Due North - by Leah BobetAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
I was fascinated by the country as such. I flew north from Churchill to Coral Harbour and Southampton Island at the end of September. Snow had begun to fall and the country was partially covered by it. Some of the lakes were frozen around the edges but towards the center of the lake you could still see the clear, clear water.... And as we flew along the east coast of Hudson's Bay, this flat, flat country frightened me a little. Because it just seemed endless. We seemed to be going into nowhere... It is most difficult to describe. It was extreme isolation. -- Marianne Schroeder, The Idea of North.
Toronto, Ontario, July 7, 2013
Just go, she thought, and hefted the backpack. Just disappear.
Eugene's snores echoed under the rising wind. It was difficult to think of hurting him, but the voices, the voices were calling. The bell of her childhood schoolyard chapel; Professor Liu's precise baritone and Nohkom's whispered Turtle Mountain Cree. A Stan Rogers men's choir, the tenor voice breaking like a caught breath on the high notes.
They knew her: Every shred and inch, everything she loved and hated. Not her bra size, not her diagnoses, not a volley of guesses at the heritage of her face. She was known, inside, for the first time ever.
It didn't make it easier to walk away.
Rain spattered against the window. "This is so messed up," she shaped soundlessly, and the choir in her head murmured a descant: He'll be fine--
-- it's better out there--
--we don't have much time before the storm dies.
Her head ached with reassurances. Their thoughts swirled, ripe, endlessly whispering.
You should see it, the last murmured. It's so bright.
She brushed a stray hair off Eugene's forehead. It crinkled softly, his response to everything from a stray breeze to her punk records to being hauled out to Idle No More: an endless banquet of kindly, impenetrable damned concern. She clenched a hand around the strap of her backpack. Tiptoed from the bedroom, out into the streets.
The city looked blearily dark tonight: taken over and taken down by shimmering walls of storm water. Gullies washed through the gutters and burst the drains into the street. She picked her way between the silent condominium towers, through acorn-hard rain, head ducked, summer coat already soaked through. The streets were empty; last lady on earth, she thought reflexively, and chuckled, hollow. The choir hummed a laugh that lasted all the way to the dry air of Union Station.
The ticket counter was--told you so--still open: One lone VIA Rail clerk leaned behind a clear window, the rim of his smartphone just visible on the desk. She put down a hundred and change in wadded bills and gave him the name they whispered inside her ear. And--that was it. A solitary walk down the hallway to the line of grandmothers and sleepy-eyed backpackers. The procession up the mildewy stairs to the platform, and then onto the train.
"Final boarding for the ten o'clock train northbound with stops at Sudbury Junction, Capreol, Laforest, McKee's Camp--" The PA crackled.
It'll be so bright, the voices crowed, and impulsive, she reached into her pocket.
Threw her keyring out onto the tracks.
The train doors closed behind her, and she leaned back against the prickle plush. We're going, she thought. We're going. We're never coming back.
J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, D.C., July 15, 2013
The ringtone on Esther Falkner's direct line sounded, one long, two short. Long distance. She closed her hand on her chopsticks. There were any number of reasons: Bekk's college, or Deborah's summer camp, to say there'd been an accident. Mom's heart. Dad's Parkinson's. She shuddered and jammed the speaker button: "SSA Falkner."
"Agent Falkner," the voice said, and it coalesced in a whiff of memory: forest loam, and nitroglycerin, and the pungent stink of tears. "I don't know if you remember me. It's Constable Robin Spears."
Falkner swallowed spittle and vomit; set down her chopsticks on the Styrofoam bowl. An empty school, its child-sized coffins laid out all in a row. "Constable," she said, after much too long a silence. "What can I do for you?"
"Do you remember the day you asked me if I'd ever heard of an anomalous crime, and I said it'd come up now and again?"
"It's now," Falkner said, with weird relief. A normal tragedy, after all.
"It's again," Spears answered. "And it's tangled, but I need your help."
"Is this an official invitation? They're tightening up on us here," Falkner said, with what was quickly becoming the normal regret. "International requests have to go through governmental channels."
"It isn't. I'm sorry," Spears said. She wasn't sorry at all. "But there's no time. She's already been missing for a week."
That surge of adrenaline, the one Falkner slept with, cheek to cheek, flared to life. "She?"
Spears took that one word like a fish to a line. "My second cousin Gwen's down in Toronto, taking law, and she didn't show up for her internship on Monday. Her live-in boyfriend reported her missing that night, but you should know what happens when a girl who looks like me disappears."
Falkner did. A little too well. Probably off drunk. Probably whoring. Probably doesn't matter. "So the local police are resistant," she said dryly.
Spears snorted; her precise police distance popped like a balloon. "Nothing moved until they found her house keys on the railroad tracks Saturday night. I flew into Toronto Sunday morning, and found two more missings from the same night. Maybe three. And I'm telling you, they're all wrong."
Falkner leaned back in that soft chair and closed her eyes. The anomaly claims another victim. One day she would make a memorial, she thought, for all the bartenders, parents, law enforcement officers who would--now, forever--look over their shoulders every night. "Tell me," she said, and picked up a pen.
"Three missings," Spears said, after a pause and a shuffle of paper. "Entirely different profiles, entirely different walks of life. None of them had any of the usual problems that make someone take a walk off a bridge. None of them wrapped up their affairs or took more than an overnight bag."
"They took a bag?" Falkner cut in, and filled in the last of that litany: Probably ran away.
"Gwen took a bag," Spears said, edged. The sharp side of all those probablys leaking through. "The rest--it's hard to tell. Two were recent arrivals to Toronto; the third's just a little too isolated to be noticed if something went wrong. And for extra convenience, the last reported sighting for all three was inside a day of the worst storm the city's ever seen: Flooded subways, power out all over town."
"Lots of distractions," Falkner said grimly.
Spears pounced. "And that's the problem: it's too tidy. Too closely targeting the kind of people who won't bring down official attention, but didn't have any reason to just leave. It's too much," she finished, vowels precise, "of a coincidence."
There's that word, Falkner thought, and Spears's hunch caught through the phone line, swooped down her gullet, and took hold.
This was how Anomalous Crimes was supposed to work; how Stephen Reyes had explained his plans on the day he showed her around this tiny, empty office; back when she had no idea that it would consume her waking life. The anomaly turned bartenders, parents, law enforcement officers into living detectors of the weird. A six-person office didn't have a hope of fighting it alone. Unless they tapped into that network, and used it.
Always trust your field agents, Falkner reminded herself, and flipped to a fresh page. "Can you get us an invite up? You're a federal officer."
"In a sense, I am. The RCMP's a federal force," Spears said, and the professionalism cracked. "But--God. I'm just a community constable. They stack us five to a reserve and the next few small towns and wave goodbye for four years, and then we hunker down in our little offices and hope nothing too big happens. My beat's domestics and petty theft. Once every week or two, the kids from Brandon get drunk and come down the highway to beat the shit out of some Indians, and we let them off with a warning as long as they turn around."
Falkner's cheeks heated, treacherous. "I'm sorry."
"Yeah," Spears replied. I'm sorry, too.
Falkner pinched the bridge of her nose and thought, furiously: weights and balances. Hard times spiked violent acts: A million tiny pressures cozied hard into everyone's skin, and tipped the anomalous influences lurking there into life. The trouble was that hard times also meant unpaid weekly leaves, and Monday morning e-mails from Victor Celentano over every line item in your unit's covert budget. Because the national debt ceiling kept rising, the House teetered closer every day to a precarious shutdown, and the nation was watching.
What can I afford to do here? Falkner thought furiously. What can I afford not to do?
"I might be able to send somebody," Falkner said, striving to keep her deadpan. "But it won't be official. It'll have to be covert."
Spears let out a breath. "Anything you've got."
Falkner poked at her cold noodles, and felt uncomfortably like Stephen Reyes: FBI big man, breakin' the law.
"I'll go see," she said, tipping them into the garbage, "which of my people is due for a cross-border vacation."
"So," Falkner said, when Chaz closed her office door behind him. "Canada."
"As a concept?" he said, and was rewarded with the thin line of Falkner's smile. "Cold, polar bears, manners. And some good jumping." He coughed. His unit chief didn't want to hear about jumping off tall buildings on the company clock. "I have a friend there, sort of. Crashed on her couch once. But we haven't talked in years."
"That'll make it easier," Falkner said, and handed over a file still warm from the printer. "Congratulations: Your furlough week's come early, as of approximately now. You're going to visit your friend this afternoon."
Chaz opened the file cautiously, suddenly uncertain if it was live. The face of a spiky-haired Native girl stared back at him, steady, with a glint of challenge in her eye. He fingered the photo: Gwen Fontaine, twenty-four years old, second-year law student at the University of Toronto. The sheet underneath it was a missing persons report.
He squinched up his nose. "This my friend?"
Falkner leveled him with a suddenly serious stare. "If anyone asks you, yes. Constable Robin Spears will meet you at the airport to make sure you find her all right."
Chaz felt the chill waltz with his spine this time. This wasn't how Esther Falkner dealt, and she knew he knew it: He could see the stress lines around her eyes. "Why?" he asked simply.
Falkner stood, and fell into an unconscious at-ease. "She's Spears's cousin. And Spears thinks it's one of ours."
He winced and waited. It wasn't an answer.
"Chaz," Mom said, and paced the circuit behind her desk, and stopped. "I suppose it's been no secret. The finance committee met last week, and a lot of things are going to get harder around here before they get easier."
Young Charles Villette's skin prickled at the back of his neck; in the place that knew first when a foster parent was about to say things just weren't working out with you. "They get harder?" he said archly, and she lifted a brow.
"Stephen did his job too well," Falkner said, and smiled something sickly. "We're a modest and very dark black hole in the FBI annual budget, and there's pressure on Victor to see dollar-by-dollar results. I just spent three days in meetings to keep the Idlewood budget."
The prickle on Chaz's neck changed in pitch. He'd been wrong; it was the place, honed younger still, that knew when you and Mom were having tap water for dinner.
"Is it bad?" he asked.
Her expression flickered for a moment: hot shame and concern. "Not yet," she said, and leaned against the wall. "For all I know you don't like him, Victor is on our side. And no one likes to cut funding to law enforcement; the optics are terrible. But we'll all need to be very careful for the next little while. Not draw too much attention to what we do. So I can't precisely ask for a cross-border investigation right now. Which means," Falkner continued--and obviously the topic was closed--"you're on leave, and not official business, and you'll be crossing borders as a private citizen. Which means you're not entitled to carry your gun."
And now he got the message: And of all my little FBI children, you're the person I can send up against a gamma without a gun.
"What do I do without official sanction?" he asked.
She gave him a sidelong, dry glance. "Help Spears. Use your extensive FBI training and expertise. Read a few minds."
"Right," Chaz said deprecatingly, and tucked the file under his arm.
"Keep me briefed, please," Falkner said, and opened the door for him. "And Chaz? Thank you."
He nodded and slunk out the office door. She closed it behind him--rarer and rarer--and through the window glass, he saw her pick up her phone.
Chaz padded down the hall to Hafidha's sanctum, tapped briefly on the door. "Wabbit?"
She looked up in a clatter of glitter hairclips and pursed lips. "Mein Platypus?"
"Don't wait up tonight."
Her hands slackened on the keyboard. He waved the file vaguely in the air, and her eyebrows drew in. "We've got a case?"
"I've got a case," he said bemusedly, and went down to his desk for his go bag.
There was a cab waiting at the steps. Chaz directed it to the airport and folded tight into the back seat, knees gangling against the leather and dug into the door. He had never been deliberately asked to go after a gamma alone. There were kinder ways to commit suicide.
It was a strange realization: that without a team at his back, he had no idea how to go about this.
Dulles was busy even midafternoon: Chaz checked in, was frisked, and went to the gate mechanically, head ducked through the foreign country of civilian commercial travelers. He navigated to the last empty vinyl seat--
--and found himself staring down at the sun-browned, cheerful face of Solomon Todd.
"What're you doing here?" Chaz blurted, startled right out of his mask.
"Coming with," Sol said, and grabbed the strap of his pack. "I," he declaimed, "have always loved to travel. I write books about it. And I shall write this trip to our friendly northern neighbor off upon my taxes."
"Professional expense," Chaz said.
"Only the most professional."
Chaz met his steady, cheery, not-a-hint-of-bullshit-in-the-wide-world eyes. Mom. The telephone call. The grin lit on his face and slowly spread. "Right," he said. "Adventure, Private Citizen Todd."
"Adventure, Private Citizen Villette," Sol replied, and the plane was called for boarding.
Well, the only way I see this happening is in an extended ride North. When I say that I mean a long, terrible, trying trip. Perhaps to Churchill, by way of Thompson going and coming, past Ilford and Gillam, this long, almost trans-Siberian experience that we now face. For those that face it perhaps for the first or second or third time there's almost a traumatic experience. They feel awe: this is going to become impossible. It may not be now but it's going to become. And yet they're able to do little or nothing about it. -- Wally McLean, The Idea of North.
The ghost brushed by Nicolette Lau again that morning.
She had already fed it today. The WTF office ghost was happy to take edibles: Clif Bars and the odd steak sandwich went over better than the traditional oranges. Oh, old ways. How you fail me, she thought wearily, and crossed to Chaz Villette's desk. There were better things to pilfer therein, and he wasn't around to notice. She hadn't, in fact, seen him all afternoon.
Arthur Tan looked up from his computer screen as she felt around in Chaz's file drawer for goodies. "Stealer."
"I'll replace it," she said, and snagged a Clif Bar and a pack of chocolate cookies. Tan let out a long "Mmhmm," and abruptly, she felt silly and small.
"You ever feel funny in here?" she asked.
Tan waggled his eyebrows. "All the time."
"Punching fellow officers of the law isn't in the code of conduct, is it?"
"Sadly, no," Tan sighed, with a long glance Down the Hall. But one of the things Lau liked about him was that he didn't make a big deal about getting the message. "Funny weird or funny ha-ha?"
"Funny weird," Lau said shortly, and Tan scrunched his face up.
"This isn't my favorite place to be at night," he said, surprisingly serious. "Although whether that's courtesy of the reading material on offer or how much this isn't my warm bed, with my heartrendingly gorgeous wife in it, is something I'd have to report back on."
"Include diagrams," Lau deadpanned, and slid Chaz's drawer shut. It was nothing. It was nothing and she was being a child.
