"We're getting married in two months. Why do we have to go see your father now?"
It was Thursday morning. Jack and his fiancée Rachel were still in their underwear. Rachel had no classes that day, and on no class days they rarely got dressed before noon. They were having breakfast together, although the together part was a stretch -- they were in matching leather chairs on opposite ends of their penthouse living room. Like children, they sometimes got a kick out of laying claim to their own space.
"Daddy wants to meet you before the wedding,” Rachel said. “Besides, the only reason you don't want to go is because you want to meet with the guys this weekend.”
Jack hated it when Rachel called her father daddy. It sounded so childish. She was nearly twenty-five years old.
"So what? Do you realize this movie could float us for years?"
Jack Wallace was a big deal. He'd gotten rich making YouTube videos. Some of his big hits: yelling at strangers on the street; minor thefts caught on tape; pretending to have a seizure in a packed restaurant. He'd peed on a homeless guy once. Now he wanted to distance himself from all that. He wanted to show the world he was a serious talent. Mainstream award-winning talent. He'd started work on a movie. He had some partners, including Rachel's cousin Charlie. It was through Charlie that he’d met Rachel.
"You’ve been planning your movie for two months now. Is one day really going to make a difference?”
"Fine. I’ll go see your dad. Let’s not stay all day, though, alright?" He didn’t get family ties. He'd stopped talking to his own relatives years ago.
She tilted her head and stared at him through her bangs. This meant that he was being a jerk and had to lighten up.
“Is there anything I can bring? Does your dad have a favorite drink?”
This made her smile.
That Saturday, after a long highway drive and a half hour on some bone rattling side roads (thank Christ they'd taken Rachel's old Kia), they found themselves sitting with her father Mark in milk painted wicker chairs on a wide wooden porch a half mile out of Crawford, Saskatchewan. It was heatstroke hot, but thankfully the porch had a generous overhang for shade.
The yard was beautiful. The grass was a thick, lush green that looked far healthier than the pathetic patches of growth the groundskeeper tended around Jack and Rachel's Regina high rise. Brightly colored ceramic gnomes stood waist-deep in growth, turned in different directions so they looked like a search party spreading out to cover more ground. A portion of the yard was tilled into a lush vegetable garden, with rows of even dirt mounds acting as podiums for leafy hues of green and dark lavender.
"That's what happens when a busybody like me retires," Mark said. He dug through the cooler at his side and grabbed one of the beers that Jack had been kind enough to bring along. Mark was a retired Crawford police chief. Although he was a heavy man, he moved with confidence. "He gets obsessed with his yard. When I was working, I never thought of what this place looked like from the road. Now it's all that I can think about."
"It's very nice," Jack said.
"I didn't tell you, Jack," Rachel said. "Daddy's kind of famous here in Crawford."
"Oh, not really," Mark said, waving a dismissive hand. "I was involved in the capture of a serial killer back in the eighties. Managed to get caught by the guy."
Jack leaned forward. "Really? I'd love to hear that story."
"Naw, I wouldn't want to bore you."
"Come on," Jack said. "You can't give me a set up like that and not follow through."
Rachel laughed and held her hands up, thumbs and forefingers forming a square around the scene like an old-fashioned camera eyepiece. "My new family unit," she said, and snapped a make-believe photo.
"Well, alright. It was the summer of 1982. Nobody had the slightest idea that someone was moving into the Shelton place..."
A rusted-out Datsun trailing a U-Haul third wheel bounced through the center of town like a lost clown car, kicking up a cloud of dust that would take an hour to settle. Frank and Martha Lundy were setting tables for their lunch regulars. Mark Wagner, then a good deal lighter and dressed in a cleanly pressed police uniform with his new Chief Constable medal displayed over his heart, was in attendance. All three of them turned and stared out the front window. Frank kicked the stopper from the front door to avoid dust settling on the linen. They watched in silence as the car got to the end of main street, stopped at the lights, and headed west.
"That car is going to peter out somewhere," Frank said to the room. "You figure he's just passing through?"
"Probably,” Mark said.
"Looks like he's headed toward the Shelton place," Martha said. "You don't suppose he's staying, do you?"
It was called the Shelton place because Greg and Nancy Shelton had built it back in the late sixties. Greg Shelton had been one of the two physicians in Crawford back then, Mark's father Paul being the other. Several families had lived in the place since. Mark remembered the last ones, a young couple who had moved in to save money while commuting to and from the city to attend university. They had vacated that past summer. He could not remember their names to save his life.
Mark's stomach grumbled. "Can I order, Frank?" he asked. He'd promised himself one of Lundy's famous steak sandwiches for breakfast.
"He wasn't just passing through, though," Mark said. "He'd bought the place. The house was nearly falling apart, so Bruce couldn't 'a been asking more than twenty grand." Mark pointed into the distance. His hair, once the proper dark brush cut of an officer, was grey and wispy and fluttered in the breeze. "It's right down there about three miles."
Squinting, Jack couldn't see anything in that direction but wheat fields and blue sky. A swarm of grasshoppers leapt like a single flexible creature from the deeper grass beyond the fence and bowed through the air before disappearing into the field beyond.
Andy stood on his new porch and watched the brown Cavalier wagon crawl up the drive. He wasn't finished unpacking -- the U-Haul trailer stood open in the drive -- but that could wait. He sipped his Coke. The ice cubes made a flat clatter against the metal tumbler.
Mark hopped out of his station wagon and introduced himself. He was off duty now, dressed in jeans and a white shirt. The new guy looked weathered. His nose appeared to have been broken at least once. He was rail thin. There was something affable about the guy that Mark recognized at first glance, something that reminded him of young surfers from California.
"Hey there. Name's Mark Wagner, Chief Constable of Crawford County. We don't have an official greeting committee so I'm afraid I'm all you get."
