There’s a direction a city takes when kids go missing. The virtues of due process are quickly abandoned, and the closet vigilantes come out. Suddenly, everyone has an opinion and a plan.
Supposition becomes fact. The police become worthless stooges, in league with the perversions of dark and faceless perpetrators. Rights and freedoms become the sole domain of the self-anointed, raging against the printed word that breaks the news.
Trudy Parr sits at her desk, drinking coffee and reading the Vancouver Province. She turns a page. Abduction of Children a Judgement on Citizenry. The opinion page is a fierce mirror image of a city. She wonders about the word abduction. Is there a ransom letter yet? What if the kids just meandered away? But they’ve been missing for three days, and by now every citizen has lynch mob potential.
Crispin Dench enters her office and sits across from her.
“Why do you read that rag every morning?” he says.
“It stirs the blood.”
“So does Geritol.”
“I got a call from Roscoe Phelps this morning,” Trudy Parr says.
“This morning?” Dench looks at his wristwatch. “It’s only 8:30 a.m.”
“He called round seven.”
“The missing children.”
“What about them?” Dench lights a Gitane.
“He got a strange phone call last night. It could be a crank.”
“He should go to the cops,” Dench says.
“Phelps isn’t a go-to-the-cops kind of guy,” says Trudy Parr. “Besides, he’s a reporter. He wants the story for himself.”
“He should have chosen another profession.”
— earlier —
Roscoe Phelps lays in bed. Just the skipping of the needle at the end of a 78. Hours of it, over and over in the dark now that the candles have died. A jazz number. Saxophone and rhythm guitar, new out of New York. Black men and cigarettes. Indecipherable banter when the music ends. Something for the squares to ponder. And the whiskey haze. His cigarette palate, burned beyond recognition. In and out of sleep and the tenor of dreams. Remembering and foreseeing. Monsters in human shapes with sickening proclivities. The chaos they leave behind for others to quietly interpret. A face he recognises, an innocent. Too young to walk the neighbourhood in his head.
The phone rings. It’s phosphorescent 3.00 a.m. He lifts the receiver and lays it on the pillow next to his ear.
“Hello,” he says.
“Listen to me,” says a voice.
“Listen to me,” the voice says again. “It’s dark and cold, and I want to go home.”
“So go. Who the hell is this?”
“I’ve something to tell you.”
“I like your writing,” the voice says.
“Swell. Look, how the hell did you…”
“Shut up and listen to me.”
“That piece you did on Rosenberg,” says the voice. “And what the court did to him. It was righteous.”
“Righteous. So, I have something to pass on to you. Like a reward. For you, because I think you’re the only reporter in town who deserves it.”
“Great. It’s 3.00 a.m.”
“This is important. Listen to me. It’s the most important thing you’ll ever hear.”
“Okay.” Phelps coughs. “What?”
“Two bodies. Children. In the park. Not far from your apartment. If it gets warm, like the radio says, they’ll start to stink. But they’re well hid ‘til then. Can you read a simple map?”
“I suppose.” Phelps is interested now. “Simple?”
“Lines on paper.”
“Yeah. Tomorrow, before you leave for work, ask your concierge to check your mail slot. There’ll be an envelope.”
“Write. Write righteously.”
Roscoe Phelps hangs up and rolls onto his back. Dim blue light off the street, through the blinds. The shadow geography of the ceiling. The alarm clock ticking. Groping at the night stand, he finds a deck of Player’s and a book of matches. He smokes for two hours. From the apartment next door comes the sound of a woman weeping. A door closes softly. Foot steps down the hall. It gets quiet. He wakes up again five minutes before the alarm, and dials the phone. It rings and a woman answers.
“Hello,” she says.
“Yes. Who’s this?”
Trudy Parr puts her hair brush down and says, “It’s too early for this, Roscoe. Call me tonight.”
“I can’t,” he says. “I need to talk.”
“What about?” says Trudy Parr, remembering. The last night they were together. A fight. His fist and her lethal instincts, barely constrained.
“I got a call from some creep who says he knows where the missing kids are.”
“So, call the cops.”
“I will, when the time’s right. But I need your help now.” He’s silent. And then he says, “Maybe I just need you to be there.”
“The caller may have divulged their location, and I need to be the first one there. If it’s for real, it could be a big break for me. I need exclusivity. I deserve it. But I’m not sure I can go there alone. I’m not sure I want to see what I find.”
“I’m not your mother, Roscoe.”
“No. But you’ve seen things no one else has. You’re tougher than me.”
Neither one of them speaks for a moment. Then Trudy Parr says, “When and where?”
