Tabitha Sorenson is missing. The bright but unstable student disappeared in the aftermath of a scandal involving millions of dollars in college funds, and her professor, Dana Essex, hires Vancouver PI Dave Wakeland to track down the student she just can't forget.
When Wakeland discovers Tabitha has in fact stolen the money and is hiding out with her lover, Essex is crushed to learn that Tabitha is in love with someone else. The next morning, Tabitha has been murdered and Essex has disappeared.
Hounded by Tabitha's friends, the police, the press, and his own troubled conscience, Wakeland tries desperately to find Essex and make sense of what happened. Could it all have been a ruse from the start, and is Wakeland just another in a long line of suckers?
While searching for Essex and investigating Sonia's partner, Wakeland encounters criminals, anarchists, and crooked authority figuresall of them desperate people who will stop at nothing to guard their secrets.
About the Author
Sam Wiebe is the author of Invisible Dead, the critically acclaimed first novel in the Wakeland series, as well as the stand-alone debut Last of the Independents. His work has won an Arthur Ellis Award and the Kobo Emerging Writers Prize, been nominated for a Shamus award, and been shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award.
Read an Excerpt
Vancouver spent its brief summer hemmed in by wildfires. Smoke from the Island and north from the interior gathered over the city, throttling us, pinning us down beneath a pale orange sky. For days the streets had been emptied, the skyline dissolved into sauna-scented ash. Even now, weeks into a damp September, the breeze carried faint traces of End Times scuzz.
In my cramped and undecorated office, I fetched my father's Maglite out of the tool kit on the floor.
"Something up?" Kay asked, watching me head to the staircase. My sister had also heard the shouting from below.
"Mugging, looks like."
She dropped her paperwork and followed me out of the office, down to the street.
Outside, a man and woman were locked in a tug-of-war over a crocheted book bag. The woman had a tight grasp on its handles, the straps cutting into the pale flesh of her wrists. The man's dirty tattooed fingers tore at the bag, so that a pair of thick textbooks threatened to spill out onto Pender Street.
The man was a neighborhood regular. As the woman pulled, he staggered forward, his gaze apologetic, hands still groping the bag. For her part the woman seemed out of place, oddly genteel amidst the grey hustle of downtown.
Welcome to Vancouver, I thought.
I approached them, casually tapping the flashlight against my thigh. "That's all right, Gary," I said. "Everything's all right."
Gary didn't look at me. He was standing still, which for him meant constant dipping and swaying, rolling the neck and shoulder muscles, as if the joints of his body had been replaced with gimbals. My free hand touched his shoulder. He unthreaded his fingers and shrugged.
The woman cradled her bag and inspected its new perforations. She unwound the straps from her wrists and studied the red marks they'd left. Gary lurched towards her. The woman looked up but didn't give ground.
I stepped between them, speaking calmly. "You're not a purse snatcher, Gary."
"No," he said, pointing with his forehead at the woman. "Was trying to help her. She doesn't realize. Trying to protect her."
"And you did good. And I'll take it from here."
Kay handed him a twenty and led him to the crosswalk. The woman seemed baffled, her curiosity outweighing shock. "Did she just pay him for attempted robbery?" "He gets confused," I said. "A lot of people with mental illness don't get the treatment they need, they end up wandering around here. Gary's pretty harmless. But I can steer you to the cop shop if you want to lay a charge."
"Actually," the woman said, "you could direct me to Nineteen Thirty-Nine Pender Street. A Mr. David Wakeland."
She hadn't struck me as the client type — but then there was no type. Desperation wears a janitor's one-piece as often as Harris tweed.
"That would be me," I said. I nodded at my sister. "My associate River, who goes by Kay now. Don't ask me why."
I opened the door and we marched single file up the narrow paint-peeled staircase. Inside were three chairs, a filing cabinet and not much else. A small table with an electric kettle and a tin of Twinings assorted. I explained to our guest that the head office of Wakeland & Chen Investigations was in the Royal Bank Building on West Hastings, up the street.