"G’day, Constable. I'm Andy." There was a slight slur to Andy's speech. It wasn't intoxication; more of a cemented affectation. His eyes were clear and there was no smell of booze coming from him or his drink. Mark realized he was standing in front of a recovering alcoholic. "I don't suppose you recognize me."
Mark grinned and cocked his head. "Should I?"
"Andy Shelton," he said, extending his hand. "Greg and Nancy's boy."
"Well, goddamn!" Mark had been a teenager back when the Sheltons were still in Crawford. There had been a time when they were regulars at his parents' house for birthdays and barbecues. Back then Andy had just been a chubby-faced kid. The Sheltons had moved away suddenly, with little explanation. Mark remembered the extra patient load had nearly buried his father.
"Mark Wallace, right?"
"That's me." Mark squinted and tried to reconcile this face with that of the boy he remembered. He finally saw it and said, “Wow. It's been a while, Andy. Great to see you again. What brings you back here?"
Andy's smile faded. He looked to the horizon, then to his feet. "Been clean now for six months, and I'm looking to make a new start. The parent's old place seemed like a good place to try."
"I can't argue that. Real estate's damn near free around here these days."
"I'm going to need a place to work. Got line cook experience."
"Well, Lundy's is the only place comes to mind. Their son cooks for them but he's got finals coming up and he always finds it hard to juggle work with exams. Danny’s of the age that he’ll want to leave home soon. You get your foot in the door there, it might lead to something more permanent.”
The next day Andy walked into Lundy's Cafe and charmed his way into a kitchen position. A few weeks later Mark came in for lunch and got talking to Martha Lundy. She said that Andy and Danny were becoming friends. She admitted with a grin that Andy reminded her a bit of Harrison Ford.
"Charismatic," Jack said. He took a fresh beer from the cooler and rubbed it on his cheek before twisting it open. "That doesn't surprise me at all. I understand Ted Bundy was charming as hell."
"Andy was nothing if not charming,” Mark said. “Everything was fine that summer. It wasn't until late fall -- November 15th to be precise, Danny's eighteenth birthday -- that everything went to hell. "
"What do you mean he didn't come home?" Mark was as stunned as the Lundy’s were.
"He went out last night to celebrate with Darwin and Carl," Frank said. "You know as well as I do that those kids aren't drinkers, so we told Danny to be back by midnight. We figured he'd waltz in before ten. He hasn't come home."
"You called Darwin and Carl?"
"Of course," Martha said. She was frazzled and snappy, which Mark could forgive. Her eyes were swollen and she kept biting her lower lip. "They're both home safe. They said that they left Danny just a few blocks from here. Said he was close to sober and planning on going straight home."
"Would he have taken off with Andy?"
"He wouldn't have just taken off," Frank said.
"You have to find him, Mark," Martha pleaded. Her eyes were practically floating in tears now and her mascara had drawn lines halfway to her chin. "Please."
"Can we at least give Andy a call?" Mark asked.
"No phone," Frank said.
"He has no phone. He likes his privacy. He's always on time for his shift so up until now we haven't had to call him."
Mark arrived at the Shelton place in darkness. Andy was home -- his Datsun sat under a clutch of trees that overhung the terminus of the drive. He clearly didn't get out much other than to go to work, because there was a light dusting of snow on the ground from the week before and only a few sets of tracks in or out.
Mark knocked on the door but got no response, so he went around back. The back was also locked, but the shed out back hung open. He went in, tapped the light switch. The fluorescents sputtered to life. The place was musty, the old wood floor coated in ancient oil spots and filth. There were two pale green appliances along the far wall - a fridge and a freezer. They were humming. They were very old, with rounded edges that reminded Mark of VW Bugs, hinges encrusted with thick rust. Likely the same ones that Greg Shelton, an avid hunter in his spare time, had used for deer carcasses. He stepped around the workbench at the center of the room and his heart stuttered to a halt. There, on the floor between the bench and cabinets, was a large pool of congealing blood. He opened the fridge. Empty.
Then he opened the freezer and found exactly what he had feared he would: Danny. He was already frozen, his arms folded unnaturally in front of him, his skin was wax, his open eyes coated in a delicate frost.
Mark unholstered his gun, but not before he heard boots rushing up behind him. There was an almost comical BONG sound, like someone rapping the side of an empty oil drum, and he knew, in the way you realize things in dreams, that he'd just been hit in the head by something hard. The floor came to meet him like a billowing blanket descending, and a warm blackness swallowed him whole.
"Sorry, Mark," Jack said. "I need to use the washroom."
"Oh, sure," Mark said. "Through the kitchen. Second door on your right." He leaned back, pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes and a lighter from the pocket of his shorts, and lit up.
Jack despised smoking. A whiff of cigarette smoke made him think of homeless people huddled in alleys. Regardless, he said, cheerily, "Be right back, folks," and kissed Rachel on the cheek before heading inside.
Rachel wasn't there when he returned, and Mark was finishing up his smoke. There was an ashtray on the table that Jack hadn't noticed before, a metal tray glued to a bean bag. Jack tried to imagine it sitting on the high-polished mahogany coffee table back at his penthouse and shuddered internally. Mark squashed his cigarette butt into the tray, and the last of the smoke rose, caught on the wind, and fled into the bright open air like it had somewhere to be.
"Rachel's gone to get some pictures of her mom."
"Hmm," Jack said.
"You know, Rachel's been a fan of yours for a long time. Did she tell you? Probably not. She's embarrassed."
Jack's smile faltered. Rachel had never told him that.
Rachel came through the door with a thick photo album under her arm. She kissed Jack on the cheek. "I found this in the spare room closet. I know there's more somewhere." She gave her father a back-hand wave to carry on. "I'll let Daddy finish his story."
