Detective Bernadette Callahan was speeding. The single-lane asphalt highway shimmered in the August heat. Cresting a small hill, she felt the Jeep Cherokee’s chassis rise. She let off the gas a little. Jeeps were built for rough terrain, not high speeds. She reminded herself of that, and slowed down to 120 kilometers per hour.
The investigation she was speeding toward had not yet been classified as either an accidental death or a homicide. The chief of detectives from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Serious Crimes Division wanted her take on it. There was, “something strange about the body,” according to Jerry Durham, RCMP Chief of Detectives. He needed her eyes on the scene.
A body had been found under a pipeline that crossed a stream just outside of Red Deer, Alberta. Bernadette did not think of what caused the death. She never thought of victims until she saw them. Usually the way a victim laid or looked would give a clue as to what happened moments or days before. They always told a story. Either Bernadette would figure it out or the Crime Scene Investigator would. The CSI would painstakingly plod around the scene in hot polyester coveralls, detailing mountains of evidence. Bernadette was glad she was a RCMP Detective and not a CSI. She hated polyester.
Bernadette was mid-thirties, 5-foot-8, with a mildly athletic build that showed constant efforts in the gym mostly nullified by a diet of junk food with a focus on donuts and double cream, double sugar coffee. She had short-cropped brunette hair with highlights of red showing that were not Miss Clairol, but real Irish roots blended with Dene First Nations. Her green eyes were set against her slightly beige complexion, where her Irish roots again battled for dominance, showing up in freckles that fought for space on her arms and face.
The asphalt highway turned west toward the Rocky Mountains, the hot, glaring sun causing Bernadette to don her dark aviator glasses. She took another swig of her now cold coffee, grimaced as the tepid sweet fluid drained down her throat, and reminded herself to bring her coffee thermos cup next time. She would forget the reminder.
A large German shepherd named Sprocket was sitting alert in the back seat, checking the clouds, the trees, and the cows as they shot by. He never barked. He knew better. He was obedient enough for that. Sprocket was a dropout from RCMP dog training school. Not attentive enough. No spunk, they said. No killer instinct.
Sprocket was the perfect dog for Bernadette. He was a good running companion, a good listener—for a male—and never judgmental when she consumed pizza and boxed red wine. She often wondered if she could find Sprocket's traits in a man.
A large oil service truck appeared in the distance. Bernadette’s Jeep came up behind it, overtook and passed it. The road dipped, and then turned a bend. A black mass appeared ahead. Bernadette began to slow, glancing in her rearview mirror to locate the truck she had just passed. It was gaining on her.
The black mass started to fly. A flock of crows feasting on road kill. A sea of black wings took to the air, cawing their displeasure at being chased from their afternoon meal. One bird did not fly; it hopped and then started to flap. Too slow. The Jeep's grill made first contact. The bird bounced from the grill onto the hood, and did a cartwheel past the window.
Bernadette saw the bird was a hawk. “You son of a bitch, that serves you right for feasting with crows . . . you dumb ass.” Bernadette fumed as she resumed speed, not wanting the large oil truck to rear-end her. She was shaken by the incident, and mad at the hawk. “Damn thing is supposed to be a hunter, not a scavenger,” she muttered over her shoulder to Sprocket. She was pissed at killing the hawk.
Sprocket did not move from his seat. His tongue flicked out, did a long circuitous route around his nose before hanging out. One of his eyebrows twitched. The large bird hitting the windshield was a shock to him as well, but he dared not bark. Bernadette did not like barking in her Jeep. The dog went back to staring out the window.
The turn Bernadette wanted came up on the right. She braked hard, dropped the Jeep into four-wheel drive and followed a gravel road that turned into a dirt track. There were numerous fresh tracks. The other patrol cars would be there. And oil service trucks. Bernadette had been told this victim was in the middle of an oil spill. Oil spills were bad. In cattle and farming country near a river they were especially bad, and that's what Bernadette had been told this was.
The town of Red Deer, where Bernadette’s RCMP Detachment was based, was home for hundreds of Canadian oil companies that sent their rigs and men hundreds of miles in all directions to drill and service oil wells. Red Deer was also rich farming and cattle country. The farmers and ranchers did not always get along with Big Oil, especially when the oilmen were careless.
The dirt track led through a field of tall wheat, their heads full and leaning with the weight of their grain. In a few more weeks, the threshing machines would be mowing these fields. Right now they bathed in the sun.