She set the snacks on the corner of her desk, only half-remembering why she'd filched them. Her gaze trawled the shallows of a three-murder case in Boise, skipped over a stack of status reports on witnesses and near-victims exposed once to the anomaly. Landed on a freshly penned notebook page.
It was her notebook, she thought, with that moment of detachment she'd come to know so well. The trouble was, it wasn't her handwriting.
Send this to your doctor friend, it said, in a looping scrawl. She picked one of her business cards, faded and crumpled, and an old printout of an ID file, up from under the notebook: A name. An address. A social security number. You won't know why. Just trust me.
The ink was still wet. With a vicious chill, Nikki Lau punched the numbers into her database.
Renee Abdi-Johansen, twenty-one, was nothing past that SSN and a picture: large, institutionally-vacant eyes against a white background that just screamed passport photo, or a crueler land's driver's license snapshot. Lau studied the fine-boned, wary face. It had all the markings of a gamma, slowly starving. And she'd never seen it before.
You are not Japanese, she told herself over the prickle of hyperaware skin. So this cannot be a Japanese horror movie, so you should probably go use science now. She plucked the piece of paper off her desk and strode around the corner to Hafidha's dim-lit lair.
Hafidha was pecking at her keyboards, looking like the world's angriest funk librarian. "What're you doing?" Lau asked carefully.
"Spying on my baby brother," she said. "Look, there's a plane ticket from Dulles to Toronto. And look, one Solomon Todd is also scheduled to be on this flight. Oh, behold: A pdf file was e-mailed to our glorious leader from a Canadian IP address, just this very morning."
"Falkner won't like you hacking her e-mail."
Hafs's glare faltered, and she had the good grace to look concerned. "I'm not going Dark Side. I just hate in-person vaguebooking. You don't just say you're not coming home tonight, now please choke on my mysteriousness and remember to water the plants."
"You guys have plants now?"
Hafidha scowled at her monitors. "I have plants. And I always water the plants. It's part of my failsafe empathy training: Whether I'm picking their leaves off just to hear their little screams."
It had been a long time since that kind of talk had rattled Nikki Lau. She eased the door shut behind her and let the unease stampede free across her face. "Riddle me this: What do you call a case note that writes itself, in its own handwriting?"
"A Bureau stress test," Hafidha shot back, but it was Hafidha, not the Bug. That appraising glimmer wasn't lurking behind her eyes. "This isn't hypothetical, is it?"
"No," she said quietly.
Hafidha leaned back in her chair and frowned. "Give it here."
Lau gave it there: the notepad, the printouts, the business card with that looped handwriting. She turned it back and forth, gave it a desultory sniff. "You sure this isn't one of Tan's pranks?"
"Tan's not left-handed," Lau said, and flicked a telltale ink smear. Hafidha's eyebrow arched.
"Left-handed, hm?" she muttered, and three new windows flashed open on her screen.
"The other thing is," Lau said, and hesitated. "I'm pretty sure I've seen something like this before."
"I don't know," she said awkwardly. Her mind was her palace: sharp and sure, and planned exactly. One did not admit to security breaches in its halls. "About a year ago. I was at the shelter, volunteering, and I could've sworn I left a card for someone. But it turned out to be nothing."
Hafidha tilted her head. "Why was it nothing?"
Lau's mouth worked. There was an explanation, somewhere. Somewhere that kept sliding, jellylike, out from between her mental fingers.
"No," Hafidha said, staring at Lau's tight expression. "Honey, I don't think it's nothing at all."
The windows on her screen multiplied like tadpoles, swimming together upstream. Hafidha turned to physically guide them through the rivers of data; over the firewall dams. "Renee Abdi-Johansen is--an excellent disappearing act. She was a high school student in Minneapolis last time the government heard of her, but there's no record of graduation. No employment records, taxes paid or government benefits. And...nobody under a different name with that face. This girl is either vaporware or a goddamned spy."
The tautness between Lau's temples grew downright uncomfortable. "What's her last known sighting?"
On Hafidha's screens, database entries scattered. "I don't know," she said tartly. "Nobody was peachy enough to report her missing."
"Then how did that note get on my desk?" Lau asked softly.
The lines around Hafidha's mouth drew tight. "Well, I have two theories. One's that Mom and Celentano are about to put a boot in the security desk's collective ass."
The thought gave Lau a chill. The Anomalous Crimes Task Force operated below the radar: unmarked offices, unremarkable doors, into your town Sunday and out by Thursday lunch. They didn't attract the kind of grudges Frank Scott had nursed against the LAPD.
Hadn't attracted, she corrected, grim. Yet.
Hafidha twirled a bitten Bic pen and smiled mirthlessly. "That Renee just decided she wants to be found."
The pounding in Lau's head escalated to a dull roar. "My ghost."
Hafidha lifted an eyebrow. "That Golden Age swearing or a case fact, there?"
Lau shook her head. "We have one. An office ghost. That prickly feeling, when you're here at night, like you've just seen someone go across the room."
These days, Hafidha Gates was never alone in the office, unsupervised, at night. She shook her head.
"I started leaving it oranges. It's what you do, right?" Lau gritted her teeth to keep the color from taking over her face. Stop being such a model minority. This isn't embarrassing. "And they'd go, so I upgraded: Clif Bars. Sandwiches."
"Feeding our office gamma," Hafidha said softly, and then she swiveled to the screen a full second before her speakers let out a quiet, insistent ping. Her eyes narrowed into two pupil hurricanes. "It appears that my colleague Nicolette Lau is IMing me."
Nikki burst to her feet, and Hafidha held out one sharp hand. "Hold on."
On the screen, over Hafidha's shoulder, the letters were still forming: a nonstop typed wail. Please. I need your help and I have to stay outside. I can't be in the room, or people forget me. I don't stick with anyone. No one recognizes me. You've known me a whole year and you still forget, every time, and I swear I'm going to go nuts if I can't make it stop somehow--
Watching the letters form felt horribly wrong: it was watching someone take off their own skin. Lau looked away pointedly as Hafidha slammed speakerphone on her ancient extension and dialed. "Hey, Tan? Nikki around?"
"No, she just left," Arthur Tan said cheerfully. "Her friend's still waiting at her desk, though."
Lau's hands developed a sudden wish to lock everything; every drawer and cupboard. "Which friend?" Hafidha continued, all unconcern.
Tan's voice developed a thin wrinkle. "I don't think I got her name. Young lady, about five foot three?"
"Right what?" Tan asked innocently, and Hafidha's eyes glittered.
"Never mind," she said, and disconnected the line.
When Lau turned back the cursor was blinking. Temporarily at rest. How do I know you? she tapped out slowly. How did you get in here?
A year ago at My Sister's Place. You left your card and said you knew people who were like me and could help. With everything. I have to talk to you, for real--God I'm so fed up of going through this song and dance every time.
Hafidha hmmed. "This all true?"
The ache in Nikki Lau's head resolved into a sharp point. "I think so."
"You started leaving snacks out when?"
"Around--where were we going?" Lau asked, and caught herself. "Chicago. The bank robberies."
"That would be a year ago," Hafidha said. "For what it's worth, if she was going to kill us, she'd have probably done it by now."
Lau rubbed her eyes and tried to force down her combat reflex. Victim, not gamma. Victim, probably. "Sometimes it's not worth it to find out you're not turning into your mother after all, y'know?"
Hafidha snorted. Her eyes were still narrowed: sniper sights. What do you need? she flicked across the screen.
You said there was a doctor in Virginia, the letters replied.
"Idlewood?" Hafidha said, stark with surprise.
The cursor stalled. It swept forward; erased. Trembled at the edge of a word. There was blood when I went to the bathroom this morning.
"Oh, shit," Lau said softly.
"How?" Hafidha demanded, near-affronted.
"It's always on," Lau said. "She's jamming. All the time."
Hafidha's hands dropped onto the keys; slumped against the oak desk.
You said you'd e-mail a doctor, the chat window said. I need it. I need it now.
Chaz Villette had not graced the inside of a civilian commuter flight in a long time. It, he regrettably concluded, sucked balls.
They bounced from Washington to Newark inside an hour, and then were loosed to a smaller, jouncier plane for the hop into Canada. Sol Todd read two chapters of his true crime paperback as if the turbulence didn't even touch him. Chaz held on and dreamed of BASE jumping. At least there the falls were clean.
At the end of it, they wound through a long, slow-moving line with their red-and-white Canadian customs forms in hand. He swore not to bring any liquor or guns into the neighbors' tidy country, and was loosed to a small, grey departure lounge with a view of the lakefront and the sky. There was a stamp on his passport now, blue ink, dated. A record of official passing. Usually, he moved like a ghost.
Constable Spears waited in the lounge of the Toronto Island Airport, just as crisp and short and dour as he remembered her. Well, you only see her when there's something to be dour about, he remembered, and pasted on a professional smile. "Constable."
"Agent Villette," she replied, and shook his offered hand. "Agent Todd."
Private Citizen Villette, he corrected mentally. Todd was, as ever, smoother: "Sol," he said, and squeezed her hand in sympathy. "Where are we at?"
Her eyes flickered, but nothing else betrayed her. "I've booked you into a business hotel a few blocks from the police HQ," she said. "We've got a meeting with the lead detective on the case this afternoon. He's turned up two more missings that night, which puts us at five."
Chaz recognized that tight look now: Fear, and vindication.
"What do they know about our situation?" Todd said delicately.
"That you're friends of the family who might wrap their messy case up in a nice, overwork-free bow."
"Friends of the family," Sol mused. "Well, I suppose we are. The complicated friends you call when there's bad news."
"Do they know we're law enforcement?"
"The lead detective does: Saravanan. He's a pro. But otherwise--" Spears pulled an uncomfortable face. Chaz translated: No.
"No matter. Jurisdiction is an illusion of this material world," Todd said, and waved it away like a bad smell. "We're here merely to observe. Scientifically."
"As in 'the act of observation changes the phenomenon being observed?'" Spears asked.
Solomon Todd grinned. "Can't argue with physics," he said, and made for the door.
It was a short subway trip to Toronto Police Headquarters: a surprisingly pink-and-blue pyramid-roofed building coated in eighties-style marble and glass. They were met at the front desk by a tall, brown man in a plainclothes shirt and tie. "Ram Saravanan," he said, and extended a hand. Chaz shook it. "Robin said you might shed some light on our missings."
"That's the hope," Todd said cheerfully, and he led them up two flights of stairs through familiar-looking industrial carpet, pastel walls, and overloaded desks; to an interview room empty but for a stack of files and a worn red binder.
"That's your missing persons?" Chaz said, and hooked a chair.
Saravanan nodded. "Biggest thing we get."
The red binder went on for pages. It went on for years. Too many of the faces in it looked like Robin Spears. "Who are our new contestants?" Sol Todd asked.
Saravanan definitely knew they were law enforcement: He didn't even blink. "The last was reported just this morning," he said, and spread out files across the scuffed table. They were all fresh: the beige cardstock not yet creased with use and passing from hand to hand.
Chaz flipped the top file open. A round-spectacled young Filipino man--Arvin Costello, twenty-six--threw the thumbs-up in a baseball stadium seat with a Jays cap perched on his dark hair, beside the roommate who'd called to say he hadn't come home yet. Beneath the next, a sturdy, middle-aged white woman with long, bleached hair and a gardener's rake had not shown up to her volunteer hours at the local nursing home. Todd studied a school photo of a teenaged boy, brown and bright-eyed, posing uncomfortably with hastily combed hair. His parents were in the other room with Saravanan's partner, absolutely frantic.
Beneath them all, Gwen Fontaine's file lingered: a sharp, thoughtful face captured at the top of a Ferris wheel, taken somewhere where there were rollercoasters and a half-clouded sky. She leaned up against the shoulder of a beaming young Chinese man, arms in her lap, looking boldly out from printed pixels and ink.
"So much for a pattern," Chaz said, and lined them up in a clean Tetris row. "Tell me at least they're from the same neighborhoods."
"There's overlap," Saravanan conceded. "It's all the downtown west end. But that's still four police divisions' worth of space."
"Big city," Todd said, sighing.
"Big, mobile city. Get on a subway train and, eventually, you're anywhere."
"We did a map," Spears added, and unfolded it from under the mess of files. Five red blotches marked the last time anyone had seen Gwen Fontaine, Arvin Costello, Irene Czerny, Daniel Badi, Christof Wyrzowski. Scattered around them, small as raindrops, a double handful of green dots peppered the straight-grid streets.
"What're the green ones?" Chaz asked.
Spears's mouth set. "Anishnaabe and Cree women who've disappeared in the last five years."
There were a lot. Even weighed against that red binder, hulking ominously on the table, there were a lot.
The squirm wormed its way out from under Saravanan's professional calm. "We've put a call out to the community, and dragged the lake Thursday. The first theory was that someone had been swept in by the storm."
Todd leaned in. "What'd you find?"
"Dead raccoons," Saravanan said, pointedly. "Garbage. Tree branches. Once those keys were located and identified as Gwen's, this moved from an Unknown to Suspicious Circumstances. There's no train ticket purchased under her name, but we've asked station security for their CCTV tapes. It's a tossup, though: The station flooded that night. You heard we had a storm here?"
Todd shook his head.
"One hundred and twenty three millimeters of rain. That's more than we usually get all of July."
Chaz did a quick conversion: metric to imperial. A lot, he decided, of rain. A lot.
"The subway was down, roads were closed. Power was out all over the city," Saravanan said dolefully. "I saw some great pictures of a Porsche being drowned in the underpass down by the train station. So needless to say, the station staff are still trying to find out if their CCTV was even recording."
Chaz paged through the files; rearranged them, again and again and again. "Are there any better leads for the other missings that night?"
Saravanan shook his head. "But don't take that as meaning too much. Missings are a mess, always."
Chaz brushed the map with his fingertips; brushed the sparse red dots, and the multiplied green. Red pill or green pill? Choose wisely, young savior complex. "Investigating is investigating," he said, carefully; well knowing he was close to treading on toes that'd been stomped before. "We don't have to choose an angle before there's more to work on."
He caught Spears's eye. She nodded, once. Assent, tinged with defeat.
"All right," Sol said, and flipped the file closed. "First principles. Can we take a look around Gwen's apartment?"
"We already interviewed the boyfriend," Saravanan pushed in. "As far as I can tell, he's clean. He only calls us about every eight hours, after all."
Sol nodded: the sage attention of a career journalist. "Good. Then he'll be helpful," he said, and pushed up from the chair. "Do we reach you here?"