"This was the address I had for you," she said.
I retrieved my mug from the balcony and slid the door closed.
"This used to be my office," I said. "When I partnered with Jeff Chen we set up in the nicer building, which is where I'd be now if it weren't for the damn dress fittings."
She smiled. "Your partner's getting married?"
"And they have a kid on the way, and are high-strung to begin with. I'd rather stay out of their hair." I looked at the unsheathed neon bulbs, the dust-covered floor. "This whole block is being demo'd next year, and the landlord gave me a deal. But anyway. What can I help you with, Miss?" "Dana Essex," she said. "I need you to help me find someone."
"Appearances to the contrary —" I swept my hand over the shabby workspace — "that's what we do here."
Dana Essex sat with her bag balanced atop her knees, holding its torn flaps together. She looked a few years older than me, mid to late thirties, dressed in tweed and slacks and a pair of scuffed laceless shoes. Her hair was hacked simply to her jawline, unstyled. No makeup or jewelry. With her thick Clark Kents and mismatched clothes, she looked like she'd been dressed by the costuming department of a Canadian TV show. A background player, College Professor Number Three.
She accepted a cup of tea and didn't speak for a long two minutes. Kay looked at me for a prompt, but I shook my head slightly. There are different types of silence; some are necessary precursors for speech.
Finally she said, in a halting voice, "The person I want you to find is a student named Tabitha Sorenson. I'm not sure if she's missing, per se. But I'd like to talk with her."
I wrote Tabitha Sorenson across the top of a pad of foolscap, added student below it. "What do you mean, you're not sure if she's missing? You've tried contacting her? Her family?"
"I couldn't bring myself to talk to her; how on earth could I talk to her mother?"
"Let's start with why you want to talk to her," I said. This engendered more silence. This time I pushed through. "Was she a friend?"
Essex nodded. "A student of mine first, and then a colleague of sorts. She served in student government, and I was on a committee with her. Yes, we were friends."
"Are you worried about her?"
"I'm worried about myself," she said. "I'm thirty-eight, and — this is difficult to say."
"Want me to leave?" Kay asked.
Essex shook her head. "Mr. Wakeland," she said to me.
"Dave." Essex smiled. "Are you married? I was, for two years, to a very good man who I think tried his best to make me happy. I told myself what we had must be a type of love — why else would we have gotten married? If we weren't as passionate or affectionate as other couples, well, I chalked that up to life running contrary to our expectations."
"Everyone being different," I offered, "who's to say how it should work?"
She nodded. "After a while, though, we couldn't kid ourselves. I realized I'd married out of fear — of aging, and of being alone."
Essex rubbed her eyes and the bridge of her nose.
"None of which interests you, I'm sure. I'm sorry to burden you with it."
Kay offered her a tissue, but Essex ignored it. She wasn't in tears. Rather she seemed to have drawn inward, as if strategizing how best to unpack her heart.
"Tabitha told me when she finished at the college — Surrey Polytech — she wanted to go to either UBC or SFU. I've checked. She's not registered at either of those schools, or any others in the Lower Mainland." She took a steadying breath, adding, "I don't believe she's at school anymore — anywhere."
"Disappeared," I said.
"I couldn't locate her, at any rate."
I marked up my note paper. "Tell me about her."
Essex's face softened. "She wasn't the best student I've had. She was competent — she could take a poem apart as well as most undergrads — but more than once I could tell she hadn't done the readings. Her heart was in Econ and Poli-Sci; Lit was merely an elective for her."
"What was she like as a person?"
Essex frowned. "Didn't I just say?"
"Outside of class."
"Well, as student events coordinator she was diligent. She hadn't wanted the job — Harpreet, the woman Tabitha replaced, had transferred to Dalhousie with two semesters left in her term. The president appointed Tabitha as interim coordinator. She did well, considering the circumstances. Even through the unpleasantness she tried her best."
"The scandal," Essex said.
