few octaves before knuckling the flimsy door. But something traced a dry finger up the back of her neck as she squared to face the houses; something familiar and at the same time distant. A fleeting fear from her childhood? A taste of Hallowe’en candy mingled with the lingering terror associated with the terrors lurking in dark places on a scary night. Whatever, it invoked a hesitation.
But only for a moment.
She rapped loudly on the hollow-core door and waited. She heard no movement within and she knocked on the adjoining door; she got no answer there, either, but upon knocking on this door, it opened on its own.
To Be Continued...