Saravanan looked at his three rogue operators and sighed. "Yes. Robin has my extension."
They left the station with a stack of photocopied files tucked in Chaz's messenger bag: into the pressure of a heatwave summer. The air was thick; it pressed down on his lungs like a pillow over the face. None of them spoke until they were across the street, down into the concourse that led to a white-tiled subway station that did, yes, smell faintly of mold. Spears led them to the platform and leaned hard against the mosaic mural of white-and-blue-shirted hockey players that deked and dodged before the subway tracks.
She looked bad. But only if you understood how bad, for career cops, looked precisely like nothing at all.
"You want to change your mind and do the green pill?" he asked quietly.
She looked up, and her eyebrows furrowed. "Profilers. Right," she said, and shook her head. A business-suited woman strode by in clicking heels, crack crack crack, and plucked a discarded newspaper from the bench beside them.
"No," Spears said, and crossed her arms. "The missings cluster's what got me to call you out here. It's the better lead."
"But?" Sol Todd said.
"But," she said, "it rubs the whole thing in just a little too hard."
Chaz was starting to get the picture. "Are Aboriginal missings--"
"Cree," Spears corrected.
"--an ongoing problem here? Sorry," he said awkwardly. He'd tried beforehand, to get the right word.
"You've never heard of Robert Pickton, have you?" Spears had turned abrupt; the face Charles Villette himself put off to the world when wrapping his tail around something hurt. "Or the B.C. Missing Women's Investigation?"
Todd nodded. Chaz didn't. They had to be Canadian cases.
"Make time to hear of it," Spears said, and the train, boxy and long compared to the D.C. Metro he knew, pulled into the station. Spears pushed off the wall and hit the yellow platform line before it slowed to a stop. "C'mon."
I am in a different country, Chaz thought, with perfect clarity, and then Robin Spears led them through the brushed steel doors, into the crowds.
Eugene Leung looked like hell.
It's not him, Charles Villette thought, gut unclenching, as he let them wander through his empty home: a glass-walled shoebox of a condominium, glittering with chrome and half-unpacked boxes and three furtive Transformer figurines on a high shelf. The dishes in the sink were gently molding, but the floor was spotless.
He had left everything precisely how it was for her. He had reached out and frozen time.
"I haven't gone to work," he told Spears, as it were a virtue. "I want to be here in case she comes home."
"I understand," she said. It was more credible than most people could have been. Chaz wandered deliberately away from it, into the bedroom. Around the rumpled ruins of two lives.
Gwen Fontaine's presence in the condo had never been, he guessed, more than traces. Her clothes half-hung in the closet and piled unfolded near the laundry basket; her vinyl collection, curbside-battered, was shelved in strict alphabetical order in milk crates where it wouldn't catch the sun. A short shelf stuffed with yarn, soft or scratchy, half-unraveled, sank roots around battered records by bands called Hostage Life and A Tribe Called Red.
And by contrast, Eugene was everywhere: In the K-Pop posters on the bedroom walls, the teachers' college textbooks stacked in neat rows on Ikea bookshelves, the two shelves of men's bathroom products to her one drawer. I wonder if he noticed, Chaz thought dully, and touched the one towel discolored with bright green Manic Panic. She hadn't really been here. No more than glancingly, around the edges.
It was hard to tell just by looking what was missing.
"Eugene," he called awkwardly, gentle as a wet cloth on a burn. "What sort of things did Gwen take?"
He reappeared in the doorway, a puzzled, hungry ghost. "Clothes," he answered, tense and beaten. "Our toothpaste. A bunch of her knitting needles and blank notebooks, and some books--I'm sorry. I don't know which ones. All that's there is the holes on the shelves."
"That's all right," Spears said. "We can work on that."
Chaz flipped open the medicine cabinet and studied the gaps in the dust. There were prescription bottles in there: Gwen Fontaine, Ativan, in 1-milligram doses. "Robin," he called softly, and held out the bottle; small in his skinny hand.
Spears's worn eyes darkened. "Gwen has anxiety attacks," she said. "The official diagnosis is PTSD."
"Didn't bring her meds," Chaz murmured. "Didn't have time?"
"She took her journal and a week's worth of clothes," Spears countered, turning the bottle in her broad hand.
"But not this, and not her laptop, and not her cell phone," Chaz said, and shook his head. "Where was she going that she didn't think she'd need them?"
Spears palmed the bottle and led him out to the living room, where Sol Todd was nodding gently to Eugene's despondent voice. "They just keep saying lonely people walk away for all kinds of reasons, and it doesn't mean she was...kidnapped, or--" he shuddered. "But Gwen wasn't lonely. She had friends at her law program. We went to her punk shows and people recognized her. She volunteered."
Which doesn't mean you're not lonely, he thought, but Sol had already caught the ball and was running. "Where did she volunteer?"
"She knit hats and gloves for the homeless during the winter. And does some time at the Native Women's Resource Centre; advocacy work. But in the summer it's mostly here." Eugene handed them a flyer: red and black ink on stiff cardboard. "They pick fruit trees in people's back yards--food that'd just rot--and split it between the volunteers and a couple soup kitchens. Gwen came home twice a week with a bucket of cherries, or mulberries one time. I came home just two weeks ago and the whole place smelled like brown sugar crust. She said it was how her grandpa did his pies."
Only a trained profiler would have caught Robin Spears stiffen.
Chaz and Todd were both trained profilers. "Busy woman," Chaz noted, and Todd pocketed the flyer without a second glance.
The distraction worked: Eugene's eyes filled again, and he let them. "She's amazing," he said, like a confession. "All the people who talk a line about making a better world, and she just does it. She's one of a kind."
"Eugene," Sol said gruffly. "Do you have anyone in town? Friends, family?"
Chaz saw the words work through his synapses. "My third-year roommates. They still live in our old place on Brunswick Avenue."
Sol picked up the phone and pressed it into his hand. "Call them," he said. Kind. Firm. "Tell them what's up. We'll keep in touch, but you don't have to be alone right now."
"Right," Eugene said, bewildered, and they showed themselves out the door.
The flyer resurfaced in the elevator, humming down the glass tower that fit so badly with those milk crates and thrift-store jeans. Chaz cleared his throat, and shoved his hands in his pants pockets. "You heard something just now," he said.
Spears's eyes were hard. "Gwen making pies just like her grandpa did it."
Chaz tilted his head. "Gwen's not a baker."
"I don't know about that," Spears said quietly, "but Gwen's grandfathers were both dead years before she was born. She never met them. There was no pie crust."
Chaz sucked in a breath. "Is there a reason to lie about it? I hate to say it, but it doesn't look like she's half as excited about living with Eugene as he is about her."
She shot him a troubled look. "I'll check back in with Gwen's professors and her internship. Ask them what kinds of stories she was telling them."
The elevator touched earth with a rumble and a ping. Spears strode through the postmodern lobby, past bare-birch faux trees and mood lighting, to the oppressive evening sun. "I'll meet you at the hotel, if you remember the way back."
Sol wiggled his smartphone. "We have a guide."
"Right," Spears nodded, and took the sidewalk at a fast clip.
Chaz looked at Sol; at the flyer in his other hand. "Well, I'm not tired yet," he said. "Where to?"
Sol twitched a grin, and pulled up his Google maps. "Arvin Costello was reported missing by his roommate, right?"
"Right," Chaz said, and dug for the file.
"I hear the interviewing is lovely this time of year," he said, and wiggled his hand for a cab.
Arvin Costello's bedroom was the polar opposite of the glass-walled funeral they'd just left. Chaz toed a pile of pulp horror anthologies forming a tower defense game beside his bed. Their yellowed and thumbed pages crackled in protest. A whole wall of magazines and hardcovers lined the shelves that obscured his desk from view.
This is a fortress, Chaz thought, edging around another stack of used paperbacks, and pinched the bridge of his nose. It was not quite an intervention. Half an intervention; maybe six hundred milli-Hoarders, and rising fast.
Arvin's roommate Nadia, a restless thirtyish black woman with a bartender's cracked hands, paced the shockingly spartan living room. "The problem is I don't really know him. I got the place off Craigslist, and it works fine, but we just don't do the same scene."
"What's his scene?" Sol asked quietly, perched on the arm of a white Ikea sofa.
She shrugged uncomfortably; felt for words like a missing tooth. "He's quiet. Stays in his room reading most of the time." Her gaze faltered; fell on a lightly dusty spider plant, tangled in an aloe vera, tangled in a long, dangling vine of something. "I work nights, so we go whole days without actually seeing each other. It took me three days to figure out he hadn't actually been home."
Chaz considered how literal the feeling of your stomach sinking could be. "Did he have any friends? Girlfriend or boyfriend?"
"Not that he ever brought around when I was home," she said, and shook her head slowly. "Just the books, and the jungle here."
Sol brushed a leaf on some fat juicy cactus Chaz didn't recognize. "It is rather a lot of plants."
It was, Chaz thought, rather an understatement. If Arvin Costello's books were a fortress, the plants were the lovingly tended Swiss Papal guard.
"Those are Arvin's," the roommate said, and scrubbed a hand over tired eyes. "He's one of those city farmers; brings home cuttings and stuff. The first few months I was here, the landlady thought we were running some kind of grow-op and called the cops on us. We had to sit down with two officers from 52 Division and explain the difference between weed and Thai basil."
Chaz raised both eyebrows. Solomon Todd reached into his pocket, and pulled out the flyer they'd taken from Gwen's shelves. "Does this look at all familiar?"
Nadia's forehead crinkled. "They do trees, right? Yeah; Arvin had them over here once when I left for work. A whole crew of people, picking the crabapple tree out back."
Chaz heard Sol's jaw set: Eureka.
Lau sat cross-legged beside Hafidha's closed door, and passed the notebook paper back and forth under the crack beneath the door. It had grown to two dozen pages now: A jagged manuscript of unspecified trouble at home and lost chances, all ending--and beginning--in a backpack late at night, packed in the first merciful days where no one seemed to be watching her anymore.
It was nothing she hadn't heard before. She'd heard it nine thousand times. But reading the inevitable explosion, the flight from home, the fall into women's shelter after women's shelter in Hafidha's glittery purple gel pen just made the whole story that much more terrible.
Renee Abdi-Johansen had been a beta for three and a half years. Her kidneys hurt in the mornings. Her heart creaked when it beat.
Behind her, Hafidha spoke in a low, insistent murmur over the Skype connection to Idlewood, and Casey Ramachandran answered back.
"Ask about fatigue," Hafs ordered, and Lau duly scribbled a note and sent it under the door.
"Tired most days," she read from the scrawled reply. "Don't have a lot of places to go, though: Cafeteria downstairs, showers, and here."
Ramachandran, through the screen and across the wires, shook his head. "I need blood work. I need a proper medical history."
"Casey, honey," Hafidha snapped, "explain to me how we get that without forgetting her halfway to the needle, and we'll get you all the spit and toenails you need."
Another page slid, paper rain down a paper windowpane, under the closed door. Lau plucked it up and ignored Ramachandran's answer.
"So?" she asked, when Hafidha signed off and stretched, still seated, her spine cracking like a row of land mines.
"Doesn't look good," she scowled. "Our dearest Casey is scrambling. I don't think he's ever had to take a tissue sample through a locked door. He's going to get Frost on the line."
"She's local," Hafidha replied, tapping keys at the speed of light. "And a robot. Casey does have a theory about the manifestation, though."
There was a rustle of paper on the other side of the door. A Post-It note shaped like a pig shot toward Lau's knees. Oh?
"People forget you right away," Hafidha said, tapping keys at the speed of light. "That's a short-term memory hack. But Nikki here had the ghost, so you must have written to her long-term memory slowly, over the last two years." She raised her voice above the hum of fans, the muffle of the plywood door. "Hear that, Renee? Stubborn bitchery pays right off."
Lau held up the shred of notebook that slid under its gap: Right on, in glittery purple ink.
"It also tells me how we get around it," Hafidha said smugly. "Three more hours and all this writes to long-term memory, and then we're golden, kids."
"Great," Lau said. She already had to use the bathroom. "What're you doing?"
"Snooping," Hafidha said humorlessly, and turned her distaff screen. The stuttery image of Detective Saul Zingermann shuffled paper and dirty coffee mugs aside from halfway across the country. "Hi, Saul. How's it coming?"
Zingermann's voice was tinny, through the speakers. "I did a little checking on the names you gave me. Dug up some stuff, you know?" He held the file across his desk like it was the idol and Hafidha's latte the whip. "There's a family a few suburbs over: name of Johansen, matches your given address. Eagan, Minnesota: Onion capital of the United States. The mother works in IT for Northwest Airlines; the father lost his job in 2008. Two daughters, and another Johansen of no fixed relation."
The note that came through the gap in the door had nearly torn with the pressure of the pen. My grandmother, it said. All the stories at My Sister's Place were familiar; were the same. Lau held it up wordlessly to Hafidha, to Zingermann's screen.
"But, y'know, I found your funny thing." Zingermann's affable, inscrutable Midwestern face didn't shift a hair. "Until a few years ago there are three school records. And then there aren't."
Lau's eyebrow rose. "Was there an investigation?"
"Nope," he said, with a shrug. "No missing persons report filed, you know?"
"I meant Child Services," Lau said, and he let out a small hmm.
The pages kept coming, sheet by sheet. Crammed with writing. He didn't want her to move in with us but my mother said he was being paranoid; she wanted us so badly to have a family. Her parents are across the world and when the trouble started they couldn't kick her out on the street, and so she decided it must be my fault, my sisters were fine, she didn't do those things to my sisters, it must be me--
"Nothing from Child Services, no. But a fella's got to make a connection between how much money's around in Eagan and all the budget cuts we saw here once the economy crashed. They do a lot with less over there, let's just say that."
"And rich people don't hit their kids, of course," Lau said bitterly. She rubbed the bridge of her nose. "How many more hours, now?"
"Two hours, fifty-five minutes," Hafidha chorused out. "And then Renee can go visit our friendly neighborhood Dr. Robot."
"I'll put on coffee for you," Zingermann said, and signed off.
The crackle of paper under the door became a hurricane. Why are you going to my parents' house?
Nikki took a deep breath. "You've read all the files on my desk, right?"
The awkward silence on the other side of the door was a qualified, categorical yes.
"The anomaly's a contagion, we think," she said quietly. "That's why we keep files on all the people who walk away from gamma explosions. So that eventually, we can stop these things before they cost lives. And if you were exposed to the anomaly in Minnesota?"