Mark stretched, cranked his neck to the side until it issued a loud crack, and said, "Okay, where was I? Ah, right. So, I woke up in the shed..."
Mark woke up in the shed tied to a chair. It felt like an enraged animal was trying to claw its way out of his skull. His scalp itched and burned where he had been hit. Blood had coursed its way down his neck to form a small puddle at the opening of his shirt.
Andy squatted on an old milking stool in front of him. Andy wasn't wearing a shirt, and Mark was bemused to see a crude black tattoo outline of a smiley face high up on his chest.
"Quite a mess," Andy said. "I promised myself this wouldn't happen again. I Guess I fucked up."
Then he told his story.
Greg and Nancy Shelton were odd parents. Nancy was an emotionally absent mother, really someone who shouldn’t have ever had kids. Greg was far more comfortable around cadavers than the living.
Andy's informal education began one winter morning when he was six. Greg brought him into the clinic, sat him on a black stool in the corner, and explained that he would come here every weekend and learn what his old man did for a living. Greg told patients to speak up if they were bothered by his child's presence, but most people had no problem letting Andy witness their boils being lanced or their cuts being stitched. One strange young woman let Andy stay while she had her regular gynecological exam. Greg thought nothing of it because to him genitals were nothing to be stigmatized; they were a biology of pure function, no more important or shocking than an elbow. He wanted his son to understand this and not get caught up in societal taboos that were really nothing more than dressed up superstitions.
One day Winnie Plimpton came in with her usual chest pains. She was a farm wife far too fond of her own cooking -- at five foot four, she weighed in at nearly two hundred and seventy pounds. She waddled into the office panting, her face rosy and her blue eyes beaming warmly. Despite her weight, she still worked the farm with her husband. This day she had shit on her jean cuffs, and her flowered blouse was torn at the shoulder. She explained that she had been helping to get the pigs on the truck for slaughter when the pain in her chest flared up. Winnie already had plenty of medication for her chronic angina condition, but she liked to come in anyway. She always made the same joke: "At least I know I'm not about to die, because my Jerod is still in good health, and you doctors are always saying that women live longer than men!" She always laughed at her own wit, and her face always scrunched up, making her resemble one of the hogs on her farm.
Greg asked her up on the table to administer some blood thinner.
"Hello, Andy!" she called out in her sing-song voice. "So nice to see you learning with your dad!"
Greg got the drip going, and after only a short while Winnie was under. Her enormous chest rose and fell like a lazy wave in the ocean.
"Come here, son," Greg said. "I gave Winnie here a sedative that she wasn't expecting." Winnie's eyes were half open, and Andy could see the pale yellow of age around her irises, like old egg yolks.
"Winnie can hear everything we say. Can't you, Winnie?" Greg smiled and patted her cheek. "Today I’m going to cure Winnie of her angina once and for all." He went over to his desk and returned with a needle that was already loaded with an opaque liquid. He fed it into a plastic elbow in Winnie's drip. Andy noticed that his father dispensed of the used needle not in the bright orange dispenser on the wall where he usually put such things, but rather in the leather bag which he toted to and from the office.
Almost immediately Winnie began to seize, kicking and flailing violently. Greg tried to restrain her while Andy backed himself up against the far wall.
"Nurse!" Greg shouted. "Get in here!"
The nurse rushed in and tried to help Greg, to limited success. Within minutes it was all over. Winnie would not be outliving her Jerod after all.
Later, after staff had gone home, Greg bent down and took his son by his tiny shoulders.
"What you saw today is a secret, okay? We can't tell Mommy about this. Your daddy, he stepped in today and did the work of God. Because sometimes God is too busy to do what needs done. Do you understand?"
"I didn't understand, not at first," Andy said. Mark's chin had dropped to his chest, so Andy leaned forward and lifted it with a crooked finger. " It became clearer when I watched him kill again and again. All the while, he continued attending Anglican Holy Trinity. In among the herd, unknown and unknowable. Over time I began to understand my father, and as I did I was able to hear our Almighty when he whispered into my father’s ear." Andy cupped a hand around his ear. "So quietly it whispered under the murmurs of the waiting room and the low hiss of the air conditioning.
"These days I hear the voice in my own ear, and I know what a privilege it is to hear it. I always obey; I'd be disgracing my father’s memory if I didn't."
"Why... why Danny?" Mark asked.
Andy turned and looked at the freezer like a man recalling something important that he had temporarily forgotten. "Oh yeah. Danny was a good kid. I don't know, Mark. I mean, the voice never tells me why. But I'm sure there's a why.
“I was going to bury him. The freezer was a temporary measure. There are animals around here. You can't leave meat out."
Suddenly the shed door burst open, and someone shouted: "GET ON THE GROUND!"
Mark's partner Brent Anderson stood at the door, his gun trained on Andy’s chest. Andy lunged, and Brent fired. The gun’s report shook the building. Mark jumped and upended himself, falling sideways.
Mark knew that Brent was trying to talk to him. The words were muffled and far away. Brent began to untie him.
Andy was on the ground in the fetal position, a pool of blood spreading around him. It grew to meet Danny's on the other side of the room.
"And that is how Crawford's first and only serial killer was brought to justice by a bullet in a farm shed," Mark said. "As I said before, my part was just bumbling in and getting caught."
"Wow," Jack said. "That's incredible! I can’t believe you held it together."
"Who says I did? It's not like you haven't been in some crazy situations yourself, Jack. I've seen your work. What about that video you did where you confront grown people's childhood bullies for them? What was that called?"
Jack's smile faltered.
"Yeah. I don't think I’d have had the guts to do that. My God, when you got in a fist fight with that one guy, right on his front lawn? That was more ballsy than anything I’ve ever done."
