Thursday, March 22, 2012

No Brother Of Mine: The First Few Pages

As we get close to the finish line on my 2nd novel I figure it's about time I let everyone see how it all begins. Keep in mind that, since the editing process is still underway, the precise wording of the early pages may change between now and publication time. But the following should still give you a very good idea of how NBoM kicks off (no pun intended):


When the doorbell rings around dinnertime on Monday, I’m in the middle of emptying the kitchen garbage. I used to be really bad about dealing with it before it got completely disgusting. After Sarah complained about the smell for the umpteenth time, though, I finally got better at noticing it. She may be gone, but at least some of the domestic training still remains.

The tied-off handles of the plastic bag are still looped over the index finger of my right hand as I make my way from the kitchen to the front door. I open it to discover a man and woman, both well dressed, standing on my front porch. The male is tall, like me, has short brown hair and is clean-shaven. His companion is about 5-foot-6 and blonde, but has her hair tightly bound up on the top of her head. Both are wearing dark blue suit pants and white collared shirts. He has a plain blue tie, while she’s wearing a beige jacket, currently buttoned up, which complements her serious expression.

My first thought is that they must be Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so I begin running through a mental list of possible escape clauses that might cut this interruption short. ‘My dinner’s on the stove and I think it’s starting to burn,’ maybe. Or ‘Actually, I’m an atheist who becomes extremely violent around religious types.’

But then I spot the badges. His is hanging off his hip, while hers is flopped over the bottom right pocket of her jacket.

“Mr. James?” the woman asks, while her male companion takes a quick look behind him, toward the brown four-door sedan parked on the street in front of my house.

I nod slightly, one hand on the open door and the other still clutching the tied-up kitchen bag.

“Mr. Mitchell Robert James?” she asks again, consulting a little black notebook in her hand.

“Yeah, that’s me,” I respond. “What can I do for you?”

“Do you mind if we come in for a few minutes?” the male officer asks, as he starts to enter without even waiting for me to answer.

I shake my head mutely, stepping out of the way. I lightly toss the garbage bag back toward the kitchen, hoping that it doesn’t spill out anything gross in the process.

We head for the living room, with me leading the way. I do a quick scan of the area, hoping it looks presentable. It’s not bad, and I’m sure cops see a lot worse than my slightly messy home in their travels.

The TV’s still on one of the sports channels, now showing highlights from last night’s games. The second round of the NHL playoffs are underway, meaning that Canadian interest in the sport is approaching a fever pitch now. I grab the remote from the couch as we enter the room and mute the analysis coming out of the mouths of the ‘expert panel’ before directing my two guests to please take a seat.

I ask if either of them would like a coffee or soft drink.

The man accepts the offer, saying, “Any sort of pop, please,” while the woman politely declines.

I head off to the kitchen to grab a Coke out of the fridge, nudging the thrown garbage bag further out of sight with my foot as I pass it. I’m trying not to think about the fact that I have a couple of cops in my living room. It’s almost never good news when that happens, after all.

I quickly return with the can and hand it to the plainclothes officer. He opens it after thanking me. His companion has unbuttoned her jacket while I was gone, I notice.

Once we’re all seated, the woman says, “Mr. James, I’m Detective Constable Wozniak and this is Detective Constable Harrison. We’re with the New Markham Police, and we’d like to ask you a few questions.”

I say, “Um, well, I’ve never actually been to New Markham, so whatever it is you think I did, it wasn’t me.” I give a little laugh at the end, to show that it’s a joke.

Neither of them laughs, but Detective Wozniak at least rewards my silly remark with a faint smile.

Detective Harrison sets his drink down, looks me in the eye and asks, “Mr. James, when did you last speak to your brother?”

“Ray?” I reply, confused.

“Yes,” Detective Wozniak says, nodding. “Raymond Edward James is your brother, correct?”

“Yeah, he is,” I say, looking down. I’m suddenly overcome with a bad feeling about where this conversation is going. “But we haven’t spoken in years.”

“How many years?” Harrison asks.

“Almost 20, I guess.”

“I see,” Harrison responds, as his partner writes something in her book. “Then are you aware that he’s been reported missing?”

“Missing?” I repeat, stunned. Had my little brother somehow…? Shaking my head, I say, “No. I… Who reported him missing?”