Hafidha cocked an eyebrow and finished it for her. "We go to Minnesota and hunt Bugs."
The signs of life were faint this time, on the other side of Hafidha's plywood door: a rustle of indecision. One could imagine the sound, furtive, quiet, of a very young girl sniffling, very hard.
I'm coming, the next, eventual note said.
Lau had seen enough grief at a distance to know, gut-deep, her reply. "You're coming," she said. "Pack a bag."
The business hotel by the cop shop was narrow and stuffy: an old building dressed in new drapes to push past the midlife blues. Chaz waited his turn for the tiny shower stall and toweled his hair off on his twin bed. Todd was already stretched out in a pair of soft Superman pajama pants, poking at something on his netbook in front of Francophone TV.
"The Matrix?" he asked, and Todd shrugged.
"It's more interesting in other languages," Todd said. "You can spend the boring parts tracking the mismatches between the translation and the English subtitles."
"Merde!" said Francophone Neo.
"Ouuiiiii," French Morpheus intoned.
"That bit was the same," Todd said, and unplugged his devil duck USB.
"I never picked up French," Chaz said, and slung the towel over his shoulder. "It jumbles into the Spanish and makes it do funny things."
"Beautiful language," Sol said. "It's been managed by committee for four hundred years, and it still manages to grow and thrive. Very All-American success story."
Chaz had enough exposure hours to Solomon Todd, after all these years, to hear both the wink and the buried edge. "I found the case," he said hesitantly, and shook his head. "I started reading it while you were in the shower."
"Read the whole thing," Todd said nonchalantly, and Francophone Neo stared at the million-foot drop, gulped, and edged his way back into the hands of his oppressors. "They have different benchmark cases here. BTK or Ed Gein are nothing, but it's only been ten years since men in white hazmat suits sifted every inch of Robert Pickton's pig farm for finger bones on the nightly national news."
Chaz huffed a breath. "Different mythologies."
"Different mythologies," Todd agreed. "You must unlearn what you have learned."
On the screen, Hugo Weaving pasted Francophone Neo's mouth shut. He twisted and writhed, aching to speak French. "I don't know why I didn't expect this much of a culture gap," Chaz said after a moment.
"First time abroad?" Todd said, but kindly enough.
Chaz shook his head. "Short trips, though. It might as well be."
Todd flicked the TV to mute and stretched, leonine, on his hard hotel bed. "There's something about places that look almost familiar. We fill in the gaps; we expect them to be just like home just because the restaurant chains and the languages are the same. The big trick to being abroad is to remember that they're not even close."
Chaz balled up the damp towel. "Read the whole case, then."
Todd nodded. "It's not one of ours, but it's a good model for how deeply in-house policing politics can cost lives."
And Chaz caught the edge again; the string Sol Todd always left behind him, saying nothing outright, but daring you to pull it.
"Falkner told you too," Chaz said finally.
Sol opted for a nod. "Esther told me a few weeks ago. So I can start making plans."
"Plan, plural," he said. "You have thought about what you'll do after."
Chaz looked at him as if he'd just turned into a duck with a blue rubber spatula. "After?"
Sol waved an airy hand around the blind business hotel room. "After gammas. After go bags. After this."
He hadn't. It slid out, apparent even with his habit of hiding away; smoothing thoughts and emotions into a blank, even mask. He felt like Wile E. Coyote, suddenly treading air where there was a road, once.
"It's good to have a career, is all," Todd said, as urbanely as he discussed the weather and multiple homicides. "Rupert Beale has his talk show circuit. Our greatly-missed Mr. Reyes is finding whole new meanings to full-time parenting, and Nikki puts in a lot of hours at that shelter. I know Esther's had offers to consult at the Pentagon once she hits active service retirement age."
"You didn't go," Chaz said. "You're still here."
Sol regarded him, imperturbably. "It's not after yet."
Chaz blinked at him. After was a concrete notion to Solomon Todd; a notion with a budget, a method, an exit date.
On the television, faceless, overdubbed agents chased Keanu Reeves through faceless, grey streets. Mostly because, as so many people frequently did, a man had crawled off a ledge into the bullshit he knew.
Todd clicked the TV off and dumped the remote on the particle-board nightstand. "You have two doctorates," he said, and rolled over in his twin bed. "Just don't sell yourself short."
Chaz was silent for a moment. A long one.
"Goodnight, Sol," he said when it was over.
"Goodnight, Charles," he answered.
The person that makes the trip more often of course, is going to realize that before long, he's going to be up well against himself. Not against his fellow travellers, no, not so much, but he's going to have to be up against his own sad self. -- Wally McLean, The Idea of North.
The breakfast in the dark, narrow hotel was not inspiring: flat-pack toast, bilious fruit, a bowl of yogurt that had seen better days. "Don't bother with this," Constable Spears said, and shouldered her bag. "We're going across the street."
Across the street was a full-on breakfast restaurant adorned with smiling cartoon suns. Chaz ordered a plate of eggs that exploded with bacon, fruit, and crepes, and drowned it all in maple syrup. "Tell me this stuff is everywhere here. Fulfill my Ugly American fantasies."
Spears snorted; a momentary flash of how she must look on her usual days, when she smiled. "It's around. It's just food."
"There is no just food," Chaz said lovingly, and tucked in.
"What's on the plan for today?" Sol asked, over his much more decorous Eggs Benedict.
The normalcy evaporated off Spears's face. "I spoke to Gwen's internship supervisor last night. She says she saw a change; not big. In the small things. She switched from awesome to wicked. Got distracted a little more often. Was--God."
"What?" Sol asked.
Spears looked, just slightly. "Gwen's supervisor is a land claims lawyer. She's done work with NAN and some of the Treaty groups. And she said Gwen was acting--more white."
Sol hmmed uneasily. "Could she explain?"
"We--" Spears started, drowning in discomfort. "We don't always do assertiveness like white people. We always don't do anger the same way. That's not just the reserves and the residential schools; it's--values. Zaagiwin. Minaadendimowin. It's about respecting the value of everyone and everything, not doing harm; living from a place of kindness. I'm--" she broke off, and shook her head. "This doesn't translate."
I am in a foreign country, Chaz reminded himself, and bit down hard on a piece of bacon. More than that; he was in two foreign countries: The Canada that Canada told you it was on the streets, in the airport lounges, on the official literature, and the one where women who looked like Spears and Gwen Fontaine lived. Those green missing dots were enmeshed into a history and a double handful of cultures and values, and Profiling 101 was based on understanding: What each twitch of the eyelid, what each missing medication bottle or yellowed magazine meant in its context.
You need to read more than that case, Villette, he realized. Read like hell, or screw up big.
Sol Todd had worked years as a journalist, and presumably read everything before it was even written. "The important things rarely do translate," he said, smoothly; not indulging, not apologizing, not making her explain. "But that could be important: Gwen stopped doing assertiveness and anger like herself."
"Yes," Spears said, and swallowed. "I don't know what to do with that."
"What about her friends?" Chaz asked, and Spears answered with a sour quirk of the lips.
"Gwen's friends haven't seen much of her since June, which is out of character. I haven't heard back from the Native Women's Resource Centre yet, or Streetknit. But we have an eleven o'clock appointment with the fruit-picking group's director, who is very concerned."
Chaz checked his watch. It was nine-thirty; lots of time for seconds, and early elevensies to get him through the day. He overdosed on maple syrup steadily while Todd briefed Spears on their visit to the Costello household the night before.
Spears frowned, and shuffled through her pack of missing persons files. "One of our missings has a rake in her picture: Irene Czerny. The rest--it'll be hard to say. With the exception of Daniel Badi, no one else had someone closer than an employer to report them missing."
"The parents reported him?"
"His summer school teachers," she said. "He's gunning for early university admission. His parents are Roma immigrants, and according to Saravanan"--and it was clear how much that meant to her--"the community here's a little too fresh from government is the thing that takes your children to even think of making a problem official."
"Convenient," Todd said mildly, and tucked away a melon slice.
"It's all convenient," Spears muttered.
"And yet not," Todd added thoughtfully. "I mean, they were all missed. Assuming we're dealing with an anomalous serial offender here, those are people who are usually quite good at identifying people who have weak ties. Every single missing person here had a community that was willing to bring this to the police."
Chaz frowned. "And five of them in one night. That's a spike that's hard for the fuzz to ignore."
"Five high-risk, reasonably connected targets with routines and people in their lives who'll go to bat for them," Todd said, and tipped a nod at Spears. "From a gamma's point of view, that's dangerously shoddy work."
The realization twisted Constable Spears's mouth with its force. "No, it's not." She cleared her throat. "Not if that gamma is white."
Chaz's eyebrows rose.
"Offenders pick their targets based on who's safe to victimize. Who they decide won't be missed. Well, this sounds like someone who has some pretty common ideas about who other people won't miss: a Roma teenager, a Cree woman, two recent, single immigrants, and an older white woman living alone. They don't expect those people to have communities who bring law enforcement in. To them, those people are safe targets just because of who they are."
"And if they did," Todd said musingly, "they don't expect the police to think those people actually matter. Thank you, Constable."
Chaz had spent enough time with Spears that he was starting to be able to read her. Her closed face was a question. "This is where we need your expertise most," he said. "We can see the actions; you'll know, here, what they mean."
She raised an eyebrow, gently. "You read Pickton."
He flushed. "I've started," he said, and looked away. "It's really, really long. And really, really bad."
"It is," she agreed evenly.
He worked his way past the embarrassment he only halfway understood. "Any other cases we should be reading for this? Or just--if I'm a white, Canadian gamma, what might my mythology look like? What stories do I tell myself?"
Spears closed her eyes, and sighed. "Canadian mythology. Well, that we're better and more moral than you guys, for one."
"I expected that," Chaz said dourly.
She pinched the bridge of her nose. "I don't know. How do you sum up a whole country? We can't; we keep trying to, and the big joke about Canadian identity is that if we figure out which safe place we left it at, we're sure it'll be just great.
"We don't teach life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; it's peace, order, and good government. And Pierre Trudeau's Just Society, which is the best and worst lie we've ever told ourselves: that we should strive to build a multicultural, multilingual, equal-opportunity society, which means too many people pat themselves on the back and think it wipes out the scars of all the genocide and bullshit that's still going on, right here and now. And if you're not from a First Nation, and grew up here, there's the settler romanticizing of the North, the wilderness. That you go to conquer it; that it's man against wild. That it's where you find and prove yourself, just like all the other settlers who showed up to tame a land that was obviously empty all along.
"But it's so wrapped up in everything," she said, and opened her dark eyes again. "So wrapped up in generation, and race, and class, and whether you live in the city or the country or especially the North. It's wrapped up in whether you're from British Columbia and think Ontario and Quebec get everything for themselves, but the Prairies are right-wing cesspits, or you're from the Prairies and feel utterly disenfranchised and like the liberals on either side of you are sucking your life dry. If you're black and, in what should be a tolerant city, no one sits next to you on the bus. If you're Francophone and even though we have two official languages, the street signs aren't bilingual anywhere except Quebec. If you grew up in a small town and loved it, or couldn't wait to get yourself out to the city. When you got here. If you were born here. Who you want to be.
"There's no...profile," she said softly, and gave a small shrug. "No one is ever just a check-box here. It depends on who you are."
"But what is it," Chaz asked carefully; careful because he had reached for and relied on those things all his life, "that people go for when they want to feel in common?"
Spears smiled, a little dreamily. "The way we all told ourselves some very good stories about how important it is, society. Some of them are lies. But we try to make them true every single day."
"Speaking of which," Todd said gently, "it's past ten."
Spears pushed out from the table. "Let's settle up, then. Our storyteller down on Richmond Street is waiting."
"It presents no real difference," Madeline Frost had said. "Just write a case note."
Frost was indeed an absolute robot. She drew blood, labeled urine, and ordered endless tests with no indication that the arm she handled or the pulse she took belonged to anything more than a corpse.
Does she see me? Renee scrawled on a spare Post-It note; one that appeared next to Hafidha's shin.
"No, honey," she replied through Frost's thin office door. "She just never really cares regardless."
The fluid draw took half an hour; half an hour of dripping quiet. In the hallway, deep in the concrete hospital's guts, Nikki Lau used it to book three seats on a westbound flight and made sure the third stayed empty.
"You've got a great future as a spy, babe," Hafidha said once the plane was in the air; once the flight attendant had handed out three snacks, three coffees, and commented cheerily on the empty seat.
"Me?" Lau said, confused. Hafidha grinned and pointed with her chin at the traveler at the end of their row. She flickered in and out of Lau's awareness: An utterly forgettable, slight black girl with tight-curled hair and a long neck, huddled in a Georgetown sweatshirt that was much, much too big.
"I think I'm learning how to see you," Hafs went on, and tapped the plastic fork against her lip.
"How's that?" someone said by Nikki's left ear; someone of no consequence.
Hafidha grinned, wolfish. "Brains are electrical systems. You make the prettiest little anomalous smear."
The plane landed in Minneapolis under a clear blue afternoon sky, held up by a curling riverband of green. Lau had written out her instructions: Rent car, liaise with Detective Zingermann, case file in your briefcase under the notepad. Don't question me, lady, no matter what.
She didn't need it: Hafidha had been right. The feel of that door, pressed against her shoulder as the terrible story slipped through in note-sized nuggets, was as fresh as ever. She gripped the wheel as Hafidha called out directions from the passenger seat. The back seat was empty--or it wasn't. Or it was. The intellectual and perceptual parts of her brain were grinding against each other so hard they threw sparks.
Do your list, she told herself, and piloted them to the station.
"You again," Saul Zingermann said as Lau and Hafidha walked into the police bullpen.
"It's the hotdish," Hafidha said. "Keeps us coming right back."
He spread his hands: a silent What can I say? "I have to say your company's better when it comes without this," he said, and nodded at the pile of files on his desk.
"You've opened a case," Lau said.
"That's what we do here, us officers of the law. Although it's hard to call it missing persons if she's found." He looked around. "Miss Abdi-Johansen is...here?"
"In your washroom," Hafidha said. "Her special power's line-of-sight only."
Zingermann nodded thoughtfully. "Third edition?"
"Third," Hafidha scoffed. "I play with THAC0."
Zingermann handed the files out. "Bold. So that's your friend Renee there, and this here's her grandmother, one Gudrun Johansen."
