Please help me celebrate the release of my new mystery novel, Lark Underground!
If you’ve read Lark Lost, the free prequel novella in the Freddie Lark mystery series, then you know that Freddie doesn’t think of herself as an amateur sleuth. In the new full-length novel, Lark Underground, that becomes even clearer.
In this podcast episode author Alexandra Amor reads from the first three chapters of Lark Underground as Freddie’s friend and tenant Ellie tries to persuade Freddie to help with the case of a friend’s missing child. Freddie is empathetic, but also knows she’s not equipped to take on such a task.
Or is she?
Lark Underground is a brand new release available now in ebook and paperback from award-winning author Alexandra Amor.
Click here to get your copy.
Alexandra Amor writes mystery novels about love, friendship and the search for truth.
At the moment, she is working on the next book in her Freddie Lark mystery series.
Alexandra began her writing career with an Amazon best-selling, award-winning memoir about ten years she spent in a cult in the 1990s. She has written four animal adventures for middle-grade readers, set on a fictional island in the Salish Sea, several historical mysteries set in 1890 in frontier British Columbia, and a cozy romantic mystery.
To learn more about Alexandra and her books visit AlexandraAmor.com
Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on Stitcher, Android, Google Podcasts, TuneIn, and Spotify.
You can also click here to listen to the interview on YouTube.
Excerpt from Lark Underground
“Why are you doing this yourself?” she asked.
“Because I am a strong, independent woman,” I said.
“And you’re cheap.”
“I am not cheap. I am resourceful. Besides, throwing money at a problem doesn’t always get it solved properly. Hand me the channel lock.”
“What’s a channel lock?”
I was kneeling on my tenant Ellie’s bathroom floor and had my head and shoulders under the sink, which had been draining slowly and was now clogged.
Ellie lives in the laneway house at the bottom of my backyard. She is a strong, independent woman herself, but balks at doing home repairs. She says they chip her nail polish.
“It’s the one that looks like a wrench, but with long handles.” I pointed toward my toolbox.
“Looks like a what?”
I was fairly certain she was playing dumb for her own amusement. I gave her a saucy look and leaned over and grabbed the tool. The nuts at either end of the p-trap weren’t coming unscrewed, and I needed more leverage. I put the mouth of the channel lock over one nut and gave it a push.
“Where was I, honey? Oh, yes—Tyler’s meltdown.”
Ellie was sitting on the edge of the tub, her legs crossed at the knee and one manicured hand draped over said knee. She was wearing a long blue dress with white polka dots that was fitted through the bodice and then flared down to her calves. Her feet were bare and her toenails were painted gold. She never failed to look like she was about to attend a cocktail party at a diplomat’s mansion. She was ‘entertaining’ me (her word, not mine) by recapping the plot of some ridiculous reality show. It sounded to me like all the participants were morally bankrupt narcissists, but maybe I was feeling cranky because the painting I’d been working on before Ellie knocked on my back door was not turning out the way I’d hoped.
“So then Tyler says that he only slept with Jessica because Amber had ignored him at the backup dancer group date…”
I let Ellie’s words wash over me. The nut loosened and I was able to unscrew it all the way with my hand.
“And then Nathan got involved and he was all pissed off because…”
I loosened the nut at the other end of the p-trap and waited while some water spilled out into the plastic container I’d placed on the floor of the cupboard.
Ellie was still talking. “…which I think is odd because she’s just not that type of girl.”
I pulled the p-trap off the pipes at either end and kept my gag reflex in check when I looked inside. I had an urge to hand the pipe to Ellie and make her clean it out, but I reached two fingers inside and pulled. A long, fuzzy-but-wet glob of hair came out as I pulled. And kept pulling. I dropped it into the plastic container.
“Ew. Gross.” Ellie wrinkled her nose.
“Don’t ‘Ew, gross’ me. That’s your hair, m’lady. Do you want to clean this out?” I held the pipe up toward her and she stiffened and gripped the edge of the tub, ready to bolt.
