Chapter 3

November 6, 2011 at 12:07 am (The Truth)

Nelle finished roughing in the final panel on the last page. She had spent the better part of the past ten hours sketching ideas and tossing them away until she’d settled on one she liked. The pencil drawings for the graphic novel were complete. Who knew she would be such a picky client? She’d written the text for the novel and, on a whim, had decided that she should also illustrate it.

It’s what she did. Until recently, she’d worked on other people’s ideas. She had freelanced for a while after graduating from an art program at Emily Carr and then she’d taken a job doing concept work for a local video game studio. The work hadn’t been permanent, but it had given her steady employment for eight months. Tiring of that, Nelle had put together her portfolio with the intent of convincing a publisher to give her some work. She hadn’t written her own story at that point; it had just been a dream hovering around at the back of her mind.

Her first graphic novel illustration job had paid enough for her to quit her full time work and focus solely on her own work. She’d taken three more illustration jobs to pay the bills while she had developed the story arc and fleshed out the characters for her book. Now, with the basic sketches out of the way, she could turn her mind to finalizing the design for her characters and the world they lived in.

Giving herself a mental pat on the back, Nelle pushed away from her computer and stood up. The muscles in her legs protested the extended length of time they’d been inactive. Or, perhaps it was the fifty kettlebell swings she’d done the day before. Adding the jump squats, the lunges and the 5k jog, Nelle concluded that she may have overdone it a bit. She wondered if the phrase feel the burn meant while completing the exercise or for the three days following the workout.

A brief glance over her shoulder showed that it was dark out. Her cozy loft had a wall of windows at the front that provided a terrific view of Gastown. Technically on the edge of Gastown, much closer to Main and Hastings than some of her girlfriends thought was safe, Nelle had fallen in love with the apartment the minute she’d stepped inside. The mortgage payments had been a bit steep at first, but it was worth it, to her mind. Now that she had a fair chunk of cash in her bank account, she didn’t worry as much about her cheques bouncing.

She could live anywhere, but being downtown was where she felt happiest. She’d never returned to Surrey once her mom had moved them to West Vancouver. She had made new friends, some very good ones and some who were now just casual acquaintances at best. Nelle’s friends had never written as they’d said they would and neither had she.

She loved West Van, but it was a little too close to her family. Namely, her mom. Nelle had left home as soon as she was able. Her grandmother had done her best to make up for her daughter’s lack of affection for her child, but Nelle had known growing up that her mother would have preferred it if her father had accepted custody of her. Nelle had overheard a conversation between her parents, when she’d been about fifteen, where her mother had shrieked at her father for shirking his duties. He’d divested himself of his family as soon as he’d been able. He’d remarried and gotten that brand new son he’d wanted so badly.

In fact, he’d gotten started on the boy before her parents had divorced. Her parents had been split for twenty years now, but her stepbrother was twenty-one. Nelle had never met the kid. She hadn’t seen her father in twenty years, either. He had never sent her any Christmas or birthday presents. He’d been informed of the time for her graduation from high school, but hadn’t shown up. Nelle hadn’t bothered to ask her grandmother to contact him after that.

Nelle’s mom may not have had any interest in raising her, but she sure felt she could interfere in Nelle’s personal life. Still single at thirty, Nelle often found herself engulfed in guilt until she agreed to go on dates with men her mother had deemed suitable. The dates never worked. Nelle knew she had too many abandonment issues to deal with to ever make a relationship last. She tended to end things before the guy could do it to her. On some levels, she knew it was stupid. But when she started dating, those levels got buried under the fear of being rejected. It was easier on her, emotionally, to just not date in the first place.

Checking the time on her phone, Nelle realized that it was only 6pm. They’d just ended Daylight Savings Time and now it seemed that it got dark at 4pm. On the upside, it meant that Starbucks had the eggnog lattes once again. Nelle grabbed her coat and headed for the door.

Her loft was about a block off the actual Gastown neighbourhood limits. She didn’t quite live in the sketchy part of town, but by the far end of her block things got a little more colourful. The city was trying to reclaim the area, yet at the same time they didn’t appear to be tackling the drug problem in any noticeable way. She’d lived in the area for the past five years and hadn’t had any troubles. The addicts tended to keep to themselves, unless they were out begging for change.

