the case file
by dm gillis
Her name was Rachel Wild, and she had never married. Instead, she’d spent her years at a kitchen table, smoking and looking out of a window. She’d not been doomed to this. She felt no self-pity. It was just what happened. Like an unexpected incident that makes a woman say, Oh!, the moment she discovers her involvement in it. A lifetime passing. Focussed on a past personal moment. The way she might have worshipped an idol or a scrap of text. The sacredness of which was dependent upon context known to her alone.
Perhaps it had come down to a battle of anxieties, hers and those of another. The failed unsaying of a word. When the unsaying of a word might have meant so much. She’d become content in never knowing the truth of it.
But the world is news and dispatch. Story upon story expelled through the reflective conduit of time. In shapes of sparrows and sorrows. And news had finally come to her. But the news had only been a fragment of a larger story. A fragment chipped away from the end of something much larger.
Knowing this, she’d made a cup of tea.
* * *
Detective Olaf Brandt wasn’t a bad police officer. But popular opinion was that he just wasn’t sergeant material. He wasn’t afraid to use his wide Norwegian feet to chase down leads. But it was thought by those higher on the cop food chain that he had to be fed those leads. He wasn’t the sort to independently deduce his way through an investigation. He could, however, be relied upon in a street fight, to inform families of criminally dead loved ones and to go on coffee and doughnut excursions as required. It was generally accepted that he’d retire in a few years, and parish shortly after of an unremarkable illness related to the lonely excesses of a mostly friendless life.
For the time being, though, he was vital and healthy of mind and spirit. And as he sat leaning forward in the waiting area of Dench and Parr Investigations, he stared determinedly ahead at an empty point in space.
“Olaf, old boy,” Crispin Dench said, calling Brandt in. “Come into my office and tell me what’s on your mind.”
“Hello, Mr Dench,” Olaf Brandt said, getting up and giving a half-hearted wave. He stepped into Crispin Dench’s office and took a seat. Dench seated himself behind his desk.
“Coffee?” Dench said.
“No,” said Brandt.
“A shot of rye?”
“No, Mr Dench, nothing. Look, I’ve been sent here to ask you to surrender a case file.”
“Drop the mister, Olaf. Call me Crispin.”
“All right, Crispin. I’m here to ask you for a case file.”
“A case file.”
“Yes. One we, the police I mean, believe contains important information on a case that went cold some time ago, but that has now warmed a bit.”
“Case files are private property containing confidential information, Olaf.”
“Yes, Crispin. This is understood and I had hoped that we’d be able to skip this predictable part of the conversation. But if you don’t surrender the file to the police in the amicable, mutually beneficial way I’m suggesting, we’ll just get a court order.”
“Yes. One hand washing the other. That sort of thing.”
“This is a business, Olaf. Our clients have certain reasonable expectations. They pay for privacy and confidentiality. Those are products this agency sells.”
Brandt shifted in his chair and crossed his legs. There was a moment of silence.
“You still with me?” Dench said.
“It’s that Edgar Tully thing,” Brandt said. “The body, or what was left of it, in the car they pulled out of Lost Lagoon last week. It was in the papers.”
“Yes it was.”
Brandt took a notepad from his inside jacket pocket and flipped through it. It was a well practised move, meant to add gravity to the moment. But it was wasted on Dench. Brand stopped at a page and said, “You conducted a missing person investigation in 1947, for a Rachel Wild.”
“Edgar Tully was the subject of that investigation.”
“That’s the case file we’d like to see.”
“Are you and I involved in the same conversation, Brandt? Dench and Parr Investigations doesn’t hand out case files. Not to the cops or anyone.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Tell me something, Olaf. Why’d they send a B team player like you here for this? What was the last case you really worked on? They know I’d never give you a damn thing.”
“I worked on the Edgar Tully case back in ’42,” Brandt said. “So, it’s personal in a way. It was just a missing person case to most. But when you scratched the surface….”
“What? What was revealed beneath the scratched surface?”
Olaf Brandt stood to go. “I’ll return with the court order in a day or two, Crispin. See you then.”
“You know, I’ve heard your fellow officers talk about you,” Dench said. “They never have anything good to say. But you’re not as dumb as they make you out to be, are you? Why’re you still just a detective?”