“I don’t know yet. I’ll call you at your office round nine o’clock.”
“Fine,” Trudy says. She hangs up.
8.00 a.m. and Jasper Norton, the building concierge, leans back in his chair. He’s eating Crackerjack and reading a copy of Real Detective. Roscoe Phelps taps on the glass. Norton holds up a chubby palm. His lips move as he reads to the end of the page. Then, leaning forward, he reverently places the magazine on his desk and looks at Phelps like he’s never seen him before.
“Yeah?” Norton says.
“Check my mail slot, Jasper.”
“Mail’s not ‘til eleven.” Norton sniffs.
“Jasper, just look. Is it gonna kill you?”
Norton stands up, sticks his blunt fingers into a mail slot labelled #227, and pulls out an envelope.
“What the hell’s this?”
“An envelope,” Phelps says.
“But I gave you your mail yesterday. Say, this don’t have no stamp.”
Norton slides the envelope through a slot in the window. It has Roscoe Phelps typed across it.
“Don’t you keep this place locked up?” Phelps says.
“How’d this get in there then?”
“Fuck if I know. But you run with some pretty sleazy characters, Roscoe, bein’ a writer and all. Maybe one of them snuck it in.”
“I ain’t no writer,” Phelps says tearing open the envelope.
“Waddaya call it?”
“Same damn thing,” Norton mumbles. And Roscoe Phelps guesses that in Norton’s world, informed by Real Detective, it is.
Jasper Norton grabs his magazine and sits back down.
Inside the envelope is a sheet of paper folded three times. A detective in one of Jasper’s stories would have pulled it out with tweezers. But Phelps has worked The Sun crime desk long enough to know the cops rarely get usable prints off of paper. He pulls the folded page out with his fingers.
It’s as simple as the man on the phone said it would be. A letter N with an arrow drawn through it is in the upper left hand corner. But even that’s not necessary. An unambiguous line is drawn from Lost Lagoon to a location just short of Beaver Lake. The line is labelled Lake Trail. It ends at an X. In a shaky hand, next to the X, someone has written the words Here cherubs sleep. Phelps folds it and stuffs it into his pocket.
Coffee and eggs next. At the lunch counter at Isaac’s Rexall on Denman Street. The scent of soap and over the counter remedies mixes with the aroma of bacon and eggs, coffee and Orange Crush. Phelps removes his hat and hangs it on a hook with his coat. He sits down on a stool. The map’s in his pocket. He’s walked four blocks to get there, wanting all the way to take it out again and study it. But there’s nothing left to study. It’s already burned onto the surface of his brain. Jenny the waitress walks over with a pot of coffee.
“Hey reporter man,” she says pouring. “What do you know?”
“I’m just an empty vessel,” Phelps says. “Until something happens worth knowing about.”
“That don’t make for great conversation.”
“I could fabricate something.”
“Sure,” Jenny says, taking an order pad from her hip pocket. “Same as every other fella that crawls in here. Waddaya have?”
“Same,” he says, pulling over a well read copy of the morning Province. The headline tells him World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Joe Louis Retires.
“Gimme a Roscoe,” Jenny yells to the cook, and saunters off. She’s a skinny dame, and her uniform’s one size too big. But he watches her walk away, then returns to the paper.
He tries to read, but can’t. He pulls out the map and studies it again. Here cherubs sleep. Swell. Somebody’s fucking with him, and he’s falling for it …they’re well hid. The bastard’s jerking off on his nickel. Knows he has to follow up. Knows he has to lift up the lid and look into whatever hole lay under that X, empty or otherwise. He wants to take off without breakfast. Leave Jenny and Isaac’s lunch counter behind, and walk fast back up Haro Street to the park and follow the trail toward the X. But he pulls out a smoke instead. Lights up and inhales deeply. Tastes the friendly and familiar lighter fluid and nicotine blend as it snakes its way inside.
Then it comes, the usual collection of unwelcome thoughts. The contagion that inoculates sleepless nights and broadsides the peace of innocent, unthoughtful moments. The regret of knowing that stories almost never go to print without the raspy, anonymous voice at the other end of a telephone line; never go to press without some mook like him fully investigating the filthy, illiterate pencil scratch printed laboriously across greasy crumpled paper. Leads are never pure. They materialise out of the stunted momentum of benighted minds marking their territory with the piss of myth, innuendo and paranoid conspiracy. And he’s a slave to it, an accomplice. He didn’t write news. He wrote horror fiction for the bored masses, looking for an excuse to set the world ablaze.
World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Joe Louis Retires. Even that can’t compete with Here cherubs sleep. He already knows the headline.
