Lance Liu was beginning to believe he wasn’t dead after all. He hurt all over, and he couldn’t see too well, and couldn’t seem to move. But if he was dead, he would be pain-free, wouldn’t he? And probably serene, and looking down a tunnel of warm, bright light. He was distinctly being or doing none of that.
So he had survived. He blew out a shaky breath. He blinked at the murk above, all dark and dribbly, spattering erratic rain drops on his face. The tree was pissing on him, like it hadn’t done enough already. All around was tall grass, bushes. The bushes made him nervous. Would be sure nice to have his vision back. Damned shenanigans.
What had his mom always said?
Coming events cast their shadows before them.
Or I told you so.
After tonight, he was going to make some major changes in life. Maybe return to church. He wanted to bring a hand to the side of his head and feel the damage, but couldn’t. Tried to shift his legs, and couldn’t. Just needed to calm himself a bit. He tried to pray, stretched out under the giant tree that had smacked him, twice. “Dear God …” he whispered, doing his best, because his best was all God required. “Forgive me my —” but a noise stopped him. He listened hard.
A car dashed past above, wet tires on wet road. Was that the noise he had heard? He struggled to turn that way. He shouted out, “Hey! Help!”
The car was gone. Didn’t see his vehicle down here, didn’t see trouble, wouldn’t come to his rescue. Nobody would come to his rescue. The panic was all over him like a low-grade electric shock. He couldn’t keep lying here. He needed to get back to the family, make sure they were safe. He managed to flop a knee, up and down, and up again. Good. Not paralyzed.
He made more resolutions as he worked his other leg back to life and flexed his hands. Never rise to a taunt again.
That was what put him in this ditch. Taunts. The SUV dripped privilege, just glared cash, a big, boxy black-and-chrome Hummer telling him I’m rich; you’re a blue-collar shithead. All he had wanted was to level the field, make a buck, and take that guy down a notch. No face-to-face confrontation. No bloodshed. No harm done.
Didn’t happen that way.
How did it happen? Lance picked up the tail in Deep Cove, as per instructions. He was led around town a bit, stopping at the liquor store, and a KFC, and finally hitting the Upper Levels. All good, just two trucks tootling along the highway. Where it went wrong was the Hummer taking an off-ramp, up a sparsely trafficked two-laner, leaving Lance exposed, and vulnerable. Which would have been a really good time to back off. And he didn’t.
The Hummer sprinted away topping a hundred, in a sixty zone. Lance did his best to keep the vehicle in sight, trying to tail without looking like a tail. The Hummer swerved hard through a hairpin. Lance took the curve more cautiously, but still his tires squealed. At which point he was hit by an epiphany. “I don’t need this,” he declared. He dropped back so the Hummer’s wide-ass taillights ahead shrank and converged into the darkness. “We don’t need this. Nobody needs this. I’m calling it off. Not just this, but all of it. Pack it in, moving back to Cowtown, with or without you, man.”
The you, man was Sig, the Sig Blatt in his mind, his business partner and pal. Moving west was Sig’s idea, just like this Hummer business was. The Sig in his mind was peeved, a pale blotchy face telling him to stay on that Hummer’s ass. Lance switched him off and spoke to Cheryl instead, the other reason for this move.
Cheryl’s pressure was more a passive insistence. A prairie girl who thought it would be so cool to live on the very edge of the Pacific Rim. “See what I’m doing here?” he told her. “Never had this kind of baloney in Calgary, did we?” He was based in Airdrie, not Calgary, but from this distance, way over here on the West Coast, Calgary and Airdrie pretty well converged to a point on the map. “And all this so you could wade in the waves. Well, you waded, didn’t you? Then you said it was cold and dirty and you wanted to go home. One flippin’ day at the beach. Big moves like this don’t come for free. D’you have any idea what that walk on the beach cost us?” He made up a number. “Five hundred dollars a millisecond worth of walk on the beach. No way, princess. I’ve had it. I’m gonna beg Ray for the job back, and we’re outta here tomorrow.”
Sig popped back into view, still griping. But in the end Sig would pull up stakes too. He would follow Lance back to Morice & Bros. Electric (1997), and their cheapskate boss Ray Duhammond. Sig would get it, eventually. They just weren’t cut out to be businessmen.
The taillights were back in sight, for some reason, and growing larger. The Hummer had slowed right down . Lance did too. He slapped at his jacket pockets, then the seat beside him, piled with receipts, grubby boxes of connectors, a tangle of hand-tools. He found his iPhone and thumbed the centre button. A colourful, glowing line indicated his phone-servant was listening. He snarled at her: “Siri. Call fucking Sig.”
Red blazed at the side of the road ahead and to his right, smeared by rain and darkness. The Hummer had pulled over and was parked on the shoulder. Lance drove past, not giving a fig any more who was in that Hummer or what he, she, they, or it was up to. Siri apologized and said she didn’t understand his request. He started to repeat, “Call Sig,” without the eff-word, but headlights popped up in his rear-view mirror, pitched and straightened and expanded.
The Hummer was beginning to scare him.
It was now coming up on his rear, and by the way those headlights were spreading like a couple of supernovas, it was coming fast. He sighed in relief as the Hummer pulled into the oncoming lane and tore past. Passed on a solid line, it was in such a hurry. Why the rush? There was nothing up here but forest, rock wall, and more forest.