“Good-bye, Crispin.” Olaf Brandt left the office.
Sleep was somewhere in his room, hiding like an outlaw. Edgar Tully knew it would expose itself eventually, and crush him. He lay on his bed, drinking cheap rye from the bottle. Could he drink enough not to dream? Most nights he could not. It was August and the night was humid and warm. He closed his eyes and was lost.
He walked a little behind the Canadian lines. Vimy Ridge. A Master Corporal in the Canadian First Division. The 12th of April, 1917. His rifle was clean but his body was filthy. Seven days out. Most of it spent marching. Then three days of concentrated battle. No promise of leave. Who knew how much more action there’d be. His section was on a routine patrol. They were also looking for the wounded and the dead left behind by the advance. He hated doing it. They never found the wounded. There were none. Only the bodies of the dead. With their blank faces. He recognised every one.
They’re with the angels now, a chaplain once said in a sermon he was duty-bound to attend. Fuck that, the Master Corporal had said when they all bowed their heads to pray. A sergeant next to him heard this and said amen, brother.
There were shell holes and blasted trenches here. Each shell hole filled with rain water. The dead were often in these. Some floating; some held submerged by the weight of their kit. He stopped at the edge of a shell hole where he saw a body, face down in the water. Tully’s section wasn’t a burial detail. They’d only have to get the name on the dog tag and record the body’s location for later retrieval.
“Private Crumb,” the Master Corporal yelled. “Bring me the hook.”
A frightened boy arrived holding a pole upon which a hook had been securely tied with wire. The Master Corporal used it to reach out into the shell hole and hook the collar of the corpse’s greatcoat. He tugged and the body began to move toward him of its own volition, a great fish intent upon beaching itself. The Master Corporal felt a deep and familiar apprehension then. The kind reserved for nightmares. The sound of shelling in the distance ceased, replaced by a loud hissing sound. He was alone now. His section had disappeared into a mist. He hesitated as the dead man came within reach. He wanted to drop the hook and run. Like he’d never run before. Even under fire. But then he crouched down, grabbed the dead man’s collar and pulled him out of the hole.
He saw the corpse’s grey face when he turned the body over. Contorted with its eyes and mouth opened wide, having died in mid-scream. There was a perfectly round and bloodless bullet hole perfectly placed in the centre of its forehead. And the foul odour of decomposition. He thought he saw the fingers twitch. But how could that be? Then the corpse resumed its scream. Impossible. A horrible and wretched noise. And the Master Corporal saw the echoing geography of it. It was a scream of headlands and gullies. The roads that ran through it. The gutted homes and foetid rivers. Ranks of the dead marching on to nowhere in lockstep. Then the corpse stopped its screaming and smiled. Its eyes at once dull and piercing. Its sudden exhalation smelling of the battlefield dead. And Edgar Tully awoke yelling. His fists clenched and raised. Swinging at the empty air.
Someone in the neighbouring room banged on the wall. “Shaddup in there,” a voice hollered. “I gotta get some sleep, gawd dammit.”
Edgar Tully sat by his window for the rest of the night. Sleep had left the room. Vimy Ridge was 25 years ago. He was forty-five now. The dreams and visions were never going to end. He took a pen and paper and wrote a short note.
In the morning he drove his Ford Coupe up the busy retail section of Commercial Drive, in the east end of the city. He expected it would be a standard handoff and delivery. He parked near Graveley Street and waited, reading a Faulkner novel, As I Lay Dying. And he wondered how descending into Hades would differ from a morning of the Drive.
It looked like rain, but he left the passenger side window open. After ten minutes or so, a large man with a pencil moustache, wearing a freshly pressed summer suit, walked by and dropped a fat leather satchel onto the car seat. Then he stuck his head through the open window. His face was doughy red and scarred, but his hair was Hollywood perfect.
“Take this to the Water Street office,” he said. “And by the way, this ain’t your average delivery, Tully. Better you should die than fuck this up.”
“I don’t fuck up,” Edgar Tully said. “That’s why you trust me.”
