…in the night of cancer

by dm gillis

I’m reposting this story from August 2013 to give readers a chance at it before I convert it into a Trudy Parr/Crispin Dench story. The pressure’s now on to create more Terminal City Chronicles inventory.

Vancouver 1953

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 had 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. My 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 I recognise, an innocent. Too young to walk the city in my head.

The phone rings. It’s phosphorescent 3.00 a.m. I lift the receiver and lay it on the pillow next to my ear.

“Hello,” I say.

“Listen to me,” a voice says.

“Hello?”

“Listen to me.” The voice. “It’s dark and cold, and I want to go home.”

“So go,” I say. “Who the hell is this?”

“I’ve something to tell you.”

“What?”

“I like your writing,” the voice says.

“Swell. Look, how the hell did you….”

“Shut up and listen to me.”

“Fine.”

“That piece you did on Rosenberg,” the voice says. “And what the court did to him. It was righteous.”

“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.” I cough. “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.” I’m interested now. “Simple?”

“Lines on paper.”

“That simple?”

“Yeah. Tomorrow, before you leave for work, ask your concierge to check your mail slot. There’ll be an envelope.”

“Then what?”

“Write. Write righteously.”

Click.

I don’t hang up, but roll onto my back. Dim blue light off the street, through the blinds. The shadowed geography of the ceiling. The alarm clock ticking. Groping at the night stand, I find a deck of Player’s and a book of matches. I smoke for two hours. From the apartment next to mine comes the sound of a woman weeping. A door closes softly. Foot steps down the hall. It gets quiet. I wake up again five minutes before the alarm.

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. I tap on the glass. He holds up a chubby palm. His lips move as he reads to the end of the page. Then, leaning forward, he places the magazine on his desk and looks me over like he’s never seen me before.

“Yeah?” he says.

“Check my mail slot, Jasper.”

“Mail’s not ‘til eleven.” He sniffs.

“Check it.”

“Look Roscoe…”

“Japer, just look. Is it gonna kill you?”

“Jeezus H….”

Jasper stands up and sticks his blunt fingers into a mail slot labelled #227 and pulls out an envelope.

“What the hell’s this?”

“An envelope,” I say.

“I gave you your mail yesterday. Say, this don’t have no stamp.”

“C’mon, give.”

Jasper hands the envelope to me through a slot in the window. It has Roscoe Phelps typed across it.

“Don’t you keep this place locked up?” I say.

“’Course.”

“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.”

“Ain’t no writer,” I say tearing open the envelope.

“Wadda you call it?”

“Reporter.”

“Same damn thing,” Jasper mumbles. And I guess in his world, informed by Real Detective, it is. He 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 pull it out with tweezers. But I’ve worked The Sun crime desk long enough to know the cops rarely get useable prints off paper. I pull the folded sheet of paper out with my 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. I fold it and stuff it into my pocket.

Coffee and eggs next. At the lunch counter at Isaac’s Rexall on Denman Street. The scent of soap and remedies mixes with the aroma of bacon, eggs, coffee and Orange Crush. I take off my hat and hang it on a hook with my coat, and sit down on a stool. The map’s in my pocket. I’ve walked four blocks to get here, wanting all the way to take it out again and study it. But there’s nothing to study. It’s already burned onto the surface of my 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,” I say. “Until something happens worth knowing about. It’s Tuesday, that’s all I know.”

“That don’t make for great conversation.”

“I could make something up.”

“Sure,” Jenny says, taking an order pad from her hip pocket. “Same as every other fella that crawls in here. Waddaya have?”

“Same,” I say, pulling over a well read copy of The Province. The headline tells me Elisabeth ll will be crowned Queen of Canada in June.

“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 I look as she walks away, then return to the paper.

I try to read, but can’t. I pull out the map and study it again. Here cherubs sleep. Swell. Somebody’s fucking with me, and I’m falling for it. …they’re well hid. The bastard’s jerking off on my nickel. Knows I have to follow up. Knows I have to lift up the lid and look into whatever hole lay under that X, empty or otherwise. I want 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 I pull out a smoke instead. Light up and inhale deeply. Taste the friendly lighter fluid and nicotine 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 me fully investigating the filthy, illiterate pencil scratch printed laboriously across greasy paper retrieved from some trashcan. Leads are never pure. They materialise from the stunted momentum of benighted minds marking their territory with the piss of myth, innuendo and paranoid conspiracy. And I’m slave to it, an accomplice. I don’t write news, I write horror fiction for the bored masses. Elizabeth ll will be Queen of Canada. Even that can’t compete with Here cherubs sleep. I already know the headline.

Jenny puts a steaming plate of eggs sunny side, sausages and hash browns down in front me. She refills my coffee. Then, since the few customers she’s serving are content, she says, “You gotta smoke, Roscoe?”

I offer her my deck of Player’s, then a light. Then I try to eat.

“Fresh grease today,” she says.

“Swell.”

“Cook washed his hands, too. There’s a story for you.”

“Great.”

“You know, for someone who writes, you sure don’t have much to say.”

I’m quiet as I cut up my sausages and smother them in HP Sauce.

