C D York 2003
The men all wore rubber boots. There was no sense going to the site without them. The rain hadn't let up for twenty-four hours. Joseph Farrell was the man in charge and he kept everyone busy by booming out orders on the five-minute mark. Beneath citrus yellow rain gear his true shape was hidden: a middle-age paunch sloping from a barrel chest and thick shoulders. He wore a trademark hat, no matter the weather or occasion; the habit was inspired by watching "Frost" over the course of its heyday and on into several seasons of reruns. Now the brim of the tweed creation, something along the lines of a fedora, channelled the rain effectively either to his back or his front depending on his posture. Most of the time it fell forward as he watched where he planted his feet to preserve the tracks in the laneway.
"Stay to the edges, men! I don't want to tell you this over and over again. Evidence is bloody fragile in this downpour. Get that tape barrier up as quickly as possible."
Farrell's own steps inscribed a wide circle. Within it, distinct impressions remained in the combination of clay and pooled rain. He wasn't counting on them lasting much longer. His boots squelched, sank and stuck as he walked. For a minute he stood still and looked at the horizon, searching for a break in the clouds that would tell him the storm was passing. No break, just the promise of an early dusk. He sighed, and caught himself doing so. Tiredness and frustration were settling in; he could feel it in muscle and bone.
"Jamieson! Let's wrap it up for today. Not much we can do until tomorrow as it is. Bloody awful weather."
The wood, southwest of the lane, dripped red and gold leaves in the October gale. Things flew and tumbled until the forest floor was heavy with layers of the dead. Creatures hid under the trunks of fallen trees, in boles, in dens. They buried their snouts between their paws and tried to sleep. Was there a sense of siege within this fortress? Or joy that another season, rest, beckoned?
At the heart of the wood, far enough away from the laneway to be invisible, rock heaved among the slender maples and birches. Mosses softened the granite's high points as well as its crevices; they glowed green in the settling darkness when all other surfaces had faded to grays. Something, perhaps a man, moved towards this centre. The movements were slow as if the body waded through deep, heavy water. And low, low to the ground, as if it had taken on the nature of a slug. Impossible to see, now that it was truly night, the colour of the skin or hair or whether the body bled or was whole and sound. The wind roiled through the trees and carried the crawler's scent to each corner of the wood.
Farrell stood at his kitchen window with the cord of the Roman shade in his hand. He peered out to where the street lamp's light captured the unchanged state of the weather. He released his grip and stared at the blank fabric before him. There was no help for it: he always brought the day's events home with him. And now they flashed like a slide show as he washed his plate and bowl and utensils and stood them in a rack to dry. First the car had been found. Its two front doors were open, the key still turned to the 'on' position in the ignition. How long had it taken for the batteries to die? The windshield wipers had frozen half way across the expanse of glass. The head lamps had expired. No sound came from the engine: the fuel was gone.
The farmer who owned the property travelled the laneway infrequently so it was a matter of chance that he discovered the abandoned vehicle at all. Police were alerted and came from the city, eight miles distant. They brought a tracking dog with them but scents were compromised by the watershed the ground had become. Routine computer searches were carried out using the vehicle's registration number while the men covered an area a quarter mile in radius on foot. Farrell ordered the vehicle towed back to town. It couldn't be properly analyzed for evidence where it was. When he returned to his office at five o'clock, the first results of the investigation were waiting on his desk. The 1994 Mercedes SE was registered to Stuart Green. It seemed a simple matter then. Tomorrow, Farrell's team would learn as much as they could about Green and the rural search area would be expanded. He prayed that the weather would clear as he sat down to watch "Frost".
Sometimes when he first woke up in the morning Farrell would experience a flash of insight about the worries he’d taken to bed with him six hours previously. He was unlucky in this regard on day two of the Green case and arrived at the office yearning for more information. He waited until almost noon for a few crumbs. The sky cleared at about the same hour.
Sir,” Lacey said, “here are the photos.”
Farrell tore open the manila envelope and spread out the contents on the desk. He and Lacey studied the images in silence for several minutes. Looking closely, it was easy to interpret the troughs and ridges leading from below the driver’s car door as evidence of a body being removed from the car and dragged away: good reason to organise a more extensive search of the area. And in response to his demand for more information about Green, Pocock arrived at his desk with a slender dossier.
“Not much to go on, sir. Seems that Green’s an unremarkable fellow. Not even a traffic infraction to his name.”
“There’s always more to it than what’s on the record Pocock. We haven’t even scratched the surface yet. Start harvesting whatever exists from Inland Revenue and the rest. I want everything, down to the kind of socks he buys. I’m going back to the lane now...see you later today. The car will have been combed by then. Contact me as you get your results.”
Fifteen hours had elapsed since Farrell left the countryside. Returning, under clear skies and rising temperatures, he found thirty people already searching the area adjacent to the lane. Two of them neared the edge of the wood.
“Hold those men there. We’ll enter the wood as a full team with a briefing first.”
