(A novel by Susan Overturf)
When I got home, I reconsidered Eileen’s story. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why the police believed her when the principal of the school did not. If Eileen lied about Catherine having a fall at school, she could have lied about a lot of other things. Was she covering for someone else or for herself? And why was David Fuller so defensive? What was he hiding? Both the doctor and coroner got their information from Eileen, a most unstable source, it seemed to me. It was looking as though a fall at school had simply never happened. I hoped that Catherine’s teacher would give me the final confirmation.
I returned to the school promptly at noon and met Grace Brown in her classroom. We settled down together at a small table and two chairs that suited five-year-olds quite nicely, but not sixty-year-olds quite so well. We talked first about teaching. Although we had taught different age levels, there were always commonalities to the profession: staff meetings, committee efforts, union squabbles, parental complaints, and collegial in-fighting. Grace knew, however, that her time was limited and she knew why I was there because she had talked briefly to Samantha Tarry, the principal.
“So,” Grace began, “what is it you want to know about Catherine Fuller?”
“Anything you can tell me,” I replied. I did not want to give her leading questions.
“Well,” Grace said thoughtfully, “she was shy and quite withdrawn. I had a hard time getting her to say a word in class. She tended to play alone and the other children ignored her. Even on the playground, she often went to a small corner somewhere and just stood there and watched the others. Her mother was always prompt about bringing her and picking her up, but she said very little to me. I thought she was a very lonely, lost little girl. I felt sorry for her, but I couldn’t bring her out of her shell.”
“Do you think she was an abused child?”
“If you mean, did I see bruises, no I didn’t. Catherine was nearly always dressed in long-sleeved blouses and pants. If she was being abused, her bruises were well hidden from me. And she certainly never, ever said anything.”
We both paused for a moment, each thinking about the helplessness that every teacher feels when they suspect abuse but cannot prove it. I finally broke the silence: “Did you see her fall on that day she died?”
“No, I didn’t, and I told the police that, as did Samantha Tarry.” There was no hesitation in her response.
“So the story about the fall at school is coming strictly from the mother then. Why do you suppose that the police believed her when the school couldn’t verify it?”
Grace shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. “Who knows? How much respect do teachers get in this society?“ She looked down at her feet and then back at me. “I told the policemen that I thought Catherine might have been abused, that she was a very shy and withdrawn child, but they didn’t seem to think it was important information.” Grace paused and then said, “You know, there was something else about that family that I don’t think was investigated.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Oh, what’s that?” I asked.
“Well, I think that the father might have been involved with drug dealing, and those parents might have been using drugs as well.“ As Grace made each point, she used her finger to point at the table. “Catherine did tell me that a lot of people came to her house, talked to her father, and then left. I couldn’t think of any other reason for that, except something illegal.”
“It’s possible, certainly,” I mused. “David Fuller married a woman who came from a wealthy family. He was struggling to become a lawyer, and money was probably tight. Perhaps he found drug dealing a way to make ends meet. Is there any other reason you thought this?”
Grace took a moment to consider my question. “Well, sometimes Mrs. Fuller would be accompanied by some rather unsavory looking fellows. It was almost as though they were her watchdogs or something. I wasn’t sure. She never said anything to me. Just grabbed her daughter’s hand and left. But those men made me uncomfortable.”
“Well, that’s interesting, and I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me.” I could think of no more questions. “I guess I should go,” I said, “and you’ll have a group of children in here soon.” I stood up to go, and Grace walked with me to the door.
“Why are you doing this?” Grace asked, temporarily ignoring the need to get ready for the children.
I once again explained about my apartment, Catherine’s ghost, and my nephew. I told Grace a little about my visits to the Fullers, but I decided that I didn’t want to reveal too much, the vision of that threatening note still in the back of my mind. Soon, I said my good-byes and headed home. I wondered about Grace’s comment that the Fullers might have been involved with drug dealers, and the one person who I thought might know about that was Mark. I rather hoped I might find him home as I headed to his door. I was in luck.
Mark answered the door on the first knock. “Dorthea, come in! How’s it going? What did your nephew say about the note?”
“Not much,” I said. “He took it as evidence and they’re going to see if they can get any fingerprints off it.” I still had not moved from the hallway. “Can I ask you one question....inside?”
“Of course.” Mark opened the door wider and let me in.
“Clients?” I asked.