Lau flipped open one with each hand, and peered at Renee's photo. She was getting used to the way her memory slipped and blurred: the picture slid between her fingers like butter. Teenage and compact; fine-boned in a way that might have hinted darkly at bleeding kidneys and hollow cheeks to come, or might just have been the perks of being seventeen. She was an artist; collage work. Her magazine-page phantasmagorias had hung in school board art shows and decorated the back covers of her high school yearbook.
There is so much I don't know about you, Lau thought, and turned the page.
"My first concern, given the story Renee told about how Mrs. Johansen went about treating her," Zingermann said, "would be the other girls in the house. We're going to pay a call this evening, with Child Services. And we'd deeply appreciate you coming along in case we're about to bring one of yours in."
"If this picture's current, I don't know that Gudrun's one of ours," Lau said. Mrs. Johansen was stocky, solid, shoulders broad. The kind of build that a screenwriter would call reliable, in a protagonist; that would be terribly threatening if you were a child on the other end of her fist.
Hafidha read down the paper file for a moment; then, frustrated, pulled it up on her phone and let the letters whir. "Retired secretary for Minnesota Fisheries, one son, one divorced husband who has let fly to Florida and is not likely to return." She glanced at the washroom door. "Renee didn't know the half of it. Her grandmother moved in after Daddy Johansen went on disability after a car accident, but she also brought four hundred thousand in cool cash from selling her house to do it."
Lau fingered the photo and scowled. "They're on one income. That would explain some of the reluctance." The fingers of familiarity were tickling at her now. She had seen this photo at least once, before. She had looked up an address and phone number in Florida, and not been sure why she'd done it. How long have I been working this case?
"Where's our anomalous exposure?" she said, shortly. Do your job, and follow your damned list. "If it's not direct from Gudrun Johansen, where's it from?"
Zingermann coughed lightly. "I have a little theory about that," he said. "Six years ago there was a bridge that fell over the Mississippi River."
Lau remembered it: A crumpling arch, sinking into the water of a summertime river over and over on the news, as pavement slid and trucks tilted. "She was on the bridge? That's how she got exposed?"
"I talked to a guy I know down at Hennepin County Medical. Renee and her father were both on the bridge: driving home from something or other. But it didn't show up on your friend's hospital records because she walked away without a scratch. It was her father who got all busted up. Injury to the spine. Tried to go back to work, but hasn't been able to since." He organized his papers and looked at her sidelong. "Didn't talk about that, did she?"
Lau sighed. The trouble was, she couldn't even say.
Hafidha had looked up from her screen, big-eyed. "If a gamma died on that bridge--"
It means this isn't a case, it's a cluster. They were features of epidemiology and suicide contagion. Theoretically, Lau had known for a long time that an anomalous cluster could happen: dozens of people exposed to the anomaly once, just waiting for their poppers to pop. But it had, until now, been theoretical.
"We need to get hands on a map of that bridge," she said, and thumbed her phone on. "Everyone who survived it; where their cars were, where they've gone since, who they're associating with."
"Ahoy the black vans," Zingermann said dryly.
Lau snorted. "You make it sound so...government spook."
"Baby, I hate to read you our job description after all these years," Hafidha added, and nudged Zingermann. "You're getting pretty slick with this sort of thing."
Saul Zingermann shrugged, but Lau saw the flush in his cheeks. "Ma Zingermann always did say I was a clever boy. I got you all a hotel room for the night, down the street. If you want to go freshen up and talk to Miss Abdi-Johansen, Child Services won't move until school's out and the children are home."
Lau nodded, and rapped on the washroom door. "You hear any of that?" she said, through the paper-thin crack in the frame.
"The whole thing," Renee's voice said, half-there, from the other side. She sounded strained.
She sounded like she'd been crying.
"Renee, I--" she started, and that soft voice cut her off.
"It hurts, that's all, okay? In my back. It hurts."
Lau swallowed the blockade of words in her throat. "Right. Just come get in the car when you're ready," she said. Helpless. Useless. "They'll call us when they're ready to take you home."
"She used to volunteer," the woman said: short-haired, sensibly dressed in bright patterns and solid shoes, her trim-nailed hands never still. She'd introduced herself as Laurie; the kind of bright, busy personality who ran non-profits mostly alone. "She used to volunteer a lot; she was one of our pick leaders for two whole summers. I thought, when she stopped coming, it was a time and money thing. I didn't even think she was in trouble."
Sol Todd perched on the secondhand desk. Oak, he decided. Whoever had sanded the old finish off and applied a new coat, slopped and cheerful, had been careless: hardened varnish spelled out a line of Braille underneath his palm. It kept the world on its axis, that there were always places like this: half an office suite in a refurbished warehouse; donated computers and apple-bright flyers printed by a friend of a friend; awards from local weekly papers nailed up on the walls.
God, I'm old, he thought, a little fondly, and flipped open his notepad.
"When did she stop coming?" he asked, more scribbler than cop.
"Three weeks, a month ago?" Laurie said, and pulled a face. "I don't know. I should know. Dammit. I'm sorry. We lost a couple of regulars that week. It's the end of the school year. People move around, or go home for the summer."
Young Charles shot him a look he didn't need, not after this many years following stories around. Sol humored him, and kept his voice steady. "Do you remember who else stopped showing up?"
"Our system will," she said, and stationed herself behind the computer. "Although it's hard to tell if someone's stopped showing up or just can't do the picks we have posted until a couple months have gone by. We've got thousands of volunteers. Some of them only pick once a summer."
"We have a few names," Spears said, and rattled them off. Laurie tapped at her system, and a tiny crease built between her light eyebrows. "Daniel Badi only came on a few picks," she said. "He's a high school student; they have to do forty hours of volunteering to get their diplomas, so they're in one summer and gone by the end. Christof Wyrzowski shows up about twice a year, and has since we started. Arvin Costello's a regular, even though he only joined this season: He did two picks back to back, one day. Really nice guy; he helped with some data entry around the office, too."
"Irene Czerny?" Chaz asked, gangling on a green wooden office chair.
Laurie frowned. "One pick. Just the one." And then her eyebrows rose. "With Daniel Badi, Arvin Costello, Gwen Fontaine, and Christof Wyrzowski."
The telltale adrenaline woke in Sol Todd's wrists; spread the taste of gunmetal to his throat. "And when was that?"
"June fifteenth," she said, and furrowed her brows. "Cherry season."
Spears's eyebrows rose. "That's a full month before our...trouble started."
Planning time, Sol decided, and closed his notepad. "Nothing before or after that brought them together?"
"Gwen and Arvin picked together," Laurie said, and shook her head. "But--"
Sol already had the business card out, fast as a card sharp. "Please let us know if you find anything else. You've been a wonderful help."
Those short-nailed gardener's hands took his card, turned it over. "Freelance journalist? What's your interest here?"
Sol smiled, reassuringly. "We're doing a favor," he said, "for a friend."
They skipped the usual pleasantries this time. Sol stepped outside that wood-hewn office into a bubble of quite personal cold.
"People who volunteer," Chaz said. "Gardeners. Who targets gardeners?"
"It's a valid victim pool. What do they tell lonely people to do?" Todd said, and quirked an eyebrow. "Get out of the house. Do activities you enjoy."
"Volunteer," Spears said bitterly. "That and salsa dancing."
"What is it with salsa dancing?" Chaz muttered, as they took the stairs down into the thick, humid downtown. "Why not tango? Ballroom?"
"Less likelihood of licking your partner being part of the package," Todd said, and wiped his forehead. "Five people on that pick, and they all disappeared. Think there's a chance one of our missings is actually our subject?"
"None of them are skinny like your profile says," Spears objected. Sol's hand flitted into his pocket; brushed the devil duckie, found his reporter's notebook. Signs and symptoms of a gamma. Stop, drop, and roll, he thought. Stephen would have been proud.
"Gwen's photo is almost a year old," Chaz broke in. "What're the chances the other ones we have aren't current either?"
"I'm on it," Spears said, and took out her phone.
There was a coffeeshop attached to the building: A tiny space packed with industrial wood counters and a barista with a line of Vonnegut tattooed on his bicep. They ordered icy drinks and lit at a corner table. Spears was already muttering a message into Saravanan's voicemail box: "Ram; we wanted to ask about the dates on our missing photos."
The lunchtime crowd deposited in the coffeeshop like tidewrack: Artsy, scruffy professionals in thick-framed glasses, sticky with the heat, holding conversation in snatches about microloans and engagement strategies. Chaz turned his iced coffee around in his palms ceaselessly, beads of condensation disappearing between his long fingers. Sol watched them over the rim of his notebook and the familiar ease of his own cribbed handwriting.
Spears's phone rang, two short, sharp bleats.
"Hello?" she said, with that hint of tension. Sol filed it away: Eugene's not the only one waiting, and hoping. "Photo dates. We have a connection, yes."
Spears grasped the air for a pen, and Sol uncapped his and handed it over. She scribbled a line of initials into his notepad, and he craned over her shoulder. Daniel Badi's was recent: A school photo, shot in March. The others were older: September, December, the August before. Families and friends had trouble with recent photos sometimes, if they weren't photography people, or just loving and afraid. Missing persons photographs were memory and begging: a portrait of someone who deserved to be saved. A portrait that looked the way those who loved them wanted them remembered.
He tucked a fingernail under Irene Czerny's initials. "December 2011," he said. "That's a ways."
Saravanan must have heard him. "Her son provided it," Spears repeated; deciphering the buzz of her cell phone. "What was your other thing?" she added, and her face twisted into something uncomprehending.
Sol waited it out. The lunchtime tide surged and fell back while Spears listened, on the phone.
"He's got the surveillance video from the train station," she said finally, face flushed with heat or rage or fear, "and Gwen's on it. At the ticket window, at almost midnight."
"Anyone else?" Chaz asked, and Spears shook her head.
"Alone. She bought a ticket, cash, under a false name to a tiny town as far north as the rail line goes. And boarded the train alone."
"What was the name?" Sol asked, suddenly inspired.
"Susannah Moodie," Spears said quietly. "Who was actually one of the first Canadian women settlers to write a tell-all book. Roughing It in the Bush. It's like calling yourself Johnny Appleseed."
A fine gonzo journalist, Sol thought, before the rest of him caught up. "I assume Detective Saravanan's pulled the passenger list."
"Yeah," Spears said. "He's combing it. But so far he's already turned up a Tom Thomson that same night."
"One of the Group of Seven," Sol said, to Chaz having to ask. "The old-timey classic Rat Pack of Canadian landscape painters. I am sensing a theme."
Chaz wasn't actually asking: He mouthed December 2011 over and over again. "Hang on," he said, and hit speed-dial.
"Hafs?" he said, breathlessly, when the phone clicked to life.
"The Vaguebooker," she greeted him, through the speaker; around the rumble of some kind of engine. "Make it quick; I'm on an important mission I don't plan to tell you about."
Sol raised an eyebrow. Chaz shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said, breathlessly; looked around. Turned the volume down. "This is work; we're on speaker. I need a look at someone's background, real fast."
Hafidha let out a sigh. "Give it over."
Chaz read out Irene Czerny's name, date of birth, place of residence. The whoosh of motors and air filled the line. "You know hacking across borders has two toes over the Deeply Illegal line, Secret Agent Man? Edward Snowden is chilling out in Russia because of people like you and me."
Sol cast a tiny glance at Spears's face. She raised both eyebrows, and then her face set into resolute lines. "Agent Gates? Please do it."
"This is Constable Robin Spears. I'm a Canadian federal officer. I'll authorize this search and square it later."
It didn't take a legal expert to know that Spears could do no such thing; Sol had watched three episodes of Intelligence and that put paid to the idea by itself. But they were Americans, so they weren't supposed to know such things. On such convenient fictions does the world turn, he thought, as the sound of that motor and the rushing air drowned in Hafidha's quick, urgent voice.
"Right," she said. "Irene Czerny. Took a degree in agriculture from Guelph, Ontario, but not before running away to get married at the ripe old age of seventeen. Until January, when her husband left her for a woman half her age."
"Classy," Solomon Todd said.
"At least they had one last happy Christmas, hmm? Lots of ostentatious Facebook pictures from then on: Looks like she's a member of the look how much fun I'm having school of breakup management. We've got one-off shots and credit card payments for all sorts of activities: poetry readings, a gym membership, yoga classes; there's a pile of Eventbrite tickets for political talks, and five Meetup groups. I don't think she went back to anything twice."
"Well, that's what they tell you after breakups too," Todd said grimly. "Get out there and meet people."
"Except she never goes back," Chaz mused. "So she keeps thinking that it's the place or activity that's wrong, because she still hurts. And starts fresh with another one. She only ever went on the one fruit pick."
"Any of those photographs recent?" Sol added in.
"Looks like," Hafidha said, "and--hoo boy there."
Both their phones pinged at the same time. Sol stabbed a finger at his, and the picture came up: Irene Czerny, awful thin; the weight chiseled off her with grief, or bad living. Or the anomaly, slowly nesting, curled like a snake in the gut.
"Who reported Irene Czerny missing?" Sol said suddenly.
Chaz dove into his treasure trove of files. "Her daughter, it says; living out of town. There's a cell phone number listed, and that's it."
The line hissed. "She doesn't have a daughter," Hafidha said.
Spears spun the file around and punched numbers into her own phone.
On speaker the connection was tenuous: a beep to start the call, and then it guttered in silence until the voicemail clicked in. "Leave a message," a thin, tired woman's voice exhorted, and then it beeped.
"Phone's off," Spears said.
"Phone is registered," Hafidha added quietly, "to one Irene Czerny."
Chaz pushed up from the table. "She reported herself. She reported herself missing. Why? Is she trying to get caught?"
"Yes," Sol put in. "So why's she trying to get caught?"
"It's not a cry for help," Spears said quietly, eyes burning. "It's a goodbye letter. It's her official secession from her life."
Sol raised an eyebrow. How?
"I told you about mythology," Spears said, almost fevered. "About Canadian identity, and this desire to understand ourselves; to find out, somehow, who we are. She doesn't know who she is anymore, so she tries things once. She samples. She's grabbed a multicultural group of people she met doing community work, and pulled them away up north, into the literary wilderness to find herself."
Chaz whistled. "Like a model society. She doesn't fit, so she'll make something that fits?"
"She kidnapped herself a community," Spears said, and shoved her phone into her pocket. "We're going to the hotel. Pack up fast. I'll find out when the next train northward leaves."
Sol put the lid on his coffee, and shouldered his bag. "We need to talk manifestation," he said, already moving; there were conversations you could have while walking, and this was one of them. "How does she get four other people to leave everything and walk off into the woods?"