Nelle window shopped along the way. Some of the stores had interesting items, but the prices tended to be on the high side. She was in the market for a new couch and didn’t want an Ikea special. It had to be comfortable, it had to fit in with her current furniture and it couldn’t cost her $4000. After two months spent looking in every window she passed, Nelle had yet to find a single piece that matched all three criteria.

She passed by Fluevog’s without looking in the window. Shoe shopping was a danger to her bank account. It felt very festive now, with the lights in the trees and shops starting to display their Christmas decorations. Though Christmas Day tended to be a little disappointing, Nelle enjoyed the lead up to it.

Stepping through the door to Starbucks brought with it the warm scent of cinnamon on the air. The lineup was short and one of the better baristas was pulling drinks behind the counter. The pastry display held several of her favourites. Her tummy rumbled, as if to remind her that it had been several hours since she had last fed it. Nelle had a weakness for pastries. Ordering her coffee along with a chocolate chunk cookie and a low fat fruit bar, she seated herself in the window looking out at the street.

Couples walked by, hand in hand, and Nelle felt a little wistful that she didn’t have someone to hang on to. The feeling would pass, she knew, but every so often she considered the idea that maybe this time she’d be better equipped to handle an adult relationship. A good starting point would be to not let her mom pick men for her.

Perhaps it was time to let her girlfriends fix her up on a date. Nelle hated the idea. Blind dates were so awkward. If the guy turned out to be a jerk, is that what your friends thought of you? Or what if they turned out to be as interesting as lumpy oatmeal? What did that say about your personality? She was reading too much into it and already, before she’d even called her friends, she could feel her anxiety levels increasing. Maybe she would think about the idea of it a little longer, before she contacted her friends.

Finished with her pastries and her sojourn, Nelle grabbed her coffee cup and headed back home. If she was up to it, she could start the design work on her graphic novel. Her first deadline to her publisher was still several months away, but she needed to have the mockups for the panels cleaned up and the art style finalized. The novel had fifty-five pages with a minimum of six panels per page. With the rough mockup done, she could pump out several clean pages per day, once she determined her art style.

And that’s where things got tricky. Nelle, in art school, had found it difficult to stick to one art style and perfect it. She enjoyed experimenting with various styles. She liked change and wanted to see growth in her talent as well as in her work. That was all well and good if she didn’t have a project that took more than a few months to complete. Her experimentation could be tempered while she did work that paid the bills.

But with her own project, she wanted to try everything, just to see what worked best. But even with several months to go before her deadline, she didn’t have time for everything. She knew that she’d have to pick a drop dead date to have the style finalized. She was quite an organized person, for an artist, but she still hesitated to set that date.

“Jesus, I have enough trouble committing to myself, never mind trying to commit to a guy,” she muttered. People stared at her as she passed by, talking to herself, but she ignored them. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for this part of town.

Back at her loft, Nelle had just settled in front of her computer when her cell phone rang. She answered before she thought to check who the caller was.

“Nelle Tatum, my name is Adriana Sutton. I’m a writer for the Vancouver Sun.”

Nelle managed to suppress her eye roll. It’s what she got for not checking the caller ID first. “Yes, Ms. Sutton, what can I do for you?”

“I’m doing a story on the Surrey Slayer and I wanted to interview you–”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Sutton, but I’m not interested in being interviewed for a story. Thank you,” Nelle replied before hanging up. Her number was supposed to be unlisted. Nelle added Ms. Sutton’s number to her address book so she wouldn’t make the mistake of answering the woman’s call again. Nelle expected Ms. Sutton to keep trying. She wouldn’t be very good at her job if she wasn’t persistent.

Nelle tried not to think about that time of her life. Her brother had been taken from the family when she was only eight, but the impact it had had was still felt today. She’d barely known her brother; they’d had so little time together. She knew she’d loved him with an eight-year-old child’s capacity to understand what that meant.

