She was the only patch of stillness on the planet, it seemed to Dion, the dark-haired girl sitting on the far wing of the bleachers, second to lowest tier, watching the band play. She wasn’t alone, surrounded by people on all sides, but she was a break in the pattern that had caught his eye, her solidity and forward gaze, while all around her the crowd pitched and bobbed in response to the music, volume up so high it vibrated the blood in his veins. Clouds drove across the dimming skies and the lights from the fairground beyond flickered and twirled. People danced on the grassy patch in front of the stage, and above them the Rockabilly Princess leaned into the mic to sing the bouncy refrain. Something about small change and love letters. Much of the crowd sang along.
Seated next to Dion, high up on the bleachers, Penny sang along too, loudly and not so well, arms lifted high to clap. Dion didn’t sing or cheer but tried to clap his hands to the beat now and then, following procedure. Proof that he was as present as anyone. He’d come out tonight determined not to brood, or drift. He worked on listening to the music, and it was lively and noisy, but it really wasn’t great, and he couldn’t stay with it. First his ears when out of sync, then his eyes. He checked Penny’s profile, saw that she looked happy, then surveyed the crowd and saw more than heard the chaos and motion, all but the dark-haired girl down there who sat perfectly still, her attention fixed on the band, the singer, the guitar player. Unlike him, she was completely in sync. Just another fan, he decided. But one of the silent ones.
He looked down and sideways at the pink denim of Penny’s skinny, pumping knees, but the thoughts kept ticking, not in words but little kicks of anxiety. I t was all part of the healing process, this constant kicking, ticking, and going in circles, and now he was at it again, watching the girl down th ere. She was native, he was sure of it, while most of the fairgoers were white. And there was something else that set her apart: baggage. Next to her he could just see the hump of some kind of bag, a large backpack or duffel, which said that maybe she was just passing through, a drifter. From his position seven tiers up he could see little of her face, only the full curve of her cheek. Her long hair was loose and whipping in the breeze. Nothing special about her, a woman in her twenties, probably, on the heavy side, in faded jeans, and in spite of the chill just an ice-blue T-shirt.
He told himself he wasn’t obsessing, just whiling away the time as he sat through a long stretch of rockabilly noise he couldn’t tune in on, and maybe it was a good thing, a throwback to his detective days, when it had been his job to analyze situations, pull out the anomalies and turn them over till he had it figured out. He frowned down at the dark-haired girl. When she turned and glanced up his way he felt caught out and flicked his gaze away, back to Fling.
The pop and boom of the monster speakers frayed his nerves, along with Penny’s pumping knees and the sea-like motion of the crowd. The song came to an abrupt end, there was another round of applause, and in the lull he could breathe easier, like coming up for air. As the band fussed with their instruments, gearing up for the next assault, Penny touched his arm, got his attention, and pointed at the heavy bank of clouds moving in over the mountains. “Snow’s coming, I can smell it in the air.”
She said it like it was a good thing. He glanced at the heavens and saw them hung with some kind of floating debris catching the last of the sunlight. The only smells he could pick out from the general fairground pong were cow dung and candyfloss, and the occasional whiff of suntan lotion and sweat.
What did snow smell like? What did it feel like? How would he survive it?
A new hailstorm of notes from an electric guitar made him wince and stare back at the stage, at the guitar man working the strings again, hard.
“My lord, he’s a hottie,” Penny said, “that Frank Law.”
Dion leaned elbows on knees, no longer clapping along, no longer trying to fool anybody. He pulled the brim of his baseball cap lower, checked his watch, and did the math. Six songs so far, just a couple more to go. The dark-haired girl was still down there, a stillness in a choppy sea, but he’d lost interest in whoever she was and wherever she was headed.
Touch didn’t come easy to him, these days, but he made the effort, grabbed Penny’s hand, found it warm, and interlocked her fingers in his. She responded by leaning her shoulder against his. The music ramped up, and he could feel through his body the thumping of appreciation from the crowd, some three hundred fans shaking the frail structure like they were working together to bring it down. He thought about steel rods criss-crossed and linked to suspend too much weight too high, and about metal fatigue, the chain reactions of a snapped bolt, the carnage that would come with collapse, and his own death, twice in one year.
The next song was slower, its lyrics turning from hanky-panky to slow romance, a nd the thumping stopped too. Dion took a breath. Penny looked away to the midway rides, the languid revolving silhouette of the Ferris wheel. “It’s Kiera’s take on ‘The Banks of Red Roses,’” she said, sounding distant. “It’s song nine on her CD. It's about murder. It’s so depressing. I always skip it.”
Penny hated violence. She liked romance novels and happy news of rescued animals. She seemed to believe that men were faithful and good, which bothered him. He’d tried to educate her, being a man himself, knowing well how unfaithful and ungood men really were. The average man follows his dick and grabs what he wants, and if he appears to behave, that’s all it is, appearances. Rein it in to hang onto the job, or marriage, or whatever he values. He had explained it all to Penny just the other day, and then put it to her: if a man has nothing to lose, then what?
Kiera finished her song of murder and yelled into the mic, “Thank you, Smithers, you’re the best, see you next year, hey?”
Penny said, “No way she’s going to leave it on that crummy note,” as singer and band walked off, and she was right. Enough of the audience came to its feet and demanded an encore that the band filed back on stage. Kiera took up the mic again and crooned, “I love you too. Here’s one more for the road. I wrote this one especially for you cow-babies.”
She closed her eyes and swayed. Penny recognized the intro and said, “Oh, geez, I love this one. The blown kiss. Watch Frank.”
Dion did as he was told. The song was much like all the others, wild and discordant. The Rockabilly Princess was flipping her skirts, showing her legs. The boys in the crowd whistled and cheered. Frank the guitar man leaned into a second mic, and the song became a lovers’ duet. Frank stopped playing long enough to kiss his palm and blow that kiss at Kiera. Kiera reached up and caught the kiss and made to blow it back, but Frank missed the obvious cue. Distracted or ill-rehearsed, he failed to catch the kiss, but kept strumming at his guitar strings, looking not at his lover but down into the crowd. Kiera twirled and sang on.
“Ouch,” Penny said. “She’s not too pleased.”
Frank was bowing back into his guitar strings, playing hard for the song’s climax. Maybe he knew he screwed up, or maybe not, but Dion found the missed kiss funny. He looked at Penny to see if she did too, but her eyes were fixed on Frank with what looked like pity.
Frank was the love of Penny’s life, on some level Dion couldn’t understand. She had a glossy Fling concert poster pinned to her bedroom wall showing the Princess dancing aggressively into the camera lens in denim dress and cowgirl boots, and next to her Frank in clingy tank-top, electric guitar slung across his chest. Penny had pointed to the poster on one of Dion’s rare visits to that bedroom and said, “Only in my dreams.”
Maybe he should have taken offence, but he didn’t then as he didn’t now. He looked down again and saw the Native girl was gone, and so was her bag. In the middle of a song. Cutting out early struck him as strange for one who’d been watching so keenly, even if it was the last song. But probably he was wrong and she wasn’t a fan, was just here, like him, drawn into these bleachers by circumstance and killing time. He gave one last look at the spot she’d vacated, and then at the benches just above. One row or maybe two up from where she’d been sitting was now an empty patch, where before there had been a fairly even spread of audience.
He looked westward, scanning the milling fairground crowd, and spotted her as she passed through the blare of concession stand lights, not so far off yet that he couldn’t recognize that long hair flipping like a black banner, that ice-blue T-shirt. She moved from one patch of light to another, weaving through the crowd, crossing the midway, carrying her bag, not a duffel but a packsack. He searched for a pattern of motion at her back and saw it, a solitary figure scything through not far behind her, passing beneath those same patches of light and closing the gap. Tall, male, Caucasian, wearing a baseball cap much like Dion’s. Black, he thought, till a spotlight hit it square for a fleeting second, and he realized it was red.
He stood to see better, and Penny tugged his hand, saying, “Hey you, it’s not over.” He sat and looked down at the stage, but his heart was hammering. The girl was going to meet friends in the beer garden, that was all. Or heading for her car parked on the well-lit lower level plateau. Around him people went on stamping to the beat, and somehow he was sure she wasn’t meeting friends, or climbing into the safety of her car, that she was alone and she was on foot and her destination was the highway, either by one of several paths that cut through field or forest, or the long gravel road that led away from the fairground to the west, dark and empty, the perfect place for the man to catch up, reach out, take hold.