"Gwen's pies," Robin Spears said, lips parted, eyes indescribable. "Gwen's dead grandfather's nonexistent pies."
And it slid together: All the little pieces and grains of sand, all the curiosities, all the telling details that made a good investigative article. "If we dig up Irene Czerny's grandfathers, they'll be bakers," he said.
Chaz's breath hissed out. "You've told yourselves very good stories about how important it is to have a cohesive society. They're connected. They're sharing a united identity."
"And that's why Gwen left home," Spears said, and pushed the coffeeshop door wide, letting in the streaming, bustling day. "She offered them hope."
The test results arrived on Lau's phone late in the afternoon, checked into a Minneapolis hotel room with Renee in the shower next door. Renal function severely impaired, Frost's precise, clipped voicemail said. The patient has multiple indicators of impending organ failure.
Lau lowered her phone onto the mess of dossiers; her map of the vanished I-35W bridge. Renee and her father had been near the south end; teetering too close to the edge where pavement crumpled and tore and the cold river water rushed in. Three of the cars around them had Post-It notes already: names and ages, which would turn into addresses, which would turn into a subtle monitoring, over years, for the signs of Anomalous activity.
Lau blinked. She could focus on none of it anymore.
I recommend, Dr. Frost finished, immediate remand to Idlewood and have told Dr. Ramachandran the same.
She hit a button and faded Frost's crisp voice away, surprised by the stab of loss. They barely knew each other. You've barely known each other for over a year. She'd had romantic relationships less involved than that. Friendships that were less trusting.
Lau checked her watch. The job spread across the scratchy floral bedspread was huge: She needed Art and Danny's skills, and to brief Falkner on what they'd stumbled into. She could abort this without penalty. The exposure had been out there for six whole years. For one more day, she could put it on hold.
She uncurled from the hotel bed; tapped on the washroom door. "Renee?"
The sound of tuneless singing stopped first; then the patter of water on ceramic. "Renee," she said, into that void. "I have a message from Dr. Frost. It's not good. Your kidneys." She swallowed, and pressed a cheek against the particle board. "We have to get a flight to Idlewood as soon as we can."
The silence yawned. Behind her, Hafidha's phone rang. "Yuh-huh," she said into it, and then: "Child Services is ready," and slid mismatched electric-blue socks into her shoes.
The door had opened while she turned away; she was standing a body's length away from it without having noticed, without thinking of the way arms and legs collaborated. Damn, she thought, as the urgency started to fade into a strange puzzlement.
"We don't have to do this," Lau said, grasping at straws, and the handwriting curled across her notepad, girlish, jagged. Deadly firm.
Come on, it said. If I'm dying, first I'm going home.
There's all sorts of curious things happen. In some ways you may have gone to the North to get away from society and you find yourself far closer to it than you've ever been in your life. -- Robert A.J. Phillips, The Idea of North.
The train from Union Station left an hour before midnight: sleeper fare, stretching northward, into the darkened summer wild. These tracks had flooded like a river the night Gwen Fontaine disappeared, and still the trains ran: out of the city, north, north, a cresting wave that washed across the infiniteness of the land.
Southern Ontario scrolled by out Chaz Villette's window: trim houses into factories, into small towns and full fields; still too dark to see whose dreams they were pushing through. Gwen Fontaine had taken this trip a bit more than a week before him. Hundreds of explorers, traders, soldiers had taken this trip. If he listened, he could hear the echoes of their footsteps leaving their old lives behind.
I have two doctorates, a firearms certification, and a death sentence, he thought, as the lights of water towers blinked and swept away. How on earth do I live a life after this? How do I live another life?
He had let himself stop imagining it: A life without his condo, habit-worn around the edges, its block cutting board dulled by knives fitted to his hand. Hafidha in the next room, playing She Wants Revenge just at the edge of too loud and slopping coconut oil conditioner on the edge of the tub. Thursdays climbing with Tasha, quieter and lonelier now. A silent desk, in a cramped room, standing ready to eat any spare time or hows or whys with its all-consuming, hypervigilant secrets. He'd put away the fantasies of running away. Fickle, flighty, one foot out the door always, he had let himself--made himself, no matter how it hurt--commit.
He spread a long hand on the cool window, blotting out the trees and boulders and farms. Plans. A plan, plural. I could be laid off from my whole life, he thought bitterly. Off into the great unknown.
The train whistled, a long, low call into a space where nothing would call back. Run, he thought reflexively; the habit jerking like a twinged knee. Run away before it leaves you; run away and never come back. He shook his head, quietly; he couldn't even believe it anymore. When Todd called it a career he'd known better. It wasn't a career. It was a family; it was a home. It was a calling, of sorts, and callings followed you along the tracks; kept pace with your footsteps. They circled your trail like nightmares and bent it right back into their arms.
Stop it, Charles Travis, thirty-one years of age, he thought, and closed his hand. You are in your family. You are committed.
You are here.
The engine pointed north. In the wide blue seat next to him, Solomon Todd flipped a page: The Pickton trial, all over again; the jagged, kind faces of the disappeared. Chaz fell asleep dreaming of murdered women in the mud and futures; of lines severed, or bent, or bright.
Spears nudged him out of a light, smeared doze as a precise voice announced ten minutes to a place called Hornepayne, in English and French. "This is our stop," she said, as he rubbed dreams and crumbs from his eyes.
"What time is it?" he asked.
"Two-thirty in the afternoon," Sol put in behind him. "It's tomorrow."
Chaz licked parched lips; stretched muscles bunched against the pull and sway of the train. The view outside the window was partially obscured by a mustard-and-white building clad with winter siding. Above it, above the pavement, the wilderness reached up: green and blue and green again, an endless, wide-fingered sky.
He got to his feet, utterly displaced. The trees were different; the shrubbery was different. He'd dreamed himself onto another planet. "Hornepayne," he said unsteadily.
"Railway hub," Solomon Todd said, and lifted their go bags off the luggage rack. "Lumber town. And where Gwen Fontaine got off the train."
The rail station was just a trackside building, floored in slick linoleum, lined with well-worn chairs and a handful of snack machines. No one else got off beside them; the train idled for five minutes, and then chugged off into the west, without a car, without connections. Utterly alone.
Constable Spears's shoulders eased down lower than Chaz had seen them yet: Something of a small-town, rural woman coming back into breathable air. She pushed into the station and caught the eye of its one occupant: an elderly, crease-tanned, black-haired man rustling behind the ticket counter.
"Kwey," Spears said mildly to him, and gave a grave smile. "I'm looking for a cousin of mine, name's Gwen; about twenty-four. She came up a week back with some friends of hers from Toronto, whole group of them; white lady, and a Filipino man--"
The stationmaster's age-crinkled eyes flickered into recognition. "Oh, them. I know the girl you mean."
Spears nodded, a slow thanks. "You know which way I'd find her? Her mother's worried."
The stationmaster didn't offer comment; didn't even show a hint that he was thinking it. Small-town skills, Chaz thought ruefully as the man took him in; took the measure of Sol Todd. "I'm afraid that crew didn't stick around past one night. Their friend showed up with the truck the next morning, and they rumbled up the highway to whatever fishing camp or hunting camp they're here for."
"Up the highway?" Spears caught it like an angler.
"You go east to Constance Lake, and then north: All that's there is camps, and then you hit the river. They did stop in Constance Lake for supplies. You might ask after her there."
"Meegwetch," Spears said, and ambled back to them. "I'll rent a car."
Chaz bit his lip to keep from saying: Where? It was a speck of a town: it sounded mostly like lumber and the wind. Spears pushed out of the station as loosely as she'd strode in, and the stationmaster watched them without full-on watching.
"I'm going to the bathroom," he said, and slunk away.
The car Spears found was someone's aging family sedan: weatherbeaten, sun-stained, still wearing its snow tires. "I gave him a hundred bucks for the day, so let's only make it one day," she said, and they piled into the car; breathed its dusty mothball heat.
"Constance Lake," Spears said, and felt in the glove box for a map. Chaz shook his phone reflexively awake, and thumbed Google Maps. There was no signal; no wireless or cell service for miles.
"Constance Lake, check," Sol said from the front, and unfolded the map in a crinkle of paper.
Spears put the key in the ignition, and steered north, away from the railway line. Chaz hunched his knees up in the back seat, every tenuous tie to the world he knew parting away.
Spears hit the gas, and there was nothing but the huge sky, and the land, and the road.
The house on Minnow Lane was wholly unremarkable: Another aluminum-sided building on another residential street, paint scuffed with weather and the benign years. Spotless, Lau thought, as the pleasant-faced staffers from Child and Family Services and Detective Saul Zingermann tapped on the door. A gruff, overly polite older white woman opened it. "That'd be Grandma," Hafidha said from the passenger seat, and peered through the windshield, stakeout-style. "She doesn't look happy."
"Who's ever happy to see Child Services?" Lau said, and gripped the wheel tight.
Zingermann had an earpiece nestled under his hat, and in the front seat, the receiver it led to crackled to life. "Ma'am," he was saying, remote and formal. "If we could just take a seat in the living room, Ms. Williams will interview Katie and Alia in the kitchen."
Trust your people, Lau thought to herself--the one thing Falkner had really drummed into her--and they listened to the footsteps echo through the Abdi-Johansen house.
She had heard it a thousand times before: A conversation made of murmurs, of voices raised in denial and shock, false or real. Just another variant of life going horrifically wrong: the horrible hours, years before, when Sufia Abdi had not known if her husband was coming home; the bitterness, the injury, the economic uncertainty when he did and the damage to his spine did not heal. Gudrun Johansen's insistent move into the guest room, and the audible shuffle of power between mother and son and daughter-in-law as they spoke over each other, cut each other off, fell into mutual silences.
"Have you ever sought counseling for the family, Ma'am?" Zingermann said: a clear voice in the fuzz, in the wilderness.
Gudrun Johansen must have raised her voice, or leaned in close to the microphone. "Counseling," she said, and it was a scoff. "Nobody here is crazy."
In the back of the car, something rattled: the quiet sound of a door opening and closing. Lau looked over her shoulder--but no. It was nothing.
The note fluttered through the gap in her window a minute later.
They don't believe me. They're not going to do anything.
She caught a breath. "Renee--" she started.
They're my sisters!!! landed in her lap a heartbeat later.
Hafidha opened the passenger door. "So there's no one in the back seat anymore, hm?"
"Oh, shit," Lau said, and they burst out of the car, to the little perfect house and its open door.
Nikki Lau had trained, imperfectly but insistently, to recognize the signs of domestic abuse. The house was stiffly, artificially clean; you could smell the bleach wafting out the open windows. The two teenagers in the kitchen raised their heads first, alarmed: a pair of tiny, healthy Renees, well-fed but wary, hands clasped tight in their laps as the Child Services staffer spoke. A math textbook, spine cracked open, sat abandoned on the dining room table, and then Lau had burst through into the living room and Sufia Abdi--Renee's mother, she realized--was on her feet next to the couch where her husband wincingly reclined.
Zingermann stood, mouth crimped tight. "What's the trouble?"
Lau tried desperately to regain an inch of her poise. "Renee."
Lau watched the name fall, pebbled, into a serene pond. The worry on Sufia's head flattened into confusion, and she reached out for her husband's hand. "Listen," Peter Johansen said roughly. "I don't know who you are, but I think you have the wrong house."
The thump that came from upstairs was loud enough to shake that house on its foundations.
Everyone looked up: Lau, Hafidha, Wilkins, Zingermann, the three Johansen adults. Zingermann resettled his cap. "Sir, Ma'am, I think I'd like to see what that noise was."
Hafidha shot a raised-eyebrow glance at Lau: I know what that noise is. "Stairs are where?"
It's stubborn bitchery, Lau thought, desperately, and stayed at their heels. Renee loved her little sisters. She'd left them in this house. And if it meant their safety, after three and a half years she was ready to reappear.
The upstairs of the Abdi-Johansen house was messy: splashes of everyday life still spilling from the bookshelves and linen closet. It was more honest; the havoc of a house where one parent was ill, another overworked, the third adult's household habits a constant, low-grade battleground. Two bedroom doors hung open: one painted a bloodcurdling pink gave way into twin beds, a riot of shared clothing; the other let slip a peek of a master bedroom refitted for mobility access. A third door was decorously, firmly shut.
Behind the fourth a fist thumped endlessly on the plywood door. Insistent. Not giving up.
Detective Zingermann stopped beside it, and let out a breath. "So, what'd be here?"
The strain on Gudrun Johansen's face was impossible. "We don't go in there," she said, under her breath.
The thump came again, louder, and Lau abruptly understood the tension rippling through all three Johansens' skulls: the collision between what you saw and heard and what you'd been pushed to forget. The collision of two things, equally unspeakable.
"Sir, Ma'am, I have to ask you to open that door," the Child Services staffer said.
"We don't--" Peter Johansen started.
"Mom, goddamnit--!" Renee hollered from the other side of the door, and Sufia Abdi's face constricted with a breathtaking pain as Lau shoved open the door.
The room was full of artwork: Collages mounted and hung on poster tacks on the green-painted walls, surrounding a wood desk, an aging stereo system like well-wishers to a funeral. Three-year-old candy wrappers flaked and degraded in the sudden burst of fresh air. The bed was unmade, and had been unmade for years, the sheets frozen in stiff peaks of cotton and old sweat. Laundry lay where it fell; heaped around the hamper, underneath a faded Ke$ha poster. Everything--everything--was coated in a fine and choking dust.
Lau would not have dared disturb that tomb. But the Child Services staffer stepped across the threshold, picked up a sheet of paper from the desk, and held it up.
Familiar looping handwriting: Stronger, then, than it was now. An American History essay, interrupted, unfinished, with Renee Abdi-Johansen in curled blue pen at the top.
"You have a third daughter," the staffer said.
"No," Gudrun Johansen answered. "No."
"Oh God," Sufia said, wide-eyed.
"We're going to have to ask some questions down at the offices," the staffer replied, and the look on all three Johansen faces, as the long-term memory rushed in, tasted like heartbreak and dust.
They drove as far as they could northward, Spears at the wheel, up Highway 663; through forest and brush and past long lakes named Bluejay and Wren, until they came to the riverbank. "End of the road," Spears said, and parked the car and locked it.
There was another vehicle there, in the headwaters of that cracked highway: a blue truck, paint peeling, sawdust powdering its tailgate. Sol paced a circle around it. "Not abandoned," he said over the rush of the river, the hum of wind and animal life. "It's locked. And there's no more than a day's dust on the windshield."