“Do. Not. Even,” she said, her flippancy about home repairs gone.
I tapped the U-shaped piece of pipe on the side of the plastic container and more hair barfed out.
“So what do you think Laura should do?”
I fished around in the pipe some more and came out with more black hairy goo attached to my fingers. “Huh? I dunno. Accept a giant ring and then break up three weeks later? Isn’t that what they do on those shows?”
Ellie took a deep breath and blew it out. I wasn’t looking at her, but I would have bet good money she was rolling her eyes at me. “I’m talking about my friend Laura.”
“What happened? Did she get dumped on TV too?”
Big sigh. “Were you listening to me?”
“Of course. Tyler and Amber and Jennifer—”
“Jessica. And no, I’d moved on from that. Laura is my friend who works at the library.”
“Okay.” I nodded, having no idea who she was referring to. I needed to rinse out the piece of pipe in my hands. I shuffled on my knees over toward the tub. “Scoot over,” I said to Ellie.
She slid sideways, steering very clear of me, as though I had a venomous snake in my hands.
“Freddie, I need you to listen.”
“I’m listening.” I turned the tap on and let the water flow through the pipe. I wasn’t really listening.
“Laura works at the library. You and I bumped into her when we went to the fireworks last year. Remember? We went up to that park on Trimble and someone had a radio so we could hear the music.”
I grunted what I hoped sounded like agreement, though I wasn’t sure I remembered. The piece of pipe seemed to be running clean, so I shook it out and stared into it, searching for any lingering hair balls. “All clear, I think.” I turned toward Ellie, smiling, proud of myself.
“Her daughter has gone missing.”
“Who now? Jessica?”
Ellie made a frustrated sound. Her hand flashed out, and before I knew what had happened, she’d grabbed the p-trap from me.
“I need you to listen.” She held the pipe up over her head.
I sat back on my heels. “Fine. I’m listening. Someone’s dog is missing.”
“Her daughter, not her dog. Laura. My friend. Her daughter is missing.”
I could see the real concern on Ellie’s face now, and belatedly realized we had left reality TV land and were in actual reality land. “That’s terrible, Ellie. I’m sorry. She must be frantic.”
Ellie was still holding the pipe over her head. “She is. She’s going out of her mind.”
“How old is her daughter?”
“Oh dear.” A tempestuous age. I remembered it well. I flinched as a couple of memories of fights with my mother flashed in front of me.
“Normally, yes, but Emma is not the type of kid who gets into trouble. She’s a good kid, and she and Laura are really close.”
I didn’t know what to say. I’ve never been a parent, but I could imagine the kind of worry that the mother of a thirteen-year-old would be experiencing in such circumstances.
Suddenly, Ellie gave a little yelp and shook herself. The pipe had dripped some water down her arm. She handed it back to me as quickly as she’d taken it away and grabbed a towel to wipe herself with.
I took the opportunity to kneel-walk back to the vanity. I placed the p-trap back in its position and began tightening the nut from the drainpipe.
Behind me, Ellie made a quiet noise in her throat and I heard her shift around on the bathtub’s edge. If I hadn’t known her for as long as I had, I would have said she was nervous.
Eventually she said, “I was hoping maybe you’d help Laura out.”
I glanced over my shoulder at her. I’m sure my face was all scrunched up. “Help her?”
“You helped that guy Rory recently to find his friend.”
“Yes, but…” I began tightening the nut at the other end of the p-trap. “That was just…” I didn’t exactly know what words to use. “…That was just a weird set of circumstances that came together.”
“But you found him.”
“Christopher? Sure, but I knew him. And I knew Rory. I don’t know Laura.”
The nuts were tight. I turned on the water valve-thingy at the back of the vanity and then reached up and turned on the tap. The water flowed easily into the drain now. Ah, the satisfaction of a job well done. “Ta-da!” I said to Ellie. She gave two half-hearted claps with her hands.