Jack wasn’t in denial about the trashy aspect of his past work. He had dealt with people putting him down for it in the past. But Mark's tone – faux sincerity with a dusting of condescension – felt deeply insulting.
"You know, Mark, I don't really think of the dangers of a project while I'm doing it."
"You should," Mark said gravely. "You really should."
Before Jack had an opportunity to respond, Mark asked, "Have you ever had to deal with crazy fans?"
"Yeah, sure. At conventions, mostly. There was this one girl who used to flirt with me. Lucky Number Girl, I called her. I think she followed me to nearly every convention over the course of a few years. She would ask me to sign autographs for her friends, and then she would insist I add their lucky numbers. She would recite them to me, six numbers on each autograph. Weird."
"That's great," Mark said. "Must feel good to have fans."
"Yeah," Jack said. "You know, we should really be going. I can't see well to drive at dusk…"
"Alright," Mark said. "Do you mind if Rachel and I have a moment?"
"Not at all," Jack said. He minded. He minded a lot. "It was great meeting you, Mark."
"Please. You can call me Dad."
Jack forced a smile.
"Dad,” he said.
"There you go. Looking forward to seeing you in October."
Jack went to wait in the car.
Once Jack was out of earshot, Mark asked, "Have you told him yet?"
"No. I'll find the right time, Daddy."
Mark looked at the car with an expression that Rachel knew well. It was his I see clouds on the horizon look.
"It'll be fine," Rachel said. "Trust me."
That evening, Jack and Rachel relaxed on the couch and watched TV. Evenings were cuddle time. Jack's butt was wedged in the corner while Rachel draped her head on his lap.
This couch was new. Jack had held a party for old acquaintances a few months ago and one of his friends, high on the weed he had brought to the party and likely other stuff he hadn’t, had wrecked the old one by taking a sharpie pen to it. A ten-thousand-dollar couch, trashed. Jack had just laughed it off, while Rachel had gotten a painful knot in her stomach. She was raised to respect money and fear the lack of it. It had struck her then that her financial life would soon be intertwined with his.
Tonight, she had to admit that the new couch was more comfortable. It still had that new leather smell.
The show over, Rachel turned so her face was buried in Jack's crotch. There she found evidence of interest and began to nibble. Jack moaned. He ran his hand slowly down her shirt, over one breast. He readjusted so his legs were on the couch and he was looking down at her. He began to mount her, but she pushed him away.
"Not on the new couch," she said. Instead, she led him to the bedroom.
Later she would think that she should have known better. She wasn't a stupid woman; she knew that he would be mad. But hormones can blind, and as they made love, she arched her back and said, for the first time, "I love you."
Jack responded by speeding up.
"Remember the night your friend Randy wrecked the couch? Remember how we didn't use protection?"
"We're going to be parents."
He looked at her without expression, his eyes like black stones.
"What?" he said.
"I said we're going to be par..."
He hit her with a closed fist, so hard that for a moment the world disappeared behind a burst of bright explosions.
"What..." she said when she could see again.
"Does he know? Have you already told him?"
Her head felt pumped full of helium. She wiped her nose and the back of her hand came back bloody. "Are you fucking INSANE?"
"Does your DADDY know that you're pregnant?"
Her confusion turned to outrage. She leapt from the bed, stumbled, righted herself. She pointed an accusing finger at him. She was naked, and she knew she looked ridiculous, but she didn't care.
"Don't you EVER lay your hands on me!"
"We talked about this! We're not ready to have a kid!" Jack said. He laughed. There was a lunatic edge to it.
"You're fucking nuts," Rachel said. A dark thought occurred to her. "Wait a minute. Are there hidden cameras here? Am I one of your little projects? String some chick along for a few months and then punch her out of the blue to capture her reaction on video?"
"Get out," Jack said.
"My pleasure." She got dressed in a hurry, wiped the blood from her face with one of his socks, and threw it at him.
"I'm going to hang out with Daddy for a while,” she yelled, as she slammed the door.
Jack spent the evening pacing.
She was trying to trap him; this much was obvious. He shouldn't have hit her, but he had lost control. She shouldn’t have taken him by surprise.
He hurled his whiskey glass at the wall, where it shattered into a million pieces. As he stared at the mess, he contemplated for the first time that he might not have the money to cover next month's rent. He was supposed to get a royalty cheque from Three Monkeys Productions; some of the smaller projects he'd done had been released to Netflix as a compilation and he was still collecting royalties. That cheque was late, so for the first time since forever he had to think about the finite nature of his bank account, and it was a terrifying, claustrophobic thought.
His phone chirped. He hadn't heard it ring, but there was a voice message from Charlie:
"Jack." Awkward pause on the other end. Charlie clearing his throat. "Listen, I think I'm going to have to drop out of the project." Another pause. That was Charlie, every word and action carefully measured. It was the reason Jack had hired him. It had not been for his experience, of which he had none.
"I think that your ideas on this project have merit, but I don’t think we're gelling as a team, now that Lance and Mitch have moved on. Anyway, it's been a pleasure working with you, man. I'm confident you're going to make this another one of your gonzo hits with the right team. So best of luck. And say hi to Rachel for me, will you? I'm very happy for you two."
All of Jack's partners had dropped out, so now it was just him.
He texted his response: "Sorry to hear you're not interested in continuing. I'm keeping your initial investment money."
He got the broom and the dustpan and cleaned the glass off the floor. Then he went to his office, logged into his cloud account, and deleted all traces of the screenplay. He went to his local back-ups and did the same.
His mind finally quiet, he went to bed. He needed his rest for what lay ahead.
It was three days before Jack heard from Rachel. He'd kept busy using his old mind cleansing routine: short reps of resistance and cardio, four liters of water a day, and meals consisting of nothing but fruits and vegetables. The clockwork beat of it left no room for non-constructive thought.
