Monday, August 07, 2006

Players 2

Before driving over to the Southeast Precinct, Summer had checked out Edie’s stepfather, Randy Farrell, on the computer, and confirmed her suspicion that he had a record. White male, black hair, brown eyes. Five foot seven, one hundred forty pounds -- not a big guy, but he had thirty pounds and a couple of inches on her. His D.O.B. made him fifty-four years old. No scars or other identifying marks, no FBI number . . . Most of his crimes were minor -- housebreaking, receiving or attempting to sell stolen goods -- and he’d been given plenty of second chances or through plea agreements had received probation instead of jail time, which made Summer suspect that he was some detective’s confidential informant. But he’d served time in the gladiatorial arena of state prison at Salem after having been convicted of conspiracy to rob, and with no less than three charges of assault to his name it looked as if he was quick to use his fists. She remembered that he’d sat right behind his stepdaughter in the courtroom, arms folded across the front of his denim jacket, hair lacquered back from his temples, sucking on a permanently sour expression; remembered how he’d bulled up to her in the busy corridor outside the courtroom after Edie Collier had been sentenced, asking her how she liked sending a young girl to jail, turning on his heel and stomping off after she’d advised him to take it up with the judge. Randy Farrell’s wife, Edie Collier’s mother, had a record of violence, too: threatening behaviour and several charges of assault, including one on a high-school teacher that had gotten her a year’s probation, plus one charge of public drunkenness and three DUIs; her driver’s licence had been suspended after the last, two months ago.

Anticipating trouble, Summer was happy to have Laura at her back as she walked up to the bungalow. It was dusk now. Lights were burning in a couple of the bungalow’s windows, but Summer had to lean on the doorbell for more than a minute before she saw movement behind the three stepped panes of frosted glass in the front door. When it opened, Summer straightened her back and held up her badge, saw from the corner of her eye Laura move her right hand towards the Glock holstered on her hip. But the man who stood in the doorway was a skinny scarecrow, barefoot in a dressing gown that hung open over a T-shirt and boxer shorts, his face sallow and sunken and sporting the makings of a black eye. It took Summer a long moment to recognize in this ruin the man she’d faced down outside the courtroom just six months ago.

He stared at Summer without seeming to recognize her, stared at Laura, and said, ‘Whatever you’re selling, I don’t need it.’

Summer asked if she could speak with his wife.

‘What kind of trouble has she gotten herself into now?’

‘She isn’t in any trouble that I know of, Mr Farrell. Could you have her come to the door?’

‘Lucinda ain’t in any fit state to talk to the police. Why don’t you come back tomorrow?’
‘It’s about her daughter, Mr Farrell. If she can’t come to the door, you should let us in. We need to talk with her.’

The man’s attitude, a junkyard dog defending its turf, evaporated. ‘This is about Edie? What happened? Is she hurt, in hospital somewhere?’

‘Let us in, Mr Farrell. We need to talk to your wife.’

‘Oh Jesus,’ Randy Farrell said, and closed his eyes for a moment.

Laura said, ‘We don’t want to talk about this out here, Mr Farrell, in full view of your neighbours, and I’m sure you don’t want to either. So why don’t we go inside?’

‘I guess,’ Randy Farrell said, standing aside. ‘But I should warn you, Lucinda’s more than half in the bag, and she ain’t taking prisoners.’

Summer and Laura followed him down a narrow hall stacked with cardboard cartons. The air was hot and close, and stank of cigarette smoke and greasy cooking.

‘In there,’ Randy Farrell said, with a wave of a hand towards an archway filled with the flicker of TV light.

Lucinda Farrell slumped on a plastic-covered couch, a blown-up bear of a woman in a pink sweatshirt and grey sweatpants, clutching a tall glass half-full of icecubes to her bosom as she watched Oprah on the big TV across the room. A fifth of vodka, a gallon jug of orange juice, a washing-up bowl heaped with popcorn, and an ashtray full of cigarette stubs crowded a bamboo coffee table. When Summer stepped into the room, Lucinda Farrell looked at her and said with shrill but forceful scorn that cut through the laughter and applause of Oprah’s audience, ‘I got nothing to say to any cops, so why don’t the both of you march straight on out of here.’

Randy Farrell said from the archway, ‘Take it easy, why don’t you? They got something to tell you. About Edie.’

‘Edie? Fuck her. Fuck you too, for letting in these fuckers.’

Summer switched on the ceiling lights and in the sudden glare crossed the room and punched off the TV and took a position directly in front of the woman on the couch. Laura was standing just inside the archway, ready to block Randy Farrell if he tried to cause trouble. Summer said, ‘How about we start over, Mrs Farrell?’