I began to tidy up the tools I’d used and pulled the plastic container out of the cupboard. “You’ll have to put all your stuff back in the right place.” I gestured to the bottles, jars and packets on the floor that we’d pulled out of the vanity earlier. I looked up at Ellie. She was picking at the towel in her lap, looking troubled. “Has Laura gone to the police?” I said.
Ellie’s dark brown eyes met mine. She shook her head. “She’s really uncomfortable with the police. She’s had some bad experiences.”
I nodded. “What if I got Mack to talk to her?” James ‘Mack’ McCormack was a close friend of mine who also happened to be a police officer.
“She wants to talk to you.”
“She thinks you might be able to help her.”
I shook my head and stood up. “I don’t see how.”
“You seem to have a knack for finding people,” Ellie said.
I shrugged. “That was just a fluke. Like I said, it was just a strange set of circumstances that all came together.” I started to move toward the bathroom door.
Ellie stood up, still holding the towel in her arms. She followed me out to her front door. “I don’t think that’s true. Not everyone would have done what you did for Christopher.”
What Ellie was proposing seemed ridiculous to me. I am not a police officer and have never had any ambitions in that direction. I’m an artist, a painter and a sculptor, who loves nothing more than to spend a day in the south-facing studio at the back of my house. I couldn’t see what Ellie was seeing in me. The situation with Christopher had come about because I knew him and wanted him to be safe, not because I had any sort of specialty at finding people who are missing. I felt like Ellie was firing her arrow at the wrong target.
I was at her front door and was about to walk back across the lawn to my house. As I turned to look at her, standing in her bare feet on the tile floor, I realized I had never seen her face look so stricken. Ellie is normally in command of any room or situation she finds herself in. Whatever was going on with her friend Laura was clearly very serious. Why she had chosen to approach me was a question I wasn’t able to answer. But it was obvious that for whatever reason, Ellie really wanted my help. I couldn’t explain it, but I could empathize with the pitiful look on her face.
“Fine,” I said, relenting. “I’ll come and meet your friend. But just know that this is an insane proposition, and probably the only thing I’m going to do is advise her to speak to the police.”
Ellie gave two more short claps, her expression lifting. “Thank you so much, honey. You’re the best.”
I pulled open the back door and said over my shoulder, “Also, I’m going to buy you one of those sieve things to go over your drain. I don’t want to go through the experience of digging your hair out of the pipes ever again.”
Ellie didn’t waste any time getting me over to meet with her friend Laura. The next morning at 9 AM she was opening the passenger door to her enormous SUV for me. I climbed up into the seat like I was climbing a flight of stairs to get there.
“This thing is nearly as big as your house.”
Ellie climbed into the driver’s seat beside me. “People stay out of my way, that’s for sure.”
It was a short drive, and we probably could have walked, but one of the Commandments of Ellie was that she didn’t walk anywhere. And given that she was wearing sling-back heels and a blue cashmere coat, it made sense. I, on the other hand, was in my winter wardrobe of jeans, slip-on boots, a black turtleneck, and a dark green waxed jacket that zipped up the front. My dark strawberry-blonde hair was pulled into a loose ponytail at the base of my neck.
Ellie was right. People did get out of her way. She tended to take up more than one lane, and I saw a few people giving us some dirty looks and maybe some middle-finger gestures. Ellie seemed oblivious to all of this, driving as though the road was solely hers and the other cars were trespassing.
Laura lived in a three-story walk-up across from a park on East 10th between Fraser and Clark Drive. Years ago this neighborhood had been pretty sketchy, but as the yuppies moved east it had gentrified. Down the block from Laura, where Ellie squeezed her vehicle into a tiny parking spot with very impressive maneuvers, there were mid-century Craftsman houses that had been lovingly renovated and restored. Some of them were painted brightly contrasting colors, which gave the neighborhood a whimsical feel.
Ellie seemed slightly nervous. I wondered if she was afraid that I was going to withdraw my offer to talk to Laura.
I still didn’t entirely understand why we were here, or, more specifically, why I was here. But I figured a short conversation, and an introduction to the idea that at the very least Laura should speak to my friend Mack, would suffice. I had brought his business card specifically for that purpose.