It was noon when they gathered. The ground search leader reported that his crew had found only one thing of any consequence: a flimsy course of flattened vegetation leading towards the trees. They decided to tackle the dense copse in pairs and run roughly parallel paths at a distance of sixty feet from east to west. It would take an hour at most to make the search. Farrell would remain at his car for transmitted reports from the office. He lowered the windows, turned the speaker on and then began to walk the lane again.
His eyes sought evidence. Evidence of what, he wasn’t sure. It looked like an abduction of some sort. Violence. Order abandoned for chaos. The supremacy of the unknown over the known. Things he’d devoted his adult life to putting right. But if there was one thing he’d learned, it was the certainty of the thin line between good and evil. At the very edge of white comes black. We go, like tight-rope walkers, along the knife edge. Except for those, he admitted to himself, who were drawn to the dark side from an early age. For them, there was no balancing to be done. Farrell prided himself on being a grounded realist; able to discover and assess motives, to gauge the range of the possible and the impossible where human behaviour was concerned. There wasn’t much he hadn’t seen in his years with the force. Into the quiet came the sound of crackle as the radio transmitter kicked into action. He hurried back towards the car.
“Chief. Chief.” It was Pocock. “Are you there?”
“Yes, go ahead. What’ve you got for me?”
“Seems that Green didn’t show up for work yesterday. He’s a shop keeper in Blatchford. Has a small antiques business. The shop assistant tried to reach him by cell phone without success. Unusual behaviour for a man of responsible habit. So, it looks like we’re searching for him. The shop assistant is coming in this afternoon with a photograph of him.”
“Good, good. Anything yet from the vehicle analysis? No? Well keep me up to date on that. We’re covering the wood near the lane. Should be finished in an hour or so. I’ll be with you by mid-afternoon.”
The search team returned somewhat later than Farrell had expected. Three of the bags they’d brought with them appeared to hold items of interest. Jamieson was eager to report.
“Here, look at this!”
The bags were lined up on the ground and their handlers prepared to tag them. Farrell pulled on a pair of latex gloves and opened the first one. He lifted out a pair of lower-thigh-to-foot mannequin’s legs, joined at the top with a rigid handle and wearing rubber boots. These boots were marked with dry mud thickly encasing the ankles and thin at the heels. The second bag contained a rain cape, khaki in colour and, again, spotted with mud. In the final bag lay a book. It had suffered from exposure to the rain; its cover was soggy and curling at the corners and the colour had begun to bleed onto the wave-edged pages.
“The items were all found together,” Jamieson said. “There was nothing else.”
“No body. No freshly-turned or uneven soil. Nothing but dead leaves and rocks and fallen trees. The dogs detected nothing.”
The office seemed stale and close after the freshness of the country air. Reports waited for Farrell’s inspection on a desk already piled with paper. He sat to read. On one corner of the desk was the bag that held the book. Cups of coffee came and went; the remnants of a take-out meal of curried beef, samosas and rice grew cold. The afternoon wound down to dusk. Farrell lost his sense of urgency and descended into a contemplative space. He ingested the information in the reports, the contents of the book. He studied the photograph of Green. His mind played chess with the clues. Throughout the process, something nagged at the back of rational thought.
“I’ve had enough for today,” he said to Pocock. “Fresh start tomorrow.”
But fresh starts were a fantasy, weren’t they? He took it all home with him. He slept poorly, waking with bad dreams twice. Morning arrived with frenetic traffic reports on the radio alarm clock. But he turned the radio off and lay quiet within himself, opening his mind to revelation, half-praying that something would come. The book was about outlawed things that sought corners of refuge in order to survive; about forgotten forces that were nevertheless present and vigorous; about transformation and redemption. Financial reports indicated that Green was near to insolvency. Medical reports described his health as tenuous. Other, confidential sources, pegged him as a neo-pagan who belonged to a small group of like-minded, irrational folks. He was not married, had no close relatives. The shop assistant did not know him well at all.
Farrell twisted in the sheets and thumped his pillow. It was easy, he argued with himself. The man had simply had enough. Suicide. Green was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and a chronic, debilitating illness; he was close to no one; his philosophical and moral precepts had no strictures against suicide. But why then go to the bother of dragging a pair of boots through the mud, creating tracks that provoked investigation? Why abandon the car with motor still running and doors wide open? Lures. Lures to draw people into the wood. Why, again?
The case eventually went into abeyance. No body. No crime. Perhaps Green was happy now in Brazil or Mexico. One never knew.
Each late October that passed thereafter found Farrell illogically marking the anniversary. He would drive past the little laneway that lay near the wood and gaze at it in the distance, wondering. When he retired from the force he kept up the routine, but instead of passing by, he would turn his car into the laneway and park there. He would walk the short distance to the wood, as long as the light held, and listen. He longed for answers. Jamieson, Lacey, Pocock and the others warned him off: ‘Don’t go out there by yourself.’
The year arrived when he did not return to his car from the edge of the wood. He had heard the voice of the green man; he had heard him laughing. It was the start of the restful season and Farrell thought it might be good to hear the answers at last and to then sleep until Spring.
~ ~ ~