He didn’t care. He was off the case. He slowed further, on the lookout for a good place to pull a U-ey, and in the distance red dots flared. The fickle-hearted Hummer had put on its brakes. Again. A knot tightened in Lance’s gut. White lights glared. The Hummer had thrown itself into reverse and was moving. Seemed to be moving fast, too.
Lance swore aloud. He flashed his high beams. He leaned on his horn. He tried steering forward into the oncoming lane, but the road was narrow here, and the SUV was wigwagging, hogging the centre, blocking him.
This wasn’t a freak accident. It was an attack.
He shifted into reverse and pressed the gas, scudding backward into the night, but the Hummer came at him fast and straight. Lance veered toward the shoulder, but the white lights followed. A car’s length, half — “My god!” They were going to connect. Or he would be sandwiched by somebody coming around the dark curve behind him. He was looking ahead, behind, over his shoulder. On one side the road fell away steeply; on the other he had a vague sense of mild downhill slope. He crossed the lanes toward the slope, felt tires hit gravel, and gravity took him.
Tall grasses scraped the chassis as he slid to a stop, spiking the brakes and twisting the wheel. The truck swung to face downslope and rocked to a standstill.
Lance’s headlights shone on dark woods. He was tilted awkwardly to the right, boots pushed against the manifold to keep him upright. Getting the driver’s door open would be tough, and getting the truck back on the road tougher still.
But the fate of his vehicle was the least of his worries. He had two options now: reach for the knife in the glovebox or get out and run.
In the end, his usual half-assed indecision lost the day for him. He opened the driver’s door when he should have left it locked, leaned across the centre console, wedging his elbows amongst slithering junk, grappled for the glove compartment hatch, and a soft voice behind him made him jump. The man from the SUV was here — who else could it be — standing close. He had stepped up onto the running board and pulled the door wide open, letting in the wet, chilly night. The man leaned in, asking Lance in a kind voice if everything was all right. But it wasn’t kindness, really. It was sugar-coated sarcasm, and Lance redoubled his efforts to get his buck knife.
The glovebox hatch flipped open, but too late. He felt the weight of the man leaning in as though to climb on top of him, felt fists grab the leather of his jacket and tug. Lance gave up on the knife and flipped around with a rough idea of kicking the man off, shouting, “What the fuck d’you want, man, wha’d I do?”
He was dragged out into the night and released. He staggered upright.
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” the man said. He stood too close, eyes fixed and intense. “What’s with the follow?”
He was a stocky white guy, a few inches shorter than Lance. But a bull. A fine drizzle touched Lance’s face. His truck was idling at his back, and up the bank and across the road the Hummer was too. He could smell the drift of exhaust, could see the confusion of headlights and taillights, and the SUV’s hazards blinking. He could hear his own door alarm pinging. The lights lit up the forest downslope behind them. The trees stood about like a crowd of cold-hearted onlookers, tall dark figures topped with shuddering leaves.
There was a third person here, he realized, giving her a double take. She stood just up the bank. He couldn’t see her face, but her presence lifted his spirits. Women always kept the peace. She wouldn’t let anything bad happen. He gave her a weak smile. He flagged her a signal, saying he was innocent, that he really could use some help down here.
She didn’t move.
He tried for a chummy tone with the guy. “I’m new in town, man. Electrician, just starting up. I was heading out to Horseshoe Bay to meet buddies, right? Took the wrong turn-off.” He forced a laugh. “It’s a friggin’ maze, this town. All these ramps look the same. Figured we’d loop back down to the highway soon enough. Latched onto your taillights, hoping you’d lead me out. Can’t blame you thinking I was following you, bud. Just a misunderstanding.”
“Except I seen you before,” the man said. “Didn’t I, now?” He was older than Lance, in his mid-forties probably, and carried a big gut. He had a round, buzz-cut head and fussily groomed beard. The fat gold chain around his neck, the diamond in his ear, and the glossy black SUV up on the road said he was over-the-top flush. He was also angry, and maybe stoned too. Eyes fierce but empty, like an overdosed gamer after an all-night binge. But it wasn’t games he was whacked on. Definitely some chemical worming through his brain. And that was bad news.
Lance looked at the woman in the shadows, about as helpful as a hood ornament. He said to the man with the diamond in his ear, “No way, man. Wasn’t me you saw, or if it was, I sure wasn’t following you. Company I work for, we got a huge fleet.”
In truth, it was a fleet of two, the canopied Chev he drove and Sig’s Ford.
He slapped at the logo on the door of his truck, L&S Electric, which stood for Lance and Sig, two prairie guys trying to break into the big-city market, and made up a number. “Yup, twenty-four of us out there on a slow day.”
The man said, “Give me your phone.”
“’Cause mine’s dead, and we gotta call you a tow-truck, don’t we.”
His manner had changed, relaxed, lost the sarcastic edge. He sounded amused, and it dawned on Lance that this was just another shit-for-brains bully, pushy but harmless, playing mind games. Even the spooky-eye thing was an act.
“Hey, not necessary.” Lance tried for a chuckle as he straightened from what he only now realized was a cower. He adjusted his twisted jacket. “Was a huge misunderstanding, man. You guys go on your way, and I’ll call me a tow.”