We reached the front door of the building and Ellie pressed a buzzer on the panel. Without hearing a voice respond, I heard the front door click open and grabbed the handle reflexively.
This building had not been lovingly restored like the houses down the block. The blue swirly carpet on the floor beneath our feet was circa 1964, and I could see plywood through some worn patches. The wall to our right was entirely covered in floor-to-ceiling mirrors with a brown, dappled effect that just added to the ugliness. The left wall was covered in a bank of mailboxes. The entire place smelled of a mixture of stale cigarette smoke mixed with bacon fat and a faint hint of cat urine.
Ellie pulled open a door in the lobby and headed up the stairs with a swish of her skirts. I followed reluctantly in her wake. By the time we got to the third-floor landing, the smell of cigarette smoke had gotten much stronger, and I was trying to hold my breath against it, which wasn’t working because I was puffing from coming up the stairs. The hallway was cast in gloom by the inadequate lighting, and, in hindsight, this was representative of the situation we were walking into. Before Ellie could knock on the door at the end of the hallway, it was pulled open by a tiny woman who I assumed was Laura. Without a word Ellie folded the tiny woman into her arms and they stood hugging for several moments in silence.
Eventually, Ellie stepped back but held onto the woman’s hand. “Laura, let me introduce you to Freddie Lark, my landlord and my good friend.”
Laura met my eyes, nodded once subtly with her chin, and then turned and disappeared into the apartment. Ellie motioned for me to follow her.
This apartment was clearly one of the sources of the cigarette smell in the hallway. Stepping into it and closing the door behind me, I felt like I was walking into a cloud of nicotine. The smell was stifling and noxious, and I wondered how anyone could bear to live in such an atmosphere.
Straight ahead as we came in through the front door was a galley kitchen, and, at a brief glance, I could see that the limited counter space was liberally covered in dirty dishes and pots and pans. We moved to our right and the suite opened up into a large living room. When I say ‘large,’ however, I mean by Vancouver standards. As the city continues to grow and real estate prices skyrocket, any buildings that have gone up since about 1995 have had rooms that are so small I always joke that you have to decorate with Barbie furniture. I knew people who lived in a condo downtown where, once they’d put the queen-sized bed into the master bedroom, there was no room for anything else. There were maybe six inches on either side of the bed to squeeze around, and that was it. Furniture companies had sprung up that manufactured and sold couches that were referred to as ‘condo-sized,’ meaning tiny.
Despite the light coming in through the wall of north-facing windows, the room was filled with a distinct air of despondency. Understandable, given Laura’s circumstances.
It appeared that she had been sleeping on the sofa. There was a blanket casually tossed over one end and a pillow on the floor beside it. Laura sank into a divot at one end of the couch that embraced her with familiarity. In front of her there was a cereal bowl that was serving as an ashtray and was nearly overflowing. Also on the coffee table were two single-sized pizza boxes, a crumpled fast-food bag, and two fast-food waxed cups with straws sticking out of them.
The rest of the room was a cacophony of furniture and shelving units. A plastic TV tray circa 1972 sat in front of one of the windows at the front of the room with five or six plant pots on it, all the residents deceased. In addition to the couch, there was one small upholstered chair, liberally stained, and an old dining room chair with a torn upholstered seat. Everything was positioned facing the large television screen that hung on the wall across from the couch. There were two laminated posters with curling edges on the wall opposite the TV, depicting wide-eyed kittens and puppies. I was encouraged to see a small bookshelf filled to bursting with books of all shapes and sizes, some of them with the plastic jacket covers and cataloging stickers that marked them as library books.
Laura was clearly not a woman of tremendous means, and yet the television was state of the art and at least five feet wide. It was something about the modern age that confused me; everyone always seemed to have money for electronics.