“I’ll be back,” he said into Penny’s ear and stood and edged along the bench past a dozen sets of knees until he was on the steps, thudding down, now jogging across the midway, seeking a red cap following a girl in blue.
But she was nowhere , and he stood amongst the fairgoers and listened to the happy din, conversation on all fronts, the music from the rides, screams from the Haunted House. Behind him Kiera cried breathlessly into over the loudspeakers, “Thank you, I love you,” and she went on to remind her fans of her upcoming CD, on sale by Christmas. “It’ll knock your socks off, people, I promise.” The applause followed her off stage as Dion made his way back up, climbed the bleachers, edged past a dozen sets of knees, and sat next to Penny.
“You see somebody you know?” she asked.
“Maybe,” he said.
A man was on stage now, introducing Th e Old Time Fiddlers. Some people rose, shuffling toward the stairs, but most stayed seated, bringing out the lap blankets and thermoses. Penny said, “Well, what d’you think?”
“I think we should go.”
“No, about Fling. Now that you’ve seen ’em play.”
A cold missile hit Dion on the nape of the neck, and he stood, mind set on departure. Penny gave a happy shriek as she was hit too. It was an icy rain, not quite the snow she longed for. Holding hands, they made their way along the planks to the steps, and by the time they’d left the stage behind and were heading down the midway where the rides spun and clanged, the water came down hard as hail. They took shelter under a canopy by the mini rollercoaster and watched the kids hurling along its rails.
“Have you been to the PNE?” Penny asked. “Bet you rode the big one. I always wanted to but never had the nerve. Did you?”
The noise of the fairgrounds and the rain had drummed out her words, or the meaning of them. He said, “Sorry, what?”
“You grew up down there....” She always did this, pressed patiently on through all his lapses, and he couldn’t understand why. He and she were a bad match. She was fun and lively, and he was barely here. Last month he’d arrived in this town, 1149 kilometres from where he wanted to be, and was down at the Post Office signing up for a mailbox, because they didn’t do door-to-door here. She’d been working behind the counter, and gave him the paperwork and key. He’d been bewildered and emotionally raw and she’d been chatty and welcoming. She’d talked him into a night at the movies, then dinner at her parents’ house, and already he was caught, a misconception more than a boyfriend, with no easy way out.
She repeated a question he must have missed. “And you’re a big brave guy, so you must’ve, right? Rode the giant roller coaster, I’m saying.”
He looked down at her in distracted wonder. Penny didn’t know, because he hadn’t told her, who he was and why he was here. Hardly a big brave guy, and no new recruit with a rosy future. As far as the force was concerned, he was a rehab experiment with low odds.
A flicker of colour brought him back to the moment, a red ball cap approaching. He studied its wearer, but saw this guy was too young and too heavy to be the stalker, which wasn’t a stalker at all but a flight of fancy. His temples throbbed and his back was sticky with sweat. He recalled with regret th at other thing he’d done tonight, or failed to do, further proof he was no longer a detective: he had looked away just as she had looked up, the lone girl in the bleachers. His one good chance to see her face, and he’d blown it.
There was a clatter and shriek, and a carload of kids flew by. Penny was still next to him, but she’d given up on conversation. He pulled her into a brief hug then pointed a thumb at the glum roadie at the gate. “I’ll get you a ticket, if you want.”
He was joking, because this was a travelling fair, with break-down rides, and its roller coaster was only fit for six-year-olds. “Thanks but no thanks,” she laughed.
Heavy streaks of clouds muddied the night skies, and he sought Penny’s hand again, planning to tug her toward the parking lot, but she had escaped. He saw her over at the bumper cars, talking to friends. She beckoned at him and called out, “Hey.” He shook his head and flicked a hand at her, meaning go ahead without me, I’ll wait.
The last thing he needed was another crash. He leaned against the metal rail and turned away from the noise and action. He touched the left side of his head, just over the ear, feeling with his fingers the unevenness of the surgical mend, always worried it would come undone and whatever he had left in there would come seeping out.
Behind him the cars slammed into each other, set to Def Leppard. He puffed out a breath, and couldn’t help being there again, driving too fast down the long straight roads of Surrey — or maybe it was Cloverdale — middle of the night, chasing someone, and it came out of nowhere, a flash of red torpedoing in off the right out of what had to be a concealed side road. He recalled spiking the brakes, when in hindsight he should have stepped on the gas. He recalled shouting to Looch, but shouting what?
Later he found out he’d been comatose for six days. Nobody would answer his questions or show him photos or share whatever the traffic analyst had pinpointed on speed and degrees of fault. They’d asked a question or two, but it was hardly the interrogation he was ready for, and that worried him too. All they said was, why were you in Richmond breaking the limit? Where were you guys going to, coming from? He’d said he remembered nothing of the day of the accident. He didn’t expect to be believed, but they seemed to do just that, believe him.
The flip side of claiming amnesia was that he left himself in the dark. He couldn’t ask those pointed questions he wanted to, and now he knew nothing of the investigation except the names of the deceased. He’d missed Looch’s funeral. He’d left town without a word to Looch’s widow, Brooke, or Looch’s mom or dad or sister or brothers. They wouldn’t have forgiven him anyway, but at least he should have tried.
So now he was back in uniform, his pay cut back. He was also on probation, with a rigorous schedule of reassessments to look forward to. The road to recovery would be long and difficult, but he would just have to get to it. Start climbing his way back to the top, be once again that fresh young detective in suit and tie, integral, admired, the keenest eye on the team …
He brought his hand around and found it wet with cold rain, not warm blood, which took his worries in another direction: the winter weather and how he was going to steer his wheels through the coming snowfalls. Aside from training at Regina ten years ago, he wasn’t prepared for northern driving. He im agined snow coming down thick, coating the roads, concealing the ice. It would send him into a tailspin, another crash, another coma. How many comas could one brain take?
The knot tightened. He told Penny as she rejoined him that he needed to get home, get some sleep; he had work tomorrow.
On the gravel road to the upper parking lot they joined other fairgoers walking slowly out into the dark. Holding his hand, Penny said, “It was the best, though, wasn’t it?" The colourful fairground lights reflected in her eyes as she looked back, still spinning away in the distance. “Seeing them play?”
“Seeing what?” he asked.
As always, the dots didn’t quite connect. “Who?”
“Fling.” She’d lost patience, probably for the first time since they’d met, maybe the beginning of the end. “Fling, the whole point of this day, remember?”
They walked in silence toward the vast muddy field that had been turned into a jam-packed parking lot for this fall fair weekend, no longer holding hands, and he kept an eye out for the native girl and the man who followed her, both long gone, leaving nothing to chase but a really bad feeling.
David Leith brought the phone to his ear, standing in his living room by the big picture window, looking out at the winter scenery. Not his personal phone but his work phone, the police-issue BlackBerry, and that meant this Sunday, his day off, was probably shot.
“Leith,” he answered. And sighed, and listened, and continued to watch the falling snow.
He liked snow — maybe even loved it. As a boy he had skated through it, slid on it, built with it. He’d grown up and joined the RCMP and been bumped west from Saskatchewan to Alberta’s Slave Lake, then farther west to B.C.’s Fort St. John, and finally all the way to the coast, to this rugged little city of Prince Rupert. He’d got married, settled down, and until this year had continued to be one with the snow. Till now it represented fun to him, and beauty, one wheel in the great cycle of life. There was nothing like standing out there first thing in the morning, dazzled by a world cleansed in white, and feeling one with nature.
“Be there in ten,” he said, and disconnected.
Snow in Prince Rupert didn’t hit hard, as it did inland, this being the oceanic climate, and usually melted as it hit the ground, but now and then there was a great dump of the stuff, and it stuck. This last dump was sticking, and it was no longer fun or beautiful to Leith. These days each new snowfall just pissed him off, the way it found its way into his boots and behind his collar and brought him crashing to the ground from time to time as he forged to work and forged out on investigations and forged out to the supermarket and forged home again. Snow tracked into the home with all the other stresses of the day and dirtied the carpet and made Alison bitchy.