The woman stared at Summer. Bleached hair dry as straw stuck out around her pugnacious face. ‘My daughter ran out on me four months back. Anything she did, it isn’t my problem, she’s over eighteen now. So how about you say what you got to say and get out.’

Summer waited a beat, making it clear that she was doing this in her own time. ‘Mrs Farrell, your daughter was found badly injured this morning, in woods near a town by the name of Cedar Falls. I’m very sorry to have to tell you that she died on the way to hospital.’

‘Jesus Christ,’ Randy Farrell said softly.

Lucinda Farrell leaned forwards and with the frowning concentration of a small child sloshed a good three fingers of vodka into her glass. She added a splash of orange juice, sucked down half the drink, and said to no one in particular, ‘So that’s that.’

‘Mrs Farrell, the Sheriff’s office in Cedar Falls would like you to make a formal identification -- ’

The woman flapped a hand. ‘She was dead to me when she left this house. I told her so, she said she didn’t give a fuck, and she hasn’t been back since. So why should I give a fuck now?’

‘You need to do the right thing by your daughter,’ Summer said.

‘I already done all I could by her,’ Lucinda Farrell said flatly, and drained the rest of her drink.

Summer tried to talk her around, but the woman retreated into stubborn silence, clutching her glass in her swollen paws and glaring at a spot somewhere beyond Summer’s left shoulder. At last, Summer said, ‘I’ll come back tomorrow. We’ll talk about this again.’

‘Switch on the fucking TV on your way out. I wanna see Oprah ask Demi Moore about her toyboy.’

Summer ignored her request, and in the hallway asked Randy Farrell if Edie’s biological father lived in Portland.

‘He died in a car accident way before I met Lucinda. Edie kept his name, but if she has a father -- Jesus, had one -- it would be me.’

Summer said, ‘I’ll have to come back tomorrow, Mr Farrell. I have to talk to your wife again.’

‘Won’t do any good.’

‘The local police need her to ID her daughter. It’s a formality, but it has to be done before they can release the body. And at some point your wife will have to think about funeral arrangements.’

Randy Farrell shook his head. ‘Lucinda meant what she said about Edie being dead to her. She never once tried to find her after she ran off, never once visited her when she was in jail . . . ’

‘Talk to her, Mr Farrell. Tell her that she needs to do the right thing by Edie. I’ll come by
tomorrow morning, talk to her again.’

‘She sets her mind to something, that’s it. Edie was the same way.’ Randy Farrell looked at Summer and said, ‘How she ended up, out there in the woods. You have any idea how she got there?’

‘I’m sorry, Mr Farrell. It isn’t my case.’

Before setting out for the Southeast Precinct, Summer had called the Cedar Falls Sheriff’s office and talked briefly with Denise Childers, the detective in charge of the case. The woman had been friendly enough, but hadn’t given anything away.

Randy Farrell said, ‘She didn’t have any reason to leave Portland I knew of. You should ask her boyfriend what she was doing out there.’

When Summer had been given this job, she’d believed that she wouldn’t get much out of it. If she messed up, she would confirm Ryland Nelsen’s unvoiced suspicion that she was a hotshot promoted beyond her experience and capability. And if she did okay she’d probably be landed with every next-of-kin notification the Robbery Unit had to deal with: it was the kind of dirty, thankless task that male cops liked to pass on to their female colleagues because, according to them, women had better people skills. Now, though, she felt a twinge of interest and said, ‘Do you have a name and address for this boyfriend?’

Randy Farrell stared past her for a moment, then said, ‘I think it was Billy something.’

‘Do you have a last name? An address?’

Randy Farrell shook his head. ‘I never met the guy, and I only talked to Edie one time after she took up with him. She told me she and him were living out of his van. I wasn’t too happy, hearing that, but she said she was doing fine.’

‘When did she leave home?’

‘First week in February, just after her birthday. She and her mother had a big bust-up.’

‘And she ran off to be with her boyfriend?’

Randy Farrell shrugged.

‘How long had she known him?’

‘Let’s put it this way, I’d never heard of him before she ran off.’

‘Does he have a job?’

‘I wouldn’t know.’

‘They were living in his van. Where did they park at night?’

‘Somewhere over near the airport I think.’

Laura said, ‘I’ll ask the guys in the Northeast Precinct to keep a look out. Mr Farrell, do you know if they had a regular spot where they parked at night? Up in Piedmont, maybe? Maywood Park?’

‘Somewhere near the airport, that’s all I know.’