The road came to a stand of trees that lined a creek. A fleet of oil services trucks parked at different angles circled two RCMP cruisers. The oil trucks flashed yellow lights; the RCMP cruisers flashed red and blue lights. Like the circus dropped just beside the creek, and someone forgot to put out the announcement.
Bernadette parked, stepped out, and opened the back door for Sprocket to go for a run. She gave the dog strict instructions to stay close to the Jeep, and not chase gophers. The dog looked up, cocking one eye and one ear in her direction, and took off into the field. Bernadette shook her head and headed down to the creek bed.
The creek was deep; a winding path led down to the creek bed. Large poplar trees rattled their leaves in the light breeze. With each step downward in the rich dark earth, the temperature lowered from the scorching afternoon heat of the wheat field to the coolness of the creek below. The smell of oil assaulted Bernadette's nostrils and burned the back of her throat. Descending the path, she could see a small army of oil workers laying absorbent booms around the spill and mopping up any oil that escaped. They looked defeated by the large task at hand.
Black oil glistened on the rocks. It oozed down the creek, slowing the water into thick molasses. Low hanging branches dragged their leaves in the thick morass and became black paintbrushes hanging ever lower, sucking the acrid oil into their roots.
The pipeline was elevated on a trestle that carried it from one side of the creek to the other. Bernadette stopped halfway down the path and surveyed where the victim lay. The pipeline on the trestle was cut in two, and one end was bleeding oil through hundreds of porous openings. Like the whole pipe had developed a bad case of Swiss cheese, Bernadette thought. She was told the oil in the pipeline had been shut down, but the oil had gushed for hours before being discovered.
Two crime scene investigators wandered around a yellow tarp that lay half submerged in the creek, the legs in blue coveralls rested in the creek and the boots, with toes pointed upwards, glistening with oil. Bernadette ruled out drowning. She gazed up at the height of the pipe to the creek bed. It was perhaps 4 meters. A height usually good enough for broken bones, unless the person did a header—fell headfirst. She looked up and down the stream and continued her walk down the path.
She recognized the two CSIs as she approached. One was a short, round Filipino named Basilio, whom everyone called Bas. The other was a tall, wiry older guy nicknamed Angus for his habit of eating beef at almost every meal. He was from Hungary, not Scotland, and his real name was Antal, but his friends swore he consumed an Angus cow a month, so the nickname stuck.
Bas and Angus turned to Bernadette as she crunched on the streambed toward them. Angus raised a hand that held a clear bag of evidence he'd been collecting, “Hi, Detective, glad you could make it.”
Bernadette walked up to Angus before responding. She didn’t want the oil workers listening in on their conversation. “What’s so important about this vic that I needed to drop out on this fine day? This kind of has industrial accident pasted all over it, if you know what I mean.”
Angus smiled. His somewhat crooked teeth looked like weapons he used to consume his daily beef quota. “I called your chief because this vic looked way strange, as we say in the technical sense, and I wanted you to see it.” He flashed another smile at his CSI humor, and motioned for Bernadette to view the body.
Bernadette crouched over, and Angus pulled back the tarp to reveal the victim. A skinny, sandy-haired kid, no more than mid-twenties, lay underneath. He wore blue coveralls, with an oil logo emblazoned on one side of the chest, and the name "Nathan Taylor" on the other.
“So, what do you figure for cause of death and time?” Bernadette asked, as she looked the body over.
“Well, that is the question. There are no outward signs of trauma or injury, other than a small gash on the right arm.” Angus held up the victim’s skinny arm to point out a small rip to the coveralls. “You see here, a 4-centimeter tear in the fabric, and a 3-centimeter tear in the epidermis. The depth of the cut to the arm is maybe .158 centimeters.”
“So, we’re talking about a cut maybe a one-sixteenth of an inch deep, that doesn’t sound life threatening. What time did our victim die?” Bernadette asked. Bernadette still hated metric, and converted everything to the old school measurements when she could.
“Interesting question, and I could normally nail that for you with body temperature. Only the victim has been lying partially in the creek, and the cold water skews my estimate,” Angus admitted while gazing at the slow-running creek. “Now, my other method would be liver temperature, and I got a problem with that . . .”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“From what I can see of this body, we are light on some organs.”
“Light on organs? What are you saying? How can this body be missing organs? I thought you said there was no external trauma other than the small cut on the arm.” Bernadette knelt down to look more closely at the body.