“Yeah, but listen, I’d feel a whole lot better if you did it now. Don’t want to leave you in the lurch down here.”
The guy sounded apologetic now, smiling. Maybe he was afraid of a lawsuit, wanted to leave things at a no-hard-feelings level. Lance gave an uneasy shrug. He pulled out his iPhone and keyed in the code. The phone unlocked, and he opened his contact list for the BCAA number, to call for road service — and only then it occurred to him that no man with a diamond in his ear, driving a quarter-million dollar Hummer, would let his cellphone die. Guy would have it hooked to a charger like life support. And the girlfriend would have a phone on her too, wouldn’t she, pink, studded with rhinestones. These were not phoneless people. The thought came simultaneously with the grab. The phone was taken from him, and he couldn’t grab it back. “No,” he moaned, understanding the enormity of what had just happened. He had surrendered all his contacts to this freaky bastard, had handed Sig over on a platter. Worse, much worse, his home address, Cheryl and the kids. His darling Cheryl, his beautiful tot Rosalie, and his little boy, Joseph.
The man was waving the phone overhead like a winning ticket, looking up at his girlfriend. She shouted something, and it sounded like either go on or don’t.
Lance received a rough shove and stumbled away from his vehicle.
Another shove, and he was careening through tall shrubs, low weeds, down on his knees, up on his feet. Pushed again, and he was into the trees. He fought back, swung loose and hit nothing. He turned to flee, but all too late. He wasn’t a fighter, or a planner, and this guy was. The guy was telling him as he dogged after him that this is what he got for messing with people’s lives. Lance tried to bellow, but it came out a whimper, “What? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He was backed up beside one of the huge trees, straight as a telephone pole. No branches within reach to grasp for leverage, nowhere to hide. “You gotta believe me, mister. I’m from Airdrie. I’m an electrician. I don’t know you from a hole in the wall, I swear.”
The man reached out, grabbed him by the ear, and shoved his head sideways into the tree.
Stars showered against crimson. Lance heard himself scream out in pain and terror. He flailed his arms, tried to kick, or step back, but he was dazed, and the man had that hellish grip on his ear, and was saying again this was all his fault. Lance cried out to be left alone and instead was pushed again into the tree, hard. His right ear and scalp were hot and wet, beyond pain now, and he knew the man was going to slam him till his skull cracked open and his brains spattered like a melon against the corrugated iron of the tree trunk. His legs buckled. He felt himself sag, his body parts thud to earth and sprawl. He lay a moment on the sloping ground trying to curl into himself, to protect his body from whatever would land next, a boot or fist or rock. His thoughts raced and scattered. He was done for.
The impact didn’t come. Just a pattering of words. The man leaned over him, a dark shape without definition. He was saying something low and complicated, almost conversational. Lance could make no sense of it. He closed his eyes, and now there was silence, a nothingness. Then the swish and crunch of feet wading through weeds, uphill and away. The man was leaving.
Maybe to grab a gun, to finish this off.
Lance blinked furiously to clear the blur, but the blur remained. He heard two car doors slam. And, god, he heard the SUV drive away. Hope flowed over him like a cool tide.
He gave himself a minute to lie still, reflecting on this clean slate, mistakes and resolutions, and how fiercely he would be hugging his family tonight.
But what was that? Again he held his breath, tilting his head to listen. There, a new noise that didn’t fit with the shush of grasses or leaves rustling in the wind. Not close, but not far, a furtive crunching heading this way. He became stone still. Something was down here, with him. A creature, a killer dog released by the man in the Hummer? He blinked again. He could make out nothing but a blue-grey haze criss-crossed with grass blades, and the shapes of bushes. The thing came slowly, snapping branches underfoot, and it wasn’t a dog. By the sound he knew it was big as a rhino. Bigger. It was a mastodon, and he lay in its sights. Maybe it was harmless. Maybe if he yelled he would scare it off. He tried to scrabble his legs but couldn’t. Couldn’t roll over or curl a hand into a protective fist. Couldn’t shout. It was near now, wasn’t slowing. The bushes were thrashing. He had pissed his jeans.
He managed to cry out to the one who always made things right. She gathered him up when he fell and fixed all his screw-ups, and he needed her now so badly. “Ma-ma.” But she was back in Airdrie, so far away. He would have given all he had to see her smile right now, to feel her forgiving embrace.
A smile erases a million worries.
The creature was on top of him now, all black and oily and obliterating the sky. He reached out to touch it, and his heart, his pounding heart … he squeezed his eyes shut, bellowed, and was silent.
Light and Shadow
Blessedly, the Lonsdale barbershop had not changed at all in Dion’s time away. He stood in the entrance and took it all in with a smile. Music, mirrors, posters, and Persian bric-a-brac. There was the strong scent of aftershave that he hadn’t even realized he missed, till now. Nobody here but Hami in his white smock, busy tidying up his work stations.
Hami turned and saw him. He did a double-take. “It can’t be,” he said, Hami the ham, so shocked he staggered. “My God. You’re back. Long time no see!"
Dion said, “Salam,” about the only Farsi word he knew. “’Course I’m back, why wouldn’t I be? I didn’t make an appointment. Have time for a walk-in?”
“Of course. Come, come.”