‘How about you tell me something about this van,’ Laura said. ‘Make, colour -- anything at all.’
‘Like I said, I never met him, and I never saw his van either.’

Summer said, ‘Take your time, Mr Farrell. Anything you can remember could be a big help.’

‘I remember that she was happy, when I saw her. She had plans, she was thinking of going back to school . . . What will happen to her if no one looks after her? To her body, I mean?’

Summer said, ‘If no one claims her, the state will serve as sponsor.’

‘Yeah, that’s what I thought. And the state will bury her in a cardboard coffin without a marker. She doesn’t deserve that.’ Randy Farrell paused, then told Summer, ‘I know who you are. You’re the one arrested Edie just before Christmas. You were in uniform then, but I don’t forget a face. Listen, it’s okay, I’m not blaming you for what happened to her, but how about cutting me a break?’

‘If you want to help Edie, Mr Farrell, you should persuade your wife to go make the ID.’

‘You need someone to make the ID? How about you take me to Cedar Falls,’ Randy Farrell said.

‘I’ll take care of whatever arrangements need to be made, too. I have money.’

‘Perhaps I should come by tomorrow and talk to your wife again.’

‘It won’t make no difference. But I want to do right by Edie, even if Lucinda doesn’t.’

Summer saw that the man was genuinely upset. ‘I’ll tell the police in Cedar Falls about your offer, Mr Farrell. That’s the best I can do right now.’

‘I was like a father to her, you understand? I helped raise her for more than ten years, I want to do right by her now . . . You tell them that. Also, you should explain that I have cancer of the liver and I can’t drive on account of my medication, the side effects. I get these blackouts. So you tell them, if they want someone to ID her, either you take me, or they’ll have to come get me.’

Summer took out one of her cards and handed it to him. ‘If you remember anything you think might be useful, anything at all, give me a call and I’ll pass it on to the detective in charge of the case. But right now, Mr Farrell, maybe you should go look after your wife. I think she’s more shaken up than she lets on.’

Outside, Laura Killinger hitched up her Garrison belt and said, ‘Edie Collier was brought up by those two, and all she had on her sheet was shoplifting? She must have been some kind of saint.’

Friday, August 04, 2006

Players 1

Late Tuesday afternoon, the Robbery Unit of the Portland Police Bureau, Detective Sergeant Ryland Nelsen called Summer Ziegler into his office. He didn’t ask her to sit down, so she stood in front of his desk, straight-backed in a cream blouse and black skirt, waiting for him to finish studying a custody report. She’d dressed for a court appearance that had eaten up most of the day, and she’d been working late, finishing paperwork. She wished now that she’d gone straight home at the end of the shift, because she was dead certain that her boss was about to hand her yet another petty errand.

He took his own sweet time with the report, reading both sides, saying at last, ‘Do you believe in karma, Detective Ziegler?’

‘As in fate?’

‘As in be sure your sins will catch up with you.’

‘I believe it would make our work a lot easier if karma caught up with all the bad guys.’
Ryland Nelsen dropped the report on his desk, leaned back in his chair and laced his hands behind his grey buzz cut. ‘Cast your mind back to last December. You arrested a young woman name of Edie Collier.’

Summer thought for a moment. ‘She tried to boost a couple of cashmere sweaters from Meier and Frank, the store detective challenged her, she made a run for it. I was cruising the area, helped chase her down. She got thirty days’ county time plus two years’ probation.’

‘She got county time for shoplifting? All my arrests should go up before that judge.’

‘She was already on probation for another shoplifting offence, plus she had a bunch of priors. She pled guilty at arraignment and the judge told her he was going to give her a short, sharp shock, stick her in jail over Christmas in the hope it would straighten her out. But I guess it didn’t.’
Summer also guessed that Edie Collier must have gotten into something much more serious than shoplifting if she had come to the attention of the Robbery Unit, which investigated thefts involving use of a weapon or threats implying the presence of a weapon; mundane property crimes like shoplifting were handled by uniformed police and precinct detectives.

‘I don’t know if it straightened her out or not,’ Ryland Nelsen said. ‘I do know that a couple of fishermen stumbled across her in woods way the hell south of here, near Cedar Falls. Know where it is?’

‘I’ve driven past it.’

‘On the I-5. Me too, but I never stopped. Anyhow, she was badly injured from some kind of fall, and she died before the paramedics could get her to hospital. The local police are treating it as a suspicious death. They identified her from fingerprints and found out that her last known address was in Portland, and their Sheriff put in a call to the Chief’s office, asked if someone in the Bureau could inform Edie Collier’s parents and persuade them to make the trip to Cedar Falls for formal ID and disposition of the body. And, well, the request bounced down the chain of command to the officer who last arrested her.’