He was ten minutes into his elliptical rep when his phone, buried in a pile of jogging clothes, started to ring. He stopped and stared at the clump of laundry. Part of his cleansing routine was no phone. He was sure he'd turned it off and kept it off for the past three days. Had he turned it on habitually that morning? Must have. He dug through the pile and answered.
"Jack." It was Mark. Jack rubbed his forehead. The least that Rachel could do was talk to him herself. "Jack, don't hang up. Rachel doesn't know I'm calling. I just want to talk."
"Mark, with all due respect, I would like some time to myself right now. And if I know Rachel, she wants the same. I'll bet she's been sleeping on your couch, making you breakfast every morning, and jaunting off to classes like nothing's happened."
Mark chuckled. "I have to hand it to you, you know your fiancée. But I didn't call to talk about that. I'm not naive, Jack, I know how men can lose their temper. I think you've been under some pressure and this was a bad slip. I'll tell you though, my daughter isn’t soft. I probably don't have to tell you that. She might end it with you right now. Or if she doesn't, she won't let that happen again. She doesn't have it in her to play the victim. You know that, right?"
"Yes, I know that." Jack said. "Why are you calling?"
"Because I need to get something off my chest. I wasn't completely honest with you the other day. For what it's worth, I think that you and Rachel are going to work this out. That means we're going to be family, and that means I need to be honest with you."
Jack walked into the washroom. Holding the phone in one hand, he began fishing through the medicine cabinet with the other. "Okay, then talk."
"No, not on the phone. We need to talk in person. I can't really drive highway anymore, and I don't want Rachel to know about this. There's a pub and eatery in Crawford, right on main street, called The Saddle. Can you meet me there, say, one o'clock?"
Was he kidding? "I don't know, that's like an hour’s drive..."
"Please, Jack. If you and I can see eye-to-eye on things you know it will go a long way to patching this thing up. And now that there's a child on the way, don't you think that's important?"
Jack ground his teeth. His headache pulsed angrily.
"Alright. I'll be there."
Walking out of the bright midday sun into the cool air of The Saddle was like dipping a toe into a cold pool; Jack stood in the foyer for a minute to let himself adjust. It was more eatery than pub and it smelled of beer and French fries. Merle Haggard was playing on the jukebox. Alcohol was lined up on back shelves beside a cafe-style menu board. The bar was a rounded glass countertop doubling as a display for pies. The floor was worn out beige linoleum. The perimeter of the room was lined with booths sporting tacky 1950's style red and white upholstery.
A young woman with a ponytail and a blue shirt that had The Saddle stitched in gold on the breast pocket walked up and said, "Table for one?"
"No, I'm actually meeting with that gentleman over there."
The woman looked over her shoulder. "Oh, you’re friends with Chief Constable Mark?"
Jack grinned. "People still call him Chief Constable?"
"Sure. It's kind of a respectful nickname. My parents say he was the best Chief Constable that Crawford's ever seen."
"Isn't that kind of an insult to the current Chief Constable?"
The woman's smile faded. "Anyway, here's a menu. I'll let you seat yourself."
Mark stood up and shook Jack's hand. "Glad you came. I wasn't sure if you were going to."
"This is weird," Jack said as he took his seat. "You should at least be a little angry that I hurt your daughter, shouldn't you?"
"Like I said, Jack, I'm not going to fight her battles. There's friction in every relationship. She needs to learn how to deal with it, or she needs to call it off, simple as that. I trust she'll make the right decision."
"Alright, so, why am I here?"
"So that I can confess."
"Confess? To what?"
The waitress came over with two coffees. Mark pretended to tip his imaginary hat to her, which made her smile. He waited until she was out of earshot before continuing.
"Confess to killing Danny Lundy," Mark said. He sipped his coffee complacently. "Among others."
Jack opened his mouth, then realized he didn't know what to say. Mark had to be messing with him. When he did find his voice, it was a half octave too high. "You killed Danny? And you're confessing here, in a public place, where people could overhear you?"
"So what if they overhear?" Mark said. He issued a soft laugh that ended in a mild coughing spasm. "Jack, you have to understand that here in Crawford I’m beyond reproach. Hell, I could probably stand up in the middle of this place and confess at the top of my lungs that I killed poor Danny boy, and I would get nothing but sympathy. People would think I was getting early dementia or crumbling under the weight of bad memories. They would never believe I’d actually done such a thing."
"What if I were recording you right now?"
"You got a phone on you? Put it on the table."
Jack did as he was asked.
"There, we're good. I took you by surprise, so you wouldn't have come here with a mind to record me."
Jack needed a moment to process. He nodded, then leaned back in his seat with his coffee cradled in both hands. He watched people float past the big window that looked out onto Main Street. On the far side of the road stood the building that used to be Lundy's Cafe. Its doors and windows were boarded up.
Mark leaned back as well. His hand cradled the pack of cigarettes in his breast pocket. His fingers drummed on it.
Jack leaned forward and said: "Okay, let's hear it."
Mark knew the moment he saw him that Andy Shelton was a dead man walking. When Andy’s car and U-Haul trailer came bouncing past Lundy's, he knew. Before the voice whispered in his ear, he knew. Call it intuition, call it some kind of sixth sense, but he just knew.
The voice had told him a month before to take Danny Lundy. The thought of killing Danny didn't bother him. The kid was alright, but Mark had always felt that the Lundys were overly blessed in the family way. Danny had been born practically nine months to the day from the wedding, while he and Glenda had been trying for a baby for three years now, to no avail. Maybe this was a balancing of the scales.
He would frame Andy for the murder. Once in custody the guy could jaw all he wanted, nobody in Crawford was going to listen. Regular people were like sheep, they flocked for safety when spooked, staring outward for signs of danger. Mark had been among this flock his entire life. He was one of them. If he pointed and shouted fox, everyone would see a fox.
