(A novel by Susan Overturf)
March in Vancouver can be pleasant, and spring can be in the air, but there was no sign of it on this particular morning. When I touched my feet to the hardwood floors, I shivered. Quickly slipping on my fur-lined slippers, I grabbed my housecoat and went to the kitchen for some toast, an apple, and juice. I am not a coffee drinker and never have been, but there were always mornings when I wished that I did drink coffee so that I could feel less groggy. I sat down at my dining room table and ate while I stared out the window. Children and their mothers were on their way to school. Asian students were heading to their English-speaking classes. Business men and women were on their way to some downtown highrise office building. It really didn’t matter to me because my mind was involved in the dilemma I now faced and that had to be resolved: Who had been abused and by whom?
The only thing that seemed certain was that abuse had occurred and someone was lying, maybe several people. Certainly Eileen and David’s behaviours were strange. If David was the abuser, why would Eileen constantly protect him, and then run away from him? And why would she disappear from him now, when she was finally free of him? Why was David so defensive about looking into the cause of his daughter’s death if not to protect himself? Perhaps, all along, he had been trying to protect his wife. Maybe much of his behaviour is bravado. He had created an image of himself that allowed suspicion to be diverted away from his wife. If I was right, then Eileen and David Fuller were a strange couple indeed, protecting each other before protecting their own daughter.
My conversation with Jeff on the phone the week before had been brief. I had told him what I had learned from the doctor, and he had told me that David was free, and that Eileen was missing. We had agreed to meet today and discuss the situation, so I dressed and finished my breakfast and headed for Jeff’s office. He seemed happy to see me and we immediately went over all that we knew, coming up completely empty-handed and getting no further than I had in my musings that morning.
“You know,” Jeff said, “I did find out a bit about that drug dealer, Tats.”
“What did you learn?”
“Well, he operated in that area from 1990 to 1998, and then he got busted and jailed for several different charges. The drug squad guys tell me that he ‘got religion’ during his last incarceration and he works now on the east side for the Salvation Army, trying to help addicts get free of drugs. Now isn’t that a switch?”
“Amazing. But I find it a little hard to believe that someone could reform that much and in such a short space of time.”
Jeff gave me a look that could only be described as judgemental. “Well, you’d be surprised, Aunt Dorthea. I’ve seen a lot of strange things in my years as a cop.”
“I know,” I responded. “I saw a lot of stuff as a teacher, too. My experience has been that change doesn’t occur often, but when it does, it’s usually slow.” Jeff made no response. I could tell he didn’t want to argue with me, and I didn’t want to argue with him. So I changed the subject: “I wonder if he’d know anything about the Fullers.”
“He might.” And Jeff could see that I was already thinking about trying to find Tats on my own. “Why don’t you and I go together down there and see what we can find out?”
I readily agreed. We left the police building and Jeff drove me in his car; not surprisingly, he knew exactly where to go. We passed Hastings and Main and drove just a few blocks more. Jeff parked and we walked to a homeless shelter where Jeff had been told that Tats usually lived. Stepping into the lobby was an experience in itself. It was dark and smelly, and I had to fight back the feelings of vomit rising from my stomach. There was no one at the counter, but Jeff spoke to an old fellow sitting in a worn-out chair. He told us that he thought Tats was in his room — second floor, number two-one-two.
We walked up the creaking steps, and we could hear coughing and voices. The walls were covered with graffiti and wafts of marijuana smoke came drifting down. We reached the second floor and found Room 212 quickly. Someone said, “It’s open,” when Jeff knocked. We stepped inside. It was a small room with little furniture: A kitchen chair with the seat loose on top, a small table covered with dirty dishes and an ashtray, an old couch that sagged in the middle, and a small TV sitting on top of an old cardboard box. There was a sink and a small stove, enough to prepare a meal.
Tats — or at least the man I assumed was Tats — was sitting on the couch, smoking, and reading a book. I was surprised, and immediately wondered what book he might be reading, but I could not see the title or the author, as his large hands covered the front of the book. As we approached, he closed the book and placed it, upside down, on a small TV table beside the couch. I wondered how he’d find his place again. He took his cigarette and stubbed it out in an ash tray full of stubs.
“Who are you?” Tats asked. He ran his fingers through his dark, long hair, and reached into his shirt pocket for his cigarettes. He held them up to us and said, “Can’t stop.”
“My name is Jeff Harding. And this is my aunt, Mrs. Parsons.” I understood why Jeff didn’t want to reveal his police connection. If he did, Tats might not be so interested in telling us what he knew.
Tats responded by nodding his head.
“We‘re trying to find out information about a little girl, Catherine Fuller, who died in an apartment house over on Nelson Street in the West End about ten years ago. Her father, David Fuller, was dealing drugs just like you at the time.”
Tats looked at the ceiling, as though his memory might be improved by the process, and lit his cigarette. “Yeah, I think I remember her. I didn’t have much to do with her, though. She was sometimes in the apartment when I went there to talk to Fuller. He was an asshole.”
“Why do you say that?” my nephew asked.
“Because he knew it was my territory and he didn’t care.”