No, that wasn’t fair. She was never bitchy, no matter how dirty the carpet got or how low their spirits fell. She would go mute, though, which only made him louder. They had never argued in the Februaries of their younger years, and it worried him that something had gone so badly off the rails — and how bad exactly would it get? Maybe having a child too late in life had upset the balance. Leith was forty-four, Alison thirty-eight, and Izzy was just turning two, and had morphed not into cuteness but into a tiny, blonde-ringletted monster with powerful lungs. Ear-splitting lungs. Alison blamed it on the Terrible Twos. Leith blamed it on the species and dreaded the next twenty years.
So this call from the office at midday on this, his first day off in a while, didn’t bother him as much as he made out it did. He cursed aloud and told Alison he had to go out. She didn’t seem so disappointed. He pulled on soft-shell, then outer jacket, then sat on the foyer bench to lace up the waterproof boots. “Bye-bye-bye,” he said and stooped toward Isabelle where she stood staring up at him on the dirty grey stretch of hallway carpet. She raised a threatening fist and spoke in tongues. Alison gathered the child up and didn’t bother to see him off on the doorstep where she used to stand smiling, back when they were in love.
At noon, Prince Rupert seemed steeped in dusk. He drove to the station, parked underground, walked up into the stuffy over-lit main, and on down to Phil Prentice’s office, where he found his boss on his feet, speaking to a stranger. The stranger wore glasses, a black suit, white shirt, no tie. He was bigger than the average cop, and bulky, kind of bear-shaped, head ducked down as if he was self-conscious about his height. He looked to be about Leith’s age, maybe a year or two younger.
He was vaguely familiar, too, like Leith had seen him somewhere recently. Maybe on TV? A journalist? Prentice made introductions. “Mike, this is my main man, Detective Constable Dave Leith. A real get-it-done guy.”
The stranger looked pleased, shook Leith’s hand, and said, “Detective Sergeant Mike Bosko, up from North Van for the border security conference. How ya doin’?”
“Good, thanks,” Leith said. A big man himself, he stood nearly eye-to-eye with the stranger, who he now in fact recognized. Couple nights ago Mike Bosko had been up at the podium at the Highliner Inn, talking fluidly about something important. Exactly what, Leith couldn’t say, even after taking notes. “Heard your talk, sir. Amazing stuff.”
“Amazing what we got accomplished in three days,” Bosko said with a smile. Too smart, too self-possessed, and thankfully soon to be gone, Leith thought. He turned to Prentice to ask why the call-in on his day off.
“Yes, sorry about that,” Prentice said. “Another girl’s gone missing, inland.”
“Hell, no. Where and when? Same place?”
“The Hazeltons. Reported missing last night.”
The Hazeltons lay in the colder, snowier interior of the province, northeast of Rupert by a good four hours’ drive. As Leith understood it, the Hazeltons were composed of Old Hazelton, New Hazelton, and South Hazelton, and the smaller offshoots of Kispiox and Two Mile. Of course that fo ur-hour drive could stretch into eight in a blizzard. He took the bulletin Prentice had thrust at him and looked it over, a photo of a young woman with all the stats typed up below, which he now scanned. “It’s out of his range,” he said and already felt the ice receding from his veins. The killer he’d been hunting for two years had centred his hits around the Terrace area, so far, which sat midway on the highway between Rupert and the Hazeltons.
“Sure, but what’s a few miles for a man with a truck?” Prentice said. “Thing is, her vehicle was located up on a logging road, Dave.”
A logging road in the winter was bad at best. Linked to the MO of a serial killer, it was dismal. Leith looked at the bulletin again, photograph of a young woman with a dazzling smile, warm eyes, a tumble of glossy brown hair. The image was professionally lit, more a publicity head shot than something out of a family album. The stats said she was twenty-two. The name, Kiera Rilkoff, rang a distant bell. “She’s a bit of a celebrity? A singer?”
Prentice nodded and said for Bosko’s benefit, “She’s quite the talent, too. Our local pride and joy. My daughters are huge fans. Country and western stuff, I think.”
Leith had learned not to take many of Prentice’s adjectives at face value. Like huge. If asked, his daughters would probably agree that, yeah, Kiera’s pretty good, why?
“Oh, sure, the Rockabilly Princess,” Bosko said, snapping his fingers. “There was a piece on grassroots music on CBC Radio just before Christmas. She gave a short, man-on-the-street type interview, and they played a track from her first CD. Self-produced, I think. She seemed excited about the future of the band, and they had a second CD coming out. Did it ever happen?”
“No, I think it got nixed for some reason.”
Bosko didn’t look surprised, Leith noticed, and now it clicked that he’d actually seen the singer play, which was one better than hearing her on the radio. “I caught her act at last summer’s Seafest,” he said, and the event filled his mind, the sunshine and crowds, the barbecue aromas, little Izzy on his shoulders gripping his hair and trying to knock off his sunglasses. He’d been more interested in the food than the music, frankly, but he’d stopped to watch the pretty girl on centre stage. The music itself was fairly run-of-the-mill country yowling, as he recalled, and he hadn’t stopped for long.
He shook his head, handing the bulletin back to Prentice. “She’s not victim four. He wouldn’t go for a celebrity. What’s with her vehicle?”
“Parked near a trailhead on Kispiox Mountain,” Prentice said. “They got a spare key up there and checked. Engine wouldn’t turn over.”
“What’s the matter with it?”
“No news yet on that yet.”
“Must be deep snow up there. Any tracks?”
“Mess of tracks, Giroux tells me. Terrace sent two Ident guys over for a look. Should be there by now. Problem is family and friends went tramping about before we were brought in. Doubtful there’s anything left.”
A trashed crime scene was a terrible beginning, and already Leith knew this was going to end up bad. Unless she was incredibly inconsiderate, the girl hadn’t caught a ride with somebody, hadn’t met up with friends, wasn’t simply out having too much fun to call home.
“Why d’you say he wouldn’t go for a celebrity, Dave?” Bosko asked.
The “he” they all spoke of was the so-called Pickup Killer, as dubbed by the press because it was about all the police had on him so far, that he drove a pickup. And even that was little more than circumstantial say-so. Leith eyed the stranger, not keen on this first-name-basis thing—it’s Leith to you, buddy—let alone case-note sharing. But Prentice wasn’t objecting, so Leith pulled in his shoulders and gave the stranger the abridged version, just short of rude. “His last two victims were pretty well loners, down-and-outers, which buys him time. Grabbing Kiera is not only way out of his abduction territory — it’s not his style. This is something else altogether, and that means it’s not my file, Phil, and I’m going home. Bye.”
His last few words were directed at Prentice as he stepped across the threshold, but Prentice sharply called him back into the room. “It happened in the Hazeltons, where for all we know he’s based,” Prentice said. “What about the logging road? It’s a link we can’t ignore, and right or wrong, we need you out there, if only to sign off on a no-go.” To Bosko he explained more pleasantly, “Dave heads up the Pickup task force. He’s immersed like nobody else. If there’s one incriminating fibre to be found, he’ll find it.”
Leith stood embarrassed, for however immersed he might be and whatever responsibilities he shouldered, he wasn’t much of a cop, as his rank pointed out. At his age he hadn’t even made corporal. Couldn’t pass the exams, couldn’t make an impression on those who mattered. He lacked some quality, elusive as charisma. Maybe it was just inherent laziness or a basically crappy IQ, but he wasn’t well read (though he tried). Or well travelled (though he dreamed). He wasn’t suave, wasn’t patient, wasn’t lovable. Worst of all, he wasn’t intuitive.
If one word could sum him up, it was dogged.
His personal phone buzzed, and he glanced at it, a coolish text from Alison telling him to pick up another bag of sidewalk salt, and he reflected that a few days away from home might not be so bad. “Right,” he told Prentice. “I’ll go pack. Call Giroux and tell her I’ll be on the road in an hour. ETA, no idea.”
He was nodding goodbye to the stranger Bosko, but Bosko wasn’t done irritating him and said, “Hold on a sec, Dave. I’ve run this by Phil already, and so long as it’s fine with you, it’s fine with him. I’m wondering if you’d mind if I rode along with you.”
“Rode along? To where? The airport? The airport’s that way.”
“New Hazelton. From there I could catch the next available sheriff run to Prince George and hop a plane. Wouldn’t mind seeing the interior up close. Never really get the chance. Always flying over.” He smiled.