"There isn't. Not another mark on him." Angus opened the victim’s coveralls, and Bernadette saw that his abdomen was shrunken, exposing the telltale contours of the spine. “But see, this is where we should have the stomach, liver, kidneys, and I feel nothing. Gone . . . vacant . . . nada . . . as in not here.”
“Is this kid an alien, or some kind of freak?” Bernadette pulled the tarp further back to examine the body more closely. The kid looked normal, very skinny but normal.
“No, I don’t believe we have an alien, but we do have a strange victim,” Angus said, and covered the body back up. The oil workers were edging closer. He didn’t want them seeing the remains.
“Any idea how long this body was here or who discovered it?” Bernadette asked as she looked around the scene. The oil workers went back to mopping up the oil in the creek. They made like they weren’t trying to eavesdrop on Bernadette’s comments.
“The farmer up there on the ridge said he found the body this morning around 10 a.m., and the kid’s boss standing next to the farmer said he sent him to this location at 8 a.m., so we have maybe a two-hour corpse tops. Bodies don’t lose their organs that fast. Organs may shrivel inside a cadaver over time, but this feels like they're missing. I have a rush put on this with the coroner’s office, but I wanted you to see this before we sent the vic there.” Angus stood up and stretched, his tall frame blocking the afternoon sun, and throwing a shadow over the yellow tarp.
“What’s in the evidence bag?” Bernadette asked, pointing her boot toward the plastic bag containing a small Plexiglas carrying case with several vials.
Angus pointed toward the top of the bank, “No idea, maybe the oil guy at the top of the bank knows what it is. We found several of these vials around our body; most of them were broken open.”
Bernadette glanced up to the top of the bank. Two RCMP constables were in conversation with oil company personnel, and a very loud farmer. The words of the farmer rolled down to them. He was pissed his creek was defiled with oil. “This shit was never supposed to happen—god damn it—you said you had a shit load of checks and balances—and what I see is a shit load of oil in my water.”
The farmer’s words echoed into the deep creek. The black oil had silenced the rushing creek water, and only the anger of the farmer was giving voice to the disaster that was in the creek bed.
Bernadette walked up the bank and joined the group. Constable Stewart was on the edge of the crowd. Bernadette stood by his side and quietly asked, “So, what do we have here?”
Constable Stewart looked all of 19, blond, short-cropped hair, blue eyes set off by the still-pink hue on his cheeks. His body was that of a brawny weightlifter; his biceps bulged out of his shirtsleeves. No one dared call him youngster.
Stewart nodded at Bernadette. “Hi Detective.” Stewart pulled out his notepad and read his notes quietly to her. “The victim worked for the pipeline company. His boss is the one the farmer is yelling at. What we have ascertained so far is the victim was here to do some routine inspection on the line. How this catastrophic failure in the pipeline began is unknown, nor do we know how the victim met his death.” Constable Stewart snapped his notebook shut and placed it back in his breast pocket.
“Sounds like the usual bizarre case.” Bernadette walked into the group and tapped the farmer on the shoulder. “Excuse me sir, Detective Bernadette Callahan of the RCMP Serious Crimes Division. Might I have a word with this gentleman for a moment?” She motioned to the oil company exec the farmer was berating.
The farmer took a breath, “Hell, I’m not done chewing out his ass yet.”
“I completely understand your anger at the oil spill; however, we also have a death of this person’s colleague to consider. I’ll bring this gentleman back as soon as I’m done.” Bernadette managed a small look of consolation towards the farmer. The man was more concerned about the death of his stream, than the body of the young man. The farmer scowled and backed away reluctantly. There was enough anger in him to fuel at least another hour of shouting at the oilman. Oil was smelling up his stream, destroying his water supply, his precious wheat in jeopardy. No, he wasn’t even close to done venting his anger.
Bernadette walked the pipeline man away from the group. He introduced himself as Steve Sawatsky, Quality Health and Safety Manager for Tamarack Pipelines. “Thanks for getting me away from that guy; even a short reprieve is appreciated. How can I help you, Detective?”
“What exactly was this young man sent here to do?”
“He was doing what we call oil coupon inspection. Oil coupons are small pieces of metal that rest inside the pipeline, and are used to judge the thickness of the pipeline wall. We pull them out and check them for wear. The kid was sent here to do that.”
“The vials that were found around his body, are they part of the testing?”