“Look,” she says turning the newspaper round so she can pretend to read it. “They’re still writing about Stalin dyin’. Waddaya know?”

“Dead despots sell papers,” I say.

“You should know, huh.”

“Yeah,” I say pushing the plate away.

“You ain’t done.”

“I’m done.”

“Well, then that’ll be sixty-five cents, big spender.”

I pull out a dollar and put it on the counter.

“I’ll get your change.”

She always says that, and I’m always out the door before she gets back. This time I linger. I take a nickel from the change she brings back.

“Sorry, doll,” I say. “But I gotta call in.”

“I’ll survive,” she says.

I go over the phone booth near the exit, sit down inside and drop the nickel in the slot. Then I dial.

“Max Wendell,” the pick up voice says.

“Hell, Max. Even over the phone, you sound bald.”

“Why ain’t you at your desk, Roscoe? You got a deadline.”

“Got a lead.”

“Spill.”

“Can’t right now. May be bullshit.”

“Probably is. I still wanna hear it.”

“Having a wonderful time,” I say. “Wish you were here.”

“Better be damn good, Phelps.”

I hang up.

I take the back alley that runs between Haro and Robson. The fresh streets of Vancouver don’t seem right for this mission. A ragman moves past me on his horse drawn cart, yelling 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 I walk down the hill toward the lagoon, something starts to jump in my gut. I’ve seen enough bodies stuffed in trash cans to last a dozen lifetimes. Even a few kids. I’m getting too old for this. I need an editor’s gig. Some sweet desk job where I can get fat and die peacefully of cirrhosis. But I keep following the leads. I’m not a washout yet. They still haven’t used me up. And by the time they do, I won’t be worth shit. But for now, damned if they won’t get 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.

I 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, I go left, down toward Beaver Lake, and start to wonder how I can find anything in the mess of trees and deadfall. I pass a happy group of hikers. They’re laughing and talking and slapping each other on the back.

From the ruckus, I hear a voice say, “You’re getting warm, buddy-boy.”

“What,” I say, turning around.

But the hikers keep going, and I’m not sure what I heard. I hesitate. I want to forget this hunt for child corpses and head into the city. There are stories to finish, calls to return. I need a fucking drink. I turn around and look down the trail again. You’re getting warm, buddy-boyCherubs sleep here. Somewhere under an X.  I decide to walk on, just a few more paces, and then call it quits. I’m chasing after a bum lead. Some degenerate with my phone number and a sick imagination. Tonight I sleep with the phone off the hook.

And then I see it. 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. Just off the trail. Almost impossible to see.

The stump is in low swampy ground, surrounded by a pool of pitch and rain water. I walk in up to my ankles. My Florsheims disappear in the muck. The stump seems intact as I move around it. No place to stuff small bodies. It’s just a hoax, after all. But then I come to it. The side facing away from the trail, and there’s a small boy’s shoe half submerged in the mud. Above it is a small foot sticking out of a crevice, wearing a blue and red argyle sock. It looks as though the tree that once towered over the stump grew around whatever bodies might be inside. I kick the stump, and the rotted wood fractures and falls away. Now I begin to pull away at it.

It becomes clearer as I work 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 my head. I begin to see trousers, ankles and knees. I expose a pair of Mary Janes, and a pair of bare legs next to those wearing trousers. Splinters pierce the skin of my hands and get under my 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, run and find a cop. I’ve done my job. Time to stand down, observe and report. But I continue on up the tree stump, pulling the wood away. I can’t stop. And suddenly, I reveal two small white faces, the cheeks smudged, tussled hair. The eyes of one half open. The other with eyes fully open in cold, wet shock. I step back, and fall backward into the mud, and sit there staring up. There’s birdsong I’ve never heard before in the city. Something rushes by behind me in the undergrowth. Cherubs sleeping. One with horror on her face. The other ambivalent in death. I thought I already knew the headline, but now I draw a blank.

A uniformed cops says, “If they’re who we think they are, they’ve only been missing a couple of days.”

“You fucked this up,” says the other cop. The one wearing the five dollar suit, trying to look like a civilian. “Maybe we lay charges. I hate reporters what fuck shit up.”

“So lay charges,” I say. “Do me a favour and throw me in jail. I need a vacation.”

I walk back to the Manor muddy and wet, and take the rest of the day off. I change and head down to the bay. Let the wind blow my hair around. Drink rye from a bottle in a paper bag. Think about writing something righteous about dead children.

Later, it’s Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. A melancholy 78 played again and again. I wonder at the mountain of butts in the ashtray. Did I do that? 1.00 a.m. I should have eaten dinner. A bottle of Seagram’s ain’t enough, is always too much.  Down the street, StanleyPark is mute, but knows something it ain’t telling. Maybe I’ll sleep tonight. Maybe I’ll fall into it like a man falls on his ass. Yellow light from the lamp. The phone rings. I should have taken it off the hook.

“What?”

“You’re gonna be famous, buddy-boy.”

“You the killer?”

“Maybe. 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 250 bucks a month. You’re made in the shade, buddy-boy. Maybe I can help you write a book.”

“I ain’t no writer.”

“Wadda you call it?”

“Reporter.”

“Same damn thing.”

“What you just say?”

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