The room’s windows looking out to sea were solid grey but for the white bombardments of sleet, and Leith could hear the muted howl of February pressing against the double-glazed window. The roads would be murder, the view obscured by haze, and it wasn’t much of a view anyway, a monotony of ice-rimed trees with the occasional glimpse of ice-jammed river.
He tried to send the stranger a fuck-off message with his eyes. “It’s a hell of a long drive, this time of year. Hours. And in this weather you won’t see much but taillights. It’ll be slow going. Gruelling.”
“For once in my life, Dave, I’ve got time.”
Leith shrugged and glowered. “Okay, then. Meet back here in forty minutes?”
The only thing worse than a winter drive to the Hazeltons, Leith reflected as he made his way to the parkade, was a long winter drive to the Hazeltons with a man who answered grim propositions with absolutely. Damn.
“Thing is, I don’t have to be back at the office till the end of the month,” Bosko explained, settled next to Leith in the passenger seat, his specs reflecting the oncoming headlights. Prince Rupert was behind them now at two thirty, and they hadn’t yet sped up to highway limits. “The conference wrapped up quicker than we expected, as you know, which opened up this great window of time for me, a whole week, and my first impulse was to call up admin right away and top it up. But then I got to thinking. I walked down to the harbour, watched the waves crashing in, and it occurred to me how little I know of these parts, and how I wouldn’t mind some eyes-on exploration. I’ve called B.C. home for the last decade, yet I haven’t driven north of Cache Creek, would you believe?”
“Huh,” Leith said.
“And I’m not the only one. I don’t know how many superior officers I’ve talked to down on the coast who’ve seen Disneyland but never drove the highways of B.C. It becomes a problem when those who run the show forget about the practicalities of working under conditions such as you guys face on a daily basis. I’m stating the obvious, you’d think, but there’s a genuine disconnect, Dave. There’s real time and distance involved. It’s not like moving the cursor across Google Earth. It’s distance you can feel in the small of your back.” He grinned, watched the cruddy snow-plastered trees pass for a while, and said, “So what do you know of Kiera Rilkoff?”
Leith could sum up what he knew of the missing girl on three fingers. She was attractive, popular among the local youngsters, and had aspirations. He said as much, padding it out with extra words, trying to sound smart, feeling Bosko’s eyes on him.
After a beat Bosko said, “The track they played on the radio back in November was pretty rough on the ears. By the sound of it, I’d say it was done up in a home studio, and not too well. Kiera promised their upcoming CD would be a professional burn, that they had sunk money into it, and maybe had acquired an agent, I think she said. Or was it a manager? Does that mean anything to you?”
“I haven’t been following her career,” Leith admitted. “Sorry.”
“No, and unfortunately I wasn’t really listening at the time,” Bosko said. “But if anyone’s interested, it can probably be pulled from the archives.”
Who needs archives when you have the amazing Bosko’s hi-fidelity recall, Leith thought, with envy . His own memory was good on things that mattered, but recount some random bullshit he’d heard on the radio three months ago?
Bosko asked more smart questions about the logistics of operations in the area, search and rescue, continuity issues with thin staffing, response times in various conditions. Leith did his best to answer, not so well, and soon enough the big man from the city went from asking questions to a kind of running soliloquy on whatever was on his mind at the moment. Northern demographics, poverty issues, the border security conference and how it had gone down, who had spoken, upcoming shifts in policy and legislation. As Leith was learning now the hard way, Mike Bosko abhorred a vacuum.
Half listening, grunting occasionally, Leith pressed on, away from the ocean, into the bleak wilds of B.C. There was no colour in the sky, no colour anywhere now that they’d left the port city behind and the temperatures had plummeted. The roads were slick but manageable. He drove faster than the traffic pattern, passing when possible, until a line of loaded B-train freight trucks slowed him to sixty on the straights and a mind-numbing thirty through the curves. And Bosko’s low, plodding voice droned on. As well as knowing pretty much everything about the universe at large, he seemed to have the scoop on the local crime scene. He spoke of the Pickup killings, knew the bodies had been found on forest service roads, knew the names, Karen Blake, Lindsay Carlyle, Joanne Crow, and the stories their bodies told of forceful takedown, bondage and strangulation. Leith wondered if Mike Bosko had gotten hold of the files at some point, and if so, why? He wondered if Bosko was privy to the holdback information that had been kept back from the press, known only to the inner circle of investigators so far, the killer’s quirk. He said, “You’ve done your research.”
Bosko either didn’t hear or didn’t care to answer.
The Pickup Killer case had gone cool, if not cold, and these days Leith only worked it if something new turned up. Nothing had for over a year now, except faint whispers that kept him awake some nights. The whispers said the beast was still in their midst, still crawling the streets of Terrace.
As they passed through that very city, the killer’s known hunting grounds, darkness fell and the snow came down in earnest. Terrace fell behind, and they were again in lonely wilderness, with another two hours to go before they reached the Hazeltons. Bosko switched to historian mode, telling Leith all kinds of interesting things about the area, Hazelton being rooted in the Omineca Gold Rush, the sternwheeler that ran the Skeena once open a time, the turn-of-the-century search for Simon Gunanoot, much of it news to Leith. He shifted in his seat and sighed with relief as the lights of their final destination approached, the broad slow highway that cut through the main settlement of New Hazelton. Passage through town would take about two minutes if a person drove the speed limit, which nobody did, except Leith now, slowing to sixty, then fifty, losing the tandem trucks ahead, who ploughed through and disappeared up the big dark hill that merged again with black forest, probably heading for the mills of Smithers.
“We’re here,” he said, sounding smarter than ever.
There was scant traffic out and about as he cruised the SUV under the orange glow of tall lamp standards, past gas station and shut-down supermarket, a few darkened restaurants. He pulled at last down a side street and parked in front of the New Hazelton detachment. He shut off the engine and looked at Bosko, hoping the shabbiness of the place was a crushing disappointment to the man. Bosko looked fresh, pleased, and enthusiastic.
Inside the small RCMP detachment they were met by a sleepy-looking auxiliary constable who told them that Renee Giroux, the local sergeant in charge, was up on the Matax with a small search team. Leith said, “Matax, what’s that?”
“Hiking trail heading off the Bell 3,” the auxiliary told him. “Where Kiera’s truck was found.”
“Bell 3 ...”
“The logging road.”
Leith told the auxiliary to contact Giroux and let her know he was on his way. The auxiliary said, “I’ll try. Can’t guarantee a connection. The airwaves are thin up there.” She supplied him with a map, marking it with X’s, one for the Bell 3 turnoff and one for the Matax trailhead. Leith thanked her.
“It’s going to be tedious,” he told Bosko as they headed back out to the truck. “You’d be better off checking into your room and kicking back. They’ve got us booked in at the Super 8 over there. I’ll just drop you off?”
“I’ll tag along, if that’s okay.”
They left the town lights behind, and Bosko got a tour of the Hazeltons as they passed through the settlements of Two Mile, Old Town, over a canyon into the heavily forested Kispiox area and beyond, where Leith was soon lost, in spite of map and GPS. With Bosko’s help he did manage to locate the Bell 3 signpost, the words nearly obliterated by driven snow, and took the turn, geared the truck down, and the high-suspension, fat-tired V8 police truck began to climb the snowy road beaten flat by previous tires. The incline steepened steadily and the road narrowed until even Bosko sat mute as the headlights lit the banks falling steeply away inches from his right shoulder.
The second X on the map wasn’t far in theory, a mere 9.7 kilometres of straights and switchbacks, but it was a crawl to get there, and nearly an hour passed before a pylon glowed in the headlights. A moment later a row of vehicles came gleaming into view, a couple of police SUVs and a black four-door sedan that didn’t look fit for the terrain. Leith pulled in behind the sedan and stepped out onto the road, wincing. Crystals fell light but fast, tiny daggers lashing his face. Upslope and deep in the woods a hard light pierced the darkness, a signal to follow.
“Not a good place to break down,” Bosko remarked. He stood now at the nose of the truck, taking in the scene. Leith shone his flashlight toward the man and saw how out of place he looked in urban overcoat, collars turned up, glasses flecked with snow and his short hair flipping about, but no fear on his solid, pale face. Bosko checked his cellphone for signal and confirmed what Leith already knew. “Not a single bar.”
