(A novel by Susan Overturf)
Outside Miss Hattie’s apartment door, I stood in the hallway briefly, ruminating about what I should or even could do next. Retirement afforded me that luxury, and truth be told, I still wasn’t used to it. I had spent most of my life a slave to the ringing bell, and I had never had to think or plan my next move. It had been planned for me: Block A. Ring, ring. Block B. Ring, ring. Lunch. Block C. Ring again. Block D. Final ring of the day. And so every day went. But now I actually faced a decision about what to do next, and there was no bell to tell me what my task was. Obviously, I could go back to my apartment — work on scrapbooks, take out more items from the box, or absorb myself in history or biography. But after visiting with Miss Hattie, I had to admit that I was motivated to find out more about little Catherine Fuller.
It seemed almost like serendipity that Miss Hattie should have mentioned my nephew’s name. Of course, there might be two Jeff Hardings, but I was guessing that was unlikely. I decided to take a chance and see if I could locate him. It might have made sense to pick up the phone and call, but I felt a need for action and perhaps a little adventure. Even if I didn’t find my nephew, I figured I would at least learn a bit more about the city and its bus routes.
I returned to my apartment and added to my backpack a city map and my bus tickets. I left intent on enjoying whatever experience I was about to have. I wasn’t sure if Jeff would be at the Main Street building or at Cambie, but I decided I’d try Cambie first since it was closer and in a less dangerous part of town. Even if I couldn’t find my nephew, I might be able to find someone who would be willing to talk to me — perhaps one of those cold case detectives one always sees on TV. I walked downtown and picked up a bus that took me across the Cambie Street bridge; I got off as soon as we were over the bridge. The whole trip took less than twenty minutes. So much for a grand adventure.
Once inside the main doors of the VPD building, a few misgivings overshadowed my enthusiasm. I had not seen or talked to my nephew since he was about nineteen years old, nearly two decades ago, and I didn’t even know with absolute certainty that he was still with the department or even in this building. I almost turned around and left, especially when I saw the long line-up for security. But, once I’m in a line, I get a bit stubborn. I wasn’t going to let that time be wasted.
I breezed through the security process fairly quickly, once I actually got to the guards, and then I was directed to a small, dingy waiting room. I felt uneasy and nervous. I had been given a creased and smudged 5x7 card with the number twenty-seven on it. Someone should have laminated these, I thought; they would have lasted a lot longer! The room had about thirty people in it when fifteen would have felt crowded. None of them — about twenty-five men and five women — looked comfortable or content. It was stuffy and airless, and there were no windows to open or magazines to read. There were seats for only about half of the people. Those who were sitting stared at their feet or at the opposite wall; the standees tended to pace a little, though there was little room to move. I was a standee, and when the number twenty-seven was called after a twenty-minute wait, I raised my hand, probably much too eagerly, and said, “That’s me.” The number-caller pointed to a room down the hall. There, a young female constable behind a desk seemed to be in charge, and said, “Good afternoon. How may I help you, ma’am?”
“Well,” I said. “This may sound a little strange, but I’m looking for my nephew, and I think he’s still with the department here.”
“Ok, what’s his name? I’ll see if I can locate him for you.” And then she added, ”Do you want to see him for personal or professional reasons?”
“It’s actually professional,” I said. “And his name is Jeff Harding.”
“Oh, sure, Jeff’s here. Just wait a minute and I’ll see if he’s in his office.” She picked up a phone on her desk and punched in three numbers, and waited. “Hi. Is Jeff there? No, I don’t need to talk to him. This is April from the front desk. Will you tell him his aunt is here to see him? Yes, she’ll wait here for him. Thanks.” She put the phone down and smiled at me. “You’re in luck,” she said. “Jeff’s here and not tied up with anything. He’ll be coming right out.”
“Thank you,” I said. “That was very helpful of you.”
“No problem.” She pointed to a small chair near the door. “You can sit there if you like. I’m sure Jeff won’t be long.”
I thanked her again and crossed over to the chair. Five minutes later, a man came through a door from behind the counter and went up to April and whispered to her. She pointed to me. He turned and smiled. “Aunt Dorthea?” he said. “Is that you?”
A middle-aged man, not the nineteen-year-old I remembered, walked towards me: a little heavy and nearly bald, but the spitting image of my oldest sister’s husband, Joe.
“Yes, it‘s me, Jeff. How are you?”
“Well, I’m just fine and this is just a real nice surprise. What are you doing here?” he asked. He reached over and took my hand, holding it between both of mine, and then kissed me on the cheek.
“I actually came on a police matter, but I knew you were here, so I wanted to come to see you.”
Jeff frowned. “Oh, Aunt Dorthea, I hope there’s nothing wrong.”
“No, no, nothing like that.”
“That’s a relief.” Jeff gestured with his hand to follow him and he led me through a maze of hallways until we finally settled down in a small, airless, windowless office. It wasn’t really an office but a large room with many partitions, creating small office cubicles. Jeff sat down at his desk, his back to it and the computer, and gestured for me to sit at a rather old, uncomfortable office chair that looked like it was once used as a typing chair. Knowing all about cutbacks in the schools, it wasn’t hard to imagine that this was the police department’s way of saving money.