His death had torn her family apart. Nelle couldn’t decide if she’d blamed him for that. As a kid, she wouldn’t have understood that what had happened wasn’t his fault. She knew she’d assumed her brother had done something wrong to attract the attention of the killer. Now, she recognized how ridiculous the notion was, but at the time it hadn’t registered.

Her parent’s marriage had disintegrated within weeks of the discovery of Scott’s body. It had just taken them two years to get around to making a permanent change. Nelle’s life had started to settle in again just before they pulled the plug on everything she was familiar with.

Starting over in West Vancouver wouldn’t have been so bad if her mother hadn’t abandoned her to her grandparents. Nelle was thankful that she at least had them to finish raising her. Her mother had replaced her father inside of two months, but the guy she chose didn’t want kids. Her mother didn’t have a problem with that. She would leave for weeks at a time, not telling her parents where she was going or when she would be back.

Once that relationship fell through, her mother returned. Until the next man came along. Nelle’s grandfather died when Nelle was sixteen. From then on it was just Nelle and her grandmother. Nelle lived in fear that her grandmother would die and leave Nelle alone. She did die, but not until Nelle was twenty-three. Her grandmother had changed her will before she’d died, to cut Nelle’s mother out.

Nelle remembered the day the lawyer had come to the house to read the will. He’d read a passage that her grandmother had written for her daughter. In it she had explained how the raising of a child was not a matter to take lightly, but there came a time when you had to cut the cord and let that child make their own way in the world. She was cutting that cord now. Her mother was left with whatever belongings she had purchased on her own. The house and its contents belonged to Nelle and she could do with them whatever she pleased.

Nelle’s mother had been livid. Her face had turned a nasty shade of purple as she’d shrieked at the lawyer. She had accused the man of submitting a false will, as if such a thing was possible. The lawyer had handed her mother a videotaped version of the letter, as read by her grandmother, to confirm that they were her words. Her mother had then turned on Nelle and threatened her with a lengthy legal battle while she contested the will.

Nelle had told her to go ahead. When her mother had tried to slap her for mouthing off, Nelle stood up and forced her to back down. She hadn’t raised her voice. Just the fact that she wasn’t a pushover had surprised her mother. She wasn’t her grandmother, who had felt as though it was her failing that had made her daughter so unfeeling. Nelle’s disconnected attitude toward her mother had caused her to change her tune. She’d become the solicitous, caring woman she’d never been before. Nelle suggested that if she was going to contest the will, to get a lawyer and have him contact her grandmother’s lawyer.

Her grandmother’s estate wasn’t vast, but it gave Nelle a healthy start on her adult life. It paid for two-thirds of her loft and allowed her to attend five years of art school without requiring a full time job to support herself. Those two things had pretty much wiped out the estate. Her mortgage was paid off now. Her recent advance for her book had been enough to see to that while still giving her a nice cushion to live on.

Her mother had never bothered to contest the will. Nelle assumed she didn’t have the money for a lawyer and couldn’t get one to work on speculation. She had remarried two years earlier, to a man who had some wealth. She’d adopted the wealthy-woman-who-lunches lifestyle. In an effort to fit in with the other ladies, her mother had tried to bring Nelle back into her life. Hence, the guilt-ridden dating Nelle had succumbed to.

Nelle wondered if the reporter had contacted her mother first. She doubted that her mother would want to rehash that part of her life anymore than Nelle did. Nelle had no idea where her dad was or how the reporter might get in touch with him. If the woman was resourceful enough to get Nelle’s unlisted phone number, then she was capable of finding Nelle’s father.

Putting all thoughts of her brother’s death out of her head, Nelle focused her attention on the design of her graphic novel.

***

Several days later, Nelle passed by a newspaper box for the Vancouver Sun on her way to the grocery store and the picture on the front page stopped her cold. Shoving coins into the slot, she ripped open the door and pulled the paper out. The picture was of Harris Novak as she had last seen him. Ten years old and smiling with a hint of shyness in his eyes. The headline screamed at her: Surrey Slayer Victims Still Seek Justice.