The pylons pointed the way to a parking area for trail users, ribboned off with crime-scene tape, the ground here churned by tires, but no vehicles occupying its space. Leith swung his light about low and caught another line of pylons, and these led him up on a short trek into the woods. Here as everywhere the forest floor was disturbed by foot traffic in every direction, silent evidence of the searchers who would have been and gone, criss-crossing the wilderness, calling out Kiera’s name and blasting whistles.
He and Bosko reached a clearing, a kind of muster zone, and arrived at the lights and action they had seen from afar. Officers were spread out in the trees, marked distantly by the bobbing of their flashlights. The muster zone was lit by heavy-duty portables on stands, and under their raking glare stood a roundish bundle named Renee Giroux.
“My big-city detective at last,” she called out as the men arrived before her. She stared past Leith at Bosko. “And you are?”
Leith made introductions, and the little First Nations CO forgave Bosko for being a stranger enough to shake his hand. “I was just leaving,” she said. “Good thing you got up here to see what we’re dealing with. But this,” she said, and scanned about the site, which was a confusion of crime scene tape strung between bushes, “is going nowhere fast.” She pointed to where several officers were concentrated, performing a finer grid search. “Possible burial site there, snow heaped about, but no body. Her friends and family from here to kingdom come were up yesterday and spent the night looking for her, eh? Natural enough, but what a disaster. SAR made a couple passes overhead, and they’re on the ground now, team of eight, doing the crags and crevasses. Reason I’m up here is Dash drove in from Terrace about half past four and yanked his handler into the bushes, where we got us a game-changer.” She pointed to where two constables were searching the forest floor. “Found it over at that marker. Which is, what, hundred feet from her car. So all of a sudden it’s looking not like a girl lost in a woods but a girl taken by persons unknown.”
Leith told Bosko that Dash was a tracker dog from Terrace and that actually it was probably the dog’s handler who drove, and asked Giroux what exactly the game-changer was.
“A cellphone,” she said. “Looks new, and I’d be stunned if it wasn’t Kiera’s. Haven’t looked at it yet, was waiting for Big City to show up and do things proper.”
Big City was her nickname for Leith. She grinned fleetingly, not pleasantly, and looked around and again pointed. “Dash said there’s nothing of interest beyond that point, so that leaves us with two scenarios. A) She lost or discarded her phone, then got a ride with someone we don’t know and is some place we don’t know, safe and sound but phoneless and for some reason unwilling or unable to get in touch. B) She was abducted and lost her phone in the struggle.”
She paused, and Leith knew she would be thinking of the faint but frightening possibility that the Pickup Killer had moved in. Here, to her zone of responsibility. Bosko said, “We didn’t see her vehicle on the parking flat. It’s been towed down, has it?”
Giroux nodded. “Fairchild’s call, not mine.”
Leith told Bosko that Corporal Fairchild was head of the Terrace Ident section. He was on scene now, overseeing the search.
Giroux said, “That’s right. So Duncan’s sent their big rig and came and got it. Had my doubts, but got lots of pictures before it was touched, inside and out, and figured we’d be better off giving it the once-over in the garage.”
Bosko scratched his ear as if he had his doubts and looked at Leith. Leith nodded shortly at him. “Life in the outback, sir. They use Duncan’s Auto Repair around here for tows.”
“Anyway,” Giroux said. “Fairchild wants us to get that phone down to a signal and see if there’s any messages. Where’s my exhibit man?” She turned and bellowed at her crew, “I’m taking the phone and going down. Spacey, shoot it over.”
A figure approached from the shadows, and the exhibit man, it turned out, was Jayne Spacey, a regular constable Leith had once worked alongside. Spacey, in heavy fur-lined parka, pulled off a mitt and handed an exhibit baggie to Giroux. She noticed Leith and smiled a crooked hello at him, which impacted him now as it did every time they met, taking his breath away. That was young Jayne Spacey, her face asymmetric like she’d suffered a stroke, but all the more beautiful for it.
Before he could fumble out a greeting, she turned to go, saying something about another missing person she had to go search for and rescue.
Leith called after her, “What?”
She walked backward a step or two, grinning. “Just kidding. Our temp, Constable Dion, from Smithers. Went off into the woods and didn’t come back. Kinda cute but not too bright.” She laughed, faced around, and trudged away into the dark.
He watched her go. He heard a murmuring of voices from the possible burial area and looked sidelong, to see Corporal Fairchild beckoning him. He left Giroux and Bosko talking and joined the man and a small crew of Giroux’s constables, who stood by a square of land about ten by ten, marked into a search grid with pegs and string .
Fairchild was near retirement, shorter than average, with a heavy grey moustache and gloomy eyes. He looked at Leith and said, “We got glitter, Dave.”
Which to anyone else might sound silly, but filled Leith with dismay. “Damn,” he said. “What colour?”
“Take a look.” Fairchild pointed with his penlight beam, and Leith crouched and aimed his own penlight at the same clumps of snow within the grid. He angled his beam this way and that until the light bounced back at him in a pink flash.
It was the holdback info, the quirk, the fact that traces of body glitter had been found on two of the Pickup Killer’s victims. Lab work had tracked it down to the same brand in both cases, and even to the chain store that sold it, if not the store itself. The store was found in just about every mall in the province.
He stood, swearing. Fairchild said, “Doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Lotta girls wear it these days. And pink’s a popular colour. Could be from lip gloss, or they put it in their hair, on their fingernails. They even glue it all over clothes. We’ll scoop what we can, send it in, see if it’s Hello Kitty.”
Even if it matched the brand, Leith realized, it wouldn’t be definitive proof. Up here shoppers didn’t have a huge choice in anything when it came to the more esoteric products. If you were after body glitter, as he knew from those earlier investigations, Hello Kitty was pretty well what you were stuck with. Fairchild was right; maybe it meant nothing. But it sure didn’t make him happy, those tiny sparkles of pink in the snow.
Dion was in trouble. He’d lost track and was wandering in circles, every step a struggle in the deepening snow. She had sent him this way, but how far was he supposed to go, and how far had he gone? He ploughed along farther from the lights, farther off the trail and into darkness, until there was nothing but his flashlight beam for company, and the woods were dense, the sky blacker than he had imagined possible. He swore at his own feet that couldn’t seem to keep him upright, at the ear-popping elevation, the chill, the gloves he’d left behind. At himself for telling his CO back in Smithers that he was up for the challenge, and at the CO for believing him and sending him this far north. It had been a murderously long drive on slick roads, where logging trucks barrelled at him like monsters from the darkness, wood bits flying in their wake. He’d nearly lost his life on that road, lost traction twice, fishtailed once, then slowed to a crawl till his cruiser gathered a parade of headlights at its rear. But he’d finally arrived, two hours and fifteen minutes later, not the “one hour max” they’d told him.
The town they’d sent him to was called New Hazelton, about a quarter the size of his Smithers posting. From the New Hazelton RCMP office—the smallest detachment he’d ever stepped foot into—he’d been sent still farther out, twenty kilometres of backroads and then up the scariest mountain he’d ever faced, and now here he was, swallowed in wilderness, searching for a famous person. Famous locally, at least, far as he knew.
He skimmed his light through the trees. He reminded himself how grateful he was for this first real chance to prove himself. “This is fantastic,” he said aloud, and his voice came out thin and quaky in the heavy silence. His boots slithered again, this time almost taking him down. He steadied himself and swore again. His teeth started to chatter, and to stop the chattering he gritted them, but the shivers only moved into his shoulders. The light beam he was scoping through the spaces between the trees flickered, came on again strong, then blinked madly. “No, don’t!” he shouted. He banged the torch on his thigh and thought about batteries. How could he forget such a fundamental as putting in fresh ones and packing spares? His heart began to thud.
“No big deal,” he said and was reassured by his own adult voice, low and angry. “Walk back, follow your tracks.”
He turned to head back to where he thought the distant main lights should be, thinking about wolves, and now his heart banged harder because he couldn’t see his own tracks in this dim, wavering light beam. He turned the thing off, in part to conserve what juice was left and in part to make him less of a sitting duck to the nocturnal eyes that watched from the wilderness on all sides. He’d heard the predatory noises, the secretive shifting, the low breathing, the salivating, the circling. The sounds came from here first, then there. He turned, turned again, looked back, looked sideways.