Chaz leaned over his shoulder and peered inside. "Fresh coffee cup in the holder."
Spears pocketed the car keys, and they hiked into the bush.
It was hot, and dry; the foliage was thick. Roots and weeds tore at Sol's city shoes as they paced beside the chill summer current. "There's an island in that river," Chaz said, one eye on the paper map Sol had found in the car's glovebox; one eye on the greenery that swayed about his socks. "Close enough to reach the car, but still isolated. What do you think?"
Defensible, Sol assessed. You'd see or hear anyone coming long before they'd see or hear you. He brushed a blackfly off his sleeve, and another, and then gave up. "I like it," he said. "Thing is, how do we get there?"
Chaz loped along the river like a zoo-raised deer. "It's narrower here. Not by much," he called.
The current was still swift. Sol shaded his eyes: They had got across somehow; a boat, or a bridge. He scanned the foliage, green upon green; let the colors just fade into his eyes on the hunt for something mismatched. And--"There," he said, and pointed. "Brown canoe, pulled up onto the shore."
"That won't help us," Spears said.
"Oh, yes it will," Sol answered, and worked his way back through the brush. "Private Citizen Villette, I am about to go back to the car and fake a disturbance. Please do detain anyone who rows over to check it out."
Chaz grinned. "And here I thought you were going to lasso it or something and pull it in with your uncanny strength."
"I did tell you about that one time I traveled with the Great American Wild West Show, right?"
"You told me that one."
"Well," Sol Todd said, "I'm not as young as I was back then," and worked his way back to the loaner car.
It wasn't hard to get the rhythm of a car alarm: Honk, honk, honk, he pressed out steadily, and waited, a journalist in his lair. They were city kids, every one of them, three hours north of the nearest supplies. The truck was a lifeline. They had to check.
Ten minutes into the exercise, Spears peeked through the brush. "They're coming," she said, and beckoned Chaz forward. All three of them lurked behind the car, waiting.
The figures emerged through the flattened weeds: Christof Wyrzowski and Daniel Badi, each with a cautious hammer in hand. Chaz visibly swallowed. Todd reached for the gun he didn't have, and sighed. He braced himself--his best weapon, himself--took his hand off the horn, and stood straight next to the car.
"Christof," he said gently. "We've been trying to find out if you were okay."
The words had impact; his slightly distant eyes sharpened, with surprise and more. He didn't expect anyone to miss him, Sol calculated, and let the next volley fly: "People at home are worried about you. Your boss. Your neighbors."
"Your parents and teachers and friends," Spears added softly, and Daniel Badi tucked just slightly behind the older man's leg.
"They're not mad," Chaz added, and maybe he was using his mirror, but with that look on the poor kid's face, maybe he didn't have to. "They're just worried something bad happened, and they miss you."
"You want to bring us back," Christof said. His missing persons file had put him in the city for two years; his accent was still brilliantly robust.
"We want to set everyone's minds at ease," Chaz said smoothly. "If you're happy and safe, we want to tell your friends and communities that."
The bait dangled: If you're happy and safe. If not, the car was right behind them; the road led to the familiar; the train would be waiting at the station stop.
"You have to talk to everyone," Daniel said haltingly; he's shy, Sol diagnosed. Not just from the shock, and the vagaries of recent immigration. He was a kid, and he was just plain shy. "We don't make decisions without everyone there."
"All right," Spears said easily, from behind Sol's right shoulder. "When can we go see everyone?"
"They're already waiting," Christof said, and led them down to the beached canoe.
The opposite shore was rocky and green; the path that led from it already well-worn with boots, with broken branches to each side. They followed the old man and the young teenager--walking unnaturally close for strangers, for people who'd met just a month before--single-file down the awkwardly cleared trail. "What's that?" Villette said.
Todd froze in the brush; such unfamiliar brush with its prickles and too-light green. The bang sounded irregular in the distance, impact sharp. A shotgun; no. "A hammer," he said, and they crashed through the forest, into the clear.
The disappeared men and women were building something in the round: a squat cabin of timber and hardware store nails, constructed clumsily, like a child's drawing. Piles of rough-sawn wood hunched like sentries on the ground, around a communal water bucket and a spread of picnic remains. They hadn't gotten past the frame work, but didn't seem concerned; in a corner were five brightly colored tents. The days were long, and water close by.
They were fixing up to stay.
A short man in a stained undershirt--Arvin Costello, Todd realized--whistled the chorus from a folk-pop song, and dark-haired, voice rough as a crow, a young woman picked up the descant. Todd matched the face, eyes, hairline with her photo: Gwen Fontaine. The fear in his chest, the one he'd carried since the plane took off from Dulles or even before, loosened and transformed.
"Gwen," Constable Spears breathed, and she looked up.
No; they all looked up.
"Robin?" she said, and with the same bemused surprise, the white woman next to her added: "What are you doing all the way up here?"
"Looking for you," Spears said, and strode to meet her. Hesitated. "Gwen, how could you just vanish like that? If you wanted to go somewhere, why didn't you call us and say?"
The trouble came across Gwen's bright face for just a moment: a cloud on the vibrancy of young muscles working; sweat and sunshine. "We're making something better," she said, and Todd saw it now: the distinct look of a person's mouth wrapped around another's cadences and words. "It was really important to go."
"Really important?" Spears snapped. "To terrify us so you can build a log cabin?"
And Todd recognized it: Years moving from commune to commune, the dusty optimism, the crude, half-developed skills. Ideas of construction, cultivation passed from hand to hand or sketched in the rough, like the crayon drawings of children for whom cow and corn were pictures. "Not just a log cabin. A just society, hm?" he asked softly. Not all our myths were about the end times. We dreamed, daily, that it would be better somewhere out there, somehow; if we could just get free and away.
Or at least he and his had, in the seventies. Around the same age Irene Czerny would have been, back then.
They beamed; all five of them, bright and effervescent. "We're going to do it all differently--" Arvin Costello started.
"Grow our own things--" Daniel Badi chimed in.
"Nobody else's oppression is going to reach us here," Czerny said.
The lightness on his hip tugged at Sol's whole body; ran threads into the whole situation. You used to know other ways of dealing with things, the young man who had traveled those communes chastised, and he forced his hand into his pocket. To finger the keys, devil duckie, wallet in there over and over again.
"That's great," Spears said, torn apart with pain. "But come Friday night, I'm going to be back home on the reserve talking drunk white kids into turning their truck around, so they don't try to beat them up some Indians."
"You don't have to," Gwen stumbled. "There's room. You can stay."
"The girl I know wouldn't say that," Spears overrode her. "The Gwen I know went to law school on a scholarship and ten potluck fundraisers with a plan to use her education to lift up her brothers and sisters, and she would never say it was all right to leave anyone behind.
"You shouldn't have done it," Spears snapped, teary and furious. "I can't believe you dared. Do you know where your mother thinks you are right now? Do you know what we all thought happened to you?"
Todd had reread the Robert Pickton case on the train: six hundred pages and six hundred miles of muck and pigs and indifference. They'd found a woman's skull cut in half with the hands and feet stuffed inside like a jewel box. A missing girl's jawbone in the pigs' slaughterhouse. They'd been addicts; they'd been prostitutes. They'd been Native, so nobody listened, and it went on for years.
That was what Robin thought had happened. That was what happened when women like Gwen Fontaine disappeared.
Gwen and Arvin and Daniel and Irene ducked their heads, the same gesture: They didn't think. In unison, in chorus, in a fever dream of a forty-year-old idea of what it was to be just, they had neglected to mention the very things that were the bread, butter, and bitterness of Gwen Fontaine's life.
"Did you forget," Robin Spears said baldly, "who you are?"
Yes, Todd realized, as the four of them shuffled their feet in a unison rhythm. Gwen Fontaine had forgot who she was, for a few short weeks, and it had been glorious.
"Chaz?" he said, casual and pitched to barely carry. "What exactly d'you see?"
Chaz went still, and then his face twisted, with a thousand emotions at once; a torrent of changeable feeling, coalescing down to one. Todd had not seen the sight in a long time: Charles Villette, absolutely struck dumb with surprise.
"It's one mind," he said, his eyes still glassy, pupils small with the mirror in his head. "Or not one, but--" his hand shaped the curve of the indescribable. "It's one the way the ocean's one body of water, but full of droplets and molecules. Little drops."
A commune, Todd thought. "You kidnapped them," was what he said.
Irene Czerny's hollowed face contorted. "Don't say that. We chose. We all chose," echoed from five mouths around him, and it was all her voice.
"No, I think you took them," Todd said, his fury pitched to sound like mild calm. "I think you picked out the one side of each of these people that made you happy, and decided the rest could go swing."
"She wasn't happy," they said. "We weren't happy."
"We're building something better, where we can be," Daniel Badi murmured, in the same tones, the same music as an older white woman from the suburbs.
"We're saving lives," Arvin Costello finished, hammer in hand, bright and proud.
"Y'know what Gwen does when she's not happy?" Robin said. "She builds something better, right there, right then. She changes what's wrong. She fights."
They closed in together, a fence of bodies, a thicket: hands brushing callused hands. Chaz's eyes went pinprick again, and his mouth opened in confused anguish. "You said it wouldn't--I knew it wouldn't work--come on, you didn't; we all agreed, we talked about it for weeks and weeks."
His voice slid up and down the scale, ate pitch, register, accent as the words rolled out of his mouth. Spears stared. The line of missing people stared. "What's he doing?" Chaz whispered, and Daniel Badi's mouth rounded into an O.
The sounds from Chaz's mouth were unintelligible now: too many words, too many syllables moving at the speed of thought. The pitch raised to argument, to grief and anger and assertion. And then he threw his hands, someone else's hands up in the air, and in an accent not unlike Robin Spears's wide one, said: "If we're going to stay together, we vote. We choose."
Irene Czerny's face turned an unlovely, frantic red. "We can't. We can't leave me," she gasped, and held up the hammer.
"We decide together," four mouths snapped, four feet stomped in unison, and Charles Villette closed his eyes, closed his mouth, and went down gasping.
From the outside, the vote looked silent. No one moved; no expression crossed any of those five faces except for Irene Czerny's: pushed farther and farther out of composure, to rage, to pain, to tears. "But I made this," she whispered, and closed her hand into a fist around that hammer. "I made us together."
"We made," Arvin Costello said softly. "It's not just if we can't choose."
Irene Czerny shrieked, a horrible, heartbroke sound, and raised the hammer--
--and it landed, clumsy with force, against her own skull.
She crumpled into doll limbs: a hammer and two weak arms against the hillock ground. A wrenching breath choked out of four mouths, and then--cacophony.
Daniel Badi's eyes went wider and wider, bright with panic, and he started to heave fat breaths. Separate, individual breaths. "Oh, Jesus," Gwen said, and looked up, hands at her temples, blood trickling from her nose.
"Oh, Jesus," Arvin Costello breathed, heartbroken, and folded double in on himself.
Sol felt down Irene Czerny's arm for a pulse: still alive. Concussed, likely, and in need of the kind of bed rest you couldn't get out in the bush. But the blow hadn't been strong enough to jar her brain into shutdown.
A shadow lapped him; he looked up, and saw Christof Wyrzowski. Looking at Irene, at the cabin, at his own blistering hands. "I will stay," he said quietly, and knelt beside Irene to brush the torn grass from her sleeves. "We will take care of each other, her and I."
Spears loomed over them abruptly. "We're not leaving you here. She needs medical attention. You're in the bush."
His expression twisted. "Constance Lake, then. Take us there. But that will be it."
Sol met his eye. "You sure?"
The older man looked around at the bones of the cabin; at the greenery run riot, the bright blue sky. "City life was not good for me," he said, and brushed the hair from Irene Czerny's face like a kind brother. "Take them home. Just get us to Constance Lake."
Sol rose, and left them, together and chosen so, on the verdant grass. Walked back to the knot of people where Chaz spoke low to Daniel Badi about safety and home in the language all once-frightened children could still share; to Robin Spears grimly standing, exhausted, parade-posture straight.
To the sound of Gwen Fontaine sobbing; sobbing like a boxer, her arms wrapped around Arvin Costello to hold him up and push him, gentle as a feather, back into the ring.
Nicolette Lau was supposed to be in transit: On a commercial flight home, trailing Hafidha and Renee, who had left directly for Idlewood that morning. There were maps to make, and lives to chart: radiating out like beams of light from that bridge fallen in the Mississippi River to lives and homes unknown.
She wasn't. She was standing on the doorstep of the house on Minnow Lane.
Lau had gone over the justifications thoroughly in the car: What happened if Peter Johansen cracked from the pressure of this week? If the anomalous passenger he and his oldest daughter shared woke, and panicked, and spored? They needed something. They needed a warning of what could happen; what had happened to the daughter they couldn't remember. What might tear them apart all over again.
It was all simple bullshit. Nikki Lau was here because Renee was going to Virginia to die, and she needed to tell that narrow, worried woman what had happened to her oldest daughter.
Her knock echoed through a hollowed-out house; a ghost of the ghost-noises Renee had hollered in her dead bedroom. It was years before Sufia Abdi answered it, instantly older; sleeves covered in dust. She's been going through Renee's room, Lau thought, with a little leap of hope. There's a chance. She still cares.
"Ms. Abdi," Lau said, and the seamed, tired eyes turned down into a wary frown.
"They're still down at the station," Sufia Abdi said tightly. Her husband; her mother-in-law. Her children, whose home and financial future would be in jeopardy now that Gudrun Johansen was under investigation by the police for Renee's flight from home.
"I know," Lau said, thrown and trying not to be. "I was hoping to speak with you privately. About Renee."
Lau had already seen Child and Family Service's recommendation. Renee Abdi-Johansen's two wary sisters would stay in their home, with their parents, under the guidance of a social worker. All five of them would start the family counseling they should have had years before. Gudrun Johansen would live offsite, in a separate residence, and slowly, hopefully, her tangle of fear and rage and obligation could be unraveled, without unduly blaming a child for her son's broken back.
And no one else would have to leave home and die alone.
There is no justice, Lau thought bitterly, for half a second, before she squelched it. Justice was not unidirectional, or uncomplicated; there was no one person that justice was for. If you did it right, it spilled like groundwater.
If she did this right, Renee's sisters would grow up safe, and Renee wouldn't be left high and dry.