“His wife.”

“Ex-wife,” Detective Wozniak corrects her partner, without looking up from her scribbling.

“Thank you. His ex-wife. You did know that he was married, didn’t you?”

“No, I didn’t,” I admit, feebly, my head swimming. “Or that he’d been divorced. Or even that he was in New Markham, for that matter.”

“I see,” Detective Harrison states, again. “Then the two of you really haven’t kept in touch?”

“Not at all,” I answer, my voice cracking ever so slightly. I can’t seem to get my bearings in this conversation at all. “But you say he’s gone missing?”

“Back in February,” Wozniak confirms, tapping her book.

“I’m… I… I really don’t know what to say,” I stammer. “Do you have any idea…?”

“Actually,” Harrison says, “I’m sorry to have to tell you but we have an unidentified body that matches the general description of your brother.”

“Oh,” I reply softly, awash in a wave of regret and guilt. Then I close my eyes and gently rub my forehead. “Is it him?”

“That’s actually why we’re here, Mr. James,” Detective Wozniak tells me, with a hint of compassion in her voice. “We’d like you to come to New Markham and help us determine that.”

“Me? But I haven’t seen him since he was in his teens. I doubt I could… I really don’t know that I could even pick him out of a line-up now. Wouldn’t his wife – sorry, ex-wife! – be a more logical person for that… responsibility?”

“Mrs. James is refusing to cooperate in that regard,” Harrison informs me. He’s speaking slowly and watching my reactions carefully. “Apparently there was some bad blood between them when the marriage ended. Of course you wouldn’t know that because, like you say, you haven’t spoken to him in 20 years. His ex-wife has refused to get involved in that way. She did mention you as an alternative, though.”

“She did? How could she? I don’t even know her.”

Harrison shrugs, and says, “She seemed to know all about you. She knew enough to send us here to Stafford, and even produced your current address not long after we talked to her.”

“That’s… very strange,” I reply, slowly. “But there must be someone else who can… Jesus, like I said, I don’t know that I’d even be able to recognize Ray, after all these years. His body, I mean.”

“We’d like you to at least try,” Wozniak says, hopefully. She smiles slightly and continues, “Frankly, we’re running out of options. We haven’t been able to locate his dental records, and you seem to be the closest family he has.”

I take a deep breath in, and then let it out. “I suppose I am. I mean, our parents are dead, and we don’t have any other relatives here in Canada. Ray was never big on going to the dentist when we were kids, so I guess it’s not all that surprising…”

“We’d be very appreciative if you were able to come to New Markham with us right now,” Detective Harrison informs me as my voice trails off. “And we’d be happy to bring you back home again afterward.”

I think for a moment, trying to wrap my head around what these two strangers are telling me about my own brother. My thoughts are all jumbled up, though, and I can feel my heart racing. What I desperately want right now is to be left alone, so that I can have a chance to think. I’m also worried about tonight’s appointment, which I really don’t want to mess around with.

Finally I say, “Well, that sounds like a lot of running back and forth for you two. And anyway, I’ve got some things I really need to take care of here tonight. Would it be OK if I got myself there first thing tomorrow morning?”

The two cops look at each other, but I can’t read anything in the expressions that pass between them.

“I understand,” Harrison says. “It would make for a very late night for all of us. I’ll give you my card. It includes the address of the station, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding us. New Markham’s not all that big, after all. If you can be at the station by 9:00 a.m., then Detective Wozniak and I can take you to the morgue and get this unpleasantness out of the way.”

I nod, and my two visitors stand up in unison. Each shakes my hand solemnly before leaving. I stand in the front doorway as they walk back to their unmarked police car.

The pair of them sit in the parked vehicle for what seems like several minutes. They’re talking and periodically glancing towards the house. Finally, Detective Wozniak starts the engine and pulls the car away from the curb. I wave from my perch and I think maybe I get a nod in return from Detective Harrison. Then they’re gone.

And Ray is… what? Missing, possibly even dead? How could something like this happen? He’d only be in his late 30s now. He should be all grown up and settled down. Why would someone like that go missing? What was he running away from? It just doesn’t make any sense at all. What a way for him to come back into my life after all these years!


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