Listening hard, he could now hear nothing but himself existing, the blood coursing through his system, the nylon of his jacket squealing with every shallow breath. Then something else, a distant crunch-crunch climbing toward him. Not a wolf, but maybe worse. He turned with measured speed and breathed out heavily as he saw that it was only her, the local constable, Jayne Spacey, who’d met him on the logging road some hours earlier and given him his instructions. She was following her light beam in his direction, calling out his name. He waved overhead. “Here.”
The light landed on him . She crunch-crunched to a stop before him and cast her beam down so it bounced off the snow and lit her up like an actor before the stage lights, the angel saviour with one eyebrow tilted. She said, “What’re you doing standing in the dark? Been gone so long I thought you froze to death out here.”
“My light’s dying,” he said.
To prove it he raised the torch and clicked the button. Light flared like a small sun, catching her full in the face, making her squint. He shut if off again as fast as his cold fingers would let him, and Spacey said, “Well, lookit that, hey? It’s fixed itself.”
“Sorry about that.”
He tested the light on the snow, the trees, the sky, and she said, “So I guess we’re at a dead end, right?” She was nodding, agreeing with herself. “Yeah, we’re on that thing I like to call the unlikely perimeter.”
“There’s tracks,” Dion said, something he’d almost forgotten. With the light strong now, he found his way back to his only discovery, the mysterious, fairly fresh footprints cutting through a small clearing in a strident way. Spacey leaned to see where they went and then waded through bracken and crouched to inspect the boot prints closer. She smiled back at him and said, “I was hoping they’re yours. That would be really funny. But they don’t match.”
She made her way back, looking at him with new interest, maybe concern. She said, “But we’re just looking for small stuff, not tracks, remember? This area’s been swept. The tracks, they’re just SAR doing their rounds. You okay?”
“Fine. I was just heading back.”
She stood watching him, scanning for some kind of information he couldn’t supply. Her hood was fur-fringed, and the fur was lashing about, along with a stray lock of gold hair. Her cheeks were rosy, her eyes gleaming as she maybe saw through him, saw that he wasn’t fine, that he was cold and confused, just a step away from petrified. “First days are always rough,” she said kindly. “But it’ll get better, promise.”
The words stung, first days, but worse was the sympathy. He nodded and tried to sound grateful. “Good to know.”
She laughed and reached out to knock him playfully on the shoulder, the punch slowed by too many layers of clothing. She said, “It’s getting onto eight thirty. Big meeting at the Catalina Cafe. Did you book accommodations yet? You’re just an hour away, Smithers, right? Most staff just day-trip it, but the boss says there’ll be no commuting on this one right now. Waste of time, she says. And makes no sense moneywise. She gets a deal at the Super 8, cheaper than manpower miles, even with the per diem. If you like, I’ll take you out later, show you the town, all two minutes' worth of it. You won’t fall in love, but at least you’ll have a map in your mind.”
He’d lost most of what she said, except the time. He angled his flashlight to see the hands of his wristwatch, and she was right, it was only half past eight, nowhere near midnight as he’d thought. “Meeting?” he said.
“Basic briefing, not mandatory for you, but you’d better come along, familiarize yourself with our reign of terror called Renee Giroux. I have to tell you, she’s nothing like that nice white-haired NCO you got running the show at Smithers. He treating you right?”
Spacey’s voice was young but husky, like she’d been a heavy smoker for years. Her speech patterns were snaky and hard to track, almost as bad as Penny McKenzie’s, but she seemed nice, and if he was lucky he’d be shadowing her for however long he was stuck here, three days, four, before they found the missing girl, the singer whose name he’d already forgotten. He almost forgot the name of his NCO too, but it came to him now, as they hiked downslope toward the portable lights. “Willoughby, yeah,” he said . “He’s great.”
Back in the brightly lit clearing, Spacey spoke with some members from the Terrace Ident section who stood by awaiting instructions. There was nothing left to do here tonight, Dion heard. They’d pack up and go, with a reduced crew to return in the morning light. Packing up everything but the crime-scene tape to mark the spot, the team carted out gear bags and went about powering down the lights. The generator grumbled to silence, and the last halogen faded to black. Flashlights came on, and all members prepared to leave the site, leaving only Dion kneeling in the snow, struggling with his designated task, packing a set of mattocks and spades into something like an oversized hockey bag. The task took him longer that it should, because his hands were numb, and the tools had to be laid just so or the zip wouldn’t close.
Finally he bullied the thing into shape and got it half-closed, then stood with it hoisted over his shoulder and gave the darkened scene a final scan, and it struck him with a wash of horror: they’d all leave, and she’d be left alone, if by some freak chance she remained trapped in some hidden nook or cranny. He imagined her reviving, crawling out into these terrifying woods, crying out, being met by silence.
Strange how he’d seen her in person, just a few months ago, at the Smithers Fall Fair. He pictured her now, the pretty girl dancing about the stage, singing her heart out. Kiera, that was her name. As it turned out, it was Kiera who needed help, not the black-haired girl in the bleachers he’d fixed on so pointlessly. If he’d been looking at the stage, not the crowd, maybe he’d have seen something that would lead to some conclusion now that would save the day.
He snorted at the idea and dug at the trampled snow with the heel of his boot, testing it for give. The ground below was hard as iron, so she couldn’t be buried deep anywhere hereabouts. And the mountainside had been combed by dozens of searchers, so she wasn’t buried shallow either. She’d been taken away then. He knew it. Maybe on foot but likely in a vehicle. From what he knew, which wasn’t much, he believed she was dead.
Somebody shouted, and he listened, b ut was distracted by the forest noises, almost voice-like, wordless mutters and whispers, and a low, demented whistling. The flashlight beam guttered again, and distantly, up on the logging road, he heard car doors slam shut and an engine turn over. He could imagine them forgetting to do a head count and departing without him. He saw himself alone in the woods, following Kiera’s footsteps into the wildest mystery of all. A moment longer he hesitated, the n shifted the gear bag to his other shoulder and headed up the trodden path, almost at a run, to join the departing team.
Leith and Bosko arrived at the Catalina Cafe, its big yellow sign a blazing landmark on the highway cutting through town. Leith was tired, hungry, and aggravated. He had spent the last hour in conference calls from his new desk at the New Hazelton detachment, and his vocal cords were strained raw . He wanted to return to Terrace and dive straight into the Pickup lead, now that they had a solid link to the Pickup Killer. Phil Prentice thought otherwise, reminding Leith that holding back information could be a valuable tool, but it could also cause havoc. Leaks happened, and supposedly confidential clues could be used and abused, and nothing should be taken for granted at this point. For now, pink glitter be damned, Leith was to remain in the Hazeltons and explore all the other myriad avenues, keeping in regular contact, of course, with the Terrace task force that would be chasing down the Pickup Killer full-tilt, headed up by Corporal Mel Stoner. Furthermore, the glitter angle was to remain, at Stoner’s discretion, held back from the press and disseminated only to the core team.
The backroom at the Catalina was too warm, and Leith shed his several layers of coats, jackets, and sweaters, hung them up, and took a seat. He had missed lunch and was glad the briefing would be bracketed around food. Hardly gourmet grub in a place like this, but he didn’t care so long as it was greasily rich in salt and starch. Giroux said the food was great as she sat across from him, but she had to say that, knowing the owners; she knew everybody here. That was the advantage and disadvantage of running a village in the middle of nowhere: familiarity.
They were a party of ten, a few faces Leith didn’t know. Giroux said she’d used this room often for meetings such as this. It was also used for weddings and whatnot. Sound-wise, it was well insulated, private, and the staff knew all about discretion. The one long table they sat at was draped in white. The walls were panelled in fake wood and hung about with genuine mounted animal heads, which in turn were hung about with cobwebs. Swing doors separated this room from the kitchen, but the kitchen sounds were distant enough when the doors clicked shut. Music from a local pop station played, but barely audible.
Coffee was served and orders were taken, and Giroux made introductions, naming herself, in charge of New Hazelton. She would be dealing with issues in her community but would be at hand to lend assistance to the team when possible. She introduced Leith as lead investigator, the one who’d assign tasks, make all procedural decisions, and liaise with Sergeant Phil Prentice in Prince Rupert.