Laura had sunk into her seat on the couch and was lighting up another cigarette, so it was left to Ellie to be the hostess. She motioned for me to sit in the upholstered chair, but I took one look at its seat and elected to sit on the old dining room chair instead. I balanced on the edge of it and kept my purse in my lap. I was feeling weighted down with Laura’s despair, and was already guiltily wondering how quickly we could leave. Ellie went around and sat beside Laura and put her hand on Laura’s back.
“Laura, honey, this is Freddie that I told you about. The lady who’s going to help you out.”
Ellie met my eyes as she said this, and I widened mine in a way that I hoped said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. That’s not what we agreed to.’
She barreled ahead. “Can you tell Freddie about Emma so that she can help you?”
I could feel the rip current sucking me under.
Laura lifted her chin and looked at me for the first time since we’d come into her apartment. She was a petite woman and looked even more so sitting beside Ellie. She was wearing a stained and bedraggled gray hoodie, zipped up halfway over what looked like a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. She had on black yoga pants that were too long for her, the hems frayed and dragging. Her feet were bare. Her hair was a mousy brown color that didn’t quite match her fair eyebrows. It was pulled back in a loose ponytail that was off center on the back of her head; much of the hair had been pulled out of the elastic on the right-hand side. I suspected she had slept on it. Her eyes were blue and ringed with red, and her nose was red as well. Clearly, she been crying; beside the coffee table was a wicker waste-paper basket that was nearly full of crumpled tissues.
Something like hope lit Laura’s eyes now. “Do you think you can find Emma?”
I started to answer, and then Ellie answered for me. “She sure can, honey. She’s great at that sort of thing.”
Obviously, I needed to quell Ellie’s well-intentioned but misguided description of who I was and why I was here. “I think what Ellie meant to say is that I have a friend who is in the police department, and I’ve brought you his business card. He’s a really good guy, and…”
Laura begin shaking her head vigorously, the most energetic movement I’d seen from her since we had arrived. “Nope. No cops. No way.”
I leaned forward on the chair, which turned out to have uneven legs. It shifted, and I jerked forward dramatically. “Laura, I can see that you’re tremendously distraught about Emma. It’s really important that we get professionals involved in whatever’s happened. The police have the resources and the knowhow to be able to help you.”
Laura shook her head throughout my whole speech, slowly but methodically and with conviction. When I was finished talking, she looked at Ellie. “I said no cops.”
Ellie nodded, then rubbed Laura’s back some more while she looked at me with wide, imploring eyes.
Laura took a firm drag on the cigarette in her right hand, inhaling as though her life depended on it, which maybe it did.
“Tell her about Emma, honey,” Ellie prompted her again. “She loves to draw, too, doesn’t she? Freddie is an amazing artist.”
Laura brightened ever so slightly. “She does love to draw,” she said, taking another drag on her cigarette. “She drew that.” She pointed to the wall at the back of the galley kitchen. On it there was an ink illustration of a unicorn with a thick chain reaching down from its halter. An interesting bit of imagery from a thirteen-year-old girl.
For something to do, I walked over and had a closer look. The technique was appropriate for someone in their teens, but also quite delicate and skillful. I turned back to Laura. “She’s really good.”
Laura nodded vigorously; her eyes were welling with tears again. “She really is. When she’s not studying, she’s always drawing. Always has her sketchbook with her. I can’t get her nose out of that thing.” She wiped her nose with the sleeve of her hoodie and knocked the ash from her cigarette into the bowl in front of her, and then continued. “She loves school. I don’t understand it, but she really likes it.” She shrugged her shoulders in a ‘What are you gonna do with kids these days?’ sort of way. “She can’t get enough of learning and understanding new things.”
All parents should have such problems, I thought.
Despite myself, I asked a question. “When did she go missing?”
Ellie gave a small, satisfied smile I tried to ignore. Laura didn’t seem to know where to begin, so Ellie prompted her.
“You saw her Tuesday morning, right? Before school?”