Flipping the paper over, she read the caption below the picture. Harris Novak, ten years old, was the final victim of the Surrey Slayer. Twenty years later, the killer was still at large. Tears coursed down Nelle’s cheeks. She’d never known that Harris had been killed. All this time, she’d thought he was still alive. She remembered his shy confession that he would miss her once she’d moved. On several of her more dismal blind dates, she’d envisioned how a date with Harris would have gone. Would he still be the shy, sweet boy he’d been or would he have grown into his looks and gained the confidence of adulthood?

Deciding to skip the grocery store, Nelle hailed a taxi and gave him her address. She could hardly see through the tears. Handing him a ten dollar bill for a four dollar cab ride, Nelle stumbled from the back seat and shuffled into her building. Once in her loft, she dumped the paper on her kitchen counter and headed straight for the bathroom. Stripping her clothes off as she went, she turned on the water for her shower and stepped under the spray. She’d always preferred to cry in the shower. The noise of the splashing water covered any noise she would make.

He’d been so sweet to her. When the kids in school had taunted her with details of the serial killer, Harris had gone off in search of a teacher to get them to stop. She wondered how much he had overheard. Would he have known what he was about to go through? How horrendous that would have been.

Nelle spent a half hour in the shower before the water started to cool off. Her tears had settled down a little. Her eyes were red and stinging. Drying off and wrapping her hair in a towel, Nelle padded barefoot to the kitchen to read the whole story. It was written by Adriana Sutton and she had several quotes from family members who were angry with the police for not providing justice for their murdered children.

Nelle was startled to see her father’s name in the story. He’d expressed his abject grief at learning of his son’s death. He told how the news had destroyed him and he’d felt that there was nothing left to live for. Nelle felt a tiny pain in her chest at the words. Twenty years later, and the fact that her father had all but ignored her presence once his son was dead, still bothered her.

The reporter provided a timeline for the killings. There were seven murders in total, starting with her brother and, two years later, ending with Harris. Ms. Sutton stated that the police had estimated the times of abduction for each child. They had attempted to pin the killings on Brent Ennis, a welder who had spent those years scamming for Worker’s Compensation benefits. Nelle glanced at the timeline, interested to see when her brother went missing.

She had trouble recalling the facts from so long ago. Her brother hadn’t come home from school one day and no one had noticed for several hours. The police had been called, but back then they didn’t jump on missing children reports quite as fast as they did now. Her parents were told that Scott would be considered missing after forty-eight hours. His body turned up before the full forty-eight hours had elapsed.

Nelle glanced at Harris’ timeline, expecting to see him suspected missing just before the dinner hour. Instead, she saw that the police said he had been missing since lunch. Nelle knew that was inaccurate. He had dropped her off at her place just before five that night. He’d started heading up the hill, pushing the bike with the broken chain.

Continuing through the story, Nelle saw that the case was being looked into by Harris’ oldest brother, Mack. The story said that Mack wasn’t assigned to the case in an official capacity, since it was an RCMP file, but he had gained special permission to review it. A phone number was given for anyone with any information about the case.

Nelle dialed the number and waited through three rings before it was picked up. When the person on the other end asked for her name and phone number, Nelle offered both without hesitation. Then she stated the information that she had regarding Harris’ disappearance.

“So whoever took Harris would have to have grabbed him after 5pm.”

“Ma’am, can I ask why you didn’t convey this information at the time?”

The civilian aide was polite, but Nelle thought there was a touch of censure in her tone, as well. She didn’t care to be chastised for something that she’d had no control over.

“I didn’t know Harris had been killed until I read it in the paper today. My parents had split up and my mom and I moved to West Vancouver the day after I last saw Harris. She refused to watch any news casts about the killings and wouldn’t let me watch any either.”

“Why is that?”

“Because my brother was Scott Tatum, the first boy killed.”

After a moment, the civilian aide offered her condolences, which meant nothing to Nelle. The aide said she would pass along her information to Detective Novak. If he had any follow-up questions, he would contact her.

Nelle hung up wondering what difference her small bit of information could do for a case that was twenty years old.

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