She introduced Sergeant Mike Bosko, the brass from the Lower Mainland who was joining the team in a sort of unofficial advisory capacity until further notice. A few brows went up, and Corporal Fairchild from Terrace asked jokingly, “What, just happened to be passing by?” the joke being that nobody just passed by the lonely Hazeltons in mid-February.
Leith watched Bosko for reaction to the jibe and saw the irony had gone right past him. “Pretty well,” Bosko said. “Dave was heading this way, so I hitched a ride.”
Giroux skimmed the remaining introductions and then gave the floor to Jayne Spacey, who had opened the file and knew it best. Spacey stood to talk, skimming fast over Kiera Rilkoff’s particulars, since they were all there on her stat sheet, age, height, weight, the colour of her hair and eyes, address, identifying marks. She went on from there. “At twenty-two she still lives with her parents and her sister Grace on 12th Avenue. Sergeant Giroux and I have been there early today, and on a preliminary look-around there’s nothing out of ordinary in her room.”
“The family’s completely flummoxed,” Giroux put in. “And devastated. We don’t have to focus on them whatsoever.”
Spacey said, “Kiera’s a high school grad. She has plans of attending music school in Vancouver somewhere down the road. Good reputation in the community, no criminal history. She’d been employed at the Chevron gas station until last summer, when she quit to devote herself to her music. We all know Fling’s a successful band and seems to be going places. Her parents support her financially and morally, it seems. I haven’t taken full statements from them yet, but like the boss just said, we have no reason to focus on them at this point. Kiera’s dad is with the Ministry of Forests, and her mom’s a physiotherapist at the hospital, so they’re financially secure.”
Leith admired how Spacey had progressed since they’d last met. He wondered if her straight-shouldered stance and lucid delivery had anything to do with the presence of the brass from the city. He wondered if his own blustering did as well, and hoped not.
Spacey said, “Now for the here’s-what-we-know part. Kiera’s boyfriend is Frank Law, who’s the guitarist in the band. She spends much of her time at his place in Kispiox.” She passed around several copies of a map marked in red with points of interest. “It’s the ‘L,’ and I’ve been there as well today. It’s a good-sized house on an acreage he shares with his two brothers, Leonard and Robert, better known as Lenny and Rob. It’s here Fling has been rehearsing since the house was built, about four years ago. They were rehearsing there yesterday when Kiera left the house, alone, drove off, and didn’t come back. She left at the lunch break, around noon, but nobody can give a precise time. She was seen driving northwest on Kispiox Road about an hour later by a friend of the Law brothers, Scott Rourke.”
She went on detailing the eyewitness account of Scott Rourke, who had been riding down Kispiox Road on his motorbike when Kiera had passed him in her Isuzu, upward bound. Leith had heard most of this up on the mountainside, but he made notes now. Most everybody at the table did the same, except for the dark-haired uniformed constable at Leith’s left, who couldn’t seem to find a pen. Leith gave him his spare, and said to Spacey, "A motorbike? In these conditions?"
"More like a dirt bike," Spacey said. "And Rourke's a maniac." She went on. “Also on the map you’ll see an ‘RL’ up on Kispiox Mountain. That’s where the Law brothers, more specifically Frank’s older brother Rob, run a logging show. We have reason to believe she was heading up to see him when her truck broke down at the ‘M’ you’ll see there, the Matax hiking trail. Kiera and Frank texted briefly about one thirty, and that was their last communication. We got it off Frank’s phone.”
Another photocopy was passed around, a printout of a direct screenshot from an iPhone. Bosko looked it over and then passed it to Leith. The text came from Kiera at 1:26 p.m.
Kiera: “Screw U. Find yrsf another lead”
Frank: “WTF? Where RU?”
Spacey said, “Kiera didn’t reply, and Frank more or less put it out of his mind till later in the evening, when Rob Law came upon her black Isuzu Rodeo at the Matax trailhead as he was coming down from the cut block around seven . He got home at seven-thirty. That’s when Frank collected Chad and went up.”
She paused as the waitress brought food. Not a moment too soon, Leith thought, his stomach grumbling. The constable to his left, the one who’d forgotten his pen, was in his mid-twenties, maybe, pale-skinned but dark-haired and dark-eyed, beat-up looking. He was staring with doubt at the Denver sandwich placed before him, and in a low-grade epiphany Leith realized this was the guy Jayne Spacey had called “kinda cute but not too bright,” Dion, the temp in from Smithers.
The long-awaited “Special” burger with extra fries landed in front of Leith, and he dug in. Spacey ignored her wrap, still on her feet, and went on briefing the team. She told them who had been at the house yesterday at noon when Kiera walked out: Chad Oman, the drummer, Stella Marshall, who played fiddle, and Frank Law’s younger brother Lenny Law, who was seventeen and home-schooled. Lenny wasn’t involved with the band, as far as Spacey knew, and there was some question about whether he was present at the time Kiera left.
Giroux told Spacey to sit down and eat, which Spacey did, and for a while there was only the sound of forks and knives hitting china, munching, sipping, and the distant twitter of pop music.
Leith chomped at his burger faster than he should. Down the table, Mike Bosko ate a much healthier salad of some kind and made conversation with Corporal Fairchild, Ident Team Leader, at his side. Constable Dion picked up the first quarter of his Denver and devoured it in two big bites, then closed his eyes and looked ill.
Bosko left his conversation with Fairchild to ask Spacey, if she didn’t mind, about more general background on the band itself. “I’ve heard they’re putting out a CD?”
“Was supposed to come out at Christmas,” Spacey said. “There were some delays, and I’m not sure where that’s at right now. Mercy Blackwood would be the one to talk to, the band’s manager. I’ll set her up for an interview.”
Leith added the name Blackwood to his list of interviewees and listened as Constable Spacey described a barrette she’d found in the snow near where Kiera’s cellphone was found. Both barrette and phone would have to be fingerprinted, and Kiera’s family would be asked to identify the items.
Leith scrubbed the mayo off his mouth and told the team of the critical clue, the body glitter, possibly linking up this disappearance with two of the three Terrace murders. Some discussion followed on the importance of eliminating or confirming the link, then he turned to the cellphone, now Police Exhibit 1, which wouldn’t give up any secrets till he got it unlocked. “Nobody knows her password?” he asked Spacey. “BFF, family, boyfriend?”
“Not so far,” Spacey said.
Bosko said, “And who is her BFF, by the way?”
Corporal Fairchild said, “What the hell is a BFF?”
“Best friends forever in teen-speak,” Spacey told him. “And WTF is what the fuck.”
“Everybody knows what the fuck,” Fairchild said testily.
Spacey ignored him and said to Bosko, “Her BFF would be Frank. She’s got tons of Facebook friends, I know because I checked, but not a lot of real up-close and touch-em people in her life. The band is kind of insular in that way. They stick together.”
Leith was thinking about the cellphone. He told Fairchild, “If you could find out who her provider is—”
“Rogers,” Spacey said. “I checked.”
Leith nodded at her. “Contact Rogers,” he told Fairchild. “Crack the code, get a printout of her call and text history.”
“I’ll get on it,” Fairchild said. “I’ll see what I can do about a data dump but may take a while. For starters I can grab some screenshots. How far you want me to go back, Dave?”
Leith suggested a month.
Fairchild put the question out about the Isuzu — which was being scoured for evidence by his team even as they spoke — why it had stalled, whether an engine could be sabotaged without leaving a trace. Leith didn’t know the answer. Nobody did, not even the fountain of knowledge named Bosko. Giroux said she’d ask Jim of Duncan Auto Repair; he’d know.
Spacey passed around a snapshot of Kiera Rilkoff and Frank Law. Leith had only glanced at the photo earlier, and he took the time to study it now, Kiera smiling gorgeously at the camera, her boyfriend seated beside her, also smiling. Frank’s smile could be judged gorgeous too, he supposed, if the judge was a young girl.
Frank Law, like Kiera, was white, in his early twenties. He had longish hair, dirty blond, and in the photo he wore a clingy black short-sleeved shirt, a thorny tattoo banding his upper bicep. Leith angled the photograph to Giroux. “Any kind of a record on this guy?”