Laura nodded. Her cigarette was now burned down to the filter. She stubbed it out in the pile of others in the bowl and immediately lit up another one. “She went to school, just like regular, on Tuesday morning. My shift at the library didn’t start until eleven, so I was here when she left. And then she had math club after school,” Laura gave a slight roll of her eyes at this, “so I knew she wouldn’t be home alone too long. I got home at seven that night, and she should’ve been here by then, but she wasn’t. I didn’t worry too much about it. Sometimes when she knows that I’m working the later shift, she’ll go over to her friend Olivia’s house. But when she wasn’t home at nine, I started to wonder if something was wrong. So I called Olivia’s mom, but she said that Emma hadn’t been there.”
Laura seemed to run out of steam after that. She lifted a ceramic coffee cup off the table in front of her and looked into its depths. Whatever was there didn’t appeal to her, and she set it down again. Ellie, noticing the gesture, stood up, saying, “I’ll make us some coffee,” and bustled off to the kitchen.
I could hear her rattling around out there, but that didn’t stop her from calling out, “So you phoned around, right, Laura?”
In front of me, Laura nodded and said, “I called everyone I knew. I couldn’t call the school, of course, ’cause they were closed by then, but I called a couple of her other friends. I didn’t know anyone from the math club, so I couldn’t call any of them to see if she had been there. I wasn’t sure what to do.”
Despite myself, again, I asked, “Does Emma have a Facebook account or Instagram?”
Laura shook her head. “No, she doesn’t have a phone. She’s not allowed on social media.”
While Ellie worked in the kitchen, Laura, in a rambling and slightly incoherent way, told us more about Emma’s habits and the normal structure of her week. Like most parents, Laura was proud of her child, and she also seemed slightly baffled by her; Emma seemed to have an intelligence and curiosity that her mother was devoid of.
Emma was, by Laura’s accounts, a good student who nearly always got straight A’s. I took this with a grain of salt, and perhaps it showed on my face. Seeing this, Laura got off the couch with a purposeful energy and went over to a tired-looking Ikea bookshelf, where she began rummaging around through stacks of paper and file folders. Eventually she found what she’d been looking for and brought it over to me. It was a report card, and she was right. Emma had got almost entirely straight A’s; she’d got a B- in Phys ed.
I smiled at Laura and handed the report card back to her. “She’s obviously an amazing girl.”
“She is. She really is. That’s why this whole thing is just so…” Laura flapped the report card against her leg, not knowing what word to use, and the momentary lift in her mood fell away.
Ellie appeared and silently handed Laura a cup of coffee, which she took gratefully.
“Why don’t you show Freddie Emma’s room?” Ellie said.
Without a word Laura turned, coffee cup in one hand and report card in the other, and walked through the living room and down a short hallway to a closed door. I followed, but pinched Ellie as I passed her in retaliation for encouraging Laura to think I’d be helping find Emma. Laura opened the door and we entered a world that was entirely unlike the living room we’d been seated in. It was clear that this was Emma’s domain. I realized suddenly that Laura must not be sleeping on the couch only because of Emma’s disappearance. That must be where she slept all the time. This was a one-bedroom apartment, and the bedroom had been allocated to Emma.
The room smelled slightly less of cigarette smoke, something that I assumed was a deliberate strategy on Emma’s part. And in contrast to the rest of the suite, it was as neat as an army cadet’s bunkhouse. There was a single bed with a pastel-green bedspread. The single pillow at the head of the bed was propped up against the wall, and in front of that sat a small, bedraggled-looking teddy bear, who was obviously deeply loved. The walls of the room were painted a pale pink color, and in spots I could see a different color underneath where the roller had missed. Perhaps Emma had painted the room herself.
Around the room’s walls I counted three bookshelves, mismatched but, again, neat as a pin. The books were all lined up, spines out, and I made a silent bet with myself that if I investigated, they would be grouped in some way, by subject or by author.
Under the window at the far end of the room was a scratched wooden table with an old metal kitchen chair with a red, vinyl seat pushed under it. The table served as a desk, and there were books in a neat stack on two corners of it, along with a few tchotchkes and a mug with a broken handle filled with pens and a pair of scissors. There were a few notebooks and a couple of pads of blank paper as well. This was the heart of the room.