He'd scoped out Andy's place before picking up Danny, although he really hadn't needed to. He knew the place would be dark because he’d been watching Andy closely. He saw how the man kept to himself, only going to town for work and groceries. He saw the occasional tip to his walk, smelled the subtle headiness of his breath under the cover of mint Tic-Tacs when he spoke. Andy was slipping off the wagon; must have been sneaking to the city for it. The day that Mark had planned for the kill - Danny's birthday - was a Friday. Mark had driven past Andy's place the previous four Fridays and each time the vehicle had been in the drive and the place had been dark, the occupant no doubt passed out for the evening.
He'd placed the body in the meat freezer more than eight hours ago. Now he was back, officially looking into the disappearance. He stood in the shed and stared at the frozen body. He had two trashcan lids that he'd found outside; presently he began banging them together and shouting. He had to confront Andy before someone from the precinct did.
Andy came to the shed wearing nothing but a mud crusted pair of pants and rubber boots. "What the heck is going on, Mark?" he asked. "Why are you here?"
Mark had the lid of the freezer open. He turned and asked, "Andy, why?"
"Why what?" Andy stepped forward. He laid eyes on the boy in the freezer and his confusion turned to shock. Mark took advantage of the moment to sink his teeth into Andy's neck.
"FFUUUU.." Andy shouted, spinning and trying to throw the cop off. Mark held on and they both went to the ground. Mark let go of Andy's neck and began to punch him, dozens of close-range jabs to the chest and mid-section. Instead of fighting back, Andy simply folded in on himself. When the melee wasn't slowing, Andy began wrestling with the bigger man's arms.
In a sort of stalemate, Andy with one of Mark's wrists in each of his balled fists, the men rose to their feet. Andy had one clear move to end the fight and he took it, kicking his assailant hard in the crotch. The air shot from Mark’s lungs. He dropped to his knees, then flopped onto his side. The pain writhed and climbed up his gut like a thousand chewing worms.
Andy, panting, eyes wide, went and looked again at the contents of the freezer. "Oh, Danny..." he said. His voice was a croak. Then, to Mark: "This wasn't me! I didn't do this!"
Mark didn't answer. He lay silently in the fetal position, cupping his crotch.
Andy popped the strap on Mark’s gun, grabbed the weapon, and threw it across the room. Then he got a length of rope from the counter and tied Mark's wrists together. Andy watched warily for signs that the big man might fight back, but Mark didn't rally. Andy pulled up an old chair and, with some effort, got Mark into it. Then he grabbed a milking stool from the corner and sat down.
Once his breathing was under control, Andy asked, "Why did you attack me?" When he received no answer, he jabbed a thumb at the freezer. "Was this you? Was it, Mark? Have you gone insane?"
Mark chuckled. "I went insane a long time ago, Andy. I'm an old monster now."
Then Mark told his story. Mark’s father had taught him to do the Work of God, as well as how easy it was to make people disappear in a town that was used to folks leaving for a multitude of personal reasons.
"I've tossed many a body into Reindeer Lake," he said. "It's one of the deepest lakes in this province. Did you know that? Near the middle it's close to a thousand feet to the bottom. From the surface it looks like a black hole."
"Why are you telling me this? I could just go to the Regina police. They'd find the bodies if they got diving gear and went down and looked."
"Really? When's the last time you looked in a mirror, Andy? You're skinnier than last time I saw you. Your eyes are ringed red. You've been drinking yourself to death. No cop is going to believe your story. Nobody's going to dispatch a crew to go drag the middle of Reindeer Lake on the word of a drunk."
At that moment Brent came crashing through the door.
“Brent,” Mark shouted, "he's got a gun!"
Brent Walker, who abhorred violence, who’d never once unholstered his weapon in the line of duty, pulled and fired three rounds in quick succession.
"Three to the chest," Mark said. "Brent was a better shot than I'd ever expected."
Jack tried to remain calm. He leaned back and sipped his coffee.
"Some of your details are off. I thought you were bleeding from the head when you woke in the shed."
"Yeah, well," Mark said. "Truth becomes more flexible with time. I'm not sure I remember things the way they really happened anymore, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that the story I told at the time held up."
The waitress brought them their bill.
"So, what now?"
"What do you mean?"
"You just confessed to murder. What am I supposed to do with that? What was your motivation for this?"
"Like I said, I just wanted us to know each other better, Jack. We're going to be family.”
"You've never told Rachel any of this?"
"Not a word."
"You think this thing with Rachel and me is going to blow over? That I'm still going to be your son-in-law?"
"She needs a little more time, but yeah, I do."
"Unless I decide to go to the police with your story. Or tell Rachel."
Mark enveloped one of Jack's hands with both of his and squeezed firmly. He smiled.
"You won't. I know you won't."
With that, Mark walked out and left Jack to pay the bill.
Back at home, Jack paced. He wasn't nervous -- he was excited. He'd gone over Mark's words in his head, recalled every small gesture, every twitch of the man's face, and while there was no doubt that Mark Wagner couldn't be trusted, Jack didn't think the lake thing had been a plant. He was convinced it had been a slip.
Old constable outed as a serial killer. Jack would probably lose Rachel over this. Scratch that, he would definitely lose her. But goddamn, the fame! This would make him more than a big deal again… this could make him a legend!
He pulled out his phone and made a call.
"Hey, Charlie. It's me. How are things?"
"Alright." Charlie sounded understandably hesitant. "What can I do for you?"
Charlie and Rachel's dads were brothers who didn't see eye-to-eye and had parted ways long ago. Jack knew this was a long shot. Charlie had no reason to help him, not after that abrupt text-you he'd sent. But it was a shot, nonetheless.
