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Working with Vancouver Sun reporter Nancy Webber and street nurse Juliet Rose, Cole and Denman discover that homeless people in the area have been disappearing without a ...
Working with Vancouver Sun reporter Nancy Webber and street nurse Juliet Rose, Cole and Denman discover that homeless people in the area have been disappearing without a trace. As they venture into the dark corners of the city's underworld, and into political corruption at City Hall, they find themselves in the middle of a dangerous cabal of city officials, high-ranking cops, condo developers, and crime bosses. Can Cole and his friends unravel the mystery behind the Lucky Strike—before any more of the Eastside's homeless find themselves on the vanishing track?
Tackling the real big-city issues of housing shortages, political corruption, and murder, The Vanishing Track is the third Cole Blackwater Mystery and the most compelling yet.
KILLING THE FIRST ONE HAD not been hard. The arrangements—as he had come to think of them—hadn’t been particularly onerous. Having to wait to kill the first one had been the hard part. Sean Livingstone had never had to wait for anything in his life. Now it was getting to be too easy, too boring. And this was only his third.
The light turned green and Sean crossed Main Street, heading east along Pender toward the row of ramshackle apartments, boarding homes, Chinese laundries, and low-rent hotels. The tumbledown neighborhood seemed to be listing to one side, away from the glistening West End and away from the center of power in Canada’s gateway to the Pacific: the City of Vancouver. The boarded-up buildings and garbage-strewn empty lots housed the -drunks and crackheads. The area was once known as Skid Row; now it was called the Downtown Eastside.
Sean shouldered his way through the throng of pedestrians, keeping pace with the man in the heavy overcoat in front of him. The street was busy—three o’clock on a Friday afternoon—and that thrilled Sean. He felt a rush of adrenalin as he followed Overcoat Man, trailing just ten feet behind him. If he increased his pace just a little, he could reach out and touch him. Overcoat Man pushed a shopping cart that wobbled with a rickety wheel, clearing a swath between the frenzied shoppers crowding the open-air fruit stands and meat markets in harried Chinatown.
Sean could see that the cart was overflowing with the man’s possessions, which were wrapped in a tattered blue plastic tarp and bundled with frayed twine. The cart pitched to the left and Overcoat Man maneuvered awkwardly to prevent the cart from careening into the street. The constant chatter of Chinese voices and the din of traffic pulsed in Sean’s ears. The air was electric with the current of life around him.
Sean was attracted to these colliding worlds. All the circumstances of his short life had brought him to this place and this point in history. Sean knew he was there for a singular purpose.
The street grew increasingly crowded, and Sean had to work to keep Overcoat Man in sight. This was more like it, he thought. This was what he needed: a challenge. Sean shouldered his way through a knot of men and women clustered around a fruit stand. He kept just behind Overcoat Man, who reeked like a barn in desperate need of mucking out. Overcoat Man stopped at the corner. Sean stopped, too, and examined the produce in a vendor’s stall. Sean shifted his gaze back and forth between Overcoat Man, waiting for the light, and the stall’s clerk. A man stepped from the back of a large white panel truck, the carcass of a pig on his shoulder, and passed between Sean and the clerk. Sean slipped an apple and a pear into the pocket of his soiled leather jacket.
The light turned green and Overcoat Man lurched to get his cart moving forward and began to cross the street. Sean felt a brief wave of adrenaline pass through him, and began to follow again.
When Overcoat Man made the other side of the street, he bumped his cart onto the sidewalk, the wheels threatening to wobble off entirely, and turned north. He passed in front of the First Baptist Church, where a line of men and women along the church wall huddled on tattered pieces of cardboard and rotten blankets. Sean had to stay focused. He could only make his special arrangements for one person at a time, and he could only attend to one a week. He pulled the apple from his pocket and took a bite, hanging back now as the street became quieter, watching Overcoat Man push his unsteady cart northward.
The man was heading for Oppenheimer Park, the epicenter of the Downtown Eastside. It was easy for Sean to blend in there: to observe and not be seen. Overcoat Man would have to head back toward Ground Zero before Sean could act, before he could fulfill his purpose. Oppenheimer was simply far too public, though the thought of making his arrangements in the open sent a shiver up Sean’s spine. Overcoat Man ambled along. Sean had learned over the last month to slow his pace when he was following one of his subjects. When you’ve got nowhere to go, and no place to be, you’re never in much of a hurry to get anywhere. The work he was doing in the Downtown Eastside was having an impact on Sean; he could see the changes.
The first time had been Umbrella Man. The vagrant carried a bag full of umbrellas. During the day Umbrella Man sat on a corner, spread his umbrellas out, and sold them for a dollar. Sean had seen him leave Ground Zero one morning, his bag of umbrellas over his shoulder, heading west on Hastings for the downtown core. Sean had followed him that day simply for curiosity’s sake. He needed to know what the people who lived at Ground Zero did during the day, if his plan was going to work.