Sawatsky lowered his voice, looked around to see who was in earshot, “Look, I have no idea about the vials. He was here on company business to pull a piece of metal out of a hole, make a record and move on to the next one.” He moved closer to Bernadette, “If this kid put anything in the pipeline that caused this mess . . .” He stopped in mid-sentence as if the air had leaked out of his voice. “We were just lucky the pipeline came apart in the creek, and whatever caused this didn’t go further. I’ve never seen a pipe become so perforated like it is here.” Sawatsky moved further away from the group, “Look, between you and me, the kid wasn’t supposed to be on the trestle over the creek. It looks like he opened a valve and then fell. I’m in all kinds of shit on this. The kid shouldn’t have been working on his own today, but I was short staffed . . .”
“Did Nathan Taylor know he’d be on his own today?” Bernadette asked.
“Yeah, sure he did, I told him two days ago I’d be sending him out for testing, and he’d be going solo. He seemed all happy about it. So was the rest of my crew.”
Bernadette scribbled in the notebook in her illegible handwriting. She called her scratches on paper handwriting; her detachment chief called them hieroglyphics. Bernadette looked up, “You think this young man was responsible for the pipeline breach?”
Sawatsky hitched up his pants, pursed out his lips and looked up at the sky for a second. “Look, this kid was a smartass university summer student, always mouthing off about how oil was causing all these problems. A real shit disturber with the crew, and a slack-ass son of a bitch who couldn’t pull his weight. We put him on monitoring detail to keep him away from the crew, so as he wouldn’t get his ass kicked. There was no one within miles of him.”
“You can account for every one of your crew?”
“Absolutely, we were running pigs an hour’s drive from here, and all my crew was signed in and with me for the whole day. We started at 0730 hours this morning, and like I said, I sent the Taylor kid off by himself to do some testing over this creek. He left on his own in a company truck. I got here when called out by our emergency response spill people at 1000 hours.”
"What are pigs?"
“A sensor we use to check the pipes for weakness. We don’t have to shut the oil flow down to use them. We’ve been running these checks all week.
“No one followed him?”
“No, I can swear to that. I had 5 guys on my crew, and they were all there, and I was on my cell phone for most of the morning with my office, so check the GPS on my phone if you want to check my whereabouts.” Sawatsky threw out the last statement like a dare.
Bernadette just scribbled, boys working with pigs, and looked up, “You have the contact information for the next of kin for the deceased and his last known address in town?”
“I gave it to your young constable there. There was supposedly some girl he was rooming with in town, kept bragging about how tired he was from screwing her all night,” Sawatsky smiled at Bernadette to accentuate the word screwing. “Is that everything? Because after that farmer gets done chewing on my ass, corporate in Calgary is fixing to get on it.” Sawatsky stopped and put his head down, “Look I’m sorry if I sound like a hard ass about the kid. He was a pain in the ass, but no one wanted to see this tragedy. Deaths and injury are part of our business, but we don’t wish it on anyone.”
Bernadette smiled at Sawatsky and watched as he walked back over to the farmer, who immediately resumed yelling at him. She shook her head in mild sympathy and found Constable Stewart, “How about if we take a ride into town and visit the address of our deceased?”
“Sure Detective, not much more going on here. The other constable can wrap it up as soon as the body is sent to the morgue,” Stewart said as he walked toward the parked vehicles with Bernadette.
They came out of the shade of the trees and back into the heat of the sun. Bernadette put her sunglasses back on. “Did you get what university this kid was from?”
Constable Stewart turned back as he was about to get into his cruiser, “Yeah, they said the University of Victoria, supposedly a chemistry major.”
“Shit.” Bernadette stopped in her tracks.
“You look like you've seen a ghost. What’s up?”
Bernadette composed herself and laughed. “You know it’s probably just a coincidence, but the reason I’m in Red Deer is because of someone from the University of Victoria.”
“Hell yeah, really long story, probably a three beers and nachos story. It can wait.” Bernadette smiled. She looked round, whistled for Sprocket, and moments later he came loping out of the high wheat covered in burrs. Bernadette cursed mildly, grabbed the pair of gloves she carried for this exact purpose and picked the burrs out. She poured a flask of water into a bowl, and watched Sprocket lap at the water with his large tongue, there seemed to be no apology for his misbehavior, there never was.
Constable Stewart pulled ahead, leaving a cloud of dust in the hot summer air. Bernadette followed in her Jeep. They reached the highway asphalt and sped off into town. Rounding a corner, Bernadette saw crows feasting on the dead hawk. She muttered to herself, “See what happens when you hang with the wrong crowd?”
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