She nodded. “Pretty minor. Assault, few years back. Got one year probation and a stern eye from the judge is about it.”
“No, he pushed a guy. Or punched him, depending on which one of them you believe. The guy fell down. It was just stupid, really, but this guy who fell down was a building inspector. We couldn’t just let it slide. Building inspectors have it rough enough, without letting it be known you can push ’em and get away with it, eh.”
Leith passed the photo sideways to Dion and said to nobody in particular, “Girl like this could have her share of stalkers, right? Even without the celebrity status.”
Across from him Corporal Fairchild added to the thought. “She could have her share of anybody. Maybe she did, and maybe Frank didn’t like it. Why is nobody asking why she was heading up to see his brother?”
The team canvassed the issue, but it entered the realm of conjecture, and Leith, suffering the first pangs of indigestion, didn’t take part . The waitress came by, checking if anyone wanted refills. Nobody wanted more coffee except Giroux, a woman who bragged she only needed four hours a night. Constable Dion asked for another Coke and ice, and when he received it and stuck the straw in his mouth, Leith felt obliged to turn to him with a warning, thinly disguised as good-natured, chummy advice. “You heard the latest on sugar, right? They’ve discovered it makes lab rats stupid.”
He didn’t feel chummy about it at all. He was genuinely concerned about stupidity in the ranks, and this man, he could see at a glance, needed to hold onto as many brain cells as he had left.
Constable Dion set down his glass and gave him a blank stare. “’Scuse me?”
Too late, Leith thought bitterly. “Forget it,” he said, and watched Dion do just that, returning to the sandwich like it was some kind of do-or-die challenge. Leith glared at him a moment longer and then told the team, “Tomorrow first thing I’ll talk to Frank out in Kispiox, and if he’s agreeable, I’ll get Forensics in there, the sooner the better.” To Giroux he said, “I wouldn’t mind if you came with me to do the introductions. After Frank, we’ll just have to plough through the rest of the band as fast as we can. I also want to talk to Frank’s brothers, Rob and Lenny. Especially Rob.”
Spacey said, “Getting hold of Rob isn’t easy. He’s a workaholic, spends a lot of nights in the Atco up on the cut block. He’s there now, and I can’t reach him to call him in for an interview. No cell service up there, and his satellite phone’s either down or disconnected.”
“Well, somebody’s gotta go haul him down here, then,” Leith said, hoping it wouldn’t be himself doing the hauling. He wasn’t afraid of Rob Law, but he was afraid of that fucking road, the painful crawl along a precipice, tires thumping over the rough-furrowed snow. Nobody around here seemed much fazed by that particular road, but he was a prairie boy, and verticals just weren't i n his genes.
Fairchild shook his head. “Get him on his trucker chat-channel. Or one of his crew’s. Get the message out that he’s to come and see you or face a warrant. We don’t have time or resources to go chasing our witnesses up mountainsides. Not here, not now.”
“Amen,” Leith said. “I’ll leave it to you, then.”
“No problem,” Fairchild said.
“Well, maybe we can work it into a viewing of the trailhead tomorrow,” Bosko offered, countering Fairchild’s great suggestion in that long-winded, easygoing manner that was starting to grate on Leith. “We could go up and take a look around the crime scene in the light of day, then head up to the cut block, if that’s what Rob Law prefers, which might be preferable for us too. Sometimes it’s better talking to people on their own turf. What d’you think, Dave?”
Leith eyed him coldly. “That works too.”
He went about dividing up the rest of the interviews, with Spacey making notes. The songs playing distantly on the radio were melancholy, making Leith crave beer, but drinking wasn’t in the cards tonight. The meeting began to wind down, and there followed some less formal chit-chat and housekeeping matters. Giroux talked about disbursements and accommodations for the out-of-towners, Leith from Prince Rupert, Bosko from the Lower Mainland, Fairchild from Terrace, and the dumbass temp from Smithers, Dion, who was too busy cramming the last of his sandwich to notice he was being addressed, which made Giroux raise her voice in irritation and flap her hand at his face. “Constable. Yes, that’s you. Did you get yourself a room yet?”
Dion, with mouth full, stared across at her.
A familiar anger began to crawl in Leith’s veins, and for good reason. Sometimes, somehow, a real bonehead crossed the recruitment hurdle and made it onto the force. Dion was one of those, just out of training, shell-shocked by the grim reality of his job. Probably expected respect, glamour, fun. Probably on day one he’d been posted roadside for eight hours with a radar gun in his hand and was already balking. Well, fuck you, we’ve all done it, Leith thought.
Maladjustment was just the base of the problem; the reputation of the force was at stake, and by extension the reputation of Leith. As though scandals and leadership issues weren’t bad enough, last year a bonehead rookie such as this one, under his command, had blown an investigation, costing the Crown a rock-solid conviction. It was a big case, and the acquittal still left a genuine twinge of pain in Leith’s chest when he thought of it.
So no, he didn’t find stupidity in the ranks funny. And neither did Renee Giroux, who barked at the temp now, “I take that as a no. So, not for the first time, please get yourself booked in over at the Super 8 and bring in the paperwork. Got that? It’s right across the highway there.”
Everyone watched Constable Dion absorbing the instructions, and Corporal Fairchild asked him , “Up from the city, are you? Touch of culture shock? How’d I guess? Easy. You got that what’s with all these fucking trees look about you. Where’s the malls? Where’s the Starbucks?”
Jayne Spacey laughed and blew ice water through her straw at Dion’s face, making him blink. Mike Bosko looked at the temp with brief interest — and maybe only Leith caught his slight double-take — then turned back to Giroux, who was asking him something.
“So where exactly do you call home, Mike?”
“I’m kind of between homes right now,” Bosko told her. “I was in Vancouver for four years, with Commercial Crimes, and I’m making the move over to North Van to help rewire their Serious Crimes Unit. Just needs some tweaking here and there, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.”
“From white collar to SCU to clambering about in the mountains,” Giroux said. “Impressive.”
Spacey leaned forward in a sparkly way, getting Bosko’s attention. “Does your rewiring include seeking out new talent by any chance, sir?”
He smiled back at her. “It certainly does.”
The exchange got Leith’s attention, and he checked Bosko’s face, trying to see if he meant it about the talent search. If so, it might mean an opening for him too. He wasn’t so sure he wanted it, these days, a radical move to the glittering metropolis. Fifteen years ago, leaving his home in North Battleford, Saskatchewan to join the RCMP, he’d set his sails for the bright lights of Vancouver, but now that he was comfortably lodged in Prince Rupert, a place he liked, the idea of leaving seemed about as doable as relocating the Mars. Or maybe he was just scared.
He shifted back in his seat, vaguely depressed, imagining being stuck in dingy backrooms like this for the rest of his working life. On the other hand, stalwarts like him were needed here as everywhere. Missing kids like Kiera Rilkoff needed him.
His depression deepened, no longer for himself, but for her. Whatever anybody thought, he knew this would be no happy ending. The girl had crossed paths with somebody bad and was either dead or in that person’s control. He heard Bosko and Spacey discussing North Vancouver, what a great city it was, that buzzing beehive to the south, and from the corner of his eye he noticed Constable Dion had become interested for the first time in something other than his own plate, an d the something was Mike Bosko’s face. Was there recognition in his stare, along with a touch of anger? Leith looked at Bosko, thinking he must surely feel the heat of attention, but apparently Bosko didn’t.
Anyway, Leith realized, it wasn’t a stare so much as a sustained glance, and already Dion was tuned out again. But Bosko’s earlier double-take, together with Dion’s sustained glance, told him something about these two: They either knew each other or knew something of each other, and yet neither wanted to admit it. It was a puzzle, but probably just his imagination at work. And even if it wasn’t his imagination, it was certainly none of his business.
The remaining dishes were cleared from the table. An old Harry Nilsson song was on the radio, muted and sad. The SAR people were out there, working hard through the night, FLIR-equipped choppers raking the mountains. APBs were broadcast and reinforcements were on their way for a search that was going to spread ever outward till she was found or resources ran dry. There was nothing more Leith could do right now but rest up for tomorrow. He declared the meeting over and ordered everyone to get a few hours of sleep. All team heads would be up and at it bright and early, for if the Rockabilly Princess was being held by a predator with a pickup truck, there was no question about it: he r time was fast running out.