"She's ill," Lau said, fast. "She's been living in the shelter system for three and a half years, and she has a condition--it's going to be terminal, one day. I want you to know you can visit her. You can still tell her you love her. She misses you. She loves you."
Through the narrow crack between door and frame, house and wilderness, inside and out, Sufia Abdi closed her careworn eyes.
"My card," Lau said, and held it out; a cycle complete. A circle, back to the beginning she hadn't even known she was making. "Take it, please. If you ever want to write her, to talk to her--we can do it. She'll be living in a medical facility in Virginia. I don't know how long she has. But if you can go down, she'll be waiting."
Renee's mother looked at the card in Lau's hand; at the paved walk, the summer weeds on the lawn, the driveway empty of family cars, the clear, untroubled blue sky.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"We have two daughters," Sufia said firmly, and shut the door in Nikki Lau's face.
Lau reached into her pocket and clutched the picture inside; palmed from the mantel as Child Services led Renee's parents away.
Three smiling faces, all in a row.
The North does show you exactly how much you rely on your fellow man, what the sense of community means. The sense of community in the North, unlike in the South is a matter of life and death. The thing about the North of course in personal terms is that in the North you feel it's so big. It's so vast. It's so immense. It cares so little. And this sort of diminishes you and then you think My God, I am here. I've--I've got here. I live here. I live. I breathe. I walk. I laugh. I have companions. -- James Lotz, The Idea of North.
It was June, sun shining through a rain that gathered and pooled in her sneakers, and Gwen was picking cherries when the question came: "If you could start again, start a utopia, what would you do?"
She didn't answer right away; she was perched ten feet in the air on a slippery ladder, and her hands were full of bright red fruit. "Pass me the bucket?" she said, and Arvin shaded his glasses. They'd picked together before, a handful of times last summer. Still, she barely knew him. He wasn't the talking type.
"Hold on," he said. "It's all full of rain."
"Cherry rain," little Daniel said with a laugh, and tilted the water so Gwen could see.
The white bucket was rich with dilute red juice: cherries pressed under their own weight, under the weight of the water, burst and flavoring it into something bright. "Think we can drink it?" Arvin asked.
"Either it's great or we'll die."
"Well," Irene said, with a sudden glint in her eye, "death pact."
They might die, but it was delicious: cool and clean and sweet. All the promise of the short summer that had just barely arrived swirled deep in the back of her throat. "Oh man, give that back," Daniel said, and they passed the bucket, water bottles dipping, a drinking horn, a feast dish; shared and intimate as a childhood ceremony.
Sacrament, she heard, a susurrus, a whisper. The first rustle of something sweet vining out, binding her, so solitary, into this awkward group of the uprooted. We drink and it's a sacrament.
Their hands moved, in slow concert: plucking the sweet fruit, cherry-juice-stained, sorting and brushing between the soft green ovals of its leaves. She was perched on the cherry's wide branch; she was hefting the white bucket high; she was striped with warm rain, dripping, the slick ladder tight under her hands.
The silence stretched out through the late afternoon, between the rustle of cherry leaves and summer rain. She closed her eyes and still saw: The scuff of a wet sneaker and hands that were her neighbors' hands. Five bodies, choreographed perfect, together: What shall we build?
And for a moment, all things were possible, and it would never fall apart.
The boarding pass was stiff enough to fold into a telescope. Chaz Villette rolled it up and peered through it: at the table lamps of the departure lounge, the small airplanes outside the window, Solomon Todd sitting next to him with his cell phone in his hand. The world narrowed. That was what it did. You grew older, and your choices fossilized, and the aperture got smaller, like--there.
"What are you doing, Charles?" Todd asked without looking up.
Chaz shut his eyes. Blocked out the pinprick universe. "Grim philosophy," he said, and put another biscuit in his mouth. "What are you doing?"
"Goopily texting my girlfriend," Sol said, and hit send.
World saved again for this calendar hour. Over by eleven if that's all right?
The reply came near-immediately: I'll b up, in Mehitabel's own mix of punctilious grammar and the kind of text-speak Sol expected from a thirteen-year-old. I luv u. C U soon.
Mehitabel put the phone down on the kitchen table and picked back up her battered copy of Great Expectations. It was a third-hand edition: One of the few modern ones that had Dickens' original ending. "'I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview,'" she read to herself, softly, wrapped in the smell of cooling rosemary and white bean soup and the taste of dark black tea, "'for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham's teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.'"
It was a much better ending, she thought. An ending for when one grew old and in love with the thought of compassion. An ending for people who had lost.
It was much better.
I took her hand in mine, Bekk Falkner read, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.
Bekk Falkner turned the last page of Great Expectations and set it down on her desk: Another reading assignment crossed off the list. It had been her decision to stay in Minnesota for the summer semester and pick up a few breadth courses: long days of sitting under flowering trees to read great works of literature. The tree roots were rough on her butt muscles, and there were an unfortunate number of ants and mosquitoes, and apparently you couldn't read under trees romantically once twilight hit. She rubbed her eyes. Almost eight in the evening. Not too late to pick up the phone.
She dialed the long-distance card numbers, and then, on a hunch, her mother's office line. The hunch paid off: "SSA Falkner," her mother said, faraway and official, professional and stiff-straight.
"Mom?" she said, and it was Mom, not Ma or the supremely annoyed Mother, because she was feeling affectionate. Esther Falkner's voice buzzed on the other end of the line; tired, as always. The sound of massaged temples, and a smile, and worn-down eyes.
"Hey there, Penguin," she said. "Everything all right?"
Bekk had two theories on why her mother always asked that: Her survivor grandparents' influence, long made an anxious habit, or a slow conviction from the work she did that things mostly weren't all right, ever.
"Everything's fine," she said, and hesitated. "I just wanted to say hi."
I just wanted to hear your voice. It was so strangely hard to say that to your mother when you'd chosen to stay away.
"Oh," her mother said, as if she understood exactly. "How's Blackstock?"
"Empty," she said, and curled into her chair. Relieved. "The whole town just dies out for the summer. It's just the staff and the high school kids and the other summer program types."
"But you're making friends, right?"
Bekk's mouth curved. Her mother: Always worrying. Always trying so badly to hide it. "I'm making friends," she said. "Yeah."
"Hey, how's this: I've got two lines here. I'll call home and conference in your dad and sister."
And in the darkened office, home to far too many cut ties, missing photographs, fans whirring to lonely people toiling in the dark, Esther Falkner slid her door closed and opened a new line on the phone.
Two doors farther down, Hafidha Gates trawled Facebook with one hand; the rest of her focused on trying not to think about the e-mail open behind it. When you could feel bytes and pixels like mosquito bites on your arms you couldn't just slam another window over the things that hurt to see. But she'd roughed and shoved her way through damn near everything--everything but death, babygirl, the Bug reminded--and it was too late to learn how to walk away.
Susannah Greenwood has opted to undergo the chip implantation procedure, it said, in Casey Ramachandran's habitual dry, clinical tone. Given the stellar work you and Special Agent Lau did to help bring Renee here, I'd love to see you take on a mentorship role. She's still young, and she'll have questions. Could you make a few hours a week to give her answers?
All of Hafidha Gates's report cards had pegged her as a natural leader: Bright, enthusiastic, eager for responsibility. If they could only see now how her hands shook.
She'd taken on a little sister once: done all the Here's where the girls washroom is and here's where the cute boys sit. Gave advice, leaned together. And lost, and lost, and lost.
"I'll be terrible at this," she told herself, staring at endless Flash game status updates. "I'm a broken old foulmouthed Goth baby. She's a twenty-one-year-old rich white girl who grew up in Cape Cod."
Chaz wasn't here to dry the tears, this time; to explain them away with psych theory and a double helping of kimchi dumplings. For the first time in months, she faced it down, luxuriant: Someone needed her, painful as it was to consider, and she had to deal with it all by herself.
She didn't even need to type the scrolling reply. Casey, I hate you. You are the worst doctor in the world. I can't get away until Sunday so you're going to have to wait 'til then.
Hours away, in his soft-carpeted office at Idlewood, Casey Ramachandran's e-mail pinged, and he let out a breath held in hope--for both of them; two patients caught in limbo--and smiled.
The sounds of Idlewood at its uneasy rest creaked and groaned through the foundations: the shuffle of an orderly's footsteps on her ceaseless night patrols; elevators rumbling through the wooden floorboards; the mutter, soundproofed into nothingness, that was a too-familiar scream.
Down the hall, in a room specially prepared with two solid doors and plenty of note paper, Nikki Lau toyed with the remains of a half-chewed Clif Bar. "I'm sorry," she said, and looked away from the cat door installed just that morning and the notepad inside.
The notepad stayed blank: light blue lines on yellow paper, covered with the dents of crossed-out, furious scribbling. Through the window, the wastepaper basket scattered yellow paper, torn small like confetti, like cut-out stars.
The picture was on the bedside table, though: Three brown girls, smiling, eyes like stars.
"Child Services has a file now," Lau said, more and more ineffectually. More aware than ever of the limits of her two hands. "They've done a quick home study, and talked to your sisters' teachers. Detective Zingermann says it'll be hard to get charges to stick, because you can't take the stand just yet, but he'll make sure they're safe. He'll take," she quoted, "'a personal interest.'"
She waited ten minutes for the answer: written in a looping scrawl that was familiar-unfamiliar, precisely penned. How do we find a cure?
"Casey's going to try his best--"
Outside her line of sight, the notepaper rustled. A cure for not being seen.
Vicious tears sprang to Nikki Lau's eyes, and she dashed them economically away. Jesus Christ, I don't know. Her own exterior turned the page, expressionless; frictionless by design. Frictionless from years of practice at showing only glimpses and professional smiles.
Look at me was the thing you were never supposed to say. And here she was, saying it.
"I see you," Lau said.
The voice was a memory of a conversation, half-dreamed once. "You know that's not enough," it said.
Lau closed her eyes. "Yeah," she answered. "But I do. And you see me. Maybe it's a start."
Through the porthole, two chill fingers whispered across her palm, almost there; a memory of a memory. Lau closed her hand around them, and squeezed tight as long as she could.
The nurse tapped on the door. "Agent Lau? We're closing to visitors for the night."
"Right," she said, through the lump in her throat, and the fingers untangled. I'll forget them before I even cross the hall, she thought bitterly. And then: No. Damn it, I will not.
Dr. Ramachandran was waiting in the visitors' lobby, a clipboard in hand; never without paperwork, even at nine at night. "Thank you," he said again, "for bringing Renee in."
Lau nodded. And asked the question she asked herself every day, beforehand and then after, late at night: "Were we in time?"
Ramachandran did the medical equivalent of a shrug. "It's hard to say, this early. Her kidneys are in rough shape. Just having a stable diet will help with that, and dialysis will mitigate the damage. We've also done her neural imaging, and if we can isolate where her manifestation activates, neurologically speaking, we might be able to effect an intervention."
"An intervention," Lau echoed.
"Turn it off," he explained, and leaned against the wall. "With the chip technology, if we need to. But we're going to start a program of meditation, visualization and cognitive therapy tomorrow morning."
And maybe she will live, Lau thought. A little longer. A few more precious years.
"Nikki?" Ramachandran said, wary as a cat. "Everything all right?"
She felt the memory of a memory of ghostly fingers laced in hers, holding on for dear life. Not just for dear life: In friendship. In affection and trust.
Lau closed her hand around her cool palm. "No," she said plainly.
It was a beginning.
"Reason for visiting Canada?" the customs officer had asked at pre-clearance, and Chaz Villette told her: "I was visiting a friend."
Todd hadn't said anything through the runup to departure, but with their luggage safely secured and the plane wobbling through the air, ascendant, he looked up from his true crime paperback. "I hope they don't check your international smuggling excuse."
Of course: Even back behind the yellow line, Solomon Todd had been paying attention.
"It's technically true," Chaz said. "And I do have a friend there."
"Yeah," was all he answered. But we haven't talked in years.
The other thing Chaz had forgot about commercial flights was the boredom: creased airline magazines read by a thousand other hands, no music, no good coffee on the boil. No space to have a conversation even remotely pertinent or classified. We're spoiled on that jet, he realized, with a weird chill. Don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.
Onboard internet access was almost ten bucks. He shelled out and navigated the dusty online trails from a Livejournal to a website, to a Twitter feed and a Facebook that was locked down to prying eyes. Clicked the link over and read.
He had a friend in Canada, and she lived across town with a boyfriend now; a tall, narrow man with gentle eyes. The plumber had come last week. The day before she'd picked mulberries from a neighbor's tree for a crisp. He paged back, farther; through gaps and daily details and book reviews.
She was still using his recipes. She still made his sourdough bread.
The tendril of affection surprised him: Its presence, and its tenacity. Years later, invisible and estranged, he'd mattered.
He flicked the cursor to Message, and hesitated.
She had never been the happiest person: There were always hints of trouble in the gaps between her words, the kinds of hints he had been specially trained to catch. But they weren't there anymore. He scrolled back, and back, and back.
She was happy. She had a life.
Without you, he thought reflexively, and then stopped himself. No. Without him, only and solely because he had chosen not to stay. Stopped answering the birthday wishes, stopped saying anything serious, stopped all those little signs of care that showed you were part of a society greater than yourself.
It's not mind-reading that's your greatest talent, Charles Villette, he told himself. It was professionalism; it was not staying involved. Detachment and objectivity.
It was, time and again, walking away.
On a commercial flight, he couldn't talk shop; peruse files; bury himself in the details of other people's tragedies. Chaz swirled the cursor.
Opened a new window, and put his fingers on the keys.
Hey, guys. I know it's been a while. But I've missed you. So here's what's happening in Platypus World.
The seatbelt sign pinged on, as the plane shuddered and bucked again. He hit post and sat back, into the pit of worry that had just opened between his narrow ribs.
The flight attendants moved catfooted down the aisle. "Sir," the taller one said. "I'll have to ask you to stow your electronic devices."
Chaz nodded absently and flipped the laptop shut. The sky had gone dark while he'd been typing; above them, below them, were masses of grey and twining clouds. He watched them twist together into heavy weather.
"And here I was hoping to see the Washington Monument," Sol said.
"If you're good," Chaz said, absently.
"I try to be every day," Sol intoned.
The lights in the cabin dimmed, Stygian, washed everything grey. "Passengers, please remain in your seats. We're looking at a little turbulence coming up," said the PA.
And the plane rocketed homeward, into the storm.
Well, I think like a large number of people who end up in the North, I sort of got there by mistake. -- James Lotz, The Idea of North.