Dion hung his leather car-coat on a hook and sat into one of three vinyl-padded chairs before the wall-long mirror. He waited for the barber to clip the cape around his shoulders and tuck it in around his collar. With cape secured, he checked out his world in the mirror’s reflection. Hami prepared scissors and razor and spray bottle, making small-talk as if only a week or two had passed, not close to a year.
All of it was pleasant, yet something was out of place. Dion fixed on Hami’s face and words, trying to ignore the slight skew.
“Was last July, yes?” Hami said, eying him up for the cut. “I read about it in the paper, saw your name, couldn’t believe my eyes. They said there were fatalities, but said too that you survived. But me, I don’t trust the news. Then you miss your next appointment, never come back again, and I’m thinking for sure, man, my best customer is dead. The same?” he said, talking style.
“Things happened,” Dion said. “Yes, don’t change a thing.”
“So what things happened?”
“I took a transfer. Went north to work till I got back up to speed. “
“Aha. And now you’re back up to speed?”
“Totally. Better than ever. Passed the tests with flying colours.” It was a white lie. There were no flying colours, but no signs of brain injury either, which meant no medical reason to shift him out of active duty. The initial diagnosis in layman’s terms of “shook up” remained, as far as Dion understood. He pointed and fired a bullet at his own reflected self, made a pewww noise. “Hit the target dead on, near perfect bull’s eye. BS’d with a shrink for a few hours, did the math, scenarios, memory tests. Whatever they threw at me, I passed, no sweat.”
“Kudos,” Hami said, but vaguely. He had paused to stare in the mirror, comb and scissors in hand, like he was thinking of something more important as he studied Dion’s face. “Maybe you keep it long, eh? Such a good looking guy, why you want the old fart look?”
Dion’s dark hair wasn’t long at all, but it had relaxed over his year away. It flipped in the eye now, curled about the collar, and made him look younger than his twenty-nine years. But whether it looked good or not wasn’t the point. The point was to look exactly as he had the day before the crash that had nearly killed him. A hundred years ago, last summer.
“Same cut,” he told Hami. “You remember, right?”
Hami said, “Hey, buddy, short back and sides, boring as hell, I could do this with my eyes closed.”
The radio was tuned to a Western rock station, and it struck Dion that this was the difference that bothered him. It wasn’t the usual upbeat Persian pop that his barber had always kept jangling. This was a U.S. band he should be able to name, and couldn’t.
Didn’t matter. Musically speaking, Hami was leaving his culture behind, but that was okay too, for everything else here was timeless. He watched himself re-emerge, the cut neat and close with only the bangs allowed to follow their natural cowlick. Not seamless, because he had lost weight and was still working at getting it back. But it wasn’t a bad likeness.
For the first time since stepping off the Greyhound last week, he felt hopeful. It had been a tough haul. He had sat through the two-day bus ride like an android tourist, watching the landscape rise and fall. There were a lot of canyons, forests, and small-town depot sandwiches to get through, but at last he landed at the Main Street terminal, downtown Vancouver, and was cabbing across the bridge to home, the North Shore, straight to the most economical room he could book, the Royal Arms.
On the day following arrival came the tests and interviews, and he had done better than expected. But his first day back on the job would be the real test, and that was still to come.
Today he was fixing himself up for a comeback. He got himself new clothes that shouted I’m the best, and now the haircut, and probably tonight he would spend an unhealthy amount of time in front of the mirror, trying on expressions. Illusion was a big part of success, after all, and as long as he looked good, he would be fine.
A blur of motion caught his eye in the big barbershop window reflected beyond himself. Nothing specific, but an active chaos of light and shadow that thrilled him. Pigeons swooped and awnings flapped. Cars slid by or stopped, depending on the lights. But it was the people he watched. They walked past the glass and warped the spring sunshine, ducked through the fine, slanting rain, stood waiting for the bus. He knew now how vital they were to him, these perfect strangers who made up a city, and how vital he was to them.
He was going to prove how vital he was in the days to come. He had been commended back to GIS, the General Investigations Section, by one of the NCOs, Sergeant Mike Bosko, which meant they had faith in him. So what could go wrong?
The cut was done. Perfect. He paid the bill, leaving the usual tip, and smiled at Hami, the smile and direct gaze all part of the plan. Smile at everybody, and smile big.
“You want me to put you down for two weeks here, bud?” Hami asked, at the counter, his appointment book open. “Wednesday still best?”
Dion had forgotten, the trims were a standing order. They came at two-week intervals, and Wednesday had always been the day of preference. He had no idea why. He said, “Of course, Wednesday. Thanks, Hami. You’ve always got me covered.”
Hami extended a fist, and Dion remembered this ritual too. He bunted the barber’s knuckles with his own, and Hami said, “Great to have you back, my friend.”
“Great to be back…. You’ve changed your music.”
Up now was an old Beach Boys classic about a miserable experience aboard a ship. Hami was grimacing and rolling his eyes at the speakers. “I’m assimilating, man. Godawful noise, this.”
On Lonsdale the rain had fused with the sunshine to become a dazzling mist. Several blocks downhill, the giant Q marked the Quay market and the harbour. Dion had no urge to go down there and look at the water, which was strange. Isn’t that what he had been homesick for, the sound and smell, the magnetic pull of the sea?