Jenny puts down a steaming plate of eggs sunny side, sausages and hash browns. She refills his coffee. Then, since the few customers she’s serving are content, she says, “You gotta smoke, Roscoe?”
He offers her his deck of Player’s, then a light. Then he tries to eat.
“We’re using fresh grease today,” she says.
“Cook washed his hands, too. There’s a story for you.”
“You know, for someone who writes the news, you sure don’t have much to say.”
He’s quiet as he cuts up his food and smothers it in HP Sauce.
“Look,” she says turning the newspaper round so she can pretend to read it. “The longshoremen are raising hell again. Waddaya know?”
“Labour conflict sells papers,” he says.
“You should know, huh.”
“Yeah.” He pushes the plate away.
“You ain’t done.”
“Well, then that’ll be fifty-five cents, big spender.”
He puts a dollar on the counter.
“I’ll get your change.”
She always says that, and he’s always out the door before she gets back. This time, though, he lingers and takes two nickels from the change.
“Sorry, doll,” he says. “But I gotta call in.”
“I’ll survive,” Jenny says.
He goes over to the phone booth near the exit, sits down inside and drops a nickel in the slot. Then he dials.
“Worthy Morgan speaking,” the pick up voice says.
“Hell, Worthy,” says Phelps, “even over the phone, you sound bald.”
“Why ain’t you at your desk, Roscoe? You got a deadline.”
“Got a lead.”
“Can’t right now. May be bullshit.”
“Probably is. I still wanna hear it.”
“Having a wonderful time,” Phelps says. “Wish you were here.”
“Better be damn good, Roscoe.”
Phelps hangs up and drops another nickel into the phone. He dials Trudy Parr’s number.
“Dench and Parr Investigations,” says a receptionist.
“Trudy Parr,” he says.
There’s a second of silence. Then, “Trudy Parr speaking.”
“It’s me,” Phelps says.
“Meet me at the lagoon at 9:30, by the boathouse.”
There’s a click. Trudy Parr has hung up. He holds the receiver in his lap for a moment, thinking of choices poorly made. Then he hangs up and leaves the Rexall.
He takes the back alley that runs between Haro and Robson. The fresh streets of Vancouver don’t seem right for this mission. A ragman rolls past him on a horse-drawn cart, calling out for junk and scraps. Fords and Chryslers are parked here. A rusted prewar Mercedes heap with the windows busted out. A bunch of boys playing hooky run by, chasing a fat kid.
As he walks down the hill toward the lagoon, something starts to jump in his gut. He’s seen enough bodies stuffed into trash cans to last a dozen lifetimes. Even a few kids. Maybe he’s getting too old for this. Maybe he needs an editor’s gig. Some sweet desk job where he can get fat and die peacefully of cirrhosis. But he’s not a washout yet. They still haven’t used him up. Sooner or later, they will. But for now, he’ll get them their stories.
The sun glistens off the surface of the lagoon. Swans and geese swim there. In an hour or so, people will be rowing rented dinghies. It’s strange to be here on a hunt for bodies. Soon couples will walk hand in hand.
As he waits for Trudy Parr, he thinks about their last time together. The gin, cocaine and bootleg New York cellar jazz. The violent sex. He’d tried, but couldn’t respect her for choosing him. She was exquisite crystal, after all. Hard and stunning like a diamond. He was soft. An exhausted alcoholic crime reporter. What could she have seen in him? It was her joke on him, and he’d struck out and hit her in a rage of self-hate. But she’d moved so fast, too quickly to be believed. And she’d held the knife, from behind, so immovably to his throat. He’d heard her breathing calmly at his ear, and was certain then that he would die. At the hand of that deadly elegant animal. But he had not. He knew she could do it. But instead she’d whispered, You ain’t worth it, Roscoe. And she released him out of pity. He’d listened to her footsteps through his open window as she walked away. Knowing then that he was finally and completely lost to the world.
When Trudy arrives, he’s awkward, sheepish. He hands her the map. She looks at it briefly and hands it back.
“Things didn’t end so well, last we met,” he says.
“Don’t pout,” Trudy Parr says. “You lived through it.”
They take a trail that heads away from the water and into the forest. The woods are dense here, strange so close to the city. The path is muddy from a recent rain. At a fork, they go left, down toward Beaver Lake. Phelps starts to wonder how they can find anything in the mess of trees and deadfall. They pass a happy group of hikers, laughing and talking and slapping each other on the back.
From the ruckus, Phelps hears a voice say, “You’re getting warm, buddy-boy.”
“What,” he says, turning around.