When she saw I was going to pursue it, she clarified: "There were allegations surrounding members of student government. Appropriation of funds. There was a forensic audit. But Tabitha wasn't involved. It started before and ended after her."
"How much money was missing?" I asked.
"Millions," Essex said. "I'm not sure of the specifics."
I wondered how well Dana Essex knew Tabitha Sorenson, and how well she thought she knew her.
"A million dollars is a million dollars," I said.
"People do a lot worse for a lot less."
"I doubt he was trying to rob you."
Her eyebrows arched in ironic agreement. "Yes, he explained more than once that he was trying to help me. Yet he watched another man make off with fifty dollars of mine, and didn't feel a Samaritan urge then."
"When was this?" I asked.
"Just before he accosted me. A man in a wolf T-shirt asked me for change for the Skytrain. I opened my pocketbook but all I had was a fifty-dollar bill."
"You showed it to him?"
"Only so he'd understand I was refusing out of circumstance, not out of tightfistedness. The man in the wolf shirt snatched the money right out of my wallet. He said he'd go make change and bring it back. I told him to stop but he'd already crossed the street. It was right after that when Gary took hold of my bag."
"He probably thought you'd be safer if he carried it for you."
"He watched me get robbed."
"The distinction being?"
Before I could answer Essex nodded to herself. "Partial complicity," she said. "One allows oneself to be cheated by misreading the situation, being 'duped.' Robbery implies force or coercion, implies unavoidability. I see."
I looked at Kay. She was smirking.
"It's not a mistake people make twice," I said, pulling a standard Wakeland & Chen contract from the filing cabinet. "We'll find Tabitha for you, if we can. Just know going in that there's no guarantee."
"There never is," she said.
* * *
Dana Essex had parked three blocks away, in a multi-story garage that charged a daily rate. There were cheaper and closer places to park, but I didn't point that out. I walked her to the mouth of the garage. She cradled her torn book bag like an injured kitten.
I told her I'd update her in three days unless I found Tabitha before then. She nodded and we shook hands. Her smile was perfunctory and timid, but she held it a second longer than necessary. She had something left to say.
"You're talking to a coward, Mr. Wakeland. I like to pretend I didn't know what I wanted until I'd lost it. But the truth is, I was simply too afraid. By the time I could accept my feelings and deal with what — whom — I wanted, she was gone."
"I just need to speak to her," Essex said. "If nothing comes out of it, I need at least to know I tried."
I walked back to the office, thinking about Dana Essex, who'd confessed more in an hour than most people manage in a lifetime. Who seemed out of her element in Downtown Vancouver, though Surrey was less than an hour's drive. And I wondered what about Tabitha Sorenson had fired her with such passion that she'd brave the evil city to employ a private investigator to track her down.
Essex hadn't supplied a photo of Tabitha, but Kay found a few online. A high-resolution picture from the college website showed the student government, huddled together wearing the school colors. Behind them a red and gold tasseled banner exclaimed LET'S GO ORCAS!
The caption below the picture named the short man in the center Inderveer Singh Atwal, president. Flanking him were Sonny Bains, treasurer, a muscular man in a vintage orange and black Canucks jersey, and a svelte man in formal wear identified as Ashwin Dhillon, vice-president.
Tabitha stood at a slight distance from the others. An ill-fitting school T-shirt had been thrust over her black hoodie. Her face was narrow and hawkish, veiled with pale freckles, eyes reluctantly addressed to the camera lens. The photographer — or maybe the photo viewers ourselves — seemed to be wearing on her patience.
Ultimately, though, it was only a face. I imagined I could read embarrassment in its expression, sensitivity, a disdain for her surroundings. But it offered no clue as to where she had gone.
"Check this out," Kay said, tilting her laptop so I could see the screen. "Her mother has a cooking blog."
She scrolled down for me, showing the most recent posts of 'A Mother of Two Cooks for Four.' There were many photos, all of food. Kay navigated to the 'About' page, which displayed a short biography and several self-portraits.
"Why isn't our website this straightforward?" I asked.