"This might seem like a strange question, Charlie, but do you recall your Uncle Mark ever mentioning Reindeer Lake?"
Rachel came home a week later in surprisingly good spirits. She made it clear that she didn't want to talk about what had happened; not yet. That was just fine with Jack.
Jack was in a good mood as well. He had plans for the weekend. He explained that his project had fallen through but that he had his mind on another, and this weekend he was going to stake some potential locations. She asked him to elaborate, but he smiled and said that he didn't want to jinx it.
One night, as they sat snuggled on the couch watching TV, Jack asked her, "Rach, were you a fan of my work before we met? Your dad said you were."
Rachel squinted at him. "No. God no." She waved it off. "Dad's just playing with you. He does that."
Jack grinned and nodded. They went back to watching. A moment later he asked, "Hon, how did you come to be around me and Charlie the day we met? I mean, you two aren’t close. You've never even talked to him since we've been together."
"Why all the questions, buster? Are you digging for dirt on my family?"
Jack stroked her hair and cocked his head like an inquisitive puppy. She smiled.
"It was Daddy's doing, actually," she said. "He called me, said Charlie was in town and that he was working with someone famous." Now Rachel stroked Jack's hair. "Funny how things work out, huh?"
The weekend came and Jack headed out. He borrowed Rachel's Kia. The little red car always made him nervous with its sputtering, but it wasn't like he was going to drive his Jag along gravel roads.
Charlie had come through. He had verified that his uncle Mark kept a summer cottage on the south end of Reindeer Lake. He'd been there a few times and even gave a description: it was a typical log cabin with an accent roof that speared in the middle, coming to a spire tip ten feet above the front door.
Jack had gone the previous weekend and scoped it out. Nestled among a thick patch of fifty-foot pines close to the water, it was only accessible via an anorexic gravel path from the secondary road circling the lake. He'd parked at the side of the road and followed the path on foot, feeling stupidly self-conscious every time dry needles snapped under his feet. According to Charlie, the place was at least forty years old. It showed signs of aging - the exterior stain was badly discolored and peeling in places and there was some moss on the roof -- but it wasn't derelict. Jack figured that Mark must have someone coming to help him care for the place. Doors were locked. That was okay, because when Jack returned, he planned to stage a break-in.
Now he was back to see what evidence he could drum up. He had brought a few tools: a crowbar, a hammer, a pair of gardening gloves. He hadn't bothered with any sort of mask or disguise because the closest neighbour was a good mile away, and nobody would be wandering this deep in the woods unless they were up to no good.
He pulled the car into a natural break in the trees. The deep grass would hide his tracks. From there he picked his way through the forest until he met up with the trail to the cabin.
At the door, he donned the clumsy rubber gardening gloves he had picked up at Home Depot and jimmied the back door with the crowbar and hammer.
Inside, he found a sparsely decorated man cave. A stuffed bear was reared up in one corner, a thin skin of grey dust on its fur. A cracked and worn leather La-Z-Boy dominated the other corner. There was and old cabinet TV. Garage sale bait oil paintings of forests and lakes decorated the walls. He checked the fridge -- empty save for the cardboard base packaging from a missing flat of beer.
He moved on to the single bedroom. Here was something -- a small black book in the middle of the patchwork comforter. He climbed onto the bed and picked it up. It had no title, only a shiny black plastic cover. He opened it.
Jack's heart nearly burst from his chest. He spun around to find Mark standing in the doorway.
"Mark!" Jack said, "let me explain..."
"No need," Mark said. "Charlie filled me in. And Rachel told me you were going somewhere this weekend to work on a new project. It wasn't hard to piece together."
Jack realized Mark was holding a gun. "Mark, you can't shoot me. You're never going to get away with that. I'm too well known."
"Oh, I think I could get away with it. I told you, Jack, I'm an old monster. This is what I do. But I'm not going to kill you."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to tell you what's in that book you're holding, for starters."
Jack opened the book. It was a bound collection of autographs in Jack’s handwriting. Curt phrases like Rock On Stephanie! and Never change, Julia, you’re the best fan ever! Each page contained three neatly printed numbers in the corner.
"I'm the one who followed your career, Jack, not Rachel. Getting you to fill in that book was easy. I just found a different girl at each of your appearances and told her I was a big fan but felt too foolish to talk to you myself. I made sure she was always a brunette, about the same height, build, looks. I’m your Lucky Numbers Girl.
"Eventually I found out where you lived. Celebrities think they're off the grid, but nobody’s really be off the grid, not when they’re being cased by a decent cop. I personally attended to your garbage a few times, collecting anything that might have your DNA on it: old clothes, tissues, used condoms."
Jack recoiled at the thought of this man lurking around his house. He was starting to have trouble breathing; the room seemed to be shrinking around him.
"Thanks to my hard work, each one of those pages maps to a buried body. Each name matches a victim. The numbers are geo-coordinates. Those bodies map out a history of your public appearances over the past five years, Jack." Mark's smile widened and his eyes grew distant. "I know the limits of modern forensics in determining trace DNA evidence, and I'm confident that nobody will ever trace those scenes back to me.
"You, on the other hand; well, your DNA is all over those graves."
Jack stared dumbly down at the book. In the past he had worried about fans getting to him, but he had only imagined scenarios in which his online identity was besmirched. He couldn’t have imagined anything like this.
He started tearing pages out of the book. When they clung too defiantly to the spine, he ripped at them with his teeth.
"I have copies," Mark said. “Several. On the cloud.”
Throwing the book aside, Jack leapt at the old man. He desperately wanted to wrap his hands around that pocked neck and squeeze... squeeze... bury both thumbs deep into the windpipe until it cracked and collapsed.
With a speed belying his age, Mark brought the gun up and fired.
Jack had always known that he would be a big deal. He had never considered it might be as a father.
Once he had admitted to himself that his life as a renegade filmmaker and YouTube celebrity was over, he was able to step into the role of stay at home dad to his son Riley as if he'd been born to the task. Rachel had received her nursing certificate and taken a job in Regina General. They had sold the penthouse and bought an older bungalow on the outskirts of the city. Their lives had settled into a comfortable pattern -- Jack held the fort down at home, while Rachel worked night shifts and had breakfast with her two favorite boys each morning before going to bed.
This morning Jack was running late. It was his and Rachel's sixth anniversary, and they had plans to spend the day together, something they were rarely able to do. Later they were going to enjoy dinner and a play. Rachel had gotten someone to cover her shift, so there was little chance that she would be called in. Maureen, one of Rachel's fellow nurses who was on maternity leave, had even agreed to watch Riley.
Jack was slipping on a shirt when he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. The star shaped scar high on the left side of his chest stood out in sharp relief. Long healed over, the center of it was a thick purple knot the size of a dime. There was a much uglier scar on his back where the bullet had exited after shattering his collarbone and scapula. Two surgeries had been required to wire him back together.
The story he and Mark had told the world was that Jack, distraught over his breakup with Rachel, had learned of Mark's cabin and gone there in a fit of rage to break the place up. Mark had shown up, mistaken Jack for a burglar, and shot him. The angles of the shot were all wrong but, as Mark had predicted, nobody asked any tough questions. The investigators knew Mark personally.
Naturally, Jack had raged during and after his recuperation. He had lashed out at Rachel for reasons he could not possibly explain to her, and he had considered killing Mark. But he was no killer, and the rage lost its edge over time. His son was born, and he had a new dream – a normal life. Mark stoked that dream by staying away from Jack whenever possible and never speaking a word of the past. He also studiously avoided being left alone with his grandson. Jack could never forget, but after a while he found that he could willfully ignore the past.
Once dressed, he went to the kitchen to find Rachel and Riley having breakfast.
"Maureen here yet?" he asked.
"No. Change of plans."
"Gramps has agreed to take Riley today. Isn't that nice?"
Jack's stomach flopped. Rachel saw something was wrong, and frowned.
Riley twisted in his seat at the kitchen table, a plastic spork in one hand. One of his cheeks was shiny with pancake syrup. His brown eyes sparkled.
"I gonna see Gramps today, Daddy!" he shouted. "We goin’ to the cabin!"
A week later, Jeff Goebel -- aka Jeff G. from Bowen, Alberta -- woke to an orchestra of electronic tweets and whistles. They were post alerts, originating from more than a half dozen devices scattered throughout his apartment. He was a twenty-two-year-old YouTube sensation, something his parents thought of as a waste of time until he found a real job. Whatever – he had recently made more money in a month than his father had ever made in any given year of his life.
Jeff acknowledged his phone, then wandered the apartment in his underwear, silencing computers in various rooms. His cat Cobol jumped onto the kitchen table, blocking the laptop to get attention. Jeff stroked her absently, then pushed her aside.
He had special bots that scoured video titles for variations of his name or the names of those whose work he tracked, and the one now on the screen made him blink in confusion. Jack Wallace. He had been a thing, what, five years ago? Jeff had obviously once thought enough of the guy to put his name in his bots' shortlist, although he couldn't for the life of him remember why. Born of an ADHD generation, Jeff engaged with the world in discrete weekly installments.
The video was shot by Terrence D. from Regina. Jeff thought he remembered meeting Terrence once, at an expo. Terrence was a nobody, or at least he had been a nobody until this morning.
The title of Terrence D’s recent posting was: Jack Wallace Murder-Suicide Caught on Video.
"Fuck me," Jeff said as he watched, absently grabbing a pop tart from a box on the counter.
The video was shot in the forest. A half dozen cop cars were parked at various angles in the large open space, their lights spinning and causing a kaleidoscope effect against the trees. There was one ambulance with its back doors swung open. Terrence D. briefly turned his phone camera to show himself wearing an Insane Clown Posse shirt and shredded jeans, then swung it to show the ambulance with the open door. Inside was a body bag on a stretcher. Two cops came out of the cabin with another stretcher and another body bag. One of the crew pushing the stretcher, his eyes bloodshot and half dead, swiped at Terrence like you would swipe at an annoying bug.
"What happened?" Terrence D. said. "I heard shots."
"Fuck off," the ambulance attendant said.
The ambulance lumbered away in the background as cops climbed into their cruisers. Terrence turned the camera on himself, his face gleaming with excitement.
"I can't believe this." His breath was ragged. "I was on a walk, okay, and I just found this shit." He pointed at the ambulance driving off. He spun the camera to reveal motion smudge, the back of the ambulance as it receded, more motion smudge, and his face again. "One of those guys was Jack Wallace, I'm sure of it. YouTube sensation from, like, a million years ago. I saw him go in there! I think he just killed his own fucking DAD!"
Jeff closed the laptop and sprinted down the hallway to a room he called his shooting studio -- a ten-by-ten foot bedroom that was empty save for a small desk in the center that sported a laptop and a vintage 40's Philco microphone that an ex-girlfriend had given him as a birthday gift. Leaning against one wall were photography reflector and diffuser boards that he had gotten free from a friend who was a professional wedding photographer. Cobol tried to follow him in, but he pushed her back out into the hall with one foot before closing the door.
He needed to get his own video out there before anyone else did. He would play the self-righteous card, tearing Terrence D. down for everything from his lack of respect for a YouTube legend to his stupid ass interest in horror porn.
"Jack Wallace," Jeff said, as he ran his hand through his hair and adjusted his webcam. "You are going to be back on top again, bud."