Maybe not. There was an order to things. Get back to work, see the crew, confront Bosko, and then call up Kate. Then he would go and look at the water. He lit a cigarette and walked along 3rd, which became Marine Drive, where the traffic was heavy and endless. A used-car lot twinkled into view.
Cars and SUVs filled the lot, a variety pack of shiny metal. When he came to the bumper of the closest car, he stopped and took it in. A dark blue coupe, a Honda Civic, poised at a dynamic angle, nosing into the sidewalk as though frozen in escape. A placard on its windshield advertised a price he recognized as decent. The windows were tinted. He peered inside and saw the interior was handsome black, if not leather then a good imitation.
He hadn’t owned a car since the crash. In Smithers he had walked or cabbed anywhere he needed to go, except when on the job. The job demanded that he drive, sometimes at speed, occasionally on ice, so he had no choice but get good at it again. Here on the Lower Mainland an off-duty vehicle was not optional. He needed a car, but he would never drive again just for the fun of it. No thanks.
He read the stat sheets on the car’s window and saw the mileage wasn’t so bad. He circled the Civic again, and already a salesman was approaching, hands in pockets. The salesman stopped and looked at the car, proud as a new dad. He remarked that Dion had great taste in wheels, and did he have any questions? Dion said no, he didn’t right now, thanks. He stood and drew at his cigarette and looked at the car, while the salesman looked at the sky and talked about the weather. The salesman segued from weather into suggesting a test spin.
Dion smiled at the salesman. He wasn’t born yesterday. He knew what used sporty-looking coupes with great price tags meant, and the kind of people who fell for them. He was about to say so, but the salesman spoke first. “Whatcha got to lose?”
He had a point. The man took his driver’s licence to make a copy and went to get the key and demo plates, and Dion stood on the sidewalk to wait. He looked south along Marine Drive, at the city skyline, then northward, at the mountains. He thought about the highway that wove through them, and the long drive between this point and that, North Vancouver and Smithers. Strange how a part of him wanted to go back there after he had worked so hard to be here. This was where he belonged, not there.
The salesman brought the keys. It took a moment for Dion to remember why. “Thank you.”
“You’re … all right?” the salesman said.
Dion smiled at him, and smiled big. “Absolutely.”
Each new day Dave Leith had to look harder for that silver lining. For over a month now he had been living in a strange city, confined to a crappy little apartment that was costing him twelve hundred a month, plus utilities, and driving a rental car to an office full of strangers, none of whom he had managed to befriend. He asked himself now, when exactly in the recent past had this move to the metropolis struck him as a “great idea”?
Last night from Prince Rupert, his wife Alison had given yet another long-distance reassurance: “You just need time to adjust.”
“It’s not exactly what I thought it would be,” he had told her.
“Whatever is?” she asked.
Sure, he would adjust —what choice did he have — but Alison didn’t get it, that adjustment for him was step two in a two-step process. First he had to get over the disappointment, and he had to do that in his own particular style, griping all the way.
At least the daily commute from his apartment to the North Van detachment had become routine by now; he no longer tilted an ear to the GPS delivering her robotic instructions. He merged onto Highway 1 and joined another vehicular lineup. North Vancouver hadn’t failed in its promises in any big way; the bright lights were maybe not as bright as he’d imagined, but he had grown up in a midsized Saskatchewan city, and his thrill-meter was set fairly low. Really he was only disappointed in himself. Where was the handsomer, smarter, wittier Dave Leith that this move was supposed to have made of him? A juvenile fantasy, of course, but still he would check the mirror as he shaved each morning and be chagrined to see no progress. He remained a tall, thickening, doubtful-looking forty-four-year-old with lumpy blond hair beginning to recede, blue eyes too close-set, nose and chin too big, mouth too thin and always clamped into a self-conscious smile.
There was no wild nightlife here either, at least not for him. He had made the effort and gone out drinking twice with the rowdier set of his new workmates, but the situation — it was mostly the noisy atmosphere that got him down — only made him antsy. Not that he would quit trying.
He seemed to spend all his time commuting, burning frozen dinners on the apartment’s quirky oven, and studying up on the procedures and protocols of his new office. In an effort to impress his new superior, Sergeant Mike Bosko — the man he’d met on a northern assignment and who had made this transfer happen — he also brought his caseload home with him to mull over as he ate his burned dinners.
He missed Prince Rupert. Missed his buddies and comfortable bungalow on its good-sized lot, which now had a big for-sale sign on the front lawn. He missed the morning fogs and the busy harbour, the locals and summer tourists. Alison was still up there, with the furniture and their two-year-old Isabelle, waiting for Leith to get settled before coming to join him.
Their foolish expectation had been that he would find a great little house, put an offer on it, stretching the budget just a bit, and they would transition smoothly from one residence to another.
The expectation had hit a brick wall called the ridiculous price of real estate in North Vancouver. He was still reverberating from the shock. Some local staff were buying land as far afield as Abbotsford, he heard. Maple Ridge. Which meant they spent half their lives commuting.
He was off Highway 1 and driving down the spine of North Vancouver called Lonsdale, a gauntlet of traffic lights that each turned sadistic yellow as he approached. He had learned that pulling faces and swearing at traffic lights didn’t help. Didn’t help at all.