Posters on the wall included the periodic table of elements, a map of the solar system, a slightly worn and faded poster from the Audrey Hepburn movie My Fair Lady, and another of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Above the desk was a poster with rows of photographs of women like Marie Curie, Mary Jackson and Michelle Obama, with inspirational quotes beneath each.
I stood, soaking it all in. Despite myself, I was getting a better sense of who Emma was. Her personality shone through even though she was absent. I turned to say something to Laura, but she was gone, and it was just Ellie standing there with beseeching eyes. I held my hand up, cutting off whatever she was about to say.
Ellie had put me in an impossible position, and underneath my concern and empathy for Laura and Emma, I was furious with her. And I was furious with myself. I was an idiot to have agreed to come and see Laura. By showing up here, I had only given her some hope that I would help. And that was impossible. I wasn’t a police officer or even a social worker, nor was I in any kind of official position to be able to assist. I didn’t understand why Ellie had connected the dots between what had happened a few months ago with Christopher and with Laura and Emma’s situation now. They were entirely different, and conflating the two was irresponsible on Ellie’s part. She was going to get a stern talking-to from me when we got back into her urban tank.
I could feel the heat rising in my face as my thoughts made me angrier. It was time to get out of here. If I stayed, I was only contributing to the falseness of the situation. I shifted my purse and moved past Ellie, who was standing in the doorway to the bedroom, giving her a furious glare as I did so. I found Laura in the living room, once again in her spot at the end of the couch in front of the bowl of cigarette butts. As I walked toward her, I reached into my back pocket and pulled out Mack’s business card. I set the card down beside the ashtray/cereal bowl.
“Laura, this is my friend Mack’s business card. He’s a police officer and he’s a good man. I know that you’d really like him under different circumstances. He’s kind, though he would hate it if he heard me describing him that way.” I smiled weakly, but Laura was staring determinedly at her fingers. “You need help,” I continued. “There’s obviously something wrong, and Emma could be in very serious danger. You need to call the police.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ellie open her mouth, beginning to object, but I barreled on.
“The seriousness of the situation calls for professional help. Whatever problems you had with the police in the past . . . you’ll have to let them go.”
Laura’s expression became hardened for the first time since we’d walked into her apartment. “I thought that’s why you were here.” She glanced over her shoulder at Ellie. “I thought you said that she would help,” she said accusingly, and motioned toward me with her cigarette hand.
Ellie started to speak but I interrupted her. “I’m so sorry, Laura, but the truth is that Ellie spoke out of turn. I’m not a police officer. You need to get professionals involved.”
Laura dropped her chin to her chest and simply shook her head gently.
There was nothing more I could do. Staying here any longer would just give Laura more hope. Using the energy of my anger at Ellie, I turned and walked across the living room floor toward the front door. I decided that if Ellie didn’t follow, I could walk home. I let myself out into the dark hallway.
Ellie did follow me, but we were silent as we walked back to her monster truck. I was dealing with the simmering annoyance that she’d brought me here and tried to get me involved where I didn’t belong. Ellie’s face was a mask of neutrality, though she had a serious case of what my mother would call chicken-ass-mouth, her lips tightly pursed.
“I told you I didn’t want to get involved and that it isn’t my place,” I said.
She simply nodded, and I was pissed off that I had to justify myself.
“She needs to talk to the police, Ellie. It’s dangerous that she hasn’t done that yet.”
We passed a woman walking a black and white Shih Tzu. They were wearing matching sweaters with unicorns plastered all over.
Ellie pulled out her key fob and pressed the button. Her car beeped as we approached. I heaved open my door and made the trek up into the passenger seat. As my head cleared the seat, I startled. My sister Blythe was sitting in the back.
Now, let me back up and explain. Blythe died ten years ago. Yes, I know it’s weird that I see her now and then, but it’s not spooky. She looks as real to me as any other person; she just has the disconcerting habit of appearing and disappearing without warning.