‘Me,’ Summer said, with a falling sensation.

‘You,’ Ryland Nelsen said, pointing his forefinger at her and cocking his thumb gunwise. ‘During your time in uniform, were you ever asked to do a next-of-kin notification?’

‘No, sir. We left that kind of thing to detectives.’

‘And just three weeks ago you got your detective’s badge . . . See what I mean about karma?’

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Blue World

The films of M. Night Shyamalan more often have their roots in literature rather than in other films. His latest, Lady in the Water, is no exception: like many of the novels of Gene Wolfe, Peter S. Beagle and Jonathan Carroll, its plot turns on the realisation by its hero that he is an archetype inhabiting a mythic story he can survive only by coming to terms with his true nature.

Lady in the Water’s premise, that the root of human sin is due to a break with the wise inhabitants of the Blue World of water, is rather silly and made sillier by a sententious voice-over that explains it, but its story is simple enough. A water nymph named, er, Story (played by the ethereal Bryce Dallas Howard), has been sent to find the writer she’s destined to inspire, so that he can finish the book that will, eventually, save the world (I’m not giving anything away by noting that the world-saving writer is played by none other than the film’s director). She’s helped by Cleveland Heap (Paul Giamatti), who finds her in the swimming pool of the apartment building where he works as superintendent. With the help of Korean student Young-Soon Choi and her mother, Heap must unriddle the bedtime story into which he’s been plunged, and locate the writer and the other people needed to help Story complete her quest and protect her from her enemy, the hyena-like Scrunt that haunts the apartment building’s grounds.

Most of the plot twists are derived either from the deus ex machina rules of Story’s quest, or from cases of mistaken identity as Heap tries to find amongst the apartment building’s tenants those predestined to help Story. And there’s the rub. M. Night Shyamalan’s best films are driven by conflict between vividly-drawn counterpart characters - ghost and ghost-whisperer in The Sixth Sense; hero and villain in Unbreakable. But since a football team of people are needed to protect and help Story, and there are at least two candidates for every place on the team, there are so many named characters packed into the movie’s 90-odd minutes that there’s little space to develop most of them beyond stock types.

The central characters fare little better. After a strong introduction, Story does little but huddle in the shower and refuse to divulge vital information, and even Cleveland Heap fails to stir the audience’s empathy when he finally realises his true nature and comes to terms with the Hero’s Wound that drove him to hide away from the world in a modest job in a modest apartment building. The Scrunt provides several good shock moments, there’s plenty of typically crisp dialogue and clever ideas, and there’s fine comedy relief from Young-Soon’s obtuse mother and an acidulous film critic (a nice cameo by Bob Balaban). But Shyamalan’s failure to develop strong central characters leaves the mechanics of his plot and the paint-by-numbers symbolism of his story overly exposed. For a movie that promises world-changing events, Lady in the Water ultimately feels as hermetic as the bubble of water in a snow-globe.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Where I Get My Ideas From - Part 40581 Of An Endless Series

Down to the West End last night to catch a preview of M. Night Shayamalan’s Lady in the Water (I’ll post a review in a couple of days). Sitting outside the Bar Italia in Soho, we were engaged in conversation by an eccentric fiftysomething fellow in a kilt who was treating his old Italian mother to dinner (she was the very picture of an old Italian mother, complete with cloche hat and shawl, somewhat in her dotage and addressed by her doting son with affectionate exasperation; if you put the pair of them in a novel you’d be accused of stereotyping). In short order, we learned that he was a cellist and had been down to Sussex on some kind of camping holiday (don’t go there) that seemed to have involved country dancing. Then his attention wandered to a young couple sitting down with their baby and after a little to and fro the father (also Italian) brought the baby over so that the old Italian mother could not only admire it, but also give it a wee cuddle - something British parents would almost never do. Meanwhile, the restless and voluble kilt-wearing son had wandered over the café across the road to make more friends. I love this crazy town.

Players: The Cover

Here’s a rough of the cover for Players. I very much like the menacing glow burning through the trees (much of the novel is set in the woods of South-west Oregon, where I spent some time last year; they are both lovely and spooky - especially spooky when there’s a lull in the ambient insect- and bird-song, and you think: bear).

I’ve just finished the copy edit, and now I have to work up notes about the changes I made, and key in all the changes in the hard copy to the electronic version of the text. I’ll start putting up some chunks from it soon.
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