Making it through the last light, he turned his car up 15th and down St. Georges and entered the underground parkade of his new detachment.
The North Shore RCMP was a modern terraced monolith, three above-ground levels of concrete and glass that looked more like a beached ocean-liner than a building. He left his car and rode the elevator up to Level 2, walked down the corridor, and swung into the briefing hall where “A” watch gathered to learn of the day’s challenges.
North Van was a mill of hot files, unlike laid-back Rupert, City of Rainbows, up there on its rocky shore. Some crimes were bad, others worse. Today’s was one of the bad ones. Worse than bad, horrific, and its point-form description, even without the graphic details, rattled Leith as Watch Commander Doug Paley laid it out. A mother and daughter found dead in their home, Paley was saying. Found by a concerned neighbour. Neighbour had seen lights on all night, heard music going too, and no sign of the residents. She didn’t know them personally, not even their names. But the lights and music had struck her as odd enough that she had gone up the back stairs this morning and peeked inside.
First-on-scene gave some details, describing the scene, the victims.
Like Leith’s own little Izzy, one of the dead was just a toddler.
Leith rode in the passenger seat with Doug Paley. Paley was late middle aged, heavyset, and cynical. He didn’t speak throughout the drive, and only as he pulled into the curb and yanked on the handbrake did he tell Leith what was what. He would talk to the first-on-scene members outside here, then join Leith in the house.
The house was a modest one-storey with finished basement on the corner of 23rd and Mahon. Several squad cars and the crime-scene vans were ranged along the avenue. A crowd of the curious was gathering, neighbours and passersby. Constables kept traffic moving. At the back of a van Leith zipped into anti-contamination coveralls. The home’s front gate was propped open, the egress path marked with ribbon. He climbed four cement steps, gave his name and rank to the constable at the door, was given general directions, and entered the house.
Music played, soft rock. There was an unpleasant smell, but it wasn’t the worst he had ever worked at not inhaling. Inside the front door a flight of stairs led down, and another led up. He took the flight up, and the music got louder and the smell got ranker. From the top of the stairs radiated a hallway to what might be bedrooms and bathroom. The place looked neat and clean. Kitchen straight ahead and a combo living room/dining room to his left. The bodies were in the living room, along with the first signs of chaos, a lamp knocked over, dry flowers strewn willy-nilly, a toppled high chair.
Leith stood at the threshold and looked down on the strange tableau. The bodies. They were Asian, the child so like his own, but with downy black hair and ivory skin. She was on her stomach to Leith’s left, next to the leg of a wood-and-glass coffee table. A young woman lay ten feet away, face up before the fireplace. She was slim, wearing blue jeans and short-sleeved sweater, bare feet. Her long, glossy black hair criss-crossed in swaths over her face, as though draped to hide her features.
The coroner moved in with his kit and assistant, obscuring the view.
The clothing of both victims seemed intact, on first sight. No visible trauma, and aside from the upset furniture, no signs of violence, even. But all it took was a little imagination to hear the screams, to see the struggle, to feel the fear. Violence had swept through this house and left no sound but the music playing, an absurdly hopped-up pop song Leith had heard before somewhere, sometime.
Mother and child had already been pronounced dead. They remained only to be studied, charted, photographed, and stared at by people like Leith, who should be doing his job and analyzing. But he wasn’t there yet. He was thinking again of the gross error he had made in transferring his family to this city. His big responsibility in life was to keep them out of harm’s way, and instead he was bringing them right into its embrace. The north wasn’t crime-free, by any means, but the victimology was more predictable. Down here, high density brought out the weirdos and the guns, no doubt about it, which meant anybody could be mowed down, at any time.
This poor little thing was at the very same tottering age as Izzy, where the tiny legs were just slimming down and gaining muscle tone. She should be learning to talk too, stomping about with her eyes open to the wonders of the world. Leith looked sideways at Paley, who was done speaking with the coroner, and now stood beside him, relaying the findings.
“Strangled, he’s thinking.” Paley was staring down at the adult victim. “Looks like bruising around the throat. There’s that tea towel. Does that look like it’s been twined into a rope, to you? That might have done it.”
“The hair over her face…” Leith said.
“Yeah, yeah. The hair placement, that’s remorse, right? Or apology, or something like that.”
“Looks more like insult to me.”
The coroner stood and moved away, leaving an assistant making notes.
“Or that,” Paley agreed. “As for the baby, she might have fallen and hit her head on that coffee table, we’re thinking.”
“Do we have names yet?”
Paley didn’t answer, too busy staring over Leith’s shoulder. Leith turned to see why and watched a young man approach from the hallway, also in white coveralls, but hood back, shirt collar and tie showing under the unzipped Tyvek. He looked familiar to Leith, and not in a happy, well-met kind of way.
This was someone he had worked with in the not-so-distant past, up north in the Hazeltons, for a few long weeks, through the bitterness of February. So Dion had somehow made it back to North Van, just as he had promised, and instead of being demoted to janitor, as Leith had thought most likely, he had advanced from uniform to the suit-and-tie brigade. Which meant they would be working together again. Hoo-ray.
“Well, there you are,” Paley exclaimed as Dion came to stand with them. “Heard you were back, you sneaky son-of-a-bitch, but wasn’t expecting you today.”