But the hikers keep going, and he’s not sure what he heard. He hesitates. Trudy stands her ground. Maybe now he wants to forget this hunt for child corpses and head back into the city. There are stories to finish, calls to return. He needs a drink. He turns round and looks down the trail again. You’re getting warm, buddy-boy. Cherubs sleep here. Somewhere under an X.
“Maybe we should just go back,” Roscoe Phelps says. “This looks like a bum lead.” Some degenerate with his phone number and a sick imagination. Tonight he sleeps with the phone off the hook.
“No,” says Trudy Parr. “There’s more to see here.”
They walk a further distance along the trail, and Trudy Parr says, “Look.”
She points off the trail at two five or six-foot saplings, just cut down, still with budding foliage, leaning against a stump, one crossed over the other in an X. Almost impossible to see.
The stump is in low swampy ground, surrounded by a pool of pitch and rain water. Phelps walks in up to his ankles. His Florsheims disappear in the muck. The stump seems solid and intact as he moves around it. No place to stuff small bodies. It’s just a hoax, after all. But then he comes to it.
“Oh, my God,” he says.
“Tell me what you see,” says Trudy Parr.
It’s the side facing away from the trail.
“There’s a small boy’s shoe in the mud,” Phelps says. “And a small foot sticking out of a crevice, wearing a blue and red Argyll sock.”
It looks as though the tree that once towered over the stump grew around the bodies inside. He kicks the stump, and the rotted wood fractures and falls. Now he begins to pull away at it.
It becomes clearer as he works up to the top. The stump is hollow. Whatever is in here was delivered through a hole at the top, a couple of feet over his head. Phelps sees trousers, ankles and knees. He exposes a pair of Mary Janes, and a pair of bare legs. Next to them, a pair wearing trousers.
Splinters pierce the skin of his hands and get under his fingernails. Now there are two torsos, one clad in a winter coat, the other in a bright hand knit sweater. It’s time to stop, to run and find a cop. He’s done his job. Time to stand down, observe and report.
“Let’s scram,” he says. “We’ll get the cops.”
“We’ll get them soon enough,” says Trudy Parr. “You wanted your story, so here it is. If you stop now, you’ll only have a part of it to tell.”
He curses her logic and continues up the tree stump, pulling the wood away. And suddenly, he reveals two small white faces, the cheeks smudged, tousled hair. The eyes of one half open. The other with eyes open fully in cold, wet shock. He steps away and falls backward into the mud, and sits there staring up. There’s birdsong he’s never heard before in the city. Something rushes by behind him in the undergrowth. Cherubs sleeping. One with horror on her face. The other ambivalent in death. He thought he already knew the headline, but now he draws a blank.
“It’s them,” says a uniform cop looking at the scene.
“You fucked this up,” says the other cop. It’s the one wearing the five dollar suit, trying to look like a civilian. “Maybe we lay charges. I hate reporters and private dicks that fuck shit up.”
“So lay charges,” Trudy Parr says. “Do me a favour and throw me in jail. I need a vacation. Except that won’t happen, will it? We found what you couldn’t. So, shut the hell up and do your job.”
The cheap suit spits, further tainting the ground of his precious crime scene.
An hour later, Trudy Parr waits outside of Stanley Park Manor while Phelps changes out of his muddy clothes. Then they go to a bar on Denman Street, where they drink rye and Coke. Phelps thinks about writing something righteous about dead children.
“You could have passed the information on to the cops,” Trudy says. “You could have spared yourself a lot of bad dreams that way. You think it’s worth it?”
“It’s a shitty job,” Phelps says, lighting up. “I have to do shitty things.”
“Does that have to include looking into the eyes of a dead kid?”
“The eyes always tell the story,” he says. “That ain’t my fault.”
Later, it’s Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. A melancholy 78 played again and again. He wonders at the empty bottle on the night-stand. Did he do that? 1.00 a.m. He should have eaten dinner. A bottle of Seagram’s ain’t enough, is always too much. Down the street, Stanley Park is mute, but knows something it ain’t telling. Maybe he’ll sleep tonight. Maybe he’ll fall into it like a man falls on his ass.
Yellow light from the lamp. The phone rings. He should have taken it off the hook.
“You’re gonna be famous, buddy-boy.”
“You the killer?”
“Maybe. And maybe I got details to help you flesh out the story.”
“Lose my number. I don’t want to talk to you.”
“Gotta admit, it’s the sort of story that makes a reporter.”
“I’m already made.”
“Oh sure, on 210 bucks a month. You’re made in the shade, buddy-boy. Maybe I can help you write a book.”
“I ain’t no writer.”
“Waddya call it?”
“Same damn thing.”
“What you just say?”
Header photograph: By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons