“I don’t think I got the job, Mike.”
“You got the job.”
“My interview stunk. I was awkward.”
“What nineteen year-old isn’t?”
“When Rayburn asked what my weaknesses were I said what you told me, that I care too much, that I’m too much of a perfectionist. And I think he bought it. But when he asked me my strengths, I–” Kaylee narrowed her eyes. “You don’t look worried enough. What did you do?”
“It’s been arranged,” I said, savoring the last of my London Fog.
We were sitting in Trees on Granville Street, a cozy wood-paneled harbor from the grind and blast of the financial district at mid-day. A slab of the city’s best cheesecake lay in front of my cousin. She prodded it, broke off a piece.
“You always get cryptic when you’re doing something wrong,” she said.
She’d caught the symptom but misjudged the disease. I was doing wrong: my grandmother would tie me to the tree of woe if she knew I’d enlisted my cousin into my work. Private detection was a fine career choice for a half-educated, thirty year-old ex-cop; for a prairie girl and community college honor student, there were loftier callings.
“Rayburn will hire you,” I said. “He’ll hire you because you’re over-qualified, because you’re cheaper than anyone else, and because you’re good with kids.”
“His kid is adorable.”
“And because I skewed his applicant pool.”
She looked at me quizzically. “You had other people apply?”
“Who were coached to be volatile, rude, and disruptive, setting off your suitability even more. You’ll be the kid’s new caretaker.”
She ate her cheesecake. I watched an ancient man at an outside table drape his eyes over the barista who brought him his drink. After a moment Kaylee set down her fork.
“Didn’t Robin Williams do something like that in that Doubtfire movie?”
“Perilous times such as these,” I said, “we draw our inspiration from where we can.”
Monica Starlin hadn’t married Dominick Rayburn, but they’d cohabited for eight years. He’d encouraged her to keep her apartment, had even paid the rent. When they broke up, Rayburn’s lawyer weaseled out of the common-law entitlements. Starlin received no alimony, and the custody of their son Bradley was evenly split.
Which didn’t bother Starlin, though Rayburn could have supported her on what he spent on sports memorabilia alone. What worried her was that Bradley had come back to her showing signs of abuse. A bloody nose, a scratch on the arm. A month later, two broken fingers. The child wasn’t talking. Rayburn chalked it up to kids being kids.
Starlin hadn’t documented the earlier cases, and she wasn’t going back into court against Dominick Rayburn without something conclusive. She’d hired me. I’d tried to talk to Bradley but the kid had the shut-down, cagey look of the abused.
I’d done a thorough background check on Rayburn’s nanny, then arranged to have her fired. My cousin would take her place.
An inveterate liar with a conscience: that’s what you look for in an undercover op. My cousin fit that bill. The job entitled mornings and evenings bookending Bradley’s school schedule, then sleepover weekends. Rayburn would pop in and out, depending on work. She’d be paid under-the-table, working one week on, one off.
We’d agreed to meet downtown after her first shift, our meeting place a bench on the waterfront in view of the convention center. I was there early. I drank coffee and smoked and waited. My view of the North Shore mountains was marred by the giant blue plastic teardrop that somebody somewhere had deemed public art. I watched the Sea Bus ferry people across to Lonsdale. It made two complete circuits while I waited.
Eventually Kaylee appeared, jogging the last few steps to acknowledge her lateness and demonstrate her chagrin.
“I couldn’t message you,” she said. “Dominick wanted to talk. We were sitting at his kitchen table the whole time, him me and Kendra, and one thing he said he liked about me was I didn’t have my head buried in my phone like so many young people these days. Then he insisted on dropping me off. I told him I was meeting a friend at the Skytrain and then I walked from there.” As she paused to regain her breath she scanned my face for belief, approval.
“Who’s Kendra?” I asked.
“His girlfriend. I mean he called her his friend, but there was a thing between them. She didn’t say much. Seemed angry.”
“At first she just seemed impatient, then Bradley mentioned someone named Noelle. Kendra got quiet after that. I’d say she’s jealous.”
“Describe Rayburn for me,” I said.
“Actually he’s pretty cool.” She blushed and looked away, composing herself. “We talked about life, philosophy, school, things like that. He asked what I want to do after I get my degree. That sort of thing.”
“So more about you than him.”
Kaylee didn’t answer.
“Where was the kid? Asleep?”
“Right. Then after coffee, Dominick drove me here. Kendra stayed back in case Bradley woke up.”
“Is he interested sexually in you?”
“I don’t know.”
Near us, a tall woman tossed a crushed half-cigarette into the black rippling waves. Roller bladers slalomed around pedestrians, heading towards Stanley Park. I waited for a lull, a few moments with no one else within earshot.
“Let’s assume he is,” I said. “You can play up whatever’s comfortable, but remember why you’re there. Invent a boyfriend if you don’t have one.”
“I don’t know that’d stop him,” Kaylee said.
“Also keep in mind he may know you’re my cousin, and he might be prepared for something like this.”
“Something like what? Prepared how, Mike?”
“Rayburn’s good at thinking three steps ahead. He’d expect his ex to take an interest in the kid’s safety.” I stood and flicked ash from my lap. “Take care what you do or say around him.”
Week one was uneventful and Bradley returned to his mother unharmed. Kaylee would pick him up from school next Friday and stay with him the weekend. Rayburn would be at a conference until the following Tuesday. Kaylee had asked why not let the kid spend another weekend with his mother? She’d been told it was a precarious relationship.
What Rayburn had said was, “She doesn’t get any more of him than the court allows. We’re not bartering with my son. He has toys and things here, same as at his mother’s. There’s frozen pizza and plenty of the juice boxes he likes. You two’ll be fine. Plus Kendra is only one call away.”
Kendra Spears worked in the main office of Rayburn’s logistics company. She coordinated between the various warehouses and troubleshooted the RF inventory system. She took her smoke breaks on a picnic bench behind the loading bays, usually stretching her fifteen minutes to twenty or twenty-five. Two or three cigarettes and a flurry of pages from a novel. She favored grail mysteries and those Tom Clancy novels not written by Tom Clancy. I approached her on Wednesday, walking over to borrow her lighter.
She put down her paperback. I lit up and leaned back against the ten foot wall of wood pallets along the dock’s edge.
“Wouldn’t do that,” she said. “They’ve been known to fall over.”
“Obliged for the warning. And the light.” I gestured at her book. “Any good?”
“Reads quick enough. Who’re you with?”
“Company-wise? Beltram Group. We’re pretty small, won’t be starting domestic storage for another year. I’m supposed to talk to a Mr. Rayburn.”
Puzzlement worked the fly gallery of her forehead, raising the flesh where she’d penciled in her eyebrows. “Usually he only sees our corporate partners.”
“Not that we don’t value smaller clients,” she added hastily. “Only that Dom’s expertise is larger organizations.”
“We have a mutual golf buddy,” I said. “Guess he thought he owed us the personal touch. But maybe you can help me.”
Kendra nodded seriously. She left her book open-faced on the bench and, cravings seen to, headed over to the side door of the warehouse office.
Before she could take the short staircase, the door opened and a man cocked his head toward me. Spears talked to him. Then they motioned me over.
“Kendra didn’t get your name,” he said. His smile was broad and ringed with stubble, his teeth a solid planed piece of ivory. “I’m Delbert Moxley.” His handshake was one vigorous pump.
“He said he was with the Beltram Group,” Spears told him. She didn’t believe me, and spoke with a hall monitor’s petty satisfaction. “He said Dom was handling his account personally. That they’re golf buddies.”
Moxley regarded me. His smile didn’t waiver. “That’s right,” he said. “You’re a few minutes early, Mr. Drayton, but why don’t we go up to my office now.”
Once we were ensconced in Moxley’s second-floor office, surrounded by trophies and plaques and autographed sports equipment, Moxley said, “I appreciate the ruse. Don’t want to alarm the staff. But I don’t know where she is.”
He flopped into his chair, bit his thumb. I stared at him. His eyes widened, as if surprised there was anything further to say.
“This is playing out exactly how Noelle would want it,” Moxley said. “I bet she’s on some beach in Hawaii, laughing at me right now. Which collection agency do you work for?”
“Melville Street,” I said, knowing of three along that strip of the Financial District. Moxley hadn’t listened to the answer. Up close you could see the upkeep needed to hide the wear on his facade. The gray roots, the crow’s feet. His left thumbnail was chewed down.
“You look fatigued,” I said, trying for empathy.
“My relationship with Noelle was strictly professional. I said as much to the officers when her mother declared her missing. I knew her to say hi to, but nothing about her financial dealings. ‘Cept what the auditors told me.”
“How much did she take?”
“About seventeen thousand in misallocated funds. Whether she took it or not—”
“It’s not a lot,” I said.
“Any fraud is too much,” Moxley said.
“I meant for her to run away on. A frugal woman could make that last a few months, but that’s not much of a standard of living.”
“It’s all so stupid,” Moxley agreed.
“Did Noelle exhibit any strange behavior prior to her disappearance?”
“Not even close,” Moxley said. “She was great. Great to Mr. Rayburn’s son, too. I can’t imagine what possessed her, but if I find her I’ll ask. Once I’ve found the money.”
Monday I was instructing Kaylee up to the moment she left to pick up Bradley. I wanted her to avoid arousing Rayburn’s suspicion. More than that, I wanted her to build her rapport with Bradley, to be genuine with him, to see if he would talk.
She earned points with the kid by permitting him to trade his unfinished plate of spaghetti for an extra scoop of ice cream. Bradley told her that Kendra made him eat even when he wasn’t hungry, and doled out desserts parsimoniously. He didn’t like much about Kendra.
When it came to discussing what happened to him, the abuse, Bradley had little to say. Rayburn seemed to have a genuine if undemonstrative love for his son.
Tuesday night, while Bradley finished his daily video call with his mother, Kaylee talked to Rayburn at the kitchen counter over a beer. “You’re close to legal age, aren’t you?” Rayburn had said, grinning conspiratorially.
She diverted the conversation to childhood injuries, mentioning her own scrapes and scars as examples.
“It’s different for boys,” Rayburn told her. “You’re always growing. Your school desk doesn’t fit, you have no idea of your own strength. In my opinion a lot of what people are calling bullying these days is kids learning to understand their own physical relationship with the world. It’s probably necessary.”
“Has Bradley been involved in many fights?” she asked.
“It’s a different world,” was all Rayburn would say.
Thursday she noticed the scar. It was a thin red line across Bradley’s left instep, only noticeable if you were carefully inspecting the child’s foot after removing a sliver of a shattered ketchup bottle. Months old, probably inflicted with something hot. Kaylee asked him if he’d burned himself. Bradley said no.
“It was my friend,” he said.
“Your friend who what? Burned you?” When she’d received encouragement on those points she added, “Was it your father?”
”My friend Noelle.”
“Burned you on purpose?”
“She said that’s what my dad liked, but not to tell him. So please don’t you tell him.”
Kaylee promised she wouldn’t.
When Rayburn came home she brought it up and asked for explanation. Kaylee played it as someone unsettled and confused by what she’d heard, but also skeptical, hoping it wasn’t true.
“My ex-girlfriend was into decorative scarring,” Rayburn said, his tone dismissive of the fad. “She had a prominent swirl pattern inscribed on her calf. Similar to tattooing.”
“And she did this to a child? And you allowed that?”
“Of course not.” Rayburn looked genuinely pained. “Bradley is confusing some common accident with Noelle’s scarring. No way would anyone even consider that.”
“Does his mother know about it?”
“Of course,” Rayburn said. “Ask her. I’ll give you her number.
Kaylee told him it wasn’t necessary, she believed him.
Rayburn dragged his chair to the window. He raised the sash and sat down, lit a cigarette and tossed the match out into the back garden. With his sleeves rolled up, his tie played out, he looked like a politician enjoying the lull between events. One candid moment sans scrutiny.
“It’s not my business,” Kaylee said, “but why’d you break up with her?”
He sucked the cigarette’s filter, blew smoke toward the window. “It was remarkably easy. I started earning money and I started receiving attention from women. I weighed that freedom against our relationship and I made my choice. It likely wasn’t the right one.”
“I meant Noelle,” Kaylee said. “What broke you up?”
“She left town,” Rayburn said.
We varied our meeting places, this time choosing an Italian deli on Commercial Drive. As we ate our sandwiches and I drank espresso, Kaylee told me Rayburn had asked her to spend the long weekend with him.
“He’s going up to Whistler,” she said. “It’s ski season. He wants Bradley to go with him. Same terms and duties. We’ll have a room to ourselves. Well, a three-bedroom suite.”
“What brought that on?”
“Should I go or not?”
I concentrated on my coffee.
“No,” I said. “We should stop this. You’ve done enough. I don’t know what Rayburn’s into but I can find out without putting you in danger.”
“I’m already in danger, aren’t I?”
“I think Rayburn has a side we haven’t seen, yes.”
“His own child. We need to stop this.”
“It doesn’t always work like that,” I said.
Noelle Harper had indeed been declared missing by her mother. Then the report had been withdrawn. Harper’s mother volunteered in a retirement home. She explained her reasons to me as I stood with her in the narrow prep kitchen, my forearms and torso baked from the heat lamps keeping dinner warm.
“Noelle took money from work,” she said. “Quite a lot. She didn’t want to come back. She’d left for some reason, to get away from something.”
I looked over the trays of orange food at a pair of eyes that wouldn’t meet mine. Mrs. Harper was focused on arranging medallions of pork roast in an imbricate pattern.
“Did she tell you this?”
“She had a friend let me know.”
“Did you ask Mr. Rayburn if you could talk to Noelle personally?”
“He said she was on the Hawaiian Island, the one with no phone service. How’d you know–”
“Lucky guess,” I said.
Whistler at the tail end of ski season: the image it tried to project was of a snow-dusted village, a dream or memory of a simpler place, quaint, rustic. But the money betrayed it. The wood and stone veneers of the chateaus, the symmetrical layout, even the name, had a forced and over-considered feel. It was too much of a dream, too much a memory. In the end it could only be a corporate retreat, a resort town for rich people.
Rayburn had booked a top floor suite in a downtown chalet. The three of them lunched in the dining room downstairs, viewing the panorama of the various ski runs through the glass walls. They went shopping at a boutique, all three tromping out with a full complement of skiing gear.
I followed behind them, strategically lurching and sidestepping around the overflowing gutters and slush-filled potholes. The streets were busy, everyone hurrying to make use of the dwindling snow.
Kaylee and Bradley separated from Rayburn, joining a group of neophytes at the edge of the beginner’s run. A woman with a bright orange vest over her snowsuit emerged from the gift shop and began taking the group through the basics. Rayburn lingered a moment and headed back toward the hotel.
He took the stairs up to his room. I had a coffee in the lounge. Rayburn was down twenty-eight minutes later, dressed in business attire. I followed him to a travel agency, where he talked for a few minutes, nodding along to the gesticulations of the clerk. I had a cigarette. The air was heavy, cold, like breathing through a frozen dishrag.
Rayburn re-emerged, heading past me. I typed numbers into my phone.
“The time?” he said. I looked up, saw he was talking to me.
He nodded and smiled. “Still some daylight.”
I gave him a block’s worth of leeway, waiting until he was almost out of view. Rayburn left the main thoroughfare. He walked down a street comprised of service and repair shops, the more exotic boutiques. He passed a health clinic, took an outside set of stairs up to a nondescript row of professional offices.
The door to suite 206 was opened by a tall man, stooped in the doorway, his face overgrown from all sides with coils of black hair. He nodded and stepped aside for Rayburn.
I walked downstairs and checked the legend on the poster-board out front. 206 housed Calhoun Charters. I’d look it up later and find that Frank Calhoun was a licensed helicopter pilot. His website offered CUSTOMIZED ADVENTURES. He charged an hourly rate.
I’d taken a room at a chain hotel down the street from Rayburn’s chalet. After the slopes Rayburn had taken them for dinner and then a puppet show held in the village center. Kaylee and I had no time to strategize. I texted her a few paragraphs of cautionary instructions. She responded monosyllabically: NO to whether he’d mentioned helicopters, OK to an extorted promise to be safe.
They were up early, the three of them emerging from their hotel in matching suits. They looked like a family, though Kaylee’s age confused things. After an hour or so Kaylee and Bradley bought cocoa and watched Rayburn negotiate the more difficult run.
After lunch they traded their downhill skis for cross-country. Rayburn drank beer while the other two were shepherded through a beginner’s course. Rayburn met the group as it returned. Bradley looked fatigued, unhappy with the greater effort and slower reward of cross-country, frustrated with his lack of skill. Rayburn knelt on the snow and touched his son’s shoulders. He spoke in firm yet even-tempered bursts, each ending with a squeeze to Bradley’s shoulders and a nod of the head from his son.
I was standing in the orbit of the concessions, watching the three figures shrink as they followed a route that twisted up around the forested peaks. Kaylee huffed good-naturedly, keeping pace with Bradley, while Rayburn darted ahead and waited or circled back to prod his son forward. A familiar face passed me, blond hair topped with a pink wool toque.
Kendra Spears glided towards the trio with practiced arcs of her arms and hips. When she met them there was a conference, then they started up again, disappearing from sight.
EVERYTHING OK?, I texted Kaylee.
A few minutes later came the reply. YEP. KS HERE. KS and DR ACTING LIKE COINCIDENCE.
UNLIKELY, I texted back unnecessarily. BE CAREFUL.
It was 2:30 now. Among the other people waiting at the snow’s edge was Frank Calhoun, brandishing a coffee, his uncovered mane of hair buoyed slightly by the wind.
Be careful. Easy enough to put the onus on her.
Soon a lone male figure descended the slope in long elegant strides. Calhoun had another coffee ready as Rayburn cast off his skis.
“–fully gassed,” Calhoun was saying as they passed me. “Good two hours of daylight left.”
I fell into step behind them.
“The beacon won’t be hard to track.” Calhoun’s gruff voice had an Australian judder to the R’s and H’s. “Like I said, those signals last for months. What do you want to do with him?”
“With Mr. Drayton?” Here Rayburn spun, looked chidingly at me, and said to Calhoun, “Why not ask him?”
Calhoun’s Jeep passed the outskirts of the village. Calhoun drove with an easy disregard for living creatures and signage. I was in the back seat. They hadn’t made any threats. I didn’t ask where we were headed.
A strip of tarped wooden skeletons, an undeveloped cul-de-sac. We sped over a crust of frozen mud, meeting up with a gravel access road carved through the homes. A field, a long bunker, a Quonset hut and a two-rotor helicopter, military-grade, eighties vintage.
“We’ll have a coffee first,” Rayburn said, climbing out of the Jeep and bending his seat forward so I could escape. “I expect we have some things to discuss.”
The bunker was a messy office with paperwork covering every surface. Rayburn made coffee while I cleared off part of the bench. Soon we were facing each other, Calhoun seeing to his chopper.
“First my office,” Rayburn said. “Mr. Moxley said you two had words. And now here. You have something you’d like to ask me, Mr. Drayton?”
“Where’s Noelle Harper?”
His hands left his coffee cup, extending out broadly. “It’s a big planet.”
“What happened when you discovered she’d been stealing from you?”
“As a private detective do you make significantly less than a hundred thousand dollars a year?” He smiled when I didn’t answer. “I don’t mention it to brag, only to point out a common mistake those in your position make about those in mine. You think we have a greater fascination with money, a need to hold onto it. I’d say more often the opposite is true.”
“So you don’t care about Noelle’s embezzlement.”
He shrugged. “I knew who Noelle was.”
“Interesting use of tense.”
“Who she was when we met, Mr. Drayton.”
“So she disappears with your money and you don’t know or care about it?”
“Do you have a close family?” Rayburn asked. “What would you do to ensure their health and safety?”
My phone buzzed.
Calhoun rapped twice on the door. Rayburn stood up. “It’s twenty minutes on foot back to town,” he said. “Get off my property, Mr. Drayton.”
The message was a missed call from Kaylee. I dialed her as soon as I was away from the roar of the helicopter.
“I don’t know where we are,” she said. “Forest. Off the path. Darker.” Each word surrounded by static or wind, taken together the outline of a fairy tale.
“You’re cutting out. Is the kid okay? Can you see the trail?”
“Kaylee. Can you see–”
Dropped. I dialed back. Our connection was reestablished but drowned out by the helicopter passing above me.
A buddy in Search and Rescue once told me the fatal mistake rarely comes on the trail. It’s hours, even weeks earlier when you decide what to pack, what gear to buy, whether to charge your phone. Everything else is just a playing out of that decision, and of course, no one knows what your life hinges on until it’s far too late.
Kendra had led them on a loop that should have put them directly above the main trail. It was supposed to be a shortcut. An hour in, Kendra had turned to them with a smirk and said she might’ve miscalculated.
They’d trudged down, until Kendra halted them again and said they’d gone too far. The trail had to be above them now, judging from the treeline. She hadn’t seemed worried. They’d rested, fed Bradley a granola bar, while Kendra used her phone to take her bearings. She showed Kaylee the route they’d take, chiding herself for mixing things up. It was so simple.
They hit a lighter snow and Bradley sank into it up to his waist. Kaylee pulled him up, following what the class leader had told them about pigeon-toeing across the soft white carpet.
Kendra gave Bradley one of her thin layers of clothing to drape over his shoulders. She told Kaylee to head back to where the snow was denser and wait. She sped off in the opposite direction before Kaylee could protest.
Staying put isn’t as dumb an idea as it seems. You conserve energy, you don’t worsen your situation. Sometimes it’s the right call.
Kaylee decided to move, following the tracks, only because she didn’t trust Kendra. Her own phone came up with a clear route back to the trail, the opposite way Kendra had gone. This felt intentional. Kendra had deliberately lost them, probably at Rayburn’s request. Kaylee had to guess on the direction and get Bradley to shelter. She didn’t have the luxury of pondering Rayburn’s motives.
But I did. I had an idea of what had happened to Noelle, too. And why Rayburn had sought out Calhoun and his chopper.
Later, after the funeral, I’d stop Rayburn and ask him. We’d sit in his office, he’d offer me a dram of Highland Park, and he’d talk around what he’d done. What he’d gotten away with.
“It had little to do with money,” he said, “and everything to do with my son. I didn’t realize what kind of person she was–beautiful but manipulative. She’d moved in, been looking after Bradley for months, before I noticed.”
“The abuse,” I prompted.
“I’d gone to the supermarket but I’d forgotten the list. I doubled back, and heard–and saw–how Noelle treated Bradley. Her idea of discipline. I tried to call it off then and there, but she said she’d ruin me. She’d been embezzling money and she’d say it was at my instruction. Worse, she’d find a way to take it out on my son.”
Rayburn drank and held the liquor on his tongue for a second. “I was seeing Kendra then,” he continued.
“In addition to Noelle.”
He nodded. “I confessed everything to her. Kendra told me to reconcile, and we’d all go skiing. That she knew the Coast Mountains better than anyone and she could arrange for Noelle to get lost.
“We never reported her.”
Rayburn made eye contact during his confession, speaking unabashedly and sounding almost bored. There was nothing I could do to him and we both knew it.
“With the snow melting you worried she’d be discovered,” I guessed. “You arranged for Calhoun to help transport the remains.”
Rayburn nodded. “He knows people who dispose of things. Kendra would distract your cousin and my son for a time.”
“It didn’t go down like that,” I said.
“To my eternal regret. Kendra was supposed to get them lost for a little while, enough time for Calhoun and I to take care of things. That’s all. No one was supposed to die.”
He refilled his glass and studied it.
“You don’t have to believe me, but I’ve never felt sorrier about anything in my life. And there are other candidates for that honor, trust me.”
“It helps you, though, doesn’t it?” I said. “No one to tell your secrets, other than the pilot.”
“I never wanted Kendra to leave them. I couldn’t foresee she’d stumble and snap her ankle. Your cousin was heroic. I owe her for saving my son.”
“About Bradley,” I said.
“You can be sure nothing will ever happen to him again,” Rayburn said. “Monica may not have gotten her wish in seeing me behind bars, but you can guarantee her that our son will always be safe. Tell her that, please.”
“You can do your own lying,” I said.
I left. In the waiting room I saw Bradley in a black suit and shirt. Across from him sat my cousin, her legs extended awkwardly. She’d told me the lingering sensation of hypothermia was that her legs always felt asleep. Bradley ignored her.
I touched Kaylee’s shoulder. “Let’s go.”
As I helped her up, she leaned across me to speak to Bradley. “You’ll be fine,” she said.
He responded only with a look of betrayal. As I drove Kaylee home I caught the same look from her in the side mirror. A child’s trust irrevocably shattered, and self-hatred for ever being so naive.
BIO: Sam Wiebe’s first novel Last of the Independents won an Arthur Ellis Award and the Kobo Emerging Writer prize, and was nominated for Shamus. His second novel, Invisible Dead, was released this June from Random House Canada. He lives in Vancouver.