Jeff and I first caught up on personal news: mostly about my two sons and his younger sister, as well as my recent retirement.
“How’s your mother, Jeff?” I finally asked. I had not heard from my sister, Mary, for several years. She was a terribly unpredictable letter writer and any attempts I made to communicate with her usually went unanswered. My own personal theory was that my older siblings never liked me much as a child, because they so often had to babysit me; as I grew up, even though they were glad to be free of child-caring responsibilities, they were annoyed that they couldn’t boss me around any more. This was particularly true of Mary since, as the oldest, she took the brunt of the child care duties. Sometimes I got birthday or Christmas greetings from my siblings, but none of them wrote or called often. We lived in five different cities in five different provinces and rarely got together.
Jeff clearly thought carefully before he answered me. “Mother’s fine, Aunt Dorthea. I talk to her on the phone a couple times of month.”
“Does she still live in Calgary?”
Jeff looked a little annoyed. “Yes, Aunt Dorthea, she does. How long has it been since you talked to her?”
“I don’t know. Too long, I’m sure.”
“Well then, you should call. You have her number, don’t you?
“Yes, maybe I’ll do that.” I wasn’t sure that I would do anything of the sort. Jeff really didn’t understand anything about the world I had grown up in, nor could he understand the distance between my siblings and me. He had one younger sister, and they were very close. But I had not come to talk with Jeff about his mother. I changed the subject. “So tell me about you.”
“Nothing much to tell,” my nephew said. “I went to UBC for a couple of years, mostly taking sociology, criminology and psychology, all courses that I thought would help me with police work. I finally got accepted to the Police Academy and did a four-year stint on Patrol; then I got promoted to Sergeant. I’m now with Vice.”
“It sounds as though you enjoy it. The last time we saw each other, you said you were determined to be a policeman. I’m glad you lived out your dream.”
“I am, too,” Jeff said with a smile. He seemed genuinely delighted to see me again after so long a time. “So why are you here,” he asked, “besides wanting to see my handsome face?”
I laughed, and then launched into a detailed description of my apartment, what I knew about the Fullers and Catherine’s death, and my conversations with Mark and Miss Hattie. Jeff listened quietly and patiently.
When I was finished, he said, “I remember that case. I was a fairly inexperienced young constable then. I think I interviewed both that neighbour next door and Miss Hattie downstairs. Like you, Aunt Dorthea, I think that child may have been murdered, but as far as I know, no one could prove anything.”
I shook my head. “Surely something can be done, Jeff. Can you help me?”
Jeff leaned back in his chair and lifted his feet up on the desk. “Well, I sure wish I could, but it’s not really my department. I could talk to a few of my pals in homicide and unsolved cases. But this case was considered closed years ago, and I‘m sure there isn’t anyone actively working on it. This will be difficult, Aunt Dorthea, even if there is something to solve. Do you really want me to go any further with this?”
There was no hesitation in my response. “Yes, I do, Jeff. Thanks.”
Jeff looked at me as though he were a bit surprised to see his aunt behaving in this way. But then, he said, “You know, Aunt Dorthea, I always kind of figured it was that Mark guy next door.”
“What? Mark? Jeff, where did you get that idea?” As soon as I said the words, I could tell that Jeff wasn’t amused by my apparent criticism of his detective work. “I mean, he seems harmless,” I added.
Jeff seemed slightly mollified. “I remember him telling me that he had given the little girl some candy. I wrote down in my notes that he might be a pedophile, but I don’t think anyone investigated that.”
I tried to keep a straight face and not let Jeff know how silly I thought he was being. “I don’t think so, Jeff. Mark is no pedophile. I think I’m a pretty good judge of character after teaching for 35 years.”
“I’m sure you are,” Mark replied, clearly annoyed.
“You do know he’s gay, don’t you? If he is a pedophile, I think he’d be going after little boys, not little girls, right?“
Mark nodded his head but said nothing.
I tried to save his male ego. “But, anyway, he seems like a perfectly nice man. And when would he have ever managed that? From what I’ve heard, the mother was with that child constantly.”
Jeff seemed to get over his momentary lapse in ego-boosting and smiled at me, so he was hopefully not going to carry a grudge. He winked and said, “Hey, Aunt Dorthea, I think you’re really serious about this, aren’t you? Looks like the family has another detective!”
I admitted that I was indeed serious about it. Before I left, Jeff promised that he would get back to me in a few days to tell me as soon as he learned anything of value. Knowing how often his mother failed to respond to my requests, I thought perhaps Jeff might be the same. I resolved that evening that, if he had not called me within three days, I would call him.
I went to bed that night, quite content with what I had accomplished. I looked out into the semi-dark shadows from my bed and said, “Catherine? Can you hear me? I’m going to figure this out. Don’t worry.” As my eyes adjusted to the darkened room, my gaze went from the window, to the foot of the bed, to my bureau, to the closet, to the door of the bedroom. There she was again: Catherine. This time she couldn’t have been there more than ten seconds — just long enough for me to see her, but much too short a time to see facial expressions or even what she wore. I sat up in bed, but it did no good. She was gone. “Catherine, don’t worry,” I whispered. And then I laid down and fell to sleep almost instantly.
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.