“All hands on deck on this one,” Dion answered cheerfully. “So hell with orientation, they just pushed me out the door.” He glanced at the bodies, then glanced at Leith, and looked at Leith again, with surprise. Then a shockingly huge smile, as if this meeting really made his day. “I was wondering when I’d run into you! How are you doing? Got set up okay?”
As Leith recalled, their northern parting of ways had been unpleasant. But maybe it was all water under the bridge. He smiled too, and shook Dion’s extended hand, their first physical contact, barring one brief skirmish at the Hazelton detachment. “Getting by,” he said. “How are you?”
The reunion formalities over, Dion became businesslike. He gestured at the two bodies and said to Paley, “Just talked to Dadd and got suspected cause of death and his timing estimate —”
The name Dadd — Jack Dadd, the coroner — threw Leith each time.
“— adult female died about twenty-four hours ago, so happened night before last. But I guess you have the basics on this one, Doug?”
“The basics,” Paley echoed flatly.
“Strangled,” Dion said. “Petechiae and some edema visible. Damage to her tongue, probably bit it, and narrow bruises on the neck, but no cutting. The child at a guess he says likely died of head trauma. TOD about fifteen hours ago, he says, that’s quite a bit later than the adult, so it was probably secondary TBI.”
TOD, TBI. Time of death was common enough, but TBI made Leith think a moment. Traumatic brain injury. The new improved Dion opened his notebook, found a page, and studied it. “The homeowner’s name is King, and he’s got it rented to Lance and Cheryl Liu,” he told Paley, with glances at Leith to include him. “The Lius are new in town, out from Alberta. They took the place on March 1st. Lance Liu has just incorporated a company called L&S Electric. He’s not been reached yet. I called the L&S number and got voice mail, so I’ll follow up. The name L&S suggests there’s a partner, so —”
“Hey,” Paley cut in. “That’s all very fuckin’ fantastic, but did I ask for a report? Did I?”
“No,” Dion said. “You want a report?”
“Too late, I already got it, didn’t I?”
Leith suspected this was more a skit than a real conversation. In spite of the age gap, these two were friends from way back.
“Sorry, Doug,” Dion said, not sounding sorry at all. “It was hairy at the office. Jim was buried, so I task-shared. You want me to follow up on this L&S thing?”
Paley rolled his eyes. Leith was glad that Dion was apparently okay now. The northern Dion he knew had been remote, unlikeable, and … well, unsmart. The new Dion was now outlining to Paley the task he had butted his way into. Probably the most important task on the board at the moment, hunting down their best and only suspect, the missing husband, Lance Liu.
The conversation between the two seemed snappy and efficient, and ended on a positive note. Paley moved off to supervise the removal of the bodies, and Dion remained by Leith’s side, pointing down at something. Leith followed the line of his finger to the child’s feet.
“One shoe on, one off,” Dion said. “Where’s the other shoe?”
Booties, not shoes, thought Leith, a bit of an expert. “I saw that,” he lied.
“Probably under her body,” Dion told him. “Keep an eye out. Also, I don’t see a vase.”
He turned and headed away, unzipping the bunny suit.
Leith watched him go, then looked at the child’s feet, at the pink velvet bootie on one, a tiny striped sock on the other, green and yellow. Vase, he thought. What?
The Level 3 office had once been occupied by Staff Sergeant Tony Cleveland, now retired. Cleveland had kept the door shut and the screens closed. He hadn’t liked drop-ins, so nobody had dropped in. Now the slats were open, and so was the door. Dion poked his head in and took in the view. He saw that Cleveland’s classic etchings of famous bridges were gone, and modern posters were up instead, large photographs of this or that, mounted behind glass with minimalist steel frames. The furniture was new too, and the new occupant, big, doughy-faced, and bespectacled Sergeant Michael Bosko sat at the desk, working at his computer and talking to himself. Or so it seemed.
With a nod to the visitor’s chair, Bosko acknowledged Dion, then carried on bashing fingertips at a heavy-duty laptop and chatting. From his angle Dion could not see Bosko’s right ear but guessed a Bluetooth mic was hooked there.
“Yes, of course,” Bosko said, smiling. “They call it the acid test.” He quit typing and peered at the laptop screen. “Just dropped a point. No, I am not kidding you. Absolutely. Yes, absolutely.”
Without sign-off he tapped something near his ear and looked across at Dion. There was no recognition in his stare. Strange, since he knew Dion, at least remotely. They had met in the Hazeltons, working on the same case, though nowhere near in the same league. Had not exchanged a word, or even eye contact, much, which might explain the lack of aha. Still, it was Bosko who had gotten Dion back here, so….
“Calvin Dion, hello.” Recognition must have kicked in, for Bosko was on his feet, smiling. “Calvin, is it, or Cal?”
“Cal’s good.” Dion had risen too, reaching across the desk. This was another of the day’s big challenges, the all-important first impression, the firm handshake, the confident smile. The smile had to reach the eyes, or it was worse than no smile at all. The reach and grip had to be solid, fluid, and of just the right duration, not so brief as to seem skittish, but releasing before being released, to show initiative. “Morning, sir.”