Jeff and I looked at each, saying nothing, but I momentarily considered the concept of honor among thieves: it’s okay to sell drugs but it’s not okay to sell in someone else’s territory.
“Did you and he have arguments?” Jeff asked.
“Of course we did! I told him I’d been in that area long before him. I told him to get out!” Tats took a long puff on his cigarette and blew the smoke up into the air.
“And he didn’t?”
“No, he didn’t.”
I thought it was time for me to try a question. “Did you ever threaten him or his family? Did you ever follow his wife and daughter?”
Tats looked at me as if I had just entered the room. I had the feeling that he was one of these men who never even looked at a woman or gave her a second thought. But he didn’t take long to set the record straight that he had never threatened the Fuller family. “I don’t do that kind of stuff,” he said. “Never.”
“What did you know about Mrs. Fuller?” I asked. Maybe, I thought, he can unravel the enigma of Eileen and David Fuller.
Tats put his hand to his chin and took the position of the thinker. He held his cigarette between his fingers but didn’t take a puff. “She was quiet,” he said. “Seemed all right. Kind of submissive. I think Fuller had her under his control. She seemed scared all the time.”
“What about Catherine, the little girl?” I asked. Jeff remained quiet, apparently content with the questions I was asking.
“She was hardly ever there. She was told to go in her room.” He took a puff on his cigarette and blew rings of smoke up to the ceiling.
“Did you ever see either one of the Fullers hit their daughter?”
“What?“ He twisted in his seat and tilted his head. “No, I don’t think so. If anyone hit that little girl, it was that grandma. Boy, she was one mean bitch.”
Jeff and I looked at each other. It looked as though we might finally be getting somewhere. “Grandma?” I asked. “Who are you talking about?”
“I don’t know who she was. They always just called her ‘Grandma.’ She was there a couple of times when I was there. Well-dressed, lots of money, and she didn’t like me one little bit. I think David told her that I was a friend. I suspect she didn’t believe that little lie.”
Based on Tats’s description, “Grandma” could be either Eileen’s or David’s mother, though Eileen’s mother was more likely to be “well-dressed” and have “lots of money.” I wondered if I could pin it down. “Tell me all that you remember about Grandma,” I said. “I’m interested.”
Tats ran his fingers through his hair, and stood up. I could understand why he was called Tats. Every inch of skin on his arms and neck were covered in tattoos. (No doubt his legs were, too, but I couldn’t see them, since he was wearing jeans.) He looked at me as though he were really serious about wanting to answer the question correctly, like many a student I used to teach who truly wanted to get the right answer. “Well,” he said. “I’m thinking she was Mrs. Fuller’s mother because I’m pretty sure I remember her calling her ‘mother.’ And Mr. Fuller didn’t pay much attention to her. He seemed to not want her around. Mrs. Fuller often went with the grandma and the kid into the next room. But I saw that grandma slap her granddaughter at least twice, even when I was right there.”
I winced. “Did anyone try to stop her?”
“Nope. Mr. Fuller just kept on talking with me about whatever it was we was talking about, and Mrs. Fuller just kept on doing whatever she had been told to keep doing.”
Well, I thought, the doctor’s story may be true. Eileen’s mother may have been the abuser, not her father. What kind of grandmother would slap her granddaughter ever, never mind in front of a stranger?
Jeff and I thanked Tats for his information. I was glad to leave the building; it had given me the creeps and left me feeling unclean. Throughout our conversation with Tats, there had been loud noises and screams coming from other rooms and other floors.
As Jeff drove me home, we listed off what we knew:
“David Fuller was a drug dealer, and Tats had reason to want to get rid of him or to frighten him by harming his child,” I began.
“But Tats said he wasn’t the violent type and, somehow, I believe him. And,” Jeff added, “only Eileen tells us that Catherine fell at school.”
“Both Tats and Dr. Orr have said that Eileen’s mother is or might be the abuser, and the teachers at school certainly thought that something was wrong.”
Jeff stopped at a traffic light and turned to look at me. “The question still remains: Who harmed Catherine? And how? Tats is suggesting it was Lorraine Engle. Maybe it was. Where do we go next?”
The light turned green, and Jeff put his foot on the accelerator. “To be honest, I don’t know.“ I looked out the window at the passing pedestrians on the sidewalk. “More than anything, we still need either Eileen or David Fuller — or both — to be honest with us. They are the only ones who know.”
“Maybe they aren’t,” Jeff said. “Dr. Orr and Tats are independent witnesses. Maybe we need to learn a lot more about Eileen’s mother, Mrs. Engle. Maybe Catherine’s grandmother is not a nice person at all.”
“Do you think Mrs. Engle is going to admit her duplicity?”
“Not likely. But maybe Mr. Engle can help us. And perhaps David’s parents know something, too.”
Jeff rolled the car to a stop in front of Royal Manor on Nelson Street. We agreed that we had two new directions to go in our investigation: the parents of Eileen Engle and David Fuller. Jeff was so busy that he didn’t feel he had time to do it, but he had apparently gained enough confidence in my abilities that he gave me his cautious approval to continue exploring. I promised him that I would let him know my whereabouts and activities on a daily basis.
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.