The big man dropped twenty dollars in tens onto the seat, and said, “Just sos you know. Experience tells me that the fatter the bag, the more likely a driver is to fuck it up. And you’ve been smelling like a real juicer lately. A man’s gotta be drinking most of the day and night to smell the way you do. Take a bath, brush your teeth and don’t dream of bettering yourself on my nickel. Get it?”
Edgar Tully looked back at the big man with his red and rheumy eyes. “Sure, Mr Vaccarino. I get it.”
Tully reached out and placed his hand on the satchel as the big man disappeared into the crowd. He was feeling lucky for once. Hopeful. He’d done his planning. But he hadn’t planned on this.
He opened the bag. It contained several large bundles of bills. Twenties, fifties and hundreds. That’s how Tony Vaccarino’s customers paid him. Because they owed him big time. He counted it. It was over twenty thousand. The Water Street office would prepare it for laundering. He’d delivered envelopes there a thousand times before, but never a package this large. The big man’s business was improving. Tully started the car.
* * *
The Hotel Balmoral rose ten stories high over East Hastings Street and advertised Black Watch Chewing Tobacco on its side. It had never been a glamorous local and now it catered mostly to retired loggers and fishermen, transients and a few unemployed women thought to be of ambiguous character. Rachel Wild fit into the last category. Though it was a mystery to her how it happened that she had arrived there.
She lived in a room on the seventh floor, sitting at her window smoking, most days, and watching the traffic pass below. It was from there, that day, that she saw Edgar Tully park his car and cross the busy street with a bag of groceries in his arms.
She got up and fixed her hair in a small mirror over the sink, busying herself tightening curls and repositioning bobby pins. Then she freshened her lipstick and stared for a long moment into the mirror. She was thirty-seven years old, and she wasn’t pleased with the wrinkles round her eyes and at the corners of her mouth. Her youth was gone and she resented it. She had a hazy resentment of her poverty, as well. Something inside of her always hurt. And though she would have had difficulty saying it politely, part of her was certain that only money could take the pain away.
There was a knock at the door. Rachel Wild let several seconds pass until there was another, this one quieter.
“Yes?” she said. “Who is it?”
“It’s me, baby. It’s Edgar.”
She put her ear gently against the door to listen closer. Sometimes she could hear him breathing. “Why, Edgar,” she said. “I had no idea you were coming.”
“Sure, baby. Why not? Let me in. I’ve brought you some things.”
“Sure, baby. Groceries.”
“Groceries? Edgar, dear, you don’t need to bring me groceries.”
It was an absurd statement. She lived daily on the verge of starvation.
“Just let me in, baby.”
She opened the door and let him. The room was long and narrow with dirty walls, dim light bulbs and exposed wiring. There was a dresser with chipped paint and a free-standing closet with a broken door. Beneath the window there was a small kitchen table and two metal chairs. On the table was an ashtray and a dog-eared copy of Women’s Own Magazine. He handed her the grocery bag and kissed her on the forehead.
“I’ll get you a drink,” she said, putting the groceries down.
“Ah, no,” he said, licking his lips.
“No?” she said. “Really? You okay?”
“Yeah, baby. Everything’s jake.” He looked at his feet for a moment and said, “Let’s sit down and talk.”
“Sure, Edgar. What’s goin’ on?”
He sat across from her at the table and took her hand.
“We’ve been swell together,” he said, “haven’t we, doll.”
“Sure, Edgar. It’s been okay.”
“We’ve had some real laughs, eh?”
“I guess. A few, I mean.”
“But I know I ain’t so good to be around,” Edgar said. “I get so low sometimes….”
“What’s happening, Edgar? I hate it when you get all serious like this.”
“It’s the dreams,” he said. “Baby, they’ve gotten real bad lately.”
“Oh,” she said, looking away, out of the window. “The dreams again.”
“Yeah. Look, I know you don’t get it about the dreams, and neither do I. But they make me crazy. My head’s a haunted cave. I see all of the shit from the war again and again. Only it’s weirder. It’s so spooky. I wake up screaming.”
“Well that war’s over, mister. Haven’t you heard?” She lit a cigarette and threw the match out of the window. “There’s a new war on now. Can’t we just go out and have some fun? It’d take your mind off of those lousy dreams, wouldn’t it? All you do is lie in that room of yours and drink yourself stupid. There’re a lot of Navy boys in town that wouldn’t mind havin’ me on their arm, you know.”