At one point during the time Sean was following him, Umbrella Man had appeared lost in a haze of bewilderment, so Sean had shoved him and said, “Get a move on.” The man had tripped, his bag of umbrellas falling to the sidewalk. Sean had kept walking, ignoring the cursing of the old man and the scornful gaze of the young woman who actually stopped to help Umbrella Man collect his wares. It had taken the rest of the day for Umbrella Man to make his way back to Ground Zero. While Umbrella Man sat on Burrard Street selling his goods, Sean sat across the street and revised his plans. When Sean had panhandled enough money, he bought a coffee and a bagel in a coffee shop on Davie, then hurried back, his blood racing with anticipation, only to find that Umbrella Man was gone.
Sean desperately searched the streets and found Umbrella Man had moved a block away and was sitting with his back to a building, spreading out his wares again. Sean walked past him, making eye contact. Umbrella Man didn’t recognize him. Sean didn’t let him out of his sight for the rest of the day.
Over the course of several days, Sean learned Umbrella Man’s routine. On rainy days, and after rush hour was over, he would stagger to his feet and make his way northward six blocks to the Burrard Street SkyTrain station. Unless there were transit police in the station, the tramp wouldn’t buy a ticket. Sean didn’t purchase a ticket, either; he wanted to mimic the old man’s routine as closely as possible so his arrangements would be genuine.
Umbrella Man would board the outbound train and ride it all the way on its ponderous loop through New Westminster and Burnaby. He would roam from car to car and pick up umbrellas that passengers had left behind. From time to time he’d get off the train and comb the stations, too. He was an entrepreneur. Sean admired the man for it.
Umbrella Man had been his first.
Overcoat Man walked into the park and sat down beneath recently planted cherry trees. The park was busy with the life of the Downtown Eastside community. Near the row of trees half a dozen men played baseball on a ball diamond using a cracked wooden bat. A man in a wheelchair was the catcher. Behind the ball diamond a cluster of black and Latino men wearing hooded sweatshirts stood on the dusty median next to Dunlevy Avenue.
Sean passed within a few feet of Overcoat Man and made for the new public washrooms and community center that backed onto Jackson. Overcoat Man sat for a few minutes, then lay down in the shade and fell asleep. Sean took off his backpack and sat on a picnic table in front of the community center and watched impatiently. He had to make the arrangements with Overcoat Man during the day, or the effect wouldn’t be the same. Sean looked at this watch. It was four o’clock. The day was wasting away. Overcoat Man slept. The baseball game wrapped up. Behind the backstop the group of men milled about. A woman in a red dress squatted on the ground and peed. Several people came and went, buying and selling crack and heroin, the packets and cash passing between hands in swift, practiced motions.
Sean lay down on the table. How long had it been since he had taken an afternoon nap? Fifteen years? He closed his eyes to recall the moment in time when that experience of childhood had vanished.
SUNLIGHT THROUGH THE bedroom window. The sound of birds.
Sean was in the home he had grown up in, on Vancouver’s upscale south side. The family housekeeper, Adelaide, had come into his room to find him awake, the bedsheets propped up like a tent with one of his grandmother’s ornate canes.
“Sean, you’re supposed to be asleep.”
“I’m not tired, Adelaide.”
“You need to rest.”
“I’m not tired.”
Sean was driving his Hot Wheels cars in circles around the cane, creating fabulous chases and spectacular accident scenes. Adelaide pulled back the sheet. Sean tried to grab it from her hands but she snatched it away. “You’re to be having a nap now, young man.”
“I’m not tired!” he shouted.
“Be quiet,” she said sharply. “Do you want to wake your mother?”
Sean turned his attention back to his cars.
Adelaide looked at him, her hands on her wide hips. “What am I going to do with you?”
“Go away,” he said, not looking up.
“What kind of way is that to talk to your elder?” Sean ignored her. “Your mother is sleeping. She was up all night. You should be sleeping too.”
“I’m not tired!” he shouted, his face flushed. Adelaide squatted down next to his bed and grabbed him by the shoulders. “Let go!” he shouted.
“Be quiet, Sean. Be quiet. Your mother isn’t well. Please?.?.?.”
Sean wiggled free and ran from the room, into the wide hall that ran the length of the upstairs. Adelaide was close on his heels. She was a large woman, the shape of a pear. Sean headed for his mother’s bedroom. He hit the door at a run and shouldered it open.
The room was dark, the curtains drawn. Sean smelled the familiar sweet aroma of his mother, an aroma that in later years he would recognize as sweat and liquor, but which as a child he only associated with her ethereal presence. He could hear her breathing from the massive four-poster canopy bed against the far wall. He stepped into the room, Adelaide behind him. She reached out to take his shoulder, but he slipped from her grasp. Adelaide stopped at the door, and Sean stepped up to the bed and looked at his mother.
He knew that last night she and his father went to a party. They had first come into his playroom to say goodnight. His father, a stout man with broad shoulders and short, prickly hair, had rustled Sean’s shaggy mop. His father was wearing a tuxedo. His mother bent to give him a kiss. He could smell the mixture of flowers and alcohol on her. She kissed him softly on his cheek while his eyes stayed glued to the TV. She told him to be good for Adelaide.