Instead of answering, Kay called up a picture of a frizzy-haired woman enclosing a young girl in her arms.
"It's the only shot of Tabitha on her mom's site," Kay said.
Tabitha in braces and barrettes, hinting at the sullenness of her later self. Tabby and Me read the caption. Below that, pictures of an older Betsy Sorenson, still wide-grinned, posing with sunglassed men in kitchen smocks or three-piece suits.
"Celebrity chefs," Kay explained.
"We're really at the end, aren't we?"
"Of the pictures?"
I closed my MacBook. It was four o'clock and I'd promised Jeff I'd check in before the end of the day. My partner had something he wanted to ask me in person.
"How about the scandal?" I asked.
"The forensic audit report is on the college website," Kay said. "It's three hundred pages."
"Guess what we'll be reading tonight," I said, slinging my coat over my arm.
Kay's nod held less reluctance than I'd anticipated. After three months of apprenticeship, the allure of investigation still hadn't worn off. That spoke to her upbringing more than the job. My half-sister had spent most of her life in a prairie town which held the national record for most churches per square mile. She'd moved to Vancouver for college, changed her name, convinced her family that what she was doing was work experience. Necessary for a career in accounting, or hotel management, or whatever she'd told them. The truth was, Kay loved the work and was good at it.
To be in the city, to be in pursuit — it hadn't yet become routine to her.
As it hadn't yet for me.
"Tomorrow I'll tackle the parents," I said. "See if they know where Tabitha is. You'll ask around the school. Tabitha strikes me the kind of person, never walked into a room she didn't feel she was the smartest one in it."
"Reminds me of someone," Kay said.
* * *
The head office of Wakeland & Chen was a far cry from the run-down Pender Street address. Classy in an old-money way, oak paneling and brass trim, solid construction, doors that took effort to open. I wished I felt more comfortable there.
When we'd first partnered together, Jefferson Chen had laid out a plan to expand from investigations into corporate security and counter-espionage. He'd achieved that and more. Wakeland & Chen was now an empire, kept together by Jeff's salesmanship and drive.
I went along because I didn't have a vision to compete with his. There were fewer missing persons cases, and the ones I had took longer and longer. That myopia irked him. The hours I'd poured into the Jasmine Ghosh case alone, with no results and no bills sent to the girl's family, flew in the face of even the most obvious business sense. The search for Chelsea Loam had cost us even more. But the cases that did solve brought the firm acclaim and good will, and I felt the corporate work subsidized the other.
As I passed reception, Ralph scooted out from behind his desk and flagged me down. Jeff's cousin had gone off to law school and been replaced by a series of retirees, Ralph being the latest.
"A young lady was looking for you, Mr. Wakeland." It felt odd to hear someone thirty years my senior call me mister. Ralph passed me a yellow slip covered with pencil markings that could have been runes in some Tolkienesque language.
"Her name was Sonia or Sara something," he said. "She asked for you and I said you weren't here and she said when will he be back, meaning you, and I said I didn't know, and did she want to leave a number, and she said no that's fine, she'd check back later."
"Sonia Drego? Police officer, dark complexion, my age give or take?"
I studied the note. It didn't become more legible, or explain why Sonia had been here. I handed it back to Ralph and opened the door to the boardroom.
"Jeff around?" I asked him.
"With Marie. In your office, actually."
"Of course he is."
With the baby coming and the wedding approaching, Jeff's fiancée had commandeered my workspace for a fitting room. The sacrifices we make for our friends. In truth, I'd been glad to temporarily set up shop back on Pender Street.
I sat in the glass-enclosed boardroom and watched the printer spew pages of the audit report. I hadn't seen Sonia in a year, maybe two. We hadn't been close in six. Not since my exit from the police department. She was a lifer, dedicated to the department, and I'd become a civilian — worse, a deserter. Our relationship couldn't endure such a gulf.
Excerpted from "Cut You Down"
Copyright © 2018 Sam Wiebe.
Excerpted by permission of Quercus.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Book One: Old Flames,
Book Two: Dead Romantics,