“Fifteen minutes,” he said.
“I just wanted to ask you a question.”
I briefly told Mark about my visits to the principal and Catherine’s kindergarten teacher. “Were you aware of any drug dealing going on in the Fullers’ apartment?”
Mark didn’t hesitate. He threw up his hands and nearly shouted: “Of course! It was obvious!” His hands waved back and forth as he said, “People coming and going at all hours of the day and night. Knocking on the door, staying only a few minutes.“ He lowered his hands and shrugged. “What else could it have been? I saw some pretty unsavory characters going back and forth and I even called it in to TIPS, but I never saw any cops show up. Typical.”
“How terrible for Catherine,” I said. “I wonder if anyone reported the family to social services.“
“I doubt it,” Mark said. “People just don’t get involved in other people’s business. Drug dealing. Child abuse. They may suspect, but there’s precious little proof. The police don’t do anything. Neither do social services, as far as I’m concerned.”
I knew that Mark’s generalization was not completely true. As a teacher, I had turned in suspected child abuse cases many times, and I had seen children removed from abusive homes. It’s true that abuse cases were hard to prove, but vigilant neighbours, doctors, teachers, anyone who worked with children, could usually spot it and prove it, if they kept their eyes and ears open. One of the most vicious cases I had ever seen came to light with a small comment from the young woman herself. “Mrs. Parsons,” she had said to me, “please don’t call my father about my marks in school. He gets so mad!” I had followed up that seemingly innocent comment with a visit to the school counsellor, who had made a home visit, and it hadn’t taken long to determine that the sixteen-year-old woman had been physically abused by her father for years. She asked to be given a new home, and they found one for her with a distant relative.
I really didn’t want to argue with Mark about the efficiency of the police, school authorities, or society in general. I was well aware that most people didn’t understand the stresses and expectations of police and teachers. Instead, I just said, “Sometimes one person can make a difference. It just depends on how stubborn you are.”
Mark rolled his eyes with an unbelieving look. “I can tell that you’re a real crusader, aren’t you? Well, be careful. It can sometimes get you into trouble.”
I thought of the note which I had received and how similar it sounded to Mark’s words. “Why didn’t you tell me about the drug dealing before?”
Mark shrugged. “Never thought of it.” He looked at me rather quizzically and said, “I must get ready for my next client.”
I said my thanks to Mark, but left feeling uncomfortable about his comments. Why hadn’t he told me about the drug dealing? Why did his comment about getting into trouble sound hauntingly similar to the note I had received? If Mark knew something or he was more involved than I had ever thought, he had played it very cooly. Certainly, he could have slipped a note under my door, and his fingerprints on the note wouldn’t mean a thing since I took the note to show to him. From the beginning, he was very friendly. Was he sincerely interested, or watching me to make sure I didn’t learn too much? And if he knew more about Catherine’s death, how was he involved?
I unlocked the door to my apartment, instinctively looking down first to see if there was any paper on the floor. There wasn’t. I checked out the apartment. There were no signs of anyone having been there. I tried to relax and read, but it was useless; I couldn’t get my mind off Catherine. I put my book down and went to my computer. I decided to make a list of what I knew. Organization of my thoughts always helped me to think more clearly. Call it the teacher instinct, if you like.
After going through this process, however, I wasn’t any closer to finding answers, but it had helped me to determine where I might go next in my investigation. The most obvious discrepancy to me was the fall: Did it even happen and, if so, where? Probably only David and/or Eileen Fuller knew the answer to that. The threatening note told me that someone was afraid I was going to find out.
But where could I go now? Where could I find more answers? I wasn’t a trained investigator, though being a teacher certainly had taught me many things about human nature. I had a natural sense of curiosity, a respect for justice and especially justice for children. I wished that someone had been on my side when I was a little girl, so now I felt an obligation to defend Catherine. I felt it was unlikely that anyone else would take up the cause. Officially, the case was closed, and since I had recently read in the West Ender that the Vancouer Police Department had one of the lowest solved-cases records in Canada, I thought they wouldn’t mind if I did some of the work for them.
I didn’t want to face David Fuller again, but if anyone had answers and might eventually talk, it was Eileen Fuller. I decided that I would return to talk to her, but I would stay away for a few days — maybe even run it all by Miss Hattie — and plan my strategy. I wanted to be very careful about what I said to Eileen.
Disclaimer: Let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.