“I know it, baby. And I know it ain’t never gonna change for me. It’s just the way it is. So, listen to me. I want you to wait an hour after I leave, then read this letter.” He slid an envelope across the table to her.
“Sure, Edgar,” Rachel Wild said, taking the envelope. “But you’re kinda scarin’ me. You look all crazy in the eyes.”
“Never mind what I look like, see? Just do what I tell you, understand?”
He stood then and took her by the arm, lifting her out of her chair. He held for a moment, long enough to search for something in her eyes. Maybe he found it there; maybe not. Then he kissed her too hard on the lips, joylessly and without passion. But with rage and shame. His fingers dug into her shoulders and she would have screamed if she could. Then he let her go, threw her away almost. And he disappeared out the door.
Detective Olaf Brandt laid a court order on Dench’s desk and said, “We Norwegians are more than the jowly, bellicose race that the world sometimes takes us for, Crispin.”
“I never said otherwise,” Crispin Dench said.
“The case file please,” Olaf Brandt said. “And perhaps you wouldn’t mind sitting with me while I read it through. You can help me understand those bits I find ambiguous.”
Crispin Dench retrieved the file in question after reading the court order and deciding it was legit. It wasn’t a thick file. Dench hadn’t had to do much after he promised Rachel Wild complete confidentiality, and that he wouldn’t go to the police with what he found. He returned to his office with it, and Brandt read the file in ten minutes.
“It wasn’t a simple caper,” Dench said. “More of an inspired heart-breaker, really. But I’m not the crying type.
“The envelope he’d given Rachel Wild contained a suicide note. For Edgar Tully, the dreams and memories of World War One had become too much.
“Rachel had waited an hour, as requested, before opening it and reading the note. That’s something she says she’ll always regret. By then she didn’t know what to do. She hates the cops and never went to them. She went to the street instead, and looked for him there. Asked the people she knew and didn’t know. She made such a show of it, that later on it didn’t take much to convince Tony Vaccarino that she really didn’t know where Tully was.
“Why was that important? Because Edgar Tully was an errand boy for Tony Vaccarino, a soon to be made man. It was Vaccarino’s money that Tully had placed in the bottom of the grocery bag he’d dropped off at Rachel’s that day. All twenty grand of it. He meant it as a rainy day fund for a girl who’d spent her whole life standing in the rain.
“After that, I figure he punched his own ticket. Drove his Ford into the lagoon as it turns out. But not before he bought a reserved room on a train to Montreal and paid someone else to board instead of him. That someone must have gotten off before the train even hit the prairies, because the train manifest showed a man using Tully’s ticket boarding, but that person never got off in Montreal. And Vaccarino had his people at most of the stops between here and there.
“It looked like Tully had skipped town with the cash and vanished into thin air. And that let everyone he knew off the hook. Vaccarino leaned on them, but how hard could he lean when it appeared obvious that Tully had gotten away with all of the cash.
“So, now they’ve found him in the lagoon. I guess that’s how Tully ended it all. Probably drove his car in that night. We know Vaccarino didn’t put him there, because Vaccarino couldn’t find him. And if he had, he would have made Tully’s execution a community event, to warn others with similar ideas.”
“This file,” Brandt said. “It says none of what you just told me.”
“Sometimes I forget to write things down.”
“That could be considered withholding evidence.”
“So call a cop.”
The two men stared at each other across the desk for a few seconds. Then Brandt closed the file and said, “Repeating what you just told me would be bad for Rachel Wild.”
“Yes it would,” Dench said. “So, what are you going to do about it?”
“She still lives at the Hotel Balmoral,” said Brandt. “It’s a dump. Why do you think she didn’t buy a nice little house?”
“Maybe she likes it there,” Dench said. “Or maybe she’s smart. It wouldn’t take long for Vaccarino to figure things out if she made a move like that. Maybe she decided to just paint the place and buy some new furniture. Maybe even a new pair of shoes. Maybe now she can buy fresh flowers everyday, brighten the place up.”
Brandt slid the file back to Dench, across the desktop. “Maybe this should remain a mystery,” he said.
“That would be the preferred outcome,” said Dench.