Now his mother lay half under the covers, still clothed in last evening’s ball gown. Her mascara had run down her face, making parallel black tracks across her cheeks. Her mouth was slightly agape, and Sean could see that a thin trickle of spittle had seeped from her lips onto her pillow. One arm seemed to reach out for him while the other was bent at an awkward angle. He stood next to her bed. He felt nothing at that moment. Not disgust, not sadness, not love.
He knew he was supposed to feel something, an emotion other children might feel. Fear? Sean simply stood and watched his mother breathing heavily in the darkness of her bedroom. Adelaide was beside him now, her hands on his shoulders. He allowed himself to be guided from the room.
“What’s wrong with her?” he asked when they were in the hall.
“She’s just having a nap,” said Adelaide. “So should you, young man.”
“I’m not tired,” said Sean, quietly.
Adelaide looked down at him. “Okay then, how about a snack?”
Sean nodded and Adelaide led him down the stairs, through the sitting room, and into the kitchen.
“Can I eat in here?”
Adelaide looked at him. “Sure,” she said. “But it’s our secret, okay?”
She moved about the kitchen, making a peanut butter and honey sandwich and pouring a glass of milk. She served him at the small table by the window that overlooked the side garden. Sean could see Jacob, their gardener, trimming the lawn. He took a bite of the sandwich and drank from the glass of milk. Adelaide sat across from him at the table and regarded him.
Sean looked around the kitchen. “I like eating in here.”
“Well, you mustn’t tell your mother or father.”
“Is this where you and Jacob eat?”
“We eat in the dining room.”
“I know, dear. Now eat up.”
“I like eating in here better.”
Adelaide took the plate and glass from him when he was finished and put them in the dishwasher. “Now, Sean,” she said, “please go back to your room and play quietly while I prepare dinner. Would you do that for me? And please don’t disturb your mother?.?.?.”
Sean nodded and went back up the back stairs and down the long hall, past his mother’s room. He had no desire to step back into that space, with its darkness and strange odor that prickled his nose. He went to his bedroom, where he set up his cars and created a huge accident.
SEAN OPENED HIS eyes and started awake, half rising from the picnic table. Overcoat Man was still lying beneath the tree. A wash of adrenaline pounded through his system. He settled back down, feeling his stomach rumble. He’d made some sacrifices in the pursuit of this recently discovered higher calling. Like regular meals and a clean bed.
Sean watched the park for another hour. A group of teenagers made their way onto the ball diamond. These weren’t the crack dealers or dope pushers that Sean was accustomed to seeing at Oppenheimer, but a group of clean-cut kids—mostly boys, but a few girls—who had been playing baseball in the park for the last few weeks. Local kids who were part of a formal “reclaim the park” effort, spearheaded by the Business Council and the Vancouver Police. Two uniformed officers stepped from a cruiser across the street. They joined the game, gun belts and all.
It was nearly five o’clock when Overcoat Man woke and sat up under the cherry tree. His face widened in a yawn, then he wiped his nose on the arm of his greasy coat. Sean was about to stand and move closer when the door behind him opened and a young woman walked purposefully across the field to where Overcoat Man was resting. Sean had seen her before—she was a street nurse. She wore blue jeans and a sweatshirt that zipped up the front and a bright orange backpack. She hunched next to Overcoat Man.
Sean watched as the two of them talked. He stood and stretched, then walked back to the community center and leaned against the sun-warmed wall. The woman took out a small bundle from her pack and handed it to Overcoat Man. He looked at it as she spoke to him, slipping it into his tattered pocket. She put an arm on his shoulder and Overcoat Man smiled. She stood and walked to the far side of the park where she knelt by another man sleeping near the playground. Overcoat Man stood and arranged the contents of his cart. Time to get busy, Sean thought.
Umbrella Man had been the first. Dumpster Girl had been his second. She seemed to move through the streets around Ground Zero with satisfying regularity. Sean had seen her there often, and thought at first that she was a whore who used the place to turn tricks. But he never saw her with a john, so he decided that she must rent a room when she could, and sleep on the streets when she couldn’t. He followed her one morning when she left Ground Zero early, making her way through the alley behind the landmark red-brick building, stopping to flip open the lids of dumpsters as she went.
She carried a dark brown duffle bag over one shoulder, into which she put various bits of rubbish as she went. Sean stood at the mouth of the alley and watched her, and when she had reached the far end, he quickly made his way through the wet, garbage-reeking gloom to emerge on the street at the far end.
He saw her heading for the next alley across the street, and so he crossed through traffic, a taxi’s horn blaring at him, and reached the other side in time to see her open the lid to another bin and disappear up to her chest inside. Dumpster Girl couldn’t have been much older than he was, Sean guessed, but she looked twice his twenty-four years. She was scrawny, dressed in tight blue jeans and a baggy, blanket-lined jean jacket. Sean watched from the alley as she pulled herself from the dumpster carrying a keyboard, which she tucked into her bag.