They both resumed their seats. Reborn from the haircut to the silk-blend socks, Dion had been careful not to show up on Day One like a menswear mannequin. That would make him look insecure. He had knotted the tie properly but hadn’t snugged it too tight, tucked the shirttails in then did a few overhead stretches to slack off the tension. He was showered and shaved but had skipped the cologne, and his short black hair was a tad mussed. According to the mirror, he was perfectly imperfect.
“So you didn’t have time to set up your pencil jar before they sent you off to the field, I hear,” Bosko said. He had a deep, easy voice, almost lazy. And controlled, as though nothing could fluster him. “I also understand you’re already in the thick of it, so I won’t keep you. I called you in just to welcome you back and have a one-minute face-to-face, since I don’t believe we ever actually spoke, did we? How are you doing so far?”
“Great,” Dion said. Seated straight, not too straight, expression enthused but not maniacal. “I’m stoked to be home. I wanted to thank you. For putting your trust in me, sir. You won’t be disappointed.”
“I don’t expect I will be. Now, you’ve been away for a while, and things have been shuffled around a bit, so if you need any help, with our setup here, procedure, fitting back in, or just need to talk something through, come on over and let me know. The door’s open.”
Dion nodded. “There is one thing. I was working on a file when the crash happened. It’s still unsolved. Would I be able to get back on it?”
Bosko asked for the particulars, and Dion gave them, the file name — written down and memorized before this meeting — and the basics: last summer a young woman’s body had been found washed ashore. Snagged in the boulders that formed a rampart down by the Neptune Terminals. He didn’t give Bosko the fine details, how Jane Doe’s face had been eroded by gasses, brine, and parasites, so a police artist had reconstructed her, as best she could, in pencil. For the bulletin boards. Early twenties, short hair that was natural brown but dyed white-blonde, wide-spaced eyes, rosebud mouth. Ancestry undetermined, but possibly Eurasian. Pink spandex bathing suit, a pricey brand, embedded in flesh, grotesque and slimy. And one earring, the other apparently lost. He had been trying before his departure to track down the jeweller who made the earring. It was of characteristic design, a round enamelled button, a yellow shape against red background. The shape might have been a star, except it was cut off. Around the edges ran little beads of gold, 14 karat.
The bathing suit and the season — summertime — suggested she had come off a boat. The pathologist determined she had been strangled by a fine, hard ligature. Alternatively, it might have been a necklace that had cut into her bloating flesh before snapping and sinking to the ocean floor.
She would have been beautiful, once.
Nobody had come claiming her, and she had never been given a name, and like any unfinished job, she continued to bother Dion.
“I’ll tell you what,” Bosko said, after calling the case up on the intranet. “You’re free to look it over, but I’d like you on this Mahon case, hundred percent.”
Mahon Avenue, Cheryl and Lance Liu. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”
And just like that, they were done. Dion stood and smiled again. As he left the room and strode down the hall, he counted again the four possibilities of why he was back in North Vancouver. Possibility one was just what he’d been told, that Bosko was impressed with him for some reason —- his excellent past record, say — and for that reason alone had him summonsed. Possibility two: sheer error. Bosko was a busy man with lots on his mind, and maybe a wire had crossed, a typo or false memory, and he simply had someone else in mind. Three, Bosko was a manipulator. He considered Dion a liability and wanted him gone, but needed a good excuse, so he decided to place him into a stressful situation — i.e., the big-city crime scene —- to watch him come apart.
The fourth possibility kept Dion awake nights: he was being investigated. Bosko was working a crime, had a theory, was putting suspicion to the test, and to test it properly he needed his suspect close at hand.
Down on Level 2, at the desk he’d been given, Dion set aside his doubts and focussed on the Lius. He listed his thoughts on paper. First on the list, he made a call to the Justice Department for a telephone warrant, doing Jimmy Torr’s job for him, then to the Corporate Registry of Companies, and fairly soon had the information he was looking for, the names of all partners in the company, which totalled two, each owning fifty percent of L&S Electric.
He guessed the “L” was Lance Liu. The “S,” he learned now, would be a Sigmund Blatt. The company had been incorporated only three months ago. Its address was a PO number, and its phone number was the one he had tried earlier without luck. Now he made more calls, tracking down the unlisted contact information for the surviving partner.
Within the hour he took the information a few desks down to Jimmy Torr. He sat and waited for Torr to finish a call, then told him, “I’ve got a line on Sigmund Blatt, the missing man’s partner. You want me to follow up?”
He had known Torr for years. Torr was in his middle thirties, built, irritable, and insecure. He had never liked Dion, and vice versa. But animosity felt good, to Dion. It meant for a while he could drop the cheek-numbing smile.
“I’ll take care of it,” Torr said coldly, reaching for the note. “Thanks.”
“It’s priority. Lance Liu’s our best bet right now, and he’s missing. If you’re not going to deal with it straight away, I will. Paley’s given me the go-ahead.”
Torr looked at the paper. He said, “Call him up, tell him I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“I tried. Got an answering machine.”
“Did you leave a message? Tell him to get back to you A-SAP?”
“No. Better to cold-call him anyway,” Dion said. “I could head over there now.”
Torr said sourly, “What meds they got you on?” He didn’t wait for an answer but stood and grabbed his suit jacket, making a statement with the set of his shoulders that he was going alone. Dion followed.