As I settled into my seat and wrestled with my seat belt, Blythe got right to the point. “Why did you turn that poor woman down?”
“It would have been deeply irresponsible of me to try to help her.”
“I get it, honey,” Ellie replied, thinking I was talking to her. “I heard you the first four times.”
Blythe carried on. “There are reasons she doesn’t want to go to the police.”
“I understand that,” I muttered under my breath.
“I don’t think you do, and I think you’re being mean. And I think Mom and Dad would be horrified to know you’d refused to help that poor girl.”
I turned around in my seat and glared at her. Even in the afterlife she was still a bossy older sister. “Leave me alone, would you? I’m not a cop and I’m not a … a… detective. What if something goes wrong? What if it’s dangerous?”
I turned back around and saw Ellie staring at me, her eyes wide. She turned her head and looked into the back seat and then back at me. “Everything okay, honey?”
“It’s just that you were yelling at the back seat there.”
“Sorry.” I shifted uncomfortably, embarrassed. “I feel like I have a demon on my shoulder.” When I said the word ‘demon’ I turned around again and glared at Blythe. She stuck her tongue out at me.
Ellie pushed the starter. “Alright, sweetie, but you let me know if we need to go see a doctor or anything. Auntie Ellie will be happy to drive you.” She flicked her eyes at me warily.
“I’m fine. Let’s go.”
The three of us were quiet while we pulled out onto the street. Ellie drove east and turned at the next corner. When we got to Broadway, she put on her right turn indicator and waited while the traffic flowed by.
I sat in my seat, fuming at Blythe. When she was alive, there was no one who could annoy me as quickly or as ferociously as she could. And she knew it. One of her favorite pastimes when we were kids was to wind me up into a lather and then wait until I got myself into trouble for hitting her or trying to strangle her in my rage. Clearly, she hadn’t lost the skill, even though she was dead.
I hoped she would just disappear, as she always did, but when I turned my head ever so slightly to the left, I could still see her in my peripheral vision. And worse, she caught me.
“What if it was Pickle who was missing?” she said as I flicked my head forward again. “She, or he, would be almost the same age as Emma now.”
Ellie shot me a worried glance and then turned back to watching the traffic.
Just before Blythe died, she had been making arrangements to adopt a child. She had never been married, but her biological clock had been raging for a couple of years. Finally, she realized she didn’t need a man in order to be a mother. As soon as she’d made the decision to adopt, her demeanor changed. For years there had been a simmering grumpiness and dissatisfaction about her. But once the adoption process was in motion, she was back to her normal cheery, if slightly bossy, self.
She and I had named the impending child ‘Pickle.’ It started as a joke and then became the word we used all the time. We never said, “When the adoption goes through…” We’d said, “When Pickle is here…” All of us—our parents, me, Blythe—fell in love with that child before it was a reality. I’d never wanted children myself, but I had planned to be the best damn aunt the world had ever seen.
Blythe had mortgaged herself to the hilt and bought a tiny two-bedroom house in Kitsilano. For months, she spent every evening and weekend painting the walls and ripping out the 1980s carpet, burning off anticipatory energy and trying not to lose her mind while she waited for the wheels of the adoption process to slowly grind.
And then she was killed when a tree fell on her car in a storm.
She knew how much I loved the hypothetical Pickle. She knew how much I longed to teach my niece or nephew how to ride a bike and how to whistle and how to sing “Ta Ra Ra Boom De Ay” on long car rides.
And she was using that knowledge against me now. Dirty pool.
Ellie pulled into a break in the traffic and headed west, back toward Main Street.
“Turn right,” I said at the next cross street.
“What?” Ellie glanced at me, puzzled, and missed the turn.
Her face lit up. “Really?”
“Yes, really. Go back. Quick, before I change my mind.”
Ellie squealed like a nine-year-old girl and sped up, nearly side-swiping a postal truck that was trying to pull into the traffic.
I turned around in my seat to glare at Blythe, but she was gone.